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Sarah V. Schweig

The best way to gain time is to change place.
—Proust

Any review of literature in translation is also a review of the translation. And in this act, the review is also, in part, a comment on the endeavor of translation itself.

The Zoo in Winter, a selection of Polina Barksova’s poetry translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg, often addresses this issue of translatability head on. For Barskova, language shapes both perceptions of and expressions of interior identity and exterior reality, writing, “how could one describe in Russian/ The grand and small (goddamn) details/ Of need, so that the martyr’s crooked body/ Would not be crooked more painfully,/ So that, as it had once, it should desire/ Purposeless days in place of rueful days?”

In her work, Barskova doesn’t shy from explicitly stating her concerns as a writer, a woman, and a Russian living in the U.S., writing, “most of all I’m occupied with beauty/ I’m driven mad by the fact that the prattle healthyyoungbeautiful/ in their language means simply alive…” Here, and in its concern for beauty and its confrontation with mortality, poetry has the capacity, despite language-gaps, to bring people together, across genders, across nations, across languages—even as memory recedes, even as death intervenes—in the very act of articulating these divides. Barskova writes:

Under a foreign sky, under the ward
Of smiling Berkeley invalids
Whom I attend,
My soul lies like a hero killed,
No longer drawing crows.
Everything toothsome has been pecked from it,
It should be washed by rains and kicked by winds.
But – there is neither rain, nor wind, and one can hardly
Pick out a word to cover up the shame.
Words that serve here are meek and even,
Foreign to past grandiloquence…

In that passage—from “On Overcoming the Language Barrier”—language is not a mere characteristic of a nation’s people, but shapes nationality, and nationality, is not only a characteristic of an individual, but shapes that individual from his/her origin.

 

_____

 

Two years ago, in celebration of the Tolstoy Centennial, at a Russian-themed reading at Pacific Standard in Brooklyn, Polina Barskova read with Ilya Kaminsky and Boris Dralyuk, a translator of Tolstoy and also Barskova’s translator. And this reading in 2010, marking one hundred years since Tolstoy’s sudden disappearance, then illness and death at a railway station in then-Astapovo, now named Lev Tolstoy, Barskova read her poems in the original Russian, then in the English translation, suggesting a loyalty to her own language, while also a commitment to being understood across barriers.

Also there in reading’s audience was Austin LaGrone, a Louisiana poet I met just before the reading began. We discussed the Southern Writers Reading series, which takes place monthly at a massage parlor-turned bar in Chinatown, and his then-forthcoming first book, Oyster Perpetual, selected for the Idaho Prize for Poetry by Thomas Lux and now available through Lost Horse Press. (Months later, in the same backroom of Pacific Standard, LaGrone would read from it, and I’d snag a copy.)

His book, like Barskova’s work, rings out strongly of its origin, but in a way that neither exoticizes where it comes from nor alienates a reader who comes from someplace else. Further, it shares a similar concern with being transplanted to new cities, with bridging time and place, and with conveying experience that is specific to an era and locale while also reaching beyond its context. In “Peach Flavored Cheyennes” LaGrone writes:

I’m not sure how things
come together to make a life,
or at what nexus we choose our heroes.
I want to sing Hank Williams.
But then I see girls
outside Pete’s Candy Shop
tying cherry stems with their tongues
and I think about Crystal
working the pole down at Maxine’s.
The heart grows stubbornly
in whatever soil we give it.

And even though this conversation during the break in this Russian-themed reading was our first-ever, our talk ended up landing on the topics of illness, death, and grieving. Oddly, it is with this similar, associative motion that Barskova’s poems function. In the book’s title poem, she writes:

Your father now holds Frosya by the hand. The hand –
Should be memory’s last stop
Before it swims off into the abyss.
The palm wraps round the night trains of remembrance,
Proust’s soggy little madeleines,

And VN’s Dobuzhinskii caves.
And Frosya’s wooly head
Is pressed against the tender web of veins,
Stretched out across the father’s ruin
Like a sweet lover’s furrow.

The hand. To hand. He walks into the room, where I sit without light,
As if I’m Heracles, ensnared with Admetus,
Hoping to save someone, yet lingering.
And mumbles: “I’m still. How cold. Give me that.”
And grasps my hand in a despairing handful,
The sweaty palm – awakened, warmed,
Blooms, nearly, like a stump on a spring day,

What’s astonishing – your father doesn’t know
Who I am, in that room looking after him,
Judging about him,
Yes, and in general, himself. Druid and asteroid,
He moves in darkness,
He moves towards me,
So as to freeze above me, and for a long time warm my hands
In the comfortless silence of his haggard rooms.

This reading was two years ago, now, as Tolstoy died in 1910, but I can still remember, as Barskova read the last lines of that title poem, “Since he has long ago forgotten all our names,/ Let him give names to us: Madness and Death,” LaGrone and I caught each other’s eye, astonished, across the packed backroom of that Brooklyn bar on 4th Avenue and St. Marks.

Read Levi Rubeck on Oyster Perpetual here.

IN A FAMILIAR CITY

where the grass and the gravel tic-tic-tic
on the pavement, the morning
sprinters, or on the mountain
where there are no trees, or just one,
grown light and thinned out of the rock:
there might as well be music.
There might as well be a certain resting
sky, and a picnic to which we are invited.
There is plenty of room.
The flowerboxes are full of ice. At home,

where the loss has always already happened,
and the birds have only just come back,
the trouble and clench of your fingers
are irretrievable in the room’s
studio-bright light. There are onlookers:
white dress left over a door. Day-moon,
hole in the sky’s blue body-armor.
How small the road seems
in comparison, the lean starts
of redbuds spiked up the drive.

_______________________________________________
Brittany Perham’s recent work may be found in TriQuarterly, Lo-Ball, Linebreak, and Drunken Boat. Her first collection of poems, The Curiosities, will be available from Parlor Press in November 2011. She is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University, where she held the Wallace Stegner Fellowship from 2009-2011, and she lives in San Francisco. You can visit her website at www.brittanyperham.com.

Blue Note

Because there is only interval quiet,
the impossibility of silence
even after midnight, I am reaching
for a distant tone: a single word, a sum
of melody and rhythm in their absence.
Clouds with glowing edges suggest
extension. Inaudible dust and moths
hovering around the floodlight offer
suspension. If I say sound alone
comprises song, which supposes
location, the committee of crickets asserts
intention. Great jazz only happens
in hard-hitting cities, another era.
Even minor sidemen knew that
to build a ballad you must
shape heartbreak, mimic the ostinato
of heart-pump and bloodflow, know
when to release a slow
brushstroke across the snare drum.
When to surrender a breath.
Night air streams in place of daylight.
A new variation of tired smells—
mown grass, a neighbor’s faint cigarette,
my perspiration—insists recollection.
Not everyone raised here stays.

X has not called in eighteen weeks.
It’s perfectly fine to be consoled
by a three-chord cliché, to circle
the darkening blocks until
your knees ache like the overplayed
pop song you can’t name or forget.
The far-off dog barking is never a stray.
This is no route through, this is not
a destination. And so the record collection
expands, the shelf sags lower.
The best jackets involve sad, beautiful
faces viewed through some blue lens.
Every blues is a plea for that face to stay.
The last window glowing blue goes dark.
This late pain is a light
metallic taste I want to vibrate,
and the dreadnought I play proposes
possession. This guitar’s as good as stolen.
I have scratched my name inside.
I own its mahogany body but not its tone.

________________________________________________
Jason Labbe‘s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Boston Review, A Public Space, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Dear Photographer (Phylum Press) and Blackwash Canal (H_NGM_N BKS). A drummer, he has recorded and performed with various artists in New Haven and New York, including Snake Oil, Charles Burst, Latitude/Longitude, Weigh Down, and M.T Bearington, among others. He lives in Bethany, Connecticut, where he makes music in his basement studio when he is not making it elsewhere.

Known Quantity

So it turns out you want
____________to know nothing
______and it frightens me.
It means you must
________know enough already.

For example, you must
_______know I’m calibrated
________________________to sit stiff
with my hands in my lap like flowers
______meant for someone who’s just done
____a tremendous job.

Someone’s just done a dance
_________with all of her strong arms
and legs in the air.
________________Someone’s just done
_____a big trombone solo.

Someone puts her nose
____________to the flowers
and in her excitement
______forgets to breathe in.

What did he bring you?
____________someone asks.
____They smell lovely, she says
___________instead of roses.

There are flowers
_______it’s possible not
to be wrong about. Their smell.
___The way they sit
___________doing nothing
in plastic in your hands.

__________________________________________

Laura Eve Engel’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, LIT, Cincinnati Review, Cream City Review and elsewhere. [Spoiler Alert], a chapbook co-written with Adam Peterson, will be available from The Collagist/Dzanc Books in the fall. She is the 2011 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can follow her on Twitter @hoostown.

 

Love-Busker

I’ve got an ugly, but I’ll never tell,
how pretty your please.
I’ve got a screw
tight, and wheels for wheels,
and an *.

I’ve got a real good thing, going,
so pardon my by-
your-leave. A way of opening
ah and putting me
under. Over and out.

I’ve got muscles in there, somewhere.
A tooth that won’t grow in. Spit
whistle, thumper finger,
tin can clang I’m
your one man band.

A memory of lapses. A good cold.
A winterized grin.
My boutique hard-sell soft-core
will pink you in.
It’s rolled-gold bold.

If you want love in a king-size bed
beware my disease:
symptoms:
catchall goodwill
and a right knee jitter.

__________________________________________
Peter Kline‘s poetry has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, Poetry, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the 2010 Morton Marr Prize from the Southwest Review, as well as a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He is currently a guest blogger on the Ploughshares website.

The first poem I ever loved was The Raven.  Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”

Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives.  But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.

A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings.  These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.

“Whatever it was I had to say,” Charles Wright writes on the first page of Littlefoot (FSG 2007), “I’ve said it.”  Two years later, in 2009, Sestets, his most recent book, came out.

“Instead of going over poems today,” Charles said one day a few years ago as our small, always-awestruck-in-the-presence-of-Charles-Wright class gathered around a seminar table at the University of Virginia, “I’m gonna read you some John Cage.”  He then began to read John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I am here,” he said, “and there is nothing to say.  If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment. What we re-quire is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.”

Thank god he does.  If he had nothing to say at the beginning of Littlefoot, a beautiful book-length poem, then he certainly had much more nothing to say in Sestets.  For, in Sestets, we find the God-hunger and dark humor from Wright’s other works—“What’s up, grand architect of the universe?” he writes in “Terrestrial Music”—but in a new form for him, and an interesting contrast to Littlefoot’s length.  Sestets is a book of brief poems, each just six lines long, the brevity of which harkens back to his much earlier work, which is similarly condensed. However, the poems that compose Sestets retain Wright’s signature long and long-winded lines that often split and drop down midway through.

Another distinguishing element of Wright’s work is his titles, which often act as little poems in and of themselves.  One of my all-time favorite examples of this is the poem “If This Is Where God’s At, Why Is That Fish Dead?” from the previous book A Short History of the Shadow. And here in Sestets, this element continues, as we get similarly brilliantly layered titles, such as, “Like the New Moon, My Mother Drifts Through the Night Sky” and “Autumn is Visionary, Summer’s the Same Old Stuff.”  Even “Homage to What’s-His-Name,” wonderfully humorous, opens up to suggest that even the people we most admire we forget when we age and memory falters.  “No one’s remembered much longer than a rock / is remembered beside the road / If he’s lucky or / Some tune or harsh word / uttered in childhood or back in the day,” he writes in “It’s Sweet to Be Remembered,” a title inspired by Lester Flatt.

Many of Wright’s poems are inspired or informed by songs and song lyrics, which contributes to the playfulness of Wright’s work, even as it addresses the direst of last things. “Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time” begins, “Whump-di-ump-whump-whump, / tweedilee tweedilee tweedilidee, / I’m happy as can be…” and he means it—I heard him read it once and he went ahead and sang the line.  The poem goes from this playful beginning to an impulse to remember the details about the song, and who sang it, and then a reflection about the faults of memory in the face of lost time, as then settles, as Wright often does, on a heartbreaking ending image:  “Pretty nice, but that was then, / when our hearts were meat on the grill.  // And who was it, Etta James or Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker? / The past is so dark, you need a flashlight to find your own shoes. / But what shoes! and always half an inch off the floor, / your feet like the wind inside them.”

The brilliance of these poems lies in the way they at once comment on human existence in a flawed, rough world while also commenting on poems, songs and art itself, on why art exists, and how.  “The metaphysics of the quotidian is what he was after,” reads the first line of the book, an ars poetica for this book of poems, rife with thoughts and images that occur everyday and often go unrecorded.

Sometimes, when the formal feeling comes after an encounter with the void, after, as Nietzsche would say, we look into the abyss and the abyss looks back into us, we reach out, then, for something that will console us honestly, something that goes beyond apologies for what’s newly missing, beyond the assertion that the person lost has gone to a better place, or that the relationship ruined was all for the best, the easy crutches tossed off at times of loss that actually perplex and paralyze thought.  Wright consoles us for the losses of this world honestly and almost cruelly frank at times—“We live on Orphan Mountain, / each of us, and that’s how it is”—and at other times darkly funny in the language’s colloquial tone.  “We haven’t heard from the void lately,” he writes.  And it’s implied that it’s just a matter of time until we do hear from it again.  And that’s how it is.

And around the workshop table, we listened as Charles went on, reading Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”  “We need not fear these silences,” he read, “—we may love them.”  This, for those of us in the workshop who felt that we didn’t deserve to be there and still had to turn in each week mediocre poem after mediocre poem, was incredibly consoling to hear Wright say.  And it is something many of us from the workshop, I’m sure, still go back to, just as, I think, Wright must also do during the inevitable silences.

After a loss, there is always a particular kind of silence.  I finished 2010 reading and rereading Sestets using sympathy cards, whose consolations always come up short, as bookmarks.  “Twilight of the Dogs,” a poem almost dead center of the book, begins, “Death is the mother of nothing. / This is a fact of life, / And exponentially sad. / All these years—a lifetime, really—thinking it might be otherwise.”  We get the sense that Wright uses writing as a way of filling the void, of making his way down Via Negativa trying to reconcile his hope of what might be otherwise with what simply is.

John Cage writes, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”  And we get the sense that Wright’s work comes from a place of urgency, a personal need to be consoled by language, even as it is arranged by him.  And we too need these poems, because, as Wright tells us early on in Sestets, “If you can’t delight in the everyday, / you have no future here. / And if you can, no future either.”  And I’d assert that we need these poems especially in the dead of winter, after what was for many of us a rough year, and at the beginning of a new year whose occurrences remain hidden from where we now stand.  We need these poems especially when “Everything is what it seems to be and a little less.”

Sestets is what it seems to be and a lot more: a small book of small poems that resurrect what they can from the nothingness.  Sestets is Charles Wright at his best, yet again.  Read it with a sympathy card as a bookmark.

(The elderly novelist to whom this letter is addressed won his reputation in the middle of the century and was thus a survivor of the Golden Age of Russian literature.  He had written to young Chekhov, with whom he was not acquainted, hailing him as the outstanding writer of his generation and urging him to undertake a serious piece of work that would demand time and thought, even if it meant going hungry.)

Moscow, March 28, 1886

Your letter, my kind, ardently beloved bringer of good tidings, struck me like a thunderbolt.  I nearly cried, I got all excited, and now i feel that your message has left a deep mark on my soul.  As you have been kind to my youth, so may God succor your old age.  For my part, I can find neither words nor deeds with which to thank you.  You know with what eyes ordinary people regard the elect such as you, and so you can imagine how your letter has affected my self-esteem.  It is better than any diploma, and for a fledgeling writer it is a bounty now and in time to come.  I am almost in a daze.  It is now within my power to judge whether I merit this high reward.  I can only repeat that it has overwhelmed me.

If I have a gift that should be respected, I confess before the purity of your heart that hitherto I have not respected it.  I felt that I did have talent, but I had got used to thinking it insignificant.  Purely external causes are enough to make one unjust to oneself, suspicious, and diffident.  And, as I think of it now, there have been plenty of such causes in my case.  Al those who are near to me have always treated my writing with condescension and have never stopped advising me in a friendly manner not to give up real work for scribbling.  I have hundreds of acquaintances in Moscow, among them a score or so of people who write, and I cannot recall a single one who would read me or regard me as an artist.  In Moscow, there is a Literary Circle, so-called: gifted writers and mediocrities of all ages and complexions meet once a week in a restaurant and give their tongues free rein.  If I were to go there and read them even a fragment of your letter, they would laugh in my face.  In the five years that I have been knocking about newspaper offices I have come to accept this general view of my literary insignificance; before long I got used to taking an indulgent view of my labors, and so the fat was in the fire.  That’s the first cause.  The second is that I am a physician and am up to my ears in medical work, so that the saw about chasing two hares has robbed no one of more sleep than me.

I am writing all this for the sole purpose of exonerating myself to at least some degree in your eyes.  Up till now my attitude towards my literary work has been extremely frivolous, casual, thoughtless.  I cannot think of a single story at which I worked on for more than a day, and “The Huntsman,” which you liked, I wrote in a bathing-cabin.  I wrote my stories the way reporters write notices of fires: mechanically, half-consciously, without caring a pin either about the reader or myself…I wrote and tried my best not to use up on a story the images and scenes which are dear to me and which, God knows why, I treasured and carefully concealed.

What first impelled me to self-criticism was a very friendly and, I believe, sincere letter from Suvorin.  I began to plan writing something decent, but I still lacked faith in my ability to produce anything worth while.

And then like a bolt from the blue came your letter.  Excuse the comparison, but it had the effect on me of a Governor’s order to leave town within twenty-four hours:  I suddenly felt the urgent need to hurry and get out of the hole in which I was stuck…

I will stop–but not soon–doing work that has to be delivered on schedule.  It is impossible to get out of the rut I am in all at once.  I don’t object to going hungry, as I went hungry in the past, but it is not a question of myself…To writing I give my leisure: two or three hours during the day and a fraction of the night, that is, an amount of time that is good only for short pieces.  In the summer when I have more spare time and fewer expenses I shall undertake some serious piece of work…

All my hope is pinned to the future.  I am only twenty-six.  Perhaps I shall still succeed in achieving something, though time flies fast.

Forgive this long letter and do not hold it against a man who for the first time in his life has made bold to indulge in the pleasure of writing to Grigorovich.

If possible, send me your photograph.  I am so overcome by your kindness that I feel like writing you not a sheet, but a whole ream.  May God grant you happiness and health, and believe the sincerity of your deeply respectful and grateful

A. CHEKHOV

The time has come to reveal (I think) the source (for those who don’t already know) of The The Poetry’s name, namely, “The Man on the Dump” by Wallace Stevens.  Here is a link to the full text.

Considering this, I wrote a little blurb to explain what this virtual forum is/might be.  Here that is:
~
The The Poetry Blog takes its name from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man on the Dump,” which ends with a question and an answer: “Where was it one first heard of the truth?  The the.”  The The is a forum for ideas on poetry and the poetic aspects of fiction, non-fiction, music, visual art, film, and “the things / That are on the dump (azaleas and so on) / And those that will be (azaleas and so on).”  Our contributors are writers, readers, artists, critics and so on.  Our readers are writers, readers, artists, critics and so on.  All are people on the dump, where “one sits and beats and old tin can, lard pail. / One beats and beats for that which one believes. / That’s what one wants to get near.”  We hope that The The will help us all get a little closer.
~

A.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share…

-Paul Simon

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds….
-Vladimir Nabokov

To my wife Anne, without whose silence this book never would have been written.
-Philip K. Dick, dedication page from The Man in the High Castle

B. If you place two or more people in a lobby, they will produce words that string together discussions regarding recent changes in weather.  If you put one person in a lobby, he or she will hum a tune no one–not even he or she–knows, atonally and incessantly.

C. This is a cat named Silence.  He meows at the door as I write this.

Silence on "Silence" by John Cage

In the Brooklyn apartment where Silence lives, a man came to look at a room for rent.  The human tenants explained to the man about daily tasks.  “We all contribute,” one said, “when it comes to Silence.”

D. My grandfather tells the story of himself as a boy, talking in class.  “Schweig?” the teacher purportedly said, “SCHWEIG!”

E. Somebody in the lobby: “Did you know that ‘Silent’ is what your name means?”  Somebody in the lobby: “What are you writing about?”

“You are invisible,” the computer tells me.

John Cage

F.
(I have nothing to say

and I am saying it and that is

poetry as I need it.)

G. And there was the time when Charles Wright walked in, sat down and said, “Instead of workshop today, I am going to read from this,” and he held up a book whose cover said, SILENCE.  Charles opened the book and started speaking.

I. What Do People Do?

I’d caught glimpses of them before.  Maybe I’d been up very late and into the morning, taking the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan and had seen them standing with briefcases on platforms waiting for trains.  Maybe I woke bright and early for my hangover, craving Naked Juice and sparkling water from the corner bodega.  Maybe I had wild notions of pretending I had a nine-to-five writing schedule so that there would be an end to the thankless work.

They all walked in the same direction with a bounce in their step and cups of coffee in their hands.  Because of them, the A.M. New York and Metro New York dispensers that had been magically filled sometime during the night were depleted by noon.  Because of them, the trains in the evening were as crowded as summer hives.

Turns out, there’s this whole community of human beings who wake up in the morning, go to work, eat lunch and return home at around five o’clock.  Midday, they people-watch while they lunch, they shop and they make transactions at ATMs.  Late afternoon, they retreat to the fluorescent cocoons of their offices, and in the evening, like migratory creatures in early spring, they emerge and travel back where they came from, for a run, a shower, dinner and maybe a walk with the dog.

II. When Will It End?

My first week of full-time work, afflicted with existential motion sickness, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and lunchtime was designated solely for weeping, as was the brief window before work, as were the hours following, until, exhausted I dropped off into an uneasy half-sleep.  On the third morning before work, caught in the murmurous haunt of commuters, I sat almost doubled over in a chair in Starbucks waiting for the barista to call out my $4 drink when a man rested his briefcase down on the bench beside mine.  I was always slightly in the way of these people who moved through space and daylight with the certainty of lethal wasps.  I made a motion to shift my tenuously held together waif of a body so as to avoid crowding the man’s hefty briefcase.  The man had on a neat tie and a friendly face and motioned to me that I was fine where I was, saying, “You just look so comfortable.”

My stomach turned and my vision blurred as my most recent anxiety attack subsided.  How I could have looked at all comfortable, I have no idea, though I suppose mild catatonia could be mistaken for deep repose.

In the window overlooking 17th Street, a mix of cold rain and sleet fell.  The wasps, who had covered themselves with parkas and umbrellas and husk-like hoods, zipped furiously by.

“When will it end?”  I heard.  The businessman was looking at me.

He was continuing the interaction we had tentatively established.  This is what people do, I thought, in the mornings before work while waiting in latte lines.  When will it end?…When will it end?…Which thing?

I looked at him.  “Which thing?”  I said.

The businessman laughed.  I made the businessman laugh.  He replied, with a shrug, “The weather, the economy, everything….”

Then I laughed.

There was a pause.  The rain and sleet had turned to only rain and was still falling.  He continued, “But we have offices on the square, so when we get depressed, we can go for a walk.”

III. Is it really that simple?

I get coffee.  I go to work.  In the afternoon, I go for a walk.

IV. But What Would Herman Melville Say?

“Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.  On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay.  And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.  The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us.  But being paid,–what will compare with it?  The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven.  Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

V. Why Write?

MFA programs create a set of circumstances that one does not find anywhere else.  You have money (lent or granted, most of which you give away to the institution who accepted you), you have a place to live, you have people to talk to who supposedly care about what you care about.  This cushy existence might make you think, “How can anyone write—or even exist—without these circumstances granted?”  This anomalistic life can cause a web of if-then theorizing about living:  If I have a job, I won’t be able to write.  If something is expected of me, I won’t do be able to do what isn’t—and only in graduate school will writing be truly expected of you specifically (and maybe not even then).  Some programs even go so far as to hold events with titles like “Life After the MFA,” during which a panel of survivors either perpetuate or crush delusions of grandeur.

“The world is ugly, / And the people are sad,” Wallace Stevens writes.  It is ugly.  The people are sad.  How clarifying, then, to remember what the world is and then go from there, because, isn’t the condition of the world and our condition in the world why (if there is a why) any of us are trying to write in the first place?

Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others.  He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase.  A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also.  He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white.  It was his wife.  She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something.  Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also.  But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.
Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

Life consists of propositions about life.

—Wallace Stevens

I.

A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.

Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.

At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep.  The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.

That is, believe me, the easy part.

II.

Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate.  He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor.  A corresponding buzz would sound.  But nothing happened.  The gate, unwavering, would not open.

The student would have, then, three options:

1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.

2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.

3) Run.

3a) Away.

III.

Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.  To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later.  ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’  Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

(Let me interrupt for a moment.  This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry.  The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)

Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto.  But take note: I am powerful.  And I am only the least of the doorkeepers.  From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.  The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’

(Ok, sure.  This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker.  But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….

(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)

IV.

I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.

This is how we’d work it:

1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.

2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.

3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.

4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.

5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.

6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.

7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.

V.  Intermission

The Gate

by Marie Howe

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

VI. Sentimental Ending

Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings.  This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself.  That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong.  That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.

(Disclaimer:  Ok, yes.  This is a post about pens.  But bear with me—I actually do have an idea here.)

I found my favorite pen at home—my mother’s house in Northern Virginia.  The townhouse is a small one, and is filled with thirteen years worth of the kind of stuff a family with an inclination toward a breed of boredom that stems from a general suspicion that life is meaningless accumulates when it stays in one place for long enough:

Construction paper, watercolor paper, canvases, palettes, coloring books, markers, crayons, colored pencils, pastels, gauche, acrylics, water-soluble oils, oils.  A flute, a piccolo, three recorders, an Irish penny whistle, a Jew’s harp, a harmonica, a kazoo or two, an old guitar.  Knitting projects, beading projects, thread, needles, needlepoint, thimbles, embroidery floss of all colors, clay.  Two chessboards, Scrabble, Perquacky, Yahtzee, Sorry, Past Lives, Life.

The house is also full of exhausted pens.  It usually takes three or four trial runs on scrap paper to find a pen that still contains some ink.  (Maybe throwing away an empty pen, for my family, seems a gesture rife with symbolism, a gesture of giving up?)  The working pen I happened to find and accidentally adopt, tossing it in my bag on one of my visits there before heading back to New York, reads in white lettering on a translucent dark green casing: ADAMS-GREEN FUNERAL HOME AND CREMATORY, with an address, phone number and website.

It’s only held favorite status recently.  I’d reach into my bottomless tote, scrounging as always, and pull any one of the writing implements out, but I started to notice that when I’d pull out this pen, with the translucent green casing and the silver tip, something in me would exclaim, “You!” and I’d find myself grinning.  And then again, I’d reach in, and, “Ah ha!  There you are!”  And, “Bonjour! Adams-Green!”  And, “A.G.!  You little vixen, you!”

I like it because it reminds me:  Write something down because you are going to die.

This might seem like an unnecessary amount of pressure to put on oneself, especially if the writing implement is being used to write something like—I’m reaching for the nearest mini post-it pad as we speak—“Bob wanted to play Yahtzee & eat oatmeal cookies.”  But this note matters.  I don’t know how or why just yet, but I feel it does.

In “Body and Soul,” from A Short History of the Shadow, Charles Wright writes, “Write as though you had in hand the last pencil on earth.”  Right.  Right?  Right.

It’s important not to lose sight of this:  That what is written, even if no one reads it, is important, that there isn’t really any time to waste, that if you have something to say—even if it’s “Bob wanted to play Yahtzee and eat oatmeal cookies”—say what you came here to say, and try to be honest.

PROFESSOR: Mary Ann, would you mind reading your poem aloud so that we can hear it in your own voice?

MARY ANN: Absolutely.  Ahem.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
SHAFT!
Ya damn right!

Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
SHAFT!
Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
SHAFT!
Right On!

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.
THEN WE CAN DIG IT!

He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
JOHN SHAFT!

PROFESSOR: Thank you, Mary Ann.  Ok, class, let’s start with the things we like.  Then we’ll move on to the things we think could be improved.

[Long pause.]

AMERICAN STUDIES MAJOR [pensively]: I really appreciate how the poem argues with itself, even contradicts itself—“If I contradict myself,” it seems to echo Whitman, “I contradict myself.”  In fact, I find a lot of parallels between the chief persona in this poem and the Whitman/ Emerson/ Thoreau American Transcendentalist milieu, if you will.  This man, this John Shaft, I think we can all agree, would not exist without Emerson’s tenets so formidably outlined in “Self-Reliance,” am I right?  Am I right?  [Flashes a toothy white smile toward Romanticist.]

ROMANTICIST: [giggles]

[Modernist glares at Romanticist.]

SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) MAJOR: I disagree.  I think the most provoking contradiction in this piece is when the speaker asserts that Shaft is a ‘bad mother.’  This bends all our preconceptions of male/female roles in a domestic space.  That is the main dialectic at work here, not the juxtaposition of popularity versus existential alienation.

MODERNIST: Really?  So you’re saying that one gender-bending line overshadows the obvious post-modern Prufrockian slant in the entire piece?  I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that when the speaker asserts that no one understands Shaft but his woman, the speaker is being ironic, using indirect discourse to suggest that this is what Shaft has to tell his woman to assuage her concerns regarding her insecurities as a lover.

ROMANTICIST: [gasps, incredulous]

[Modernist glares at her.]

SWAG MAJOR: Um…well, considering where the line comes in the piece…

ROMANTICIST: Well, I for one don’t think [air quotes] His Woman [air quotes] is [air quotes] insecure [air quotes] about her abilities as a [air quotes] lover [air quotes] at all!  I mean, Mary Ann says—

PROFESSOR: The speaker says….

ROMANTICIST: [air quotes] The speaker says [air quotes] that John is a bad mother—can’t we consider what this means in terms of what kind of man John really is?  Mother…mother-love…lover…bad mother/bad lover…bad mother lover…bad mother-fuc…

SWAG MAJOR [continuing]: …the line is clearly the poem’s volta—yes, I would say this is the crux of the entire poem.  And I think it’s unfair to assume that Shaft is the most secure lover just because he’s male.  I mean, if that were the case, why all the verbal overcompensation in the poem?

ROMANTICIST: Exactly.  That’s what I was [air quotes] saying [air quotes].

SYSTEMS ENGINEERING MAJOR [louder than necessary]: See, I read that line, line 13 differently; it seems to be street slang that is then cut off by the secondary voice—or voices—that bring the refrain in each quatrain, those responsible for the majusculated expostulation, “SHAFT!” and the like.  I feel quite strongly, given the way Mary Ann read her piece, that “mother” is part of a longer phrase that undergoes interruption by the voices of the refrain.  This is why it is absolutely imperative that this issue of punctuation be fixed, and the problem can be remedied quite easily by “mother” being followed by an em-dash.

CLASSICS MAJOR: I mean, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty obvious that the secondary voices interacting with the primary lyricist compose the chorus of the piece, yes?  I think Mary Ann need be praised for reinventing this age-old tradition in an entirely fresh way.

MARY ANN: Thank you.

PROFESSOR: Ok, before we move on, any last comments?

ROMANTICIST: Well, I just want to praise the quite visceral interjection we get in the end—[air quotes] “John!” [air quotes] Mary Ann—excuse me—[air quotes] the speaker [air quotes]—cries out.  [air quotes] “John Shaft!” [air quotes], as though, before, we the readers, as well as the populace of the poem, did not know this impervious persona—never really knew him—until this ultimate line, coming after the penultimate, which is also incredibly moving.  Who can possibly understand this [air quotes] “complicated man?” [air quotes]  [air quotes] “No one understands him but his woman.”  [air quotes] [Looks imploringly at Modernist.  Trembles.] No one!  [air quotes] [Weeps.]  [Flees classroom.]

[Long pause]

SLOW IRONIC HIPSTER GUY [to no one in particular]: Hey, ya know what?  I think I’ve—yeah, I’ve definitely heard this somewhere before….

1) Read the following poem by James Wright:

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

2) Extricate yourself from the puddle of tears into which you have crumbled.

3) Can you think of another poem that uses a word like “therefore” as brilliantly as this one does?