According to The New York Review of Books, only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. Whether this is the result of American isolationism, or commercial practicalities is a subject […]
According to The New York Review of Books, only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. Whether this is the result of American isolationism, or commercial practicalities is a subject […]
2.3 million people are currently imprisoned in the United States, that’s one out of every 100 adults—more per capita than any other country in the world. (Repressive China is a distant second, with one in […]
The poems in Beth Copeland’s Transcendental Telemarketer evoke a range of emotions and places. They’re colorful and playful, but also rich in meaning.
Copeland writes about the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, Hokusai’s “great wave,” and Japanese typhoons, […]
We lost one of our greatest poets this week—Irish writer Seamus Heaney. The news of the Nobel Laureate’s death at the age of 74 came as a shock to the literary community, particularly to readers […]
What a pleasure to have writer Jim Harrison re-launching Gwarlingo’s Sunday Poem series this weekend.
Harrison’s poetry, fiction, and essays pack a visceral punch. His writing is steeped in the senses, in nature, and the American […]
There is no new Sunday Poem post today because of the holiday weekend, but I do have Sunday Poem news to share….
Back in April, I featured the one-of-a-kind artist and poetry book Concrete Sound—a collaboration […]
The epigraph that opens Geoffrey Nutter’s new collection, The Rose of January, (Wave Books, 2013), is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Lettuce, apple, or melon, in season—so long as it is good….When their hour is past do not try to move the hand back on the dial & do them again but try that undone something which is in season now, celery, ice, or cucumbers.”
It’s the perfect beginning for “the undone something”captures the essence of Nutter’s poetry.
Nutter has a playful style, and his poems encourage readers to accept the creations of his imagination at face value, whether he is writing about “famous androids,” a clock tower, a “cubicle farm,” “Habitable Bridges,” or “The City of Magnificent Distances.” Like Italo Calvino meets Wallace Stevens meets William Gass with a dash of Kafka tossed in, Nutter’s writing has one foot planted firmly in reality and the other in the fantastical world of the poet’s imagination.
Nutter’s universe is both strange and familiar. Much like a Surrealist painter, he has a talent for throwing disparate items together, and the end result is both surprising and entirely original. One doesn’t expect a poem about Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s famous bout with Mustafa Hamsho to reference rainbow trout or a fleur-de-lys. Unexpected juxtapositions and non sequiturs characterize The Rose of January. Emerson’s “celery, ice, or cucumbers” could be a line from a Geoffrey Nutter poem.
Nutter has a wicked sense of humor too. In “King of the Dudes,” for example, he takes the idea of a “bad dad” and runs with it. “One Halloween we did dress my daughter up as a little man, complete with mustache and pipe,” Nutter told me via email, “and I thought, ‘Jesus, what kind of sick father would do such a thing…?'” Nutter uses the incident as inspiration and, in his own words, pushes the idea “to ridiculous extremes.”
“Some of the same parenting ambivalence comes out in ‘Invective Against Pugs,” says Nutter, “which is about pugs but also about parents and the way they (we) sort of exalt children”:
People with babies
are as strange as people
with pugs. Pugs, so small
and ugly, baby-like,
inexplicably decked out
or dolled up in their
Geoffrey Nutter has a sharp eye, as well, and uses his sense of humor to throw everyday objects and incidents into high relief.
In “Tire Manufacturers” Nutter creates poetry by listing tire-makers from around the world:
Kenda Rubber, Southeast Asia.
Michelin. Mitsuboshi Belting. Mohawk Rubber.
Panther (England), Phillips Petroleum.
Phoenix Gummiwerke. Samson, Titan Tire.
This poem and “Remember the Telephone Book” (included below), show Nutter’s skill at making even the most banal objects intriguing.
“Geoffrey Nutter[s']… poetry seems to be powered equally by sunlight, virtue, wonder, and humility,” writes Nate Pritts of Rain Taxi. I couldn’t agree more.
Here are five poems from The Rose of January to kick off your Sunday.
Remember the Telephone Book
Remember the telephone book?
It once enjoyed pride of place
in many a kitchen, in many
a breakfast nook, warped
and yellow, its spine out of joint,
thicker than the Pentateuch and Septuagint,
thicker than the Ramayana, vaguely
scrofulous and antiquated even just
unwrapped from its cellophane sleeve.
You would reach for it, retrieve it
as one would pull something fully formed
from wet loam, heave it up on your knees
and it would flop open on your knees,
just a little obscenely. In its
white pages you could always find
the number for one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
or the street address for Clara Aufklärung;
in its yellow pages how to terminate
manhole rats or the Bridge and Tunnel
Authority, the blue pages for the offices
of governance in domed enclosures
or how to contact the sellers of tiles,
bricks, porcelain insulators,
and household crockery. And now?
Well then. It seems the telephone book has gone the way
of the top hat, the nosegay, the Automat, the rules
for auction bridge, the Hobson-Jobson
dictionary, or the plays of Richard
Brinsley Sheridan. Some printing concern,
likely in New Jersey, is printing still,
at night in a hidden maze of districts,
and some shadow courier service is bringing
them around to you; but who will have
the heavy, humble though self-serious
telephone book? You can see them stacked
like yellow cinder blocks in lobbies,
clumped in a master-block by shrink wrap
beneath the dark mail slots. A few days
later, someone just as discreetly
takes them away to an as yet undisclosed location.
What was your least favorite age? For many of us, 13 stands out as a particularly hellacious year. Today’s Sunday Poem “13 Ways of Looking at 13″ by writer and performer Patricia Smith takes us back to those early, tormented growing pains.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” Not only is she is the author of six critically-acclaimed volumes of poetry, but she has written plays, journalism, a children’s book, and nonfiction. (I’ve experienced her DJ skills first-hand, as well, and Patricia knows how to rock the house!)
But it’s on stage that Patricia’s gift for language and rhythm shines. Whether she’s inhabiting the consciousness of an angry, racist skinhead on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam or performing with a jazz band at the Elizabeth R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, Smith’s talent will hit you like a lightning bolt. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, with the blues band Bop Thunderous, as an occasional vocalist with the improvisational jazz groups Paradigm Shift and Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble, and she is four-time national individual champion of the notorious and wildly popular Poetry Slam, the most successful competitor in slam history.
I love this description of Patricia’s performances from her website, a testament to the kind of range she possesses as an artist:
Writing conferences and festivals. Kindergarten classrooms. Prisons. Barnes & Noble. A train platform in Berlin. Jazz clubs. Harvard Law School. A Chicago mayoral inauguration. Several thousand African-American History Month celebrations. Libraries. Juvenile detention centers. HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” Osaka, in front of 10,000 Japanese businessmen. Collaborating with The Urban Bush Women. The beach in Bahia. A Milwaukee bar filled with some very testy bikers. Baptist churches. Right before Viggo Mortensen. Right after Madeline Albright. Under the direction of a Nobel Prize winner. In a commercial for Oil of Olay. Patricia’s voice has been everywhere.
Smith’s work defies categorization. As one critic wrote, her “readings are often a heady mix of haunting personas, meditations on current events and jazz-tinged improvisation. Personal reminiscences about growing up unsure and imperfect, her close relationship with her father and the mine-littered landscape of race and class have made her hugely popular with teen and young adult audiences.”
Here is Patricia performing “13 Ways of Looking at 13,” which is from her book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. As she explains in her introduction, the poem is composed of 13 stanzas, 13 lines per stanza, and 13 syllables per line.
Enjoy your Sunday!
13 Ways of Looking at 13
You touch your forefinger to the fat clots in the blood,
then lift its iron stench to look close, searching the globs
of black scarlet for the dimming swirl of dead children.
You thread one thick pad’s cottony tail, then the other,
through the little steel guides of the belt. You stand and lift
the contraption, press your thighs close to adjust the bulk,
then bend to pull up coarse white cotton panties bleached blue,
and just to be safe, you pin the bottom of the pad
to the shredding crotch of the Carter’s. And then you spritz
the guilty air with the cloying kiss of FDS.
It’s time to begin the game of justifying ache,
time to name the mystery prickling riding your skin.
You’re convinced the boys can smell you, and they can, they can.
Right now, this Tuesday in July, nothing’s headier
than the words Sheen! Manageable! Bounce! Squinting into
the smeared mirror, you search your ghetto-ripe head for them,
you probe with greased fingers, spreading paths in the chaos
wide enough for the advertised glimmer to escape,
but your snarls hold tight to their woven dry confounding.
Fevered strands snap under the drag of the wiry brush
and order unfurls, while down the hall mama rotates
the hot comb in a bleary blaze, smacks her joyful gum.
Still, TV bellows its promise. You witness the pink
snap of the perfect neck, hear the impossible vow–
Shampoo with this! Sheen! Bounce! Her cornsilk head is gospel,
it’s true. C’mon chile! Even mama’s calling you burns.
Ms. Stein scribbled a word on the blackboard, said Who can
pronounce this?, and the word was anemone and from
that moment you first felt the clutter of possible
in your mouth, from the time you stumbled through the rhythm
and she slow-smiled, you suddenly knew you had the right
to be explosive, to sling syllables through back doors,
to make up your own damned words just when you needed them.
All that day, sweet anemone tangled in your teeth,
spurted sugar tongue, led you to the dictionary
where you were assured that it existed, to the cave
of the bathroom where you warbled it in bounce echo,
and, finally convinced you owned that teeny gospel,
you wrote it again and again and again and a–.
Trying hard to turn hips to slivers, sway to stutter,
you walk past the Sinclair station where lanky boys, dust
in their hair, dressed in their uniforms of oil and thud,
rename you pussy with their eyes. They bring sounds shudder
and blue from their throats just for you, serve up the ancient
sonata of skin drum and conch shell, sing suggesting woos
of AM radio, boom, boom, How you gon’ just walk
on by like that? and suddenly you know why you are
stitched so tight, crammed like a flash bomb into pinafore,
obeying mama’s instructions to be a baby
as long as you can. Because it’s a man’s world and James
Brown is gasoline, the other side of slow zippers.
He is all of it, the pump, pump, the growled please please please.
You try to keep your hands off your face, but the white-capped
pimples might harbor evil. It looks like something cursed
is trying to escape your cheeks, your whole soul could be
involved. So you pinch, squeeze and pop, let the smelly snow
splash the mirror, slather your fresh-scarred landscape with creams
that clog and strangle. At night, you look just like someone
obsessed with the moon, its gruff superstitions, its lies.
Your skin is a patchwork of wishing. You scrub and dab
and mask and surround, you bombard, spritz and peel, rubbing
alcohol, flesh-toned Clearasil that pinkens and cakes
while new dirtworms shimmy beneath the pummeled surface
of you. Every time you touch your face, you leave a scar.
Hey, you. Every time you touch your face, you leave a scar.
You want it all: Pickles with peppermint sticks shoved down
their middles, orange-cheesed popcorn mixed with barbecue chips,
waxed lips and werewolf fangs injected with bright blue juice,
red licorice spaghetti whips, pickled pig feet and
ears, hogshead cheese, Lemonheads, grits with sugar, salt pork,
sardines on saltines doused with red spark. All that Dixie
dirt binds, punches your insides flat, re-teaches the blind
beat of your days. Like mama and her mother before
her, you pulse on what is thrown away–gray hog guts stewed
improbable and limp, scrawny chicken necks merely
whispering meat. You will live beyond the naysayers,
your rebellious heart constructed of lard and salt, your
life labored but long. You are built of what should kill you.
Always treat white folks right, her solemn mantra again
and yet again, because they give you things. Like credit,
compliments, passing grades, government jobs, direction,
extra S&H stamps, produce painted to look fresh,
a religion. When the insurance man came, she snapped
herself alive, hurriedly rearranged her warm bulk. He
was balding badly, thatches of brown on a scabbed globe.
Just sign here, he hissed, staring crave into her huge breasts,
pocketing the death cash, money she would pay and pay
and never see again. C’mere girl, say hello to
Mister Fred. She had taught you to bow. She taught him
to ignore the gesture, to lock his watering eyes
to yours and lick his dry lips with a thick, coated tongue.
In the bathroom of the what-not joint on the way to
school, you get rid of the starch and billowed lace, barrettes
taming unraveling braids, white knee socks and sensible
hues. From a plastic bag, you take out electric blue
eye shadow, platforms with silver-glittered heels, neon
fishnets and a blouse that doesn’t so much button as
suggest shut. The transformation takes five minutes, and you
emerge feeling like a budding lady but looking,
in retrospect, like a blind streetwalker bursting from
a cocoon. This is what television does, turns your
mother into clueless backdrop, fills your pressed head with
the probability of thrum. Your body becomes
just not yours anymore. It’s a dumb little marquee.
With your bedroom door closed, you are skyscraper bouffant,
peach foundation, eyelashes like upturned claws. You are
exuding ice, pinched all over by earrings, you are
too much of woman for this room. The audience has
one chest, a single shared chance to gasp. They shudder, heave,
waiting for you to open your mouth and break their hearts.
Taking the stage, you become an S, pour ache into your
hip swings, tsk tsk as the front row collapses. Damn, they
want you. You lift the microphone, something illegal
comes out of you, a sound like titties and oil. Mama
flings the door open with a church version of your name.
Then you are pimpled, sexless, ashed and doubledutch knees.
You are spindles. You are singing into a hairbrush.
This is what everyone else is doing: skating in
soul circles, skinning shins, tongue-kissing in the coat room,
skimming alleys for Chicago rats, failing English, Math,
crushing curfew, lying about yesterday and age,
slipping Woolworth’s bounty into an inside pocket,
sprouting breasts. Here is what everyone else is doing:
sampling the hotness of hootch, grinding under blue light,
getting turned around in the subway, flinging all them
curse words, inhaling a quick supper before supper
fried up in hot Crisco and granulated sugar,
sneaking out through open windows when the night goes dark,
calling mamas bitches under their breath, staying up
till dawn to see what hides. What you are doing: Reading.
You are never too old. And you are never too world,
too almost grown, you are never correct, no matter
how many times you are corrected. It is never
too late, never too early to be told to cross the
street to the place where the wild stuff is, to suffer her
instructions: No, not that little switch, get the big one,
the one that makes that good whipping sound when the breeze blows,
and you are never too fast crossing the boulevard
to bring it back while winged sedans carve jazz on your path.
You climb the stairs, she screams Get up here! The door to where
you live with her flies open. She snatches the thorned branch,
whips it a hundred times across the backs of your legs.
You want her to die. Not once, no. Many times. Gently.
That boy does not see you. He sees through you, past your tone
of undecided earth. You are the exact shade of
the failed paper bag test, the Aunt Esther, you are hair
forever turning back in the direction from which
it came. You are clacking knees and nails bitten to blood.
Stumbling forth in black, Jesus-prescribed shoes, you have no
knowledge of his knowledge of hip sling and thrust. That boy
does not see you. So squeeze your eyes shut and imagine
your mouth touching the swell of his forearm. Imagine
just your name’s first syllable in the sugared well of
his throat. Dream of all the ways he is not walking past
you again, turning his eyes to the place where you are,
where you’re standing, where you shake, where you pray, where you aren’t.
You’re almost 14. And you think you’re ready to push
beyond the brutal wisdoms of the 1 and the 3,
but some nagging crave in you doesn’t want to let go.
You suspect that you will never be this unfinished,
all Hail Mary and precipice, stuttering sashay,
fuses in your swollen chest suddenly lit, spitting,
and you’ll need to give your hips a name for what they did
while you weren’t there. You’ll miss the pervasive fever that
signals bloom, the sore lessons of jumprope in your calves.
This is last year your father is allowed to touch
you. Sighing, you push Barbie’s perfect body through the
thick dust of a top shelf. There her prideful heart thunders.
She has hardened you well. She has taught you everything.
Note: This introduction is a guest post by Kathryn Stripling Byer, a writer who has also been featured as a Gwarlingo Sunday Poet. Kathryn’s essay appears in Nancy Simpson’s Living Above the Frost Line: New and Selected Poems from Carolina Wren Press (2010).
Nancy Simpson has enriched the literary community of North Carolina for over thirty years. Her work was first heralded by the late Richard Hugo when he read and celebrated her poems at the Callanwolde Literary Festival in Atlanta, shortly after she began to show her poetry around to friends and readers in the far reaches of western North Carolina. He praised her rich inner life and her ability to give expression to it as it manifested itself in her everyday life. Whether driving over the Nantahala Gorge in “Night Student,” expressing the complexity of self in “Driven into the interior,” or documenting the carnage of the first Gulf War in “Voices from the Fringe,” she brings the inner and outer worlds of her experience into a harmony that resonates like the current giving voice and shape to the mountain creeks she loves.
Living Above the Frost Line: Selected and New Poems traces the growth of a poet determined to survive despite the obstacles raised by age, mortality, and the inevitable losses that come from being alive in this world. Through her poetry she greets that half-drowned woman, harking from her Florida girlhood, who appears as her muse in “Bridge On the River Kwai, “ bearing gifts of memory and sustaining images. In return the poet gives her “a mountain, the safest place to be.” Rarely has the relationship between poet and muse been so beautifully expressed.
I met Nancy in the summer of 1978, when she invited me to read at the Clay County Library. My daughter was only a few months old, and I recall my husband walking her around the town square while I read, so that she would not disturb anyone should she begin to cry. Afterward Nancy and I stayed in close touch, sharing our poems and those of other poets we admired, as well as our desire to help generate a community of writers and readers in our mountain region. Some of her first poems were published in The Arts Journal, a monthly publication out of Asheville, for which I was Poetry Editor. Those years were time of transition for her as both poet and woman finding her way beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother. Her love for the western North Carolina landscape began to take metaphorical shape in her poetry, giving voice to the interplay between the human voice and that of the physical world around her.
After receiving her MFA degree from Warren Wilson’s low residency program, where she worked with Heather McHugh, her chapbook and full-length collection were published by State Street Press, edited by Judith Kitchen. A recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, Simpson has published widely in magazines ranging from The Georgia Review to Prairie Schooner, but her own work soon became secondary to promoting a literary community in the far western area of the state.
As a teacher in the Clay County Schools, she came to this calling instinctively, sensing the need for expression in her students’ lives. She has devoted numerous hours to mentoring both young and older writers, and finally helping to create what has become Netwest, part of the North Carolina Writers Network. Over the years, She has become the nurturer and cheerleader for countless writers in the western counties, teaching workshops, serving as Writer in Residence for the John C. Campbell Folk School, and editing two collections of work by mountain writers.
Her Selected and New Poems richly deserves the honor of being the first collection published in Carolina Wren’s Laureate Series. No one better illustrates the the gifts that poetry can offer than Nancy Simpson. She has never doubted its power to change lives and awaken our sense of wonder in the midst of the world in which we find ourselves. Brilliant writer, teacher, tireless editor, Nancy Simpson exemplifies the best in our state’s literary community.
—Kathryn Stripling Byer
How to Burn Last Year’s Leaves
If you live in a forest,
don’t burn on a windy day.
Look on the boundary oak
for the surveyor’s orange ribbon.
If it’s not dancing, if it dangles,
you can hope burning is safe.
Best, burn when rain is predicted.
Rake leaves onto the dirt driveway.
Make small leaf mounds.
Burn one or two leaf piles at a time.
Don’t let yourself think of the day
your young sons scorched the mountainside.
Do not look across the drive
where you old home place used to be.
Forget it. The cabin was dismantled,
bulldozed to the ground, buried.
Don’t think of the man who found you
burning leaves one spring and said,
Let me help you. Rake and burn
leaf piles 3 & 4, 5 & 6.
Let sudden wind frighten. Rake faster
when you hear thunder. Rake hot coals
into the gravel.
Stop only when rain
drives you back to the tool shed.
Tomorrow you will see bright green foliage
of five thousand day lilies lining your drive,
promising to bloom.
At 12:17 this Sunday
he is uninhibited
in front of God and
I-75 South, a man
lounging in the bed
of his red pickup truck.
He is getting his tan
the fast way, 80 mph
on his chaise lounge,
his black bikini
drawing the sun down.
He is holding a blue
tumbler in his hand.
I can only guess
what he is drinking.
I want to make a pass,
I mean, get past him
in this god-awful traffic.
I want to see
the face of the woman
at the steering wheel
who is taking him for a ride.
One of the joys of Gwarlingo is meeting art lovers from around the world. Sigrun Hodne and I found each other early in Gwarlingo’s short history, and though she lives in Norway, and I in New Hampshire, I’m constantly amazed by how similar our passions are when it comes to books and art. (If you aren’t familiar with her excellent arts blog Sub Rosa, I encourage you to subscribe.)
Sigrun has studied architecture in Oxford, art history and film in Stavanger, Norway, and literature in Bergen, Norway. (She wrote her Master’s thesis on “Self and Subjectivity in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy; Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable”). She has taught aesthetics in art schools and universities and has done research in language and psychosis. She currently works as an art and literature critic and is attempting to make a living as a writer (no small feat!).
There has been a strange serendipity with Sigrun across the miles. She will write about a particular artist, book, or subject at the same time I’m also investigating that specific topic.
So it was with Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009). I was late to the party with this one, but I quickly discovered why this slender volume is considered a literary masterpiece in certain circles (and a cult classic in others). Nelson’s meditation on the color blue, lost love, and depression is a brilliant, effective experiment that defies categorization. This is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read, period.
When Sigrun posted about Bluets on her blog at the very moment I was also discovering Nelson’s publication, I emailed and asked if she would be willing to write a short piece about the book. What follows is her essay, and a special excerpt from Bluets.
A special thanks to Sigrun Hodne, Maggie Nelson, and Wave Books for sharing their work.
I Never Knew How Blue Blueness Could Be
by Sigrun Hodne
Lets dive in, give in, lets go where things already have gotten tricky, messy – confused, where words and meanings are bouncing off in different directions, lets have a look at fragment number fifty-one:
51. You might as well act as if objects had the colors, The Encyclopedia says. –Well, it is as you please. But what would it look like to act otherwise?
Indeed, what would it look like to act otherwise?
Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) is a bastard, a hybrid, transgressing all and every genre, as they are yet known. Partly essay, partly poetry, it’s a collection of fragments, of quotations, a memoir with a hint of philosophical investigations. Bluets won’t land in any category. But let’s, for the sake of simplicity, call it a long lyrical essay.
A long lyrical essay on the color blue—blue in a public, scientific, and historical sense, but also blue in the most personal sense.
There are several plot-lines: love, pain, friendship, and loss, to mention just a few.
This is how it all begins:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
In art-history, color has often been understood as secondary to form, as something that “fills” the form. In Nelson’s work color take on the lead role (– just as love, the color blue is not an optional supplement, an accidental add-on).
2. And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
A book about the color blue, what a peculiar idea!
13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than an ash of sleeve falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
Let’s go back to where we started, repeating our initial question: “… what would it look like to act otherwise?”
53. “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object” —this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.
“Acting otherwise,” rejecting the systematic illusion of color is, I believe, to abandon a very central social norm: an understanding of the world as a place looking in a certain way – the same way – for each and every one of us. Systematic illusions are the basis of our impression that we share an external reality; it’s the place we meet and interconnect. Systematic illusions make us believe in a common world. ‘Acting otherwise’ is to reject common sense, renouncing the company of humans, and thereby subjecting oneself to alienation and solitude. The extreme consequence of rejecting the systematic illusions of humanity is finally ostracization, solipsism—
“… But I am not willing to go there—not just yet….”
Bluets, An Excerpt
by Maggie Nelson
14. I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book
about blue without actually doing it. Mosty what happens
in such cases is that people give you stories or leads
or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead
of with words. Over the past decade I have been given
blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks,
precious stones, watercolors, pigments, paperweights,
goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man
who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli,
solely because he loved the stone, and to another who
worships blue so devoudy that he refuses to eat blue food
and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden,
which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives.
I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo
in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s
Blue in heartbreaking drag, and another with the face of a
derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this
one the prince of blue, which was, in fact, his name.
15. I think of these people as my blue correspondents,
whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.
With his new book, River Inside the River: Poems, Gregory Orr set a high bar for himself. His intention: to write three lengthy pieces that combine the intensity of lyric poetry with the thematic scope of narrative and myth. Fortunately, Orr’s literary talent and personal experience make him the ideal poet to realize such an ambitious project.
“I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive,” Orr once told NPR.
The power of the written word has been the central theme in Gregory Orr’s work. In his book Poetry as Survival, he describes the delicate relationship between text and reader:
“Some readers have a higher threshold for disorder and need more disordering in the poems they read. Others have a lower threshold and need a larger proportion of order to disorder in the poems that give them pleasure or that resonate meaningfully with their own experiences. The essential point is that for a poem to move us it must bring us near our own threshold. We must feel genuinely threatened or destabilized by the poem’s vision of disordering, even as we are simultaneously reassured and convinced by its orderings.”
With River Inside the River Orr takes this philosophical position one step further by situating his own poetry and essays within a larger literary tradition, a chain of influence that includes the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake’s prophetic poems, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The first sequence, “Eden and After,” is Orr’s retelling of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden. (This is my favorite section of the book, and I’ve included an excerpt from “Eden and After” below.)
Orr has re-imagined the Biblical story as a moving and humorous tale of longing, discovery, and finally, acceptance. The flawless Eden is not enough for Orr’s Adam and Eve. It’s words that set Adam and Eve on “Their own path…Like a wound / Worn in the earth / By feet repeating— / Always to the garden’s edge.” In Orr’s universe, perfection and eternal life are not sufficient. It is impermanence, the fragility of nature, love, and life itself, that heightens awareness and creates larger meaning. Joy and suffering are inextricably linked.
The poems are a meditation not only on worldly imperfection, but also on the capacity of language to offer its own form of salvation. River Inside the River suggests a parallel between a poet creating poetry, God creating the world, and Adam creating names for all of the animals. The power of words and the power of creation are one in the same, as described in John 1:1-4:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
Some critics have argued that language is reductive and possesses the power to “kill” the experience, the person, or the object being “captured” in text. But Orr understands that words, poetry in particular, also have the power to give life, not only to the author, but to the reader and to the person or experience being described. Language has the power to both heal and commemorate. Reading River Inside the River it’s easy to imagine Orr breathing life into his words, much like God breathing life into the dust of the ground when he created Adam in Genesis.
Here is Orr talking about experimental poetry and “the covenant between the word and the world” in a recent interview with Mary Ellen Redmond for The Drunken Boat:
It’s as if there are always two things in every word. One of them is the music of the sound, and the other is some part of the word that wants to go towards something else in the world or something inside us. It doesn’t work with abstract nouns, but it certainly works with “clover” and “grass” and “maple” and “sparrow….”
Whitman has this wonderful poem where he talks about a “a noiseless, patient spider.” And the spider is there all alone on a promontory and it sends out from itself “filament, filament, filament” to connect up to things. It’s not a web-building spider; it’s the kind that sends out the single threads. And Whitman says: That’s me. I am all alone like an isolated spider unless I can send out these filaments of language to connect me to things. To bring about that connection which is the basis of all meaning. Well, that’s what language does.
If you say, oh language is a game. Words are just music. Syntax is a joke. Communication: who needs it? Let’s have fun. Let’s play with words. Of course, play is an important part of poetry. But to turn it all into play, to turn it all into sounds and to give up this aspiration to connect meaningfully to the physical world, to the past or to objects and people seems to me solipsistic, narcissistic, [and] nihilistic. Now, you can do all those things and have fun, but ultimately it seems to be the end of meaning….
So, at that point, I got off the contemporary linguistics train, the experimentalist train….As a poet and person, I come from a place where trauma is a primary experience, so when any theory announces that the world doesn’t mean anything, I’m thinking—I already knew that. I knew that when I killed my younger brother in a hunting accident when I was twelve. I knew that when my mother died overnight when I was fourteen. That’s when I realized that the world doesn’t mean anything. That it’s filled with horror and violence, an arbitrary meaninglessness. So meaninglessness doesn’t have any attraction for me. In fact, it’s the name of the horror. It’s the name of isolation. It’s the name of everything that made life unbearable for me when I was a young person starting at the time of my brother’s death and not changing until I discovered writing poetry in my last year in high school.
At first, writing for me, as it is for many of us, was an outpouring of emotion in language onto the page. I had no ability to shape that language, no clue that the bringing of form and coherence would be gratifying to me, would bring me back toward the world of meaning. But from the outset, I understood that one function of language is to be expressive of what a self feels, sees, thinks, remembers. From the outset, I was excited to feel I could write about what I saw; write about I felt. I couldn’t make much sense of the world at that point, but merely turning the world into word was exhilarating to me.
“Eden and After” ends with Adam and Eve’s realization that they must create a new home for themselves:
No longer could
They sleep beneath
The trees, trusting
Branches not to break.
It was a habitation
They had to make:
Four walls and a roof—
A place to live,
A world inside the world.
This is the perfect segue to the next section of the book,” The City of Poetry,” in which Orr creates a visionary metropolis where “every poem is a house, and every house is a poem.” In this part of River Inside the River, Orr takes us on a virtual tour of poetics, imagining the the poets Blake, Whitman, and Rimbaud as figures in an imaginary landscape.
Orr wanders about this landscape too, his life experiences creating constructions of significance, which he explores both inside and out. While Orr expresses a deep empathy for Adam and Eve in “Eden and After,” his personal biography becomes more integral to the poems in section two of River Inside the River.
Eighteen and a volunteer
In the Movement,
I was kidnapped at gunpoint
In rural Alabama
In a solitary cell
In a murderous town.
After the beatings and threats,
They let me keep a book of Keats.
I was sick and scared. It seemed
Likely I would die there.
I read his nightingale ode–
How he rose above his woes.
The poem was my ladder:
Rungs and lifts of escape.
Once again, it is Orr’s own relationship to language that he places under the knife…
Until I heard Neruda read
His poems aloud,
I never even knew
I could fly
To the city of poems.
He had arrived
That day on a plane
For his first visit
To Manhattan, the city
Of Whitman, one of his heroes.
“Vienes volando,” he intoned—
“You come flying”—
Refrain from an elegy
In which he summoned
A friend’s spirit over the Andes.
I stood in the crowded room
And remembered my own loved dead.
Chin’gak Kuksa Hyesim was the first Zen Master dedicated to poetry in Korea. As translator Ian Haight explains in his introduction to Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim (White Pine Press, 2012), the tradition of Zen Buddhist poetry begins with his writing.
Translating poetry by a revered monk of Korean antiquity has its challenges. Very little is known about Hyesim’s life as a recluse. We do know that he opted to study Confucianism and Buddhism over pursuing a career, which suggests that he came from a family of good social position. After only three years of studying under the influential monk Pojo Kusa Chinul, he was named a Master.
When Master Chinul died five years later in 1210, Hyesim was made Chief Abbot by Royal Order. He received the title Zen Master and Grand Zen Master from King Kojong, and was given a golden robe by the general of the king’s army, an honor bestowed on only the most highly respected monks.
Magnolia and Lotus is drawn from the only known book of Hyseim’s poetry, Poems by Muuija, a transcript kept in the archives of the University of Kumasawa in Japan. Translators Ian Haight and T’ae-Yong Ho worked from an original Chinese manuscript, also using Korean language scholarship and translations for reference and context.
The book is an important text in Korean letters. It is only the second collection of poetry by a Buddhist Master in Korea, and the poems, though often about Buddhism, are not only about this theme. Hyesim also writes about friendship, departure, and what it means to be Chief Abbot at a temple. “One can easily find a common thread of humanity throughout Hyesim’s writing,” explains Haight.
Here is the title poem from the collection…
Magnolia, the Lotus of Trees
Observing leaves: at first, I doubt they are persimmon—
looking at the blossoms, I doubt they are lotus.
How fortunate there are no fixed forms—
this tree has no comparison.
“I like this poem for a number of reasons and, at the translator’s ever-present risk of presumption, believe it captures the voice of Hyesim,” says Haight.
There resides so much Buddhism in these four simple lines: the non-judgmental doubting of what is observed, and how shifting perspective reveals different possibilities in assumptions; the idea of the blossoms themselves—both lotus flowers and magnolias as representations of wisdom, beauty, truth, and enlightenment; the appreciative acceptance of not knowing what a flower is because its fixed form cannot be determined, and how this understanding could be applied to everything comprehended by the mind; finally, a penetrating recognition: that there is nothing to compare with the singularity of what is observed—everything under the sun has uniqueness. A train of thought that is simultaneously paradoxical and circular couched in deceptive simplicity—yes, this poem feels very Buddhist. The poems in this collection present a world observed with reverence and admiration by a monk who lived more than 700 years ago. It feels natural to identify the collection as a unified voice of Hyesim.
“Plantain” is one of my favorite poems in Magnolia & Lotus and is a good example of how Hyesim uses nature to contemplate the ideal. The simplicity of this poem avoids sentimentality in favor of expressing a deeper truth: that art can’t always improve upon reality. Certain things, such as plantains, are perfect just as they are.
In other pieces, the poet focuses on various objects. Hyesim believed that an individual who was free of illusion could perceive the beauty, truth, and the abstract qualities of an object through poems that prompted clarity and understanding.
Hyesim’s writing embraces paradox, as well—paradox ”between large and small, material reality and emptiness, nothingness and fullness, and existence and non-existence.”
His language also works on multiple levels. According to Haight, the description of “boiling tea,” to give one example, can also be seen as a metaphor for meditation.
“The poems in this book are built around an imagined life of Hyesim and his purpose for writing poems,” says Haight.
What did Hyesim experience in meditation? How did his wisdom grow with progressive enlightenment? What did he place importance on in life; as a monk; as an early founder of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect, the Chogye Order? If he eventually relinquished this position, what did he then do? What were his thoughts in his final years? Each of the translated poems, attentive to the nuances of Hyesim’s Buddhist and Confucian background as well as the landscape of Korea, posits the point of view of Hyesim, his voice, and his time. My hope is that this collection—utilizing metaphor, rhythmic language and imagery—invites a reader into relaxed companionship with Hyesim and his life.
Bridging the gap of time and culture can make it challenging to understand all of the layers of meaning contained in these short poems, and yet there is much to appreciate about the language, simplicity, and ideas in these works.
At the center of Hyesim’s poetry is the notion of awareness. Language, sound, nature, art, and the acknowledgement of life’s paradoxes can be aids to clarity and human consciousness. The Buddhist idea of letting go of attachments and seeing the world as it truly is is the central theme in Hyesim’s writing. “Their bedrock is thusness,” writes the poet Jane Hirshfield, “their images’ beauty is pellucid and new, their view without limit.” I agree with writer Chase Twichell: “there’s not a single opaque word in the book.” These poems “might have been written yesterday or tomorrow, and anywhere.”
Because the clearing of the mind was of central importance to Hyesim, it seems ridiculous to over-intellectualize or struggle too much with the cultural divide while reading. As Haight himself argues, out of respect for awareness, it is probably best to let these poems speak for themselves.
A plantain is an unlit
green candle of beeswax
the spread leaves, a vernal coat’s sleeves
desiring to dance.
I see this image in my intoxicated eyes
though the plantain itself
than my comparisons.
Clouds meander trails of air above—
light briefly shines
as there is no lake, my single moon
recedes from view.
Do not dismiss the moon tonight
just because you believe
it will set in the west, rise again tomorrow
in the east.
James Crews’ latest collection, The Book of What Stays, is full of evocative landscapes and secret lives. There is the old woman in Chernobyl who refuses to leave her home and the bent, one-eyed swallows. There is ice fishing with Patsy Cline and a pack of Coors. There is “the purpling, churning CGI sky” over I-80 out West. There is both a farmer’s wife, and an arsonist’s wife. Crews’ poems have a silent power that sneaks up on you.
But it was his series of poems about the Cuban-born visual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres that left the deepest impression the first time I read The Book of What Stays.
In my experience, poetry about visual art rarely succeeds, perhaps because it is difficult for text to compete with the original work of art. (Poet and art critic John Yau is the rare exception—a writer who can use visual art as a jumping off point to make something original and brilliant).
Crews’ series on Gonzalez-Torres succeeds because it inhabits the life and work of the artist and his partner Ross, who died of AIDS in 1991. In other words, the poems are an exercise in both empathy and imagination.
The 20 poems that comprise One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes are a “speculative narrative.” “They have been imagined from the life and art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and are not meant to be strictly biographical,” James explained to me via email.
Crews’ poems actually add to our understanding of Gonzalez-Torres and his work. After all, biography, criticism, and the art itself are simply facets of a larger story. Crews’ poems flesh out sides of Gonzalez-Torres that might have remained hidden were it not for this imaginative narrative.
Reading Crews’ book reminded me of a conversation I had recently with an artist friend who lived in New York through the 80s, and is still there today. “You have no idea how horrific the AIDS epidemic was,” he told me. “There were funerals every week. I lost so many friends. New York became a city of ghosts, and it still is in many ways.”
One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes, which makes up the heart of The Book of What Stays, taps into this sense of grief and loss, much like the art of Gonzalez-Torres. But neither artist morbidly fixates on death. Instead, both Crews and Gonzalez-Torres focus on the temporal nature of life—it’s beauty and it’s brevity.
I saw Gonzalez-Torres’ piece Untitled (Placebo) at MoMA last year and immediately fell in love with the giant rectangular carpet of silver candy. Gonzalez-Torres made a number of these works comprised of 335 pounds of candy wrapped in silver paper. Many museum-goers are shocked to learn that the artist intended for them to remove a piece of candy from the installation.
Gonzalez-Torres also produced a series of works printed on giant stacks of paper. Again, viewers are meant to take a piece of the artwork with them. The artist’s instructions for both pieces refer to “an endless supply” of candy and paper. What makes these installations so poignant and powerful is that they are simultaneously finite and infinite. They are constantly morphing and changing as museum goers interact with them, but they can also be restored to an original state. It is a powerful metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. And it is this sense of impermanence that James Crews has captured so beautifully in his collection.
Here are six works from the One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes series, most in the imagined voice of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (note that “Letter to Felix” is in the voice of his partner Ross). As James explains in the notes section of his book, two monographs, one edited by William S. Bartman and the other by Julie Ault, were the primary inspiration for the series, as were certain pieces of visual art, mostly by Gonzalez-Torres himself.
The one exception is the first poem (Gold Field), which conjures the close friendship and artistic collaboration between Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn. John Curcio explains their connection further:
Gonzalez-Torres first became acquainted with Horn’s Forms from the Gold Field during her 1990 solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Gonzalez-Torres was thoroughly impressed by the simplicity and beauty of the work and shared the impact that the work made on him when the two artists met in 1993. As a gesture to their newfound friendship and shared sensibility, Horn sent him a square of gold foil just a few days after they first met. Being struck by the gesture, he created Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni) (1993), an endlessly replaceable candy spill of gold cellophane–wrapped sweets.
Whenever a poem was inspired by a specific piece of art by Gonzalez-Torres, a corresponding photograph is included below the poem. The poems are meant to stand on their own (and do), but the photos may help you flesh out your understanding.
It’s important to remember, however, that Crews is not attempting to reduce or translate Gonzalez-Torres’ art into language. Instead, he is illuminating it, like someone turning on a light in a dark room, Crews’ speculative narrative reveals things we might never have seen without this elucidation.
But perhaps the best insight about poetry, life, and art comes from Crews himself in his poem “An Unexpected Warm Day in Wisconsin”: “Choose your views,” Crews insightfully observes, “or they will choose you.”
A special thanks to artist Corwin Levi for introducing me to the work of James Crews. It’s been a pleasure.
(The Gold Field)
Wandering through the museum today, Ross and I came upon a piece called The Gold Field, a slice of a slice of sunlight installed in its own white room. We memorized it, this blanket made of real gold foil, still creased as if from its last body. It was the rectangle of yellow when Ross pulled up the shade this morning. Was each small plot of scorched grass at the cemetery in San Juan where my mother brought me each month. Never step there, she said once, pointing at my foot that had come to rest on a pile of fresh dirt.
The sculpture didn’t need words. It lifted us above the jobs, the small rented rooms, the small minds. I leaned in, as close as I could get without touching it just to be near its heat. I put my hand on his shoulder, wanted to curl up with him right there on the floor and rest. Every sunrise and sunset from now on, I thought, will spread this field of golden light across the bed as we wake up together.
Diane Lockward’s latest collection of poetry, Temptation by Water, is a book of dualities. These closely observed poems, which are largely free verse, are both witty and fierce and explore themes like domesticity and sensuality, grief and humor, aging and reawakening.
As Marjorie Tesser writes in the Harvard Review, “the theme of this book, set out in the epigraph and title poem, is temptation. In the first poems, desire has led to disaster. In ‘Imploded,’ the heart is compared to a destroyed building, ‘Just the soft mushroom of dust and ash, / the quiet collapse inside.’ Soon, the sources of hurt and disappointment become apparent: a lover who proved more flash than substance, a beloved child whose addictions have caused pain, a parent who is aging.”
“There are many temptations in these pages,” writes Barbara Daniels, “including a too-expensive sexy red dress and disturbing, desirable men, one of whom is so dangerous he comes with a warning label: “all trans fats and palm oil,” “a four-hour erection,” “the Mickey Finn of obsessions” (“Side Effects”).
Much has been lost and broken in the world of these poems, including a family that cannot be mended despite a repair crew that comes in to sew a woman’s mouth shut and teach her son how to shoot, and most tellingly, the spouse or lover who leaves despite prayers for a miracle. Lockward forces readers to look when they might not want to—at terrifying dreams, poisoned starlings plummeting from the sky, and the rosy anus of a beloved infant, “the lilliputian donut hole, / the dark star puckered like a kiss” (“It Runs This Deep”). She gazes unblinkingly at the bleeding leg of a young raccoon, young neighbors passionately tangled in each other’s arms, and dying butterflies captured for a science project. If a kill jar and a pin through the thorax of a butterfly are necessary, so be it, Lockward implies.
Here are four of my favorite poems from Lockward’s collection.
Enjoy your Sunday and happy birthday to Diane, whose birthday is Wednesday, May 15th!
Today an abandoned power plant in Tampa.
Beautiful, really, the way the building fell in
on itself, enveloped in a plume of smoke,
bricks tumbling like disaster in slow motion.
Convergence of math and physics,
this fine art of blasting.
Not one person hurt by flying debris,
epitomic destruction of what’s not needed—
like the small building of the heart,
its pumping machine grown idle,
furnace snuffed, the years of vacancy.
Grief, a vagrant huddled in the corridor.
Brick edifice fragile as shells.
Comes the condemnation, the inrush of air,
the structural blowdown.
This is the way a heart melts.
No fire, no flames, no heat.
Just the soft mushroom of dust and ash,
the quiet collapse inside.
I knew I was going to like the poet Kate Kingston the minute she shared this story during our first dinner together at Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming:
“When my youngest son was a teenager, […]
Last year Gwarlingo readers responded enthusiastically to Mary Ruefle and Jen Bervin’s erasure poems. Today’s Sunday Poem features another unique project that defies categorization—a collaboration between interdisciplinary artist Audra Wolowiec and poet, critic, and artist […]
“Don’t bend; water it down; or make it logical; don’t edit your soul for fashion. Follow intense obsessions mercilessly.”
Spot-on advice for all artists from the writer Franz Kafka.
“My hope is that my readers approach a poem – any poem – in order to be transformed in some way,” says Sunday Poet Mari L’Esperance. “Not dramatically, but to feel by the end of the poem as though something has shifted for them internally so that they then perceive themselves and the world a bit differently. That’s what I want as a reader: to be changed by a poem.”
Mari’s most recent collection, The Darkened Temple, was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. The collection explores a landscape of loss—loss that is both personal and political. There is war, displacement, illness, imprisonment, violence, and a mother who has disappeared without a trace, but there is also redemption in these straightforward, lyric poems.
“I’m essentially a lyric poet,” L’Esperance explained in an interview with Ashlie Kauffman, and it’s the form that most appeals to me in the work of others. The form allows for an intense concentration of sense, sound, and image, as well as the ability to make leaps in the same that don’t feel as possible in other, more expansive forms.”
L’Esperance’s mother vanished in 1995 leaving no clues to her whereabouts. Some of the strongest poems in The Darkened Temple explore the mourning and trauma of losing a loved one under such strange and mysterious circumstances.
“The central theme, which I believe is fairly obvious, is the disappearance of my mother (when I was 33 and a student at NYU),” L’Esperance told Kauffman. “But my hope is that the manuscript as a whole, even individual poems, manage to transcend mere autobiography, as reducing it to the fact of my mother’s disappearance would be just that—reductive. I have also concluded (and I’m going to get archetypal here) that the book says something about the devaluation of the feminine in our culture—that the ‘disappeared mother’ also represents the feminine that has been exiled or subsumed in favor of the masculine ethos (in both men and women).”
The Darkened Temple is divided into three sections, which Mari describes in her interview with Kauffman:
“The first is a circling or gathering, featuring poems that address traumatic loss from personal, cultural, and historic perspectives. The poems in the second section take the reader down into the depths of the speaker’s experience of traumatic loss and focus on the central theme. Finally, the third section relieves the intensity and pressure of the second section with poems that embody a sense of emergence and release. Taking the manuscript as a whole, there’s (to me) a sense of having descended into the underworld and then returned to some semblance of hope by book’s end.”
Mari’s influences are wide-ranging. Brenda Hillman, Stanley Kunitz, Jean Valentine, Philip Levine, and William Stafford are among the poets she most admires, but as she explained to Kauffman, her Japanese heritage has also impacted her writing:
“My mother was Japanese (born and raised) and taught me much about Japanese culture and the arts. I visit Japan as often as I’m able—every other year or so—and it’s a place that is very close to my heart… The Japanese value sadness—in fact, beauty and sadness go hand in hand. Films and stories have indeterminate, often sad endings, which can frustrate many Westerners. I think this intrinsic valuing of sadness and beauty, combined, is what fuels many of the poems in my book. And the Japanese are also stoic and value endurance, accepting what life has handed to them…which, on a collective level, has been a hindrance to them as a nation. But this endurance and acceptance are part of my poetic sensibility.”
“I do believe in inspiration,” L’Esperance told How A Poem Happens, “but that rarefied and somewhat altered state can only sustain itself for so long; it must be corralled, brought down to earth, and channeled into language. I’m a slow and undisciplined writer and often allow long periods of time to pass between poems, so perhaps I rely too much on inspiration and not enough on ‘pot scrubbing,’ as my friend Sage Cohen has called the largely messy, unglamorous, and plain old hard work of writing.”
I have five poems from The Darkened Temple to share with you today. If you enjoy Mari’s work, please consider sharing it through email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Enjoy your Sunday!
Returning to Earth
When Emperor Hirohito announced
Japan’s defeat over national radio,
his divinity was broken, fell away
and settled in fine gold dust at his feet.
His people understood the gravity
of the occasion—a god does not speak
over the airwaves with a human voice,
ordinary and flecked with static. A god
does not speak in the common voice
of the earthbound, thick with shame.
At the station, my mother, a schoolgirl,
looked on as men in uniform lurched
from the platform into the path
of incoming trains, their slack bodies
landing on the tracks without sound.
“I am happy living simply/ like a clock, or a calendar,” Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in 1919.
Tsvetaeva’s life was anything but simple, for she had the misfortune of living through some of the most turbulent years in Russian history.
She married Sergei Efron in 1912, but was soon separated from him during the Civil War. She had a brief love affair with writer Osip Mandelstam, and a longer relationship with Sofia Parnok. She nearly starved to death in the Moscow famine and lost one daughter to starvation. The family fled to Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they lived in poverty. Tsvetaeva, Efron, and her two remaining children returned to the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a fatal decision, for Efron was arrested in Moscow and executed, and her surviving daughter, Ariadna, who had been imprisoned in the 30s, was sent to a labor camp. Their son Mur soon died in World War II. Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself on August 31, 1941.
It is because of the efforts of Tsvetaeva’s sister, Anastasia, who served two terms in labor camps, and her daughter, Ariadna Efron, that we have a rich collection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, notebooks, and manuscripts today.
With Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Alice James Books, 2012), Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky and American poet Jean Valentine have created a brilliant collection of “readings” of Tsvetaeva. These are not translations in the strictest sense, but renderings of a small selection of Tsvetaeva’s poems, journals, and prose. The book also includes a CD of fifteen Tsvetaeva pieces read in the original Russian by Polina Barskova and Valzhyna Mort.
For a reader like myself, largely unfamiliar with Tsvetaeva’s vast oeuvre, Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva is the perfect introduction to this unique, passionate voice. Through their astute selection of passages, careful arrangement, and sharp, empathetic ear, Jean and Ilya have made Tsvetaeva, the most mysterious of Russian poets, more alive, while also giving us a glimpse of the everyday life of women during these “terrible years” of Russian history. Here is a passage from Tsvetaeva’s poem “The Desk”:
I’ve loved living with little.
There are dishes I’ve never tried.
But you, you people eat slowly, and often;
you eat and eat….
You—with belches, I—with books,
with truffles, you. With pencil, I,
you and your olives, me and my rhyme,
with pickles, you. I, with poems.
When Tsvetaeva writes, “My little thefts in the Commissariat: two gorgeous checkered notebooks (yellow, bright), a whole box of quills to write with, a glass bubble of red English ink. I am writing with it now,” there is a special intimacy to her words. Kaminsky and Valentine are like guides, leading us to a beautiful, but somewhat mysterious place. With skill and brevity, they reveal the essence of Tsvetaeva, and in doing so, create a deeper understanding and connection between the Russian poet and her English readers.
The book’s superb afterword, written by Kaminsky, is a work of art in and of itself. Kaminsky’s experimental essay weaves together fragments of Tsvetaeva’s writing with facts about her own life story, along with Ilya’s own thoughts and impressions of the poet.
Kaminsky helps us understand (through Tsvetaeva’s eyes) that language, like silence, is powerful, most especially in a culture where there is no free speech. This is why in 1922 “the Communists ordered two hundred philosophers, scientists, and writers to board a ship. Subsequently called The Philosophers’ Ship, it included every single prominent non-Marxist philosopher in Russia. All were sent into exile.” That same year Tsvetaeva also left Russia for Berlin.
Here is Kaminsky quoting Tsvetaeva:
“My motherland is any place with a writing desk, a window, and a tree by that window.” She wrote in exile: “For lyric poets and fairy-tale authors, it is better that they see their motherland from afar—from a great distance…”
“Russia (the sound of the word) no longer exists, there exist four letters: USSR—I cannot and will not go where there are no vowels, into those whistling consonants. And, they won’t let me there, the letters won’t open.”
As Kaminsky explains, Tsvetaeva almost starved to death after the Revolution. Believing that her two daughters would be better fed and cared for, the poet left her girls in an orphanage. Despite her efforts, the younger daughter, Irina, died of starvation. When Tsvetaeva learned the news from a stranger on the street, her response was to live in silence for three months.
Again, Tsvetaeva: “not a word of death—to anyone—so she [the child] did not die finally, and still (in me)—lived. This is why your Rilke did not mention my name. To name [call/speak]—is to take apart: to separate self from thing. I don’t name anyone—ever.” As Kaminsky notes, Tsvetaeva’s silence is a remarkable fact: “Marina Tsvetaeva, the poet so obsessed with the Russian language, the Russian poet of her generation, the poet who wrote elegies for everyone else—including the living—at her own elegiac moment, chose not to speak.”
For Tsvetaeva, poetics were not only political, but also extremely personal. She didn’t translate Rilke, Pushkin, Shakespeare, and Lermontov as much as rewrite them. According to Kaminsky, “Scholars call her best work of translation—her take on Baudelaire’s ‘Voyage”—a work translated ‘not from French into Russian’ but from ‘Baudelaire into Tsvetaeva.'”
And this is, to some degree, how Kaminsky and Valentine have chosen to approach Tsvetaeva herself. “To imitate Tsvetaeva’s sounds produces just that: an attempt at imitation that cannont rise to the level of the original,” writes Kaminsky.
“To translate is to inhabit. The meaning of the word ekstasis is to stand outside of one’s body. This we do not claim. (We wish we could, one day.) Jean Valentine and I claim we are two poets who fell in love with a third and spent two years reading her together….These pages are fragments, notes in the margin. ‘Erase everything you have written,’ Mandelstam says, ‘but keep the notes in the margin.’
This “homage” to Tsvetaeva captures moments, lines, and fragments the way a talented artist captures an individual with a few well-placed strokes of charcoal. As artists understand, a faithful rendering is not always the best way to capture an individual, a scene, or an idea. It is not completeness or precision that are most important, but instead, intuition, empathy, and artfulness. And in this sense Dark Elderberry Branch succeeds brilliantly.
Not only does this extraordinary book allow us to sit across the table from one of Russia’s greatest poets, but we enjoy this privilege with two gifted guides at our side—guides who are geniuses of language in their own right. We would be remiss not to pause and pull up a chair.
from Poems for Blok
Your name is a—bird in my hand,
a piece of ice on my tongue.
The lips’ quick opening.
Your name—four letters.
A ball caught in flight,
a silver bell in my mouth.
A stone thrown into a silent lake
is—the sound of your name.
The light click of hooves at night
Your name at my temple
—sharp click of a cocked gun.
kiss on my eyes,
the chill of closed eyelids.
Your name—a kiss of snow.
Blue gulp of icy spring water.
With your name—sleep deepens.
APRIL 15, 1916
Today’s Sunday Poet was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.
Michelle Bitting was a dancer and chef before devoting herself to poetry. Her collection, Good Friday Kiss, was chosen by Thomas Lux as the winner of the 2007 DeNovo Prize for 1st Book of Poetry.
Michelle lists Dylan Thomas, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Anne Sexton and Kevin Young as some of the writers who have influenced her most.
“I used to have to write at stoplights and in parking lots because my kids were small, and often, I was driving my son around to his therapies,” Bitting says in an interview with Pirene’s Fountain. “I would get up early, before the family was awake and write or force myself to stay up late. Fortunately, I have larger blocks of time with the kids in school a greater portion of the day. But there are still many scheduling challenges I’m hoping to work out, though for all I know it could get worse!”
In the same interview, Oliver Lodge asked Bitting about writing and “the muse”:
“I do believe that cultivating poetic awareness in the world, becoming a really excellent listener and watcher, performing the daily push-ups of consciousness is vital and helps prepare the way for synchronicity and visitation. So you have to do the work it takes to stay in shape. And it’s a better way to live in the world anyway–very freeing, enlivening. As far as blocks go, you have to write through them, write badly for a while if necessary. It’s the only way to get to the good stuff.”
The two poems featured here, “Patti Smith” and “In Praise of My Brother, the Painter,” are included in Bitting’s latest collection, Notes to the Beloved. Writer Dorianne Laux says, “A powerful female voice, body, spirit and sensibility inhabits this book…Bitting is at her best here: unbridled, open, aware.”
If you’re in California, there are two upcoming opportunities to hear Michelle read.
At 7 p.m. on Monday, April 8th, she will be participating in a visual arts and poetry event at the UC Davis MIND Institute. The event is free. Click here for more information.
On April 17th Bitting will read at the Oxnard College Literature & Art Lecture series in Oxnard, California. More details are available here.
Michelle has also created a series of short “poem films,” which you can peruse on her website.
I want to give Gwarlingo Sunday Poem fans a head’s up…This week I leave for a month-long writing residency in Wyoming. On my way to Wyoming, I’ll be stopping at the Cleveland Institute of Art to give a talk to students on the creative process. Because I’ll be on the road, there will no Sunday Poem next weekend. My bookshelves are bulging with lots of new poetry publications, however, and there are some fabulous poets in the pipeline, so stay tuned.
Have a relaxing Sunday!
In Praise of My Brother, the Painter
How every morning he rose, slave
to the sound, this endless call to make.
Mad hatter, dervish sawyer, a primitive
blur of hands at work: fingers feeding
the dreamiest bolts through needles,
vision’s machinery. In the photo where
he stands, fists on hips—defiant, electric
in his Bowery studio, splotched jeans
and boots, the clouds of white gesso
a kind of palette couture—so satisfied
his look: Je suis arrive, Asshole…And
this is how I want to remember him.
Not what a note left like that means.
Not the slow descent, the pills or piles
of soiled laundry. Not the dog left barking
in the kitchen, the bowl with enough grain
to last. No, I want the beauty, even
his cursive, the swirling tints
of parting thought, the art itself: Dear Sister,
if I could survive this long, you will flourish.
“Language is just music without the full instrumentation,” says Terrance Hayes.
Music is a constant touchstone in Hayes’s poetry. “I’m chasing a kind of language that can be unburdened by people’s expectations. I think music is the primary model—how close can you get this language to be like music and communicate feeling at the base level in the same way a composition with no words communicates meaning? It might be impossible. Language is always burdened by thought. I’m just trying to get it so it can be like feeling.”
Hayes started his education and career as a visual artist and almost no one knew he was writing poetry until his first book was published, not even his parents.
As Hayes told Lauren Russell at Hot Metal Bridge, he isn’t interested in “perfect poems”:
If you think about an animal, there’s no perfect animal. Most people think of poems like they’re machines. I’m thinking of something more organic and human that exists the way it needs to exist, more like a baby or child. How do you achieve that? I think of myself as a person who likes to be in control of everything. So how do I surprise myself? For so long I’ve been this person who’s been too in control, so how do I relinquish control? Some of it’s about line breaks, narrative. I like the poem to look a certain way in terms of line breaks, but how do I release control? Some of it is subject matter. The poet wants to be liked in the poem, but what does it mean to not always chase some kind of appeal? Discomfort, vulnerability, rawness that come up in a poem—that also has to do with perfection, the absence of perfection. That’s hard to teach, but if you make people more generous in the workshop, then you can get it. You say, “Oh, it’s not a perfect poem, but it’s pretty good; we’ll take that.” It creates generosity if you aren’t chasing a perfect object.
If you ever have an opportunity to hear Hayes in person, take it. A few months ago I heard Terrance read at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, and he kept me on the edge of my seat.
I have two poems by Hayes to share today, and was thrilled to discover this MoMA recording of Hayes reading “New York Poem.” I’ve included it here so you can follow along and listen to Hayes’s poem in his own voice.
Enjoy your Sunday!
New York Poem
In New York from a rooftop in Chinatown
one can see the sci-fi bridges and aisles
of buildings where there are more miles
of shortcuts and alternative takes than
there are Miles Davis alternative takes.
There is a white girl who looks hi-
jacked with feeling in her glittering jacket
and her boots that look made of dinosaur
skin and R is saying to her I love you
again and again. On a Chinatown rooftop
in New York anything can happen.
Someone says “abattoir” is such a pretty word
for “slaughterhouse.” Some one says
mermaids are just fish ladies. I am so
fucking vain I cannot believe anyone
is threatened by me. In New York
not everyone is forgiven. Dear New York,
dear girl with a barcode tattooed
on the side of your face, and everyone
writing poems about and inside and outside
the subways, dear people underground
in New York, on the sci-fi bridges and aisles
of New York, on the rooftops of Chinatown
where Miles Davis is pumping in,
and someone is telling me about contranymns,
how “cleave” and “cleave” are the same word
looking in opposite directions, I now know
“bolt” is to lock and “bolt” is to run away.
That’s how I think of New York. Someone
jonesing for Grace Jones at the party,
and someone jonesing for grace.
Listen to Terrance Hayes read “New York Poem” here:
(If you cannot see the audio recording in your email, click here to listen on the Gwarlingo website)
D. Nurkse’s latest collection, A Night in Brooklyn, captures a Brooklyn of both the past and present in lyrical poems that are both intimate and political.
Here is Nurkse discussing his book with Andy Kuhn of the Katonah Poetry Series:
My family came here from Europe as the Nazis were coming to power, and we moved back to Europe briefly in the early sixties. My family members got by in many languages, but English was my first language. That’s probably an affinity to Brooklyn: living there is like traveling, being everywhere and nowhere. My current neighborhood is a place of immigrants, and I like their outlook. They take nothing for granted.
A theme of A Night in Brooklyn is how we make up stories, believe them, and live in them as if they were worlds.
Brooklyn throughout my life has been a place of vastness and wildness. I remember immense ruined factories; neighborhoods where diners sold ake ake, saltfish, cowsfoot soup, comfort food from West Africa; neighborhoods where you would hear Malayam, Quechua, Ladino. I once accompanied a great Irish poet who read in Gaelic in Irish Brooklyn. I remember bars where ex-guerrillas spoke of fighting the Bloody Black and Tans. I love the sea and the mountains. Brooklyn really had the same sense of being beyond measure. I remember teaching poetry to Orthodox Jewish children. One young girl came up with the line “red is the color of dying in your sleep.” The parents were startled, halted the workshop, and consulted a rabbi as to whether the exploration of poetry was safe or psychically dangerous. The rabbi felt that confronting the depths was entirely healthy and the parents invited me back.
Nurkse is also fascinated with the vanishing world of labor. He writes poems about building shelves, painting houses, and working in a handbag handle factory.
“Blue collar work for many years gave me a bye from the dependencies and politics of academia,” Nurkse told Andy Kuhn. “I’m equally grateful that academia was there to shelter me later in life. I was given insight into different classes and sets of expectations. Carpentry and construction left me fascinated with processes, with the textures of unfinished work before the final coat which is designed to domesticate labor and make it invisible.”
From 1996 to 2004 Nurkse was Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. “I was nominated for the position and appointed by a panel. I had no fixed duties. I did a lot of workshops in inner-city neighborhoods, schools, literacy centers, and libraries—in Bed Stuy, East Flatbush, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach; places other than the traditional cultural meccas in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope. An aspiring poet laureate is probably in the wrong field; poetry is a lovely thing but you can’t do it for political gain.”
While Brooklyn, New York, is the heartbeat of this collection, these poems are about so much more than a specific place. A Night in Brooklyn is a meditation on love, history, time, and beauty—a book that reveals new secrets each time you read it.
Here are five poems from D. Nurkse to start your Sunday.
The Dead Reveal Secrets Of Brooklyn
We are frequently asked, What is death like?
Like tossing a Frisbee in Prospect Park,
making sure the release
is free of any twitch or spasm—
any trace of the body’s vacillation—
willing the disk to glide forward
of its own momentum, never veering,
in a trance of straight lines.
Like waiting in traffic at Hoyt-Fulton,
waving away the squeegee man
with his excessive grin and red-veined eyes.
Lying under your lover in Crown Heights
and divining a stranger’s face
in the dark flash of her pupils.
Growing old in Kensington
on a block that reeks of dry cleaning
where you nod to three neighbors
and avoid the stare of a fourth
though a single brindle-tailed cat
patrols every dark garden.
Remember, death does not last,
not even a breath,
whereas the city goes on forever,
Cypress Hill, Gravesend, Bath Beach,
avenues screened by gingkos,
vehemence of domino players
hunched over folding tables,
range on range of padlocked factories
that once made twine, hammers, tape,
and now make small nameless articles
which we use to bind, shatter or seal,
here where there is no self,
no other world, no Brooklyn.
Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda had positive buzz in the literary community before it was even released by Cooper Canyon Press late last year, and the glowing reviews and accolades from publications like The New Yorker, the New York Times, Bookforum, and Publisher’s Weekly just keep pouring in.
And rightly so.
Not since Sylvia Plath has a poet written so vividly about the challenge of being a mother, wife, and artist. Personally, I’d take Shaughnessy’s brave, heartbreaking poems over Plath’s any day of the week.
Throughout Our Andromeda, Shaughnessy ponders the unimaginable: how to cope, love, and live after her child is injured at childbirth. In the poem “Miracles,” she writes:
I spent the whole day
crying and writing, until
they became the same,
as when the planet covers the sun
with all its might and still
I can see it, or when one dead
body gives its heart
to a name on a list.
This is a collection best read in one sitting (or as in my case, read and re-read), for the trail of clues artfully dropped in the book’s early poems climax and become shockingly real in the masterful, final poem, “Our Andromeda.” As Monica Ferrell writes in Bookforum:
Shaughnessy uses the concept of Andromeda in two ways. On the one hand, the name conjures up a figure from Greek mythology, a child punished for a mother’s hubris through divine retribution (and indeed certain poems feature a mother threatening and remonstrating with a God who has injured her child). On the other hand, what’s meant is the Andromeda galaxy that doubles the Milky Way and is hurtling toward us: “another world bisecting ours,” “a secret world…the tumor-sibling.” While elements of a recognizable reality—Brooklyn’s Court Street, the publisher FSG, a neighbor’s plaster statue of the Virgin Mary—make appearances in these pages, they are constantly being displaced, obscured, or clouded by leakage from somewhere else. More often than it terrifies, however, this nebulous elsewhere offers the hope of a haven or promised land. The poem “Why Should Only Cheaters and Liars Get Double Lives?” provides a glimmer of a sort of escape hatch.
“Poetry is where I write my wishes and fears and alternate existences,” Shaughnessy says in an essay for Poets & Writers, and these poems are brimming with double-lives and “what-ifs.”
Here is Shaughnessy in Poets & Writers:
I gave myself permission to fantasize about a parallel world in which my son was not injured at birth, a world in which he’d been allowed to live in his own body without the pain and restriction of cerebral palsy. In the safe space of Yaddo, I let myself give into yearning for his would-be path. I let my imagination get deep into the bargaining and begging every mother does for the safety of her child. I was beseeching the only gods I know how to talk to, the gods of poetry, to give Cal back his body intact. Cal’s would-be path: I had to imagine, construct, create it. I had to write it to make it exist. It was perhaps the most perverse act of longing I’d ever committed…
Not even the fiercest mother love can turn time back to undo or prevent the injury already incurred. I’d do anything to change it and I’m powerless to do so. All I can do is write my ass off about how angry I am on his behalf, how devastated I am, and how grateful I am that my beautiful son exists. How proud of him and in love with him I am. I can write that reality. It too exists in the boundless space of poetry.
This is a fierce, brave book, a collection that challenges us to consider the relationship between truth and art. In Poets & Writers, Shaughnessy and her husband, poet Craig Morgan Teicher, reference the essay “Against Sincerity” by Louise Gluck. Actuality, Gluck says, is “the world of event,” while truth is “illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art.” Gluck argues that “the artist’s task…involves the transformation of the actual to the true…The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.”
“In no small way our love of and commitment to poetry—especially to each other’s—has enabled us to remain hopeful, joyful, and most of all, imaginative through some of the most challenging experiences any parent, or any couple, could face,” says Teicher and Shaughnessy. “We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.”
While Plath and Gluck are obvious reference points, the urban imagery, emotional dislocation, and cultural allusions in Shaughnessy’s work also conjure the brilliant, early poems of T.S. Eliot.
But regardless of her influences, Shaughnessy has written a courageous and important book, a collection that is perfectly capable of stunning readers through its rawness and facility with language. Few critics have expressed their admiration as articulately as Victoria Redel in the New York Times Book Review:
Shaughnessy’s emotionally charged and gorgeously composed third volume of poems, Our Andromeda, moves me line by line and poem by poem so that by the book’s final, monumental title poem, I am top-of-the-head-blown-off undone….Love is the fierce engine of this beautiful and necessary book of poems. Love is the high stakes, the whip of its power and grief and possibility for repair. Brenda Shaughnessy has brought her full self to bear in Our Andromeda, and the result is a book that should be read now because it is a collection whose song will endure.
The unplowed road is unusable
unless there’s no snow.
But in dry, warm weather,
it’s never called an unplowed road.
To call it so, when it isn’t so,
doesn’t make it so, though it is so
when it snows and there’s no plow.
It’s a no-go. Let’s stay inside.
And here we are again:
no cake without breaking
eggs, unless it’s a vegan cake
in which the are never any eggs
only the issue, the question,
the primacy of eggs,
which remains even in animal-free
foods, eaten by animal-free
humans in an inhumane world, lit
with robots breathing
powerlessly in nature.
you are so futuristically
existing in the daytime
for later, because it becomes
later eventually, then
earlier, then later again.
And a place is made
for that hope, if I call
it hope when half the time
is erased by the other half.
Light becomes itself
in the dark, and becomes
nothing when the real light
comes. It is enough to make
even the simplest organism
insane. Why did the chicken
cross the unplowed road?
Because it was trying
to beat the egg to the other side.
It wanted to be first,
at last, and to stay first,
at least until the day
breaks itself sunny side,
and the rooster crows.
The only snows are dark snows.