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denise levertov

I admit I didn’t like Denise Levertov’s work when I was a kid. I preferred the hilarity of Ted Berrigan, the obvious authority and beauty of Stevens, the light but dazzling cool of Frank O’Hara, and Ginsberg’s Kaddish as well as Reality Sandwiches. I was even more a fan of Spanish and Latin American poets–Hernandez and Vallejo in particular. I came to admire Levertov only after I was approaching forty and she had recently died. I was old enough then to appreciate her seriousness of purpose. I came to admire her the way I had Muriel Rukeyser.

According to my friend Joel Lewis, Levertov fell out of favor when she embraced the catholic faith and started writing poems about her religion. Recently, her letters with Robert Duncan have put her on the radar again. She was also heavily involved in the protest movements of the 60′s–the anti-war movement in particular.That made her popular then when the baby boomers pretended to be Che. When they “converted” to conspicuous consumption sans conscience, she lost that following.

Her poems have the rigor of Objectivism, though she is no Objectivist. They are not flashy. Their technique might be likened to the aesthetics of one naturally adverse to the cult of personality. Her poetry is incremental rather than linear, and I read much of her work as sprung from her brilliant adaptation of Williams’ variable foot (she wrote one of the most sane defenses of it). I’ve chosen a little poem because my computer has crashed and I am borrowing Emily’s until she wakes up. But this poem shows what I mean in terms of how she breaks, and shapes her poetic line:

Pleasures

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull feathers of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board–

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design. Or a fruit, mamey,

cased in rough brown peel, the flesh
rose-amber, and the seed:
the seed a stone of wood, carved and

polished, walnut-colored, formed
like a brazilnut, but large,
large enough to fill
the hungry palm of a hand.

I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
within the coarser leaf folded round,
and the butteryellow glow

in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

Denise Levertov

BARTAB: AN AFTERHOURS BALLAD
Two Handed Engine Press
118 p.
ISBN: 978-0982002001

Cesca Janece Waterfield’s poetry is palpably stunning at times. Raw and evocative, her debut book,  Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press) veers between profoundly personal poems about the nature of life fueled by substance abuse—and  a refusal to accept traditional boundaries—and the prose poem-narrative of two musicians floundering in a world that has little use for impractical brilliance. Her writing is sharp, incisive, and unsparing of self or society.

Stylistically, Waterfield is a direct descendant of postmodernist Denise Levertov. She’s also a singer-songwriter, which no doubt explains the intrinsic play of rhythm and sound in her lines. Drawing deeply from a lifetime of musicianship, Bartab begins to hum, early on, with a sort of subconscious soundtrack laced with blues-soaked Americana. Waterfield’s tone is conversational and unapologetic, and Bartab is concerned with prices and prisons. The price of refusing conformity, of obstinate recklessness in the pursuit of one’s dreams; the prisons that society surrounds us with and those we create ourselves. The book’s subjects wallow in romanticized cheap living while subtly building to the conclusion that all of this impoverishment comes with a staggering cost. In the story of characters Evie and Daniel, we are led, for example, to contemplate the domestic horror of a surgical procedure where a mere fifty bucks means the difference between proper anesthesia and toughing things out with a few valium:

That day, Daniel drove Evie to the clinic. The nurse had explained that Evie would have to remain at the clinic for three hours after the procedure. The anesthetic gas was powerful, she had cautioned over the phone, and monitoring was necessary to ensure the patient could be discharged. In the waiting room, Daniel squeezed Evie’s hand and looked into her face. “I’ll be right here,” he said. She disappeared into the back.

In a cramped office, Evie watched a video. When it was done, the nurse asked for $375, in money order or cash. Evie’s chest squeezed in panic. “They said bring three twenty five.” She looked down at the bills in her hand. “Three twenty five.”

The nurse was marking paperwork and said to her pen, “That’s for oral analgesic. Valium. If you want nitrous gas, it’s $375.” Inside her alarm, Evie’s thoughts coalesced. “I’ll take valium, then.”

The nurse looked up. “Instead of nitrous?” Evie nodded. Her hands were clenched on her thighs. The nurse consoled her, “At least with valium, you won’t have to wait long in the recovery room.” She circled something on the sheet. Evie remembered Daniel was waiting and she relaxed a bit.

On the ceiling was a poster of a kitten.

Early on in the book, in the mesmerizing Velocity, we are treated to glimpses of Evie’s childhood and adolescence:

I was sad but now I’m getting up wood grain below
my feet rises to swirl in my head swallow intentions
white cold porcelain of the tub’s lip I study the flowers
I painted on the shelf’s edge gorgeous pansies delicate
blooms with the correct number of petals because I
love biology sit up front get high with the grad students
maybe I’ll study neuroscience cure my sister’s epilepsy
I should mold some flowers from polymer clay no a clay I
will make I could patent it drive drive to Chesapeake
the dark Chesapeake earth smells round and sharp
simultaneously strange little animals (grim, they’re grim!)
dart through my headlights their eyes recognize me
they note my gift my head is awash in pictures what my
mother called vanity my father beat us my sister & me
differently I knew watching him beat her he understood
it was meditated it was math but for now I’m speeding
the Eastern Shore thuck thuck branch beneath the tires
thuck and I’m a girl

It’s Evie’s past, then, that largely, perhaps, informs her dealings with men (“I’m here cause Daniel said so”). Particularly heartbreaking is True Story, in which a drunken Evie triumphantly comes home to Daniel to announce, “I din spend any money, baby!”—proud of having gotten wasted without wasting any of their precious green.

It would be easy to despise Daniel but for Waterfield’s adroit painting of his character. Daniel is no villain, nor even a particularly bad man. He loves and tries to do right by Evie – but fails to shoulder his own burdens. From the prose poem-narrative A Prior Engagement:

The waitress reported back that she had a fresh bottle of Dalwhinnie and asked if he wanted one. Daniel thought about money and Evie’s smile. He ordered a double on the rocks. He saw no way to save it this time.

The metaphor of substance abuse as prison is well established, even overused. But Waterfield is effective in illustrating the rationalizations we make when in the throes of addiction. Consider:

These days were defined by a different kind of slide. Evie did not know what to do about it. She simply couldn’t put down a bottle of vodka once she’d screwed off its top. So she rationalized that going to bars with increasing frequency would put the quash on her habit. Because she would have to pay the tab at the end of the night…

And the frankly stunning (and harrowing) account of Drink:

Then you remember how you take it
and you want to pull it into you,
for it to work you over,
dusk shushing day.
There.
You’ve admitted it.
After you step out of sensation -
that silky dress -
shrug into shame,
and return, you recall the afternoon you
fucked the security guard on top of a parking garage
while a neighboring rooftop party saw and began to watch…
You imagine how it will feel,
not long from now…

When images meld, particulars scatter…

Your shoulders tense slightly
as you sense the clock’s progress,
its second hand shoving tenaciously forward.
You slap each minute down 25
like cards in hands of blackjack you win
and win and win…

Of course, the source of these demons is all too recognizable. Then there’s the too familiar background music of depression…(“The keening dirge/how long must I listen? When will we agree to stop pretending it is not there?”)… so delicately and heartbreakingly rendered in Portent, where:

To stretch long into the white spheres of stillness,
one must recall the clamor of hordes.
And as a single shiver descends
a body still ringing with warmth,
grief reaches into the air
to snap scenes between its sharp teeth:
snow flashing gold under sun,
the clattering limbs of the dog
loping into the brush, and I
at my window, watching birds yawp over seed
–as if we didn’t know the machination of sorrow;
how it stirs beneath even these days, waking,
rubbing its eyes with budding fists.

The final poem in the book is titled Memorial. It suggests a sober heroine looking back on her past with regret and wonder. Yet it is Evie’s passion—for music, for her own gifts as an artist—that finally drives her recovery, propelling her out of heartbreak and dissolution and back into the joy of existence, a

Congregation

I am coming a part of,
to wear as wing
of crow, clear
for landing, in my way. I rise
at the sudden clang of
yet another knell…
I fall down at altar as well as any, caw
swell as crow…

There are varied sorts of soldiers,
and on that day at last
the door whines open at my touch,
I want your face to look like Judas
and it’s the coming
of your god damned Lord.

Order Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad

 

Seattle likes to pride itself on being one of America’s Most Literate Cities. I pay attention to these annual pronouncements for about 2 minutes when they inevitably make the news, or are posted on Facebook, and Seattle’s usually up there with Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The thinking is that, what else are you going to do when it’s cloudy for the 99th day in a row? That’s also the excuse for the coffee consumption and suicide rate in Seattle, so locals can have their evening planned right off.

What interests me, however, is despite how literate it’s supposed to be here, Seattle got stuck in Modernism. Oh, we’re already way past the postmodern era in some ways, like when NPR interviewers with straight faces talk about how we’ll have a better quality of life in the future when we alter our genetics through some kind of bio-technology expertise. (Though I think that’s an extension of a modernist point of view. But a lot of people here buy that shit.) But when it comes to poetry, until recently, Seattle might as well have been in 1911. What’s interesting about this is that you might try to write that off as the West Coast of North America being a younger “civilization” than the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Montreal, etc. But that leaves out San Francisco, with it’s Beat poets (a bridge from the modern to the postmodern) the Berkeley Renaissance (the first flowering of the postmodern on the West Coast) and the strong Language Poetry tradition. Not my cup of verse, but they (LangPoets) were trying for something different and many succeeded, though only time will sort out the wheat from the chaff there.

The notion of the West Coast as younger and less developed also leaves out Vancouver, which ate up postmodernism as soon as it started showing up there in the late 50s and early 60s with TISH and later the Kootenay School of Writing. Hell, Vancouver poet George Bowering half-jokes that Canada skipped right over modernism!

Portland had its Reed College innovators Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch and Leslie Scalapino. In the past decade the Spare Room series has given that town something exciting and Emily Kendall Frey’s new “occasional salon” The New Privacy promises to be open and innovative. Powell’s Books is, of course, a legendary indy bookstore and there are many interesting Portland magazines and presses, including the self-proclaimed maker and destroyer of books, Matt Stadler’s Publication Studios.

Seattle has had the UW, Theodore Roethke, Caroline Kizer, Richard Hugo, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds, Sherman Alexie and a good many modernist poets who must be respected for their contribution, for their time in the vineyard, as it were, if not for their innovation. The UW has always been disconnected from the community outside the Blue Moon Tavern and some readings at the Hugo House, but that’s about it. Even Denise Levertov, who wrote some beautiful poems about Mount Rainier in her late life when she lived in Seattle, reverted to more of a modernist aesthetic when she lived here. Maybe it’s the water, or the legendary “Seattle Nice.” Google that, scroll past the inevitable airline ads and see what I mean by that phrase. It’s a veil for repressed anger, mostly and anger is often confused with passion and intensity, essential ingredients in innovative art. Lord, let’s not have any of that here! they (the locals) must think.

But what we lack in innovation (& there’s some of that here now, more later in this piece) we make up for in our connection to the East. There is a higher Asian population in Seattle than in East Coast cities. Two great quotes say it better than I can about this dynamic:

If I open a magazine of contemporary poetry I rarely hear John Dryden, but almost always Li Po.

– Andrew Schelling

… the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically…

– Kenneth Rexroth

We know the Western cosmology of competition and domination has failed and is dying in a large way, perhaps taking humans (and many other species) with it. So it is only in this in this neck of the woods that we’d find someone like Sam Hamill, who has done much translation of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry, including what’s perhaps the quintessential translation of Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. It is a book which resonates with Seattle in so many ways. Sam’s never lived in Seattle, per se, but has been a presence here for 30+ years because he founded Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend. His latest, Habitations shows a deep sense of place, a deep Zen aesthetic and may be the best thing he’s ever done. And his work is rich with duende, content-wise, and seems to be just this side of the line that separates modernism and post-mod.

As for readings in Seattle, you have mostly the modernist-type affairs. The city’s writing center The Richard Hugo House, mostly follows a mainstream path, and has been turning toward a slam aesthetic to court younger attendees. Their Cheap Wine and Poetry Series packs their cafe every session and a spin-off, Cheap Beer and Prose has a similar popularity and in-your-face New York attitude, thanks to transplant Brian McGuigan. How cool is it that they’re sponsored by PBR? (Sing with me: What’ll ya have Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But it’s rarely made new there, but tends to be poetry as entertainment. Elliott Bay Books has been re-born in a new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, but the new reading room suffers from the footsteps of book browsers on the floor above. Still the offerings have a wide range as long as there is a book to sell.

Open Books, Seattle’s all poetry bookstore, one of only three in the U.S., has a wide variety of poetics represented and the proprietors are fine poets who know their stuff. A little narrow, room-wise, but that helps create an intimate environment, so turn off your god damned cellphone before you go in there or you’ll set the sprinklers off, or so I’m told.

Seattle Arts & Lectures is the big show in town and they had Robert Creeley once, many years ago, but now gets about as innovative as Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and Martin Espada, modernists all, and quite mainstream. Of course they have to fill bigger halls, but if Seattle were as literate as it claims to be, you think there would be more daring, more of a desire to help lead the masses to something more open and challenging. Here, we claim to love diversity, so grant programs seek out the bland middle of every ethnicity, and these programs tend to turn into EEO affairs and do not push the art forward. In fact one could make a case for the opposite.

Once upon a time there was Subtext. It lasted 15 years and once graced the old Speakeasy Cafe, which is still missed. A tiff with Hugo House, their later stomping grounds, turned them to a venue that was cavernous and off the beaten path and the joy was sucked out of that series. While it lasted it did present the most innovative locals with an out-of-towner. From their blog, gathering digital dust over the last two years, here are but a few of the features:

David Abel, Will Alexander, Charles Alexander Charles Altieri, Rae Armantrout Eric Baus, Dodie Bellamy, Anselm Berrigan, blackhumour, Robin Blaser, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jaap Blonk, Christian Bok, Curtis Bonney, Charles Borkhuis, George Bowering, Jules Boykoff, Joseph Bradshaw, Jonathan Brannen, David Bromige, Rebecca Brown, Lee Ann Brown, Laynie Browne, Mary Burger, Clint Burnham, Gerald Burns, Avery Burns, David Buuck, Brian Carpenter, Tyler Carter, Maxine Chernoff, Don Mee Choi, Susan Clark, Allison Cobb, Alicia Cohen, Norma Cole, Jen Coleman, Steve Collis, Daniel Comiskey, Lucy Corin, Martin Corless-Smith, Steve Creson, Michael Cross, Peter Culley, Crystal Curry, KT Cutler, Beverly Dahlen, Jean Day, Christine Deavel.

And this only gets us into the “D’s” so you get the idea. That list looks better with time.

There still is no answer to Red Sky Poetry Theater, a legendary open mic which died in 2005 after a 25 year run, the longest on the West Coast in that time. One person said: “There are a lot of open mics in Seattle, but Red Sky’s a poetry reading.” It was a workshop for many poets, myself included, and regulars included Marion Kimes, Charlie Burks, Paul Hunter, Judith Roche, Willie Smith, Carletta Wilson, Steve Potter, Jesse Minkert, Roberto Valenza, Phoebe Bosche (of Raven Chronicles fame),  Robin Schultz, Belle Randall, Denis Mair (a prodigious translator of Chinese poets), Margareta Waterman (& her own Oregon-based press,Nine Muses), David Whited and others.

Our own SPLAB is a venue that seeks to build community through shared experience of the spoken and written word. We have a weekly writer’s critique circle (Living Room) and the visiting poets we’ve had since re-launching in Seattle’s diverse Columbia City neighborhood include Michael McClure, Nate Mackey, C.A. Conrad, Cedar Sigo and Brenda Hillman, so I guess you can stick us in the Black Mountain meets The Salish Sea poetic territory.

The latest glimmers of hope come from three sources. The first is a brand new reading that, according to organizers happens: “in conventionally too-small spaces, occurring around Western Washington. Basements. Attics. Vans. Coffee stands. The head of a pin. Lovingly curated by Graham Isaac and Rachel Hug.” It is called, oddly enough, Claustrophobia. They’ve had only one session, but it is promising. Second is a new indy publishing house called, perfectly, Dark Coast Press, which has threatened to make a splash in the poetry world, but whose soul is that of a poet, Editor Jarret Middleton. Expect them to do big things in poetry. The second glimmer comes from a reading series created by three guys who met at SPLAB and are, would you guess, recent transplants from “back East” as we say. New York, Philly and Virginia by way of Utah, exactly. These guys have collaborated to create The Breadline. (They chose the name months before the Occupy movement created its new Hoovervilles, or Obama-villes we might call them.) Mixing Slam, LangPo, music, Oulipo, Butoh and even the occasional Appalachian story-teller or molecular biologist, this monthly series is wildly popular and is just figuring out how to sustain  itself. An off-shoot of that reading was an homage to John Cage called Communications Silence, which was well-attended and very well-regarded in the local press. It demonstrated that there is a base here for something more real, more daring and more satisfying. Maybe now we’re growing up.