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charles simic

Christopher Phelps said something interesting about Buber and the cult of personality. He tied it into the poetry scene, which makes it especially interesting to me (You could also tie it into a certain extent with why indie bands muted the role of the singer in the grunge era, still do to a certain extent by making the lyrics purposely subsumed into the overall mix, but this, to me leads only to fake humility–and inaudible lyrics–which is the height of arrogance).

Still, I had to go back to my Buber (which anyone who had me at Arts High knows I talked of incessantly): I equate his take on the cult of personality with insistence on a self as personage rather than as person–the self as set off apart from the dynamic of communion between I and thou, I and you, and I and it–the self as commodity, as product, as a sort of ongoing “value: the personality that says there is only I, me. This is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s despair which insists on the self, on “me, myself and I” (in Kierkegaard there are three despairs: the despair of being one’s self, the despair of not being one’s self, and the sickness unto death which is a despair so deep the person is not even aware of it as despair. This last was the despair particular to the Christian burgomasters of Denmark and, by extension, to all middle calls and proper materialists hiding under the sign of Christ).

When I read Buber speaking against the cult of personality, I immediately heard the voice of James from the Epistles, and understandably, because Buber is a great teacher, a rabbi in the truest sense, and the traditions of the reb is exactly the style James is written in–most especially the Rabbi as instructor on the relationship between shema and mitzvah–exactly the I/Thou relationship.

In Shema/mitzvah one is to love the Lord with all one’s heart, and mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self–a love based not on personality, not on a cult of personages, a love based not even on family ties, but on an extension of the Shema to all sentient life as embodying the Torah–Isaiah’s dictum of “God does not require burnt offerings, but a contrite and loving heart, a broken spirit, (broken meaning as bread) and good deeds done for the poor, the widow and the orphan”.
Within this context, Buber joins a rich tradition of Jewish rabbinical teaching against the idol worship of personages, Buber and Soren and Simone Weil, and just about all mystics and deeply moral spiritual leaders teach against the cult of personality in this respect (the irony is how the rabbinical tradition often became in the diaspora exactly that: a cult of personality). Buber and James sound very much alike in this respect, qouting James:

My brothers, show no respect for personages as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and fine clothes comes into your assembly and a poor person n shabby clothes also comes in and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say: “Sit here, please, while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my feet”have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

It was with this epistle in my heart, that I ran a poetry reading for 16 years. I always saw a poetry reading as a place where the field was evened, and personages would be dissolved into a communal act–a bread breaking, as what the slammers now call a third round, but which I called the open. A feature was not superior, but a presider with the host of the reading in a meaningful ceremony of honoring the “guest” among us, and that guest was, for that moment, a distillation of all we were enacting: a ceremony of presence, The guest should be one who could be present among us–a word among us, but he or she should not be above or better than or superior to us, although, while they were our guest, we should treat them with respect and dignity and attention. This guest should ideally rise up from among us, or be the “other” come to visit the community. The laws of Xenia applied to my idea of the poetry reading and both feature (guest presbyter with the MC of the reading) and the community who came out for the reading at obligations of hospitality that vanquished the cult of personality:

The reader was to be “present” among us–to preside as it were with the host in the meaningful enactment of this ceremony known as a reading.

The reader was never to over read, but to read just enough to establish a presence and to honor the dynamic between presbyter and community. The host was to make everyone feel welcomed, to show no partiality, to honor the guest by being generous. And so the guest received a gift (there should always be an honorarium, a giving from the community) and the guest in return gave his or her presence–not only by featuring, but by staying for the open and hearing the others, being among the others.

The community should be responsive to the guest. In the open, no one should be long winded or selfish or take the spot of the other. The host should be responsive to the poems as in an almost call and response. There should be either a break between the feature and open, or after the reading in which people are invited to break bread. There should be no respect for persons (the cult of personality), but there should be deep respect for self and other through communion and creation of a meaningful ceremony.

What I liked about poetry readings in the 70s and 80s was that it was the only place in the whole of my society where I saw rich and poor, old and young, ugly and sexy, mentally ill and normatives dissolved into an act of community–and without family or a wedding or a church being at the center of it. It was exactly the absence of the cult of personality that I admired and recognized a dimension of shema/mitzvah through. Features arose from the opens. Features stayed to hear the other poets. This is how I was heard and approached by Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. These “personages” would stay and listen. They came over to me and gave me a kind word–for no other reason than that they recognized something in my poetry. I was treated with kindness, as it should be…

This has disappeared. In academia, opens are frowned upon and the featured poet becomes an act of conspicuous display–a temporary “idol” and in regular series, asshole features leave before the open as if they were too good to hear the others. Meanwhile people in the open over read (this was always a problem) or show up only after the feature has read (or leave after the open if the open comes first). Work shops are far more enmeshed in the cult of personality because everyone is there to have their work “seen” and to say they took a work shop “with.” Seen and with are deadly to community. Buber is right about that.

I have a vision for readings in which everyone is welcome–in which 80 year olds and teenagers, good poets and bad poets, normatives and crazies meet on equal footing because, in the ceremony of bread, in James and Buber, your “personage” is what you leave behind when you enter the temple. Slams blaspheme against this spirit with their own terrible enforcement of hierarchy. Slam grew out of the spoken word scene I came out of–bar readings, readings where anyone from a prof to a wino could sign up on the list and read. The “third round” is a pale ghost of this era. Slam is utterly caught up in the cult of personality, even with team poems. In this respect, Buber is apt.

When I ran the Baron Arts Center with Deborah Laveglia and Edie Eustace, we took money out of our own pockets to supplement readings. The same people showed up as regulars year after year. And sometimes there were thirty or more people going back to the diner after the reading. I came to love some of them, to be friends, and some died and I mourned. The features were both outside the regulars and from the regulars. Everyone who came each month eventually featured.

It was community in the way Buber intended it–beyond the cult of personality. Of course we knew certain poets were more talented than others, and, without snobbery, we appreciated them as such. We all loved Joe Salerno who came every month, but Joe loved people back, and could remember lines of people’s poems. I knew I was part of a meaningful ceremony, every time I put the key in the lock and hit the code to disable the alarm at the center. I knew it was the early May reading because the Lilacs would be in bloom outside the door.

After the reading, we often went to the diner, and sometimes we didn’t go home until almost dawn. I miss this. This made life a little more tolerable. It was what church was supposed to be and never was. Perhaps I am old and stupid, but without this, work shops and features and awards just seem maniacal, and sociopathic. I feel I am in some stupid brag factory where snobbery and “professionalism” are mass manufactured. Everyone is an award winning poet. Everyone is so and so at so and so. In our series, I used to make the bios up on the spot–in order to disrespect the gravitas of personality.

I once told the people at Baron the poet Adele Kenny was my ex wife (just for fun) and that we were working out our grudges and coming to an understanding. I responded to poems in the call and response tradition of my youth. I did not get involved in this to become famous. I got involved to have somewhere I could go where I felt welcomed and where I could practice my art. I find no place like this anymore.

I know a great deal about many aspects of poetry, but that’s not the point. I hate grade A student thinking which is always, always, always, about being a personality. I want to manifest the shema/mitzvah–the I/thou. That’s hard to do when everything is lost in “Studied with” “went to” and won such and such. Joe Weil–not the personality but the host who brought disparate things and people together, who believed in the motley is dead–replaced by who?

Christopher Phelps really got me thinking. It would be nice to feel that way again. I live with a wonderful poet, but this is not about intimacy (that’s based on personal affinity). I need communitas. Maybe because I’m extraverted? Who the hell knows.

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 are a poet writing in English, you carry Horace in your own voice. I’m convinced there really is no way around this. I’m not sure there’s any possible strain of English poetry that can avoid his influence. And who would want to? Horace is a master of lyric poetry. To learn better how we speak as poets, we should all be looking at and coming to grips with Horace.

This looking back (not so much ad fontes as Jacob wrestling God) is made difficult by the fact that most of us don’t know Latin (or the Greek of the poets Horace learned from). And even for those who do, the collapse that exists between Latin and English can seem insurmountable. I was a terrible student when I studied Latin and Greek and have since forgotten much of it. Looking back now, I can see that I looked at foreign languages more as a different speaking-code that could be translated into English (with a few admitted bumps along the way), rather than another way of thinking–perhaps even another way of being. I’ve realized that language is a rite of sorts into which we are initiated over a very long period of time. Whenever I feel frustrated with my students inability to grasp certain ideas of language, I look up at a large poster of Greek verb endings that I’ve posted in my cubicle to remind myself of the difficulty of learning another language. It keeps me humble (I hope).

Because language is a rite of initiation of sorts, it has to be done with humans. You can immerse yourself in a dead language, but at the end day who knows whether you’re working with the language in a way the original speakers would have been familiar with? I remember reading some translation commentaries in which several possible translations–all very different–were posited by the commentators who then shrugged, essentially, saying–we honestly just don’t know how to translate this. This is maddening if you’re trying to render a translation that is as close to the original in every way possible. At the end of the day, most translators have to admit that they are only able to be accurate in one or two ways, and that these accuracies come at the expense of other accuracies. A translator may, for example, attempt to imitate the free and easy rhythm of the original, but to do so in English, the translator may need to reorder the ideas and images in the original.

A few months back I wrote a sort of prologue to this book review in which I concluded that fruitful translation is possible as long as we are able to recognize and appreciate the “extra layers” of intent that must be layered over top of a translation to make it possible. That is, we first must recognize the limits of translation, while also acknowledging (and appreciating, I think) what the translator adds to the translation.

The collection that J.D. McClatchy has assembled renders the totality of Horace’s four books of odes. The translations are from contemporary English-speaking poets of all varieties, from Paul Muldoon to Charles Simic to Rosanna Warren. All (or almost) have had some experience translating from a classical language. All the poets, with the exception of Simic, grew up speaking one of the major incarnations of modern English (American, British, Irish, Canadian, Australian).

McClatchy’s Odes favors a variety of translators (and inevitably, translational perspectives). As such, it is a valuable collection to add to the stable of Horace translations. From them, you can learn a lot about Horace as a poet. But I suspect you can also learn more about the translators as poets themselves, and that makes this collection a valuable addition to the study of modern poetry as well.

It would be much too large of a task to review how each poet approaches Horace. The good news is that almost every one of McClatchy’s translators take on several Odes each, which creates a sort of arc from which you can study and learn about each poet’s translational perspective. One poem is not probably enough to enlighten us about how the contemporary poet relates her or his poetics with that of Horace, but thankfully, McClatchy has given readers enough to make a study of each individual poet if a they so chose.

Given my own weak knowledge of Latin, I cannot assess well the various ways in which the translations of McClatchy’s edition mediate the gap between Horace’s Latin and modern-day English. The best I can is muddle an assessment in triangulation with another modern edition of Horace I have come to love and admire: David Ferry’s.  Where McClatchy’s Odes features variety, Ferry’s translations have a consistency of translational perspective. Over winter break, I also picked up a copy of Mitchie’s translations (which are, amazingly, often done in the original meter–something neither Ferry nor McClatchy’s translators attempt). Legend has it that Auden was scared off from doing his own translations of Horace by what he perceived as the self-evident greatness of Mitchie’s.

As far as recent poets go, however, I believe that Ferry’s translations will last for a long time as a node upon which modern poetics can hang its relationship with Horace. McClatchy’s Odes exists more as a collection of statements of relationship between modern poets and Horace. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Ode I.23, by both Ferry and Heather McHugh.

Ferry first:

i.23 / To Chloë

Chloë, it is as if
_____You were but a little fawn
Needlessly fearful of every
_____Littlest breeze that stirs,

Ready to run as far
_____Away as it possibly can,
Seeking its timid mother
_____Anywhere but here

Where its heart beats fast and it trembles
_____In every limb for any
Slightest shimmer or shiver
_____Of newly opening leaf,

Signs of the spring beginning,
_____Or if a lizard’s foot
Disturbs a single twig.
_____Chloë, I am neither

A lion nor a tiger;
_____I have no wish to hurt you;
Do not run to your mother;
_____Now is the time for love.

Now McHugh:

I.23

You dash from my sight, little Chloë, the way, wth fear,
a stray fawn bolts from path to bush in search
of her lost mother, trembling utterly at each
sweet nothing of the woods, each stir of air.

Let any thorn tree spring the briefest leaf,
let any lizard make the least green streak
toward any under-tangle–and she’ll freeze,
blood knocking, heart at knees.

But I’m no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite,
to rack a baby down and eat her up. I’m only
human: I’m a man. The time is right, in you, for some
bold move. Now let your mother go. Now, let me come.

McHugh, with her percussive wordplay, has turned Horace’s speaker into a sweaty, groping, borderline (if not already there) pedophile. In truth, it’s also there in Ferry’s poem, but ambivalently. The tactfully discharged imagery of Ferry’s poem could be one playing a role in a game of “hard to get” as easily as it could indicate a smooth, but predatory operator. I’ll admit, however, that after reading McHugh’s poem I have a hard time not seeing it her way (that might also be because I just finished watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but that’s neither here nor there).

McHugh takes the central conceit of the poem and thrusts the reader into it (“You dash from my sight”). Ferry, on the other hand, layers the desire below the conceit (“Chloë, it is as if…”). McHugh makes the not-at-all subtle equation of Horace’s desire (and the instrument thereof) to the lizard (which itself sparks other associations); in Ferry’s poem, that image is tidied away as a “lizard’s foot.” The way we see both Ferry and McHugh dealing with these images brings me to a larger point about Horace: one of the most impressive things that Horace does–one thing that I badly wishI could ape from his craft–is his ability to introduce a multitude of objects and hold them all in balance. We see what could be Ashbery’s wandering mind under the disciplinary curtain call of form. Whether the “formal feeling” that gives us a sense of the poem’s beginning or end is a “romantic standby,” I’ll leave for other poets to hammer out at this point. In these translations, there is no formalism, but how the translators perceive Horace’s intent becomes a form, of sorts. They must wrestle with all the objects, by squeezing them in, ordering and directing them to their will. This reinterpretive ordering says much about how the translators as poets relate to Horace.

If I had a wider range of knowledge about all the contributing translators, McClatchy’s collection of new translations could do with a thorough comparison, a catalogue of what each poet is doing with Horace in his or her own right. That exercise would, no doubt, yield a large number of insights, and I hope that the readers of this review would do this and return with their findings (perhaps shared in the comment section?). Ezra Pound suggested that there are three major components to poetry: sound, image, and word play. In this review I mostly focused on image (the most easily translated of the three aspects according to Pound). I was hoping to tackle tone, which floats around Pound’s three aspects. I wanted to write about Mark Strand’s translations, but honestly I just didn’t have time (this was supposed to go up at Christmas!). Maybe some other day.

What I wanted to end this review with, however, is with a demonstration of the way that we all carry Horace in our voice, using a poem I wrote as an example. While a student at Hunter, I was given a side-by-side comparison of Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness” and O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” Wyatt’s poem was itself a translation of Petrarch’s “Canzionere 189.” I decided to do my own loose rewrite of O’Hara and Wyatt, and the resulting poem turned out to be a bit of a cipher (to me at least) for the rest of my poems.

Later, after “discovering” Horace (that is to say, I had begun to read seriously and enjoy), I found that Petrarch’s was itself a rewrite of Horace’s 14th Ode from Book I. It was a very clear demonstration for me that tradition, for better or worse, was a part of all our voices, and–in a sense–we all need that tradition to speak as poets. So I present you with 5 different “versions” of the same poem, the last of which is my own (not to suggest that I am, in any way, an equal to the poets in this list).

i.14 / To the Republic
David Ferry

O ship, O battered ship, the backward running waves

Are taking you out to sea again! Oh what to do?

Oh don’t you see? Oh make for port! The wind’s gone wild!

Your sails are torn! Your mast is shaking! Your oars are gone!

Your onboard gods gone overboard! How long, how long

Can the eggshell hull so frail hold out? O ship so proud,

Your famous name, your gilded stern, your polished decks,

Your polished brass, so useless now, O Storm’s play thing,

O ship my care, beware, beware the Cyclades!

I.14
Debora Greger

O ship, a ground swell threatens
to set you adrift–look out!
Hurry to reach the harbor–no, don’t stop
to look, but you’ve lost your oars.

The mast has snapped, sails slap at the wind,
your hull needs rope to tie it back together,
canvas has torn, but you no longer
have gods to get you out of trouble.

Though you’re built of the best pine
from the most noble forest, upon a plank
of which your famous name is lettered–
and so beautifully–who can trust paint?

You make a sailor nervous. Be careful
or you’ll become a toy of the storm.
You who, not that long ago, were just
my headache, my pain in the neck,

but who now have my heart aboard,
steer clear of those narrow seas
that cut past the bright lights
marking the rocks of the Cyclades.

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness
Thomas Wyatt

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.

To the Harbormaster
Frank O’Hara

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Canzionere 189

Like a forgetful, wind tottered garbage scow
I float. Pity me now
that I have eaten the sun god’s
cattle, and hunger still grips my body.
I wanted to shield it from the gulls
who followed the fat, dull
smell of death from port to
port, pulling out intestines of trash. For you
I have been terrible, increasing,
lashed to a green whale, desiring
spontaneous prose from secret thoughts
to hold me now. Oh how sorry
I am that I ate the sun’s cows
and didn’t feel sorry about it.

In the introduction to Unusual Woods (BlazeVOX 2010) you refer to your poems as “ghost sonnets.” Why “ghost sonnets?” And what prompted you to (a) select a definitive form, the sonnet, in which to write the poems and (b) to shave a line off the form?

I call them “ghost sonnets” because they’re missing the 14th line of a proper sonnet. That is, it’s getting later than it’s ever been and the sonnet is nearly over: do you know where your closure is? Writing poetry for me is a memento mori – the Latin for “remember that you must die” – as well as memento vivere – the Latin for “remember that you must live.” Living and dying in our lapsarian condition, we cannot close read our way out of our crisis of form. With regard to our lapsarian condition and the prospect of doing contemporary close reading, we need to ask: fallen from what and closer to what? We cannot, yet again, invent a mythical authority figure and then pretend we did not fashion that figure in our own likeness (like the New Critics, the New Formalists, or the New Sincerity movement in American poetry did). Certainly, I am not suggesting that we need more cynical irony. I think we need more sincere skepticism.

Once the center no longer holds, all readings become contests of meaning. Authority, intentionality, heroism, freedom, nation, progress and the rest of the Grand Narratives become suspect and, at best, conditional once we see the horrors the documents of the past have cataloged under the flags of these abstractions. All Grand Narratives are eschatological.

Heroically or mock-heroically, the un-whole sonnets in Unusual Woods try to face the ghosts of such radical doubts. To echo Leonard Cohen, the missing line in these ghost sonnets is the crack where the suspicious and conditioned light comes in. An innovative poetry, as Walt Whitman suggested, needs an innovative readership. These poems will possess the reader who finds a way to stand witness to their demands. The word is mightier than.

Why are British lords always hearing chains in the cellar? O, that’s right, the sun never sets on the British Empire. As the ubiquitous chain-rattling ghost haunts Victorian literature, so too form haunts content in contemporary American poetry. Form dreams of containing the message, the saying, or the idiomatic haggling over the transaction of meaning. Form dreams of mattering as a kind of play between aesthetical and ethical imperatives. However, sometimes form has a nightmare called a didactic political poem. Berrr! The truth lies hyphenated somewhere between aesthetical form-ethical content. Have you ever been hyphenated? Most uncomfortable!

To put it as pompously as a I can: I intervened in the rich multicultural sonnet tradition by inventing the 13-line sonnet form because I needed a practical way to determine when a poem was done without relying on the Romantic standby of intuition or epiphany or other gestures of closure. The limited lines offered a grid that freed me to attend to other aspects of the poem construction process such as how sound relates to sense within an aleatory composition. Finding the 13-line grid was certainly an example of limitations proffering freedom.

Foregoing, then, all “mythical authority figures” in which to ground the operations of form, ought we to construct new forms and/or salvage forms from the vestiges of tradition? Or, are we for the foreseeable future trapped in “ghost” forms?

I’d like to pose it as a question: can we forego all “mythical authority figures” or not? Briefly, since this is obviously a huge topic, I would just like to add that I do believe poetry would become little more than unreadable formal exercises without a basis in faith or without a reaching out to name the essence of a person, place, or thing. Can we even imagine or can our language even connote without a metaphysical arc? Why does language fail to communicate without the metaphysical sponsorship of human agency?

As a reader of the old forms of the European avant-gardes and American modernisms, I’ve learned the importance of being weary of prognosticators. Growing up in Romania under the last communist dictatorship in Europe, I developed a strong distaste for utopian programs. Every 5 year plan is a sacrifice of someone’s present. Indeed, the word “we” might be the most vicious utopia of all. I think readers read in order to gain the ghostly traces of the past through the wickets of language and image. Without the practice of freedom, the new is mere fashion, right?


“Howl” by Gene Tanta


In your introductory essay, you say that “[a]s a critic, [you are] faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content.” In my review, I took “object with aesthetic form” to mean that the “objectivity” and structure of your poems lend them a universal quality, in spite of their specificity and dependence on “cultural biography.” Your statement also suggests that you want your poems to be approached as aesthetic objects. Is this right, and, if so, how ought we to understand the relationship of these two aspects–universal and aesthetic?

For whatever my current understanding of my own intention is worth to the reader encountering my poems, I do want my poems to be read as aesthetic and formally considered objects. At the same time, I also want my poems to be read as political provocations that ask the reader to reflect on her ethical position in the narrative we make of the past. Some of the most interesting language I know lives in the hyphens connecting, while also separating, words like poet-artist, aesthete-propagandist, Romanian-American. Between is the new both!

I think your question about the prospect of a universal beauty goes to the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing as an experimental poet in the twenty first century: how does one use language? Since language operates as a denotative instrument in the service of function as well as a connotative artifact in the plot of illusion, how one uses language is not a simple matter of practicing sincere criticism or of practicing coy pun-work. Language lives between function and figuration trying to break up the street fight while also egging on the street fight.

Regarding the possibility of objectivity, allow me to quote Heinz von Foerster: “Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” My love of language (language is the medium of wisdom after all) is born of my interest in the simple but not the simplistic, the fundamental but not the fundamentalist, the elemental but not the elementary. I think an ethics exists when one acknowledges the other. Once the subject relates to the object, I think we can begin the process of defining what is good and what is bad for individuals and for society. The problem, of course, persists into everyday living: how do we go about the practice of acknowledging the other and how do we meet the task of defining our categories?

On the prospect of a universal beauty, I’d just like to offer a few questions. How can beauty (however innovative its form, however good its self-perceived intention, however tripartite its ideology) be universal across races, classes, genders, times, temperaments, languages, grammars, habits, religions, and so on? The universe itself is a huge and mainly dark room (or stanza, the Italian word for room). What does it mean to make an adjective of such a little-known and mainly empty and cold room? Maybe the universe is missing its 14th line. What would a Mayan make of Candide?

To answer your question, certainly there is no universal beauty if this requires that all readers across time and space must agree on what is beautiful. On the other hand, to ask your readers, whom I believe you assume to be culturally diverse, to approach your poems aesthetically, assumes that reading aesthetically is possible. Certainly responses of readers will vary widely based on a variety of factors, but one could argue that the differences are finite and provisional. In other words, to say beauty is always personal and relative is not to say it is totally subjective. Wouldn’t the Mayan be able (mostly) to understand Candide if she took a class from a Voltaire scholar who catered to international students?

Right, cultural relativism is at the heart of this important debate. Certainly, our multicultural differences are “finite and provisional” but whom should we ask to tell us where these differences end and on what they depend? If beauty is “always personal and relative,” how do we approach the prospect of coming to a universal consensus on the meaning of beauty? Catering is such an interesting word. It reminds me of the multicultural phrase “underserved community” which, for me anyway, brings up concerns of the master-slave relationship with respect to how capital nurtures and even propagates the classist ideal of necessary difference, the boom and bust cycle of universal beauty.

I think your essay successfully sets up the dichotomy of reading aesthetically versus politically–a dichotomy that your poems show to be false. But in your essay you argue that culture influences aesthetics. Undoubtedly, we also consult aesthetic objects when we establish or alter cultural traditions. Why, then, don’t we simply collapse these categories? If the dialectic between aesthetics and culture is extremely fluid, is it necessary to uphold a distinction? Shouldn’t we just concede that all artistic objects are sites for “contests of meaning” (to borrow your phrase from earlier)? To put it another way, is there anything about the aesthetic that is outside of or impervious to power struggle?

As I suggest above, the biographical circumstances of my childhood in Romania have left me suspicious of centralized government. Romania transitioned pretty swiftly from a socialist dream in 1965 to a despotic regime in 1972. Since I only caught the despotic end of utopia, I tend to see public plans of commitment such as the various 5 year plans in the former USSR, Romania, China, India and so on as instruments poised to organize the public around that famously shared, and even more famously necessary, delusion: hope. We need hope as long as we conceive of time as a linear procession of good and bad luck.

That said, according to my 5 year plan, the fluid dialectic between the aesthetical and the political does not end. The motion between making special (art) and making clear (propaganda) flows in time because the human experiment flows in time. Whether that motion moves in a straight line from left to right or in a circle depends on whether you prefer Pepsi or Coke. My point is that we cannot choose without ideology rearing up its pretty head. Ideology is in the details.

I’ll be better able to answer your question after the apocalypse has brought history to its end. Only after human strife and pleasure is over, on the floodlit stage of the afterlife, can we determine whether we should collapse the categories of aesthetics and politics. However, since this is turning out to be the warmest decade in history, the end of days may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the global warming trend continues, the human rights and social justice issue of the twenty first century may be our final 5 year plan.


“Figure on Yellow” by Gene Tanta

What were you thinking when you wrote “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh”? This poem stands out both in its line length and its (seemingly) overt autobiographical undertones. So I was struck by its uniqueness. On the other hand, I anticipate that method by which your “cultural biography” shaped this poem might be representative of a similar method in the other poems.

Like Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Vasko Popa, Frank O’Hara, Kent Johnson, Patricia Smith, I certainly use the autobiographical register but I profess no one-to-one ratio between the speakers in my poems and my life experiences. “Back in Romania, I knew a gypsy boy named God who carved words in his inner thigh,” like most poems in Unusual Woods, (“My father did not invent fire” is a notable exception) have been pared down and built upon again and again. Whether expository or creative, writing is very much a process for me.

As a writer interested in the marginalia and redux of consciousness, I know I cannot know my own intentions. That said, some of the material in the “Back in Romania…” poem does borrow, stress, and tweak my own life experiences as a boy growing up in Romania. The formal rule of 13-line stanzas explains the longer line length: the story had to fit within the 13-line capsule.

Yes, you’re right! The process of tapping my cultural biography (or the unconscious authority of the force of memory) flows as a theme throughout these otherwise highly divergent morsel-sized poetic stanzas, rooms, universes. Where’s the fire? The urgency is in the old paradox: we die while we live. There’s the fire. Now run, sentence, run.

André Breton claimed surrealism puts life in the service of art. Surrealism asks artists and poets to make it realer than real, hyper real, or extra real. Such an understanding of the unconscious haunts these odd 13-line universes. These poems listen to how you read them; they listen with the cut and paste of idiom and image. It is the hurry up of scissors’ work. It is the hush and clang of bodiless souls associating with their kinfolk of understanding.

Or as Charles Simic puts it: “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs. Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves. Not many people seem to notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.”

Recently, there have been several articles on THEthe Poetry Blog on surrealism in poetry, and I am dissertating on this topic. Is it simply the cut-and-glue process that makes your poetry surreal, or are there other elements at work? Simic’s comment would suggest not process, but mimesis is the primary function.

Certainly, I seek to create uncanny effects with my poems: effects that both ring the doorbell of childhood but also ring the jilted note of the unfamiliar. I seek to create new and memorable effects of the new and memorable real. Like any writer, I do this partly through craft elements such as imagery, setting, character, and partly through my capability to live with not knowing. Mimesis is a process of mishearing in a productive way. Was it Tristan Tzara or Eminem who said “thought is made in the mouth”? Anyway, I like to listen with my imagination.

When writing and revising, do you strive for the surreal, or is it only an afterthought?

Surreal effects are the afterthoughts of language, more like it. Walter Benjamin has a theory that all words in all languages are onomatopoetic, readers only have to do the work of figuring out how sound relates (or used to relate) to signification in light of the value system of each language. To borrow the syntax of a bumper sticker: “chance operations happen.” The task, if you like, of poets and readers is to notice the odd rubbing going on between sound and sense. I like to watch words. Not many people notice them. I watch them and eavesdrop on them.

The Surrealists often spoke of the marvelous (which might be considered a version of the sublime) as the end of their methods. Do you concur that something marvelous or sublime happens when certain conditions are met in the text? Does this relate in any way to how you understand the aesthetic aspect of your poetry?

Dada interests me more than Surrealism. However, within Surrealism, its anarchic tendencies seem more interesting to me than its fetishistic tendencies (which American marketing has employed with such gusto). For instance, Breton had another concept called “convulsive beauty” which transgresses the boundaries of formal logic as well as the canonical categories of Beauty. Convulsive beauty, by retooling the pathology of hysteria, queers aesthetic and political norms. Like Dada, hysteria (applied by the Surrealists not as a pathological diagnosis but as an instrument to destabilize categories) is that “which escapes definition.” With my creative work, I seek to make the possible more possible. This is the only kind of new I know.

“Flowers” by Gene Tanta