In the morning, by the kitchen door, paper-thin strawflowers hold out their yellow bowls. The brass bell I bought from a temple gift shop swings under a branch of dogwood: a little more weight every day, as shoots erupt and buds crack open. Even verdigrised, you’d think the light is mild, is mellow, brings nothing but the gooey oil of blessings. Who’s to say it isn’t so? And yet, and yet. Even when the wind keens like the tool of a glass-cutter bent on dividing surfaces into a liturgy of smaller parts, a screen assembles. Don’t add my name yet to the names of the dead on the wall. Don’t carve their letters edged in gilt on a crypt. Just today, I thought of how, in place of a fence to put up around a yard of my own, I’d plant jasmine— so when its asterisks of scent opened on warm nights, no one could tell where their beauty or their yearning for the other side began.
I Was the JukeboxSandra Beasley; W.W. Norton 2010WorldCat•LibraryThing•Google Books•BookFinder
Sandra Beasley has soul. This is useful to keep in mind the third time you encounter a title following the pattern “Another Failed Poem About X,” or when you labor through a sestina with “ginger” as one of its line-ending words for no good reason that you can see. Yes, genius can be annoying: how many of us would resist the urge to be clever at the expense of emotional impact if we had anything approximating Beasley’s gifts?
Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.
But even her less-than-fully-successful poems are still pretty damn impressive. This book deserved its place on everyone’s top poetry lists last year. I don’t know what made me break my usual pattern of studiously ignoring whatever everyone else is hyping — possibly the fact that Beasley is a long-time blogger, or that she’s a Facebook contact — but I’m glad I did.
Why do I say Beasley has soul? Because she throws her voice like nobody’s business, taking on the personas not only of inanimate objects, plants and dead gods, but also historical events (“The World War Speaks”) and plural beings (“The Sand Speaks”):
Mothers, brush me from the hands
of your children. Lovers, shake me
from the cuffs of your pants. Draw
a line, make it my mouth: I’ll name
your country. I’m a Yes-man at heart.
Because, unlike so many young poets of a surrealist bent, she stays relatively down-to-earth and tends to give the uninitiated reader something to grab on to, even when writing a modern-day allegory (“Beauty”).
That night, something howled outside.
I opened the door. It was Beauty. Beauty
was muddy and senseless. I let her in.
I tried to towel her off, and she bit me.
Because she is so fond of apostrophe, she has written love poems to college, oxidation, and Wednesday.
You are the loneliest of the three bears, hoping
to come home and find somebody in your bed.
(“Love Poem for Wednesday”)
And now and then there’s a poem that appears to be autobiographical nonfiction, such as “Antietam,” and it’s all the more affecting for coming in the midst of wilder and woolier stuff. The narrator is on a school field trip to the Civil War battlefield.
Our guide said that sometimes, the land still let go
of fragments from the war—a gold button, a bullet,
a tooth migrating to the surface. We searched around.
On the way back to the bus a boy tripped me and I fell—
skidding hard along the ground, gravel lodging
in the skin of my palms. I cried the whole way home.
After a week, the rocks were gone.
My mother said our bodies can digest anything,
but that’s a lie. Sometimes, at night, I feel
the battlefield moving inside of me.
I Was the Jukebox has been very widely reviewed, and since I have to go to bed early tonight, I’m going to slack off a little and just point you toward the links on the Open Library page. I do however want to say a little about the book’s packaging, trivial as that may seem. I was a little turned off by the publisher’s decision to put a short blurb right on the front cover, up at the top — that’s just tacky. The cover design is a mess. But both these failings are off-set, for me, by the pleasingly grainy surface of the paperback cover. There’s a lot to be said for a book that feels good in the hands. It won’t slide off the couch as easily easily as a book with a glossy cover. And like sand on the beach, it makes you want to dive in.
And as far as cruelty goes, I think T.S. Eliot was being a bit overly dramatic when he suggested that these 30 greening days in the fourth month of the year were the cruelest. I can think of many other months that offer far more by way of cruelty.
Perhaps as a Midwesterner transplanted to England, Eliot never had the opportunity to walk deep into a northern forest in the first days of March—snows slowly pulling their tongues back into the earth’s mouth—to see winterkill huddled beneath hemlock boughs: the carcasses of deer withered on January’s barren fruit; the corpses of porcupines who weren’t fast enough to evade the brutal teeth of fisher; or even the rare bear who trudged too soon from slumber and found nothing but the empty taste of ashes in its belly.
By April, at least here in central Pennsylvania, the entire ridge-side is burgundy with the tiny blossoms of sugar and red maples. The coltsfoot has already discarded its yellow-fringed flower, and May apple is unfurling the glossy umbrella that will hide its fruit in June and July.
I have spent the whole day talking about other people again
and the trees are watching me
as I go home
Sometimes I confuse the road with the map and everything on either side with terra incognita.
the mother has fallen asleep
so her baby is listening all alone
to the sound of the night train
The spider spends 99 percent of her lifetime waiting, suspended among her knitting, yet will perish before the first of her children hatch.
Outside the cave the howling wind and rain
the silent speech of bats filling the ceiling
Today, I read about a study that found that plants emit and respond to sonic vibrations. With their large ears attuned to ultrasonic sounds, I wonder if bats can hear the questing rootlets of the oaks over their heads?
We went to Auschwitz
saw the mounds of glasses
saw the piles of shoes
On the way back
we each stared out of a different window
Every window has its own fragile truth. Once, in a basement dangerous with broken bottles, a thug threw me against a wall and my glasses flew off. I became half-blind and sober at the same time.
Beneath the heavens with their scattered clouds
here and there are fools
Some of us are expanding, some shrinking, some taking a leak with a beer in one hand.
Crayfish, why are you so complicated?
with your feelers
your jaw legs
your hairy legs
your chest legs
your belly legs
and all the rest
My god! How is it that I missed my calling to be an egg?
In the old days a poet once said
our nation is destroyed
yet the mountains and rivers survive
Today’s poet says
the mountains and rivers are destroyed
yet our nation survives
Tomorrow’s poet will say
the mountains and rivers are destroyed
our nation is destroyed and Alas!
you and I are completely destroyed
Isn’t there some way we can destroy all these pesky poets?
Look at the nose of a baby rabbit
look at the tail of a dog—
that’s the kind of world I’m living in
Look at those three bs in “baby rabbit,” then look at the small g in “dog” — the alert way a prey animal sits, the alert way a predator lies in wait.
A thousand drops
hanging from a dead branch
The rain did not fall for nothing
Today I watched a crowd of mayapple parasols down by the streambank thrown into disarray by one simple snowfall. Some turned completely over, their flower buds like thumbs pointed at the sky.
One spring night, the sound of a child weeping
One autumn night, the sound of laundry being pounded
was a place where people were really alive
As I passed the field fertilized with their shit
involuntarily I bowed my head
I was going to say that I have never grown anything with compost made from my own excrement, but then I remembered I’m a writer.
From across the river
the sound of a bell reached the two of us
for us to listen to together
The sound of a bell reached us
We had decided to part
but then we decided not to part
I remember the big bronze temple bells in Japan, how they boomed rather than clanged, the sound going on and on: the bells of Mt. Hiei that I listened to with a lover as we gazed into each other’s eyes, and the bell at Ikkyu’s old temple in the country where I trespassed one night so I could stand inside it, whispering hello to the spiders and the thousand-year-old bronze.
No need to know its whereabouts
A small spring in a mountain ravine
is like a sister
a younger sister
like a long lost younger sister
now found again
The whole point of drinking, it seems to me, is that moment of recognition. I’ve had brotherly feelings toward mosquitos sinking their drilling rigs into my arm.
The top is spinning
Yesterday the poet Midang departed
today old Oh from next door departed
How can death concern only one or two?
The child’s top is surrounded by every kind of death
The rubber ball, the spinning jacks — how many can you keep in play? Between one bounce and the next they can all fall down.
A warship moves through the sea
near Paekryong Island in the Yellow Sea
Not one seagull’s in sight
looks as if someone has disappeared in it
I’m carrying an empty soju bottle
When war becomes permanent, who but a poet or a crackpot remembers the kind of peace that doesn’t involve desolation? The deafening howl of A-10 fighter jets can linger for half a minute after they’ve passed from view, the air like a fresh wound that hasn’t yet learned how to bleed. Then, slowly, the whine of cicadas, and this old wrinkle of earth goes back to being a mountain.
Unto every one that hath shall be given, says the sky:
and so the flowerbeds spread their skirts lined with mulch,
and the odor rose into the air, mold of wood mingled
with the fragrance of budding things. And the frost
that earlier rimmed the outlines of each blade
of grass: overtaken by rain, so many needles
running stitches into the earth.
the old pond not one wrinkle after all its ripples
That’s one of Ian Marshall’s “found haiku” from Walden, “The Ponds” chapter. Here’s the original passage, helpfully included — as are the sources for each of the haiku from the main section of the book — in Part 2, “Sources and Commentary”:
Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been likened to it, but few deserve the honor. Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip, apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. [emphasis added]
If you’re a haiku purist, or if the idea of rewriting a hallowed classic fills you with horror, you won’t like this book. I thought it was a blast, not least because even when I was young and impressionable I found Thoreau a little too long-winded, self-righteous, and apt to treat nature as an excuse to indulge in airy philosophizing (though as Marshall points out, this tendency diminished over time). Transcendentalism is utter crap as far as I am concerned, and nothing could be father from the Zen spirit of haiku as Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki practiced it. So to me, Marshall’s distillations offer an almost ideal condensed version of Walden, cutting all the parts I don’t like and highlighting almost everything I do. In essence, he’s applied Thoreau’s famous directive, “Simplify, simplify” to the text in which it appears.
I’ll admit I didn’t read all of Part 2. I would’ve dipped into it much more often if the publisher had made it easier to quickly locate the source and commentary for a haiku in the first half, e.g. by including referenced page numbers in the top margin, as more scholarly books with extensive end-notes often do. Walden by Haiku is kind of a hybrid between a scholarly work of ecocriticism and a popularly accessible primer on haiku, and possibly the author or editor figured it would scare off potential readers to treat Part 2 strictly as end-notes.
Not that the main section of the book is lacking in a critical apparatus, however. Following a very readable 17-page introduction explaining the project and describing haiku aesthetics in general terms, the haiku are presented in the order in which Marshall “found” them in the book, chapter by chapter, each section followed by a few pages of additional commentary expanding on some aspect of haiku aesthetics as it might relate to Thoreau’s writing. It kind of reminded me of one of those volumes from Doubleday’s Anchor Bible translation, with the translation of each passage followed by two or three sections of increasingly arcane commentary and notes.
And in fact translation is how I’d describe this project. As I’m sure I’ve said here more than once before, I’ve personally found translation to be an invaluable aid to attentiveness, kind of the apotheosis of reading, which is why I think every serious poet should give it a shot. It’s clear from Marshall’s commentary that, despite the dozens of times he’s taught the book, the countless times he’s read it and the hundreds of journal articles and books about it that he must’ve read in the course of his career, translating Walden into haiku revealed new puns and other layers of meaning in the text that he’d never noticed before. Though Thoreau himself was unfamiliar with the haiku tradition, like any writer who goes outside of himself for moments of authentic contact and insight, many of his best passages can readily be translated by a skilled poet into approximations of English-language haiku. And Marshall is nothing if not a skilled poet. Here are a few other examples of Walden translated into haiku:
furniture on the grass white sand and water scrubbing the cabin floor
fishing for pouts baiting the hooks with darkness
a cool evening the sound of a flute stars over far fields
mortaring the chimney our knives thrust into the earth to scour them
after a cold night my axe on the ice resounding
Most of the poetry I’ve read this month has been in the form of chapbooks or shorter full-length collections, but I thought it was worth compromising on my book-a-day pace to fit this one in; I’ve been meaning to read it ever since it came out. Marshall is a friend of the family, so I suppose I should issue a disclaimer — except that many of the authors whose works I’ve blogged about this month have been friends or acquaintances. If I’d read the book and not liked it, I simply wouldn’t have blogged about it. And I’m not sure how much Ian will appreciate my slighting comments about Thoreau! But for the majority of readers who presumably hold more reverent attitudes toward ol’ Hank: I can assure you that there’s hardly a trace of arrogance in Marshall’s commentary. These are not appropriations but homages, I think. He’s very aware of the audacity of this project, his conclusions are cautious, and his general attitude toward his source comes across as an apprentice-like humility. In my translator analogy, he would be a W. S. Merwin rather than a Robert Bly or a Stephen Mitchell: someone determined to try and capture the voice of the original author rather than to impose his own.
Let me conclude with an example of Marshall’s semi-populist, semi-scholarly analysis: part of his commentary on the “old pond” haiku I quoted at the outset. This follows his quote of the source passage.
Again, I cannot help but see this passage and haiku as invoking the most famous and thoroughly analyzed haiku of all, Bashō’s “the old pond / a frog jumps / the sound of water.” Thinking of Walden as Bashō’s old pond [which Marshall also did at the beginning of the introduction] makes this passage as resonant as Thoreau’s “hound, bay horse, and turtle-dove” parable. The pond retains its purity and remains undamaged and unchanging even after all its far-reaching ripples—far-reaching in terms of both time and geography—and even after the ice-men (critics?) have done their skimming. And every time we find something new in Bashō’s old pond, the change is all in us. … Bashō’s pond haiku has been extensively commented upon, imitated, and evoked—as I have done one more time by arranging Thoreau’s comment here in the form of a haiku that echoes once again the sound of water Bashō heard over three hundred years ago. And still—all these wide ripples later—no wrinkles on the pond.
(Note, by the way, that the hardcover edition I’ve linked to at Open Library has been supplemented by paperback and electronic editions. Click on the publisher link for information about all three.)
And if I say heat, expected rain, lassitude— the hollows of my bones begin to mimic the throats of brittle plants. I was seized by thirst, reading a catalogue of inks: morning glory, transparent blue as raindrops on its cheek; moonlight, brazen crimson of azaleas. Purple berries, named after the lady-in-waiting who wrote the first novel. The names of women were not even recorded in her time. I think of her, restless on her sleeping mattress, mining the indigo shade of night after night for illumination. Green sentinels of bamboo; ochre fields, stalks bursting with grain— each pointed like a nib.