December 2014

Have you returned with a message
from the dead just for today?

What does it mean if you have managed to free
the poplar leaf caught in the mirror?

What does it mean that the birds
have risen from the ashes and flown away?

Bang the lids of the iron pots together
and jump for joy in the yard.

It is time to fling wide the windows
to the bracing air of midnight.

It is time to open every drawer and watch
the sad ghosts of the old year disappear.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Stranger here myself.

My wife and I this morning to the Paynter’s, and there she sat the last time, and I stood by and did tell him some little things to do, that now her picture I think will please me very well; and after her, her little black dogg sat in her lap; and was drawn, which made us very merry; so home to dinner, and so to the office; and there late finishing our estimate of the debts of the Navy to this day; and it come to near 374,000l.
So home, and after supper, and my barber had trimmed me, I sat down to end my journell for this year, and my condition at this time, by God’s blessing, is thus:
My health (only upon catching cold, which brings great pain in my back … as it used to be when I had the stone) is very good, and so my wife’s in all respects:
My servants, W. Hewer, Sarah, Nell, and Wayneman: my house at the Navy Office. I suppose myself to be worth about 500l. clear in the world, and my goods of my house my own, and what is coming to me from Brampton, when my father dies, which God defer. But, by my uncle’s death, the whole care and trouble of all, and settling of all lies upon me, which is very great, because of law-suits, especially that with T. Trice, about the interest of 200l., which will, I hope, be ended soon.
My chiefest thought is now to get a good wife for Tom, there being one offered by the Joyces, a cozen of theirs, worth 200l. in ready money. I am also upon writing a little treatise to present to the Duke, about our privilege in the seas, as to other nations striking their flags to us. But my greatest trouble is, that I have for this last half year been a very great spendthrift in all manner of respects, that I am afeard to cast up my accounts, though I hope I am worth what I say above. But I will cast them up very shortly
I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keep according to the letter of the oath which I keep by me. The fleet hath been ready to sail for Portugall, but hath lacked wind this fortnight, and by that means my Lord is forced to keep at sea all this winter, till he brings home the Queen, which is the expectation of all now, and the greatest matter of publique talk.

Her little black dog
is our navy.
I end this year
less one lie,
the seas striking
their flags to us—
cast up all winter
on public talk.


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 31 December 1661.

I don’t post book reviews the way I used to, and I feel more than a little guilty about that. But here at any rate is an annotated list of my top reads of 2014. (Note that most of them weren’t actually published in 2014. I have no desire ever to become one of those people who tries to read all the fashionable books.) In no particular order:

  1. Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Randall Couch (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Mistral doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s pigeonholes and neither do the women of these astonishing persona poems, translated into English for the first time in their entirety.

    Under a tree, I was only
    washing the journeys from my feet
    with my shadow for a road
    and dust for a skirt.
    —”The Fugitive Woman”

  2. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books, 2012). My favorite (OK, only) art history read of the year. It’s a definitive look at the marginal art of medieval manuscripts (and analogous carvings on cloisters and cathedrals) that manages to be readable and thought-provoking as well. If you liked Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, you’ll love this. Camille leads the reader step by step into a very different way of thinking, one in many ways more alien to the modern European or American worldview than (say) the 5th century BCE writings of Zhuangzi.

    Rather than being freaks in our sense, these images are conceived as products of the terrifyingly promiscuous medieval imagination. For imagination was not only understood to be a cognitive faculty lodged in the front of the brain, nearest the eyes and thus closest linked to vision, but a force that could actually create forms. As the thirteenth-century Polish scholar Witelo argued, imagination, being an intermediary between mind and matter, allowed demons to couple with human beings, since what was perceived in the phantasia was, in some cases, real. It was for this reason that pregnant women were urged not to look at monkeys or even to think of monstrous things, lest their imaginations impregnate their offspring with hideous forms.

  3. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn (Hackett, 2009). And speaking of Zhuangzi… I’ve long been an advocate of A.C. Graham’s translation, but Will Buckingham recommended this newer translation and he’s right: the scholarship and philosophical acuity raise the bar for all future translations of classic Daoist texts. Zhuangzi is a touchstone text for me, so getting acquainted with a new translation as authoritative and ground-breaking as this is an ongoing process. I’m never actually done reading Zhuangzi, just pausing to let it sink in for a while.

    Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world—and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it—and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?

    “Moreover, you and I are both [members of the same class, namely] beings—is either of us in a position to classify or evaluate the other? How could a worthless man with one foot in the grave know what is or isn’t a worthless tree?”

    Carpenter Shi awoke and told his dream to his apprentice. The apprentice said, “If it’s trying to be useless, what’s it doing with a shrine around it?”

  4. Ancilla: Poems by Erin Murphy (Lamar University Press, 2014). Erin Murphy is currently my favorite central Pennsylvania poet. Which may sound like damning with faint praise, except that the area boasts such gifted and accomplished poets as Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, Ron Mohring, Marjorie Maddox, Todd Davis, Robin Becker, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Steven Sherill and Gabriel Welsch. Ancilla is a collection of portraits, both in the first and third person, of historical figures both famous and obscure, with a decidedly subversive and feminist slant. I was delighted to discover after I bought a copy at a reading that it contains a number of erasure poems, all very well done — and impossible to reproduce accurately here, as they are printed with all the white space from the erased portions intact. But let me share one of them in prose form, at least. Here’s “Jane Austen’s Letters to Sister Cassandra, Abridged”:

    January 1796
    I was nice. I behaved. But love was cut-up silk gloves and old paper hats. Regret is a vessel, not a spinning-wheel. The wind proved to be my future, delivered it to me with a sigh. I flirt with tears. I write.

  5. Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus, selected and translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago Books, 2013). Whenever I visit a new place, I like to buy at least one book of poetry written there. This is what I bought on my trip to Belgium last summer. Our host Marc Neys mentioned that he liked Hugo Claus’ plays better than his poetry, but the plays must be terrific, because the poetry is pretty damn amazing. I can’t believe: a) that I never heard of Hugo Claus before, and b) that he never won a Nobel prize. Clearly one of the premier figures in post-war European literature. This is not a bilingual edition, and at 245 pages it’s closer to a “collected” than a “selected” poems (not that the publisher uses either term).

    Flat is my white,
    As white as a fish of stone.
    I have been razed to the skin.
    My population purged.

    She has become someone else. Strange to my eye,
    The one who lived in the scruff of my neck.
    —”A Woman”

  6. Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain by Francis Pryor (Harper Perennial, 2008). Originally published in 2001, this is the first of a trilogy of popular archaeology books by Britain’s most prominent Bronze Age archaeologist, Francis Pryor, continuing with Britain B.C. and Britain A.D., which are both also marvelous (and spawned documentaries of the same titles that you can watch on YouTube—which is how I found out about Pryor in the first place). Pryor is not just a great interpreter of archaeological evidence, he’s also a gifted writer. It’s not surprising that he’s now turned his attention to the writing of detective fiction, for Seahenge too unfolds like a mystery (as so many archaeological discoveries tend to do).

    It is entirely possible that the Holme circle was never about human life and death at all. It could have been a shrine—possibly built by a family that identified with oak trees—to the trees themselves.

  7. The Hangman’s Lament: Poems by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee (Green Integer, 2003). Nordbrandt was perhaps my favorite discovery of the year; I liked these poems so much, I immediately ordered everything else in English I could find. But this book remained my favorite of the lot, in part because it fits so comfortably into the hand (love those Green Integer editions).

    And the beams fall into place in the floor
    where someone will go to take his first shaky steps
    or dance to the sounds of a flute carved from the same tree
    when the wood’s time is about to end
    and a cold wind blows over thistles, stones, and broken ground.
    —”The Forester’s Dream”

  8. Two Faint Lines in the Violet by Lissa Kiernan (Negative Capability Press, 2014). Powerful, searing poems that among other issues grapple with one that’s bound to become even more topical in the years ahead: the effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. Kiernan’s first full-length book displays a virtuosic range of tones and forms, from the ironic “Recipe for Yellowcake” to the elegiac “Icarus Blues.” There’s a father who comes out as gay, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter… this may not be the American nuclear family we think we know, but it’s certainly one that deserves to enter our cultural vocabulary.

    You stood calm as an untroubled tree,
    rigid as the spine of an unopened book—listening to me
    listening to your slurred, impenetrable breathing.
    —”At the Door”

  9. Feral by George Monbiot (Penguin, 2014). I don’t have it at hand to quote from because I passed it on to a friend—not because I wanted to get rid of it, but because people who care about wild nature need to read it! The book has two different subtitles. The British edition, which I read, is subtitled “Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding,” while the American edition (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is subtitled “Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life.” Either way, it’s a terrific book: a first-person account of the author’s quest for wildness and wild experiences in his native Britain, interwoven with an impassioned yet scientific (and extensively documented) brief for rewilding. George Monbiot is best known as a political columnist for the Guardian, but he studied biology at university and started off as an environmental reporter, and it’s obvious he’s a nature nerd and outdoorsman from way back. But more than anyone else I’ve read on wildlands conservation, including Dave Foreman, Monbiot takes a nuanced approach to the problems of balancing human needs with the preservation of the natural world. He tackles head-on some of the elitist attitudes that have plagued preservationist arguments in the past, and presents rewilding as—among other things—something we need to do for our own mental health. The book is also a great introduction to nature in the British Isles, cutting through a lot of the crap peddled by more mainstream British conservationists who try to ignore the fact that the islands were once covered in temperate rainforest, and that vast landscapes have been “sheepwrecked,” as Monbiot memorably terms it. American readers will be shocked at just how backward farming interests in Britain can be, blocking even the most innocuous species reintroductions and ecological restoration attempts and fighting to preserve a tamed and diminished landscape at all costs. But the book ends on a positive note, reminding us of how quickly marine ecosystems, for example, can recover if we can only find the political will to protect some areas from total exploitation.
  10. Approaching Ice: Poems by Elizabeth Bradfield (Persea, 2010). As with Murphy’s Ancilla, a lot of research went into this book, which for Elizabeth Bradfield involved a certain amount of travel as a naturalist, as well, for the subject of her book is polar exploration, and how to write convincingly about that without multiple visits to the Arctic and Antarctic? Also as with Ancilla, I bought the book after a reading, which I wrote about at Moving Poems since Bradfield concluded with a multimedia segment.

    Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
    with certainty that something watched and loved us.
    That the very air was miraculous and ours.
    That all we had to do was show up.

    The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
    The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
    And they longed for everything they did not have.
    And they came home and longed again.
    —”Why They Went”

I can’t let the subject of books read in 2014 slip away without reminding everyone that Via Negativa’s own Luisa A. Igloria published not one, but two collections of poetry this year: Night Willow from Phoenicia Publishing and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser from Utah State University Press (May Swenson Poetry Award Series, selected by Mark Doty).

At the office about this estimate and so with my wife and Sir W. Pen to see our pictures, which do not much displease us, and so back again, and I staid at the Mitre, whither I had invited all my old acquaintance of the Exchequer to a good chine of beef, which with three barrels of oysters and three pullets, and plenty of wine and mirth, was our dinner, and there was about twelve of us, among others Mr. Bowyer, the old man, and Mr. Faulconberge, Shadwell, Taylor, Spicer, Woodruffe (who by reason of some friend that dined with him came to us after dinner), Servington, &c, and here I made them a foolish promise to give them one this day twelvemonth, and so for ever while I live, but I do not intend it. Here I staid as long as I could keep them, and so home to Sir W. Pen, who with his children and my wife has been at a play to-day and saw “D’Ambois,” which I never saw. Here we staid late at supper and playing at cards, and so home and to bed.

Our pictures
do not please us

and so again
my acquaintance I made

and so I live
as long as a child

never playing
at home.


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 30 December 1661.

Here we are again, at the end of the loop—
only it’s not the same place as last year on the loop;
perhaps a notch higher, but nevertheless the loop
we always think is endless at the start of the loop
is coasting to a finish— so twirl the looped
ribbon at the end of a stick, light the looped
fireworks then duck, dance with your arm looped
around the waist of the one whose life is now looped
in the loop of your own; it’s cold and leaves loop
in slow spirals to the ground, or float like a sloop
through water that looks like it’s spangled and looped
in ribbons of light— Infinity’s the name of the loop
that takes us away then brings us again to the end of the loop—

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

(Lord’s day). Long in bed with my wife, and though I had determined to go to dine with my wife at my Lady’s, (chiefly to put off dining with Sir W. Pen to-day because Holmes dined there), yet I could not get a coach time enough to go thither, and so I dined at home, and my brother Tom with me, and then a coach came and I carried my wife to Westminster, and she went to see Mrs. Hunt, and I to the Abbey, and there meeting with Mr. Hooper, he took me in among the quire, and there I sang with them their service, and so that being done, I walked up and down till night for that Mr. Coventry was not come to Whitehall since dinner again. At last I went thither and he was come, and I spoke with him about some business of the office, and so took leave of him, and sent for my wife and the coach, and so to the Wardrobe and supped, and staid very long talking with my Lady, who seems to doat every day more and more upon us. So home and to prayers, and to bed.

Lord’s day
and I mine with my pen
no time for war


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 29 December 1661.

dinner for two
sharing the appetizers
on Facebook

*

mackerel sky
glimpsed behind her head
on Facebook

*

a sneeze gathering to pounce
all those cats
on Facebook

*

a burst of static
the DJ says Like us
on Facebook

*

brocaded sleeve
wiping his prints from her iPad
on Facebook

*

the dead cousin’s face
he just had a birthday
on Facebook

*

the heft of it
this book I found out about
on Facebook

proclaimed the text, after the movie
credits rolled and the curtains

draped back over the screen— sheer
enough though, so one could still see

the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion as it opened
its golden mouth and roared beneath the motto

“Ars Gratia Artis,” a Latin phrase
which translates as “Art for art’s sake”—

Meaning, whatever story has just brought you
to the precipice of rapture or tears

has nothing, supposedly, to do with your own life,
or life in general. For it’s just life after all,

unlike in the movies: messy, unscripted,
thorny, unpredictable, unlikely

to arrive at clear resolution; drab,
even, against heightened technicolor,

a soaring musical soundtrack, the artful
montage of moments. Whereas in life,

mostly, when something does come to an end,
it is The End— the money running out

for rent, for school, for the emergency
operation; end of the affair, the marriage;

goodbye at the end of the pier,
the drunk sailors leaving with no

further thought of their one-night stand…
And no one wants to think anymore

of the foetid stench in the streets, of waifs
wandering at dawn with garlands of flowers

and outstretched palms, or the transgender found
in a hotel room with her head in the toilet bowl.

 

In response to Via Negativa: End of the month.

At home all the morning; and in the afternoon all of us at the office, upon a letter from the Duke for the making up of a speedy estimate of all the debts of the Navy, which is put into good forwardness. I home and Sir W. Pen to my house, who with his children staid playing cards late, and so to bed.

making a speedy
estimate of debts—
his children play late


Erasure haiku derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 28 December 1661.