Category: Poetry

Poetry for the Vigil

There’s something about a storm on the horizon that won’t let me sleep– maybe just the marvel that some primeval awareness of weather patterns and their onetime implications for shelter and sustenance still linger in some backwoods of bodily awareness. Even before becoming aware of the first quiet hints of thunder, I’m suddenly awake and can do nothing but lie there uselessly until the system has worn itself out and there are no longer any low, thrilled giggles beneath my window, from late-night walkers caught in the rain.

From ako-aleko at Wikimedia Commons.

It was somehow appropriate that I waited it all out tonight with David Whyte’s collection of poems, The House of Belonging. I’m not sure where I first heard of Whyte or his book, which has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years– and I purchased it so long ago that I no longer had any expectations at all about what I’d find there.

Well– the material seemed to fit my mood, or to allay my restlessness to some degree; in the midst of the general tempest that is existence, Whyte, in his poet’s guise, at least, maintains an often frustrating calm in the face of just about everything, exploring how he belongs in the world, and the time and patience necessary to discover that manner of being. The simplicity of the whole project is often cripplingly beautiful, as in the second poem’s reference to his home,

where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.(1)

And Whyte’s acknowledgment even within this belonging of all “the testaments of loneliness” strikes a familiar minor chord with any insomniac with only the pages of a book to talk to in the middle of a blustery night.(2) But there are entire chunks of this volume that seem as if they’d be more appropriate in a self-help manual, more nuanced declarations and reminders of Stuart Smalley’s assertion, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I started to wonder, in fact, if Whyte had also fallen in his past upon emotional times hard enough to have cried half-ashamedly in a bathtub over the truisms found in How to Survive the Loss of a Love (3); numerous lines such as the following made me question whether I’d been deluded about the really good stuff that had come before it:

Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. (4)

Maybe part of the problem was with what often felt like prose that had simply been sliced into separate lines– not prose poetry, and not quite “poetry poetry,” begging the question of what counts as authentically part of the genre. Even though I’m no fan of strict labels or parameters, I was still uneasy with my basis for wanting to disqualify these sections– namely, the same one US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscene material: “I know it when I see it.”(5) There was something about many of these run-on sentences that just couldn’t qualify for me as “it.”

But if nothing else, the book, which really did contain some gems, got me through the first phase of this rainy night; maybe I should take it to my upstairs neighbor, who’s chosen to wait out his own restlessness by pacing back and forth above my head on creaky floorboards. I’ll make another attempt, though, to get some sleep, even though the thunder’s returned, and a few little drops of rain, and I need to shut the windows again

while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.(6)

 

(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997), 6.

(2) Whyte, “The Truelove,” 96.

(3) Peter McWilliams et al., How to Survive the Loss of a Love (Prelude Press, 1993). Credit where it’s due: this was a strangely powerful and necessary volume, a couple of years back. But I’m still going to be snarky about admitting that fact.

(4) Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” 23.

(5) That statement was made as part of 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio, which declared Louis Malle’s film The Lovers not obscene.

(6) Whyte, “The Winter of Listening,” 29.

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Time’s Possible Reconfigurations

I’ve been making my way at a glacial pace through Mark Strand’s Selected Poems. Plodding of this sort tends to happen with me and poetry; I’m usually so wary of careless gorging on line and meter that a thin volume could take months for me to get through.

I found this copy in a new-to-me used bookstore at the beginning of the year; it was the first of this poet’s works I’d ever picked up, although I’d gone to a reading of his. The piece that convinced me I couldn’t do without the book was “The Coming of Light”*– but what I’ve come back to ever since I grabbed it from the shelf is the author’s photograph on the front cover, a black-and-white shot of a handsome man in confident middle age, assured of his place in the world, maybe a bit cockily so. I continue to be struck by the totally conventional portrait, because I would never have recognized the man staring out at me; that reading I attended, mentioned earlier, took place only a few years ago, right before the poet’s death at age eighty. The thirty-four years that intervened between my book’s publication and the night I watched him discuss poetry and libretti with Renée Fleming meant, of course, a marked change in physical appearance. And I could be incredibly wrong, but I’m guessing the mellow gent who seemed unconcerned with letting the opera star take over would have looked with a bit of amusement upon his younger self’s relaxed photographic pretension.

Photo by Miriam Berkley, via Blackbird.

I thought of that (possible) difference when reading “Old People on the Nursing Home Porch.” The title makes it evident whom we’re observing here– and I have to wonder if the Strand who would have been one of their peers might have shaken his head at the vaguely arrogant assumptions the younger Strand had made in the prime of his life, about the “dullness” of their past, and their “ending up with nothing/Save what might have been” in “the wasted/Vision of each one.”** Did this slightly pitying observance contain the fear of a possible personal future– and perhaps because of that fact, make it impossible for the observer to imagine these seniors as they once were, as presently happy, and/or as more than the sum of their slow rocking? Or might the poetic voice (and not necessarily the poet) feel itself immune to this variety of ravaged fate? I wish I’d known more (anything at all, actually) about Strand’s work before listening to him talk not so long ago; he seemed approachable, and I might have felt comfortable enough to ask him about that earlier piece. Now, though, I’ll have to settle for a more discomfiting, because less theoretical, search for answers: namely, coming back to this particular dilemma, and asking myself the same sorts of questions, if I’m lucky enough to be able to do so another three decades or so down the line.

 

 

*     “The Coming of Light”

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Mark Strand, Selected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1980), 115.

** ibid., 8.

What the World Needs Now…

… other than love, sweet love,* is the work of Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. For one thing, check out his ability to say so damn much, in so few words, and without making a big show of overtly stating a piece’s Big Themes.

Lady

your son has rickets
give him beef broth
milk give him steak and eggs
get out of this pigsty
get an apartment on Park Avenue
you look like a ghost, lady
why don’t you take a little trip to Miami**

And really, the big kicker running throughout Parra’s work is his keen, unsparing social analysis. As an example, take this piece, read it multiple times, remember it.

The Rule of Three

Not counting
The twenty million missing
How much do you think the deification of Stalin
Came to in cold, hard cash.

Monuments cost money.

What do you think it cost
To pull down those concrete hulks?

Simply moving the body
Out of the mausoleum to the common grave
Must have cost a fortune.

And what do you think we’ll spend
Putting those sacred statues back in place?***

Will that cycle ever come to an end? I think there’s ample cause to doubt positive(-ish) responses to that question, even when they come from big brains such as Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s. But Parra and all the other prophets committed to making us face the full reality of our (individual and social) nature– and to pushing us to rise above its worst depths– are always essential, especially when we think we’ve reached the complacently safe end of history. So go, pick a favorite poetic nugget of strength, and let it assist you in, to riff only semi-accurately on a notion of the aforementioned Georg Wilhelm Friedrich H., dwelling with our own time’s particular negatives.

 

* (and a variety of other big-ticket items, such as the absence of bigotry, greed, and aggression)

** Nicanor Parra, “Lady,” in Emergency Poems, transl. Miller Williams (New York: New Directions, 1972), 53.

*** ibid., “The Rule of Three,” 49.

Proud Classmate of the Poet

Two posts in a day? This must be serious– and indeed it is.

Having received word this afternoon that Nashville friend Lisa Dordal is coming out with a new book, I checked out her blog, which includes links to some of her poems– and I thought: “Damn. She’s good.” Can’t wait for the publication– but until then, I’ll spread the word.

A Poem in and for Multiple Winters

Sometimes, you just feel old. Or as was the case this morning, you look into the mirror and see the wreckage of age irrevocably playing out on your face. Not quite a fair call to make, when you’ve just woken up early on a frigid day and the blare of a bathroom light has triggered a bout of what Russian literature so often calls screwing up your eyes. But still: the unceasing forward march of time hits you via an unflattering reflection, and Things take on a grim cast.

But that’s about the most complex articulation I’ve been able to produce in a week or so– and although I’ve been reading like a fiend, my capacity for thoughtful reflection upon all those words and ideas has come to and remained at a standstill. Not freed, though, of the desire to say something, if only to the ether, I’ll hand over one of the better bits I’ve come across in the last few days, something that’s also fitting, both weatherwise and, more ominously, in terms of the entirely mindboggling scenarios so many parts of the world are enduring right now. Enjoy, then, a sad-hopeful-unsentimental little vision from Juan Gelman’s poem, “Winter”:

Presidency of the Nation of Argentina, via Wikimedia Commons.

Presidency of the Nation of Argentina, via Wikimedia Commons.

In this city moaning like a madwoman
love quietly counts
the birds that died fighting the cold,
the jails, the kisses, the loneliness, the days
still left before the revolution.*

 

* Juan Gelman, Dark Times Filled with Light: The Selected Work of Juan Gelman, transl. Hardie St. Martin (Rochester, NY: Open Letter Press), 2012: 16.

Words to Fill in for a Lack of Words

How the hell am I supposed to review Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric? Like everything I’ve read or seen by her, I can’t; I simply can’t do anything but sit there in awe. The closest I can come to articulating anything useful is to note that, just after the final narrator claimed she didn’t know how to end what she was doing (or rather, end the situation that had created and was creating the very need for this volume to be written), I finished her book– and had to write, “NICE,” meaning something closer to a marvel-saturated “DAMN.”

Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

From Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how Rankine does what she does– but it’s not even worth admitting I’m envious, because that’s got to be just a given for anyone who reads or sees her work, and is such a useless complaint when faced with unquestionable artistry– and urgently relevant artistry at that– that maybe the best response is simply to stand in sheer gratitude to the phenomenon that she is.

Incidentally, I went to a lecture and reading Rankine gave not too long ago, for which people lined up over an hour in advance (for a poet!). At some point during one of the narrated videos she played, I noticed an inordinate amount of sniffling– and looked around to realize that I and everyone around me were crying.

And here’s the great and terrible fact about that response: it’s still not enough. Because the force of her presentation unavoidably magnifies the force of the situations/realities/tragedies she describes, something has to be done. There you are, faced with your own complicity and responsibility, and the unshakable demand– on behalf of others (and) inseparable from yourself– that you damn well better go forth in real solidarity.

Quick, But Not Fleeting

Moving, trying to craft a massive budget at work, settling into a new place: all these things and more have sucked me entirely out of writing for at least the past month, and to a certain degree, out of reading as well. But one of the benefits of having one’s life taken over by demanding practicalities and a chaotic schedule while diving into haiku in a more-informed-than-in-the-past fashion has meant that I’m taking those poetic particles bit by slow, slow bit, letting a few sink in at a time and simmer until they’ve had their say in my brain.

I can’t remember when I learned about haiku; I was fortunate enough to have teachers convinced of small children’s need to learn about and experiment with different forms of poetry, even if said children had barely made it into a stage of comfort with two-syllable words. But, much as was the case with Greek drama and even Shakespeare, I think I had to put a few decades behind me before I could take the form seriously, as something more than pleasant or clever, and able to be whipped out by anyone with a pretty good vocabulary and a healthy wit. And now, especially when any time available for reading is seriously strained, paying attention to every well-crafted syllable is making me value this poetic form in a way I’d failed to do in the past.

Check out these few samples of Bashō:

Many nights on the road
and not dead yet–
the end of autumn.

Sickly,
but somehow the chrysanthemum
is budding.

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

Summer grass–
all that’s left
of warriors’ dreams.*

 

And then, too, I’ve given an initial peek into waka. Here’s one from Yosano Akiko:

You have come at last,
And so I let go the dragonflies
Which I have held captive
In my five fingers
This autumn evening.

Of the numberless steps
Up to my heart,
He climbed perhaps
Only two or three.**

 

But going back to the theme that opened this digression from apparently more pressing things, I’m unable to spend any real time talking about what it is I love about these verses– but will note in quick passing that the chrysanthemum piece seems somehow to link in feeling with an essay over at the Center for Humans and Nature on the plight of the monarch. The general existential state of the species? Ailing, and badly so. But at the moment, somehow, a few blossoms still survive to help them out. Maybe, once I have my head on straight again, I’ll find a succinct poetic way to express what should pain us all about this situation– and better yet, lead to some action.

Until then, I’ll read when, and as much as, I can, and hope to God I’m seeing the light at the end of this stupidly jam-packed tunnel.

 

 

*Robert Haas, editor, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa (New York: ecco, 1994), 16, 20, 27, 39

** Donald Keene, editor, Modern Japanese Literature: From 1868 to Present Day (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1960), 207.