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.
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.
… 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.
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
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.
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.
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”:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
but somehow the chrysanthemum
A cicada shell;
it sang itself
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.
I’ve often wondered if some of my inability to remember specifics, or even general plots, of literary works I really love is due to the fact that I read them too quickly. This sort of amnesia is especially prominent when short stories and poetry are concerned; for example, I’ve read Joyce’s Dubliners twice now, loved it both times, and couldn’t tell you much at all about it, except that it was grand, and that there’s a married couple and a staircase and some staring out at (I think) snow. I’ll not even begin to get into my Borges haze, even though I regularly reread his stories, know I’ve read them before, and adore them each time, too familiar to feel new and too alien for me to feel as if I’m repeating myself. With short story collections, if you don’t read one piece and let it sit for a while before moving on, it’s easier for one plot to blend into another, for details to get mixed up in a general sense of the author’s style.
The same goes for poetry collections, even if plot’s not quite what gets lost in the binge-fest. Well aware of this fact, I still challenged myself yesterday to read all of Wisława Szymborska’s Here in one sitting. It’s a short book, but I was hesitant to accept my own demand, wanting to let each poem dwell long enough in my mental space to do everything it should before I moved on to the next separate entity in the collection. But then I just got into it, and let myself fly through everything.
Here’s what I noticed: some welcome quirkiness,* an obvious wonder on the poet’s part at the world around her/us,** and what I’m going to call a Foucauldian gift for stating the obvious. That last item on the list sounds bad, but it’s actually a supreme compliment. Let me elaborate.
In a philosophy seminar long, long ago, the instructor noted with awe that Michel Foucault’s real gift may have been describing how things– societies, cultures, norms, traditions, knowledge, etc.– emerge and function, descriptions about which we’re ready to say, “Well, of course, that’s obvious”– but then we realize that no one before him had ever really provided such descriptions, taken the time to lay out what we thought was common sense and/or the natural run of things– and both by showing up our sort-of laziness and giving us a picture of what’s really going on, we realize what makes up the worlds around us is never as simple– or maybe as beautiful in its complexity– as we’d imagined.
I’ll say the same for Szymborska; her talent for making what should have been obvious surprising is most evident in “Assassins,” where she reminds us that the people who practice the profession of killing have everyday lives that involve “wash[ing] their feet… mak[ing] phone calls while scratching their armpits.” And there’s something about “Foraminifera”s assertion that these little beings “did what they could since they were able” that makes you pause and realize there’s a new possibility of seeing one’s environment in play here, without it being forced upon you, a way of approaching what’s around you that you hope you, too, can adopt.***
But for all that awe, Szymborska’s not naive about the world’s charms or anyone’s/anything’s innocence; even while luring us into loving descriptions of unseen creatures and the cliffs their shells became, she reminds us in “Nonreading” that, standing in our point in time and culture, “We live longer/but less precisely/and in shorter sentences.”**** Will we retain the capacity for wonder, and if so, the attendant ability to interpret it, to really enjoy it to its full? We’ll have to wait and see, and be vigilant, as her poetry seems to be, if that future is to remain, or become, a reality. For my own part, I guess I could start contributing to that project by being more intentional about savoring so many good words, instead of wolfing them down too eagerly.
* My favorite? Her observation, in “Here,” that
Like nowhere else, or almost nowhere,
you’re given your own torso here [on Earth],
equipped with the accessories required
for adding your own children to the rest.
Not to mention arms, legs, and astounded head.
Wisława Szymborska, Here, transl. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak (New York, Mariner Books, 2010), 3.
** There’s a poem, for example, about the curious existential nature of the population of a microscope slide! And one on the single-celled creatures known as Foraminifera! Charles Simic states it best on the back cover when he praises the poet for “her atypical lack of narcissism.” ibid.
*** ibid., 33, 27.
** ibid., 39. There’s also often something about her style that reminds me of the fantastic Lydia Davis. Of course, I should be stating that Davis (who’s most likely read her share of the Polish Nobel laureate) reminds me of Szymborska, but that’s what happens when you compare writers with each other, based on whom you came to first.