Thursday, December 20, 2007
This reminded me of Jill Alexander Essbaum's poem "Wednesday, Ash," from her book Heaven. It begins with a hammer: "Nothing of me will survive." It pursues the idea by referring to a series of body parts, and how each of them will disappear when one dies, then provides a first summary: "How can that be? Nothing, nothing of us survives."
That is the first line of the fourth stanza from the end (the poem is in quatrains). Then the poem begins to address the matter of how the Christian promise overcomes this problem, concluding, in an address to "my God":
Save us to a grace we cannot ever hope to understand,
such that in our dyings—behold—somehow?—we live.
I scribbled at the bottom of the page: "A poem that makes it possible for a non-believer to feel the believer's need to believe, the source of that need in fear of death, the glory of Christ's promise to overcome death for each believer."
In general, in fact, Heaven helps this non-believer feel what belief is like. It may not make me "love a god," but it does "require" me to do so, as long as I am convinced by each poem.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Nadia Leonti will be playing with her new band on January 12 at the Kaserne in Basel. Featuring Stefan Strittmatter of Arf, one of the best guitarists I know—but on bass!
Nadia has written two songs using texts of mine: "Eye of the Nightmare" and "He Who Hesitates." So, barring illness (or illness in my family), I'll be there.
Those who know the Basel music scene know Nadia from Shilf and Popmonster, two excellent bands.
Check out the super graphics of the flyer!
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
"Tambourine," which is kind of a companion to "The Beekeeper," is still on-line after having been published in Literary Imagination earlier this year.
Both of these poems are about Osip Mandelstam, and both of them owe their existence to Ralph Dutli's absolutely superb German biography of Mandelstam, Meine Zeit, mein Tier, which, sadly, is only available in German and Russian.
If you are a publisher, or a translator from German and Russian into English, do the English-speaking world a favor and turn this wonderful book into an English book!
Monday, December 17, 2007
This is from "Ingrandes," part XVII of John Taylor's Apocalypse Tapestries (which I already posted about here). There's a lot of train riding in Taylor's book, and then he sees birds from the trains.
There's something so vivid about a bird seen from a train: a Little Egret seen from a train in Italy, and then seen again on the way back; a Bald Eagle flying alongside the train from Bellingham to Seattle. So vivid that Taylor later refers to another bird apparently seen from a train:
"A sparkling white egret on the bank of the brackish north fork near Le Cellier." ("Oudon")
If that were in Italy instead of France, Taylor might have seen the same bird I did.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
"Yet nothing provides more convincing evidence for the 'theory' of evolution than the viruses contained within our DNA. Until recently, the earliest available information about the history and the course of human diseases, like smallpox and typhus, came from mummies no more than four thousand years old. Evolution cannot be measured in a time span that short. Endogenous retroviruses provide a trail of molecular bread crumbs leading millions of years into the past.
Darwin’s theory makes sense, though, only if humans share most of those viral fragments with relatives like chimpanzees and monkeys. And we do, in thousands of places throughout our genome. If that were a coincidence, humans and chimpanzees would have had to endure an incalculable number of identical viral infections in the course of millions of years, and then, somehow, those infections would have had to end up in exactly the same place within each genome. The rungs of the ladder of human DNA consist of three billion pairs of nucleotides spread across forty-six chromosomes. The sequences of those nucleotides determine how each person differs from another, and from all other living things. The only way that humans, in thousands of seemingly random locations, could possess the exact retroviral DNA found in another species is by inheriting it from a common ancestor.
Molecular biology has made precise knowledge about the nature of that inheritance possible. With extensive databases of genetic sequences, reconstructing ancestral genomes has become common, and retroviruses have been found in the genome of every vertebrate species that has been studied. Anthropologists and biologists have used them to investigate not only the lineage of primates but the relationships among animals—dogs, jackals, wolves, and foxes, for example—and also to test whether similar organisms may in fact be unrelated."
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Completing a first draft of a poem, whether in the rush of composition or over many weeks, is an incredible rush. ("Enivrez-vous sans cesse.") In "Measuring the Temple," Taylor identifies another rush: obtaining a solution to a difficult mathematical problem.
But he, too, made the turn that I did:
"You had long carried out the labors of mathematical deduction; now you withdrew from them completely."
Friday, December 14, 2007
Lee's poem wonderfully captures how children will get completely absorbed in what they are doing—but as soon as they do not know where their parents are, then the absorption will disappear, making "the one who hears the dove more alone."
I read Lee's The Book of My Nights on a train from Kalamazoo to Chicago in October, 2002, and I was transported not only by the train but also by the book. "Secret Life" also creates the special effect of Lee's best work, which I am at a loss to characterize right now. Looking through that book, I found the phrase "a terrifying and abundant yes" (from the poem "The Well"). That will do nicely for now. (That phrase was cited by William Logan in his review of the book in The New Criterion as "moony silliness" and "beautiful mush." Oh well.)
There are some other superb childhood poems in the same issue of Poetry, in the selection of contemporary Italian poems guest edited by Geoffrey Brock: "Slide," by Umberto Fiori (trans. by Brock), "For My Daughter," by Antonella Anedda (trans. by Sarah Arvio), and "Night Visit," by Swiss poet Fabio Pusterla (trans. by Brock).
My other favorite from that selection—one definitely not about children—is the sly and startling "Hygiene," by Raffaello Baldini (trans. by Adria Bernardi).
Also worthy of note is "The Arrow Has Not Two Points," Clive James's dismantling of Ezra Pound and the Cantos. James writes from an interesting perspective: he once loved the Cantos (almost fifty years ago), then he later decided they were bunk. But now, he has reread them, to see if they really are bunk. His conclusion: they are bunk. His never fully stated implication: people who think they are brilliant are, like his younger self, too easily impressed by Pound's statements about his own work, as well as statements made by others, so they end up not looking closely at what Pound actually wrote, which is a bunch of tedious nonsense interspersed with "Imagist" passages that turn out to be as insipid, unspecific, or nonsensical as they are supposed to be original, grounded, and meaningful.
Now I'm waiting for Silliman's shredding of James ...
ADDENDUM (thanks Swiss Lounge): Check out the archival material on Pound at the Poetry website, especially the fantastic slideshow of Poetry's publication of various Cantos over the years (see the bottom of the archive page for the link). It's worth looking at just for the Tables of Contents of the issues with Cantos in them!
Thursday, December 13, 2007
For a while back in the late nineties, I tried to make EVERY line break in every poem as meaning-laden as possible. Two results:
1) I failed.
2) Even when I came close to succeeding, the frequency of the effect diluted the effect.
So I think Flenniken (or the idea you derived from what she said) is wrong, because if every line contains a surprise, then no line is surprising anymore.
An analogy: if every paragraph in an essay contains a rhetorical question, then the rhetorical effect of the questions will dissipate.
CODA: One kudo to anyone who identifies the quotation in the title of this post.
I like the way it traces how a little joke becomes first a family story and then an emotional reality for the speaker.
The issue also contains an extensive section of Italian poetry in translation edited by my friend and Scrabulous nemesis Geoffrey Brock. Perhaps I will comment on some of those later, but I have not gotten that far in the issue yet!
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The book begins with extremely dense poems that only begin to work when a clearer narrative begins to drive the density, in the uniquely titled "Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins," which explores the relationship between open drains and polio in the late 1950s (and yet is much more than that). Shortly after that comes "Drains," with its rhymed quatrains. To my ear, O'Brien seems to be channeling Durs Grünbein's use of quatrains here, as a way of satirically exploring the dark side of the contemporary world (although it might be Gottfried Benn who is really in the background of all this).
"The Mere" was written in response to a threat to drain a mere and develop the land; it shows that O'Brien might well be best considered an occasional poet, not in any disparaging sense but in the sense that he writes best when he has a specific occasion to respond to with some sort of commitment (be it emotional, political, or poetic).
"Song: Habeas Corpus" shifts again into rhymed quatrains (with some variation in stanza length) to address political issues; the shift is entirely appropriate to the poem's occasion and intention. (But see here for a scathing reading of the same poem by a reviewer who is extremely harsh with O'Brien.)
"Valedictory" also uses rhyme and meter to drive home political points with satire, while effectively incorporating more of the density of the earlier, non-political poems in the book (like the "Salmon" poem).
In the end, though, despite several other poems that I like ("The Hand," "Praise of a Rainy Country," and an utterly unique one called "The Thing"), I put aside O'Brien's book wondering what all the fuss is about (Forward Prizes and all that). The book is much less impressive than much less heralded books I have read recently, and certainly not in the same league as Daljit Nagra's debut or Edwin Morgan's A Book of Lives. And the one I really wanted to compare The Drowned Book to is Matthew Sweeney's Black Moon, because O'Brien's book beat out Sweeney's for the Poetry Book Society Choice a quarter or two ago. To me, the Sweeney is incomparably better (and I am currently reveling in his Selected Poems).
I should add that I reviewed O'Brien's Cousin Coat for Orbis a few years ago, which I was also pretty unimpressed by.
Sonntag, 16. Dezember 2007, 19:30 Uhr, 5,- Euro
In fremden Zungen
Eine vielstimmige Lyrik-Lesung in deutscher, französischer und italienischer Sprache
mit Dieter M. Gräf, Benoît Gréan, Alessandro De Francesco und Angela Sanmann
Wir stellen u. a. folgende Gedichte vor: die Pasolini-Trilogie von D. M. Gräf, Auszüge aus dem Band Monstres Tièdes (Lauwarme Ungeheuer) von Benoît Gréan sowie neue Gedichte aus dem Zyklus lavoro di emersione (Auftauchen) von Alessandro De Francesco und aus dem Zyklus Berlin. (Un-) Gleichzeitiges von Angela Sanmann. Es werden sowohl die Originaltexte als auch die Übersetzungen vorgetragen.
Telefon 030 692 453 8
Monday, December 10, 2007
was fifes and drums, or pipes and drums, or brass
and woodwind and drums, it doesn't matter much.
That last phrase struck me, on page 60 of this 133-page collection. It was the first thing I underlined or marked at all (which means I skipped the poems included here from Harsent's first books), and I thought that it perfectly identified the problems I was having with Harsent's work: there are a lot of details, and they are often richly put, but the particular details don't seem to matter much.
I soon found myself granting that Harsent can write beautiful lines:
where a fall of snow
lies over yesterday's fall
with a night of ice between.
A slammed door sings
in the strings of the upright grand.
(from "House at Midnight")
But even the poems from A Bird's Idea of Flight, which I had read when it came out and which had struck me as completely singular then, did not thrill me often, though they often impressed me. In my notes to "Coverack," I wrote: "A perfect example of how singular Harsent is. It's powerful and rich, but it feels as if it never offers a way in, or that if you started heading in, you'd quickly get lost. It does not resist understanding; it resists interpretation."
And here is my next note, to "The Impostor" (originally from the same book): "Narrative poems, several pages long, funny and strikingly told, but without a sense of depth. The oddity might be compared to Kafka, but Kafka's stories make a promise that they fulfill: 'This is a strange story, but if you keep looking at it closely, it will open up for you.' Harsent's don't even seem to make that promise. They seem to say, 'I am a strange poem that will resist anything you do to me.' A fairer comparison might be to Sweeney, whose poems do promise something."
And then I am tempted to use things against him again: "Didn't we decide, right away, it was a sham?" (from section VIII of Marriage). And just when I might decide that Harsent's incredible productive work "doesn't matter much," he'll knock my socks off with an image again, as in section XV:
Next, it's your face coming free
of the summer dress, as you greet
yourself in the mirror.
Section XXVII suggests that, contrary to my claims about how Harsent's poetry makes no promise of depth, there's something there if you approach it right:
If you could just step up, if you could be lured
back from in-between, if that's where it is, I could turn
the lot over to you: the glass whatnot, the seed-
pods from your nosegay, that ludic card, the Rokeby's fat backside,
these late self-portraits where the stern
gaze, set deep in the fleshless head,
seems for all the world—since you alone might learn
how they find us, these follies, and what they mean,
and whether to lay them up or watch them burn.
Suddenly, then, near the end of the book, things start to look up. Before going on, though, I should perhaps finally mention that if I am being quite critical of Harsent's work, I am aware of a certain paradox: I would much rather read Harsent than many other poets. The details may not matter much, but they are vividly presented in narratives that drive me right past issues of understanding or interpretation into the sheer experience of reading them. If I find myself disgruntled when I am done, that does not nullify the fury of the reading of the poems themselves.
So then there is "Toffee" (from Legion, copied here from this site):
There was a man who made toffee; he would leave it to cool
on a blue-veined marble slab by the open window
of his shop, which was little more than a tin-and-timber lean-to
in the Street of Songs. There was a man who made small
animals and the like — horses, mostly — from scraps of steel
the plough turned up: high-grade stuff he could fine-tool;
while he worked he would sing, as if he had someone to sing to.
There was a man who made paintings: portraits, as a rule,
of business-men in their best; though he made one, once, of a fool
wearing a crown of stars and pissing a bright arc, while behind him
the Devil herded souls through a vesica piscis, its holy seal
ruptured. I thought that if I could find him,
or one of the other two, or any in that street, I might know
what became of my house and those in it;
and what to do; and where to go.
"As if he had someone to sing to": a poetics sneaks into the poem, one elaborated further in the final sentence, which retrospectively suggests a purpose for all the details in all the poems on the previous 117 pages: if the poet can "find" these details, then he might "know." And it is this play between finding and knowing that could drive the poems (and drive Harsent's productivity).
"Ghost Archaelogy" also presents a possible figure for Harsent's poetry, the "data" in "buckram-bound ledgers" that "we" steal from "the admin block":
Such orthodoxies there, such wheels within wheels,
such a rich and full account of the dark desiderata.
But that "dark desiderata" is only appealed to, not fully spelled out, and "we" do not seem to do anything with the "data," which, though "a rich and full account," still remain mysterious.
Well, look, the reason
we turned to our bottling and sewing, to pot-luck and make-good,
is simple enough to tell: the rain only ever brings
music in mist or sweet bafflement or rain-dreams.
(from "Harp Strings")
'... and why such fuss,'
she continued, 'about who we are or what might have been
if it comes to this: cracked laughter, the world as shadow, nil by mouth?'
(from "At the Riverside")
And finally, this from "The Player," the poem that makes Harsent's Selected Poems (or Legion, where it first appeared) worth buying:
This is a story / you'll only get piecemeal.
One can also write anagram poems in which each line is an anagram of the first. Once, when I was very agitated and depressed (breakup blues), I did it with Dylan titles:
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go
where eyes go. Unmake me, you, long moon on a
lake. O one, go, how you unsang me, my mere one.
Go anger, you lone omen, when you make me so
alone, our unknown game, o my eye goes home.
I was amazed by how expressive such a constraint could be.
"I very much want to print a New Year’s card with some lines of verse that evoke something suitably literary and exquisite and “seasonal”—these, interpreted in any number of ways, but maybe creation, beginnings, cycles, etc., but open to other possibilities."
Does anyone have any good suggestions for New Year's poems? She has already used Bishop's translation of Paz's "January First."
And I already suggested Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush."
Sunday, December 09, 2007
There's also the "just as ... so" form that appears in Dante, and is also rare in English-language poetry these days.
But I should also add that I just think Grossman's poem is beautiful.
I probably won't be able to pop up from Basel for the show, as my daughter Luisa's fourth birthday is on April 17. (Unless someone gives me an official reason to be in London, say inviting me to read my poems at a poetry reading, or perhaps to do a reading of my Dieter M. Gräf translations at the Goethe Institute or something like that. Hint, hint?)
But if you live in or near London and are a fan of excellent songwriting, then you owe it to yourself to go check out Greg, who is simply one of the very best songwriters alive.
He's also playing two nights in Paris (April 15/16 at the Pomme d'Eve) and one night in Italy (April 17 in Seveso) before London, and the Blue Highways Festival in Utrecht on April 19, so if you live in (or near) one of those places (or you need an excellent excuse to go there), check him out.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Now he wants to read Philip Pullman. There's an interesting interview with Pullman here.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
"The Mission": A poem about a contract killer right before the kill.
"The Doors": A man enters a high-security building. (This one was in the Southern Review, June 2006, but is not available on-line.) Here's the last few lines:
All the eyes in the portraits
were turned my way.
I looked back at the door
heard the lock click, then beyond
another lock, then another.
The obvious response is "And then?" But I like it left hanging like this, with nothing to hold onto but the careful description of a scene. "No Sugar," which follows, works the same way: "And then?" But it's the scene that Sweeney wants to set up, not the resolution; in "No Sugar," a man being offered tea in a very peculiar setting.
"Sweatmark": a man sees a map of Ireland on his T-shirt. If "The Doors" provided a form of closure that disrupted the "And then?" by closing the doors, and "No Sugar" provided poetic closure with the reference to "no sugar" with which it concludes, then "The Sweatmark" does it by having the mark get washed out, never to return.
"The Snowy Owl": a snowy owl distracts a firing squad from the effects of their work. You can read the poem here, with a recording of MS reading it (and translations into Dutch, German, Serbian, and Slovakian; isn't lyrikline great?). This one makes clear how central the vividness of his imagery is to Sweeney's poems.
That's only up to page 9 of Black Moon (with a couple poems uncommented). On page 10 is a poem called "Excavation"; my first note is "simply one stunner after another!" The poem seems to me exemplary, without being academic or pedantic or melodramatic:
Somewhere in these woods a crashed plane
is buried in undergrowth, the wings
broken off, black crosses still visible
to anyone who'd hack down to see them,
and if this person were then to excavate
the crushed cockpit, liberate the broken
skeleton, prop it up against a pine tree,
a low humming would be heard above
the flies and bees, a humming that took on
German, that danced about on the wind
while the tail, with its black crosses,
was dug out of roots, grass, fallen branches
as gunfire once again filled these hills
after sixty years, and shells and tracer
flew overhead, but no tree would be hit,
nor would fires whoosh through leaves
to the delight of the fool in the hill castle
out with his grappa on the rooftop,
Marlene blaring through the speakers
singing to the crashed pilot in the woods.
"Sleep": a boy soldier asleep by a tank at the edge of a conflict. The scene could be anywhere, yet is rendered with the greatest detail, making it both a generalized scene and a specific experience at the same time.
"Signature": a man is being forced to sign a confession. Sweeney imagines scenes of arbitrary violence, again and again, with the greatest precision.
"Captured": a woman is captured and taken off for ... interrogation? torture? "And then?" the poems are not really narratives after all, but fragments of narratives, vividly imagined moments in which the individual's experience of arbitrary power is depicted. In "Captured," it is the moment of capture itself that is of interest. Sweeney does interrogation elsewhere (in "Signature", for example). By page 17, the book has become a gallery of scenes that cover the range of contemporary possibilities of violence and arbitrary abuse of power (from the perspectives of the powerful and the powerless both).
"Underground": a man lives "in a hole in the ground, / down a ladder, in the bottom room." Like "The Doors," in a way: all crisp and clear, but mysterious. A scene described in such a way that the scene justifies itself, without needing any interpretation within the poem itself, and thus becomes a surface to be interpreted. The depth is in the images themselves, as it were.
I have been skipping some of the poems. The ones that seem less effective seem to be most detached from historical or contemporary specificities, even though the most effective ones are as effective as they are because of their own detachment.
"String" seems like a poetics:
If ever the thought strikes you
to head off for the Arctic,
be sure to take with you
a large roll of string,
for the Inuits up there
can make string tell stories –
anyone who’s a poet
is also a string artist
and talks to the kids as well.
So you’d better practice
before you get there.
Read up on your history, too –
that fellow, Lord Franklin,
who disappeared; whose wife
liked to swing in a hammock
and who offered all kinds
of rewards for anyone
who could bring the body
back from the ice. If he’d
taken a big enough roll
of string, and trailed it
behind him all the cold way,
she could have wrapped up
and found him herself.
And even today an Inuit
string-artist tells that story
to hordes of visitors
without uttering a word.
Sweeney's idea of what poetry is: talking to kids, but without uttering a word. Clarity, but a laconic approach.
"Being Met": there are two people waiting to pick up "Cecil" at an airport, each of them "trying to persuade him / that they were the embassy driver." The scene is left unresolved, but the "And then?" does not rear its head. The poem is grounded in the literal scene while pointing towards the figurative without being reduced to it. In that sense, again exemplary.
On page 31, everything changes. "Borders": a poem about various borders Sweeney has crossed, built anaphorically around the opening line's "I have seen the Ukraine, across a river." Of course, I especially liked "I have stood at the customs in Basel / with a scribbled sign for Dublin." Here, the tone is suddenly quite different (more personal?), with less mystery, but in its own, different way perfect.
When I read the book, I wondered whether "Borders" would remain singular, but it turns out to be a hinge—gone the detached exploration of contemporary power through vividly presented scenes of greater or lesser specifity; in its place, as it were, the poet? Certainly things get more "personal" after this. Or perhaps I should say that the poems begin to develop a clearer speaking persona beyond the individual poem.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Talisker, Aberlour,
The Macallan ...
"Uisge Beatha" (from Spilt Milk)
I've drunk all of those except Aberlour. :-)
Maguire's poem "Perfect Timing" (also from Spilt Milk) starts like this:
The night I fell in love with you I lost my watch:
What a splendid opening! I was quite excited to read it, but my excitement deflated immediately:
stripping off at the sea's edge, it fell into the dark
Is it just my déformation professionelle (I'm an English teacher at the University of Basel) that I notice the dangling participle? — "It" refers to "the watch", but the watch did not "strip off at the sea's edge". The poem was ruined for me.
But to be fair, I should post the whole poem, which is otherwise quite memorable (I even found it on a web page, so someone remembered it well enough to type it in):
The night I fell in love with you I lost my watch:
stripping off at the sea's edge, it fell into the dark
as I swam out into a night thick with stars,
with fisherman calling from one lit boat to another
of their catches and harbours, leaving for the dawn.
Imagine it now, plunged deep in cool sand, still hidden
years later, grains ticking over it one by one—
as your hands slide into me and I move to their pulse.
Monday, December 03, 2007
I also read Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar (as well as her Spilt Milk, which has been on my shelf for ages). I was not very impressed by the book as a whole, but it had a couple of lovely poems, including this one, which so powerfully captures the layers of meanings that a landscape (or in this case a seascape) can have for people who look at it from different perspectives:
Merely an idea bruising
the far horizon, as a cold mist tightens into rain –
but at dusk we still wait
by the Bay of Tangier, on the old city walls, gazing northwards
till the night comes on,
and a necklace of light gathers the throat of the sea.
The young men burn –
lonely, intent on resolving that elusive littoral
into a continent of promises
kept, clean water, work. If they stare hard enough, perhaps
it will come to them.
Each night, they climb these crumbling ramparts
and face north
like true believers, while the lighthouse of Tarifa blinks
unrolling its brilliant pavement across the pitiless Straits.
I did find it a bit odd that the first two poems in the book that really struck me were both mentioned on the back cover, the second being "Landscape, with Dead Sea" (she's got a thing for shores and seas—or maybe I do).
All in all, Maguire's work strikes me most when something begins to push the poems to go further, whether it be the historical and geographical elements that drive "Landscape, with Dead Sea" or the anaphoric negations of "The Jardin des Plantes": "Do not go to the Jardin des Plantes." (That poem, like "Europe," is available as part of a .doc file here, though it takes some searching to find it.) In "A Village of Water," a village slowly and cinematically overflows, "as though / it had rained all night." The poem might be about the disappearance of a village because of the construction of a dam, but it leaves the literal meaning open enough to give the poem the feel of a parable. "From Dublin to Ramallah" is dedicated to Ghassan Zaqtan, "because they would not let you travel from Dublin to Ramallah," and again the external motivation lifts Maguire's writing to another level.
And then there's this, from "In Passing" (my apologies to Maguire, as these lines are supposed to be staggered):
I stepped on the platform
just as a goods train passed through.
The length of it winded me—
boxcar after boxcar after boxcar
furiously intimate, close enough to touch:
the whiplash of turbulence,
the aftershock of silence.
I'm deeply impressed by some of Maguire's poems, but in the end I'm not that impressed by her collection. It's up for the T. S. Eliot Prize, but so are Edwin Morgan's A Book of Lives, Matthew Sweeney's Black Moon, and Ian Duhig's The Speed of Dark, all of which are much more impressive overall. (And those are the only others on the list that I have yet read.)
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Isn't this all incredibly strange?