Thursday, December 20, 2007

Depths and Surfaces

Peer through surfaces if you can: rock, river, fire.

And if you cannot, celebrate surfaces.

(John Taylor, "Depths and Surfaces," The Apocalypse Tapestries)

Insect Lab

Here's something else from qarrtsiluni: "From the Insect Lab." These are incredible insect sculptures made by Mike Libby. As he puts it, "Insect Lab is an artist studio that customizes real insects with antique watch parts and electronic components."

Wednesday, Ash

"Poetry may require a non-believer to love a god, or a god to love a man." (Todd Swift)

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

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

The Beekeeper

My poem "The Beekeeper" is up at qarrtsiluni.

"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

Birds seen from trains

"Still further on: a solitary ash-gray heron stands motionless in a misty pond formed by the backwaters of the Loire. The giant bird's long beak remains perfectly parallel to the surface of the pond, but its eyes no doubt continue to peer into the shallow water, attentive to the slightest shadow or darting movement."

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

Viruses in genes

I hardly come across anyone who wants to say "evolution is just a theory." Maybe I'm lucky. Maybe I live in Switzerland. But next time I do, I'll pull out this bit from "Darwin's Surprise," by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, Dec. 3, 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

Measuring the Temple

"The inebriation of obtaining a solution." (John Taylor, "Measuring the Temple," The Apocalypse Tapestries)

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."

Dock Ellis on LSD

Thanks to Ron Silliman's long post about the Mitchell report on doping in baseball, and the comments on it, I got to read this poem by Jilly Dybka.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Secret Life

Poetry has decided to put all of its poems on-line. So you, too, can enjoy this one by Li-Young Lee, "Secret Life," a nice companion to David Orr's "Daniel," which I posted a note about yesterday.

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!

The If Question

Miles asked me, "What's the opposite of If?"

Since I did not know what to say, I thought I'd ask readers of my blog for suggestions. What is your answer?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Too much of anything is just enough

Here's my comment on a post by Joannie Stangeland, in which she mentioned how "At the Mighty Tieton LitFuse workshop, Kathleen Flenniken talked about how each line of a poem could (or should) contain a surprise—so that if you looked at that line on your own, even out of context, you would find something new or disturbing or delicious."

My comment:

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.


This poem by David Orr from the December 2007 issue of Poetry really grabbed me: "Daniel."

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 Drowned Book

Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book is a mixed bag: he works in several different forms, with several different emotional registers, and with a wide range between fairly straightforward poems and quite complicated ones. And the quality of the poems varies as well.

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.

Lesung in Berlin

I cannot go (seeing as how I live in Basel and not in Berlin), but perhaps someone reading this might be interested in this multilingual poetry reading in Berlin this coming Sunday, with my man Dieter M. Gräf.

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.

Methfesselstraße 23-25
Telefon 030 692 453 8
10965 Berlin

Monday, December 10, 2007

David Harsent

David Harsent is a poet who is not afraid to say things that can be used against him, as in these lines from "House of Women" (in his Selected Poems: 1969-2005, Faber and Faber, 2007):

The band
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.

(from "Fylfot")

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.

Anagram poems

Here's my comment on a post by Deborah Ager:

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.

New Year poems?

A friend writes:

"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

Rain on a Still Pond

This poem by Allen Grossman struck me in a considerable number of ways. I especially noted the use of "it is as when", a figure that always reminds me of Dante. I don't think there is a taboo on such similes in contemporary poetry in English, but they are quite rare.

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.

Greg Brown in London in April

My main man Greg Brown will be playing in London on April 18 at the Luminaire.

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


I joined Facebook yesterday. I'm not quite sure what it is for, frankly, but my friend Geoff got me to join by pointing out that we can play Scrabble against each other with it!

One Day before His Eighth Birthday

This morning, one day before his eighth birthday, Miles finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. He started reading The Philosopher's Stone back in August. We estimate that he read about 60 percent of it himself, with 40 percent being read to him by me or Andrea.

Now he wants to read Philip Pullman. There's an interesting interview with Pullman here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


"I know that I'm forgetful, Daddy; you don't have to remind me."

Miles said that this evening, and not only does he not understand why it is so funny, Andrea and I find ourselves unable to explain why it is so funny.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Black Moon

Matthew Sweeney's Black Moon:

"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

More Sarah Maguire

What do I remember? — a litany of whiskies:

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.

lyrikline in December

There have been three new English-language additions to the wonderful lyrikline site recently. All of them are translations of Iranian poets into English: Ali Abdollahi, Mohammad Hossein Abedi, and Aliresâ Âbis, in translations by Alireza Behnam and Alireza Abiz.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Pomegranates of Kandahar

I had a burst of reading poetry books the past week or so, including David Harsent, Galway Kinnell, and John Taylor (along with the books by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Edwin Morgan, and Daljit Nagra that I posted comments on already). Now I'm reading Sean O'Brien.

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

and beckons,
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

I've added two widgets to the right-hand side of my blog. With them, you can check out what music I am listening to. It's mostly the Grateful Dead, with healthy doses of jazz to keep me on my toes, and bits of selected other things.

Isn't this all incredibly strange?

Friday, November 30, 2007


A friend wrote me of travel delays caused by train strikes in Europe right now. It reminded me of my most memorable travel delay.

While en route from Seattle to Basel (through New York, Milan, and Zurich), we landed at Kennedy Airport five minutes after the August '03 blackout began. This would have been a horrible experience, but one of the two flights that left during the night was our flight to Milan, so for us the tragedy was a comedy: an extra six-hour layover with a three-year-old, but when we took off from Kennedy, it was 12:30 a.m., so Miles went right to sleep (it being 9:30 p.m. in Seattle), and he slept straight through to Milan.

Plus there was an Israeli youth orchestra stranded at the airport, and the kids serenaded people for several hours.

I did write a poem about it, but it never quite came together. Here's where it was when I abandoned it.


Rumor stumbles round in JFK,
Terminal One, International Flights.

Our flight from Seattle arrived just after the lights
went out. Deplaning was delayed:

there weren't enough mechanical stairs to go round.
AM radio was on the intercom for a few moments

of fumbling speculation: "We cannot rule out
terrorism; we cannot rule out terrorism."

Freed when our plane's turn for the stairs came,
we followed unlit TRANSFER signs here

to our puny little corner with a view
of the Alitalia check-in counter.

The bathrooms are lit by emergency power.
The toilets are still flushing; one faucet's stuck.

The travelers are sprawled across the floor like cattle
chewing cuds, only it's cake and nuts,

all that's left at the cafés and fast-food outlets
staying open to sell their perishables.

Humor mumbles up and keeps us cool
as the air surrenders its condition.

Every hour or two, we hear the news:
the power will return in three or four.

We'll connect to Switzerland; others
to Senegal or Macedonia.

Beside their great wooden boxes, two bright-robed men
from Dakar are leaning against the counter.

The Asian-American woman going to Skopje calls
the Balkans and Los Angeles on her cell.

Sudden music jingles through the hall:
"Stars and Stripes Forever," bringing cheers.

It's an Israeli youth orchestra playing
one last encore at the end of its tour.

They make their way from there to klezmer;
two leaping clarinets accelerando.

Then Alitalia smuggles us through security
and onto a midnight plane, with nobody's luggage.

After transferring to Zurich in Milan,
we will not miss our bags on the train to Basel,
Everywhere, the lights will be on.


I recall that I had worked further with it, and the line that I remember liking was something like this:

And nine months later, a round
of babies on the East Coast, and blackout
poems in the little magazines.

I'm not sure whether either of those statistical spikes actually happened. :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Oh Forbidden

I read Jill Alexander Essbaum's Oh Forbidden (Pecan Grove Press, 2005) on the bus yesterday. It was a striking experience: the book is a series of sonnets that pretty much all describe sex in extremely explicit ways. So it's not the kind of thing one usually reads on a bus.

And the sonnets provide dozens of different perspectives on sex. Before, during, after; in serious relationships or in one-night (or one-hour) stands; full of new lust or already burned out. It's dizzying enough to read it in one sitting—imagine doing it on a bus! (No, as far as I remember, there is no sonnet here about doing it on a bus.)

This was my favorite, perhaps for its variations on Erica Jong's old "zipless fuck":

I'm lost, lusting, last to leave. You've gone
already, and the party's done. But I'm
drunk as all disaster from the ragtime
waltz we danced. It ended as it had begun:
me, droopy in your arms and woebegone
over what bright, blue eyes you have, my Lamb,
my wooly Woo. We tipped to the doorjamb,
trippingly, your hand at my bra clasp, my thumb
in the band of your briefs. We did it
in the master bath, pressed against the sink.
We were quick, but very quiet. You came
like Christ, as a thief in the night; I split
into halves, a crimson sweet. You polished the wink
of my wet, wistful eye. Then you went home.

There's another poem from the book here.

Poetry and Symbols

Jonathan Mayhew often puts thing wonderfully succinctly. Here's a recent comment of his that I can wholeheartedly affirm, from a post on Lorca and "symbols":

"I don't see poetry as a process of encoding ideas in symbols that the reader then must decode. I understand why anyone who is taught that this is what poetry is might grow up to hate poetry."

As I quoted Lorca a few days ago: "I'll let you know what I see there. Just don't ask me to explain it."

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Book of Lives

I pour the amber
of a poem over it.

"1955, A Recollection"


No matter how beautiful that image is, it may imply a poetry that is static and reminiscent—and that is not at all what the poems in Edwin Morgan's A Book of Lives are. A long sequence called "Planet Wave," beginning with "In the Beginning (20 Billion BC)" and concluding with "On the Way to Barnard's Star (2300 AD)" bursts into splendid moments over and over again:

The earth dreams like a dog in a basket,
twitching, it likes to show it is alive.

"The Lisbon Earthquake (1755 AD)"

And look, a finch on the back of a tortoise
as if it had been listening
lifts its beak and begins a singing
so piercing it gives no end to that beginning.

"Darwin in the Galapagos (1835 AD)"

When Hendrix plucked, it was the mane of a lion.

"Woodstock (1969 AD)" [which concludes with a stunning poetic evocation of the fracturings of Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner"]


Long sequences seem to be where Morgan really comes into his own. "Gorgo and Beau" is a dialogue between two cells, one cancerous and one normal. Morgan gives the cruel "Gorgo" the stronger voice (à la Paradise Lost):

"Nothing is more boring than a well-made body."

Beau, the normal cell, is less biting but still beautiful:

"Each one of us is a world, and when its light goes out
It is right to mourn."

"Love and a Life" is a sequence of thirty-odd poems with a striking form: seven lines, the first four and the last relatively long (and varying in length), the fifth and sixth shorter, with an AAAABBA rhyme scheme. It works powerfully, and with enough variety to carry one through the whole sequence, which involves often extremely explicit recollections of (mostly?) gay love affairs. The most striking involves a man who talks Scots and does not want to leave his wife:

"'Ah love ma wife an ma weans. Ah don't go aroon thinkin aboot you day an night.
Ah wahnt tae come in yir mooth, an see thee teeth a yours—see they don't bite!
Ah like ye right enough, but aw that lovey-dovey stuff is pure shite."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Look We Have Coming to Dover!

Daljit Nagra's debut, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (Faber and Faber, 2007), deserves the attention it has been getting. Nagra "do the people in different voices": the sheer variety of varieties of English here is astonishing. By the end of the book, I found myself slipping into my cheap imitation of Indian English effortlessly, and it usually requires a huge amount of concentration on my part to get into that delightful rhythm.

That said, the two poems that struck me most as individual poems are both in "standard" English: "Parade's End" and "Sajid Naqvi." "Parade's End" memorably describes a "champagne-gold Granada" that belongs to the speaker's father and that is vandalized with acid, while "Sajid Naqvi" describes a young student (a fan of The Smiths) who dies of a "freak heart attack" and is then buried by his family in a ceremony at a mosque, where the only music is "endless hymns from the Koran."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

American Lit Professorship in Basel

Here's the official English text of a job ad at the University of Basel, for various professorships, actually, but the one I care about most is the North American Literature job (which is in the department where I am an English-language, the English Seminar). So get out your resumes, all you people with Ph.D.s who might be interested in moving to Switzerland!


The Philosophical-Historical Faculty of the University of Basel has four openings for professors of Linguistics and Literature, to be filled as soon as possible:

Medieval French and General Literature
North American and General Literature
Slavic and General Literature
German Medieval Studies in a European Context

We are looking for people who both teach and do research in these areas and can demonstrate an appropriate breadth and theoretical-methodological variety or the potential necessary for such breadth.

The future strategy of the University of Basel plans to increasingly organize and emphasize research into "Culture" in interdisciplinary terms. Thus, the applicants are expected, beyond their work within their individual institutes and teaching programs, to be willing to do a great deal of interdisciplinary work, to participate in the existing interphilological program "General Literature;" and to be capable of working in a team.

We expect the following specialties from the individual professors:

— Medieval French and General Literature: a historical emphasis on French and European literature of the Early Modern Period.

— North American Literatures and Cultures and General Literature: an emphasis on the methods and theories of Cultural Studies and Literary Theory that have emerged in the United States.

— Slavic and General Literature: an emphasis on Russian should be complemented by expertise in at least one other Slavic culture, preferably Czech.

— German Medieval Studies in a European Context: Emphases on Historical Anthropology, General Literature (Literary Theory and Comparative Literature), and History of Language / Historical Linguistics.

The individual chairs will be filled as "Ordinariat" (Full Professor), "Extraordinariat" (Associate Professor), or tenure-track Assistant Professor, according to the qualifications of the candidates to whom offers are made. In French and English, all teaching is done in the language of study. The University's administrative language is German.

The University of Basel is committed to increasing the number of women among its professors. Applications from women are thus especially welcome.

The University of Basel offers excellent working conditions, modern infrastructure, and an exciting scholarly environment in a relatively small-scale setting ( As an autonomous university, the University of Basel depends on the participation of professors in the University administration.

Contact addresses: Applicants with Habilitationen or equivalent qualifications are asked to submit the usual documents (CV, list of publications—without writing samples, list of courses offered, current and planned projects) to the Dekanat der Philosophisch-Historischen Fakultät der Universität Basel, Bernoullistrasse 28, CH-4056 Basel, Switzerland, by December 31, 2007. Further information is available from the Dean, Prof. Ueli Mäder (Tel. 0041 (0)61 267 34 09).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Animal Bar

Party Shuffle gave me "Animal Bar," by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (from Stadium Arcadium)—what is it with songwriters these days, suddenly including references to "great" novelists? (See also my post on Bright Eyes, "Gold Mine Gutted")

never 21 when everyone's a sailor
coming up strong with the animal bar
ever loving more with mr. norman mailer
turn another page at the animal bar
and it wont be long
no it wont be long
no it wont be long
because it can't be long

The extra touch of irony here, of course, is that Mailer died last week.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tricked Out Like a Poet

"I'll let you know what I see there. Just don't ask me to explain it." ("In the Forest of the Lunar Grapefruits")


Clock Echo

I sat down
in a clearing in time.
It was a pool of silence.
White silence.
Incredible ring
where the bright stars collide
with a dozen floating
black numbers.


Might as well say star
as orange.
Riverbed as sky.



By day, the farmhand's
by night, Pierrot's

("Three Crepuscular Poems II")


And so the boat stops.
There's a rhythmless peace
& I scamper on deck
tricked out like a poet.


Federico Garcia Lorca, Suites, tr. Jerome Rothenberg, Green Integer, 2001

Jacob and Trintignant

Sam of the Ten Thousand Things posted a stunning still of Irène Jacob from Kieslowski's Rouge. Here's one of Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintigant from the same movie:

What a beautiful movie. I must watch it again soon.


One thing that drives me nuts is when someone says, "All I know is, I get better with homeopathy."

If that drives you nuts to, you need this: Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" post about homeopathy.

The extra twist to the article is that Goldacre provides a clear, concise introduction to the contemporary medical application of the scientific method.

There's also a short version of the same thing here (which Goldacre published in Lancet this week).

Here's the beginning of the Lancet piece:

"Five large meta-analyses of homoeopathy trials have been done. All have had the same result: after excluding methodologically inadequate trials and accounting for publication bias, homoeopathy produced no statistically significant benefit over placebo.[1–5] And yet homoeopathy can still be clinically useful."

("[1-5]": that is a footnote in the original.)


Editorial Anonymous is a blog written by a children's book editor (I was tipped off to it by Brian Campbell). This is from a post about what to say in cover letters:

"Showing me that you are aware of the ingredients of a good manuscript rather than simply your reaction to it sets you apart."

That seems to me to nicely capture an important distinction: between one's understanding of how a work of art works and one's response to the work.

To this day, I cannot stand the movie Blue Velvet. But at least I confronted it once (in a class on American films) and now understand both what makes it so powerful and what makes it so disturbing.

Editorial Anonymous continues with a lovely metaphor:

"You know, most people enjoy any cake that is pretty and palatable, and that's about all they can say about it. Other bakers, though, can tell that this one has a good crumb and a touch of nutmeg and that the type of icing is a good match for the texture and sugar content of the cake."

You heard the man you love

I am not much of a Margaret Atwood fan. I have read several of her novels (Surfacing and The Handmaid's Tale, as well as at least one other one, I'm pretty sure), but without being thrilled by them, and I have never been that excited about her poetry, either.

But I like this one, on Poetry Daily today.

He wasn't singing for you, or about you.
He had some other source of joy

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Love in the Time of Cholera

One of my favorite books has been made into a movie. David Denby was not very impressed by the movie (in his review in the New Yorker), but he wrote a beautiful description of the book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera:

"The book, moving toward its triumphant conclusion, is a wonder. The long, magnificently adorned sentences—a stately river depositing alluvial riches of Colombian culture, décor, sexuality, humor, and manners into the reader’s heart—are as intoxicating a literary experience as any available to us."

A wonder indeed. One of the most beautiful books I have ever read. "Forever," he said: that is the last line, and I would read it forever if it just kept going.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


A friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with Oliver Sacks about his new book Musicophilia. After I wrote an email to my friend about my (admittedly limited) reading of Sacks, I thought I'd post the comments here.

I've avoided Sacks's books in the past because I have read quite a few of his articles in the New Yorker and have often had a somewhat irritated feeling about them. For example, in his article about an autistic boy who drew spectacularly detailed pen-and-ink drawings of buildings from memory, OS's representation of the case seemed distorted to me because he kept obsessing on the issue of whether such aesthetically successful works could mean anything when they were so clearly not examples of "artistic expression" (given that, OS argued, the autistic boy was not "expressing" himself through his drawings).

That said, I must also admit that I would not care as much about that slight but persistent irritation if I did not otherwise enjoy OS's essays so much.

Inspired Notes

These two paragraphs were in a post at Contest Central, where they are linked to a set of quotations about poetry at a site called fieralingue. Transtrømer's comments (translated by my old friend Judith Moffett, whose science-fiction novels The Ragged World and Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream I highly recommend) nicely disrupt ideas of how poetry ought to "matter" by giving us poetry people a powerful image to describe what we are doing: passing "inspired notes" to each other, under the radar of "official life."

"In my civilization it's customary to describe poetry as discarded, almost moribund, an all-too-exclusive art form, without power to break through. And the poets try to push themselves upon the world of the mass media, to get a few crumbs of attention. I think it is time to emphasize that poetry--in spite of all the bad poets and bad readers -- starts from an advantageous position. A piece of paper, some words: it's simple and practical. It gives independence. Poetry requires no heavy, vulnerable apparatus that has to be lugged around, it isn't dependent on temperamental performers, dictatorial directors, bright producers with irresistible ideas. No big money is at stake. A poem doesn't come in one copy that somebody buys and locks up in a storeroom waiting for its market value to go up; it can't be stolen from a museum or become currency in the buying and selling of narcotics, or get burned up by a vandal.

When I started writing, at 16, I had a couple of like-minded school friends. Sometimes, when the lessons seemed more than usually trying, we would pass notes to each other between our desks--poems and aphorisms, which would come back with the more or less enthusiastic comments of the recipient. What an impression those scribblings would make! There is the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another."

— Tomas Transtrømer. Translated by Judith Moffett. from "Answer to Uj Iras." Ironwood 13 (1979): 38-9.

The Nomoi

if you are sleepy and forget a verse
it is the song that dozed,
if you rush the ending
the melody was impatient . . .

D. Nurkse, "The Nomoi," The Hudson Review
Autumn 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bad Science

I have been riveted recently by Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" site. Today's object of deflation is a machine that supposedly provides more energy than it uses. As Goldacre so wonderfully puts it as he goes about dissecting the claim: "Stick with me, science is fun when you’re making people look stupid."

Rereading in England; rereading Eugenides

Others can say whatever they like about these survey results; I'm going to say this: it is fantastic that three of the top ten re-read books in the survey of readers in Britain are Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. Let's hear it for Jane and the Brontës, authors of some of the greatest novels ever written. Admittedly, I re-read Jane regularly, but I hope to get to Wuthering Heights again sometime soon (which I have read at least twice), and someday I will re-read Jane Eyre as well.

Right now, though, I am re-reading Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, a book I was hugely impressed by when I first read it a few years ago. Here's what I wrote back then in an email recommending the book to friends:

"A book for Deadheads, hermaphrodites, runaways, people born in Detroit, people of Greek descent, San Franciscans, hitchhikers, lovers of silk, owners of Cadillacs, people who went to private schools, smugglers of bootleg liquor, sexologists, anyone who has ever declared bankruptcy, directors of horror movies, Ted Kennedy, future actresses, owners of topless bars, clarinetists, Stanford grads, Berliners, installation artists, career diplomats, anyone nervous about second dates, signalmen, people who were finally able to beat their Dads at ping pong, would-be kidnappers, obscure objects of desire, and everyone who has ever used a thermometer to try to influence the sex of a baby."

It's still all true, but it's not a great second read: the plot is not rich enough to drive the book on a second read (that is, JE's plotting does not stand up to Rowling's), and the proliferating details, so hugely entertaining on a first read, just seem like distractions on a second read. On a second read, in other words, JE's project of combining mainstream fiction with sophisticated post-modern fiction does not seem to come off as well as it did the first time around.

That said, I will finish it, since I have to mark a thesis on it that a student is handing in at the beginning of next month!

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Gore Administration

... the clearer nostalgia for what never happened:
Februaries in Rio, blind tropical sweethearts,
the last few treaties of the Gore Administration.

Rodney Jones, "Deathly"

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Return to Calm

One of my favorite poets is Jacques Réda, whose work I have been translating for a few years now. A new volume of his work has just been published in English, a complete translation of his 1989 book Retour au calme, translated by Aaron Prevots as Return to Calm and published by Host Publications (Austin) in September. I have not had a chance to read the book yet, but Réda is a wonderful poet, and I recommend his work highly.

Two of my own Réda translations are among those that I have provided links for in the "Translations" section on the right-hand side of this blog.

Just before I was going to posting the above, it crossed my mind that I ought to mention the other volume of Réda translations currently available in English: Treading Lightly: Selected Poems 1961-1975, translated by Jennie Feldman and published by Anvil Press in England.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Luna Park

I recently read Luna Park, by the Austrian poet Franzobel, some of whose more recent, as yet unpublished work I translated earlier this year. Here's one of my favorites from the book:


Stell dir einmal vor, du bist ein Fußballtor,
so maschig, breit und dick, das wäre nicht sehr schick,
denke dir jetzt nur, du wärst eine Springschnur,
so ach wie lang und dünn, auch das ist nicht so schön,
jetzt glaube erst einmal, du bist so ein Turnsaal,
hölzern, groß und mit Geruch, das wäre doch ein Huch,
da lobe ich mir doch, das Holz aus dem ich Stoff,
gerne bin ich also weiter, die Latte einer Sprossenleiter.

Brian Turner reading

Thanks to Allen Taylor for putting this one on his blog, which I like enough to do the same thing myself:

Jandl's "sonett"

Sarahjane mentioned that Ernst Jandl is hard to translate, which led me to mention Jandl's "sonett," which is pretty easy to translate. I did it by copying and pasting. :-)

In fact, I don't think you need to speak German to understand this poem! :-)


das a das e das i das o das u
das u das a das e das i das o
das u das a das e das i das o
das a das e das i das o das u

das a das e das i das o das u
das u das a das e das i das o
das u das a das e das i das o
das a das e das i das o das u

das o das u das a das e das i
das i das o das u das a das e
das e das i das o das u das a

das o das u das a das e das i
das i das o das u das a das e
das e das i das o das u das a


I turned Jandl's "fünfter sein" into a song to sing to my children, first in German and then later in English. The children's book with the poem and superb illustrations by Norman Junge has been translated into English, but the translation, well, did not really take the special qualities of Jandl's poem into account. Here's the German:

fünfter sein

tür auf
einer raus
einer rein
vierter sein

tür auf
einer raus
einer rein
dritter sein

tür auf
einer raus
einer rein
zweiter sein

tür auf
einer raus
einer rein
nächster sein

tür auf
einer raus
selber rein

And my English:

fifth in line

door opens
one out
one in
fourth in line

door opens
one out
one in
third in line

door opens
one out
one in
second in line

door opens
one out
one in
next in line

door opens
one out
go in
hello doctor

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Szirtes on Lessing

George Szirtes has just posted an excellent comment on Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child, one of my all-time favorite books. 40 pages of my dissertation were on that book!

Lasting Achievement

Sometimes people remain obscure even if they did something that ought to have made them "household names." For an example, first answer this question if you can: "Who was Larry LaPrise?" Then check out this poem by Bob Hicok, "A Celebration of Lasting Achievement." Put your left foot in!

And then it turns out that Larry LaPrise probably did not do what he is credited with doing! And I also learned that this whole topic has a connection to Virginia Tech, where Hicok teaches!

Household Names

Simon Armitage provides a wonderfully funny definition of "household names" in his article on war poetry in the Times:

"Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are still household names (that is, the answers to questions in the earlier rounds of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) ..."

Try watching "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" in a country that you did not grow up in. For you, the hardest questions will be the early ones about idioms and common cultural references in that country. Even if you speak the language very well, you'll still regularly struggle with an idiom or two! A "household name" in one country is completely obscure in another. (Try talking about baseball players with the Swiss!)

Monday, November 05, 2007


A while back, some blogger posted a link to Wondermark, an online comic strip, and since then I have been a dedicated reader. Every Tuesday and Friday, David Malki ! (that's how he spells his name) posts a new comic, and just now I decided to use the "random comic" link to check out a couple old ones, and I got this wonderfully hilarious one. Check him out regularly!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

David Nalbandian

David Nalbandian is the man to watch in men's tennis in 2008. Here's what Rafael Nadal said after losing to him in Paris today, 6-4, 6-0 (!):

"Today I played against one who is playing better than me and than the rest of the players, too."

You heard it from Rafa first: Nalbandian is playing better than anybody. If he can start the year in the same zone, then watch out, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic!


If you like to do mazes, or if you have a child who likes to do mazes, then there are more mazes than you will ever be able to do in your whole life at One Billion Mazes. Miles is having a blast with them.


Rafael Nadal when he's a break down:

Oh, you're a break up, are you?
Think you're rolling, do you?
Well, how about this?
And this?
And this?
And this?
Shake hands.
Good match.

I wrote that, in an email to a friend, after Nadal beat Andy Murray in Madrid two weeks ago. But he just did it again to Marcos Baghdatis in Paris, and I've seen him do it to my man Roger Federer a couple of times, as well as to the Swiss number two, Stanislas Wawrinka.

And I recited my little tennis poem to my son Miles, who thought it was so funny he made me recite it to him a whole bunch of times, and since then he sometimes says, out of the blue, "Shake hands. Good match." Giggle. :-)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Wind; bonobos; Las Vegas

In his article "Swingers," in the July 30 issue of the New Yorker, Ian Parker describes someone he met while researching the article: "I spoke to a tall man in his forties who went by the single name Wind, and who had driven from his home in North Carolina to sing at the event."

I like to think I met that guy once, back in 1984. I was in Las Vegas for a Dead show (April 6, for those keeping track, a show full of set-list oddities), and after the show, I went out to the car of the folks I was supposed to be driving to Irvine with. Nobody there. I was wearing a T-shirt, and the night was cool.

At the next car was a guy who was also waiting for the one with the keys. He saw that I was shivering, so he gave me a blanket to drape over my shoulders. We fell to chatting, and I asked him his name. "Wind," he said, "like what's making you cold." "No," I answered, "Wind is keeping me warm."


That, by the way, was the only Dead show I ever flew to. And before the show, I won a few dollars on slot machines, so except for the plane ticket and the concert tickets, the whole trip cost me nothing.

There's also the story of the drive to Irvine, and then the drive home with some other folks, but I'll save those for some other day.

"An Open Letter"

"eternally stressed semanticist" posted a hysterical "open letter" (actually, a form letter with blanks to fill in) for anyone with expertise who does not have their expertise accepted by laymen.

In the followup post, the semanticist writes:

'Please, folks, I beg you, when an expert says "you have to believe me 'cause I'm all experty", maintain a healthy skepticism. But when an expert says "Here's what I think, based on my expertise, with supporting arguments formed with the facts and methods that I learned in the pursuit of this expertise": that's when you should please-I-beg-you listen.'

As always, I like to think about this in terms of poetry: how should one respond when a non-reader of contemporary poetry makes broad generalizations about the subject? I'd like to think I have some expertise on the subject (based on my large collection of poetry books, many of which I have actually read), and I want to tell people they are missing something (especially if said people are voracious readers of novels), but in the end, they never go off to read any contemporary poetry (or at least they never tell me they have).

By the way, I found this "open letter" because of Language Log, one of my favorite sites to read (although it is often far too busy for me to keep up with!). Interested in what linguists might say about language? Check it out!

Everwine; Idling

I liked this poem, "Aubade in Autumn," by Peter Everwine, in the October 15, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. They've got something going about handymen right now (as with Cornelius Eady's "Handymen"). Alice Quinn's farewell theme? :-)


The same issue contained a "Talk of the Town" item about letting your car idle, "Idle Hands." It includes a reference to car-engine idling in Switzerland (or the supposed lack thereof):

'“In Switzerland you have to turn your engine off if you’re more than four cars behind the stoplight,” Rebecca Kalin, the group’s founder, said the other day. “Idling is rude there. It’s like burping—you just don’t do it.”'

Well, actually, idling is not illegal in Basel-Stadt, the canton I live in. But it is in Geneva, which is why Irène Jacob turns off her car at the stoplight in Kieslowski's "Red."

But I turn off the car whenever I am at a stoplight. For reasons, check here and here and here. And before you say, "But you should only turn it off if you are going to be idling for ten seconds or more," here's my response to that: I might have the engine off for less than 10 seconds once in a while, but considering how often I am at a stoplight for a minute or two, my turnoff time averages to well over 10 seconds per time I turn my engine off.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Art and Jan Svenungsson

"In art, no problems are ever eliminated." (Jan Svenungsson, An Artist's Text Book, forthcoming)

I once wrote an essay on Jan's work, "Abstract Reception." Here is the opening paragraph:

'For me, Jan Svenungsson's work is "abstract" in the etymological sense: it has been withdrawn from me (Latin abstractus, from abstrahere, to withdraw, to draw away). When I suggested to Jan that I write something about his work, he immediately forbade me to look at any of his works until I had done so. This would be an interesting project: the obstacles faced by a writer discussing an artist's work from memory are worth addressing. However, I have never seen Jan's work (nor met him in person); I have only read texts about it ...'

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween 1971

It's always fun on Halloween to listen to an old Halloween show by the Grateful Dead. I am particularly fond of October 31, 1984, at the Berkeley Community Theatre (the fourth of a wonderful six-show set, including the spectacular November 2 show), but this evening I have chosen Halloween 1971, part of which was released as Dick's Picks, Volume 2, with its rivetingly beautiful "Dark Star" (with no second verse) surprisingly seguing (out of a passage of steadily increasing dissonance) into "Sugar Magnolia" instead of "Saint Stephen" (which then comes after "Sugar Magnolia").

Addendum: And then there's the stunning segue out of the first part of "Not Fade Away" into "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad"—again, a jamming climax that suddenly and smoothly shifts gears into another song, as Garcia shifts from rapid flourishes to pretty melody lines in a matter of seconds.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Television and Imagination

A student wrote an essay about the effects of television on children. At one point, she argued that, because every story on television is presented with already determined images, television "leaves no room for one's imagination."

This is a point I have heard before (mostly with respect to differences between books and movies), but I have never quite believed it. The idea seems to be that when you read, you spontaneously generate images in your head, and that such spontaneous image generation is what imagination is. But surely imagination is much more than just image generation!

Miles and Luisa (and I) have been getting into "Shaun the Sheep." They often start acting out scenes from their favorite episodes. Isn't that imagination, too? (For clips of Shaun, go here.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Not the photos, but the birds, in "Weak Strong," by Gary Gildner, up on Verse Daily today.

like a drummer so deep into the gig
he can't ever stop

Predicting Paris tennis

Tennis fans who want to have a little fun should go to British Tennis to participate in their competition predicting the results of this week's Masters Series tournament in Paris. I participated in their competitions for the US Open and the Madrid tournament, and it was lots of fun.

The deadline to enter is 10 am UK time (i.e. 10.00 GMT / 11.00 CET / 05.00 US EST) on Monday 29 October. As of this writing (at 1:30 p.m. CET on Sunday), the qualifiers have not yet been added to the draw; they should be added by this evening.

Have fun! Go Roger! :-)

(Here's hoping Federer feels fit enough after reaching finals the past two weeks to still participate!)

The State of Classical Music

I was originally led to "The Musical Mystique," Richard Taruskin's New Republic article about classical music, by Robert Archambeau. Now Kyle Gann has also posted a response to Taruskin, too. The article, and both responses, are well worth a look for anyone interested in classical music, but they are also worth consideration by those who are interested in the state of poetry today (or jazz or other aesthetic interests somewhat out of step with the mainstream), mutatis mutandis, of course (I hope I'm getting the Latin right there).

I'll quote two bits from Taruskin here:

1. "To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity." No holds barred there! (I wish my students were willing to take bold positions like that—yes, I am spending the weekend marking student essays.)

2. The books he reviews end up being "unlikely to help solve classical music's most pressing problem, which is the problem of audience renewal." A question: is that also poetry's "most pressing problem?"

Kyle Gann downplays his paraphrase of Taruskin, but he also says something worth quoting at length:

"In my callow youth I was a proponent of the view Taruskin attacks, a real Adorno-ite, art-is-good-for-you, pop-music-dismisser. I'm stubborn as hell, and yet I got over it: why can't other people? One of my best assets, I think, is a strong sense of musical reality, which I attribute to having been deeply exposed to music before I could talk. And even though I grew up rather shockingly distant from my generation's beloved rock 'n' roll, my sense of reality told me fairly early on that there was nowhere to draw a line between the pleasure I got from listening to, say, Bruckner or Feldman, and the pleasure that I got from the occasional Brian Eno or Residents song that I was driven to listen to over and over again. And I slowly realized that I didn't get that pleasure from listening to, oh, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, or Carter's Second Quartet, which I did out of a rather pious sense of duty and a feeling that they would build character. And then, of course, the new music, or Downtown music, or experimental music, or whatever delicate euphemism you terminophobes want to apply to the music that I wrote about at the Village Voice for 19 years, was a repertoire dedicated to plastering in the gigantic crack between pop and classical. Some of that music was more conventionally entertaining than other pieces, but there was no way to deeply appreciate that music and pretend that art and entertainment were separate human activities. I can boast a virtuoso range of ways to be entertained, but any music I'm not entertained by I quit listening to, no matter how highly ranked it is in the history books."

"A virtuoso range of ways to be entertained": something to aspire to. — In poetry's terms, both those who call for accessibility and those who call for difficulty (each to the exclusion of the other) obscure what they have in common: that each group is looking for entertainment. The accessibility people want to be entertained in one way, the difficulty people in another, quite different way—but they share their desire to be entertained by poetry.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Brad Mehldau, Basel, October 26, 2007

For his second encore last night in Basel, Brad Mehldau began with some playing that sounded like "Mehldau does stride piano," his left hand managing to get into a stride rhythm while still doing what it does best: arpeggiating chords in rapid swirls of notes, rather than playing all the notes of the chord at once, as a standard stride rhythm would do. (Is there a term for that? Playing a chord "normally," so to speak, rather than with arpeggios?) Then out came the head: "Monk's Dream." And what a version followed: solo piano, first developing the bluesy stride playing, then becoming more like a ballad before moving into the swirling kaleidoscope of sound that is Mehldau's specialty.

That was one of the highlights for me. As Mehldau did not announce any of the tunes, there were only two other tunes I was sure about: Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" (stately and elegant) and the final encore, "Mother Nature's Son," moving from beautiful highlighting of the melody to vary playful soloing. I was pretty sure I heard Radiohead's "Exit Music" in there, too.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mehldau in Basel tomorrow night

As I mentioned a few months ago, I'll be getting to see Brad Mehldau solo in Basel tomorrow night. Here's Brad solo, the only video of him on youtube without either his trio or Pat Metheny! Unfortunately, this cuts off rather abruptly. Oh well.

"Dear Prudence" is a tune that also always makes me think of Jerry Garcia, who used to play such soaring versions of it with the Jerry Garcia Band.

Perhaps I should also mention that the duo CD Mehldau recorded with Metheny is beautiful.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hedges plays Bach

Here's Michael Hedges again, this time playing the prelude to the first Bach cello suite, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard (and one I played on classical guitar at my daughter Sara's baptism last year).

It's so sad that Michael talks about driving safely after the concert, given that he died in a car accident. Drive safely, folks.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hurray for Pete Stark

Let's hear it for Pete Stark:

"But President Bush’s statements about children’s health shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than his lies about the war in Iraq. The truth is that Bush just likes to blow things up. In Iraq, in the United States and in Congress." (Thanks to Dan Savage for this.)

Ornette Coleman Anthology

Back in May, I made a list of my favorite jazz compositions, and in it, discussing Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," I mentioned Alexander von Schlippenbach's triple CD Monk's Casino, the only recording I know of that includes every known Monk composition. It's a brilliant CD, released by the wonderful Zurich label Intakt Records.

I have now just received a similarly wonderful recording on Intakt, an Ornette Coleman Anthology recorded by pianist Aki Takase and saxophonist Silke Eberhard. It's not the complete Coleman (I think he has been more prolific than Monk was), but it is a brilliant collection of superbly arranged tunes that, stripped down to piano and horn, really highlight just how compelling Ornette's music is. Highly recommended!

(Disclaimer: I translated the liner notes of both these CDs.)

(And here is a bit of Takase on piano ... with Schlippenbach!)

(And while I am at it, I was also overwhelmed by von Schlippenbach's recent solo piano releases, Twelve Tone Tales, in two volumes, also on Intakt.)

An evolutionary defense of empiricism

In "More Than Meets the I," her vigorous and entertaining omnibus review in the October 07 issue of Poetry, Ange Mlinko uses Jay Wright to present a form of philosophical skepticism:

'... science tells us that “our sense data are primarily symbols,” translated to the brain via nerve impulses and reassembled in the frontal cortex [...]. Appearances are deceiving. What we see is just an interface.'

The problem with the conclusion here is that Mlinko, like so many others, fails to recognize the explanatory power of evolution: if the "symbolic sense data" of "appearances" are false, then the human brain would be poorly adapted to the physical world, and the human species would die out if its brain did not adapt to that physical world.

Here's another way to put the point: any human brain (or brain of any species, for that matter) that does not produce a relatively precise image of the world around it is less likely to survive and successfully reproduce than a brain with a more precise image of the world around it. So "our sense data" may be "primarily symbols," but there is every reason to believe that those symbols are accurate (at least for those with healthy brains).

So here's a third way to put the point: rejection of empiricism entails rejection of evolution.


To be fair to Mlinko, I should refer to the whole passage I cited from above:

Quoting Suzanne Langer in Elaine's Book (collected in Transfigurations), [Jay] Wright lays claim to her insight: “and the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.” For poets of this tendency, the world is occult, and poetry's attentiveness helps tease out the hidden reality:

What we call
our own might only be
the first stroke upon
a stellar
clock, an instant shift
of center, a notion

the Cusan could
propose and stir
in the atom.
—From Equation Three
Nicolas of Cusa posited the existence of an intellect comprising more than that which sense data and reason tell us. Now that science tells us that “our sense data are primarily symbols,” translated to the brain via nerve impulses and reassembled in the frontal cortex, the Cusan's truth is confirmed. Appearances are deceiving. What we see is just an interface. The very building blocks of matter are in flux.