Thursday, December 6, 2007

DISTRUSTING MEMORY

My memory can no longer be trusted. Until recently, I thought I knew my own history. I was even writing a series of poems about a time I thought I knew well. Then I found an old journal, written when I was twenty years old.

According to me, several significant events occurred that year. Events, I’m sure, that my twenty-year-old self would think unforgettable. But here I am, on the eve of my fiftieth birthday, and I can’t remember them. This revelation put into question the “truth” of the poems I’m writing.

In many ways, the twenty-year-old self I’ve been writing about is fictionalized by memory—by the retelling of old stories. By rationalizations and justifications. Writing in the third-person point-of-view helps account for that distance. It's something Jack Gilbert may be doing in his poems.

Mr. Gilbert has become a major influence on my writing. I admire the way he writes so bravely about his life. James Dickey wrote this about him: “He takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go; from that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion. Gilbert is the rarest of beings: a necessary poet, who teaches us not only how to live but to die creatively, and with all meaning.”

Sometimes Mr. Gilbert writes about his past in the third person. This provides an interesting sense of perspective, some distance between the present and the remembered past. “A Year Later,” from The Great Fires: poems 1982 – 1992 (Knopf, 2006), provides a good example.



A YEAR LATER

for Linda Gregg

From this distance they are unimportant
standing by the sea. She is weeping, wearing
a white dress, and the marriage is almost over,
after eight years. All around is the flat
uninhabited side of the island. The water
is blue in the morning air. They did not know
this would happen when they came, just the two
of them and the silence. A purity that looked
like beauty and was too difficult for people.



In “Infidelity,” Mr. Gilbert writes about the past not only in the third person, but also in the present tense. Doing so makes the poem feel as real today as did on the day the event occurred. And the poem rings true.


INFIDELITY

He stands freezing in the dark courtyard looking up
at their bright windows, as he has many nights since
moving away. Because of his promise, he does not
go up. He is thinking of the day she came back
from the hospital. They did not know her then.
He was looking down because of the happiness in her
voice talking to her husband as they went across
the courtyard. She saw him and, grinning, held up
the newborn child. Now it is the last time ever.
He finally knocks. Her eyes widen when she opens
the door. She looks to indicate her husband is home
as she unbuttons her dress. He whispers that his hands
are too cold. It will make me remember better,
she says, and puts them on her nakedness, wincing,
eyes wild with love. It is snowing when he leaves,
the narrow street lit here and there by shop windows.
Tomorrow he will be on the train with his wife, watching
the shadows on the snow. Going south to live silently
with perfect summer skies and the brilliant Aegean.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

ZAID SHLAH at Sacramento City College Nov. 29, 2007



Zaid Shlah came to visit the Sacramento City College and talked about his love of Arabic culture, poetry in particular. He read several pieces from his book entitled Taqsim [Frontenac, 2006]. Taqsim are short improvisational pieces played on an oud, and the pieces that Shlah read had a feel of meditations by route of stringed instrument. He explained how the cover of the book was a photograph of a favorite uncle who lived in the north of Iraq near Kirkuk, a man who had dedicated himself to Arabic cultural traditions, in particular to the playing of taqsim. For Shlah, there was no other photograph that evoked the spirit of taqsim more than this one.

He read selections from “Taqsim”, followed by ”Afternoon Confession,” “The Reception,” “Arabic Snow,” “Driving Towards Gethsemane,” “Leaving Iraq, Entering Alberta,” and finally, “Asking Iraq to Comply.”

Shlah answered questions after the reading ranging from personal questions to questions about his work. He talked about his tenuos position as an Iraqi-Canadian who now finds himself in California. He also revealed he enjoyed reading his taqsim to an oud accompaniment like one might experience at a salon in Iraq where the poet and the musician are counterpoints to each other.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

ELENI SIKELIANOS—THE CALIFORNIA POEM



Crossing over the border into Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem is like watching an epic biopic with lots of cameos by many known and unknown actors. One goes through the various scenes playing the game of name-that-face, continually familiarizing and defamiliarizing oneself as the movie continues. Mostly the actors are aspects of California’s flora and fauna, its physical landscape. At times the images appear in such rapid succession that the eye is quickly sated and the mind is overwhelmed. Kind of like Peter Greenaway is the director. Like Greenaway, Sikelianos uses many ornate multi-syllabics and the technical language (genus and species names proliferate like the animals they describe) of biologists and geologists. However, her California also inhabits the fanciful nature of the place by extrapolating the sober references and creating very imaginative Hollywood-like spaces. There is history of all sorts too. All of these are brought together via a playful sounding that is often rhyming or alliterating itself across the expanse of the page. It is a wild place one might hear someone say from the Midwest who has come to visit.

The textual variety within the book is impressive. Not only is personal autobiography present alongside of the copious amount of material on the natural world, but there are photos, the backs of old postcards, sign language demo graphics, collages, small little diagrams [see page 47 on Google Preview above] that look like they are crude representations of networks or patterns of growth among sea slugs or winged insects. Sikelianos is an avid collector of Californiana throughout the book, a hoarder of every word that washes up on the beach. Through it all though, one particularly strong current running through the book is a sense of loss, a sentimentality for the unfettered California of the past. One senses nature is being encroached on everywhere, and Sikelianos is trying to reimagine the script for its players, sometimes in chronicling the goings-on in the neighborhood of the tidepool, sometimes with a deflating gesture toward the artificial world that has been created by the humans around it.

any peasant with a dumb
cow can make whipped
cream but it takes a chemical factory
in California to make Cool Whip


Also, there is ample quotation in the piece, sometimes attributed, more often not. There are a lot of people talking, creating a strange cacophony that enforces the notion that Sikelianos seems to embrace “Suddenly, everything belongs in California.” The residents since birth are forced to be generous hosts. They accommodate by clearing more space.

The language that is used to negotiate the natural world in The California Poem is dense and profuse. Surely, there is a prodigious talent for naming and describing the natural world in the piece, so much so that it seems almost unnatural to carry around that much language about flora and fauna in one’s head. Frequently, I wondered if all this “language about nature” wasn’t a construction from scientific texts as they were applied after the fact of an experience with them. In her Jacket interview with Jesse Morse, she reveals:

Early on, I loved leafing through biology, oceanography and science books. I’ve always loved that language and its richness.

Yet, Sikelianos takes such great care to ensure that the reader is witness to the author’s experience that I was curious about how much was experienced and how much was come to afterwards, constructed in a language game. Indeed, it is not entirely impossible that where many of us see “a pretty blue shell” she is seeing radial symmetry. In fact, we are told, “At Monterey, I collected 136 hermit crabs to uncover the mysteries of population dynamics.” Is this the work of a budding marine biologist who was thwarted midstream with a growing realization that she was a sensualist? [The ecstatic Whitmanesque language throughout the piece suggests that her transformation to sensualist is complete.]

Sikelianos has mentioned in her 2005 “Live From Prairie Lights” reading at the University of Iowa that she did copious amounts of research for the book which took her some 7 to 8 years to write. She looked at the history of flora and fauna and also the rich linguistic history before the conquest of the indigenous peoples. The density of language in its Whitmanesque swirls makes it hard for me to believe that these passages are coming off the top of her head as per Ginsberg. They often feel constructed because of their density. Yet Sikelianos’s ear is so adept that rhythmically a seam never appears. The flora and fauna do seem to erupt out of her in a long effortless flow of source. The conversation is exhausting, but one is taken in by the breadth of it, the way it darts here and there after more prey for the intellect to feast on.

Her breath is Olson’s, but the absurd and surrealist-tinged turns are Ginsberg’s.

I suppose how the lines are constructed doesn’t really matter (except to a wonk like me who is perpetually interested in such technical matters). The rich, dense language, no matter how it was arrived at, serves what she says is the purpose of the piece:

mythologizing the landscape beyond recognition
like some simulacra of Saturday Night Fever


The various opossums and nudibranchia are the stars of the piece though. [Picture them beneath a mirror ball if you have to.] These and the hypnotic and expansive language that always seems to branching off to form another dendrite (symmetry be damned!). One might experience a good bit of frustration as I did when I first started reading the poem. I was lingering over each line, expecting it to deliver its weight. I read it like it was a scientific paper. When I realized the rhythm was more “Beat”, that I needed to read it like I read Ginsberg, skimming over the surface of the language, I began to settle in and enjoy Sikelianos’s topsy-turvy California where it seems

California // is the palace where we’re making continents up

          (sand, sand dollar, rock . . .) Your job is to

tell the history of each & every piece


Hers is a “Beat eye for the ethologist guy.”

The great inclusiveness is reminiscent of Whitman, whom Sikelianos mentions in the Prairie Lights reading as someone she considers to be a California poet as well. Unlike Uncle Walt, though, Sikelianos commingles with gastropods, mesa cliffs, hummingbirds and sea-hares, those citizens whom Sikelianos has deemed worthy of taking up residence in California. Whitman’s eye turned to the human activity of all the people taking part in the great democratic experiment that was the United States mid-nineteenth century. Sikelianos’s nod to the human realm is largely concerned with her personal experiences in California. She recalls where her friend Adam Davies went down in the King River. The memory of Adam Davies is then projected on a metro busker shortly afterwards, but the human chain ends there. At one point she even muses aloud:

What do I have in common with my fellow humans?

Her reverence stops short because “There [in California] reverence is a kind of fear.” One is awestruck and afraid by the complexity and multiplicity that is the many heads of California, some with jaws that bite.

Another personal bit that is dropped into the mix is a short and affecting section that seemingly sums up her teenage years in California:

reprisal:

I was a waitress in a white dress,
an avocado goddess in the land of Phocis
Queen of the Drought in the kingdom
          of Prop. 13
I set forth
It was four blocks to the beach
What did I see there?
    a kegger with lots of young men
          preparing to drink


Go ahead. Say “avocado goddess” three times. That’s fun, isn’t it? Six staccato bursts followed by a hissing “s”.

The sound of the line is very often generative for Sikelianos as she moves through her disparate images and kinds of texts. I’m reminded of Anne Waldman’s work whose blank spots on the page do not measure erasure (like with Cole Swensen) as much as they are rests in a musical score. This kind of presentation is a grateful reminder that the poem, at least many of the more lyrical parts, is still intended to be read aloud. It is not just an artifact bound to the page, which sometimes when I’m reading Paterson or The Maximus Poems, I get the sense they are only alive on the page. The Waldman influence would be perfectly understandable as Sikelianos cut her teeth at Naropa and was probably familiar with how Waldman could expertly perform difficult texts, her graphic presentation directing the page. Perhaps the most significant contribution that the Beats made to American poetry is the development of bop prosody, which allowed American poetry to escape the rhythms of the marching band and the ballad, and begin to explore the explosive multi-syllabic runs which allow complicated language to fit snugly inside of a line. Here is a bit for effect:

bathing bathers of the big black lake, SPACE, bodies like golden
apples hanging on the dark branch, EARTH, like
Great Alexander or Eleni or little children finding the ripest apples, last places to be within;

kissing mystical ventral surfaces, occiscles; rise up
for arboreal views
          of passionate showy brittle stars (Ophiuroidea), mirror or watery earth & sky;


Uncle Aristotle’s lantern, urchin, my mouth remains close to the rock
while the shell falls
off; enter the

sun, such the masseur bully sun
big fiery fruit in his rhymes of ray-on-stone, pounding
the flesh, the one, one, the one
sun was the
melancholy team sun in
matrices whose elements are birds
(words) whose elements are branches,
ladders, shadows, shadders, birds


Each stanza is a distinct musical thought, a complete musical phrase. Between “enter the” and “sun” (that starts the next stanza), the short caesura signals the horn solo is about to head off in another direction a la Sonny Rollins when he cuts from one recognizable melody to another or to a flurry of scales during one of his long and intense solos.

The “School of Disembodied Poetics” (as Naropa is less familiarly known) is also an influence in how Sikelianos likes to remove the speaking voice in the poem from her self. The speaker is invoking mightily throughout, the imagination careening off of the tangible minutiae of the golden State, and this expansive state of the speaker lends itself to an extraordinary amount of inflation which must be regarded as the souped-up construction that it is:

Cilia, spirochete, composite beings
          born of symbiont meanings
(humans) fall apart         Are you speaking of molecules
or cummunity interactions?     I’m speaking here
only of the heart


This direct address to the speaker and challenge to the speaker reminds me of what might be the central project of the Beats, of Whitman: to expand one’s self so that it is no longer a part of you. It has moved on without you, moved on to engage the world and to circle around and check back with you from time to time. It floats disembodied, an almost comical balloon that is so precious one cannot let it pop.

The Eleni narrator becomes an affectation throughout the piece as well. While the collected bits of personal narrative indicate that this Eleni is a marker for an experienced life, especially towards the last quarter of the book, that Eleni becomes unhinged and ready to fly away from its moorings from that experienced life. Eleni is other, one more piece of the mythologized landscape that circumscribes the California.

Like any assemblage the size and scope of Sikelianos’s California, as a reader, one is forced to do violence to it by trying to make it cohere, by trying to insert Tab A into Slot B. Sikelianos’s California is really quite resistant to this readerly impulse though. Besides the autobiography and the persistent references to the natural world, there are not many glaring motifs which are rekindled. If there are motifs, miniature stones resurfacing through the sand on the beach, they become subsumed within dream. Sikelianos’s California is a dream as much as a place to dream:

From Jacket 23

Any dream that includes/ends with Marlon Brando growling, “Get up, you scum-suckin’ pig” has got to be reckoned with.

The “filmy Vistavision” model of California that Sikelianos has created is an experiment in narrative that brings the disparate home to lodge in the self. It interrupts the stable psychological state (mirrored by the instability of the Golden State), which indicates the ego-self as more fluid than solid. Or perhaps an entity engaged in a hundred phase transitions in a single minute. The result is a surfactant able to exist in one realm while clinging to another. More modern chemistry. And like so much modern chemistry, there are many residual byproducts to negotiate within the racemic mix. California is the perfect laboratory for such an experiment. Its space is essential to sort out the chiral sprawl, the radial outgrowths of successive dreams.

Sorry. I got taken up in a little bit of Sikelianos’s verbiage, trying to extend a good hard science metaphor into the world of galloping verse. It’s easy to get carried away by this book.

I found that I was cheering for the language more and more as the book wore on. The impulse to parse all the information was stripped away. However, as I mentioned above, it was not my first impulse to read it that way. Perhaps as time goes on I will want to pick out sections for a deeper reading, do my homework on all of the obscure words found there (I’m still looking for “occiscles”). Is reading Sikelianos’s The California Poem what reading Pound would be like if he had lived in a trailer park and visited the beach?

Another point of reference for The California Poem might be Philip Lamantia’s Meadowlark West. Lamantia, also associated with the Beats, tends a little bit more to the world historical like Pound, but there is a significant amount of California flora and fauna that exists between the covers of Meadowlark Wet. The same hyperbolic language exists, and it works the same way in mythologizing the West, which leads me to wonder if it is always the case that hyperbole and myth go together. Is myth a form of hyperbole? What about writers like Robert Hass who are also trying to mythologize the West to a certain extent, but do it with a very burnished rendition of the quotidian? Would someone challenge that a poet like Hass is not mythologizing the West as much as he is documenting it? Can the documentarian and mythologizer exist in the same room together? And if they can, would they take their clothes off?

All in all, as I go back to The California Poem (and I expect to visit again over time . . . if for no other reason than to help me parse what I’m looking at in the tidepools) I expect that more of its “sense” will leak into me. I will be able to track down more and more of its paratactical moves. However, I suspect that I will be dipping into The California Poem more as a reminder of how ferocious the language can be, how intense its curvatures. I think I will pick it up to help me jumpstart my lines when I feel they are getting too stale, when I resist keeping bodies in motion for keeping them at rest. It’s a primer for how to juggle. The California Poem has so many interactive particles within it that it is a veritable cyclotron of activity. Despite the missing gluons, the particles whirl and swirl like they are in a popcorn maker, the more time spent with them, the more likely it is for each kernel to open. The bodies in motion ricochet off of each other at exaggerated speeds that make each one begin to sweat a little, cry a little, bleed a little. There’s a lot of body sauce flying around.

Other excerpts from The California Poem

From Cento Magazine

From Octopus Magazine

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Blake's Violence, Bush's Violence

That in plate 5 of William Blake’s AMERICA a PROPHECY, the figure clasped by Albion’s angel at the top of the engraving and, at the bottom, clutched upside down and headless in the coils of an encircling snake, is the king himself.



That Blake’s images make clear his attraction to the flex of power in violent struggles for liberty.

That in his visionary theology, an apocalyptic revolution of faith and values is imperative. In several manuscripts we see Blake representing revolutionary terror in terms of Christian apocalypse.

That Blake’s depictions of insurrections aren’t limited to his images. Many poems throb with violence, from outrage for the murdered “Little Boy Lost” in Songs of Innocence to the shout of “Pull down the tyrant to the dust” in “Gwin, King of Norway” to the description of “flames of Eternal fury” in The First Book of Urizen.

That there is a yet more subtle violence linked to Blake’s innovations as an artist.

That it is Blake’s re-visioning “hand or eye” which dares to frame a radical catachrestic symmetry in which images cross over into words and words into images.

That Blake rejected the Lockean convention that words are the arbitrary signs of ideas. That for Blake, words are living things. Blake’s ears “have heard,/ The Holy word,/ That walk’d among the ancient trees.”

That by focusing his attention on the phonetic, graphic, and etymological properties of words and by developing a novel technique for engraving words and images directly onto copper plates—a technique that treats words as images—Blake diminished distinctions between the linguistic and the pictorial.

That language and image rehearse as part of a singular performance in Blake’s engravings.

That if we look again at AMERICA a PROPHECY, we will see the A on the title page efflorescing into wheat sheaves. That in the last line of the first stanza, we will see the first stroke of the letter M in Meet dangling into the flame spewing from Albion’s sword. That this flourish is mirrored by the W in Washington, the first word in the next stanza.



That the letters are fuses lit by a “fire fierce glowing.” That Blake’s words are both denotative and performative.

That on the first plate of EUROPE a PROPHECY, the plumed serpent’s forked tongue is mirrored by the Y of PROPHECY as well as by the figuration extending from the R of EUROPE. That the serpent’s body loops in an unnatural way to from O’s that rhyme, visually, with the O’s (and C) in EUROPE a PROPHECY.



That equating spirit and letter, visualizing them in the same dimension, Blake noted to himself on the back of one drawing, “Angels to be very small as small as the letters.”

That violence is an act of possession.

That in Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, we see image seizing word to make it image. At the same time, word seizes image to make of it a letter. This more subtle violence in Blake’s art disarms the continuity of genre: printing and engraving, image and word collaborate in a communion of meaning, an adventure in possibilities.


* * *

It may be worthwhile at this moment in history to remember that Blake set out to yoke together word and image at a time when the difference had collapsed between attempting a violent act against the English king and imagining a violent act. Anyone could be hauled into court, tried, and imprisoned for merely thinking about violence, not to mention representing it.

It may be worthwhile to remember that Blake was in fact accused of sedition and tried. Sedition, in Blake’s time, included everything from criticism of the king to outright acts of terrorism.


* * *

In the 2007 post-Patriot Act United States, legal distinctions between acting violently and imagining a violent act once again have disappeared. Bush legislation has banned habeas corpus, legalized torture by Americans, and decriminalized it retroactively. Bush’s retromingent spray of dogma and crusaderism extinguishes the visionary impulses on which the United States was founded.

In Bush’s tenure, image has been torn away from word.

In William Blake’s work, violence is an expansive creative force. In George Bush’s policies, violence is absorptive. It absorbs freedom, subsuming it into a field of self-interest.

Blake’s violence collides with what restricts imagination; Bush’s violence collides with what lives.

In Blake’s visionary AMERICA a PROPHECY, words and images collaborate in an expansion of meaning and imagination. In Bush’s AMERICA a PROPHECY, the words and images cannot be linked.

For George W. Bush, violence is a means for denying history in the cynical severance of linguistic from perceptual representation.

In contradistinction, Blake believed in the violence necessary to free oneself from confinement in a culture of exploitation and pacification. For Blake, violence is involved in the imagination of a bond between language and image, word and act.

For Blake, violence means transcendence into freedom. For Bush violence has meant ascendancy over freedom.

For all the distance in time and space, Blake’s astonished horror translates too easily into our own:

The weeping child could not be heard.
The weeping parents wept in vain.
They strip’d him to his little shirt.
And bound him in an iron chain.

And burn’d him in a holy place.
Where man had been burn’d before.
The weeping parents wept in vain
Are such things done on Albions shore.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

DONALD REVELL—A THIEF OF STRINGS



Last week after coaching my son’s soccer games (one a delightful romp in victory, the other a game which featured another goalless loss) I came home to a sobering scene. The dog was lying on its side, breathing heavily and looking kind of glassy-eyed. An attempt to bring her outside resulted in her legs buckling and her falling to the grass. The situation looked dire. A quick trip to the vet confirmed our suspicions. She was dying, a ruptured spleen. The life or death decision arrived at about five o’ clock that evening. My wife deferred. The decision was mine. Do I extend her 10-year-old life through extraordinary means or do I get used to mornings waking up without any heat-sharing hound next me, a den of one?

Donald Revell has provided me with a number of meaningful experiences through the years. His early books like The Gaza of Winter, New Dark Ages and Erasures were instrumental in illustrating the use of recursion as a strategy for coherence beyond any kind of formal structure. This knowledge served as a crutch for many years. Whenever I didn’t know where to turn next in a piece, I luxuriated in the look back. Revell excelled in such Byzantine recursion that it inspired awe at how he could orchestrate his poems so that they coiled so tightly in around themselves.

Of course, now in his recent collection of essays entitled The Art of Attention Revell eschews such “strategies” as a kind of training wheels for the imagination which would be better served if they were just taken off. His aim is for an Eden where the senses are clicking on all cylinders. If one only pays attention with all the energy that attention demands, really paying attention, then one arrives through the imagination at the poem as it can be fully imagined. One keeps one’s senses open, one’s eyes attuned, reacting intuitively. This leaves out a lot of talk of strategy, technique, and craft. In fact, it leaves out all talk of it.

I’m not sure I can fully get on board with an aesthetic that entrusts its leaping to faith. I have a penchant for strategy and technique, and I often find myself trying to elucidate that in many of my essays. I find a cryptic will to be an unsatisfactory explanation for how a poem is put together. Even if there are intuitive moves, there seem to be reasons for them, if only after-the-fact ones. The irrational/sub-rational has its structure too.

Another reason I am wary of letting the intuitive imagination be the essence of the creative act is that without some reflection on technique, the imagination can get locked into making many of the same kinds of intuitive moves. One starts to write the same poem over and over again without some sort of critical faculty stepping in. Perhaps in Revell’s case that critical faculty is intuitively built in as well, but it would be nice to see it in action, evaluating and deciding, not endlessly drifting to another shore.

Also, I suspect much of the leaping of faith that occurs within Revell’s discussion of his aesthetic in The Art of Attention as well as his collection A Thief of Strings is due to his newly found devotion to God, a mystical Judeo-Christian God, who sits smack dab in the middle of the poems with all the associative sparks running through wires to electrodes fastened onto the bashful deity in order to jolt it to life.

Here is an example (the poem that closes out section II):

What If Christ Were a Snowflake Falling into the Sea

The water is taller than itself,
Covering spirits of the air beneath.
And so the land, so mountainous beside,
Does not exist.

Have you thought about the future?
Take your finger and rub it across a stone.
Do you feel it?
Heat where nothing but cold most certainly is.

The water does not suspect.
A distant star is plotting with the center of the Earth
Against the Earth.
And the lake rises. The outlet rivers rise.

There is also an uprising in Kiev.
God is love.


It is interesting how Revell, who seemed more focused on sociopolitical history has taken a more spiritual focus with his later books. In A Thief of Strings this religious outlook is at its most pronounced. One wonders if, after a good deal of one’s younger life spent thinking about the intricacies of sociopolitical and historical intrigues, Revell hasn’t burned out on all the cynicism it generates and has opted to dismiss all of it for a more sweeping view of how social change occurs. Agreement with this take by Revell would hinge upon the debate about the efficacy of the monks demonstrating in Myanmar this week. Are they merely graves?

It is almost as if Revell has reversed the poles on Pessoa, whose sensate poet Alberto Caeiro took precedence early in his writing life only to be displaced by the more complicated, nuanced Alvaro de Campos. I prefer the older Revell in the same way I prefer de Campos to Caeiro.

However, I wonder if my preference isn’t a terribly mean and confining trick I am playing on both myself and Revell, like saying the new Bruce Springsteen doesn’t hold a candle to the classic old style of The Boss whose work at that time captured everyone’s imagination and attention.

Also, I must recognize that as a born-again heathen (who experienced a brief conversion to the God-is-love crowd during a high school Bible camp only to fall back into my slovenly way of thinking once I returned home) my tolerance for Christian platitude is not very high.

I shrink from those who declaim environmental decay, social unrest, and the impending destruction of the planet by a supernova star and then summarize their stance with “God is love.” Unless one believes that God loves us by punishing us. . . you wear the black latex mask and body suit, Christ, O my Commander.

But perhaps I am not being fair to the Christian Revell. Maybe I am not reading his work in the spirit he intends. Perhaps God in his work is not really a deity per se as much as it is the concept of god, an ecumenical habit of mind [though I must admit that a capitalized G in God is loaded; it makes it hard for me to see such a thing as reaching broadly across the religious spectrum despite what supporters for the Pledge of Allegiance to keep “under God” might say]. Certainly he aims again and again at the metaphysical with his God, and I am willing to follow him there despite my not feeling particularly compelled to name things in the afterlife.

I freely admit that I am among the faithless. I don’t believe very well, my genetic shortcoming.

The first half of the book is crowded with references to God and Heaven and Eden and prayer. Angels seemingly appear as “white linen floating in the sky” in the anchor piece of the first section entitled “O Rare.” But apart from these forays into the spiritual superstructure, Revell interlaces copious amounts of witnessing nature, almost as if he has become tired of the travails of men. He is becoming animal, informed by the memory of his father that “my eyes and my sister’s eyes were brown like those of a deer.”

Revell also includes quotations from somewhat obscure literary works: the writings of Goethe and, later in the book, Thoreau’s journal and Thomas Traherne’s meditation no. 28 from one of his Centuries. Often I feel I am caught between the vice grip of the literary Revell who alludes to rather obscure texts and to the Revell who is obliterating himself, his knowledge, his memory, with what is displayed as divine before his senses, his art of attention.

Here in ”Bartram’s Travels” Revell travels alongside the 18th Century American botanist William Bartram who chronicled his explorations through the south among the Seminole and Cherokee to explore and record the flora and fauna of the area. In this poem the crossing over is the central metaphor, and like some tag-along of The Ghost Shirt Rebellion, the speaker here emerges on the other side remarkably unscathed showing “no signs of burn.”

In ”Landscape Near Biloxi, Mississippi Revell flashes his environmental concerns through reference to murdered islands, both figuratively and literally. But it is the dismemberment of both Pentheus (mistaken for an animal hiding in a tree while he spied on the bacchic rites) and Actaeon (torn apart by his own hounds after setting eyes on a naked Artemis bathing in the woods). In the poem it is the shrimp boats and other commercial fare that are degrading the barrier islands. The loss of these barrier islands has been mentioned as a strong reason for why New Orleans and the surrounding area were hit so hard by the recent hurricanes. In this Revell acknowledges that “the god is a destroyer . . . the goddess is a maw.” Revell questions the justice of such gods, but could not a Christian god be implicated in similar acts of destruction? It is curious to me that the Greeks have to bear the full force of Revell’s judgment of being unjust.

In ”The Wisdoms” Revell returns to his contemplation of the sociopolitical realm. In particular, he seems to be commenting on the loss of unity in America. He laments: “Time was, a man or woman had to love me. / That was America. That was a chief concern.” But the disunity he addresses does not seem to be based on religious or foreign policy differences. It is based on the colors: “Broken glass is alive too, / In the colors. In them, I was a republic.” The speaker, a spokesperson for a country, talks of the loss of status as republic. The title appears to make reference to the wisdom lost in not paying attention to the colors. This could be read symbolically, as above, for the ethnic and racial diversity of America or as an appreciation for the dance of light that is reality. Revell seems to be saying that seeing things clearly without any filter, can restore unity. After all, the epigraph seems to refer to the moment of Goethe’s passing and his monumental utterance of “Light! More Light!” on his deathbed. The wisdom that Goethe passed on was that seeing, perceiving, was enough of a reason to linger in the realm of the human.

On top of all of the poetry of witness and the literary Revell is a heaping helping of the apocalyptic vision. The passing of the world of men is treated as a foregone conclusion in many places in the book, especially in “The Last Guitar,” a three-part piece in the last section of the book . In this piece, Revell invokes “the last guitar” as the final song that humanity plays. He is imagining what comes after, and through God, he assures us as readers that “the last guitar is but the first of many.” This would be a hopeful sign if it weren’t for the fact that all but the heartiest of creatures will be dead. It is here that we see mortality as only an intermission in the big musical Herr Direktor has planned.

Mortality also is apparent in the jaunty little “Stoic.” Despite its title and final image, the tone of this piece is not so weighty. It invokes the WWII invasion of Norway (presumably) as a parallel, no doubt, to our own current American disaster of an invasion, but then there is paratactical shift to what seems like an episode of Lassie where we, as readers, await some sort of rescue. However, the only rescue forthcoming is from a blissful ignorance, a return to sensation that feeds the soul and keeps us alive. King Kong, another animal, is watched, and then the ominous animal appears in the last line. Is Revell commenting that the only respite from the current war and the death it brings is to busy ourselves with watching animals as a reminder of who we are, of our fragility?

Stoic

My soul is a mind and a meander, a Mrs. Luxe.
Little Spartan boy, release the animal in your shirt!
It isn’t a wolf cub, it’s a puppy soon
To be Lassie, and she’s needed
For the invasion of Norway, that disastrous offensive.

Her parachute opens.
A minute or so later,
Her paws touch delicately down
Onto the glacier, and instantly
The ice turns a radiant deep sky-blue
Wherever she goes. Peter Lawford
Is rescued and returns to England.
Lassie remains behind,
Changing every inch of the arctic earth into blue sky
Which is becoming my mind.

My soul has turned from now to then.
It’s all a luxury, this being alive.
Read me that women’s poetry, I’m watching King Kong.
There’s an animal up my sleeve and it’s killing me.


The literary forebears Revell invokes are solitary types, and this collection is imbued with a solitary tone. In almost every piece the meandering associative presentation gravitates between a solitary witnessing and the spiritual implications of watching the world, tinged with a copious amount of literary learning. This is not to say that it is boring and plodding. Revell is never guilty of being boring. His associative leaps are almost always daring and fresh. this is the part of the show that everyone who comes to it admires and respects. At times I can’t always ride along with him on his daring mission, and I have to watch as he travels into terra incognito. This is the stuff that second, third, fourth readings are made of. At times it can be a little annoying as when he makes grand surrealistic moves like “The sky is sassafras / And also a balloon landing.” “There are stars / made wholly of woodsmoke.” “Between French and death / The houses sail like baseballs.” These are rather isolated examples and they are taken out of context; however, I could not rope them to any cleat in the larger poem. [When one operates according to instinct, some moves are going to land in a particular reader, others won’t.] Contrarily, Revell also delivers some absolutely zinger lines. My favorite in the book is:

Easternmost archangel, untune my words and teach me tanager.”

I’m not really sure why the easternmost archanagel should be called upon for such tutleage; however, I find that, at times, I would like to learn tanager too.

The untuning of the mind is a large concern of Revell’s too, following in the footsteps of his anti-rational Francophile heroes. Rimbaud appears a couple of times in the book, but paired with an interest in those American writers who lean toward a transcendentalist mode, Revell seems to encourage an overcoming of the mind by dismantling it, suspending reason. This is the way of faith I am told, but I am too weak and exhausted in my present condition to use it as a guide for raising my children. If I don’t keep my wits about me, they’ll start stealing all of my food.

I suppose that Revell would caution me to be mindful that none of what is part of this earth, what is perceived, can be owned for very long. What harm can there be in a little stealing, a little redistribution of wealth if the aim is honorable, such as grasping for a more spiritual plain through song.

In the thirteen-part title poem “A Thief of Strings” Revell introduces us to a thief of guitar strings that he again is witnessing from a distance. He uses the EBGDAE of a guitar’s standard tuning to riff on, one line beginning with a word that corresponds to the E, followed by the next that begins with a B, and so on. These sequences of invention recur throughout the piece and serve as a way to bind the reader to one of the central events in the piece—the stolen guitar strings. Revell seems to side with the motives of the thief who is only aiming to do what birds do naturally. Furthermore, Revell makes an even more radical claim for dispossessing oneself, for “disowning” and “helplessness” such as in the poem’s final section:

from A Thief of Strings

13.

Outside his shop
In the leafy sunlight
The clockmaker smokes at ease,
Singing a little,
Rapping a cadence
Against his artificial leg
With his good leg.
His shop sign is a broken clock face
Filled with leaves.
These metaphors mix themselves,
And I say hurray for helplessness!

Who made my eyes? Not I.
And an almshouse everywhere?

When I am alone the air
is flecked with sassafras.
Crowded before me in shoals
Happy shrieks grow old.
I say hurray for helplessness!
What use to a man is Man?

When I left the train I could hear
Singing in the trees. It was the trees
Who sang. When I was a boy
It was the trees who sang. My whole life
From the end of childhood
Until this very moment
Is one bird nowhere.
Not forgotten. Free.


Revell reminds us that we are paying tribute with our eyes, that everywhere is an almshouse. This is the price we must pay for being free like animals.

I’m reminded of Rilke in the eighth Duino Elegy (tr. by Edward Snow):

If the assured animal that approaches up
on such a different path had in it consciousness
like ours—, it would wheel us round
and make us change our lives. But its existence
is for it infinite, ungrasped, completely
without reflection—, pure, like its outward gaze.
And where we see Future it sees Everything
and itself in Everything and healed forever.


Sometimes though, the reality, strangely enough, is elsewhere. A price is attached to the life of an animal. That said, I still could not give up on my dog. I suppose it was not so much for the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to disown the dog and allow it to untether itself from its moorings in this world (though that may be partly true also). The thing I kept thinking about in my rather haphazard anthropomorphic way was that if the tables were reversed, and she were making a life and death decision about my continued existence, she’d let me have one more fighting opportunity, one more chance, rationality be damned. And so it is with Donald Revell and me. That comfortable relationship I’ve had with him as literary kindred spirit has been strained by circumstance. His forays into the spiritual have caused me to question why my meanderings into spirit have stopped short of the chasm of faith. However, there is still enough there, still enough “wet tongues on the nose” to make me want more, to want to see him fight for more of that sassafras air. In the end, I just can’t put the ol’ dog down.


Other poems from A Thief of Strings: ”Sibylline”, Landscape with Warhol and the Coming of Spring, 2003”

Saturday, September 29, 2007

RAMSON LOMATEWAMA'S Drifting Through Ancestor Dreams

Flagstaff, Arizona is a place of high winds. Perched at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, this Ponderosa Pine forest country is Arizona’s northern highlands. My family has a cabin here—on the northwestern flank of Humphrey’s Peak, at 8,200’ elevation.

I’ve been living here in isolation for two weeks now—working toward finishing a book of poetry I’ve been writing since 1981. Bow hunting season for deer ended on Thursday. The leaves on the aspen trees are faintly yellow. Fall is here.

In the solitude of my nights, I listen to the notorious winds whip the treetops. I walk in and among the swaying timber. Watch the phases of the moon through the thick branches. Some nights I believe I hear the old voices. Like I always do when I sleep out in another home-away-from-home: Joshua Tree National Monument. There, I hear the Cahuilla. And I know it. But here, I’m not so sure I know who or what I hear.

When I woke up today I was determined to find some contemporary indigenous poetry—to help me understand those voices. I cleaned myself up and drove the twenty miles into town, to Starrlight Books on N. Leroux Street, near the busy railroad tracks. Starrlight is a first-rate independent bookstore. Compact and well organized. I was guided graciously to poetry written by both Navajo and Hopi poets.

I live close to the bone financially, so I appreciated the freedom I was given to read through my many choices. Finally, I decided upon Ramson Lomatewama’s Drifting Through Ancestor Dreams (Entrada Books, 1993). Mr. Lomatewama’s biography says he had previously published two books of poetry: Silent Winds: Poetry of One Hopi and Ascending the Reed. He also works with stained glass and carves kachina dolls.

I come from agrarian roots, too, so his frequent references to the weather and to the Hopi’s staple crop—corn—made me feel at home. His poem “Ants” truly won my heart, though. Its initial images could be from a T’ang Dynasty landscape poem, but he achieves an upside-down parable by the poem’s end.


Ants

Silence is reflected in the sky
for the blue haze is but a mirror.

I can feel
the subtleness of the breeze
and the silent fluttering of the moth.

A field of tall grass
sends a gentle wave of light
across the land.

It flows to eternity.

I gaze upon the ants
who toil for their children

for they do not consider
the lilies of the field.


Mr. Lomatewama successfully turns a biblical parable on its head, something I appreciate, being especially fond of Jack London’s upside-down parable: “Dig moved more mountains than faith ever dreamed of.” Amen, brother.

I struggled when choosing a second poem to include in this posting. There are many tender poems, such as “Separation I” and “Separation II,” as well as poems with compelling images. I especially enjoyed the last lines of “After the Rains.” “There is no need / for us to speak. // Silence / will speak / for us.” But the title poem is an anthology of the voices that influence Mr. Lomatewama. This poet of the “Fourth World” is truly a poet of the world.


Drifting Through Ancestor Dreams

They come from all sides, these words and songs of ancestors.
They slide out on tongues of Felipe Molina, flowers, and deer,
and from spruce trees, long houses, and Joe Bruchac.
They fly at me across deserts, from summer stars over Awatovi,
and from bottomless silver words of Mike Kabotie.
I see their words are made of bamboo, tradition, and myth,
and images of Jung and Campbell, and long ago walks in cornfields.
They find me and speak to me through memories of Chicago streets,
Lee Young Lee, Sybil Dunbar, and Ofelia Zepeda’s jagged mountains.
Their words and songs come through dreams of Rex Jim and Harold
Littlebird, whose poems, words, and drumbeats dance all around.
They whisper in flights of hummingbirds and high mesas, through
Luci Tapahanso and Shiprock, and through journeys of Simon Ortiz.
Ancestor dreams come to me from your world, from dark skies,
from unborn children, from New Delhi and from Tuuwanasavi.
I dream-travel through ancestor songs; dream over eagle feathers
dipped in honey and rain; around summer clouds and roasted corn.
I listen for ancestor songs in all people and all places.
I am drifting through ancestor dreams,
drifting
to my final breath.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Transcendentalisticism

By James DenBoer

A friend of mine is outraged. So outraged, she's told me this same story more than once, and told it publicly at readings of her poems.

A professor at a University of California campus told her that all poems have to do with the Resurrection of Christ. I can see why she's outraged, even years later. (And so much for the myth of UC professors being atheistic communist terrorists.)

But I think I can understand why someone would say such a thing, and not only because it's exactly the approach to poetry I was taught at my own Calvinist college.

To give the professor the benefit of the doubt, I think he meant to say that all poems are about transcendence of some sort; that the Resurrection was a metaphor for that larger meaning. I'd still argue with his "all poems," but even then half-heartedly.

Many poems are about new life, rebirth, arising from the death of love or battened sensibilities or choked opportunities, breaking into something new and rewarding, meaningful, valuable, liberating. And many standard metaphors clinch that meaning: flowers blossoming, rivers crashing into the sea, the joys of sex, the changing seasons; the list is long, and often used as well in religious discourse.

But not all poems are about new life. Many are about day-by-day life, whether it's looking at the birches in your backyard or noticing the bearshit on the trail. Some are about wounds, crimes, injustice, racism, poverty, war and bad love. Or about back-breaking or mind-breaking labor, welding Hummer frames or making a line of a poem sing. About all the misfortunes and indignities and hurt we suffer. But somehow, stupid humans, we all hope it will be a little easier, and believe it will, someday. As if we might be "resurrected."

I think the professor meant to offer this kind of interpretation, too: whatever a poem is about, the satisfying beauty of nature or the despairing ugliness of much of life, the poem itself is an artifact that celebrates and ameliorates; that the poem as poem is an exemplar of rebirth. I don't so much mean that the poem says this: but that the poem dares to speak, it opens with any word at all and ends with any word at all, and the getting from that first word to the last is a story about and a story of the poem's own progress toward birth; that it moves from blank-page death to formed life, by its own nature. The poem is a living example of resurrection, perhaps, as it, word by brickish word, finds some way to make itself live.

But that can be too easily feigned; I'm also of the opinion that poems ought not to end there, telling you they are alive and you ought to be too. I'd like to write poems that don't end at all: too many poems have punch-lines, as if they were jokes, shaggy-dog stories. Why are good lines often held until last; why do poems "wrap up"? I'm fighting and so far failing to write many (or any) poems that don't "end," that stay open, that leave the reader hanging, that don't essay answers but more questions, that remain mysterious. But that's just me, and also the many poets who feel the same way, all of us struggling to keep poems from closure.

And transcendentalisticism is of course not closure; it is not a metaphysical or logical system that cranks out an answer; it is more of an opening, an opening of the eye, the circle that Emerson celebrated. And that long word isn't even a word, just my own neologism for professorial stuffiness. "Falling" is a word I like instead, much simpler, and the thought that falling is in fact rising.

But the glib shut-the-door statement of my friend's professor, even to grant him a metaphor to mean something larger, is disheartening, because constrictive, banal, too stuffed with a Big Answer, which is the death of poetry. That's what made her so mad all these years; a stupid professor, not a stupid idea.


James DenBoer's newest book is Stonework: Selected Poems, from Sandra McPherson's Swan Scythe Press. He has had grants and awards from the International Poetry Forum, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Council on the Arts, the Authors' League and other institutions. DenBoer lives in Sacramento, California.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

JOE WENDEROTH—NO REAL LIGHT



It is no secret that Joe Wenderoth has become a rock star since the release of Letters To Wendy’s, and like so many rock stars he has discovered the mystical power of the hit-making machine, and he has ushered this power into the poetry world with No Real Light his latest effort from Wave Books in Seattle, organizers of the Poetry Bus Tour.

No Real Light uses the formula that so many record albums/discs of the past have used; that is, it starts off with a mega-hit and ends with a mega-hit, but in between there is largely filler that resembles neither the first piece nor the last piece in style or intensity.

The two hits to which I refer have both been published in the July/August 2007 American Poetry Review. One is ”The Weight of What is Thrown” and the other is ”Where I Stand With Regard to the Game"

Both pieces, I feel, are Wenderoth at his aphoristic best. The pieces repeatedly extend themselves to nearly deliver a deep truth, and then they back away from delivering this truth and veer off into other territory, disarming the reader from having to grapple with anything like “the big idea.” At the outset of the piece, the ocean rolls over the stones until they are smooth. The stones submit to the ocean’s rule. This seems to be the main focus. Wenderoth equates this weight of the ocean with the weight of meaning in the next section. The stones are words. The stones are weapons. With this kind of windup, a reader might expect Wenderoth to deliver the essence of what he is saying, but Wenderoth does not oblige so easily. He digresses again into comparing the languages (made of words/stones) to types of beaches, specifically to those Normandy beaches named at D-Day. Then Wenderoth leads the reader back to the idea of the thrown weight making these stones, how it is not intentionally thrown; nevertheless, it is thrown by a great force, a No One, a nothingness [here Wenderoth is seen with his old sidekick nihilism]. In the end, Wenderoth reminds that when language is hurled at an individual it is really a vague and weighty presence which is hurling these words. Perhaps Wenderoth is trying to indicate (though not forcefully) that a more compelling and specific kind of insult is a shot to the groin.

In each section a reader might anticipate Wenderoth commenting on the unstable foundation of a word’s meaning, or the porousness of language, even the intentionality of language, but he opts not to dwell on these topics. Perhaps he sees them as too academic, or rather, too blandly academic. After setting up the wonderful metaphors of the stones as words and the field of stones on a beach as language, he takes the reader at the end into territory that reminds the reader that there is no individual ownership of words, no singular edifice that can withstand the soft surf of language. One wonders if any individual attempt at meaning then is sure to topple in the midst of such power. So why try?

And in a good portion of the book Wenderoth intends to not try. The “filler” as I referred to it is a bunch of short pieces that owe much to Paul Celan and Wallace Stevens. They are vague meanderings where intention is thrown off, rolled over, one might say by the tide of words. These poems are the little rivulets and eddies that develop as the surf returns to the sea to prepare for its next down stroke upon the beach. I normally like to watch for these eddies and the games they play with foam, but in No Real Light I found I was distracted by them, nor did I care very much for the imagery or the presumed fractured voice behind the poems that produced the man of many mirrors.

More to the point there was not very much compelling language, little brain-teasing episodes of alliteration, such as one might find in Stevens. Nor are there the breathtaking word sculptures that Celan makes with his compound nouns in German. Moreover, what is even more puzzling about these efforts is the program behind them. I’m not sure if, as a reader, I am supposed to take Wenderoth’s gesture to Celan seriously. Surely, he isn’t throwing off the yoke of his oppressor’s language like Celan. Is he? Perhaps these short pieces are attempts to get out from under the co-opting force of an oppressive culture. These are poems that no one is going to find a market for, damnit! They are singular, alone, not intimidated by a Derridean sense of the force of signification. Are these pieces the little round stones that are being thrown by the weight of the English language? I guess so, but if so, that seems to signal a lot of disdain for the language rather than pleasure taken in it. As "language surfaces," these rocks don’t shimmer; they sink when they’re thrown into water.

The other reason I bring up the issue of the program of these poems is because I have had the opportunity to see Wenderoth read many of these kinds of pieces live. He often dims the light and reads the poems by flashlight. The audience often sits politely and patiently trying to fathom what Wenderoth is getting at, when he might get back to some of the more salacious bits. Due to this reaction, I suspect that not just myself has a hard time figuring out what these poems are trying to do. I guess I am supposed to sit there struck dumb by my own wonder. However, often I am torn between letting the weight of what is thrown roll over me and smack me in the face and between getting the hell out of the way of the weight of what is thrown. Then I could go downstairs, get another cup of tea and brace myself for reading a few more before my mind goes numb and I have to go to bed.

I suspect Wenderoth might insist that the poems do not need a program, would even get a big kick at my suggesting something such as this should be the case. Poems exist. What more do you want from language? Yet, I somehow want more from poems than to just take up space. After all, does a poem really exist in a forest of other poems, if there is no one there to read it and enjoy it?

I’m probably being way too harsh. If one approaches these poems for the quality of the mind behind them, then there is a bit of allure. Perhaps my difficulty is that I expect too much of an incisive mind, darting and cutting from here to there, daring to make brave associations, leading the reader all over the page. Wenderoth seems to enjoy hovering like a harmonic overtone over his themes. It reminds me of the feeling of the soft glow of intoxication. He is deliberate, but never completely forthcoming. They are thought teasers if not complete thoughts.

Of course, if you liked these kinds of poems in It Is If I Speak then you will probably enjoy more of them here.

There is one kind of exception to the standard filler poems in No Real Light. Wenderoth employs stripped down narratives of brutality so that the reader may witness the American culture of violence shining back at him/her once again. In the aptly non-descript “Narrative Poem,” the speaker watches TV and takes codeine while narrating the details of his poverty-inscribed life. The final image is of a goldfish that gets torn to pieces by some piranhas and continues to “swim around the tank awhile.” I’m not sure if this is a tale of pathos or perseverance. I don’t get the sense that Wenderoth identifies with either the stricken goldfish or the narrator. All I sense at the end is a kind of Beavis and Butthead laughter towards the stupidity of all the behavior. One snickers at the nasty and the naughty. Yet for all the presumed intention of depicting hard and brutal lives, I got the sense that the poem was a faked reality, a reality drama, fixed to garner a vicious laugh, a schadenfreude delight.

The other poem that is part of the stripped-down-narrative, gratuitous-violence vein is “Twentieth Century Pleasures.” Wenderoth informs in the Notes at the end of the book that he cribbed the plot from a day-time talk show. While this displays his cultural currency, one can’t help wondering, while reading this poem, if one has become a voyeur to violence.

In Benjamin DeMott’s terrific essay in the August 2007 issue of Harper’s entitled “Battling the Hard Man” he characterizes what he calls “the ecstasy of impact.” DeMott illustrates the ecstasy of impact through our fascination with the replay of impact, in sports, in newscasts, in movie trailers, in video games, etc. We watch with fascination the moment of impact, the explosion, separated from everything else, heightened for the greatest dramatic effect. To DeMott, the idolization of the moment of impact represents a kind of pornography of violence. We marvel at it as the appetite for mayhem fills us and invigorates us.

This “ecstasy of impact” typifies what DeMott calls “the hard man.” DeMott describes how the hard man has taken over in him, how he has become “one more overwrought, late-life ego-tripper—self-deceived, lost in his Eigenwelt, thinking and writing in Bud Light, not blood.”

If “Narrative Poem” is the Bud Light, then “Twentieth Century Pleasures” is the blood.

“Twentieth Century Pleasures” speaks of a woman who is brutally murdered by her husband. The woman has two children: one, a girl with Down Syndrome, the other, a deaf-mute boy. The end of the poem focuses on the boy, his hands covered with his mother’s blood. The speaker comments on how the authorities thought the boy was playing in the blood, but the speaker informs the reader that the boy was doing anything but playing.

Certainly the final image is a powerful one. The final commentary though points to the idiocy of the authorities. The final perspective is a wry one, unhinged from the tragedy and drama of the events (except to say that the five-year-old understands very much what has happened). The title is seemingly laced with irony or maybe, if we are to take Wenderoth at face value, it refers to the appetite for mayhem, the ecstasy of impact that DeMott is talking about. Are these really pleasures we indulge in as we see them as forms of entertainment on TV talk shows? More than pulling back the curtain on the entertainment of violence, Wenderoth seems to be perversely reveling in it. He acknowledges that he, perhaps all of us, are creatures prone to the enjoyment of such ugly scenes of impact and their aftermaths. If this is the case, I think he may going too far in this assumption.

I, for one, take great exception to Madison Avenue’s trick of using violence to get us to respond viscerally to whatever is being peddled, be it movies or music or other types of fare. However, more disconcerting is the desire on Wenderoth’s part to reflect the culture back on itself and then flail away at the idiocy of authority at the end of “Twentieth Century Pleasures.” It’s too easy of a rhetorical move, and it’s negligent of the broader subject in the piece. This seems to fall short of the mark for anything that exists as an object of art. Is this what we have come to in the wake of witnessing real human suffering? A few quick ironic laughs and a finger poke in the ribs of authority?

But Wenderoth does not stop with the titillating use of violence. He goes for titillation itself in “Evening With Shows”

Evening with Shows

Less now,
by these pretended wounds
I go at it,
by these little bits
I stay at home.

Less now,
with more at a time,
lit up,
turned down,
able to breathe.

Less now,
bundled down
into rapid gazes,
cleaned up
with gorgeous shadow,
I have only
not to hold
this.


Whatever else this vague meditation might be about, with “going at it,” “cleaned up” and “I have only not to hold this” thrown into the vat of ricocheting memes, one can get a sense that Wenderoth might be writing a poem about masturbating while watching television. This kind of explicit subject is not foreign to his work. But what of it? [You’ve got to wonder when beating off in front of your TV constitutes a night of research.] Is this a poem about the failure of self-discipline [“I have only this not to hold”]. Is there anything more to be said than Wenderoth has snuck something taboo into his work again, for his admirers to be held entranced at the spectacle of such “outrageous transgression”?

My question is when does “outrageous transgression” begin to border on plain and simple stupidity. I believe I get a glimpse of an answer when I view Wenderoth reading a piece from a performance at my alma mater Eastern Michigan University [Joe Wenderoth reading at Eastern Michigan University] After the requisite reading of samples from Letters to Wendy’s, Wenderoth begins to read “Impediments to Democracy,” which features a dialogue between Mr. Cocksucker and Mr. Cuntlick. They share the details of their work (like good members of the bourgeoisie), the one disparaging the other for the special quality of the cock over the pussy. At the end, the disparaging Mr. Cocksucker tells Mr. Cuntlick how he should be living for the schlong.

Whoa, Joe, is anyone over the age of 22 laughing at this stuff?

I suppose I should champion Wenderoth’s risk-taking sensibility, his daring efforts to bring gratuitous sex and violence into the realm of American poetry. However, too often, this ploy of “riskiness” and “outrage” seems like just another tactic to exploit a very limited share of the poetry market. I cringe a little bit in the face of it, like I do for the promo of next week’s episode of some overly caffeinated FOX drama.

Finally, there is the other hit in this collection: “Where I Stand with Regard to the Game.” This piece is a commentary on the game of social interaction, which seems to be very much related to a mixed martial arts competition. The speaker goes through several transformative stages, each one giving rise to the next through the epiphany that “this [the previous behavior] could not continue. After copious effort is made to enter into the game’s nuances, only to be rebuffed by the neglect of other, the speaker becomes irked. The speaker asks the question of whether one can regain the innocence one had at the beginning of one’s game-playing days, whether one can imagine piecing together a notion of grace from those days. But the speaker is wiser, perhaps more jaded, and this causes the speaker to reject “a graceful approach.” Finally,

There could be no speculation.
There would have to be something new,
something defying description.
There would have to be a
a complete and hopeless destruction
of every grace, every distance.
And that is where I stand.


This is where we enter Locke’s tabula rasa state, a great ideal if ever there were one. But this ideal is the ideal of nothingness, a gentrified nihilism that honors the idea of becoming pre-human, animal—bloodthirsty, driven by libido. It is a desirable state to be in only before one realizes it is impossible. It is the song of the ahistorical being. And while some might characterize Wenderoth as part of the quasi-movement of “The New Brutalists,” who see life as a form of hand-to-hand combat, perhaps a more apt term to describe Wenderoth is as an “abysmalist.” The title of this book No Real Light bears this out. One can enter into the depths with Wenderoth, not of meaning (long ago eschewed as quaint and pointless), but rather into a state of survival within a nearly empty aquifer where there literally is no real light. There the sightless creatures may exist, reacting to brief impulses of electronic stimuli in their environment.

It strikes me as ironic that Wenderoth, who is so reluctant to deliver anything like a big idea in the book (presumably because of his mistrust for anything weighty), would in essence deliver a whopper of an idea—that of Nothingness. The anti-statement is all. Perhaps one might tolerate this stance if there was some sense that an obligatory nihilism is something to be made fun of too. In the end, though, one senses that Wenderoth is deadly serious about the Nothing, the empty set, the null and void. In a young man, one can tolerate such a stance as a bit absurd and informed by a lack of any prolonged engagement with the world. In someone not so young, one suspects that the emperor has no clothes, that the rock star is mouthing the words.

No Real Light is an adventure into the dark and muddled underbelly of the American mind as informed by the nothingness of its mass media. If one sees “being out of one’s mind” as a sacrament or if one aspires to be an adherent of American primitivism, then there is much in No Real Light to look at. Apart from this, however, and apart from its two hits (which you can link to above) there is no real light and no real reason to buy this book or even to read it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thursday, August 9, 2007

BRANDON CESMAT—LIVE



Brandon Cesmat sailed into town after a nice long hike with his cousin in the morning in the Sierras. He arrived, donning his Ovation guitar and gourd rattle, and he plugged his tape loop machine into the PA. We were set.

Brandon went on to give this small audience the ride of its life. He bounced from singing vocalese songs ( a poem entitled “So What” that usurped the melody of Miles Davis’s “So What” complete with harmonized backing vocals as provided by the tape loop machine) to more plaintive and soulful pieces like “The Long Pass” to political-historical romps like “Testosterone Poisoning: A Male Problem.” All from memory.



After “So What” Cesmat launched into a short poem entitled “God Song” whose lyrics were set to a John Coltrane tune. Between stanzas Cesmat improvised on vocal trumpet.

Cesmat then explained about the Santa Ana winds of southern California and read “Santa Ana.” He explained how the poem had become a song after the windswept Paradise Flats fires blew past his house. He jumped in his car, and began thinking about this poem a little more concertedly.

“Where Was Fidel When I Needed Him” ruminated on the story of Elian Gonzalez, and Cesmat took issue with Fidel Castro’s absence when his own father was less than present, his grandfather singing him to sleep instead. Listen to it here [2:22].

Turning to the issue of the night, a culture obsessed with violence, Cesmat endeavored to show the softer side of American football with “The Long Pass,” reaching near epiphanic heights on the gridiron. “Why aren’t there more football poems?” he asked. Why do baseball and boxing garner so much literary attention?

“Testosterone Poisoning: a Male Problem” asked whether it might be better for men to sacrifice one of their testicles in the humanity but worried that too many might sacrifice the wrong one and end up like Hitler.

A newer piece that is not featured in Cesmat’s Driven Into the Shade were next. One entitled “Night Classes” was about the struggles of students who try to balance difficult and busy lives alongside of personal habits that many might not find so admirable.

“Park” features a speaker projecting himself as a car and driving between the people he meets at his class reunion. Such a speaker muses about his place in the world without a garage in the outskirts to return to.

“The Conference” referred to advice given at a writing conference and what it might mean to a poet who puts as much emphasis on putting a poem out into the airwaves as on paper.

Cesmat turned political in “In the Memory Market,” where a shopper is choosing among various different atrocities and brutality that has been perpetrated in the name of maintaining power. Only at the end do we learn that the shop’s proprietor who is keeping his wares on the shelves is really ourselves.

“Lightning, All Directions” is the tale of love in an observatory. (Listen here [1:18])

“The Song of Enough” (Listen here [4:09]) and “Ice Drum” (Listen here [3:01]) rounded out the evening, followed by a form poem ,“The Compassionate Conservative Blues,” a snarky homage to good intentions gone awry.

After forty-five minutes of frivolity and sobriety, Cesmat headed back to his San Diego home, and Sacramento’s small but devoted audience, spirits lifted by a man with a vision of how music can be the tendril wrapped around poetry, was greeted by a very cool and comfortable evening.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review of Joshua Kryah's Glean

My faith lies elsewhere. When I finished reading Joshua Kryah’s Glean (Nightboat Books, 2007) and started thinking about what I would write in my review of the book, that is sentence that came to me, almost as if it had been waiting—who knows how long?—somewhere in the back or just below the surface of my consciousness for me to read the final lines of “Come Hither,” the last poem in the book. (I apologize for the problems with lineation. I could not get Blogger to reproduce the correct layout of the poems I have quoted):

Who will draw you out, now
that you’ve given yourself over?

Who dissolve
your body like a host on their tongue?

What stopping place will be provided, what
rest?

Where am I in this emergence—
who comes?


The “you” here is God, or, rather, the god that faith places on the other side of the absence that is all, according to the monotheism I was taught growing up, human beings can ever really know of the one divine being. Yet the first two questions here are not about this god per se, but rather about those whose task it is to draw this god out into the world and take him into themselves. In the face of the absence that is also the divine—and that is, therefore, in itself perhaps the deepest and most fundamental test of faith—who will those people be? At the same time, the speaker of the poem is clear that something is emerging—something which, based on the first two questions, we can assume the speaker believes to be God. Then, out of that clarity another question emerges. What is the speaker’s position in the emergence, not in relation to it, as if he were standing outside of it, watching what was happening, waiting to see the end result, but in it, as part of it, and once the speaker places himself within this emergence, who is emerging is no longer clear. The possibility exists in the language that it is the speaker who is emerging, that he is watching himself become, that he has discovered his god within himself, that he has come to accept that he is himself, somehow, within his god.

Questions of faith have been important to me since I was a teenager and I believed my future lay in the rabbinate. When I set aside the faith that being a rabbi would have demanded of me, however, I did not set aside the struggle to come to terms with the final, indifferent and absolute absence that will fill the space where I used to be in the moment after my death. It is a measure of Kryah’s success that, despite the fact my faith lies somewhere very other than his—and since this is a review of his book, I am not going to turn it into an essay about my own spirituality—the poems in Glean nonetheless confronted me with the question of just where, precisely, my spirituality does lie. In large measure, the poems accomplish this through metaphors that ground the issues they raise firmly in the body. Here, for example, are the first few lines of “My Easter:”

Breathbloom, the resurrection lily
spent on its stem,

the pale throat thrown back
announcing—what?

Behold, all at once,
the flesh-like knot
undone, each petal released, their beauty un-
mistakably and

already gone.

And here is “O Hieroglyph (forgotten word, spread your lips around me)” in its entirety:

As if the wet vowel might speak.

As if, plundered,
it might give up its blank stare, and
suddenly, shudder in my mouth.

We exchange a language
dumb as flesh, pressed into and bruised
beyond recognition, its only response the black eye’s dull circle of speech.

Blue, blue-brown,
each color offset by the surrounding skin,
the calcite thought of your returning again.

I cannot muster
what I should have lost, and in the wish gained
more steadfast: your curio, what swings from a locket upon my chest,

a message that now only speaks
with its fist.

The note I wrote to myself on the page below this poem says, simply, “Donne?” The fist in the final line recalled for me Holy Sonnet #14, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” and, indeed, I found myself thinking of Donne’s Holy Sonnets often while reading Glean, so much so that I read through the sampling of them in the edition of the Norton Anthology that I have on my shelf before I sat down to write this review. Donne’s poems, too, are rooted in the body, though very differently than Kryah’s. For while Kryah metaphorizes—if I can coin a term—the body, and the physical world in general, to give presence to the absence in the face of which he questions, asserts and maintains his faith, Donne positions the body in his poems as Other to his god, whose presence in the world the poems themselves—at least the ones I read—do not doubt for a minute. I also thought of Donne’s Holy Sonnets while reading Glean because, despite the fact that Kryah’s poems are written in a very free verse—the sentence fragment and the unconventional spacing of the poems seemed to me just about the only two formal devices used consistently throughout the book—his poem’s share with Donne’s a sense of language as something physical, something to be felt, held in the mouth, savored and then released.

In all honesty, I don’t know that I will pick this book of poems up again. It has said to me what it has to say, and it’s not something I need to hear again. Still, I admire, deeply, the craft and commitment, the honesty and courage that went into writing it. It is the kind of book I think everyone should have to read once, the kind of book that those to whom it truly speaks will treasure for the rest of their lives.

Cross-posted on It's All Connected.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

JEFF KNORR—THE THIRD BODY



Jeff Knorr’s poems in his collection The Third Body occupy many quiet domestic settings that typically resolve themselves in the imagery of the natural world. Beetles, weather patterns, fallen stars serve as metaphors for the emotions and dilemmas of the characters in his poems. The first section (“Any Way Home”), in particular, is concerned with the theme of loss and redemption. The losses are experienced by different individuals in the poems. Sometimes it is the speaker who is measuring the frustration of temporarily losing a child to a bureaucratic system. Sometimes it is the loss of a previous world as experienced by a small child. Sometimes it is the more conventional loss of human and animal life.

In ”Winter Turkeys” the winter turkeys add up over the years to signal the passage of time, and we see the speaker’s father (as there is very little artifice in the poems one can assume the speaker is Knorr) beginning to recognize his life is on the wane. The father is being forced to acknowledge death’s omnipresence, and he is begrudgingly allowing himself to become vulnerable to it. The word “funeral” is stuck in his mouth. He is a man content with his reminiscing, but a little troubled by it.

Much of Knorr’s work in The Third Body explores memory, the memories of kin, who is included and excluded (by omission) from those memories. It is a testimonial to Knorr’s generosity that he tries to include as many as possible into his kinship system. While it might seem trite to equate the life of a dog or goats to that of a child or a mother within that system, Knorr’s obvious concern for an intact nature renders these choices as understandable. Given that 57% of American households own either a dog or cat (up from 44% in 1956), concern for a pet as “part of the family” is not unwarranted. The US is the nation with the highest percentage of household dogs or cats. Knorr takes us along on his remembrances of who is inside the pack and who is outside, troubled only by how far he can will his generous memory before someone comes along and tries to steal his identity.

If a thief could appropriate another’s memory, we’d all be in trouble.

The second section (“Measuring Our Days”) is populated by 10- and 12-line poems written in couplets. Most of these poems are again contemplative about nature, and they focus on the beloved to the extent that the “love” becomes the present force in the poems, the eye around which the storm swirls. Knorr’s earnestness in addressing his love is countered by his admissions of grief and remorse for past wrongs. This group of poems is reminiscent of William Stafford and James Wright (epigraph for this book by Wright from his “Beautiful Ohio”) in that they make their impact through line compression. Here is one example:

Daydreaming, Driving Midway Road

When I get old, I don’t want the sun on my hands;
rather, I’d like the wind to touch them.

Once she told me she’d drag my body in if I died outside.
The only clear reason is to keep from being eaten by yellow jackets.

Standing on a stone wall built by Chinese
I saw the red fox, but only once.

I’m beginning to think there are no foxes.
He must have been the soul of the last worker.

There is nothing more consistent than a bird’s morning song in July.
Dying, we burn into some star just beyond her arms’ reach.


I like this poem for its daring leaps though I am troubled that Knorr’s version of daydreaming is a little bit like my own ordinary waking experience. Perhaps I might be put on notice for all my saltatory gestalting. Nevertheless, Knorr makes these stray but pithy thoughts coalesce around the beloved. At the end the speaker is treading on oblivion as he imagines an immortal connection to the one he loves. Here the lines pile up as end-stops and then are delivered into the imagination. The whimsicality of the previous events is retrieved by the graveness of the threat at the end.

But these poems are not written so much to be marveled at for their angular momentum and other tour de force techniques. This is a book whose poems aim to be lived with, and if one doesn’t have the time to live with the poems for a while, then, like Wright and Stafford, one might miss the merits of the work. I took it upon myself to take the book with me to family camp. I found myself reading these poems late at night after a long day full of hyper-stimulation and hurt incurred after a loss in the ferocious staff/camper volleyball game. Because I had left my seven-year-old’s reading material at home, I was forced to read these poems aloud to him as he tried to drift off into sleep. Between bouts of reading “Urashima Taro” (from the camp’s meager library), my son reflected on this from “Long Distance and the Black Sky”:

The way the moon danced at night in the snow of Mt. Lemmon made him
so lonely that one day hunting desert quail he buried his gun in the sand.


My son wanted to know why the man would bury his gun in the sand (probably because this was something he had been doing himself along the banks of the American River and he was curious why would someone would bury something that valuable . . . would he be able to find it the following day). I think it is a compliment to Knorr’s intent of being straightforward and unadorned that he could have a seven-year-old wondering about his lines. Though the poem’s larger theme is about loss and redemption, I suspect Knorr would accept a seven-year-old missing the forest for the trees if that same seven-year-old began to puzzle out the wondrous breadth of human behavior. Is this not one of the primary aims of a poem?

My son also twittered during “At the Sullivan Ranch, Returning Home” when Knorr writes about a dog:

Working his nose, he breathes anxiously,
and he is occasionally shitting.


My son stood up in bed, working his nose like the dog and mimicking the dog’s habits. Now that’s turning poetry into theater! Again, though Knorr would not have intended such a dramatic display (fueled by fatigue and sleep deprivation), any action his lines might inspire would be a mark on the side of the good.

Oh, and my oh my, look how talking about Knorr’s book has forced me to conjure up a few family memories of my own.

The third and final section of The Third Body is “A Lesson in Love & Evolution.” It begins to touch on the book title. In the poems of the third section one sees the third body as all the items that attend to a marriage: the child, the family, the pets, the weight of the natural world, the force of history. In short, the world intrudes, but it intrudes in a way that enhances devotion. It doesn’t degrade it.

Tracing the Banks of Rivers

In the dark we lie against each other, still. This moment
of morning holds deep quiet when rivers calm against their banks.
I trace the outlines of your body the way it grows, its directions,
the way it has bent through years of uncertain sunlight.
Running a finger over shoulder blades, back, hips,
the slow tight curve of your chin,
the tender inside of elbows and knees, scars,
there is not a lonely spot of you I do not love.
I track us into a third body
we know the way a hawk knows wind.
I have given you a part of my heart for good.
There is no finding it again except in your eyes,
the way grass beneath an orchard tastes of apples.
We have so much at our backs: a son, a dog, three countries,
card games, some reasonable and unreasonable death.
But ahead of us is the kind of clarity deer wish for,
a gentle day grazing without being spooked.
The days spread before us under unbroken sky.
We have come this far tracing the banks of rivers
and in this kind of love the river might simply be the river.



The third body, that which is foreign but instinctively known (“the way a hawk knows wind”) maps a country of intertwined fate that binds the speaker together with his life’s love. This bond provides the speaker with clarity that makes the world come alive as nothing other than itself. It strips away all pretense and worry. It keeps one’s mentality rooted in the here and now, a hopelessly difficult assignment for a brooder like me.

It takes a lot of courage to mention one’s “love” again and again throughout a collection such as “The Third Body,” but it is this kind of speech that lands Knorr firmly within the cadre of emotional poets who face their sentiments and try to name them plainly without any embellishment, perhaps even temper them with the bitter root of life’s disappointments and mistakes. The life that a poet like James Wright “wasted” is spent on that high performance vehicle known as familial love.

Knorr’s decency resonates throughout the collection as well. One gets the sense of his menschlichkeit early on in the collection during his speculation on the state of his father and son. One senses his trustworthiness in the careful attention to his subjects. The lines are trimmed of any kind of excess which might indicate he is given to flights of fancy.

“Morning Swim” is one of the pieces that finds Knorr projecting himself as a speaker navigating through elation and despair, in the way that beauty needs ugliness in order to make itself be perceived fully. The poem begins in an “abundance of blue” and with a war in the background, but it ends with the lover swimming out from the speaker as he tries to imagine his life without the beloved [“What would have happened / had we all married someone else”]. The speaker’s final refuge is silence, and the speaker finds such a silence to be a redemptive force. The silence draws the world back from encroaching on us all.

A similar quiet appears in ”Worship”. The quiet is counterpoint to a convulsing dog, and it is within that quiet that a quasi-religious experience ensues which allows for the speaker and the beloved “you” to recognize the dog as part of the familial “third body.”

Knorr provides very recognizable emotional landscapes in The Third Body. His work relies on the reader’s recognition of well-established feelings. His is the kind of the work that “feels” rather than “thinks” in the common parlance. He is readily emotionally accessible, but this kind of discernment between thought and feeling is overly wrought. It might do well to describe the basic difference between a Spielberg film and a Fellini film, but as a useful critical tool, it usually fails to make any lasting mark. Knorr makes us feel his situation, his love for his family, yet without the reader’s perception that Knorr is fully aware of his predicament, the reader begins to lose sympathy. The man/woman who is fully aware of his own demise is more pathetic than the man/woman who is oblivious to it. Similarly, a poem that thinks its way to its conclusion can be emotionally charged as well; however, many might not acknowledge such a charge because often times a poem of this variety is pushing into new emotional terrain where the reader can’t firmly say “Hey, I’m feeling this right now.” The poet who thinks his/her way to a conclusion often is conducting forays into more experimental emotional space. He/she isn’t sure what he/she is feeling. Hesitancy and doubt persist. Perhaps fragmentation. For many readers, this produces an anxious feeling that makes such readers fail to trust the “thinking” poet. The entire experience smacks of a vaguely unsettling feeling.

Knorr guards against that unsettling feeling. His dread (of loss or bungling the job) in the face of the beloved does not quaver. It is a self-assured dread. We know it as such the moment we encounter it. There is no guesswork in coming to terms with what Knorr wants us to feel. He is reassuring. The reader wades into the depths of each poem, preparing for the steady embrace. No subterfuge. No distraction. No sleight of hand. Sometimes a river is just a river—just as honest as it can be.

Monday, July 23, 2007

PHILIP LARKIN'S "HIGH WINDOWS"

I’ve been thinking about imagery for the past several days. Ever since getting together over coffee, pastries and poems with friends in Sausalito. The day was equal parts appreciation and trouble-shooting, and Stanley Kuntiz’s advice to “end on an image” was a frequent suggestion.

When I got home, I reread the entry for “Image, Imagery” in John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary. There, Pound is quoted as saying an image “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Drury goes on to write, “A poetic image transfers itself to our minds with a flash, as if projected upon a movie screen.”

One of my favorite poems provides a good example—a poem by Philip Larkin. In the final stanza, he writes, “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows.”


HIGH WINDOWS

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Peter Everwine's from the meadow

Each time I read a poem by Peter Everwine, my appreciation for his work deepens. They possess a quiet intensity that is both plain-spoken and mysterious. His phrasing is simple, straight-forward. His diction and thinking are complex. Edward Hirsch described his poems as containing “a luminous stillness.”

“The Marsh, New Year’s Day” is a good example of his work. In this poem, Mr. Everwine’s first three lines capture my complete attention. Written in the present tense, they radiate the energy of a visual artist’s gesture drawing. I am there. And I follow willingly into the memory of other mornings in the marsh, to a door that “slams and slams,” and old men “dying like rainbows.”



The Marsh, New Year’s Day

for Zach, among others

The slow, cold breathing.
Black surf of birds lifting away.
The light rising in the water’s skin.
How many times now, on a day like this,
I’ve entered the celebrations of the reeds,
waking by the wren’s broken house,
the frosty, burst phallus of the cattail.
In the marsh a door slams and slams.
Wherever I look
I see the old men
of my boyhood, wifeless and half-wild,
in stained canvas coats, dying like rainbows
from the feet up.
I am becoming one of them.


I highly recommend From the Meadow, Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004). About this collection, Philip Levine, Mr. Everwine’s long-time colleague at California State University, Fresno, wrote, “This collection presents all of Everwine’s poems that he still regards with affection in a career that spans forty years or more, many of the poems never collected before. It includes a few of his remarkable translations from the Hebrew as well as some of his interpretation of Nahuatl poems.”

At a recent workshop, I spoke with Fresno State alumnus David St. John about my admiration of Peter Everwine’s work. We talked specifically about the effect translating has on one’s own poetry. Mr. Everwine, David said, had been in long period of poetic silence when he began reading and interpreting poems from Nahuatl, the language of Mexico’s Aztecs. He emerged renewed.

Mr. Everwine is retired from teaching, but continues writing. His collaborations with poet and woodcut artist Gary Young are especially interesting. You can find their broadsides at www.suttonhoopress.com.