Jarring Wilderness for Future Use

jar

Last night my wife was making homemade chocolate–the kind you crown a scoop of vanilla ice cream with. Her chocolate factory was initially profligate, bubbling in a large saucepan, but she tamed it by pouring it into Mason jars.

Chocolate that rich begs for a smaller home like these little Mason jars, ribboned and destined for relatives and friends with a sweet tooth or two. Downsize rich chocolate, I always say, and no one’s objected yet.

With this saying still echoing in my head this morning, I read Wallace Stevens’ ode to a jar, one left out in the Tennessee wilderness. Give it a read-see, why don’t you?:

“Anecdote of the Jar”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

A minor piece, as Stevens poems go (he being the darling of academic readers especially). Still, there’s that unexpected, pleasing-to-the-ear rhyming Wallace often injects in his works. And the notion of wilderness coming up to sniff a glass port of manmade (“a port in air”).

That something “gray and bare” could take dominion everywhere, despite giving neither bird nor bush, is disconcerting, which makes me wonder, as with much of Stevens, what he’s about here. Is the jar’s victory in its ugliness–ugly by dint of its surroundings? Juxtaposition is a powerful thing, after all, which is why I never stand next to handsome men, strong men, or successful men. Too jarring, if you catch my drift, and difficult on standers-by.

One might also ask what Wallace was doing in Tennessee. My favorite part of his being a poet was his daily job as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. Isn’t that jarring, too? Only which is the jar and which the wilderness–Stevens or a staid, 9-to-5 insurance office with his nameplate?

It’s the question of the day for you. If you need a jar opener, check the junk drawer….

The Poetry of Moments in Time

roses

Nothing captures the elusive moment like a poem. Novels are too ham-fisted. Short stories too neat and mindful of their Chekhovian rifles hanging on the wall (“The Big-Bang Theory”). And essays? Please.

For poetry and moments, you need go no further than William Carlos Williams, famous for his dictum, “Say it! No ideas but in things.”

And, when you think about it, it is “things” that make the moment. Usually simple, unassuming things which are imbued with agency in unexpected ways.

Example? The delicious little moment in “The Act”:

There were the roses, in the rain.
Don’t cut them, I pleaded.
        They won’t last, she said.
But they’re so beautiful
        where they are.
Agh, we were all beautiful once, she
        said,
and cut them and gave them to me
        in my hand.

Trump-Voter Gloaters and Other Christmas Hazards

christmas

On the Eve. It’s the name of a Turgenev novel, but I’m more attuned to the calendar than Russian Literature as Christmas cards blow like white drifts into the mailbox. Today we are on the Eve of the Eve, and my mind is scattered poetic and prosaic with holiday overload. Time to hit the release valve, in other words, with some random observations:

  • The big thing this year is Christmas cards with pics on front AND back. Dogs (and, to a lesser degree, cats) have become members of the family recently. There they are, grinning in the line-up, their names listed along with Bobby’s and Suzy’s. Next we’ll be reading updates on their college careers and job promotions.
  • Will the Christmas form letter never go away? We had a few that opened with and went on and on about the election, of all things. Do we want to read about the election in the holiday season? We do not. And to the letter, every electioneering form-letter jabberer has been a Trump voter cloaked in red and green false modesty. (“Both candidates were flawed, but one was more flawed in our opinion, so we had little choice but to go the way we did! Still, despite hard feelings in the family, we managed to make it through Thanksgiving!”) Given their obvious lack of sensitivity, I doubt they’ll be as lucky at Christmas. For starters, they can throw their exclamation points onto the Yuletide fire and rejoin the human race.
  • Christmas Eve morning is the holiest of the year for me. Holy in a doughy kind of way. I rise around four a.m., turn on the infernal Christmas carols (about the only time I’ll endure them), and build my Christmas stollen alone in the kitchen with my four cups of coffee and predictable (by 7) acid stomach.
  • Speaking of, all I want for Christmas is my 21-year-old stomach. Probably in a scrap metal shop along about now. Somewhere in the cast iron section.
  • According to the new issue of Poets & Writers, these are salad days for black writers. The market is actively seeking good writers of color because, well, they are selling. About time, I say.
  • The irony of a race renaissance in publishing during a dark time of renewed racism in public life is not lost on us. Apparently Trump voters are not the ones buying books. Or much reading them.
  • Anyone submitting poetry to journals knows that these are salad days for LGBTQ writers, too. Dozens of submission guidelines now feature a pronounced desire to print more of their work.
  • Where does the expression “salad days” come from? Shakespeare, of course. Antony & Cleopatra’s Act I, Scene 5: “My salad days, When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, To say as I said then!” (Cleo, pre-asp, speaking).
  • I’ve read a lot of William Carlos Williams in my day, but only today came across his “Prelude to Winter”:

The moth under the eaves
with wings like
the bark of a tree, lies
symmetrically still —

And love is a curious
soft-winged thing
unmoving under the eaves
when the leaves fall.

  • Old WCW must’ve known he’d hit on a good thing when he wrote “love is a curious /  soft-winged thing” and then built a little poem around it. Sometimes the line comes first, then drives the poem.
  • The term “glass ceiling,” a popular metaphor that gained greater currency in a presidential election where a woman came this close to winning, should be put out on loan for poets trying to break into major-league journals with names that like… well… names. Just as women have to try harder to just match a man who tries less, wannabe poets and writers have to try harder to match sub-standard work by bigger poet and writer names. Pass the Windex and pray for clear-seeing editors!
  • For my 10-day holiday break, I’ve piled up a few books from interlibrary loan, including Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth (cool title, French setting, and short length) and a collection of Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s work. He’s been on my list to check out for a while, and boy-howdy, is there a lot to check out. This man is a poetic Joyce Carol Oates!
  • To all my readers (all five of you), have a very Merry and a Happy, resolution-free New, too!

The Famous Poets’ Turn: My Favorite Books by the Big-Wigs

 

raycarverYesterday I shared some enjoyable books by small, mom-and-pop authors like that guy I see in the mirror occasionally. You know. Poets working on their craft and still looking for a breakthrough when just the right poem hits just the right editor, allowing him or her to say, “Mais, oui!” to an unknown (which takes a lot of backbone, if you edit a major journal).

In the meantime, let’s look at some big-name poetry books that have spoken to me in a big-name way. The order is random, but the appreciation is sincere.

 

  • All of Us: The Collected Poems of Raymond Carver

Sometimes reading an entire collection of poems cover to cover is exhausting and maybe even inadvisable work. In fact, I often read poetry collections on the side as I’m reading fiction (or non-) because it requires such focus.

You know the feeling. Especially with poems that yawn and stretch out over a page or two. You’re reading and suddenly you realize your mind has drifted, like a newbie meditation acolyte trying on Buddhism for size. You go back. Remind yourself. Focus on the words! Start over! Deep breath and go….

With Raymond Carver, this is less of an issue. One reason is his style. It is quite idiomatic, often written in chummy vernacular. Deceivingly simple, too. A Hemingway of poetry, then. And before long, due to the repeating themes coming at you in waves (like, say, Bach’s music), you feel like ole Ray is your bud. Your best pal. Sympatico. Amigo.

And, say. I can write like this, too! Look how simple! Just as Hem breeds legions of aspiring short story writers who crash into the craggy shores of imitation, so does Carver with poetry imitators. The Scylla and Charybdis of deceptively simple. Scrivener sailors beware.

If, like me, you’re not at home with narrative poetry and caught up with the Johnny One-Note of lyrical poetry, Carver’s the antidote. He’s known for his short stories more than his poetry, but so many of these thrive on the same strengths–the ability to choose a few key details from his own life or another’s, to quickly build a story, to deftly find emotion or one small note of truth in it.

Many of the poems focus on simple things that make life worth living. And on death. Which is ironic and not. On the one hand, death is a theme in most all writer’s writing from the dawn of days. Where do we go? And why me? Special old me? The other irony is Ray’s own early demise to cancer. Struck down at age 50. The last poems are written through that glass darkly.

This particular collection contains every poem Raymond Carver ever wrote. In the back there are appendices, the first one containing his early, unpublished poems. I read these first, then went back and read in order of his four published collections so I could see his growth as a poet. He’s an end-stop guy. When he’s in an enjambment, he knows how to get out of it, so to speak. Lots of dependent clauses with periods. If you’re enamored of complete sentences in your poetry and if grammar violations bother you, enter at your own school marm-ish risk.

Here are some sample works I like:

“Bobber”

On the Columbia River near Vantage,
Washington, we fished for whitefish
in the winter months; my dad, Swede-
Mr. Lindgren-and me. They used belly-reels,
pencil-length sinkers, red, yellow, or brown
flies baited with maggots.
They wanted distance and went clear out there
to the edge of the riffle.
I fished near shore with a quill bobber and a cane pole.

My dad kept his maggots alive and warm
under his lower lip. Mr. Lindgren didn’t drink.
I liked him better than my dad for a time.
He lets me steer his car, teased me
about my name “Junior,” and said
one day I’d grow into a fine man, remember
all this, and fish with my own son.
But my dad was right. I mean
he kept silent and looked into the river,
worked his tongue, like a thought, behind the bait.

“This Morning”

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk — determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.

“My Dad’s Wallet”

Long before he thought of his own death,
my dad said he wanted to lie close
to his parents. He missed them so
after they went away.
He said this enough that my mother remembered,
and I remembered. But when the breath
left his lungs and all signs of life
had faded, he found himself in a town
512 miles away from where he wanted most to be.
My dad, though. He was restless
even in death. Even in death
he had this one last trip to take.
All his life he liked to wander,
and now he had one more place to get to.
The undertaker said he’d arrange it,
not to worry. Some poor light
from the window fell on the dusty floor
where we waited that afternoon
until the man came out of the back room
and peeled off his rubber gloves.
He carried the smell of formaldehyde with him.
He was a big man, the undertaker said.

Then began to tell us why
he liked living in this small town.
This man who’d just opened up my dad’s veins.
How much is it going to cost? I said.
He took out his pad and pen and began
to write. First, the preparation charges.
Then he figured the transportation
of the remains at 22 cents a mile.
But this was a round-trip for the undertaker,
don’t forget. Plus, say, six meals
and two nights in a motel. He figured
some more. Add a surcharge of
$210 for his time and trouble,
and there you have it.
He thought we might argue.
There was a spot of color on
each of his cheeks as he looked up
from his figures. The same poor light
fell in the same poor place on
the dusty floor. My mother nodded
as if she understood. But she
hadn’t understood a word of it.
None of it made any sense to her,
beginning with the time she left home
with my dad. She only knew
that whatever was happening
was going to take money.
She reached into her purse and bought up
my dad’s wallet. The three of us
in that little room that afternoon.
Our breath coming and going.
We stared at the wallet for a minute.
Nobody said anything.
All the life had gone out of the wallet.
It was old and rent and soiled.
But it was my dad’s wallet. And she opened
it and looked inside. Drew out
a handful of money that would go
toward this last, most astounding, trip.

The best compliment I can pay a book is to say I won’t pass it on to a like-minded friend. When I get a little selfish about a book, when I make permanent space like a star on Hollywood on the bookshelf so I can return to it for inspiration, ideas, and unpacking, it’s a five plus. I realize he’s not everybody’s cuppa. He’s not into rhyme, meter, or form poems of any sort. But that’s a snapshot of me, too. Those don’t much appeal to me.

As Mark Twain said of classics, so I say of poetry: I prefer water to fine wine. And if that says something about me, so be it!

 

  • Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems

Often with a book of poetry–especially a collected book of poetry spanning over 300 pages, you are advised to take it piecemeal and slowly, savoring as you read another book with a plot. In the case of Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems, however, that might not be necessary. Although I can’t argue a plot hides in these collected works, I can argue a discernible and growing voice does.

Granted, I’m predisposed to Kenyon’s work because she speaks my language: New England, plants, animals, weather, dogs, small towns, small joys, and melancholia. But the deceiving simplicity with which she pulls it off! Almost matter of factly, she always gives you a surprising image, an unexpected adjective, a sharp noun or verb. And yes, quite often, the little unexpected turn that is the life of so many good poems.

Kenyon mines both her past (parents, grandparents, growing up in Ann Arbor, MI) and her latter days (as wife of Donald Hall–who’s still kicking!– in Wilmot, New Hampshire). She notices the little things in a quotidian life and renders poetry from it. Of course, there’s her most famous poem, “Let Evening Come,” on the back of the hardcover as well as p. 213. And there’s the poem I teach each year in school (“Trouble with Math in a One-Room Country School”), like an old friend throwing a surprise party as I turned the page to 116. But I was happy to make the acquaintance of many quieter joys–too many to number. I’ll share two, though. Two that spoke to me for personal reasons:

Twilight: After Haying

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed —
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
— sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses….

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

It reminds me of Russian novels (which she loved, as these poems reveal)–Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Albumand certainly Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the scenes where Levin takes to the fields to work with the peasants. And here’s another:

Things

The hen flings a single pebble aside
with her yellow, reptilian foot.
Never in eternity the same sound–
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

The juncture of twig and branch,
scarred with lichen, is a gate
we might enter, singing.

The mouse pulls batting
from a hundred-year-old quilt.
She chewed a hole in a blue star
to get it and now she thrives….
Now is her time to thrive.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

The book wraps up with some Kenyon translations of another favorite, Anna Akhmatova. Here Kenyon takes Akhmatova’s form verse and renders it into free verse. A kindred soul, Akhmatova also knew the power of the twist, the subtle, unexpected turn, the juxtaposition of the ordinary with a kindred surprise.

Another one of those frustratingly lovely poets who makes it look easy. Until you try to emulate her facility. Still, well worth rereading. As a dipper this time. With an old friend who left unexpectedly and almost cruelly, given she expected her husband to die and had to deal with it before learning that he would miraculously survive while she would be diagnosed–with leukemia– which killed her at age 47.

For Jane Kenyon, Evening Came much too soon, and it’s all our losses….

 

  • James Wright: Collected Poems

Usually, as you read a book, you learn more and more about it. But sometimes, as you read a book, you learn more and more about yourself.

Such was the case with James Wright’s Collected Poems. Containing poems, as it does, from early in Wright’s career to late, you watch his progression from formal poet accomplished in rhyme, to freelance poet extraordinaire, to experimental poet as he listens for fate’s footsteps.

What did I learn? I’m not a fan of form poetry or of rhyming poetry. Subtle rhymes, yes, but rhyme schemes sound sing-songy to my philistine ears. And long poems? Lord, I lack patience. Once it travels to a third page, I’m dogging it like Mile 24 on the marathon. Just throw me across the line! Just give me a tall, cold drink of 12-line poetry.

You get the point. The true poetry readers may now shake their heads at me.

OK, that out of the way, I can tell you that this collection, while good, was beyond good in the case of poems from The Branch Will Not Break, issued in 1963. Wright was in his free verse phase, and I was right at home. And my, how lovely these were. The nature and horses, the trees and water, the light and the dark playing off of each other.

True, Wright is obsessed by death, but who isn’t? All literature is obsessed by it. Thematically, it is the unstoppable frontrunner. Two of Wright’s most famous poems are in The Branch. I love them both, even though loving popular poems is unpopular. Eh. Who am I to deem cool poetry uncool strictly by dint of its popularity? If I like it, I like it–whether the cheese stands alone or in a crowd.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

It’s pretty, but the last line is shockingly pretty. If regret rides like remoras on all of our spirits, then this line resonates. And what about this beauty?

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

And hey, the poem hiding the title isn’t bad, either. It speaks to why Wright left sooner than he’d wish: alcoholism.

Two Hangovers

Number One

I slouch in bed.
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women
Sorting slate from anthracite
Between railroad ties:
The yellow-bearded winter of the depression
Is still alive somewhere, an old man
Counting his collection of bottle caps
In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees
Of my grave.

I still feel half drunk,
And all those old women beyond my window
Are hunching toward the graveyard.

Drunk, mumbling Hungarian,
The sun staggers in,
And his big stupid face pitches
Into the stove.
For two hours I have been dreaming
Of green butterflies searching for diamonds
In coal seams;
And children chasing each other for a game
Through the hills of fresh graves.
But the sun has come home drunk from the sea,
And a sparrow outside
Sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.
The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble
In music like delicate birds.
Ah, turn it off.

Number Two: I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again

In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my window sill,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and
down,
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.

Here you see a remnant from Wright’s formal past–capitalization at the beginning of every line. Now that’s old school!

Sad, lovely, full of nature and sensitivity, Wright’s a poet I’m glad I met.

 

  • Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa is a kindred soul in that she views the world askance and deeply understands its ironies. Where she veers from other poets is her gentle amusement with it all. Maybe she feels bitter, sarcastic, angry, etc., but she keeps it under wraps and instead couples irony with charm, an appealingly odd couple indeed. She has a knack for comparisons, too. What’s metaphor? Quite a bit, in Wislawa’s view.

The collection gets stronger over time, with very few works chosen from early collections. This is cheering news for new poets, for it shows that even poets good enough to get published are works in progress, getting stronger with each collection.

Two of my favorites are fairly well known works, “A Contribution to Statistics” and “The Joy of Writing”:

A Contribution of Statistics

Out of a hundred people

those who always know better
-fifty-two

doubting every step
-nearly all the rest,

glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
-as high as forty-nine,

always good
because they can’t be otherwise
-four, well maybe five,

able to admire without envy
-eighteen,

suffering illusions
induced by fleeting youth
-sixty, give or take a few,

not to be taken lightly
-forty and four,

living in constant fear
of someone or something
-seventy-seven,

capable of happiness
-twenty-something tops,

harmless singly, savage in crowds
-half at least,

cruel
when forced by circumstances
-better not to know
even ballpark figures,

wise after the fact
-just a couple more
than wise before it,

taking only things from life
-thirty
(I wish I were wrong),

hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
-eighty-three
sooner or later,

righteous
-thirty-five, which is a lot,

righteous
and understanding
-three,

worthy of compassion
-ninety-nine,

mortal
-a hundred out of a hundred.
thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word ‘woods.’
Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand. 

Nice, no? Very nice. Among other favorite titles I wrote down:

“Miracle’s Fair”
“Some People Like Poetry”
“Hatred”
“May 16, 1973”
“Among the Multitudes”
“The Three Oddest Words”
“A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth”
“Early Hour”
“Photograph from September 11”
“An Idea”
“To My Own Poem”

 

  • Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser

Like rime, Kooser’s a little like Frost and a little unlike him. He is a poet of the prosaic, lifting the ordinary to extraordinary heights before our very eyes. A bucket of dishwater, his grandmother’s radio, a spider on a gravestone, a jar of buttons. Delights in the minutiae of the Midwest, yes, but they resonate and know no borders. Even two-liners are a wonder:

Starlight

All night, this soft rain from the distant past.
No wonder I sometimes waken as a child.

A master of metaphor, he sees one ordinary object inside another, presents it the way you’d pop the head off a matroshka doll, elicits an “Of course!” from his readers. He is a writer of wooden rooms with slants of sun ray, lilies by the well-used steps, weed-weary cemeteries, kitchens filled with “the warm wet breath of apples” during applesauce-making time.

Life, then.

If you feel the black dogs of depression creeping up, read Kooser. It’s the little things — and I don’t mean pills — that must buoy us, make us smile and say, “Yes, that’s it. Right there. Taken for granted, yet a wonder….”

My Personal Pantheon of Favorite Poetry Books: Part One

poetry

T’is the the season and shoppers are bustling to stores under silver bells on a midnight clear to buy last minute books. For fans of poetry, I thought I’d recap a few of my all-time favorites, both among the Soon-To-Be-Famous (the little guys, so to speak) and the Famous (the name recognition crowd). First things first. For today’s post, the not-so-famous. For tomorrow’s, the better known.

  • Fugitive Pigments by Ruth Bavetta

OK, I admit that I might have missed some of the painting-oriented poems’ allusions, and that I don’t know Alice Neel from Alice B. Toklas, but consider how a “painting poem” works marvelously as a “writing poem,” too:

To Make a Mark

Emptiness is deadly. To master it
you must blemish it. A long slashing
line, a curve curling back
upon itself; a line that winds
with no end in mind.

Once you have destroyed perfection
you will be entering
a country you have not known.
I will not tell you this.

You may find something amazing —
someone to take your hand, a waterfall,
a fall from three flights up.
I will not tell you this, either.

I will tell you that it doesn’t matter
if, by the end, your first mark
has disappeared. It matters only
that you have made it.
Pick up your pencil now.
Begin.

Reads like a terrific argument against writer’s block to me!

Some poems that spoke to me especially were “Black, White,” “Drawing Conclusions” (will use as an inference exercise in class, thank you), “Fog,” “To Make a Mark,” “First Lesson” (also parallels a writer’s experience, though it calls on artistic masters to make its point), “The Color of Wind” (another great poetry exemplar for the classroom), and “Beacon.”

But these are just froth atop the lovely cream. Rich, rewarding comfort (and sometimes disturbing comfort) food here.

 

  • The Bad Guys by Paul Hostovsky

OK, so I’m a little biased here. I’ve broken bread (bagel, actually) with Paul, talked poetry with him and traded tales of the publishing (and, in the case of rejections, non-publishing) world.

So, yes. There’s that. But really, I could as well appreciate his work from two states over as two towns. An “Everyman’s” poet whose style is conversational yet wise, his topics run the gamut from fatherhood to schooldays to music to religion to literature to artists to composers to politicians to marriage to sex. And that’s just for appetizers.

In keeping with the theme (and title poem, which compares military generals to little boys in their mutual fascination with “bad guys”), the book features not only guys of questionable character but guys (and gals) you’ll cheer for (not to mention the plentiful in betweens).

There’s a hippie boy named October, for instance, who has the misfortune of attending a school where there’s a plain girl named June and thus endures such lewd taunts as “It feels like October in June.” The bullying forces his parents to relocate where the boy de-Woodstocks and takes on the name Toby. “It was not unlike/the federal witness protection program,” according to the poem. There’s the slow boy in “Sunday School” who want to know “if God, too, is slow.” There’s even the poet’s son and daughter at the opera:

… What was I thinking?
I was recently separated from their mother
who had no ear for opera and no love in her heart
for me. But I loved Mozart and I loved
my children, and it seemed a good idea at the time…”

In the end, the children fall asleep before Don Giovanni gets dragged to hell. Outside, the speaker is forced to “”tell Mozart/to take a backseat to my daughter gently snoring/in my arms now and my son riding piggyback/as I carried them like that, a kind of armor/their sweet sleep-smell enclosing me/all the way back to my car.”

Nice. The armor metaphor, I mean, and the alliterative beauty of the “sweet sleep-smell” of little kids. Music of a different sort, that.

One of my favorite poems is “Dear Edvard Munch,” which I plan to use for a classroom writing challenge. First, the poem:

Dear Edvard Munch
by Paul Hostovsky

We love a good scream.
And we’d like to put yours
to music with a video
option (contract enclosed).
Pain is in, especially pain in
tune, and the gravelly voice
of our own wretchedness
broadcast back to us
is beautiful to our modern
way of thinking. We were thinking
Joe Cocker, or maybe Springsteen,
Tina Turner if the figure on the bridge
is female (please advise). The baldness
is brilliant, Edvard, brilliant —
baldness is in, and we love it
as much as we love the bloody sky,
the oozing lake and rolling precipice
(blood and ooze and rock and roll
are in) and we would only lower
one hand (the irony will not be lost
on the grandmothers) and it could be
either hand — your choice — the other
remaining at the ear the way you have it —
and lo! the scream turns into
song, the sexless figure turns
into the sexy recording artist
with a hand cupped to one ear,
the mouth unchanged in the center,
like the eye of the cyclone
which is raging all around in a black
chorus. Sign in the lower
right-hand corner
and fed-ex back to us.

The poem shows many of Paul Hostovsky’s signature strengths — creativity, allusion, humor, subtle satire, and strong word choice.

Me, I’ll show Munch’s famous painting first and have the kids write letters to the artist, too, considering all the possible people who might be after his time and talents and money were he alive today. Only when they’re done will they see Paul’s work.

Should be fun. Much like the book…

 

  • The Briar Patch by J. Kates

I had the pleasure of meeting J. Kates at my first poetry reading, where he served ably as reader #2. We exchanged books and, reading The Briar Patch, I feel as though I got to know Kates better. Jim is a New Hampshire poet and, as one might expect, harvests topics from the land around him. But he also explores a wide range of other topics, from the seasons to classic Greeks to Monet paintings to the Buddha to foreigners and exiles to politics to other cultures and history.

The book is divided into four sections, “How It Was,” “Now and Then,” “Desires,” and “Harvest of the Fields.” The last section allows Kates to share one of his passions, translating. It includes a wide range of authors, new and old: Gaius Valerius Catullus, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Richard Plantagenet Coeur de Lion, Olivier de Magney, Gérard de Nerval, Jacques Prévert, René Daumal, Evgeny Saburov, Alexey Shelvakh, Sergey Magid, Aleksandra Sozonova, Nikolai Baitov, and Arsen Mirzaev. There are helpful biographic capsules on each translated poet at the end.

Here is a poem, simple but true, from the “How It Was” section:

Underwater

Underwater, under cold water
I pull and stroke, holding tight
to my chest the warm air,
letting it out in useless bubbles
by the count of kicks, farther
and farther from the shore.
Even here, there is above and below
darkening as I make for the center
of the wide lake, while overhead
a small circle of everyday
swims with me, always the same blue
and always ready to save my life.

And here Kates shows his facility with rhyming, a place I haven’t gone yet (and may never, for all I know):

Stone Rubbing: A Local Graveyard

These black, faithful slaves who stand
through all weathers by their forgetful masters
at the open door, winged and grinning
and utterly submissive to my cold hand

will not leave off their warnings, prayers,
remembrances, even when I shroud them
and lift their souls into my own book.
Whatever I take, I leave what is most theirs.

I have been their gardener, their tender,
for my own end a servant to these servants
who care as little as their masters do
for anything less than apocalyptic splendor.

Who carved the slate felt for the dead

perhaps, and those who set the stone,
far more than my pathetic fallacies
can do, which take the cold death’s head

and touch it every way but as my own.

The Briar Patch is part of The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series (Hobblebush being a small press that features New Hampshire poets in particular).

 

  • Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuoung

Nota Bene: I’m not sure Ocean still rates as an “unknown” like the likes of me, but I’m going to insert him here anyway and wish him well because one more book like this one and he’ll happily leave this category for good.
Ocean has a way with words. Words that demand attention. I still remember the Beloit Poetry Journal poem of his I read, “Telemachus.” I loved that poem. And here it is, washed ashore in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I hoped I would find another poem that I loved more, but I still loved this one best:

Telemachus

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where he left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba
? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own and begin
the faithful work of drowning.

Wow. And the father theme is a painful refrain that keeps repeating in this book. Father and prison. Father and alcohol. Father and violence. The exit wounds are all over the page. Here he is again in a poem that landed in some magazine or other called The New Yorker:

Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuoung

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

Some cool lines I jotted from the book, lines that sound like the ocean cupped to your ear:

“…the rain falling through him: guitar strings snapping over his globed shoulders”

“Even my name knelt down inside me…”

“Found the way a green bottle might appear at a boy’s feet, containing a year he has never touched”

“He moves like any other fracture, revealing the briefest doors…”

“…as the field shreds itself with cricket cries”

As you can see, OV knows his way around a word. He is a deft master of unexpected word pairs. I admit, it didn’t always work and sometimes led to the big, “Huh?” but when it does work, it is rewarding work, well-worth sweating over.

And so I toil. And recommend YOU toil, too. Despite occasional misfires, some real winners here. And my old friend Telemachus, too. Forgive us, Father, for we have sinned…

 

  • Running Counterclockwise by Alarie Tenille

Time. Like death, it is one of the universal themes of literature (and hey, death is an embedded aspect of time, no?). In this fine collection, Alarie Tennille gives time the Janus treatment by looking in both directions and finding inspiration for poetry. The collection is an eclectic mix of family, memories, insightful observations on society, and (wildcard!) ekphrastic poems that serve as frosting on the cake.

In “Bequest,” Tennille wonders “what it would be like/to donate 29 of my poems, to open/a new poetry wing at a museum.” This is one of the earliest of many poems to link poetry and painting, often with water lilies and Monet in particular as the mortar.

The bittersweet “Speeding Good-Bye” uses a mother’s death and protecting a father from it to good effect: ”

…So we
packed her tiny shoes and bright
dresses of Goodwill,

kept just just a few pieces of jewelry.
We left him no nightgown
to cradle, no familiar cologne,

no hint she might only
have gone to work for the day.
A cruel kindness.

Other entries using imagery or wry observation include these favorites: “To a Friend Now Dead” about an old high school friend who avoided the camera; “The Gift” about a stapler Dad foolishly gifted Mom for Christmas (and boy, howdy, can men relate to this poem!); “Anastasia” about a women who claimed to be the Romanov great until death and DNA tests out her; “In Pursuit,” which uses the metaphor of a cat chasing a reflection to humans pursuing happiness (Thomas Jefferson-like); and “I Predict,” a nifty morality meditation on fortune mis-tellers.

All in all, a fast and enjoyable trip through time and a collection to be proud of!

Li Po’s Little Boat Redux

li-po

From across the ages and continents, Chinese poet Li Po is still inspiring. What a delightful surprise to find him on p. 26 of W.S. Merwin’s newest collection, Garden Time.

When reading poetry collections, you live for these moments. No collection is filled to the gunwales with wonders, but good ones hit you with a few along the way, and that’s all you can ask from a full book of poetry.

Merwin’s homage to Li Po is one of those good poems. At least its smallness spoke to me in a big way. Sure, I’m a sucker for poems about time, the enduring and the fleeting, and this one touches all those buttons, but still… in only nine lines! Whew!

Take a look-see yourself. Whether a fan of Li Po’s or Merwin’s, you’ll enjoy, I’m sure:

“River” by W.S. Merwin

Li Po the little boat is gone
that carried you ten thousand li
downstream past the gibbons calling
all the way from both banks and they
too are gone and the forests they
were calling from and you are gone
and every sound you heard is gone
now there is only the river
that was always on its own way

Sometimes personification, the little stepchild of figurative language, can work in unexpected and subtle ways. This would be one of those times. Catch my drift?

W. S. Merwin’s “Remembering Summer”

fleur

We are but 11 days away from the shortest day of the year and the start of winter, December 21st. What better day to celebrate a new Merwin poem called “Remembering Summer”?

It’s found in William Stanley’s newest collection, Garden Time, that title itself a relic of summer, at least here in the northern, freeze-your-nonnies-off zone. (That’s Shakespeare talk: “Hey, nonny-nonny.”)

The poems in this book take a page out of the Pole Zbigniew Herbert’s stylebook. Meaning: The first word of each poem is capitalized, as is the pronoun “I” (which looks admittedly foolish and adolescent when it’s lower-cased) but, beyond that, everything is as low as the e’s in cummings with no punctuation to speak of (just don’t speak of it to your 6th-grade English teacher).

Anyway, as walking the dog this week hasn’t been as simple and straightforward as it used to be, given the temps in the 20’s Fahrenheit and the wind in your face, let’s reminisce, shall we?

“Remembering Summer” by W. S. Merwin

Being too warm the old lady said to me
is better than being too cold I think now
in between is the best because you never
give it a thought but it goes by too fast
I remember the winter how cold it got
I could never get warm wherever I was
but I don’t remember the summer heat like that
only the long days the breathing of the trees
the evenings with the hens still talking in the lane
and the light getting longer in the valley
the sound of a bell from down there somewhere
I can sit here now still listening to it

Ah, yes. The hens. The bells. I’m not sure where Merwin lives and writes, but I have a feeling New York City isn’t it. And if he did, would he really want to remember summer in such skyscrapered, police-sirened environs? Summer only stretches out and sleeps in its true languorous loveliness in the country, seems to me.

December, Tinseled Traitor Month

christmas-bulb

Just like that, it’s December. You remember him, looking like a page of artwork out of Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Past. Big and bearded and jolly in his sumptuous and colorful robes as he overlooks scenes of joy and fellowship. This would be old (and impossibly green) tannenbaums , plum puddings, heartfelt carols and (wait for it!) gifts.

Silver. And sold (as in “out to capitalism”).

Writing prompt: Write about December. Free verse (though nothing’s for free in December, not even stocking stuffers). Write about the holiday, the anticipation, the tidings of comfort and joy. Write about 24/7 Christmas carols on radio stations driving carols into the clichéd ground. Write about lists a mile long, money a mile spent, stress a month hiked.

Write on this: “Christmas Magic: Strong as Ever or Hiding Out in Amazonian Jungles with the Dodo Bird?”

C. Clement Moore made his mark writing about Christmas, as did many song writers. For writers of poetry and prose, this means there’s money in them there hills. Lots. You just have to go out, 49er-like, and mine it.

The financial opportunities are even greater in the once united States this year. With a president-elect who scares the bejesus out of the majority of voters who chose his opponent, the numbers are legion among those seeking succor. Christmas as comfort food, then. In the key of ka-ching. If you write it, they will read.

Or you can be an Eeyore, a downer, a Christmas curmudgeon. Rail against it or write your dirges to it. “On the twelfth day of depression, my not-so-true love gave to me…” and so forth.

Any way you look at it, Christmas and the much-dreaded new year are sources of inspiration for writers. And whether you cheerlead or satirize the beast, writing about it will be therapeutic. So think of your screen or notepad as a much cheaper therapist. And stop eating so much sugar, else you begin to look like a well-rounded plum with no dancing skills (or a right jolly old elf with no Weight Watchers chapter in his town).

31 days. We can do this. Just don’t take a leave from writing, whatever you do. To be left to the mercies of the holidays is against the Geneva Convention, I’m more than sure.

Page 489, column 2, footnote 3b.