Nov 112014
 

AlastairReidAlastair Reid — 1926-2014

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Scottish poet Alastair Reid died on September 21st of this year at the age of 88, just three days after the naysayers for an independent Scotland won the day and the sunstruck madmen of Reid’s poem “Scotland” crawled home in defeat. It seems fair to say Reid’s poem — with its direct title, its landscape in high relief, and its dour fish-shop matron — stands as one of the poet’s definitive takes on the culture of his homeland.

Scotland

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

In the referendum of September 18th, good money was bet that Reid’s woman represented Scotland well enough to prevail — her brow bleak, her ancestors raging, her misery ancient — and that the optimistic Home-Rule voters would not prevail. They did not go down in flames; perhaps their failure was more sodden. Certainly “We’ll pay for it” was the rallying cry for those who urged a No vote and who implored Scottish voters to stick by the Queen.

QueenApparently, the Union needed Scotland, and vice versa.

But what of the Scottish landscape, in contrast to the taciturn Scottish character? “…the air shifted with the singing of actual angels. / Greenness entered the body. The grasses / shivered with presences, and sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” Reid  celebrated landscape.  How a poet capable of writing those lines can fade into the background on the stage of British poetry is a puzzle to me. In 1954, Selden Rodman wrote an introduction to Reid’s work for Poetry magazine in which he said, “There are echoes of Dylan Thomas and Auden….[Reid] stands among these gifted contemporaries as an equal, one of the few poets writing in English to promise a continuance of their original affirmation.”

ScotlandA view of the Scottish hills: “Greenness entered the body….”

Could it be that since much of Reid’s mid-career energy was spent on the translation of poets who wrote in Spanish — Borges, Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Pacheco, Padilla — his relative obscurity as a poet in his own right was guaranteed? As with other poets in this Undersung series, Reid was not completely invested in his identity as a poet; his output of poetry was high-end but sporadic, his interests were broad, his wanderings wide, and his abilities as both essayist and translator loomed large enough to cast a shadow over his own talent as a poet. On the other hand, it might just be that Reid’s early ascendency was interrupted by something more sanguine, something described this way recently by the columnist Daniel Mendelsohn (himself a translator) in the June 3rd New York Times’ Book Review column, “Book Ends”:

As a critic, I’m often struck by the way in which so many successful writers settle into a groove by midcareer: Whatever marked them as special, new, or distinctive when they started — the “thing” that set them on their path — becomes, with time, a franchise; at worst, a straitjacket. By the end, most of us repeat ourselves. Very few — perhaps only the greatest — continue to grow.”

Over the years, Reid did not settle for a straitjacket; he wandered the world and grew as a writer, seldom repeating himself, accepting few of the categorical limitations that certain genres (and upbringings) usually insist upon us. He was restless, and his writing reflected it. He moved between poetry and prose, between memoir and travel writing and translation work and articles about sports — he even wrote two picture books for children.

He was born – his father a minister, mother a doctor – near Whithorn in the Galloway region of southwest Scotland in 1926, the year of Scotland’s debilitating General Strike, during which soldiers and tanks were used in the streets of Glasgow to disperse angry crowds of union men. The entire decade of the 20’s was one of mass emigration from Scotland, with families leaving behind high unemployment and miserable living conditions in order to head out for better highlands and lowlands in “the colonies”; the vision of so many people leaving home, longing to find a more comfortable life, might have contributed to Reid’s famously itinerant lifestyle.

Emigrants

“What drew me to writing was its portability,” he once wrote; “it requires essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere….”

His poems often explore the pull away from, and eventual push back towards, home:

Whithorn Manse

I knew it as Eden,
that lost walled garden,
past the green edge
of priory and village;
and, beyond it, the house,
withdrawn, white,
one window alight.

Returning, I wonder,
idly, uneasily,
what eyes from inside
look out now, not in,
as once mine did,
and what might grant me,
a right of entry?

Is it never dead, then,
that need of an Eden?

Even this evening,
estranged by age,
I ogle that light
with a child’s greed,
wistfully claiming
lost prerogatives
of homecoming.

Reid understood that what the landscape offered and what the people offered could be radically different things. But he did find a number of places that came closer to what he was searching for, especially in the landscape and language of Spain and Latin America, and in the character of their people. It was this level of comfort that allowed him to focus on learning Spanish – to hunger for it, to eat it up and beg for more – and begin his highly-praised works of translation.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.” In his essay titled “Digging Up Scotland,” published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Reid makes clear that his restlessness had something to do with finding a place where he could “feel one” with his surroundings:

“I have a friend in Scotland, a painter,” he wrote, “who still lives in the fishing town he was born in, grew up in, went to school in, was married in, raised his children in, works in, and clearly intends to die in. I look on him with uncomprehending awe, for although I had much the same origins, born and sprouting in rural Scotland…I had in my head from an early age the firm notion of leaving….He has made his peace with place in a way that to me is, if not unimaginable, at least by now beyond me. ”

Reid seldom stayed in one place long enough to have what he considered a permanent address; his mail was delivered to the offices of The New Yorker, where he let stacks of it pile up for months. His unease with permanence is clearly visible in his poems, where two perceived opposites often pull against each other, interfering with any hope that the tug-of-war will be settled or the people involved come to rest, as seen in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “What Bones Say”:

The skeleton
is hardly a lesson
in human nature.

Similarly, stones
are the bones of landscapes,
and yet trees blossom

in contradiction.
We are much more
than our brittle topography.

In those lines, see how beautifully Reid handles the simple language – in the near-rhyme of “skeleton” with “lesson,” the full rhyme of “stones” with “bones,” and in the echo that chimes between “lesson,” “blossom” and “contradiction” – not overwhelming readers with musicality, but giving us just enough. I admire the courage he has to say something as large as “We are much more / than our brittle topography.” He approaches language the same way in the other poems transcribed here – the abundant alliteration in “Scotland” and its chiming verbs – “shimmer” and “shivered” – the triptych of “idly,” “eyes” and “inside” in “Whithorn Manse,” its full rhymes (“white” and “alight) and near-rhymes (“need,” “Eden” and “garden.”) Reid’s poems seem spoken at first, easy and conversational, but the music on which they rise is carefully and thoroughly composed.

In the same New Yorker essay mentioned above, Reid writes, “The natural world and the human world separated early for me. I felt them to be somehow in contradiction, and still do. The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality, and perhaps in reaction to the changing turbulence of weather, subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt, from the beginning, exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second. Tramps used to stop at our house, men of the road, begging a cup of tea or an old shirt, and in my mind I was always ready to leave with them, because between Scotland and myself I saw trouble ahead.”

He traveled first to Spain; it was during his time in Majorca – six years, off and on — that he met and became friends with the poet Robert Graves (about whom I wrote in my Undersung article about poet-novelists.) Their friendship ended when Reid fell in love with – and ran away with, temporarily – Graves’s muse, Margot Callas. Though Callas eventually returned to Graves, the conversations and apprenticeship Reid once enjoyed with the older poet were finished. In an essay Reid wrote on the occasion of what would have been Graves’s 100th birthday, he chided Graves for having been “mired in domesticity” during his first marriage, but then Reid becomes more conciliatory, saying “The English have always kept Graves at a distance, as if he were an offshore island, out of the mainstream – something they often do with English writers who choose to live elsewhere and are still successful.”

MajorcaThe Majorca home of Robert Graves – “an offshore island, out of the mainstream”

The same might be said of Reid himself – an offshore island in the sea of British literature. His most important books are out of print; these include his poetry collection Oases; Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations; Outside In: Selected Prose; Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner; and Weathering: Poems and Translations. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’re in luck – he contributed articles and poems there for more than forty years, and my quick search of their archives produced 152 hits.

In addition to “Scotland,” Reid’s most anthologized poem is “Curiosity,” about a dog’s and cat’s (but mostly human’s) view of the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat,” with the poet coming down hard in favor of being curious. Click here to hear it read by Reid himself over at The Poetry Archive. Rather than transcribe the poem so you can read it, I hope you will finish this essay and then go over to The Poetry Archive to listen to it.  We’re lucky to have recordings of these poems(as well as three others) in Reid’s own voice, since it was voice that he valued above all other qualities in a poem.

In an essay about translating his friends Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, he wrote, “I realized I couldn’t read a poem of Neruda’s simply as words put down on the page without hearing behind them his languid and caressing voice. The most important thing to me in translating these two poets was the sound of their voices in my memory, since this helped in finding my way in with the appropriate English….The key was voice.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda — from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

He went on to say, “For me, Neruda’s poems were fundamentally voiced – spoken poems of direct discourse – his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.” Describing one lecture he went to at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reid says Neruda’s voice “spread out like a balm over the English crowd; a magical sound, even without the thread of meaning.” [Note: my source for these quotations from the essay about Borges and Neruda was in Spanish – the translations are my own.]

1754-PABLO_NERUDA_5-630x350Pablo Neruda – “…his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.”

It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”

Reid and Borges

Reid (second from left) and Jorge Luis Borges (third from left)

One of Reid’s most interesting observations about Borges focused on his blindness: “After many conversations with Borges, from the most serious to the most entertaining, I came to the profound realization that for him, I existed only as a voice. Maybe this led me to the deep conviction that voice is the most long-lasting incarnation of my existence. Even more, it is in voices rather than photographs that the dead remain alive.”

borges-in-libraryJorge Luis Borges – “…for him, I existed only as a voice.”

At one point, Reid explains Borges’s style: “He spoke English with the respect a language well-known to him deserved, but within which he did not live – that is, with the controlled cadence of literature. On other occasions, in the company of Spanish-speakers, he was more playful, less solemn. Still, I think his bilingual upbringing gave him a sense of the arbitrary and fickle nature of language: a bilingual person is more aware of the gulf that exists between word and object than someone limited to a single language.”

ouncedicetrice

Reid’s awareness of the strange nature of words and his innate playfulness (in Charles McGrath’s obituary write-up, Reid is remembered as “cheerful, funny, and irreverent, with high expressive eyebrows that were frequently squeezed together in amusement”) show up full force in his picture book Ounce Dice Trice, a collection of nonsense – that is, a collection of real but relatively unknown words – tantony, quicklings, moonglade, etc. – revealed to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef might reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish. In the book, Reid creates several imaginative ways of counting from one to ten without numerals (“Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist” and “Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.” The words sound like they come straight off the playground. Of course, the whole point of the book is wordplay, emphasizing that “gulf between word and object” recognized by people who have learned more than one language. Illustrations by Ben Shahn make the book a collector’s item – previously out of print, it’s now available again thanks to the New York Review Children’s Collection.

Ben ShahnReid himself was a gongoozler….

Reid’s origins might have been provincial — even restrictive — but as he grew his poetry and prose became more and more cosmopolitan and expansive. He regarded translation as an act resembling “bewitchment,” and he wrote that the translation of someone else’s work required “not only reading it deeply and deciphering it, but climbing on top of the scenery backstage, up onto the supports and the scaffolding.”

I often wished while getting my MFA that the program I attended had offered a translation track. Translation seems to me one of the best ways – almost acrobatic, according to Reid — to capture and understand how a poem works. Reid understood the way a poem could float out over the reader “without the thread of meaning,” though with his own poetry we are lucky enough to find both meaning and music.

Poem without Ends

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

— Julie Larios

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Julie Larios has contributed seven previous essays in her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq, highlighting the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Nov 022014
 

Sharon

Notes on Metanoia

I had a job that I did not like. It was a perfectly good job as a parliamentary editor in the Hansard office of the provincial legislature. The office was in a gorgeous heritage sandstone building and my coworkers were good smart hard-working people who had put their faith in me and needed me but I knew from the get go that it was all wrong. I was bored. I know how that sounds.

I lasted six months. What got me through that time was T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now.” “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Every morning, the first thing that I did at work was open an online version of Four Quartets on a tab on my computer and an email message to myself. Throughout the day, I surreptitiously read bits of Four Quartets whenever the dreardom overwhelmed. As lines and images materialized, I jotted them down in the email and, at the end of the day, dispatched the message to myself at home. Those lines and images became Metanoia. Its form was dictated by circumstance.

I was not slacking off. I was a good producer and, when I did quit, the supervisor said that I could come back any time. This was comforting and I told her so. We get our comfort where we can and then we fare forward. “Not fare well,/But fare forward, voyagers.”

—Sharon McCartney

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Like Jesus, I was born in the desert,
the barrens under Camelback Mountain.
That emptiness has dogged me all my life,
an arid wind clawing my sundress
on the gravel playground.

……………………………..*

I banished the banker forever. Told him I wanted to be alone.
I didn’t really want to be alone. I just didn’t want to be with him.

The banker said, great.
Being with no one is better than being with me.

……………………………..*

Mother said, smile. Learn to cook swiss steak. Sew a French seam.
Be a good wife.

I think, now, that she should have known better.

……………………………..*

How I told myself that I loved
the husband more than he loved me.
So self-serving.

I loved him so much
I wanted to be him.
I thought that was love.
He did not want to be me.
I saw that as a lack.
And left because of it.

……………………………..*

No man in my life, nothing to worry about. No one to disappoint.
A failure of nerve, perhaps, but peaceful.

……………………………..*

All of that effort to make myself loveable only made me unloving.

……………………………..*

When the married man rebuffed me, I was worthless.
In this way, I discovered my worth.

How crushed I was if he did not respond to an email.

Then furious.

……………………………..*

Eternity is not time everlasting, but the absence of time.
When we created time, we created death.

……………………………..*

I do not believe in death anymore.
For you people, perhaps. But not for me.

……………………………..*

The man in New Mexico said maybe the secret
is to find someone with matching neuroses.
But I want him to be hot as well.

……………………………..*

I am not alone.
I am in an exclusive relationship with myself.

……………………………..*

I knew that the fat man was wrong,
not immediately, but soon enough.
The way he crowded me on the sidewalk.
Yet I hoped that it would work.
I wanted to love him.

……………………………..*

A warm rain in the lime tree.
Pigeons fornicating under the eaves.
My sad neighbour feeds them. I wish she would not.

……………………………..*

When I say that I do not want anyone but the husband,
I do not mean that I want the husband.
What I mean is that I do not want to want anyone else.

……………………………..*

The banker said, my life is a shambles.
I said, everyone’s life is a shambles.
Why do you think you are different?

……………………………..*

When the husband was younger,
I loved his broad shoulders, particularly
when they were above me.

Now that he’s older, his shoulders
have gone soft, annular, sloping
tenderly under his mandarin collar.

And I love him again for being one of us.

……………………………..*

The banker snored outrageously and twitched in his sleep.
I could not sleep beside him.
This became an “issue.”
That last night, I snuck away to the spare bedroom,
hoping for an hour or two.

At 5 a.m., I heard him downstairs, loading
his vehicle, the door slamming, his shoes,
angry. He tromped upstairs, perched on the edge
of the bed in the dark, saying, darkly,
I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.

No, I thought, you didn’t want to leave without hurting me.

……………………………..*

I pleased the banker. He didn’t please me.
I withdrew myself. He was no longer pleased.

……………………………..*

Eliot says, to get to where you are not, you have to go
by the way in which you are not.
I want to love again.

……………………………..*

The Mayan was the best.
No prudishness, no hesitation.

I said, could you please teach that
to every man on earth?

If he had wanted me to come to Vancouver, I would have.

In pain, I locked the door, turned out the lights,
so he would return to a dark house,
myself in bed, my back to him.

All of this calculated to push him away,
when his leaving was what I feared.

……………………………..*

I strung the fat man along, not voicing my reservations,
thinking that I was sparing his feelings.

A lie. I was sparing myself.

Because I waited too long to speak,
I became revulsed.

The last time we had sex, I said to myself,
this is the last time.
I did not say that to him.

……………………………..*

How to live then?
Honour my mother.
Honour what is in me that is her.

Don’t cultivate relationships as panaceas for loneliness.
Be true to my loneliness.

That scares the shit out of me.

……………………………..*

I always loved the husband. Oh when I first saw him,
six pack slung on his back, in hiking boots.
How he flirted with me the first time, poking my shoulder.

What I did not love was myself with him.

……………………………..*

The task is not to find god or a new man.
The task is to find wholeness, magnitude.
Having that, all other needs fall away.

……………………………..*

I used alcohol as a way of masking insufficiency.
Ditto men.

Alcohol has become too complicated for me.
Ditto men.

……………………………..*

The body is time, yet our selves are timeless.
We can only know time through timelessness.

……………………………..*

Eliot says the ocean is us.
We cannot think of a time that is not oceanless
because it does not exist.

……………………………..*

California resides in my memory as the occidental
aroma of exhaust and brine.

……………………………..*

In grieving the marriage,
I grieved the loss of an abode for my love.
I was taught not to love myself.
A girl should accommodate.
A girl should not love herself,
or no one will like her.
This was the supreme hell. To be unliked.

……………………………..*

I am continually struck by the oddity of the mirror.
Who is that visage? I do not feel so contained.

……………………………..*

And there it is again, inexplicably, the fear
that I have nothing if I do not have the husband.
That is the fear that I have to stride toward.
Walk into it even though my stomach is upside down,
even though I would rather not.

……………………………..*

If you’re not nervous before training,
you’re not training hard enough.
That’s what the crossfitters say.

……………………………..*

Younger, I wanted to obliterate myself,
the emptiness.

Older, I want to uncover myself,
the emptiness.

No longer preying on the emotions of others
to satisfy my need for approval.
What I did to the banker was unkind.

……………………………..*

If I seek wholeness, I am entirely unwhole.
Therefore, seek emptiness.

……………………………..*

More light snow falling.
No wind. All of the acute angles softened,
corners blunted, discordances resolved.

Nine years ago, when I was mired in despair,
disillusion, believing that I had been betrayed,
I found snowbanks seductive, imagined laying myself
down in their albino deeps, never to rise.

This was ridiculous.
Further, no one had betrayed me.

……………………………..*

All of life is a learning to let go
until life lets go of us.

Grace is the time to do this.

The banker wanted me beside him all night,
no matter what.

……………………………..*

Let the husband go to his beloved blonde,
strumming her 12-string.
That would have been better.
Not my dire meddling. Even my rejection
of him was grasping.

……………………………..*

Language bridges the gap that it creates.
Words isolate us; we connect through words.

……………………………..*

The excitement of the unknown waned and then
there was nada. The banker’s tongue down my throat,
but I just wanted to watch Friends.

……………………………..*

Marrying was escaping my mother,
her life of diminishment,
her Colonial furniture and braided rugs,
her Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Anything but that, I said.
And so she continued to control me.

……………………………..*

The pain is not the pain of losing the husband, of seeing him
with another, trying to please her, but a deeper,
more fundamental pain
that engendered the original need.

What was I trying to avoid?
Mother, supping alone in her enormous house.

……………………………..*

In the dream, I wanted lights installed on my bicycle.
The guy at Savage’s showed me that they were already there,
front and back.

……………………………..*

The owl looping through the black willows,
backlit by the group home’s spotlight.
The owl is process. I am process.

Clinging not so much to life, but to life as it is now.

……………………………..*

I hope the owl kills some of the pigeons.

……………………………..*

The fat man thought that he knew what I wanted.
I shied from that. It’s too much to ask,
to be someone whose wants can be known.

……………………………..*

The horse shied, not at the fence,
but at the absence of the fence, where one section
was removed for repairs. The opening, the break
in the rhythm of fence, fence, fence, as startling
to the horse as any fleeing rodent or green garbage
bag torn and flapping.

We only wake up where there is discrepancy.

……………………………..*

The body is a convenience.
In order to perceive a world, we have to stand outside of it,
in the stand-alone body.

The price we pay for convenience
is loneliness.

The fall being that into the body, the perception
of a world that is outside.

Like the dog in his crate, what first appeared to be a prison
becomes, with time, a refuge.
Comfortable old crate. A soft rag for a bed,
a rawhide to gnaw.

……………………………..*

The troll at work demurred, “We are not trying to demoralize you.”
Percheron man insisted, “I am not controlling.”

Whatever they said, they meant the opposite.
It was in their minds first, not mine.

……………………………..*

I want to think well of the future.
Better not to think of the future at all.

……………………………..*

That lesion on my chest may well be murderous.

……………………………..*

Language is born in loneliness,
the lapdog howling for the pack to return.

All writing is about loneliness.
Miscreance, misadventure.

Consciousness is the zone of evolution,
the struggle with one’s self the fundament.

……………………………..*

Coffee, cigarettes, asthma puffers, anti-depressants,
cookies, pie, donuts. He could not walk past sugar.

……………………………..*

To get to where you are not, you have to go
by the way in which you are not.
Go by the way of loneliness, fear,
to get to where there is no loneliness, fear.

……………………………..*

Why did Mother hate Father so much?
I do not know. It was not spoken of.

……………………………..*

If we can only know the world through our own experience,
then everything that we see in the world is within ourselves.

Look for beauty in the world to find it in myself.
Look for goodness in the world to find it in myself.

A thaw, rain before dawn, syncopation of the leaf-clotted eaves,
my morning tunes.

……………………………..*

Always the tendency toward mortification.
Starving myself as a teenager.
Quitting the comfortable job.
Walking out of the perfectly adequate marriage.
Let all of that go, all aspects of self-importance.
The world is mortifying enough.

……………………………..*

What I learned from the married man:
to love without wanting to deprive
anyone else of the beloved,
without wanting to exclude. So difficult.
The grasping is fear, a failure
to love one’s self, the false conviction
that if someone else has what I
want, I am diminished.

……………………………..*

The husband and I drove to Cut Bank, Montana, on Friday nights
and drank at the Winner’s Circle for hours.
There were others there. Railroad workers.
The dollar store clerk. A woman offered to buy a round.
She dumped nickels and dimes on the counter.

……………………………..*

I dreamt of horses swimming underwater,
myself rolling over their tumbling haunches,
incipience just under the surface.

……………………………..*

I could have loved the fat man but his stomach got in the way.

……………………………..*

I loved the husband but what I loved in him was what I wanted to love in myself.
What I thought was the death of love was only love coming home.

……………………………..*

All shyness, all anxiety is an excess of self-love,
a mistaken belief in how much we matter
in the minds of others.

Let that go.
Nothing can touch me because I touch nothing.

……………………………..*

The basswood is budding. The morning dogs are unleashed.

……………………………..*

When I told the Mayan that he made me feel like a fuck,
he said, That makes my eyeballs burn if you feel that way.

Rubbing his eyes.

And then he left.
There was Rogers Cup tennis on the HD at his sister’s house.

……………………………..*

The banker said, I feel like an imposter.
Then he said, I meant imposer,
not imposter.

……………………………..*

On an operating table again, under surgical lights.
The lesion on my chest is basal cell carcinoma
if I am lucky, melanoma if I am not.

A needle goes in for the freezing and then I am left alone.
I’m thinking about 12 years ago, my mastectomy.
How frightened I was, my world gone cuckoo.

I lay myself down under the globular lights
and breathed down to my heart as the anesthetist
leaned over me. When I woke up in recovery,
I could see sideways a row of beds. Nurses.

One came over and said, you were crying.
You were crying for a long time.
When we asked you what you wanted, you said,
I want my husband.

……………………………..*

The husband’s overt scorn for the hoi polloi.
What was he so afraid of?

……………………………..*

I dreamt that a passenger jet crashed into a bay
right in front of me, the wings narrowing
as it dove, like a petrel. At the same time, nearby, a ferry
capsized and sank. I could see the faces of the people
climbing out of the sinking ferry. Wet hair.
Pulling on the railings as they climbed the sinking stairs.
Gasping. Who were those people?

……………………………..*

Jung says what we deny inwardly
will come to us outwardly as fate.

I denied my mother. I have become her.

……………………………..*

That abyss of loneliness that I saw yawning before me
was Heidegger’s openness of being.

……………………………..*

Still a little fluish, my throat rough.

The dog skulks when I cough,
as if he has been rebuked.

……………………………..*

The banker was always in my face, wanting to kiss me
while I chopped onions, while we waited for the elevator.
Aggressive. Tongue. Did he think that I liked that?
I shrugged him off. I need someone who doesn’t need me.

What I mean is I don’t want to need anyone.

……………………………..*

The world is my representation.
I shall not want.

……………………………..*

More snow in the forecast.
This year’s plowing bill is going to bankrupt me.

……………………………..*

The sun comes up so late these days,
sometimes I fear it won’t.

……………………………..*

The woman next door says, I am going to feed
the pigeons and no one can stop me.
She says, This is who I am. I am very passionate about this.

She’s in my driveway, shouting at me.
All I can hear is I, I, I.

……………………………..*

Sin is a refusal to grow, to change, to love.
One’s self, mostly.

……………………………..*

The last child leaves for good and the house is empty.
A predictable sadness but also a wholly unexpected sense of peace,
relaxation, wholeness. I am that emptiness in the house.

……………………………..*

The husband was a way to get out of myself,
out of the emptiness. As were children.
I thought that I could fill it with other people.

Only woe can come from that.
Emptiness is what I am,
what I remain.

……………………………..*

Pain is born from the effort to abjure the emptiness,
to be what we are not.

……………………………..*

Don’t you hate it when Buddhists get all emptier than thou?

……………………………..*

What I felt so many years ago in the Grade 9 English classroom,
how I lost my sense of membrane, of containment, my self
leaching into the Bermuda lawn beyond the sliding glass door,
into the eucalyptus, the succulents, the Birds of Paradise.

……………………………..*

The ocean is emptiness.
The ocean is us.

……………………………..*

The good thing about the husband
was that he was never really there.

This was also the bad thing,
or so I thought.

—Sharon McCartney

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Sharon McCartney is the author of Hard Ass (2013, Palimpsest), For and Against (2010, Goose Lane Editions), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007, Nightwood Editions), Karenin Sings the Blues (2003, Goose Lane Editions) and Under the Abdominal Wall (1999, Anvil Press). Her poems have been included in the 2012 and 2013 editions of The Best Canadian Poetry in English. In 2008, she received the Acorn/Plantos People’s Prize for poetry for The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

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Oct 132014
 

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing room The Collaborators Kim Maltman & Roo Borson in their shared writing room.

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I’ve known Kim and Roo since we were students together in the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia in the 1970’s. It was clear then that they were the real deal, and already writing pretty sophisticated poetry – though they snort at the idea now. We see each other rarely, but I’ve always felt a kinship because of those early days of tiptoeing – then leaping – into the writing world.

Roo Borson, poet and essayist, has published over a dozen books and has won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She has also co-written ‘Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei,’ a Pain Not Bread poetry project, in collaboration with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton. A forthcoming volume of prose- poetry, ‘Box Kite’, is a collaboration with Kim Maltman under the pen name Baziju. A native of Berkeley, California, the daughter of two doctors, Borson did her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara and Goddard College and later received an MFA from the University of British Columbia.

Kim Maltman, long time partner/spouse of Roo, was born in Medicine Hat and achieved undergraduate degrees in Math and Chemistry with a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto. He is a professor at York University in the Mathematics department and a particle physicist, as well as being a poet. He is author or co-author of more than 6 volumes of poetry.

—Ann Ireland

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Picture the poet, a solitary figure, brushing hair from her eyes as she gazes out the window at the street below. Or maybe she stares at rolling hills and grazing sheep. But she is always alone, for isn’t it in this deep communion with Self that poetry lives?

‘We have no interest in the primacy of the individual voice,’ says poet/physicist Kim Maltman. We are sitting at the dining table in a Toronto house that he shares with poet and life partner, Roo Borson. ‘I remember reading a review of Roo’s that singled out a line as being ‘classic Roo Borson’ – but I’d written it.’

Their collaboration goes back to the mid 1970’s when they – and I – were in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Department. It was at these hands-on workshops that they got in the habit of offering suggestions and adding lines, re-structuring each other’s work. The poetry workshop was led for a brief time by Pat Lowther. After a couple of sessions Lowther disappeared – forever. Her body was discovered in a creek near Squamish. Police arrested her husband, the lesser-known poet, Roy Lowther, and he was convicted and sentenced for her murder.

The same Roy Lowther who offered me my first-ever publication in his journal, Pegasus.

Roo would go on to win the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry in 2005.

‘We have different product lines,’ Kim explains with a hint of a smile. ‘The Borson line; the Maltman line; and various official collaboration lines.’ Notable amongst these is the Pain Not Bread project – a ten year enterprise where the pair worked closely with painter/writer Andy Patton, a collaboration that resulted in a book of poetry published by Brick Books in 2000: Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei.

Kim Maltman

I ask about the process of this collaboration. Did they write on their own, then show work to each other for feedback and additions?

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

Kim says: ‘The rule was not to let the piece get an established voice, but to put it out there (for the other two to look at) quickly so that it would really be a joint creation, starting from fragments.’

Roo isn’t so sure. ‘I’d disagree,’ she says, ‘though Kim believes this to be true. As I do in my own work, I take the writing as far as I can, then hand it to the others.’

‘As far as you can,’ Kim reminds her, ‘means you get stuck, or that you are unsure if the idea is good.’

Roo agrees: ‘Then we sit and talk about it.’

The Pain Not Bread collaborators worked off a variety of source materials, mostly traditional Chinese poetry in translation. Kim and Roo went so far as to study written and oral Chinese, though Roo claims to have forgotten it all.

How did they use this material?

‘You fuzz up your eyes looking at the source text,’ Roo says. ‘It replaces your habitual vocabulary and replaces it with another vocabulary.

Kim adds: ‘It was a structure to move us from our usual tendencies and bad habits.’

Both poets agree that the process of writing Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei was ‘addictive’. Roo goes on to say: ‘We began to craftily mimic each other. Andy has poignancy; Kim takes abstractions almost as if they have a sensual tangibility – and I do images.’

If one person didn’t like something, then it wouldn’t make it under the Pain Not Bread umbrella.

Andy Patton emails: ‘The work was very difficult but working with them was easy. In some sense, it was as though “Roo” and “Kim” disappeared, until we were through working for that day, and there they were again.’ Patton goes on to quote from one of the poems in the book:

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

…The range of meanings
is not important, so long as we can get together
every week or so,
make these protests against our own characters,
and, like teasing feathers from an ancient pillow,
find out what it is that might be in our minds.

Capture

Back to the question of the solitary artist. Kim shrugs off the concept: ‘It’s about making the work better; not being ‘close to my heart.’

How interesting then, to read Pain Not Bread and sense how intimate the writing feels, how close to the ear and eye. And yes, heart, the collaborative heart.

Working with others ‘allows you to have access to more skills than you alone possess as a writer,’ Roo emails. ‘Working with Kim and Andy, and/or just Kim, means that my written world is larger than it would otherwise be. More tonal avenues. More ways to move.’

I ask Kim: ‘ How does it feel to have one foot in the science camp and the other in poetry?’

Neither odd nor awkward, he claims. ‘I’m out on the fringe of science,’ and his research field of theoretical particle physics is ‘hyper – metaphorical in approach.’ Metaphor is how one can begin to understand difficult concepts. Like string theory, I’m thinking. Pulling up Kim’s York University website I learn that he is interested in: ‘…the consequences of the Standard Model of particle physics for few-body nuclear systems and low-energy particle physics and dynamics.’ I recall something he said earlier, about how poetry enters the mind: ‘You have to sit with it and let its meaning happen.’

Glance out the window at laundry flapping on the clothesline in their backyard in the Oakwood/Vaughan Road area. Such a relief to visit an unrenovated house, no need to go on about the new kitchen cabinets and gas fireplace and shiny bamboo floors. If I squint, it’s not hard to fall back into time, late 1970’s. By then Roo and Kim and I were living in Toronto, at different ends of the city, and we’d meet at readings of the Harbourfront Reading Series organized by Greg Gatenby. This was before the famous International Authors Festival got up and running. Our faithful group consisted of Greg; the featured author(s); novelist M.T. Kelly; poet David Donnell; me – and Kim and Roo. After the reading, the gang would head to the Hayloft bar to toss back beers and chips, and to talk about literature and our nascent projects. Baby writers in those days, we all went on to win some pretty tasty awards.

My hosts’ latest project is a book of prose poems that will appear with House of Anansi Press in 2016. Box Kite is composed by Kim and Roo under the pen name Baziju. Unlike the Pain Not Bread project, this work is not intertextual nor does it riff off source material. They took turns working on the pieces, Kim picking them up at night after Roo was asleep, and the next morning they’d ponder the results together, followed by ‘further Roo-trials during the day and further Kim-trials the subsequent evening.’ One might launch a piece that was simple but, as Kim explains, ‘We wanted the work to open up and become rich and unwieldy so we banged our heads against things, waiting for a weak spot to open.’

Often they’d read aloud, ‘punching new openings in existing pieces … the structure finally yielding and producing a functional opening only because of the pressure of the collective onslaught.’ This is Kim talking, or rather writing, a day later. The duo shares an email address, and one learns to recognize phrases and quirks of language.

‘Kim and I have very different minds,’ Roo points out. ‘I’m scattered and he’s totally focused. I’m never super-focused and I can work on a poem for two minutes, go off and do a bunch of domestic duties and emails, then return to work. Kim needs long stretches of time to go in deeply.’

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

Flashback: A few years ago I’m tramping up the hills behind the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California- Roo’s home town. Camera in hand, I have a task to perform. Roo’s family house, built by her grandfather, burned down in the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991, and she’s held off checking what has become of the place, perhaps because it’s too painful to contemplate. She has written about visiting the site soon after the disaster, how the chimney, made of brick reclaimed from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, stuck up intact, surrounded by rubble. I continue to trudge upwards in midday heat, past Arts and Crafts style houses, haciendas, and countless eucalyptus trees – trees which have a tendency to explode in high heat. Roo left Berkeley in her late teens, but was here for free concerts by the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park and Grace Slick singing White Rabbit.

Finally, there it is, a hideous yellow monster house built to the edges of the property line. Snap photos. Press ‘send’.

Today, Kim tells me that a ‘serious criminal’ now lives in the house.

I ask to see the pair’s writing space and we head upstairs to a small room equipped with desk, an old IBM Thinkpad, and an easy chair next to a side table littered with books.

‘I’m on my own a lot,’ Roo says. ‘More than I’d like.’ This is spoken in a matter of fact voice, not plaintively. I think of how many writers live, yearning to be alone yet feeling lonely when they are. She plunks down on the easy chair, demonstrating where she sits to read, to think, to work.

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

‘Not really. I’m frustrated all the time, so I’m motivated to make the poems go better.’

I ask which poets they read these days and who they read when starting out. Michael Yates, professor at the University of British Columbia, introduced them to poetry in translation, notably Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez, a work which opened up the possibilities of prose poetry, and Tomas Transtromer, Swedish writer and recent Nobel Prize winner. Roo emails later how Transtromer’s poetry ‘is built around stunning, unsurpassable symbolic imagery.’ This discussion of influences and touchstones continues via email. Kim and Roo both speak of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, whose work Roo reads for – ‘his intimacy and spirit, expressed in astonishingly perfect formal music.’ Kim notes Alice Oswald’s Memorial, ‘an exceptional intertextual cross-cut through the Iliad, with an amazing use of repetition and large scale structure.’

Roo reads widely. ‘Unlike some poets, who only read certain schools of poetry,’ Kim notes.

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

Even when working on the ‘Borson product line’ Roo counts on her partner’s immersive feedback. She’ll slip the work -in-progress into a folder at the edge of the dining table and wait for Kim’s response. This can take weeks, or even months, due to his heavy teaching and research schedule. He’ll ‘ponder’ the draft and at some point, as he describes the process – ‘I’ll feel I have a line of entry into it.’

‘Doesn’t it drive you nuts that it takes him so long to get back to you?’ I ask, thinking of the way I hover over Tim as he reads my latest attempt.

Roo shrugs. ‘I’ve learned I have to leave it for as long as it takes. By the time the poems get to the pile I’ve worked on them for a very long time.’

Kim adds: ‘I’ll write new parts and rearrange, and she does the same for me.’

Roo agrees. ‘And I’ll put two of his poems together and make it one. We’re doing this all the time.’

Kim likes to speak of the ‘voice’ of the poem and he doesn’t mean the writer’s voice, or not exactly. Nor any character’s voice within. It’s something that belongs to the DNA of the poem, its language and syntax and sensibility. ‘I have to have a sense of this (in order to work on Roo’s piece) and it can be hard to find.

‘This whole voice thing is harder for me to know about,’ says Roo. ‘I feel my way through images, whereas Kim feels his way through voice.’

Back downstairs, she disappears for a moment into the kitchen and returns with a plate containing a loaf of banana bread. We dive in.

As we sat around the rectory-style table in crumbling Brock Hall at the University of British Columbia all those decades ago, I recall the way Roo would lean forward on her chair during the workshop sessions, elbows on thighs, clutching the weekly worksheet. She’d be frowning as she sought to pin down what a particular poem was getting at. She’d press on, puzzling it out, then say something off-kilter so that we’d all laugh. Kim, beside her, hair down to his shoulders and bearded, sat upright on his chair, arms folded in front of his chest and when he talked, it was often out of the corner of his mouth, his brain working too quickly for speech.

We were learning how to be what we wanted to become.

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos

 

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Poems

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Cook

James Cook, 1728-1779

An overwhelming rain beats down and, mainmast snapped,
Cook turns again toward the islands.
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Already there has been much grumbling in the villages,
against the gods, their appetite for pigs and women and plantains,
much talk as well about the iron nails from their ships,
and how such things of value are to be
desired and gained.
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It is the beginning of the end:
the little Eden of aloha and blood sacrifice,
of stone tools and of plenty will not long survive.
/
Seen from here it passes in an instant,
even the time of the navigators is no more than the
blink of an eye, like the life of the mayfly we make of
all of history one immense and telescoped distortion —
island upon island —
Midway, now, halfway across the ocean, waterless, eroded,
yet it seems immutable.
/
In portraits of the time, Cook sits like that.
Contained. Immutable.
It is the great colonial age.
England, the European powers, vie for dominance.
They see time as flowing past and through them,
and think to fasten themselves to the fabric of it —
like enormous, beautiful gemstones,
no longer in fashion.
An age of “Destiny,” of corpulent aristocrats, for whom the
mountains and peninsulas and islands will be
named, and re-discovered, earnestly debating,
in ornately panelled rooms,
honor and glory,
notions we can hardly bear to speak of any longer.
/
Only death, the figure of it, seems quite real.
Cook, returning to the beaches of Kauai — sprawled out
beneath the fury of descending wooden clubs —
astonished, suddenly outside of time —
the man who, as the god, struck,
cries out, revealing himself,
and the murmur runs though the crowd,
“he bleeds.”

—Kim Maltman

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Vocation

Night after night on the kibbutz
they berated me for staying out late, watching the moon.
Drink your milk, they said —
in the morning you’ll have to work. All day
you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you!
Night after night they berated me.
And night after night, my cup of milk shining,
I came out anyway.
Drink your milk, I said.
In the morning you’ll have to work.
All day you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you.

—Roo Borson, from Water Memory (McClelland and Stewart)

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XISHI DOUFU

Jilong was every shade of grey in the rain. Red-grey, yellow-grey, green-grey, grey. It had been raining all the way from Hualian, where there were mudslides. In Hualian we’d spent the night in a hotel decorated with red velvet and imitation stained glass, overlooking an intersection which shrieked the whole night through with gunning motorbikes and small trucks blaring out presidential campaign ads, live, through loudspeakers, handheld or mounted on their roofs. And now the rain-soaked sea, the blocky cement structures of the sugar towns, a cement-coloured crescent of wet beach, this or that hillside grotto of cycads, ferns the size of small houses — each time the train was swallowed up in a tunnel the world went black, swaying and rocking, only to be resurrected again the next moment. Now, at last, all this was behind us and, now heavy, now light, now drenching, now middling, the rain continued….

A map we’d picked up at the station had shown several hotels, and we’d made our way now to the nearest of these. A sailor took a swig from a mickey-sized paper bag as I squeezed past in the narrow corridor which served as a lobby, and into the tiny elevator. Passing by an open door along the way, I caught sight of one of the other guests, a young woman talking on a cellphone. Our room-to-be had an actual porthole for a window and beautiful, mildewed wainscoting, which gave off an odd air of dampness and chill. And so for the second time I passed by the young woman, who sat perched in her miniskirt on a matching circular bed, still talking softly on her cellphone, and rode back down to the lobby to return the room key and decline the room, and then we slogged our way again through the rain, dragging our luggage up and down over the labyrinthine series of pedestrian overpasses.

After tea, a hot shower, and some desultory television in a second (this time, mercifully acceptable) hotel called The Kodak, whose sewing kit I still carry with me, we made our way downstairs to the hotel restaurant. What we wanted was a bowl of rice, a green vegetable, possibly some bean curd, above all to avoid having to venture out again into that pouring rain. The menu, when it finally arrived, however, spoke more of the hotel’s elevated image of itself than of the contents of its dishes, being one of those composed almost entirely of gracious yet curious literary allusions, most of them unknown to us, and only a handful bearing names into which words we recognized for food had been allowed to slip. Among these was a dish called Xishi Doufu.

This (leaving aside the doufu for the moment), although also an allusion, was at least one that we recognized. Xishi: legendary beauty of the Warring States period. Favourite concubine to the last, doomed King of the state of Wu, so bewitching that, languishing in her company, he allowed his whole kingdom to be overrun and lost. Rice, a vegetable, and Xishi Doufu it would have to be then, although why Xishi, and what this doufu that now bore her name might turn out to consist of, we would have to wait and see.

Often when I think of doufu, I remember the novel A Small Town Called Hibiscus by the Chinese writer Gu Hua. The novel is set in a poor village in Hunan during the sixties and seventies, a period of great upheaval throughout the country. It makes frequent and lavish references to an incredibly tender bean curd, a bean curd which in fact turns out to be not exactly bean curd, but a ‘bean curd’ contrived out of the sweepings of rice powder gathered from the storeroom floor. The bean curd vendor, Yuyin, has been declared a “rich peasant,” dispossessed, and forced to make her living selling bean curd on the streets. Throughout the novel, numerous servings of this ‘doufu’ are dolloped out, steaming hot, into bowls, and doused with chili oil and green onion. Each appearance in the novel made me famished — so much so that, ever since, every unknown bean curd dish appearing on a Chinese menu makes me once more long for it.

At the end of Gu Hua’s novel it is 1979, and Yuyin has, at last, been rehabilitated. Her tormentor, Wang Qiushe, has gone mad and wanders the streets, calling out endlessly for yet another revolutionary political movement, long after the era of such movements, and the devastation they (and he) have brought to other peoples’ lives, has passed. I thought again of Yuyin’s doufu as we waited (patiently, and for some time — like the King of the doomed state of Wu, we joked) for our order to arrive.

And now before us stood a dish of Xishi Doufu. The cubes so white they seemed almost translucent, so delicate they registered even the slight shocks of the waiters passing, unobtrusively as always, near our table. The tremulous cubes slid away at the touch of the serving spoon and, upon being lifted with chopsticks, would pause a moment and then break in half.

Often since then I have thought of that dish, though in my mind it is now hopelessly entangled with the doufu of Gu Hua’s story. Thus, on occasion, when I come upon doufu listed in a restaurant menu, I find myself not only remembering the town of Hibiscus and the doufu of those revolutionary times, but wondering whether I might not, like the legendary last King of the once great, now long-vanished state of Wu, be living through the last days of some great tragedy I am as yet completely unaware of. Perhaps this is why the story of ordering Xishi Doufu in the restaurant of The Kodak Hotel, in the port city of Jilong, on the northeast corner of the island of Taiwan, has stayed with me, and why I am now writing it down — to (as Gu Hua says in his postscript, reflecting on the times he lived through) “comfort, encourage, mock and explain myself.”

—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite

 Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s chair in their officeThe Borson/Maltman communal office easy chair.

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Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

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Oct 102014
 

with grandson arthur(26) copySydney Lea with grandson Arthur

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An eagle shot from nowhere and killed
One of two black ducklings
Without the least effort as I canoed
A mirror lake at dawn.
When the small bird disappeared, the hen
Rushed to shield the last of her brood,

Urgent as my own mind, which rushed
By habit to metaphor
And by dint of will alone stopped shy
Of the poetaster’s O–
For all the sad creatures. I paddled on.
So did the two that survived.

They fossicked again for surface insects,
The mother settled her feathers,
The world went ahead with its usual business,
And I thought of my Bosnian friend,
How he opts for a sturdy manner. He tells
Good jokes in the bastard English

He learned from American comic books
And talk behind the translation
Of our television sitcom soundtracks.
He moves on in spite of all.
That poor doomed duckling’s wisps of down
Floated in air like snowflakes,

Diaphanous, after the raptor snatched it,
Beautiful, backlit by sun.
I recall the eagle as a totem of splendor
While it managed its own savage business,
Even as the pitiable rasps and squalls
Of the grown duck likewise linger,

Indelible, in the brain. And so
I may just write of them soon,
Though I think how my friend beheld the brain
Of his brother splayed against
A wall in a town so picturesque
It all but beggars the mind.

O, I’m a poet of no consequence.
The sniper picked one of a pair
Who walked a quaint old street together.
I feel guilt not envy.  Indeed,
I’m otherwise content to be
So wanting in subject matter.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

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Oct 082014
 

Goran SimićGoran Simić

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 “Until lions have their historians
tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”
African proverb

1

I got tired of victimizing myself.
Empty perfume bottles overgrow
The pile of my mistakes
And a gigantic pen with its lame heart overpowers
My simple need to record
My little self.

I got tired of punishing myself,
Of apologies because the pigment of my skin can stand
Only moonlight,
Tired of myself looking like a dog,
Howling like a wolf,
Hidden in an immigrant services file.

Banned book covers inhabited me in the form
Of paper plates in the hands of Sunday park protesters.
I turned into kitsch,
A sweet monster who no longer hides a wedding ring
Made of barbed wire.

I became ashamed because I allowed bank clerks
To tune their beggar-producing machine
To my blood pressure,
Because I let my sorrow be measured
And packed in the same colourful boxes
That remained unopened under
Last year’s Christmas tree.
It was nobody’s fault but mine,
The maple tree started drying after I engraved the name
Of my forgotten homeland.
Now I am collecting dry leaves for my pillowcase,
For my ancestors who still bribe me with ampoules of blood.
My back turned to my chest,
The basement ceiling bent my spine
Into a hunch.
I buy shoes in the children’s department
And can’t remember how to stand tall
When bullets fly,
Or the difference between soldiers and heroes.

I got tired of the whispers I was sending myself
From countries I never memorized,
From cities that taxed me for eyes too big,
From beaches where old mocking turtles
Walked over a new old man covered with sand.

In those whispers
There is no return address,
No name.
Just the sound of a roaring garbage truck in the distance,
Grinding perfume bottles like an anthem,
There, a few blocks away,
At the place where my sorrow starts.

2

What did I miss before I was born?
Not much it seems to me,
Nothing that didn’t repeat itself in the same shape.
The way mothers incessantly curse the funeral home apprentice
Who sits idle at the Maternity Hospital gate
Eating toast with black milk.
The way the chicken obediently goes into the coop
Dreaming of the moment when a peacock will come out
Of an eggshell in full bloom, bravely stepping
In front of the hand groping for the stupid egg.

I am talking about millions of shells who chew
Their own brain for years, counting on the day
When a little pearl will shine on the neck of a fairy-tale queen.
Before the same queen all oceans turn into mirrors.

I am talking about my small hands
That worked for years to place a heavy metal door
In the window’s place,
To peep at the world through its keyhole.
The same world I helped to shape the way I dislike
So I could puke on it whenever I want.

Before nightfall I put on heavy drapes
Because of the mad sniper who has been active
Since the war that started before I was born.
He simply shot at ordinary and content people,
At policemen disguised in a preacher’s robe,
At war veterans that manage kindergartens,
At politicians disguised in a postman’s uniform,
Hidden deep in the womb of the red cloud
Above my scared town.
He aims at street signs named for heroes
But the streets are covered by
bloodthirsty pigeons’ bodies.

He’s not me. Still, I am not suspected.

Even neighbours reported seeing me content
While listening to a lullaby of metal rain
Tap on the roof
And pretending not to know that the sound comes
From the cocoons falling from the cloud.
The same cocoons I will obediently broom
From my doorstep.

3

I kept secret my birth
And I used not to retell events I could express
Only with tears.
As a butterfly larva in diapers, I never managed to fly.
Instead, it crawled blindly obedient to the mirror
To became an ugly spot,
The eye that looks at itself.

My imagination was born from my simple need
To be silent instead of cry
Because silence alone has the colour I am craving
To paint myself,
Which finds no place on the hardware store’s palette.

How many times the Coast Guard stopped me from
Swimming deep down toward the bottom of the ocean.
They begged me to give up
Because there is nothing there but moist darkness
But I would always swim underwater
In search of something already promised to me
That belongs to me
Which I have never truly defined.

That something that became my goal
Was perhaps already registered
In my skin
In the form of bruises from the golden sandbars
While I was swimming deeper and deeper,
In the fishes’ bites selfishly chewing eternal darkness,
In my own failure to breathe my own breath again,
Under the mask
In my smile
After defeat I swim back up to the silent beach.

Who knows,
Maybe I was right when marrying the silence,
Because my scream became my lover
Who doesn’t see the difference between a fishing boat
And a submarine,
Who doesn’t care if I breathe black water
Or white air.

4

No, it wasn’t me
the one who would leave the house at dawn
dressed like a fisherman
going to the North to reconcile clever rebellious salmon
with thousands of stupid lures
and returning home with canisters full of oil in my hands.

It wasn’t me,
Who would shake out desert sand
From shoes made of polar bear fur.

I was born on the tarp in the military warehouse
And a flashlight was the very first star I saw.

Perhaps I watched in the wrong direction
And learned too late that only losers have a right
To celebrate
And that headaches are what remains for conquerors,
For fear of those who celebrate.

On my first trip from clinging to my mother’s skirt
To wearing my father’s military backpack
I was told: the safest way to go for a crocodile hunt
Is to wear crocodile-skin boots.
My pointer finger is still sweating while throwing
Celebratory fire crackers into the refugee camp,
While I sniff kerosene under the vulture’s wing
And read horror on the lips of the stewardess
Who smiles like a pregnant woman before takeoff.

But I was never the one
Who went to the North to chop down ancient trees
To carve an old pulpit.
God is my witness.
If any witness remains
At the end of the day.

5

So many times I moved from place to place,
That I don’t even remember my first address.

I remember the cities because of the train tickets
And continents because of the stamps in my passport.
I don’t even carry anything else in my suitcases
But city and road maps.
I don’t even get surprised anymore when the suitcase bites me
When I try to close it.

I live in the flight attendants’ fake smile
When watching suspiciously
The plastic rose in my hand.
I drink the train conductors’ politeness
When asking me for the origin of my face’s scars.
From the plastic plate I eat somebody else’s bitter bread
With its country of origin written on the bottom of each slice
That will eat me before I reach my stop.

My camera resists capturing the sunny landscapes,
My pen is dead to describe
Nameless stops and faceless people.

A pocket flashlight is my guide
When thinking of my true love, who agrees
To live in my imagination.

Behind me, blue snow falls from the sky,
On the streets that I have just passed.
In front of me hotel rooms still devour the bones of lovers
Who walked away with new dreams.

Strangers pronounce the name of the country they come from
Like they are pronouncing
The name of a terminal illness
That one dies from only in front
Of a blank TV screen.

Strangers’ voices sound like telephones that don’t ring
In new hotel rooms,
Email messages appear on the computer screen
As swallows
On the roof of the old family house.
Afterwards the same swallows turn into storks
After patiently waiting for years on the frozen chimney
And then leave
For some other roof.

Every foreigner dies in a dream with the
Old country’s anthem
Stuck in his throat like a fishbone,
Dies with wide-open eyes
Too small to chew up new landscapes,
To wake up in a cold silence
After the pillow starts smelling
Of the flag bleached by rain
And wind.

I am also one of those in search of home,
In search of the warmth of my mother’s womb.

In search of
My first address.

6

When you left the bar
Only your frozen gloves remained in my pocket.
I pretended nothing was left after you
Except your lipstick stamp on the glass
That morning will eat like breakfast.

Only the barman knows the reason he showed you
The exit door,
Only the waiter knows why you left him a condom
Instead of a tip,
Only I know how long I kept your gloves
In my pocket to make them soft and tasty like ice cream.

I shouldn’t drive
With your gloves already on the wheel,
I shouldn’t present you with a bracelet made of my hair,
I shouldn’t notice the moment when the bear tattooed on my chest
Bites your hand ready to stretch its golden claws.

I could guess,
Your wallet will knock on my door one day
To tell me that you were stolen
And liberate me from accusing myself
Of never giving you a chance.

7

When I fall in love for the first time

I promise to donate my organs
To anyone who believes that death happens
Only to those that wander from oneself to somebody else,
Like food in the market that moves
From shelf to shelf.

My brain could extend the life of some old man
Who believes
That there is a difference between the brain rotten with cancer
And the brain already infected by life.
It could be of use to some suicide beginner
To make another try,
Or to some young preacher punishing himself in a cell
Whenever imagination overpowers rules.

My liver is my cellar
In which the smell of vine lives in forbidden relationship
With a young woman ready to taste her own skin.
It may be useful to someone who never tasted the shame
In front of a Red Cross kitchen,
In a long line of those who believe that food eats
Those who didn’t prepare it by themselves.
He must be used to sorrow and doubts
That make love constantly,
Their pregnancy in the shape of tobacco smoke.
My liver might explode like a balloon
If the new owner starts baby-talking it
After yesterday’s storm comes again from the past.

That room is too small for one and too big for two.

My skin is like a map,
A battlefield where gentle fingerprints fight
With the bruises of a club.
Only I, hunter,
Can read the fear in the runaway’s roar,
Can read from my skin why I am going
To hunt
With a gigantic pen on my shoulder
And a plastic gun in my pocket.
Out of my skin I never manage to make the flag
Adapt to the hundred colours of the belt
I purchased from the retired hangman.

My skin could easily be used
As a patch for the scars on someone’s cheek
But I don’t see any woman who would press her lips to it
Without feeling that the kiss already happened
A long time ago.

My heart could easily be placed in the chest
Of some young man
Ready for rebellion
But inexperienced in loss.
Unless that lucky man quickly learns
How to compare mystical bits of the new heart,
Already blue from ink,
With the bits from an old wall clock
Grinding hours into minutes.

But who would desire that kind of heart
Already infected by love?

8

I embrace you so tight
That drops of ink appear on your skin.
You hug me back and watch
A drop of orange juice glide down from my chest
Making a road like a scar.

You claim that your skin is a never-ending desert
Stretched before the masters of caravans.
You comfort me
My face got the shape of a camel
Only because of your imagination.

How horrible must be the moment of defining
Something that doesn’t exist.
How wonderful it is to be protected
By the cage of words
Soaked with the religion
Of the deaf and blind.
In the homeland of
Stupid, careless question marks
That will survive the desert even without ink
And a drop of orange.

 —  Goran Simić (translated by the author and edited by Tom Simpson)

/

Born in 1952, Goran Simić emigrated from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Canada in 1996 under the auspices of PEN Canada. In his native Yugoslavia he was a widely published poet and writer of short stories, puppet plays, librettos for opera, and radio plays. He was also an editor and columnist for magazines and radio networks.

He has been a Senior Resident of Massey College, University of Toronto (1996). He held a Fleck Fellowship at the Banff Centre for the Arts (2000), and he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Guelph (2006). He has also been Writer-in-Exile at the University of Alberta (2011).

Since 1996 his literary work has been translated into 15 languages and was included in several world anthologies, such as Scanning the Century (Penguin, 2000) and Banned Poetry (Index of Censorship, 1997), as well as numerous anthologies in Canada and the former Yugoslavia. He received the Hellman-Hammett/PEN USA Freedom to Write award (1994), and the People’s Award, Canada (2006), along with numerous literary prizes for his work in puppet theatres. Recently the Canadian Association of Authors named his Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman the best poetry book in Canada of 2012.

His other published volumes include Sprinting from the Graveyard (Oxford University Press, 1997), Immigrant Blues (Brick Books, 2003), and From Sarajevo with Sorrow (Biblioasis, 2005). Additional collections of his selected poems are forthcoming in the UK, Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria.

 —

Tom Simpson

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, whose faculty senate awarded him a dissertation-year fellowship for excellence in teaching and research. In 2006 he won the American Society of Church History’s Sidney Mead Prize, for the year’s best essay based on doctoral research. He has also received Phillips Exeter Academy’s New Teacher Award (2011) and Distinguished Faculty Fund Award (2013). His previous published writings have appeared in Religion and American Culture, Church History, Perspectives on the Social Gospel, the online gallery of Bosnian painter Samir Biščević, and the Bosnian website jmbg.org.

From 2002-2004 he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with the Bosnian writer Goran Simić on a collection of poems and essays, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire with his partner, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.

/

Oct 032014
 

Karen Mulhallen

These poems are close to my heart. Karen Mulhallen Karen and I are both exiles from Sowesto (aka southwestern Ontario), and the places of which she writes — Lake Erie, Port Dover, the Halton Sand Hills, Turkey Point, and Long Point — are ancestral touchstones for me as much as they are for her. For more about Karen, please see the introduction I wrote for her book Acquainted With Absence: Selected Poems. For more about the land of which she writes, see my “Long Point, A Geography of the Soul.”

Fishing Poems, just published by Marty Gervais at Black Moss Press, will be launched at The Windup Bird Café, 382 College Street, Toronto, Monday, 3 November. All welcome!

dg

fishingpoems-cover

/

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1845)

 

I

The Fishing Poems, An Album

I have kept my Fishing Poems close by for many decades. Their essential topography began to develop in my childhood and adolescence. As a family, we often drove from Woodstock in my father’s bright red Buick on hot summer weekends to Lake Erie to the Houghton Sand Hills, or we constructed a picnic in the parks and the beaches at Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Dover. Sometimes my parents would rent a cottage, a small wooden shack.

In adolescence, when the freedom offered by the family car came into play, I went with other teenagers to hear music: Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry; they all performed in Ontario’s deep southwest.

And more rarely, but memorably, in adulthood, my brothers and I would go off to spend the day in west Norfolk at the Houghton Sand Hills, towering 250 feet in the air, ever changing, and shaped toward the east by the southwest winds which revealed potshards and arrowheads in their passage and the shadowy presence still of a look-out, aboriginal or white, gauging the approach of a stranger across the long narrow stretch of lake below. Erielhonan, Iroquois for long-tailed.

Welded with these scenes was my indelible reading, when I was thirteen, of Alain Bombard’s Naufragé Volontaire (1953). Bombard sailed across the Atlantic from France to the Barbados, a distance of 4400 km, in an open boat, an inflatable he invented himself, and which he called L’Hérétique. With only a sextant, a few provisions, and an indomitable will, Bombard epitomized for me all those other great voyages on the oceans of the world, all those heretical abandonments of the known, those searches for a new found land.

It is easy to get shipwrecked, or to drown, in the search for freedom.

*

In the early seventies, I lived in Toronto in a second floor apartment in a house on Brunswick Avenue. In the rear ground floor apartment was a photographer named Brian Ramer who hailed from Brantford. It was Brian who initiated my tertiary enchantment with Norfolk County as we explored our shared childhoods and talked of climbing the towering Houghton Sand Hills, white grains slithering between fingers and toes, and the shallow warm welcoming waters and sun-dappled sandy beach at Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie.

Brian was making a living as a photographer and spending all his spare time in our back yard teaching himself solarized printing. The old buildings of Spadina Avenue with their cross hatchings of street car lines, their eccentric turrets and false façade pediments and elaborate brickwork niches would appeared in brown and the palest gold, like ancient sepia prints, on sheets of paper, spread over the weeds under the clothesline. Upstairs I’d given up Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology and was teaching myself structural linguistic analysis with an eye on those lush passionate melancholic tales of William Faulkner.

Four of us piled in Brian’s old Chevy and drove off for the day to Dover. Brian had been a couple times lately, talked to John Simple, and hung out on the beach, eating foot-long Arbors and watching the farm kids from Hagersville with their six foot inflatables, the big kings of the surf.

It was a tiny town, not much bigger than in Brébeuf’s time, although now it was all white. Brian had walked the main drag. Mr Vary still had his store at number 421 Main Street which he’d set up in 1908, when there were 1500 folks in the town.It took nearly forty years to double that. He was 87 now but his memory was good, which is what we found in everyone we talked to.

We headed up St Andrew which curves like a comma back to Main at the Water Tower. It was early, the beach mottled from the night rain, the sun rays small. For a moment it clouded over, and the sun shone through an aperture, the narrow band a hot vertical arc light. The tide was coming in, the water flashing diamonds in front of a large white yacht. A small blue sailboat cut across the bay, just behind a coral yacht at anchor. I knew by noon the whole beach would be a quilt, one blanket after another. The Blue Pickerel was still the best fish shack on the beach, “no bones about it”, but at that hour we had no inclination to “Try some for the Halibut”, despite the faded old sign, hung proudly on its front. And anyway the louvres were only partly open.

The gulls were swooping around a fishing boat way out there. We squinted into the sun as a yellow paper bag came floating along the horizon line,like a double- masted iceberg. Then we decided to climb up toward the drawbridge through the underbrush, dead twigs snap snapping against dusty gravel. Just then the bells began to ring.

My sandals were no good for climbing and I had to pick my way barefoot around fallen thistle burrs, old nails, and cigarette butts. The bridge began to lift cutting a diagonal right across the sky as a bird with a fish by the tail came swooping under, heading up the canal toward the river. There were three kids on the bridge, a couple of bikes dumped by the side on the gravel slope. Two of the kids had fishing poles, and there was a large tomato juice can full of minnows on the ground.

We were going to talk to John Simple in the evening about gill netting in an open boat and about dragging for smelt, and the lore of the town. We knew where the Alma would dock and I’d already put my hand down into the split car-tire buoys full of small soft spiders lining the Alma’s spot.

Brian and Tony climbed up to the top of Bank Street on the edge of the highway, just over from the big yellow fork- lift machine, while Bill and I went on another amble in the town centre. We knew we’d all end up back on the beach to make a supper out of golden orange sweet honey glow drinks, a dog and an ice cream cone at the Arbor shack, where a scoop of blueberry or loganberry was only 10 cents.

Near the dock was a mass of orange net and a pile of green and white and grey buoys. The Dover Rose slid into harbor loaded down. We picked up the boardwalk and headed to Globe & Mail Park where we all met up with Shelley and Sheri and Dougie playing on the stone lions at the bandstand steps. I figured them for 13 or so, and I wasn’t far off. We did the standard adult tack, asked them about school. “ You guys are lucky. I don’t learn nothin in school” said Dougie. “ The other kids are too noisy.” “ Is the teacher young?” “ No, but not old either. She’s got veins in her hands.” Brian’s camera was handed over and Sheri cracked a real Marilyn Monro cheesecake. “She looks sharp without the camera” says Dougie, “through it she doesn’t even look smart.”

Brian and I went several more times to Dover that summer to walk the beach, to talk to the fishermen, and to spend time in the small town library archives.

*

When I was growing up in southwestern Ontario, the past and its passions were everywhere present. I went to the Indian reserve at Oshweken with my father, and to farm auctions where old farm houses and barns yielded vestiges of pioneer days. In July, there were Highland Games nearby at Embro, and the Battle of Culloden was fought over and over, as children in kilts danced over swords, and the Amish families, all modestly dressed, arrived with their horses and buggies. The world champion tug-of-war team, originating in the 1870s, was a group of six farmers who lived near Embro. They called themselves The Mighty Men of Zorra, after the township they lived in. For a child there was always an odd sense that many of the rituals I encountered and the people I met had come from away. How did they get here; what was this place for them; were they really here, or were they still there?

And always beyond the early settlers and their descendants and the native peoples there loomed the distant past, a world of animal and spirit forms, manifesting themselves in nature.

*

While I lived on Brunswick Avenue, Lorraine Monk had published, for the National Film Board of Canada, a book to celebrate Canada’s centenary, a picture book, Canada: A Year of the Land, with poems by my friend Miriam Waddington. Brian Ramer and I were inspired by its format and began to plan our own book of text and pictures. When our book was done, I sent it to the NFB and then to two other publishers, and it has remained unpublished. Brian left 411 Brunswick and eventually I moved on as well. But before I left Brunswick Avenue I went to the Pacific Ocean where I met a sailor who had built his own trimaran and sailed south from northern California, past the Baja coast where the spirits and the winds are strong, to a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico.

I can still hear the crackle of the light blue onionskin airmail letters as they slipped through the front door mail slot bearing the beginnings of yet another version of Fishing Poems. For although my fishing poems had begun in childhood, they also now included the death, by drowning in the Tiber, of my friend Chris, as well as the end of my marriage, which had been primarily enacted by water, to a man who had been schooled on a ship, as his own father was its commander. So although I was born landlocked, I was early, or from the very beginning, marked by water.

I met the sailor on the beach in the old fishing village of Zihuatenejo. I had been to a shack for dinner where a thin, gray-haired white woman in pajamas, hands shaking, served us dishes of lobster by the light of an oil lamp hung on a peg from the roof rafters. Afterward L and I went for a walk on the beach, and then took a taxi up the hill to our hotel, The Irma, determined to move to the beach in the morning. B was on the beach that night, but I didn’t know it.

The next morning, settled in to our beachfront double room, with its louvres opening toward the sea, we took a stroll and met the crew of the Tattoo, three tall bleached-out northern California sailors, of which B was the captain.

Ixtapa was being carved out of the cliffs, south of town, and we ran along the coast in the Tattoo looking up at tiny figures crawling like white ants over the face of the rocks. We beached below the vast hive, ate shrimp cooked on an open fire by a local fisherman, then walked up to the waterfalls, and stood under the cascades, fully clothed, as the water plastered hair, dresses, shorts, and T-shirts to bodies.

The following day, just before noon, we went up the hill to the village lending library, where I showed B the diaries of Simone Weil, while the resident king parrot squawked, and then took a bite out of my finger.

In the morning, L and I took a light plane back to Mexico City. I can still remember looking out from the small porthole down on the rough field landing strip where B stood tall against the wooden shacks, his long blond ponytail still damp from our morning shower.

It would be more than twenty years before I let myself fall in love again with a sailor, and in the meantime I would have taken to the sea myself.

*

The Fishing Poems and the deep southwest have stayed with me and I have carried my manuscript to Scotland, to Venice, to Australia and to Toronto Island. Anyplace I went on retreat to write, the Fishing Poems went with me, always rewritten, never released. They have allowed me to write about the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Baja Peninsula, the Great Barrier Reef, and that great fresh water sea at the base of the city which is my home, Lake Ontario.

I have come to recognize that my relationship with the Fishing Poems and with water is a trope writers know intimately. There is a book always close to you that you cannot finish and cannot truly let go. It is the catalyst for other excursions. If you are William Faulkner, it is your Golden Book of Yoknapatawpha County; if you are Mavis Gallant, it is your study of the Dreyfus Case; if you are Mr Casaubon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it is your very Key to All Mythologies. Fictional authors or the real McCoy, there is always the book which eludes and leads us.

  /

Ondine’s Lament

I have been acquainted with absence;
Neither air nor water is my element.
I have been acquainted with absence,
Moving as amphibious creatures ought.

The old woman warned me
Returning from the arroyo:
You have remained out too long, she said,
After dark is dangerous.

I am the air when full—
My heart is beating;
I am the evening wind—
My blood is coursing.

Here the wing of the fragrant fly
Mimics my flight,
Holding me in his embrace
Clasping my clasping hands.

When it is damp, the water sinks—
My eyes are flickering.
When it is dry, the fountain sprays—
My veins are pulsing;

When it is sunning, the prisms crack—
My core is throbbing.
When it is darkling, the stars shine—
Myself am waiting:

Neither fish nor fowl
Always smooth but plumed:
Myself am waiting,
Myself am curling,

Myself am turning
Toward the horizon without end,
Shore without line, sound without presence:
The voice, the touch, the texture,
…………..which renews.
….I am not Griselda, nor was meant to be,
………am an attendant slave.

/

 

The Sailor’s Letter

3.

Nine days later, evening, becalmed,

In the waiting there are many dreams—the half moon behind the ragged clouds, the soft sparkle of phosphorescent animals, as the boat slightly rocks in what remains of the swell. Lamp-lit cabins, and companions so close we need hardly speak.

/

 

Captain Alexander McNeilledge

(1791-1874)

Captain Alexander McNeilledge committed suicide at the age of 83.
This is the last entry in his diary, 20 August 1874:

I last saw my mother on July 12, 1806, when I left Scotland expecting to be gone 3 or 4 months.
I was shipwrecked, and did not return to Scotland for 40 years.

They were all shipwrecks, maddened, these men,
gathered in that village in the wood, dreaming of prosperous towns,
perchance a great city, other civilizations,
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

One log house, the Birdsells, halfway to Van Allen’s place;
a small house on Prospect Hill, where Silas Knight the lawyer lived.
A school was raised; and at the mill, a small store,
kept by John Kirkpatrick and Colin McNeilledge—

And that mill, The Granary, haunted by Rob Roy, on its fascia mounted
the figurehead of the schooner called Highlander
wrecked on the treacherous sheet of water,
painted in Campbell and MacGregor colours,

and each 30th of November, St Andrew’s night,
Scots gather at Sandy’s Tavern in Dover,
raising a glass, drinking a dram, crying aloud
with haggis and pipes, and all the accompaniments,

skirling their longing,
Red Robert, Red Robert,
Rob Roy, Rob Roy

 /

Children at the Beach

Take thy bliss, O Man!
And sweet shall be thy taste & sweet thy infant joys renew!

William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion

1.

Where the water tower stands
St Andrew Street like a comma
curls back to Main.

2.

Remember mottled wet beach like this after the rain?
No, but I remember morning beach when the rays were small.

3.

When you came here with your family
and you were twelve and you were starting to look
and starting to get together and tell your jokes
and a couple was behind the high school
and a policeman finds you and you says you’re only necking
and he says, well, put your neck back in your pants
and get outta here.

4.

You can get smashed by this lake,
but I don’t know what this means.

5.

Diamond flashing water coming into shore
before a large white yacht.

6.

Days when through the cloud
a narrow band of sun lights.

7.

Farm kids from Hagersville
with their 9′ inflatables—
the big kings of the surf.

8.

Remembering: days when there is just one blanket
after another—the whole beach a quilt.

Seeing a fishing boat with gulls
behind a yellow paper bag
floating like a large berg on the horizon:
a double sail.
9.

Norfolk Hotel
Ladies and Escorts
presenting Mr Bruise B.

Mr Bruise B,
loves like a bee
kisses like a wasp,
oh no
Mr. Bruce B.

oooooh eeeee—Mr Brian R.
mouth like a bar
when he does he goes up far
ooo—–eeee

oooo–eeeeee
oo-ah ah
ting tang
wally wally bing bang
oo–eeee–oooo–aa–aa–
ting tang tanga
wallywally bing bang

Stevie Crozier—here he is
waiting for his hard on to go down to piss
while pencilling on the wall seven foot tall
Polonius Sucks

John and Mary up in a tree
K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
first comes love
then comes marriage
then comes Mary
with a baby carriage
oh-oh

Tiny Tim
went to the doctor
doctor wasn’t in
went to the nurse
nurse had the curse
oh oh Tiny Tim

/

 

Arrivals

1.

Rain on the River

In the fog we drift hither and yon over the dark waves.
At last under a maple, our little boat finds shelter.

Above the veil of mist, from time to time, there lifts a sail.

2.

Coming in

We rowed ashore. Early this morning we took a tour along the coast of the bay.
It’s all a montage now, looking back on it.
You are in my mind here, Sarah, your presence.
Two white birds in a windy sky.

3.

the sixteenth

…what is it ? The dream began it. The writing started then.
Any point to this is there, blowing all through it, invisible, yet heard.
I am afraid to say like the wind in the trees.

4.

the seventeenth

Tonight the dream came again, and a healer touched me with his index finger,
just below my clavicle, saying pain is serpentine —here is its point of entry—here
is its point of exit. As he touched me all the pain of my life came rushing out,
and you were there, watching, as it left.

That’s all for now.
Adios.
Until we see each other again, carry my love with you,
B

 

—Karen Mulhallen

These poems are excerpted from the book Fishing Poems (Black Moss Press, September 2014).

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Karen Mulhallen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar, a Professor Emeritus of English at Ryerson University, and adjunct Professor at the University of  Toronto.

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Sep 122014
 

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glen Sorestad in Cuba

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Cuban Hand Line Fisherman

Beneath the roil and roll of the turquoise surge the restless Gulf
lies before him, an infinite mystery the young man is trying his best
to fathom, as others before him have done. He seeks to unbolt
the buried treasure chest of marine knowledge. With each flick
of his right wrist and follow-through of hand and arm, he hurls
his line and baited hook out to the limits of his developing skill.
With each cast he is a pilgrim tossing his coin with religious fervour
into a fountain of miracle. The youth has learned the timeless art
of delving below the surface of things, an unseen world in which he
has become one with the fish, so he may hear the subtlest voice
in the tension of line as he draws it, slowly, ever so slowly, back to
him, intuiting movements he can interpret only through the thinnest
monofilament, conveying its messages to his sensory receptors over
the tip of his index finger only.

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Guillerucina

The name card left atop the TV
tells us our maid has this uncommon name –
uncommon at least for us,
coming from a country not rife
with Spanish names.
So for the first few days I roll
a variety of bumbling pronunciations
off my Anglo-thick tongue, imagining
the placement of the various accents.

Her name sets her firmly apart
from the myriad Marias
and repetitive Rosas as one
who certainly cannot be easily dismissed,
nor taken lightly, one with whom
to trifle would involve risk.
Guillerucina is a name one might
expect to find on a building nameplate,
someone of considerable consequence,
perhaps even a figure of power.
We tip her well.

This afternoon when we return
to our room Guillerucina has swirled
our fresh white towels into an unmistakable swan
afloat on the pond of our bed, and fallen
alongside – a scarlet hibiscus bloom.

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The Bus Stops Here

We are waiting for the morning bus
into Havana, a cluster of us from the hotel,
when one of the women indicates a man
standing near the front of the group, clad

all in white, middle-aged, a curly black
haphazard thicket of mad scientist hair.

You know, he’s got to be the first to get on the bus,
or else. He’s caused all kinds of problems with
the staff and the rest of us, says the woman,
here with her husband from Toronto.

I have noted this person for several days,
an obvious loner, anti-social, demanding.
A walking frown, he could be
from an Andy Capp comic strip

So I ask her, Does anyone know his name?
Asshole? she suggests helpfully.
Would that name be all in caps? I enquire.
No! And she becomes quite adamant.
Lower case — very, very small.

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Cuban Sunset

When dusk arrives here it is no lingering suitor —
no gradual softening of light, no slow fade
to the deep, thick stillness of night.

The sun dives into the Gulf like a tossed stone;
the dark pursues, pell-mell, dragging a duvet
of night over land and sea.

—Glen Sorestad

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Glen Sorestad is a Canadian poet who lives in Saskatoon. His poems have appeared in literary magazines all over North America and other countries; they have been translated and published as well in seven languages. His poems has appeared in over 60 anthologies and textbooks, as well as in his more than twenty books and chapbooks of poems published over the years.

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Sep 112014
 

josephine-jacobsen-448

Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen

 

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.

Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.

“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”

Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”

If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century  “poet’s poets” over and over.

Sisters2

The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.

Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.

Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.

Of Pairs

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.

The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.

One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.

What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.

Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.

All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.

As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.

What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.

sisters4

Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.

Terrestrial

The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.

Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.

There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.

Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.

When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”I don’t really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.

Piazza di Spagna

Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.

Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.

As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;

where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.

Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.

It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.

—Julie Larios

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Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go. —Darren Higgins

MW-Gladding-cover

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In “Lawn Chairs,” the last poem in her new book, Translations from Bark Beetle, Jody Gladding writes about “stars / so far away / they’ve long stopped burning.” “Unfathomable Mystery!” she goes on to exclaim, without a hint of pity or mourning, which, if we’ve been paying attention, should come as no surprise. Bark Beetle presents one unfathomable mystery after the next—stars burnt out, relationships damaged, butterflies blasted by traffic—but in this magical collection, that’s no reason for despair. As Ovid, another poet concerned with metamorphoses, has written, while everything changes, nothing is lost.

“Process and decay are implicit,” says the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. “Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.” Gladding has come to celebrate, or at least embrace, such impermanence. Yes, she is the kind of poet who will incise a poem (“Habitat”) on an icicle:

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

The icicle, of course, is long gone, yet the words, and the act of their creation, persist. I imagine that final period falling away in a drop of water, followed, in the rising light of the winter sun, by everything else. With its specimen-box cover design, Bark Beetle serves as reservoir or record of numerous such disintegrations. Indeed, there is a photograph of the melted icicle in the back of book, along with images of other “object poems” that served as incubators for and partners to the poems on the page.

I should rephrase that: the object poems are poems in their own right. Over the course of her career, Gladding has come to see poems, whether on the page or off, as physical things built to interact with the world. She writes on paper, of course, but also on feathers, tongue depressors, milkweed pods, X-rays, split logs, eggshells, and change-of-address forms. Bark Beetle, by juxtaposing textual poetry with full-color images of these object poems, gives readers and viewers an unprecedented glimpse of the remarkable range of her poetic art and artistic ambition.

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

Gladding’s interest in objects, nature, and the changeable language and life within landscapes is not new. “Midwifery,” the first poem in her first book, Stone Crop (winner of the 1992 Yale Series of Young Poets Award), begins:

These stones
I unearth
squatting
in my garden
working them
into the light

Taking us from “pregnant” garden stones through to the birth of her daughter, the tactile, sensory poems in her debut collection are grounded in seasonal shifts, in soil and snow, death and life, cycles unending. In Bark Beetle, she again unearths stones, but there is a difference: here she has made them poetry (see “Seal Rock” or “Gris-gris is a powerful charm”).

Seal RockSeal Rock

Other recent projects also spring from a sense of such poetic transformation—wrapping a quarry in blood-red bolts of cloth, making a series of site-specific nests with grasses, sticks, and strips of text, and weaving yarn and wool around the interior of an ancient stone shelter in France. Spaces, openings, margins, sanctuaries.

In “Triphammer Bridge,” A.R. Ammons writes,

sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the
word’s sound is the one place to dwell: that’s it, just
the sound, and the imagination of the sound—a place.

Gladding knows the sound of such places. She is a great listener, a great believer in listening. In this increasingly amped-up, on-demand-everything world, she makes us stop and listen too. Take “Sonogram of Raven Calls,” from Bark Beetle:

rapp
……………………………..krapp
…………kra
……………………………………………..pruk
……………………………………………………………..quork
………………..gro
……………………………………………………………………………………kaah

While the lines in her early work tend to arrange themselves obediently on the left, Gladding’s words in recent years have begun scuttling across the page like beetles on a log. And so “Sonogram” continues, corner to corner, placing us in a forest of song rising up from the white. You can hear the music here (“the imagination of the sound”), but you can also see it. You are in it.

Sound and sight, on the page and off—croaking ravens, scraping stones, melting ice, dying stars, unfathomable mysteries all. Gladding doesn’t just write poems about this unsettled world, a difficult-enough task. She turns the world into poetry, then lets it go.

—Darren Higgins

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I first met Jody Gladding twenty years ago at Cornell University, where she was kind enough to say that the tortured poems I kept submitting for her writing seminar showed promise. Recently, over a series of weeks, her kindness undimmed, she took the time to speak to me—in person, over e-mail, and on the phone—about her poetry and art, her new book, and how she approaches her work.

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

DARREN HIGGINS: How long had you been making the pieces that are found in Translations from Bark Beetle? Did you see them from the outset as constituting a greater whole, or did that sense of unity or cohesion only come into focus over time?

JODY GLADDING: The oldest piece in the book, “Gris-gris is a powerful charm,” goes back a decade to the 2004 elections. After Bush stole the presidency in 2000, after his warmongering response to 9/11, after all the eloquent, articulate arguments against him, how could he have won? Maybe it had something to do with what those arguments were written on. Which led me to try writing on/in stone.

As my work over this time drifted further and further from the page, it seemed less and less likely that a book could come of it. So, no, I had no sense of a greater whole, only a growing excitement about the possibilities that were opening up to me. Then, a couple years ago, I looked at what I’d been making and tried to see what might be lured back into a printed format—which became the manuscript for Bark Beetle.

Mobile Since Mars won’t be this close to Earth again

DH: I love the handcrafted feel of the book itself—part field guide/notebook, part artist book. How did the publication come together, and how involved were you able to be in the layout, image selection/placement, and so on?

JG: Milkweed Editions was absolutely wonderful about collaborating on the production of the book. What I submitted to them as “manuscript” included poems, rubbings, photos, and notes. I knew the poems required landscape orientation and the bark beetle specimen box should serve as the cover. Milkweed’s Jeenee Lee came up with the design itself, plus the typewriter font, which makes the whole thing feel provisional, like field notes. I love the sense that you’re opening a specimen box as you turn the first pages.

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

DH: Could you discuss how some of these pieces were created? Do you collect objects that fascinate or engage you, only to figure out what can be done with them later? Or do you head out into the world with a poem in your head, seeking its perfect medium or vessel?

JG: It’s different for each piece. I had the tongue depressor before the poem with “swallow,” but “roc” was on paper long before it found its way onto a feather. With “Nesting Ravens,” from the beginning it needed an egg. But would the egg be whole or broken? In a nest? It wasn’t always a broken egg. Before it broke, I could actually read from it at readings—slow going, because the print is small and the egg has to keep turning. Once at an area high school, a student came up afterward and said it was like the words were coming out of the egg as I read them. Ideally, that would be true for all these object poems.

Featherroc

DH: I had the pleasure of seeing “The Object Poems: Translations from Bark Beetle,” an exhibition of your artwork, photographs, and poetry at the Vermont College of Fine Arts gallery. You wrote something in your artist’s statement that I keep coming back to: “I consider the objects themselves to be the poems. I’m interested in how poetry operates in physical acts, in three-dimensional space, in the world at large.” At what point, then, did you begin to think that the writing could live apart from the art (or vice versa, as the case may be)? Were there pieces for which this kind of vivisection was not possible? More broadly, does the success of the art depend at all on the separate or distinct success of the text? That is, would you consider the art incomplete if the text could not find a home on the page?

JG: All good questions. The word “success” makes me nervous, but yes, in compiling the manuscript there were poems I rejected because, separate from their objects or sites, they seemed insufficient. I’m coming at this process, this way of making art, as a poet, so the text itself must feel as viable to me as any poem I write—that is, what it’s on or what larger project it’s part of can’t act as an excuse for it. On the other hand, I don’t think of the page as the poem’s final home. Some of the poems that are in the show didn’t make it into the book, not because they were any less “successful,” but because the book just couldn’t accommodate them.

EggShellNesting Ravens

DH: In the gallery show and in the book, translations abound: Your printed poems as a kind of translation of the object poems. The objects as translations of landscapes or specific sites. The photographs as translations of the objects. In addition to being a poet and an artist, you are a translator of French. What is it that excites you about translation? And can you talk about the differences between, say, translating from bark beetle and translating from French?

JG: I think translating makes you aware of the spaces between languages, and I think that’s where poetry springs from. I translate French to earn my keep, so my excitement about it ebbs and flows depending on the project. Translating French generally pays—that’s one difference. Translation lets us rethink our own linguistic frameworks, lets us transit across, beyond or through them. That was certainly at the heart of my attempts to translate bark beetle.

DH: You have spoken elsewhere about your embrace of the ephemeral. Many of your recent art projects have channeled transience, living purposefully fugitive lives. Many of the object poems in Bark Beetle are fragile and clearly not meant to last. Have you always been this comfortable with disintegration? If not, how has it come about? And does your attitude extend to your writing?

Hard WoodHardwood

JG: I’d like to say I’ve always been comfortable with transience, but the fact is that when I put together my first collection of poems, in about fifth grade, I imagined archeologists excavating it from ruins eons hence, and I wrote “by Jody Gladding (a girl)” on the cover, so they wouldn’t be misled by my gender-neutral name. I can’t say when not lasting, limited shelf life, became more appealing. It just makes sense. I’ve always been saddened by library discards, stacked remainder tables at bookstores. Better a beautiful demise. The ephemeral works of Andy Goldsworthy or Cecilia Vicuña, are profoundly moving to me. A.R. Ammons, who we both knew at Cornell, has this little poem:

Providence
To stay
bright as
if just
thought of
earth requires
only that
nothing stay

Scan11 Sentences

DH: It seems to me that your pages have themselves turned into landscapes, and that your words—as printed, typographical objects—have, for a while now, been inclined to wander somewhat restlessly across them. Do you ever feel constrained by the page?

JG: It goes back to that notion that poems operate as physical acts, in physical space, in the world at large. Visual artists or installation artists, especially those with poetic sensibilities—I’m thinking of Ann Hamilton, for instance, or Roni Horn—have long worked from that premise, they just didn’t begin on the page. I’m coming to a similar place but from another direction.

Vellum book stitch

DH: After reading Bark Beetle, I was left imagining an inscribed world, a familiar place utterly transformed. Your work, both on and off the page, has long been associated with place. Do you feel that the landscape itself has something to say? In other words, are your works an interpretation or translation of that natural “language,” or do you feel that you in some way impose a language on the land? Can language be trusted in this context? Merwin writes, “our ears / are formed of the sea as we listen.” I suppose I’m really asking how you feel about failure.

JG: I do feel that the landscape has something to say, not to say to us, in some romantic or mystical way, but that the landscape is speaking all the time and we can only benefit by listening, which means expanding the boundaries of what we allow to be language. Recent studies on loons reveal that the particular call that echoes from a particular lake belongs to the lake itself and not the loon. That is, when a new loon takes up residence at a lake, it adopts its predecessor’s call, even if they’ve never met. And a loon moving from one lake to another will change its call to match its new home. If I entertain the notion that language resides in and issues from landscape, the realm of “linguistic beings” increases exponentially. The poems that then emerge? Closer, I hope, to translation than to imposition, to play than to betrayal, but there’s always the danger of making things up.

Failure? My language may fail (and I like what Andy Goldsworthy writes, that “each failure has taught me a little more about the stone”), human language may fail, but language? As a natural phenomenon? Failure is out of the question.

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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Jody Gladding’s newest poetry collection is Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions, 2014). Recent poems have appeared in ecopoetics, Orion, Terrain.org, and other journals. She lives in East Calais, Vermont, teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and translates French. Her work includes site-specific installations that explore the interface of language and landscape. 

Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  

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/

Aug 082014
 

dancersDancers, Photograph by John Oughton

/
Dawning

“To many, the language of birds is therefore nothing more or less than a series of secret codes and phrases, which pass by in daily conversation, except for those with ears that ‘hear’.” —Philip Coppens[1]

Before the human eye can catch the light
birds call up the sun,
each giving a separate secret name
understood only by them and the awakening star.
One robin calls: warmer-of-lost-eggs
and a cardinal: bleeds-the-eastern-sky
a jay announces: shards-you-can’t-look-at
and whipporwill: courser-of-clouds

when all these qualities are uttered
the new-known sun arises
and birds fall silent,
drained of aspects to declare.

/
Force Field

A field, a dance floor,
The poem can be.
A tennis game (with Rhymes)
But what if it’s a vacuum, abhorred,
massive black hole around which
one galaxy turns?

Everything sucks into its event
horizon. Nothing achieves escape
velocity. So, circulating in this hive
of form: the hardest scream
life can draw from your throat,
Lost loves, the scent of flowers
your face was pressed into, unwilling,
The moments you thought death
came next, all the lines you never wrote down.

And this: last night’s dream,
growing anxiety as you couldn’t
find the black car you’d parked to
get an aged aunt home, the midway ride
twirling in air around the belfry
pealing clangour,
an endless paean to midnight.
Your shame, your surprise,
Your last word.
In this poem.

/
Arise

Waking, I trail a skin of dreams
like a caul, contrail
I am the sniper – crosshairs aligned
on the joy of a clean kill

rainbow-scaled, I fight my way up the ladder
flying is only walking with more will
I am the wise child, lost man
with breasts, knee-length beard, new needs
dogged, fur pelts forth
I lie cat-kin along possibility’s wall

From this surfeit of symbol
I rise slowly, half thought, half felt
become small waves in a cup of coffee.

—Poems & Photographs by John Oughton

birdbath Birdbath by John Oughton

.

Oughton

John Oughton has published five books of poetry (most recently Time Slip, new and collected poems from Guernica Editions). He has also produced several chapbooks, over 400 articles, reviews, blogs and interviews, and a suspense novel which will be published by Neopoeisis Press. He is a member of the Long Dash writing group. As a photographer, he has had three solo exhibitions, and his images have appeared on book covers, in journals and e-zines. John works as Professor of Learning and Teaching at Centennial College and is completing a doctorate in Education at York University in Toronto.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. From “Tweet tweet: the language of birds” http://www.philipcoppens.com/birdlanguage.html
Jul 312014
 

Nela Rio

 

Rio_Laberinto_vertical portada

The Argentinian-born poet Nela Rio’s writing is imbued with nostalgia and longing. She composes poems about everything from women victims of imprisonment and torture to the tango. She has even published a collection of erotic poetry. In El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth (translated by Sophie M. Lavoie and Hugh HazeltonBroken Jaw Press, 2014), Rio invents a woman-centered creation story, an original myth meant to disrupt the Christian biblical tradition. Though her exquisitely precise Spanish makes Rio’s work difficult to translate, many of of her poems have appeared in bilingual collections, from Spanish to both French and English. Nela Rio has lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for the past 45 years. She is the most prolific poet of the ten Latino-Canadian writers described by Hugh Hazelton in his book Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. Broken Jaw Press has now published ten of her collections of poetry and short stories. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth will be published in the Spring of 2014.

—Sophie M. Lavoie

 

Las Mistícas 

… también había una que decía
de aquellas mujeres
que amaron a dios con amor de mujer
y lloraron la ausencia de la carne
en sus rezos que ardían de fervor.

Veneraron la parte de la Unidad con sabor a hombre
y se deleitaban en sus imágenes
saboreando los colores rozándolos con la lengua.
Ellas guardaban bajo amplios mantos
tejidos con los colores de los corales
los pezones erguidos de placer
en las noches en que en los corredores encantados
la magia del amor les traía vahídos de aliento sagrado.
Y no se contentaban con la tierra que recibía los pasos,
ni con el aire que recogía los murmullos,
sino que besaban con labios temblorosos
la plegaria
para que ascendiera a los otros.

Las castigaron por mala compañía,
por aceptar la naturaleza de sus pensamientos,
y les llovieron lluvias
hasta ahogarlas de amor en las noches tristes.

Preguntaron si estaba mal amar al hombre
diciéndoles “el amor es sagrado”
y también dijeron “así es”.
Las mujeres volvieron y amaron en su corazón
y dejaron que la carne se deleitara
en exquisitas oraciones.

 

The Mystics

… there was also one who said
that those women
loved god with a woman’s love
and mourned the absence of the flesh
in their prayers that burned with fervour.

They venerated the part of Unity that tasted of man
and delighted in its images
savouring the colours, running their tongues over them.
They kept their nipples, erect with pleasure,
under flowing blankets woven in shades of coral
on nights when, in the enchanted corridors,
the magic of love dizzied them with sacred inspiration.
And unsatisfied with the earth that felt their steps
and the air which collected murmurs,
they kissed the prayer
with trembling lips
so it would ascend to others.

They were punished for being bad company,
for accepting the nature of their thoughts,
and rains fell upon them
drowning them with love on sad nights.

They asked if it was wrong to love man
saying “love is sacred”
as well as “that’s the way it is.”
The women returned and loved with their hearts,
letting the flesh delight
in exquisite prayers.

§

Rivalidades 

Algunos, subiéndose a montañas
o descendiendo al fondo del océano
o contemplando el cielo
o meditando sobre la tierra
comenzaron a creer que algunas cosas
eran más hermosas que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más sabias que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más poderosas que otras y las alabaron.

Y comenzaron a haber dioses diversos
y rivalidades
y para superarse unos a otros
crearon normas y modos y leyes.

Y aún más, inventaron castigos,
y se habló de obediencia y desobediencia
y de resbaladizos planos de lomos intranquilos
donde moraban la condena o el invencible goce.

Y ya no hubo entendimiento entre la gente
porque hablaban idiomas distintos
y amaban las mismas cosas pero con exclusividad.

Así la Unidad quedó tamizada entre los siglos
y el amor tuvo que disfrazarse de muchas cosas
para sobrevivir.

 

Rivalries 

Some people, climbing mountains
or descending to the depths of the ocean
or contemplating the sky
or meditating on the earth,
began to think that some things
were more beautiful than others and praised them,
or were more learned than others and praised them,
or were more powerful than others and praised them.

And there began to be many gods
and rivalries
and to outdo one another
they created norms and modes and laws.

And they went even further, inventing punishments,
and spoke of obedience and disobedience
and of slippery planes of restless backs,
a land of condemnation or invincible pleasure.

And there was no longer understanding among people
for they spoke different languages
and loved the same things, but exclusively.

Unity was then filtered through the centuries
and love had to disguise itself as many things
to survive.

 §

Sol de Cartón 

Dicen que algunos de los hombres
se cegaron porque miraron la luz
creyendo que se irradiaba de ellos mismos.

El mayor secreto que guardaron
en sus pupilas vacías fue
que se tuvieron por gran señor
y fueron adúlteros con gran diligencia
y abusadores sin discriminación.
Respetaron su sabiduría y se sintieron sagaces
y fabricaron la gran diferencia.
Le dieron a la mujer el lugar
que correspondía
en su cosmogonía
y se entretenían limpiándose los traseros
cuando hacían justicia o predicaban.

Crearon niveles para vasallos
y con grandes sentimientos celebraban
que todo estaba por debajo de ellos
y lo guardaban con vigilancia.

Así la piel se les fue endureciendo
y el corazón se les achicó
y se les hizo tan remoto
que lo colgaron de una rama filuda
y lo escuchaban latir muy de vez en cuando.

.

Cardboard Sun

They say some men went blind
from looking at the light
thinking it came from themselves.

The greatest secret they kept
in their vacant pupils was
that they thought themselves great lords,
and were skilful adulterers
and indiscriminate abusers.
They respected their own wisdom and felt sagacious
and contrived the great difference.
They gave woman the place
that fell to her
in their cosmogony
and kept busy covering each other’s ass
while they carried out justice or preached.

They created ranks for vassals
and celebrated with great pomp
that everything was now beneath them
and kept close guard over all.

Thus their skin became thicker
and their hearts grew smaller
and became so remote
that they hung them from sharp branches
and only occasionally listened to their beat.

§

Cánones 

Te negaban la cima
donde se propaga la raíz del fuego, mujer,
tu boca abierta, clandestinamente sellada
por la rosa violada del idioma,
EEEEEEsufría la cópula con la desnudez del círculo,
EEEEEEramalazos de frío entubando calles.
Derribaban tu voz de firmamento de alas
EEEEEEescapando de pupilas transparentes:
pero ahora sabes que el idioma también puede disfrazar palabras,
obligarte a la mudez.

Por eso transformas la montaña con tu sed de ruptura,
te eriges como la fuente que proclama
la copiosa vertiente del acorde.
Penetrando el vuelo de la noche
enroscas tu voluntad al centro de la vida.

Tu pasión coral exige conciencia de destino,
resonancia del silencio.

Con el caprichoso alfabeto fecundizas, mujer,
la vocación de abrazo que tiene la palabra.

 

Canons

They denied you the summit
where the root of fire spreads, woman,
your open mouth, clandestinely sealed
by the raped rose of language,
EEEEEEsuffered copulation with the circle’s nakedness,
EEEEEEgusts of cold channelled by streets.
They cut down your voice of winged firmament
EEEEEEspringing from transparent pupils:
but now you know that language can also disguise words
and force you to be mute.

That’s why you transform the mountain
with your thirst for breaking away,
establishing yourself as the fountain proclaiming
the abundant slope of harmony.
Penetrating the night’s flight,
you curl up your will in the centre of life.

Your coral-coloured passion demands awareness of destiny,
resonance of silence.

Woman, with your capricious alphabet you fertilize
the word’s vocation to embrace.

—Nela Rio; Translated by Sophie M. Lavoie & Hugh Hazelton

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sophie lavoie prince rupert cropped

Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Études Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

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Hugh Hazelton reading

Hugh Hazelton is a writer, translator, and retired professor from Concordia University who has run The Banff Centre’s International Literary Translation Centre programme for years. Hazelton is author of a number of translations and was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation in 2006 for his English translation of Joel DesRosiers’s Vétiver. He is the author of Latinocanadá, A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth is Hazelton’s first collaborative translation.

 

Jul 122014
 

pre and beach 7 11 092

Though Genealogy of the First Person is not a translation, it takes shape out of an engagement with the Book of Genesis. The principal “source-text” for the project is the 3rd century BCE the Septuagint, though three other texts provide guidance and source(s): Hieronymos’ Latin Vulgate (late 4th c. CE), Martin Luther’s Bibel (16th c. CE), and, to a lesser extent, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig’s Die fünf Bücher der Weisung (20th c. CE). The work is meant, ultimately, to be an extension of my work on the first two chapters of Genesis, which are titled archaeology: genesis 1 and of Beauty and Sorrow genesis 2; archaeology can be heard here.

Genealogy of the First Person is a work in progress but is fully blocked out in the following way.  Each ‘book’—adopting the term used to designate parts in ancient works, to link it and conjure the removal/distance of ancient sources, which are present in Genealogy— works on, through, and, hopefully, as each of the four cases of Greek grammar: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative. These cases act as a means of articulating the heterogeneity of the ego, here meant in a broader and super-Freudian sense as the entire entity of consciousness (including ‘unconscious’ elements).

Within each “Book” a tripartite schema unfolds, drawn from ancient (Plato) and modern (Freud) images of the complex self.  “Book A, Nominative: Ishmaël” is arranged around three figures whose names begin with the letter ‘I’, or iota in the Greek of the Septuagint:  Ishmaël, Isaak, Israël.  It seems to me that the self inherits much from each of these figures:

—from Ishmaël, the cast-out-ed-ness and alienation, the sense of temporariness and the threat of replacement and the correlative drive to create and create and create; the thrust into existence

(read: going-forth/away from; ex- ist- ence = departure; a strange and compelling way, by the way, for Medieval theology [Aquinus] to think God, pure departure, isn’t it? Departure from what? I am tirelessly fascinated by the Genesis cosmogony and the aureola of darkness and water into [and out of?] which the god sets to work);

I try to echo Melville in the opening, turning the ‘call’ of Ishmaël towards the self, a reflexive gesture of the word towards a self; the undertone in this vein is meant as: survivor, self-identified, sole witness (and so suspect);

—from Isaak, the sacrificial; the peril of self as self-assertion; the risk into which that thrust thrusts; and the latent promise, both already fulfilled in one’s very being as ex-ist-ence and in the destiny resident in the ego as potency, power, generative dynamism;

—from Isaiah the ego inherits its prophetic power, where the logos has gathered into its fullness, scoped the range of temporality and spoken through and across the three zones, linking itself to the tripartite scheme of time (before, –, after).

This latter section presents the most challenges for me to conceive because of the interplay of self-as-logos with future, with modality (subjunctive and optative moods), and, most fraught, with future perfect (which is not used in ancient Greek and, I think, not conceived, at least not in the epochal stages of the language).

Books B-D are similarly organized, i..e., by three names that help me think the self in terms of the case (genitive, dative, accusative). Some sections will take place as more recognizably poetic segments, others may work as essay-like works. The whole thing is hybrid because it works on consciousness, a kind of hybrid or monstrum itself, and certainly complex and evidently threefold, at least in the tradition.

This figure—breaking into a desert, cast out of the shelter of the father, feeling deep fidelity to the mother, wild in a wilderness, hunter, fighter—finds its crater, an original feeling of segregation, of isolation and removal from all else that I take to be a first impression of consciousness/self; different. Hopefully his call sounds like an opening towards consciousness/self, a departure and a way.

—d m spitzer

 

.

Book A:  Nominative part one:  Ishmaël (from Genealogy of the First Person)

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i.       ishmaël        I call my own name against the desolation.  Wilderness is my home.  The one g-d listens.  He bends himself from on high and strains in the direction of the one who calls.  I call my own name into the wilderness and my call is a cry from the wilderness into the dust.  The one g-d, bending and straining, remains within the shelter of infinite silence.

Inside the cry, rending the dark wilderness, my voice uncloses itself as a lament.  It is the legend of myself.  Night has settled over the wilderness and the one g-d strains to hear the song of Ishmaël.

.

I watched my father fall to the ground and cover his face before the one g-d, and he was changed and the one g-d renamed him.  His shelter was torn.  I peered through the tear and, behold, I saw the one g-d, a silver flame, hovering over the prostrate figure of a man cloaked in fire.

To hear the speech of fire I had to cover my eyes.  As I drew from my forehead the woolen cloth and wound it about my face a voice alighted on my mind and everything was shining silver with no form.

My father was speaking a tongue of golden flame:

.

Ishmaël lives as opposition before you, against you in all his life.
Yea, let Ishmaël live.

.

And then the divine fire of silver filled every syllable of my father’s words and of my thought:

.

Ishmaël has been heard and seen.
All opposition is gathered into the one g-d and it is blessed.
Let it multiply itself through him and upbuild itself beyond measure—
twelve tribes arise from him, collected into one mighty nation.

.

As if remembering something distant, the first words of the one g-d returned to my memory out of the hidden-ness of their sudden fire:

.

A new genesis begins out of Sara and Abraham.  Call it Isaak.  Through
everything set down upon the teeming earth an aeon will be stretched;
from his name and his voice and his seed—which is also the seed of
Abraham—will spread a new moment of creation.

.

What other thoughts were spoken the flame in my burning mind devoured.  I opened my eyes and all fire had extinguished and through the small hole in the tabernacle’s fabric I saw my father’s figure restored out of the embers of divine speech.

I fled.

Darkness pursued me.  I did not know if the night fell sharp and dark as obsidian from the hand of the one g-d or if a dense gloom covered only me, but the darkness was profound and complete.  I fell to my knees and my voice spilled black as ink onto the night’s dark pages.

.

I was born of bondage.  Servitude winds itself around my wrists and throat.  A black serpent, a chain of collied iron, a cord of another’s will and desire.

.

Concubine was placed over my mother.  A cage.  A grave.  Servitude drew her into the master’s tent and thrust her down by his side.  She was hollowed for him until his seed had filled her.  Into her eyes the master’s wife poured scorn and then fury grew in her own face when the scorn flashed between them, seeming to come from my mother’s face.  To the wife, my mother was nothing but a walking tomb.

The father and his wife drove her away to the wilderness.  It was the water beneath the desert that carried off her anguish into the one g-d, whose mind is a shadow over swift and ancient waters.

The master told Sarai, the wife, This girl belongs to you, she is in your hands.  Do as you like.  Wickedness flew from the wife into the girl and she ran from that wrath which consumed the wife’s face.

At a desert spring on the pass to S’our a messenger of the lord, the one g-d, found the girl.  And the lord’s angel spoke:

.

Hagar, slave of Sarai, do you know the origin and destination of your path?

.

The slave-girl spoke to g-d’s angel and her words were touched with sparks like light on the desert spring:

.

The woman’s face blazes wickedness and bruises my own face
and I fly from her wrath.

.

From the mouth of the messenger the one g-d’s command blared, a silver trumpet in the desert air:

.

Turn back to the face of scorn and bow your neck before her hands.

.

And the messenger of the one g-d was transformed before her and, behold, he was a silver flame and the destiny of slave and child smoldered into human speech:

.

a          son—             call him           Ishmaël
………………………………………………….the one g-d has heard
………………………………….”’…………….a cry from the threshing floor
………………………………….”’…………….of humility

Ishmaël—one who is heard by the holy fire
scalded and burns his whole life
a wild fire on brittle grasslands.

His arms against all others
&
the arms of all against him.

He will dwell face to face with a band of hunters
a tent village of great abundance
in the heart of the vast wilderness.

.

And my mother cried out and the name of the one Master whose speech is fire of pure silver was a conflagration over the desert spring and at once and for an eternal moment the whole desert burned in flames of gold reaching for heaven.  My mother’s words, a tongue of fire:

.

Thou one g-d—         thine face unspeakable fire
…………………….. ……..mine face of earth and dust

                                                  gathered by thine greatness into a single gaze.

                                                  There I am nothing     but thou.

,

The legend of my own birth came with me out of darkness into the world of light.  My own legend and I roared out of the desert from the deep spring, a great, dark storm into the destiny that went before us.  A host of twelve legions beneath a standard of black, an emblem of a tree of gold, its twelve branches touched with silver flame.  My own legend, my destiny—a fire in the wilderness.

—d m spitzer

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After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.

 

Jul 102014
 

paula-cunningham

With a background in the sciences, it’s no great surprise that I am drawn to writing with its roots in such disciplines, and with further interest in the therapeutic nature of words, why wouldn’t I be a big fan of the Hippocrates Society for Poetry and Medicine? Based in the UK, the society provides a forum for people worldwide interested in the connections between poetry and medicine. It hosts an annual medical symposium and runs the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. It pleased me no end then when Paula Cunningham (a dentist) placed twice in recent years in the NHS (National Health Service) category – winning the award in 2011 (A Chief Radiographer Remembers) and taking third prize this year (A History of Snow) both of which are published below. I met Paula years ago at the Eastern Washington University Summer Workshop in Dublin. I remember her reading upstairs in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street (with its façade inspired by Tutankhamen’s Tomb and its magnificent stained-glass windows by renowned Irish artist Harry Clarke). A café made famous by Joyce in Dubliners and by other literary patrons such as Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Casey. Paula read a poem that night. It may or may not have been titled “Hats”, but it was filled with hats and filled (like the great café itself) with an historic array of Irish literary figures – on that night as I recall amongst the many hats she wore, she wore her “Brendan Behan hat” and her “Paula Meehan hat”, but that night it was obvious to all that there was only one hat that fit and that was her “Paula Cunningham hat”.

Many of the poems here have, as she herself put it, “bodily/medical under/overtones” – an unintentional, but welcomed, tip of the hat in my direction. Her first full collection was published this year (currently shortlisted for 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize) and is, naturally, entitled Heimlich’s Manoeuvre.

—Gerard Beirne

 

.

THE CHIEF RADIOGRAPHER CONSIDERS

Pierre Curie, who was wont to carry radium
in his breast pocket, the red brand
on his chest which would never heal,

his femurs already aglow, and the dray horse
on the narrow Paris street beside Pont Neuf
that robbed the white-hot lesions of their prize.

He dreams the powder Marie kept at her bedside,
its pretty scintillation as she slept; her own death
from leukaemia, the damage accruing slowly like a debt,

the compound interest in the body’s bank.
He imagines her fingertips scraping each page
her notebooks, her letters, her cookbooks yes,

that seventy years from her death are housed in lead,
how researchers at the Bibliotheque Nationale
are required to sign a disclaimer.

He’s surer of DNA, its ladder and its snakes,
how everything unravels and decays. He presses
the bright red button again, again.

.

A HISTORY OF SNOW

It was wild sudden.
Her daddy phoned me to work.
She was that hot he just had a sheet over her.
I felt the heat before I lifted the sheet and seen the rash.

You’d never forget that rash.
People say to me ‘How would you know?’
and I just say ‘You’d know if you seen it.’
Purple.

The wee spots and these big blotches like birthmarks –
everywhere only her face.
Her wee lady and all.
I phoned and they said do the glass test.

I pressed really hard
and her bawling, but it didn’t change
so we brung her up.
There was this old man in the queue

very wheezy, he said to the girl
‘I want them to see this child
before they see me.’
And within two minutes we’re in the ambulance.

She was bouncing up and down on the trolley,
you wouldn’t believe it. Like something
out of the Exorcist. The doctor come
and he told us prepare for the worst.
She’s a bit of hearing loss, that’s all,
in big rooms, like, but she’s grand.
They say it’ll all come right, the ear adjusts.
Her daddy brung her in snow in a shoebox –

she’d never seen it before.
They’d pushed her cot right up to the window,
the flakes sweeping past like confetti,
a bit of a rose in her cheeks, and her all eyes.

The cars in the car park were buried in minutes,
it was one snowy evening, the whole
of the country froze. She’d been in four weeks
and I mind she was eating an orange –

a mandarin one of the nurses had peeled.
That’s when I knew she really was on the mend.
They said if we’d even been five minutes later.
I think of that old man yet.

Cunningham-Heimlichs-manoeuvre (1)

.

NOTES FROM AN EAR

I’m small enough to fit
into a teacup. You underestimate
me; this flesh means nothing

and mostly I keep
to myself. I love bone,
its occasional braille,

but mainly I cherish its smooth darkness.
I thrive on disturbance, I know
about waves, the way molecules

bounce and knock – slow,
fast. I abhor
vacuums. My centre is

all coil and deep canal.
Though I live for sound
and music is everything -

malleus
……………incus
……………………..stapes

- imbalance is the biggest part
of movement. Because of me
the deaf stand up and dance.

.

SEEING THINGS

At the Winter Park ski-holiday reunion
who swans in only Stevie
whose legs don’t take him far –
he’d been tinkering under a car
when the bomb went off.

Answer: the skin.
It’s Trivia night
and we’re in with a chance.
All the other tables are offering liver.
What is the largest organ in the body?

In Winter Park we’re triple-
wrapped in thermals
but he’s shirtless:
a sophisticated instrument
of thermo-regulation.

Homoeostasis: the body
as a furnace;
the sweat-glands
and erector pili muscles
co-operate to keep the body cool.

The hypothalmus
is conductor of the body’s
secret business;
but skin grafts don’t have glands
and scars are bald.

Anyway Stevie has walked
the twenty yards from his special car
and he’s wrecked
and his stumps are sore
and we get tore in to the drink

and we all get legless
and everyone in the Welly Bar
(we’re only here for the ramps
and we’ve jumped the queue)
is legless and Stevie has taken his off,

all smooth American tan
with the socks and the cool shoes on,
and we laugh out loud
at the pretty woman
on stilts who almost

jumps out of her skin
and the plastered people
who swear
they’re seeing things
and we know they are.[1]

 .

FATHOM

…the furthest distances I’ve travelled
have been those between people – Leontia Flynn

1. Father
(at the Forty-foot Gentlemen’s Bathing Place)

Seven thirty a.m.
and I love that men
are different
when wet.

We’re sea-changed,
leagues of seals,
rasping, clapping,
rapturing the air.

I’m glad the water’s cold.
And though my father
taught me everything

I know about salt water,
for fifty weeks per annum
he remained arms’ length inland.

2. Farther

Not necessarily needing to know
I launch into these buoyant
introductions: ‘Hey Dad, it’s Paula,
your favourite daughter your

beautiful blow-in from Belfast,’
my mother priming him well
in advance, so that I’m a little
deflated but hardly surprised

when he risks ‘Are you married
to one of my sons?’ ‘Father’
I breeze ‘Bishop Hegarty’d

never agree.’ And his smile as he
fathoms the quip soon sinks, repeating
how terribly terribly sorry he is.

3. Further

Close to the close of your life, you wash up
in a strange house with a woman old enough
to be your mother insisting she is your wife.
Despite your rebuttals she’s wedded to her lies.

You try the doors, her ladyship has them locked.
You spot your father’s shooting-stick,
you’ve really got to fly, you say, and put
a window in. Next thing you la- la- la-

land in some class of hotel where the women
are very much younger with lovely hands;
the exits here, you swiftly establish, are shut

with a hush-hush code. You’ve stashed the stick
and smash a panel in. They belt you in a comfy chair,
to anchor you, they say, and call you ‘pet’.

4. Faster

I don’t think I ever married, did I? This
at the buzz-locked doors as I’m heading, the same day
he’s quizzed me how long this interment (sic) will last.
You did Dad, the Star of the County you claimed.

He grins. And I’ve more to report. Go on.
She bore you six children. Away. It’s true.
Would you like me to introduce you to one?
I would. God. That would be great.

Well Father. We shake.
It’s a pleasure to meet you.
He beams.

When I leave I am borne
on the keen conviction
he liked me.

5. Falter

Our father one ankle in Heaven
trouser-leg rolled to the knee –
your time not come – the other one
stuck as it is and swollen.

There is yet time in this dry hotel;
as your wide straddle falters the tide recedes
til your greeting’s a watery smile you float
for the flickering hosts of the faces you meet,

above whose static you tune to the sirens –
song with your name on –
well within reach;

though embracing’s beyond us
I’d sing to deliver you
home for the last how long.[2]

.

—Paula Cunningham

.
Paula author photo

Paula Cunningham was born in Omagh and lives in Belfast where she works as a dentist. Her chapbook A Dog called Chance was a winner in The Poetry Business Competition in 1999 and was published by Smith Doorstop. She has also written drama and short fiction and has held awards from the Arts Council of NI. Her poems have been widely published and anthologised.

Her first full poetry collection Heimlich’s Manoeuvre was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2013. It was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prize, and is currently shortlisted for the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. Individual poems in the collection have also won awards. Paula is now working towards her next collection.

.
.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Winter Park Colorado is the US National Ski Centre for the Disabled.
  2. An earlier version of this poem won 3rd prize in The Ballymaloe Poetry Competition 2012 and was published in The Moth.
Jul 032014
 

James KochalkaCartoonist James Kochalka

Sydney LeaSydney Lea & his grandson Arthur

At NC hybridity is a meme; cross-pollination is an artistic genre unto itself: books & art, artish books, art made of books, cross-genre books & text/art thingies we might not wish to categorize in the name of aesthetic license. This time Contributing Editor Sydney Lea (who also happens to be the Vermont Poet Laureate and a former Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry) combines with cartoonist James Kochalka to produce poetic cartoons or maybe poetoons or maybe just poetry and images, nostalgic, whimsical, and touchingly comic.

dg

§

The team-up project began during James Kochalka’s term as Vermont’s (and the nation’s) first Cartoonist Laureate. Sonia Rae of the Vermont Arts Council’s people got chatting one day to James Sturm, director of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, and they wondered how a collaboration between the Cartoonist Laureate and the Poet Laureate might go. It would be, at least, unique. I knew and liked James, whose band is one of several that my son Creston plays in– I call its music faux naive– but cartoons? And yet I decided, Nothing ventured…etc.

The team-up proved a highlight of my tenure. We both enjoyed it (and so have more collaboration in progress as I write this). We started with my sending James a poem from my book Young of the Year, one that remembers some Yankee old-timers I knew and loved. A native Vermonter, James remembered some of his own, and I was floored by how closely his renderings matched the sort of people I had in mind.

So we were done, right? Not so fast, James told me. Now it would be my turn. He sent me the panels of Squiggle that you see here. I was to compose a poem suggested by these deft drawings.

I won’t vouch for any high quality in this collaboration besides James’s; but I can tell you how confirmed I was in my belief that gratifying artistic endeavor may come from the most unexpected places!

Sydney Lea

.
Garnett and Leon in December

garnett_and_leon_01garnett_and_leon_02

garnett_and_leon_03garnett_and_leon_04§

Squiggle: Tonight’s the Night


squiggle_with_words_01squiggle_with_words_02

squiggle_with_words_03
squiggle_with_words_04

—Cartoons by James Kochalka; Text by Sydney Lea

.
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

Kockhalk self portrait

James Kochalka is a comic book artist, writer, musician, and video game designer from Burlington, Vermont.  His comics have won four Ignatz Awards, the Harvey Award in 2006, and an Eisner Award in 2012.  His notable works include the diary comic strip American Elf, the Glorkian Warrior graphic novel and video game, and the SuperF*ckers graphic novel and animated cartoon series.  In 2011 he was named the first Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont.

 

Jun 162014
 

But Lax has for too long been a cult figure; his originality and significance insufficiently recognized. If justice is poetic, Beer’s selection will do something to rectify this. —David Wojahn

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§

Desktop4-002Lorine Niedecker

Lake Superior reminds us that the creative process is one that combines learning with mental collage-making, serendipity, immense seriousness of purpose, happy accidents along with unhappy dead-ends, flashes of insight, and a willingness to fashion from the quotidian a haunted but enduring knowledge —David Wojahn

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Lorine Niedecker was once called the Emily Dickinson of the Twentieth Century, and Robert Lax was known as the hermit poet. David Wojahn, who himself was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and, in an earlier time, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his book of poems Icehouse Lights, pens here a special guest review essay, which begins as a paen to Wave Books, fast aligning itself with the great old independent presses like New Directions and Grove, and then considers the lives and works Lax and Niedecker. Wojahn has read long and thought deeply; it’s terrifically bracing to absorb his fluency with poets and traditions, the ease with which he epitomizes lives, works and influences. Such brevity and compression only comes with the profound familiarity and respect. I don’t think it takes a poet to read a poet, but Wojahn makes a good case.

dg

 

Poems 1962-1997
Robert Lax
Edited by John Beer
Wave Books
Paper, 400 pp., $25.00

Lake Superior
Lorine Niedecker
Wave Books
Paper, 91 pp., $16.00

 

Over the past several years, Wave Books has carved out a special niche for itself among independent presses, one that brings to mind—on a smaller scale—the role played by the great vanguard presses of the ‘50s and ‘60s, New Directions and Grove. These presses not only published some of the finest “non-mainstream” writers of the era—New Directions’ list included, among others, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Stevie Smith, and George Oppen—but they were also adamant in their desire to introduce American readers to important modernist writers in translation, and unjustly neglected works (sometimes semi-scandalous ones) by figures in the tradition. Thus Grove’s list included all of Beckett’s important drama and fiction, the first credible English translation of Garcia-Lorca’s surrealist masterwork, Poet in New York, the 18th century’s wonderfully campy and salacious proto-Gothic novel, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (this with an introduction by John Berryman), and Frank O’Hara’s legendary Meditations in an Emergency.

It was not just their discerning eclecticism that made New Directions and Grove great publishing houses; it was also the fact that the offerings of both presses had a look. New Directions titles favored eerily murky covers—the jacket descriptions as often as not printed in white ink against black backgrounds—and photos of often unrecognizable objects that looked vaguely cubist. When you looked at the cover of a book such as the New Direction translation of Sartre’s Nausea—with its badly superimposed photos of two hipster-ish men who seemed to be suffering from the effects of arsenic poisoning—even the uninitiated reader could tell that angst and dread were likely to ooze from every page. New Directions books seemed designed for two purposes—they wanted to make you take the book very seriously, and they wanted you to know that if the book didn’t look depressing, then it clearly wasn’t serious. The Grove titles were a little more colorful and lively, and were often illustrated with drawings that has a vaguely De Stijl look. They screamed modernity, much in the way the covers those classic Be-Bop albums from Prestige and other labels did.

Well, Wave publications have a signature appearance too. Like the classic New Directions and Grove covers, Wave’s dust jackets and covers are very adamant about projecting That Serious Look. The book designs are as minimalist as they come—there are apt to have no cover illustrations: we get a title, the author’s name, the book’s price, and most astonishingly of all, no blurbs. Yet there’s certain elegance to a Wave collection; the pages and covers are printed on high quality cream paper, and many are hardcovers. When you take off the book jacket, you find that the boards are colored with the same quite luscious shade of ivory.

But Wave has a list to match its Look, and its titles are almost as eclectic and discerning as those issued by Grove and New Directions during their heyday. They publish a good many poets of considerable reputation, among them Mary Ruefle and Eileen Myles, but also work by promising younger poets such as Geoffrey O’Brien. They’ve also done some exciting works in translation—Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick have recently issued a revelatory selection of the German poet Ernst Meister, a contemporary of Celan who seems to me almost as good as that great master. And last, but surely not least, Wave has started to issue new editions of neglected twentieth century American poets. The most recent titles in this series are both quite exemplary—the first is an exquisite selection of the vastly eccentric and utterly original Robert Lax; the second is Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior, a book that reprints one of Niedecker’s most ambitious poems. And, like one of those multi-disk box set reissues of a classic rock or jazz album, the book contains all sorts of secondary and related material—essays on Niedecker, a travel journal the poet kept in preparation for writing the poem, and historical documents she consults and borrows from in its final text. It’s a most engaging volume, almost sui generis.

Lax_Poems_for_website_1024x1024

Let me first discuss John Beer’s edition of Robert Lax’s Poems 1962-1997. Lax, who was born in 1915 and died in 2000, was a prolific writer, but many of his books are hard to obtain. He was also a somewhat uneven poet, and did not arrive at his mature phase—the one that Beer draws from—until relatively late in life. Even that work is rather hard to classify. Although the modernist era saw its share of poets who combined non-academic careers with poetry—doctor poets such as Williams and Benn; lawyer poets like Stevens and MacLeish—few other figures among the modernists who could be labeled a “hermit poet.” But such was Robert Lax, who spent most of the last four decades of his life in self-imposed retreat from the world, living in sometimes abject poverty on various Greek Islands, among them Patmos, where tradition has it that another hermit poet, John the Apostle, composed the book of Revelation.

Before getting to the islands, Lax’s career took many twists and turns and it’s a pity that he has yet to be the subject of a readable biography. As a student at Columbia in the ‘30s, Lax was mentored by the then-quite influential poet and critic Mark Van Doren, and began a lifelong friendship with his classmate, Thomas Merton. Both were Roman Catholics, and political progressives with literary aspirations. These concerns eventually led Merton to join the Trappists, and with the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain—a surprise bestseller in 1948—Merton became the most famous monk of the past century. Lax did not settle down quite as quickly. He succeeded James Agee as the movie critic for Time, published a number of Auden-derived poems in the New Yorker, and eventually became a staff writer there. He taught at the University of North Carolina, and for a brief time was a script-doctor in Hollywood. He also became obsessed with circus life, and traveled through Canada with the Christiani Family Circus. This experience provided the material for Lax’s first published collection, The Circus of the Sun, a highly peculiar work in which the big top becomes the stuff of Christian allegory.

But in the early ‘60s, around the time Lax moves to Greece, his work changes dramatically. It furthermore becomes very hard to classify, although many critics have tried. As Beer observes in a lucid introduction to the volume, Lax now seems to compose not in lines as much as in columns, and the lines grow so short as to make even those of a poet such as Robert Creeley seem positively corpulent. There not much room in the poems for content, save for a kind of koan-like repetition. Here’s a piece from 1962’s New Poems:

things
into
words

words
into
things

things
into
words

words
into
things

words
into
things

words
into
things

things
into
words

words
into
things

Taken from the context of a larger body of work, this sort of hyper-minimalist method seems unintentionally comic—this is Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” without even the rainwater or the chickens; Lax’s one-time mentor Van Doren scoffed at pieces such as this, calling them “raindrop poems.” And for better or for worse, Lax arrived at his late style around the time that “concrete” poetry, with its concern for shaped poems and picture poems, had its brief vogue, and Lax’s name invariably became associated with this school. But Lax, as Beers very nimbly point out, is neither a concrete poet nor a “minimalist” in the mode of composer Philip glass or visual artist Donald Judd. Something else is at play in his work.

I think it’s best to see Lax as extending a tradition of devotional poetry that in the West begins with the Homeric Hymns, continues through Metaphysical poets such as Henry Vaughn and George Herbert–Herbert also penned shaped poems, “Easter Wings” being the most notable example—reaches the threshold of modernism with Hopkins, and continues through figures such as Paul Celan. Lax is of course much more whimsical than these writers, but no less earnestly devout. The book-length sequence Sea and Sky, published in 1965, is Lax’s masterwork, and is best seen as an impish set of spiritual exercises. The verticality of the lines, the drone-like repetitions–sometimes reiterated exactly for several pages, sometimes containing very subtle variations in wording or stanza formation—are highly incantatory. But this effect is achieved through nothing resembling meter or traditional concepts of free verse lineation. It’s instead the mantra-like recurrence combined with the visual effect of Lax’s “columns” that makes the sequence memorable. To prove this I’d have to quote at least ten or twelve pages from the sequence, since it is clearly designed to have a cumulative effect on the reader that can’t be suggested through brief quotation. But here’s a representative passage, drawn from the sixth section:

as
oce-
an

as o
oce-
an

re-
flects

the
sky

the
cities
of
man

the
citi-
y

(of
God)

as
oce-
an

as
oce-
an

re-
flects

the
sky

the
cit-
ies

of
man

(of
God)

what
cur-
rent

what
cur-
ent

is
un-
der

the
sea

what
cur-
rent

what
cur-
rent

is
un-
der

the
sea

Lax wrote other sorts of poems in his mature phase. In collections such as Two Fables he employs his column method to offer some very oddball parables, but these are much less satisfying than efforts such as Sea and Sky.  Lax was often also in the habit including in some of his collections prose pieces drawn from his notebooks. These pieces are improvisational, seemingly unrevised, and filled with Cummings-esque linguistic and punctuation mannerisms that give them a tone of preciousness, a quality that also afflicts the many letters he wrote to Thomas Merton. (Their letters to one another are collected in an interesting but exasperating volume entitled When Prophecy Still Had a Voice.) Beer’s selection—wisely—reprints only a smattering of the parable poems, and none of the notebook entries.

It goes without saying that the work of Robert Lax is not for everyone. But Lax has for too long been a cult figure; his originality and significance insufficiently recognized. If justice is poetic, Beer’s selection will do something to rectify this.

Lake_Superior_for_website_1024x1024

William Carlos Williams reportedly called Lorine Niedecker the Emily Dickinson of Twentieth Century poetry.  This comparison is only partly apt and is in some respects simply more evidence of the good doctor’s penchant for hyperbole. But, like Dickinson, Niedecker labored for much of her writing life in obscurity—a couple of small collections appeared during her lifetime, and the literary luminaries who championed her work, most notably Louis Zukofsky, also managed to be quite condescending toward it, much in the way that the boneheaded Thomas Wentworth Higginson was toward the Belle of Amherst. Also like Dickinson, Niedecker strove for poetry of the utmost precision and brevity.

But here the similarities end. Dickinson lived a life of entitlement and privilege, and the Amherst of her day was a hotbed of intellectual activity. Niedecker lived a singularly unprivileged life of rural poverty, and Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin—where she lived for years in a shack without plumbing, built on a floodplain—was as far out into the sticks as you can get. Niedecker tried in various ways to escape Fort Atkinson, but these efforts usually ended in failure. She left Beloit College after only two years—thanks to the depression, her parents could no longer pay the tuition. And a very brief move to New York City in 1933 ended miserably. After being knocked up by her literary mentor Louis Zukofsky, she aborted their child and went back to Wisconsin, where she subsisted for decades at various bad-paying jobs, one of them being a cleaning lady at a local hospital. When Niedecker died of heart failure 1970, at the age of 67, the prospects for any sort of posthumous reputation looked bleak. But thanks mainly to Jenny Penberthy’s edition of her Complete Writings, which was issued by the University of California Press in 2002, Niedecker has now taken her rightful place among the essential modernist poets. Her work has at last been featured in anthologies, most notably the third edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (for better or for worse the industry standard). She’s been the subject of a decent full-length biography by Margot Peters; collections of critical writings about her have appeared, and someone has made a rather schmaltzy documentary film on her life.

Although it is a gross oversimplification to say it, Niedecker wrote two kinds of poems, and mastered both sorts exceptionally well. The first is an imagist lyric as it was reinterpreted and refined by the Objectivist poets with whom she is often grouped. Short, presentational, wary of both statement and of elaborate metaphors, Niedecker’s efforts in the mode are vivid but over almost as soon as they begin. They are also laconic in a way that is quintessentially Midwestern. The most representative poem in this vein is a terse ars poetica:

Grandfather
advised me:
……Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
……and condense

No layoffs
from this
……condensery

Sometimes the poems in this manner, especially those which appeared in her 1948 collection, New Goose, employ end rhyme in a kind of misanthropic homage to Mother Goose and jump rope ditties. The poems make you understand why Williams, who worked toward a similar sort of self-conscious primitivism, so admired Niedecker.

But in the final decade of her life Niedecker’s writing changed. She began to experiment with longer poems—longer for her, at least. These efforts, which run to several pages, often make use of found historical material, much in the way that the writings of her fellow Objectivists George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff do. “Jefferson,” for example—the final poem Niedecker completed before her death—draws from extensively from the third president’s letters and other writing, another poem applies a similar collage method to the writings of Darwin. The new approach which Niedecker undertook in these longer and more meditative works may be partially explained by a change in her circumstances—she finally escaped Fort Atkinson, thanks to a late marriage to one Al Millen, a factory worker with a drinking problem, and a move to an apartment in Milwaukee. The marriage seems to have been less than blissful, but it allowed the poet to quit her menial jobs and devote sustained periods to her writing. Matrimony even enabled Niedecker to travel, though her late-life equivalent of the Grand Tour was a trip by car with Al around Lake Superior.

It is this journey which inspires “Lake Superior,” the poem to which the Wave volume is devoted. The poem itself occupies the first six pages in the volume; it is surely not a piece of epic proportion, but it arguably falls within the rubric of the sort of modernist long(er) poem which John Matthias has termed a “pocket epic”—not The Cantos or Paterson, but rangy and fluent enough to seem much grander than a mere six-page poem. It reckons with nothing less than the entire history, human and geological, of the Lake Superior region—its flora, fauna, and minerals; its Native American tribes and French and American explorers; the vast lake and its many river tributaries, among them the Chocolate River, the Laughing Fish River, and the River of the Dead.  This history is a fraught one—we’re introduced to the French explorer Radisson, his “Fingernails/pulled out by Mohawks,” and the Jesuit proselytizer Father Marquette, whose bones were ”sun and birch bark floated to the straits.” There are passenger pigeon flocks, croppings of “Wave cut pre-Cambrian rock” and the mammoth cargo ships that carry iron ore from Minnesota’s Masabi Range to points east—in Niedecker’s time the ore deposits had yet to be depleted.

The poem confronts what Douglas Crase, in a masterly essay included in in the volume, labels  “the evolutionary sublime.” Yet it is also about human ruthlessness and a kind of ecological terrorism. The Mohawks, passenger pigeons, French Canadian “voyageurs” with their schooner-sized canoes, and the vast fields of iron ore all are returned to the earth. The poem refuses to rhapsodize nature or human history, but in geology Niedecker sees a metaphor for endurance and timelessness. For Niedecker, “Ruby of corundum/lapis lazuli/from changing limestone” is equivalent to what daffodils were to Wordsworth.  Minimalist as it at first might seem, “Lake Superior” is a poem of cranky grandiosity. Still, like all of Niedecker’s best work, the poem is never full of itself. The poem ends on a wonderfully deadpan note:

I’m sorry to have missed
…..Sand Lake
My dear one tells me
…..We did not
We watched a gopher there.

But is a poem of only six pages, “pocket epic” though it may be, significant enough to warrant an additional eighty-two pages of supplemental material, including not only the Crase essay, but the travel journal Niedecker kept as she made notes for the poem, writings by the explorers Radisson and Schoolcraft, a section of Basho’s Back Road to Far Towns (a possible inspiration for Niedecker’s travel journal), letters to her fellow poet Cid Corman that were composed shortly after Niedecker’s road trip, and a mediation on the extinction of the passenger pigeon drawn from Aldo Leopold’s classic volume of lyrical  nature writing, A Sand County Almanac? My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. Niedecker’s travel journal is a delight—observant, wryly witty even when pedantic, and further enlivened by its many shifts in diction and approach. Thus a passage such as this, describing Schoolcraft’s journey to the headwaters of the Mississippi–

A lake in or near the St. Louis River turned out to be remarkable for its fine carnelians and agates—they named it Carnelian Lake. Over the scrub oak prairies they spent a day and a half hunting buffalo—“The buffalo meat is rather inferior to that of the bear.” On one of the gravelly banks as they went on into the Minnesota River Valley (then called St. Peter’s) Schoolcraft found a piece of agate-ised wood. It was noted that white sandstone overlaid with secondary limestone appears at St. Anthony’s Falls—the first time since Lake Superior.

comingles with this:

We stayed last night in Little Falls, Minnesota, Lindbergh’s old home town. Here All bought some salami. Restaurant living is beginning to pall:
I: Good. It even shines a little.
AL: That’s from horse’s hooves. Horesemeat, maybe?

Lake Superior reminds us that the creative process is one that combines learning with mental collage-making, serendipity, immense seriousness of purpose, happy accidents along with unhappy dead-ends, flashes of insight, and a willingness to fashion from the quotidian a haunted but enduring knowledge. Niedecker says this much better than I can. At the end of a letter to Cid Corman, almost as an aside, she writes:  “Strange—we are always inhabiting more than one realm of existence—but they all fit in if the art is right.”

In Lake Superior, Wave has compiled something much more compelling than simply a poem, a journal, and what the book’s title page terms “other sources, documents, and readings.” The book is instead a kind of primer on the process of imaginative composition—an eccentric one, perhaps, but no less important because of that. And the book’s foray into the mysteries of poetic composition is accompanied by a further mystery. This slyly and scrupulously edited volume bears the name of no editor. There is a certain chutzpah to the publisher’s decision to issue the book in this fashion, but I hope that in subsequent printings of the volume-and let’s also hope it remains in print for a long while—that its editor will come forth, for that person has done a commendable service, both to Niedecker and to modern poetry in general.

—David Wojahn

Copy of Wojahn Pub photo Noelle

David Wojahn was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007 for Interrogation Palace, also winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for his first collection Icehouse Lights. His eighth collection of poetry, World Tree, was issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2011, and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets; Lenore Marshall Prize, The Library of Virginia Literary Award for Poetry, and the Poets’ Prize. His collection of essays, From the Valley of Making: Essays on the Craft of Poetry, will be issued next year by the University of Michigan Press. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

Jun 142014
 

Desktop3

 At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting. It’s also a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?). It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves. — Julie Larios

Image 2 - Mirror Gazing

Mirror Gazing
Warren Motte
Dalkey Archive
Softcover, 295 pages, $35.00 U.S. / £ 24.00  UK
ISBN 978-1-62897-014-2

 

Warren Motte admits early on in his strange and thought-provoking new book Mirror Gazing that his habit of collecting mirror scenes in literature is a little obsessive. “For a very long time now,” he says, “I have been fascinated by the way that characters in fiction encounter mirrors, and by the different things they see when they gaze into those mirrors. That fascination looms exceedingly large in my mind, grossly out of proportion with the many other fascinations that literature exerts on me. It is irrational and largely inexplicable, but there it is.”

There it is, indeed – that’s his book in a nutshell. It’s a gathering of mirror scenes culled from a collection of 12,000+ examples, all of which Motte jotted down on index cards over several decades of reading. He has rules for his burgeoning collection (“admittedly arbitrary and extremely quirky,” is how he characterizes those rules): First, he has to encounter the scenes spontaneously while engaged in otherwise “undirected readings”; second, he has to find the scenes in books he has in his own personal library. In other words, Motte, who is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, doesn’t go looking for mirror scenes. He doesn’t take suggestions from colleagues, family, friends or helpful acquaintances who hear of his interest, nor does he find these scenes in books he cannot pull down and refer to later – nothing from university or city lending libraries, nothing borrowed. He doesn’t cast a wide net on social media, begging for examples to be sent to him like someone less well-read might do, someone with a narrower frame of reference. All the examples he comes up with (and there are many, many examples) arrived via his own reading of his own books.

When reading non-fiction, I usually look for precise explanations of why authors are interested enough in their subjects to begin the long journey of writing it all down in a book and sharing it. I look for the passion to shine through, even if the origins of that passion are “inexplicable,” and Motte doesn’t disappoint:

The notion that we might actually have not one, but two selves (or more!), and that the mirror might put that duplicity (multiplicity!) upon display, is reason enough for us to tread lightly when in the presence of that object. Because in many cases, specularity escapes from our control. It ramifies instantly and inevitably, duplicating as it does so, and positing thus a fundamental question of authenticity that cannot fail to trouble us. What is “real“ in a reflection of the real, and what is not? Or, in other terms, what is it that a mirror reflects?….My own sense is that problems such as that one do not bear too much thought. Like the paradox of the Cretan liar, or like certain Zen koans, one could wander into it and never find one’s way out….I myself have been caught for a very long time, I confess. Perhaps not by the mirror itself, but by these mirror scenes. I’m counting on this project, you will understand, to help me find my way out. But I’m not particularly sanguine about my prospects.”

What fun to read a book that tackles an obsession and confesses to it being mysterious and labyrinthine and slightly out of control. How exciting to find a book where the author doesn’t pull back despite his own confusions. As we watch, Motte works to construct a reasonable narrative from his collection, almost as if he were both personal tour guide and curator of a large natural history museum. Motte’s observations about these mirror scenes put me in mind of an old-fashioned wonder cabinet, filled with a few familiar objects but even more unfamiliar objects, brought back from Terra Incognita. And Warren Motte is the slightly grizzled explorer, willing to share his journey with us, sea serpents and all.

kane37Orson Welles, reflected in multiple mirrors in Citizen Kane.
(Photos of artists/authors in this post are not from Mirror Gazing.)

I found myself wishing that I could see even one photo of the author with his collection of 12,000 index cards. I imagined the cards organized in multiple shoe boxes – a little disheveled – with labels on the outside for easy identification: “Implicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes” and “Explicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes.” How does one organize such a collection? Much of what is delightful about this book is not its surface subject matter but its subterranean one; we read between the lines to see how Motte himself reads these mirror scenes and conducts the art of classification. At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting— it’s a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?) It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves.

Motte is a born taxonomist; he enjoys categories. That the examples he presents are a little fuzzy around the edges (fuzziness usually impedes categorization) was not a problem for me. I get the feeling many of his examples could slip easily into and out their categories, according to Motte’s changing perspectives. Readers like me who can relax and go with a little disorder during the classification process will be happiest with this book. In the almost seventy pages of examples that are not true mirror scenes the author offers up his thinking about the following distinctions (and remember, these are only the NON-mirror-scene categories):

  • Definitely Not
  • Probably Not
  • Me, Me, Me
  • Self-Knowledge
  • Reassurance
  • Avoidance
  • Unavoidability
  • Close Shave [Yes – a collection of scenes of shaving in a mirror]
  • Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters
  • On the Other Hand
  • Banalaties
  • Virtualities
  • Implicit Mirror Scenes
  • Metaphorical Mirrors
  • Conscience
  • The Eyes of Others
  • Skepticism
  • Fools and Churls
  • Writing as Mirror
  • Fictions
  • Whys and Wherefores (in which, about a third of the way into the book, we discover some things that might have imposed more order on the material at the opening of the book.)

It’s clear from this list, I think, how elaborately Motte studies the nuances of any scene in literature that includes a mirror (actual, implied or metaphorical) and makes his decision about which shoebox (my own metaphor) to put his index card into. What’s not quite as clear is why the book itself is organized the way it is. Motte shoots for a system of classification for his mirror scenes, but he does not appear to be particularly wedded to the idea of orderliness in his own writing. In the middle of the section about non-mirror scenes, he offers one example and then says, “The temptation to call this a mirror scene is very real. And indeed we must give in to it, because this is in fact a mirror scene, and a fairly mainstream one at that.” Let’s just say some drifting occurs, organizationally. It’s unsettling, but not uninteresting. Motte speaks often of trying to get his explanations under control and to get back, amid the decision-making about yes-true-mirror-scene vs. no-not-true-mirror scene examples, to a more regulated presentation of his material. He calls his thoughts “scattered,” which they occasionally are (charmingly, I think, though some might be annoyed), and he says, in the section titled Fictions, “Let us re-visit together, briefly and on tiptoe, but nonetheless a bit more systematically, the terrain which that notion occupies, bearing in mind how uneven and slippery that terrain is.” A given reader’s tolerance for slippage (mine is high) will determine whether Motte’s book is appreciated.

Robert Capa and John SteinbeckPhotographer Robert Capa catches his own mirrored reflection
along with that of author John Steinbeck.

I did find myself wondering one thing consistently: Could Motte have been persuaded to offer up the definition of a true mirror scene before the nearly seventy pages of definitions of what it is not? The opening chapter is a speech presented at Johns Hopkins University which makes a stab at summary but feels a little tacked on (even the font is different.) Would it have been possible to integrate the speech into the text more smoothly and present a more concise version of the non-mirror-scene rules, holding off on elaborations of those until after we understood true mirror scenes a bit more? The author’s trust that we can fill in the gaps and understand, via negative space, what really constitutes a mirror scene by understanding what one is not is a little out of whack. The book could just as comfortably – and less confusingly – have started with the brilliant lines that open the section titled “Imagine My Emotion,” which go like this: “Imagine my emotion when I learned, a few years ago, that elephants are self-aware! A team of scientists had just discovered (so it was reported in my morning newspaper) that elephants are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror.” What immediately precedes these lines (the Whys and Wherefores section) and follows them (a fairly precise presentation of what true mirror scenes do) helps steady the boat. Mirror scene shows characters looking for themselves, Motte says, and recognizing themselves or not. That might just be the goal of all stories (again, the adage Motte referes to several times: “Know yourself”…gnothi seauton.) We – and a few other species, including elephants – engage with our self-images either seriously or playfully. If the book opened there, readers might get a firmer grasp on the idea of a true mirror scene (and its nuanced shadings) before the boat got rocked. On steadier ground then, readers could look at the non-mirror scene examples and discern the differences more easily.

vivianmaier_selfportraits7Self-portrait of  the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier

That reservation aside, I come back to the strengths of this book, not the least of which is Motte’s ability to make a work of scholarship un-fusty and conversational. He talks directly to his readers as if his thoughts were being delivered to friends around the dinner table. He recounts being baffled by the word “heresay” via a personal story about pedaling uphill (literally, not metaphorically) on his bicycle and being “misperceived” by bicyclists riding downhill (perception of ourselves by others being part of what Motte terms “specular encounters.”) We feel like we know Motte personally, because of his chatty delivery – in fact, by the end of the book, I concluded Motte was bright, compulsive, amiable, confused, and just silly enough (dolphins, he jokes, look at themselves “on porpoise”) to wish he were a friend. “Oof! There. That’s better,” he says at the end of the section about non-mirror scenes. “So much for that,” he says at the end of another section, “for the time being at least.” And after his quick dismissal of anything television has to offer (maybe he hasn’t seen some of the good writing television offers up lately?) he says, “But there. My prejudices are showing. Not for the first time, certainly, but still.” Every once in awhile we see self-mockery; that’s rare in an academic. And what’s not to love about a writer who can say at the end of his book, in a completely relaxed way, “…things have not turned out exactly as planned. The categories that I postulated have broken down under close inspection….I can live with that, quite happily, in fact.”

As for Motte’s intelligence, that’s made clear in the 32-page, single-spaced list of works cited. A more well-read author is hard to imagine, especially given those rules I mentioned previously (all examples came from his personal library of books and were found during “undirected” reading.) The list of books cited is deep and wide. It includes work by pop-culture authors (Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Archer, James Lee Burke, Agatha Christie), science fiction and fantasy writers (Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs), poets (Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery) and even writers for children (Kenneth Grahame, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown.) Translated authors are well represented – Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, the list goes on; they include many writers of the Oulipo school (Motte’s book Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is a fine guide to that movement.) He includes songwriters (Bob Dylan), critics (Harold Bloom), philosophers (Johan Huizinga) psychologists (Sigmund Freud) and even politicians (Barack Obama.) I am leaving out many dozens of writers, especially contemporary American and British, who made it onto those index cards and into the book. It’s not everyone who can refer to both Yahweh and Popeye in the same sentence (“That’s the best and most reassuring lesson of the mirror: like Yahweh and Popeye, we are what we are.”)  One of the loveliest passages Motte offers us of a true mirror scene (subcategory: what Motte calls “doubling”; that is, “a recognition of one’s own alterity”) is this quotation from Andre Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt:

The desire to seem exactly what I felt I was, what I wanted to be, that is, an artist, actually prevented me from simply being, and made of me what people call a poseur. In the mirror of a small writing desk that I had inherited from Anna, and that my mother had put in my room, and which I used for writing, I contemplated my facial features tirelessly, studying them, training them like an actor does, seeking out on my lips, in my gaze, the expression of the passions that I longed to feel. Above all I would have liked to make myself loved; I would have given my soul for that. During that period, I could not write (I almost said think), it seems to me, elsewhere than in front of that mirror. In order to understand my own thoughts, I felt that I had first to read them in my eyes. Like Narcissus, I was bent over my own image; because of that, each sentence that I wrote in those days remains a bit curved.

Motte ends Mirror Gazing in a self-effacing way and leaves me convinced he is the kind of scholar I would love to work alongside (and have as a dinner guest) and whose books I will continue to seek out. He describes what he sees in his own mirror: “A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play. I confess that I’m more attached to the latter sort of image, for reasons that will be, by this time, massively apparent.”

Maurits-Escher-Self-Portrait-in-a-Globe-1M.C. Escher’s Self-Portrait with a Globe

Of course, the down side to this fascinating book is that Motte ruins things for us – we can never encounter a literary mirror scene again and just speed past it without slowing down and pausing to reflect (pun intended.) I’m satisfied with that sacrifice. Slowing down is not a bad idea when what we’re doing is complicated, and Motte manages to make us feel the complications of self-knowledge. One moment we’re over on the dark side of the mirror: “The things that we fear the most may be those that lurk right inside us, for goodness sake. An encounter with the mirror and the introspection that it entails present the very real danger of recognizing that tough truth.” The next moment, we’re having a fine time at a little road-trip game called “Mirrors.” We’re not sure what the rules are, exactly, but we’ll learn them as we go. If the ride gets bumpy, well, the bumps keep us alert, and a smooth road, as often as not, puts us to sleep. The thoughts I had as I came to to the end of Mirror Gazing were these: Reflection – as in a mirror – is pervasive, and reading itself is an act of reflection. Motte’s journey into reflection is an on-going process, he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s having fun on this road trip, and for several days I rolled down the window, got a little windblown, and had fun alongside him.

—Julie Larios

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Julie Larios

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children. Her unpublished collection for adults, A Quiet Day in the Arm and Leg Shop, awaits acceptance by some discerning editor. She contributes to the blog Books Around the Table, as well as writing for her own blog, The Drift Record. The photo above, with her grandson, was taken at the Ochoa Brothers diner (best carnitas north of the border) while visiting Hillsboro, Oregon.  Highly recommended.

Jun 112014
 

Jody Bolz

Shadow Play recounts in untitled and narrative poems a journey across Asia taken in the mid-1970’s through the contemplative eyes of its narrator decades later. At its core is the dissolution of a young marriage and the imagined discourse the narrator has with her former husband about the mystery of love, whether it ends or not. Her perplexity over the question leads the narrator to conclude that “Love’s a puzzle. A test. / A miracle, I guess.” Inconclusive perhaps, but hard won, as she argues with herself through the conjured voice of her former husband. As far-flung as Shadow Play is in setting,  it’s also domestic and close to the heart. These are poems with the intelligence and vigilance that Paul Valéry says might serve to represent and restore what “cries, tears, caresses, kisses, sighs, etc., try obscurely to express…”  Herewith is an excerpt of Jody Bolz’s novella in verse, Shadow Play.

—Jason DeYoung

bolz

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Shadow Play

On the train across Java
we slept in a knot:
my head in your lap,
your head on my back,

two hundred miles
through the tropical dark
in shuddering third-class.
At every major stop,

a skirmish of shouted light—
vendors hawking tea and rice
to sleep-drugged passengers—
receded in a rush,

the jasmine-scented silence
sweet and abrupt.
When the station’s speakers
keened their exit song,

the train lurched on.
Whirr of palm and banyan,
gibbous moon, skewed night sky—
green stars above the village mosque

jumped and scuttled by
in deranged constellations.
We stretched, switched positions:
your hair red as rose stalks

against my faded dress,
my braids strict shadows
on your moonlit back,
our fractured dreams resettling….

Outside Bandung at dawn,
I shook my buzzing limbs,
cracked our dusty window open
to mountain air.

A boy wrapped in a shawl
shot past in the brightening field.
One child, then another—
a horde of barefoot children

in tattered pastel sweaters
raced beside the tracks,
calling out for coins,
for candies,

falling far behind us
by the time we reached
their shanties: tin roofs
at the rail-bed’s edge—

doorways set in sloping walls,
a threshing floor,
an open sewer.
As our train slowed

a pregnant girl,
waist-long hair undone,
stepped out of a hovel
fastening her sarong.

We passed her without speaking,
tugging at the taut string
of our marriage
as it rose over rice-fields,

climbing into monsoon clouds,
swaying there—spiraling—
not some thing,
not a child’s kite:

our common life, flown
above another Asian city
in the year we made a home
out of our bodies.

§

I’m shaping a mosaic
out of broken bits…
not exactly a gift.
Not exact—

a waking dream of India,
brazen as a blue-skinned god
rank with rotting marigolds
or silent on a riverbank:

the Hooghli in Calcutta—
sludge-gray, chest-deep water
blossoming with saris.
Young matrons bathe together,

an old man squats and strains near
a woman filling copper jugs.
A bloated ox, stiff legs up,
slips by under sail,

a vulture on its belly
coiled in slick entrails.
We linger on a bridge,
transfixed by the blind beak

gently teasing white from pink.
The rotting vessel
slowly shrinks,
then floats out of view.

What corpse am I
scavenging for you?

§

You’re offering me a metaphor?

But—we were there.

You’re looking for something more.
What is it?

I’m not sure.

We have other lives now.

This isn’t a betrayal.

How can you tell?

§

Twenty years ago, you woke me
in a hut near Brujenkhola
reeking smoky thatch and goat dung.
Beyond the unglazed window,

full night on the valley floor,
featureless, obscure—
but you pointed to the sky.
Your shoulder pressed mine.

A triangle of coral light
hovered in the blue-black dark:
the mountain
we’d walked days to see,

fish-tailed Machha Puchhare,
flaring like a sun
an hour before dawn.
We lay on our bedrolls,

awake, and watched the light grow.
Later, after clay-red tea,
we gathered up our packs,
paid our host and said goodbye.

The inn-keeper’s deaf daughter
waved, chasing her sister,
as we started for the river.
Ten minutes to a narrow bridge

across the Seti Khola,
wooden slats half rotted—
cables frayed, too far apart
to grab with our arms out.

We had to walk a line of boards
nailed loosely down the center,
bisecting our vision
of pale-green glacial water

in its bed of chalky boulders
more than twenty feet below us.
You tapped your toe
against each plank

and made your way across,
agile as a gymnast,
hands see-sawing for balance.
After heart-stopping seconds,

you yelled above the rapids’ roar
Wait there and dropped your pack.
Faster, you retraced your steps
to bring me back,

coaxing from three yards ahead,
Take a step—
now take another.
Don’t look at the river
.

Head throbbing,
I stepped staring
at the battered boots
that moved in jerks

above the milky current:
one foot, then the other,
stepped—and stepped again—
until I stepped on land.

We shouted and kissed there,
laughing as we sprawled on shore
guzzling water,
brown and iodine-bitter.

Soon we were singing,
climbing the stony track
through thick rhododendron,
juniper, yew.

By noon, dry and dizzy,
we trudged into a clearing
where an angel was waiting
in a whorl of dusty sunlight.

Poised on the ridgeline,
a shirtless boy, eight or nine—
beautiful despite one blind-blue eye—
held out a bowl of oranges

Suntalla, sahib?
and they glowed like gold.
We bought as many as he’d sell,
tore away the bitter skins

with stinging fingertips.
Back to back
in the shade of a banyan,
we sat eating oranges

as if nothing could harm us,
no crossing part us.

§

You’re policing failures.

We spent fourteen years together—

And the next fourteen apart.

Which proves the first a failure?

You forget that you loved
someone else for most of that time.

I loved you.

And—

I was eighteen when we met.

I was a child too.

Now you’re close to fifty.
Why don’t you forgive me?

—Jody Bolz

.

Jody Bolz was born in Washington, DC, and attended Cornell University, where she studied with A.R. Ammons. After receiving her MFA, she worked as a journalist for two major conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy) and taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University. Her poems have appeared widely in such magazines as The American Scholar, Indiana Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Poetry Review—and in many literary anthologies. Among her honors is a Rona Jaffe Foundation writer’s award. She edits the journal Poet Lore, founded in 1889, and is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time (Gihon Books, 2004).

Jun 092014
 

4pinkMtns.Weso12WebPink Mountains by Thomas Pecore Weso (acrylic, 3’x4′)

Denise Low thinks big, as her first poem suggests. She wants a new Good Book, a rewritten Bible for a new country that grew up before it had any sense of itself. She juxtaposes the slow rhythms of geology with the quicker beat of history and both with the jittery rhythms of contemporary poetry. She places the Bible next to Native American lore and that lore infiltrates the history of pioneer settlement jostling against New Age neo-mythology of UFOs, “Atlantis aliens” and Sasquatch. Pioneers burn their furniture to bear out the Kansas winter, but the poem is haunted by the native version of the weather.

Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.

Denise Low is a prolific poet and prose writer (twenty-five books, not to mention an active blog), a protean editor and administrator, a perceptive critic, a Kansas Poet Laureate, a past-president of the Associated Writing Programs, and a Native American conscious of all the heritages that run through her. In February, she contributed an essay to these pages, “Optical Structures in The Shrubberies: Ronald Johnson’s Cascades.” But that was just a warm-up. Now we have poems. Four of them — “Shooting Stars Wolf,” “Sedimentation,” “Cold” and “West of Hays City” — will be published in her new collection, Melange Block (Red Mountain Press, Santa Fe), about to be launched on Saturday in Albuquerque (see her web page for details). The fifth — “Imperfect Refraction” — will be in a book of prose and poetry Jackalope Walks Into an Indian  Bar (Mouthfeel Press, 2015).

To accompany the poems we have images by Thomas Pecore Weso, Denise Low’s husband, paintings and drawings that pick up the juxtaposition of mythic landscape and native myth. (I once drove through Kansas from southwest to northeast, and there was nothing higher than an anthill as far as I remember till I hit the Flint Hills, which have always loomed high in my imagination.) The two together, poems and paintings, are a spectacular image in themselves, beautiful and mysterious.

dg

 

 

West of Hays City

The challenge is to rewrite the Bible, think big
fill these unrelenting  spaces with murals.
Swathes of sun-yellow stubble glow intensely,
the pale hue illuminated improbably into brilliance.

I grew up in this gessoed landscape without edges or peaks,
people lost in swells of dried seas and granaries,
wandering my own stories of seven-year droughts,
dust devils, narrow escape, baptism by prairie fires.

Patches of ponderosa pine windbreaks slide into gullies.
White frame houses huddle  hidden in windbreaks.
Bright corn circles drain Ice Age ground water.
Weathered outbuildings shelter crazy prophets.
Wending bluestem and datura outlast this summer.
One drought and buffalo grass fills in the blanks.
All else turns to trail ruts and shibboleths
Quartelejo Pueblo, Fort Zarah, Fort Wallace.

YelloKoKoCardImageYellow Kokopelli (acrylic, 2’x3′)

#

Cold

A family burns chairs, clothes, and axes
but nothing stops the silent killer.
Neighbors find them frozen in bed.

Another year trees explode.
Crows fall from trees.
Lakota winter counts show a black-ink crow.
Ben Kindle writes, “K’agi’ o’ta c’uwi’tat’api.”
Crows, they freeze to death.

This enemy seeps through sills and door jambs.
Chimney flues fill with its wrath.

North is its direction.
Nothing stops it from reaching
through flesh to the center of bone.

WinterShamanHiRezWinter Shaman (acrylic, 2’x 4′)

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Shooting Stars Wolf

River Leonid Showers overhill
UFOs flash Feather Lane
tribal cop’s SUV is
on it.

Quartz-crystal sprinkle
dark pines hover glitter
woodland county lit-
up orb.

Phone camera off missed
Sasquatch on cable TV
his treetop moans
what next.

Riverview Circle dogs yowl
Saint Anthony burials
Little People trick nuns
Sun/Moon one.

Snake effigy mound upstream
here the clans Eagle Sturgeon
Crane Beaver Moose
Wolf Bear.

Tumbling Atlantis aliens
magnetize pyramids
stoned freaks stars
land here.

Cher.bear.blueCherokee Bear (colored pencil, 12″x18″)

#

Sedimentation: Alligator Junipers

tree-skin sediments
oblong scales tiered
centuries old living shale

spiral rows mortared
circling pith of sap
guarding scant water

agate-ring years
seared drought forged
creased wrinkled torsos

FlintHillsFlint Hills (acrylic, 2’x3′)

#

Imperfect Refraction
……………for Roger Holden

Lens convex image pop
this is your peyote brain
hologram alive one sliver
image falls forward—boom—

reconstituted flash-dried
memories this is what
it’s like going on in years
Artoo Detoo burbles back

pulse quickens reruns
Bre’r Rabbit Tsi-s’tu
Wau-pus picture rolls on
no mirror background

Roger Rabbit projects out
particles assemble for Skype
beam you back beam aboard
this Love Boat Osiris cruise

 

#—Poems by Denise Low with paintings by Thomas Pecore Weso

 

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Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time(rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and  www.deniselow.com.

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Thomas Pecore Weso, enrolled Menominee Indian from Wisconsin, has paintings in private collections throughout the country. He has had one-man shows at Hutchinson Center for the Arts, Haskell Indian Nations University, Percolator Gallery, and others. He has an MA in Global Indigenous Studies from the University of Kansas. www.tomweso.com

 

May 122014
 

Patrick OReilly-001

Patrick O’Reilly is a bona fide discovery. I met him in an undergraduate senior projects creative writing class at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. He was wearing a tweed suit. With his mustache and parted hair, he looked a bit like pictures of E. M. Forster — Edwardian, an aesthete. He is from Newfoundland. He’s got poetry in his genes. His poems have an Irish registry, something in the rhythm, phrasing and diction. That gives him a glorious air, an authority, which, coupled with what he has learned from the Imagists and the early Moderns, renders him unique amongst the young poets I have come across. He already fits within the tradition. He has read and absorbed tradition. But then you’ve never read anything quite like this. Biblical, epic, dramatic, hammers and tongs, surgical phrasing. You just wish he’d go on.

dg

#
What Wolves Eat

Twice-banished, blood-spotted Cain
limps across the barrens,
the mute, unyielding ground of Half-brother Country,
far-far-east of Eden.

Eight wolves sprawl and watch
with indifference:
choosy beggars,
they will not eat scavengers,
tramps, trash-eaters.
Cain does not know what wolves eat;
he keeps walking, keeps not breathing.

He walks ’til sundown. Every limb pleads
“It wasn’t me. The first murderer was God.”
Adam in furs. Adam forcing the plough. Amateur.

Shivering among twigs,
his back to the cold cold ground
his chest to the cold night air,
he falls asleep inventing names for himself:
Cain the First Born Man,
Homebody,
Stanza-Maker,
king and government and nation.

Then, always, the vivid dream:
a fist reaching into the wheat,
clenching a paleolithic stone,
red tendon, white knuckle, black stone
raised high against the sun,
smacking him into wakefulness.

x

The Offer

I’m sitting on a rock,
throwing rocks at the harbour,
chewing on the word husband.

Love is a corset word,
snug on the girl
that can hold her breath.

But husband.

That’s a word about a house,
and I’ll be good
god-damned if I’m hitched
to three rooms, seven youngsters.

x

Lost

His collar’s been dry this ages.

I heard nine different places

his ship spun round
like a crumpled needle.

But he won’t talk about it.
What monsters, murders
he beheld
in that crumbling ocean-close                                                         

I’d only be making up.

 x

i mBolc

Rubbers sob at every step.
He’s come to the high place of the meadow
this first thawed day of spring.

The Ground quivers – swelled belly,
starved for whatever’s near:
booted feet, the heads
of shovels, picks, beads of sweat.

The constant striking aches – strike, strike,
gaffing the ground,
gouging down to the meadow’s toothless maw.

He feeds the meadow his horse;

junk by salt-stained junk she falls
into the ground like coppers.

x

Croft

Last New Year’s Eve (or day, it’s hard to tell
’cause every other soul was gone aloft),
while the dregs of rum were settling in the keel,
himself stayed up with the backhoe driver, Croft.

The bottle drained, Croft stumbled to his feet:
“Before I go, now, do one thing for me.
You sang a song once, this time years ago,
sing that song – I’ll dig your grave for free.”
Half-dreaming in the hallway I could hear
how, instantly, that voice shivered with shame,
but then the old man’s voice came, keening clear,
smashed to Hell, but singing just the same.

On the day they put the body down,
Croft shivered with the handful dressed in black,
and cried to see that casket in the ground,
then turned to go and never would turn back.
At any rate, that grave was dug for free.

No one knows this story, now, but me.

x

Clothes He Never Wore

His pallmen hitched their gloves around the rail
and down he crossed the bar.

We waited, sole in gravel,
until the drizzle dried into our coats
until the paper flowers burst
until we knew he’d never
pull himself from the dirt.

Just the same, we backed to the truck.
Just the same we left.

/////////////

That night we ransacked the closet, mined
a trashbag’s worth of oily sweaters, the shoes
from last Christmas, laces curled beneath the tongue,
three piece suit, sans mourner. But no

secret will, no pirate’s map, no
letter from a bastard brother.
Nothing but the clothes he never wore.

x

The Dance

In a disaster of movement, accordions gasping,
their feet flash off the floor, sounding claps like sparks
flying into the awestruck eyes, mouths of the guests.
Awestruck eyes – the bride’s, the groom’s
fixed to each other: her brown hair shaken
against the fine lace patterned shoulders, a smudge
of blackberry wine on her upper lip, moving too fast
for a kiss. It must have happened then:
some time in the dance, suddenly.
The next morning he rose
and she rose,
announced the arrival,
the spark flung between them,
gestating.

x

Oldest Man in Town

One afternoon he might have
one memory after another
wrecking themselves
against his idleness.

His eyes are vices
squeezing every flinch
of every dog for scrutiny.
Things have changed here.

Sundays from his window,
watching the procession,
the long procession
heading to mass,

he can see
what others must miss:
the bodies shifting in time,
their clothes rising and falling

in and out of fashion, their bodies
rising and falling from old age
to fresh youth over
and over and
over.

>

A for Argyle

On the day the Argyle was first due in spring
the baymen waited for hours at the landing,
sitting with their chins in their hands like girls
waiting for the boys to come dancing.

When they heard the steamstack’s trumpet
they followed it to the water’s edge:
the loud mechanical trumpet blast that beat just once
before she rose above the horizon, a plated beast,
the bowels belching soot, the rivets straining
like a harness around oxen shoulders.

They lifted their eyes in terrible faith,
but I was watching the little girl
cowering behind her mother’s sepia dress,
her eyes grown big enough
to reflect the whole of the monster.

x

Shelter

His was a body in want of a bar –
a corner of West Country shebeen,
his face lit by a mug of punch,
scratching doggerel on a scrap of rolling paper.

Instead he’d sit on the daybed,
browned and bow-shouldered
like rum out of the bottle.

Instead he’d sit on the daybed,
loudly quiet,
his breath barely white on the window,
and his bones not content with the room.

Sure he was never big.
Still they say he starved himself
right down to the ribs, as animals do,
and excused himself to the quiet
shelter of his stable.

—Patrick O’Reilly

#

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He is studying English with a Concentration in Creative Writing at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and expects to begin work on his MA this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

 

May 092014
 

Ripped and torn (4371)-crop

I met Martin Mooney in August ’95 at The Poet’s House (where he was a faculty member) in Portmuck, on the Antrim coast in the northwest of Ireland. I have memories of musty mornings in damp stonewalled cottages without electricity, stormy days filled with writing and workshops, dark evenings of readings and raucous conversation, and scandalous nights best forgotten.

Somewhere amidst all of this he signed my copy of Grub (Blackstaff Press), his first collection. A remarkable book of poetry that had burst out into the world in 1993 – winner of the  Brendan Behan Memorial Award,  nominated for the Forward Prize, shortlisted for the Rooney Prize for Irish literature, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation to boot – socially aware poems of shipyards, pubs, punks, and politics.

A few years later, as an occasional reviewer for Poetry Ireland Review, his chapbook Bonfire Makers (Dedalus Press) landed on my doorstep. I can feel the brunt of its words yet –  “Picture yourself drinking with your father,/the talk collapsing down through itself like/badly-erected staging. You are both/on the verge of drunk, and everything/is either forgiven or forgotten” (Painting the Angel) or “It’s no fucking metaphor,/The stuff comes in hundredweight/drums, like dehydrated rage,/a bad temper you could add to water” (Caustic).

“Martin Mooney is a poetic force to be reckoned with,” I wrote, and later on in the same review, “In a world filling ever increasingly with bad poetry, Mooney is a godsend.” He sent me a note of appreciation some time afterwards, but as an atheist apparently had some reservations about being a ‘godsend’!

The fragments below are a departure, prose fragments from a book in progress – snatches of memory – or as he himself says, “For me, remembering is like looking out of the window of a ferry in a heavy chop – just random slashes of sea, sky, coastline.”

— Gerard Beirne

I have a terrible memory. The past is fits and starts, jump-cuts, snatches of sights and sounds too trivial to be called epiphanies. ‘Moorfield Street’ is an attempt to gather together some of these fragmentary episodes into some kind of autobiographical order. As a document it falls far short of memoir, and if it is poetry I’d be the first to admit it struggles to attain that condition. And it avoids narrative connectedness, because I can’t help suspecting that narrative connectedness could only be – given my terrible memory – confabulation. Not of course that there aren’t confabulations in here still.

But by way of narrative background, or context: Moorfield Street in east Belfast is where my maternal grandparents James and Isabella Kirkpatrick lived, from the 1940s until my widowed grandmother moved to a sheltered housing complex. My parents had their troubles, and I spent a lot of time during my childhood in the Kirkpatricks’ Victorian terraced house. I remember it as another kind of sheltered dwelling, a safe house and bolt-hole, and it feels good to renew acquaintance with that security.

There is also, in middle age, the realisation that what one remembers of childhood is now historical. The house in Moorfield Street is still there, modernised with parquet floors and indoor bathroom. But the world of the 1960s and 70s – which in east Belfast was still the postwar world – has been dissolved in the annotations of local historians. These texts are a species of precipitate.

—Martin Mooney

 

Fragment

I envy your memory, the way you recognise people on the street and know their names, the way you can correct me so confidently. For me, remembering is like looking out of the window of a ferry in a heavy chop – just random slashes of sea, sky, coastline – or trying to watch something through binoculars, magnifying and multiplying every blink of the eye, every shake of the hand, every twitching muscle in my forearm.

.

Moorfield Street

At the turn of the stairs in Moorfield Street there was a window onto the back yard. The glass was old, uneven, with that gel-like pooling towards the bottom of the frame. Around the edge of the window, smaller frames in coloured glass. Sometimes I’d sit quietly on the top stair of that flight and watch sunlight take colour on the old wallpaper, moving its oblongs of red, blue, green as the morning passed.

The house was louder with clocks than any I’ve known before or since. The coal fire – we had gas – crackled and spat in the grate, and individual lumps of coal hissed out tiny plumes of smoke. A Swan Vesta would crackle, dottle bubble in my granda’s pipe stem. When he spat into the fire, phlegm sizzled on firebrick.

 

martin mooney

James Alexander Kirkpatrick and Isabella Shaw Kirkpatrick. In a photo booth, sometime in the 1970s.

.

The Bridge

With Granny Kirkpatrick on the up line platform on Sydenham halt. It must be late July or August, there’s the high summer smell of oil shimmering on the gravel track bed, of the putrid black mud of nearby Connswater. She is holding my hand. We have to cross to the other platform to catch the train that will take us a few miles to Holywood where we can sit on the tiny beach and watch the ships come into the port of Belfast. At the far end of the platform, the iron footbridge seems to buckle slightly in the heat haze, then pull itself together. All of a sudden – I don’t remember hearing thunder – the bridge is struck by lightning and glows faintly blue. We stare, then walk on and tentatively cross.

.

Sounding Moorfield Street

Factory sirens in the morning and afternoon. My post-war ears hear warning and all-clear, howling over the rooftops. Early on, before I am up but long after Granda Kirkpatrick, the whirr and chime of the Co-op electric milk float. The Maine man’s lorry, heavier lemonade bottles clanking in their crates. A short run through the entry, the electricity sub-station hums behind its bars. I know I could squeeze between them, but the steel and smoothly-moulded ceramics of the Frankenstein apparatus frighten me. A Skyvan’s twin-engined throb. Incongruous chickens cockadoodldoing somewhere nearby.

.

Flora

From Moyard to Newtownards, my father’s home town. Ian and I spent the night in a big bed in Granny Mooney’s house, shared with aunts and uncles not much older than ourselves. Next day we moved into the new house on the new – the still-unfinished – estate on the slopes above the town. This had been pasture, hazel and holly woodland, and the roads and avenues were named after the flora torn up by the builders. Whin. Juniper. Ilex.

.

Does He Know?

Granny Kirkpatrick: Does he know?
Mum: Does he know what?
Granny Kirkpatrick: Does he know?
Mum: What, Mai?
Granny Kirkpatrick: About his Daddy?
Mum: What about his Daddy?
Granny Kirkpatrick: You know what.
Mum: What?
Granny Kirkpatrick: That he’s RC?
Mum: Oh for God’s sake!

.

What We Ate

Egg boiled and beaten in a cup with butter and salt. Lentil soup with the heel of a plain loaf dipped in. Toast made on the gas ring. Boiled potatoes served with butter and salt. Stewed beef from a tin. Fray Bentos pies with layers of damp flaccid suet pastry under the dry crisp flaky pastry top. Cheese triangles. Chops and sausages. Shepherd’s pie. And what I wouldn’t eat: onions, tomatoes, baked beans, peas.

And later, Toast Toppers. Cremola Foam. Chicken Tonight. Soda Stream. Birds Eye steakettes. Oven chips. Vesta beef risotto. The microwave. Frozen stir-fry. Crispy Pancakes filled with a volcanic paste of mushroom and minced beef or poultry fragments, blistering the roof of my mouth.

.

Hallowe’en

The bin lid was upturned and set back in the mouth of the galvanised dustbin. Newspaper was crumpled, sticks for lighting the fire put on. A bonefire for Hallaseve. We had sparklers, false-faces, a box of Bengal matches. Bully Martin. Bully Ian.

.

Wall

As if he lives in a fortress, as if he feels himself under siege, Granda Kirkpatrick has cemented pieces of glass into the top of the back yard wall. They are the bottoms of bottles, different shapes and sizes, shark’s-fins of different coloured glass catching the light. The smoky glass of a milk bottle, the brown of beer bottles, the vivid blue fang of Milk of Magnesia.

.

Glossary

To dress in the morning was to get on you, and to undress for bed was to get off you. If it was cold I kept my simmit on. In the toilet, to pee was to wee-wee – boys used their wee man – and a turd was a loadie. When she was upset or sad Granny Kirkpatrick would sigh something that sounded like ‘lawnie days.’ When I was upset or sad they told me to straighten my face. My feet were kebs, my ears lugs, if I swallowed Bazooka Joe bubble gum it would stick in my puddings. A splinter under the skin was a skelf, to be dug out with a sewing needle or it would fester.

—Martin Mooney

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author_174_51c05446e4ce7-290x0

Martin Mooney is the author of four collections of poetry – most recently The Resurrection of the Body at Killysuggen (Lagan Press, 2011). He was born in Belfast and has worked as a civil servant, creative writing teacher, arts administrator and publican. As well as writing poetry, he has collaborated with visual artists on a number of site-specific projects, and with composer Ian Wilson on ‘Near the Western Necropolis’ for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra.

Eyewear magazine recently called Mooney ‘…one of the best Irish poets writing under the age of 50.’ And according to Sinead Morrissey, ‘Gritty, disturbing, often uncomfortable, terse, controlled, aggressive, lyrical, Martin Mooney, at his best, extends the boundaries of what is and is not appropriate subject matter for poetry.’