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Michael Young

Barbara Elovic_final (2)
Michael T. Young: Thank you, Barbara, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection is called Other People’s Stories. I wondered if you could tell us a little about the significance of the title and how it relates to the theme of the collection.

Barbara Elovic: Other People’s Stories serves as the title and the underlying theme of my poetry collection for a few reasons. As a young poet I wrote mostly confessional material. As I got older I found myself less interesting as subject matter and was intrigued by the idea of telling stories that weren’t about me. Philip Levine said long ago in an interview that even though the audience for poetry is small he wanted his poems not to be so recondite that someone had to be a regular poetry reader to understand what he was talking about. That idea appeals to me greatly. I also was lucky enough to have both as a friend and teacher the underacknowledged brilliant poet, Enid Dame. She taught me about the craft of midrash poetry in which the writer chooses stories from the Bible as subject matter to retell with one’s own understanding, insight, and spin.

Even though some of the poems’ subjects are imaginary creatures or people I’ve only read about, I’m telling their stories not mine. Of course, my perspective influences the telling and clues about me are revealed, but the I of the poem is someone other than Barbara Elovic.

Michael T. Young: The collection seems to explore the complex and often plastic way stories are told. I think of the last lines of the poem “Arshile Gorky,” which go, “the stories he told about himself/were just another work of art.” I wonder if you could talk a little about the art of storytelling and its importance in the collection.

Barbara Elovic: I believe that as people live through their days part of their consciousness is the story of the life they believe themselves to be leading. We as individuals tell stories to ourselves, not necessarily as they happen. Perhaps after a day or a much longer period of time an introspective person sits quietly and thinks about what he or she has been doing and what it adds up to. This was an idea featured in feminist thought a few decades back when women were acknowledged to think of themselves as the heroes of their own stories; specifically as regards the Western literary canon in which male heroes and protagonists predominate. Or the idea that what Hemingway wrote was full of big ideas about the world and women who wrote about what happened in individuals’ homes were not doing something equally important.

Michael T. Young: A number of the poems hinge on a shift of perspective or alternative points of view as, for example, “Eve’s Version,” or “You Think You Got Problems?” I wondered if you might address the significance of these alternatives in the collection and its theme.

Barbara Elovic: “Eve’s Story,” and “You Think You’ve Got Problems?” are written in the first person because I wanted the poems to have immediacy for the reader. I come from an Orthodox Jewish background from which I’ve lapsed, but I was taught stories from the book of Genesis when I was a very young girl. When a person learns something as a child it sticks with them on an almost subliminal level. So I had both what I learned as a small God-fearing child in mind when I wrote both poems and my adult re-evaluation of the biblical stories referenced at play. I believe now that Eve was portrayed as a temptress and a troublemaker. Now I think being a troublemaker can be heroic.

To Order Other People's Stories, click the image.

To Order Other People’s Stories, click the image.

Michael T. Young: The collection takes up a number of political and socio-economic issues. There are the overt poems about Robert Moses or Susan B. Anthony. But there’s also the poem about Dorothea Lange. Could you tell us a little about these political and socio-economic issues and how they relate to the collection’s theme?

Barbara Elovic: Robert Moses and Susan B. Anthony were clearly the kind of brave troublemakers I just mentioned. And Dorothea Lange is best known for the pictures she took while working for the WPA Artists Project that Franklin Roosevelt established to help the country out of the Great Depression. Her compassion for her subjects make her photos breathtaking. She composed her most famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” with the subject at the center. The mother’s hair is dark, but her face is deeply lined and she’s probably younger than she appears to be in the picture. Two small children with their backs to the camera bury their heads on both of the mother’s shoulders, framing her. We as viewers can only see the mother’s eyes. The photo makes explicit that she bears the weight for the care of her kids literally. Long after I had seen the photograph, a documentary aired on public television about Dorothea Lange and helped explain at least one source of her compassion. She had suffered from polio years earlier and that pain helped her identify with the suffering of people from a less-privileged class than hers.

Michael T. Young: What do you see as the relationship between imagination and history? How is it important for us today, dealing with current issues in the world?

Barbara Elovic: It took me decades to learn that the history taught me up until high school was only one version of America’s story. Now that I embrace left-wing politics I would say that in fact what I was taught was a combination of propaganda and lies. In fourth grade we talked a little about racism and slavery, but nothing much that I remember was said about the persistence of racism. The story of Thanksgiving was a pallid, happy story worthy of a bank calendar; Native Americans and the Pilgrims sitting down to dinner and being good neighbors. Indian reservations were still to come and the imminent theft of their land appeared nowhere in my social studies textbook.

Imagination at least in part is what one thinks for herself when ranging outside of the conventional boundaries of a shared narrative. American Exceptionalism, which many people in this country take as a given, is a myth to me that excuses the murder of the indigenous population of this country and the second-class citizenship of people of color. And then there’s the right to interfere in other countries’ politics because we’re inherently better than they are when all we’re really doing is adding to global corporations’ profits.

Cell phone cameras have only recently revealed what American cops see as unquestionably appropriate behavior when harassing, wounding and even murdering black men and boys. We now at the very least have some cognitive dissonance popping up, but I don’t see police training or tactics adapting. In fact right-wing politicians blame the group Black Lives Matter for inciting murder of police, which is malarkey to be blunt. They are demanding equal treatment from law officers, but the cops have tin ears and see them as a threat. And too many politicians back them up.

Michael T. Young: In reading the collection and considering the importance of telling our own story and even the freedom to remain anonymous, I also wondered where those needs come together with our need for friends, for companionship. Is that intersection where we share a common story or is it in some other place?

Barbara Elovic: I think in today’s political climate in which rancor predominates we tend to have many friends with whom we share ideas about what’s going on around us. I have friends really annoyed at me for not being a Hillary Clinton supporter. That disappoints me greatly. I’ve learned of late to nod and make sympathetic noises because I don’t want to argue anymore. I was the captain of the debating team in my high school, but that was a long time ago.

I have this Jules-Feiffer-inspired notion of adults as aging bodies encrusting little children inside them riding tricycles whose feet don’t quite reach the pedals. I think it’s the rare person who actually grows up as she grows older. I think artists, those that interest me anyway, are truth tellers. That doesn’t mean they have outstanding social skills, but it makes their ideas more interesting. It also doesn’t make me want to be friends with great artists.

I was very young when I went to graduate school in creative writing and I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to behave among the professors. Most of them weren’t very kind and too many of them had serious drinking problems, which brought out the nastiness in them. Their best selves were in their poems, not in the personae they paraded around among us lowly students.

It’s wonderful to have friends from different backgrounds. Today my poet friends fill some of that bill.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories and why is it significant for you?

Barbara Elovic: My favorite poem in the collection is the last, “Leap of Faith.” My father died when he was in his early sixties after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than twenty years. When I was young and naïve I assumed I’d have a book published by the time I was thirty because I would calculate the ages of the contemporary poets’ whose first books I admired. They were usually in their early thirties. Easy peasy. I’ve written many poems about my father and had hoped to make his story better known because my poems would be widely read. Ha!

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

Barbara Elovic: For this collection biographies had direct influence on some of the poems I wrote. I also wrote some of these poems many years ago. Biographies of Robert Moses and Arshile Gorky supplied some of the information for the poems about them. I loved the Curious George books as a kid. I learned the improbable story of his creators from an exhibit at New York City’s Jewish Museum. That’s a very specific answer to your question. In a more general sense I assume that every book that I read and enjoy influences me. I won’t read beyond page fifty of any book of prose that displeases me because there’s always so much more to read and life is short.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Barbara Elovic: I enjoy teaching the Pilates exercises as well practicing on my own. I love taking long walks. I also love to travel and gain the perspective that I get from seeing other places and talking with the people living there.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, Barbara. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories.

Leap of Faith

Whether I light Sabbath candles
on time or not at all
is only my affair.
So when the eager young woman
comes between my friend and me
on the street to ask
Excuse me are you Jewish?
I always lie.

What I love and whom I believe
is strictly up to me.
My prayers are only mine and always private.
But my father who died years ago
took his faith with him across the ocean.
Running from the Nazis kept him motivated
the rest of his short life.
On his yahrzeit I light a candle
that blazes while I sleep.

If you would like to read a review of Other People’s Stories, you can find it here: http://prickofthespindle.org/2016/05/13/the-power-of-anonymity-a-review-of-other-peoples-stories-by-barbara-elovic/

 

All publishing poets know what chapbooks are. So, I’m not going to provide a history of the chapbook. The internet is full of good essays documenting that history. In fact, one brief essay can be found here on TheThe Poetry Blog by Sam Riedel. Here’s another link to one by the British historian, Ruth Richardson.  What I want to draw attention to is the importance of the poetry chapbook and the folly of considering it as less significant than a full-length collection.

A chapbook, which is basically any book with a page count under 48, will not be considered for any major prize. No matter how good, it cannot win a Pulitzer or National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award. In fact, there is, to my knowledge, only one national prize in the country dedicated to already published poetry chapbooks: The Jean Pedrick Award, sponsored by the New England Poetry Club. I emphasize “already published,” because there are plenty of prizes for chapbooks in which the prize is publication. But the incredible failure to acknowledge the significance of chapbooks after publication mirrors the failure throughout the poetry world to respect chapbooks as artistic achievements in their own right, the failure to judge them solely on their quality. Of course, there are devotees of the chapbook, but there are devotees and collectors of everything from backscratchers and umbrella covers to sugar packets. The error for poetry chapbooks is in the disregard for them, not only by the general reading public who may not even know of their existence, but by poets themselves, especially those aspiring to carve out a place in the literary world. The feeling is that if you want to be taken seriously as a poet you have to publish more than a chapbook, you must publish a full-length collection. Even those who value them value them only as “calling cards” or stepping stones toward publishing larger works. This is clearly an error if one reflects briefly on the history of great poetry.

Philip Larkin published five collections of poetry in his lifetime. Of those five only one of them would be a full-length collection by today’s standards and that one, his first one, The North Ship, only just makes it, coming in at 48 pages. The four that followed—XX Poems, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows—would all be considered chapbooks by today’s definition. XX Poems was privately printed and so it’s difficult to find information about its page count. However, given that Larkin generally wrote short poems and even if each poem in this collection took up 2 pages, which is highly unlikely, it would be 40 pages of poetry, and thus, still a chapbook. The page count for each of the following four books respectively goes: 45, 46, and 42. So, only The North Ship qualifies as a full-length collection. Imagine the loss to the world of poetry if such chapbooks had been ignored as insignificant merely because of their length? Or consider the ridiculousness of relegating them to being mere stepping stones to his Collected Poems, published after his death.  These short collections contain some of the most startling and beautiful poetry written in the last century.

William Blake’s famous collections: The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience were both chapbooks. The first book comprised only 19 poems published in 1790. Four years later he published The Songs of Experience, which was only 26 poems. And to be clear, none of these poems were long. Most were a page or less. Even though these chapbooks were very small, not only in page number but in actual size, they were works of art unlike anything anyone else had produced, created using Blake’s own method of printing from copper plates etched by acids.

More recently, the poet Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize, demonstrated the power of an oeuvre that accumulates in small increments, growing slowly like a glacier over years. Each individual addition to his total output never amounts to what is defined as a full-length collection. Only by combining old material with new material does he make more than a chapbook. His first book, 17 Poems, was, of course, 17 poems and they weren’t long enough to cover 48 pages. Not even close. The next set of new poems, Secrets on the Way, added fourteen more poems to his work. The collection after that, The Half-Finished Heaven, added twenty-one more poems. In this way, he kept adding to his oeuvre. But any given addition never would have broken that 48-page barrier.

Many other poets have published works that are chapbooks. The original publications of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and Ginsberg’s Howl were both chapbooks. Of Louise Bogan’s four major collections, two of them—The Body of This Death, and The Sleeping Fury, were chapbooks. Edgar Bowers’ second collection, To the Astronomers, was 36 pages. And the following collection Living Together, although 84 pages, was a new & selected and therefore, full of material from his first two collections. I’m fortunate to own a copy of this book and can tell you that the new poems in the collection only compose a total of 10 more pages. This could also be pointed out of many other poets. So what is our obsession with making collections long when so many important poets published short works of great significance? Why consider these mere works on the way to—not more important work, but just larger collections of work?

I’m not an expert. But my guess is it’s market driven. Somewhere along the line, it is all ultimately determined by graphs of market value and profit margins for the larger houses that publish poetry. Unfortunately, we poets have largely bought into this mentality. Our entire culture believes, as if it were divine writ, that bigger-is-better, that perpetual growth defines success. But it is error in many ways and folly for poets to follow along with this thinking. A poet should write and construct the best book they can, and if that collection is under 48 pages, then that is how long it’s supposed to be. To ignore a collection because it’s only 20 or 30 pages long rather than 60 or 80 pages is simply the error of a mind that thinks bigger is better. Or it at least is not questioning that implicit assumption. I wager that most poets don’t think of themselves as adhering to this mentality and yet, here we are, all racing toward that 48-page mark as though it were what defines a collection of poetry. Certainly nothing in poetry itself determines that. It is an ulterior motive shaping the collection to reach that mark. Consciously or unconsciously it is not a poetic motive directing the poet’s choices here and it’s time to put that to an end.

We should encourage what bookstores remain in the world to display chapbooks as clearly as others.  We should encourage institutions to establish prizes that recognize the best chapbook published in the previous year, prizes that are honored and respected as equally as any other prize for full-length collections.  Chapbooks should be reviewed as regularly as other collections and in both large and small journals.  They should be reviewed with the same attention as other collections.  I would be willing to wager a large sum that if these things were done, we would begin to recognize a large number of very accomplished poets who haven’t had a full-length collection published but are just as deserving of recognition as any who have.

Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013. BJ Ward.
North Atlantic Books, 2014. 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-58394-677-0

Click image to order on Amazon

Click image to order on Amazon

Jackleg Opera is the fourth collection by BJ Ward and is a collected poems gathering together over twenty years of amazing work. It was published at the end of 2013 by North Atlantic Books and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Ward’s poetry is an incredible blend of wit, intelligence, playfulness and insight. He is a poet that not only loves language and craft but loves humanity, the adept phrasing that reflects the hidden emotional realities, charting what Emily Dickinson called the “internal difference where the meanings are.” His own words describe the accomplishment of his poetry, for his poems are

a net to capture the moment
but release the energy
–Suzuki Dance

This is appropriate for a poet who often writes about poetry, its power and purpose. That’s not to mistake his work for merely academic word wizardry. For his primary concern is with how we connect with other people, and language is one of the essential tools for that connection. So in a clever poem about the purpose of poetry called “Portrait of the Artist as Egg Salad,” the speaker is eating an egg salad sandwich which, of course, the reader can’t taste and in this context, he’s

. . . reminded of the thickest-

headed student I ever had—Debra—
who, when I told her her poem conveyed
nothing, said, “But I really feel this.”

So here we are,
Debra invoked yet long gone,
just writer and reader liaising
in the rectangular dining room of the page,
me still eating my egg salad sandwich,
you beginning to cross your arms and get upset

because I haven’t offered you anything yet
and you’re still hungry and it’s all my fault.

So poetry offers us or is supposed to offer us something that feeds us and nourishes us. In it, we often find the courage to face—or simple the ability to admit—the darker or wilder side of our own nature. It gives us a palatable way to assimilate the unavoidable darkness that is a part of our condition. These are what another poem calls “the molded hollows / in us worn from containing / and releasing, holding and letting be” (A Note to Karen). But those molded hollows are more than simply allowed to exist in the end; they are what make us who we are. Avoiding them is what a life of repression is built on and Blake’s specters are born of. But Ward is a wise poet and tries to guide us aright, for he tells us straight, as a Jersey poet would, “The more rocks we hit, / the louder we sing” (For Those Who Grew Up on a River). This embracing of the forces that wound us or are untamed within us, takes on many shapes in the poems. So in “The Noise I Make,” Ward declares, “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Or in “New Jersey,” it’s “the short, imperfect loveliness of groundhogs.” Or in “Spring Begins in Hinckley, Ohio,” it’s “a wrenching into tenderness.” That last phrase might contain the beautiful power of his poetry, for it is in understanding the deep wounds in us that we come to embrace the full extent of our humanity.

The poem “Compassion,” brings these elements together: that of the difficulty of intimacy in a modern metropolis and the compassion born of the deep wounding that defines a person. The poem opens

Out in this profane city,
sometimes sidewalks
seem the only cement that connects us

As the poem focuses in on a central figure living in this “profane city,” he is in his apartment “checking your scars / which spell your real name.” Later in the poem, the figure gives a dollar to a homeless man, and confronts the various voices that would condemn this compassion since the homeless man will simply “spend it on booze,” and “spend it on his / own death.” But in the end, though the central figure is a dollar poorer and isolated by his compassion from the callous voices that would deny the act,

. . . your inner
walls feel emblazoned by a song
rising from the fathomless depths,
a rosined bow rubbing
its awfully taut body
against catgut

to make music.

Here is one of the rocks that makes us sing from the inner depths. This is the point of it all, the sine qua non of poetry, music—art in general, that, as Stevens put it, makes it a “dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.” But, of course, at the other extreme, Ward also explores what separates us and, not surprisingly, it is often technology or symbolized by technology. Don’t presume he’s a Luddite for he does have a website. But, for instance, in the poem “No Job, No Money, No Girlfriend,” a person with an answering machine blinking to let them know he has a call, recites a litany of the various ways this means the world is reaching out to connect to him. But that expectation is destroyed when he presses the button and

a single electronic static train,
its boxcars full of emptiness,
departs from the speaker,
routes through my chest,
and out the front door—

. . . . . . . click

. . . giving me another hang-up.)

A wonderful double-entendre in which the language of our technology multiplies the emotional turmoil of the speaker. And technology has only accommodated this distancing with irony in something like Facebook, something Ward taps into with his poem “Upon Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on a Smart Phone,” which ends,

My friends are so thirsty with water in their eyes
so back to the well we’ll crawl:
Tell Plato to rise and rephilosophize—
Facebook is the new cave wall—

Our most popular social media for connecting with people is merely a shadow play of reality. Our connections are only phantoms of the truth as in Plato’s famous allegory. It’s also notable that here we find the relation of this disconnection to a thirst, that is, something primal in us that needs to be nourished since “my friends are so thirsty.” What poetry provides is lost in this network of virtual connections. Poetry, by using language in striking ways, reveals the hidden realities within us and provides a real, emotional connection to others across great distances and sometimes across impossible time. Most forms of social media, tethered and defined by the speed and rush of technology, often have a leveling influence on our language and interactions, and create connections that are as often fleeting and superficial as a single electrical spark. It is a problem Ward states with a kind of epigrammatic precision in “After Googling Myself, I Pour Myself Some Scotch and Step Out onto My Front Porch.” In it he says, “What a sum freedom plus apathy have equaled.”

But countering that apathy, that disconnection, is this collection of twenty-three years of great poetry and something to be deeply grateful for. It is among the best antidotes out there and should be marked by that peculiar phrase in his poem “Cross-Pollination,” which attaches to

. . . one of those rare moments in life
one would never get rid of.

These poems will strike you with their humor, their honesty, their emotional depth and their music. Like me, you may find yourself turning to someone and saying, “You have to hear this.”

bj-ward

Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?

BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.

Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?

BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.

Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Michael T. Young:  The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?

BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”

Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?

BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.

Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?

BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?

BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.

Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.

BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?

BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.

BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.

Wolverine the X-Man Kisses

His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.

And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt

(x, x, x)

whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?

Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,

and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips

as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love

but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,

knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,

the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?

            (from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])

————————

You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website: http://www.bj-ward.com/.

 

 

Brash Ice. Djelloul Marbrook.
Leaky Boot Press, 2014. 104 pages, ISBN: 978-1909849150

The boundaries of an identity become less distinct the closer they’re analyzed. It’s an existential nuance encountered by everyone from scientists defining an atom to Zen students contemplating a koan. Djelloul Marbrook’s latest collection, Brash Ice, explores that vagueness and various tangential elements such as memory, history and the way the nature of transcendence alters with the self as it encounters the harsher elements of life. The opening poem begins

So this business of being you
is about handling plutonium.
(“handling plutonium”)

The self is radioactive, dangerous to handle. It is not easy, in spite of the ubiquitous exhortations, to simply “be yourself.” There is much to fear. But it must be faced full on if to be realized. So the poem concludes

. . . let
intellect’s luminol reveal
what fears can’t bleach,
to stare at the consequences
even as they throw dirt on your face.

That dirt can cast a terrible shadow over life. The self, in defense, seeks a kind of transcendence, a way out. “To bear such loss we vanish” (“to ease life’s rush”). But that transcendence is not genuine since born out of fear and the desire for escape. “Even angels can’t count the cost of invisibility” (“two dark wishes”). Such an angel can’t help but gently recall Rilke’s angels, fragile in their desire to desire, as some other elements of this collection recall other qualities of that most transcendent of German poets. So, additionally, it’s not surprising that confronting the suicide of a friend and the various dead populates the book. Where the boundaries of the self become fluid, both the dead and living inhabit us and never completely pass away. Loves are lost and our friends die in the context of knowing that

we come off on each other
stains of our encounters
wranglings of our tied dyes
batiks of our fondest ties
(“batiks of our fondest ties”)

Or, with a more sinister tone, “everyone is a ghost of someone else” (“the ash tree’s scrawl”). Where we seek invisibility in the face of loss and pain, suicide is confronted as the ultimate vanishing and love as a kind of false hope. Thus even in a poem about beauty, we read

everything that scuttles
across your headstone
rings in my ears.
(“beauty and unrest”)

And elsewhere we read “whoever sees how populous we are/knows how futile it is to love” (“after image”). This is not the resignation of a depressive but the slow progress of a self defining its cohesion in a world that fragments the psyche.

This has been the psychic battle for every modern self since Mathew Arnold cried out in a letter to his sister, “I am fragments.” It is the nature of the modern dilemma and was the founding assumption of nearly every existentialist writer in the early twentieth century, and also lead the poet George Oppen to write, “We have chosen the meaning of being numerous.” But the grasping of that fragmentation has never been easy. It can be a torturous journey but a great awakening when realized. That is the progress charted by Brash Ice and the meaning implicit in the title: ice that is broken and appears scarred after freezing again. The fragmented self is reconstituted but scarred. In that scarred state it has realized an actual life lived.

. . . my job
is to hurt you into life so that you may say
something happened to someone
even if you can’t remember where
or to whom it may have happened.

This is a poetry asserting with linguistic beauty Goethe’s comment that “color is the deeds and sufferings of light.” This is quoted in one of the poems. But it’s important to shed light on this quote with another Goethe quote. In Book II of Faust, Goethe also said, “Life is not light but the refracted color.” Marbrook’s collection plays on this meaning of light and life throughout and especially in the concluding section. Life is a difficult, sometimes torturous, journey, but it is also dazzling and beautiful when embraced, just as refracted light, in its colors, is beautiful and dazzling. So the poem “habitué,” says “what is precarious is exquisite.” Or, at the beginning of the collection, we are told:

i like inspired mistake,
a peripheral glance that jars
our nerve ends loose,
diseases that best define
our escapades at being well.
(“escapade”)

Since the self is radioactive, we are all, by nature, suffering from radiation poisoning. The cure is a kind of resolving of those suffering colors into a single white light, the dying of the self into its doings, and expressed in the final section in which there is “a light without its maddening colors.”

It is a long, muddy journey to this point. By that I mean that this brief review can only touch on a small piece of the overarching journey of the collection. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tease out the many nuances and threads that are woven throughout. Much of the collection reminds me of the kind of progression and complexity one finds in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus but not as didactic. In this version of the journey, the self is stripped to its bare phenomenology. So the style is compressed both in its linguistic and metaphoric usage. No capital letters are used throughout and most metaphors carry an immense weight, sometimes to the point of incomprehension. But those moments of incomprehension are so few that the risk is worth the larger success of how often this language sings in its epiphanies. And for you, the reader of this review, to fully realize the wisdom and aesthetic virtue in this book, you must experience it directly, live it through line by line, come to it as any awakening: that is, firsthand.

My own obsession with the nuances of identity have been with me since I was eleven years old, reading Alan Watts and Krishnamurti and every version of the Tao Te Ching I could get my hands on. Among the poetic explorations of that vague thing we call the self, Brash Ice may rank among my favorite books. It is aesthetically pleasing and thematically intriguing. It manages to bring together threads of existentialist thought and insight, and weave it with hints of Eastern subtlety and Western life in a beautiful and urgent language that is relevant to the 21st century. There is enough grit that it doesn’t float off into metaphysical abstractions and enough thought that its images are weighted with meaning. It is a collection that not only holds up against multiple readings, but calls one on to them with the joy of renewed discovery.

BrashIce

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.

 

 

You Were Born One Time. Quitman Marshall.
Ninety-Six Press, 2014. 70 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9797995-4-6

I take pleasure in some poets for their incredibly beautiful music, while others thrill me with their startling metaphoric leaps. Still others I enjoy for their sheer exuberance, the ability to transform dark material into light, such as Jack Gilbert and this poet: Quitman Marshall. His latest and first full-length collection is You Were Born One Time. It received the South Carolina Poetry Archives Book Prize and was published by Ninety-Six Press in 2014.

There is a deep undercurrent of gratitude in his poetry. There are moments that intrude on speakers and surprise them with beauty or insight. This occurs in such poems as “Civilization,” or “Bagel.” Here is the collection’s concluding poem “Twenty Thousand Sunsets,”

The sun going down
is at one o’clock
from where I am
or where I face,
on a southbound road
going someplace,
a great peach-colored sigh.
And then the streaking,
lines like these
across the abandoned sky,
until the birds move
as they always do,
and I have as much joy
as I’ve ever had
from something never sought
or asked for.

Although not formal, the compressed clarity recalls to mind the poetry of Robert Francis. But the comparison only applies to the occasional poem in Marshall; on the whole his poetry is expansive. Even when the poem is on a small scale, the sense is of something opening up and out. So in every respect this concluding poem and that undercurrent of gratitude should not mislead us: the light this poetry provides is not that of a Pollyanna. The collection also confronts dark issues, societal disparities, such as wealth inequality but with such a light hand, it doesn’t strike one as the cultural criticism it is. So the early poem “Blackbeard” starts innocently enough with a memory:

In St. Augustine once,
two men in buccaneer drag
swayed past my daughters
and “Aaarr”ed so well
the girls still thrill to recall it.

But then the poem diverges into considerations of our reasons for liking pirates, the kind of fantasy they represent but also how the skull and crossbones “codifies our mute contempt for the rich” who

Now colonize his hiding places,
and the beaches where he buried
his relatively minor treasure
are their immense front yards.

So delicately, we are brought to see who the greater pirates are, how the rich pirated the buried treasure of the famed pirate himself. It is not easy to handle such issues without climbing on a soapbox, but that is what Marshall manages here as elsewhere.
Quitman Marshall_You Were Born One Time
(Click image to be taken 96 Press
to order You Were Born One Time)

What makes these poems a pleasure to read is that Marshall is not simply a poet of issues, he is a poet of attentive clarities. That is to say, he is deeply aware of the subtleties of inner and outer worlds and of the inadequacies that distract from the real life around us. If, as he says, “It’s my job, this naming,” that naming, to be right, implies focused attention.

Failed metaphors and past times,
they are the rain that continues
while we become rain ourselves
or diamonds, say, dissolving as we slide.
(“You Are”)

Here is the implication of our very nature hinging on the right language, the right name. Without it, we dissolve and lose sight of the reality before us. Though, of course, in time we will do this nonetheless, which makes this into a subtle and wonderful double-entendre. Again, in the conclusion of “Walk Across the Yard,”

. . . the bees visit them one-by-one
like the wandering merchants
we might remember as real
even as we lose ourselves in the high
ringing of cicadas or the flights
of birds who travel farther
and with far more reason than us.
Maybe we forget even why,
with all there is and we aren’t,
we’ve walked across the yard.

Here attentiveness to the beauty of life leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, a transcendence. This is another of those moments that surprises us with joy and points toward the collection’s final poem. But there is also implied in all that “we aren’t,” everything that pulls us away, that blinds us or which we blind ourselves with. So there is always a sense of things lurking, both for good and for ill. Everything is about to break upon us: the moments of reprieve and the distractions that obscure the joys and realities we could discover. The wrestling between these two extremes constitutes the journey of the collection. However, unlike many poetry collections today that bask in uncertainties, this one ends on an unequivocally redemptive moment, those “Twenty Thousand Sunsets.”

The style throughout is balanced. It doesn’t way heavily in any direction but provides both the pleasure of music and the clarity of insight. So one finds both delectable phrasings like “incendiary symmetry” or “The blue pluff mud of low tide,” but also a concluding line like “What is the use of flight?” All this adds up to a collection that one finishes feeling grateful for having read and a collection one makes sure to find a permanent place for on the shelves.  [click to continue…]

School for the Blind by Daniel Simpson

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School of the Blind. Daniel Simpson.
Poets Wear Prada, 2014. 31 pages, ISBN: 978-0692284575

Homer and Milton were blind poets but one doesn’t think of them as blind poets, only as poets. And that is what Daniel Simpson is: simply a good poet. He also happens to be blind. School for the Blind is his first collection, and, yes, it centers on his life growing up blind. The reality is that we are all blind in some way and that is what surfaces in these poems, not simply physical blindness but a failure to see, to notice the reality of others, even to notice what we reveal about ourselves.

. . . in conversation,
I try to act undivided
while, in fact, I’m on alert
for any glitch in composure,
any revelation of an actor playing a part.

It’s often a matter of tone of voice.
Most people don’t realize it goes even further —
that I’m listening to them breathe,
that I hear body language.
(“Vigilance and Dissembling”)

This is the larger blindness, in ourselves, that, toward others, is the one that leads to indifference, fear and sometimes cruelty which many of the other poems explore.

Opening and closing with poems related to his twin brother, also blind, the poems in between for the most part chart the course of life growing up in a school for the blind. There, he has his first French kiss, witnesses power struggles among faculty members and learns, eventually of the larger reality of people’s lives beyond what we assume of them. In what is one of the more poignant poems of the collection, “The Luxury of Being Children,” the assertion that “certainly, we could be forgiven/for not caring much beyond ourselves” is a kind of outrage in the context of the poem’s closing with one of the faculty members freezing to death, alone, in a cheap apartment for lack of money. What is innocent in a child is callous in the adult who is surely the one reading the book. And that is the point. . . of the poem and much of the collection.

In the poem “About Chester Kowalski I Don’t Know Much,” the admission to himself of what he didn’t know about his schoolmate becomes real to the speaker only after Chester drowns. These incidents shock the speaker and the reader into taking note of his blindness to the reality of those around him. Self-absorption is the primary blindness of the young and is forgiven as innocence. But we must surely learn from that as we grow. A collection like this, which distills that insight into fine poetry, is a helpful schooling for all of us. And, what is more, it is done, in these poems, with a wonderfully skillful hand.

The poems in School for the Blind are sensual and reflective, providing the telling detail to draw us in to their emotional reality. They are musical without being overstated, poignant without being lachrymose. Simpson is a very good poet, one whose work I look forward to reading more of. Until that next collection, savor this small one that carries a clear and moving voice.

james-richardson

For a poet who confesses to having more subscriptions to science magazines than literary ones, it’s not surprising to find something like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle couched in the closing of a poem such as “Your Way,”

you get just one thing or the other—
where the water came from, or the water.

What is surprising and gratifying is that James Richardson’s poetry is not merely clever. It is also tender. Not necessarily in the way that Bishop’s “The Shampoo” is tender. It is not so much intimacy but a glimpse into the grander scale of things that puts our smallness into perspective, that kind of perspective science usually gives through its comprehension of vast spaces and terribly long intervals of time. It’s a perspective that permits a compassion for the fragility of our place in the scheme of things. From it, we see into the isolation of our humanity, the pathos of our condition as if seeing from the perspective of God, whom Richardson evokes in this insightful capacity. For instance, in his long tribute poem to Lucretius, in section 10, about how what we perceive are not things themselves but our brain’s recreation of them, “the ripple/inward, of chemical potentials,” the last stanza declares:

It’s as if I were watching behind video goggles
a movie of exactly the path I’m taking,
hearing on tape exactly what I hear,
though to God, looking down in trans-sensual knowledge,
it’s darkness and silence we walk in,
the brightness and noise only in our heads,
which are the few lit windows in a darkened office tower.
(“How Things Are: A Suite for Lucretians”)

This kind of beautiful long-distance view of our humanity is at the core of Richardson’s poetry, in one form or another. Another example of its explicit use, and perhaps my favorite, is “Evening Prayer.” A poem that addresses God directly and, indirectly, our abuse of him to gratify our own ends. It is in this kind of distance that Richardson’s poetry, better able perhaps than poets attempting to be overtly religious, evokes God and gives him voice to plead with us to be humane:

To be a lake, on which the overhanging pine,
the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men,
weigh as they will, are peacefully received,
to hear within the silence not quite silence
your prayer to us, Live kindly, live.

In other poems, in subtler ways, it surfaces as the vast stretches of time that outdistance human life and in which our lives are embedded. In fact, the title of his New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms: Interglacial, is precisely that kind of vast interval. The brief title poem goes,

Anyone’s story,
dear, ours:
almost didn’t happen.
One
incredible day
between two colds.
The “O and. . . “
someone out the door
leaned back in to say. . . .

So life and beauty emerge from gaps, and patience is the essence of insight and even writing.

. . . here is another thing I cannot say slowly enough.”
(“Blue Heron, Winter Thunder”)

Or

it is a weed slipping fine blue rays
through walk and porch, where flags
or the hours do not quite meet.
(“Tastes of Time”)

The compassion and tenderness come in realizing that some of the things that touch our lives and make it meaningful exist in intervals that we will never live to see. That there are kinds of renewals in nature that we cannot witness come round. In a wonderful poem called “Nine Oaks,” he recounts how a storm brought down magnificent trees near his home and he’s “half-mad at my tears-on-cue.” The tenderness in these poems, the compassion, comes out in the last stanza of this poem,

Or maybe these trees, though not our property,
were something I had counted on to stay.
When I was younger, I wanted to hear sages
say everything grows again, to everything its season.
But less of life seems replaceable, now
when the less that’s left seems somehow more my own.
Some things I will see again. Things that take time—
great trees, a nations, peace, or a friend’s,
or on the white sill just that patient light—
may come back to this life, but not to mine.

This kind of insight reminds me of Loren Eiseley, the kind of thing he would say in something like The Immense Journey. I’m sure Richardson, a lover of science, has read Eiseley, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was influenced by him. He is, like him, certainly adept at articulating the vast inhuman contexts in which our humanity struggles to survive. It is a difficult project in the language of poetry, which prefers the local and particular to the infinite and abstract. But Richardson manages to find those details, those locally visible moments that telescope our existence and bring out its fragility.

Elizabeth Bishop

When I first read Bishop as a young poet, I was dazzled by her perfect syntax and rhythmic modulation, the nearly flawless detail of images. Rereading her as, I would like to think, a mature poet, I am struck by the power of her social conscience. Pity is the underlying feeling she conveys, compassion and a deep feeling for the injustice of privilege. Few of her poems overtly express outrage, but it is very much at the surface with a poem like Pink Dog. It is so clearly about how society at large treats its poor and homeless, wanting them to just dress up and play a part so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable by their presence. But in light of it, I reflected on other, earlier, Bishop poems and realize they do the same thing, such as House Guest. Here is a figure who is forced to live a life not of her own choosing. In that context, the poem concludes,

Can it be that we nourish
one of the Fates in our bosoms?
Clotho, sewing our lives
with a bony little foot
on a borrowed sewing machine,
and our fates will be like hers
and our hems crooked forever?

It recalls Kennedy’s assertion that “freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” It aligns with what happens in the poem “In the Waiting Room.” The speaker, about to turn seven, realizes her singular self, “you are an Elizabeth,” and this is coeval with realizing she belongs to humanity, “you are one of them.” But this gives rise to countless questions of identity—what does it mean? So the speaker asks,

What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?

The poem returns, in the end, to its historical (and social) context: World War I.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

Again the poem is located in social issues, constructs. Where do our allegiances lie and why, the poem seems to ask. Or, more importantly, why decide to kill for country or cause when to be you or anyone, well, “nothing stranger/had ever happened, that nothing/stranger could ever happen.” All those running about killing and obsessing over borders and politics and power and land are like Bishop’s sandpiper, lost in the details of a world that is

minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Her poetry seems to say, take pity on us, on yourself. We are alone, even in the most crowded city. And for those with privilege, even more so, take pity. As the speaker in Manuelzinho says at the end, speaking to his land worker, whom he had looked down on,

You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or do I?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.

Her poetry or its speakers do not even presume to know themselves fully. They have the humility of realizing that absolute self-knowledge is limited and to presume it is to fall into the same evil as those who presume to any kind of absolute knowledge. Every flawed one of us must humbly struggle to be a better person in whatever station we find ourselves.

Mondrian-red-tree

The Nest
By Carl Dennis

The omens of fall are out again.
We sit in the park with our feet bedded in leaves.
The wind widens,
The sun grows small,
Warnings that friends should band together
For joint defenses before the end.
Now it seems foolish for anyone
To grow cold alone.

You want me to turn and notice you
But I look inside.
There I can see bare branches
With a single bird
Peering out at the litter of fall.
He has built his nest too high in the tree
Or too small.

This poem, like all Dennis poems, has a simple surface but a lurking depth. Its title, right off, tells us there is a bird involved, or at least the evidence of a bird. Birds in poetic tradition are often identified with poets because they both sing. Keats’s nightingale, Hardy and Frost’s thrushes are all simultaneously birds and bards that tell us more about the human world than the natural one. In this case, it is significant that we are given the evidence of a bird since poets too leave evidence of themselves: all those leaves in all those books. And haven’t we all seen abandoned nests in the bare winter trees? One can’t help wondering of both birds and poets, what will survive.

The opening line, “The omens of fall are out again,” seems simple enough. However it would be thoughtless to gloss over the word “omens.” Omens don’t merely indicate an apparent reality but portend an invisible future; they prophesy—something good or bad—to come. Of course, that which is coming is winter: this stripping of summer regalia down to bare bark and branches foretells the desolations of a starker season. And since trees have little use for omens it presages something of our own end. So with this portentous sense we move on to the next line where

We sit in the park with our feet bedded in leaves.

Though a little peculiar, it is possible to picture people at a park bench with their feet in small piles of leaves. It is, more likely, a hint toward a deeper identification that will reveal itself slowly. For now, let’s think about the great bird poems in this tradition like Ode to a Nightingale, The Darkling Thrush, and Come In. They all take place in or near the woods. But Dennis is a suburban poet of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We don’t frequently live near dark woods anymore. Instead, we go to the park. And that is where we are. What is more peculiar about this poem is that the speaker isn’t alone. It’s “we” who sit in the park. It is another break with tradition. Perhaps Dennis is simply honest enough to allow someone else in on this moment, admitting, as we sometimes aren’t willing to, that we would rather not face the dark autumn and winter days alone. But more telling is that nightingales and thrushes are solitary birds, as are poets, at least when they’re composing. But on the larger stage, poets sing in the context of culture, hoping to be heard by others. This break with tradition is a comment on that desire, a desire that the second stanza, and ultimately the whole poem, says more about.

Before moving on, let’s consider the word “bedded” in this line. It stands out because it’s not the obvious word choice. “Buried” is likely what any of us would have chosen in describing this moment to someone. Since the poems of this tradition are all about death in some way, “buried” would have been a heavy-handed word. Besides, death is strewn all around in the discarded leaves. This freed Dennis to choose the more interesting word “bedded.” Its horticultural significance is “to plant in or as in a bed.” This suggests that his feet are planted in the leaves, rooted, we might say, like trees. It hints that the speaker and his companion, indeed, are trees. Although maybe this is a stretch. Perhaps it’s best to see if that emerges again later.

The wind widens,
The sun grows small
Warnings that friends should band together
For joint defenses before the end.
Now it seems foolish for anyone
To grow cold alone.

Added to the omens of leaves are now the widening wind and the shrinking sun. These warnings suggest we should “band together,” gather with our friends so we don’t “grow cold alone.” That last phrase can’t help but call to mind the body of the recently deceased growing cold. Also, embedded in the word “cold” is “old.” That’s what the speaker is getting at, is possibly a little too fearful to simply say. But we all feel it: “no one wants to grow old and die alone.” Then there is that word “now,” which introduces it. It echoes strangely, weighs in the mind and kicks up in its dust Keats’s line when he finally declares, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” Both lines are contemplating death or at least the imminence of death. But Keats, in isolation, listening to the nightingale, in the wake of his brother Tom’s death only a few months prior, longs to escape the world of suffering. Dennis’ speaker, on the other hand, is contemplating the autumn leaves and reflects on his own aging condition as a corollary, an old poet in the wake of what he has done with his life. His speaker is less oppressed but is, ultimately, no less doubtful of his condition. At least, that is the case by the end.

You want me to turn and notice you
But I look inside.

This is the pivotal moment in the poem. We’ve just left off considering that it’s “foolish for anyone/To grow cold alone.” The companion’s desire is now to be noticed, which implied the companion’s noticing the speaker. Perhaps his companion is another poet, maybe a younger poet wanting the attention of an elder. But the speaker is only human and turns “inside.” The period following “inside” pivots the entire work into the speaker’s psyche. Why the speaker turns inward, from his companion, after not wanting to be alone seems less a consequence of self-importance and more a natural turn, a result of the speaker’s aging, and dreading what his future might be. The omens of that future are all around, as the opening told us. The leaves about him are as much evidence of his age as of his accomplishment. One is tempted to think of him as Yeats’s old man who is “a tattered coat upon a stick,” which is also very subtly a tree image. In old age it’s natural to take account of life and one’s achievements. So the speaker turns inward and what does he find there?

There I can see bare branches
With a single bird
Peering out at the litter of fall.

This is a description not of the outer landscape but the inner landscape. The speaker is now explicitly comparing himself to a tree with bare branches and a single bird in its nest. In the course of his life he has stopped and wondered “what have I done?” And there is the “litter of fall,” the remains of all his summer efforts. The final two lines come in this context:

He has built his nest too high in the tree
Or too small.

The bird-poet has failed in some way. The poet has either aimed too high, beyond his powers, or forced great work into a vehicle it couldn’t bear. It is peculiar that Dennis’ bird never sings or we should say, is never heard. It’s another break with tradition. Where all other solitary poets hear their birds singing, Dennis simply observes him sitting silently in his nest, “peering out at the litter of fall.” It’s as if the bird is the soul of the tree and all the scattered leaves are the text of his poetic undertaking. It’s a poet at the end of his effort looking over his work and dreading that what he has accomplished will not survive.

But this poem is not just in the tradition of bird poems. It is, really, a hybrid of the bird poems in poetic tradition and the tree poems in poetic tradition, those such as Frost’s “Tree at My Window,” Hopkins “Spring & Fall,” or Edward Thomas’s “The Green Roads.” In fact, “The Green Roads” is very much a precursor to Dennis’ poem. The symbolism of both bird and tree are balanced equally in the thematic development. And both are dark in their conclusions. The oak at the center of Thomas’ poem is dead and “saw the ages pass in the forest.” Near the end he declares, “all things forget the forest/Excepting perhaps me.” That is, the poet remembers and as children of Mnemosyne that is, of course, their job: to remember. In Thomas’ poem, goose feathers strewn the ground, taking the place of Dennis’ leaves. In this way, Dennis more thoroughly integrates the imagery and themes. Then the way Dennis’ poem aligns the psyche of the poet with that of the tree also harkens back also to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which is not a tree poem but is another poem in which the poet compares himself to a tree. It’s enlightening to see what Shelley says:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
. . . What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

. . . Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
. . .My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Shelley goes on to transform the West Wind from the opening “breath of Autumn’s being” into a “trumpet of prophesy” of the coming spring. But where Shelley insists on an optimistic close, Dennis shows the inevitable loneliness and danger in poetic aspirations. The bird has spent himself and he sits in the bare tree in a nest that is too high or too small. But now that the bird-poet has cast his efforts into the world, to the wind, he can do nothing more. This is the end of the line, what he has done with his life cannot be undone or redone. Whether his accomplishments will resonate in history is beyond his power to control or influence. He can only continue to sit, “peering out at the litter of fall.”

Poems in this tradition are typically dark and melancholy. Dennis’ poem keeps with this tradition. Hardy’s poem hints at a failure beyond individual death, toward a failure of the poetic tradition itself. Keats’s ode splits the psyche of the speaker from the bird in a way that suggests the hope to escape suffering is only a dream. Dennis’ speaker too has little or no hope, for there is no way of knowing that our words will survive us, even if we are a great poet. Shakespeare assumed immortality in writing as long as there were people to read and said, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Dennis can’t make such an assumption. It is not modesty as much as a modern condition. In our age, we are all too aware that we are ever on the brink of annihilation. And even without that, we are a scientific age with a perspective on time that stretches so far in both directions, for the most part, it doesn’t include us. We know there are billions of years ahead of us into which our small world will drift and disintegrate. But in the poem, in its small world, even if we pull back into the shorter arc of our own culture and history, think of all those dead leaves again and the double-entendre they are: both the poet’s life-long efforts and the efforts of other aspiring poets. It is a landscape cluttered with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of voices shouting for attention.

In a bookstore with a well-read friend, I pointed out a collection of poetry by Juan Ramón Jiménez. He didn’t know who it was. Jimenez won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956. In the vast litter of leaves, of books and even great voices, who is to say even another great one will be noticed or remembered? And in the vast cosmic time, our little planet will be like a decaying leaf when our own sun swells to a red giant and engulfs it. Dennis’ poem doesn’t question the success of the poetic endeavor, the simple writing and publishing, but rather it questions its endurance, whether it will be heard in time regardless of its current success. In the tradition of this kind of poem, the speaker is always someone who is hearing and listening to the song, hearing the poet-bird speak. Dennis’ poem doubts the inherent assumption that the poet’s voice will rise from the scattered remains and be heard. It is a poem foreboding an eternal silence. For where the poet’s voice goes unheard, there is no one to lift us out of the gaping mouth of oblivion.

Allen Grossman_2

Allen Grossman_2Allen Grossman died in June this year and it returned me to his poetry. He is the kind of poet our time needs but rarely acknowledges. Grossman received a 2009 Bollingen Prize, one of those high honors that only other poets know about. He didn’t receive the more obvious Pulitzer or National Book Award. But, then again, prophets and prophet-poets don’t open their mouths to receive accolades.

When I first read “The Ether Dome and Other Poems” I found that I couldn’t read him silently and truly hear his voice. I had to read him out loud to taste the textures of his words on my tongue. Because I do much of my reading in public while in transit, I often looked like a madman walking down the street, talking, gesturing and laughing to myself. But allowing myself the freedom to do this in spite of the public display, helped me to see what a remarkable poet he is, one with a voice that needs to be heard in more ways than one. He is a late 20th century child of both Blake and Stevens, but not a child in the sense of merely inheriting traits or styles, but an active creator or, in his own words, “the self-determined maker.” With epigrammatic lines like “Eternity and Time/Grieve incessantly in one another’s arms” he echoes but comments on Blake’s “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Or his recurring use of the realm of the unborn recalls Blake’s vale of Har from the Book of Thel but goes on to make further comments for our own time. He engages those paradoxes that strike at unapparent truth as when he says, “Distance and intimacy grow together” or “In the/ Book at hand is a book beyond all hands.” Then he will also comment on and extend Stevens as when he says, “sex and imagination are one” or when he says, “the whole/Body is an Orphic explanation by a most eloquent spirit/Failing to be clear.” To be sure, there is also humor in this, a playfulness that is the mark of a truly great mind. For only the truly great mind is great enough to remain playful even when serious.

Unlike Steven and more like Blake, one sees in Grossman a man of vision: a prophet. Stevens was a deep man of intellect and imagination, but not a man of spirit—or should I say, of faith? For Stevens to say, “God and the imagination are one” was to echo Protagoras in saying, “man is the measure of all things.” While for Blake to say, “imagination is Holy Spirit,” was actually to assert the indwelling reality of the divine. Stevens is at the end of the long line of Romantic thinking, but in him there is no faith as there is in Blake. What we have in Grossman is a poet who embraces the polarities of that arc from Blake to Stevens, uniting them in a poetic dialogue that reasserts the status of the poet as prophet.

Subsuming the disillusionments in Stevens into a larger spiritual commentary on our time, Grossman reconnects with the dialectic vision we find in Blake. At the same time, he confronts the darker realities of the modern world, assuming the infinite cycles and entropies we take for granted, as in his poem “The Guardian,” where he says,

. . . after a long time, all this will stop, flow
Back into the universe, cease form, cease
To be metal, become another thing,
Become nothing.

It is the colder reality of the flux of a universe too large for us to know. We will be absorbed back into it and this is part of the whole. There is something of the idea of Indra in this, the small god who oversees the current universe, but who himself is merely one in a number of Indras from countless universes as each world is born and dies in the sleep of Vishnu. Grossman’s poems are always peeling back more and more layers of appearance to disclose deeper or more distant realities. Some of those realities are so distant and so deep they no longer include the human. Yet, it is always in the context that we are a part of this, this is the whole spiritual context of our singular existence at this moment. Because of that, it is surprisingly comforting. A rare quality to find in a modern poet and one profoundly needed.