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Ariana Nadia Nash is a poet of the body, like Neruda, like Whitman, but her poems do not move with Neruda’s desire-driven caprice, nor do they swell with Whitman’s electric and expansive equation of body and soul. Rather, they proceed with the structured precision of a surgeon (the title of her prize-winning collection is revealing in this regard: Instructions for Preparing Your Skin).

The first poem below, “To Hold the Body in My Hand,” begins with: “I peel back my skin and scoop.” From there it carefully probes down the page in measured lines that one can’t help but read softly and slowly–an effect of the low enjambment and elaborative syntax (Scoop what? “The origins out of my self.” Like what? “Like embryonic papaya seeds.” From where? “From the center of the fruit”).

The relationship with the body in this poem is recursive and seemingly paradoxical: one can both be and have a body, and for a body to fulfill its purpose, it must be exposed, it must rot. I am reminded of a stanza from Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewel,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

Nash’s poem “Unnamed” takes the idea of holding the body to a more literal level: holding a child, which is both a piece of and a continuation of one’s own body. Again the paradox: the releasing of this body (bluntly, infanticide) is not something that can be released. Again, the recursive turn. In these poems, Nash invites us to feed upon our own bodies, to savor our rotting, and in so doing, to glimpse our own “progenitive seed.”

To Hold the Body in My Hand

I peel back my skin and scoop
the origins out of myself
like embryonic papaya seeds
from the center of the fruit.
No different than
the condensation of sky
into rain, the moss-crept
stone house, the compost—

bodies everywhere exposed
to their own being.

The same rainbow-grey
of fish-scales, the shriveled
density of cloves—I am inside
out and desiccating, everywhere
expanding with scent.

This the carious flesh, I say,
this the progenitive seed.

Unnamed

I should have used
a burlap sack and weighed it down
with rocks but her skin was so soft
and the cloth harsh
and bristly Wrinkled mouths whispered
while I was swelling
that I should burn her (if she was
a her) as a sacrifice
but I didn’t
want her in flecks of ash
and wisps Now I almost wish I had
left her swaddled by the road But
no one else would take her and
as I stirred soup and let it steam
I would have heard her cry as she slowly
starved to death
and that would have reminded me
if she died
this way I saved her
from nothing She would call
my blood to my skin across the distance
bruising me rotten What I’ve done
instead though was too cruel to me
It comes to me this night again—
holding her under clear water
holding her until
her limbs shuddered and fell limp
and I smiled so the last
sight she ever saw
was her mother’s face sweetly
waving through the water

________________________________________________________
Ariana Nadia Nash is the winner of the 2011 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her collection Instructions for Preparing Your Skin (Anhinga Press, 2012). She is also the author of the chapbook Our Blood Is Singing (Damask Press, 2011). She is a recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and a MacDowell Colony residency. Her work has been published in Rock & Sling, Poet Lore, Cimarron Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Southeast Review, among other journals.

Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:

I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.

In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.

I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”

Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.

Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.

Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.

In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.

To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.

I first encountered Mark Leidner’s poems on Apostrophe Cast in 2007. Those early poems struck me for how they treated absurd corners of cultural ephemera with the utmost seriousness, and in a vernacular language that seamlessly ascended to momentary heights of poetic beauty. And Leidner read them in an incredibly patient and affectless voice. The overall effect: hilarity and existential wonder.

 

Those poems matured into the material in Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me, often becoming more expansive. The first four poems below feel like an evolution in the opposite direction: Leidner distilled. So much complexity is achieved in the interplay of title and poem, where every word counts.

 

The last poem, “Little Children Riding Dogs,” calls back most to the early work in the wonderful flatness of lines like “also I had this idea” and in its insistence on proceeding with the syntactic “and then” drive of a child’s narrative. The poem is exactly as long as it needs to be (a simple compliment, but, I think, hard to achieve for many poets). Its scope and pacing are designed to give breathing room for its content, for Leidner is a poet who can’t help but linger on beauty, and he finds it in the most prosaic phrasings, the simplest ideas. And of course, by the end of the poem, the lingering itself becomes something beautiful to admire. The thought that we thought that thought to begin with. I recommend reading these poems to yourself in a slow, methodical fashion, 3 or 4 times. Don’t be surprised if they take residence in your skull.

 
 
Love

A cardboard sign
climbing through
thunder-

clouds
on the bumper
of a flying

car
that reads
‘tag applied for.’
 
 
 
Manuscript

Slain
love

breathing
dragons.
 
 
 
Human Nature

How large
how well
a perfume

that smelled
like wind
would look

blowing through
the hair
of suffragettes

would sell
looms.
 
 
 
Reading

Biting in-
to a mirror

plated apple.
Finding out

the apple is
mirror all

the way to the core.
 
 
 
Little Children Riding Dogs

I love the idea of children riding dogs so much
to think of how they’d dress them
I want to be a kid again
and ride my dog to elementary school Bucko!
Charley! Rex! Socrates!
and dismount at the school
and send the dog home
also I had this idea
if all the children rode their dogs to school
when they got there at dawn they’d tell their dogs sit
and the dogs would just sit there
all day in the sun
with the shadow of the flagpole like a clock
while inside the children learn
until the bell rings and they burst out of the school
and mount their dogs and ride them home
and some of them get home at dusk
that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever thought.
 
 
________________________________
Mark Leidner is the author of Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press, 2011). @markleidner

I thought since I had to witness a whole bunch of snotty poets dissect the working class poets (or lack thereof) on a thread today, I’d have some fun and brand them as they brand folks like me.

First this is the general gist of what they inferred. All white working class people have disappeared. We don’t really exist and so must be represented by Philip Levine and James Wright–two men who didn’t spend as much time in the factory as they spent teaching at leading universities. They wrote about working class people. We were interesting back in the day. We had clout because class and fashionable communism (not the real thing, but the kind you embrace when you take a theory class) prevailed. Now all we got is the “white working poor,” and we all know those fuckers just show up in photos of fat asses in the people of Wal-Mart and as extras in movies that prove it was working class whites who lynched all the black folks, and the rich white elites tried really hard (they really, really did) to stop them Yeah, Sure. Right.

If every upper middle class southern novelist’s family had been as “different” as they are in the novels, there never would have been Jim Crow. So myth number one: working class white folks no longer exist and that’s a good thing because they lynched all the colored folks while upper middle class whites sang Joan Baez songs and went on secret life saving missions with their black maids to the poor side of town. Uh huh…. Fucking spare me. Now only poor working whites exist and that’s a bad thing because they’re really stupid, have fat asses, and vote Republican, and we all know what that means: they must be sterilized.

My own branding iron on artsy white folks: the first thing artsy white people check out are your clothes, your weight, and your shoes. The next thing they check out is what program you were in and who you studied with. Then they check out where you were published. If it’s a rainy day, and they’re bored, they may even check out what you actually wrote (to make sure its what they write, only different–different in the same way).

Artsy white folks call themselves foodies then waste 60 percent of the shit on their plate. Al dente is misapplied to everything. Everything is almost raw. This allows them to think they are cooking things the right way and showing off their good teeth, yet not eating much because all the chewing tires them out and reminds them they need to up their anti-depressants. Upper middle class white artsy folks do not like soft foods. They like crunch and bite, and things you have to chew for hours. They like soup, but only if its “comfort food.” Artsy white folks use comfort food, the phrase, the way pool players call a safety when they have no shot: it absolves them from being branded working poor. When I eat macaroni and cheese among artsy white folks I say: “I’ve had it rough lately. Time for some comfort food.” It doesn’t work for me because I’m husky and I never order anything I have to chew for more than four seconds. I also don’t wear the right pants.

Artsy white folks still hang out with people who fucked and dumped them and gave head to their best friend. This allows them to feel bitter indefinitely, and say sarcastic, bitter things while pretending they are mature and above holding a grudge. This also allows them to feel that they have real and important issues. Artsy white folks “grow apart.” They “move forward.” They “let go.” For some reason they use some of the same terms in romances as they do in business meetings.

Artsy white folks all try to look like William Hurt or the older Jessica Lange if they are over forty. If they are in their thirties, they all try to look a little like a cross between Natalie Portman and Kathleen Keener. If they are really artsy, they all look like Katherine Hepburn playing Joan of Arc in 400 dollar jeans (both the men and the women). There is always someone who looks like Catherine Keener among their friends, and this person is always mean and funny. Artsy white folks keep a rich supply of mean and funny people around them at all times. These used to be their gay or bi friends, but then they realized this was stereotyping, so now all their gay friends are happily married men or women who wear expensive Irish sweaters and really “grock them.” Mark Doty is always on their book shelves. Artsy white folks know enough not to listen to Pachelbel (though they have hidden him somewhere in the house with the one pack of cigs, and the can of beefaroni). They listen to Philip Glass instead, and, sometimes, even John Zorn. They go to Lyle Lovett concerts even if they never listen to country music. They want the whole country to be Brooklyn, Portland, or Austin, Texas. All artsy white folks eventually live in one of those three places. If they can’t, they live in Jersey City or in Nashville.

All artsy white folks can get really conflicted when the cashier says: Plastic or paper? They have different strategies for dealing with it. Some get haughty and say:”you must be joking,” And then hope the cashier gives them plastic. Others say paper and don’t really mean it. Still others look around quickly, say plastic and live with their decision. If they ever shop at Wal-Mart, they wear a disguise, do it in the dead of night, and make amends the next day by walking in the breast cancer or gay pride parade. They are all green conscious people who lived in the suburbs which destroyed the woods and created the fossil fuel emissions problem. Now, because they said oops and want to solve it, they all think they dance with wolves.They moved back to the cities because they realized the suburbs were a cultural desert and unsustainable. You’ll know when artsy white folks are moving back to your urban neighborhood because both the rents and the police presence goes up and everything starts to resemble a slightly cooler version of White Plains, New York.

Artsy white people might even be amused by this post if they feel superior to me (they do, and I agree with them) They know they are the exception. Artsy white people are always the exception. They hate cops and lawyers and the industrial military complex though they are usually involved in some form of litigation and feel “violated” when someone steals from them, and they do nothing to stop the poor from fighting wars for them. They love equating getting ripped off with being violated. They hate cops even though they are likely to call them first, and they deplore racial profiling, yet count any art house immediately to make sure there is enough of a sprinkling of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and cool white people to be worthy of their presence. They are always lauding people of color yet somehow manage to end up with each other–deploring those unenlightened working class whites and Republicans who give whites a bad name. Along with corporate Republicans, they rule the world, but feel really, really bad about it…you understand? After all some day we will all be living in Agamben’s post-identity community and none of this will matter. An artsy white person who likes you can always be trusted to take you to the “real Mexican restaurant.” That’s one of the things I like about them. Artsy white people are all knowing, and always know the real Mexican restaurant. They always know what’s real. After all, they invented it.

I have always admired how Jay Thompson’s poems approach meaning by backing away from it, inhabiting that paradox of quantum observation, that one’s gaze affects reality. In this excerpt from Winter, it is not the superfice, but the essence that is mutable: “day to day only essences change”. A counter-intuitive statement, which perhaps makes more sense if one conflates appearance with essence in an act of reduction, a refusal of the platonic, an offering of respect for each individual thing. Jay Thompson’s metaphysics is not that of Robert Hass, where “each particular erases / the luminous clarity of a general idea,” where the presence of something unique is a “tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light.” In Thompson’s conception, there are as many essences as there are things and so the act of observation takes on a kind of sacred eros: “how long / since looking on a thing felt / like a perfection of desire”. Thompson refuses to master the things he observes, to subjugate them to meaning. And yet, we are met with phrases like “unborn factory pigs,” “the sunset’s medical bankruptcy,” and “paper blood,” which complicate these poems. They are half-seen intrusions from a world of political and social consciousness, but they do not impose meaning on the observational subjects of his poems. Rather, they reveal that even a choice as small as the poet’s when he chooses what to observe, be it his toddler or the tree out his window, has grand implications for our fraught lives.

Five poems from Winter
 

unborn factory pigs
queue at the gates of life
a thin moon sees
my toddler talk to his sister
the spider
my bitter and shiftless spirit came
before the bad world
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
another November I still
haven’t learned the tree out
my window’s name
its achey
paint-well yellow how long
since looking on a thing felt
like a perfection of desire
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
day to day only essences change
this is the same homey tone of skin
same plain-blown blossoms
I’ve been living
where voluptuous weeds
bloom to swallow the money
and stunt the white-collar skill set
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Mark I’m not coming downstairs
but I love you and agree to
debase myself and my sense of time
the billboard deadheads its basil brother
the sunset’s medical bankruptcy
forgets my conscientious
spending of paper blood
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
he asks who killed me but I stay silent
my child’s child’s child
alert in the mulberry and shelves of coral
frightens me
his small laughter makes me sick
you’re waiting for me to make this a story about mastery and meaning
but I won’t
 
 

______________________
Jay Thompson
teaches poetry to women incarcerated at King County Jail, co-edits the journal Thermos, and plays guitar in Princess Seismograph. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

First tree I met yesterday turned out to be a black cherry–a friend I remembered from working at National Tool and Manufacturing. We had one on the fence border of the factory. Black cherries, originally a tree of the deep forest thickets, loves sunlight, and is what they call a pioneer tree: it will grow with black walnuts and other such sun loving trees on the borders of farms, or old orchards, and on the outer areas of thickets. It’s a late bloomer (flowering as late as June) and its bark which has been described as resembling thick charred corn flakes, and the rather tortuous path of its branches makes it look like a tree struck down by lightning–burnt to a crisp.

In winter location and bark is the best way to identify it. No farmer would purposefully plant it as a windbreak so the young trees with their smooth more typically cherry tree like bark are seldom seen. What you’re likely to see is a tree of a hundred years or more. There’s a reason farmers don’t always like them: their leaves contain the chief agent used in making cyanide (as do the seeds) and they can poison cattle. The reason you find them on the borders of farms is because, in their younger days, their bark is very similar to normal cherries or other desirable windbreak trees. They sometimes grow too thick to be fully cut down. The outer trees remain. Because they are a pioneer, they’ll also grow with Beech and other trees that are the first to move into a burned area of woods.

What I like best about black cherries is how ugly they are, how fully without life or merit they seem until flowering in June. They look charred and their branches go willy-nilly in search of the light. Sometimes they have blisters and boils and large humps. When they do leaf and flower their fragrance rivals the smell of lilacs and Linden trees. I used to go over to the black cherry at lunch time when it flowered and take in the scent, try to carry it back with me into the plant. Even had a poem about it, about Esau and his brothers.

At any rate, the twigs smell of almonds if broken off. The fruits are tart but retain some sweetness and they are now finding out these sour cherries are super foods, containing the highest levels of anti-oxidants. This is one tree I would definitely tell my kids not to swallow the seeds of (no one wants a kid to take in cyanide, no matter how low the dosage). Birds do, and that’s often how black cherry travels–by the process of “Scarification” (carried in the shit of birds).

So this is a tree that looks like shit, and whose seeds are carried in shit and yet its timber is the cherry wood used for making the most expensive cabinets, its fruits contain super amounts of antioxidants. The flowers have an amazing fragrance. It’s a very poetic tree insofar as its value, like the value of poetry, is not readily available. To see it in winter is to see a, charred, dead looking thing with equally dead vines and wild grape leaves still clinging to it. My kind of tree!

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?

2.

Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.

4.

So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?

5.

See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

6.

“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”

7.

Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)

Sources

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

From Chris: Mark Conway’s poems refuse to sit still, even when, or perhaps especially when talking about stillness. The double colons and forward slashes that punctuate these lines seem to me to operate like the stutter or dip of a manual transmission shifting into higher gear, propelling the poem forward. The poem below is about memory (and a particular memory) and how it remains kinetic within its stasis “in the time of the mind,” which shares the mutability of dreams, where rain becomes silk and silk, skin, where the brain is a “pulsing / pink worm that pulls in / all it sees.” In some sense, this poem is playing on loop, and I think you might do well to read it that way.

in the orchard

*

in the time of the mind
memories fall
like regimes ::
lamplights glance off the streets of the lost districts / varnished
by epochs of rain
remember it all / so / vivid
and dim
remember _____the night
when rain turned
to silk and the silk changed to skin
in the shank of the orchard
just the width
of a soul?
rumors of futures were blown down
like clouds dripping
from trees;
we stayed and lived –
for a while –
still as a house

**

or start instead –
later / after
the fall – the snow studded
with starlings and half-
rotted fruit –
the slick floor of the orchard seethed
with fog wrung
from the snow:
the child was there / the one
to unfold – inside
the red raincoat –
with two telling buttons left open…
we know she’ll appear /
stunned / when the apples turn green
when the snows turn to mist
arrayed in the white
flesh of the meat / riveted in
by black polished seeds –
ultra-trees of trees reduced
to the size of a fist:
orchard come down

***

remember with skin – with the back
of your hand greasy
as sin_____ remember
the snow: the blank
and the roar
the field erased by looking
too deep
remember_____with the hole
in your head / stuffed
with whipped cream and wood /
home to the brain – the pulsing
pink worm that pulls in
all it sees and excretes
what it dreams : : remember
your skin when it took in the breath
of the tree / wheezing
in spring / exhaling white petals
and the boys at the quarry
who tore the girl’s
clothes as she swam / who tore
the girl’s eyes as she gurgled
and choked
remember her eyes
looking at you

****

forget the girl
at the slag-hole /
the girl made of stone and black waves –
look instead at the child
through the holes
in your face / lie through
your eyes down into
her head
say it’s not you
who needs
to take it all back
it’s not you who pulled
the girl down
as she strangled and
churned / say
what you say: it’s never
been you

_________________________________________
Mark Conway is currently completing a third book of poems with the working title in the infinite head of wheat. Other poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Slate, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review Online, Iowa Review, Boston Review and Bomb.

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

From Chris: Richard Armstrong’s poems attempt to say smart things in dumb ways, to slip under the intellectual scrutiny practiced poetry readers bring to bear on unfamiliar work. I am continually surprised by how he is able to create an emotive impact through sloganeering, through the melding of bro-speak, blue-collar imagery, street slang, and archaic capital-R Romantic posturing. Next level shit.

Usual Resistance

Business was business and required
only what was required of us.

The tongue found the groove
and we found the joys of immobility

wearing on us like a condom on a flaccid cock.
Still, carefree was the way to be

then, amongst the birch-trees and the lunch-trucks.
We moved our product. We towed the hotlines…

Buffoons with experience assailed us
with application forms and drug-urine.

We did what we could to keep doing what we could.
Like that day

in ’98, when the leader of the local 149
pulled the fence back

and all we did was stare
through that man-sized gash in the chain-link.

Sub-Sexual Proctor

I imagine Full Beauty to be the most sudden
of all stops—
the whole world’s movements gathered

into an impossible solidity:
the perfect stillness of total kinesis.

To put sex into a poem is to take a bold but calculated risk.
Like emailing naked photos of yourself to everyone on your contact list.

But to put love into this world is not a risk;
rather it’s a something, like something something…

_______________________________
Richard C. Armstrong III lives in Seattle where he earned his B.A. in Literature from the University of Washington. He works as a home designer and is the culture editor at hirschworth.com. His poems have appeared in such publications as the Cortland Review, and Mare Nostrum.

All the hipsters are making their aggravating lists made of poets from Brooklyn and Amherst with good haircuts, trust funds and irony. Lists where the majority of poets have one book and slept with the writer of the list. I have nothing against poets sleeping with each other but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good list. In an age of truly remarkable work these lists are full of too many gutless poems made of flippant language that make one big metaphorical turn near the end and we are supposed to go ooooh and ahhhhh. Many of these poems show the shallow influence of a poet like Dorothea Lasky but without her wit and ability to create a voice of endearment. They want to be Lasky, but the young poets don’t have her talent. All they have is a Brooklyn address, connections, and great internet savvy. Oh and an MFA. And ironically their ironic poems are DISEMBODIED and RHETORICAL in the worst way. These lists are aggravating, full of poems of the moment, books that will soon fade into youthful oblivion but in a year when some of the best books I have read in my life, books that can sustain a person for decades and not lose their relevance have been published, collections by some of our grand masters and some young sharp guns from the outer edges, I want to offer some poets I have not seen on any list floating online despite some of them winning big awards or garnering academic notice this year:

Whether first books, second books, and career collections, what these books share is a commitment to make a poem that— even if linguistically playful, still has a commitment to speaking to this world, and the idea and importance of experience and identity (such a dirty word to the hipsters, played out they say, how passé’ they say) and how we negotiate both in this difficult world. They all share some commitment to negotiate the body through lived space, and language. Perhaps pulled in so many directions by the confusion of late Capitalism, by the disconnect of technology, our best poets are reclaiming the body and lived experience and space? In the corrupt spirit of these lists I also tried to choose poets that I actually knew, since it seems that is what you are supposed to do with a list. Though I failed here in not really knowing everyone on my list. And sadly I failed again: I did not sleep with any of them.

~

These are serious books. I sometimes wonder if the young poets still know how to make “serious” art, but then I read The Backlit Hour by young Jose Antonio Rodriquez and I know they are more than capable. This book is western, political, and deals with the conflicts of gender, class, race, and power through story and lyricism. If only more young poets had such bravery. Another poet with such bravery is Corey Zeller whose book Man Vs. Sky offers us a series of poems in the voice of his friend who committed suicide. In a year of many books of such grievous loss this original voice and point of view stands out. And other young poet is Cody Todd whose book Graffiti Signatures is such a experimental gem. A hip hop DJ and graffiti artist, an old B Boy from Denver, Todd combines his knowledge of experimental poetics with the street and structure of the turn table. I know that after her death the grand tome of Lucille Clifton will help many people to live and understand the terror and joy of our country. Roger Bonair-Agard offers us a book both streetwise and worldly, one that unflinchingly crosses borders. Charles Fort’s Selected Poems brings together one of our most important and under praised African-American poets and prose poets who tackles issues of race, love and form. Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems brings us together one of our master New York School lyricists. Ron Padgett has always been my favorite NYC poet, and one who has that rare ability in poets, to express JOY. I always grieved he was far in the shadow of John Ashbury as I found Padgett’s work far more engaging and …. And well true. Jillian Weise presents a book that reads as a 21st century book, full of slips and slight moves of lyricism while maintaining an interrogation of the body’s role in Being. Yona Harvey first book Hemming Water brings us a long awaited book that pushes sound and music into fragments only the body and history can hold and by doing so sustain us. Another great first book is Mathew Olzmann’s Mezzanine, a book of remarkable range and metaphor whose interrogation of Spaces evokes for me memories of the French theorist Batchelard in the best way. Joe Weil’s auspicious Selected Poems gathers his many poems from the small press into one beautiful tome. It covers the territory of cities, the self suffering, the idea of the other, of labor and loss, in a manner both tragic and comic rarely found in American poetry. Mary Biddinger’s edgy O Holy Insurgency, continues her project of exploring the body, the spirit, and the beautiful wreckage of the things and moments of our lives. Lastly, Jennifer Militello’s second book Body Thesaurus firmly presents herself as a quiet heir to the Lorcan tradition, a poetics of lyricism and emotion and dare I say duende. There are thoroughly fierce books, often political, the kind of books that Milosz wrote “can save nations” if we will only listen. Buy them.

GRAND MASTER SENSEIS

Lucille Clifton The Collected Poems 1965-2010 BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/the-collected-poems-of-lucille-clifton.html

Ron Padgett Collected Poems Coffeehouse Press

http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/collected-poems/

Charles Fort We Did Not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems Red Hen Press

http://redhen.org/book/?uuid=35FD4A0F-6C64-2656-C499-99E8419A08DB

Joe Weil The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems NYQ Books

http://books.nyq.org/title/greatgrandmotherlight

SECOND (or THIRD) BOOK ASSASINS

Jennifer Militello Body Thesaurus Tupelo Books

http://www.tupelopress.org/books/body_thesaurus

Bury my Clothes Roger Bonair-Agard Haymarket Books

http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2013_p_bonair_agard.html#.UrLegdJDsYE

Jillian Weise The Book of Goodbyes BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/catalog/product/view/id/944/

Jose Antonio Rodriguez Backlit Hour Stephen F. Austin University Press

http://www.powells.com/biblio/71-9781622880041-0

Mary Biddinger O Holy Urgency Black Lawrence Press

FIRST BOOK NINJAS

Yona Harvey Hemming the Water Four Way Books

http://fourwaybooks.com/2013spring/harvey.php

Corey Zeller Man Vs. Sky Yes Yes Books

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781936919130/default.aspx

Cody Todd Graffiti Signatures Main Street Rag

http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/graffiti-signatures/

Mathew Olzmann Mezzanines Alice James Books

http://alicejamesbooks.org/ajb-titles/mezzanines/

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
Tables_by_Alfred_Corn_coverAlfred Corn, whose “La Luz Azul”/”The Blue Light” and “St. Anthony in the Desert” from his Tables (Press 53, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform his life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Alfred Corn: About a decade ago I was staying in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. It was mid-month in August.  I had come down with something and was staying indoors, in bed with a fever.  Walls were painted white.  There seemed, though, to be a sort of blue illumination that gathered in the corners of the room.  Feverish hallucination?  August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, who is associated with the color blue, the color also of the sky.  I had been impressed during my several visits to Mexico by the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who seemed to command more reverence from the people than Christ himself.  In my illness I wanted to be taken into that blue light, to be healed by it.  Those times when you are seriously ill, the thought occurs to you that you might not get well, indeed, you might die. And there is a certain kind of silence that, once heard, never becomes inaudible again. Determined to put all these sensations and feelings in words, I also decided to write the poem in Spanish.  I’d studied the language and had some practice speaking it during visits to Spain and Mexico.  Also, I’d read the major poets in Spanish and knew that hispanic meter counts syllables not accents.  I settled on nine syllables per line, even though that is not a common meter in Spanish poetry.  “La Luz azul” is the result. Though of course hispanophone friends corrected small errors.  I’d first wanted the title to be “Luz azul,” which is a palindrome, but my friends said that it didn’t sound quite right without the definite article. They were also a little doubtful about the word “asunto,” which means “subject,” “undertaking,” “matter to be taken up.”  But I left it as is because its etymological connection with the word “asunción,” “assumption,” and the poem says it was the Feast of the Assumption.  Having arrived at my Spanish text, I then set myself he task of translating it into English.  That was difficult, despite the fact that I was the author. I couldn’t bring across everything that is in the original. But I feel the result is close enough to give a general idea of the poem.

As for “Anthony in the Desert,” it was written about a decade ago when I was teaching in Oklahoma.  Familiar surroundings and friends were far away.  I had been reading a book titled The Desert Fathers, about the early hermits and monk of Egypt, and I recalled Flaubert’s play titled La Tentation de St. Antoine (“the temptation of St. Anthony”). Suddenly the idea of writing about a desert hermit became appealing, partly because you could try to describe some of the apparitions (or “temptations”) he was exposed to.  Once my early drafts began moving in the direction of the sonnet, I decided to avoid perfect rhyme and instead rhyme voiced consonants with their unvoiced counterparts.  The sound “d” is a voiced consonant, as “t” is the unvoiced equivalent. The same for “v” and “f”, and for “z” ad “s”.  I’m not aware that anyone has ever taken this approach to rhyming, and of course poets like to develop new techniques and practices.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Alfred Corn: I’ve never been certain what the distinction between “voice” (in literary terms) and “style” is.  In our time I suppose the word “voice” is used for style, possibly because it sounds less literary.  The kind of style I try for is one not too far removed from the spoken language.  I admire Milton and Hopkins, but I wouldn’t myself try to write in a special, anti-conversational mode like theirs.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Alfred Corn: I’m not sure. Many of my poems are meditative, and certainly “La Luz Azul” is.  “Anthony in the Desert” has a minimal narrative, but is essentially meditative as well. Most of my poems present a dilemma (“un asunto”?) of one sort or another and then seek some sort of resolution for it, if only acceptance. Possibly these two do that. I hope I’m answering your question.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Alfred Corn: Among the classic poets, I would mention Dante and Shakespeare.  Dante for his “architectural” skills in building an epic, and for the sense he gives that life choices have an importance that extends beyond the individual’s death. With Shakespeare, the first thing I note is that his people are plausibly individualized, not at all stock characters.  And then the way they have of speaking sublime poetry, if only in short bursts.  He is able to convey considerable knowledge of what the world is like and how people are likely to feel and behave. Many of his lines have become proverbs, quoted by people who never read him.  That in itself is a kind of poetic immortality. As for contemporary poets, there are too many to name. I think we live in a very rich time for poetry, when all sorts of approaches are being tried.  It is a rich compost out of which much that is enduring is sure to arise.

 

La Luz Azul*

San Miguel de Allende
Dia de la Asuncion

Mediodía. Ligeros velos
Transparentes del ancho cielo….

En la estancia una sombra amorfa,
Blanda, no acabada de anunciar
Ese alto silencio que jamás
Ha de callar:

_________Tan comprensiva
Como dulce, recíbeme, luz
azul, que colmas los rincones….

¿Pues, inmóvil? No, mejor fuera
Salir en busca del asunto,
La palabra del mortal piedad
Caída como una flor ardiente
Entre las piedras de la calle.

 

The Blue Light*

San Miguel de Allende
Feast of the Assumption

Twelve noon. The open sky’s transparent
Weightless veils.

In the room, a mild, amorphous
Gloom wouldn’t give up announcing
That exalted silence that will never
Again hold its peace.

_________________As comprehensive
As you are gentle, gather me in, blue
Light, you, filling up the corners….

Immobilized, then? No, better to go out
In search of assumed subject—
The word, embodied, compassionate,
Fallen like a flame-red flower
Among the street’s rough cobblestones.

*Written in Spanish by the author (previous poem) and translated into English by him as well.

 

St. Anthony in the Desert

To be filled with that hallowed emptiness
The hermit sojourns in a desert cave.
Fasting and prayer will make seclusion safe,
His daily bread, each word the Spirit says.

Chimera stirs and rears her dripping head;
A slack-skinned reptile puffs and makes a face;
Vile, harrowing nightmares shimmer through long days;
The sun beats a brass gong and will not set.

Faint shadow on cave walls, you foretell grief
Or joy, not known till whose the profile is:
Love itself may corrupt and then deceive
Its object, hiding venom in a kiss.
Anthony kneels, embraces his fierce lot,
And hears: Be still, and know that I am God.

________________________________________________
Alfred Corn has published eight previous books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions. He has also published a novel, titled Part of His Story; two collections of essays; and The Poem’s Heartbeat, a study of prosody. Fellowships for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. Poetry magazine awarded him the Levinson, Blumenthal, and Dillon prizes. He has taught writing at Yale, Columbia, Oklahoma State University, and UCLA. Since 2005, he has spent part of every year in the U.K., and Pentameters Theatre in London staged his play Lowell’s Bedlam in the spring of 2011. In 2012, he was a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, preparing a translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. His first ebook, Transatlantic Bridge: A Concise Guide to the Differences between British and American English, was published in 2012. Unions, a new volume of poems, is forthcoming in March of 2014. When in the U.S., he lives in Hopkinton, Rhode Island (alfredcorn.org).

 

 

On the thirteenth day of Christmas, your true love returns the partridge in a pear tree,
buys cashmere, hires the Cajun she’s philandering to murder you. No two turtle doves
coo alike. No two entertain you so, nightly, before dawn enters. No three French hens
sleep as sensitive as you. Anyhoo, his orders are to corner you before four calling birds
can dial 911, a feat they’re trained to accomplish in seconds. You see five golden rings
emerge from a sink of dishwashing soap. Your marital status makes six geese a laying
seem like six geese not getting laid. You try personalizing all seven swans a swimming –
still can’t tell why they tread in unison.  You’d file Chapter 7 if eight maids a milking
didn’t churn enough product to fill every cereal bowl in town. All your nine pipers piping
produce is hemoglobin and ash. The cost of replacing leotards for your ten ladies dancing
staggers Art, your lawyer/krump dancer. He intends to defend your eleven lords a leaping
as soon as they settle down. A soundproof shed holds your twelve drummers drumming.

It snows Wednesday. The Cajun plans to shiv you Friday while your six geese a laying
honk in despair. Your true love orders him to retrieve the twelve drummers drumming
that she may enlist their aid on private karaokes of herself doing Cher, five golden rings
coiled like an asp in Wisteria around her waist. She desires your eleven lords a leaping
to make an appearance in a music video. By the way, your true love is four calling birds
short a singing voice. Ice Caps can melt before you give up lords, or ten ladies dancing
for that matter. Art’s stopping over later with ballyhoo, mahi-mahi. Nine pipers piping,
nitrogen oxide aside, do toss a mean garden salad. You would marinade two turtle doves
for the main course, but it offends the two already living with you. Eight maids a milking
whip up vanilla shakes. Your confidant Wes, living the life of a partridge in a pear tree
on a fortieth floor, brings dessert. “Wes, please ignore these seven swans a swimming

and welcome.” Wes cares nothing for swans — says, “good lamb, do ten ladies dancing
perform topless?” 56: the hypothetical maximum egg-clutch of seven swans a swimming,
all female.  (You checked the sexes). Art arrived an hour late. Your four calling birds
gave him the wrong apartment number.  Athena saved Perdix: a partridge in a pear tree,
after Uncle Daedalus pushed him off a cliff. Art mock-dispositions eleven lords a leaping.
Wes says, “you sure seem calm for somebody about to perish.” Eight maids a milking
add cherries to the shakes and serve. “Wes, this morning I witnessed five golden rings
emerge from a sink of dishwashing soap. I felt like an apostle.” Your two turtle doves
play a game of freeze tag on the balcony. “I can manage my twelve drummers drumming
all week without going pagan/postal, I think I can handle my death.” Nine pipers piping
light Wes a clove before you say drive safe. All night you dream of your six geese a laying
brick inside your sepulcher-shaped bathtub. The sole commiserate: three French hens.

It snows Thursday. Your mail is late, but so what. Tomorrow, your eight maids a milking
will be jacking cow nipples for somebody else. You’ll be dead, and those three French hens
who seemed so concerned in dream will be pecking your nose raw. Eleven lords a leaping
might be victims de facto. The Cajun doesn’t warm to dancing men or six geese a laying.
Tomorrow, he will celebrate your death with the refund from your partridge in a pear tree.
Why does going for a little walk mean spending money in true love? Nine pipers piping

stink less than this situation. The postman arrives as if stamped. Your four calling birds
dictate your bills. Impending doom makes you languid. Of twelve drummers drumming,
twelve stayed. The bassists heard your true love pays, made like seven swans a swimming
for her sound studio. Normally, holiday gifts are of no consequence, but two turtle doves
and things of this ilk grow on you like roller coasters or manslaughter. Ten ladies dancing
do not perform topless. Half of them are engaged. Look to their fingers: five golden rings.

Now is the hour to say what needs to be said. The heart is more than nine pipers piping
blood to organs you’ll never see unless you’re a surgeon or a maniac. A five golden ring-
around-the-collar is no justification to suckle a Cajun’s penis. Partridge in a pear tree
sounds like an Uncle Tupelo song, but it isn’t. What is marriage? Are ten ladies dancing
nothing more than twenty legs a moving to basic rhythm? What does six geese a laying
prove? They aren’t proving reproductivity. You can’t imagine a heaven: two turtle doves
feeding you stir-fried rice from beak to mouth. A blue trampoline. Eleven lords a leaping
into grape vats. Art hanging from a leaf, cross-examining them. Seven swans a swimming
setting a record for the 500-meter freestyle. Paint-ball wars between three French hens
and three Spanish chickens. Max Roach denouncing the twelve drummers drumming
in front of Saint Paul. What is marriage? A polygamist requires eight maids a milking,
a multiple-furrow plow. You require a mate who doesn’t flap away like four calling birds

when she finds you meditating naked. There comes a point when your two turtle doves
wish they were test canaries. Likewise, there comes a larger point in every man’s life
when the best idea is to give up, but so long as three French hens or six geese a laying
urinate throughout your apartment, that point has yet to evolve. Eight maids a milking
sing a glorious song concerning varying degrees of love and fatigue. Ten ladies dancing,
or five rather, agree to shimmy bottomless in hopes the twelve drummers drumming
might stop pan-beating long enough to take notice. There is one partridge in a pear tree
advertised on ebay. At breakfast, you considered bidding, until the three French hens
reminded you it’s Friday and time to expire, like an image from Hamlet. Five golden rings
appear in a glass of pulpless OJ.  There are varying degrees of seven swans a swimming
and love and fatigue, but of murder? There are no healthy murders or nine pipers piping,
you decide. A samurai or the U.S. State Department may disagree. Eleven lords a leaping

lose five pounds each day. Wes visits around brunch. Five of twelve drummers drumming
offer him gin, but he abhors juniper berries during the fiscal year. “Eleven lords a leaping
desperately need refills”, Wes jokes.  Wes is a true, selfless friend. Five of ten ladies’ dancing
labias don’t faze him. He’s here on your behalf. “Krampus Navidad”, nine pipers piping
choke. Wes implores you to move, or buy a shotgun. He gestures to eight maids a milking
and calls you a humanitarian. “Just look at all the weirdoes and seven swans a swimming
you’ve taken in,” he says, “I don’t care if they are gifts.” He motions to six geese a laying
when you see his grief. “If I move,” you say, “I’m drying cement.” “I saw five golden rings
in my Simply Orange this morning.” Wes asks you why so symbolic? Your four calling birds
order a pizza. “I don’t know, Wes, I can’t stop reading Shakespeare. My three French hens
are freaking me out. I think they may personify my momento mori. My two turtle doves
wish they were lovers in a poison cave. Hey Wes, you should buy a partridge in a pear tree

on eBay.” He tears up, but leaves krumping. (Art taught him.) Seven swans a swimming
surface for air. Pizza comes but the driver smells oddly like a partridge in a pear tree.
His moustache is slimy. Where’s Ian Fleming? The man ogles all eight maids a milking.
You slip his tip back into your pants. His name tag reads Ozgar. No two turtle doves
coo alike. Ozgar sounds totally made up, but Ozgar is very real. The nine pipers piping
adjourn to the balcony. Your only witnesses left in the room are the three French hens.
He invades living space like a brass family member. The topless five of ten ladies dancing
always distracts you at inopportune moments. Ozgar reveals a blade. Four calling birds
try 911, but the two doves changed the speed dial to poison control. Eleven lords a leaping
perform a series of jujutsu kicks, but it’s all too homosexual. Five golden rings
abstract the air like refulgent Lady Macbeths. Twelve of twelve drummers drumming
watch Scooby Doo, high-five whenever Daphne flashes on screen. Six geese a laying

seem more like six spaces a wasting. Now is the hour to say that three French hens
are too prima donna. Now is the hour is say what needs to be said. Six geese a laying
are animal equivalents to doilies. Does infidelity start with a vow? Nine pipers piping
think it starts with a vowel. During a commercial, five of twelve drummers drumming
say they think it starts with a kiss, which is cute but quite moronic. Two turtle doves
await poison control. They still make-believe they’re in a cave. Your five golden rings
vanish like a frightened stagecoach. Why hasn’t he killed you? Eight maids a milking
blush. They know how cyclical churning spellbinds men, except eleven lords a leaping.
Ozgar dodges the wet spots in the rug, and rages, “she blew my partridge in a pear tree
money on a cashmere bunnyhug! I should be dicing in Reno!” Your four calling birds
hang up the phone. You open the pizza box and eat a jalapeno. Seven swans a swimming
submerge in unison. “True loves”, you tell him, “love bunnyhugs.” Ten ladies dancing

swing to their partner and bellow ‘yeehaw’ in agreement. Five of their five golden rings
sparkle. It’s Friday. He sheaths the blade. He staggers over to your ten ladies dancing,
smooches each one behind the earlobes. You hand him his tip. Your two turtle doves
pretend to be swashbuckling. Doves are peculiar that way. Seven swans a swimming
squawk for cleaner wading water. Art’s back? Had he heard twelve drummers drumming
watching cartoons and entered? He’s wearing a Life’s a Beach shirt. Four calling birds
appreciate Art’s serenity. He yearns to represent a film noir studio of nine pipers piping.
He doesn’t trust you if you’ve considered suing motion pictures. Cartridge in a Pear Tree,
his first independent project, drew a massive audience of krumpers. Six geese a laying,
you think, could have sat through it. It was that constructive. Eleven lords a leaping
don’t possess patience for cinema. “Life is artful enough,” they tell eight maids a milking
who would normally smile like any nice face multiplied by eight, only four calling birds
now flutter around you as if to remind you it’s still Friday. Your eight maids a milking
are too nervous to smile. Ozgar sizes up Art and one of the twelve drummers drumming
then stabs the solo musician during Daphne’s last monologue. No three French hens
sleep as terrible as you. Art yells ‘cut’, and exits stage left. Seven swans a swimming
dry off and follow him out. He pops back in to collect his clients, eleven lords a leaping.
“Ozgar, why did you kill that drummer?”, you ask. Ozgar’s eyes stare off: two turtle doves.
Now is the hour to say what needs to be said. The room is not clean. Six geese a laying
pretend to sweep. Ozgar should leave. You are tired of him. The ten ladies dancing
worked with Jimmy Durante. You are tired of everything. A partridge in a pear tree
is a terrible Christmas present. It doesn’t take you long to realize the five golden rings
were the same bands you gave your true love over a ten year span. Nine pipers piping

call that epiphany. You call that crappy, and start to regard those eleven lords a leaping
as true-love payback for your refusal to hang her plastic mistletoe. Nine pipers piping,
nine wooden chimneys. What is marriage?  “Good riddance seven swans a swimming.”
Ozgar exits eyeing your nonpareils and other decorative sugar balls. Five golden rings
emerge from a pyrite paperweight. Where’s Ian Lancaster Fleming? Three French hens.
Three French hens. Three French hens. Ozgar smelled like the partridge in a pear tree.
He should collect trash of trash collectors. The hour to say twelve drummers drumming
is noise pollution passed. No one refreshed the wading water. Your ten ladies dancing
will run out of steps or maybe they’ll keep dancing who cares. Your eight maids a milking
return to Amish life. A single photograph of their smiles is worth the fine. Six geese a laying
look like shower nozzles. The hour has passed to say nothing beats your four calling birds,
especially during the MLB playoffs. Who blow-dried half your snowman? No two turtle doves

coo alike. A partridge in a pear tree smells like nothing else. Two turtle doves
or four calling birds make super stocking-stuffers. You miss your true love most
during the fiscal year. Five golden rings and six geese a laying make abhorrent
Christmas gifts. Seven swans a swimming and eight maids a milking represent
assembly line mentality. Nine pipers piping and ten ladies dancing barely know
each other’s import. You live 3500 extra Fridays. Eleven lords a leaping prepare
to eulogize a lone casualty of twelve drummers drumming drumming drumming.

xmas vintage joys

(Ed. note: this poem first appeared in its author’s debut collection, Rumble Seat)

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
REPORTS COVER FINAL (1)Kathryn Levy, whose “Wedding” and “Becoming Angels” from her Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform her life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Kathryn Levy: I begin most of my poems with one or two given phrases and then, in Roethke’s phrase, “learn by going where I have to go.” The first drafts of poems often come quickly, but I tend to revise for a long time, sometimes for years. In the process of revision, I try not to betray the first impulse and the discoveries made through the poem—which is easier said than done!

As for the circumstances leading to these two poems, it’s simpler to describe the evolution of “Wedding” since the composition of that poem surrounded the preparations for my actual wedding. I never thought of myself as someone who would get married and I always had ambivalent feelings about marriage. Yet when the man who became my husband asked me to marry him, I immediately said yes. However, as I was swept up in wedding preparations, I kept wondering: Who am I exactly? What is this about?  It caused me to contemplate these unions, and our celebrations of them, more deeply than I had before. The poem answers some of my questions about the ritual of marriage and points the way to others. Like most of the work I care about, it surprised me. In particular, the phrase “this is for life” took on a powerful resonance in the course of writing the poem.

The origin of “Becoming Angels” is less clear, except that the poem deals with subjects which obsess me—death, isolation, those 3 AM moments, the “dark night of the soul,” when, however secure we feel during the day, the illusion of security and certainty is ripped away. For me, the image in the poem that is most vivid is the children in the snow flapping their arms “becoming angels,” an emblem of what might be happening to us throughout our lives. As for self-pity, the use of that derisive term amuses me, and in revising the poem, I was interested in playing with the unacknowledged value of self-pity.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Kathryn Levy: That often vaguely defined and elusive term “voice” is a critical element in poetry—it’s one of primary things that animates and defines a poem. I think the voice in these poems is a particularly intimate one, even as it speaks of “we,” and in the case of “Becoming Angels,” to a “you.” Perhaps it’s a voice spoken in secret to an imagined other—perhaps all my poems are that. It’s urgent, born of a desperate need to escape isolation and to answer questions about survival, and it is skeptical, even of the answers it tentatively offers. 

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Kathryn Levy: You could see these poems, as people do much of my work, as dark and death obsessed. But to be obsessed with death is to be obsessed with life—to question what we are living for, and how to make sense of the constructs we create to live and keep sane. And then, how to explode those constructs—to ask new questions.

Both of these poems also play with punctuation—there is unconventional punctuation, or none at all, in the majority of the poems in Reports. While finishing my previous book, Losing the Moon, I became interested in the ambiguity of this approach, in particular the unexpected connections it creates—the way it allows a phrase to pull simultaneously in two different directions. And I think, partly thanks to unconventional punctuation, these poems have a propulsive, edgy rhythm, with some bite to the lines.

As for the impression the work might make, I don’t think very much about that. If the poems are alive, searching for something vital, and if the language and the vision of the world are renewed for me in the process of writing, I hope they will be alive for the reader. There are plenty of poems that don’t meet that standard and I keep those in the drawer. The ones I send out to the world involve moments of discovery or at least real questioning. 

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Kathryn Levy: This is a difficult question, because I read and love so much poetry. In responding to these sorts of questions, I think we tend to refer to poets who are foremost in our minds at the moment—there isn’t an overarching answer. Or if there were one for me, it would be Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare. But aside from Shakespeare, whose plays haunt me, I’ll play the game and pick four poets from my long list.

Dickinson and Frost always stay with me—I rarely go through a day without thinking about or reciting one of their poems to myself. I agree with Wallace Stevens’ notion that that “all poetry is experimental poetry,” but some people engage in more dangerous experiments than others. Certainly Dickinson seems to write from the very edge of being. I often think of the line from one of her letters to T.W. Higginson: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic,’—I am in danger—Sir—.” I love her peculiar “gait,” her deeply charged language, and her profound understanding of the constant experiment of being a human being. She demonstrates how vital it is to “play for mortal stakes.”

That last phrase is from Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Although Frost is on the surface a more conventional poet, he is also playing in very dangerous territory. He explored some of the most complex and disturbing elements of our experience, and through his fluency in poetic form and ability to draw on a wide range of voices, he delved deeply into what can and can’t be said. For me, it’s hard to imagine any poet interested in the human predicament and in the way we use language, “the American idiom,” not drawing strength from these two poets.

Two contemporary poets who have been important to me for many years—Michael Burkard and Robert Pinsky—are seemingly quite dissimilar, and have very different sensibilities, but both have a great lyric gift and a kaleidoscopic vision. However, they both push against the music of their poetry—it is restless, never completely comfortable work.  In their different ways they demonstrate how to keep exploring, searching for those rare moments of truth, the moments when intensely alive language embodies the complexity of our being. And I don’t think either of those poets can be easily categorized, which is certainly what I hope for myself.

Wedding

We sang songs
and danced in circles
and dropped
sticks in the dust

sticks that formed
strange new patterns
we stood
over the patterns
the ground

slipping beneath us
like watching your wake
as the boat presses

into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller—this

could lead us to death—
risking so much
we had to dress
in the palest colors
and place

flowers on our heads
flowers on the tables

flowers flowers
obscuring the stakes
that hold up the house

the minister placed
hands upon hands: This
is for life

—as everything
always was—
and some days you see that

and stop

Becoming Angels

I have felt it too—the blinding
self-pity in the dark
and longed to hold on
to any treasure longed to clutch
my husband’s arm
to scream to the neighbors
What are you feeling?
let’s make a fire and burn
all the fences
let’s sit in a ring feeling the flames
singe our faces—all
made out of flesh all falling
out of our flesh
becoming angels we did it as children
lying in the snow
flapping our wings as the cold crept
toward our bodies—have you
felt it too? I know you have I know you
have fallen awake the darkness crashing
into your face seeing
all at once—no one can help you
no god no lover
not one of the others lying
incredibly close—and they all
pity themselves
so much—as well they should
someone has to

____________________________________________
Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions) and Reports (New Rivers Press), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (New York City Ballet Education Department), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared in various journals including SlateCimarron ReviewProvincetown ArtsThe Seattle ReviewThe Southampton ReviewDahse MagazineManhattan Poetry ReviewBlink, and Lo Straniero, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and SeaWe Begin Here:Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. In the spring of 2013, a musical setting of her poetry, Only Air, was premiered by the Illinois State University Orchestra.

Levy has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Cummington Community of the Arts. Her many readings include appearances at the Harvard Club of Boston, KGB, Middlebury College, and The Bowery Poetry Club. She was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She has taught poetry to public school students throughout New York and conducted courses in literature, film, theater, and arts education for numerous schools and cultural institutions. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City (www.kathryn-levy.com).

 

BARELY THERE: SHORT POEMS

BY YAHIA LABABIDI

RESOURCE PUBLICATIONS, 2013

ISBN 978-1625642790

When a few fateful re-tweets put me into contact with Egyptian-American poet and ‘seeker’ Yahia Labadidi, I never expected to come across a work with such suave girth. A work of 21st century mysticism grounded in earthly reality, its call directs us not to the transcendental ‘upwards’ but all around and within. The poet’s flow trickles as an ode to sacred silence; stanzas articulate the ubiquitous truth, as his natural simplicity in word choice colors the work organically, like a handpicked selection for an autumn cornucopia. Yet in its sleek simplicity of layout and tender word choice, Barely There whispers Truth with an echoing boom.

From the moment the eyes glaze the book’s cover, towering, strong trees seemingly fade out amidst swirling clouds of light essence—the mist of forest fog, the calling to the Omnipresent while light beacons. Throughout the work, lines between form and the formless blur, as the title suggests. Like the image of the rising trees, humans too exist on this earth only in passing. We too will be swept away by the white light—or, perhaps, as seekers of Truth such as Lababidi come to realize, the point of life is to get swept away while we’re here and breathing. The path of the mystic or journeyman to enlightenment, then, entails fostering our souls’ desire to ascend and reunite with its source. Maybe as our angelic spirit soars to liven and and lightening our being, it leaves the worldly, animalistic carnal soul crouching in retreat, leaving us barely here.

To realize union, shunyata, mu’arafa, haskalah, jnana, or gnosis, as humans of all religious traditions try to describe the mystic aim in un-encompassing terms, means ultimately to reunite with the divine essence at the core of each self while still firmly embracing the walk of our imminent lives. As the author presents in an aptly titled poem, A metaphor: “Where ocean and shore greet/ a metaphor/ for where Spirit and body meet”. To live with the Spirit, then, is to live that awakened life wherein one accepts reality as constantly shaped by the Divine Ocean’s curling tide whilst maintaining balanced footing on the earth’s ever-sifting shore.

This secret of existence is evident in all things. In his opening song, Breath, Lababidi alludes to this interconnected “tapestry” of reality in each waking breath—“the prayer of all things:/trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains alike/All giving silent remembrance/each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead/ while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries.” His stanzas call his readers to heed the Omnipresent’s silent song, to weave its harmony into our existence and let it permeate into our very being. Despite the natural song, all reality submits to the way of the forces, the unraveling string of destiny. The tree, however sturdy, bows to the powerful gusts of a storm. The ant’s intricate foray is squashed by the wandering footstep. The creek’s pleasant hymn falls silent with winter’s cool stare. The rock-solid mountain, in its unyielding call to ascent, is pulverized by the splitting fissures of earth’s quaking shivers. Like nature’s wonders, the human must “Yield,” Lababidi says with respect to reality. “Not by pushing/ does one get ahead,/ but by allowing/ oneself to be pulled/ by the constant/ tug of all things.”

To be consumed by our selves—our egos in this world, humans fail to embrace the divine vibe embedded amongst all things and carrying us through life. Rather than trying to dam the river of destiny with our arrogance, we should allow well-intentioned choices to help us navigate its tide like skilled gondoliers around the river’s sharp rocks and treacherous curves.

Lababidi‘s work is essentially one of pithy truths—aphorisms of the spiritual motif. He points the reader toward certain values and lessons that allow for a more fulfilled life. He stirs hope in the reader by reminding us that, “It’s easier to be fearless/ when we remember/ that we are deathless.” He reminds us that without fear or habit “there would be daily glimpses/ of the indestructible world/ and intimations of immortality,” for the new experiences hindered by the fatal couple may very well be those that make life worth living the most.

The interested reader will find more compilations of the author’s aphorisms around the web. For the refreshing wise tweet, follow his handle @YahiaLababidi; he calls social media the “ballroom of dancing consciousness.” Yahia Lababidi is the Pushcart Prize nominated author of Signposts to ElsewhereTrial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly DancingFever Dreams, and The Artist as Mystic. His works can be found online on Amazon, or AUC Press bookstores.

I end this review with one of my favorite of his lines which I believe speaks to the root of much of the world’s narrow mindedness: “Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth.”

 

For years I was practicing trans-disciplinary methods without anyone telling me, but now that the experts have discovered this sort of pont-consciousness (what I always called building bridges between disciplines). They are already defining it, and making it rule bound and snot-assed for academic consumption. So I am for the motley, and for what I will call cone scenting, and the experts will deride my definition.

Any real learning is contingent upon judicious digression. Digression in so far as it does not favor method driven process always meets with derision and censor. That’s how you know it is good digression.

Trans-disciplinary studies appear on the surface to favor pont-consciousness, but it is far from any real motliness because, far from wanting leaps, it wants dogged and processed focus between disparate disciplines: This means it wants to extend specialization into the realms of inter-disciplinary discourse where it does not belong. In short, it wants to ruin pont-consciousness by making it a specialized new discipline under the guise of branch learning. It wants to take the intuitive and kill it by algorithmic methodology. I was, at first, excited by trans-disciplinary studies. I am now afraid of it. So let me point out my premises:

1.Cone scenting is what a dog does when he seems to meander from side to side down the street. He keeps the scent central and fixed, by making a kinetic “cone” around it. The scent of true learning is that which favors a meandering–a dog’s nose.

This avoids what Thorstein Veblen called trained incapacity–a training so fixed on one thing and a method of seeing that no adaptation or flex is possible. In so far as trans-disciplinary studies seek to be respected for focus and methodology (in order to be seen as respectable) it fails miserably at good cone scenting. it rules out meandering–and that is a fatal error.

2. True learning occurs when both connects and disconnects are seen as equally provisional: nothing joins or adheres fully, and nothing is so disparate that it does not share some sort of baseline connection.

This allows both for fishing in wild streams (finding the connection between a blue jay feather and a rock on Mars) and questioning the methodology of the given and the categorical–which is, to me, the true aim of education: to enable a mind to intuit connection between disparate things (new metaphors, new bridges) while at the same time being able to intelligently question the structures and edifices built upon old metaphors of the categorical that may no longer suffice. Trans-disciplinary studies insists the disconnects be yoked together by a methodology. It is no more a friend of intuition than any other system. It believes system can replace judicious accident and the cultivation of continual and ongoing stumbling. Stumbling is the essence of discovery and learning. I see here, as with all pedagogy tied to power, the lust to remove ability and replace it with motion-study and mechanics. This would kill what I have been promoting all my life rather than aiding it.

3. Connections between disparate fields, methods and ways of seeing the world must remain undetermined to the degree that they do not become merely another form of determinism and authoritarian non-thinking. In effect, most of the meandering must be left as meandering with a “perhaps,” a strong perhaps attached.

I read Belly’s “St Petersburgh,” and listen to Ethel Merman sing “I Had A Dream.” I go for a walk and discover a blue flower with a yellow center growing up through a crack in the sidewalk. I find out it’s a day flower–native to China. I go home and play the piano for an hour. I do not try too hard to make a connection between these wildly disparate acts and experiences. I trust that the cone might yield a true scent between them sooner or later. I gather and I trust that gathering is, in and of itself, a worthwhile thing. One day, I make an analogy between the eco-rhetoric of invasive species (day flowers are invasive species) and the right wing rhetoric against immigration: this leads me to a contemplation on the dangers of any concept of purity. Ethel Merman’s imperfect but unforgettable voice is contrasted with the now fully trained, fully undistinguished “Broadway voice” of academic theatre programs. How is difference made uniform toward a “purity” or tyranny of semiotics: the Broadway voice, the slam voice, fry voice–all the indicators of meaning and power. How is the unique samed and butchered on its way to mass consumption? Now I have a broad idea called the concept of the pure and I can write several chapters on purity–including one which looks at the language of purity in speeches by radical left eco-anarchists, and radical right wing anti-immigration advocates. I can find the common ground of seemingly opposed forces, grounded in ideas of “purity.” This is not how trans-disciplinary study works. Trans-disciplinary study insists that connections be found right away. It has no patience of faith, no rigor of perhaps.

4. The dog chasing its own tail loses the yard.

In this sense all systems are utterly consumed in and with their own methodology or in and with their own process. This is what Santayana called occupational psychosis. Academics are very intelligent. They know bridges must be formed between disparate forms of learning and disciplines, but they attempt to build these bridges with materials of jargon and protocol that are antithetical to the very idea of bridges. They try to hammer in a nail with a blowtorch. Again, the thing is to leave the methods and standards home and believe that one is moving “toward” a standard and methodology–the toward is always more vibrant and thought provoking than the at. To be at a standard or method is to be fixed–to be without flux. It is comfortable. people love being comfortable. Nothing kills learning more efficiently than fixed “methods.” They offer a necessary obstacle. The true value of most academics is that it offers a worthy obstacle to learning which one, if one is so inclined, finds brilliant ways to overcome.