Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Monday, May 28, 2007
[This is the continuation of my post on PBS Winter Books. See part One, on Jane Hirshfield's After, Part Two, on Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle, and Part Three, on Cynthia Fuller's Jack's Letters Home.]
At this point, I had read one very good book, one okay book, and one very weak book. I was not really prepared for what came next: The Space of Joy, by John Fuller. Imagine reading a collection by someone who has published 17 collections, but you have never heard of him, and the collection you are reading entrances you from the first page. On top of that, he has written nine novels and seven books for children, along with work as a critic and as an editor.
The first poem in The Space of Joy is a sonnet sequence called "The Solitary Life," based on the life of Petrarch. First I responded to lines from individual sonnets:
But live within the life you have created. (7, The Source)
The vulgar sparrows chirp their perfect French. (12, The Sparrows)
But water answers to our looser shape,
Restores our sense of the large wastefulness
And playfulness of all material things ... (16, The Echoes)
... the reckless violence
Borrowed from the gods in chasing all
Beauty ... (18, The Puzzles)
And not until the wine is in the glass
And levelling the future and the past
Is the soul shriven. (19, The Shriving)
I see the bishop standing by my bed
In the deliberate way that bishops do
When they are keen to talk, and also dead. (22, The Debate)
'How may we dare to hope to have no hope?' (22, The Debate)
I surely marked that last line in part because of Hirshfield, and like Hirshfield, Fuller pursues the theme further: "Hope is a prisoner of the future" (23, The Occupation). And in the next sonnet, he addresses another theme that Hirshfield had also caught my attention with: "One year the summer will be here, not I" (24, The Summer). Then came a few more lines:
I gave the world a book but not a daughter. (27, The Glory)
Out of old clothes is shining paper made.
Out of old lives are poems written on it. (28, The Process)
And then came what I had been waiting for, a sonnet in this sequence that stood out on its own terms, not as part of the sequence, and not because of individual lines, but for itself—and this is the one that I have been able to find on-line (in a slightly different version that I have edited here to correspond to what is in the book):
29 THE RELICS
And after all, paper is all we know
And yet we feel antiquity about us.
The world's a room in which we come and go
And once the world was much the same without us.
A field turns up the blades of victory
Although it is forgotten now who won.
The fig-tree is the grandson of the fig-tree
That was the great-great-grandson of the one
That Petrarch knew, and now in Luberon
You can go strolling up a brambly plateau
And see Lacoste, the home of the de Sades
(Laura's relations, it is said), all gone
When revolutionaries sacked the château
And sold its stone for middle-class façades.
And then more lines:
... the stream of truth:
Not pure at its source, but after it's been tested (31, The Truth)
... And everything that in her case
Gave her a chance to choose what kind of good
Lies in a certain life in a certain place
Must be worth more than all the lines he wrote. (32, The Reconciliation)
The final sonnet in the sequence also shook me as a poem on its own:
35 THE ABSOLUTE
All that we worship is an absolute
You'd maybe call the world behaving well.
Its core is tenderness: the poise of fruit,
Its bloom and moisture as it starts to swell;
The baby sleeping at the trickling breast
And sucking now and then as it recalls
Why it is tucked in there; we know the best
We wish for lies within our own four walls,
The welcome shape of things as what they are
And our entirely willing doing of them.
We say their beauty pleases us, but clearly
They are our life's realised phenomena.
Our recognition is the way we love them
For being hints of our perfection, really.
As if that were not enough, the book continues with six other poems of two to nine pages each. "Coleridge in Stowey" offered the birdwatcher in me these lines:
The heron has the patience to be patient,
Though there be never a fish in sight.
Heron, worm and poet share the doom
Of laboring for a scant reward!
"Arnold in Thun" climaxes with these lines:
Are we mere tourists in our
Own as yet unexplained lives?
Shall our paths sweetly meet
Just as we once hoped they would?
Unseen the hidden Aare
Leaving the lake undisturbed,
Flowing on, who knows where,
And the lake so beautiful,
Just as it always was, there.
"The Rivals" are the characters in Wagner's Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg, speaking in groups of sonnets. First comes Hans Sachs: "My eyes and tongue are mortal enemies." Then Sixtus Beckmesser:
We each have this unique tremendous chance,
Luck carelessly worn, the gift of song,
The formula for love learned at a glance:
And then you realise you got it wrong.
But it is yours. Still is. You live with it,
This vast mistake committed without coercion.
... The spider on the shelf
Knows everything a spider needs to know.
It all comes to a preparation for
This moment. It gathers with proprietary
Fondness like a father at the door,
Hiding, to hear the ending of a story
That once when he was young he thought he knew.
It is the forbidden second chance of time.
It is the chalk scrawl of equations, true
At the proof. It is the undiscovered crime
That lies behind the questions of the present,
A history of expectation and
The characters of pleasant and unpleasant
Pieces in a game as yet unplanned
But somehow played already. It's a mad
Look at the future you've already had.
Then Sachs responds to Beckmesser in a third and final set of sonnets:
Why did I think that love itself would win
And so create the only thing it makes?
Song is the beauty we are perfect in.
Song is the interest our self-loathing takes.
How can we claim desire at second-hand
Or offer prizes to unhappiness,
Lonely as ever when we take our stand
And closing palms mock with their loud address?
Better to give, if giving there must be,
The things that can be shared only in art
And soothe the feelings with new melody:
Better the rules are broken than the heart.
Songs will redeem our passions if we let them.
Songs are the means by which we can forget them.
After this wonderful opening, this final section also contains some more strong passages:
The song is his, and somehow he conceived it
Out of an air electric with his urge
To be, and bring to being.
Your life outstretching mine simply in years
Defines a dizzy breach too deep to mend,
Both wound and weapon, fantasy and fears.
I see it waiting for you, undefined
Except as waiting.
After "The Rivals," Fuller returns to Switzerland with "Brahms in Thun," a poem in unrhymed iambic pentameter sestets. As with "The Solitary Life," it is lines that first grab me:
The voice is hers, and yet the song is his ...
Death, too, is there, and also a wild hope ...
Then three stanzas stand out:
Wonderful Thun ... the steamer on the lake
Hoots at the afternoon; its paddles ply
The Aare to the harbour where he sees
Such parasols in clusters, greeting, retreating.
Beyond, a train is puffing into the station,
Like an old gentleman expecting treats.
Later he might allow himself to walk
Down there again, a brandy at the Freienhof,
And in the Markt the smell of girls and herring.
And will one come again, will such a one?
It haunts him like something about to disappear.
He tries to put a name to it, but fails.
Perhaps it is something he has always missed,
The sound of laughter in another room,
Hands at his knee, hands tugging him away,
The playing, the watching, the kissing and the dancing,
The faces echoing their other faces,
That strange projection of the self, like art.
Again and again, Fuller circles around the relationship between the artist and the work, the uncanny experience of the creator watching his or her creations enter the world and return to the creator, changed, "a strange projection of the self." Later in this poem, he reaches another peak:
There are mistakes too terrible to be made,
When to approach them, as to an upstairs room
Where light invites the idle passer-by,
Is to stand upon a brink of fascination
Whose logic is a desecration and
Whose music is a series of farewells.
Those moments one can look back at and wonder what would have happened if one had done the unexpected thing—or what would have happened if one had not taken that risk. "The only respite is a dark Kaffee":
And a cigar, of course. And in its wreaths,
The music for a moment laid to rest,
He lives within the mood it has created:
And will one come again, will such a one?
Is it too late? Isn't the paradox
Just this: the one mistake committed is
The one that will transcend both fear and error
And in its act be no mistake at all?
And will one come again, will such a one?
I found myself unable to resist typing in more and more of Fuller's lines and stanzas. Again and again, his explorations of the experiences of his figures, creators all, push through multiple limits at once: of what is acceptable speech in contemporary poetry, of the types of phrasing available to formal verse, of richness of language pushed to extremes while still maintaining an immediate semantic coherence. What more could one want from poetry? "... he must play his part, / A heron among herons by the shore," Fuller writes in "The Fifth Marquess," but this is not the poetry of just another heron.
And then he starts to channel "Wallace Stevens at the Clavier":
But music has no pages. It expands
To fill the empty spaces where it plays
Like any calculated melancholy.
And should the sun be parsimonious,
Reminding us of summers lost, no matter.
Since summers once existed, let us go
Over to the Canoe Club to make hay.
The poem pursues variations on the relationship between Stevens and his wife Elsie: "I tried to give up poetry for you." There are many lines, and several stanzas, that I could type in without comment, just for the sheer pleasure of typing them, but I'll settle for the final stanza:
Said Hamlet of Polonius to the King:
He is at supper. Not where he eats, but where
He's eaten. This is a prince's poetry.
So much for the company of worms.
And so his play, like any music, plays
Upon the octaves of the living spine
And the hair rises erect, as at a spook
That sways her intermezzo from the grave
To speak mad words or clutch your frozen fingers.
The worm's your only emperor for diet
But poetry's the only heaven we have.
The book concludes with "Thun, 1947," the one complete poem here that I could find on-line. I am especially enamored of the conclusion (the poem is not broken into stanzas on-line, but it is in the book):
All that survives of those long days is what
My parents built for me in reaching out
Towards each other, something like an arch,
A space of joy, above me, out of my sight
But in my interest, the inscrutable
Design of their shared, not solitary life
Which an unsearching boy must keep somewhere
Like a toy too old for him, that cost too much.
High on the tilted uplands above the lake,
Just for a moment, I became myself,
Not for the first and not the only time
But at the end of something, and a beginning,
There on a grazed meadow at Goldiwil,
Knowing the distance between the Alps and me
To be no more than a foot-throb from the earth
Beneath me, yet somehow further than the stars.
In some unvisitable yet certainly
Recorded locus of our continuum
I am there still, alive from top to toe:
The lock of hair falling above a grin,
Falling like the long end of my belt,
The cricket shirt, the elbows brown and crooked,
The deep shorts, and the socks reaching to the knees,
The sandals doubly buckled, slightly turned in.
And long I stare at myself without staring back,
For the past, though winding, is a one-way street
And the future unfolds few maps. To be alone
Is a condition of the observing brain,
And something that's remote is better seen,
Like stars or mountains. And the heart goes out
Fiercely if frailly from its uncertain darkness,
Like coloured fires along the terraces.
I surely would have chosen Fuller's book over Hirshfield's as the Choice, but I realize, too, that that is a matter of taste. Some readers will surely find Fuller excessive: too formal, too rich in his language, too "poetic" in his themes and in his overall approach. But I was simply captivated by the book from start to finish, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on more of his work. Perhaps the final distinction for me between Fuller and Hirshfield is that: I am looking forward to getting more books by her, but I probably won't go out of my way to do so. I will for Fuller.[Part Five, on Jacob Polley's Little Gods, still to come.]
The list of other books available at the end of my post on Tiffany Atkinson's book makes the next Recommendation, Cynthia Fuller's Jack's Letters Home, even more of a surprise than Atkinson's. I read Fuller's book in one day—in fact, I'm pretty sure I read it in one sitting. It hardly slowed me down at all; the poems were just flat and uninteresting, despite the book's interesting source (from the PBS website): "Jack's Letters Home tells the story of Cynthia Fuller's uncle, who was just 19 when he was killed on the Western Front during the First World War. The poems are based on real letters written by Jack to his family between February 1917 and April 1918. They tell of his transformation from shop assistant to soldier and show his determined cheerfulness in the face of harsh conditions and the omnipresent shadow of death."
Unfortunately, that story is more interesting than the poems. "Oh I do see life here, and no mistake," writes Jack in the poem "To My Best Girl"—but the poems describe that life without being alive themselves. That line appears on page 21 (of 71), and I would have liked to see it become a source of patterns like those I found in Hirshfield, but no: it is just another line in a poem written in a deadpan, everyday language that would have been fascinating as a soldier's letters but is not when presented as poetry.
Only when Jack is in France and Flanders, and Fuller begins to really turn her material into poems, does anything begin to really happen:
It was the French schoolroom that did it.
Last time we were out of the line
I sat in a schoolroom at a school desk
writing my letters home.
I'd been laughing at the size of the desk
at my big soldier's boots, my legs too long
pretending to be a schoolboy again
writing my letters home.
A pain came like a wound in my side
stopped my breath, brought tears to my eyes
that I wasn't a school boy in class
writing my letters home.
All I try not to think about hit me
the chaps blown to bits and lost in the mud
the pictures that come that I cannot tell
writing my letters home.
Don't worry over me, dear Mother,
dear Winnie, the words I must say.
The censor would cross out my true words
writing my letters home.
I can't say I am frightened and sickened
by all that I have to do, I can't say
that I do not expect to come through
writing my letters home.
How I wish I could be that school boy
learning his ABC, a young boy
knowing nothing of shelling and guns
Here, the refrain allows a tension to build up that simply does not appear anywhere earlier in the book (we are now on page 53 of 71). When Fuller turns to such repetiton again, a later poem again does more, "Dead-beat and Done-up," in which Jack is out of the trenches because of what is called "trench feet," and the two thirteen-line stanzas end with the refrain "but it's ever so much better / than being up the line." Or in "Lucky," with Jack back in the trenches, and the first and third stanzas ending with variations on "I just hope I get through."
I was quite intrigued when I read the description of Fuller's project on the back cover of the book, but I expected the book to do more with its material. The few poems that begin to work up the letters into strong poems show how effective this project could have been. As it is, it would have been better to publish the letters themselves, or to push the literary potential of the material much further than Fuller did. The book ends up being too little of either letters or literature.
[This discussion continues: Part Four, on John Fuller's The Space of Joy.]
[This is the continuation of my post on PBS Winter Books. Part One, on Jane Hirshfield's After, is here.]
I was quite pleased with the beginning of my reading project, then, and was quite hopeful as I moved on to Tiffany Atkinson's Kink and Particle. I applied the same procedure: read fast; pay attention; wait for the poems to slow me down. The result was quite different: early in Hirshfield's book, "Hope: An Assay" had slowed me down and drawn my attention to themes that were then developed in later poems in the book. No such luck with Atkinson.
As I thought back on the book before I began writing this up, I could only remember one poem that had struck me, although I could not remember its title: "Photo from Belfast." The fourth poem in the book, it seemed much stronger than the first three, and when I just looked for an on-line publication of it, I discovered that it won the 2001 Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition. It is a fine poem, with these opening lines:
I knew him, the dead boy, Michael.
Only for three hours, maybe, taken in all.
He stopped me for a light outside my local—
I fell for the accent, the smile.
But now, as I look at it again, it seems like a fine, competent poem on a strong, powerful theme—where it is the theme, as it were, that makes it a strong poem, rather than the writing itself. So what made it stand out for me when I read the book was that, suddenly, the contents of a poem struck me, but if it weren't for those contents, I would have read on, following my principle of "read fast."
Later in the book, there are two further poems I noted: "Testimonial: Iscariot" and "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1625." I remember thinking, as I read them, that these poems seemed like they might have been written as exercises—which I did not mean as a criticism of the poems, but simply as an observation. Perhaps it was again the distinction between these two and most of the other poems I had read so far: the rest seemed to be about the poet's life, and the writing wasn't making them lift off, while these two were not about the poet's life or something resembling her life (the first of them being a tightly written consideration of Judas; the second an ekphrastic poem about Rembrandt's famous painting), so they were able to lift off. In a sense, at this point, Atkinson seemed to be a poet who was good enough to write well about historical, social, and cultural themes, but not quite good enough to make more "everyday" poems that would go beyond their contents alone.
So I read on, waiting for the poems to slow me down again. Suddenly, the everyday worked, perhaps because the scene described is not actually everyday:
THEN EVERYTHING WAS AXE
Too late in the day, with
(what were we thinking of)
no tent, thunder scuffing
the tips of the hills, we found
that somewhere between the deep
drop down and setting up camp
in an ingrown fold of the cwm,
we'd left behind, mislaid, let
fall or otherwise failed to keep tabs
on the axe. Then everything was
axe: the eighth, ninth, tenth
unstitching of our steps, the pooling heat
and pegged-out sky, each sheaf of grass
each bush turned inside-out ... Forget
the quietly perspiring Sémillon,
the raunchy steaks we brought
to toast ourselves, the single heron
pitched like once-in-a-lifetime
at horizon, and the freestyle (what
were we thinking of) sex. Just axe's
invisible plumb-line drawing it all
down like awning, grinding
on the conscience, like last words,
distilled to purest form, the shape
Without it, out there, we had
all the personal resourcefulness
of berries. Would you believe I
was searching my own back pocket
when your cry struck out? The palpable
click of a clean fit, of hickory heft
and honed wedge to the shape
hewn inwardly of old-style need,
then world springing back on its axis.
Typing in that poem was a great pleasure, feeling the lines building up the psychological situation. At the same time, it struck me that the poem, however strong it is, lacks one thing many of Hirshfield's poems have: phrases and lines that one can pull out of the poem and have stand on their own. It's not something I require a poem to have, but it is something that many poems do have. At this point in reading Atkinson's book (page 37 of 62), I had not underlined a single phrase, simply noted the poems that I have mentioned here.
And as I read on, no lines grabbed me, and no other poems seemed to take off in anything like the way that "Then Everything Was Axe" does. Atkinson's poetry may have no false notes, and I knew, from that one poem, that she could leave me breathless, but I was waiting for her to do it again, and there were no themes developing in the course of the book, either, as there had been in Hirshfield.
One more poem stopped me, though, enough to type it in:
COCKEREL-MAN AND THE ROYAL DONKEY DUCK
's what sir was, yomping up from the street
three sheets downstream and real medieval
arsefaced on his hobby-frog, ohlorday aint
nobody like him for a blue steam. Duchess!
he piped through the moon's horn, hair like yours
grows twice in a lifetime and your lipbones how
they seize me. Then he fuzzed from the head down,
swinging on my neighborhood's perpendicular. Open
your smile my mouse, cried he, quite the rivergreen
elvis at that angle, be my spiff and I'll raddle
your bud for good. Yes truly. Thus his pageant
hooked its barrel to the wind. And oh my offal
gan glow tender (albeit known better on the back-
look) for the bold highriding and the heartwhip
and, it must be said, his droll feet. It was close,
as garlic. But. I wheened, you strike the same tune
off the flint of cold day and I'll kindle. End of.
Though it seems to be he's sheer carouse and no thumb.
Where he pearled is only what the wind shook up four
days since. Dropsy crops, they say, blow all stalk.
I don't think I would want to read a whole book in this style, but it does seem like something one should pursue for more than one poem, and it seems quite striking to have this language appear near the end of a collection, a total shift in style and tone.
And finally, one line I underlined (of three in all in the whole book), in the next-to-last poem, "Hey Love—": "You use language like a wanker's handkerchief." More of that, more of the cockerel man, stronger occasions for poems—then Atkinson will write some much stronger books in the future. Not a bad first book at all, but it's still a bit of a surprise that it was a Recommendation, given that the "other books available this quarter" list included such names as Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Gilbert, Louise Glück, Michael Longley, Michael Schmidt, Frederick Seidel, and C. K. Williams (not to mention my Basel friend Padraig Rooney, with his The Escape Artist).
[This discussion continues: Part Three, on Cynthia Fuller's Jack's Letters Home, Part Four, on John Fuller's The Space of Joy.]
Back in January, I received the Winter selections from the Poetry Book Society. This time, instead of reading them slowly, or even just shelving them unread for reading at some unspecified later date, I decided to read them all straight through, starting with the Choice, then continuing with the Recommendations in alphabetical order by author's last name:
Tiffany Atkinson, Kink and Particle (Seren)
Cynthia Fuller, Jack's Letters Home (Flambard)
I also decided to conclude with Polley's first book, The Brink, which was a Choice that I had earlier shelved without reading.
As I began Hirshfield's book, I quickly discovered how I wanted to proceed: read fast; pay attention; wait for the poems to slow me down. And the book's fifth poem stopped me in my tracks:
HOPE: AN ASSAY
At 79 my friend says, “I feel differently now.
I thought we could change, now I am not so sure.
We are chimpanzees.
Chimpanzees fighting. I begin to lose my old hope.”
How hard he still fights, I think,
still struggling with the nature of human nature, his own and others’.
And I, who have always despaired of change,
see him change and grow hopeful.
I've always liked paradoxes, and this is a finely expressed one. Ever since I read Paul de Man's "The Rhetoric of Temporality," with its analysis of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal," I have also liked poems with two quatrains, with a turn between them, as between the octet and the sestet, but with more balance between the thesis and the antithesis than in a sonnet. I like them rhymed best of all, these poems in a form without a name (as far as I know), though strict form is otherwise not necessary (cf. Paul Muldoon's "Whitethorns"). Here, though, the back-and-forth of the paradox and the perspectives makes the poem well worth stopping and thinking about.
The next poem was "To Judgment: An Assay," but I read on. Still, a few pages later, I did come to lines, in the conclusion of another "assay," "Sky: An Assay," that slowed me down because of their connection to the change and stasis addressed in "Hope":
And so we look right past sky, by it, through it,
to what also is moody and alters—
erosive mountains, eclipsable moons, stars distinct but death-bound.
The issues of the earlier "assay" reappear here in a new form, and again I enjoyed the paradoxes: mountains, moons, and stars are often considered unalterable, but Hirshfield's poem identifies even them as malleable, like the friend and the speaker in "Hope."
Now I had something besides individual poems to look for; I had themes, and they began popping up—sometimes in even more "assays," but also in poems that did not have that "genre" in the title:
What would it be
to take up no position,
to lie on this earth at rest, relieved of proof or charge?
we call the mountain in the lake,
whose existence resides in neither stone nor water.
("Articulation: An Assay")
The dream, like the dog, went on, travelled elsewhere.
Passed by the moment when everything might have been changed.
Passed by the moment of knowing I wanted everything changed.
("Transcendence: An Assay")
Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories.
Only the reminder that there is exception.
All this, and I was only on page 24 of a 95-page book! If I still did serious scholarship, I'd have begun collecting material for an essay (or perhaps an "assay").
But Hirshfield still managed to slow me down in other ways, too, as in "Poe: An Assay":
His stories were not intended for the canine heart that howls inside us,
though he fed it the tidbits it needed to stay near.
"Vilnius" made me stop because I had recently written my essay on Robert Frost's "The Mountain"; Hirshfield's poem begins with guidebooks on a table, then shifts gears:
Behind them—sometimes behind thick fog—the mountain.
If you lived high up on the mountain,
I find myself thinking, what you would see is
More of everything else, but not the mountain.
Hirshfield can also be quite funny, as in a prose "assay" about the word "of":
"... though one thing also connects to another through 'and,' this is not the same. Consider: 'Science and elephants.' 'The science of elephants.' 'The elephants of science.'"
It's easy and fun to just go on quoting good bits:
Yet your work requires
both transience and transformation:
night changes to day, snow to rain, the shoulder of the living pig to meat.
And so we say 'today', 'tomorrow'.
But from yesterday, like us, you have vanished.
("'To': An Assay")
After transforms into others.
'And'—that strong rock—stays standing.
("'And': An Assay")
These passages, which I underlined while reading, both develop the themes of "Hope" and other poems in the book and are simply quotable on their own terms. Hirshfield proves again and again to be a great fashioner of aphoristic, thought-provoking lines.
But I wasn't just slowing down to underline passages; I also found myself stopping at several other superb poems. The following poem brought to mind "Borges and I," by Jorge Luis Borges, which I have long treasured:
More and more I have come to wonder
about this stranger—
woman whose sweaters and coats resemble my own,
whose taste in breads and coffee
resembles my own,
who sleeps when I sleep, wakens when I awaken.
whose verb-form takes the felicitous s at its close,
what happens is simply what happens.
I fret the most slender of errors—
the name forgotten, the borrowed book unreturned—
but never have found her holding a teacup
or coin between her fingers
as if its substance and purpose were something she did not comprehend.
How self-assured she seems,
who decides nothing,
whose insomnia is to my own what the shadow of a leaf is to a leaf.
I am tired, but she is not tired.
I am wordless;
she, who has never spoken a word of her own,
is full of thoughts as precise and impassioned
as the yellow and black exchanges of a wasp's striped body.
For a long time I thought her imposter.
her jokes, even her puns, are only too subtle for me to follow.
And so we go on, mostly ignoring each other,
though what I cook, she eats with seeming gusto,
and letters intended for her alone I open with a curious ease,
as if I, not she, were the long-accomplished thief.
Or, as Hirshfield puts it in "I Imagine Myself in Time," two pages later:
And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades,
what will she say?
While rereading those lines, I was reminded of the Robert Creeley poem that has always been my favorite, which, coincidentally, is, like Hirshfield's book, called "After":
I'll not write again
things a young man
thinks, not the words
of that feeling.
There is no world
except felt, no
one there but
must be here also.
If that time was
echoing, a vindication
apparent, if flesh
and bone coincided—
let the body be.
See faces float
over the horizon let
the day end.
But back to Hirshfield. If you have read this far, and now that I have written this far, it is clear that this I was really impressed by this book. In fact, I had pretty much forgotten how impressed I had been; now, as I have finally found the time to type up my thoughts about the PBS Winter books, I am even more impressed by the book. Instead of going on even further, I'll close my comments on Hirshfield with two links to poems ("To Opinion" — the phrase "An Assay" is not in the book version — and "Bad Year") and two more quotations:
Like the radio heard while travelling in a foreign country—
you know that something important has happened, but not what.
And from "Letter to C." (C. is Czeslaw Milosz):
This did not keep you from forming your theory—
Whitman's poetry as one cause of the First World War.
Incomprehensible to Americans, obvious to a Lithuanian Pole.
Some readers of this blog (if they have read this far) might well have heard me tell the story about how Milosz presented this theory to a friend of mine, a graduate student then working on a dissertation on Whitman. How my friend enjoyed telling that story (a great storyteller telling a story about another great storyteller).
One last point about After: shortly after I read it, I came across the Poetry Foundation's December list of best-selling poetry books in the U.S. After was number 12 on the list at the time; I just checked the latest list (April 2007), but it is no longer on the list. I was surprised to see Hirshfield selling so well, but in retrospect, I understand her popularity: her work drew me in and gave me a great deal to think about (as the length of my comments on her book shows).
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Here are the poems to vote for in week nine of my Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, May 21, to Sunday, May 27):
57. Posthumous Man, by David Baker
58. The Well at the Broch of Gurness, by Kathleen Jamie
59. Ablution, by Rachel Rose
60. A Stone Should Mark the Place, by Regan Good
61. Dialing While Intoxicated, by John Hennessy
62. 33rd & Kirkham, by C. Dale Young
63. This Morning, by Sarah Sawyer
You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments). In any case, I will not post the comments until after the final vote is in (secret ballot). You may vote by the title, the author's name, or the number of the poem in the list above. Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists). Please VOTE BY THURSDAY, MAY 31!
If you want to receive an email announcing the results, send me your email address with your vote (if you have a public blogger profile, I can usually find it).
Abstaining: If you read the poems but decide that there is no poem that you want to vote for, I would be interested to know that you decided to abstain.
Week 8 results are here. Week 7 results are here. The results of the first six weeks are summarized in the post about the week 6 results.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Here's what Matthew wrote to me:
I'm tutoring a course next month in Spain, June 21st to 28th. Booking numbers are low, and the organiser, Christopher North, has asked me to help get more people.
The week is part of a regular series, recommended by the Poetry School, and advertised in key publications, such as Poetry London. The setting is a village, Relleu, in the mountains near Alicante, and the house itself, Almassera Vella, is large and beautiful, with a well-stocked library, and a swimming pool. It was once Relleu's original olive press. The cuisine for the week is Mediterranean, with good Spanish wine.
This course in June is different because it offers an opportunity to go twice to Alicante while the Fiesta is happening, with its fireworks and fascinating hogeuras figures. Because of this additional feature, the course is a little more expensive than other courses (£575 all inclusive) but I'm sure Christopher will offer a slightly reduced price to late bookers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and the telephone number is 0034 966 856003.
If you are family, you probably already got an email from me with the link!
Friday, May 25, 2007
So those of you who are in or near Basel: wanna go?
13 bloggers voted, with Shepherd's poem receiving 5 votes, Corpus Hermeticum, by Eric Pankey, receiving 4, and O my pa-pa, by Bob Hicok, receiving 3.
13 votes were cast in class, where Shepherd was an easy winner, with 6 votes. Of the others, only Hicok's poem, with three, received more than one vote, and Pankey, so popular with the bloggers, did not get any votes in class.
There were some quite contradictory comments from the bloggers: several felt this was the weakest week yet, while others felt it was the strongest. I belonged to the latter group.
I was already on record as an admirer not only of Bob Hicok's work in general but of O my pa-pa in particular. When I first read it as part of the project, I thought it would be an easy decision for me this week, since I enjoyed it more than almost any poem in the rest of the project until now. But every day, another striking poem came along, and I had to read them all carefully several times to decide that I was indeed going to be vote for Hicok's poem, with Reginald Shepherd's a close second.
The comments on the call-for-votes post show, though, that this week generated a wide range of opinions:
See the list of the winners from the first six weeks in the post with the results of week six. Week Seven results are here.
When my sisters Sara and Ruth were born, it was "Big Girls Don't Cry" by The Four Seasons. But they did cry, of course.
On my brother Jeff's birthday, it was "It's All in the Game" by Tommy Edwards. Who?
On my sister Ebeth's birthday (today, Happy Birthday Ebeth), it was "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley. Now that's cool.
On my sister Debbie's birthday, it was "The Song from Moulin Rouge (Where Is Your Heart)" by Percy Faith. Never heard of it.
My wife Andrea's? "Good Vibrations," by The Beach Boys. I'm pickin' 'em up, too.
Find out about your birthday here.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Thanks for the link to John's web site. It inspired me to drop him a note. I have fond memories of my two workshops with him: reading Bishop and Roethke (among others), looking at Dylan's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" as an example of a good song lyric, having my apprentice poems ripped to pieces — in anticipation of their further shredding in Denise Levertov's workshops, until one day she said that a poem of mine needed no workshopping, because it was done. That poem, "The Burning," is the only poem from that period that I still submit anywhere or consider part of a possible manuscript.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Hey magazine editors!
Please edit your submission guidelines: Do you allow blog-posted poems, or no?
Very Like A Whale suggests that if more writers post this question, we'll reach that many more editors. Makes sense to me!
Ask and answer! We'd like to know.
Here are the poems to vote for in week eight of my Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, May 14, to Sunday, May 20):
50. O my pa-pa, by Bob Hicok
51. Pan , by Stuart Dybek
52. Selected Exercises in Case Law II, by Cathrine Grøndahl / tr. Roger Greenwald
53. The War President's Afternoon Tea, by John Gallaher
54. Obit, by David Lehman
55. Eve's Awakening, by Reginald Shepherd
56. Corpus Hermeticum, by Eric Pankey
You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments). In any case, I will not post the comments until after the final vote is in (secret ballot). You may vote by the title, the author's name, or the number of the poem in the list above. Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists). Please VOTE BY THURSDAY, MAY 24!
Abstaining: If you read the poems but decide that there is no poem that you want to vote for, I would be interested to know that you decided to abstain.
Week 7 results are here. The results of previous weeks are summarized in the post about the week 6 results.
Friday, May 18, 2007
A few notes on The Order of the Phoenix, which I finished rereading today:
1) Dolores Umbridge's punishment of Harry (having him magically etch his "lines" into his hand) is the first Kafkaesque moment I have discovered in Rowling: think of "In the Penal Colony." Would Umbridge implode if she inscribed "Be Just" on her own hand?
2) Surely Neville's misnaming of the "philosopher's stone" as the "philological stone" in chapter 16 ("In the Hog's Head") is in part Rowling's slap in the face to her American publisher for having been so stupid as to change the title of the first book for the American edition. What does Neville say in the American edition instead of "sorcerer"?
3) This has to be up there with my favorite sentences in the whole series: "Hermione was going skiing with her parents, something that greatly amused Ron, who had never before heard of Muggles strapping narrow strips of wood to their feet to slide down mountains." That's been my joke about skiing for decades!
4) Snape tells Harry: "Only those skilled at Occlumency are able to shut down those feelings and memories that contradict the lie, and so utter falsehoods in his [Voldemort's] presence without detection." So Snape is skilled at Occlumency, right? That would mean he would be able to lie to Voldemort without Voldemort's realizing it. And that would mean Snape could be a double agent. (I know he's a twit, but for some reason I want him to be a double agent. I want him to have actually killed Dumbledore, but to have done it in order to trick Voldemort. My pet theory.)
5) But then there's Ron's theory: Snape intentionally did not teach Harry Occlumency well. In fact, he opened Harry's mind to Voldemort. Harry repeats this theory to Dumbledore at the end of the book, who discounts it. (An additional point: rereading the books with the end of book six in mind makes Snape an incredibly complex character!)
6) One point of contact with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: all the characters have their own individual Patronuses, just as the characters in Pullman all have their own characteristic daemon.
7) It's Snape's memory, of course, but Harry's future mother was right about the fifteen-year-old James Potter: "But you're just an arrogant, bullying toerag, Potter." I know bullying when I see it, and what he did to Snape was pure, unadulterated, nasty bullying of the first order.
Only nine bloggers voted, with 3 votes going to Manning and 2 votes each to Seventy Faces, by Richard Chess, and The Vanishing Twin, by Sun Yung Shin. If you were one of those voters, thanks, oh loyal comrades! See if you can get some other folks to vote, too. :-)
Class did not meet this week because of the Ascension holiday yesterday (four-day weekend!), and only 11 votes were cast by class members (including my vote). Manning got four votes, with Chess in second with 3 and Sun Yung Shin in third with 2.
I voted for Manning's poem and was pleased to see it win both votes! :-) Several people thought it was a good week; I found myself attracted only to Manning's poem and Dear Blackbird,, by Jane Springer, but the latter worked for me only from its punchline conclusion, while Manning's worked for me all the way through.
My cousin Bruce Loebrich wrote:
Loyal voter Don Brown gave us his usual thorough analysis: See the list of the winners from the first six weeks in the post with the results of week six.
Results of previous weeks:
1. Epistrophy, by Thelonius Monk
And many other Monk tunes, of course. Anyone who loves Monk should pick up Monk's Casino, by Alexander von Schlippenbach, the only CD I know of that contains every known surviving Monk composition! (Full disclosure: I translated the liner notes.)
2. Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat, by Charles Mingus
I'm also a total sucker for "Boogie Stop Shuffle," which is also on Mingus Ah Um.
3. Homecoming, by Dave Holland
I know three fabulous versions of this tune: on Holland's Seeds of Time (quintet) and Ones All (solo bass), and on Gateway's Homecoming (with John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette). I also have a soft spot for Holland's "Back-Woods Song," from the first Gateway CD from the mid-seventies.
4. It Might As Well Be Spring, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Check out the incredible version on Songs We Know, by Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell. Three minutes and ten seconds of bliss.
5. Lonely Woman, by Ornette Coleman
I'm also partial to Ornette's "Turnaround," especially as played by Pat Metheny on 80/81.
6. Resolution, by John Coltrane
I'm only doing tunes, so I can't just say A Love Supreme. There's an overwhelming version of "Resolution" on Marc Johnson's Bass Desires CD, with John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Peter Erskine.
And I have to at least mention Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," which always makes me happy.
7. Someday My Prince Will Come, by Larry Morey & Frank Churchill
But of course it's Miles's version that makes this a great jazz tune. There's also a great version on the above-mentioned Songs We Know.
8. Sophisticated Lady, by Duke Ellington
I'm especially blown away by the version on The World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington, which reminds me that it has been way too long since I have heard David Murray live!
9. Timeless, by John Abercrombie
Both in the original version on Abercrombie's CD of the same name (with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette) and in the solo guitar version on Ralph Towner's Solo Concert (both of which also feature Abercrombie's lovely "Ralph's Piano Waltz").
10. Witchi-Tai-To, by Jim Pepper
As played by Oregon, especially live at the Great American Music Hall in 1984, when Collin Walcott was still alive.
by Philip Levine, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007
Everyone comes back here to die
as I will soon. The place feels right
since it’s half dead to begin with.
Even on a rare morning of rain,
like this morning, with the low sky
hoarding its riches except for
a few mock tears, the hard ground
accepts nothing. Six years ago
I buried my mother’s ashes
beside a young lilac that’s now
taller than I, and stuck the stub
of a rosebush into her dirt,
where like everything else not
human it thrives. The small blossoms
never unfurl; whatever they know
they keep to themselves until
a morning rain or a night wind
pares the petals down to nothing.
Even the neighbor cat who shits
daily on the paths and then hides
deep in the jungle of the weeds
refuses to purr. Whatever’s here
is just here, and nowhere else,
so it’s right to end up beside
the woman who bore me, to shovel
into the dirt whatever’s left
and leave only a name for some-
one who wants it. Think of it,
my name, no longer a portion
of me, no longer inflated
or bruised, no longer stewing
in a rich compost of memory
or the simpler one of bone shards,
dirt, kitty litter, wood ashes,
the roots of the eucalyptus
I planted in ’73,
a tiny me taking nothing,
giving nothing, and free at last.
The United States
by C. K. Williams, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007
The rusting, decomposing hulk of the United States
is moored across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea,
rearing weirdly over the old municipal pier
on the mostly derelict docks in Philadelphia.
I’d forgotten how immense it is: I can’t imagine
which of the hundreds of portholes looked in
on the four-man cabin five flights down
I shared that first time I ran away to France.
We were told we were the fastest thing afloat,
and we surely were; even from the tiny deck
where passengers from tourist were allowed
our wake boiled ever vaster out behind.
That such a monster could be lifted by mere waves
and in the storm that hit us halfway across
tossed left and right until we vomited
seemed a violation of some natural law.
At Le Havre we were out of scale with everything;
when a swarm of tiny tugs nudged like piglets
at the teat the towering mass of us in place,
all the continent of Europe looked small.
Now, behind its ravelling chain-link fence,
the ship’s a somnolent carcass, cables lashed
like lilliputian leashes to its prow, its pocking,
once pure paint discoloring to blood.
Upstream, the shells of long-abandoned factories
crouch for miles beneath the interstate;
the other way the bridge named after Whitman
hums with traffic toward the suburbs past his grave;
and “America’s mighty flagship” waits here,
to be auctioned, I suppose, stripped of anything
it might still have of worth, and towed away
and torched to pieces on a beach in Bangladesh.
1. Down on the Corner, by Creedence Clearater Revival
Or when played by Blues Nettwork, a Basel blues band, with a tuba playing the bass line.
2. It's a Wonderful World, by Louis Armstrong
Especially at the end of the Madeline movie with Frances McDormand, when Madeline and her fellow pupils are running around overjoyed!
3. London Calling, by The Clash
4. Love Has Come To Town, by Talking Heads
What a bass line!
5. Loving Cup, by The Rolling Stones
But actually, it was Phish doing this one live that really blew my mind.
6. Morning Dew, by The Grateful Dead
Especially Terrapin Station - Drums - Space - Morning Dew in Ventura, July 22, 1984.
7. Mystery Achievement, by The Pretenders
Another brilliant bass line. Jack Sayers used to play this one brilliantly in various bands back in my Stanford days.
8. Spring and All, by Greg Brown
That's just my Greg song for today.
9. Visions of Johanna, by Bob Dylan
The Dylan song I love most at the moment, after the brilliant version in Zurich a few weeks ago.
10. Who Are You?, by Tom Waits
Or any other T. W. ballad.
If you are family, you probably already got an email from me with the link!
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Many people have been posting lists of songs that blow their minds. My list of songs includes those that it blows my mind to play. In alphabetical order by title, with the line I most like to sing:
1. Comes a Time, by Neil Young
It's a wonder tall trees ain't layin' down
2. Friend of the Devil, by The Grateful Dead
Got two reasons why I cry away each lonely night
(especially on mandolin)
3. I Love Paris, by Cole Porter
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles
(Oh, that shift from minor to major!)
4. If I Had Known, by Greg Brown
Summer was invented for her to wear that dress
(That line is so cool that I stop strumming to sing it)
5. New Coat of Paint, by Tom Waits
Heard the mystery shuffle of an overflowin' day
6. No Woman, No Cry, by Bob Marley (though it was written by Vincent Ford, Marley's guitar player at the time)
In this great future, you can't forget your past
7. Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
8. Things We Said Today, by The Beatles
Me I'm just a lucky guy
9. What a Wonderful World, by Sam Cooke
Maybe by being an A student, baby, I could win your love for me
10. You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, by Bob Dylan
I could stay with you forever and never realize the time
is what the chalked scrawl on the footpath says.
But think of the trouble one would cause, falling,
its blind havoc of brightness without warning—
though for days your cats would be scratching
in and out of the house, tail-hairs spiked
for no reason. And why are the birds flying
upside down in ragged formations, or a ragtaggle
raft of geese rambling North in November
against the natural drag of goose-blood? All
the patterns that would shatter if any errant star
pitched us its curve ball breaking into rose
and gas, all that lethal radiance that would
leave us, at best, ash? Every night now
your dream-life is full of exploding cars, train
wrecks, bridges burning, children disappearing—
one ache after another finding its local, homely,
known face, ferreting you out till you lie there
in five o'clock not-light, your eyes trying to read
the future in the leaf pattern on the curtains,
in the ceiling cracks or the whispers and little
metallic moans of the heating system, or in the
steady breath beside you, the precise particular
clench of the hand sliding towards and finding
your hand, and holding, till you slip back into sleep
with its war-dreams, word-glimmers, shooting stars.
There's more to her letter, but since I don't know anyone offhand, I thought I'd inquire with blog readers if they can recommend any manuscript-evaluation services.
This is someone, by the way, who has been a finalist for at least one major American prize.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Then there's Michael Hofmann's review of the new Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert. I said there are fascinating things in the magazine, and this review is fascinating—not because of what it says about Herbert (we all know he's a great poet, don't we?) or what it says about the history of Herbert translation into English (although it's kind of interesting to find out that the previous translators have not done this book because of conflicts with Herbert's widow) or even what it says about the new translations (according to Hofmann, "Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect").
No, it's fascinating to watch Hofmann write a review that most people will remember because of what it reveals about the reviewer himself. As I'm not reviewing his review, I don't have to provide a list of adjectives like those Hofmann uses to dismantle Valles. I'll let you decide.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Monday, May 14, 2007
Girl Playing Sudoku on the Seven-Fifteen (scroll down a bit)
"It is a settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute. The United States, while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none."
Then Hitchens adds: "The expression 'the United States is' did not come into usage until after Gettysburg."
I've always said that there is a great linguistics paper to be written on this topic—perhaps it has been written already.
"Record companies used to charge a fee for making it possible for people to listen to recorded music. Now their main function is to prohibit people from listening to music unless they pay off these corporations."
Ostertag has taken all the music that he owns the copyright to and made it available on his website.
Der fliegende Berg is a brilliant, powerful book, perhaps not quite as utterly astonishing as Ransmayr's masterpiece, The Last World, but still more than worth reading. The only drawback for anyone reading this post who does not know German is that Der fliegende Berg is not yet available in English, and Ransmayr told me after the reading that Knopf, his usual English-language publisher, does not want to publish the book as a verse novel. They would love to publish it, but only as prose. As Ransmayr would not allow that, the book had no English-language publisher as of November.
Mendelson's examples are Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë. An extreme form of this doubling of the writer's voice is mentioned in the Julian Gough article I referred to in my previous post: "The novel, at its best, cannot even submit to the authority of the novelist: Gogol burnt his follow-up to Dead Souls because, on reading the book he had just written, he was shocked to find that he profoundly disagreed with it."
Is that really true?
Second interesting tidbit from the same article:
"The problem is not specific to Christianity. Islam has always had a problem with comedy at its expense, as Salman Rushdie showed in The Satanic Verses. In Medina, in year two of the Hijra migration, with Mecca not yet fallen, the Prophet asked the faithful to kill the Jewish-Arab poet Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf for reciting his poems satirising the Prophet (and joking about Muslim women). The faithful obliged."
"The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist's abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist. It is more intelligent."
Gough goes on from there, into a few more claims about how cool novels are. But the idea that the work is more intelligent than the author (or than readers) is one that crossed my mind while I was working on my dissertation: Doris Lessing is a great writer, but her novels are much more intellectually sound than her essays. When she tries to say what her novels are about, her remarks fall far short of what the fiction itself is actually doing.
Further (about that reader parentheses in the previous sentence), at the same time, I also noticed that Christa Wolf's "Was bleibt," with all the controversy surrounding it, was far more insightful than all of its critics and supporters—and probably than its author realized, too.
"The comic point of view—the gods'-eye view—is much more uncomfortable for a believer in one all-powerful God than it was for the polytheistic Greeks. To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing."
"The task of the novelist is [...] not to fake a coherence that does not exist, but to capture the chaos that does."
NOT. Kyle Gann:
"There's no reason music should reflect the world. If a chaotic world needs chaotic music [...], the terrifying 14th century wouldn't have produced the orderly isorhythmic motet [...] Since I don't believe we live in an unusually chaotic period, my theory about neoexpressionism ["Downtown" music from New York in the eighties, e.g., John Zorn] is that it provides an illusion of freedom, chaos, heroic survival, in a world that, when you really look at it, seems ever more rigidly controlled by corporate machinations." (That's from Music Downtown, but I have it because
That's a lot of tidbits!
Sunday, May 13, 2007
(Photo by Hilary Jacobson)
Summer reading period announcement:
In June, July, and August 2007, POETRY will only consider work from poets who have not previously appeared in the magazine. We encourage writers new to these pages to send work to:
444 N Michigan Ave., Ste. 1850
Chicago, IL 60611
The magazine's guidelines are here.