Apr 102015
 

David Zieroth travel pic

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DAVID ZIEROTH IS A GOVERNOR General’s Award winning poet and memoirist. His writing career began in the 1970s with his first publication, Clearing: Poems from a Journey, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1999 for How I Joined Humanity at Last, and the Governor General’s Award for English language poetry in 2009 for The Fly in Autumn. After a 25-year career as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, in New Westminster, BC, Zieroth has retired to write full time.

I met David in 1999 at Douglas College. We’ve remained in touch largely through a mutual friend and enjoy comparing our reading lists. Once every summer I look forward to discussing literature with David over a glass of wine on a brick patio overlooking Shoal Channel in Gibsons, BC. He’s broadly read, has an incisive mind, tells traveller’s tales with aplomb and loves to laugh at his own failings.

In the 1990’s David reclaimed his first name, leaving Dale Zieroth behind, a moniker attached to him by a first grade teacher with two Davids in her class. Since, he’s come into his own as a force in Canadian literature working in a variety of forms: poetry, memoir, and creative non-fiction. He has been praised for his “intelligence that sometimes moves with staggering speed.”–—Brian Bartlett, Fiddlehead. The Governor General’s Award winning The Fly in Autumn received this citation from the jury: “In The Fly in Autumn, David Zieroth addresses our common and defining human fate—the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death—with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader ‘how to walk in the dark with flowers.’ The intricacy and exuberance of rhyme and the breadth of vision are stunning.”

On an unusually bright November day, I met Zieroth at his favourite coffee shop in North Vancouver. We sat down with cups of coffee in the busy café, and immediately we both broke out bags of books.

—Kathryn Para

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Interview

KP (Kathryn Para): I first knew you as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, and you were a bit sharp and very intimidating. I think it was late in your tenure and you were tired of teaching, and yet I remember worlds opening in that class. In The November Optimist your protagonist calls himself a “Conscious Curmudgeon.” Is curmudgeonness difficult to keep out of your work, or do you naturally gravitate to the generosity particularly apparent in The November Optimist?

DZ (David Zieroth): When I start writing, there’s a certain necessary lack of editing, and sometimes that curmudgeon is strong. There’s less of him than there used to be, because, of course, it’s my job as a human being to refine that curmudgeon a little bit, to balance him. I used to be more aware that he was there – and his perspective is valid – but I’m less bothered by his presence now.

No one wants to read a curmudgeon’s writing. Unless it’s that of Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. His work is so acid it’s almost unbearable, but you can’t help but love it because of the incisive skewering.

KP: What are you reading now?

DZ: I’ve got five books with me: On Being Blue: a Philosophical Inquiry, by William H. Gass; 1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies, which is about writers and artists of that time, about Rilke having a cold and Kafka writing his endless marriage proposal; Let Me Go, a holocaust memoir by Helga Schneider; Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal; and The Hundred Lives, by Russell Thornton, a remarkable poet who lives right here on the North Shore.

I spend quite a lot of time in second-hand book stores because it seems I’m more interested in books that I’ve missed than in books that are coming. Perhaps that’s ironic or paradoxical, or perverse or worse, for a writer to say. I said once that I was going to read new books until I was 65 and then reread, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

KP: How did Marcus Aurelius’s work come to your attention, and why is it important to you?

DZ: It must have been in university, a long time ago. He went away and then came back decades later. I was reading him when I was writing The Fly in Autumn. And he appears in “Vindobona,” a poem in Albrecht Dürer and me. What I like about Marcus Aurelius is that I can hear his calming voice from across the 2000 years. Plus he has a strong moral vision that appeals to me.

KP: The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: a Country Boyhood is an autobiographical work, and personally, my favourite piece by you, partly because it’s so familiar—I grew up on a farm—and because I love the tone: the recognition of a hard life, and the compassion completely free of sentimentality. How did growing up on a farm help develop that sense of compassion?

DZ: I did see that animals suffer: they were tired, cold, thirsty. The cows came in from the field, and they rushed to the water trough. Also, there were people worse off than my family: those passing through, those who were poor – poorer than we were – and those who were just unhappy. My parents were stable, decent folks, aware of the strange people and the people who might not make it through the winter. You learn from the sense of community that surrounds you.

KP: In Crows Do Not Have Retirement, in the poem “Question,” you write: “when I was afraid to say/ I had a soul…” Were you afraid? Why? What is the concept of soul to you now?

DZ: Years back, the notion of having a soul—I had trouble with that idea. Do I have a soul? The poem brought that up. Now, instead of asking if I have a soul, it seems obvious that I am a soul. That’s a different perspective. The soul has these things it has to do, and some things are hard and some things are easy, some things it loses control of and some things it tries out anew, and it’s all the work of being human.

KP: November is a grey month, but particularly so here in Vancouver. I dread the loss of light and the short days, but here we sit in an unusual arctic chill and bright sun. I made it through last winter on such a long bright chill. Does the light make a difference to you? If so, why stay here and not return to the prairies where the sun shines on a regular basis?

DZ: I’ve lived in North Van since the seventies, so almost by accident it’s become home. In July, August and September it’s paradise, so the secret is to get away in January. And it doesn’t have to be Mexico. I don’t mind the cold, I don’t mind the snow, it just has to be light. I suffer from SAD, and it can be startling what a difference light makes. It’s hard to articulate that to people who don’t have it. It’s not the rain, it’s the cloud cover you’re wearing like a heavy, huge hat! I like the prairies, I have friends there, family there, but… And the best thing about Vancouver is: no bugs.

KP: In The Fly in Autumn, the poem “All of Life We Practice Dying,” you write: “slowly he unearths that asking why/ is a way to prayer, to soften and/enter the quietus after rage.” Is there prayer for you? Does it offer peace?

DZ: No, but I take the question to mean, do I have a spiritual practice of some sort. There are so many different ways of praying. For me the practice is writing. Not that what I’m writing is necessarily prayer-related, but the practice of writing is a way of centering, of clarifying and creating, and no matter what the poem is about, just the actuality of writing it, creating it and making it right is a jubilation. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s very healthy, it’s who I am, and not to do it would exact a tremendous cost. The peace that comes from writing is the peace of satisfaction, of fulfillment, even of surprise, because of course in writing there are always those moments that make you think, Where did that come from? You’re inside something going on inside you.

KP: In How I Joined Humanity at Last, which was the first volume by you that I had read, you wrote a poem called “Foot Rub,” which is the poem I recall first. I couldn’t get over its intimacy, and the strength of the image has remained, the father holding the daughter’s foot. How do you survive the intimacy of publication?

DZ: The old chestnut is, “Poetry is what you say to yourself, and prose is what you say to other people.” There has to be an element of heart in the poem, and because you’re talking with yourself, you explore the images and ideas that come to you, and intimacy is natural. The kind of writing I’m doing needs to touch other people; it’s not dazzling in its language, it’s not formally a masterpiece, so it has to have an element that will reach across to the other. As for publication, I don’t think about it too much, but, yes, there is a vulnerability involved.

KP: The November Optimist reads like an ode to loneliness. It’s so intimate and the device of including the reader with the “you” construction gives such a personal focus for the desire of the narrator. It was very easy to put myself in that place. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the object of desire is not achieved, and the narrator returns to books as the more real or satisfying experience—“the return to the pages’ dream” (page 88). How is the intimacy offered by literature, poetry or prose, a replacement for love?

DZ: Anybody who’s been in love knows that there’s no comparison, there just isn’t. There’s nothing like love. But having said that, if there isn’t love, what’s lovely about books is that they’re such good company, in a wide range of voices, and they offer intimacy. All the books I’m reading now offer that quality, where you can hear a person thinking, feeling, mulling. And it’s not just feeling, you’re also privy to their technique, their art. Books are no replacement for people, but they’re an excellent second best.

KP: As the winner of Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, what can you say about the value of prizes?

DZ: The value of the prize was very personal. The best thing about it was how happy my friends were. In some ways they were more excited than I was. People would say heartwarming words to me, and it was gratifying to see that I lived in a community of people who were so supportive.

The money meant I could fix my teeth, pay off my debts, and I could travel. Our country recognizes the importance of writing by placing money in the jury’s hands. The validation meant that my other books might get read a bit more. I didn’t need the validation – though I might have needed it two or three books before.

The larger question? Awards acknowledge achievement, but they also create losers. Think of all the writers who didn’t win the award. And I think it’s hard on writers who win an award too soon. That kind of attention can cripple them. They have this perception that a lot of people are waiting for the next book, and they’re not able to get back to that necessary solitude of the self without thinking of all these people waiting. Is this what they want? Is this what I should be doing?

Earle Birney said, you always want to discourage writers, because the real writers will continue anyway. I don’t know if he actually said that, but there’s some truth to it.

KP: How does the Alfred Gustav Press fit into the new world of publishing?

DZ: I wanted to work with paper and with poets and coloured pencils. I’m in production right now. I draw every cover, and there’s a temptation to go quickly, but I have to slow down and be patient. There’s a value in working closely and carefully, with every cover different because each is hand done, and a physical pleasure in collating pages and stapling them together.

I named the press after my father, a lover of winter reading; he was also the kind of person who could fix things with nothing, or so it seemed. I’m trying to create beautiful books in the way he repaired machinery on the farm. And of course it’s about the poetry, about the manuscripts that come to us, and about the way we decide on the ones we publish.

KP: Juggling the meanings of words in the series of poems, International Relations, reveals your delight in language, although as a poet, that seems a given. In, do me a favour, you leap from the literal translation of láskavosť or kindness into the figurative, then into abstraction, then turn gracefully to a concrete visual summary of the concept. What technical choices are you consciously making here?

DZ: I am not conscious of technique when I write, and the idea of paying attention to technique while writing is bewildering to me, and so I have very little to say. I don’t use that language.

I write intuitively: Do the words speak, do they catch at that something that is there that is more than words? I’m not thinking, or not just thinking, because of course I am assessing, weighing, accepting, rejecting words all the time (and certainly when I’m revising even if already the first joy of the thing is paling) but always in such a fashion that I’m open to what is wordless up until then.

All of which sounds different from the way it actually is, which is both lightning fast and dead slow. At any rate when I’m writing I’m not thinking about line breaks et al; rather I’m trying to grasp the whole experience engendered in the inspiration so that it can be more than me. And sometimes it works!

And sometimes I get in the way and block my own openness to whatever thought is singing through me, my own preconceptions taking over and stalling the growing poem. And sometimes I don’t hear enough in the first place. Then I go back to the couch and the novel. Or to such a travel book as D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places: “The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.”

KP: Your newest book of poetry is Albrecht Dürer and me. What can you tell me about it?

DZ: Travel was an opportunity the Canadian taxpayer gave me when I was awarded the Governor General’s Award. I wasn’t planning to travel, because I didn’t have money or time, and then my daughter married an Austrian and they live in Vienna, and gradually I began to travel, and now I can’t live without it.

So the book emerged as a surprise. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book of travel poems. The book is really about someone who is looking at what it’s like to live away from home and to rethink ideas about home and elsewhere. Travelling is both thrilling and confusing. On the back of the book it says, “these are poems that could only be discovered through dislocation.” And that’s true, the book’s about what one learns from dislocation but also from surprise, art, history, music and people. It’s a pilgrimage in a way: there are poems about James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner. The audacity! Who am I to write about these famous people? But the Auden poem, for example: We borrowed a car and went to the Vienna woods one day, and Auden’s grave is there, and something about it spoke to me, and I asked myself, am I really going to write this poem? I resisted for a while; then I thought no, this wants to be done, so I’ll do it. It was very satisfying.

—David Zieroth & Kathryn Para

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The following group of poems is new work inspired by an unexpected friendship that began with meeting a random stranger in a café, a visitor to North Vancouver from Slovakia. We ended up meeting regularly over a number of months, exchanging language lessons, sharing our fascination with each other’s language. I thought of calling these poems “International Relations.” —David Zieroth

 

hovädiny

means not important in Slovak
but as the word emerged in greater
context I heard it come closer
to BS, the way Miro tossed it
as we entered and left a store

a Bratislava citizen, he attempted
to tune my friends’ ears and mine
to the soft ‘l’ we could barely
hear, certainly not pronounce
just as he had trouble with the ‘v’

in Vancouver, which he managed
beautifully by the time his four months
ended and he flew home, leaving us
to wonder what else besides the
softness of a consonant we had missed

his self-containment we understood
a sportsman’s, blue-eyed focus
and the way old houses brought him
joy and awakened his village within—
a world before money

which rekindled my own child-self
climbing without fear into a wagon
to sit between two strange men
horses waddling ahead, tender
joking I understood as kindness

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rozhádzaný

means rattled in Slovak, he said
the morning he told about
leaping back before a big car
ran him down, the white hand
untruly telling him he was safe

I said the sun must have blinded
the driver’s eyes, sun so rare
and you’re invisible, Miro
I joked, like all Slovaks here—
when last did we see a Slovak?

rattled, because usually traffic
here is polite, unlike his city’s
where pedestrians have to cross
cautiously, cars are king
and walkers never smile, too long

under the realm of closed borders
some wary of what others say
their language owing a debt
to history, more Russian than
English available for curses

if over 30 you’d know Czech
and German and other fears
a nation the size of an island
surrounded by five larger ones
and far from the calming sea

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hviezda

means star in Slovak, and
that evening we thought
at first Venus was a plane
landing at YVR except
it didn’t move just brightened

above the city, the sky
behind deepening into black
Miro cooking his country’s
famous kapustnica soup
and when we ate our fill

I looked into the night sky
and heard myself wonder
that I might have been born
elsewhere, hours of air travel
away, perhaps where paprika

grew in a garden and wise
hands grated cabbage
into sauerkraut and added
salt and blessings—or where
men rode in war machines

stars on their shoulders—
instead, fortune found me
in good company, half dozing
(driemajúci), and distance
no more than a table length

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šťastný

means happy in Slovak but also
lucky, a good pairing of the near-
impossible, I said, and Miro
laughed, understanding jokes
a sign of his improving English

then he showed me how
to stretch the mouth sideways
to say the word: as one grins
with lips in a line, his language
using more mouth, less tongue

than mine—and slowly
I heard a door open
where he once had lived
amongst the days he owned
then, a boy whose father

whistled from a window
time now to come home
all the hours he played
so freely with his friends
in the gardens, on streets

I heard that door again
as we bent over sushi, a first
for him, when its freshness
made him speak of food
his mother made each day

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smutný

means sad in Slovak, maybe
homesick—everyone knows
how the struck chest sags
how the twist in the valves
yields an arid song

we must turn our faces
away from friends when
such feeling builds, fearing
kindness will trigger
the up-rush of tears

when asked ‘What gives
strength?’ Miro looked away
said ‘Boyhood returning
before sleep,’ sweet warmth
he savoured, a nakedness

that gave for one moment
assurance to continue—and if
perturbing events prevailed
to je život—it is life—not
to diminish but to accept

that fullness extracted a price
he paid at evening
in order to arise next morning
reborn, the old smutný cloak
not to be worn at all that day

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do me a favour…

…I said to Miro, please say
favour in Slovak láskavosť—
which also means kindness!
my head tilting at their linking
as if I’d misheard…

then leaving favour behind
I leapt on to nuance instead
eager to explain that
yes, he was kind to his mother
but he was not her kindness

unless of course truly he was!
he the part in her that let her
love the world so that she left
cruelty behind when he was born
an only son, always a favour

from the gods few believed even
lived anymore, how at the instant
of their demise they kindly
cut us free before they themselves
dissolved: vapour, steam, heat rising

vanished, only present now
when a mother made soup
filled the house with vegetable
smells, the tug, animal:
umbilical, primal and always kind

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pie in the sky

…I explained as aspirations
beyond natural capability
a meaning that engaged us
much less than choices
we might make with mouths:

blueberry—čučoriedka?
apple—jablko? I thought
of my mother’s raisin creation
brimming with dark sugar
and a crust of rising gold

I chomped through thoughtlessly
presuming everywhere
had such fare, surely not
a rare great expectation
from a naïve boy’s point of view

(even if famine in China
came in waves back then)
and prompted by time I asked
Miro for his impromptu sky-
target—a ticket to Bhutan!—

we both looked up as if to see
hovering in the heavens more
than sun, then instantly loved
its vastness we could not live
without, food for our light within

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speak of the devil…

…I said, and Miro understood
said hovorit o čertovi back to me
his example classic: talking about
certain person X who just then
enters the room!—although

no horns on him, no black cape
flowing back into searing flames
no fork ready to pierce us even
though we’re not believers in either
this fellow or his angelic counterpart

later, on the street, we met
a deranged man—and I heard
my own mind thinking heedlessly
‘the devil take the hindmost’
but I intended the local madman
no further harm or worsening run

didn’t mention the phrase’s arrival
as we walked, deemed it puzzling
and worthless—until I thought
was not that the way the devil
worked, squeezing himself in

wherever he could?—and so many
entryways waiting! I was made fearful
but then breathed again, knowing
my friend, upright and near, would help
to save me from myself, if need be

—David Zieroth

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David Zieroth’s latest publication is Albrecht Dürer And Me (2014), poems. The November Optimist, (Gaspereau 2013), is part memoir, part fiction and part poetry. The Fly in Autumn (Harbour, 2009) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in that year and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry in 2010. He has also published The Village of Sliding Time (Harbour, 2006), a long poem; Crows Do Not Have Retirement (Harbour, 2001), poems; and The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: A Country Boyhood (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2002), a memoir. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for How I Joined Humanity at Last (Harbour, 1998); his work has been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award, and his poems have appeared in over thirty-five anthologies, including A Matter of Spirit: Recovery of the Sacred in Contemporary Canadian Poetry (Ekstasis, 1998). He has also published five chapbooks: Hay Day Canticle (Leaf Press, 2010), The Tangled Bed (Reference West, 2000), Palominos and other poems (Gaspereau Press, 2000), Dust in the Brocade (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2008) and Berlin Album (Rubicon Press, 2009). He was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, and now lives in North Vancouver, B.C. www.davidzieroth.com

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Apr 062015
 

George Szirtes

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Overheard

That night I spent my last nickel to call Steve.
The box was empty bar the usual cards
advertising the usual services of night.
One lives for such small favours, such rewards.
One lives for what night keeps up its loose sleeve.

Steve, I said, come down. It’s quite all right,
there’s no one here to speak of, just a queue
waiting to get into a show and they’ll be gone
once the doors open. It’s just me and you.
We will be reasoned, affectionate, polite.

The stars collide and break up one by one.
The street is empty now. I’ve seen the show
already and it’s fine.  There’s a decent bar
in the next block. I’ve seen the headlights glow
then vanish. There is nothing to be done.

So Steve came down, it wasn’t very far,
and then it started raining as it does.
I felt the usual tightening in my throat.
It was the same then as it ever was.
It’s what we were before. It’s what we are.

Let’s talk then, you and I, as if by rote.
Let us repeat the words and walk past doors
as if they weren’t there and neither was the rain.
These streets and bars are our familiar shores.
But let’s head out now Steve. Go get your coat.

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Photograph of a face

Should someone ask me what life is, I’d say
this is, knowing it is only you, but reading
your face, the light enveloping it, into all faces
for what a face might mean when it is loved
and stares into the dark room of the world
as though that too were life, the light as kind.

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Romance

They were writing Valentines to each other when the words began to splinter. They are more beautiful like that, they thought. Tiny and clear.

He drew a word from his pocket. It was old and yellowed. Give it to me, she said. I’ll wear it when it occurs to me to do so. Maybe tomorrow

So he bought her a dress of words and she put them on. Now try dancing, he said. You spell them out first, she said.

See this word ‘love’ he said. You can have it. I have more back home, but none as nice as this. Try it. It was hotter than she had expected.

She held the word at arm’s length. She had the most beautiful arms. The word was not important. It was the arms. The hands. The fingers.

The word ‘sex’ was never mentioned. It stood outside the door looking at its shoes so she came out and polished them.

I am sure it was in my handbag, she said. Then he drew it out from behind her ear. It sounded like the word but it was only a close rhyme.

What is the right word for your body, she asked. I couldn’t possibly pronounce it, he replied. But I have written it down.

There is a word in my mouth, she said. Open, he said. Yes, I think I can see it. Breathe gently. It’s one of mine. Now blow.

She put the word down by his hand. He picked it up and examined it. It was breathing. It had a scent. He popped it into his mouth.

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Caedmon

My mouth was empty
when the words flew out, light, free,
loud, unencumbered.

I watched them swooping
over rooftops, their flight path
dazzling and certain.

They were beautiful!
How marvellous to master
the air and let go!

They made shapes in voice
and light. They were the language
of grace in movement.

Being so dazzled
I forgot everything else.
I was blank, weightless.

I became language,
a hot mouth, a form of flight
powered by rapture.

I could be written
out of the world, be nothing
but the cry of birds.

My mouth was empty,
there was nothing left in there
except a hot tongue.

Fly home dear words. Nest
in my mouth. My tongue is hot
with yearning for you.

Let me believe you.
Speak me into being. Sing
the heart of the house.

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A Low Flying Plane

Somewhere in a sky
purring with cloud and light, planes
talk to each other.

What is the language
at the bottom of the throat,
that deep-lying growl?

When does it enter
the hangar of the stomach,
how does it park there?

From nowhere at all
the planes appear. The sky cracks
under them and bursts.

I’m trying to hear
the subtext of this, the blown
language of such noise,

the sense of low flight,
the way it presses dense air
into liquid shape.

Then the plane is gone
but things have changed. The tongue,
the ear, the dead sound.

—George Szirtes

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George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry and a roughly equal number of translations from the Hungarian. His New and Collected Poems (2008) was poetry book of the year in The Independent. The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013) were both short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize which he had won earlier with Reel (2004).

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Apr 032015
 

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1924. His seminal magazine Origin was one of the first to publish poets such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. In addition to the magazine, Cid, a poet and translator, organized poetry events around Boston and started the country’s first poetry radio program, This Is Poetry at WMEX featuring readings by Creeley, Stephen Spender and Theodore Roethke amongst others.  In 1958 he moved to Japan where he continued to edit Origin and in 1959 published Gary Snyder’s first collection Riprap. He began to translate Japanese poetry, in particular work by Basho and Kusano Shimpei. A prolific poet, he published over a hundred books and pamphlets. In 1990 he published the first two volumes of his selected poems Of. In all there are five volumes each containing 750 poems. Volumes 4 and 5 were just published in January of this year. Although described as a selected poems, Corman did not necessarily see it that way. He saw it as a single book that told his life in passing. Cid Corman died in Kyoto on March 12, 2004.

cid-corman

I am grateful to Greg Dunne, not just for the extract from his new book but for the wonderful opportunity he gave me back in 2000 to spend an afternoon visiting with Corman in his home in Kyoto. I had been travelling with my wife and young children in China for several months and stopped off in Japan on the way back to visit Greg. Over the years I had heard the story many times of how after moving to Kyoto Greg had stopped in at a coffee shop, CC`s, that sold western style ice-cream and cakes. The shop turned out to be Corman’s and Greg soon joined with a small group that met with him every two weeks for gatherings that lasted five hours or more. Cid read and talked poetry with them, discussed their work.

That afternoon, however, we talked to Corman about his work and his life. I got the feeling that he liked visitors so that he could relate the stories of his past to them, and through those stories reaffirm his true relevance to American poetry. This seemed to me to be borne of disappointment, sadness even – an awareness that his decision to live in Kyoto had left him largely forgotten in his home country. Nevertheless, it was evident that deep-down he knew that the poet’s life was exactly that – a life, a way of living. And he talked that day too of not even wanting his name on his poems at all, at refusing publicity when it occasionally came his way.

He excused himself at one point and left the room briefly returning with a copy of the first issue of Origin. He was proud of it, and rightly so. He spoke then of his writing routine. His morning began by writing letters, long letters to anyone who had taken the time to write to him. “If you write to me,” he told me, “I will write back.” After his letter writing he began work on his poems. He took me in to see his study. It was stacked high with manuscripts, heaps of paper across his desk and all around the room. “I write a book of poems a day,” he said. Most of these pages would probably never see the light of day. The act of writing to him, it appeared, was akin to the act of breathing – a breath in/a breath out, a word given/a word taken. This was not a rushed process; it was not a mountain of first drafts, of beginnings, but an ongoing expression of self.

Cid Corman

Later we took a pleasant walk to the post-office to mail off his letters and then said our goodbyes.  Despite his generous offer, I never did write to him. I regret it enormously of course but, in some ways these feelings of regret seem apt – a more fitting response to our short afternoon together.

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover

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What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. …….~ Homi Bhabha

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.…..~ Martin Heidegger

IN 1990, CID CORMAN PUBLISHED the first two volumes of this five-volume magnum opus book of poetry, of. The work was monumental in scope – each volume consisted of 750 pages of poetry. The book included many translations of poetry from around the world and from many different time periods that stretched from the earliest of times – Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese texts – up through contemporary poetry translations. In an unusual move, Corman left his translations un-sourced, that is, he did not attribute his translations to their original authors openly. Some fellow writers, notably Clayton Eshleman, found Cid’s practice suspect and wrote to Cid concerning it. Eshleman explained his dismay in the following way: “I was shocked to find Cid’s translations here, of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, T’ao Ch’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Basho, Malarlarme, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro, treated as Corman poems. So I wrote to him questioning such appropriation” (Eshleman).

To do justice to the book, a book of this size and scope, and a book that is the culminating event in the life of a significant American poet, more attention is warranted in exploring the act of his incorporating un-sourced translations into the book – how it was accomplished – and what rationale there may have been for the move, assuming the act is not simply one of appropriation. To understand, appreciate, and comprehend more fully what Corman was up to then, one needs to begin with his poetics, with what informs them – his sense of poetry and its role and place in culture, society and life.

Translation came early to Corman and through the activity – within it – he found himself drawn into a larger community of poetry that would sustain his interest and attention throughout his life. For Corman both the writing of poetry and the translating of poetry developed at about the same time when he was in high school. Here he began translating Greek and Latin poetry. Later, during the war years (World War II), when he stayed home from the war due to his youth and illness, he went deeper into translation. In conversation, some years ago (1994), at his home in Kyoto, he told me about his start in poetry and how intertwined it was with his activities in translation:

…The first quatrain I wrote one Sunday two weeks after Pearl Harbor was… (shakes his head in disapproval)… almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time. I had studied Greek in high school, and I was very interested still in Greek literature and read quite a bit at University, mostly on my own, this was not for any course. is was just for my own satisfaction. I had read no translation of Aeschylus that struck me as being accurate or true to the thing…. when I started out… I wanted to know about meter. I wanted to understand how poetry was structured, why they used rhyme, the way poetry moved. (Corman, APR 25)

The translation of poetry affects his poetry. Even as a young man, he was able to see the effect that translation was having on his poetry. The force, or influence, is so strong that he seems to recognize a need to disassociate the two: he is unsatisfied with his own poem because it reads too much like the work he has been translating: “. . . almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time.” The translating of poetry is shaping this poet – the translation work is exerting an influence that Corman recognizes and understands as becoming a part of him. Though he seems to understand the influence can be negative at times, he does not disavow the overall positive influence that the practice is having in teaching him how to become a better poet. In our conversation that day, he went on to make the following points:

By the time I was a sophomore, I was studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. And those poets struck me very strongly. They were new to me, and they were different than American poetry. But, I figured by translating I had a way of getting closer to what they were doing, and by doing that, I could learn.

So… it was the beginning for me. So I translated almost all of Les Fleurs du Mal for myself. They weren’t meant for publication. To learn. So it was for me, my education. (Corman, APR 25)

One sees from these comments that Corman understands his beginnings as a poet to be closely associated with his beginnings as a translator. We see also his passionate interest in non-English poetries, and his interest in translating as a means of education, of educating himself as a poet. In looking at the poetry of others, at other poetries, and translating that poetry into his own language, Corman put himself in conversation with other poets, and more importantly found himself within a conversation of sorts that involved poetry – a community of poets that carried him beyond the borders of language, state, and time. In this community, poetry itself became a unifying force –– a center that actually did hold, at least for Cid Corman.

We see further evidence of Corman viewing himself as working within a tradition and within a community when he collects his prose writings and publishes them as one book in two separate volumes. The first volume, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), contains essays related directly to his own poetry and poetic theory. The second volume, At Their Word/Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow, 1978), concerns itself with translation, and with the work of other writers: “At Their Word.” The two volumes make for a whole; with each volume informing what is said in the companion volume. Corman knows how essential translation has been in helping him to shape and refine his own understanding of poetry and how, in turn, his poetics have informed his translations of other’s poems.

And as it turns out, the first two essays in the second volume take up the topic of translation. Here, in the first essay, Corman offers five translations and commentary upon those translations: “translator’s notes.” The poems he offers are from Rilke, Baudelaire, and Montale. In his prefatory comments at the start of the essay, he offers the following explanation:

The versions here offered (my emphasis) are representative of different approaches possible. In all cases, however, the poems are pieces that have been savored and put into English originally for no other purpose than to prolong the translator’s own pleasure and perhaps to discover some possibility in them for his own tongue. Only where the results seem felicitous poems too (my emphasis) have offerings (my emphasis) been made to a larger audience. (Corman, ATW 10)

Corman’s use of the term “offer,” underscores his sense of giving – or gifting – the translations to the reader with humility – he makes no claim that the translations are definitive. They are offered – the reader can take them, or leave them: “The versions here offered . . .” They are being offered because the original poems were poems that he appreciated so deeply that he was moved to translate them, poems he “savored and put into English to prolong his own pleasure.” His versions of the poems, and only those versions that have become poems in English, and thus deemed worthy of being shared, become “offerings” to a wider audience. Corman’s explanation, particularly his use of the word “offerings,” implies both his giving something of himself to the reader – his work as a translator – and also – and more to the point here – his gratitude for the gift of the original poems. In this gesture and use of the word “offerings,” he implies his awareness of being part of a community that has involved many others over time.

He shows this attitude of gratitude towards the original poets and those who have translated the poem when he speaks of titling one of his translations, in this case the Baudelaire’s poem, “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie.” Unlike other translators who have tried to approach the untitled poem by translating the poem’s first line as the title and coming up with titles such as “The Servant” or the “The Kind-Hearted Servant of Whom You Were Jealous,” Corman titles his translation simply “after Baudelaire.” In his “translator’s notes,” he explains that “’After’ . . . is quite honest, for countless versions over many years achieved this result – which is finally a sort of homage to feeling shared.” The word “homage” as in the case of the word “offering” suggests an awareness on Corman’s part of being involved in a community – a world poetry – and a world that can be shared across time, space, and culture. Here is Corman’s version of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie:”

after Baudelaire

The bighearted nurse
you envied, buried
sod, merits flowers.
The living thankless
rest between warm sheets
while the poor dead feel
all alone, no one
to bring them fresh trash.

If, at the good fire,
I saw her sitting,
some December night
found her in my room
crushed from the long bed
gazing at this child,
what cold worlds tell her
tears filling those eyes?
(Corman ATW 10)

Corman felt a need to translate, as well as a need to share his translations of poetry with others: To make “offerings” to a larger audience. We see further evidence of this in the story of his coming to translate the poetry of Paul Celan and to publish that poetry in his magazine Origin.

After leaving the University of Michigan, and after a few years back in Boston where he hosted a weekly poetry radio program, Corman was awarded a Fulbright and traveled to France to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Cid wrote poetry and immersed himself in translation. During this time, in 1955, he met the poet Paul Celan, virtually unknown in North America at the time, and began translating his work into English. Some years later, when Corman wanted to publish his Celan translations in his magazine Origin, he contacted Celan to ask permission. Celan refused to give permission and threatened litigation against Corman if he pursued publication. After some consideration, Corman went ahead and published the poems in Origin and, as promised, Celan wrote an angry letter to Corman threatening “persecution” – an ironic typographical error, as Corman would later remark to me, considering Celan’s persecution by the Nazi’s during the Second World War. Celan had meant to write “prosecution,” of course.

In 1994, when I asked Corman how he first meet Paul Celan, he told me the following story:

My friend. I was living with her at the time: 1955, in Paris. Edith Aron (German, but reared mostly in Argentina, of Jewish descent too) who had helped Paul Celan get a job with UNESCO introduced me personally to him one day. He seemed very dour to me and they did most of the talking. Both near my age – early 30s. And she gave me his first two books and suggested we translate from them together. We did. And I did the first English versions ever and a few were published in Toronto by Ray Souster at once. I didn’t like those first two volumes as much as what followed. And I bought each of his books as they occurred thereafter and translated each – with someone native to German assisting. I met him just as he was really coming into his own. And I have translated all his work – much of it still unpublished.

I asked Corman what specifically attracted him to Celan’s work, and he answered in the following way:

His depth of language use – not as technics (cf. Zukofsky) but as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me. I couldn’t /wouldn’t be as obscure and “difficult” as he allowed himself/his language to be, but I could feel the truth of what he was doing, or trying to do. And that moved me. To want to share that work – despite his challenging me. (Corman, APR 26)

Corman speaks in terms of feeling “moved” to translate the work, feeling compelled to share the work of Celan with others. He decided to publish the translations despite Celan’s “challenging” him. His rationale being, in so many words, that he felt compelled to share it – that he could feel “the truth” of what (Celan) was doing: “His depth of language use . . . as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me.”

One might find fault with Corman’s rationale as stated here. Is his desire to share the work reason enough to publish his translations without Celan’s permission? But in questioning Corman rationale, one would also do well to consider Corman’s passion and sincerity to share the work. Every- thing about Corman’s life in poetry suggests that his reply to Celan was sincere. Of course, I do not mean to assert that passion and sincerity, in and of themselves, make Corman’s actions right or absolve him of honoring the wishes of Celan. What I do want to point out is that Corman was deeply motivated to act in the way that he did act, and that his action speaks to his understanding of poetry in the world, and per- haps also to questions of ownership of it.

Corman felt Celan’s work should be shared – that it needed to be shared. This desire to share poetry has remained consistent throughout Corman’s life: his poetry radio program in Boston was a way for him to share poetry with a wider community. It was a way of creating a community around poetry, for poetry. His founding of the magazine Origin was another way in which he worked to share poetry with a larger community: he wanted to get poetry into the world, particularly the kind of poetry that mainstream poetry magazines were not taking seriously, at least not taking seriously enough to publish.

Written correspondence was a further way in which Corman shared poetry with others. Correspondence, i.e. letter writing, was a central part of his life as a poet. In conversation once, he referred to it as his “life-line.” When I asked him if there was anything that stood out in the letters that he received – anything remarkable? He told me, “Everything. Every letter is my news. Is poetry” (Corman APR 26). At the time, I didn’t think he meant that the letters were themselves really poetry – but over the years I have come to doubt that first understanding – maybe he did mean it, literally. After all a letter, like poetry, involves the experience of one person sharing news, to use Pound’s word for poetry – news that stays news with another. Letters and poetry are correspondences, if you will, that share an experiential quality about them: the words of the writer being shared with the reader in an intimate way. So for Corman, this idea, of letters being “poetry,” is not as far fetched as it might at first sound. Perhaps his feeling on this accounts for his publishing letters right alongside poetry in his magazine Origin. In the first series of Origin (1951-1957) Volume XIV/Autumn, for example, he published the following section of letter by the Canadian poet Irving Layton:

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
Quebec
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

In all these poems I’ve tried to express the idea “in the image,” for although as a rule I leave theorizing about poetry to others, there are one or two work-a-day rules I try to govern myself by when writing verse. For me, rhythm and imagery usually tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words. If I want sociology, economics, uplift, or metaphysics; or that generalized state of despairing benevolence concerning the prospects of the human race which seems to characterize much of present-day poetic effort, I know my way around a library as well as the next man. Catalogues are no mystery to me. I regard the writing of verse as a serious craft, the most serious there is, demanding from a man everything he’s got. Moreover, it’s a craft in which good intentions count for nil. It’s how much a man has absorbed into his being that counts, how he opens up continuously to experience, and then with talent and luck communicates to others (my emphasis) without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply …

Yours, Irving

This letter appeared in Origin alongside Layton’s poems. It was not set off as a prefatory statement of any kind but appeared on the page as if a poem, in the flow of the poems presented there, with several poems preceding it and several poems following it.

Poetry is a craft, according to Layton, that demands much of the poet: “demanding from a man everything he’s got.” It is also a craft that demands the poet open up “continuously to experience,” a craft that calls upon the poet to communicate to others “without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply . . .” These ideas are all in sympathy with Corman’s own poetics, as editor and as poet. Certainly, an open- ness to experience, and a direct form of communication/address are characteristic of Corman’s poetry. Here, Layton’s letter may be seen to be a poem in Corman’s eyes in so far as it achieves a rhythmic liveliness in its prose while communicating in a direct, unaffected and sincere way. A piece of writing that opens up to experience and communicates with others. In publishing the letter, we see Corman, the publisher, opening up to the experience of the letter and sharing that experience with others. In placing poes and letters in the magazine in such away, Corman seems to ask, “Why can’t a letter such as this be read as a poem?” Corman opens himself to the possibility of the letter being read in such a way – opens himself to that experience. In publishing the letter, Corman participates then in a reciprocal gesture of gift giving, and communicating with others – he shares Layton’s letter with a wider audience.

Corman’s active life as a correspondent is legendary, and the books of correspondence that have been published over the years indicate this – no doubt more books will follow.  The many letters between Corman and Charles Olson, for example, were edited and published in 1987 and in 1991 (Charles Olson & Cid Corman, Complete Correspondence 1950 –1964 Volume 1 and Volume II. Ed. George Evans, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine Press); Olson’s letters to Corman were published earlier in 1970 (Charles Olson, Letters for Origin, Cape Goliard [London] and Grossman [New York] Ed. Albert Glover); a collection of Lorine Niedecker’s letters to Corman was published in 1986 (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 – 1970, Ed. Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke University Press); a more recent volume of Corman Letters was published in 2000 (Where to Begin, Selected Letters between Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, Ed. Keegan Doyle. Ekstasis Editions).

The contemporary American poet and translator, Andrew Schelling provides a telling and instructive story of his coming into correspondence with Corman through the aegis of Clayton Eshleman, who had known Corman in Kyoto years earlier and knew first-hand of his approachability, and his willingness to help younger poets. As Schelling recalls in a tribute that he wrote after Corman’s passing in 2004, he was a “fledgling poet . . . just beginning to publish . . . in the early to mid eighties” when he first corresponded with Cid Corman. Clayton Eshleman told him he had “to get in touch with Cid Corman.” Eshleman’s suggestion was a piece of “true counsel,” and not simply “a piece of advice.” Schelling listened to Eshelman and contacted Corman and they began corresponding. In short order, Schelling and Corman became correspondents. Corman replied “to every letter instantly,” Schelling says, expressing wonder at Corman’s generosity and attentiveness: “his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside.” (Schelling)

As a poet living far from the American scene, one might expect Corman to have less to offer Schelling than an elder poet based in the U.S. and familiar with contemporary American poetics. Schelling however did not find this to be the case. While it was true, Schelling concedes, that Corman was not always up to date on the latest developments on the American scene, and that poetry news reached him “in curiously winnowed ways,” Schelling felt that Corman had something special to offer. According to Schelling, Corman’s “expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.” Corman was in his own curious way at the center of things – his correspondence had him in touch with poets around the world. For a young poet like Schelling, a poet interested in translation, Corman’s international contacts and his active engagement with translation had much to offer Schelling.

Corman wrote tens of thousands of letters to contacts around the world during his lifetime. His correspondents included friends, family members, and poets, as well as politicians, philosophers, artists, and religious figures. His correspondence with others was something that he wanted to share, that is, he wanted not only to connect with others through correspondence, but he wanted to connect others to others through correspondence. If he thought that one of his correspondents would benefit from getting to know another of his correspondents, he would try to put them in touch with one another. Through his correspondence then, Corman tried to introduce different writers to each another. When I first began corresponding with Corman on a regular basis, he frequently went out of his way to send me contact information about writers he thought I should connect with.

When one looks at the sum of Corman’s life then, one feels convinced that Corman felt poetry was, in large measure, about sharing and community. He felt that one of the most fundamental qualities of poetry was found in its ability to bring two individual lives together – to create a community of two: a conversation between the reader and the poet. This sentiment is found throughout his oeuvre. Here are four poems that demonstrate some of this:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.
(Corman, ND 86)

Assistant

As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?
(Corman, APR 23)

The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!
(Corman, APR 21)

There’s only
one poem:
this is it.
(Corman, ND 121)

In elegant and conversational language, Corman asserts the primacy of poetry in human relations in these poems: “Poetry becomes / that conversation we would / not other- wise have.” Poetry is unique and solitary in what it offers – nothing else is quite like it.

In the second poem we see a humorous and yet quite serious invitation for the reader to participate actively in the reading of the book. It is as though Corman himself were reaching out through the poem to make contact with the reader and participate in the reading of the book: “Would you mind turning the page?” The poet shows up and speaks directly to the reader – let’s the reader know that he, the poet, has thought of him. The poet has envisioned the reader one day finding himself on the page and reading. This is the community that Corman values – the interaction of one person conversing with another through the medium of poetry. Corman moves through time and space in doing this, he is aware of the poem’s ability to transcend time and space and remain relevant – to still speak. Here he quietly alludes to times’ passing and to the ephemeral nature of life: “As long as you are here.” This conversational line, a line we commonly hear, is brought to bear its full measure of import within the poem: the weight of intonation and stress falls precisely on the word “are:” “As long as you are (my emphasis) here.” If Corman were not the poet that he is, he might have written “you’re” instead of “you are.” Corman wants the reader to sound “are:” “As long as you are . . .” In other words, as long as you are here, and alive, will you turn the page?

This subtle gesture points to one of the enduring qualities and strengths of poetry: the poem speaks to the reader even when the poet is gone. It speaks to the movement of time, the movement within a lifetime, to the human condition of being here now and knowing we will not always be. The poet after all, is not really with the reader on the page in the present moment of reading. He has passed on. The reader in reading the poem understands this, feels it through the poem.

The final two poems cited above get at similar notions as the first two poems. “The Call,” again announces the primacy of poetry, equating it with life itself: “Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O.” And the final poem makes the playful and, at first glance, seemingly audacious statement, that “There’s only/one poem:/this is it.”

Of course, in a real sense, Corman means exactly what he says, and that is, that the impulse behind the writing of a poem, the engine of the poem, the origin of any poem, of all poems, is the same at its source – it is the impulse to speak, it is the “O” of breath and being – the reaching out of one to another through language – the poet and reader together – the song that brings one to another. It is at base a connectivity, and communication, a form of communion, or community: ”the conversation/we could not otherwise have.” Seen in this light, we understand the claim that the poem makes: there is one poem and it resides in our very breathing and breath. It is life.

This poem, this last one, is an especially helpful poem to consider in relation to Corman’s book of and his questionable act of incorporating un-sourced translations into the book alongside his own poems. I say this because in this poem, we see a clear statement which may be seen as supporting what Corman has done in the book; that is to say, he makes his poems and his translations one book, one unified book, one poem: “There is /only one poem:/ this is it.”

***

Of is, at first glance, a strange title for a book. How many books can one think of that contain a preposition for a title? Strange as it is, it is a title that is precise and telling, and one meant to draw attention. When one opens the book, one finds a preface that immediately addresses the rationale behind the titling of the book:

for those who find themselves here
and sounding the words care to be

this is a book of a life as exacting as any
other, not in chronological order, but
through as for all time: a small proportion of
what has occurred to me and to which the work
unseen is complementary

the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics:
the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the
genitive case: to which we are all beholden and
within which we remain hopelessly particular

and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems
articulate it – which humbly (meaning – aware
of there being no choice) reveals transparently,
whatever else may be felt, I trust (trust implying
you), wonder, gratitude, pain, and love.

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

The Preface begins by immediately engaging the reader: “for those who find themselves here/and sounding the words care to be.” The reader is said to be “sounding” the words, suggesting that the reader is actively involved in both sounding the depth of the words – the depth of their various and associative meanings – as well as physically making the sound of the words in their mouths – “sounding” them. The words themselves are said to be things that “care to be,” underscoring Corman’s emphasis on our appreciating “words” as having an existence beyond the individual’s control – emphasizing, reminding the reader that words exist independent of the individual speaker – that they are thus shared within a larger community. If words did not possess this characteristic capacity, of what use would they be? To the extent that words are shared, they carry meaning and significance for us, and they bring us together, allow us to communicate with each other. Readers can “find themselves here” (my emphasis) precisely because the words on the page belong to the reader as much as they belong to the writer.
 As Corman says, “The title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics,” that is, it attempts to underscore the existent relationship between the individual and the world beyond the individual to which the individual is both separate from and a part of: “the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and/within which we remain hopelessly particular.” Language is thus the bridge, or the “connectivity,” as the post-colonial scholar Inderpal Grewal refers to it (Grewal 236).

Corman continues to elaborate upon this theme on the following page of the book with another epigraph. Here he translates the Greek of Philo of Alexandria (20 B. C. E. ~ 50 C. E.). It is salient to note that Philo himself was writing a literary work in Greek that was based on the older Hebraic writings of the Bible (Genesis), namely the Old Testament. Thus Philo too, like Corman, was involved in translation – the crossing of linguistic borders. Corman translates the epigraph as follows:

The soul of the most perfect is fed by the word as a whole; we may well be content should we be fed even by a portion of it.

PHILO: Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis. III, Ixi, 176.(Corman, of, Vol. I. 1)

In this epigraph, Corman once more alludes to there being a whole to which we belong: “the word as a whole.” With my layman’s knowledge of ancient texts, I cautiously interpret Philo in the following way: I take the “most perfect” as referring to God. Following upon this, I understand God is fed “by the word as a whole.” I read “the word as a whole” to refer to the whole of humanity, and that humanity’s offering God prayers, songs, poetry – praise feeds God. If the word as a whole is what God – “the soul of the most perfect” – is nourished by then we lesser ones might be sustain by, and should be “content” with, even a portion of it, the word: our own individual languages. The divine world and the human world are bound by, and through, the word. For Corman then, poetry is nothing less than manna – an essential thing – meant to be shared. Further, it is the diversity of languages that Corman is signaling as being of importance. It is not one particular language but the word as a whole – all poetries contributing to the whole that feeds the most perfect.

With this title, preface, and epigraph, Corman makes the case, rhetorically, for including un-sourced translations from many different languages and time periods into the book. His gesture is to say that we are OF this material – that the poetry of the world belongs to all of us. Moreover, he means to suggest that we are shaped by our inheritance of these languages, poetries, and cultures. We are of them – born into a scene and situation that we did not ourselves wholly create. He honors the inheritance.

In 2000, Corman responded to the charge of appropriation – whether or not his use of un-sourced translations in of was a form of appropriation. Did he deliberately leave the names of the original authors of his translations off the page? In his characteristically frank way, he acknowledged that he had done so while emphasizing that he did so with a purpose:

Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very – have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize… Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who’s really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself designed without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there’s nobody else that ever has done this and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all…

(Corman, ICPR 1)

“But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced.” Corman doesn’t want the names introduced because he wants the work, of, to be that whole that he alludes to in the epigraphs. His own poems will be part of the book, but they will find themselves within a community of poetry – his poems will be at home within a greater whole.

While I think it is understandable how the charge of appropriation could be leveled at Corman – for he does incorporate translations of others’ poems into his book – I believe under close analysis the assertion of appropriation does not stand up. “Appropriation” doesn’t adequately come to terms with the nuanced complexity of Corman’s gesture, and it is in the nuance and carefully balanced aesthetic manner in which the translations are brought into relationship with Corman’s own poetry that matters. The manner in which the translations are incorporated allows for them to be felt as translations, known as such, while not overtly crediting them as translations nor naming the authors.

Corman asserts in the interview that anyone really interested in finding out the source of a poem can easily do so because the poems are well known, or they are tagged in a way that allows them to be identified: “But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize . . . Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is.” In other words, Corman maintains that the translated poems remain in some fashion distinct and particular, in some way known and sourced.

This is in keeping with what he announces in the Preface and through his use of epigraphs. In some measure, “a precisely physical metaphysics” is enacted in the book: the translated poems remain particular within a constellation of other poems, including Corman’s own. The ability of Corman to translate poems and incorporate them so that they become both distinct and a part of the whole is one of the signal achievements of the text. And in so much as readers experience the poems as translations within the book, that is, poems different from Corman’s own poems, a multitude of voices are allowed to enter the book and circulate through and between Corman’s own poems.

For Corman to insert the names of the original authors on every page where a translation appeared would be to break (brake) the resonant play of the poems echoing off each other. It would be, in short, contrary to the aesthetic intentions suggested in the titling of the book. This is to say that the listing of sources would break the text into discrete parts and detract from the whole that Corman is trying to create.

When readers encounter translations in the text, the readers should understand that the poetry is other than Cor- man’s own. When Corman’s friend and fellow poet, Clayton Eshleman read the book, he had precisely this experience – he recognized certain poems as translations despite their lack of citation. The first poem, for example, is entitled Shingyo; as such, it immediately signals a foreign language – in this case Japanese. The poem is actually a translation of an ancient prayer, a sutra that comes from India. Just as Philo’s use of the Genesis story demonstrates his awareness of precedent, Corman too chooses a work that demonstrates his awareness of precedent, and the way in which languages and ideas cross borders and are shared among and within communities. The sutra, which is well known in Asia and in- creasing in the West, was written in Sanskrit at around 350 C. E. Later, Buddhist monks brought the sutra to China where it was translated into Chinese. Then the Japanese brought the sutra to Japan, and translated it into Japanese. Here, the sutra, known in English as “The Heart Sutra” is a work that has passed over and through many national borders, languages, and cultures to be shared anew through further translations. Interesting to note, and apropos to what Corman has said about his own wish for anonymity in poetry, the poem he begins the book with – his magnum opus – is an anonymous work, a poem that has been chanted by many different people of various cultural backgrounds for ages.

Beginning the book with this poem amplifies the theme struck by the epigraphs and the Preface, that is to say, the poem moves us to confront the paradox that we find ourselves in – we are particular and yet each exists within a community – in relationship with others – our shared language tells us as much: no one person invented the language, and no one owns it. It is shared. Shingyo speaks to a condition of enlightenment, which would have us acknowledge being both a part and a whole, a poem that celebrates non-duality:

SHINGYO

Seeing reflecting sense nonsense
Friend – here is emptiness here is form
Unborn undying – untainted
unpure – no more no less – therefore
Friend – nothing to know or not to
to come to this – the suffering
reaching where it is and is not
Come – body – and go – body – no
body – gone to the other – gone.
(Corman, of, Vol. 1. 5)

The poem speaks to a sensibility that is unified, a non- dualistic sensibility – one that recognizes both the part (“body”) and the whole (“gone to the other”). It reaches through both – goes beyond opposites – to locate a site of commonality in a singular word of compassion “Friend.”

It is not only by titling the poems carefully then, as in the case of “Shingyo,” and by including well-known translations that Corman indicates which poems are translations: Corman also employs other techniques that quietly signal translation. The entire first section of the second volume of the book, for example, is indexed in the back under the title “Offered,” echoing the title of the book, of. Indexing the poems in this way, suggests that the majority of the poems in the section are translations, as they indeed are.

And it is not only by his unobtrusively marking the poems as translations that Corman succeeds in building the polyphonic quality of the text; He also succeeds through skillful translation. Corman is careful to honor the text, to honor the rhetoricity of the original. This is to say that his translations are distinguished by what the post colonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “fraying,” a manner of translating that eschews the long searched-for equivalency between the original and the target language in favor of acknowledging qualities of the original that may be better left un-translated, giving the text a frayed or roughened feel. As Spivak puts it, “The task of the translator is to facilitate love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”

Corman’s translations leave the text open and rough with possibility. When balanced between the translator’s agency and the reader’s expectation, Corman honors the rhetoricity of the text. In 1964, long before the term of fraying came into use in translation studies, Corman spoke about his willingness to retain Japanese words in his translations. For example, in the Preface to his translation of Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi, (Back Roads to Far Towns, Munjinsha 1964) he and his fellow translator decided to retain original Japanese words in the translation. Corman expressed their decision this way:

If the translators have often not accepted Western approximations for particular Japanese and/or Chinese terms, it is not to create undue difficulties for readers, but rather to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible. As a result, notes may be needed in greater profusion than before. (Basho, BRFT 10)

Corman is not going to smooth the text out so that it reads comfortably in English if that means compromising too much of the complexity of the original. The original words, rich in associative meanings, may offer a complexity that the English words cannot adequately represent, that is, the English equivalent is not accurate enough. This decision on the part of translators (Corman and Kamaike Susumu), make it is necessary for them to use original Japanese words in the translation. In translating Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi, Corman and Kamaike retain original Japanese words in both the prose and the poetry. Here is some of their translation work – the poetry following the prose:

Afterwards off to the Sesshoseki on horse sent by
the kandai. Man leading it by halter asked for a
tanzaku. Beautiful he wanted one:

across the meadow
horse take your lead now from the
hototogisu
(Basho BRFT 25)

In this brief passage, Corman and Kamaike retain four Japanese words. Their notes in the back of the book relate the following:

kandai: Castle overseer
Sesshoseki: Still exists, though fenced about. The legends associated with it are told in Noh of the same name.
tanzaku: Narrow strip of fine paper to write poetry on; a poem
hototogisu: Japanese cuckoo, whose name is its song.
(Basho BRFT 122)

In using original words the translators intend “to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible.” They bring the Japanese flavor of the original in – they “admit” it – because English does not have similar words that are reliably precise. By retaining the Japanese words the translators allow the shadow of the original to be felt and appreciated. By “shadow” I mean to suggest that Corman and Kamaike’s translation emphasizes that while it is not the original it does retain some of the original’s defining qualities. Hototogisu, for example, is the Japanese cuckoo, but more to the point – and the point Corman and Kamaike want the reader to experience – is the fact that the name of the bird IS the bird’s song. When the reader reads “hototogisu” the reader hears what the Japanese themselves believe the bird sounds like when it calls. And it just so happens that this has a further meaning (or possibility of meaning) – the sound of the song is imaginatively thought to be the sound of a Buddhist sutra. Thus, the bird is thought to be, figuratively speaking, chanting a sutra. The bird and its call are steeped in the folklore of Japan, and its literary history and culture. The reader gets the onomatopoetic sound that the Japanese themselves feel best represents the sound of the bird. The reader is thus connected in this way with Japan: its animals, culture, language, and people.

Corman frays many of his translated texts in of in similar ways. When he translates Catullus, for example, he uses the Latin title of the poem and translates the poem in the following way:

IUCUNDUM, MEA VITA

Happy, my life, to me you propose love
This ours between us perpetual be.

Great gods, see that she really can promise
And she say so honestly and from heart,

So that it be ours all life to continue
Eternal this trust of blest affection.

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

Encountering a poem such as this would lead any observant reader to conclude that she is indeed reading a translation. Why else would the poem be titled in Latin? If this doesn’t wake the reader to the fact of the poem being a translation, the reader could Google the title and find the poem ascribed to Catullus. In other worlds, the poem calls out to be understood – read – as a translation. The fraying one finds in the translation makes this even more abundantly clear. This translation is not rendered in Corman’s contemporary American English, but in a distinctively textured, tonal, and syntactical manner quite foreign to it, resulting in a poem that sounds ancient. Some of the ancient sounding qualities of the translation come from Corman’s mining the possibilities of the original Latin poem. Corman draws our attention to the word “ours:” “Happy, my life, to me you propose love/this ours between us perpetual be.” Here, “ours” functions as a noun and retains its Latin sense of something not only as something shared between people but something alive and living, and “ours” that is, “perpetually to be, a love that comes “honestly” and “from heart.” The word “ours” is struck again in the penultimate line with stress and weight – “So that it be ours all life to continue.”

Beyond the polyphonic and the symphonic qualities that the book achieves by bringing in such a rich variety of voices from various cultures, languages, and time periods, Corman’s book, of, reminds us that we come from this stuff – from this poetry – and that our languages and poetries have played a role in shaping the world we live in – the way in which we see and understand ourselves and the world.

Homi K. Bhabha, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, in commenting upon the contemporary Mexican American musical artist Guillermo Gomex-Pena, who travels between Mexico and American to sing songs on both sides of the border, both old and new songs – a man who sings to different audiences – Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences, may provide us with the clearest lens yet by which to discern and appreciate what Corman achieves in his own crossing of boundaries – the boundaries of time, space, languages, cultures, and poetries – not to mention his crossing back and forth between his own poems and his translations.
 According to Bhabha, Gomez-Pena’s actions of performing songs in both languages on both sides of the Mexican and U.S. border – songs that are traditional as well as new – creates a generative “inbetween space” that allows for the artist to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity . . .” This “inbetween space,” he asserts, is a site of “collaboration, and contestation.” (Bhabha LC 336) Corman’s work too creates such an inbetween space. It also creates a site of collaboration and contestation in so far as we see him collaborating with other poets through the act of translation, taking their poems and translating them into English. We can see the contestation in terms of his own voice, his poems, asserting themselves through the surrounding poems, many voices vying, if you will, to be heard.

In fact, Bhabha prefaces the above comments by saying that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of “originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is precisely this activity that opens up what he terms “the inbetween space which leads to new signs of identity . . . in the act of defining society itself:”

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of sellfood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (Bhabha, LC 337)

Corman’s inclusion of poems from many languages – translations – poems both old and new – creates an “inbetween space” that is at once familiar and de-familiarizing – Corman’s own poems written in vernacular contemporary American English sound familiar to the American ear, whereas the translations, such as a poem like “Shingyo,” sound much less familiar because they are sourced in different languages, time periods, or cultures and because Corman’s renderings in English of those translations tend to be deliberately marked or frayed, creating a degree of dissonance between his own poetry and the translated poetry. In this way, Corman creates a gap, a space, and in-between, that allows, admits, a larger world of poetry to enter. He gets beyond, as Bhabha would have us do, “originaries and initial subjectivities” and allows the reader to experience a larger world of poetry by allowing her “to focus on moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is through this performance, this act, that Corman succeeds in initiating “new signs of identity,”which would lead to “the act of defining the idea of society itself ” (337).

The new identity that Corman wants us to embrace says that WE are OF this stuff, this material, this poetry. It is an identity that includes others – other languages, other poetries, other stories, and it accepts them graciously and identifies with them as human stories, familial stories. The new identity implies that the poetry of the world is gifted – offered – in the way that language itself is gifted to each of us, that is, handed down to us by our mothers and fathers, freely given. Corman’s move is deliberate and provocative – an insurgent act – and we should understand it as such and appreciate it as such. Rather than apologize or become defensive in responding to Eshleman’s question regarding appropriation, he becomes more assertive: “. . . the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous” (Corman, ICPR).

In placing translation directly beside his own poems, Corman forces us to ask questions about poetry and poetry’s role and place in the world at a time when cultures and languages are crossing borders more rapidly than ever before. He asks us if we are ready to hear what a world of poetry has to tell each of us about the nature of our existence on the planet. Do we understand the generous loving gesture that the poem itself is offering each of us? Can we approach not only poetry but each other with a larger sense of gratitude, or, as he would say in another poem, can we listen to the poem and each other?


Listen.
What is it – you ask?
I keep telling you:
Listen.

(Corman, ND 64)

Corman wants us to understand that poetry is as important now as it’s ever been in helping us through the night in helping us understand who we are, and what we are – even if poetry is nothing but cry in the night, even if it’s simply one person reaching out to another. Corman is not concerned with copyright issues, or questions of appropriation. It is as though he deliberately pushes these concerns aside in order to get at something more elemental and vital, and that is to remind us that poetry bring us together into a conversation – that language itself comes before ownership, that it is held in trust and commonly constructed. What ever it is that compels a person to write a poem, or for a person to read a poem, gestures toward shared community.

Corman’s magnum opus, of, by combining both translations from other poetries and placing them beside his own poems in a single book allows us to think beyond boundaries into new spaces that allow for a world of poetry to open up, a large world we find ourselves a part of. In doing this, the book reminds us that poetry, to be worthy of the name, to remain vital in our lives, must remain within the community as something offered and shared.

Family

We know it is love
Because we are – as
The stars are – because

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

Who never leave us
Alone – light shining
Under the closed door.

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne

§

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Locations of Culture.” The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. Ed. Peggy Levitt. New York: Routledge, 2007. 233-237. (Print)

Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California. Black Sparrow. 1978. (Print)

Corman, Cid. Back Roads to Far Towns. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 2004. (Print)

Corman, Cid. “Cid Corman in Conversation.” Interview with Philip Rowland. Flash Point Magazine, 16 Sept. 2000. (Web) 06 May 2013. <http://www.flashpoint mag.com/corman1.htm>.

Corman, Cid. Interview. “An Interview with Gregory Dunne. “American Poetry Review. (July/August 2000): 25. (Print) Corman, Cid, Mike Doyle, and Kegan Doyle. Where to Begin: Selected Letters of Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, 1967-1970. Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2000. (Print) Corman, Cid. Nothing Doing. New York: New Directions,

  1. (Print) Corman, Cid. of. Vol. 1 and 2. Venice, California: Lapis. 1990.

(Print) Corman, Cid. The Gist of Origin, 1951-1971: An Anthology.

New York: Grossman, 1975. (Print) Dunne, Gregory. “Getting the Secret Out of Cid Corman.” Poetry East: 44 (Spring 1997): 9 – 23. (Print) Eshleman, Clayton. “Cid,” Cipher Journal. 12 June 2004. <http://www.cipherjournal.com/html/eshleman_cid_ii.

html> (Web) Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America. Durham and London: Duke. 2005. (Print)
Heidegger. Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper Colophon Books, New York:1971.

(Print) Niedecker, Lorine, Cid Corman, and Lisa Pater Faranda. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 1986. (Print)

Olson, Charles, Cid Corman, and George Evans. Charles Olson & Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence 1950- 1964. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, Univer- sity of Maine, 1987. (Print)

Schelling, Andrew. “Schelling CC Death Notes.” Web log post. Schelling CC Death Notes. Cipherjournal, 28 Mar. 2004. (Web) 03 May 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Destabilizing Theory. Eds. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips. London: Polity Press, 1982. (Print)

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Gregory Dunne is the author of two collections of poetry: Home Test (Adastra Press, 2009) and Fistful of Lotus (a handmade book by Canadian printmaker Elizabeth Forrest, 2000). He has contributed to Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeneys and the Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Manoa, Poetry East, and Kyoto Journal. He lives in Japan and teaches in the Faculty of Comparative Culture at Miyazaki International College. Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman was published by Ekstasis Press in 2014.

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Mar 112015
 

r f langley 2 copyR. F. Langley 1938-2011

“By the end of my time spent with Langley’s work that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice.” —Julie Larios

 

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LIKE SEVERAL OF THE POETS I’ve written about for Undersung, Roger Francis Langley (known as R. F. Langley) was seriously unprolific. Seventeen poems were gathered together for one book, twenty-one poems for another. Apparently eight other poems appeared uncollected in The London Review of Books and PN Review. But unlike most other poets I’ve written about, Langley has not been a secret favorite of mine for years. In fact, I just heard about his work this January, when a friend mentioned a memoir titled H is for Hawk by the British writer Helen Macdonald. Macdonald, whose book recently won both the Costa Book Award for Biography and the Samuel Johnson Award for Non-Fiction, mentioned in an interview for The Guardian that, among a few other influential books which “opened her eyes to nature,” she had enjoyed a collection of diary entries by a poet I’d never heard of: R. F. Langley. Her description of that book, titled simply Journal, hooked me:

“These journals, Langley wrote, are concerned with ‘what Ruskin advocated as the prime necessity, that of seeing’, and pay ‘intense attention to the particular’. They speak of wasps, of thrips, grass moths, stained glass, nightjars, pub lunches and church monuments, everything deeply informed by etymology, history, psychology and aesthetic theory. The prose is compressed and fierce, and its narrative movement is concerned with mapping the processes of thought, the working out of things. It is founded on careful, close observation of things that typically pass unnoticed through our world.”

Being a fan of all things which pass unnoticed (or rarely noticed) I figured Langley’s journal might be worth looking through. Macdonald’s list of subjects (from thrips –thrips? – to pub lunches) intrigued me, and I was betting that Langley’s attention might be both focused and digressive, a combination that often produces fine essays. First, though, I had to see what kind of poetry he wrote.

I don’t own any of Langley’s books, and I couldn’t find individual poems anthologized in anything on my shelves. His work is not in my public library, and a search of databases produces not much more than basic biographical material (born in Warwickshire, England, 1938, educated at Cambridge, studied with poet Donald Davie, taught high school, retired to Suffolk, died 2011) and obituaries in major newspapers. Reviews and articles are few and far between, most of them simply remembrances. The obituaries warn that Langley did not produce a large body of work, having only begun to publish seriously in his sixties when he retired from forty years of teaching literature and art history to high school students.

There are only a few links to his poems online. Over at Amazon, his earlier out-of-print books/chapbooks are listed as “Unavailable at this time.” Later books listed there “may require extra time for shipping” which is code for any book that takes weeks to arrive from the U.K. and is obscure, published probably by a small European press. Luckily, I found two of Langley’s books (Collected Poems – 2002 – and The Face of It – 2007 – both still in print, published by Carcanet) at the university library near me and spent a slow afternoon reading them. The 2002 edition of Collected Poems (nominated for a Whitbread Book Award) contains only seventeen poems. It would be better titled Selected Poems; fortunately, a new edition is forthcoming from Carcanet in September of this year, and it is the definitive collection. It contains everything from the 2002 edition plus previously uncollected poems and supplementary material — I believe the total number of poems is 48.)

By the end of my reading that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice. Langley’s poem “To a Nightingale” was awarded the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem:

To a Nightingale

Nothing along the road. But
petals, maybe. Pink behind
and white inside. Nothing but
the coping of a bridge. Mutes
on the bricks, hard as putty,
then, in the sun, as metal.
Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
hoary, with their seed-capsules
uncurling. Red mites bowling
about on the baked lichen
and what look like casual
landings, striped flies, Helina,
Phaonia, could they be?
This month the lemon, I’ll say
primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
along the hedge then turn in
to hide, are Yellow Shells not
Shaded Broad-bars. Lines waver.
Camptogramma. Heat off the
road and the nick-nack of names.
Scotopteryx. Darkwing. The
flutter. Doubles and blurs the
margin. Fuscous and white. Stop
at nothing. To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine. Mites which
ramble. Caterpillars which
curl up as question marks. Then
one note, five times, louder each
time, followed, after a fraught
pause, by a soft cuckle of
wet pebbles, which I could call
a glottal rattle. I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

In this poem, Langley opens directly onto the physical world, minimizing the human presence, unlike “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, where the speaker (all agony, in the Romantic mode) dominates the first forty lines of the poem. Nature is somewhere out there in Keats’s poem; his speaker says, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,” though he’s willing to take a few guesses. Langley’s poem, on the other hand, goes down to the ground immediately and sees clearly the non-human world: petals, burls, mites, lichen, flies, lemons, moths. The speaker of Langley’s poem is present only in his desire to name correctly what he sees and hears (a flower, “Helina / Phaonia, could they be?’ and a color “I’ll say / primrose-coloured” and  a sound “which I could call a glottal rattle.”) Human involvement in the scene comes quietly:

               Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine.

He does not romanticize nature, as Keats does when he compares the bird’s “full-throated ease” to a man’s being half in love with Death. Instead, Langley celebrates what is mysterious and even nervous about the natural world (“Caterpillars which / curl up as question marks” and the “fraught pause” of the nightingale, the bird finally making its appearance at the very end of the poem. The man in the scene stands still , but nature is in motion; for Langley, the speaker’s role is that of a careful observer of an active, natural world.  William Wordsworth’s “Ode to a Nightingale” also begins with a man on a bridge and involves a nightingale’s song in the distance (no coincidence there – Langley is surely building on the English tradition of ornithological poems) but the center of that poem is also, as with Keats’s poem, clearly Man, not nature. Langley’s hidden subject might turn out to be the same upon careful observation, but his poetic trick is indirection. Langley, like many good poets, uses the tools of a good magician.

Look, too, at the subtler technical details of Langley’s poem, beyond the large idea it offers. It starts by saying “Nothing on the road.” Then, structurally, the poet unfolds his long list of everything that is actually there. He slows down after the opening four words and takes another look. And the poem come back structurally to that “nothing” by the end; the design of the poem is curvilinear, almost like the little caterpillar’s question mark.

                                          I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems (and like the quantitative verse of ancient Greece) this poem is built on counted syllables, with seven syllables per line, but without the lines feeling unnaturally stunted. Langley’s inspiration for this attention to the syllable was Charles Olson’s essay on “Projective Verse,” in which Olson says, “It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets [that] objects share.” Olson goes on to say that the syllable is “king and pin of versification” and describes what syllables do as a dance. “It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose.”

Counted syllables are not in and of themselves what a poet wants a reader to be aware of – the counting is simply part of the puzzle-making challenge the poet sets himself in order to see what kind of words will fill the particular vessel of the poem. Peter Turchi discusses a poet’s delight in this kind of challenge in his book A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, reviewed in the January issue of Numero Cinq. Turchi also talks about nursery rhymes in that book; several of Langley’s poems involve nursery-rhyme rhythms:

You grig. You hob. You Tom, and what not,
with your moans! Your bones are rubber. Get back
out and do it all again. For all the
world an ape! For all the world Tom poke, Tom
tickle and Tom joke!

(excerpt from “Man Jack”)

Meter established by syllable count is not the only technical tool used in the poem; there is also a generous amount of internal rhyme:

To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff.

A light touch with alliteration also plays its part in the appeal of the poem: petals/pink, hairy/hoary, bridge/burls/bowling/baked, shells/shaded, nick-nack of names…alliteration runs through the poem, as does near-rhyme (“the soft cuckle/ of wet pebbles….”) With such a tight syllabic count, the choice of words that manage to chime off each other like that is especially difficult.

Then there’s the specificity of the Latin names, countered with the goofy sound of giff-gaff and chiff-chaff (which is actually a type of bird.) Langley had a naturalist’s command of information, a linguist’s command of etymology, plus good comedic timing and a modern voice in the style of Wallace Stevens. Some of his phrases in this poem seem non-sensical on first reading, until you look up the less-familiar meaning of a familiar word – the “coping of a bridge,” for example, refers to the architectural detail of its capped wall; “mutes on the bridge, hard as putty” are bird droppings.

Retired in 1999 at the age of 61 and able — finally — to turn his full attention to writing, Langley might have anticipated two decades to do so. But “To a Nightingale,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in November of 2010, was his last published poem; he died in January of 2011. As Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote in his remembrance of Langley for the Cambridge Literary Review, Langley managed to personify Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” that is, the state of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In one poem about a medieval church in the moonlight, Langley says, “There are no / maps of moonlight. We find / peace in the room and don’t /ask what won’t be answered.” In “To a Nightingale,” there are no blunt answers, no overt message, nor is there any clear metaphor-making to draw lines between speaker and scene, yet we feel the mystery and melancholy in both, and we understand Langley’s play on the double-entendre of the word “coping” as it relates to both man and bridge, and the slight rise (of hope?) for both road and man as the poem ends. Daniel Eltringham summarized Langley’s skill in his article “‘The idea of the bird’: Bird Books, the Problem of Taxonomy, and Some Poems by R.F. Langley,” when he said, “Roger Langley’s writing lies between two worlds: the certainty desired by the amateur naturalist and its implications for artistic and taxonomic records, poised against the uncertain, plural, deferred, evasive character of an experimental artist. But poised without explicit tension: he is not a tense writer, more curious and exploratory, content to allow contradictions to remain contrary.”

Here is one more poem, offered up without commentary, other than to mention the character of Jack, who makes his appearance (like John Berryman’s Henry) in many later poems. There is also a noticeable use of end rhyme in this poem in addition to the internal rhyme, and the use of counted syllables (ten to the line.)  You’ll see the same sensibility at play, the same fine control of sound, the barrage of images, the refusal to straighten it all out and over-explain. Some of the work, Langley seemed to believe, belongs to the poem’s readers.

Jack’s Pigeon

The coffee bowl called Part of Poland bursts
on the kitchen tiles like twenty thousand
souls. It means that much. By the betting shop,
Ophelia, the pigeon squab, thuds to
the gutter in convulsions, gaping for
forty thousand brothers. So much is such.
Jack leans on the wall. He says it’s true or
not; decides that right on nine is time for
the blue bee to come to the senna bush,
what hope was ever for a bowl so round,
so complete, in an afternoon’s best light,
and even where the pigeon went, after
she finished whispering goodnight. Meanwhile,
a screw or two of bloody paper towel
and one dead fledgling fallen from its nest
lie on Sweet Lady Street, and sharp white shards
of Arcopal, swept up with fluff and bits
of breadcrust, do for charitable prayers.
The bee came early. Must have done. It jumped
the gun. Jill and the children hadn’t come.

How hard things are. Jack sips his vinegar
and sniffs the sour dregs in each bottle in
the skip. Some, as he dumps them, jump back with
a shout of ‘Crack!’ He tests wrapping paper
and finds crocodiles. The bird stretched up its
head and nodded, opening its beak. It
tried to speak. I hope it’s dead. Bystanders
glanced, then neatly changed the name of every
street. Once this was Heaven’s Hill, but now the
clever devils nudge each other on the
pavement by the betting shop. Jill hurried
the children off their feet. Jack stood and shook.
He thought it clenched and maybe moved itself
an inch. No more. Not much. He couldn’t bring
himself to touch. And then he too had gone.
He’s just another one who saw, the man
who stopped outside the door, then shrugged, and checked
his scratchcard, and moved on. Nothing about
the yellow senna flowers when we get home.
No Jack. No bee. We leave it well alone.

Jack built himself a house to hide in and
take stock. This is his property in France.
First, in the middle of the table at
midday, the bowl. Firm, he would say, as rock.
The perfect circle on the solid block.
Second, somewhere, there is an empty sack.
Third, a particular angry dormouse,
in the comer of a broken shutter,
waiting a chance to run, before the owl
can get her. The kick of the hind legs of
his cat, left on the top step of a prance.
The bark of other peoples’ dogs, far off,
appropriately. Or a stranger’s cough.
His cows’ white eyelashes. Flies settled at
the roots of tails. What is it never fails?
Jack finds them, the young couple dressed in black,
and, sitting at the front, they both look up.
Her thin brown wrist twists her half open hand
to indicate the whole show overhead.
Rotating fingernails are painted red.

Who is the quiet guard with his elbow
braced against the pillar, thinking his thoughts
close to the stone? He is hard to make out,
and easy for shadows to take away.
Half gone in la nef lumineuse et rose.
A scarlet cardinal, Jack rather hoped.
A tired cyclist in a vermillion
anorak. Could anyone ever know?
Sit down awhile. Jill reads the posy in
her ring and then she smiles. The farmer owns
old cockerels which peck dirt. But he is
standing where he feels the swallows’ wings flirt
past him as they cut through the shed to reach
the sunlit yard, bringing a distant blue
into the comfortable gold. How much
can all this hold? To lie and eat. To kill
and worry. To toss and milk and kiss and
marry. To wake. To keep. To sow. Jack meets
me and we go to see what we must do.
The bird has turned round once, and now it’s still.

There’s no more to be done. No more be done.
And what there was, was what we didn’t do.
It needed two of us to move as one,
to shake hands with a hand that’s shaking, if
tint were to be tant, and breaking making.
Now, on the terrace, huddled in my chair,
we start to mend a bird that isn’t there,
fanning out feathers that had never grown
with clever fingers that are not our own:
stroking the lilac into the dove grey,
hearing the croodle that she couldn’t say.
Night wind gives a cool hoot in the neck of
Jack’s beer bottle, open on the table.
Triggered by this, the dormouse shoots along
the sill, illuminated well enough
for us to see her safely drop down through
the wriggling of the walnut tree to find
some parings of the fruit we ate today,
set out on the white concrete, under the
full presentation of the Milky Way.

Though Langley’s work is new to me, I want to put his name in front of readers here at Numero Cinq and to recommend that we all make the effort to find his work and read it. I’ve purchased his Journal and now wait for it to wing its way across the Atlantic and into my mailbox. If your library responds to World Cat requests, you might find copies of his books through that resource. Meanwhile, listen to the wonderful audio recordings he made for The Poetry Archive – he has a perfect reading voice, not melodramatic but full of feeling, which is no small accomplishment. There are two recordings available: first, the odd and interesting “Cook Ting” and then his compelling “Blues for Titania, ” which you can read along with as he reads it – it’s a complicated and masterly poem, four stanzas long, nineteen lines each stanza, eleven syllables per line, and swoon-worthy.

—Julie Larios

 

With Jackson at Mo's 2

Julie Larios’s Undersung essays for Numéro Cinq have highlighted the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid 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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Mar 072015
 

Ralph-Maud-via-commonground.caRalph Maud via www.commonground.ca

A mappamundi of values is what we are after, / the satisfaction we need before we die. / It’s why older people, even dying people, / read the paper avidly. / Shall we revise the prayer?

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Ralph Maud, an old friend of novelist Keith Maillard and his wife, Mary Maillard, died on December 8, 2014. Ralph is best remembered as a scholar ahead of his time — an authority on Charles Olson, expert on Dylan Thomas, a Welsh Nationalist, a collector of northwest aboriginal mythology, and documentary film maker — but he also, as he was approaching death, considered that topic in a purely personal way, leaving behind an eight-page monograph entitled “Make My Way Plain.” In the found poem that follows, Mary Maillard has attempted to distill the essence of Ralph’s thoughts. Every word is Ralph’s.

Poetry and AudiencePoetry and Audience, edited by Ralph Maud

Hereford Mappa Mundi c.1285Hereford Mappa Mundi c.1285

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Ralph Maud’s Prayer: Distilled

1.

Is this the way?
The complexities of being human
on the edge of chaos?
Faced with an edge-of-chaos problem,
I found a way out.

Is this the way?
My father’s innate reticence,
my mother’s Celtic duplicity,
that spark of camaraderie and laughter
in the most dire circumstances?

Is this the way?
Minted in the molecules,
repeated throughout our life,
we are always the next step.
Given matter, the rest follows.

Is this the way?
In a materialistic world we get a sense
of making decisions for ourselves.
Hang onto that feeling;
it’s where value lies.

We can be self-satisfied in our originality,
as we are modest before the fact of determinism:
creatures of medical science, laboratory animals,
we are deluded to think
that we can be known.

2.

My subject is a prayer:
“Make my way plain.”
To whom am I addressing this plea?
As an atheist, I have to say
that I have nobody in mind.

I find myself saying, “Thank you, Lord,”
once a day. After a successful bowel movement –
“Thank you, Lord.”
Breathing is, of course, quite as important,
so perhaps later I will bless my breaths.

Who will make my way plain, then?
Why, Jiminy Cricket, of course.
The mechanism for self examination and guidance
seems common to all humans.
I have seen stubbornness avoid such consultation,

rage obliterate conscience.
I have lived a sheltered life.
I have seen the wholly bad as an exception,
the stony face of unreason: “And if you disagree, you die.”
I made my escape as soon as I could.

3.

A mappamundi of values is what we are after,
the satisfaction we need before we die.
It’s why older people, even dying people,
read the paper avidly.
Shall we revise the prayer?

“Make my way complicated?”
The mappamundi seems to be such
when we consult the abacus of the heart,
that tool for pinning down value,
our excitement is immense and rewarding.

Add goodwill and time to complexities –
that’s what we mean by “making plain.”
One works on one’s own map
and contributes to the world map.
No, we haven’t time to settle things properly.

4.

Down in this eternity of the moment,
we have in us the vestiges of hope for heaven.
Our end in perfect blackness, materialistic determinism –
most of us cannot let in that kind of hopelessness.
We just can’t.

“We just can’t.” There is the rock,
in spite of all our pathologies,
the rock on which we build.
We go on with our lives.
We can’t do otherwise.

We would find our place in Zion.
We would make our own destiny.
We could not do otherwise.
I lived the archetype of the immigrant.
The implication is that one can escape.

5.

William Saroyan’s words still sing for me:
“If I have any desire at all, it is to show the brotherhood of man.”
If there is a solution to “make my way plain,”
it will have something to do with
“the brotherhood of man.”

6.

The pilgrimage now reaches its end.
I am entangled in the end game.
Make my end plain.
I’m not quite there or I could not be writing.
What can I say hurriedly, for us, the dying?

The only sensible thing – when the line is crossed,
the nightmare should be short.
Joking and sociable to the end: I do not think so.
I am breathing with anxiety.
Make my end plain.

One wants to get out of life “with dignity,”
not waiting until life is unbearable.
One should be able to choose when enough is enough.
In principle, the way is perfectly plain
but the practicalities are elusive.

7.

As one puts in the bookmark and turns out the light,
there is the feeling that at least tomorrow is assured,
since the world would not, surely, deny one the solution
to come with the next day’s reading. There’s also the fellow feeling
as we get used to the idea of death.

 Ralph-Maud

Lines distilled by Mary Maillard, January 3, 2015, from Ralph Maud, “Make My Way Plain,” privately distributed, Vancouver, February, 2013.

 

Mary-Maillard-Photo-

Mary Maillard is an independent scholar and documentary editor from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her primary interests are in 19th century southern women and mixed race studies. She is the editor of the Skinner Family Papers and has written a monograph introducing three collections of southern antebellum coming-of-age letters, A Map of Time and Blood: An Introduction to the Skinner Family Papers 1826-1850 (2014). Her article, “‘Faithfully Drawn from Real Life:’ Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends,” appeared in the July 2013 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and, in 2013/2014, she received an Albert M. Greenfield Foundation Fellowship in African American History from the Library Company of Philadelphia for her research on the letters of Louisa Jacobs and Annie Purvis to Eugenie Webb, 1879-1911. Mary has contributed biographical entries to blackpast.org, including Frank J. Webb, Julia Chinn, George Lowther, and Pierre and Juliette Toussaint.

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Feb 112015
 

Thomas McCarthy

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Winter With Catherine

The plover and the plover’s page
Apply their narceine to Kenmare water

In this, the earliest light of winter time.
Night lifts its bitter crystalline,

Clouds withdraw in wounded hauteur.

Sunlight tinctures sorrel and sage
With drifts of its royal orpiment

While we gaze upon a lobster-boat
As it drops a rosary-beads of pots.

Gulls attend each sinking reliquary:
Chattering classes in a frenzy of prayer –

The hour is so casually strummed upon,
It booms in opiate lanquor:

This sun is a river, the plover’s a sea.

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While You Sleep

I watch the timeless candle burning at both ends.
At one end it must be my mother’s face
And her infinite correlation with my own fate.
There’s no other end that I would put in place

At this moment or at any moment in our room.
The candle burns in its circadian rhythms,
Leaving words behind it on her waxy lips:
She told stories to the dark while the world slept

And like poems she didn’t need an end
But supped off the oils of perpetual change.
I watch the warm light on your own restless face.
You are restless like a mother. The precipice

Of night threatens you, though I am here
Always to hold you. You must learn to un-drown
Yourself, to float the way light does
From a timeless candle. Your superstition grows

In the absence of day, but night has no substance
When we are together. Look at the stars
Through the bedroom window: their universe
Is nothing in this huge room, in the light from us.

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At Ink Level, The Sea

Here on the writing desk of the earth
The sun goes down quickly at ink level.
Soon the stony outcrop will be a blob
Of light blue and the sky will be pale
As the tissue rises. Is it time to go in
Or is it time to go outside? Only time

Will tell me how the levels rise –
Phrases cluster on the sunlit page,
So many oyster-catchers thread the surf,
Their needlepoint becomes pale green.
Water is near, shale bursts in applause,
Gulls congregate on a drifting raft.

Am I going out or coming in with the sea?
Not everything is blessed by the promise
Of water: your book on birds
Is soaked by the wash, ink grows pale
In its buckled galleys. From the Hellespont
Of a paper-clip, Leander swims to me.

—Thomas McCarthy

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Thomas McCarthy was born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, in 1954. Educated at University College Cork. He worked for many years at Cork City Library. Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, 1977, Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize, 1980 and O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize, 1991. Fellow of the International Writing Programme, University of Iowa, 1978/79. A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review and guest editor of The Stony Thursday Book, he has directed writing workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week, Arvon Foundation and Molly Keane House. He is a member of Aosdana. His last collection of poems was The Last Geraldine Officer (2009). A new book, Pandemonium, is due from Anvil Poetry in May 2015.

 

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Feb 032015
 

RW with trout

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How The Blind Dog Perceived Human Sadness

was a mystery no less than her willingness
to attend to it. The way she nuzzled a hand,
so that it might be extended to her and washed clean

of whatever it was that afflicted it, which she smelled.
It had to be, for she was deaf too, there was no way to tell
her of it otherwise, that fragrance, that human blue fetor
no human could detect nor make better any better

than she, with her vast practical capacity
for affection, her sadness-eating dog reciprocity,
her thoroughness, the skin salts delectable and relished,
the milky eyes from which her world had vanished

and reappeared as a scent she did not understand
and might not have needed to, except that a man
she loved somehow exuded it, and she smelled
his breath then too, as he spoke and told

her what it was, which she could not hear.
Still, it may have been, because she was so near,
something her nose could actually discern
and why it was she left the hand behind

to lick his face as well, and it was in the things he said
to her and were about her too, in ways
that reeked of misery, except that she was good,
which she most of all wanted to know, and did.

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Uncle

You should understand she does not hate you
and wants not the least of what matters most
in your world. Rather, you should try to grasp
how much she pities you. Maybe you do

somehow, and it’s pity you can’t abide.
You would prefer hate, but you won’t get it.
Your need for power, or money, is a habit,
a scar from some wound very deep inside,

deeper in the bone than blood or brotherhood.
A vicious and powerful man is a pathetic thing,
but for residual love by another, undeserving
even of pity. If not in yours, it must be in her blood,

who remembers loving you, back when you were
the man she remembers, not the man you are.

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Chances Are

“While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings”
…………………………………..—Oliver Wendell Holmes

I woke this morning with it in my mind
and it could not be dislodged, removed,
or replaced: the silken, almost-but-not-quite
cloying voice of Johnny Mathis, on whom
my mother had a crush. He was, in those days,
she said, a very pretty man. The problem,
for me, is the prettiness of the productions,
the way this tune begins with plucked chord
from a harp, of all things, then resolves

to a decorous but appropriate piano and guitar,
just before the truly cloying strings come in.
I don’t remember feeling it odd
that my mother would have a crush
on a black man. Maybe the delicacy
of his features and that mild, yes, silken, voice.
What if it had been James Brown, I wonder?
She preferred pretty. Pretty man, pretty
voice, pretty song. There’s a weird, ethereal

soprano, it sounds like, ululating
over the song’s unctuous bridge: what
were they thinking, those producers?
They were thinking of my mother, I suppose.
All I know is that it won’t go away
until it does, and I wake one morning
with James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s
Man’s World” similarly lodged in my mind.
Or Johnny Hartman’s “You Are Too Beautiful,”

or something by the Beatles, or Janis Joplin,
who managed beautiful but never quite pretty.
My father’s not quite an invalid, and every morning
my mother dresses him as though he’s got somewhere
to go, and chances are tells him he’s pretty,
then leads him, as usual, to his chair.
That’s where he’s sitting when I call.
He’s listening to Johnny Hartman, which she chose
for him. She’s peeling and slicing him

a perfect summer-succulent peach.
She’ll want to get him to bed soon,
so I ask her about the crush on Johnny Mathis,
and she says “Yes, I did. A very pretty man
with very pretty voice.” They don’t socialize much
anymore. We talk about Mathis. She misses
their neighbors, a gay couple across the lake.
“Such wonderful decorators,” she says, then worries
she should not have said such a thing.

“Why are you asking this, Bob?” she inquires.
And so I tell her even now, as we’re talking,
that “Chances Are” is lilting through my mind
in the background. She rouses my father to say hello
and goodbye, the extent of our talk these days.
Still, it’s what we’ve said that does it,
I think. It takes me a while to realize,
but it’s true. I don’t know what else is there,
but in the time since we hung up, in my efforts

to formulate a better answer for her, “Chances Are”
has disappeared and been replaced by those efforts.
Regarding Mathis, the last thing she said was
“I hope he’s happy now, don’t you?” Recalling that
brings back the song, and I find I am happy too.
Or happy as my mother is,
which, given her situation with my father, seems
like a miracle, or at least something awfully good.
Chances are, just because, awfully good, the last phrase’s

syllables elided, so that awfully is a trochee,
a pretty bit of pronunciation, metrical accommodation.
There’s something about the way pretty diminishes
that which it describes, a function of class perhaps,
the strictures of modesty militantly enforced.
The danger of beauty, lunatic infatuation, avarice
and woe, sinkhole of the mirror, the hubris
of aspiration, something rotten in the apple that isn’t.
How is it I awaken every morning with a song

in my head, but never, not once, a poem.
“Beauty without dignity, neat elegance without
elevation; beauty of a slight, diminutive, dainty,
or childish kind, without stateliness”: the demarcations
of prettiness thus expressed, the dictionary
in its twenty volumes is pretty on my shelf,
beautiful and savage, by definition, inside.
You can look up Mathis’s Beverly Hills mansion
on the internet and find that it is stately.

I think it’s safe to say I will never awaken
in such a house nor with a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
on my mind, unless it had been secretly set to music
and recorded by James Brown, whose name,
of course, is a spondee. A diminutive man,
only five-six, a bomb, a dervish, a sex machine.
Johnny Mathis is five-seven. My father was five-nine
but is bent approximately to my mother’s five-four
now, and, chances are, bruisable as a peach.

.

Or Possibly Languor

So many words for it lovelier than
what they describe: lassitude, torpor,

lethargy, ennui. The phalanges of lead,
the lifting of eyelids requiring hydraulic force.

I am interested in the fact that lassitude—
the word, that is—has declined

in use by nearly fifty percent
over the last two centuries, lethargy

likewise, by almost half as much. Also
that enervation peaked around 1875,

along with ennui. How can that be?
And torpor, if linguists and lexicographers

are correct, is almost all gone now.
Indolence, however, thrives, even though,

or maybe because, it is October,
even the local birds burdened with it.

This rumpled nuthatch, for instance,
having sidled along the deer rib perch

from the nubbined spinal end
to the very point at which the bone’s screwed

to the porch post, where the bird sprawls
against the cedar and does not sing not at all.

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Sunnyside Bench Church, Abandoned

The farmer who converted it to a hay barn
might know the date of the last Sunday service.
It’s spring now, almost all the hay is gone.
The steeple bell’s a redtail hawk, looking askance

out over the graveyard across the gravel road.
A fire blew through last August, a few stones
show scorch marks still, and the wooden posts
of the barbwire fence around it are black and lean.

Out front the glass of the announcement box
is gone. A few letters of the old minister’s
name have yet to fall: Rev T OMA OX: Cox,
possibly Knox. Thomas, of course. For listeners,

there’s abundant birdsong, the plunge of the river
rising from a thousand feet below. Inside,
there’s mouse scrabble, the thin clatter-quiver
of a windowframe, loose in its sash. A few shed

snake skins glitter in a corner, under a row
of extant coat hooks from which a pitchfork hangs.
There’s a single, mostly whole stained glass window
in the eastern wall: a serpent showing its fangs,

perched in the boughs of the famous tree,
a bullet hole, it looks like, through the trunk.
No pulpit or altar on the holy of holies.
The pews were sold or cast off as junk.

Whatever it was the Revered Cox or Knox
intoned from up there isn’t hard to imagine.
The usual talk of heaven and hell all such flocks
heard and still hear, ordinary praise and sin.

What’s strangest is the presence of the cross,
still hanging on the high back wall.
Hand-hewn pine beams, a bird’s nest
tucked in the notch at the cross-beam’s right angle.

—Robert Wrigley

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Robert Wrigley has lived most of his adult life in the Northwest—in Washington, Oregon, and Montana, but mostly in Idaho, where he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Idaho. He has published ten books of poetry, including, mostly recently, Anatomy of Melancholy & Other Poems and, in the UK, The Church of Omnivorous Light. A recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Poets’ Prize, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and a Pacific Northwest Book Award, he has also been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Idaho Commission on the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, and the Times Literary Supplement, among many other magazines and journals. He lives in the woods with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes.

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Jan 312015
 

YouTube Preview Image

 

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Tom Take 4

Tom Faure is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq. A graduate in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

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Jan 072015
 

covers“slipped almost totally under the radar…” (David Rivard)

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The recent passing of Mark Strand brought many things to mind—not least his important role, along with Charles Simic, in expanding the impact of European and South American poets on American poetry through their groundbreaking 1976 anthology Another Republic.

American poetry, it’s true, had already been seriously altered by an influx of work from “abroad” in the 60’s.  The so-called “Generation of ‘27”—in particular, Bly, Levine, Merwin, Kinnell, and Wright—all of whom had come of age under the strictures of New Criticism, suddenly found a new set of formal means and opened-up subject matter when they started reading the poetry of the French and Spanish surrealists, classical Chinese writers like Tu Fu and Li Po, the German Expressionist Georg Trakl, and a young Swedish psychologist named Tomas Transtromer.  Their work as translators, and the subsequent startling changes in their own poetry, created—for better and worse—all sorts of new vectors and undercurrents, some of which coalesced around the allied schools that came to be known as “Neo-surrealism” and “Deep Image.”  Bly, in particular, was a tireless enthusiast for this new poetry, a theorizer and propagandist in his essays, and a publisher through his press and magazine, The 60’s.  Through wonderful books like Leaping Poetry, a book whose insights about neurology and anthropology are debatable, if not unhinged, at moments, he helped lead an inspired loosening up of language and perception in American poetry.

Others made less dramatic, more indirect contributions: the fingerprints of the Surrealists and other European modernists were all over the New York School, if one knew where to look, absorbed into an American idiom by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara long before the work became more generally available in this country.  How many young American poets must have gone to the cubist poetry of Pierre Reverdy simply because O’Hara had ended “A Step Away from Them” by writing “My heart is in my pocket,/it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

In Another Republic, Strand and Simic brought together a much wider range of poets in translation than had been previously available, with generous selections by seventeen poets.  More ethnically and aesthetically diverse (though, inexplicably, all men), the poets in Another Republic were largely the inheritors and adapters of High Modernism—sometimes combining modernist techniques with the more fabular and allegorical impulses found in folklore traditions; sometimes focusing literary cubism on the apparently banal and everyday, endowing ordinary people and places with strangeness and mystery; almost always deploying a self in the poem that was both mordantly comic and humanly vulnerable.

Paul Celan, Yehuda Amichai, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Drummond De Andrade, Zbigniew Herbert, Fernando Pessoa, Czeslaw Milosz, Yannis Ritsos, Jean Follain, and the others were largely unknown to American readers at the time.  Many, if not all, had experienced exile and/or the violence of mid-century history.  They often wrote with far more nuanced consciousness of the political than Americans were used to in their poetry.  They were also highly tuned to the absurdities that historical fate has increasingly had in store for all of us.  The variety of their approaches to writing a poem was stunning.  For those in two generations of American poets who have read Another Republic, the influence has been profound I suspect.

Another Republic

That the book is no longer as well known as it should be, and that the poets included in it have mostly passed into the oblivion of the canonical, speaks volumes about contemporary American poetry.  Solipsistic, driven by social media and the marketing campaigns of publishing companies and academic trade groups like AWP, ensconced in print and digital affiliations that function like gated-communities, monetized by the promotional efforts of well-meaning institutions such as the Academy of American Poets and bien-pensant congregations like The Dodge Festival, American poetry no longer seems as open to the influence of work in translation, despite the fact that more of it is being published than ever.

Is it possible that at this point there’s so much translated poetry available that it’s actually taken for granted?  Perhaps no one is exercising the sort of editorial selectivity that Mark Strand and Charles Simic did in 1976, so the impact of great and idiosyncratic writers can no longer be felt.  Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris’s recently published Ecco Anthology of International Poetry is huge (592 pages), an admirably comprehensive survey of 20th century world poetry—but perhaps it does a disservice by implying that all the poets in its pages are of the same value?  I feel a little churlish in the face of their good work just in asking the question; but a kind of leveling out occurs with a huge book like this.  Perhaps a little more curatorial pressure would have helped direct readers to the best of translated poets?  Maybe not. It isn’t the fault of Kaminsky and Harris that a faith in “American Exceptionalism” rules writers here just as strongly as it does our political leaders.  Translated poetry seems like just another marketing niche, easy enough to avoid if one is intent on maintaining ignorance and preserving one’s assumptions.

Inattention or indifference or distraction, whatever the case, some recently published books by major figures, books bringing world-class writers into English in a comprehensive way for the first time, have been largely ignored.  Two in particular, both issued in 2013—by the long-dead German Expressionist, Gottfried Benn, and the very-much alive Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli—slipped almost totally under the radar.  Oddly enough, both were published in handsome editions by Farrar Strauss Giroux—a house whose reputation and promotional reach would, in another time, have guaranteed a thoughtful, widespread reception.  Neither seems to have found the notice and readership it deserves.

Both Benn and Cavalli offer approaches that might shake up some of the smug assumptions of the current period style.  One senses in reading them that, for Benn and Cavalli, the act of making poems, of sounding their idiosyncratic music, is exhilarating—no matter the mood of the work, or the troubled waters sailed by its makers at any particular moment. Best of all, the distinctiveness of each poet’s music has largely carried over, so that a reader can feel as if he or she is encountering a poet of complex formal mastery in English.

In very different ways, both Cavalli and Benn are poets whose intelligence is often registered in the body, immersed as they are in the physicality and oddness of sensation.  Their complex formal processing is often abstract, non-linear, deployed in elliptical narrative and scene building; but it is carried out with an improvised, full-contact immediacy of the sort implied by the painter Philip Guston when he spoke of certain artists who have a desire to achieve “this release where their thinking doesn’t precede their doing.”  As Guston might have put it, neither Benn nor Cavalli is interested in using language merely to “illustrate” their thinking—each seems to enter the poem without preconceptions about what it’s going to become.

*

It might be over-stating the case to say that Gottfried Benn’s reputation in this country has largely had the status of a rumor.  As Michael Hoffman, the translator and editor of Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, puts it in his astute introduction, it would probably be hard to fill a room here with people capable of having a serious conversation about Benn, despite the wide acknowledgment in Germany of his being “the greatest German poet since Rilke.”  One slender book of translations has previously appeared of Benn’s work, in print from New Directions since the late 1950’s despite suffering from its translator’s stodgy approach.  In the United States at least, Benn’s posthumous existence has been subjected to a neglect even more encompassing than what he experienced while alive.  One couldn’t even say that he’s a poet’s poet exactly.

Benn 2

If Benn is known here at all, it is for one poem in particular, that archetypal, foundational piece of early 20th century Expressionism, “Little Aster.”

Little Aster

A drowned drayman was hoisted on to the slab.
Someone had jammed a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I made the incision up from the chest
with a long knife
under the skin
to cut out tongue and gums,
I must have nudged it because it slipped
into the brain lying adjacent.
I packed it into the thoracic cavity
with the excelsior
when he was sewn up.
Drink your fill in your vase!
Rest easy,
little aster!

Appearing in Benn’s first collection, a 1912 chapbook called Morgue and Other Poems, the poem can hardly surprise in the way it did a hundred years ago—for one thing, the radical approach and fresh subject matter of Expressionism has been so unconsciously diffused into the postmodernist landscape that a piece like this can almost seem a cultural cliché: the granddaddy of undergraduate punk/goth shock tableaux.  And like certain other products of the early Modernist effort to sweep away the crapola of late Victorian furniture and sentiment—say Pound’s “In A Paris Metro”—the poem feels as if it’s a bit of a one-trick pony.

The poem’s true power, one that would only amplify as Benn continued to write, is its straight-forward precision in making and arranging observed detail, as well as its economy of action, all of which seem part and parcel of a tonal restraint that saves the scene from melodrama.  The poem’s real shock lies in the calmness of the narrator—a calm that has ironic distance in it, but is not without undercurrents of empathy.  Like all of Benn’s work this early poem has a sort of double-vision.  In Hoffman’s masterful translation, Benn makes us aware in the very first line of his utterly physical sense of the human body—“hoisted onto the slab,” this corpse is as thingy as the cargo the living drayman must have hauled.  The verbs and nouns all have a matter-of-fact tangibility that avoids exaggeration, but the spare exactness of description somehow turns the physical gestures of the speaker and the plotted scene itself into a sort of ritualized activity.  The speaker’s very alertness to what he is doing implies respect of an almost primal sort for the body.

morgue

“Little Aster” has the clinical detachment of the doctor that Benn was—a clear-eyed, discomfiting, anti-Romantic sense of what a body is made of, and what happens to it once its purpose is finished—but no matter how sardonic the poem’s final exclamation is, I’ve never felt more certain than I do in Hoffman’s translation that a kind of spell of departure has been cast, a primitive, raw performance with a hint of the shamanistic about it.  Benn is both utterly cold and utterly caring, a world-class pessimist and cynic with tenderness and longing still partially intact.  No wonder Hoffman calls him “both the hardest and the softest poet who ever lived.”

In his intro, Hoffman reduces Benn’s biographical character to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek summary: “the military man, the doctor, the poet, and the ladies’ man.”  True enough to the facts.  Benn was born into a minister’s family in a small village between Berlin and Hamburg in 1886, had completed his medical training by the time his first book came out in 1912, and served in the German army during WW I (he once wrote that he’d served his duty in Brussels, as “a doctor in a whorehouse”).  On mustering out, he went into practice in dermatology and venereology.  His first wife, from whom he was separated, died in 1922, and a Danish couple subsequently adopted their daughter.  By 1935 Benn had reenlisted, driven apparently by a combination of financial need and a sense that a garrison might be the place he was most comfortable in life (“Nothing so dreamy as barracks!”).  By 1938 he had remarried, a marriage that would last until 1945, when his wife killed herself, fearful of what might happen to her once the advancing Russians arrived.  Another marriage followed WW II, at which point Benn was living in West Berlin, where he remained until his death in 1956.  The occupying Allies forbid publication of his work immediately following the war, because of his perceived Nazi sympathies; but a Swiss publisher, Arche, issued Static Poems in 1948, with a Collected Poems arriving in 1956, the year of his death at 70.  In between, in 1951, his work had won him the Georg Buchner Prize, one of the two most important literary prizes for writers in German.  Neither publication nor prizes seem to have afforded Benn anything resembling a comfortable life.

Benn2

Of Benn’s brief, troubling travels on the edges of the Nazi orbit in 1933-34, Hoffman has a number of interesting things to say, none of them in defense of Benn exactly, more in scrupulous accounting for how this “fleeting appearance of compatibility” might have come to pass.  In any case, as Hoffman points out, “mutual detestation” set in quickly.  Benn was first deleted from the medical register as a suspected Jew; then in 1938 he was banned from writing and publishing altogether, his work labeled “degenerate” for its expressionist elements.  That work—as Hoffman is at pains to point out—is so pessimistic about human life in general as to make political ideologies like National Socialism seem fraudulent by implication: to Benn “human existence was futile, progress a delusion, history a bloody mess, and the only stay against fatuity was art, was poetry.”

If you are unfamiliar with Benn’s work, and think that last sentence sounds hyperbolic, be assured that it is not.  Not at all.  Benn makes such notable cynics as Catullus or the Japanese Zen master Ikkyu or the misanthropic Philip Larkin sound like village good folk with relatively sunny outlooks.  In American poetry of the last fifty years, perhaps only Alan Dugan or Frederick Seidel (in their very different ways) come close to such a dark estimate of human behavior.  That Benn was inclined by psychological character toward such a view is outweighed by the fact that life gave him plenty of grim evidence to confirm his pessimism.  That he wanted to make this evidence into poetry suggests something not so much heroic as desperate and compellingly mysterious.  There’s little solace in Benn’s work, but there is plenty of an endangered (and endangering) sublime.

If the early work sometimes feels as if it’s straining for an effect, it is no less bracing for its honesty.  Immersed in body knowledge, it possesses certain formal gestures that intensify Benn’s raw physicality, gestures that he would develop and use later in his career to build complex collages of image and statement—in particular, a telegraphic style of sentence-making that emphasizes his clipped and fragmented sense of personal observation.  As a result, the voice has a terse manner that is both nervy and incisive.  The opening of “Night Café”—a poem that owes a debt to Rimbaud’s “To Music”—brings the medical man’s eye to a common social scene:

 824: Lives and Loves of Women.
The cello takes a quick drink. The flute
Belches expansively for three beats: good old dinner.
The timpani has one eye on his thriller.

Mossed teeth in pimpled face
Waves to incipient stye.

Greasy hair
Talks to open mouth with adenoids
Faith Hope Love around her neck

Young goiter has a crush on saddlenose.
He treats her to onetwothree beers.

Benn’s writing is living proof that description always reflects attitude—behind these words and images is an acerbic, knowing speaker who may be one of the most laconically fierce creatures in all of world literature.  But not just.  The ending of the poem shows that other current that ripples through Benn: a susceptibility to lyric intoxication, especially in the presence of women and flowers:

The door melts away: a woman.
Dry desert. Canaanite tan.
Chaste. Concavities. A scent accompanies her, less a scent
Than a sweet pressure of the air
Against my brain.

It really is remarkable the way the metaphorical transformations and rhythmic shifts communicate the young Benn’s physical intoxication here.  (And like a lot of early Modernism, one feels what might be the syntactical influence of cinema at work, the editing and framing lessons already available in silent films.)  Then Benn does something that also turns out to be prototypical for his work: he undercuts the longing, compromising it with this final observation: “An obesity waddles after.”

*1886-1956+Schriftsteller, Arzt, DPortr„t mit ZigaretteFoto: Fritz Eschen

The snapped speech; the quick-cutting method of sketching a scene; the physicality (both raw and lyrically intoxicated); the richness of diction, precise and energizing but never decorative or fussy—all of these amplified as Benn developed, especially in the 1930’s when the work evolved a more digressive, complicating movement, ranging more widely over time and space.  He never, ever loses his physicality and quickening energy, or his inventive phrasings.  His patented mix of erotic longing, calm pastoral alertness, and hardboiled cosmopolitan outlook only intensify:

…the park,
and the flower beds
all damp and tangled—

autumnal sweetness,
tuffets of Erica
along the Autobahn,
everything is Luneburg
heather, purple and unbearing,
whins going nowhere,

introverted stuff
soon browned off—
give it a month
it’ll be as if  it’d never flowered.

(“Late”)

And this, from another poem of the 1950’s, called “No Tears”:

Roses, Christ knows how they got to be so lovely,
Green skies over the city
In the evening
In the ephemerality of the years!

The yearning I have for that time
when one mark thirty was all I had,
yes, I counted them this way and that,
I trimmed my days to fit them,
days what am I saying days: weeks on bread and plum mush
out of earthenware pots
brought from my village,
still under the rushlight of native poverty,
how raw everything felt, how tremblingly beautiful!

During the Second World War, and after, Benn increasingly found ways to let his thinking/feeling consciousness expand out of the originating scene, in poems both long and short—without conclusion or solution.  Unlike so many poets, he doesn’t seem to feel that he’s here to solve a problem, either for himself or the reader.  The later work becomes more epigrammatic in intelligence (“aversion to progress/is profundity in the wise man”) and stoically self-knowing (“my compulsion to shadows”) and, at the end, more generous and tender (“it’s only the ephemeral that is beautiful”).  Nonetheless, Benn seems only to have wanted to intensify the contradictory character that lay behind the words, not “cure” his suffering as if were a disease:

Gladioli

A bunch of glads,
certainly highly emblematic of creation,
remote from frills of working blossom with hope of fruit—
slow, durable, placid,
generous, sure of kingly dreams.

All else is natural world and intellect!
Over there the mutton herds:
strenuous ends of clover and daggy sheep—
here friendly talents,
pushing Anna to the center of attention,
explaining her, finding a solution!

The glads offer no solution:
being—falling—
you mustn’t count the days—
fulfillment
livid, tattered, or beautiful.

Most wisdom in poetry feels stagy, self-conscious, but “you mustn’t count the days” is the real thing: a simple, clarifying knowledge that feels earned among the living: the maximum advice, with the minimal exaggeration, given in the face of a terrible sense of meaninglessness, the most literal death threat anyone can imagine.  Benn doesn’t have any answer, other than doing his work.  He has only his contradictions, and they just lead to questions:

Even now in the big city night
café terrace
summer stars
from the next door table
assessments
of hotels in Frankfurt
the ladies frustrated
if their desires had mass
they would each of them weigh twenty stone

But the electricity in the air! Balmy night
a la travel brochure and
the girls step out of their pictures
improbable lovelies
legs up to here, a waterfall,
their surrender is something one doesn’t even begin
to contemplate.

Married couples by comparison disappoint,
don’t cut it, fail to clear the net,
he smokes, she twists her rings,
worth considering
the whole relationship between marriage and creativity,
stifling or galvanizing.

Questions, questions! Scribbled incitation’s
on a summer night,
there were no Gainsboroughs in my parents’ house
now everything has gone under
the whole thing, par ci, par la,
Selah, end of psalm.

(from “Par Ci, Par La”)

Towards the end, Benn seems to have found some measure of—what?  Acceptance? Equanimity?  Open-heartedness?  There doesn’t seem to be word in English for what comes across in his late poems, the contradictions undiminished, but it has an un-deluded tenderness and compassion in it.  A passage from a very late visit to a scene inhabited by characters quite similar to those in the earlier “Night Café” illustrates the change:

Truly, the grief of hearts is ubiquitous
and unending,
but whether they were ever in love
(outwith the awful wedded bed)
burning, athirst, desert-parched
for the nectar of a far-away
mouth,
sinking, drowning
in the impossibility of human souls—

you won’t know, nor can you
ask the waiter,
who’s just ringing up
another Beck’s,
always avid for coupons
to quench a thirst of another nature,
though also deep.

(“They Are Human After All”)

Michael Hoffman’s translations in Impromptus seem by and large flawless to me.  He appears to have lived in Benn’s poems for a very long time, and to have a natural affinity for rendering the music of Benn’s German into English.  The poems have integrity, in every sense.  Hoffman also provides a selection of Benn’s prose—it is every bit a match for the poetry in alacrity, intellect, wryness, passion, honesty, and textured observation.  We should be extremely grateful for the whole package.

*

If Gottfried Benn exists for American poets as a village rumor (if he exists at all), Patrizia Cavalli might be said to be a whisper on a windy side street.  Prior to FSG issuing My Poems Won’t Change the World in 2013, a small Canadian publisher had brought out Cavalli’s single previous collection in English, a selected poems with the same title that appeared in the late 90’s.

Cavalli

You’d have to have known exactly what you were looking for in order to find that book.  Perhaps the only way you might have wondered about her then was if you had read the late Kenneth Koch’s marvelous “Talking with Patrizia,” from One Train.  That longish, obsessive, dialogue-driven poem purports to capture a late-night conversation between the two poets, a moment when Koch seeks advice from Cavalli about how to get back together with a woman who has sent him packing.

…I thought
You might be the best
Person to talk to Patrizia since you
Love women and are a woman
Yourself. You may be right Patrizia

Said.

It’s a performance full of Koch’s madcap, bittersweet romanticism, as well as the lively affection of two friends, true believers who are experienced travellers in the land of disappointed longing.  In the acknowledgments to the FSG edition, Cavalli reports that she had provided Koch with “technical advice on how to seduce” the woman.  She thanks him for his friendship and his longtime support of her work—“if the dead can be thanked.”  It’s an aside that typifies the mordant, skeptical wit that runs throughout her work.

Cavalli’s biography is far easier to summarize than Benn’s.  Born in 1949 in the small Umbrian city of Todi, she came to Rome in the late 60’s to study philosophy, started writing poems, and fell in with some American ex-pats who introduced her to the Italian novelist Elsa Morante, an early encourager of her work.  Her first book of poems appeared in 1974, also titled My Poems Won’t Change the World.  Subsequent books have appeared at regular but extended intervals, all from the Italian publisher Einaudi: The Sky (1981), The All Mine Singular I (1992), The Forever Open Theater (1999), and Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate (2006).  Cavalli appears to have made a living in Rome as a translator of plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, and Wilde, as well as from her poetry and readings, both of which are highly popular in Italy.  The editor (and co-translator) of the FSG book, Gini Alhadeff, reports of Cavalli that “once upon a time she used to play poker and sell paintings on the side (or the other way around).”  You can take Alhadeff’s comment as her way of signaling Cavalli’s charismatic personal energy, evidence of which abounds on You Tube, where there are various clips of her reciting her poems, not to mention singing in performance with Italian “folk-rock” groups.

Beyond their urbanity and minds saturated by physical sensation, Cavalli and Benn share a manner of detached self-observation more typical of certain European poets than American (Louise Gluck might be its primary avatar here, and, in a more baroque, performative way, Frederick Seidel).  There’s shrewdness in this stance toward the self: its calculations allow for moments of romantic, lyric feeling without melodrama or maudlin effect.  This shrewdness is linked in both poets’ work to a contradictory quality: beneath the impulsive, improvisational lyricism that fuels the making of the poems are self-conscious intensities of will and character.

In Cavalli, in particular, there is often an attractive note of irritability beneath her impulsiveness—she can be charmingly resistant at moments, in a way that might remind a reader slightly of the early William Carlos Williams.  I mean the Williams of “Danse Russe” and “To a Friend Concerning Several Ladies,” among other poems.  This irritability—sometimes bemused, sometimes annoyed or exasperated—gives Cavalli’s voice a freshness of attitude: a witty, breezy confidence and curiosity compounded with something darker, more introverted and warily expectant, even anxious.  Almost none of Cavalli’s poems is titled, one implication of which might be to signal an impatient immediacy.  This goes hand-in-hand with her conjectural assertiveness—I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more decisively speculative or conclusively ambivalent poet.

patrizia

The short poem that begins the collection and gives it its title provides a perfect example of this utterly considered but quick-witted responsiveness:

Someone told me
of course my poems
won’t change the world.

I say yes of course
my poems
won’t change the world.

As in so many of Cavalli’s poems, one comes away refreshed by how the speaker—with a simple, almost Zen-like flip—has turned the situation inside out. The shift in tense from past to present, and the slight relining of the phrases, generate a surprising power and adamancy, a vocal inflection at odds with the overt statement: a big, complex “so what?”  The implication being that Cavalli has a lot more on her mind than changing the world.

Early and late, Cavalli’s great subject is how we live inside our expectations and desires, endless as they are, entertaining and tormenting, so determinant of our psychological character, but necessary as well for breaking out of our bounded selves.

But first we must free ourselves
from the strict stinginess that produces us,
that produces me on this chair
in the corner of a café
awaiting with the ardor of clerk
the very moment in which
the small blue flames of the eyes
across from me, eyes familiar
with risk, will, having taken aim,
lay claim to a blush
from my face. Which blush they will obtain.

(translated by Geoffrey Brock)

The combination of romance and self-irony on display here is a Cavalli trademark, one that finds expression in all of her work through perceptual inversions and reversals of perspective.   Alhadeff writes in her introduction that “innocence” is Cavalli’s main preoccupation—it may be that what she is referring to are moments when Cavalli feels free of those boundaries (the “strict stinginess”) that make the self.  It’s an ongoing struggle in her work, an irresolution signaled by how frequently—as here—the poems seem to begin in medias res.  There’s a drama in the swerving of her syntax as it flows through the elongated first sentence, a drama that’s underlined when she cuts back against the fluidity of the first sentence with the much shorter, punchier second one.  It’s one of Cavalli’s prototypical moments of speculative imagination, built out of guesses and notions, but strangely adamant despite being suppositional.  Even the “we” form of address adds to the vibe here, adding a projective ambivalence—it seems both a more general reference to the reader and a way for the speaker to talk to and about herself.

For a poet as physically and psychologically intimate as Cavalli often is, she rarely seems autobiographical or confessional.  She is, for example, quite matter-of-fact in the poems about being a lesbian, but at the same it could hardly be said to be the foregrounded subject.  There is something compellingly oblique in the elliptical way this poem develops from the scene it renders, with so much information and context left out:

Eating a Macintosh apple
she showed me her crumpled lips.
And afterwards she didn’t know what to do
she couldn’t even discard
the small mangled thing that more and more
turned yellow in her hand.

And daylight’s the time to get drunk
when the body still waits for surprises
from light and from rhythm,
when it still has the energy
to invent a disaster.

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

The first stanza is quietly astonishing.  With its vibrant, precise handling of physical detail, it’s almost Chekhovian in the way it renders both the character’s physical presence and the speaker’s psychology.  The second stanza works just as indirectly, its implications created via a commentary that seems to be located in the present moment of the speaker’s mind, not in the narrative moment of the past.  It combines a playful wit with the darker, more implicating knowledge that arrives from experience.  The same, thrilling sense of nuance exists in all of Cavalli’s work.

Patrizia-Cavalli

Cavalli is most interested, as she writes in one poem, in “a dallying in the possible,/suspended between too/little and too much, but/always out of place.”  The fluidity of her poems is almost the opposite of Gottfried Benn’s more angular, abrupt, and hacked out movements through juxtaposition, but both are masters of changeability, driven by impulsiveness and irritability.  Admittedly, Cavalli often comes off as more spirited than Benn.  Hard to imagine very many poets who would begin a poem, a complaint about the singularity of identity, like this: “Chair, stop being such a chair!/And books, don’t you be books like that!”  But there is also in Cavalli’s work a bracing self-honesty and a fearlessness about putting on display some of the less attractive parts of speaker’s ego—it’s rather wonderful how matter-of-fact she is about this too, without an ounce of phony piety or regret, managing to be charming at the same time she is brutally direct about her own carelessness and contempt at such moments, before giving way to a vulnerability all the more convincing because not overcooked or dramatized.

I walked full of myself and very strong
crossing the bridge disdainfully
tough diamond
sculpting the looks
taught tight black cruel
why should I care, I told myself, and you,
don’t you dare even touch me!

Behind two crazy old women I slowed down
and overtaking one discovered myself
between a woman weighed down by talking
and another silently walking.
Then with untouched fury I went forward
past those lost lurching impediments.
Suddenly a girl appeared
at the streetlight across from me—a beggar.
One in front of me, the others behind,
the light wasn’t green so I looked at them.
I complicated my sight.  I was in the distance,
but weakness made my legs go white.

(translated by David Shapiro with Gini Alhadeff)

               Something like a phenomenological reduction, a “bracketing,” takes place in moments like these—a witnessing of consciousness, with a suspension of judgment.  Fortunately, Cavalli’s wit, often a byproduct of her obsession with romantic love, makes her work something other than a phenomenologist’s dry digest.  As she writes of desire at the end of one poem, “it’s the remedy that makes the illness.”  For Cavalli, this paradox is rooted in the body at some cellular level:

… But in me physiology
still reigns intact, and forces me to dream:
the cure: an offer of endorphins
from you who are my pusher.
… Why should one want you
for a remedy? Why if your lips
part when, lying down, you opt
for the good and in double vowels say
I love you, no longer proudly chaste but
all absorbed in drinking up my fervor,
why does my blood decide to flow then
harmonious and smooth along the veins
carrying honey to my orphan head.

(from “The sky is blue again today,” translated by Gini Alhadeff)

As with so many Cavalli poems it’s hard to say if this scene is happening in reality or is being imagined by the speaker.  The “real world” and the imagination tend to work on each other as reagents in her poems.  The subsequent chemical reaction produces a lot of torque in either direction, an energy that is sometimes densely figurative, though oddly fluid, mercurial in temperament—her syntax surging in the direction of whatever surprised space of insight or feeling opens up.

Cavalli’s marvelous syntactical energy, with its steep changes in perceptual scale and altered perspectives and its sudden bursts of metaphoric radiation, are largely rendered successfully into an American idiom by the extended group of her translators, an estimable bunch that includes Mark Strand, Rosanna Warren, Kenneth Koch, Jorie Graham, Judith Baumel, J.D. McClatchy, and Jonathan Galassi, besides Alhadeff, Brock and Shapiro.  Occasionally, there are missteps and infelicities in this effort, and one wonders if these might have been avoided under the consistent work of one hand.  These missteps seem to occur when the translators try to stick slavishly to the original Italian.  “I those isotopes don’t want to drink/my thyroid I do not want to lose” is just awkward sounding in American English, regardless of how close it comes to the syntax of the Italian idiom.   Luckily, this kind of thing is rare in My Poems Won’t Change the World, and shouldn’t stand in the way of anyone reading Cavalli’s fresh, nuanced, energizing work—like Benn’s, her voice implicitly challenges the complacencies of American poets.  It has been almost thirty years since the last poet in translation to have a widespread effect on American poets: the Slovene Tomaz Salamun.  Given a chance, the work of Gottfried Benn and Patrizia Cavalli might have just as strong an influence, at a moment when we could surely use it.

—David Rivard

.

Rivard 2012 CR 2

David Rivard’s new book, Standoff, will appear from Graywolf in early 2016.  He is the author of five other books of poetry: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.  Rivard’s poems and essays appear regularly in APR, Ploughshares, Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry London, Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and other magazines and anthologies. Among his awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review and the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching.  Rivard is currently the director of the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire.

Jan 052015
 

ian-duhig

As writers, I often think we treat language as something to be dominated and controlled rather than something to be lived with and lived through. In this way, we become detached from language, indeed become fearful of it. Not so with Ian Duhig. Duhig’s poetry while steeped in form trusts the sound of language, its musicality, to lead the way as he relentlessly explores the complex connections between a seemingly diverse range of subjects. Since our knowledge of the world, however, comes not through our comprehension of its elements but rather the relationship between these elements, Duhig’s poetic gaze is focused exactly where it needs to be. The insight provided emerges from a writer who dwells within his words and is fearlessly willing to follow where they might take him.

Duhig was born in London to Irish parents and he says, “’London-Irish’ is definitely how we thought of ourselves growing up.” ‘Grand Union Bridge’ (based on a film poem with Alastair Cook), he tells me, explains his relationship with Ireland as a child of immigrants. ‘?’ he says, “demonstrates the sort of skewed understanding of great events being at one remove from them as a second generation Irish youth might have, while ‘A Double Bolide’ deals with a real character I discovered by accident recently, who both the Irish and English would like to keep out of history entirely as an embarrassment to both, to the one a traitor, to the other a paid informant.”

It may be fanciful to imagine that this hyphenated identity led to his formal interest in connectivity within his poetry but, be that as it may, fanciful is good enough for me.

—Gerard Beirne

.

I was the eighth child in my family and the first born in England where they’d moved to so my father could find work – he’d served in the Irish army but there was nothing for him in 50s Tipperary when he left. My Mother knew a huge amount of Irish poetry by heart, which was how they learned it at school in her youth. I grew up listening to that in a London-Irish community where poetry was still valued and however often we visited “home” (as Ireland was always called) the place for me was made out of words more than earth. I explored the world of Irish poetry more than the country. When I did live there it was in Belfast, where I ran a hostel for young offenders, but I came into contact with the work of an astonishingly-accomplished generation of Northern Irish poets – Heaney of course, but also Longley, Mahon and the amazing Muldoon. I published my first poetry in The Honest Ulsterman and then stumbled off on my own journey. There’s that old joke about the Irish boomerang – it doesn’t come back it only sings about coming back – and there is a sense of estrangement from home which is central to the Irish tradition and I’ve always felt at home with estrangement.

—Ian Duhig

.
Grand Union Bridge

I’d take this bridge across Paddington Cut
where PC Dixon was shot in The Blue Lamp
when I’d go to the cinema robbed by his killer,
the teenager Riley, with his pal Spud Murphy,
betraying Irish lines from this canal’s cutters
up to the likes of my family, over to find work.

Is it called Paddington because of the Paddys?
I’d get asked at school. Back after a lifetime,
from the Grand Union’s winter skin of black ice
I make my song this coat, the old Cut it’s cloth,
to slip into the otherworld of the eternally young
who would only age if they touched our land.

I remember that young Irish suicide landed here,
her own gas inflating the mae west of her flesh,
turned over again, an iceberg of tears, melting,
told the fairy story, promised a gold ring, falling
with child, into this wedding dress of water silk.
O commemorate me where there is water…

I remember police writing in their notebooks.
If you want to know the time, ask one of them.
He knows it can be suspended like a sentence,
although back then the sentence for a Riley
would be for him to dance the Paddington Jig,
in the measure called the Home Office Drop.

But PC Dixon would rise again from the dead,
go on to star in a much-loved television show
that was as black and white as its writers’ plots,
a show running softly for over twenty-one years,
the length of a whole youth back in those days,
birth to the wedding cake with black icing. Cut.

.

?

Of all my questions still unanswered

regarding the heroical-pathetic Easter Rising,

such as whether England might have kept faith

when World War I was all said and done

or which Castle cretin sent in the Lancers

against well-trained urban guerillas,

whether Constance Markiewicz really shot

Police Constable Michael Lahiff,

whether Ireland would have been better served

if James Connolly had stayed in bed,

if Captain Bowen-Colthurst was mad

before he was sent to Ireland

and, if so, why nobody noticed it

or at least some behavioural giveaways

or if madness was considered acceptable deportment

for officers of His Majesty’s forces

or why anybody should have been surprised

that starving Dubliners would loot the shops,

my one, persisting, small, ignoble nag

dismissed impatiently by the committed over years

is why exactly was the General Post Office

still open on the Bank Holiday?

.

A Double Bolide

Scientific dating tests connect the Hambleton pallasite
from Kilburn’s White Horse with the 1783 Great Meteor,
a brilliant double bolide heard then exploding over York.
In another report of the event in the London Magazine,

an officer on a British warship moored north of Ireland
related that a little time after he first noticed the meteor,
“in the north-east quarter, he saw it moving back again,
the contrary way to which it came” in Sternean fashion.

Perhaps it presaged that year’s Irish stage premiere:
‘Tristram Shandy: A Sentimental Bagatelle in Two Acts’.
This adaptation, playing up patriotic aspects of the text,
was by Leonard McNally, whose book on the law fixed

our criminal trial standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”
indebting future civil libertarians to this Dublin barrister,
a man who came to play many parts during his own life,
with this starring role only coming to light after his death:

McNally was a founding member of the United Irishmen,
informing on them for pay and, when acting as counsel
for the Rising’s leaders, he collaborated with the Crown
to guarantee their convictions beyond reasonable doubt.

McNally was also the lyricist of that sentimental ballad
Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill which invented the cliché
a rose without a thorn and was a favourite of George III’s
since its first airing in the year of the French Revolution.

O the pikes must be together by the risin’ of the moon
declares one sentimental ballad about the Risin’ of ‘98,
reminding me that Sterne coined the word ‘sentimental’,
how his name meant star in the Hanoverians’ language.

.

Games

Weber could not tell a Punjabi from a Kilkenny man.
-Christy Campbell, ‘The Maharajah’s Box’

The former prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Whitby
Maharajah Duleep Singh, Sikh ‘Chess King’ in “the Great Game”,
slipped into Russia as Patrick Casey, the Republican dynamitard.

He bore proposals for stationing Irish volunteers on their border
to guard the building of a railway for the Czar’s invasion forces,
effecting his aim of the liberation of the Indian sub-continent.

The King maintained clandestine links with Russian intelligence
(noted the Department for the Supression of Thugee and Dacoity)
through the Aryan League of Honour, rogue Calcutta Theosophists,

their agent in the British Isles being Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’,
who misinformed him on Vedantic philosophy, so Yeats confused
Brahman, the Supreme Being, with Brahmin, Chatterjee’s caste.

Yeats’ ‘Mohini Chatterjee’ “quotes” his guru: “I have been a king,
I have been a slave”, although the next verse goes on to state
Mohini Chatterjee/Spoke these, or words like these…” How like?

Poets tell lies and cause confusion too. Look at Plato’s ‘Republic’.
Even ‘Campbell’, surname of the supplier of this poem’s epigraph,
means ‘Crooked mouth’ in Gaelic. Check that with a MacDonald.

.

‘Pontypool’

Poetry wants to be a contagion — Jorie Graham

At the fleapit in town
I watch ‘Pontypool’,
“a semantic schlock
zombie apocalypse.”

Set on a radio station,
news that stays news
is of flesh-eating mobs
who can’t speak French

as airborne plague rides
honeyed English words,
a xenotext in the matrix
of Canadian intercourse.

Like some new love poet,
our hero, the shock jock
broadcasts to survivors
how he spread the virus,

how meaning is Plague
to be purged from words,
we mustn’t make sense
to return to our senses,

how life means death
in a language of sin,
love’s a fatal disease
and to kill means kiss

then kisses the woman
his own words infected
who asked to not to die
a Donne Newfoundland,

but live where zombies
are all Hungry Horaces,
searching for the poet
in her disjecta membra.

—Ian Duhig

.

Ian Duhig has written six books of poetry, most recently Pandorama (Picador 2010). He has worked on productions of a wide range of music from the medieval to the avant-garde and this year he published Digressions (Smokestack), the book of a project with the artist Philippa Troutman based around Laurence Sterne’s home, Shandy Hall in Yorkshire. He has won the Forward Best Poem Prize, the National Poetry Competition twice and three times been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

/
/

Jan 012015
 

PicsArt_1413674718519Roger Weingarten

.

To the Day [Prague 7/13/08; Burlington 3/13]

the panhandler on her knees, forearms
and forehead pressing the tourist
littered street, cups her hands.

To the day I closed
in on the clean
shaven red-cheeked man who lifts

the vagrant to her feet and cups
her face in manicured fingers, chanting
to her in a tongue I’ll never

get the real
gist of, his
smile—like the cuckolded

Joseph cradling his infant
stepson—aglow. Months
ago, to the day, when the deep-set

hazel eyes of this
Lazarus open to what
seems to be someone else’s

heart executing
a tango with itself on two
monitors, I ask the hovering

jowls filling the green
mask, when can I have
sex. Wrong

question, my little Isaac,
it smirked. Your heart’s
undamaged and you can screw

the world into the next
century only
when I say so. To the day

when I ask the Joseph smile if he
speaks English, and he nods. Then ask
this woman if it’s easier

to die if you
are already dead. Who, he asks,
going pale, the hell are you,

then lifts the tattered
beggar into his arms
and walks away.

 

Self-Portrait in the Convex Bumper of a Ford Woody

Hunched woman
in a babushka waddling

up the subway
stairs shlepping her

life in the two
bags under her eyes,

spits, but he’s
a jew to the un

dead voice in her head. Good
shabbos, old

mother, I offer, and touch
a fingertip to my black

skullcap, and take a shot
at a smile. Please, Little

Mike, she coaxes, carry these
bags to the street, and if you’re

nice, I’ll give you a nickel. My childhood
name slashed

across her face and the pale
blue numbers of hers

tattooed to her wrist pull
the breath out of my lungs and me

back to a self
portrait in the convex

bumper of a Ford
woody easing

its way out of the gates
of a neighborhood restricted

to Jews. Tow
headed boys toss in the back

seat, while a woman
wearing a hat and net veil

over her eyes mouths
kike through the passenger

window. My eight-year old
jaw dropped while what remained
of my childhood straddled
my bike.

 

Dear Reader, Dear Father, the Last

time we spoke you were peeved
I told you my brother backed

his Harley over your plot, dis
mounting to water the fake

bouquet. Please forgive that
artifact. This

time, I wake next to my half
gentile wife mysterious in pink

ear plugs and eye mask
to behold—sticking out

of my most blocked
aperture—your chemo-blotched

skull wondering
why you didn’t have the moil

throw me away and keep
the foreskin. Father, aren’t you

supposed to be rolling
over in your gated high

rise ultra reform air conditioned
catafalque somewhere along the eastern

seaboard? Roger, after
your mother’s ill will flew in to recite

your masterpiece—“Old Fart Leaves
Millions to the Hezbollah”—the congregation

voted to disinter. I hadn’t heard, Pops, but after
Uncle Manny of Lost Causes blurted to the millennial

Passover table that Stalin
pronounced Mayakovsky’s death a suicide,

he whispered into his napkin tucked
into his collar that you were jealous

when you said you never
fathomed a word I wrote. Zun, your brother still

owes me a finfer and eight cents,
your sister hasn’t spoken

to me since I cut her
out of my life, and the gravy

over it all is your ex-
stepmother’s shtupping

a one-legged republican semi-
retired cosmetic surgeon, so I

have no one and nothing to haunt
from this grave but you and this blood

feud of a poem. My period’s
weeks late, Mystery Wife

mutters to my dream
counterpart. What are you, sweet

husband, going
to do about it?

 

See Below

See beneath the Poughkeepsie
Picasso pasadoble

premonition projected
on the domed
planetarium night. See behind eyelids

cupping red-eyed
grief churning weeds into drifting

toward a great
northern loon and her bobbing
chick about to plunge

through a daydreamed
hand that lifts me into a whispered

you need to wake now and leave
through the emergency. Plumb white
capped haze that

surrounds the capsized—you
put your left foot in, you put

your right foot out—canoe, under
which Little Brother’s
knuckles—clutching metal

thwarts cursing our father who aren’t
in heaven—slap the dome, upside

down and bobbing
on a wake, a wake
replete with schnapps and honey

cake crumbs scattered
across linen, absent

the hokey pokey first and tipsy
second born. Low-rise
low brow post

modern plumber/anti
Rilkean prankster, don’t I,

like Pablo’s Minotaur
with Javelin and a Woman
Hostage, just

love my life? Never
wake. Never. Hallelujah.

 

For the Smoker

You know who you are and how
sorry I was to read in The Times that

even tertiary smoke, in wall
paper, carpet or oozing

out of pores under
your thinning mop had

proven toxic. After a toad
in the hole and grits slathered in hot sauce

pick-me-up, you tell me your two
packs a day is strapped

to a brown study wrapped
in an exploding star. Because

your ex wrote in lipstick, Dear
Ashtray Breath, no one ever offered

to bronze my pussy on your vanity
mirror you tried to erase with a gold

fingertip, I tried to console. I’m not
complaining, compadre—I can twig to hanging

out in twenty below stomping
my feet with a clot of future

lung cancer patients trailing
oxygen tanks, whistling That

Reincarnated Buzzard Blown
off a Shit Wagon by the Smell

of Your Breath Blues.
I’ll never forget

leaning my chair back into a hot
radiator in the urology ward next to my

post-op crony—who just had a conga line
of venereal polyps removed from his

busy day—watching ephysema
help the old guy across the aisle breathe,

like a chainsaw cutting stone, his last
as the steaming metal branded

the back of his liver
spotted hand. My granddad punched

cows in Wyoming his seventeenth
year on this planet, the first

Jewboy cowboy according
to his sister, who told me over a box of old

snapshots he’d have lived
forever if he didn’t vote for Nixon or roll

his own from makings he grew behind
a stone tool shed. She dug

pre-Socratic Greek poets, pink
meringues, devoted her

life to cancer research, and slipped
away in her sleep at a hundred

and seven while we were snowshoeing
a mountain trail we had, at our

age, according to Who
Gives A Flying Fuck, no business on. Your one

habit, you say with a smirk, crushing
a butt underfoot, in your most

monastic voice, before we bend
over a frozen mound of bear scat.

 

Light Year of Mr. and Mrs. Hammered Horseshit

Bubonic insomnia surrounds the darkest
part of their shadow falling

out of both sides of a pillow
top model of the solar
system in which planetary

phases and feline
satellites move at relative
velocities around Herr
und Frau Gehämmert Pferdeäpfel’s
mechanical bed. Like stressed

desserts, they pull the Hidden
Star heirloom quilt fondant-taut
over a nebula of flannel
sheets soft as Depression
Cake then step
into a constellation of cat
puke in the hall. Frau looks

down at meteoroids shooting
across her night
blue toenails. Herr looks up
through charged
particles in the magnetic
field between them, and says—just
as asteroid Belle Starr
the Cat brushes his ankle—I’m pretty
sure you think I’m just a sleepless
sentimental slob in close
orbit around the celestial

aureoles of your soul, but I can’t
breathe without your moon
square Venus. Quasi
stellar in her threadbare
bathrobe that radiates
a redshift, she slows,
stops, and moves in the opposite
direction. It’s OK, she says, reciting
primes and reaching
for the planemo of his
left hand, pulling it
back into perigee with her belly
climbing their ultra-galactic
bed chamber orrery, from which,
with the Littlest
Dipper of his right foot,
he clicks the door.

—Roger Weingarten

.

Roger Weingarten, author of ten collections of poetry, and co-editor of eight poetry and prose anthologies, has lectured, taught and read at writers’ conferences, poetry festivals, and universities nationally and internationally. He founded and taught in the MFA in Writing and the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Louisville Review Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Literature. Stranger at Home: American Poetry with an Accent: co-edited with Andrey Gritsman, Interpoezia Press, was published in 2008, Premature Elegy by Firelight by Longleaf Press in 2007, and Open Book: Essays from the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, co-edited with Kate Fetherston by Cambridge Scholars’ Press in 2007. The poems published here are from his new collection, The Four Gentlemen and Their Footman, due out with Longleaf Press in 2015.

Dec 072014
 

Lise GastonLise Gaston. Photo by Josh Davidson.

.

Occupation 

What nonsense we talk
What nonsense we’re told
What nonsense we are
But I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are

bbbbbbb…bbbbb—John Newlove, “Insect Hopes”

What nonsense we talk:
we scratch names into smoked glass, tongue
the caulk between the stones,
hiss our lies through air conditioning.
We scratch names into smoked glass, tongues
speech-torn, felted and furred.
Lies hiss through the air conditioning:
what nonsense we’re told.

Speech-torn, felted and furred
we press our warm bodies into the walls,
what nonsense. We’re told
what’s written into drywall and plaster

where we rub our beautiful bodies
against the pockmarked paint, our bodies
written into drywall,
what nonsense we are.

Under pockmarked paint our bodies
are ghosted rooms and emptied words,
what nonsense we are,
we’re crab-walking the hallways, faces gaped upside-down
through empty ghosting rooms.
We plug water fountains with our ripped and bitten nails,
we crab-walk the gaping faceless hallways,
we graffiti our genitalia into the ground.
We rip out the water fountains, biting each other,
our bones grind through the escalators,
we graffiti our genitalia. On the ground,
we press red ears to the thrumming,

the grinding of bones up escalators.
We push our breasts against doorways, letting
ourselves in, red ears pressed to the humming
red intestine of the building where the plaster’s peeled off,

we push our chests against the doorways,
press our sweet soft fingers into
the red intestine of the building, the plaster peeled off,
but I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are.

Our hard, skilled fingers nothing but
caulk between the stones—
but I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are,
in our grave and vital nonsense.

.

Sunday

He kicks me out of bed for leaving no crumbs, none of me.

In front of the metro a big man’s swinging his hips.

The sun arrives late today, knocks empty the sky.

Last night we got high until the room shook.

Oh, the way smoke settles on his mouth.

At the market strawberries are sliced and piled like little tongues.

Last night I had tucked his feet in, touched his thighs.

Sweet little tongues.

The radishes show lipstick on their teeth.

Tonight he will eat with another woman, a fragile woman who dislikes me.

At home: bread, cream cheese, avocado. A damp eighteenth-century novel.

My herbs are wilting, and pigeons live in the air conditioner.

He will ask me back to him, tonight. And I . . .

She will be at her apartment, removing the bones from her hair.


Monday

And sickness comes. It bats your head with greasy paws.
You’ve missed the sun, it’s out there now, the glass
warm against your face, your broken face. For you had planned

on riding, triangle seat wedged between your legs,
white helmet bulbous on your careful head.
It’s so sunny now, and you aren’t in the sun.

That feeling when hands behind your face pull skin into your skull.
The day is filled with federal custodians trying to contain
leaks, and other hierarchies of willful abstraction.

Wanted, you, you wanted to ride, ride
past the street that’s sputtering gas, the firetrucks dominoed there,
sirens waking you in morning, you

believed they were coming for you, in dreams you had
pulled a trigger. Now your head
won’t let you enter the sun. When you awoke

the lazy cat had remembered his green-eyed catness
and teased a mouse through the night.
He offers it to you now.

..

Les Rues: Montreal

Berri

the balcony in July’s sweet heat sucking
bbbbbbyour fingers we were high and fascinated
with difference of the other it seemed
hours with your fingers in my mouth seemed hours
up and down each one teeth against your knuckles

bbbbbb waiting on the street’s slim corner for me
you so immaculate in white and sun-
glasses neck rooted over your phone
a nun once glared me across this street my
bbbbbbbright purple shorts inscribed too small on my
legs when I left you the whole city
was shaking enragée the nun so cool
in her baby-blue shift and wimple you
bbbbbband I have the same-sized hands remember

.

Resther

we didn’t come here looking for a fight
bbbbbbmais la bataille commence les lignes ils sont
écrivées entre les francophones et les
autres
anglos students shaking with the weight
of their idealism enemies from Ford
bbbbbbNation ou mes amis living here for
half a cold decade turned away by the
interpreted code le domicile
c’est quoi ça le gouvernement change
their
bbbbbbgros collective mind if we don’t move our tongues
to our mouths’ roofs in the right correcte way

we had worn red boots and marched les rues in
thousands and they had loved us red paper
bbbbbbsquares clotted the sky like blossoms

 

Saint-Denis

all streets here more familiar after
bbbbbba bottle of dépanneur red yours
only two blocks out of my way it’s not
enough to mind but enough to notice

walking down in the city’s popular one
bbbbbba.m. light your old bedroom faces the
ambulance route of Saint-Denis shrieking and
unsleepable in summer all windows
open to the night in need trucks pouring
bbbbbbinto your third-story room the ugly
brown curtains you never did change that first
time all my limbs went numb and my face I
lost what control I entered with and went
bbbbbbgargoyle on you under an empty turret

.

Saint-Dominique 

you pulled me from a marching crowd you looked
bbbbbbso crisp in your dress shirt ironed and tight
shorts beside the anarchists we didn’t
touch till after dinner politeness
we decided to call it there is part

bbbbbbof this old street you can’t walk past without
recalling how we kissed you said for
hours in front of that fence pas de vélos
s.v.p.
coming in the early light
bbbbbbfrom Village bacchanals I never told

you I don’t remember this let you
shake yourself alone on your way to
another part-time job imagining
bbbbbball the dark angles of my open mouth

.

Sherbrooke

we ran some walk-up stairs against the slam
bbbbbbof riot shields watched bar patrons shoved from
les terrasses a cloud of grey a crowd of men
a spurt of red one eye lost to the spray

we marched for that stitched-up hole we marched against
bbbbbbCharest we haunted him in daylight I
marched for the sun that caught the hidden grey
in your black curls for memory of your
tired body slamming me against the wall

bbbbbbyour sweet heat my other rising ended
alone on an office carpet months
before the marches so-so-so-
solidarité
how little we were
bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbwilling to

—Lise Gaston

.
Lise Gaston‘s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in magazine and journals including Arc Poetry Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Lemon Hound, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, and Prairie Fire. She lives in Berkeley, California.

.
.

Dec 032014
 

551-12.jpg

The following selections from David Need’s Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provide an illuminating glimpse into the ways Rilke uses the rose as motif. The poems seek to elucidate how time’s ceaseless transformations do not rectify or allay the contradictions they invoke. The living rose is “fully awake” but discreet, possessing “many pages / of detailed happiness / we will never read.” Rilke is fascinated by these irreducible relationships: the flower’s vitality belies its eventual death; its blooming won’t diminish the impenetrable density of its petals. Clare Johnson’s attending illustrations reinforce Rilke’s assertion that the rose of these poems is “a supple spoken word / framed by the text of things” and that this “framing” constitutes a relationship binding our transitory hopes to “the tender moments / in the continual departure.”

—Dan Holmes

cover

Roses
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by David Need
Illustrations by Clare Johnson
Horse & Buggy Press, 2014
224 pages, $27.34

 

I

Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c’est qu’en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.
 
Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu’innombrables se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l’extrême bouche.

 

I

If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
happy rose,
it’s that, petal against petal, you rest
within yourself, inside.

Fully awake, your petals, whose surroundings
sleep, though numberless, meet
this silent heart’s tendernesses
which end in these urgent lips.

Untitled1

II

Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
 
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.

 

II

I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,

which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …
from which butterflies scatter, confused
to have had the same ideas.

Untitled2

VI

Une rose seule, c’est toutes les rose
et celle-ci: l’irremplaçable,
le parfait, le souple vocable
encadré par le texte des choses.
 
Comment jamais dire sans elle
ce que furent nos espérances,
et les tendres intermittences
dans la partance continuelle.

 

VI

A single rose, it’s every rose
and this one—the irreplaceable one,
the perfect one—a supple spoken word
framed by the text of things.

How could we ever speak without her
of what our hopes were,
and of the tender moments
in the continual departure.

Untitled3

XIV

Été: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.
 
Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidente,
et survivre à cette soeur
en d’autres roses absente.

 

XIV

Summer: to be for a few days
the contemporary of roses;
to breath what drifts about
their blooming spirits.

To make of each who dies,
a confidant,
and to outlive this sister
among the other, wandering roses.

pic1

XVIII

Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.
 
Il y en d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.

 

XVIII

All that we feel, you share,
yet we ignore what happens to you.
There would have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all your pages.

There are ones among you like dictionaries;
those who gather these
are tempted to bind all the pages.
Me? I like the roses which are letters.

Untitled4

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David Need (translator) is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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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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unnamed

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

.
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.
/
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.
/
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)

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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.

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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!

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fishingpoems-cover

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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.

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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).

/
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.

/

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.

/

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.

/

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

/
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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