Love is the opening of the heart, the welcoming of your beloved.
Birdling, tiny thing that bumps head-on, unwittingly, into the glass— you are not yet the announcing angel. Like you I’ve been distracted by the flicker on surfaces, yellow-green, light-dusted, feathery as eyelashes. What do you see as you stop to take a breath, as you teeter, then center, weight full on the ledge? Indentations in the stucco: imperfect, unlevel— clumsy as a new lover’s caress, yet punctuated with ardor. I lie beneath the sill, hair in disarray, attempting repose. It is either the moment before or the moment after. When you find your bearings and flit away, your shadow mimics the pulse fluttering at my throat: momentary touch, what visited there last.
I stated a month ago that I wanted to vary my April poetry blogging with some reviews of audio and video texts, but somehow it’s April 30th already and the only non-book I’ve managed to review was that videopoem chapbook by David Tomaloff and Swoon Bildos. So let me include an appreciation of a cantata that I’ve loved for years, Fernando Lopes-Graça’s História Trágico-Marítima — one of my all-time favorite pieces of choral music. I’ve included a player for a YouTubed copy of the same performance I have on record, which is also available through Amazon, used. Gyula Németh conducts the Budapest Symphony Orchestra with Oliviera Lopes, baritone, and the Hungarian Radio Chorus. If, like me, you don’t know Portuguese, it probably won’t be too distracting to listen to the work while reading the rest of this post. Here’s the composer’s description from the liner notes in my LP:
From its formal standpoint the work is articulated as a seven-lieder cycle (following the order and number of the poems by Torga under the same heading), the first and last relating to each other both in material and expressive intentions, as prelude and epilogue of the plot. A kind of idée fixe or recurring theme somehow ensures the unity of the work.
While collaborations between poets and musicians may sometimes seem like an exciting new development of the digital era, they have of course been going on since the dawn of time — if it isn’t too artificial and ethnocentric to presume any fundamental separation between poetry and music in the first place. In the Western classical tradition, librettists haven’t always been recognized as the poets they are, but in this case, Miguel Torga is generally lauded as one of the two or three greatest Portuguese poets of the 20th century, nominated several times for the Nobel Prize — on a par with the composer, who’s similarly among the top three 20th-century Portuguese composers (and in my opinion the greatest). I collected the LP years ago out of enthusiasm for Lopes-Graça, buying up all six records available in a catalogue of international classical music that my brother Mark used to get in the mail. For years — in fact until I could research him on the internet — the name Miguel Torga meant nothing to me, and I still haven’t read any of his work aside from this seven-part poem, included with English and French translations in the liner notes.
The poetic sequence, however, I learned nearly by heart, reading the imperfect translation just often enough to internalize the approximate meaning of the Portuguese. I guess professional-level classical and opera singers do this all the time, though, don’t they — memorize or nearly memorize whole texts in languages they don’t really know, but learn to love through music. The addition of a tune makes it of course so much easier to remember poetic texts. I’ve struggled to memorize even the most regularly metered, end-rhyming poems, yet here I am lip-synching with the chorus:
Vinha de longe o mar…
Vinha de longe, dos confins do medo…
Mas vinha azul e brando, a murmurar
Aos ouvidos da terra o tal segredo…
(From far away came the sea…
From far away, from the ends of fear she came…
But she came blue and gentle, whispering
that secret into the earth’s ear…)
There was a video going around last week on Facebook, produced by Oliver Sacks, that shows an elderly man stricken by dementia perk up and begin to speak in full sentences after listening to a few of his favorite songs from when he was young — he hadn’t spoken that much in years, they said. It seems the weave between music, language and memory is even tighter than anyone had imagined. If (God forbid) I ever get that way myself, listening to História Trágico-Marítima might very well help me remember who I am — an odd thought, considering my lack of connection to the country whose own identity and memory are so much at issue here. Miguel Torga’s poem derives its title and some of its material from an 18th-century book by Bernardo Gomes de Brito, an anthology of tales about shipwrecks and other disasters that had befallen Portuguese navigators. Torga’s poem is more than a simple retelling, though. As the liner notes by Nuno Barreiros put it (recasting somewhat the wretched English provided),
It is more of a meditative than an epic evocation of one of the greatest achievements in Portuguese history, presented in a non-triumphalist fashion and seen from an anti-colonialist point of view. Lyrical and dramatic elements merge in a literary style of vigorous strokes with allusions to the popular narrative. The sea is demystified, while preserving the lyrical quality proper to an evocation. Graça’s musical setting stays well within these lines, magnifying the deep universal resonances of the poem.
And I suppose it’s the way in which the sea symbolizes — or more than symbolizes, embodies longing that makes me catch my breath every time the music shifts from the stormy shipwreck in Part 6 to the calm of Part 7 and the chorus singing mar.
You had a name no one feared:
It was a soft soil to till
Or some tempting lure…
You had the weeping of the sufferer
Who cannot either stop, or yell,
Or raise, or stifle the wailing…
We then went to you full of love!
And you were neither a soil for tilling
Nor a body wailing her pain!
Deceitful raucous sad mermaid!
It was you who came to seduce us.
And it was you who then betrayed us!
And I always get at least a lump in my throat when the music changes pitch for the last verse and the baritone’s voice rises to near the top of his range for the last two syllables, leaving the melody unresolved, his question hanging in the air:
E quando terá fim o sofrimento!
E quando deixará de navigar
Sobre as ondas azuis o nossa pensamento!
And when shall the suffering end?
And when on the blue waves
Shall our thoughts cease to sail?)
“História Trágico-Marítima” is an indictment of romanticism that doesn’t try to deny the allure of the romantic; I think that’s what appealed to me when I first heard it as a teenager, and it’s not surprising that I later learned to appreciate American blues music, which is similarly drenched in unsentimental sentiment. The poetic sequence appeared in Torga’s Poemas Ibéricos(Iberian Poems) from 1952, evidently a “reinterpretation of the collective past of Portugal as an Hispanic nation,” within which “História Trágico-Marítima” appears as “an original mythic-symbolic rereading of the Portuguese sea adventure, under the intertextual shadow of the homonym work by Bernardo Gomes de Brito and the shipwreck imagery coming from it.”
Ten year ago, when I was seized with the idea for a book-length anti-heroic poem about culture contact in what is now the American Southwest — Cibola — I think these poems must’ve influenced my decision to preserve the mystery about what really happened, why the Cibolans killed the African conquistador Esteban, and to simply present the reader with multiple alternatives. “O Regresso” (“The Return”), Part 4 of the cantata, features a blind bard who may or may not be telling the truth, and whose retellings seem to be influencing events themselves, as in the observer’s paradox.
The man scanned the horizon…
“Land, land, Captain…”
And the Mother knew no more:
Was it the man at the topsail,
Or the singing blind man?
“My soul is only God’s,
My body shall go to sea…”
And the Mother nodded her head
And waved with her hand…
“The devil burst with a bang,
The wind and sea abated.”
And when the blind man stopped
They were aground beaching the ship…
I love that. But more than anything, I love and acknowledge the lasting influence of Torga’s idea that the dream of being elsewhere is a dangerous thing, at the root of the colonial adventure. In fact, I’ve come to believe it’s the fundamental sickness of urban civilization. But that perhaps is an argument for another day.
It’s that paper-thin hour just after rain, and the windows are open, and fragments of sky are visible behind a haze of leaves. One by one the lights come on in houses down the way. The odors of supper fill the air: charred meat, boiled potatoes, onions. The smell of wilted greens does not carry clean, unlike the tang of mint from the garden, the neighbor’s jasmine. A voice on the radio talks of this time last year, the soldiers raiding the fugitive’s safe house, the helicopter letting them down in the cabbage patch. The burial at sea with no witnesses. And now the neighbor is working on his back gate, taking advantage of the good hour or so of remaining light. Lately, he’s taken to smoking Cuban cigars; the sweet, leaf-smoky note adds itself to what’s gathered: an odd bouquet. He’s put in a small solar panel attached to a motion-sensor light. The frame of white plastic tilts up among the ivy. I watch as he tests it and it flickers on, a warning flare of yellow.
Not Coming Back: 11 poems by Dale FavierDale Favier, Nina Tovish; Something Beautiful LLC 2012WorldCat•LibraryThing•Google Books•BookFinder
If you’re a reader of Dale Favier’s long-running blog mole as I am, you probably don’t have to think twice before ordering a new collection of his poems, because chances are very good you’ve already read them and know you’re in for a treat. This collection especially interested me because it was so unlike any other chapbook-length collection I’ve read in its design and execution. Nina Tovish, who blogs at Something Beautiful, used a service from Hewlett-Packard called MagCloud, set up to produce glossy paper and PDF magazines, and filled it with gorgeous photos chosen to play off Dale’s poems. The result is a poet’s fantasy of a magazine: no ads, no infographics or news notes, just “news that stays news” from front cover to back. Inevitably, some of the groupings of poems and photos work better for me than others, but all in all this is a happy-making booklet.
One interesting side-effect of presenting poems in this format so associated with a different kind of media, I find, is that any oddness in the text seems much more striking. “Spring,” for instance, almost shouts in its white text on a dark green page, and I’m like, whoa! Spring is pissed off.
The strength is coming
back into my hands, and the warmth is coming
back into the soil. Strange rooted things exult
and push into the air; tendrils
cinch on bricks and tear the mortar.
Your houses are falling. Your cars
are sliding sideways down the drives;
Your marriages split like melons
dropped from a grocery bag.
I’m back. As if I’d never gone.
In one of my favorite pairings in the book, Nina placed a full-page photo of a riverbank after a flood, with scoured boulders and small trees festooned with dead weeds and grasses, opposite the poem “Clean and Pretty,” which begins:
It becomes familiar, the taste of a household
being dismantled. All its shifts revealed:
the squalid corners no guest ever sees …
Another imaginative conjunction: “Anna’s Hummingbird, Nesting” with a photo of a mimosa bloom, which suggests hummingbird motion and color and is simultaneously a bit nest-like — brilliant! And Dale describes the hummingbird fledgling like this:
She is the stylus of an etch-a-sketch,
the point of a glitter pen;
frantically motionless; hanging; the sky’s
I find I like the fact that I can fold the booklet open at any point and flip it over to read it — something I suppose I could do with any saddle-stapled chapbook, but wouldn’t really want to for some reason (and it wouldn’t stay open if I did). I can roll it into a U-shape in one hand while carrying a mug of coffee in the other. What I’m saying is, the magazineness works for me. I got the PDF too, because it was bundled into the cost of the print edition, but since I don’t have a mobile device, it’s not very portable in that format. Considering how good the color reproduction is, it’s worth paying a few dollars extra for the tactility of the paper incarnation, I think.
The back cover features a macro of water drops on something very red, presumably flower petals, with a poem called “Mouse” superimposed in a cream-colored font. Somehow I missed this when he posted it to mole, but it’s one of the best penis poems I’ve seen. An interesting way to close a collection that begins with a poem about swearing off church, “Outside the Walls”:
Thank you for letting me in.
Thank you for letting me gaze
at your strange and bloody pictures.
Thank you too, Nina and Dale, for much the same thing. And thanks for, in a sense, redeeming the medium. So many magazines are filled with a kind of useless beauty, because who really wants to hold onto them? But it’s hard to throw out something so pretty, so there they sit on dusty shelves or in boxes in the attic. This is one magazine-like thing that I will keep, and add to my book collection, without a qualm.
Watch on Vimeo
I’m due to give a poetry reading/multimedia presentation this afternoon in State College (2:30 pm at the newly reopened Webster’s Bookstore Cafe). Among other things, I’ll be reading all eight poems from my Temptations of Solitude series while projecting images of the paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins that inspired them (and, of course, hawking copies of the book in which they appear). I’ll also be showing a couple of Swoon’s videopoems from the Manual series, and I wanted to pair those with a couple of videopoems of my own — whence the complete overhaul of the one video I made for the Temptations of Solitude. The footage is the same, but the soundtrack is brand new, and features a reading by Rachel Rawlins which I recorded last night over the phone, in one take, and remixed just a little (along with fragments from her muttering first go-through, which she didn’t realize I was recording).
I was also pleased to get it for the contents, however. David Shumate is a prose poet of some renown with two full-length collections out from Pittsburgh University Press, which — I should point out for the uninitiated — is one of the best poetry presses in the country. And reading this collection was a pleasure only partly attributable to the fine homebrew with which I lubricated my reading. It had fairly typical proportions of poems I liked a lot, poems that did nothing for me, and poems I thought were O.K. but not earth-shattering: roughly a third in each category. A more exacting reviewer might condemn the book for not being amazing on every page, but I personally feel a lot of poetry reviewers need to chill the fuck out. I enjoy an experimental spirit, which means taking risks and sometimes (often?) not quite making the mark.
One of the things Shumate does in this collection that doesn’t always work for me is play with notions of exoticism, as signaled by the title. In poems such as “Waking Up As a Buddhist,” “Curry” and “Darwin’s Beard,” speculations that are presumably intended to sound humorously ill-informed just strike me as inexcusably ignorant, especially in an age of smart phones, Google and lots of actual Buddhists and Hindus in our midst. I have a hard time seeing these sorts of people as exotic any more, I guess. “Waking Up As a Buddhist,” for example, begins:
Sometimes you may wake up and find you’ve become a Buddhist. You realize its [sic] illogical because you’ve never taken lessons in Buddhism or had a Buddhist sprinkle water on your head or do whatever a Buddhist does to become a Buddhist.
As day goes on the bliss wears off, and that night you even have un-Buddhist dreams.
But in your final dream a deer comes and licks your face and you’re a Buddhist again. Your heart so full of compassion you feel like calling up your enemies and thanking them for being alive.
So at the end “you” recognize compassion as being more central to the religion than bliss, which had proved so transitory. The poem in fact wouldn’t be a bad critique of the mind-set of novice Buddhists, had it not been framed as an exercise in magical realism.
“Talking to the Woman in the Yellow Kimono” finds the narrator “at a loss for words,” which isn’t entirely inappropriate given the extent to which Japanese do in fact idealize wordless communication. The narrator considers raising stereotypical Japanese subjects with his interlocutor: flower arranging, haiku poetry.
But that might appear to be empty flattery. So when she bows, I bow back. And I sip the tea she’s poured for me. Thus we build our little pagoda of silence. Plank by plank. A structure so fragile, a single syllable would bring it crashing down.
Again, a good conclusion for an O.K. poem. But there are a number of poems that kept my interest from start to finish, so perhaps I should mention a few of them instead. “The Immigrant’s First Day of School” is a pitch-perfect mix of the predictable and the unexpected: “You learn the name of the desert you walked across. The history of the night.” And the ending was a little gut-wrenching:
Your teacher points to the place where you are living now. It is green and seems situated in the center of things. You take home a few sheets of paper. Your mother meets you at the bus. She’s wearing her colorful shawl but looks like she has shrunk.
Another poem take the narrator-as-avatar-of-the-exotic-other idea to its logical extreme. In “The Village of Miraculous Happenings,”
We’d like our lives to return to normal. We’d like the rains to fall on their own rather than each time the librarian claps. We’d like our thoughts to be private again. We’d like our deaths to take us by surprise instead of always being foretold. We gather in the chapel to pray for this daily.
The notion of people with lives so magical that they are beset by busloads of tourists being reduced to praying in vain for normalcy is a delightful conceit. The collection is liberally sprinkled with thought-experiments like this. A couple of others that struck me as especially successful were “The Meek,” which supposes that the meek really are going to inherit the earth, but of course are too meek to claim it, and “After They Plundered the Language,” which imagines the aftermath of a marauding barbarian horde which “made off with a thousand precious words.”
There used to be a gentle word we spoke when we wanted to be intimate with a lover. It conveyed both good faith and desire. Now we must paint our faces red. Do a little dance. And set a hat by her door.
As these quotes demonstrate, Shumate has a strong preference for short sentences or sentence fragments. I personally find the effect a bit monotonous, and wish he would have varied the sentence structure a bit more. Still and all, this substantial, attractive and entertaining chapbook assumes a place of honor in my growing collection of prose-poetry.
Sloat excels at poems in which a critical piece of information is missing, but the rest of it hangs together so well, it seems the better for it, like the Venus de Milo without her arms. Sometimes the execution seems a little too off-hand (heh), as in the title poem for this chapbook. But more typically it makes me chuckle or shiver with recognition, as in “My Money is on Fire,” a wry look at that sense of collective guilt inescapable for sensitive participants in a capitalist economy:
Every time I wear green or live
my secret life, no matter what
innocence I’m up to,
I’m sponsoring a disease
souvenirs of the populace.
Wait, what secret life? you want to ask, but the poem goes in another direction. Perhaps Sloat refers to the kind of private visions at the heart of the wonderfully bleak “Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat”:
My mug is rimmed with frost, an analgesic.
I peer over its horizon to see a toy boat
wobble on the Biergarten pond.
The mug’s a sun going down in my mouth. It alps
up like a snowglobe, mountainous with lipstick
ridges. Inside my father bows, shoveling snow.
He looks beyond me, turning to the window,
where my mother stands sucking the life
from an ice cube in her martini.
In “Do Tell,” a dream in which “doubts puckered like peas” throws the narrator off-balance the next morning.
Help me here.
How many mailboxes do you count lining the roadside?
And on whose head does the apple totter?
Things are clearly about to go very, very wrong here. A slightly less dire but still bracing take on domesticity, “Sworn to Observance,” reminded me of my own housecleaning. The dust under the radiator is “busy building a silt / equivalent of desert,” leading evidently to thoughts of the desert mystics in early Christianity, and/or John 8:6:
I sit nearby in my saint suit,
no intention of action.
With a finger sometimes
in the dust I draw a circle
to see how God enters into it.
Another poem, “On the Way to Meet My Daughter’s Teacher,” might or might not be about smoking. It begins:
I was about 15 minutes early
so I figured I’d kill myself a little bit.
Something more constructive
was out of the question.
But hell if I could handle
15 minutes of thinking.
About the whales.
About meeting my daughter’s teacher.
Or perhaps it is the cynicism that kills. One way or another, Sloat is like the anonymous artists in “Dictionary Illustrations,” who “don’t dawdle / among the obvious.” When she hums in the kitchen, it is to channel bees, and when she visits “Frankfurt Cemetery,” she remarks: “Not the past, but the present makes me sad.” We are all implicated, and our imagined refuges can’t save us:
Lately my house stands so still
at the back of my mind
I’m afraid of myself, here
at the bottom of the sky.
(“From the Back of My Mind”)
If you were ever tempted to think that the welter of literary micropresses on the scene these days exist solely to publish fairly minor talents, think again. Sarah J. Sloat is one example of a widely published poet with a sure voice and mature vision who has yet to get an ISBN of her own. Perhaps she is too busy leading a secret life.