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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Maltman

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

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

How did they use this material?

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

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

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

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

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

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

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

Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

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

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

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

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

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

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

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

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

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

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos

 

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Poems

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Cook

James Cook, 1728-1779

An overwhelming rain beats down and, mainmast snapped,
Cook turns again toward the islands.
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Already there has been much grumbling in the villages,
against the gods, their appetite for pigs and women and plantains,
much talk as well about the iron nails from their ships,
and how such things of value are to be
desired and gained.
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It is the beginning of the end:
the little Eden of aloha and blood sacrifice,
of stone tools and of plenty will not long survive.
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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.
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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.
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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)

 —

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.

/

 

Captain Alexander McNeilledge

(1791-1874)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 /

Children at the Beach

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

William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion

1.

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

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

5.

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

6.

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

7.

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

8.

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

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

Norfolk Hotel
Ladies and Escorts
presenting Mr Bruise B.

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

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

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

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

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

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

/

 

Arrivals

1.

Rain on the River

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

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

2.

Coming in

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

3.

the sixteenth

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

4.

the seventeenth

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

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

 

—Karen Mulhallen

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

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

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Sep 122014
 

Cuba Feb 2012 052Glen Sorestad in Cuba

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Cuban Hand Line Fisherman

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

/

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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Sep 112014
 

josephine-jacobsen-448

Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sisters2

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

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

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

Of Pairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sisters4

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

Terrestrial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piazza di Spagna

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Julie Larios

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Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

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

MW-Gladding-cover

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

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

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

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

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

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

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

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

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

Seal RockSeal Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins

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

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

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

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

Featherroc

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

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

EggShellNesting Ravens

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

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

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

Hard WoodHardwood

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

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

Scan11 Sentences

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

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

Vellum book stitch

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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

Darren Higgins

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

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Aug 082014
 

dancersDancers, Photograph by John Oughton

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Dawning

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

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

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

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Force Field

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

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

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

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Arise

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

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

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

—Poems & Photographs by John Oughton

birdbath Birdbath by John Oughton

.

Oughton

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

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

Nela Rio

 

Rio_Laberinto_vertical portada

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

—Sophie M. Lavoie

 

Las Mistícas 

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

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

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

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

 

The Mystics

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

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

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

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

§

Rivalidades 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rivalries 

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

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

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

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

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

 §

Sol de Cartón 

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

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

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

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

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Cardboard Sun

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

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

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

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

§

Cánones 

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

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

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

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

 

Canons

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

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

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

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

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

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sophie lavoie prince rupert cropped

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

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Hugh Hazelton reading

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

 

Jul 122014
 

pre and beach 7 11 092

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—d m spitzer

 

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

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

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

.

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

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

My father was speaking a tongue of golden flame:

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

I fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

                                                  gathered by thine greatness into a single gaze.

                                                  There I am nothing     but thou.

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

—d m spitzer

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