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Poetry and Poetics

Oranges and Snow is a selection of Milan Djordjevic’s poems, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic and published by Princeton University Press as part of the Facing Pages series. I was grateful to Simic’s pithy yet thorough introduction to Djordjevic as a writer and, just as importantly, as a person. Simic explains that Djordjevic grew up under a restrictive Communist government, saw his homeland ravaged by ethnic warfare, wrote for publications that opposed Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and in 2007 sustained a personal tragedy that has confined him to his house—he was hit by a car while walking in a designated crosswalk in Belgrade. If Simic assesses that “The poet’s mission is not to save the world, but to save some human experience from oblivion,” I see Simic’s translation of Djordjevic’s work as an accomplishment of a similar gesture. Djordjevic’s house-bound eye and voice accentuate how much of a gift Simic’s translation and selection is for us who, otherwise, might never have met the voice of this fellow human survivor.

The history of war and personal tragedy that coalesce into a backdrop for Djodjevic’s poetry is relevant to any reading of his work. However, his poems rarely relate a distinct narrative of the past. I had to hold myself back from trying to read an autobiography into the poems because they did not offer themselves to me as such, and I decided after spending time in Djodjevic’s world that it was not fair to his imaginative dexterity nor to the strangeness of his vision to be disappointed that the poems did not meet my expectations. Djordjevic’s history of survival through political unrest and cruel accident made an impression on me before I read his work. But I had to learn to stand in each poem as if I were on an island.

Simic’s selection of Djordjevic’s poems spans a strikingly vast range from surreal pieces that alienate the reader (perhaps intentionally) to intimate, moving, and prophetic meditations on pain, mortality, and questions of fate.

A division among the poems became apparent to me as I spent time with Oranges and Snow—the surreal poems obscured an encounter with the speaker and the present moment by employing a kind of fan (embellished with garish, sexual, and at times even sadistic designs). But on the other side of the division I was moved and grateful to find intimate, personal poems that speak of what is at our fingertips and what is inevitable.

This is the range of his work—perhaps it would misrepresent Djordjevic’s work if Simic had filtered the poems that compare a potato to “a dark-hued pharaoh resting in peace” (“Spud”) from the poems that face the inevitability of our own death with an eerie simplicity (though not to the point of resignation), as in “The Dream”: “I know that all my dreams will die the day / death takes me to a place where streets / have no names. . .” However, I cannot hold back that at times I wished I was reading the filtered version. Give me the poet staring into the face of death, of utter human vulnerability.

I won’t deny that much comes down to taste. I admit my preferences usually dwell on the side of writing that vigilantly attends to capturing things as they are. Something Eliot Weinberger writes in his preface to George Oppen’s New Collected Poems seemed to sum up the kind of resistance I felt to some of Djordjevic’s poems. Weinberger writes that Oppen nurses “an obstinate blindness to all forms of surrealism, which he saw as an escape from, and not a way into, current realities.” But that intolerance for surrealism, Weinberger understands, came from “Oppen’s standard, his obsession, [which] was ‘honesty’ in the poem. . .”

Though I do not discriminate against surreal poetry to the extent that Oppen apparently did, I stand in awe of surreal work that, in its departure from the commonplace, never forgets that something is still at stake and actually brings me back (perhaps through contrast) into intimate contact with the real and current world around me.

Thus, to any vein of poetry—and to my life—like Oppen, I bring a standard of “honesty.” When I held Djordjevic’s poems to it, some were so honest that they struck me on a physical level (in Dickinson’s measure of poetry), while others seemed to hover in a non-place where honesty was beside the point (out of sight, out of mind). The poems that stand out to me as the strongest in the collection are those in which Djordjevic applies his penchant for surreal images to quotidian, personal, and, ultimately, honest meditations.

Fate is one of the paramount themes running amok like a banshee throughout Djordjevic’s poems. When, in “Two Pigeons,” Djordjevic remarks, “I see the wire is empty, / as if they both suddenly took off flapping their wings, / god knows where or why” (65), he touches on this theme of questionable causality, of inexplicability.  Djordjevic seems to waver, like any thoughtful and sensitive person does, between acceptance of the idea that there is no reason for any of this, and, on the other hand, a wary sense that this is all happening for a reason (however inaccessible that reason may be to us). His poems span a range of understanding. He says at one point, “Long ago the gods left us leaving everything at the mercy / of history and our mortality” (“Clouds,” 47) and suggests a painful change of perspective later in the book when he says in the excellent poem “Regarding Fate,” “There was a time I didn’t believe in fate. / Today I’m drowning in it” (79). Djordjevic is able to address questions of metaphysics and causality, questions of god and of fate, through various focal points. A scene as common as two pigeons flying away, or an event as personally catastrophic as a maiming car accident—both occurrences are joined, Djordjevic seems to suggest, by their inexplicable accidence . . . “god knows where or why.”

Paradoxically, as soon as these poems attribute occurrence to accidence, they beg me to question, are there accidents? They stroke the idea of a predetermined fate. However, as a writer who lived through the ethnic violence in the Balkans and as an outspoken opponent of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, the danger of entertaining the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or “there are no accidents” is not lost on Djordjevic. His poems force us to consider how any god or fate could exist in a world where a large part of the human experience is war and suffering. In “The Game,” Djordjevic depicts a man who used to laugh but is now silenced by what has happened:

Now he plays without words, without laughter or anger,
shocked by human stupidity and cruelty.
He yearns for the ripeness of October afternoons
…at the conclusion of this tired century—our loathsome lair. (53)

I am grateful to any writer whose poems have the guts to bring to the surface the disquieting, unanswerable questions: Why were some people born into a time and place of war while others were born into peace? What tragedy might yet befall us, by accidence or fate? Does anything that happens to us and do our actions make a difference in something beyond our own life?

Djordjevic does not come to any solid answers for his endless questions about existence and fate (nor would I expect him to). Instead, he settles on an articulation of the way things are now; a portrait of what we have done to ourselves, to each other and to the world, and what we will do in the future. Listen to the haunting, dreadfully mournful premonition in his poem “Answers”:

You seek answers to your questions, since you don’t know who you are
where you come from and where you are going?…
…Blind man, the answers are to be found in things you will do!
…Or they are inside you, since in the next war you’ll kill a friend.

And it may be that one night after a lengthy storm
in a solitary house next to the wild Atlantic, you’ll discover
that the world is a story told by someone forgetful.

Someone who never repeats the story, someone who will never,
never come, though they call him, though they wait for him,
the way the parched Gobi desert waits for hot rain. (49)

Another prominent theme in Oranges and Snow is the personal narrative of feeling lost, searching for something that feels right and whole. Djordjevic reminds his readers that being lost is not an experience that only refugees of war feel—instead, we may not know when we started feeling this way, or precisely why we feel this way; it is a condition that we are born with, that some of us carry with us wherever we go.

Djordjevic is forthright in his expressions of loneliness. In the poem “Sea Voyage,” his self-portrayal to the sea wolves (wonderfully strange addressees) is uncomfortably acute and unbuffered. He reveals himself as a wandering orphan who is desperately seeking a new realm in which to exist,

Here I am, wise and experienced sea wolves,
I’m an orphan, no one needs me on land.
Let the choppy ocean adopt me as its own.

Take me, captain, you of the longest voyage,
I’m exchanging the dry boredom of land’s certainties
for the thrill and infinite uncertainty of the sea. . . (19)

The goal of his voyage is not to lose himself, but to find himself. It is a voyage fueled by alienation, hope, and courage. The speaker in these poems displays startling courage and the conviction of someone who is wholly ready for profound change. Here, he is ready to hurl himself toward  “infinite uncertainty.” In my experience, the unknown, the uncertain, is something—no matter how drab, confined and monotonous our daily lives may be—that few people are willing to give themselves over to.

It is with this spirit of readiness for something new that Djordjevic actively sets out on a path, built by his imagination, toward transformation, toward a reality that makes him feel at home—with himself as much as with a place. In the dynamic poem, “A Path,” he mixes lyric and declarative tones when he describes his purpose,

I seek a path or a road between the fields
salted with black frost and fine snow, imprisoned
by barbed wire, I seek a reliable path
or a frozen road that will take me from here. (21)

As the poem develops, we see that what takes the reader away, the path, is the imagination. A delightful departure takes place. The speaker’s imagination leaps into the past, into visceral memories. Sensual, colorful details appear, “I’m thinking about a red orange from Greece. . . . / I’m thinking about a round breast in the dark / which saying goodbye years ago I didn’t kiss.” As soon as the poem lilts with a melancholy timbre, “I’m sad as a rusty cooking pot thrown in a ditch. . . ,” it picks up in tone, in hopefulness:

After much roaming around, I found a dependable path,
I found a road that leads into the center of a small town.
There I will have a beer, and will send you, distant friend
with the speed of a snowball rolling down a hill,
this elegiac message free of covert meanings.

This is a poetry and a poet that seeks to belong and connect. Djordjevic is at his best when he allows the reader to witness him stumbling on that path—because it is a path we all must wrangle with at one point or another in our lives—and the recognition of that common experience enables connection.

Part of Djordjevic’s experience of being lost involves feeling trapped. In the poem “Aquarium,” Djordjevic gives voice to the fish who plea with the boy watching them from the other side of the glass, “‘Save us, boy! Free us all, free us! / Break the walls of our narrow, transparent cage!’” (29). But we know that the plea of the fish could very well be our own human plea against the walls that hold us in. In this poem, however, the boy breaks the aquarium’s wall and the fish “spill on the black asphalt /. . . .Bleed, / . . . . gasp for air in the mild night and die.” Here, reality is not so inescapable by a flair of imagination. The walls are glass, the fish do not survive. Instead, what persists is the reality of “darkness and pale colors of the city.”

Perhaps an antidote to being lost, a salve for feeling wounded and imprisoned has something to do with uniting disparate parts—a thematic wish shining through the most of these poems, the wish to unify, to make whole again or for the first time. In the interesting poem, “Aachen,” the speaker declares with a mix of defiance and hope, “With [the help of German Telekom] I’ll reestablish ties between creatures / of the past and future, all distant and near things, / autumn’s colors of cinnabar, embers from a fire and winter ice” (39).

Despite the dour aspect of many of these poems, hope runs through them like a brook in spring after the snows melt. Hear Djordjevic’s uncomplicated and contagious confidence in “Little Joy,”

Yes, you, too will finally come.
A small, ordinary, daily joy.
You’ll be the slice of rye bread,
or a glass filled with cold milk. (27)

The poem moves toward the marvelously strange, even mythical, image when the speaker surrenders himself to the pleasure of imaginging he will carry that joy to bed, “and sleep the way the earth sleeps next to a spring.”

Thus, Djordjevic’s reality is wide and inclusive. It has room for the “ordinary, daily joy” and the wounded fish sprawled in front of a shattered aquarium; for the pallor of an empty German city on a Sunday and the precious excitement of finding “words the way one finds blackberries in the woods” (“Waking,” 43). In his poem “Reality,” he provides a litany of what might constitute it. The poem has an easy, pleasant tone and flow, like the mind floating from one idea to another, touching briefly on “The reality of a fruit, meat and earth’s dampness. / The reality of metal, concrete, dry and naked meadows, / white phosphorous. . . / the reality of stone, water and sand dunes” (57). This poem delivers to the reader the quiet peacefulness of considering things from afar—but it exhibits an intellectual relationship to reality that leaves me wanting something more raw, something that is real, instead of talking about the real.

Only in Part III of the book are we granted admission to the speaker’s reality as it is (not a distanced discussion of it). In the poem “Solitude,” Djordjevic admits us to his tenuous lair of recovery where desperation and hope replace each other like images coming in and out of focus. We are allowed to experience what it might feel like to live in a “thick midnight that won’t blow over.” We are allowed to see how much it hurts to live even one day in this speaker’s reality:

. . .I’m stripped of my abilities,
normal movement, speech, ability to swallow.
I’m reduced to watching things and other forms of life
around me while what is within me
is as blurred as a cloud of morning mist.
. . . everywhere midnight reigns. . . . (77)

The poem, “Regarding Fate,” also revealed only in Part III, occupies a higher level of consciousness, of honesty, and of writing, than most of the poems in this selection. The poems “Days” also exhibits these qualities. In “Regarding Fate,” Djordjevic accomplishes a spare, beautiful and painfully honest portrayal of where the speaker finds himself in the present moment. We are allowed to inhabit the space beside this fragile, frustrated, broken but surviving and searingly sensitive mind as he gathers twigs in the garden and is

curious about stones, grasses, rains,
snows, woods, fires and sea waves,
and hundreds of other small and large things,
while being chained securely to this wall
by a short iron chain. (79)

We feel the weight of the “hundreds of other small and large things” press on our chests with the limits they imply, all that is out of reach, beyond the speaker’s garden, inaccessible and seemingly infinite. It is an honor to feel that weight—when he lets us—to share, however briefly, the wonderful and terrible burden of being alive.

If you haven’t heard yet, Mark Strand has released a new book with Monk Books called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka.

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Galen Strawson, in his essay, “Against Narrativity,” challenges the validity of the popularly held hypothesis that human beings experience and make sense of their lives as narratives. The effects of narrative self-articulation, he says, are “potentially pernicious.” The predisposition “to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding.” He distinguishes between Diachronics and Episodics, individuals who view the narrative arc of their lives as continuous, versus those who see their lives as discontinuous. The Episodic view, he shows, is less dangerous because it tends to mitigate the temptation to fabricate and revise our stories in order to reflect what we want to see ourselves as rather than who we really are. “Diachronicity” “is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life.’”

Bidart’s “Golden State” might be seen as an examination of the diachronic urge in the form of a dramatic monologue. On the surface it’s a poem about the poet coming to terms with his father through therapeutic autobiography. But it also questions the role of narrative to decipher experience and achieve self-understanding.

The poem is divided into ten numbered sections that relate to each other in complicated and multifaceted ways. There is linear progression, but the more important structure is a psychological one. The speaker encounters each scene like he is flipping through a photo album or shuffling a pack of cards in which each card contains a riddle or puzzle that must be solved. The poem emphasizes the process of reaching insight—a personal “dawn”—rather than a finished product or presentation of the son’s discovered meaning. Finally, the recurrence of subjects creates a partially cyclical structure. Each section returns to the same problem from a different angle, and the son’s slowly-evolving ability to respond is realized only through repeated encounters.

The first several sections of the poem recount frustrating altercations with his father, who is a constant source of disruption. The father is a wild and confusing force that the speaker fails to understand: “And yet your voice, raw, / demanding, dissatisfied [. . .] remains [. . .].” By the middle sections of the poem, the speaker is determined to analyze the father’s failure in life because he recognizes his own need to understand and appropriate that failure as part of his own identity. The process starts with resisting the easy explanation, which he relied on previously. This means revisiting the facts of his father’s history and puzzling over the baffling patterns of behavior.

By the eighth section, the speaker starts to see his father’s failures as part of the wider scope of human struggle. This requires reconfiguring the father’s role in the son’s narrative: “I must unlearn; I must believe // you were merely a man— / with a character, and a past.” The son must transform his father, who he has always experienced as the villain, into an antihero. Section “IX” allows this to happen, wherein the son recognizes that his own attitude and actions, motivated by bitterness, has implicated him in his father’s downfall; he then sees himself as part of the same inevitable cycle of contradictory forces that defined his father’s life.

The final section claims that narrative approach has failed: “no such knowledge is possible.” The speaker is left with disparate images of his father—looking at old photographs, he “cannot connect” the “handsome, dashing, elegant” man in early adulthood with “the defensive / gnarled would-be cowboy” of later life. The son concludes that his father is “happy / to be surprising; unknowable; unpossessable . . . // You say it’s what you always understood by freedom.” The father remains allusive—narrative, in the end, fails to (de)mythologize him.

The speaker’s ultimate discovery is that he must let his father remain unknown, untellable, beyond narrative. By letting go of the need to explain his father’s life, the son allows the father remains “free,” and the son, while not finding what he originally sought, discovers himself as part of the same set of forces that governed his father’s life, although he has avoided their destructive forces.

As Bidart explains in his interview with Halliday, the son’s “way of ‘solving problems’” is the converse of the persona of “Herbert White,” who “give[s] himself to a violent pattern growing out of the dramas of his past.” The speaker of “Golden State” steers clear of the pitfall of a revisionist or reductive account of his father. The episodic, discursive structure of “Golden State” reflects the skepticism of the final section. Rather than a linear, “ordered” narrative, the poem assumes a fragmentary nature, with partial, juxtaposed glimpses of the father’s life. This method of writing seems to go to the heart of Bidart’s poetics: “I needed a way to embody the mind moving through the elements of its word, actively contending with and organizing them, while they somehow retain the illusion of their independence and nature, are felt as ‘out there’ or ‘other.’”

Poetry & Episodic Narration

Is poetry, especially lyric poetry, intrinsically predisposed toward episodic, rather than diachronic, narration? We know that the traditional dichotomy of narrative v. lyric is false, but on the other hand, modern poetry has substantially shifted toward story telling through implication by means of images. The “image narrative” offers mere snapshots that are often temporally isolated clusters of events and images. Consider Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” The middle stanzas are simply a series of snapshots: “At fourteen I married My Lord you. / … At fifteen I stopped scowling, . . . / At sixteen you departed . . . .” The image narrative, one might argue, is the natural way for a lyric poem to tell a story. It allows the poet to stay concrete, to “show not tell,” to compress and to juxtapose. As a series of shots or tableaux with little or no connecting “syntax,” the image narrative foregrounds discontinuity, fragmentation, isolated scenes and episodes. It resists closure and false cause-and-effect logic.

Is it possible, then, that generic customs tend to align poetry to episodic thinking, whereas novels, for example, pressures individuals to frame experience diachronically? If so, might poetry offer an important corrective to society’s apparent preference for diachronic thinking? One might facetiously cite an example like Twilight and other teen fiction (or any fiction for that matter) with formulaic plot structures that create a false sense of coherence to life and suggest the inevitability of one’s (eventual) fulfillment and self-actualization (or cosmic justice or closure).

If a diachronic framework for interpreting our lives is at least partially misguided, as Swanson and Bidart suggest, a good many of us might be living in self-deceiving fictions. Ironically, this implies a critique opposite to the one we often here leveled against the 21st century—the libel bemoaning our diminished ability to think in terms of the “big picture,” to act out of a sense of the whole of life and history. While, of course, an inability to think outside of the present is pathological, so is forcing all experience into a “big picture.” The problem for all of us is that narrative seems to hold a privileged position in the hierarchy of meaning-making and we have subconsciously absorbed it as an the overarching structure for comprehending reality. So: what to do with the diachronic urge? Do episodic “image narratives” offer a viable alternative?

This is one of my favorite Stevens poems, and I was very cheered when I found out years later that Stevens felt the same.  When I first read “Large Red Man Reading,” I thought he had Matisse in the back round of his mind. Years later, I found out he was, indeed, a great admirer of Matisse. The elemental colors, and the longing of the dead to get back into the world—to feel thorns, cold, anything elemental—the pots above the stove—this was a much greater version of what Thornton Wilder attempted to get at in his play, Our Town. It is the implied mystical oxymoron of desiring and longing for what we already have. In this sense, Stevens is the great poet of the obvious.

Poeisis is not a form of intelligence, but, rather, stupidity in its old sense: as that which arrests the intelligence, which stuns us from “being” into being. Stevens leaves us standing before the one who reads, and what he reads is the new law of what Wallace called the poem of earth. To state the obvious—to truly state it—is the most difficult task of poetry.  Stevens is saying what Rilke said: rock, tree…name them. This poem invokes. It is about invocation, the most ancient of poetical powers.  It conjures. The large red man might be the sun fading in the west. He invokes what is living before night returns the dead to their rest. It is Stevens’ poem of the living and the dead. I am in awe of it.

Large Red Man Reading

There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.

There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,

That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly

And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,

Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

By this point in his career Kevin Young is an old hand at the psychic restoration of outside source material. His books, including Jelly Roll, To Repel Ghosts, and Black Maria, have each found something lyrical in the dry air of various historical and cultural archives while maintaining a crucial link to his own personal experience and sense of family. This is key to the work in Ardency because it’s his least personal book so far, but in many ways that allows him to approach those same emotions within the book’s historical characters from a more objective stance. Kevin Young rehydrates history with the often impenetrable abstract motivations of humanity, those emotions both feral and civil that run through us all.

Those human characters, and their voices, are the cornerstone of Ardency. This epic embodies in verse their experience as men, boys, and girls kidnapped from the paths winding through their home country of Sierra Leone, illegally (as opposed to amorally) sold into slavery in Cuba, who then rebelled on their ship and attempted to sail east to Africa only to find that they were being misdirected towards New York at night, where they were tried, and with the intervention of abolitionists and a president, set free. But that’s all the testable material.

For everything past the introduction, Kevin is filling in the cracks and doing so with warmth, music, and brevity (only a handful poems last longer than a page). Headlines, locations, and names are bandied about to serve the poem and its multi-dimensional enterprise:

__________________The whole country flocks
to watch you at play, a flea circus somersetting
the prison Green. Warden claims the proceeds
for your bail & newspaper reviews of jail
go well:—They crouch like tailors, teeth like stars
in inky faces, black headlines blare. No one dares
how you still may be sold, stolen like a scene.

[from “Blackmarket”]

The language is somersetting around itself, becoming the textual embodiment of the circus while we read aghast as twenty-first century ignoramuses of this experience. We read “black headlines blare” and trip over the subtext but it’s all part of the spectacle that the poem reenacts so concisely. Reenactment is a fair approximation of what this poetry accomplishes, as something beyond reportage but free of the budgetary and chronological constraints of cinema but fully immersed in the drama of experience. From “Testimony”:

You call us rebels____we were spoons
in that ship for so long____the wood
dark, drowned as the men who
made it from song____sold on land
like ships____like us____christened
out of water

This is the type of historical document that should be read, taught, and discussed from classrooms K through Ph.D. Kevin is so clearly integrated with the tools of poetry that even first time readers can sense the distance it keeps from fiction, what is conveyed through an image of men spooned together at the bottom of the ship as literal cargo surpasses statistical analysis. This book comes closest to the actual experience on the Amistad, and more importantly, afterwards.

The strength of the first two sections is such that the third, “Witness”, initially left me gasping in their wake. “Witness” is the majority of the book and is definitively elegant. But where “Buzzard” and “Correspondance” teem with character, setting, and energy, “Witness” gives a slight advantage to quantity over quality.

I frequently found myself wondering if I’d read this poem or that poem earlier in the manuscript, wondering where the fervor went. No single poem is bad, each carries the same weight, but by the end that weight begins to feel repetitive. “Witness” pulls down on the eyes and the mind. Which might not be a terrible thing: it’s easy to breeze through some poems about the hardships undergone by these rebels, get a sense of their misfortune, then throw a movie on or step out for some falafel. Elements of song are interspersed with the single eyewitness account of Cinque, leader of the rebellion. But it’s hard to determine Cinque’s character, especially after the captivating montage of the first two sections.

My mind
were winter.

Never
did I know

that word
till Merica—

then, learned it
was white

and silent and covered
even the trees.

__________Steal Away.

Inside my cell
snow.

[…]

There neither do lions
speak, nor preach

till the sand beneath
the sea shifts

and swallows—
till the waves

erase the names.

[from “Tabernacle”]

By the time we hear this poem Cinque feels less like a man and more like an amalgamation of suffering, endurance, and trial. Job is the easy comparison, which may be why these poems initially felt so thin to me. But upon second consideration, “Witness” is more than just viewing. It makes the reader the witness, emotionally enduring the same tolls heaped upon Cinque and his fellow rebels. Names are erased, everything is left cold and silent, the mere adoption of the language and religion of the West is enough to obliterate these rebels. Which is sort of how I felt after reading this section, a sense of obliteration, exhaustion, but a need to carry on.

The themes of cold and snow, this new world Merica, and home bounce around “Witness” in constant rotation. This mimics the thought of a captive, someone kidnapped from their home and forced through horrific ideals, someone who has to find something to hold onto mentally in order to maintain some level of sanity. A 240-page historical epic poem already carries the potential for exhaustion, but perhaps this last section is meant to be more meditative. Like overwhelming the trees with silence, or the tides that erase the names of the dead, the trauma of witness can overwhelm the human psyche, and perhaps this is the feeling I approach when reading through the section.

Despite my first impression, the impact of “Witness” has caused me to more deeply ponder the effects of this history on Kevin Young and the readers of Ardency. I may not have felt as much throughout reading it, but I can hardly flip to a page without finding the nuance and pace of the first two sections working in a similar way, albeit one that must simmer. While I still feel that those poems of “Witness” don’t quite shine as individually as the ones of the first two sections (and the final “Afterword”), the bulk of its reading is subliminally affective, which may be closer to the truth of these rebel’s experiences than any proclamation.

Ultimately, Ardency is a poised, fantastic collection that I can’t wait to share with my students. In terms of documentary poetics and its potential, this book is quite fitting as another feather in Kevin Young’s cap.

I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.

At the insistent behest of Joe Weil I have picked up a few Kenneth Burke books. In Joe’s opinion, Burke is one of the great American minds who has been unjustly put out of fashion. The more I read Burke, the more I agree with Joe. I’ve found that Burke’s explanations of art resonate with me as an artist. For example, Burke’s essay “The Poetic Process” (from Counter-Statement) delineates the relationship between the “emotion” that inspires writing, symbol, and technical form in an incredibly believable way.

Burke begins with dreams:

…at times we look back on the dream and are mystified at the seemingly unwarranted emotional responses which the details “aroused” in us. Trying to convey to others the emotional overtones of this dream, we laboriously recite the details, and are compelled at every turn to put in such confessions of defeat as “There was something strange about the room,” or “for some reason or other I was afraid of this boat, although there doesn’t seem any good reason now.”

This is because, as Burke says, “the details were not the cause of the emotion; the emotion, rather, dictated the selection of details…Similarly, a dreamer may awaken himself with his own hilarious laughter, and be forthwith humbled as he recalls the witty saying of his dream. For the delight in the witty saying came first (was causally prior) and the witty saying itself was merely the externalization, or individuation, of his delight.”

In what seems to be the inverse of Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the emotion directions the choice of imagery. The imagery becomes “symbol” at this point. Burke compares this to a grandparent who tries to share all the details of his or her childhood as a way to communicate the “overtones” of the experience. The grandparent wants to express themselves, their feelings.

Yet an artist does not want to express their feelings. Rather, they want to evoke emotion in the audience: “The maniac attains self-expression when he tells us that he is Napoleon; but Napoleon attained self-expression by commanding an army….transferring the analogy, the self-expression of an artist, qua artist, is not distinguished by the uttering of emotion, but by the evocation of emotion.” One of the most dreaded things I hear is somebody describing their own personal poetry as self-expression. I don’t dread it because I begrudge that person’s personal art, but usually because a request to read their work and give feedback follows. And almost always the work is terrible. Why? Because it’s solely concerned with self-expression and the would-be poet feels no obligation to anyone but his or herself. A person like that will not hear any advice; they seek affirmation. Our writing goals are not the same. As Burke puts it “If, as humans, we cry out that we are Napoleon, as artists we seek to command an army.”

This is not to say that there is no element of self-expression in poetry. There certainly is, according to Burke. But “it is inevitable that all initial feelings undergo some transformation when being converted into the mechanism of art….Art is translation, and every translation is a compromise (although, be it noted, a compromise which may have new virtues of its own, virtues not part of the original).” The private poet cannot stand to compromise on their feelings and, as a result, they often write terrible poetry. But in the poetic process, a poet realizes there is compromise. This leads to a concern about the “impersonal mechanical processes” of evocation, and, eventually, leads the artist to a place where the means of expression are an end in itself. At this moment, we are in the realm of technique.

In short, we begin with emotion, which dictates choice of symbol, for which the systematic concern thereof creates technique. Tom Sleigh once memorably asked my MFA class “do you, as a poet, logos into eros or eros into logos?” I forget what my answer was at the moment since I was stubborn and probably more concerned with subverting the question. Burke’s essay, however, has interesting parallels. (For the record, today I’d probably say, with Burke, that I eros into logos, which might account for a recent turn toward formalism in my poetry.)

Before ending, I want to note the parallel between Burke’s point and my point (via Rexroth–or, more accurately, Rexroth via me) about Tu Fu, who I described as writing in a way that suggests “that the category break [between feeling and image/symbol] is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: ‘values are the way we see things.’” If Burke’s description of the poetic process is accurate, Tu Fu’s poem is actually winding backward toward the origin of his poetry, backwards through the linked images interpreting one another, back toward the initial thought/emotion/impulse which led to the first decision to communicate, to attempt evocation.

I hate when poets are called brave. Gets on my nerves. Fearless is another term I find dubious. Poets win grants. They are professionals. Most poetry festivals are lamer and more sedate than Star Trek conventions. If I pick up a poetry book and see the words “brave” or “fearless” in any of the blurbs, I think twice about buying it. No one is brave or fearless if they live in the suburbs, have tenure, or inhabit parts of Manhattan that have been made safe by the police force. This is not brave. Being fearless in a poem is along the same lines as being an aggressive grandmother expressing road rage in an old Buick sedan. Spare me. Being “brave” in a poem is like those snide one liners people zing you with from the safety of a Facebook comment.

But, sometimes, poets write poems that aren’t being considered for an award. Sometimes they are writing out of some necessity beyond the latest AWP bullshit. (anyone for the “long poem” or the “poem of place?”) Sometimes poets are good in ways no one gave them permission to be. No one kissed their bums at the work shop, or published them in some glossy university magazine that is full of “brave” poets. They just wrote something that was fully cooked (Hate the term raw) and happened to contain your children. They served it up to you, and you ate it, and asked for second helpings, and, only realized later when you went back to your part of the world where police make it unnecessary for you to be brave, that you ate your own future. They make you complicit in a crime. They made you destroy the evidence. They feed you something you hadn’t counted on, and it goes beyond your usual dietary restrictions. These poets are sneaky, and lethal, and kill you with stealth, and have the skill for abomination. Abomination—true abomination—takes great skill. All true burns are controlled burns. All the knives are sharpened to such perfection that the victims can voice no cry. Such poets don’t need to be brave or fearless because they scare the shit out of you. After reading them, you know your pantoum sequence is a lie, and your ears are made of tin, and it does not matter if you won six grants, and had a blurb from Jesus: you know you’re a liar, and a hack, and you better step up your game. The poet I picked for this week is like that: a skilled assassin, a pro in the way pros ought to be, taking what she thought was useful from American poetry, and leaving the rest with its throat slashed on the floor.

I first read Ai when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better. She didn’t whine, even when she was dumped, or ignored, or had to suffer fools gladly. She got them back. Her poems had sex in them, but not as a recreational activity. They were driven by some inner magic I couldn’t forget, and which stayed with me for days, and it made me rip up two notebooks of poetry. She was intense in a way that made the comedians and the clever keep their mouths shut. They’d never say to her: Ai, where’s your sense of humor? Compared to her, Christopher Walken was a fucking nun playing Lady of Spain on a mandolin. She tossed all the buildings out of the way, sent cars flying, and made me stand alone to face her, and, being street smart, I got the hell out of there.

I would have never wanted to meet Ai. Her poems have a fierce precision that precludes any literary lunches. Ai’s work reminds me that poets don’t need to be brave, or fearless. They need to be good, and, if possible, ferocious. I know she’s dead, but if I was near her grave, I’d walk carefully and I’d take off my hat. You can never be too careful. A friend of mine went to Monk’s memorial service and had the bad taste to ask Miles Davis for an autograph. “Man,” Miles said, “we’re at a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m sorry, Miles.” Miles Davis said: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.” This seems like an Ai poem. She was not brave and fearless. Great birds of prey don’t have to be brave and fearless. They just know what they’re doing, and they eat you.

Salomé

by Ai

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
And when I thought we’d go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.
Your sword, the gold epaulets,
the uniform so brightly colored,
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut
that when I walked to the house
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk
behind me.
I took your letter from my bodice.
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother’s footsteps,
watched her walk to the window.
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.

Brandon Kreitler

Cardinality

1.

The shotgun shines
___radiant history across the mantle.

2.

The wind rips through a rolodex of the names of the dead.
___It could be a litany, almost
______like the registers of Audubon societies
___and the Who’s Who of West Virginia 1974
______begging for a trumpet in morning,
a waltz and then a nap
___in the hush of a million miraculously lit libraries.

3.

And in waking,
___a waking more this time than a polite not yet to the idea of death,
the atom of speech.
___Not like an old man mumbling to himself in baseball metaphor,
______but like a drop of rain in the palm,
___reminding that above there are stars in the continual ricochet of triangulation,
______bodies positioning themselves
_________in relation to a reference for which
______we have no analog.

But one can take comfort in the miscalculation of the heights of see-saw fulcrums,
___a child running around with a gold wrestling belt,
______brave men on Massachusetts quarters,
___Silver State on silver,
______———-, American.

4.

The wiper does not draw barren Nebraska across the windshield,
___and the merry-go-round children are not about to be
pulled from their fiberglass horses in rapture.

I am acknowledging this.

And yet the story doesn’t end.

An act is a draft for the acts that follow.
___We say forward and pinewood cars fly down their tracks.
After/at and a mother makes the wedding.
___Like a bow.

5.

I haven’t earned this but I’m hitching myself to your kindness.

There is a photo in my living room
___on the back of which scribbled are the words
______memory is an anachronism.
In the picture a child is
___dragging a stick though the sand
in the vacuum of summer.
___And I am sure that each grain had to pick a side.

 

John Wayne in Municipal Projection

A movie playing on the courthouse lawn,
________________________specked light flooding
__________________the summer air.
John Wayne in a panorama of desert
______against the stone wall. Beyond this city
the actual desert stretches
for more miles
______than we have ever known what to do with.
Like the air an empty category, unthinkable
alone.
__________________Enough cannot be said of his horse
in its unfathomable redness,
______surveying the prop buffalo in the basin,
____________the rigor of the battle dead.
You said there is nothing true of love
______that is not also true of the Waffle House.

______In the real heat some kids are dancing to an unheard music
in the grass,
______in the light before image,
as though to say these, my feet,
______are the circumference
of my world,
______as if to say I.
____________Stars drown
like pills
______in a soft pink mouth.
The gold dust in the projector light
______has yet to stop falling.

 

In the Cordage of the Municipality

The aperture of dawn breaks
over the government lake
embalming our long apprenticeship
to dust stalled in the tertiary gloss.
The scrutiny of a man between needs.
The wanting less to be oneself
than to hold one’s place—
to insist sincerity is only
the desire to have said
what one has said.
The rooms replenish themselves
with a stable of objects:
an apple core browning in the drain,
button shirts hung in the limpid forms of bodies elsewhere,
in a stable of rooms which relay their tedium
like figurations in a language made of a single word.
The city remains and the city is grammar.

 

POSTSCRIPT

Paul Horn’s Inside the Great Pyramid
William Basinski’s disintegration loop
Gun on the wall
Quabbin Resevoir
Cardinality
Cardinal Numbers
Origin of looking a gift horse in the mouth

Poems

Diagram
Boston Review
Eoagh
Poem of the week here on The The!
Web Conjunctions

Articles

Brandon’s article on William Basinski
Another on Animal Collective and the like
Feature article/interview with Matt Wolf on his Arthur Russell documentary

Brandon’s blog .

I still have my 4th grade book bag. Alone, at five in the morning, I picked the rusted lock with a paper clip, and discovered the 10-year-old Joe Weil’s first literary efforts, all crumpled up, in my terrible hand writing, but the meters of the poems were perfect. I remembered using that bag as a make shift sleigh, sliding across the parking lot at the acme super market. The entire route to school, and the voices of my friends turned to smoke in the winter’s air, returned to me. The weirdest things survive. I lost my parents and some of those friends also died: Eric, who introduced me to vampire comics and Henry Miller novels, his brother Greg who netted the biggest trout I ever caught, Huey who threw a good fast ball, and liked jamming with me on the piano. I found a poem in which I’d written about a guy who shoots into the wrong basket and scores two points for the opposing team. Back then, basketball was a minor god in my life. I wasn’t good, but I played it like football–I played street ball, tripped, shoved, bulled my way through. In 1968, there were basketball courts in the convent parking lot. If you were good, you played on the courts where the hoops had nets. If you were really good, the nuns left the lights on, and, except for bingo nights, you played full court on the netted baskets under the lights. I would play after school, in my uniform, before the bigger kids showed up and chased us off. A little later, after my mom ragged on me for tearing holes in all my uniforms, I’d run home, change, and come back to hang and play with friends. When the Magic fountain re-opened in Spring, you’d get a frosted drink if you had the money. If not, you’d go to the acme and carry some shopping bags for old ladies to make the change.

I’d play until nearly six, then race Eric on our bikes to get home in time for supper. The angelus bells would be ringing from all the churches. Old men kept homing pigeons, and they’d fly over the steeples of St. Mary’s, and St. Vladmir’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in perfect formation.

Sometimes, we’d cut across the tracks, and pop wheelies in front of oncoming trains. Sometimes, we’d go and steal a couple orange crates or wood from the back of acme to use for forts.

I thought about Eric, how his father would take us to the pro wrestling matches at the old armory, and how the Amazing Mulah, the woman’s world champ, threw a leg kick at us once when we crowded her outside her dressing room. I thought about how he died of a heroin overdose, and the friends he was with rolled him for his cash, and dumped his body off at the emergency room entrance. I thought about my mother’s face being eaten away with cancer, how she taught me to cook for the family before she died. I thought of standing in that kitchen, 18, her bald head hooded, her dimming voice instructing me to put the chicken in the bag with the bread crumbs and shake. I shook the bag so hard that it broke, and the chicken, bread crumbs, and seasoning all spilled to the floor. She laughed, and felt my bicep and said: “I can’t believe how strong you are Joseph.” It was the last time I heard my mother laugh.

Memory is painful because so much I loved was lost or damaged beyond repair, yet to only move forward like some idiot juggernaut is worse; it might spare me  pain, but at the cost of a sky full of pigeons, and my mother’s laughter. I write to raise the dead, and when I stop writing, they go back to their graves, but this book bag that I kept for no good reason all these years is like the mouth of hades. I can descend into its dark, pull out its scribbled text, and, for a few moments, recover the 10 year old with delusions of literary grandeur. No one had died yet, except for a couple of gold fish. My terrible “epic” called “Big Time Game” contains the lines:

Oh world tossed forth through endless space
I pray no rim, two points, pure lace. 

It was a good prayer, even if it wasn’t answered. My wife is still asleep. Eric, and Huey, and my mother and father are asleep. It is snowing as usual here in Binghamton–and maybe it is snowing in St. Gertrude’s cemetery back in Jersey where my parents, and my uncles, and aunts, and the whole of my childhood is buried. Now I understand why Gabriel forgave his wife in that story, and everyone else, and why the snow fell on both the living and the dead. Now I feel what it is to be born into loss. Now I know what it is to have my love and my futility raise me above the glory of angels.

I’ve been enjoying Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited lately (You can find a few of his essays reprinted here). Rexroth’s literary polymathism—his ability to speak (and translate) almost anything—seems touched only by Ezra Pound (who was a great translator, but not a good one).

Rexroth’s admiration for Tu Fu as a poet (along with Joe Weil’s recommended book list) inspired me to purchase One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. And I’ve spent the last several weeks reading, and rereading Tu Fu, in hopes that I would be able to understand and come to some of the insights that Rexroth touts. For example, Rexroth says

You feel that Tu Fu brings to each poetic situation, each experienced complex of sensations and values, a completely open nervous system. Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things. This is the essence of the Chinese world view, and it overrides even the most ethereal Buddhist philosophizing and distinguishes it from its Indian sources. There is nothing that is absolutely omnipotent, but there is nothing that is purely contingent either.

Rexroth concludes his essay saying

If Isaiah is the greatest of all religious poets, then Tu Fu is irreligious. But to me his is the only religion likely to survive the Time of Troubles that is closing out the twentieth century. It can be understood and appreciated only by the application of what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” What is, is what is holy. I have translated a considerable amount of his poetry, and I have saturated myself with him for forty years. He has made me a better man, a more sensitive perceiving organism, as well as, I hope, a better poet. His poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

I have not come to the profound insights of Rexroth, and I suppose I won’t for many years. I did figure out, I think, how at least one of Tu Fu’s poems functions. Or rather, how Rexroth’s translation functions. Here’s the poem:

Sunset

Sunset glitters on the beads
Of the curtains. Spring flowers
Bloom in the valley. The gardens
Along the river are filled
With perfume. Smoke of cooking
Fires drifts over the slow barges.
Sparrows hop and tumble in
The branches. Whirling insects
Swarm in the air. Who discovered
That one cup of thick wine
Will dispel a thousand cares?

On display here, of course, is poetic montage, which became especially popular in modernist poetry (in part because of the influence of eastern poetry, which was being imported to English via French, if I understand history correctly). I had always been familiar with Ezra Pound’s idea of metaphor as a sort of montage, but what is happening here seems to me to be a sort of directional, linear montage. One image leads to the next in a linking chain of montage. The sunset glittering on the beads is (possibly) refracted, turned into multiple colors. The beads, perhaps, are slowly moving from side to side, like a pendulum. This is similar to the way that the flowers, coming up in Spring, begin to display various colors and perhaps wave in the Zephyr.

The flowers quite readily lead to the garden image—this isn’t really montage. The garden is full of perfume, which leads to the smoke from the barges. The barges lead to the sparrows—perhaps a bit of a stretch, but I can see one saying that barges drift and tumble down a river the way that sparrows hop and tumble through branches. The montage here, I think, is the implied aimlessness. Finally, the sparrows montage into the insects.

We want to ask next, how do all these images culminate in the question “Who discovered / That one cup of thick wine / Will dispel a thousand cares?” It’s a good question, and on the surface it seems that Tu Fu/Rexroth has pulled this last line rabbit-like out of a hat. It’s not a complete non-sequitor. But let’s return to what Rexroth says:

Out of this comes the choice of imagery — so poignant, so startling, and yet seemingly so ordinary. . . . For Tu Fu, the realm of being and value is not bifurcated. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not an Absolute, set over against an inchoate reality that always struggles, unsuccessfully, to approximate the pure value of the absolute. Reality is dense, all one being. Values are the way we see things.

Rexroth seems to be saying, in Tu Fu’s poetry, the question I just posed should not even be a question. We perceive a break between images and feeling. But perhaps this break is artificial. We acknowledge that images can evoke feelings, perhaps that there is an “objective correlative” that can reliably evoke feelings. But perhaps what is being suggested here is that the category break is weaker than we think. The image (object) is already interpreted: “values are the way we see things.”

Thus, we can move seamlessly from the barge to sparrows to the question about wine; it’s all part of Tu Fu’s hermeneutic circle: one thing constantly interpreting the next. Perhaps I should reconsider my use of the word “linear,” given that I just described Tu Fu as using a sort of “circle.” But I don’t want to sit firmly with one or the other. Maybe coil? Spring?

These philosophical musings are not what is poetic here, though. Perhaps they are the fodder of the poetic (though “fodder” downgrades philosophy in an unfair way). Having interpreted the poem philosophically, though, it begs the question: what is poetic about this piece? Rexroth again: [Tu Fu’s] poetry answers out of hand the question that worries aestheticians and critics, “What is poetry for?” What his poetry does superlatively is what is the purpose of all art.

Rexroth’s answer may be a trapdoor: What is poetry? Read Tu Fu and you will understand. Undoubtedly there is a wholeness about Tu Fu’s poem. We enter the poem at the beginning and leave it at the end. Have we gone anywhere? We’ve moved from image to image, and yet I’ve argued we remain in the same place, we have stayed within an interpretive circle.

Yet our minds have been expanded. We are in a different place than before. We can try to define that place, interpret and understand it, but in doing so we are actually moving to a new place. We grasp at it and it slips away.

Etheridge Knight wrote some of the only haiku I can stand in the American idiom. In addition to that, his ear was impeccable, and he was liable to go just about anywhere in a poem so that he invigorates the tradition of the conversational lyric and does so by using mixed registers of speech while avoiding both the political correctness and formulaic “Non-academic” traditions of spoken word. The list in second part of this poem shows how a poet can still use cursing and invective to maximum rhythmical advantage. This is a list, worthy of Whitman. Knight is not an “unschooled poet.” His training is in the whole array of American speech from the reflective, almost introverted poet, to the raucous street preacher. “All Fucked Up” represents true spoken word–not a slam formula.

Feeling Fucked Up
by Etheridge Knight

Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs–

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcom fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing

 

Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.

These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.

Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.

One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.

*

To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?

One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.

Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.

What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.

In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.

*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the anthologies of traditional Chinese poetry translated by Burton Watson and Stephen Owen, Voices of the Fourth Generation, compiled and translated by Keming Liu and some other writers and poets, is in bilingual format for the first time. The collection aims at “the attention of English-speaking readers a comprehensive and focused selection of contemporary Chinese poetry in translation.” More than 40 poems by 20 poets are chosen in the translated anthology.

Generally speaking, the poets whose poems are chosen in the book were born in 1970s and 1980s. Many are cynical of the modern Chinese society, showcasing the negative aspects in their poems. In fact, the translators–perhaps influenced by critical ideology–have mostly selected poems for translation which tell the Western readers about one side of current realities in Chinese society, which are no doubt worthy of attention today. Particularly highlighted are the problems from China’s recent economic development: the pollution, the thieves, the farm-workers’ poor treatment, the poverty, the workers’ poor working conditions and life, suicide, etc. On the other hand, though, we also see the mother’s love, peddler’s life, natural innocence. In general, though, the translated poems offer far more negatives than positives. Perhaps this caters to Westerners’ pre-conceived notions or the readers who are interested in the current troubles of Chinese society. In a word, the translated poems seem more interested in criticizing Chinese society than aesthetic expression. In spite of these issues, the translators should be respected for their down-to-earth choice of the poems.

The translators are very faithful to the original poems in their translations. Some of the translations are very creative. For example, the poem “Hidden”: “I try to look radiant and dewy like jade/Smile a plump smile/like the long-dead Mona Lisa”(我累得珠圆玉润,胖了起来/笑成了死去的蒙娜丽莎),which suggests the real meaning of the Chinese sentence creatively and fluently in a varied structure. The poem “Orange”: “Sectioning an orange/how I wish it were you.”(我收刃一个橘子/我多想手刃你。) Instead of the rendition of “sectioning you,” it is translated into “it were you.” Its terseness avoids the awkward literal translation. In “Vase” the two lines “好插进花瓶/就像那个花瓶白白的园园的那么安静” are translated into several English lines—“like the vase/ pale, round, so serene/evenly covered with dust/how tender and poignant, that film of ash.” The restructured sentences in English sound more beautiful than the original ones.

Some poems give the sense of life philosophy. For example, “The Metro Station” by Mo Tou Bei Bei:

The metro conjoins departures and farewells
Experience, however, is not straight like the rail track.
I arrive
no welcome
familiar places pass by
unnoticed

 

车站汇集了出发和离别
但经历
不会象笔直的铁轨。
当我回来
没有迎接
熟悉的场景仿佛路过的
那些无名之处。

The title of the poem reminds us of Ezra Pound’s famous poem “The Metro”, yet it goes farther than the image creation of Pound’s imagism movement. The short poem is filled with the pathos of people’s separation and the loss of life or loneliness in the modern society.

I was concerned about not knowing. Concerned about not being known. Yet I did little to be known outside of persevering with the work. The work being whatever I was doing at the time in my virtual creative space. Mind, body.  Divine intervention. Spiritual revelation. The meaning of every day was living every day as if to make it your last. Life was simple. Inevitable. We invited chaos, we invented dogma, we were what we were trying to be but its presence when achieved was fleeting as the collision of particles in an accelerator. That was yesterday.

The smoke was good, the powder okay. In good company we passed days and nights, weeks and months, then years, basking in the nexus of our personal style of aesthetic nihilism. Tomato Soup. “I’m not going to talk to you, either.” I pushed colored wax as far as it would go, canvas board after canvas board, tracing skylines and events, burnishing sunrises and sunsets, until water could not penetrate the multi-colored skin of fingers calloused as the attitudes of even the most insignificant bit player in our amateur reproduction of something someone thought  might once have been important. Our version of “Goodbye Columbus” was going under a spell.

The supernumerary muttered an utterance that seemed to bubble from a guttural froth, mimicking the personification of ghosts of Christmases Past at holiday parties for forgotten forebears, where children of badness danced on their backs in four poster beds with the eyes of the world upon them. The clatter came with exaggeration about sordid events, including tales of blood-letting and blood drinking, unfounded, unsubstantiated, untrue, but critical to the end of times as the sodden sought to crawl from their netherworld and spring themselves upon the unsuspecting. Broken nails can be so annoying.

If it looked like I was praying I might have been, an agnostic’s prayer for deliverance from the emptiness of nothing, of the blank page, the darkness behind closed eyes, the hidden scenes yet to be played out on the subterranean stage under the charging hues of hot lights in an empty theater where there was no one to scream “Fire” and the place burned down without the dreams escaping. On Long Street the barber whittled his bas reliefs while the chair sat empty. A more colorful life on Friday night was the Cat’s Meow, but the carvings ended up in museums.

The studio by the rail yards went empty, but not before poetry and prints were married by the Minister of Galleries, posted on the wailing wall of expectations lacking will to live, and distributed as Art in America. But before there was any kind of web. Those strange and sticky strands hold up today. On the red ground above Negril a small complex of clapboard sheds resting on cinderblocks overlooks the family graveyard, beginning with one killed in Kingston. It’s a deniable aphorism that time spent alone is in preparation, if for no other purpose.

See some of Ken Chen’s poems and find links to items mentioned in the podcast.

Ken Chen Interview