Aug 142014
 

GrisGris SlateGris-gris is a powerful charm.

Jody headshotJody Gladding

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

MW-Gladding-cover

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

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

why
I
am
like
this
place
is
beautiful
and
cold
.

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

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

Tongue Depressorsswallow

LikeLichencrossroad

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

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

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

Seal RockSeal Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins

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

Steep3MinutesAfter the Vote to Mass Discontinue Unmapped Invisible Town Roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milweed#23 Sent to Susan Walp on 9/9

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

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

Featherroc

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

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

EggShellNesting Ravens

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

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

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

Hard WoodHardwood

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

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

Scan11 Sentences

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

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

Vellum book stitch

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

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

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

—Darren Higgins & Jody Gladding

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

Darren Higgins

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

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Aug 082014
 

dancersDancers, Photograph by John Oughton

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Dawning

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

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

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

/
Force Field

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

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

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

/
Arise

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

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

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

—Poems & Photographs by John Oughton

birdbath Birdbath by John Oughton

.

Oughton

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

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

Nela Rio

 

Rio_Laberinto_vertical portada

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

—Sophie M. Lavoie

 

Las Mistícas 

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

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

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

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

 

The Mystics

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

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

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

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

§

Rivalidades 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rivalries 

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

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

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

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

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

 §

Sol de Cartón 

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

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

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

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

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Cardboard Sun

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

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

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

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

§

Cánones 

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

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

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

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

 

Canons

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

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

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

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

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

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sophie lavoie prince rupert cropped

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

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Hugh Hazelton reading

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

 

Jul 122014
 

pre and beach 7 11 092

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—d m spitzer

 

.

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

.

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

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

.

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

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

My father was speaking a tongue of golden flame:

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

I fled.

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

.

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

                                                  gathered by thine greatness into a single gaze.

                                                  There I am nothing     but thou.

,

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

—d m spitzer

.

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

 

Jul 102014
 

paula-cunningham

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

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

—Gerard Beirne

 

.

THE CHIEF RADIOGRAPHER CONSIDERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

A HISTORY OF SNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cunningham-Heimlichs-manoeuvre (1)

.

NOTES FROM AN EAR

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

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

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

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

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

malleus
……………incus
……………………..stapes

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

.

SEEING THINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 .

FATHOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Farther

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

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

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

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

3. Further

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

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

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

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

4. Faster

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

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

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

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

5. Falter

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

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

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

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

.

—Paula Cunningham

.
Paula author photo

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

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

.
.

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

James KochalkaCartoonist James Kochalka

Sydney LeaSydney Lea & his grandson Arthur

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

dg

§

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

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

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

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

Sydney Lea

.
Garnett and Leon in December

garnett_and_leon_01garnett_and_leon_02

garnett_and_leon_03garnett_and_leon_04§

Squiggle: Tonight’s the Night


squiggle_with_words_01squiggle_with_words_02

squiggle_with_words_03
squiggle_with_words_04

—Cartoons by James Kochalka; Text by Sydney Lea

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

Kockhalk self portrait

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

 

Jun 162014
 

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

Capture1

§

Desktop4-002Lorine Niedecker

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

Capture2

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

dg

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Lax_Poems_for_website_1024x1024

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

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

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

things
into
words

words
into
things

things
into
words

words
into
things

words
into
things

words
into
things

things
into
words

words
into
things

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

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

as
oce-
an

as o
oce-
an

re-
flects

the
sky

the
cities
of
man

the
citi-
y

(of
God)

as
oce-
an

as
oce-
an

re-
flects

the
sky

the
cit-
ies

of
man

(of
God)

what
cur-
rent

what
cur-
ent

is
un-
der

the
sea

what
cur-
rent

what
cur-
rent

is
un-
der

the
sea

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

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

Lake_Superior_for_website_1024x1024

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

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

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

Grandfather
advised me:
……Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
……and condense

No layoffs
from this
……condensery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

comingles with this:

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

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

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

—David Wojahn

Copy of Wojahn Pub photo Noelle

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

 

Jun 142014
 

Desktop3

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

Image 2 - Mirror Gazing

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vivianmaier_selfportraits7Self-portrait of  the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Julie Larios

.

Julie Larios

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

Jun 112014
 

Jody Bolz

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

—Jason DeYoung

bolz

.

Shadow Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

What corpse am I
scavenging for you?

§

You’re offering me a metaphor?

But—we were there.

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

I’m not sure.

We have other lives now.

This isn’t a betrayal.

How can you tell?

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

You’re policing failures.

We spent fourteen years together—

And the next fourteen apart.

Which proves the first a failure?

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

I loved you.

And—

I was eighteen when we met.

I was a child too.

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

—Jody Bolz

.

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

Jun 092014
 

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

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

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

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

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

dg

 

 

West of Hays City

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

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

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

YelloKoKoCardImageYellow Kokopelli (acrylic, 2′x3′)

#

Cold

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

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

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

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

WinterShamanHiRezWinter Shaman (acrylic, 2′x 4′)

#

Shooting Stars Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

Tumbling Atlantis aliens
magnetize pyramids
stoned freaks stars
land here.

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

#

Sedimentation: Alligator Junipers

tree-skin sediments
oblong scales tiered
centuries old living shale

spiral rows mortared
circling pith of sap
guarding scant water

agate-ring years
seared drought forged
creased wrinkled torsos

FlintHillsFlint Hills (acrylic, 2′x3′)

#

Imperfect Refraction
……………for Roger Holden

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Denise.12.insight.blackdirect

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

Tom.09 (2)

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

 

May 122014
 

Patrick OReilly-001

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

dg

#
What Wolves Eat

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

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

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

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

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

x

The Offer

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

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

But husband.

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

x

Lost

His collar’s been dry this ages.

I heard nine different places

his ship spun round
like a crumpled needle.

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

I’d only be making up.

 x

i mBolc

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

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

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

He feeds the meadow his horse;

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

x

Croft

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

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

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

No one knows this story, now, but me.

x

Clothes He Never Wore

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

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

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

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

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

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

x

The Dance

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

x

Oldest Man in Town

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

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

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

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

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

>

A for Argyle

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

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

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

x

Shelter

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

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

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

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

—Patrick O’Reilly

#

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

 

May 092014
 

Ripped and torn (4371)-crop

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

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

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

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

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

— Gerard Beirne

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

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

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

—Martin Mooney

 

Fragment

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

.

Moorfield Street

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

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

 

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

.

The Bridge

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

.

Sounding Moorfield Street

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

.

Flora

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

.

Does He Know?

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

.

What We Ate

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

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

.

Hallowe’en

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

.

Wall

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

.

Glossary

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

—Martin Mooney

.

author_174_51c05446e4ce7-290x0

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

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

 

May 082014
 

A. AnupamaA. Anupama

A. Anupama, one of our regular contributors, dusts off her translating skills, bringing us hilariously sexy, curiously modern couplets from the classic Tirikkural, a vast book of over a thousand rhyming couplets written in ancient Tamil and dating from about 2,000 years ago. They run the gamut from agricultural advice to law to flirting couples (the most charming).

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

A. Anupama gives us a rare glimpse into this ancient world, also providing us with a brief gloss on the difficulties of translation and her modus operandi, plus, joy of joys, some sound files with the original Tamil verse (beautiful liquid sounds) and the English translation.

This is not her first translation effort. See also her “Poems from Kuruntokai” and “Sweet to my heart | Translations of Tamil Love Poems.”

dg

A

 

Tirukkural is a collection of 1,330 rhyming couplets (called kural) written by the Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar perhaps around 30 BC (dating is vague). The verses were meant as a comprehensive portrait of Tamil culture, a description but also an epigrammatic guidebook in verse to the formulas of this south Indian civilization. The poems cover every aspect of society and right living from the conduct of kings to the sowing of fields, from aspects of ascetic virtue to the intricacies of lovers’ quarrels, and from the art of friendship to dire warnings against vice.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

The couplets are organized into chapters of ten each, and the entire work is divided into three sections, Virtue, Wealth, and Love. Tirukkural differs from other classical Indian philosophical literature (e.g., the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) by not including the fourth section of traditional teaching on spiritual release. Tirukkural emphasizes domestic life over ascetic or religious practice.

Tiruvalluvar_statue_LIC

The colossal statue of Tiruvalluvar built on a small islet at the meeting of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, represents the poet’s legendary status. Designed by sculptor V. Ganapati Sthapati, this granite monument stands 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of Tirukkural. The height of the statue’s base, at 38 feet, represents the 38 chapters of the first section, Virtue, symbolically setting the foundation of the other two sections, Wealth and Love. The poet is depicted holding up three fingers, a stylized and definitive gesture of Tirukkural’s three sections.

According to tradition, Tiruvalluvar lived in about the first century BCE (though estimates vary by a few hundred years) and was a weaver from Mylapore, near present-day Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil culture and language are the oldest of Dravidian heritage, originating in the southern tip of India.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil is the oldest living language in the world, with a rich classical literary history. Tiruvalluvar’s work dates from the period of the classical Cankam, a famous gathering of poets, scholars, and sages in the ancient city of Madurai. His poetic couplets are the shortest verse form in Tamil literature, and his work was known and referred to by the writers of classical Tamil epics like Cilappatikaram and Manimekhalai.

If you search YouTube for “kural recitation,” you’ll find videos of young schoolchildren reciting memorized couplets, sometimes with a little prompting, but mostly with ease and confidence. The boy in this video recited chapter 40 from Tirukkural, a set of ten couplets on learning.YouTube Preview Image

On the other hand, centuries of erudite commentary on Tirukkural have revealed its subtlety, and its influence on modern thinkers and writers has been significant. Leo Tolstoy quoted several couplets from it in a letter to an editor at Free Hindustan, a letter that was later translated into Gujarati and published by M.K. Gandhi. Albert Schweitzer said about Tirukkural, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much of lofty wisdom.”

I couldn’t find a tougher or more rewarding translation challenge than this. Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay “On Language and Words” remarked, “Take translations of authors from antiquity: they are as obvious a surrogate as chicory for coffee. Poems cannot be translated; they can only be transposed, and that is always awkward.”[1] W.S. Merwin in the prologue to his collection Selected Translations, cites advice he received from Ezra Pound: “He spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language… Pound also urged—at that point and to me, at least—the greatest possible fidelity to the original, including its sounds.”[2] Tirukkural is a particular gift to the translator because in addition to offering fresh mental vistas, it invites one to stricter attention through the voice and the ear.

The couplets, like most proverbs, are designed to be easy to remember and repeat: the alliterative and assonant strength of the compositions aids memory, and tight line-length keeps each verse within a single breath. These same qualities make the couplets difficult to translate, requiring the translator to create equivalencies in sound and sense in a very tight space. Kural 12 showed me quickly how impossible it might be to honor the sound of the original. “Living” sounds nothing like “thupakith,” and yet, the poem in English requires the repetitive transformation of the single word for the purpose of the poem’s sense. The Tamil “Thupaarkuth thupaaya thupaakith thupaarkuth thupaaya” turns into “living,” “live,” “life-giving,” and “life” in my translation.

Still, I found that evoking the original’s sound was possible in many places, with some effort and luck. For example in Kural 18, the “s” sounds in the first line and the “v” sounds in the second line were reproducible, though they lack the alliterative effect of the original. In Kural 20, I added the words “nearness” and “farthest” at the beginnings of the lines to mimic the sounds of the Tamil words “neerindru” and “vaanindru,” which altered the sense only slightly by emphasizing the nuance of distance in the poem’s imagery.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.

Word order and integrity of the poetic line are another challenge, because Tamil syntax runs in the opposite direction from English. Subject-verb-object in English often translates to object-verb-subject in Tamil, and even prepositions become postpositions. Sometimes, I could maintain word order, as in Kural 19: “Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world, / sky unyielding.” In Kural 20, however, I had to flip word order for sense, translating the two phrases “all worldly work ends” and “all natures end” exactly inverted. The rest of the word order, as well as the couplet’s line integrity, I carefully maintained.

I learned my method of line-by-line translation in Richard Jackson’s translation workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2011 when Patty Crane showed us her work translating poems by Tomas Tranströmer. For each line of poetry, I add directly underneath it a literal translation, maintaining the syntax of the original. Alternative word choices are included in this step. Then, directly under that is a first draft of my literary translation of the line. I continue in this way, adding lines for each line of the original poem. I keep everything, every attempt to translate stays in the document. If the lines of poetry get too far away from each other in the process to look at on the computer screen, I copy and paste what I want to work with on a new page in the same document.

Kural 11 in Tamil
Capture

Kural 12 in Tamil

Capture2

In this work with Tirukkural and in my previous translations from Kuruntokai, I relied on my co-translator B. Jeyaganesh for literal translations and recorded readings of the original poems. B. Jeyaganesh is a native speaker of Tamil, the son of a scholar with a Tamil PhD, and a fellow self-described non-expert in this classical literature. For this selection from Tirukkural, we spent over three hours coming up with alternative word choices in English and discussing the relative emphasis of words in the couplets. I listened to the recording over and over to gain a familiarity with the poems’ sounds. I used the recordings again to check my work, often reading my drafts aloud for comparison. Another helpful tool was an English transliteration of the full text online along with the original Tamil and the classic translation by Rev. Dr. G.U. Pope from 1886.

Palm-leaf manuscript

I chose this particular set of couplets to translate (the second chapter and the penultimate chapter) from Tirukkural partly to keep this first try easy for me and easy for a reader unfamiliar with this work. The poet intended these very specific moral edicts and proverb-like statements for people living in a certain cultural and philosophical context, making translation for a contemporary reader in English difficult. The universality of the need for rain and of quarrels between lovers is obvious, and I found this a generous place to begin. My idea was to bracket the work as a whole, but also to bring its didactic verse and its elegant love poetry close together in this small set. The couplets in the third section on love are beautiful, witty, and very different from those in the preceding chapters. In words, sounds, and imagery, however, the thread of the work from beginning to end is wonderfully consistent. The recent drought in South India, and its continuing effects in the region, also inspired me to bring this poetry off my shelf and to translate the chapter on rain.

Tiruvalluvar statue and Vivekananda memorialPhoto by Bennet Anand

In two instances in these couplets, I departed slightly from the literal meaning in order to evoke the sense of the whole work. In couplet 17, my eco-poetic commentary in the addition of “those who don’t give from within” reflects Tirukkural’s moral standard of generosity and right action, as in Kural 211: “Duty expects not anything in return / just as rain expects none.”[3] The literal translation of the line is roughly “gives not, if that’s the state of things.” The state of things today is marked by the urgency of eco-conscious moral imperatives. I found in this a beautiful opportunity to investigate how Tirukkural in translation might evolve in order to retain its original function, which was to describe the cultural, ethical ideal. My initial idea for the change in this line, however, came from the poem’s sound: the end-word “vitin” sounds like my “within.”

My second departure from the literal translation is in Kural 1323, the couplet taken from the last chapter of Tirukkural. My version ends “with earth and water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart,” while the literal includes no mention of a clay water vessel. My addition of the object attempts to bridge the distance between that specific culture and universal understanding. While this image would hover in the subconscious mind of a Tamil reader 2000 years ago and offer another level of mystery to the poem, a contemporary reader from another culture might miss it.

These departures from the literal in my translation are experiments based on an essay by David Damrosch, titled “Translation and World Literature.”[4] In writing about the problem of translating one of the oldest known lyric poems—an Egyptian poem inscribed in 1160 BCE—he observes, “Some literary works, indeed, may be so closely dependent on detailed culture-specific knowledge that they can only be meaningful to members of the originating culture or to specialists in that culture; these are works that remain within the sphere of a national literature and never achieve an effective life in world literature.” In regard to the Egyptian word mss in that poem, which has been variously translated as tunic, dress, loincloth, and clothing, he writes,

…however mss may be translated, most readers will be unable to visualize the ancient garment in all its authentic particularity. Yet as long as the translation doesn’t impose a wholesale modernization, we won’t assimilate the mss directly to our modern experience, as we remain aware that we’re reading an ancient poem: whatever we think a mss is, we won’t envision it as a Gore-Tex windbreaker, though this might be a modern equivalent of the original item. All the same, we can never hold the poem entirely away from our own experience, nor should we. As we read, we triangulate not only between ancient and modern worlds but also between general and personal meanings: however the mss is translated, different readers will visualize it very differently, and this variability helps the poem to resonate with memories from the reader’s own life. (Italics mine.)

In my translation, adding the material object of a water vessel creates a specific resonance and aids the reader’s associations within the ancient world of the poem. Adding the phrase “or if by those who don’t give from within” aids the reader’s associations in the modern world, simultaneously awakening moral consciousness, which is the original objective of Tirukkural. Though I initially felt awkward treating translation as a sort of geometry problem, I felt that the result brought me closer to the text. The availability of many complete translations of Tirukkural also lessened my concern over maintaining literal exactitude in every line. I hope that my work inspires more readers to take a close look at this ancient literary treasure.

—A. Anupama

 

Translations from Tirukkural

 

Chapter 2: On the excellence of rain

The sky, so distant, gives to our living world
rain, its own self, living essence.

The living live by the life-giving gift of the seed of life itself:
nourishment spraying down, this rain.

The sky, yielding no rain in spite of these steep surrounding seas,
will bite you from inside your hunger.
.

.

The plow won’t plow if the farmer’s awaited downpours, which sow
and grow their wealth, ebb.

Drought’s devastation crushes lives and brings ruin, while its reverse is
restoration in rain.

The sky’s quell of falling raindrops upsets
the lush grass, whose heads will then hide from sight.
.

.

The enormous sea, voluminous and teeming, will diminish if not diminished by clouds,
or if by those who don’t give from within.
.

.

Grand rituals and extravagant offerings will end if the sky is
rain void, serving the little gods no festivals.

Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world,
sky unyielding.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.
.

.

Chapter 132: On pretending to sulk

I—She

Women’s eyes savor your every line,
but mine won’t embrace your broad chest.

Our silent spat dragged on, so he sneezed on purpose, so that I would say
“bless you.” So he thought.

II—He

A whole branch of blossoms for a garland, and you accuse me of wearing it to catch another woman’s glance,
showing off how I’m dressed.

I love you more than anyone, I said. She sulked,
demanding more than whom, whom!
.

.

In this life, we will never be apart, I said.
Eyefuls of tears, she replied.

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

She blessed me when I sneezed, then altered, asking
Who thought about you to make you sneeze?

My next sneeze I quelled, but she cried, someone is thinking of you,
I know, you’re hiding it from me.

She spurned all my assurances, imagining the other women for whom
I’ve offered the same.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

 

from Chapter 133: On the pleasures of lovers’ quarrels

Inside this lyric sulk, a heaven nears, with earth and
water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart.
.

—A. Anupama

.

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Peter Mollenhauer, transl. “On Language and Words,” in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  2. Merwin, W.S. Selected Translations. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2013.
  3. Rajaram, M., transl. Thirukkural, Pearls of Wisdom. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2009.
  4. Damrosch, David. Translation and World Literature: Love in the Necropolis,” in The Translation Studies Reader, third edition, Lawrence Venuti, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
May 052014
 

Darfur, Minnesota - Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg Darfur, Minnesota – Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg

.

The goal here is not really to determine the why
behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership.
But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise –
that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background.

—Julie Larios

 

I often begin my treasure hunts for Undersung authors by looking for just the right author photo – one that will gaze back at us while we gaze at it, one that will allow the poetry to radiate out through the eyes, the smile, the averted glance, the stare. The treasure hunt this time around was for poet Adrien Stoutenburg, born Darfur, Minnesota, 1916; died Santa Barbara, California, 1982, aged 66. I had only two photos, both low-quality, both from the back jacket flaps of her books. The one below is on the flap of Heroes, Advise Us – her first poetry collection.

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)
From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

In terms of author photo categories (author as seductress, author as girl next door, author as bad ass, author as somber academic) this author photo of Stoutenburg might be placed in the “author as Republican great-great aunt” file. In it, the poet looks mild mannered but tightly coifed (her father was a barber, her mother a hairstylist.) Possibly a 1950’s country-club member and/or a Faculty Wives’ bridge player. But not even remotely the poet that critics once described as “ferocious” and “terrifying.”

So I looked for another picture. No luck. I couldn’t find a single photo of her on the Internet. I couldn’t find much at all, in fact, about the poet Adrien Stoutenburg —one quick Wikipedia entry. A few mentions as an author of children’s books. But little else. Below is the poem that made me stop in my tracks several years ago when I first read it in a used book store:

Rhinoceros

I have never seen that beast
with his snout bearing a pagoda
and his eyes like little fragments
and his haunches carrying hills
with them. His teeth, I have read,
are monuments, and his heart colder
than a key in winter,
though he sweats from pores round as goblets
and full of swamps.
The white hunters have killed him
a thousand times over.
I think of myself walking toward him
and preaching a love of creatures,
leaves in my palm, or a loaf of sugar,
and his great horn still,
the knees waiting,
and between us, like birds,
a twittering hope,
or merely the pause
between monster and monster.

—from Heroes, Advise Us

I’m not sure Stephen King ever wrote a more ominous line: “…his great horn still, / the knees waiting….” Ready to charge, that’s what’s implied. What poet, I wondered, looks into the face of a rhinoceros and sees a fellow monster? 

"...his great horn still, / his knees waiting....
“…his great horn still, / his knees waiting….

On the basis of that poem alone, I bought the book, then proceeded to hunt down every other one of her four books that I could find. But finding Stoutenburg takes some doing.

It’s not easy to suffer obscurity or anonymity  (or achieve it, depending on your point of view) on the Internet these days, not with the decades of digitally archived material available, and it’s certainly not common if the object of the hunt is a prize-winning author. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a photo of Adrien Stoutenburg anywhere online— not a professional portrait, not one of her at a lectern, nor one in a professorial workshop pose, and not even one where she stands at the elbow of – or peeking out from behind – a more famous poet at a conference somewhere.

Was I missing some key word to type in that would get me to a photo? Might there be a photo of her in a literary journal or academic review in a narrower database? I checked, but no. Next I tried to find images online of the covers of her books of poetry – there were four titles to post pictures of – Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964), A Short History of the Fur Trade (Houghton Miflin, 1969), Greenwich Mean Time (Univ. of Utah Press, 1979) and Land of Superior Mirages (Johns Hopkins, 1986.) Again, I came up empty – other than an unusable 115×115 pixel photo somebody posted at a used book site, there are no pictures of her poetry books online, not even via the increasingly amazonian Amazon. Apparently, the poet Adrien Stoutenburg is not only undersung, she’s invisible.

How is that possible? Heroes, Advise Us won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1964; her second poetry collection, A Short History of the Fur Trade, won a California Commonwealth medal and was under serious consideration (a “close competitor”) for the 1970 Pulitzer Prize (Richard Howard won, but one of the judges – James Dickey – declared later in a letter to Stoutenburg that he believed her book should and would have won had not W.H. Auden insisted on Howard – and, as the poet David Slavitt said, “Auden… prevailed—he was Auden, after all.”) Joyce Carol Oates praised the book, calling it “brilliant” and referring to Stoutenburg as “a really striking artist.”  Poet Henry Taylor helped get Greenwich Mean Time published at the University of Utah Press, saying “[Stoutenburg] has a wonderful eye for the right detail, and the tact to arrange observed details toward deep conclusions.”  Consider this poem:

On the Wagon

In between drinks I go on the wagon
which is sometimes a sleigh
and always filled with children,
the ears of horses like furred leaves,
the reins black over rumps
that resemble gray, cleft apples,
the smell of leather strong as brown medicine.

It is sometimes summer
and my cousin and I
actually ride the horses
and feel their backs—
broad, alive, and separate—
under our legs
thrust out, spraddled,
like short tan oars.

Sometimes there is hay in the box,
and that is a wood-sweet, wild-smell,
hot-heady bundle
of what was rooted, clovered, seasoned,
and sickled into a great, riding pillow
where we can roll under the passing sky.

It is at other times winter
and the smoke of the horses
is like the breath of fires,
and if I could, even now,
I would sneak inside,
stow away and lean against those hearts
stroking above every kind of ice and sweat
and desire.

Filled, furred, straddled, rooted, clovered, seasoned, sickled – just the sound of the words furls you and unfurls you, as do the unexpected comparisons – those horses’ rumps as cleft-apples, the smell of the leather like brown medicine, the children’s short legs sticking out like oars. It’s a passionate poem that goes deep, certainly not one that stays at the level of surface “glitter.” It throws off the same heat as Rhinoceros, and I could post another twenty here that do the same.

How invisible are other Lamont Poetry Prize winners from the 1950’s through the present day? The list includes poets Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Czeslaw Milosz, Philip Levine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Hass, Carolyn Kizer, Jane Hirshfield, Kim Addonizio, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth – stars in the poetry firmament, with abundant photos of each one online.  But Adrien Stoutenburg – author not only of award-winning books of poetry but of forty well-received books for children – can’t be found. One-time editor of Parnassus Press. Frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Saturday Review, the Nation, Yale Review, Commonwealth, and Accent. A Poetry Society of America’s Michael Sloane Fellowship winner. Winner of nine Borestone Mountain poetry awards  – yet not one photo.

Heroes, Advise Us contains a 39-page multi-sectioned poem /narrative (“This Journey”) focused on the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole, as well as another 70 pages of strange and powerful stand-alone poems. The collection won prizes, but the Kirkus review of it at the time said the following: “Although the poems sometimes glitter, they lack a basic warmth.” For me, the poems have such heat that I feel like moving slightly back from them for fear of getting scorched at the edges. I love Stoutenburg’s work with its startling metaphors and convergences, its physicality, its dark imagination and heat.

But no one I’ve ever asked has  heard of her.

There is a second photo, this one from the jacket flap of her posthumously-published fourth collection, Land of Superior Mirages:

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages
Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

This photo shows what might be a younger Stoutenburg, despite the later release date (posthumous, actually) of that book. Younger or not, she appears more approachable and relaxed – like a kind, small-town librarian, which she actually was for awhile.  Stoutenburg, like another of our Undersung poets, Marie Ponsot, earned much of her income over the years by publishing work for children, with Ponsot translating French fairy tales and Stoutenburg interpreting American tall tales and publishing historical fiction and non-fiction for middle-grade school children. Several of her kids books were published as collaborations with the woman Stoutenburg lived with for almost twenty years, Laura Nelson Baker; the books were well-reviewed but not award-winners. Stoutenburg’s writing for children put food on the table just as medicine did for William Carlos Williams, insurance for Wallace Stevens, mortuary work for Thomas Lynch and Brooks Brothers clerking for Spencer Reese. Many of Stoutenburg’s children’s books were published under a pseudonym (most commonly “Lace Kendall,” the first and middle names of her father) – it doesn’t take too large a leap to reach the conclusion that a pseudonym was used because she didn’t want to be known primarily as an author of children’s books.

The reference book Contemporary Authors Online lists Stoutenburg’s authorial status as “Juvenile Writer” despite the fact that all the honors described in the CAO entry are for her poetry for adults.  First comes the long list of not particularly stellar children’s books, then comes the category “Other,” under which her poetry titles rest, like afterthoughts that don’t quite count.  The category itself –“Juvenile Writer” – is that a kind of ghetto-ization? And is that part of the reason readers of poetry have not heard of her?

I’m thinking right now of the photographer Vivian Maier, whose boxes (and boxes) of negatives were purchased by several people at a public auction (the most well-known of the three serious collectors was John Maloof, whose film, Finding Vivian Maier, is currently in release around the country.) Maier worked for forty years as a nanny to private, wealthy families; the fact that seems to surprise people most is that she supported herself by working with children. “A nanny? Really?” is the common reaction, and it comes out with a kind of derisiveness (am I projecting?) that sounds different than it would if people said, “A car salesman? Really?”  Photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark now say Maier was one of the great street photographers of the 20th-century, on a par with Weegee and Garry Winogrand. Maier, however, never published any of her photos, nor did she share them with anyone. Eventually, she descended into mental illness and true self-neglect. Maier was determined to remain anonymous, Stoutenburg was not, and Stoutenburg did achieve some recognition during her lifetime. But the paradox of being undervalued (people failing to be curious enough to find out who they actually were) due to work with and for children lingers around both these artists.

Two Girls, France - Vivian Maier
Two Girls, France – Vivian Maier

Perhaps it was difficult for Stoutenburg to present herself in a coherent way professionally, with feet in both the adult and the children’s worlds. Her final book talks about mirages:  “All images are bent / through time, and some most prized are fraudulent— / as mine may be.”  I wonder how clearly we can see a writer who moves between stories about Paul Bunyan and John Henry for six-year-olds and a poem like the following:

Acclimation

After my cousin, the choir boy,
murdered his mother with bitter candy;
and after my brother, the air force hero,
ruined his wife with a linoleum cutter;
and after my neighbor ignited his house,
and my best friend took a child to his room,
their gentle faces hung like jerky
from the live ceiling my bed looked up to.

Facts seemed fatal, at the beginning,
as the raw world must have
when it was imagined
with all its teeth and dung and passion.

Time tranquilizes, and bedrooms are cozy.
I rest most nights in the fearless moonlight
as well as the choir boy or the major
in their deep cells, or the child (grown-up now)
or the empty mothers.

Each day the pound master records the dead.
Bones of kittens burn like ignorant trees.
Headlines blur after too much reading
and the patched-up ceiling turns to mist.
I am chilled by the cold blue lisp of mice
hunting for traps arranged in my closet.
One grows accustomed even to this.

It’s hard to imagine a woman writing and publishing that poem if she wanted to be remembered for her children’s books. And since there is little to no critical writing about her, it’s hard to get a picture – both literally and figuratively – of who this woman was. Clear definitions of artists makes things easier for people who like to  pigeon-hole their art.

The goal here is not really to determine the why behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership. But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise – that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background. Maybe it comes down to what the photographer Saul Lister (himself unsung) once said about his own reputation:

I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success…My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.

Fascinating – that something as simple as indifference (is it a character flaw or a character blessing?) or ambivalence (ditto) determines whether a writer’s work will or will not be read by subsequent generations of readers. Success obviously has many definitions, but isn’t it universally accepted that the trajectory should be, must be, consistently upward? Maybe the whole vertical model is wrong, and by reading poets like Adrien Stoutenburg we have a chance to restructure things, make our understanding of “success” more horizontal, less competitive, find those artists whose work we love but who were “indifferent to opportunities” and share their work with each other.

I look at Adrien Stoutenburg’s books on my shelf and feel lucky to have them. All four are out of print, and the used hardcovers (none went to paperback) online usually number in the half-dozen or so per title.  Who can explain this kind of obscurity for a poet described by James Dickey as having “an imaginative energy matched by few poets at any time, in any language” and who David Slavitt called “the toughest, most unrelenting, most terrifying poet I can think of.”  Slavitt, in fact, for an essay included in his book Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, addressed the way success eluded Stoutenberg. He reached this conclusion:

…as I now see, there were two things happening in the po’biz that were adversely affecting Adrien’s chances. One was that most trade publishers were abandoning the enterprise entirely, leaving the activity to the University presses. The other was the feminism had hit, and certain female poets had figured out that there were more readers for politics and protest than there were for poetry. If the likes of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Denise Levertov were in fashion, then Adrien Stoutenburg wasn’t, and the publishing houses are always sensitive to that kind of trend. They don’t know about literature, and they don’t know about business, but they do know about lunch, and they are good about picking up what’s out there in the air, which is a vulgar knack, but then publishing is, in the root sense of the word, vulgar….If you’re not a member of one club or another, it’s mostly a crapshoot, and not always an honest one, either.

Greenwich Mean Time, Stoutenburg’s third collection is dedicated to Slavitt.  I’ll leave you with a poem from that collection. It’s a fairy tale, yes, but hardly for children.

Riding Hood, Updated

There had to have been a wolf that night,
alive in his rank fur and throat,
ears twigged, wild feet leaving flowers
on spring-deep earth. The howl was there;
his shadow kept house behind every bush.

Remember, dead grandmother,
me in my hood, and the old rifle swinging
between us, ready for that hot tongue’s flash?
There was a moon, too, skull-shaped but red.

Clouds leaned against it,
and the pines were windy harps.
A lake beckoned blue somewhere
like sky at the end of a downhill road.

There must have an owl, as well,
feather-corseted, hinged with claws;
and a bobcat’s cry.
Who knows what other things
lurked there?

It is nothing now to you
snug in your bonnet of earth,
out of the howl, forever wolf-free.
Here, where the hunt goes on,
and unimaginable beasts are loose,
it’s different for me.

I encourage you to try to find Stoutenburg’s books. It’s worth the search. Then sit down with them and wonder why this poet – her poems precise, white-hot and fierce – is not more celebrated.

—Julie Larios

 

Julie

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.

 

Apr 162014
 

dms 2

Where is poetry? the poet asks at the beginning of this poem/essay — call it an epode, call it an extended epigram, a form that somehow contains balanced contraries in dynamic tension, the heart of metaphor, of art. Written in response to an essay by Ralph Angel that we published in January last year, D. M. Spitzer’s “Mythology” oscillates between monster and marvel, labyrinth and sanctuary, fragment and whole, tapping ahead with his words for solid ground and offering, yes, a mythology of the poem, of the imagination (dangerous, contained within a force field — form). Beautiful to read, surging and lapidary in its rhythms, erudite and cunning in  its weaving together of legend, text, word play and reference.

Also one of the best author photos in ages.

dg

 

part 1:  (muthos) labyrinth & sanctuary

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

—Ralph Angel, “The Exile and Return of Poetry:  Essay
Numéro Cinq vol. vi, 1 (January, 2013).

Unspool the thread given by Ariadne, in whom the ecstasy of oblivion awaits the coming of Dionysos. The end precedes the beginning and a certain movement of form collects both. Dionysos already presents himself in the form of desire. Unspool the thread down narrowing and widening passages. Daidalos, poet-exemplar, modulates light and darkness, clarity and obscurity in the labyrinth. To isolate the final cause of this structure, peel away at the Minotaur: Minos and shame, Pasiphaë and desire, desire and the god of translation (Zeus). Dionysos stands at the threshold of the labyrinth and in the mind of the poet-architect. Into the sacred labyrinth let thread follow. Thread protects against loss and wandering and a hungry monster inhabits the structure.  Monster is monstrum, something that elicits wonder, a marvel.

Risk:  to be consumed by the hunger and isolation that motivates wonder.

Where is poetry?

A poet designs a sanctuary into which imagination—a genuine monstrum—is led.  Fear of the creative imagination in the full range of license, and a shame, rooted in modality, of the creative imagination’s potency, force the creative imagination into the sanctuary—that is, a world-making creativity will also be world-devouring. Shelter it within sanctuary. Labyrinth is sanctuary.

Sanctuary:  a forbidden vein of dark blood writing the holy secrets across its innermost holy place, a place of healing.

Into the labyrinth unwind thread. Poetry is labyrinth, but a poem takes flight from the surrounding walls. Ikaros too with wings of syllables and breath lifts himself out of the sanctuary’s enclosure unto the bright morning air, the island’s craggy shoreline diminishing. Into the open.

Or sing the poem from the open place near the labyrinth’s center. Write poems on papyrus scraps and send them to the skies on wings of smoke and flame. Too near the sun they have already burned to ash and their flight continues. Poem needs no ground save the whole of things; air discloses the whole.

Unwinding thread towards the interior of labyrinth, find the shield of Achilles blazing in midday light. Everything reflects there. It burns the eye and the mind falls to its knees.  A fire-god rends the metal earth into folds that look just like earth and the poet’s god is the god of fire. There on the shield read one’s own face in bronze embossed where the surface is whole. Everything there terrifies. None dares to look.  Begins the fire-god a poetry of metal fragged from deep veins beneath the surface of earth. Tear open the surface of things and make beginnings in the dark material hidden there. A whole rent down to the interior of fragments stripped and reshaped in time-present’s forge where everything else collapses into forgetting. Unmake whole make fragment into whole in which a face echoed recalls its fragmentation. Tragedy builds its shield from the shield of fire given from god to man. Poet beneath it all, blindness shielding from the tragedy of wholeness. Where whole forms itself into stability there loses all into unself. Whole will encapsulate in its message of bronze the perishing of what you want:  the city of gold, walled with lapis tesserae and medallions of everything precious, gods’ hands pressing stone towards the sun into a wall impenetrable. Down tumbles wall and the quiet household gods into flame of the poet’s limping god. A fierce jaw breaks spear after spear into the torso of a warrior who is also a son, a father watching unable to look away. Down tumbles what the whole speaks in its ekphrastic visioning. Down.

At the labyrinth’s center, Minotaur shakes loose his must-covered voice:

mind sleeps and wakes and stirs and rests and poetry cycles

turning & turning the spirit moves as it cycles once more into itself[i]

Fragmentary remains in the manner of the cycling going-under of things.  Take it up from the ruins, or from the labyrinth where it was found lying in midday sun.  Out of a ruined whole brings forth the poet a second world that looks out upon another contained within itself.  The thread leads deeper into labyrinth’s ordered chasm.  Light is channeled into momentany into dark by the architect of moving-images[ii] and prisons.  The poet chains everything in artifice, released in the mouth and ear of the reader.

Back to sanctuary only ever half-finished, abandoned when tyranny fell. Footsteps glish in blood and stain the foundation.  The wonder is, after all, only half human.  The rest is untranslatable.  Leave the traces of holiness along the eastern wall where temple and labyrinth are one.

.

part 2:  (logos)  literary dynamism

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

This sentence traces the belonging-together of whole and not whole. The sentence says:  if a subject is able to produce a sanctuary out of literary wholeness, that subject must produce a sanctuary of the fragmentary.  It says, in fact, nothing about the making of a literary sanctuary, but rather about the power to make such a sanctuary and the necessity, because of that power, to create a sanctuary for the fragmentary.  Accordingly, the fragmentary involves a dynamism that exceeds and excludes the whole.

However, wholeness comes first.[iii] Only after the presencing of wholes to consciousness do the fragments begin to appear, light-catching as glass-shards. To be sure, wholeness as a concept both precedes and precipitates a notion of the fragmentary; coming across a potsherd on the island of Delos, for instance, one immediately recognizes the fragment of pottery as having been a part of a now ruined whole.  The sentence above, the starting point of this brief inquiry, on one level simply asserts that, since the production of a sanctuary for wholeness can be carried out, wholeness exists in some way, and then what applies to the whole applies necessarily to the parts.  Yet, this assertion is complicated by the idea that the sanctuary produced for wholeness exists in modality, while that produced for fragmentariness exists as a dynamic and necessary movement towards a whole.  It is further complicated by the notion that such a whole, as the sanctuary seems to describe, takes place as not only whole, but also fragmentary.  For, a sanctuary marks off an area that is described by its boundaries and is a kind of whole, yet one which also explicitly does not contain the wholeness for whose praise and worship it has been created.  In principle, that which is limited, while perhaps whole in itself, is nevertheless fragmentary insofar as it has been segregated from all else.  Emerson communicates something like this principle in the essay “Circles,” writing that “around every circle another can be drawn.”[iv]

Fragments exemplify the coexistence and belonging together of whole and fragmentary while also pointing to different ways in which the fragmentary is related to the whole.  A literary fragment, such as those attributed to Sappho, leans toward the imagination as a medium in which the dynamism of fragmentariness delivers itself and raises itself and exceeds itself into a poetically engaged wholeness.  This entails a dialectic, an inter-activity, a potent engagement of the imagination with the poetic fragment. “[N]ot everything can be given straight away to the understanding through the work of art,” as Schopenhauer noted, “but only what is needed to set the imagination on the right path; it must always leave out something—indeed, the final thing—for the imagination to produce for itself.”[v] Out of this engagement the fragmentary poem overcomes itself and reaches its latent wholeness, which consists in the belonging-together of literary art and the thoughtful auditor or reader.  All strives for wholeness.[vi] Imagination reaches out for the dynamism inherent to phenomena, as phenomena strive towards an outside-of-themselves that completes them. The ancient Greek epic phrase kluthi moi…ophr’ eipo (listen so that I might speak) expresses this cycle.[vii] Without the correlative of an outside-of-self listening, speaking cannot take place; the being of each depends on the other.

The Sapphic fragments also reach in the direction of the lost whole; splintered from that whole, the fragments bear an enhanced attitude of longing.  This raises the relation of fragments within a context of wholeness.  In complete works lines, phrases, and episodes exhibit a kind of ecstasy of their own whereby each part as a fragment overcomes itself by semantically stepping beyond and outside itself when taken independently, which is how the reader or hearer initially perceives them while also assembling these, by means of the memory and imagination, into and towards a wholeness.  Each phrase can be experienced both in its fragmentariness and in its condition of literary ecstasy:  a stance thrust beyond the self into and towards the self—the whole—it has power to become. The outside-of-self, however, can only emerge into being from the self’s unfolding, such that the outside-of-self towards which a thing strives consists within the self itself as a power to be that which the self not yet is.  A work’s literary dynamism in this sense takes place as its movement towards itself—its latent wholeness—through continuing its self-overcoming.  That is, the whole gains itself through each phrase-as-fragment overcoming itself, gathering and overflowing into the next and the next.  Each fragment inheres to the literary dynamism and does so because of a work’s wholeness.[viii]

Ecstasy—standing beyond self—shows itself as an essential feature of the relationship between wholeness and fragmentariness. This is at the center of literary dynamism, at once ecstatic in its reach for the ever-outside-itself and rootedly inward, inherent.  The shadow of this thought also comes forward:  in striving towards wholeness, fragments move away from a previous condition, fragmenting themselves in the very moment of overcoming themselves into wholeness. Herakleitos speaks this movement:

out from the teeming plenitude of all things one

out from the quietus of unity all things[ix]

The Herakleiteian double-move takes place in the manner of Angel’s articulation of the belonging-together of whole and fragment.

In the end, Angel’s “exile and return of poetry” traces the movement of entities coming-forth from wholeness into fragmentation and returning, in their time and by means of dynamism, from fragmentation into wholeness.  Relations with other entities provide the context and ground for the actuation of this dynamism and may point to an underlying unity of those related entities.[x]

n.b.  All ‘translations’ given above are original by the author.

— 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.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Transfiguration of Ecclesiastes 1:6.
  2. Plato uses as a simile the moving statues of Daidelos in the Meno [97d.6-10].
  3. Aristotle likewise observes, at the outset of Physics, that “for the most part to our sight and taste first arise things in a mixed-together state, and then later, from things of that sort, the elements and the sources (arkhai) that set things apart are discernable.  In light of this, inquiry should proceed from the wholeness of things (to katholou) towards each separate thing, since, aesthetically, the whole is more knowable and the wholeness of things is a kind of whole” [184a.21-25].  
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson:  Essays and Poems, ed. Tony Tanner & Christopher Bigsby (J. M. Dent:  London; Charles E. Tuttle:  Vermont, 1995), 146.
  5. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 2, ch. 34 (Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main:  Cotta-Insel, 1960), 523:  “…durch das Kunstwerk nicht alles geradezu den Sinnen gegeben werden darf, vielmehr nur soviel, als erfordert ist, die Phantasie auf den rechten Weg zu leiten:  ihr muß immer noch etwas, und zwar das letzte zu tun übrigbleiben.”  
  6. Compare Aristotle’s thought at Physics A.9 [192a.16-25] that hule (typically translated as “material”) yearns for eidos (“form”).
  7. See, for example, Hesiod, Theogony, 644-645:  keklute meu…ophr’ eipo ta me thumos eni stethessi keleuei.  The last part of the expression emphasizes the impulse to reach beyond the self.
  8. For example, Robert Creeley’s poem “Fragment,” in Echoes (New York:  New Directions, 1993), 67 achieves its art through appealing to the reader’s sense and expectation of wholeness, even if it intends to show the radical absence of a whole.  Similarly, Sappho’s poems are so alluring on one level because they never attain themselves, they leave in play the desire for wholeness, a taut bow never released.  
  9. This is a transfiguration of the last section of Herakleitos, fragment 10 (Deils-Kranz).
  10. The image of literary dynamism may work to understand the more practical problem of “writer’s block,” which I take to be at issue in Angel’s “exile and return.”  If the practice of what is called “writing” can be thought in terms of a dynamic interplay of fragmentariness (or silence, or a period without writing) and wholeness (productivity, writing), we might make a sanctuary of the whole process that includes periods of speaking and hearing, of writing and reading, of reading and quiet, a process that is inherently fragmentary in its wholeness.
Apr 142014
 

Download5

Numéro Cinq has a thing for hybrid art, for cross-genre art, for parody and mixed form, more Menippean satire and art made out of books and in that vein we offer here encaustic paintings by the Boulder, Colorado, artist Marco Montanari along with poems by Elaine Handley from Saratoga Springs, New York. The poems and the paintings combine; the paintings inspired the poems. They are ekphrastic and hybrid. Ekphrasis is the Greek rhetorical device of inserting the description of a work of art into a text as a way of creating meaning (by analogy or parallel). Coincidentally, the standard classical example of ekphrasis is Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad (also Hesiod’s description of the shield of Hercules). It’s a device with an ancient tradition, never abandoned. For example, here’s a stanza from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.”

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

And so it’s delightfully literal that Handley and Montanari have chosen warriors and shields as their central motif, adding to an ancient tradition that in this instance they have reanimated with more recent wars and warriors. Gorgeous, sad, dignified, violent images and words, given yet another twist by the poet’s particularly female point of view.

dg

 

4 My Father’s Helping HandMy Father’s Helping Hand – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 21×42 inches, 2013

Out of Hand

1

Their fluttery needs, their choking
insistence, too powerful for words,
gestures of desire, insatiable.

2

The fingers more nimble than the brain,
they take flight or become nests on a lap:
their instincts all their own
to seize a pen write a poem
cradle an egg pluck a weed
brush back hair stir a cake,
slap a cheek smash a plate
tear a hole poke an eye
mend a sock button a shirt
clutch grab snatch grip
trace the boundaries of a kiss
hang dumbly from the wrists.

3

Like mouths they are always
hungry, and sometimes the palms
are lonely as the sky, fingers as fast
and nervous as moths.

4

Hers
neatly folded, quiet,
like the still wings
of a shot bird.

/

6 Dark Merging to light IDark Merging to Light – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 30×36 inches, 2012.

Rapprochment

When war ends ghosts rise up
to blossom white against
the world gone black,
color like hope, bled out.

How can we stand such times
and live? What we have destroyed blinding
as bright snow. Self‐righteousness
hatching into responsibility; guilt
flies around like wild birds.

More hauntings will come from those
who were there, who ate the landscape
and try to live with its poison in their craws.

Like snow, death covers everyone,
everything with its sameness. Grief,
white breath in cold air, last words
and all expectations stilled
with your heartbeat.
But annihilation is another matter.

Can light emanate from darkest deeds
the way opposites love each other:
now we speak of the pearly cell
of peace. The arithmetic
of possibility. Its labyrinth.

War ending:
door closing or opening
darkness light,
the grayness of promise.

/

7 Entering a Contrary Moon IEntering a Contrary Moon – Phase I.  Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 17×25 inches, 2011.

Entering a Contrary Moon

Enter the contrary moon.
See how it tumbles,
bright scrape in the sky
turning and turning
its measured dervish way.
Its silvered light
milk we drink.
Its circles
what we are made of,
how we live.

To be contrary is to be truest
to ourselves, all clash and remedy:
harlot, saint, demon, beggar.
What you are Sunday is not
what you are Tuesday. Impulses
flick like leaves in wind;
what you see gets clouded
and then emerges
bright and clean again.

Let the moon tumble
in its wanton way
and let us live our contrary lives
confused and laughing
at how we contradict
the alchemy of light and dark,
belief and action, thinking
we confound the ellipse of life,
but we cannot, no more
than the gold stain
of moon can erase
its corona from the sky.

/

8 Open CircleMaiden, Mother, Matriarch of the Spiritual Warrior Woman – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 28×31 inches.

Open Circle

After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.
From “The End and The Beginning” by Wislawa Symborska

Women have done it for generations,
for centuries, in fact, throughout all time.
Quietly, they set about making repairs.
First they must solder together
what has been broken
in themselves. Hard to do
and clumsy. Sometimes they give
up and make do. Jagged fragments
float in the bloodstream,
lodging close to the skin.

Next, they have to cauterize time.
When he returns it must be as if
no one has changed, feelings have not
clotted, he is the beloved returning.
She still knows him even though
he is now a stranger.

And so they colonize; it is not
spoken of, this new life
as aliens, exiles living
in the wreckage of the familiar.

He is looking for the secret passage
from war to the present, from war to her.
She sees his shadow from the mouth
of the cave, but to look back means
losing him forever, and who
will she see him with?

It is the bottom of the morning
in their lives, scarred compatriots,
lonelier than they have ever been,
subsisting on memories and dreams
they wrote each other, what fed them before.

She has tried to tidy up, she knows things now
she didn’t know before about cost.
They have children who feel amputated
and are yet whole. They live like ghosts.
The truth is not hers to utter,
but there is no one else to say it.

/

9 Dismantled-to-the-Blood-MoonDismantled to the Blood Moon – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 23×27 inches, 2013.

Securing the Perimeter

I

Once I loved a man
who secured only
his own perimeter,
heart razor-wired shut
wandering eye on patrol.

I waited for him, hoping to dismantle
what ticked inside him
trying to navigate
the concussion of his moods,
to ignore his dereliction
of duty.

What did I know of war,
but what I tasted
on his lips?

II

If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t see it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t feel it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t do it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you can forget.

Maybe the war will stop some day
festering in your gut, marching
to the flat knock of your heart.

III

Who counts the bodies
after war is over?
How long does friendly
fire last? Who listens
to children crying in their beds
missing fathers
already home?

IV

He wears memories like skin
so close we are heartbeats
away from the flash.

V

The dead should not sit at table with us;
They have their own places to be.
We might then stop feeding the children
annihilation with every meal. And no, dear, no
wine for me, the color of blood.

VI

He lives in no woman’s land, a boundary
between dying and dying. Between the war
torn raggedness of us now and what we planned.

VII

Were Adam and Eve this lonely?

Did they make love in the light
Of the blood moon?
Did she lie awake listening to
his breathing, patrolling the shadowlands
of his dreams?

Did Adam stalk the perimeter
of the garden while Eve watched,
brushing away the scorpions
crawling toward her
in the unforgiving sun?

—Images by Marco Montanari; Poems by Elaine Handley

SPACE

Born in 1952, Marco Montanari was raised in Buffalo N.Y. His art education includes a minor in Fine Arts at Erie Community College and classes at the State University of N.Y., as well as ongoing study in sculpture, life drawing and painting throughout the years. In 1993, while living in Saratoga Springs N.Y., Marco developed a process of sculpting wax on a wood lathe and then painting the sculpted surfaces with paraffin wax. These sculptures were designed as luminaries with the painted surfaces glowing when lit. In 2000 Marco began to experiment with translating these techniques into encaustic painting. He developed his alternative to traditional encaustic and as a result has produced a distinctive body of work that has been exhibited throughout the country. In 2003 Marco and wife, Kathy Zilbermann, relocated to Boulder Colorado where he is currently working exclusively in encaustic painting.

Elaine Handley is Professor of Writing and Literature at SUNY Empire State College.  She has published poetry and fiction in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has won the Adirondack Center for Writing Best Book of Poetry Award, with writing partners Marilyn McCabe and Mary Sanders Shartle, in 2005  2006 and 2010. Their latest book of poetry Tear of the Clouds was released by Ra Press in 2011. Handley’s most recent chapbook of poetry is Letters to My Migraine and she is completing a novel, Deep River, about race relations during the Civil War.

 

Apr 132014
 

Heaney paintingCatherine Edmunds’ 2013 sketch of Seamus Heaney painted by Patrick J. Keane

Today would have been Seamus Heaney’s 75th birthday and to celebrate that celebrated absence we offer an essay by Patrick J. Keane who does what the best critics do: he goes straight to the heart of the man through the poems and thence to the poems again. In 1972, Heaney famously and controversially moved from the bloody ground of Northern Ireland to Wicklow in the Republic, abandoning outright political action and commitment for a more contemplative and poetic life. He did not make this decision easily, and out of his personal struggle came the poems in North, what Keane calls his “most powerful and controversial collection.” Keane takes us through Heaney’s discovery of the famous “bog people” and the mythic method of poetic argument, his identification with the dispossessed peoples and the people of the earth, into the complex battle between Hercules and Antaeus (whose strength was always renewed by contact with mother earth) and finally to crucial culminating poem “Exposure,” a poem that begins

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

dg

 

1

H

ad he lived, Seamus Heaney would have been 75 on April 13, 2014. For poetry lovers and, even more, for those who came to know him as a warm and generous human being, it’s hard to believe that that magnanimous presence is gone. Hard to believe, too, that it is almost 40 years since the publication of his most powerful and most controversial collection. When North appeared, in 1975, it was greeted enthusiastically by major critics as varied as Helen Vendler, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Jordan, and Christopher Ricks. But strong reservations, politically-related and having to do with Heaney’s use or alleged misuse of archeology and myth, were expressed by Ulster writers Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson, among others. The hostility of some poets and critics in Northern Ireland was influenced, or at least complicated, by the fact that Heaney had left his native province in 1972, just as the sectarian conflict was intensifying.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, killing twelve and wounding thirteen, a consensus had understandably solidified among the Catholic minority in the North. In one of their sustained interviews, conducted over a half-dozen years, Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll that one of the reasons he moved from Belfast to Wicklow in the Republic was precisely to “get away from the consensus culture that had built up among us.” That culture would be reflected a few years later in the response from the North to North. “I’d left the party,” as Heaney put it to O’Driscoll, “and that complicates things for everybody, for the one who goes as well as the ones who stay. You get my side of that in the last poem of the book, ‘Exposure’.” [1]

The present essay takes its thematic and structural cue from Heaney’s specific response to a question. Asked about the “new direction” his poetry had taken after the “archeological and mythological” emphases in North, Heaney observed that such a “new direction is already being followed in North, in poems like ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ and ‘Exposure’” (SS, 162). The former, which closes Part I of North, revisits and revises “Antaeus,” the poem that had opened Part I; and the reconsiderations, or second thoughts, implicit in that revision prepare us for “Exposure,” which brings to a close the volume as a whole, including the more discursive and directly political poems of Part II. In Heaney’s canon, from the beginning through his death in August 2013, there is no more crucial text, personally and politically, than “Exposure,” not only the final poem in North, but the one poem he chose to stress—quoting it almost in full (OG, 419-20)—in “Crediting Poetry,” his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.[2]

Heaney was very conscious of “the artistic doubleness,” the “double aspect,” of North.  He continued, in the Stepping Stones interview, to say that “the Hercules poem” is, “for all its mythy content” (characteristic of Part I), expressed in “plain speech”—the language of Part II. (SS, 160, 162). Yet “Hercules and Antaeus,” a literally pivotal poem, remains “mythy.” Like “Antaeus,” the poem it echoes in order to alter, it derives, obviously, from Greek mythology. In general, however, Heaney famously drew in North on a mythology and archeology rooted in Northern Europe. In order to address the horrors unfolding in his native province in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heaney in effect played a variation on what T. S. Eliot had called, in his cogent 1923 Dial review of Ulysses, “the mythical method.” Joyce had paralleled Homer’s Odyssey with the events of his own pedestrian epic of Leopold Bloom, and so taken, said Eliot, “a step toward making the modern world possible for art,” a step toward “order and form.”

In using “myth,” Eliot went on, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce was “pursuing a method which others must pursue after him,” not as “imitators,” but as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”  Eliot was keenly aware (as was Joyce himself) of his debt to Ulysses in The Waste Land. He was also aware that Yeats had reanimated Cuchulain, made his Maud Gonne a modern Helen of Troy, set his apocalyptic rough beast slouching toward an anything-but Christian rebirth in Bethlehem, and had, in his great poetic sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” juxtaposed the Persian destruction of the “ingenious lovely things” of Athenian civilization with the eruption of modern barbarism. Eliot was right to note: “It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious….Instead of a narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.”[3]

In North, Heaney uses the mythical method to engage the anarchic panorama presented by the sectarian, political, and deep-rooted cultural conflict in Northern Ireland that erupted in the late sixties and continued well beyond the publication of North in 1975. Though a lapsed Catholic, Heaney continued to identify with those in his tradition, “my wronged people.” But he realized, as he says in the second half of North, in the poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” that the “liberal papist note sounds hollow,” and that “the ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse” (OG, 123). Clichéd rhetoric at the journalistic level of daily reportage, or echoing (or bemoaning) the simplifications imposed by rival sectarian ideologies, was inadequate to the atrocities occurring on the ground. In a dramatic move, Heaney set the contemporary Troubles in the deep historical context provided by P. V. Glob’s text and “unforgettable photographs” in The Bog People, a book that deeply moved Heaney as a man and creatively galvanized him as a poet.

BogPeople

Attracted by its title, he’d bought The Bog People as a Christmas present for himself in 1969, the year the book was published. A “line was crossed,” he told O’Driscoll (SS, 157), with “The Tollund Man,” published in Wintering Out (1972), the collection immediately preceding North. When he wrote that poem’s first line, “Some day I will go to Aarhus” (OG, 62), he felt that he was in “a new field of force.” He compared Glob’s book to a gate. “The minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it.” Even, he insisted, if there had been no Northern Troubles, he would still have been drawn to the stunning pictures and descriptions of the Iron Age bodies exhumed from the peat. There was a hiatus, but he knew that he was not finished with The Bog People. “I didn’t really ‘go back’ to the book,” he said in 2006 or so, “because it never left me. And still hasn’t” (SS, 157-58).

Glob2

Heaney later wished that, in public readings, he had played down his application of the bog material to the political situation in the North. It “would have been better…for me and for everybody else if I had left [the poems] without that sort of commentary.” Above all, it “would have been better for the poems,” which had their own “biological right to life.” That was the “point and remains the point and I never had the slightest doubt about them in that regard” (SS, 159). Nevertheless, Heaney obviously saw current atrocities mirrored in the preserved bodies of those murdered Iron Age victims (the Bog Queen, Tollund Man, Grauballe Man): all part of the blood-saturated, “skull-capped ground” of the “old man-killing parishes” of the Scandinavian and Irish North; while the adulteress of “Punishment,” unearthed from a bog in Germany, was even more controversially identified by Heaney with his tribe-betraying sisters, heads shaved and “cauled in tar” for fraternizing with British soldiers in contemporary Belfast. (OG, 62, 113)

Tollund Man

As deployed in North, Heaney’s archeological-mythical method was unquestionably powerful and attention-getting. But the primary challenge remained: to concentrate on getting things right, not in deeds, but in words and images—befitting emblems of adversity that would record what happened, bear witness without exploiting the tragedy of the Troubles, and remain true to oneself. This demanding task, confronted in the bog poems and in the more immediately political poems of the “Singing School” sequence in North, culminates in “Exposure.” But the trajectory begins (once we are past the two exquisite dedicatory lyrics) with the first of the two poems centering on the mythic and symbolic combat between Antaeus and Hercules.

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Some familiarity with these titular figures from Greek mythology is required to grasp what Heaney retrospectively came to regret in the case of the bog poems: the application to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. The Hercules-Antaeus conflict is also relevant to his own position at the time, which was anything but static. During the Troubles, quoting Czelaw Milosz’s Native Realm, Heaney said of himself, in his poem “Away From It All”:

I was stretched between contemplation
of a motionless point
and the command to participate
actively in history.[4]

It was a variation on an old theme. As Henry Hart has observed, “at the root” of the work of this “poet of contrary progressions” is a “multifaceted argument with himself, with others, with sectarian Northern Ireland, with his Anglo-Irish [poetic] heritage, and with his Roman Catholic, nationalist upbringing on a farm in County Derry.”[5]  In that dialectical context, the perennial combat embodied in the mythic wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus becomes emblematic of the dynamic between the first and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney himself, “stretched between” contemplation and the pressure to participate actively, a man of “two minds” both poetically and politically. In “Terminus” (from The Haw Lantern, 1987), Heaney, graphically illustrating his double-mindedness, says he “grew up in between,” describing himself in Part 1 of the poem as suspended between past and present, between the native earth of the Derry farm of his childhood, and the machinery of the modern world:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.

If I listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.

Is it any wonder when I thought
I would have second thoughts? (OG, 272)

Both in her 1998 book, Seamus Heaney, and in her not-yet-published 2014 obituary, Helen Vendler emphasizes these “second thoughts,” even going so far, in the book, as to have a “Second Thoughts” section as a sort of postscript or coda to each chapter. The theme of reconsideration is embodied in Heaney’s two treatments of the Hercules-Antaeus story, and their placement. Readers of Opened Ground, the poet’s own selection of verse from 1966-1996, will be misled by the Contents page, which indicates that “Antaeus” (the only poem in Opened Ground parenthetically dated) appeared in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. It didn’t. Though it was written in the year that inaugural volume was published (1966), it first appeared in print in 1975 in North, immediately following “Mossbawn,” incorporating the two introductory ut pictura poeisis (Vermeer and Brueghel, respectively) poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary.

That warm domestic and pastoral preamble (OG, 93-94), twinned poems of love (“like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin”) and benign communal activity (potato seed-cutters in a Brueghel-like “frieze/ with all of us there, our anonymities”) is in striking contrast to the violent subject-matter of most of North: violence introduced by the poem that opens Part I of North, “Antaeus.” Heaney’s second poem on the struggle between the two Greek heroes, “Hercules and Antaeus,” closes Part 1. In Opened Ground, Heaney evidently wanted to put some distance between “Antaeus” and the poems he selected in 1998 to represent his work in North—understandably, since there had indeed been second thoughts. “Hercules and Antaeus,” in which the poet grudgingly recognizes the inevitable triumph of the Hercules figures of the world, not only revisits but in part reverses the 1966 poem in which he clearly identified with “Antaeus.” Before proceeding, we should pause for a backward glance at both Greek heroes.

Hercules and Antaeus

The son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal woman, Heracles (Hercules is the Latin form of the name) was intended by his father to lord it over all others. Though he became the greatest and most popular hero in Greek mythology, renowned for both brawn and brains, he had obstacles to overcome from the outset. The jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, unsuccessful in preventing Heracles’ birth, tried (Pindar tells us) to destroy him as an infant, sending two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. Little Heracles strangled the snakes instead. Hera later contrived to have the destiny Zeus intended for his son conferred instead on the king of Argos, Eurystheus, to whom Heracles would eventually become subject, forced (as punishment for the murder of his wife and children during a Hera-inflicted fit of madness) to perform the famous Twelve Labors.[6] In Book 11 of the Odyssey, the ghost of Heracles tells Homer’s hero of his suffering: “Son of Zeus that I was, my torments never ended,/ forced to slave for a man not half the man I was:/ he saddled me with the worst heartbreaking labors.” Those labors included, among others, killing the Nemean Lion, cleansing the Augean stables, and (the task he specifically mentions to Odysseus), retrieving the three-headed hound Cerberus from Hades; “no harder task for me, he thought,/ but I dragged the great beast up from the underworld to earth.”[7]

Prior to hauling Cerberus up from Hell, Heracles had been tasked by Eurystheus to find and bring to him the golden apples originally given (by Ge, mother of Antaeus) to Hera to celebrate her marriage to Zeus. The apples were secreted in the distant Garden of the daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides, where they grew from a Tree guarded not only by these three singing nymphs, but by the hundred-eyed serpent Ladon, coiled protectively about the trunk. In the most prominent variation on the legend, Heracles, wandering about seeking advice on the location of the Garden, encounters Prometheus, chained to the rock in the Caucasus, waiting by night for the eagle that returned daily to feed on his liver. When Heracles shoots and kills the eagle with his bow, a grateful Prometheus advises his savior to enlist his brother Atlas, who knows the location of the Garden. Atlas was also being punished by Zeus, condemned to support the sky on his back forever in order to keep heaven and earth apart. When he finally finds cloud-mantled Atlas, Heracles asks for his help in getting the apples. The Titan agrees, providing that Heracles, in exchange, will shoulder his burden. Heracles agrees. But when Atlas returns with the apples, clever Heracles tricks him into resuming his burden and departs with his prize.

In his long and meandering journey to the remote Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles, in addition to helping Prometheus, engaged and conquered two dangerous enemies in Northern Africa: the king of Egypt, Busiris, and the less tyrannical but even more formidable king of Libya. This was the invincible wrestler, the giant Antaeus, son of the Earth-goddess Ge and the sea-god Poseidon. Antaeus was always victorious in his matches because, when he was thrown to the ground, the Earth, his mother, renewed his strength. In their famous match, Heracles, unaware at first of that special relationship, started by wrestling Antaeus in the normal way. But, smart as he was powerful, he quickly realized what was going on. Lifting the giant up, Heracles held Antaeus aloft in the air, weakened him, and slowly crushed him to death with his bare hands. In his two poems on the subject, double-minded Seamus Heaney identifies in the first with with the earthy Antaeus, then, reluctantly, acknowledges the power and intelligence of Hercules.

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The 1966 “Antaeus” begins with a probable echo (one among several, to which I’ll return) of Heaney’s predecessor and fellow Irishman and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats. Heaney would seem to have in mind as well lines from Robert Frost—his “favorite poet,” he later confided to a surprised Helen Vendler. In the two concluding quatrains of “To Earthward” (1923), Frost yearns for an Antaeus-like relationship with the earth, a joyous contact so intense as to include pain and tears, “the aftermark/ Of almost too much love.”

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. [8]

And here are the opening lines of Heaney’s gravitational poem, also written in quatrains:

           When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning,
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
………..To rub myself with sand

           That is operative
As an elixir.

Antaeus’ earth-connection is chthonic and natal. “I cannot be weaned/ Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins,/ Down here in my cave,” he says. “Girdered with root and rock/ I am cradled in the dark that wombed me,/ And nurtured in every artery.” The final two quatrains introduce Heracles—supposedly just one of many challengers (“Let each new hero come…”), but identified by the references to the golden apples, to Atlas, and to the fatal wrestling match:

           Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas.
He must wrestle with me before he pass
………..Into that realm of fame

           Among the sky-born and royal:
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
………..My elevation, my fall.  (OG, 15)

It is hard to gauge the tone (pride, bravado, fear, petition?) in the punning and paradoxical final lines, in which Antaeus envisages and yet resists Heracles’ victorious strategy in the received myth. Let my opponent “not plan,” says Antaeus, even in elevating me off the earth, “my fall.”

Renewal in descent is a Yeatsian theme as well. In his late, summing-up poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the “foul” heart in which the ladderless Yeats at last “must lie down” is the fecund source of the artist’s creativity, enabling him to be, as Heaney’s Antaeus puts it, “nurtured in every artery.” But the closer Yeatsian parallel to Heaney’s “Antaeus” occurs in a related summing-up poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (also written in 1938). Yeats had identified (in the Preface to A Vision) with another Greek hero, terrestrial Oedipus, who “descended into an earth riven by love,” rather than with celestial Christ, who ascended into the abstract heaven. (Yeats is recalling his “translation” of the Messenger’s speech in Oedipus at Colonus; Heaney has described as one of “the things I’ve done with most relish,” his own version of the Messenger’s account of Oedipus disappearing, “assumed into earth rather than into heaven” [SS, 472]). In the Municipal Gallery poem, Yeats, asserting the gravitational pull of his art and cultural nationality alike, alludes directly to the Antaeus myth, applying it to himself and his principal Abbey-Theatre co-workers. Along with that earthy aristocrat and collector of Irish folklore, Lady Augusta Gregory, and “that rooted man” John Millington Synge, Yeats thought

All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.[9]

Early Heaney would agree. Like Antaeus, son of Mother Earth, the poet of Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) seemed an instinctual and earth-centered child of the natal soil. In an essay published in 1980, five years after North, he, too, like Yeats, described Synge as one who, Antaeus-like grew strong, having discovered in his experience on the Aran Islands a tangible “power-point.” Like Heaney himself in his archeological digging into the remote pre-Christian past in North, Synge, “grafted to a tree that had roots touching the rock bottom, …had put on the armour of authentic pre-Christian vision which was a salvation from the fallen world of Unionism and Nationalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Anglo and Irish, Celtic and Saxon—all those bedevilling abstractions and circumstances.”[10]

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But, however bedeviling and abstract, those antithetical forces could not be ignored or wholly transcended, and Heaney’s proclivity toward “second thoughts” would not allow him to rest with a too-easy “salvation” in the form of empathetic alliance with one side of the agon. As his cherished Robert Frost acknowledged, “I have been pulled two ways and torn in two all my life.”[11]At the time he wrote that, in a 1915 letter, Frost was just five years older than the author of North. Though Heaney was similarly torn, Antaeus—his alter ego in the 1966 poem—was, for all his myth-defying insistence or petition, still a defeated figure. When he takes up the theme again, in the wake of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland beginning with Bloody Sunday in January 1972, Heaney concedes in advance the defeat of Antaeus at the hands, and head, of Heracles, a figure of superior strength and “intelligence.”

In the earlier poem, Antaeus had boasted that the challenger must wrestle with him before he could “pass/ Into that realm of fame//Among sky-born and royal.” That successful passage is acknowledged (repeating the very phrase) at the outset of the new poem—which is written in the third person and whose opening lines go on to allude to Heracles’ feats: from the precocious choking of the snakes sent to strangle him in his cradle, through his ingenious cleansing of the accumulated cattle-dung in the Augean stables, and his successful quest for the golden apples, culminating in his apotheosis, laden with earned prizes:

Sky-born and royal,
Snake-choker, dung heaver,
His mind big with golden apples,
his future hung with trophies,

Hercules has the measure
of resistance and black powers
feeding off the territory.

The forces of resistance whose “measure” has been taken—doubly “grasped”—by intelligent Hercules, a violent light-bringer, are primordial, instinctual “black powers/ feeding” off the nurturing soil, the native “territory.” Antaeus himself is introduced as “the mould-hugger.” In the earlier poem he had claimed, “I cannot be weaned off” the earth and its “cradling dark.” Now he is described as “weaned at last” from his Mother-Earth. In the past,

a fall was a renewal
but now he is raised up—
the challenger’s intelligence

is a spur of light,
a blue prong graiping him
out of his element
into a dream of loss

and origins—the cradling dark,
the river-veins, the secret gullies
of his strength
the hatching grounds

of cave and souterrain,
he has bequeathed it all
to elegists. Balor will die,
and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

“Light”—masculine and intellectual—defeats the cradling “dark” that had, in the earlier poem, “wombed” and “nurtured” Antaeus. Now the intelligent but phallic and brutal “spur” and “prong” of Hercules has succeeded in “graiping” (an obscure but forceful Scots verb for lifting, perhaps derived from William Dunbar) Antaeus “out of his element” into a dream of “loss” and nostalgia for his chthonic “origins” in the mothering soil: the hidden river-veins, gullies, caves and underground networks that once nourished his strength, and over which Heaney lingers.

Heaney’s lingering identification with Antaeus and the poetic, cultural, and nationalist dimension of this poem are confirmed by a 1979 interview, in which he recalled a conversation with a “fine” British poet, but one with a “kind of Presbyterian light” about him, “essentially different from the kind of poet I am.” The “image” that came into Heaney’s mind after the conversation “was of me being a dark soil and him being a kind of bright-pronged fork that was digging it up and going through it.” In “Hercules and Antaeus,” he continued, “Hercules represents the possibility of the play of intelligence,” resembling the “satisfaction you get from Borges,” so “different from the pleasures of Neruda, who’s more of an Antaeus figure.” Such thinking, he says, “led into the poetry of the second half of North, which was an attempt at some kind of declarative voice.” In that voice, the victory of the trophy-laden conqueror, his “light” too Protestant and “Anglo” for Heaney to ever endorse, is registered, but with reluctance.[12]

Forcefully severed from contact with the dark soil that is the source of his strength, Antaeus must lose, bequeathing his legacy to “elegists” lamenting the death of other indigenous fighters defeated and dispossessed by invaders. Heaney singles out mythic and historical losers, united by fate and alliteration: the one-eyed Irish god-king Balor, killed by the Tuatha de Danaan, the legendary invaders of Ireland; the Anglo-Saxon earl Byrthnoth, slain by Vikings in the massacre of his forces at the Battle of Maldon (991); and the chief of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull, victor at Little Big Horn in 1876, but shot and killed by Indian police when, a decade and a half later, his followers tried to rescue him from reservation captivity. Transatlantic, but emblematic of all the native peoples overwhelmed in the inexorable advance of whites colonizing the American continent, Sitting Bull belongs in this trinity of the dispossessed and defeated—principal among whom are Heaney’s own “wronged people,” driven out or subjugated by the English invaders and planters, and still subject to violence and discrimination.

The final two stanzas present the victor in an iconic pose (archaic, but repeated from Churchill to “Rocky”), along with the transformation of the defeated into the topography and mythology of resurrection so often resorted to by the vanquished: arrogant “Hercules lifts his arms/ In a remorseless V,” his “triumph unassailed/ By the powers he has shaken,”

And lifts and banks Antaeus
High as a profiled ridge,
A sleeping giant,
Pap for the dispossessed.  (OG, 121-22)

The defeated Antaeus is lifted, crushed to death, and banked, his profiled corpse becoming part of the ridged landscape. In both Native American (Ojibway) and Celtic mythology and popular legend, a Sleeping Giant will one day awaken to lead his defeated and disinherited people to triumph. This desperate cultural-political wish-fulfillment, applied to his own tribe in Northern Ireland, is spurned by Heaney, brutally and caustically, as “Pap for the dispossessed”: the sentimental mythology of false hope that simultaneously sustains and deludes an uprooted and oppressed people. Later, in Station Island, the ghost of James Joyce himself will advise Heaney to stop “raking at dead fires” and “rehearsing the old whinges at your age./ That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,/ infantile” (OG, 245).  Though Heaney is not dismissing the reality either of oppression or of the need to rectify injustice, he is harshly critical of what Neil Corcoran succinctly describes as a subject people’s “hopeful but puerile” mythology. Yeats, too, in Celtic fin-de-siècle poems like “The Secret Rose” and “The Valley of the Black Pig, and, more obliquely in “The Second Coming,” had reminded us that oppressed people always dream apocalyptic dreams of deliverance, of what the distinguished Quaker philosopher Rufus M. Jones has memorably called “the fierce comfort of a relief expedition from the skies.”[13]

In that climactic line, “Pap for the dispossessed,” Heaney, conceding victory to Hercules, refuses to dwell on either the nostalgic “dream of loss/ and origins,” or the apocalyptic pipedream of the projected awakening of a “sleeping giant.” In Greek myth, Heracles will himself eventually be defeated, poisoned by the toxic shirt of the centaur Nessus. Though that dark future offers no comfort in this poem, it is also true that the combat between what is antithetically represented by Heaney’s Hercules and Antaeus (a spur of light/earthy darkness, “male” reason/ “female” instinct, victory/defeat) is itself a transitional phase, a “stepping stone” in a larger and more complex dialectic, both poetic and political. The forces symbolized in “Hercules and Antaeus” will wrestle again, and on a far more nuanced level, in the culminating poem in North, “Exposure.” By “bidding farewell to the chthonic elegiac myth of Antaeus, by finding something to praise in the ‘spur of light’ in ‘the challenger’s intelligence,’ Heaney,” writes Helen Vendler, “opened himself to the more authentic—if more dubious and shifting—figures animating “Exposure”—figures of exile, of flight, of sequestration and, above all, of second thoughts, ‘weighing and weighing,’ as he says, ‘my responsible tristia’.”[14]

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Seamus Heaney began his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, just as he had begun “Terminus” eight years earlier, by presenting himself as having grown up “in between”; “in suspension,” he says in the speech, “between the archaic and the modern.” His life as a “pre-reflective” child safely insulated from the outside world in a crowded traditional thatched farmstead was “an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled” with other sounds—“rain in the trees,…a steam train rumbling along a railway line one field back from the house.” This was during World War II, and so, conveyed by the wind-stirred wire leading from atop a chestnut tree to the family radio, the sounds included the voice of a BBC newsreader announcing in “resonant English tones…the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions,” and intoning as well “those other solemn and oddly bracing words, ‘the enemy’ and ‘the allies’.” (OG, 416)

That child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to sounds of the pastoral and modern worlds was “already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament”: a future involving the conflict between the Provisional IRA, British troops, and loyalist paramilitaries during the renewed Troubles, centered in Northern Ireland but radiating out to bombings in Dublin and London. A no-longer “pre-reflective” child, Heaney was now an adult who would, as he told his audience in Stockholm, have to “adjudicate” among “promptings” that were

variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, quite impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen-seventies in another small house, this time in County Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home…feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweet-natured school friend had been interned because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. (OG, 418)

In August 1972, the year that had begun with the second Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers killed and wounded the Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, Heaney resigned his teaching post at Queens University in Belfast, moving with his wife and two young sons to Wicklow in the Republic. It was, he has acknowledged, the “most intense phase” of his life, “and not just of the writing life.” Referring to his family as well as himself, he told O’Driscoll, “we were at a turning point,…exposed and ready in a new way.” He had “no more alibis. That much was clear the first morning I took the children” to their new school “and the headmaster wrote ‘file’ [poet] in the column of the rollbook where he had to enter ‘Occupation of Parent.’ No more of your ‘lecturer’ or ‘teacher’” (SS, 156).  They settled in “Glanmore,” a cottage (formerly the gatekeeper’s on the Synge estate) rented to them by their friend, the Synge scholar Anne Saddlemeyer. As noted earlier, the decision, much commented on in the media, was criticized by some Northern Catholics, including fellow writers, who felt that the poet best equipped to be an engaged spokesman for “their side” had abandoned them. In these circumstances, says Heaney in the Nobel Prize speech, what “I was longing for was…a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.” It was then, he says (OG, 419), that “I wrote a poem called ‘Exposure’.”

Aside from “Punishment,” in which he accuses himself of complicity and passivity in the tribal vengeance exacted against his “sisters” brutally punished for fraternizing with British soldiers, “Exposure,” the sixth and final poem in the sequence “Singing School” in North, is the most controversial poem in Heaney’s most controversial and powerful collection. Epitomizing the rival claims of the private and public voice, of art and action, of poetry and political engagement, “Exposure” traces several “exposings.” The first is to the natural elements in a rural environment. The poem, written, like “Hercules and Antaeus,” in unrhymed quatrains, begins:

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

In this damp, darkening, low-wicked end of the year, there were other cold looks. The second “exposing” was to the unaccustomed criticism already mentioned, both private and in terms of the media publicity occasioned by the decision to move to the Republic. The poet is critical himself—at least, as in the case of Horatio on the battlements in Hamlet, “a part of him.” In an image that will recur in the poem’s final line, he refers to the opportunity to possibly make a difference at home as “A comet that was lost,” and should at least

                             be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

Instead of a wrestling Antaeus, we have a stone-slinging potential Cuchulain or David defending his people against physically superior (Goliath-like) strength. Heaney’s “gift,” though weapon-like, would be (as in his canon-opening poem, “Digging”) that “pen” mightier than sword or gun (or slingshot). But the “desperate” here are the same “dispossessed” battening on “pap” in “Hercules and Antaeus.” In any case, it is all a fantasy. The million-tonned luminous comet is already “lost,” its glimmering roseate track not even “visible at sunset”; the lesser “falling star” is glimpsed only “sometimes”; and the recluse self-exiled in the Wicklow woods is, in this declension, reduced to hoping for the diminished excitement of coming upon “meteorite.”

Walking through “damp leaves,” the husks of an “autumn” as “spent” as the meteorite, and merely “imagining” himself a potentially salvific “hero,” Heaney sounds remarkably like the middle-aged Yeats of The Wild Swans at Coole, shuffling among the littering autumnal leaves and burning “damp faggots” while, in contrast, a man of action—Irish Airman Robert Gregory, driven by a lethal and “lonely impulse” to hurl himself into combat—“may consume/ The entire combustible world” in the “flare” of a single courageous if reckless decision. Like Heaney, who presents himself in this poem “weighing and weighing” options, Yeats’s Airman claims to have “balanced all, brought all to mind.”  But the fighter-pilot impulsively leaps into his “tumult in the clouds,” while Heaney and Yeats “sit,” or walk through “damp leaves.” And yet one senses, at the deepest level, that for both poets, however they may momentarily envy and even glorify it, the role of the combustible “hero” is, in the final weighing, just more infantile pap.[15]

In the next two stanzas, the media exposure attending Heaney’s controversial move to the seclusion and safety of the Republic is made more intimate by the many-faceted “counseling” of friends  (whether well-intentioned or the equivalent of Job’s comforters) and the more blunt hatred of ideological enemies, whose “anvil brains” generate more heat than sparks of light:

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind backs?

The Latin word signals a double-echo: an allusion to another internal émigré, Osip Mandelstam in the Stalinist Soviet Union, whose poems in exile, titled Tristia, in turn echoed the Tristia of Ovid, exiled by Augustus from Rome. But “for what,” Heaney asks himself, does he sit weighing and weighing incompatible responsibilities? He momentarily casts doubt even on the claims of poetry, in terms both of its adequacy in the face of the atrocities in the North and in purely aesthetic terms: the artistic labor required to create sounds to please a discerning “ear.” Feeling, as he said in the Nobel Prize speech, “challenged yet steadfast,” he implicitly resists as well civic responsibility in the form of politically engaged labor on behalf of “the people,” and spurns, though acutely sensitive to it, the sniping of those who talk behind one’s back.

But there remains self-criticism and the final and most important “exposure”: the revelation of his own deeply-conflicted feelings and thoughts. He hears, in the symbolic utterance of the rain through the alders (the familiar rain-in-the-trees image with which the poem had opened), self-accusation and a nagging fear—since each raindrop recalls the “diamond absolutes” beyond endless weighing of alternatives—that he may be a less-than-noble escapist whose quietist quest has caused him to dodge the violence and miss a momentous chance:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.  (OG, 135-36)

.

6

“Exposure,” in which Heaney puts extraordinary pressure on himself, is an intimate self-examination and meditation on what Robert Frost famously called “the road not taken.” But against the vacillation and conflicted thoughts that led him both to self-protectively escape “the massacre” and to miss the not-taken and once-only opportunity to stay in the North and perhaps even make a difference politically, we have to weigh, as Heaney may well have, not only the nuanced subtext of sedentary Yeats’s ostensibly unflattering contrast of himself to heroic Robert Gregory, but the older poet’s insistence, in “The Second Coming,” that it is the “best” who lack conviction, while “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (YP, 235). In addition, though they give off but “meagre heat” compared to the comet’s “million tons of light,” the “sparks” to which Heaney refers in the final stanza are poetic sparks.

According to Heaney in a 1997 interview with fellow poet Henri Cole, what he was asking, with “anxiety,” in “Exposure” was: “what am I doing striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?”[16] But those little sparks were still inspired sparks, blown by the “wind” Heaney  feels as a “wood-kerne” hidden and camouflaged—like the Irish soldiers Spenser had described in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)—by protective bole and bark, the autumnal woods surrounding Glanmore Cottage. To my ear, “these sparks” evoke Shelley’s final petition to that “breath of autumn’s being” in the “Ode to the West Wind”:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In the end, Heaney, neither informer nor internee, confirms (though not without misgivings) his decision to become an internal émigré and noncombatant. In moving to Glanmore Cottage, a secluded retreat and place of writing he came to love and eventually to purchase, Heaney committed himself full-time to poetry, recognizing—as had Wordsworth, in an earlier time of political “catastrophe” and with the support of his sister Dorothy—his “true self” as “Poet,” file. In the third of the “Glanmore Sonnets” (in Field Work, 1979), Heaney starts to compare himself and his wife to “William and Dorothy,” only to be interrupted by Marie (OG, 158)—who may, however, have played a role not unlike that of Dorothy. Asked by Helen Vendler about separations and other difficulties, Marie insisted that “all I want is for Seamus to be able to write his poems.” That was what mattered as well to Dorothy, that “belovéd woman” and “companion” who had, in a time of political and emotional turmoil, Wordsworth insisted,

Maintained for me a saving intercourse
With my true self…preserved me still
A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.[17]

But “poetry,” as Auden famously insisted in his elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” Even (OG, 102, 103) lying “down/ in the word-horde” and “jumping in graves” (as Heaney, a self-mocking “Hamlet the Dane” does in the “skull-capped ground” of North) cannot effect political change any more than the imaginative “flames” of Yeats’s “Byzantium” (YP, 298) can “singe a sleeve” in the material world.  As Heaney says, echoing Auden and Yeats: though poetry is “unlimited” in its capacity for “pure concentration,” “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” [18] Nor, in “Exposure,” can “meagre sparks” outweigh the comet’s million tons of light.

As man and poet, Heaney had to acknowledge the passionate intensity and terrible beauty of that climactic comet’s “pulsing rose.” But there is an implicit caveat in that very image, a reservation taking the form of repetition and rondure. For this final image in the final poem of North—the “comet’s pulsing rose”—not only echoes the absent afterglow of the comet’s tail,  imagined resembling the fruit of the rose, the ripe seed-receptacles that remain after the petals have been removed (“Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips”); it also curves back to “Antaeus,” the opening (post-Dedication) poem in the volume, and to what proved to be the earth-renewed wrestler’s over-confident and punning assertion: “When I die on the ground,/ I rise flushed as a rose.” The internal “rose”-echo is obvious, and I take the oblique allusion to “Antaeus” also to be deliberate, an echo adding to the undermining of the pulsing comet’s combustible political force.

For in the trajectory of North, atavistic Antaeus had been forced to yield. Not, finally, to the strength and spurred light of hubristic Hercules, but to the responsibility-weighing tristia and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney, acting in his true office upon earth: that of Poet. A poet may make, as Heaney often has, public statements; but a poet’s resistance to pressure to become overtly “committed” is usually accompanied, as in the case of Wordsworth and Coleridge (disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution), by a belief that the authentic agent of change is not political activism but the creative imagination, with its implicit assertion of the essential autonomy of poetry. This is a claim certain, in a time of troubles, to frustrate readers who want their poets to “engage” rather than fiddle. And yet we find, at the end of “Exposure,” a poet, or file, scattering, not the spent ashes of partisan politics and sectarian hatred, but those vestigial yet undying “sparks”—his inspired words—among us all. Seamus Heaney’s four decades of creativity following North, defending and reaffirming the central value of poetry, have amply vindicated the pivotal decision publicly wrestled over in “Exposure.”

— Patrick J. Keane

 

Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 159-60. (Henceforth cited parenthetically as SS).
  2. “Crediting Poetry,” in Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 415-30. Opened Ground is cited parenthetically throughout as OG.
  3. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial 75 (November 1923); cited from Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 175-78 (177).
  4. Station Island (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 17.
  5. Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992), 2.
  6. Among his many heroic exploits, Heracles led the Theban army to victory in battle, and was rewarded by the king, Creon—the tyrant who has rebellious Antigone buried alive (Heaney would later publish a version of Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone under the title The Burial at Thebes). In gratitude, Creon gave Heracles in marriage his daughter Megara, with whom he had three children. When he regained his senses after killing his family, Heracles was commanded by the priestess of Apollo to obey Eurystheus, who assigned him the Twelve Labors (athloi: contests undertaken for a prize).
  7. Homer: The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (NY: Viking, 1996), 269-70. Book 11: 621-24.
  8. The Poetry of Robert Frost (NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 227.
  9. W. B. Yeats: The Poems [henceforth, YP], ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 367-68, and  395, for “The Circus Animal’ Desertion”);   A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962 [1937]), 27-28.
  10. Heaney, “A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on the Irish Literary Revival,” in Irish Studies 1, ed. P. J. Drudy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 1-20 (9).
  11. The Letters of Robert Frost, vol. 1 (of a projected 3), 1886-1920, ed. Robert Sheehy, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013).
  12. John Haffendon, “Meeting Seamus Heaney,” reprinted in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. (London, 1981), 57-75. My colleague David Lloyd rightly insists that Hercules is “too Angloish for Heaney to get too near.”
  13. Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986), 100. Jones, The Eternal Gospel (NY: Macmillan, 1938), 5. For the Yeats poems, see YP, 87, 83, 235.
  14. Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1998), 89-90.
  15. Ostensibly pure hero worship, both “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (YP, 181-85) hint at subversive caveats.
  16. Cole, “Seamus Heaney: The Art of Poetry No. 75.” The Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997).
  17. For Marie’s comment, see Vendler, “Seamus Justin Heaney 13 April 1939-30 August 2013” (2014), p. 2. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XI. 340-47. In North, in the sequence “Singing School” (its title taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), Wordsworth figures as well as Yeats.
  18. Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 107-8. “In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.” Though not politically “instrumental,” it functions “as pure concentration.
Apr 112014
 

john lee portrait

In poetry, the local is the universal. As William Blake wrote:  “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” John B. Lee is an old friend, published many times in Numéro Cinq, who lives in Port Dover, Ontario, just down the road from the farm where I grew up. We both have a special affection for Norfolk County, to me, always both local and an epic ground, filtered with blood of ancestors (see my anthology of Norfolk County history “A Geography of the Soul“). And in these poems, he remembers a relative of his, Ida Wright, born in Waterford, the farming town, where I went to high school. Ida went to China as a missionary — the rest I will let John tell. But notice, yes, how these poems rise by degrees to compass all life (and beyond), from a southwestern Ontario schoolroom to eternity.

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

We have also translations of the poems into Spanish (we’ve done this before as well), courtesy of John B. Lee’s Cuban friend and colleague Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon.

dg

The poems in this document are taken from a manuscript in progress called Into a Land of Strangers. The central figure in the poems is my great-aunt Ida Wight née Emerick, born in Waterford, Ontario, and raised by her father and mother in Bothwell, Ontario. After a brief stint as an elementary school teacher in Highgate, she joined the Mission to China and she became a missionary in China in the late 1800′s where she married a fellow missionary. Widowed during the Boxer Rebellion, she and her baby daughter fled on foot along with other westerners, surviving by eating boiled cotton and shoe leather. She spent two years in Canada before returning to China where she became superintendent of missionary schools. During the Second World War, she fled  to Hong Kong where she was eventually placed in an internment camp by the Japanese. Liberated by the Americans in late 1944, she traveled to Durban, South Africa, where she remained until her death on January 1, 1952. Her grandchildren were also interned in a camp for the duration of the war. The book Into a Land of Strangers tells the story of three generations of the Emerick family beginning with the German-American late-come Loyalist Francis Emerick who served on the Canadian side in the Lincoln militia during the War of 1812 after which he farmed a farm in what is now Middlesex County in southern Ontario. 

—John B. Lee

.

A Person on Business from Porlock

There is an imam
mosqued in the empire of the west
who preaches
that the greatest sin
in the land of the golden mountain
is the American lawn
even the burning earth
of south Texas, even there
on the torpid border of old Spain
that stolen-water-green thing thrives
with a great thickening
of wide-bladed
low-growth St. Augustine grass
even there
in the blue boil
of the unusable summer pools
of suburbia
in that necessary evaporate cool
all along the arroyos
the dry brown rivers
of parched clay
thirsty mud cracking open
like oil on old canvas
in the brilliant mirror of an unreflecting sky
the monolithic malady of modern paradise
insists itself
between the dream houses
of every middleclass mind

if one thinks of Cathay
and the Khan’s palace
in the city of Chandu
where mare’s milk spills
like moonlight on marble
and light falls in chords through cracks
like strands of silk that brace the bamboo palace
where leopards slip the saddle
in let-loose leaps
and the jessed hawks fly
over the claw shade of a shadow-measured wall

as I think now
of my own neighbour
mowing his yard for
the fourth time today

or as it was
with the woman next door
who plucked cut blades
one by one
from the sweet fragrance
of her wet-sock work with a similar care
one might use to pull stray thread
from a new garment

and I also recall
the mad lady nursing lost leaves
at midnight
in the candle-glow under star-dark heaven
when the world is otherwise laudanum black

and behind the forehead
like stones in a deep stream
something sleeps
turning green

.

Una persona de Porlock en negocios

Hay un imam
en una mezquita del imperio del oeste
que predica
que el pecado más grande
en la tierra de la montaña áurea
es el césped estadounidense
incluso la tierra ardiente
del sur de Texas, incluso allí
en la frontera letárgica de la vieja España
esa cosa verde del agua robada prospera
con un gran espesamiento
yerba de San Agustín
de anchas hojas
incluso allí
en el corral azul
de inservibles piscinas de verano
de los suburbios
en ese fresco necesario que se evapora
a lo largo de los arroyos
los secos ríos pardos
de árido barro
fango sediento que se resquebraja
como el óleo en el lienzo viejo
en el espejo brillante de un cielo sin reflejos
el mal monolítico del paraíso moderno
insiste
entre las casas de sueños
de cada mente de clase media

si uno piensa en Catay
y el palacio del Kan
en la ciudad de Chandu
donde la leche de yegua chorrea
como luz de luna sobre el mármol
y la luz cae en acordes a través de las grietas
como hebras de seda que apuntalan el palacio de bambú
donde los leopardos se deslizan de la montura
en saltos sueltos
y los halcones encorreados vuelan
sobre la penumbra desgarrada de una pared medida por su sombra

mientras pienso ahora
en mi propio vecino
cortando el césped de su patio por
cuarta vez hoy

o como fue
con la mujer de la casa de al lado
que recogió las briznas cortadas
una a una
desde la fragancia dulce
de su trabajo de medias mojadas con cuidado similar
al que pondríamos para sacar hilos extraviados
de una nueva prenda de vestir

y también recuerdo
la señora loca cuidando hojas perdidas
a medianoche
al fulgor de una vela bajo un cielo oscuro de estrellas
cuando el mundo está por otra parte negro como el láudano

y detrás de la frente
como piedras en una corriente profunda
algo duerme
tornándose verde

.

The Superintendent

looking at the comfortable room
in the luxurious home
she had built for herself
in the orient
my cousin said
of our late aunt
posing like widowed gentry
lolling amongst her precious things
“I thought missionaries
were supposed to be poor …”
her silk pillows
embroideries
gilt upholsteries, silver
tea service, fine cloth
painted vase, and
exotic 
high-buttoned
tight-bodice
dress, the tats
and flounces—doyen
of the wealthy classes
mistress of a private school
privy to
the Sino-Victoriana
of a distant land that changed the mind
like the slow conversion of green
in slanting shade
where everything greys
in the lonesome lamentation of a solitary light
growing older
in a homeland no longer home
in the piano parlour silence
with that deep-toned quiet
of untouched ivory, each key
yellow as a smoker’s tooth

who does not fear
or loathe to hear
the superintendent of schools
with her disapproving
and ultra-grammatical
crepitation, clearing her throat
with a phlegmy “ahem”
from the back of the room
her spine as stiff as a pointer
she strides
her heels cracking the floor
as she seizes the chalk of the day
and with white streak
screeching

is it a sin or is it a dream of sin
to see through the third eye
how the children tremble
shading their work
for a smudge of errors
the grand failures
we feel
in the pedagogical squint
of the once-a-term stranger
in a classroom smelling of spilled ink
and the bass notes of old plasticine
fragrant in bent fingers
and multi-coloured snakes of clay
rolled flat on the modeling board
one name carved deep
in the cave of every desk

for we are the bullied, the shy
the wild, the plump
the brilliant, the lost
the bratty, the eager-to-please
the quiet, the pimpled
the unclean, the poor
the criminal, the crippled, the maimed
the doomed-to-die young
the bad seed, the sniffling, sniveling
easy-to-hate tattle tale
the pampered
the beaten, the bewildered
the too-stupid-for words
learning one lesson in a tall cone-shaped hat
under tousled hair

and one in the tasseled
mortarboard

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

.

La superintendente

mirando el aposento confortable
en la casa lujosa
que ella construyó para sí
en el oriente
mi primo dijo
de nuestra tía difunta
posando como viuda aristocrática
reclinada entre sus objetos preciosos

“creía que los misioneros
se suponía que fueran pobres…”

sus almohadas de seda
bordados
dorada tapicerías acolchadas, servicio de
té de plata, finas ropas
jarrones pintados, y
exótico
vestido abotonado hasta arriba
con corpiño
ajustado, los encajes
y cenefas—decana
de clases acaudaladas
maestra de una escuela privada
consejera en
la Sino-Victoriana
de una tierra distante que cambió la mente
como una lenta conversión del verde
en matices sesgados
en los que todo se torna gris
en la triste lamentación de la luz solitaria

envejeciendo
en una patria que ya no es hogar
en el silencio del salón del piano
con ese silencioso tono profundo
de marfil intacto, cada tecla
amarilla como los dientes de un fumador

que no teme
o detesta escuchar
la superintendente de escuelas
con su traqueteo reprobador
y ultra-gramatical,
aclarándose la garganta
con flema “ejem”
desde el fondo del cuarto
su espalda tan tiesa como un puntero
camina a grandes pasos
sus talones golpeteando el suelo
mientras toma la tiza del día
y con un trazo blanco
chirreando

es este un pecado o el sueño de un pecado
ver a través del tercer ojo
como los niños tiemblan
sombreando sus trabajos
por un borrón de errores
los grandes fallos
que sentimos 
en la bizquera pedagógica
del extraño de una vez un trimestre
en un aula que huele a tinta derramada
y las notas bajas de la plastilina vieja
fragante en los dedos doblados
y las serpientes de barro multicolores
enrolladas y aplastadas en la tabla de modelar
un nombre gravado profundamente
en la caverna de cada pupitre

porque somos los intimidados, los tímidos
los salvajes, los regordetes
los brillantes, los extraviados
los niños malos, difíciles de complacer
los callados, los espinillosos
los sucios, los pobres
los criminales, los lisiados, los mutilados
los condenados a morir jóvenes
la mala semilla, los que se sorben los mocos, los llorones
fáciles de odiar parloteadores
los consentidos
los golpeados, los atolondrados
los demasiado estúpidos para las palabras

aprendiendo una lección en un sombrero de alta copa
bajo el pelo desgreñado

y uno en el birrete
adornado con borlitas

todos compartimos nuestra naturaleza con los muertos
un nombre gravado hondo en la caverna
de los pupitres vacíos es tuyo
y un nombre allí es mío

.

The Impossible Black Tulip

“The men of old see not the moon
of today; yet the moon of today
is the moon that shone on them.”
……………………—Chinese proverb

I wonder, Ida
when you joined the mission bound for China
did you know the name
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest
from Italy
the man the Chinese still call
“the scholar from the west”
a sixteenth century Catholic polymath
wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk
impressing the mandarins
of the Ming
mastering the culture and
language of the middle kingdom
and then, mapping the world beyond the world
tracing coastlines on the impossible black tulip
of cartography wherever Magellan sailed
and Columbus lost his way
where the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French
the English, the Dutch
went warring for land
and the madness of gold
and the minds
of the savage
and the bodies of slaves
the rivalries of red-haired kings
and red-robed churches
barbarians and buccaneers uncouth humans
in the era of inquisition
after Copernicus spun the globe
and Galileo gave heaven away for fear of burning alive
and there the new lands were named
even the home of your birth Jiānádá
first named and thereby known
by the learned classes
who opened their eyes to the west
and the faith of the west
inscribed with the allegory of the Holy Land
and he, the first westerner
to enter into
the Forbidden City
died a failure to evangelize
though he built a cathedral
in the capital
and still, long after
the gunboats have fallen silent
and the opium wars
have burned away
and the Boxers razed
your home and murdered your kind, and the Japanese
imprisoned you and your children
for the sins of empire—his name
lives on
in reverence—
like Li Po’s drowning moon
held loose
and glowing in the drunkard’s palm
of a midnight pond
the one we might see
if we dare to dream
of a darkness yet to come

.

El tulipán negro imposible

“Los hombres de la antigüedad no ven la luna
de hoy; sin embargo la luna de hoy
es la luna que brilló sobre ellos.”
…………………………………….—Proverbio chino

Me pregunto, Ida
cuando te uniste a la misión destinada a China
si sabías el nombre
Matteo Ricci, el sacerdote jesuita
de Italia
el hombre que los chinos aún llaman
“el sabio del oeste”
un erudito católico del siglo dieciséis
que usaba la túnica de un monje budista
impresionando a los mandarines
de los Ming
que dominaba la cultura y
la lengua del reino medio
y luego, trazaba mapas del mundo más allá del mundo
dibujando la línea de las costas sobre el tulipán negro imposible
de la cartografía dondequiera que navegara Magallanes
y Colón perdiera su ruta
donde los portugueses, los españoles y los franceses
los ingleses, los holandeses
se fueron peleando por tierra
y la locura del oro
por las mentes
de los salvajes
y los cuerpos de los esclavos
las rivalidades de los reyes pelirrojos
y de las iglesias de mantos rojos
bárbaros y bucaneros humanos groseros
en la era de la inquisición
luego de que Copérnico hiciera girar el globo
y Galileo entregara al cielo por temor a que lo quemaran vivo
y entonces se nombraron las nuevas tierras
incluso el hogar de tu nacimiento Jiānádá
primero nombrado y por tanto conocido
por las clases ilustradas
que abrieron sus ojos al oeste
y la fe del oeste
inscrito con la alegoría de la Tierra Santa

y él, el primer occidental
que entrara en
la Ciudad Prohibida
murió en el fracaso de evangelizar
aunque construyó una catedral
en la capital
y aun, mucho más tarde de que
las cañoneras se han callado
y las guerras del opio
han consumido en llamas
y los Bóxer arrasaran
tu hogar y asesinaron a tu gente, y los japoneses
te hicieron prisionera con tus hijos
por los pecados del imperio—su nombre
perdura
en reverencia—
como la luna inundada de Li Po
suelta
y luciendo en la palma del borracho
de una laguna a medianoche
la que veríamos
si nos atrevemos a soñar
en una oscuridad aún por venir

.

Considering Ancient Chinese Erotica

in the spring palace
behind high walls
of the Forbidden City
the perfumed concubine
lolled with her bound-as-a-child body
lamed by beauty
the crimson water lily of the royal house
playing bring on the clouds and the rain
with the wealthy lords
of the Ming
in the court of songs
otherwise dishabille women
their misshapen bones
broken in slippers
crippled by pain her feet made small as a deer
for the visual delight of men
well-born girls
wearing bow shoes embroidered in silk
walking with the lotus gait
the short-step sway of pampered ladies
even in time the eldest daughter of the poor
wanting to marry highborn
achieved the crescent moon
of the cramped arch
with its erotic allure
an intimate and chaste concealment
lasting a thousand years
until the corseted Christians
came at the time of the heavenly foot
their own vital organs cramped
in whalebone
their tight breasts swaddled
in winding-cloth white wear
sending home souvenirs
amazing the congregation
amusing the minister
tantalizing all future museums
where horrified visitors troupe past
in clicking stilettos and blushing tattoos

.

Considerando la antigua erótica china

en el palacio de invierno
detrás de las altas murallas
de la Ciudad Prohibida
la concubina perfumada
se arrellanaba con el cuerpo envuelto como el de un bebé
lisiada por la belleza
el agua de lilas carmesí de la casa real
jugando a llevar al emperador al éxtasis del placer
con los señores acaudalados
de los Ming
en la corte de las canciones
por otra parte mujeres en traje de casa
sus huesos mal formados
rotos en las sandalias
lisiadas por el dolor en sus pies hechos pequeños como los de un venado
para el deleite visual de los hombres
muchachas bien nacidas
usando zapatos de arco bordados en seda
caminando con el modo del loto
el bamboleo de paso corto de las señoras consentidas
incluso con el tiempo las hijas mayores de los pobres
que querían casarse con los de alta cuna
alcanzaban la luna nueva
del arco agarrotado
con su encanto erótico
un casto disimulo íntimo
que dura mil años
hasta las cristianas encorsetadas
llegaron en la época de los pies celestiales
sus órganos vitales agarrotados
entre barbas de ballena
sus apretados pechos envueltos
en blanca ropa enrollada
enviando a casa suvenires
que sorprendían la congregación
divertían al pastor
tentando a todos los museos futuros
donde los visitantes horrorizados pasaban en grupo
en chasqueantes estiletes y tatuajes ruborizados

.

Into a Land of Strangers

the muddy root
of the lotus, also
desires the sky

………………..*

tropical lotus
blooms in the night
white flesh a white moon dreams

………………..*

black water, blue sky
two minds
consider one light

………………..*

undulating cutwater
darkens beneath
the white of a single cloud

………………..*

the lotus open
in the moon-wane of morning
how young a fading white

………………..*

how might the lotus thirst
in the ever-evaporate black
of a deep pool

………………..*

into a land of strangers
she comes
a stranger to herself

………………..*

in the seed pearl
of her beloved moon
the sand grain of her soul

………………..*

celestial stranger
your secret revealed
to a secret concealed

………………..*

an unpainted lotus
imagines the mind
wet brush dampens dry water

………………..*

here in the seam of true silk
the chrysalis clings
to the force of an unborn wing

.

A tierra extranjera

en la raíz lodosa
del loto, también
desea el cielo

………………..*

loto tropical
florece en la noche
blanca carne que una luna blanca sueña

………………..*

agua negra, cielo azul
dos mentes
consideran una luz

………………..*

ondulante rompeolas
se oscurece bajo
el blancor de una nube solitaria

………………..*

se abren los lotos
en el cuarto menguante de la mañana
qué lozano el blanco mortecino

………………..*

como puede el loto languidecer de sed
en el negro en evaporación
de una laguna profunda

………………..*

a tierra extranjera
ella llega
una extranjera para ella misma

………………..*

en la perla seminal
de su amada luna
el grano de arena de su alma

………………..*

extranjera celestial
tu secreto revelado
a un secreto guardado

………………..*

un loto no pintado
imagina la mente
el pincel mojado humedece el agua seca

………………..*

aquí en la sutura de la verdadera seda
cuelga la crisálida
ante la fuerza de un ala por nacer

—John B. Lee & Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon

.

John and I (1)Manuel Leon, translator, and John B. Lee

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books and  the recipient of over seventy awards for his writing. Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the north coast of Lake Erie. He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958 (Hidden Brook Press, 2010), a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin. A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador. He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.

.
 

Apr 092014
 

Julie Larios

Herewith impish, gracile, nimble poems by Contributing Editor (one of our own) Julie Larios whose continuing Undersung series has become a mainstay of the magazine and a model of poetic discourse. Julie’s poems are playful, yes — the body “poor sot” and men! who only need “A belief in the afterlife, or in the theory / that size doesn’t matter” — and her language is fast, packed with snappy rhythms, sly puns and rhymes that twist and curl meaning from word to word. Just read this:

of how the living, soft-bodied, feed at the bottom
of these lists, how we list too often, as in you lean, you lose, 
or at the very least or most, moist and semi-soft,
we end up ripened and spread too thin

But prosody aside, she has also a lovely set of themes, always coming back to a view of life, mischievous yet grand, the comedy of the body that won’t stop, that has its knowledge, that faulty and doomed as it is nonetheless is holy, the house of the spirit. And Julie, I think, never loses sight of the current of spirit that runs beneath appearances. Oh, to have written that line.

I love, God says, whatever steers the boat of that bird’s body.

dg

What Body Knows 

Body
knows how
to go
slow now,
to fool Doom,
to bow down -
to grow
old.

Body
knows not
how to grow
cool, nor cold,
knows not
how
to stop,
poor sot.

.

What Every Man Needs

A pot to piss in.
A Porsche.
A few pit stops.
And to mark the right spots, several X’s.
Great sex or— on slow nights— a few seeds
to spit off the porch into the dark.
Down any mine shaft, a bright torch.
A daft aunt or two for comic relief.
A belief in the afterlife, or in the theory
that size doesn’t matter.
A mother, ha, like a hole in the head.
A starry sky in the Wild West, a loyal horse.
And to carry him down off his cross, a Blessed Virgin.
On New Year’s Eve, champagne’s satin fizz.
In July, a slow drizzle after the long drought.
In October, sun out after rain.
A magic grain of rice from a folk tale.
A tall tale about the one that got away.
A day on a raft on the Mighty Mississippi,
home-fried catfish and Huck’s Jim  for a buddy.
Beauty minus her Beast.
And the best BBQ baby back ribs
this side of Hell or Heaven.
A 7-11 on one corner, a Jiffy Lube on the next.
An exit plan for every war gone wrong.
And after a long day’s work, just a little peace
and quiet, for Christ’s sake,  can’t a man get
a little peace and quiet?

.

Proposal for a Whole New Scale
………………with a nod to David Letterman

Being the new measurement of how things scratch,
that is, what scratches what, which surfaces face
which other surfaces down, as in showdown,
screw-up, or turnover, what marks the softer body
with its harder body by turning over and over,
what breaks last when heated or frozen, relative
to the heart and/or the balls, what clangs the bell
or strikes up the band, what wins hands down
the Grand Prize on the scale opposite the prize
known as Booby, and being also the new measurement
of how the living, soft-bodied, feed at the bottom
of these lists, how we list too often, as in you lean, you lose,
or at the very least or most, moist and semi-soft,
we end up ripened and spread too thin, half-empty
rather than half-full, while sneaking up behind us
and hindering our progress or congress or aiding
our regress are the Straightened, the Leanless,
the Unsnackable and NonSpreading, aka the Moribund,
so tough and tactless, the pins of their blue ribbons
scratch more than our surfaces, then pop
the inflatable lifeboat and we’re surfacing for the first
the second, the last time, trying to breathe which is
an unchangeable characteristic of the living no matter
what scale we draw or weigh in on, including this one,
even when we give the grid a twist, a tweak, or toss in
an extra handful of beans, and even when
we’ve been snookered and when we begin again,
with a new batch of statistics, optimistic as we leave
an inch or two of air at the top, give the whole thing
a new moniker, make it a game called Will It Float?

..

I’m Telling That Story Again

The one where I pull into the driveway
and see a cop car and a hearse and my feet
don’t touch the ground until I’m inside the house
and find out the kids are fine, it’s my father
who’s in a body bag outside only this time
I tell the story without the hearse and without
the cop car and without the body bag,

so this is the story where it’s summer
and my feet touch the ground and I stay
in my body all the way out to the beach
where my kids are playing at the low tide line,
there, where the rocks meet the saltwater,
they’re playing with my father, and I
can only say thank god it’s not the story I told

where my feet didn’t touch the ground
because I was actually the one in the bag,
because once when I told that story I had to
change the part about my feet, due to confusion
about whether I was still in my body or not
at that stage, and I had to change the part
about the beach and my kids and my father
and summer and all of our several bodies,
and I had to admit that I wasn’t much of a storyteller
because my memory was so bad,  though I do remember
every detail about the low-tide line and the saltwater

and would anyone mind if I started over and told
another story, a better story, about somebody else’s body,
since I’m pretty sure it will be about a body—
no matter how confused I am, all my stories now
seem to end up being about bodies and seasons
and the point at which feet do or do not touch the ground.

.

Upon Coming to Plate XI in A Nomenclature
of Colors for Naturalists and Compendium
of Useful Knowledge for Ornithologists

………………—for Daphne Kalmar

God draws a bird then names its parts:
mandible, crown, the lesser, middle and greater coverts.
He names the rump. He names the contoured flight feathers
in the tail, calls them rectrices: Helmsmen.

Which do you love most, the philosopher asks,
those feathers or the metaphor?

I love, God says, whatever steers the boat of that bird’s body.

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.

 

Mar 172014
 

Karen Mulhallen

Code Orange is a hospital term, a warning to staff indicating a bomb threat, a radioactive spill, a person with mental issues is loose in the halls of the hospital. Sometimes it means everyone should evacuate a soon as possible. Karen Mulhallen’s “Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” is among other things a meditation upon the possibility that we are living in a Code Orange world, that we should all get ready to evacuate, though in the event she finds moments of beauty even in the midst of war.

…………………..…some old god
rising  tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves

Karen Mulhallen is an old friend, a child of Souwesto (as am I), that triangle of cultural territory that stretches south of Toronto to Windsor and north to Alice Munro country. She is a Blake scholar, founder and publisher of Descant Magazine in Toronto, and a prolific poet, undersung, protean, brilliant. I edited her collection of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and wrote the introduction, which you can read here, and tells you all you need to know.

dg

I began to write the Code Orange poems as a response to the invasions of Afghanistan and the media flurry of photographs. There was such a disjunction between what one saw and what one was told to see that the formality of the quatrain seem to create a frame around the physical beauty, a beauty which was destroyed not only by the Taliban, but also by all the invading forces. “The Elegy” which follows on the death of the book man, and perhaps on the death of libraries, also required some classical interventions. Iambic pentameter, but also blank verse stanzas in the way of Milton’s Paradise Lost with intervention within passages of psalmic structures, their repetitive harmony: “perhaps he felt, perhaps he felt.” Throughout the whole suite I was drawn to the hymns of my childhood, spent on hard pews, snuggled in damp proximity to my nana’s big black sheared beaver coat on cold wet snowy days. And finally, as I moved through the whole sequence I felt a need to explore other stanzaic forms, the two-line, the four-line, even for moments William Carlos William’s three-lined, stepped stanza. I needed all of these to contrast to the media bullets which were pervading my consciousness as I wrote. My most recent title for the sequence is “The Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” since to emblazon is to embellish, but to blazon a body is to hack that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.

—Karen Mulhallen

 

To emblazon is to embellish
but to blazon a body is to hack
that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.

 §

In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore, (by and by),
In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

§

Two gates there are that give passage to fleeting dreams;
 one is made of horn, one of ivory.
The dreams that pass through sawn ivory are deceitful,

 bearing messages that will never be fulfilled;
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are future truths for the dreamers who can see them.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XIX

 

I

The First War

Afghanistan, first war of the twenty-first century
in our shame little did we anticipate the rewards
those dailies pounding out
the propaganda brought us

faces of startling beauty. Some man,
some woman, some children, each assembled
so that Vermeer waking from his northern grave
would have gasped with joy.

Here a lip, there a profile,
always the superb curve of the head
blowing demonic rhetoric to smithereens,
not by a smart bomb,

but by a smarter one, some old god
rising  tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves

and tunnels and frescoes, in the rubble
of the Valley of Bamiyan, his hands
resting on the knees of his crossed legs,
his pakhool brim rolled and set

at a cocky angle, his thumbs and first fingers
forming an eternal oval, the other
six fingers extended to catch the rain
of his own blessings.

.

II

Revolutionary Meeting at the Royal Ontario Museum

After we met you, under the Moorish cupola,
in the foyer of the palatial Art Deco museum.
After we stood silently, Simon, Mairi and I—
Simon, Jewish, Glaswegian, a Londoner,

Mairi, his wife, Christian, Scottish, a Londoner,
I, the Canadian, mongrel yoking of Mediterranean
and  Caucasus, sea, desert, mountain: people of the book all.
Have we given away too much?

You come rushing in, lanky like a colt, getting its first legs,
your wonderful smile, your brown teeth,
late, held up by an eager interviewer,
asking more and more and more.

We ascend to the restaurant, overlooking the street,
four displaced persons, one a refugee, all perched
in Toronto’s shopping danger zone, where clothes
change hands for thousands of dollars,

and begin to order lunch, but first, you say, something to drink—
La Heim, Prosit, Cheers. I give you Simic, Louvish, Lakowitz,
Laucke, MacDonald, Nejedsky, Nelles and Naylor.
You don’t eat much, and Simon doesn’t drink,

so Mairi and I do our best to right the balance,
as you begin to discuss artillery and your interview.
You are wearing a black sweater and black jeans.
You are always in black, I’ve noticed, and the two of you talk

about your brothers, the right wing Israeli—
the father  Moishe Dayan’s right hand man—
and the Bosnian General, you spoke to him only last night,
carefully, evading the war, your exile, your Moslem wife,

your children. Your beautiful thin face, its Oriental eyelids
heavily laced, like the intricate ethnic lines of a Serbo-Croatian-
Bosnian-Montenegrin topographical map. You are used to interviews,
and your brother whom you love, so you talked of fishing,

never mentioned the two-page spread in Le Figaro
that other morning. You’ve been on the road two years
fleeing the war, Italy, Belgium, Scotland, England,
Canada. Now here, Toronto, a real pause,

Luna, and Darius, happy, Amela, not too lonely;
you always out front, on the road, on the stage.
That long Parisian print interview, the war,
the death of your mother, the sorrow of Sarajevo,

opening it that morning, having poured out your heart,
to find opposite your own hollow cheeks, bloodshot eyes
creased and rimmed in wrinkles, your brother’s round
well-fed cheeks, greased and smiling like a pig.

.

III

The Bookman’s Passing

The sinews no longer hold flesh and bones together—
these are all prey to the resistless power of fire
which burns the body to ashes, once life slips from the  bones;
and the soul takes wing as a dream takes wing,
and afterward  hovers to and fro.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XI

There is something final about an obituary.
Not the brief death notice.
It is the testimonials—a sentence or two, please—encapsulating—
What would you say he was?
How was? How important?
How would you characterize? When did you meet?

And then the career path, marriages,
significant others.
Born on a farm, you say? A real horse trader?
Shaggy. Loved to smoke and drink…never before noon—
Are you sure?

Cancer, a pity—common enough these days—
So, a generation—
But wait a minute—a library—nearly a million volumes—
manuscripts—pictures, ephemera—
The house that Richard built.

There were many stops on that last road.
Sometimes you were at home, taking the sun on your deck.
Enjoying a drink at last, after so much treatment.
And your hair, beginning to grow back, whisps of white beard.

St Michael’s Hospital, where I came early one morning,
bearing the Farmers’ Market  flowers.
Your face smeared with peanut butter, yoghurt—
who would have thought you’d have an appetite?
But you were farm bred, all appetite:
The dance of libido and intellect, a real farm bred appetite,

and that’s the nature of a true horse trader.
You got it, sport those cowboy boots, that Stetson hat,
stompin’ Richie has got the mojo,
and he’s making a whole world of words.

Mount Sinai Hospital where meals appeared punctually:
Breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 5 p.m.
Marie on the bed holding your head,
Sweetheart, sweetheart, I am here.

And first you were eating. Emptying the trays,
the meals, the treats from Harbord House,
and other friends’ small packaged offerings.

But there were no nuts at the last stop, at Perram House,
except the bereaved. The end of life hospice,
no charge, and no expectations.

I feel like I am in transit—
     You are in transit.
I am crossing the border, the time zone between north and south.
You can’t come here because you would disappear—
     I will meet you anywhere.
Last sighting, Wednesday, Toronto, Perram House,
heading for Room 8, 4 Wellesley Place.

The pick up ambulance arrives promptly at 10 a.m.
In the street, in front of Perram House, a film is being shot
as the ambulance arrives from Mount Sinai hospital.

The attendants move him out of the ambulance.
They carry him across the divide, between the film crew,
the cameras, the electrical lines, the catering van and dressing rooms,

the outside and the inside, the before and the after,
the now and the not now.

They are nearing the front  door of Perram House;
the elevator to the second storey is out of order:
Perhaps he felt the air in the street, as he became agitated.
Perhaps he felt the hesitation at the portal.
Perhaps he felt the line between then and now, before and after.
Perhaps he sensed the beginning of an ending.

Nothing convenient in a death.
Moments later, in the parlour, he died.

The parlour, they said, was just like home.
Pavilioned in splendour,
like the Ancient of Days,  girded with praise:
So the earth with its store of wonders untold
bountiful is—what tongue could recite
how streams from the hills, descend to the plain
………………………………..and are sweetly distilled, in the dew and the rain.

.

IV

Suburban Hospital

For the past two days I had been thinking about the story
told to me by a friend last Wednesday evening.
It was a story about a doctor, a Chinese woman
who had examined a very young girl in the emergency department
of a suburban hospital  in the north east of a large urban centre.

The girl had bleeding from her anus; the doctor found a two-inch tear.
It was odd, she thought, how could there be such a tear?
As she talked to the girl, who was nearly silent,
she noticed that her head was tilted strangely,
her neck tipped to one side.

The more she looked at her, the more uneasy she became,
not about the anus, but about her head.
She called another friend, a doctor with access to an MRI machine,
and she sent the girl for an immediate MRI.

The results were astonishing.
On one half of the girl’s head there was a tumour
which was growing down the neck  from the brain stem.
It was a tumour of the sort sometimes found in AIDS patients.

She called in the girl’s mother; she talked to the girl.
The girl had been repeatedly raped and sodomized,
first by her father, and then by her father and her older brother.

The mother denied the story; the girl refused to repeat it for the police.

There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall
where the dear lord was crucified, who died to save us all.

.

V

The End of September

Early evening, and we meet to talk over the last events.
You said, you said, he said, he said,
I said, I said,
………….the years
………all have their lists, and learn
….learn to put aside lists, list to
the list, what’s at issue here,
what’s to be seen,
seen, seem, scene, difference,
different desires, different capacities,
sense, a sense, the sense of an ending:

Arranged I wait, as the light falls,
as the light falls on College Street, in Toronto.
…..A yellow room, the waiter’s sickled skin,
your face, your face with its tiny lines,
my face
…….our years together:
Hail, hail and farewell.

.

VI

How Beautiful With Earrings

I was thinking of that afternoon
when Nancy and  Ethel and I sat in the sunlight
of the gravel court of those old barns
with the raised garden beds and espaliered trees
at the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan
and drank champagne

and of Nancy and Ethel and me on another afternoon
or maybe it was all one afternoon
or maybe I have merged all our afternoons
seated at tables on the gravel court
near the green glade in Nohant by George Sand’s house

and Nancy was wearing a black and white printed dress
and at her throat and on her ears
a necklace and earrings also in black and white—
some geometric design of African origin
in bone and wood

and as Nancy smoked, the sun dappled in the courtyard
and we three talking in the grace of that softness
and the light falling all around and the green glade
just beyond and the raised beds
just over there

and the little puppet theatre just inside the house
a house where she had loved the composer
but insisted on wearing the trousers

and I exclaim how beautiful you are
Nancy in pools of light, Nancy in black and white
here in this speckled gravel place
Ethel does not miss a beat chimes
so beautiful no sense jealousy.

Then, it is a fall day, New York, noon,
Gramercy Park brunch, Ethel’s ninetieth year,
her small apartment, her crazy driving
from Connecticut, her beautiful gold earrings,
how beautiful Ethel in old
gold earrings, Adam swooping her up
in his  long strong young arms, so beautiful
farewell  oh green eyed creatures
of the green glades, farewell.

.

VII

In Slow Motion

Seeing you at table, a lunch
before Christmas, wondering if you remember,
surprised that I have.

You are much taller than I remember
I much smaller than I feel
as we walk west  along Bloor Street
that summer night

decades ago, a summer evening,
my blue tube top, my long white
silk skirt, turquoise Hawaian shirt,
long black straight hair,

pushing my white bicycle
along the wide sidewalk west
from the great glass hall, out
of the Courtyard Café

into the gentle night, from the glitter
and the Basque salad  you conjured for me
when it was no longer on the menu
and we talked and talked

and someone once said we were meant
for each other, but it was never so,
so out of the dining room, out of the hotel
in slow motion toward my white apartment

in slow motion toward my golden bed,
in slow motion, in slow motion
holding your cock, remembering her bangs,
as we kiss and part.

.

VIII

The Writer’s Saturday Night

Sure enough over night the canal had frozen
and there was ice in the Ottawa River
when I awoke after an evening at dinner
at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador;

I was due to read later that day
at the Sasquatch Performance series
and all the way  here I’d dreamt I’d forgotten my book
but read Jean Rhys over and over

learning who called the shots, who cringed,
who felt the need of a fur coat for cover.

I was on a bit of a roll with Sea Light
and with the Chateau Laurier;
I had a champagne cocktail in the bar
then headed out to the Ambassador’s house.

Darkness was coming at the Sasquatch bar
the house was full and I dove right in
opening up with the light on the lake
and the birth of the world. Water, water, everywhere

time bound in to the flow of the tides.
There was an odd smell as I surfed my text,
but the audience was rapt
and I kept right on

to the final ebb and flow of the surf.
Then they took me sweetly by the hand and asked me to
come back again to read to them, real soon,
but I knew I had done my last gig in a subterranean space

with a backed up sewer
and I hopped back on that rolling train
right down  to my lake and the city
where the lights never go out.

.

IX

Cherries in Snow

The man in The New Yorker  ad
seated on a folding wooden chair

scarf tied in a knot at his neck,
shows cherries in the snow.

He holds a single cherry by the stem
in the  fingerless glove of his left hand

and in his right a simple wooden bowl
brimming with fruit.

He leans back on the chair
boots barely laced, legs splayed—

a good cap upon his head.
He is looking out at us.

Contented, conspiratorial smile,
dark beetle brows.

A friendly face, intelligent
shrewd but not unwelcoming.

The snow is white, a few trees
visible in misty distance near horizon.

An admirable open tweed top-
coat, ditto knotted sweater.

He is wedged right at the front of the magazine
just after a photograph of Ralph Lauren

advertising his own American—Made in England—
Purple Label Collection.

Cherry man has slipped in to The New Yorker
just before the Table of Contents

which this month, September,
and not winter, as in his photograph,

features men in blue and asks
Are we too hard on cops?

Should we take the kids out of the jails?
What really killed Princess Di?

Is the new Getty Art Centre too  good for Los Angeles?
Can technology set Tibet free?

And so, with a kind of crazy piety
he holds his piece, leans back

offers us cherries in winter,
peaches in spring.

It’s not about weather,
it’s packaging.

And for that he’ll answer to the world.

You bet.

 —Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has edited more than 150 issues of Descant magazine. She has published eighteeen books, including books of poetry, and collections of criticism, as well as two visual arts catalogues.  Her essays on the arts have been published in North America and Europe. A new volume of her poems is due out from Black Moss Press in Fall of 2014.