Poetry Reading Month 2011

Forever Will End On ThursdayReading a book of poetry a day gets easier the longer I do it. It’s writing about it that’s a challenge — like dancing about architecture, as somebody or another said about the closely related task of reviewing music. This is especially true of poetry as musical, enigmatic and utterly captivating as Nic S.’s. It doesn’t help that my lit-crit vocabulary is woefully impoverished. And it’s especially embarrassing to be reduced to near-incoherence in my admiration for the poetry of someone I actually know pretty well online. Surely I owe it to Nic, who’s given so much to the online poetry community over the past few years, to write something. Especially since I can’t dance.

Reading the book was an absorbing experience. I listened to the audio-book version read by Nic and followed along in the print version, which worked pretty well, except for the fact that Nic went too fast — I had to pause the recording after almost every poem for five to ten seconds to let it sink in. Perhaps I would’ve done better just to read the poems one by one on the website and click the individual audio players for each, but I find light text on a dark background too much of an eye-strain.

So why do I like these poems so much? For one thing, because I don’t understand them fully, in the same way I don’t expect to understand a folktale from another culture, but can appreciate its authenticity and utter originality. Nic’s poems are every bit as spacious and surreal as Howie Good’s, but are less dark — or at least their darknesses are more Rilkean. And whereas yesterday’s book — The Doors of the Body by Mary Alexandra Agner — re-worked traditional and sacred tales from a modern perspective, Nic’s project here is almost the opposite: making new myths in the ancient mold, or the beginnings of myths. There’s a soil maiden, a charcoal man, a baobab girl, and a man who marries a great cat. There are “places of happiness” on five continents where the land acts as matchmaker. Naming plays a central role in many of the poems; words have genuine power here, whether to invoke, bless or curse, which is what makes the absence of obvious interpretations for many of the poems so tolerable, at least for me. I am of course aware that for many readers of a more postmodern bent, poems of enchantment are automatically suspect, and Nic seems to anticipate that reaction, too, in poems such as “we have no need of prophets” and “poem for mother’s day“:

you ask why
I write of budding
spring and rising

sap would you rather I wrote
of razor wire and cold
scrubland

mother
the chiseled ivory of your sleeping
face your paper eyelids gliding

shut like
bricks in the wall
of your sleeping

face mother the deep miles
of night sky with no moon

One poem seems to describe some sort of political activist. As with most of the poems in the book, the language keeps luring me back to re-read it until I think I have a pretty firm idea of what it’s about, but who’d want to be sure? See what you think:

underlie

what is it like living with your body
splayed your whole body
spread tense up to the thin wires
of your brown hair the all of you threaded
through the squirming loam
the itching seas of this
planet

a stick figure with pigtails and
squeaky voice runs back and forth
across your muscle across all your pitched
nerve calling in from Zinguinchor from
Dili blogging from Cali from
Baghdad exploding in chipmunk
outrage in small burning
agony

and you
keep the position taken swaying
like the first like the only
hammock

A thoroughly modern subject there, perhaps, but what I find especially attractive are the animistic elements: that squirming loam, those itching seas, even the thin wires and animated stick figure in which I recognize a bit of myself. This is the kind of book that makes me want to seek deeper and more meaningful connections to the earth. It may seem strange to say about a book whose availability in multiple electronic formats is one of its selling points, but after reading Forever Will End on Thursday, I wanted nothing more than to leave the computer and go for a walk in the rain-drenched woods. And so I did.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

The Doors of the BodyThese poems hit the spot. Yes, they’re very well done, but that’s not the whole story: somehow, too, they caught me in just the right mood this evening, after a day spent slowly walking and driving the back roads of Central Pennsylvania looking at early wildflowers, each with a mythology as rich as the classic tales Agner retells here: hepatica instead of Minerva, spring beauties instead of Sleeping Beauty, bloodroot instead of Queen Tomyris, each with a miniature armory and a brave sail. I’m not always a big fan of midrash on classic myths, but I liked where these poems took me. Here are Penelope and Telemachus, yes, but also Irene Adler goading Holmes into a debate on sexual equality; an elderly Gretel who more than anything craves another taste of candy made from children’s flesh; a Circe who spills the beans on the soldiers she turned not into swine but into female lovers; and a woman in Salem on her way, it seems, to becoming the corn goddess:

My body is maize, bled far in the future,
now ankles aflame with runner bean scratches,
my toes dug in dirt, as I drop down the seed,
wrinkled white kernels. On the horizons, the drought
of adulthood, the sweet singing voice from inside the pyre.
(“Corn Field, Salem”)

As far afield as she ranges in these 22 poems, though, and regardless of whether she writes in the first or third person, Agner maintains a consistent tone — vatic, or perhaps sibylline, with a mixture of indignation and bemusement — and avoids the usual pitfall of such collections: she doesn’t try to make all of world folklore serve some grand new myth. Because you know, reenchantment only goes so far. Some tales could stand a little disenchantment, and Agner seems happy to oblige. Penelope, for example, isn’t exactly overjoyed at the return of her trickster husband:

Gone two decades, almost ghost
in my memory, I recognize right
away the hitch in your voice, inhaling
for time to find the perfect
lie. You’re home for good.
(“Yarns”)

Sleeping Beauty manages to escape her enchantment almost immediately:

Let the spurned witch-sister
and the so-called fairy godmothers
duke out what history is writ.
Poor planning lets fates devour
the happy story here-and-now.
Destiny wants purity and light
and most of all submission, so
the scullery maid fisted me to ecstasy.
The curse broke like the chiming of a clock.
(“Sleeping Beauty”)

A closer examination of delicate-seeming wildflowers reveals an earthier and more interesting reality of steamy sex and caustic chemicals, as I’ve had occasion to explore at some length in my own work. It makes sense to me that a close reading of traditional and sacred tales would turn up similar secrets. The world of dreams has its own self-consistent reality, and like the world of science, it’s a little beyond what our minds can easily encompass. And of course the sexist warp of most societies creates an acute need for re-dreaming. Agner includes an homage to all the anonymous female songwriters, poets, and storytellers, “Old Enough”:

Tying sayings up like string, rhymes of advice still practical,
sense so common, on all lips, attributed to no one maker and every maker.

A horse and a reed whistle and a vast continent are not disaster.
Eighteen verses of silk and loneliness outlast their maker.

Always so many more unnamed, unmarked and in their absence, perhaps unmade.
Anonymous, prime your pens and prick your needles. Name yourselves makers.

—Which reminds me of the translation we published today at qarrtsiluni: the only poem to survive, in a dead language, from an otherwise unknown, 12th-century female troubadour, Azalais de Porcairagues. Just one poem, plus a fanciful sketch in an illuminated manuscript! To anyone who loves the written world, it’s maddening to think of all the Mary Alexandra Agners of millennia past who didn’t even have that much to survive them. No wonder this slender volume with the glossy, perfect-bound cover seems so large and full.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Rumble Strip coverAt the dentist’s office (“Summer is/ near enough/ to smell,// its teeth marks on the trees”), I reach into my pocket, find the pocket-sized book of poems I stowed there this morning, and realize with a start that it’s the official day for poetry in pockets. Serendipitous, or just creepy? (“Love bends/ like light// around/ found objects…”) I think that’s “Graceland” on the radio, but I don’t recognize the singer. (“The human cries/ of wounded horses.”) It’s been 11 years since my last visit, so they make me fill out a form detailing my medical history; I don’t have any. I’m tempted to select two or three of the chronic conditions just to make it look like I’ve read the form. (“Anything to restore mystery/ and unexplain the universe.”) But which ones to pick? They all look so attractive! (“Start from the premise that everything is broken.”) I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, and there was another dentist with the very same name, though they aren’t related. (“To polish a diamond,/ there is nothing like its own dust.”) There’s still the same beach scene on the wall and the same seagull mobile in front of it, both looking frayed and faded. (“The broken wave// repairs itself./ Life is contagious.”) Back home, I pour salt in my water and call it soup. (“Darkness// one drop/ in each eye// twice a day”) I sit out on the porch with the pocket-sized book, a little creased now from walking into town and back. (“The paper trembled.”) I remember the nest of stainless steel spoons beside the road — those damn kids and their wild tea parties! (“Oh, love,/ we’re beautiful// anarchy,/ birds nesting// in the holes/ made by grenades.”) As I pick my way slowly through the poems again, I listen to water rushing in the ditches, and grow certain that its cacophony of notes includes every word. (“The world is made/ of tiny struggling things.”)

Over at Moving Poems, I’m running a videopoetry contest using one of the poems from the book — which you can win a copy of if Howie selects your video as one of the top three. We’ve just extended the deadline for submissions to April 22. See the guidelines to read the poem (“Fable”).

Jeremiah, Ohio coverIt’s not often you find a book of poems that’s both extremely well crafted and also a page turner. I just finished Teju Cole’s Open City last night, and figured that would be my novel for the year — not realizing the extent to which this book, too, is truly a novel, albeit in verse. And like Open City, while it may not be about 9/11 directly, it was certainly written in its shadow. Here’s how the author describes it in a Q&A on the publisher’s website:

Jeremiah, Ohio is set in the contemporary U.S. Jeremiah is a half-cracked would-be prophet who has been preaching at people in rest stops and diners in rural Ohio. By chance he meets Bruce, a twenty-something guy who has lost his way, and who half-jokingly decides to travel with Jeremiah, hoping he might gain some direction. They gradually work their way northeast, until Jeremiah decides to head to the “center of iniquity”—New York City. There’s some of Don Quixote, some of On the Road, and a lot of the biblical Jeremiah running through the book. […]

There is a story, as in a novel, with characters, settings, and even the occasional plot twist. Instead of chapters, there are poems, which makes the story a bit more impressionistic and musical. Bruce does most of the storytelling, and while his poems have some fairly strict poetic forms undergirding them, his language is accessible and familiar. Around Bruce’s narration are poems in Jeremiah’s voice, which is much more lyrical, dynamic, and unique. Jeremiah can’t narrate himself across a room, but he can tell you a lot about how it feels to be in it.

It succeeds magnificently: I was spell-bound by the second or third page and read it through in one sitting. And I’ll be reading it again. Why? Because, first of all, I am a Bible nerd and a huge fan of Old Testament language. Also, as an environmentalist, critic of American consumerist culture, believer in Peak Oil theory, etc., I resonate strongly with the “half-cracked would-be prophet’s” American version of Jeremiah’s furious denunciations. An over-educated social misfit like Bruce, I can definitely see myself enabling someone like Jeremiah under the right circumstances. As Bruce says in “Modus Operandi,”

I interpreted
Jeremiah’s rants
as half-politics, half-religion,

but what compelled me
was their warped music,
something necessary and unique.

And Jeremiah’s central complaint seems sane enough:

Have we not earned our mistreatment?
Have we not shimmied and chastised and bowled?
Have there not been city council meetings and testimony
that all should have attended
but instead we were found lolling in lounge chairs
or shopping for socks?

Engage, o my people! Be onerous and phrenetic!
Be vicious with your systems!

Who knows but that your world will shake
with the slip of an axle,
and your well-rehearsed unfeeling gloom
suddenly burst claws of fire?
(“Jeremiah at the All Saints Cathedral, Youngstown”)

Naturally, I paid especially close attention to the poems set in Pennsylvania. It’s at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in State College that Jeremiah reveals what set him off in the first place — the personal tragedy that opened him to a larger narrative of loss and desecration. Then on the Greyhound traveling east, the bleak landscape inspires him again to prophecy:

The hills are tired of wearing mud
the color of an old sock.
Yea, the wind
whistles warnings through the cracked windshield,

and we are pilgrims through a ravaged land.
Our eyes will find no comfort here.
Buried are the bones
of those who broke the first trails
from the Alleghenies, and forgotten their sons
who build shelters of pine bark. Indeed we must be
the last of the righteous.
It is for our sake the world still spins.
(“Jeremiah, PA”)

In a Scranton diner, Jeremiah apostrophizes a waitress:

Grace still struggles on this earth,
in her gray apron.
Woman of vigor!
Woman of lonely hills! Cracked
cuticles and a slipped disk will not be the sum
of your inheritance!
(“Psalm of Scranton”)

To anyone who knows the Bible, this equation of woman with suffering landscape should sound very familiar indeed. Though the mingling of King Jamesian language and modern speech may strike some ears as bathos, to me, Jeremiah’s rants were a pitch-perfect, jazz-inflected montage of vernacular speech with a kind of language which, after all, is never farther away than a few turns of the AM radio dial anywhere in America. I thought Sol really honored the spirit of the ancient nevi’im by updating them in this manner. He may have found inspiration in Cervantes, but Don Quixote is much more of a comic figure than Sol’s Jeremiah. I found the book humorous and moving in roughly equal measure.

Stylistically, the work is a tour de force, with poems in forms as various as acrostic, villanelle, prose-poem, Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative verse, and blues. I’ve enjoyed a number of other book-length narrative poems over the years, but I can’t remember the last time I read one so virtuosic — or so damn hard to put down.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Trill & Mordent coverThis is the second of four books that Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I are encouraging others to also read and blog about this month. If you do so anytime before the end of the month, please send me the link and I’ll update this post to include it, right up here at the top:

[4/14] Kristin Berkey-Abbot: “The Hungers that Crochet Us Together”

[4/14] mole: “Braid”

[4/17] Velveteen Rabbi: “Luisa Igloria’s ‘Trill and Mordent'”

[4/20] mole: “Seasons (More on Trill & Mordent)”

Fresh from a dream of trees bent by the wind, I open Luisa’s next-to-most-recent book and read the opening lines about trees bent by the wind. This is surprising but not astonishing: many and varied are the images in any given dream and in any given poem by Luisa A. Igloria, so the chance of overlap isn’t as slim as it might initially seem.

A pair of trees on one side of the walk, leaning
now into the wind in a stance we’d call involuntary—
I can see them from the kitchen window, as I take meat
out of the oven and hold my palms above the crust, darkened
with burnt sugar. Nailed with cloves, small earth of flesh
still smoldering from its furnace. In truth I want to take it
into the garden and bury it in soil.
(“Regarding History”)

The day is dank and cold and I am forced to read inside, holding the book to the window to save on electricity. When it starts to rain, it’s as if the outside air is trying to answer the shimmer of text on page. I read some of the poems standing up to improve my concentration, but however I read them, these are not poems to give up all their meanings on the first or second read.

Someone walks with you a little
each day, and you feel that you begin
to know a little more—the way she holds
her head, the way he asks a question. You walk
a little more and listen, nothing more—until
the language of question and answer begins to sound
familiar as the plink of water, begins to resemble
the space cleared as a lamp is lit in a room, into which
the shy guest, crossing the threshold, can enter.
(“The Right to Capture”)

It’s odd: when I finished Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke last week, I felt as if it had been two or three times too long. I loved the poems, but felt they were just too intense, too concentrated for a collection of that length. With Igloria’s work, by contrast, I just want to keep reading.

In a book I’m re-reading tonight, a poet questions
any plenitude that seems to come too soon,
or easily.
(“Manifestations”)

Even now, I am having trouble writing this because I keep stopping to read the book again. This isn’t because we’re friends and I publish her poems here; I felt this way long before we were even Facebook friends. There’s a richness of allusions and points of reference, an almost Borgesian love of all manner of arcana (as signaled by the very title of the book), which may in part be due to where Luisa grew up, the Philippines being such a crossroads.

At the beginning of the new
year, I slid open all the drawers
in my house and found a nostalgia
which was the color and odor of a different
season in another country—
preserved skeletons of flowers,
brittle as dry wings; sheets of hand-
writing, ambiguous as the sea.
(“Tree of Prophecy”)

Then too she is constantly varying the style, much as she does here at Via Negativa, following heavy with light, speculative with narrative, prose poem with airy three-line stanzas. I think of other favorite poets such as Jim Harrison and James Wright, and how much fun it can be to lose myself in volumes of their collected works — especially while traveling. How much longer do we have to wait for the Collected Poems of Luisa A. Igloria, vol. I?

In a hotel with cobalt paint and yellow trim, one room had only books and windows, and no clocks by which to tell the time. One room was a well within a shaded garden. Another had only silence for furniture. One room once held a prisoner of war—its walls covered with messages he scratched on stone with his bare hands before he escaped into the sunlight, disguised as a bird.
(“A String of Days”)

The rain drums its corrido on the four roofs of my house — a marimba with four bars. I brew a little more coffee to chase the sleep from my eyes, though drinking coffee any time after supper isn’t something I want to make a habit of. These are poems well worth burning the midnight oil to re-read.

You could lift the hem of rain and enter its grotto. Habit is what blurs gesture into allotment and enclosure. Fold it between times with a monk’s cord of silence, just a slick of candle fat. That way the next becomes sacrament.
(“Parsing”)

Thirty-for-Sixty coverThis is going to sound bad, but my favorite thing about this book is the way I can unfold the flaps on the sturdy paper covers, tuck them into each other, and stand the book spine-up in the shape of an A-frame. That’s the kind of sturdiness I expect from a book published in Newfoundland, as part of a Newfoundland Poetry Series, the last volume of a major Newfoundland poet and playwright published before his death by the press he helped found in Newfoundland. My faith was soon tested by the book’s contents, though, which I found to be riddled with typos, making it seem rather ramshackle by the time I got through.

The poems are narrative, autobiographical, and apparently designed for an audience that laughs easily, which is of course an admirable trait in audiences. A poem called “Gnomes” describes the blossoms of an unnamed tree at night:

They have red or purple
hair and green beards. And terribly
twisted faces. They have no bodies.
They are grotesque, gargoyled heads
hanging and swinging in the mild, wild
south-west summer wind.

As much as I like things floral and full
of leaves, I’d not go near those blossoms
without a weapon to combat their threats
now or any night like this.

Whoever strolls, staggers, or stumbles by
will be devoured before they know they
are gone or what it was that ended them.

And so on. This is the kind of poetry that gives the lie to the prevalent notion that Billy Collins’ work is unsophisticated.

For all its simplicity and grating slyness, though, the book did have images that appealed to me. For example, in the otherwise unremarkable “Wanderlust,” I liked:

Coming away from love is a difficult
descent from the summit of yourself
back to base camp and the basics
that await you there.

I liked the whole of “A River Runs Through Her,” in which the protagonist spies on his 83-year-old mother out fishing on a boat as darkness comes on. It ends:

Though she is my mother
I know nothing of this woman.
I know only that a river runs through her.

And I splash in her blood like a fish.

That last example shows one way to make simplicity and apparent artlessness really work in a poem: by introducing an unexpectedly bizarre or surrealist image and catching the reader off-guard. “The Joy of Cooking” was the stand-out poem in this regard. It starts off with the protagonist lamenting that he can’t always procure cinnamon in Newfoundland, and so can’t rival the seductive powers of Michael Ondaatje’s cinnamon peeler. Then it takes a sudden lurch into stranger seas:

For this uncertain occasion
I’ve prepared an adequate meal.
John the Baptist’s head has been marinating
in the fridge for three days.
Now it’s on the table and Salome Smith
and I are ready to dine.

It promises not to be another wasted weekend.

Tentatively she takes the tiniest taste.
Then the lovely Ms. Smith looks at me
(seduction written all over) and says
“This is delicious”.

Needless to say, if the whole book were like this, I’d be a much bigger fan.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

This Room Has a Ghost (cover)The poet writes biographies in small sections of an arc, lucid-dreams, and slings moons and tongues like a short-order cook. She plays teeth as if they were keys on a piano left out in the rain. If she starts sententious, she ends with a phonographic spiral into a language of clicks. If she starts silly, we all end up together on a flight of missing stairs, growing wings as rapidly as we can. Every word is an origin, says she who wants to be called Ophelia and who looks for wrong in all the love places:

Even with the turbid fog I shouldn’t
look at the sun but I do and briefly
a yellow ellipse is burned everywhere
you used to be.
(“Ophelia When I Burn”)

She lets others — wasps, god, a fungus — do the remembering; her job is to dismember and make love to open wounds.

This is where the birds come to die,
heads sideways on the concrete
like little sleeping men.
(“Because We Call It a Vulture”)

Poems of deep play take greater risks than the safer kind, especially since most American readers have a bad habit of mistaking play for work.

When George Washington said he couldn’t tell a lie, his father should’ve taught him how.
(“Biography of a Carpenter in Nine Degrees“)

And how! It’s like the siren tells her:

“I’m not a liar;
I make confessions that aren’t mine.”
(“No. 2”)

This of course is hardly endemic to sopranos. Ghosts can be stillborn, and can pass through poems as easily as moonlight or hummingbirds, though they generally choose to be more circumspect. Authorship sits heavily, one suspects, like coins on the eyelids of someone taken for dead:

I want to touch you with my eyelashes.
(“Biography of a Body in Twelve Degrees“)

The poet appears to believe in the interchangeability of trees and atoms. She drowns the ocean in her dreams like a sack of soft onions.

When Pandora opened the box, she was only looking to crawl inside.
(“Biography of an Actress in Twelve Degrees“)

I wish I knew Braille so I could read this book with my eyes shut.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Broken Sonnets coverSonnets bore me, to put it mildly. The 16th century is over, and it’s time to move on. It would be as if symphony orchestras still played nothing but music from the 18th and 19th centuries… Oh, right. Never mind.

Kathleen sent me two of her chapbooks, but when I saw Broken Sonnets, I was all like, Fuck yeah! It’s about time someone busted the sonnet upside the head. The opening poem, “Damage,” looked suspiciously like an unbroken, traditional sonnet, much as I liked its celebration of brokenness: so Old Testament, so heavy metal.

Pain is a song I’ve sung
so long you can’t even hear it now. Open

your own broken heart. Look!

(Notice how I’m sparing you the sonnetesque end-rhymes.)

From there, the collection went right into some sexy poems about married love, if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron for y’all, and the only things reminiscent of sonnets from then on out, except for a few poems that made a side-swipe at the proper rhyme-scheme and meter, were the approximate length (14-ish lines) and the approximate mood, subject matter and approach (personal relationships, kinda metaphysical, seemed like they might go well with clavichord accompaniment). I read the first half of the book sober and the second half drunk, so don’t ask me about the second half. Actually, the book looked really good by the end of the night. I was ready to go home with it.

Seriously, there are some kick-ass poems here. “Roof Leak, Mima Calls” is the best poem I’ve ever read about ice dams.

Phone rings: your mother with the news.
Ceiling shifts: it wants to open.
Cancer: nothing falls, not even the sky.
Your voice is a long wooden level, its yellow tube
tipping the bubble of air toward hope
and back, until you hang up the phone and cry.

The last couplet of the last poem in the book “rhymes” eros with rose, which I had to admit was a pretty cool move. But four pages back, “Prose Sonnet to the Silent Father” gets into some deep emotional waters, and really grabbed my attention when I re-read it under the influence. An excerpt won’t quite do it justice:

9. You are like a poetry teacher.

10. I need to learn how to say the opposite of what I mean but without irony

11. (a prose tactic, yours).

12. I need to learn how to leave silence at the center

13. and still be able to sign my name to it

14. as if it were written by me.

In “Here in Paradise,” the protagonist and her husband fish and eat fish in (I think) Florida, and I could smell the brine —

I cannot speak, nor close my stinging mouth.
This is how I pray, across the burning sands.

— which quote, by the way, shows off Kirk’s skill with caesuras. The intra-line breaks are so regular, in fact, I wonder if that might not be part of what makes the poems “broken.” Especially since there is a poem called “Caesura.” (Nothing gets by me, does it?) Here’s the latter 8/14ths of it:

Now she sings as red October bleeds
from the edges of the day, a dull race

the night always winds. Why should I dread
these yellow leaves? I don’t believe in suffering

as a path to heaven. I walk on leaden
claws, vulture the earth into feathering

a nest for me that can cradle my bones
as they disintegrate, one by brittle one.

That’s pretty wonderful, is it not? Just don’t tell me it’s a goddamn sonnet.

*

UPDATE (next morning): With all my kvetching about sonnets, I forgot to mention my favorite poem in the chapbook, which communicates a mother’s experience of childbirth in the most vivid language imaginable. I hope Kathleen won’t mind if I reproduce the entire poem here. Among other things, it really carries forward the idea of breaking as a creative and necessary thing:

An Answer

Childbirth: the crashing of a steel girder
to the floor,
one room
breaking into two.
Your hips, sharp handles
on a silver cup.
Your pelvis,
a wishbone
snapping.
An ocean forces itself into the wineskin that is you.
A holy book you read again and again, aloud,
on your knees.

It makes a silence, a sky

splayed open by milky stars.

* * *

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Household of Water, Moon, & SnowThese poems with their clear music and cool, unexpected depths are the perfect palate cleanser after yesterday’s rich fare. Here, for example, is the beginning (minus the epigraph from Walden) of “Thoreau Surveys the Ice,” in which the naturalist comes out before dawn to witness the break-up of the ice. Read it out loud, if you can:

In late March he tromped over rotting snow, hardened
edges, knee-high holes that held the leg until the weight
of want and momentum broke through to the next,
and the next which led to the pond’s scalloped ledges,
the distance between piled winter and spring’s wanton
wedge.

The chapbook arrived in today’s mail, unsolicited, inscribed with a note by the author too flattering to reproduce here. Todd Davis is a friend and sometime guest writer at Via Negativa, and it probably won’t surprise anyone who remembers those contributions, or our conversation on the Woodrat podcast last year, that he’s now written a cycle of 22 poems about or in the voice of Henry David Thoreau. The chapbook is from Seven Kitchens Press — the featured publisher here last April — which means hand-sewn, beautiful design and typography, everything a traditional poetry chapbook should be. Plus it’s small enough to fit in a large pocket, which means I could’ve taken it into the woods to read deliberately, as it deserves, had it not been pouring rain all afternoon.

Several things occurred to me as I read this. One is that it’s cool to see an author of six scholarly works and numerous journal articles bridging the divide in his own work (and Lord knows in university English departments) between scholarship and creative writing. Harold Bloom once made the point (at the beginning of The Book of J) that every reader forms an image of the author in his or her mind, and that conscientious scholars should at least acknowledge this inevitable quirk or skew. In Household of Water, Moon, & Snow, Todd brings this mental construct into the foreground and makes him speak in a voice that is at once Todd’s and also recognizably Thoreauvian — and at times sounds a bit East Asian, too. And that’s the second thing that occurred to me: any well-educated modern poet trying to reimagine Thoreau can’t help but be influenced by translations of classic Chinese and Japanese literature, a body of work Thoreau almost certainly would’ve loved had he known it. The book begins, as it should, with a deft reference to Transcendentalist belief in “Thoreau Casts a Line in the Merrimack”:

Pickerel, pot, eel, salmon, shad, even more
fish than these swim in the waters of the Self

where he casts again…

Over the course of ten lines, the view broadens into a cosmic vision of the Merrimack River. But wait a second, I say to myself, it was the Chinese who referred to Milky Way as the River of Heaven. And isn’t that an echo of Li Bai’s “Night Thoughts of a Traveler” in the last lines?

…flow outward

beneath the stars and the heavens, the other
rivers running through the glistening black.

The next poem, “Thoreau Hears the Last Warbler at the End of September,” reads very much like a Wang Wei poem, and the one after that, “Dreaming the Dark Smell of Bear,” sounds distinctly Daoist as it contrasts the protagonist’s cabin-building with a black bear.

Look at bear’s house: a hole
in the snow where great puffs of lung
rise through the roof of his dreaming.

There’s more than a bit of Zhuangzi in this dreaming, too, of course — and sleep and dreaming form a leitmotif in the collection. Since I happen to know that Todd is familiar with all that literature, it’s no great insight on my part to see it as an influence; I’m just impressed by the seamlessness of the weaving of voices. Todd’s own, typically unsentimental view of nature seems pretty close to what Thoreau also believed. In fact, when I encountered the first two poems written in the first person, it wasn’t immediately obvious whose voice they were meant to be in.

Those two poems, by the way, might be my favorites in the collection, at least after this first reading. “Eating an Apple” and “Give Us This Day” both challenge scriptural authority and widely held assumptions about work and sustenance; the latter is something of a forager’s manifesto. Picking black raspberries, the protagonist wonders:

Who blessed by this dark
sugar could stay quiet?
Ants wander drunk
into my bucket, across
the visible world
that feeds us, that makes
an offering each day:
beach plum or paw paw,
morel or puffball, even
the spider-legs
of purslane
and the sharp
bite of sorrel.

That bite, I decide, is a Davis hallmark: relationships with the natural world in his poetry are rarely one-way, and never purely aesthetic, but transactional, characterized by loss as well as gain and a certain element of risk. A poem called “The Virtues of Indolence” stars water snakes, and is followed by a meditation “On Beauty” that uses as its exemplar a poison ivy vine. Like Thoreau himself, Davis seems most concerned with learning how to live well, with eyes open to death and the perils of beauty and usefulness. A graceful elegy and evocation, this book, and a fine companion on a rainy April afternoon.

Seven Kitchens Press is offering free shipping on all its titles throughout April.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Space, in Chains coverPoems clotted with wonder, terrifying as Rilkean angels, fertile and corrosive as volcanic ash. A poetry of grand pronouncements in a minor key, like Charles Wright with a more overt sense of humor and better rhythm. What can you say about riddles that remain recondite? Today, I never drank from the same coffee twice. Not warm enough to keep my furnace from kicking on, but still the bluebottle flies were flying and finding one another with a buzz and a zoom. As I read, I thought about things that were not in the poems but were also new to me: a sign that this book would become my next tuning fork, as the poet and translator Dean Kostos put it in a conversation last month (I had called him up to record him for the qarrtsiluni podcast), talking about those books we read before writing our own poems. Laura Kasischke, where have you been all my life? In Michigan, writing critically acclaimed poetry and novels that are turned into movies starring Uma Thurman, apparently. Why does poetry like this seem so right, even when I don’t fully grasp it at first (or at all)? I think of the way elephants return to visit the skeletons of departed members of their herd, how they are said to pick up certain bones, hold them for a while, and put them back down. There are no elephants in this book (other than a stray reference to the word elephant) but there are quite a few images of someone or something holding something in its arms. In “Time,” for example:

and the soldiers marching across some flowery field in France
bear their own soft pottery in their arms—heart, lung, abdomen.

Or “Trees in fog”:

How insistent they are
that they’ve been here all along
holding their tangible emptiness in their arms.

And in “Dread,” there’s

The season in which you carry the dead thing
up the mountain in your arms
only to be given something squirming in a sack
to carry back

This is poetry of immense negative capability. In a poem called “The knot,” many versions of the knot, or kinds of knots, are described:

This cramped signature on a piece of paper. A thickening knot. An egg like a knot. Not a fist in a lake, this knot of a stranger. Not the bureaucrat’s stamp on the folder of our fate. But a knot nonetheless, and not of our making.

That’s how it ends, with not one mention of untying.

Reading this book was especially time-consuming because I had to keep stopping to jot down stray thoughts, such as:

  • What did they mean by miracle on the last day before the invention of science?
  • The color of my shame is shimmer-above-a-hot-highway.
  • I have a looming date with waiting rooms. (This is true.) It’s been too long; I’ll have to practice at home.

Not terribly profound, but again, it’s evidence that the book made my mind crackle. I was led to consider the likelihood that all the odd things I’ve suppressed because they don’t make sense in my particular belief system have their own truth, and I should stop ignoring them. In poetry like Kasischke’s, two or more opposing truths can all be true. This is a strength of poetry generally, and one of the things that leads me to focus on it at a site called Via Negativa, I think, but one rarely finds it in such concentrated form. Here, for example, is a section of “Cytoplasm, June”:

Every morning we wake tethered to this planet by a rope around the ankle. Tied fast to a pole—but also loose, without rules, in an expanding universe. Always the dream of being a child afloat in the brilliant blue of the motel pool falling away, and an old man with cancer waking up on a bed of nails. Please, don’t remember me this way, the world would like to say. And yet…

The book is two or three times too long. It may seem odd to say this about poetry I love — clearly I got my money’s worth. But poems this intense need more space. Reading the whole book in one day with the kind of attention I prefer to bring to poetry proved impossible; some poems only got one, too-fast reading. Not that that wasn’t also pleasurable, however. I found mind-expanding images on almost every page, and after a while overcame my habitual reluctance to mark up books and grabbed a pencil. Oddly, I found that the mere act of holding the pencil with an eye toward marking favorite passages made me much more attentive. The pencil bore the name of our township tax collector, followed by the words GOD BLESS YOU — a prayer for votes.

Death and taxes: the many references to a dying father in a hospital and a mother already dead seemed to come from a mature, almost tender understanding of death, more Cesar Vallejo than Dylan Thomas. I began thinking about immortality, what a strange and repulsive idea it was — and then, inevitably, what I would do if I were so cursed as to live forever. I would get stoned, no question, and stay that way from one eon to the next. I would do my best to annihilate time. But a little while later came a different thought: there are no churches in heaven.

Down here, God just spit on a rock, and it became a geologist.
(“Look”)

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.