Aug 022015
 

Amber Homeniuk

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Raccoon

1.  the one who takes everything in its hands[1]

fat and downy, wee washer-bear descends head-
first, back feet backwards, bushy-ringed
champion omnivore, incognito i.d.,
tactile thinker in the night,
haunchy smartypants
unlocking memory,
destroyer
douser
thief

.

2.fmy brother’s kits

our uncle shot their mother,
gave us three chimney cubs
with needle teeth, teddy ears,
and bottle-gripping hands

milk-whiskered, growing,
they tumbled in a row
after Tom, marching barefoot in pyjamas,
his grinning jammy mouth

imprinted

.

3.fmascot

stuck in Scarberia, I hated campus on sight—
dank concrete bunker hulked over dim valley
up the creek, too many trees, and posters
plastered every door: missing, Elizabeth Bain
staring, dark-eyed

Rocky Raccoon, the ubiquitous totem,
charmless hail-fellow in a stuffed suit,
handsy caricature, button-nosed buffoon,
his big-headed bump and grind

tie-dyed frosh, the Purple Jesus party, packed
picnic tables, Tanya playing Three Man with fuzzy dice,
bedsheets strung from crowded dens, there was Jodi
her frizzies and braces and I drank eight beer!
and Ramona always barfing, needed carrying upstairs

skeevers from The ‘Shwa, pedophiles of Pickering,
rapists in the Guild, so bushy-tailed
and boys who saw me only halfway home—
we all wore shoes we could run in

our grads Bernardo, Williams
years too late unmasked:
who else did that asshole Rocky cheer
with his eerie plush leer?

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4.ffoaming at the mouth

on the grounds crew in the valley, 1993
clearing winter-damaged trees, notching trunks and
chipping limbs, still looking for Liz in the forest

the skull was in a stand of cedar,
bottom of Old Kingston Road
near Highland Creek—
a young raccoon, smooth cap of yellow bone,
all of her biters and elegant arches
cupped in my hands

that morning in the parking lot
a masked mother, fierce and frantic,
her babies trapped in a dumpster
’til from the safety of the truck bed
we slid a long branch in

at break, we read in the paper over bagels
how Karla and Dirty Debbie went dancing
when Karly Curls met her Paul—
in the photo, dark roots and frosted tips
feathered stiff, framed bludgeoned black eyes,
the horrors inside her drooping disguise

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5.froadkill

late for work again, I flew the near-empty concessions,
burned past farms behind a cherry SUV I couldn’t pass,
dogs lolling out both its rear windows, sweltering
coats flat black against back window decal,
a baby on board

noon, three raccoons hopped out of the deep ditch
gallumphed across the road, day-blind
tangled with those fat tires up ahead, terrible timing
thump rolling chaos I braked hard, swerved clear
and two bandits ran from disaster
but striped fur whipped circles in my rear-view
while the road hog with the dogs drove on,
turned a corner beyond the stop

shimmers hovered above hot pavement
I reversed fast, braced myself, missed
last bits of life ticked, I worked the transmission
and long back feet kicked, clenched and spread little toes,
black velvet pads in thick cream
paddling the air like an infant’s
offered up, soft belly,
that helicopter tail

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6.  mentor

Oh old boy

you’ve taught me all you can,
your dousing days are done.

Lie down with your snout at the stream
to rest in woods behind my brother’s house.

Let season’s green weave through your nest of sticks,
set age along the top of your white brow
with sutures fused, full sagittal crest

and quiet
those sore worn teeth.

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Them Apples

1.  Pick

among the ghosts of September
are days emphatic as egg-calling hens
tilting on their pegs like cotton candy

I stretch to haul the red-cheeked harvest down
and smears of mealy rot and crumbled bark-
stained fingers poke through

your old gloves: with how many holes
can they still be good?
which rungs do ladders need?

lips grip curves and woodsmoke
suck the sour near the core
green stems slide, catch between uneven teeth—

I cast off the not-worth-its, the stingy and gnarled
save the bird-bitten and the bug-holed
with their healed-over tough-skinned hearts

truth rolls under my ankle
fills buckets
its roundnesses bobbing in water

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2. Cut

slice and cone
dig for twisting brown tracks
free jagged curls of skin

grinding knuckles wrap the knife
work wet wood, erode bone
brass tacks emerging

think of swords

notch out the cores
open them like mouths
break their silence

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3. Stir

bruises surface from the rosy deeps,
flesh wounds seep, sticky black grains in wrinkles,
peelings divine a cidery stink

my mill churns all afternoon, spits out pith
into steam: blisters, jars, rings, lids
counted by feather-layered light

arms loaded, feet worm into moccasins
heated by back room sun,
another half-wheelbarrow

I also carry your knotted fist, a spot
just here at the back of my hip
folded like a wing

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4.  Keep

afterwards, heart-queasy and acidic,
my hands are wizened little mummies
helpless as when our girl stopped eating

last pot off the stove and cooling,
joints squeak like dry flakes of paint
jarred by every lid-popping echo

sealing up sauce in glass like myths, in this
odd season of double yolks, northern lights
and doorknobs falling off, mixed in with rattling

stars, fruit still dropping from the branches,
the thuds of celestial shot putt
tremor loose small yelps and toads

I’ve gathered the burrs and the catkins of you
caught in my clothes with memory and cinnamon
pockets full of seeds

at the edge of the field
deer pause, chewing,
bone chips hiding in their meat

.

Late Bloomer

1.  Born Late

I am past due
the days already gone to seed
know it in the bass-heavy pulsing of myself
all throbbing aorta

this old jacket shrunk and wilted to the touch
me and last year’s apples and the quiet ground
and shine-worn split trousers—lived hard in, discarded
I have outgrown even my shoes
done with these thrift store threads

I will ease grief from my throat

heat calls me up from the earth
grave-risen all the way through the rotting roots
come to moult
I hook myself on and haul away at the tendons
braced against light, working

all the doors from their hinges
cracked open, oh my frail and soggy new self
herniating out through the tender razor-scraping edges

I will shed my skin, busting raw and wet
climb right out of my hide and fly away, drop it
gently as cicada shells from bark

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2.  Cicada

diving head-first and backward into deep air
my eyes without their lenses
I am sawn in half, kicking my legs out
shoulders up around my head

I will breathe open glass-paned wings to the next life
leaving behind gravity
and my clawed digging arms

just one entomological Rapture
your deserted hands
pinching crisp brown casings

trees all heaving and veiny lungs, my work half-done
distension rocking the sky
with songs of rods, reels, and muted brass
cooking, casting, and resonant monks rattling distant joy

I will bring warm and sticky life from my humming pockets

you think it won’t end—the pain or the singing—then it does
borne late into the season
my belly tympanic in the empty
our whole selves arched, hairy with need and
fast unhooking days from the year

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3.  The Singing Season

with each wing-click, I flip this mirror
trading dark packed dirt for dusty leaves

these vibrating voices turn tall cliffs to liquid
richer than sap from the source

when sound soars shaking so far
over creaking crevices and lines of vicious little ants
I will remember that I could be somewhere else

you may yet hear me keening in the branches
or hollering downhill with my feet lifting off the pedals
back-slit like coffin clothes, the living gone on from here

—Amber Homeniuk

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Amber Homeniuk works as an expressive arts therapist and sustains a variety of individual and collaborative arts practices. Her writing appears in The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, and here at Numéro Cinq, as well as in Windsor Review’s tribute to Alice Munro. Amber’s poems are anthologized in Beyond the Seventh Morning (SandCrab, 2013) and Window Fishing: The night we caught Beatlemania (Hidden Brook, 2013). Her first chapbook is Product of Eden: Field of Mice (Norfolk Arts Centre, 2013). So far this year, she’s been a finalist in the PRISM International poetry contest and shortlisted for Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2015 Poem of the Year. Amber lives in rural southwestern Ontario, blogs groovy outfits at Butane Anvil, and is kept by a small flock of hens.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Holmgren, Virginia C. (1990). Raccoons: In Folklore, History & Today’s Backyards. Capra Press. p. 157.
Jul 082015
 

AUSSTELLUNG: DIE ERNST JANDL SHOWErnst Jandl  1925-2000

This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios

reft and light

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Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)

The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of  the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir  de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German.  Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.

I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.

So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:

Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.

Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.

The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:

reihe

eis
zweig
dreist
vieh
füllf
ächz
silben
ach
neu
zinc

The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc.  But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:

series

won
toot
treat
for
fife
sex
several
ate
nylon
tense

It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:

hide
wine
dry
for
fun
except
seepin’
out
‘nuf
said

Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.

Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu: poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: oops.

This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair.  This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.) 

GeorgesPerecGeorges Perec

One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

canzone

ganz
ganz
……..ohne

völlig beraubt

Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:

madrigal

sadly
sadly
………full

wholly undone

madrigal

sadly
sadly
……..full

wholly undone.

The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking.  Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):

….o
fr   sch
….i

In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:

…..i………………   is……………….o………………n…………..s
chmp   ||    poon   ||    str..ng   ||   bo   y ||  .re  . olve
….o……………….  ti……………….i……………….d…………..v

Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:

tee……….:….ein stück
:
lieber…..:    tee
:
:
[egal]…..:
ich……….:   tee
:
:
fragt……:
[er nie].:tee

Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:

My…….:….T

:
liber…..:….tea
:
[fr]…….:
eterni:….tee
:
[equ]….:
all a…….:….tease

Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.

Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:

When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
total promiscuity.

Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.

As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too.  At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.

—Julie Larios

 

May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

Jul 052015
 

Lynn Crosbie by Laura MeyerAuthor photo by Laura Meyer

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Where Are My Teeth

Ou est mes dents? my father—whom I have never heard speak French, asks.
He is fluent, it turns out: he and Sofi, the blonde orderly, talk and listen to the same

50s hits CD: she holds his hand and spins around his chair.

His teeth go missing for two days.

I have his spare set, and send them express in a quilted jewelry box.

These are the ones he had made for him in Curacao, that turned out to be absurdly tiny, as if he had a necklace of seed pearls in his mouth.

He grew a mustache until he was able to replace them.

“Where did you put them, Dad?”

“I threw them under the railroad tracks.”

They turned up with the dirty sheets and towels.

In 1955, Elvis sings, “Train, train.”

He sings about a sixteen-coach monster that takes away his beloved.

And never will again.

.

Horticultural Savage

Is what my father calls Lily, whose roses are returned to me because “she will eat them.”

Every day in bright lime green, and beaming: we have all been called here, after he fell and would not wake up—

“His breathing is bad,” the nurse said, handing over the keys to the palliative room.

I made it there in a few hours, calling to him, “Don’t go, don’t go” and somewhere in mid-litany he sat straight up and asked for water.

We arrived on our mother’s birthday after all,

She looks wrung out and small as she opens card after card,

Holds up her sponge cake after the candles have been lighted.

The night I arrive, Jim has to get Mary and I clamber over the bars of his bed
And lie beside him.

Comme une singe, I later explain to the amused orderly.

I put on Motown hits and we talked as the sky changed from dead blue to
A rush of black,

And we talked about feeling badly for not doing enough; about little Michael being like an angel on loan and seeing the Temptations on a sunny day;

We talked until the others came back and Mary, so relieved, spun like a top and
Made up a song called “Papadoo,”

And we planned what we would do the next day, after tucking him under the fuzzy blankets he likes, with the snowflakes and stars.

We will get him 7-Up and a peanut butter sandwich, clean clothes and a board game.

And open the door a little nervously.

Still stuck between our shoulder blades the knife that says “Your father is almost dead,”

That holds in the blood of remorse and guilt, the vast stream comprised of all of the little losings so far and the red ocean to come.

.

Easter

Dad can see the grid of streets from his window, a slice of the Oratory.

Sometimes he sees my mother, on the balcony in just a light sweater, and worries.

Falling golf balls: they are birds, I tell him, and he is embarrassed.
“I’m just trying to figure things out,” he says.

What and when he sees is a mystery to us: suddenly, the bed screws are buttons that the cats might choke on;

The restraint on his wheelchair is one of his torturer’s devices.

One night, he must have spotted the enormous Laura Secord Easter egg my mom
Left on top of his closet.

She came at lunch and, seeing the empty box, asked if it was good.
“Yes,” he said, and smiled.

At Easter he would hide tiny foil-wrapped eggs everywhere.

For months I would find them in hampers and drawers; once, in the slot behind the telephone.

I dragged a chair to reach in the cupboard above the fridge and found one there.

This was proof to me of an Easter miracle. “My dad can’t reach that high,” I told one of my friends.

I had some problems with logic and magical thinking when I was a kid.

I ate paint chips, hearing only chips when my mother complained about the damaged ceiling.

I also slept lightly and cannot imagine how the big Bunny managed to hide so many eggs in our little apartment,

How the Bunny reached the top of that closet, how he stood up without help,

How his silken ears twitch, as he remembers the rush of yellow yolk then the sacred sweetness of the shell.

—Lynn Crosbie

 

Lynn Crosbie, father and brotherDouglas Crosbie, Lynn’s father, reading to her and her baby brother James.

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These poems are from the collection The Corpses of the Future, which is being published by the House of Anansi in 2017. Lynn Crosbie‘s most recent novel, a post-punk mystery featuring Kurt Cobain, is called Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

Jun 182015
 

Sydney Lea

.
Aesthetics

Tuesday. Somewhere I’d guess around the 4000th
one of my life, and I’m washing my coffee pot
and putting it onto the dish rack, the way I’ve done
every Wednesday too, every Thursday, every Friday,
Saturday, Sunday, Monday for many years–

most of the 72 by now– so there’s nothing
that you’d call thought in the process, and then with a whoosh,
like thrilling cascade or comet, in broadest daylight
a broadwing hawk swoops in and scatters the finches
from the feeder, which, whatever we try, is a feeder

for squirrels as well, both red and gray. It’s a gray one
the hawk has his eye on, and the hawk seems big as a hog,
though he’s lithe and deft and unbelievably quick
in his stoop. Which misses, however. His quarry cartwheels
under a stunted pine I’ve meant again

and again to hew to better the view we have
through this same kitchen window. And now, as something you might
call thought returns after all, I’m pondering whether
I’m glad to have left it standing. The hawk was lordly,
as much as the eagle my wife reported seeing

last week, which started an almost identical dive
but flared up the ridge when he found no game out there
among spilled seeds, where the blood on wet March snow
would in either case have shown so gorgeous, so brilliant.
The look of the writhing squirrel would have been pathetic,

no doubt about that. The world’s a puzzling place.

/

Old Lessons

The metaphor struck me so quickly that it felt trite:
I wanted my son to depend on me forever,
But wanted him also to learn to ride a bike,

First phase of course of a first child’s setting out
Away from his father –farther, always farther.
Speed up. Please stop, I thought. Mixed feelings. Trite.

Knuckles pale, he clutched the hand-grips tight,
Cried Hold me! Hold me! Which of course I did
For week after week as he learned to ride a bike,

Until, while one June day slumped into night,
I took my hands away from fender and seat,
And he pedaled off into darkness and distance. Trite,

Looking back, to figure our future lives,
The changes that would come, the way he’d speed
Away on years, as I stood behind that bike.

It’s right, of course, that he no longer calls me to hold him–
Have confidence, I recall, was what I told him–
Though it never was really a question of riding a bike,
Nor were my sentiments ever entirely trite.

/

Gratitude

Our old dog threw up today
Nothing new nor convenient
I kept myself from cursing
She didn’t mean to do wrong
True some words pushed at my lips
But I recalled the Psalmist’s
Caution on the loosened tongue

To describe it too mildly
Wrath can be too enticing
That tongue harder to govern
Than any ship or blood horse
Says the scripture I summoned
I thought that of the seven
Deadliest anger might be worst

Though I leave room for pride which
Is kin but today my calm
Seemed to me a miracle
The poor dog looked so contrite
Nothing she had done her fault
Now I must go to the vet’s
The thawing wind came last night

Bringing other things to do
Snow slid off our metal roof
Into a mass on the drive
Which needs to be cleared away
A job of course I despise
But that is where duty lies
And there’s where I need to be

I always wanted to be
Somewhere else I don’t know where
Earth must be the place for me
Sometimes I must laugh at how
Coaches say they want their teams
To play one game at a time
What in hell else would they do

Play two or three at a time
But I’ve been likewise silly
In my crazy history
I take one day at a time
Look for an easy does it
Stance toward life on this planet
Death once beckoned me and I

Rushed there I won’t give detail
Opiate Cutter Gunfire
Mustard gas Sprint Infernal

These were some crossword problems
I pondered last night in bed
Of course they’re not connected
Except in that I saw them

Together I solved just three
Before sleep overcame me
I did not feel frustration
Nor too much inner protest
I know our dog will be fine
I know I’m a lucky man
I’m grateful for peace and rest

I spoke an awkward prayer
If that’s in fact what it was
I only spoke it within
And in ignorant belief
That it might just land somewhere
I thanked some hidden power
That I never carved my life

Quite to hell nor did I race
To needle blade pistol gas

—Sydney Lea

.
Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

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Jun 162015
 

Lady Rojas Benevente

 

Lady Rojas Benavente’s poetry fuses her countless — and sometimes clashing — identities as a Peruvian-Québecoise woman, who immigrated to Canada in the seventies and has lived in the interstices of various nations ever since. While some of her poems evoke a certain nostalgia for an idyllic childhood in Peru or describe the country’s history and its Incan culture, others are starkly candid about the realities of the immigrant experience and existence as the proverbial “Other.” In the poems chosen for Numéro Cinq, Lady Rojas Benavente playfully depicts her upbringing, schooling and first teaching jobs. Her meticulous manipulation of the sounds of the Spanish language is difficult to render into English so the translations are instead instilled with a teasing tone. These poems come from Rojas Benavente’s collection L’Étoile d’eau/Estrella de Agua published in 2006 by France’s prestigious L’Harmattan in a bilingual (Spanish and French) edition translated by Nicole Barré.

—Sophie M. Lavoie

.

Monterrico

Encierro interior
biblioteca redonda
leo a Rilke,
y me imagino
a Beauvoir
encima de Sartre.

Pasadizos circulares
donde recorren
mozas detrás de los monjes
y se les agria la leche
entre las piernas.

Confesionario barroco
he pecado padre,
peco con mi hermano,
y pecaré hijo mío.

Comedor gigante
saciamos
los vientres
cuartos que engordan
mañana,
tarde
y noche.

Auditorio inmenso
lucimos
la fe
en la música
la esperanza
en la religión
y la caridad
no me acuerdo para quién.

Patio al aire libre
se anuncia
que tomaron
a los guerrilleros
que cayó Heraud en su río
y todos los comunistas.

A santiguarse,
a comulgar,
a rogar por todos los maleados
y en especial por mí
pecadora entre los hombres.

.

Monterrico

Interior seclusion
round library
I read Rilke,
and imagine
Beauvoir
on top of Sartre.

Circular alleys
where lasses
run behind the monks
and the milk turns sour
between their legs.

Baroque confessional
father I have sinned,
I sin with my brother,
and I will sin, my son.

Gigantic dining hall
we sated
our tummies
rooms that get fatter
morning,
afternoon
and night.

Immense auditorium
we show off
our faith
in the music
the hope
in religion
and charity
I don’t remember who for.

Open air courtyard
it is announced
that they caught
the guerrilla fighters
that Heraud fell in his river
with all the communists.

Off to cross yourself,
to take communion,
to pray
for all the degenerate
and especially for me
sinner amongst men.

(Note: Javier Heraud Pérez was a guerrilla fighter and poet who died at the age of 21 (1963), fighting with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) in Perú.)

.

Chorrillos

Atrás el malecón de Chorrillos
y las jóvenes
se hechizan en sus mareas.
Sus bustos se mecen
y en el vaivén del agua
giran sus cometas.

Leemos Trilce
Vallejo les guiña abiertamente
“Y hembra es el alma de la ausente.
Y hembra es el alma mía”
les hace cosquillas
“Lavandera del alma…
que sí puede…
azular y planchar todos los caos.”

Cerca el bramido alocado
de todos los suspiros
una se ahogó de pena
y se lanzó en el corazón de la ballena
con un grito hembra
de tres agonías.

Las monjas rezan,
callan,
anotan,
sepultan,
ríen,
Cristo continúa
en su cruz.

La primera espina ajena
se grava
en el pizarrón inmenso
de mis veintiún años.

.

Chorrillos

Beyond Chorrillo’s pier
young girls
become bewitched by the tides.
Their busts rock
and with the water’s swaying
their comets swirl about.

We read Trilce
Vallejo winks at them openly
“And female is the soul of the absent-she.
And female is my own soul.”
he tickles them
“laundress of the soul…
yes she can…
blue and iron all the chaoses.”[1]

Not far the wild roar
of all the sighs
one girl suffocated from sorrow
and threw herself into the belly of the whale
with a feminine shriek
of three agonies.

The nuns pray,
hush,
take notes,
bury,
laugh,
Christ remains
on his cross.

The first foreign thorn
damages
the immense blackboard
of my twenty-one years.

.

Río Rímac

Tu agua golpea los pedrones
y corre veloz
por tu cintura limeña.
Coqueteas
silbando entre la maleza.

Colegio del Rímac
tu vaho de letrinas
me revuelve
la papa a la huancaína.
Los muchachos duermen
sobre las carpetas.
No hay psicología
ni lógica
que los despierte
después de ocho jornadas.

Visto minifalda
y me pifean,
les crece el macho.
Señorita
qué quiere decir
polución
y sueño latente
y sexo?

En un instante eterno,
la sierra calla
te seca la matriz
ya no hay cauce
sino un basural inmenso
que como gangrena
va borrando tu “fina estampa”.

Los chicos giran alrededor
de la loca,
la acorralan,
la pellizcan, la manosean.
Un día se desaparece.
Se cuelga
del cable del televisor
que le regaló su mecenas.

Lloro al joven-niña
mirándote Rímac
con tu pus a cuestas.

.

Rímac River

Your water hits the pebbles
and runs quickly
skirting Lima.
You dillydally
swishing through the brush.

Rímac middle school
a whiff of your latrines
shakes up
my Huancayo-style potatoes.
The children sleep
on their binders.
There is no psychology
nor logic
that will wake them
after eight workdays.

I wear a miniskirt
and they jeer at me,
their manliness grows.
Miss
what do wet dream
and suppressed desire
and sex
mean?

In an eternal instant,
the mountains are speechless
your spring dries up
there is no longer any riverbed
but a huge heap of garbage
like gangrene
gradually expunges your “elegant fascia.”

The boys encircle
the crazy lady,
corral her,
pinch her, grope her.
One day she disappears.
She hangs herself
with the television cable,
a gift from her benefactor.

I weep for the young girl
watching you, Rímac,
burdened by your purulence.

—Lady Rojas translated by Sophie M. Lavoie

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Lady Rojas Benavente is a Professor at Concordia University. Her PhD (1991) is in Hispanic Literature from Laval University and her current research on Peruvian Women’s Narratives: Violence, Racism and Gender in National Post-Independence was funded by SSHRC (2011 – 2014). She has published 8 books (2 of which are poetry) and over 50 articles in Latin American women’s literary work, especially on Peruvian and Mexican authors. She is president of the Society for Literary Criticism of Spanish American Women Writers’ work (CCLEH) and has served as a Board member of several publications such as Alba de América, a literary journal from the US, and Voces, a Peruvian cultural magazine. She lives in Laval, QC.

sophie lavoie

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’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Vallejo, César. The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition. Clayton Eshleman, Ed. & Trans. Berkely/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.
Jun 092015
 

A Anupama

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Why God fucks us

A moment ago, I was wondering where I was.

I was holding my legs, my arms around them.
I sit like this so often, head resting on knees.

God finds me in this pose, and leaves me to sulk.
I suppose then I get angry and chase Him down,

and He can’t be found anywhere.
He knows He is torturing me, and He laughs.

So, I go into the kitchen to make curry, and while I am slicing onions
and crying, He comes up behind me and caresses my breasts.

It’s good that He’s impervious to the knife in my hand.
I suppose that I could have told Him to go away,

but it’s God after all, and I like it against the kitchen wall.
He likes this too, and I am hoping that I will not lose all of me

or stab anything that shouldn’t be stabbed with a kitchen knife
while He is having me. He is here again?

Chasing doesn’t work, so I stand here, being a woman,
and I am lucky that way. Do men wish they’d invented a goddess?

Instead of the guy in robes? Maybe, I don’t know.
Does God like it that He’s a guy?

Yes. Why else would He fuck us all so often?

 .

Sutra

I couldn’t look at the river anymore
so I drove north to Rockland Lake.
I passed the hospital, where Oak Hill cemetery
presses close to the road. I passed Hook Mountain
where it broods over the Tappan Zee,
and I drove to the far side of the lake, where in old times
men had cut and hauled blocks of
ice from its clear hard surface.
I parked the car and stayed in it. I looked at
the ice. I thought about the hook in my
watery place, the new-conceived baby,
the ill-conceived affair, and how I was
now caught where the darkness pressed close
and thought about going to a clinic for an abortion.
Then the thread of my thought, which
had been unraveling from some invisible seam
near my right shoulder, grew taut. I looked around.
I pulled my arm forward, but it wouldn’t
give any more. I went back home.

 .

Carrying Lila

Durga threw up in the bathroom this morning a second time, and she was tired. She went through the bathroom cabinets looking for the Sea-Bands. She found them. She went to the radio on the counter and turned it on. Madonna was dressing him up in her love, which sounded good. Durga moved a little, catching the beat. The nausea lifted a little. A little meant a lot. She turned up Madonna a little louder. “All over your body,” singing salty sex in a pregnant soupiness.

She looked at the Sea-Bands and felt disgust. Another drawer, where was the vibrator? Durga put a hand on her hip and rummaged. No, not there. She searched another shelf and then went to their bedroom. Mahish’s bedside drawer was locked. Why locked? she wondered in annoyance. The diaphragm, who cares? But the vibrator too.

She walked back to the bathroom and put a Sea-Band on her wrist. It pressed her acupressure points. She couldn’t imagine it helping. The nausea swept in again with the Air Supply song playing now. She moaned softly, put her head down on the cool counter and then a conch shell appeared in her hand. She put it to her lips and blew and felt a vibration start inside it and end in her whole body.

Another Sea-Band on her second wrist, and now a sword appeared in her grip. Shining like the sea, and sharp as seawater in a cut, it gleamed a power to open the drawer by splitting it in two. Durga chuckled, knowing she wouldn’t have to since she already had the conch.

Next Sea-Band, on her third wrist, brought a chakra, blowing a cooling breeze on her hot flushed pregnant face. Another Sea-Band and a bow appeared, stretched taut like her belly, stretched out like Kama’s bow. It shot, taking out Mahish, who was in his study. She didn’t notice.

A Sea-Band on another wrist, and now the scepter, like a trident. To rule over the tides of this nausea? she wondered. And on her last arm, the Sea-Band’s plastic nubs pressed her wrist, twisting her hand up—a mudra. Her hand opened out and away from her, away
from her belly
where Lila
lay dreaming
a tiny dream.

The mudra lifted from her hip to her navel. Then Durga felt a muscular body under her thighs. A tiger moved there, sleekly.

.

Climbing of a tree

“When a woman, having placed one of her feet on the foot of her lover, and the other on one of his thighs, passes one of her arms round his back, and the other on his shoulders, makes slightly the sounds of singing and cooing, and wishes, as it were, to climb up him in order to have a kiss, it is called an embrace like the ‘climbing of a tree.’”

—from The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, tr. by Sir Richard Burton

Once, half way up your thigh,
my calf twisted around yours
while my hands clasped behind your ears
like the tender tendril ends
of wisteria, leaves still
furled together.

Now I am chopping these down
whole woody coils fall
each time I stop to cover my face
and cry. I feel them,
lying heavily on the ground
and dragging as I walk.
I smell them, living green,
and they coat my hands, sticky sweet.

 .

Kodaikanal vacations of my childhood

Minakshi steps demurely over the Vaigai River and proceeds firmly out of town toward the Palni Hills. She gets tired of the sweltering heat in her palatial temple on the plain. We follow her between the rows of tamarind trees to the place where the road starts to climb. She takes the short way up, a graceful leap, and she arrives at the beautiful lake, where the air is thin with altitude. We drive up the winding road, past fruit stands, forests of eucalyptus and waterfalls.

When we arrive, she is standing waist-deep in waterlilies, making garlands for herself by dipping her body into the water. We hire horses and ride around the lake, looking at her from every angle in this mountain-place. She reveals herself here, in the cool air closer to the burning sun.

We visit Coaker’s walk and gaze at the plain in the evening, when the electric lights flicker on as the heat lets off. Shiva winks at her from there, we notice. Minakshi laughs brightly behind us and leaps over us, gliding down on everything.

.

Ars poetica

Sometimes a jam jar full of jam
is broken,
and jam is spilled on the floor.
My children asked me to write a poem
about that because it happened just
now
after I read a poem at their school
about my jam jar filled with peppercorns.
I am writing this in pencil
because I cannot bear to spill
anything else
or have it spilled indelibly
and inerasably.
And how can I write it this way
for my children? Do they know yet
about the indelible stains?
The sharpness of glass
in blueberry jam?
They saw it with their own eyes today,
just now,
and they chortled with delight
because I write.

—A. Anupama

.

A. Anupama is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in Fourteen Hills, The Bitter Oleander, CutBank, and elsewhere. She studied at Northwestern University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in writing. She currently organizes literary community and is a founding editor of the literary journal River River, riverriver.org, and a Contributor at Numéro Cinq. She lives and writes in Nyack, New York. Find her musing at seranam.com.

Jun 022015
 
Jowita Bydlowska photograph2Image: Jowita Bydlowska, ice & fog series
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“Amorous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves: an always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you.”

—  Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard

.

Applewood

There should have been a meridian with bleeding cloudlines ransacking the view while the cowslips sunk under a spell as your feet fairly fell them         Neither of us can recall the urgency we felt on top of a skyscraper to take six buses into the middle of the countryside (in March, no less); neither of us can remember what we had hoped to find in green-arbored labyrinths—the azure blur of a sky spotted swellingly with eerie moorland gusts—apart from solitude yet here we are still joined like marionettes at the hip with no fortunes in our hands and no lethal means of severance         Binocular vision you hawk your gaze askant and swear you can see Snowdon in the east so I turn west toward where Snowdon actually is and say nothing encountering only fog and lowlying smoke which I thought we had left the city to avoid         On an outcropping of rock I imagine the primed back of Friedrich’s wanderer and his planted dangerously dangling toe and feed you pieces of applewood cheese straight from a knife’s serrated edge almost wanting to draw blood but smiling pathetically instead         You do not even touch my skin, I can no longer remember the last time you spoke my name aloud while looking me head-on in the eyes, I look upward and around to view nothing but to sense rather the perilous power of nature and a sublime kind of erection and I no longer wonder if what I sought was the same as what it was you did         (the same horizonline refusing a pattern resisting a building’s pointed linearity the same banal mood that stems from the threat of rain the same stench of our lackadaisical bodies—yours rank like a dying lamb’s, mine bold as a guillotine’s—the same sound of potent silence between us which not even touch being absent can assuage)         I take a mossy patch of stone beneath my skull for a pillow and shut my eyes against the balking barrenness of fields the yawningly monotonous hillocks pretending for a moment a moment quicker than the flick of that steed’s tail that you and I are back in the city—the smell of you helps the memory along its fiction—with the same gulf between us only less room than the moors serving now to exaggerate rather than to obfuscate

st-jerome-writing-caravaggioSt. Jerome writing, Caravaggio, detail

 

Quadrille

Wings were never heavy but with time
quadrilles distending their forms
lolling veins and elbows loosed quick

behind a trick door in wrought paneling
so that even we lost count     I swear
ghosts would prefer this interlude

to the fortune tellers lines so obscure
no gesture no future no bird can be sure
A quick lull tarnishes the tune so that

all bodies go placid facing one another
expectant eager erstwhile     You bow low
but I sense the breeze shard a shutter

neighboring pairs rescind wrists singly
collectively renouncing in a moment
of delusion     Amorphous colors

croon casually still the wind always wins
I spy a swallow behind your shoulder
neck low as if it is being bled     I see

the trick door open and then close again
but there is no mirth when a hand crashes
down upon a boned key in disrepair

No one knows how to move but you
yet we all see stillness as a weakness
What happens in private remains uncharted

our future wants only a veil to be told.

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas-Caravaggio_(1601-2)The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, detail

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A Conjuration; A Demolition

The trees never enough when our moon forked across leaves leaving a trace of freckles where once there had been pitch and a dull hum of distant trains         What tongues I knew then I can no longer say but I crushed my fingers into fists and spoke for hours on end in time with you I believe and the intransigent twitch some swallow made nocturnally in its nest

Did we conjure anything dangerous or did we manage to dispel definitively the demons along 9th Street where once there were tongues of a different sort who can say?           A vacant lot now where a derelict church used to seep solace across a street corner whose ends they’ve elevated erasing the languorous lengths on which we took childish chances with ancient words

I still gaze into the sky sometimes think fondly of hunters’ belts but there is an emptiness now where once we had seen vastness has necks worth all risk         Scarce memories running naked such sickled oaks you and I beneath deluding ourselves we were waxing I can honestly say from higher ground my tongue knew no thing no matter what spells from it you supped

Michelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_St_John_the_Baptist_-_WGA04154St. John the Baptist, Caravaggio, detail

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Pitch

I.

Splayed you recall a language I have lost
red anemone shouting city to shatter
a slumber sketched in southern hues

the crass linen folded under arched thighs
an expectant autumn raged sluggish
to score all that we said and all that we did

I asked you what you saw in that darkness
from what chaos you returned primed
eager keen to greet the canvas haphazardly

to quell an impending sacrifice to convey
all that we were and all that we had yet to be
mounting you was mounting me the geometry

skewed that the city offered only bones
I gnawed you shrugged I withered you throve
in one tight moment the legs flailed

like a murder the hips pushed back on oak
as if insisting the narrative was subjective
how to carry you how to ask you carry me

.

II.

Red anemone shouting city to shatter
an eager autumn expecting you to say yes
I watched you sleep your jaw skewed

to flatter the light the branch outside cracked
and we came together again it is enough
it is never enough in that scene scored slow

to allow for the proper rise and fall
southern pitch of highway the road east
where bone meets thighs where hips

are incidental to the narrative withering
the chaos from which you return sluggish
heaving crass to greet any morning lover

who would keep you from answering the call
gristle grooved but it is all that we share
we say all we can say and do all we can do

like a symphony conveyed and stretched
your hands holding the image by its tips
your eyes pleading in a language I have lost

David_and_Goliath_by_CaravaggioDavid and Goliath, Caravaggio, detail

.

Moses, Part 1

My brain full of you he showed up uninvited with a chain demanding signatures     the legalities of putting the Red Sea between us sotto voce as if anyone still held sway over whether or not the guillotine would crash     Worthlessly I fell into bottles like a sibyl whose prophecy fulfilled only the worst I had heard him spill some oceans ago when I cared for dogma and restrictions some language ago I’ve since lost shaken from my tongue like tea leaves or unwanted cum     I tried to make good with you but my touch wasn’t enough and I’ve lost you like I lost myself nearly a whole decade ago     A connection surged     I knew you like no one for a spell and however many miles we traipsed along city streets I was bent on building a narrative with you around across in between     I wanted to tell you about him but thought that my lips were enough     I stood in the rancid wind and the blistering sun for two straight hours trying to move from the spot where I had rooted myself in speaking out to you my own fears     your song would somehow do     A passing man spoke to me passingly about the end of days rattling a cup in my face like a temptation or an accusation the train looped in a tunnel like he might be right then stopped     last night I slept in fits with your hip against mine and I blamed some other man the whole time for the river being closed where for once I lacked the gall to call in the fucking gods

.

Moses, Part 2

When once we were familiar     your scent on angora a reminder of your weight
pressing on grinding into me those moments when we were one     and I
alone watching you sleep openmouthed like a baby in need of burping a thwack

across your back break my mother’s back please     the travesty of hospital lights
and a father who flatlines awake claiming to have seen the light     the word
his creed returned to him and I only know you can act as interpreter or guide

What books must he devour to make his god which is your god see him go
with no regrets and no bad blood     I wonder at silence after you and I watch
a documentary about Israel’s moment of silence whole cities motorways people

falling to their knees for the dead     for what is memory but a constant war
between what happened and what continues to happen in dreams over which
we have no control     and yet we keep returning back to the scenes of crimes

like monstrous voyeurs     When once you loved me I could see orbits in your eyes
a cosmology I recognized but could not name     pain was behind it all I see now
so bring out the leather the whips the buckles notch me a good one before

you leave    I have welts on my palms like a stigmata I never earned     how
to tell you the truths I know     a man who named my body his for four hours
locking me in a bathroom the size of a prison after I had swallowed poison

trusting too much for my palms were always open     despite the marks
not even the priests knew what to do with me calling me faggot witch heretic
When once you read me like a book that was the book of books     we ran

in fields in dreams we never shared like illusions were enough to save us
our hands embraced from an eventual severance     Solomon knew what you
were on about just as I knew playing Bathsheba would never keep you close

how to make you love me desire me part me like a sea     red and swollen
I take him inside of me and pretend his face is yours     the beard
you grew for me Jesus on a poplar tree     upside down like the fool in a Tarot pack

and perhaps we were fools     the sun for you was where you dove
into books with indecipherable languages in susurrant tongues     you saved for me
something like mockery in a carpark or a switch shaved for a poppet’s hiding

When once I skinned you     tomahawk in the crux of my hand like a blade
I wanted only to keep you mine forever     foolish frenetic failing each time
you spoke but did not mouth the word love     calling me dear as if that were enough

when you see somehow what you have done to me     When I see somehow what
on earth I have done to your heavens perhaps there will be a bridge between
the godless me who is always caught with his pants down in rivulets that would rival

the reddest sea your namesake scaled as if it were child’s play     a bridge between
that cleaved part of me and the stoic part of you     a prophet mine if I had believed
and yet when it was too late when all of the blood had crusted over like copper

left to weather     when all of the stories my body still had left to tell you
were silenced gagged rendered mute     I see you in some window reading a book
that has nothing to do with me but which is me all the same     I am there

imprisoned waiting to be claimed redeemed but your god has told you in runes
I am not worth salvaging     I park at the bottom of the carpark to write this
in the hollow of my hand across an expanse of thighs     When once you were mine

I could have translated this for you     I could have made you understand I was yours
and you were mine no matter what the tablets said     A man whose name
I do not know plays charades and I make him turn the lights out to feel bristle

against clavicle     he is not you but he will have to do     In losing me
you have lost the book we were writing with gods and demons and love
that is something as harsh as menses but always strong on your lips like mine

those words we made that no scholar can unravel when once you knew
before you did not know that we were saved     that the desert was ours to blame
as we let the sun shine on our bared skin like a new religion     a backward prayer

entombmentEntombment, Caravaggio, detail

—K. Thomas Kahn

.

K. Thomas Kahn‘s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Quarterly ConversationMusic & LiteratureBerfroisBookslut, Numéro Cinq, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for 3:AM Magazine and Words Without Borders.

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Jun 012015
 

Victoria KennefickVictoria Kennefick

Victoria Kennefick’s debut chapbook, White Whale, already a winner of The Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition, I am delighted to say has (in the last few days) also won a Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet and well deserved too!

While discussing White Whale (with its recurrent images of the sea and that great white creature of myth) in a recent interview, she stated that “the sea is my context. It is how I understand time and space…. I can’t imagine life, or my poetry, without it.” Indeed her writing reflects that fluid quality, the poems possessing the same illusionary motion of waves: their words, like the sea’s water particles, staying in place while transferring their energy to the next word (particle) in line creating a distortion of our external reality to yield up an internal truth. Kennefick, it should be noticed, is not, like a sailor, using the fixed stars to determine time and space but the sea itself. In this way, perhaps, she resembles more the whalesmen of Melville when he writes, “in maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound…they [the whalesmen] are by all odds the most directly brought into contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face they not only eye its greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to them…”

—Gerard Beirne

.

Apology

I turned my back on aeonian coffee dates,
I have no patience left to watch you eat a pastry,
sawing it into tiny, bite-sized portions
to nibble at with milk teeth that refuse to budge.
Please know it’s because I felt like a savage.

I put out the lights on looping walks around
the Lough, Fitzgerald’s Park, the entirety of the city.
I like to walk in silence, alone, I do not need to burn
the way you do. I’m glad you have a dog now.
Please know it’s because I felt lazy.

I left the room when you cried at birthdays, graduation,
my father’s funeral. I do not want to sweep up your broken
porcelain face from my floor anymore, not at my wedding.
Sometimes it’s about me. I am happy you found love.
Please know it’s because I felt selfish.

I shut the door because we talked in circles, spiralling
into the centre of our own darkness. Your devotion
flattened me. Old friends thought we were lovers.
I could not pick you off, like a plaster I had to rip.
Please know that I am sorry.

.

Marie Céleste

I am too young for this body,
it cracks and snaps.
My mast broken into points,
my sail flaps in tatters, loose angry skin.

My mouth is full with tongue,
wooden and dumb.
My hair locked in coils,
breaks on dry shoulders.

Paint flaked off like old make-up,
the green of my eyes died.
Above an albatross shrieks
at this body open like a cave.

Yawing wood unclasps,
ribs collapse, fingers untwine,
whining to float on grey water,
washed out, broken.

Fall into the blankness of the tide,
leave behind the old and splintered thing.

.

Ritual

Because she demands it,
the rain comes.
Everything stops,
conversations drip with it,
eyes water.
I ask villagers what she did.

The priest says he saw her dance
in a white nightgown,
a fallen star not knowing
where to land. The doctor
noticed drops fuse with her skin,
fizz like sugar.

Calm as a mushroom, I watch her,
safe underneath my umbrella.
Hear her when she squalls,
‘The rain will dilute everything,
set lakes and rivers free.
Then you’ll see an ocean in me.’

After a few days, the rain stops;
sun dabs puddles like wounds.
There is no flood, we are glad.
She sits alone in steaming clothes
bleeding white on wrinkled skin,
her sky seems clear forever.

.

On Reflection

The sea
a shell rippling open
puts itself in the shallows,
leans over quivering panes,
dips tippy-toed to look at itself
now it’s low tide.
It squints up at us shivering,
our breath clouds of brushed cotton.
Goose-fleshed toes burrow
down to where worms squirm.
Sand, hands cupped, holds us up,
my head in view, flat on the water
in the sky, pupil in the eye,
turned in on itself, and out,
and you and I, and me and you,
and us, pinks, blues, periwinkles,
a cockle, kelp.
The ocean takes us all,
the sky too,
on reflection.

—Victoria Kennefick

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Victoria Kennefick’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry (Chicago), The Stinging Fly, New Irish Writing, Bare Fiction, The Penny Dreadful, And Other Poems and elsewhere. She won the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Prize 2013 and was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize 2014. Her pamphlet, White Whale, won the Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition 2014 and just won a Saboteur Award for Best Poetry Pamphlet. You can follow her @VKennefick.

May 102015
 

David Spitzer

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

ii.    isaak        I watch light fracture, shape itself along the bronze edge.  it radiates out of the hip of my father; it rises.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s call.  everything smolders beneath the midday sun.  something from below.  from above—its arcing sea-wave, a wave of pale air, a voice, a temblor, an open storm.

.

*                        *                        *

.

I       ………  am sacrifice.

I      ……….  am paradox.

(unfathomed;
unresolved.)

I    ……….    am promise, covenant—future in the instant; presence.

a people thousandfold            like stars.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of uncertainty, of
promise.

.

*                        *                        *

.

eyes whirl   ……….     to the light, in
the light.

the light
is the message,… ..   an angel
of the g-d.

all eyes
roll towards the teeming waters
above us.

“Abraäm
Abraäm”  [22:11]

..

.

the voice of g-d mirrors
itself and all
else within the mirror of it-
-self. ..   a window.
………….a voice
…………………….of mirrors.

empties itself in the paradox, the double.  I hear

light
from ..    the very center of his bronze knife.  speech
flags
the air distancing light   …. earth  …      perpetual waters of the above.

.

“you
see
I.”  [22:11]

.

an angel is a lightning-tip, a
ledge
of primeval
water.  a word
a vessel— ……..       lightning strikes, reduces itself
………………………… on the surface of heaven.

volting heavens of a worded sea, angel:

.

“Not    upon
the neutral ground
the play with no player

Never.”  [22:12]

.

*                        *                        *

.

I watch light fracture, shape itself along the bronze edge.  bronze light radiates out of the hand of my father; it rises.  it falls on the dry earth.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s call.  everything smolders beneath the midday sun.  something from below.  from above—its arcing sea wave, a wave of pale air, a voice, a temblor, an open storm.  a storm of precipice, open, unbroken.  immanence in a torrent upon my eyes.

.

*                        *                        *

.

negatives slit

the fabric of    vocables, air;
earth
rent on a  ….   seam, a shorn

jagged edge of too too solid flesh,
split.

.

I        …………am not

the hewn pine, not
the torches’ resin, the pyre’s
ember.

not    ………   the father, is
………………..not the blade is

not..    the light.  light
…………..is not the sound, not fury.

sound     ….   is not voice; voice not echo.

…….echo
…….is not    light.

I   ….. am not    messenger, but
……………………….the message, the sign.

.

.

the chasm of heaven and earth and the chasm
once more of earth as air is
I:

……………….self, ……………       fissure.

.

.

plural        …………is the number of the first
………………………………………………..person;    negation inside self; negation

.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………&

.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………its other.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of uncertainty.

.

*                                                *

.

I     ……………………………..                   am         …………………………….               now.

.

*

.

[the moment is the self, an eternally sudden ‘now’ and the present tense as such; victim to the annihilation of the moment into its next instance.  the self, as isaak, is sacrifice to the ephemeral, is the ephemeral in its flashpoint, the day’s relentless arc to later day and later day and twilight and night.

the moment, as isaak, works as an object to others, for others; a blank in the continuum of willing, not as isolated units that accumulate to the whole of time, but instances of a hurling out or hurling into the path of others; of the self.  a suspension of the ethical:  not mere conformity with universal—which requires no such suspension because the ethical always presents itself as the ground and backdrop on & in which the individual acts and for the sake of which the individual commits the tragic ethical action (city, people, et cetera)—but an outburst from the universal into the region of faith, whose field is the absurd.

isaak is no ethically invested institution but a beating heart straining itself to live as its individuality on the field of the absurd, the ‘apart from the silence, the unspoken-ness of what is.’

isaak is the ego in his aspect of the beating heart upon the ground of the absurd; the object of a divine promise; paradox.  all that is ethical depends on the ego and its preservation, while faith and its unspeakable depth hinges on the will to sacrifice it into the starless void of the eternal:  the very essence of the ego at rest on the knife’s edge.  the threat of immanent and absolute annihilation renders the ego in its most interior moment, the moment of its initial posture towards the exterior in faith.]

.

*                        *                        *

.

I watch light fracture my reflection along the bronze edge.  it radiates out of the eyes of my father; it rises.  the sea is vastly overhead.  pine and cedar spindles tinge and reverberate the knife’s voice.  everything trembles beneath the midday sun.  from above— a voice, its arcing sea-wave, an open storm.

.

*                        *                        *

.

still

a word …..       atom-  …..      -izes

i

i

now        ……..a focus, a
…………………center in flames.

…………………still, one:  an offering
…………………of smoke; dis-
…………………………………….-integra-
…………………………………………………-tion.

rise I like unto stars, ten-thousand eyes of heaven written on the name I am (given).

.

I          …………………………….              am       …………………………….                 given.

.

*                        *                        *

.

first, my voice says:

…………………………………..“father.”  [22:7]

.

I am a sacrifice replaced by a ram on the mountaintop.

there is a pyre beneath every
action I take.  when
will the god arrive to spirit
away this volatility?

.

this frailty—

.

*                        *                        *

.

and
inside this

frailty, spirited away as   …. i

……………………as:

laughter.

i:   the laugh of an elder upon an eternity of parchment, of sand

.

*                        *                        *

.

and……..       called an angel of the lord

……Abraäm, again
……out of heaven, speaking

.

just as the stars of heaven
and just as the sand gristing the
sea’s lip,

a blessing to you, where blood is
water to flow
into water, where
bone is smoke
for the air, where
my voice is all—

.

turned away Abraäm toward the children of his own and uprising they made their way together toward the spring of the oath.  and down settled Abraäm upon spring of the oath.  [22:15-19]

.

*                        *                        *.

.

I am light fractured along the bronze edge of the g-d’s voice.  I radiate out of the mouth of earth, and of sea, and of air.  heaven is vast.  the earth is blood and emanating the knife’s voice of blood.  everything bleeds under the sun.  something stirs itself up from below.  from above, something has fallen, something risen, a wave of blood-tinged air, a voice of water, an open storm.  where I end the world quivers, sands give way into stars.  a merciless sky.

.

*                        *                        *

.

through the dust rising
like daybreak
behind the pack-animals

mountain of certainty, of
promise.

—D. M. Spitzer

.
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.  Mr. Spitzer’s first book, A Heaven Wrought of Iron, will be published by Etruscan Press in Spring/Summer 2016. Current poetic projects include:  the afterword to a collection called mousika, which presents transfigurations of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets & the Latin texts of the psalms used by Igor Stravinsky in his Symphony of Psalms; an essay to accompany a new transfiguration of the poem by the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, tentatively (re-) titled Figures of Being; and continued work on the large-scale hybrid project Genealogy of the First Person. In fall, 2015, Mr. Spitzer will begin work on a Ph.D. in comparative literature where he plans to concentrate on the relationship of poetry to philosophy as it occurs in early Greek thinking and the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife & their three children.

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May 092015
 

Macdara Woods Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014Macdara Woods at the Cuisle Limerick City International Poetry Festival 2014 — photo by Robin Parmer

Macdara Woods unquestionably possesses one of the most singular voices in Irish poetry. He has published eleven collections of poetry since 1970 with his Collected Poems appearing in 2012. In addition he has published two collections in Italian and has poems translated in twelve languages. In 2002/3 he worked on two collaborative commissions: the first, In The Ranelagh Gardens, a sequence of  twelve new poems to go with four new pieces from the Irish composer Benjamin Dwyer, first performed by both, in Dublin, in the Bank of Ireland Mainly Modern Series, February 2003.  In July 2003 he completed the second, The Cello Suites, a six-part sequence of 480 lines, in response to a performance of the Bach Solo Suites by US double-bassist Richard Hartshorne at Verbal Arts Centre, Derry, in 2002. It was premiered by both in Harrisville, New Hampshire, December 2003, and performed again in Toronto, New York, and Dublin. He has read and lectured extensively throughout the world over the last fifty years, most recently in Brazil and Argentina.

Perhaps Bernard O’Donoghue, in his Irish Times review (2001), put it best, “Macdara Woods has been an absorbing and relatively unplaceable presence in Irish writing since the 1970s, because the internationalising tendency of his poems to push the boundaries of Irish poetry outwards was always balanced by a rooted use of Irish language and tradition.” And push those boundaries he has, but in a careful measured way. While living mainly in Dublin, he also resides as much as he can in Umbria, where the poem featured below, Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light, is located.

Macdara has described this poem as “a serious statement of record and intent arising out of a nightmare progression of medical catastrophe, starting from a fairly routine surgical intervention.”  Five days after the routine surgery he collapsed with a severe near fatal sepsis which necessitated a second surgery and a further eleven week stay in hospital. Upon release, he suffered excruciating pain in his back and leg which ultimately led to a hip replacement, “but I was so wrecked from the sepsis, and because I also had a still open wound, the surgical team was very hesitant about going ahead. So they hit upon the idea of keeping me semi-knocked out, to try and control the pain, until January when they hoped I might be stronger and a bit more healed. In the event, two days before Christmas Eve, there assembled round my bed 4 serious faced harbingers, the man who had done the first and second operations, the man who would be doing the hip replacement, a beautiful and high-powered Romanian anaesthetist, and a microbiologist. There to tell me that I was getting worse instead of better, that in fact I was as good as I was ever going to be…”

The following day he had his hip replacement which required him to learn to walk all over again. It was more than a year after his initial surgery that Macdara was finally well enough “to get back to Umbria, a place I had begun to feel I was never going to see again, to start reassembling myself.” The poem was written last September after he managed to climb up to the top of the hill-town of Nocera Umbra.

—Gerard Beirne

.

Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light

I.

My father did not finish things
Such things as rows
Or playing parts ..And breakdowns
Retiring early ..Died too soon
His final words to me — A
Half a question ..Half unasked
At no point answered ..Comes there
Any answer ever? ..Do you…
Do you remember…When…and there
It stops unfinished in my head
Do you remember when we… ..Lost
The points of contact maybe
Or lost the faith ..Or lost our nerve
Lost certainty along the way
As is the way of things ..And now
That I am gathering speed
The train tracks meeting in the distance
Far behind ..The fearsome nameless
City rearing up in front ..where I know
No one ..and none know me
But where we all get off
It is too late to even think of asking questions
And of whom? ..The young Eastern
European with the tea-urn
Has passed up and down the corridor
Three times ..has disappeared
And gone for good
As has the man who checks the tickets
And the district nurse ..who is
The only one that anyone could trust
Out of the whole shebang and calaboose
Or – to use my mother’s phrase –
The Slaughterhouse
This travelling slaughterhouse on wheels
We call a life
……………..But not an unconsidered one
Out of the four last things
This one remains ..Impervious to fashion
Time or doubt: ..the flame ..it flickers
And goes out
The bird across the banquet hall
No more than that
………………………..And yet we
Mostly ..stand our ground ..because
It is expected
And what I am trying to understand
Even now at this late hour
Is your unhappiness and thus my own
Beyond the dopamine deficiency
And those endorphins
Creatures of ..the vasty deep
Who do not come when they are conjured

.

II.

Yesterday I climbed ..lungs heaving
Up the earthquake damaged street
……………………….Nocera Umbra
Much ..chiuso per restauri
And simple minimal ..so beautiful
So free of traffic ..free of noise
Mid-Wednesday afternoon
One self-conscious policeman
Checking doors so tightly shut
Not even dust could penetrate
And near the top
Two men are laying cobble stones
In sand ..tapping them square
Into the roots of time
In shadow
In the lovely buttered ..honey light
Of mid-September
……………………..This constant need
For rehabilitation ..Spells in John Of God’s
Cataracts removed
Appendices
Colonoscopies and cardiograms
Or how in 1991 in Moscow
So many Metro escalators stopped
Seized-up ..steep egress from the underworld
Sotto Restauro ..everywhere Ремонт
Remont ..we climbed up from
The marble bowels and chandeliers
Of Kruschev’s dream made real
But lacking maintenance
The way we do not finish things ..is
Where entropy comes in ..is Auden’s
Sinister cracked tea cup
And the Watcher in the shadows
Who coughs when you
……………………………would kiss
Or coughing ..labour upwards
On a stick and artificial hip
To the Civic Tower and campanile
La Campanaccia at the top
Built nine hundred years ago
And standing straight ..full weight
Erect proclaiming ..Eccomi
For I am here and have been here for all to see
And have been seen
………………………..As I too am here
And have been seen ..been part of this
Small space today between the Tower
And the Cathedral
All chiuso per restauri ..Have seen
The maintenance and putting things
In place ..Knowing that they must
And will go wrong again
And be put almost right again
Poor transients —
Until the Heracliten lease runs out

.

III.

And one day indeed the words ran out
And we ..with nothing ..left to say
Consulted over menus
Read bits of news ..repeated saws
To get us through the silence — you
Didn’t know
……………………..And I had yet to learn
That few words ..A simple few
Could be enough ..could tell it all:
A tendency to stagger to the left
And sometimes teeter backwards
Which could explain
My dreadful fall in Fiumicino
Too much saliva
Varied tremors ..Hands and chin:
And sometimes fingers clawed
In sudden spasm
…………………….Do I go on
Into the realms of dysgraphia
Staccato speech ..Shoulders stooped
A slowing of the gait?
I prefer
To watch the dancers in the village square
The ballo in piazza
Sunburnt mirth ..Provencal song
That so caught Keats’ fancy
Out of reach
And I have had a longer run than that

And not yet reached Astopovo:
Still travelling
………………..To places all unseen
Invisible to those with open eyes
It needs a certain antic 20 20 vision
To housepaint in the dark
As we have done ..And plastered walls
Without a light in Fontainebleau
Not cowboys then or now
Just battling with addictions
………………………Drink and pills
And work ..At labouring ..And selling
Two hours of life to buy a third
The hell with that bum deal
I said ..And I have now grown old ..And someone
Cooked the booksbooks
……………………….Along the way
The way we knew they would – So
Who owes what to whom is moot
Irrelevant ..We last from day to day
No more than that ..That’s it .Enough
For now
The diagnosis works ..Of course it does:
Who ever died a winter yet?

………………………………September 19th 2014

—Macdara Woods

.

Macdara Woods was born in Dublin in 1942. Has been publishing work since the early sixties. He is a member, since 1986, of Aosdána, (set up by the Irish Government to honour those who have made an outstanding contribution to the Arts in Ireland). Recent reading tours include Austria, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greece. His Collected Poems were published in 2012 by Dedalus Press and his pamphlet, From Sandymount to the Hill of Howth, was published by Quaternia Press in 2014. He currently lives in Dublin, and when he can in Umbria. He is the founder-editor of the magazine Cyphers (1975 to the present). He is married to poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and they have a grown-up son, Niall, a musician.

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.

Apr 102015
 

David Zieroth travel pic

.

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

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

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

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

—Kathryn Para

.

Interview

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

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

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

KP: What are you reading now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—David Zieroth & Kathryn Para

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

 

hovädiny

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

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

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

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

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

.

rozhádzaný

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

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

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

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

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

.

hviezda

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

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

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

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

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

.

šťastný

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

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

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

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

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

.

smutný

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

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

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

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

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

.

do me a favour…

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

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

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

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

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

.

pie in the sky

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

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

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

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

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

.

speak of the devil…

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

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

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

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

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

—David Zieroth

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

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Apr 062015
 

George Szirtes

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Overheard

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

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

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

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

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

.

Photograph of a face

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

.

Romance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 .

Caedmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 .

A Low Flying Plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—George Szirtes

.

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

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Apr 032015
 

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

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

cid-corman

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

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

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

Cid Corman

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

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

after Baudelaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
Quebec
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

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

Yours, Irving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assistant

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

The Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Corman, ICPR 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHINGYO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IUCUNDUM, MEA VITA

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

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

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

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(Corman, ND 64)

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

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

Family

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

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

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

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne

§

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar 112015
 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

To a Nightingale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(excerpt from “Man Jack”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack’s Pigeon

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Julie Larios

 

With Jackson at Mo's 2

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

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Mar 072015
 

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

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

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

Poetry and AudiencePoetry and Audience, edited by Ralph Maud

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

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Ralph Maud’s Prayer: Distilled

1.

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

5.

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

6.

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

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

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

7.

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

 Ralph-Maud

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

 

Mary-Maillard-Photo-

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

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Feb 112015
 

Thomas McCarthy

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Winter With Catherine

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

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

Clouds withdraw in wounded hauteur.

Sunlight tinctures sorrel and sage
With drifts of its royal orpiment

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

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

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

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

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While You Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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At Ink Level, The Sea

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

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

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

—Thomas McCarthy

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

 

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Feb 032015
 

RW with trout

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How The Blind Dog Perceived Human Sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncle

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

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

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

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

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Chances Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

*

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

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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.

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