Wake

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The English language is unusually rich, they say, in words to describe silence, quiet, stillness, noiselessness, peace. I wonder if it isn’t in the nature of things for a language to multiply expressions for whatever an economic system based on scarcity renders dear? Water is the most ubiquitous and necessary substance on the planet, but how many ways do we have to describe it?

Lately I have found myself wishing especially for a richer vocabulary for the sounds of water. We’ve had two full years of record-setting precipitation here, and with my porch right at the headwaters of Plummer’s Hollow Run, I’m learning to distinguish subtle nuances of trickle, burble, flow. Every season but the heart of winter is mud season now. A year ago, when I started this blog, I think I imagined I’d be dealing more with images of blankness, the smooth refusal of fresh snow. Instead, I have begun visualizing the via negativa as a place where fresh boot prints fill quickly with water. It’s a bit like the 8th-century Japanese priest Sami Mansei’s one surviving poem. To what shall I compare the world? A boat that rows off with morning, leaving no trace behind, he wrote in one, almost continuous arabesque of ink, the brush sliding wetly over the scented paper. This was a culture, let’s remember, where in order to be thought attractive women had to blacken their teeth and draw faint clouds on their foreheads an inch above the place where their eyebrows had been. People took ink and lacquerware seriously. Occlusion was honored.

No road, no trace of a path, nothing more than the briefest of wakes: only the anonymous authors of the Daodejing thought this sufficient to base a coherent philosophy upon. But it’s not as if no one else ever took notice of such things. There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four things which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid (Proverbs 30:18-19). I am not sure in what manner Agur ben Yakeh committed his words to writing – quill and papyrus? But of course this may have been a popular saying for generations before this otherwise unknown sheik captured and preserved it – just the shell, no soft vowels – on whatever scroll.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting out on my porch at quarter till five in the morning, still warm from my shower, when a flock of tundra swans went over – the only swans any of us heard all autumn. After last spring’s glorious northward migration, it was a bit of a disappointment. What I heard might well have been simply the last flock in a nightlong caravan. Steering by the stars as they do, the swans would’ve had to fly high to clear the clouds that had settled in around us. With the stream so loud and my windows all shut, I wouldn’t have heard anything.

Or perhaps the muffling effect of the fog made them sound higher and farther away than they were? In any case, I remember the auditory wake that followed their passage.

An hour before dawn, voices
drift down through the fog
like the first & most perfect
snow crystals of the year.

I picture fast moving shadows
against the stars, snow disappearing
into dark water, a far-off tundra
where the night goes on for months.

I lean out over the porch rail.
The creek runs high from all the recent rains.
Two weeks later I’m still hearing
the last treble notes.

Carl Sandburg was a moron

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A very brief history of modern poetry: Mallarmé banished the world. The poem became a room panelled in mirrors – all four walls, floor and ceiling – and the poet’s pen at the center in lieu of a sky. Whitman invited the world back in, all of it. Nothing was to be excluded. The walls of the room began to expand at an exponential rate. Physicists refer to this as the Big Bang – their own, two-word poem. Though it seems a little comical to give an unimaginable event the power to generate impossible sound waves, to rattle windows in their non-existent frames.

So anyway, that’s the point of free verse: either to free the pen from the tyranny of writing alogether, or else to make a place in the poem for everything, “poetic” or not. Free verse means that the poet is no longer a dictator, but a maker who gives full autonomy to her creations. It has little to do with the presence or absence of rhyme and meter. Almost everything rhymes if you listen right.

What do I hope to accomplish through my writing? I would like to de-mystify the mind and re-mystify the world. The one word I keep coming back to is incommensurate, even though I am never exactly certain what it means. The night before last when I walked out of my parents’ house after supper I could feel the fog all around like the moist breath of a large dark animal. When I got to the driveway a sudden fear gripped me. What’s that? Nothing but a trickle of water in a ditch that was usually dry. Whence this fear? I haven’t been afraid of the dark since I was eight years old! But just as I was saying this to myself, something in the woods right beyond my house very loudly cleared its throat. Half-growl, half-cough: the sound supposedly made by (for example) very large cats. I stood motionless in the driveway for a few minutes, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Then I walked slowly down the hill, heart pounding, nostrils flaring. Why hadn’t I left any lights on? As soon as I got in, I switched on both spotlights and walked out on the porch. The thick fog swallowed the light. “Little cat feet,” my ass!

Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In a recent post at The Vernacular Body discussing favorite novels, reference is made to Nabokov’s notion that “there aren’t really any great authors, only great books.”

I have always felt this to be true about poetry. Some of my favorite poets, such as Louise Glück and Sandra McPherson, have written only one book I really like. And for me, the book-length collection is the highest expression of the lyric poet’s art.

So this morning, I decided to try compiling a brief, annotated list of my favorite books of poetry in English from the 20th century. I went through my shelves, being careful to pull out only those volumes that I would want to have with me on the proverbial desert island (which is not so far from my reality here, when you come right down to it). As I did so, I was reminded of the agony my friend Jo has been going through over the past two years as she attempts to give away all but her most essential books in order to complete a long-distance move.

The pile at my left elbow is now close to three feet tall, and teeters dangerously. In the interest of brevity I’ll skip the usual bibliographic information in favor of links to Amazon. (I am not endorsing Amazon.com, they just happen to have the most complete information of any on-line bookseller of which I’m aware. Though for some of the older volumes here, they don’t give much, and you’d be better off using Google.) I have rather arbitrarily limited myself to one book per favorite author. I will not – probably could not – rank them in any way, other than to mention in passing which one might be my favorite of all.

American Primitive, by Mary Oliver. A difficult choice, since every one of Oliver’s books is worth its weight in gold. She is in my opinion the finest nature poet in the English language – ever.

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, by Wendell Berry. I remember not thinking too highly of Berry when I was in my late teens and twenties, but either he changed or I did. This book is unified both by theme and method of composition: each poem describes a walk he took on a Sunday morning in lieu of going to church. Other people write about sacred time; Berry lives it.

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I love books in which the dead speak; I think this was my first.

The Folding Cliffs, by W. S. Merwin. If I’d compiled this list a year or two ago, I probably would’ve included The Lice instead. But Merwin’s lyric poems are beginning to wear on me, whereas this book-length poem about 19th-century Hawaii is, I think, one of the most satisfying narrative poems I’ve ever read.

Praise, by Robert Hass. Hass has equally mastered the line, the poem and the book-length collection. Each of his books contains an argument of sorts, though it’s less logical than ecological – not something that one could spell out in a review. (It’s in the nature of a poem that it can’t be summarized, Cleanth Brooks maintained.) I haven’t yet read all his books, so my selection of this volume is highly provisional.

Selected and Last Poems, by Paul Zweig. Normally I wouldn’t include a “selected poems” in this sort of list, but C. K. Williams has done a marvelous job of editing Zweig’s incandescent deathbed poems and matching them with the best from the three books published during his lifetime. The Last Poems by themselves make a satisfying, chapbook-length cycle.

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, by William Carlos Williams. The last and most beautiful poems of a poet who didn’t always practice what he preached, in my opinion. Perhaps it took until the end of his life before he found a place in his plain poems for the luminosity that had always suffused his prose.

The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Like Zweig’s Last Poems, a posthumous collection that coheres better than most books whose authors were alive to cull and augment and rearrange. Owen would probably make most people’s lists of the greatest poets of the 20th century, on a par with Rilke, Neruda and Lorca.

Song of Napalm, by Bruce Weigl. Some of the best wartime poems since Wilfred Owen. (Yusuf Komunyakaa has written Vietnam poems that are equally searing; I simply haven’t read enough of him to include one of his books on this list.)

North of Boston, by Robert Frost. “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Mountain.” ‘Nuff said.

Even in Quiet Places, by William Stafford. Why not Traveling Through the Dark? Actually, it was a toss-up between his last and first books. (There aren’t many poets you could say that about!) I simply prefer the effortless quality of his late work to the more obvious craftsmanship of his earlier poems.

The Branch Will Not Break, by James Wright. Another tough choice. One of the first books of American poetry to fully assimilate the lessons of 20th century Spanish-language poetry and translations from classical Chinese and Japanese.

Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints, by Pat Mora. So much better than Eliot’s stupid cats! Manages with unpretentious virtuosity what few novels ever could: to create a well-rounded and likable character (Aunt Carmen) entirely from the idiosyncratic prayers she addresses to her santos. So well crafted, you might not even notice how many of the poems rhyme on the first read-through. Beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs, this book also functions as an authoritative reference on Sonoran folk Catholicism.

Red Suitcase, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Nye is always making such exquisite music out of the silence between direct statements!

The Colossus, by Sylvia Plath. When I was a kid, I really hated the melodrama and narcissism of Ariel. So it was a susprise to discover a few years back how much I liked this book (and Crossing the Water, too). Not too many modern poets do grotesque as well as Plath and Ted Hughes did.

Crow, by Ted Hughes. An invented myth cycle with all the inconsistency and variety in tone of the real thing. The Amazon reviews call it violent and nihilistic, but to me it’s just a fun book.

Montage of a Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes. Jazz poetry is its own category now, but this was the original bebop masterpiece. Very close to oral poetry in the way it’s put together, reminiscent of the dance cycles of the Piman and Yuman-speaking Indians of the southwest.

Butterfly Effect, by Harry Humes. Very understated yet enormously affecting poems by the unofficial poet laureate of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region.

Winter News, by John Haines. If Alaska didn’t exist, John Haines would’ve had to invent it. Actually, I’m not so sure he didn’t. I love the shamanic/prophetic tone, at its freshest here in Haines’ first book.

Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982, by Jack Gilbert. A first masterpiece is followed by twenty years of silence, then matched with poems equally pure but twice as wise. On the one hand, it would be great if more poets were this severe in their determination to write only necessary poems. On the other hand, I myself aspire to be like William Stafford, writing a poem a day.

Radio Sky, by Norman Dubie. I’ve only read this twice, but I was very impressed both times. He does religion very, very well: Jacob Boehme, Thomas Merton, Philip K. Dick and the Aztec Lord of the Near and Close are all here.

Passing Through: The Later Poems, by Stanley Kunitz. A master and a mage. Kunitz has written more perfect poems than anyone else I can think of. And though a “Selected and New” volume, this has a very pleasing shape to it.

Elegy, by Larry Levis. A posthumous collection for which Philip Levine deserves much credit. Possibly my favorite book in this entire list – which says more about me than about the book, I suppose. I don’t care how short your attention span might be, once you start this book, I promise you will not be able to put it down. And when you have finished it, you will drink yourself into a stupor.

The Jacob’s Ladder, by Denise Levertov. The prophet of “holy presence” at her best.

Radiation, by Sandra McPherson. Erudition without irony; a bracing work. Few books are titled so aptly.

Cathay, by Ezra Pound. Barely long enough to qualify as a chapbook, I suppose, and not the translation it purported to be – more like original poems based on borrowed outlines. But what vivid poems they are, what a satisfying cycle!

You Can’t Have Everything, by Richard Shelton. Shelton does for the Sonoran Desert what Humes does for eastern Pennsylvania and Haines for Alaska: “we are here we cannot turn back/soon we hold out our hands/full of money/this is the desert/it is all we have left to destroy”

The Lost Son and Other Poems, by Theodore Roethke. The Far Field is the more obvious choice, but this book edges it out in my opinion because of the short cycle of greenhouse poems. Roethke really had a gift for writing about plants.

The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück. The best way to describe this is: a book of hours from a fallen Eden in which the poet addresses a God in whom she does not believe – and God and the plants in her garden talk back.

Flamingo Watching, by Kay Ryan. Ryan is the quintessential thinking person’s poet, and can turn word play into an extreme sport. A tortoise “lives/below luck-level, never imagining some lottery/might change her load of pottery to wings.” An osprey’s nest is “a spiked basket/with hungry ugly osprey offspring in it.”

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, by Martí­n Espada. My favorite political poet, populist in a way Carl Sandburg could only dream about. Makes one wonder why more lawyers don’t write poetry.

Fragments From the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911, by Carolyn Llewllyn. Though others, such as Mary Fell, have put poems in the mouths of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company workers, none had the vision and the audacity to make them complete human beings and reconstruct the contexts of their tragically curtailed lives. What’s astonishing is that this was Lllewellyn’s first book.

Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, by Stephen Dunn. One of our wisest living poets at his most inventive. Few books of poetry satisfy so completely Mina Loy’s definition: “Poetry is prose bewitched; a music made of visual thoughts; the sound of an idea.”

The Gathering of My Name, by Cornelius Eady. Kind of Espada meets Langston Hughes: street-wise, jazz- and blues-inflected poems exploring the intersection of the personal and the political. (Which sounds awfully darned cliched, doesn’t it?)

BioGraffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns. Who knew doggerel could be this good? I suppose it helps to know something about nature, though. Chock-a-block with outrageous puns and illustrated with hilarious old engravings.

Loterí­a Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives, by Juan Felipe Herrera with linocuts by Artemio Rodrí­guez. A Mexican artist and one of the foremost Chicano poets collaborated on this reinvention of the card game known as Loterí­a, which is similar to bingo. Herrera’s hip improvisations are the closest thing on this list to “beat poetry.” I don’t know if I’d like them half so well without the linocuts they’re reacting to, though.

Next: New Poems, by Lucille Clifton. Clifton has remained in my personal top ten list of favorite poets longer than almost any other, aside from Emily Dickinson. Next edges out her other books for me because of the sequence about her husband’s death from leukemia, the “shapeshifter poems,” and the way the whole collection moves from outrage to something approaching acceptance.

Dismantling the Silence, by Charles Simic. The “so-whatness” that infects some of his later books is nowhere in evidence here. “I’m searching/For what my left hand/Hid secretly/From the right,” he writes, which is just about the best brief I can imagine for the method behind his abundant madness.

The Angel of History, by Carolyn Forché. The poet makes a virtue of fragmentation, acting as a spirit medium for “a haunting mosaic of grief,” as it says on the back cover. Epochal.

Cruelty/Killing Floor, by Ai. Actually two collections in one, of course, but better for it. Whether you like Ai’s work depends I suppose on how strong a stomach you have, and how much you value empathy. But she is a consummate wordsmith as well as a gifted seer.

Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop. If anyone knows of a better book of travel poetry in the English language, I’d like to hear about it.

O.K., that’s all! Kind of frustrating how few of your own favorites were included, isn’t it? If so, please feel free to leave a comment. I’m not averse to posting a list of favorites from Via Negativa readers, as well. Or post your own list and I’ll link to it. Let a hundred canons bloom!

UPDATE: Readers’ picks

(From Elck)

Handwriting, by Michael Ondaatje. “In my opinion, leagues ahead of his earlier poetry.”

North, by Seamus Heaney – “or, who are we kidding, just about any of his books.”

The Star-Apple Kingdom (earlier) or Tiepolo’s Hound (later) by Derek Walcott. “Omeros left me unmoved.”

Fredy Neptune, by Les Murray. “A bold book-length keen/narrative . . . Very Aussie, very colloquial, and quite accomplished.”

(From Susan Susurra)

It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, by Charles Bukowski. “I suppose what I appreciate in that one is his wry self effacement. He can be so dark and crass and ruthless, I guess I feel a bit more comfortable when he is aiming at himself.”

“For Heaney I’d pick Death of a Naturalist for you, and borrow it when I’m in a happy mood, North for me when I’m in a state of melancholy and want a walk with stories of death.”

(From Dale)

The Walls Do Not Fall, by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

(From Butuki)

Turtle Island, by Gary Snyder

(From Siona)

Diving Into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich

A threefold cord

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) 4:1-12

So I returned, and considered
all the oppressions that are done under the sun:
and behold the tears of such as were oppressed,
and they had no comforter;
and on the side of their oppressors there was power;
but they had no comforter.

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead
more than the living which are yet alive.

Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been,
who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

Again, I considered all travail, and every right work,
that for this a man is envied of his neighbour.
This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.

The fool foldeth his hands together,
and eateth his own flesh.

Better is an handful with quietness,
than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.

Then I returned, and I saw vanity under the sun.

There is one alone, and there is not a second;
yea, he hath neither child nor brother:
yet is there no end of all his labour;
neither is his eye satisfied with riches;
neither saith he, For whom do I labour,
and bereave my soul of good?
This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail.

Two are better than one;
because they have a good reward for their labour.

For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow:
but woe to him that is alone when he falleth;
for he hath not another to help him up.

Again, if two lie together, then they have heat:
but how can one be warm alone?

And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him;
and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Inter/rogation

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Rogation: prayer minus one. First in seed time, then right before the ascension, when history threatens to resume. What to do? Take up the cross and circle the parish in solemn procession. Kneel. Sprinkle holy water in the furrows, glorify the corpse. We still need to eat down here, in this Calvary stripped bare for interrogation.

*

I dreamed I was crawling on my belly through the grass, but my eyes were positioned such that I could see everything around me, including the sky above. Yellow jacket hornets kept buzzing me, but I knew that their underground nest was behind me on the hillside. I was saying to myself, Their spies will report back to headquarters on my movements – the retreat of a hated enemy. But their colony is sick, and they don’t know what to do. I’ll have to come back after dark and try to heal it. The part of my consciousness that was not dreaming wanted to know, then, how it could be that a human healer’s responsibility extended to all of nature? I took stock of myself: armless, legless, nothing but head and tail. The world was my vagina. I tasted the air with a stereophonic tongue.

*

Heretics try to tear the seamless robe of our God. . . . They are the most evil angels. They are the sons of depravity from the father of wickedness and the author of evil, who are resolved to deceive simple souls. They are snakes who deceive doves. They are serpents who seem to creep in secretly and, under the sweetness of honey, spew out poison. While they pretend to administer the food of life, they strike from their tails.

Frederick II, 1231 (translated by James Powell, The Liber Augustalis, Syracuse University Press, 1971)

*

So when divine grace cleansed rather than deprived me of those vile members which from their practice of utmost indecency are called ‘the parts of shame’ and have no proper name of their own, what else did it do but remove a foul perfection in order to restore perfect purity? Such purity, as we have heard, certain sages have desired so eagerly that they have mutilated themselves, so as to remove entirely the shame of desire. The Apostle too is recorded as having besought the Lord to rid him of this thorn in the flesh, but was not heard. The great Christian philosopher Origen provides an example, for he was not afraid to mutilate himself in order to quench completely this fire within him . . . Yet Origen is seriously to be blamed because he sought a remedy for blame in punishment of his body. True, he had zeal for God, but an ill-informed zeal, and the charge of homicide can be proved against him for his self mutilation. Men think he did this either at the suggestion of the devil or in grave error but, in my case, through God’s compassion, it was done by another’s hand. I do not incur blame, I escape it.

Peter Abelard, Letter 4 to Heloise (translated by Betty Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, Penguin, 1974)

*

The learned psychologist interrogates the 19-year-old “hysteric” about her excessive throat clearing. She confesses to a persistent fantasy of fellatio. He traces this back to her thumb-sucking habit as a child, which her father only broke her of at the age of five. He convinces her that she has merely substituted a penis for her thumb, which had been in turn a substitute for her nurse’s nipple. Thus the male psychologist creates an orobourus-like argument for the woman’s apparent craving, her supposed lack or envy that seems to mirror the power imbalance of the interrogation itself.

*

“In psychoanalysis it is very important to be prepared for the bisexual meaning of a symptom,” Freud writes (Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Collier, 1963). Better to say that all symbolic systems are deeply ambiguous. What about the world outside symbols? In the absence of an authentic I-Thou relationship, people will seek to satisfy their hunger with whatever palliatives they can find. As Martin Buber notes (Between Man and Man, translated by Roger Gregor Smith, Macmillan, 1965), “Only he who himself turns to the other human being and opens himself to him receives the world in him. Only the being whose otherness, accepted by my being, lives and faces me in the whole compression of my existence, brings the radiance of eternity to me. Only when two say to one another with all that they are, ‘It is Thou‘, is the indwelling of the Present Being between them.”

*

The final shock came when I discovered in early 1960 that there is not one, but hundreds of Kalvarios [‘Calvaries’] in Zinacantan, located throughout the municipio in all the hamlets. Thus, the Zinacanteco view of Kalvario gradually becomes clear: it is a special kind of cross shrine where particular groups of ancestral gods are believed to meet, deliberate about the affairs of their living descendents, and wait for offerings of black chickens, white candles, and rum….

In the case of the tribal sacred mountains around the Center there are cross altars both at the foot and on top of each of these mountains. The Zinacanteco view of these crosses is that they are ‘doorways’ to the ancestral gods. For example, when a curing procession arrives at a sacred mountain, the members, led by the shaman, decorate the crosses with pine boughs and flowers, burn incense, light candles, and offer prayers to the crosses at the foot of the mountain. By so doing, they ‘pass through’ the outer doorway of the house and proceed up the trail to the top of the mountain where another set of crosses designates the patio cross for the house of the ancestral god who is sitting inside to receive his visitors and their offerings. Here the ritual is repeated and then the curing party proceeds to the next mountain on the circuit.

Evan Z. Vogt, The Zinacantecos of Mexico: A Modern Maya Way of Life (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)

Old poem

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Stop me if you’ve read this one before.

SKETCH FOR A STILL LIFE WITH SAXOPHONE

What a quaint notion–that life
could be anything but kinetic,
frenetic, in full
swing! But let’s have a galvanized steel
bucket of ice sent up & see
what happens. Something
to shine, to gleam.
And a wooden bowl of felt-
&-plastic fruit on
a low table. And for
the proper contrast, for corners
appropriately dark, Japan’s
the place: the traditional-style
half of a hotel suite, say,
in a seaside resort just
beginning to fall
on hard times. The once-full
register showing
alarming gaps, the heat
turned off in the hall . . .
but still not a speck of dust.
Simply an air of genteel poverty
essential to the timeless equipoise
of things in their rightful places
,
from the imitation paper windows
to the Zen-inspired alcove
with scroll & spray of blossoms
to the thrumming of some distant
power source–a drone
as melancholy as any chorus
of autumn crickets.
Let the uncorked chardonnay
take what it needs of oxygen & light.
Let nothing discompose
this most exotic
of guests: the saxophone
resting in the corner
like a golden carp. See
how at home it looks?
ready for the oddly missing shoe
to begin tapping.