Thirty Years in the Rain: Nikiforos Vrettakos as translated by Robert Zaller and Lili Bita

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Thirty Years in the Rain Thirty Years in the Rain: The Selected Poetry of Nikiforos VrettakosNikiforos Vrettakos; Somerset Hall Press 2005WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Diamond-like and deceptively simple: that’s how Rachel described the dozen or so poems I had time to read to her from this book today. I concur. These poems combine the plain-spoken lyricism of, say, José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, the fierce affirmation of Jorge Guillén’s Cántico and the pellucid quality and light-drenched landscapes of Eugénio de Andrade’s best work.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Who the hell are Eugénio de Andrade and Jorge Guillén?” If so, you’re hardly alone: poetry in translation is an extremely minor concern of American publishers, and few Anglophone poetry fans seem aware of much beyond our own linguistic borders, save for a few luminaries such as Neruda, Rilke and Lorca. That’s a shame, because Greece alone has produced many great poets this past century: C.P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Angelos Sikelianos, and Odysseas Elytis all deserve a place on any poetry-lover’s shelf. Add to that roster Nikiforos Vrettakos, a member of the “Generation of the 30s” evidently as revered in Greece as any of the others I’ve just listed, but unknown here until Robert Zaller and Lili Bita began to collaborate on the English translations collected in Thirty Years in the Rain. I hadn’t heard of him myself until just last month, when I happened on this blog post:

January 1st marked the centenary of the birth of the Laconian poet, fiction writer, essayist, translator, Athens Academy member, and Nobel Prize Nominee, Nikiforos Vrettakos. Therefore the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and tourism has declared 2012 Nikiforos Vrettakos Year.

Since he didn’t win a Nobel Prize for Literature like his two contemporaries Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, Nikiforos Vrettakos is less-known abroad. In Greece though, he is a poetry giant, taught in schools, and many of his poems are set into music. People go back to his poetry for “his tenderness and boundless humanism”.

Working my way through Thirty Years in the Rain, I found many things to admire. Vrettakos returns again and again to the rugged massif of his childhood, the storied Taygetos. As a nearly life-long dweller in the considerably less rugged Appalachians, naturally I appreciated this kind of imagery. His most direct treatment comes in “Stone Petals”:

“Taygetos isn’t a mountain.” I didn’t
discover it, but found it beside me
when I was born. It stood by. Later
I dreamt of it as a kind of church—
at the center of the earth.

Its bells chiming, scattering
petals over the nations.

This short poem also demonstrates two other things I liked about the book: Vrettakos seems very comfortable with religion as a repository of mystery and wonder (without necessarily being a believer himself, I gather), and his poetry betrays a certain attraction to the via negativa — which wouldn’t be at all surprising for someone from the Eastern Orthodox homeland. This latter tendency expresses itself in his nuanced appreciation for darkness and silence, which is all the more striking for its contrast with his general heliotropism. Take for instance “Liberation”:

My soul dances today, winged,
looking to alight on a branch
of light, to hear, see, say
whatever can be heard, seen, said.
It’s good to know, and know well,
that the thing you are
was hatched out of darkness.

As for silence, he imagines in one poem, “Beside the Others,” an entire “volume of silence” among his collected works. (Vrettakos was apparently a very prolific author.)

In it is everything I hid
and everything within me that
hadn’t had time for the long journey to the light.
The pages are huge, too heavy
to lift. No one will read it.
God will take it as it is
and put it in his heavenly library.

Nor is silence without its perils:

If silence spoke,
erupted, exploded—it would level
every tree in the standing world.
(“Chorale”)

And in “Inexplicable,” the eyes of an unnamed beloved contain “A silence / filled with what can and can’t / be deciphered.”

Vrettakos was a leftist, like most Greek intellectuals of his generation, but departed from the party line on many issues. I particularly appreciated the poems on peace, which he often seemed to equate with poetry as a natural impulse of all life:

I’m immersed in each brook on whose flow
the word Peace runs like a psalm.
(Because the waters are a thinking sun).
(“Address to a Peace Conference”)

But his apophatic instincts led him to decry the fetishization of peace, too:

All that’s left of peace
is an empty word, a shed garment.
It’s scrawled everywhere, as if
to mock its own countenance:
the divine plenitude, the sap that flows
from flower to flower, the poetry.

Yet still I wouldn’t want
to find it among my own pages,
like a white corpse in a casket.
(“The Empty Word”)

Vrettakos himself describes his work best: he is an overflowing cistern whose waters come “half from / earth’s grief, the rest from its miracle” (“Cistern”). Toward the end of his life, he wrote:

I’ve said my piece,
it’s enough to know that
here and there, now and then,
I’ve added my song to the birds’.
(“All I’ve Said”)

I think I want to be Nikiforos Vrettakos when I grow up.

Kay Ryan on nonsense, poetry, and knowledge

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Watch on Vimeo. The Lannan Foundation has also uploaded a video of the reading that directly preceded the conversation.

I usually share other people’s videos only on Facebook or (for poetry-related stuff) Moving Poems, but the length and via negativistic content of this conversation might make it a better fit here, I thought. I love what Kay Ryan has to say about poetry and knowing, and about knowing and making stuff up. You have to watch the video to really get a feel for how unseriously she takes herself, but I spent some time this morning making a transcript of a few of my favorite parts of this conversation, which occur somewhere near the middle. This helps me understand a little bit better what I do myself in my writing — especially the part about the need for coldness.

*

Kay Ryan: “I think nonsense is extremely close to poetry. Nonsense — I figured this out when I was fairly young — nonsense operates by rules. You cannot have nonsense outside the context of sense. It, uh — it’s in tension with sense.”

Atsuro Riley: “You like to make a statement in your poetry. You’re quite willing to do it, you like to do it, you seem insistent upon it — ”

Ryan: “A lot of them are bogus, though. They’re bogus. You know. I like the fake — I think you pointed this out! — the sort of, you know, the pedant, the mock polemic. Yeah. And they’re just ridiculous, you know. Like uh, oh, what’s the one about the, uh, extraordinary lengths… Oh yeah, right — I don’t know, uh, ‘Extraordinary lengths are always accompanied by extraordinary distances.’ And, you know, that’s just such a stupid thing to say! I just love to say something like that. I, uh —

“Well, let me explain that. I like to make — well, boy, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I, I think that I’m really interested in something that is so hard to perceive. Like light coming from the furthest star. It’s, it’s, it’s very frail when it gets here. Very frail. But looked at another way, it’s incredibly strong, ’cause it’s gotten all the way here from the furthest star. So it’s something incredible strong, but we’re getting just a little bit of it!

“So what I do, what I try to do with this thing that I can just barely perceive, is to jack up the intensity like crazy. Make a cartoon out of it? You know. Make a diorama, have puppets do it. You know — overdo it. I’ve gotta magnify it because it’s — and I have to sound more sure than I am. Because — because I don’t know. I only a teeny tiny bit know! Maybe. I’m trying to know. So I build up — I build something that I hope has a lot of, uh — well, as my step-daughter would say, flavor-punch. I like flavor-punch. I love Southwestern food! But I like to give a lot of color. And reality. Of course it’s all specious, but, uh, you know — ”

Riley: “But to help you think through the question.”

Ryan: “To help me think, yeah. It’s like setting up — and I think you said, too — ”

Riley: “Magnified conundra.”

Ryan: “Yeah. And little, uh, models. You know? Einstein — and I always like to connect myself with Einstein! — Einstein, you know, worked in the patent office. Before he was — before he thought his really great thoughts. And I think it shaped his mind to a certain degree. That business of seeing in terms of models. And I think that that’s what we do in poems. (I mean, not just me, but — ) We make a model, and it’s really a model for something different. I mean, this is the model, but it’s really trying to talk about that starlight somehow. That little thing we just know with some interior part of our brain, to which we have very little access.”

Riley: “Let’s talk about coldness. What is it in a poem — I’m not sure I exactly understand — and, um, why do you like it?”

Ryan: “Well, I mean I think it’s just constitutional. I think — I think one of the things that we do when we write, or one of the things I’ve done, is try to make a world I could live in. You know? I make in my poems a world that is, uh, congenial to me. ‘I like how she thinks!’ You know? It makes me feel at ease to articulate those things. It, uh — I can make a world that has the rules that I want. And I think that, as most people here [in the audience are], I am sensitive. I feel under… I am too stimulated. There’s too much coming in all the time. There’s too much heat. There’s too much closeness. There’s too much personal. There’s too much giving away of secrets. There’s not enough, ah, distance. There’s not enough chill. And if I can do my small part to add a little coldness and distance to the world, I will not have written in vain.”

[…]

Ryan: “I discovered a long time ago — and it seems so counter-intuitive, but I found that I had to start writing about things when I was just on the front edge of knowing about them. I mean, just — I hardly knew about them. If I waited, I would be paralyzed by knowing too much. And I, I couldn’t write. There always has to be a large sense of, ‘Oh, I’m just inventing this.’ But then later you can look back and say, ‘No actually I wasn’t inventing it. I still think that I, that there’s something there that I will stick with.’ But I always have to write it before. And if I’m overwhelmed by knowledge, or feeling, or something, it’s just no — I just can’t write.”

Terra Incognita

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watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

My first videopoem to use footage from another, equally fun hobby, homebrewing. The poem by D. H. Lawrence is now in the public domain, and I found it rather quickly because my copy of his complete poems is quite throughly annotated with marginalia by its previous owner — my poetry sensei, Jack McManis. Jack had put a big check-mark beside the title and underlined all the best parts, helping me see past its — to my mind — overly didactic framing.

Here’s the text.

Terra Incognita
by D. H. Lawrence

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars,
and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
alternately palpitant,
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.

Dark and like a videopoem

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Watch on Vimeo.

Yesterday, my dad spotted a cecropia moth — newly eclosed, from the looks of it — on the side of one of the black walnut trees in the yard. This is the largest moth in North America, and it’s in the same Saturniidae family as polyphemus and luna moths (which have appeared on this same tree or its immediate neighbor two years in a row, in early August). I shot some video footage of it right away, but figured it wouldn’t be flying until after dark, so I went back at dusk with a flashlight to shoot some more footage.

This morning, it occurred to me that the nighttime footage might make a good fit with one of Nic S.’s poems from her recent nanopress chapbook, Dark And Like a Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine, edited by Beth Adams. Nic had given me “blanket permission to use any and all of my stuff out there, any time” in a comment on my post about the new videopoetry album, so I didn’t have to worry about the fact that she’s off on vacation somewhere and probably not reading emails. The poem I had in mind, “on being constantly civil towards death,” is very short, but I’ve made at least half a dozen videos for haiku poems, and this is twice the length of a haiku. Would the text and the footage make a good pair? Maybe. It would depend on what I did with the soundtrack.

I downloaded the MP3 link off the chapbook’s website and listened to it a few more times. Due to the poem’s brevity, each line does a lot of work, so the first order of business was to make sure they didn’t go by so quickly that they wouldn’t register with a viewer. I could have slowed down Nic’s reading — my audio software has a function that lets you change the speed of a track without altering its pitch — but unlike many poets, Nic already seems to read at just about the right speed. So instead I lengthened almost every pause, a strategy that seemed to work well with the first poem of hers I did a video for, “the wanderers’ blessing.” This made the poem half again longer, though it was still pretty brief.

After listening to a bunch of Creative Commons-licensed pieces of music at Jamendo.com and ccmixter.org, I decided not to use any background music this time — it just didn’t seem to fit a poem dominated by a “great black stillness.” But from one death-metal track with a telephone ring in it, I got the idea of turning the poem into a phone call. It seemed appropriate for the overall theme of Nic’s chapbook — attempting to commune with a perhaps unreachable Other. This was good, because I conceive of the video not just as Moving Poems material, but also as something akin to a trailer for the book. (It helps that, as a paying customer of Vimeo, I now have the ability to conclude embedded videos with a clickable link.)

But yes, I did briefly consider using death metal in the soundtrack. Which is why you should probably be very careful about giving someone like me blanket permission to monkey with your work.

Perfect Stranger

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Thing with whom we have
no common ancestor

a parallel line that never
intersects with our own

too different perhaps
even to have ancestors

coming into existence by
some method less messy than sex

foreign to our dilemmas
too other to be other

we probe the earth
& sky for you

cure for loneliness
like nobody we know

A doubter’s guide to agnosticism

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I’m re-posting a few of the articles I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I now think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from February 9, 2003, which, whatever other merits it may have, shows where I was philosophically and what led me to title this blog as I did. New additions are in brackets.

Though they are often used interchangeably, agnosticism and atheism are not the same. Etymologically, an atheist is “without god” while an agnostic is “unknowing [of god or other ultimates].” Someone who identifies as an atheist, however, uses the term to mean “without belief in god,” while people who describe themselves as agnostics usually mean to suggest that they have not made up their minds about the existence of god and/or other religious claims. In both cases, the influence of Christianity’s unique emphasis on intellectual assent to propositions as part of the emotional commitment to Christ is unmistakable. [Here I had in mind the distinction between faith as belief that xyz is true vs. trust in some god, ground of being or ultimate reality, which I picked up from Leo Baeck by way of Martin Buber. It’s all too easy for people from a Christian culture to assume that all other religions make the same demands of their adherents, but this is far from the case.]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “agnostic” was invented by the great naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley at a meeting of the London Metaphysical Society in 1869. He explicitly cited Biblical/pagan Greek precedent for this coinage: St. Paul’s sermon about the shrine to the Unknown God (an attempt by polytheistic Athenians to “cover all bases” — see Acts 17:23). Thus, although the term itself is modern, the intuition is ancient, as Huxley recognized. Indeed, many modern nature writers and ecologists cite humility as the scientist’s most important attribute, since “nature is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.” [Quote attributed to ecologist Frank Engler.]

Huxley’s neologism quickly caught on in the late 19th century, both as a self-description for those who wanted to stress the paramount importance of observable phenomena in the sciences, and as a way to characterize non-theistic philosophies such as Buddhism or Sankhya. But given its uniquely Christian origins, I wonder how meaningful it is to use the same language to describe basic postures of belief within widely divergent religious traditions — even other monotheistic ones such as Rabbinical Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism. Is the god that a worldly Muslim doesn’t acknowledge the same as the god repudiated by an atheist of Protestant heritage?

Western atheism also has sound Christian roots. The French “Enlightenment” thinker Voltaire once cynically remarked, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Some 150 years later, the Russian anarchist Bakunin replied quite earnestly, “If God DID exist, it would be necessary to overthrow him!” Both men could fairly be described as humanists, a posture that developed quite early within Christian scholasticism in its struggle with the centripetal force of church authority. Furthermore, their respective statements are consistent with an intellectual rebellion against god as Lord of Hosts, Heavenly Father, etc. that goes back at least as far as the 3rd century writer known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius (a.k.a. St. Denis), if not all the way to Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 27:46. This tradition might be described as religious agnosticism, and is the common source of modern atheism and agnosticism. It ranges from a conviction that knowledge of ultimate truth(s) is unattainable by mortals, to a mystical praxis of Unknowing as a point of departure for deeper communion, to a pragmatic open-mindedness characteristic of many modern church-goers.

In sum, my feeling about these terms and what they signify is simply that they make no sense outside a religious context. Christian fundamentalists use the term “atheist” to describe any unbeliever as they define him, but many younger folks are quite simply materialists or sensualists for whom the existence or non-existence of god is a matter of almost complete indifference. The label “atheist” implies an active commitment to unbelief that very few people share — unless we are to return to the strict, etymological meaning, which is of course Greek and therefore pagan. (Are fundamentalists condemning themselves to eternal hellfire through their unChristian application of this word?)

To orthodox Christians, the notions of agnosticism and atheism blur together for the same reason they might have blended in the minds of Voltaire and Bakunin: both signify rebellion. What is a conventional believer to make of someone who worships a non-hierarchical (yet still personal) god? In the West, most such worshippers — including the great Meister Eckardt, famous for statements like “for the love of God, get rid of god” — were burned as heretics. Yet a quick overview of Eastern Christian traditions suggests that non-Roman churches were relatively hospitable to this position. And one could argue that honoring the Job-like rebel has been central to the survival of Rabbinical Judaism through centuries of exile and persecution. Most Jewish thinkers, of whatever school of thought, honor the memory of the patriarch Jacob/Israel second only to Abraham. Both men wrestled with God, Abraham through cunning speech alone (though his wife, Sarah, used laughter) and Jacob in the flesh.

Looking deeper, we find that the entire Hebraic tradition as presented in the Bible is based upon acts of rebellion and a fanatic commitment to atheism: rebellion against Pharaoh and, much later, against Babylon and other imperial rulers; atheism in the sense of the central commandment against “idolatry.” Even the most innocuous fetishes must be destroyed, or the Hebrews’ collective covenantal relationship with YHWH would be endangered. Originally, perhaps, it was only the power of competing deities that had to be denied, as many scholars claim. But a distinction between denial of power and complete nullification strikes me as fairly academic, if not completely meaningless to all but the most theologically sophisticated of believers.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with major and minor commandments against any attempt by individuals to influence events through supernatural means other than petition to YHWH. Even planting by signs was suspect. Originally, as I’ve implied, these laws were instituted with communal survival as the main desideratum (one of the astonishing things about the Old Testament is how little of it evinces any concern with the afterlife, even in later, individualist tracts like Job and Ecclesiastes). But simultaneous with the institution of secular kingship (viewed as blasphemous by YHWH himself) comes news of a movement — mysterious to us today — of ecstatics and visionaries claiming direct revelatory knowledge: the nebiim, or prophets.

It’s my contention that the prophets’ emphasis on individual moral behavior laid the groundwork for agnosticism in two ways. First, it extended the earlier commandment against idolatry to include ANY attempt to encompass divine sovereignty within human conceptual frameworks. (It’s fun to speculate whether this might have derived from actual contemplative practice — an early version of the Via Negativa — but I don’t think that’s intrinsic to this revolution in thinking as I imagine it.) To this day, I gather that many religious Jews feel uncomfortable pronouncing or even writing out the name of G-d.

Second, this movement made possible the skepticism of critics like Qoheleth “the Preacher,” not to mention the angst of later prophets like Jeremiah, who strove to make themselves heard above a din of contradictory prophets all claiming to speak for the same god. It’s interesting to me how Ecclesiastes moves from worldly cynicism to a kind of pragmatic orthodoxy reminiscent of Confucianism. Neither Qoheleth nor Confucius would have us waste much breath on questions we cannot reasonably expect to answer in this life. Such speculation, they felt, only distracted from much more vital questions of ethical behavior. In this, they would’ve agreed with Buddha, as well.

So, ignoring for a moment the pitfalls inherent in overly facile assimilations of Western and Eastern philosophies, we can at least propose one further question: when agnosticism becomes orthodox, what is heterodox?

Most religious historians agree that the proximate cause of Buddhism’s eventual disappearance from India lay in the rise of Shaivism and Vishnavism: emotional, functionally monotheistic cults. If true, one can imagine a populist revolt against Buddhism’s deracination of all passion as a source of attachment and bad karma. Confucianism, on the other hand, was opposed by highly individualistic forms of Buddhism and Daoism evolving in tandem. Both Buddhism and Confucianism originally spread, however, through the royal sponsorship of elite institutions with relatively little concern for the details of village belief, so comparisons with the more totalistic world religions aren’t very instructive.

One perennial avenue of rebellion against orthodoxy is in ecstasis itself. It’s a commonplace of comparative religion that movements such as Voudun or Pentacostalism find fertile ground among people living on the margins of society. And when orthodoxy becomes more-or-less agnostic, such as seems to have been the case for most literate Greeks and Romans and many cosmopolitan Jews of the ancient world, then rebellion often turns fanatic and absolutist. There is a strong sense in which the holy warrior — whether crusader, jihadi or zealot — longs for a literal ecstasis (death).

And in any case, even outside a religious context, rebellion in the absence of imagination so often leads to appalling violence! I wonder if the most stifling orthodoxy wouldn’t be preferable?

“I don’t know”: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. Are these three statements one and the same? Frankly, I’m skeptical.

How I Knew Her

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Direct link to video on Vimeo.

Yet another one-minute videopoem. We had a series of violent thunderstorms the night before last, and rather than film the lightning itself, I decided to try and capture what the lightning illuminated. It was interesting how sometimes the camera managed to focus and other times it didn’t.

The use of a cursive script for the title was a first for me. The poem arose like all the others in this one-minute series, as a response to the footage. Influenced I think by my two recent videohaiku, it makes a literal connection with the film imagery at the end.

How I Knew Her

I knew her the way a lake knows a mountain:
from the top down.
Through careful reassembly after every breeze.

I knew her the way a clown knows boredom:
better than I knew that absurdity my self.

I knew her the way an ear candle knows an ear:
through the most intimate of failures
& the sincerest form of flattery.

I knew her the way the night knows lightning:
by inference from the series of missing moments.

We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, by Nick Lantz

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We Don't Know We Don't Know cover
At a Defense Department press briefing on February 12, 2002, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

It is not surprising that Rumsfeld’s phrase, “we don’t know we don’t know,” should capture the imagination of a poet, poets taking, after all, a professional interest in the limits of language. We too are restless interrogators and bullshitters; no wonder we saw Rumsfeld as a kind of anti-poet. As early as April 3, 2003, Slate magazine published a collection of found poetry taken from transcripts of his speeches by columnist Hart Seely. Free Press brought out a book-length collection, Pieces of Intelligence, just three months later. Then the meme spread to musicians. In September 2004, Stuffed Penguin released The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld and Other Fresh American Art Songs, composed by Bryant Kong and sung by soprano Elender Wall, based on Seely’s found texts.

So it was perhaps inevitable that a real poet should capitalize on the meme, and that the resulting book should win a major award and debut at #12 on the Poetry Foundation bestseller list for contemporary poetry books. I’m talking about Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, by Matt Mason, published by Backwaters Press in 2006, winner of the 2007 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. I haven’t read it. It sounds like a funny, straightforward book.

The publication last month of the very similarly titled We Don’t We Don’t Know, by Nick Lantz — a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize winner from Graywolf Press — shows there’s some life in the Rumsfeld poetry meme yet. Had I known of the Mason book earlier, I would’ve ordered it, too, for comparison’s sake. Lantz’s is, I suspect, much the brainier book. In fact, I found it almost too brainy, too high-concept for my taste. Given my general interest in all things apophatic, as evidenced by the title of this blog, I want very much to like it, but after just one reading, I can’t quite get over the feeling I’ve been had, somehow. Going online and discovering that another young poet had already published a book with virtually the same title four years earlier does nothing to counter that impression.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many good, and several great, poems in the volume. I especially loved “A History of the Question Mark”:

God said to Ezekiel, Mortal, eat this scroll.
When the prophet had finished, a black curl

of ink trailed from the corner of his mouth,
a single droplet dotting his throat.

The question mark as a child’s ear
taking in the song his mother is singing,

as cattle brand, as thumbprint whorl,
as flooded river eddying back on itself.

Another favorite was “‘Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake'”:

When you

drive home that night with the cage
belted into the passenger seat, the bird
makes a sound that is not a word
but that you immediately recognize

as the sound of your mother’s phone
ringing, and you know it is the sound
of you calling her again and again,
the sound of her not answering.

Almost every poem had at least a few lines that took my breath away. So I will be reading the book again; these first impressions should be taken with a grain of salt. But I’m not ashamed to admit that a great deal of it went over my head. For example, I was never quite sure why epigrams from Rumsfeld alternated with epigrams from Pliny the Elder. The artsy way the endnotes to the book were squished together into one long paragraph struck me as clever but annoying, and perhaps emblematic of an overall excess of ambition. According to a back-cover blurb by Ronald Wallace, if We Don’t Know We Don’t Know “is in some ways an ontological quest exploring the limits of optics and epistemology with reference to Darwin and Aristotle, Petrarch and Christ, Plato and Tutankhamen, it is also a celebration of bees and eels and finches, of wildfires and crickets and light.” And more than anything, I guess, I found the absence of explicit references to the Bush administration’s war crimes disconcerting.

On the other hand, given its title and inspiration, how could this collection be anything other than oblique? In one, pivotal poem, “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” Lantz turns the tables on CIA interrogators with some questions of his own — three and a half pages of questions. (“Will you ask questions that have no answers?/ Will he say, No more for today, please?”) Another poem is titled “Potemkin Village: Ars Poetica.” (“From/ this distance, light can/ resemble life, See/ how they wave to you.”) So it’s not as if politics are absent.

I just worry that, by blurring the distinction between poetic artifice and imperial disinformation, we risk trivializing or even excusing the latter. To me, Donald Rumsfeld is not only a war criminal but someone with absolute contempt for art and literature. When Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities and National Library were being looted after the invasion, while American troops guarded only the Ministry of Oil, Rumsfeld said, “Stuff happens.” Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad title for a book…

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

What this isn’t

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Unknown web searchers, I’m sorry you were led astray and ended up here. This is not a site about Amish rubber boots, heavy rain penis, existentialist haircut, tweety only poems about love, how is a turtle and a groundhog alike, or (Lord knows) poems and classy behavior. This isn’t a site about sexsexsex, what colour is cat vomit, what does a groundhog penis look like, don’t eat whatever you say, tips for surviving the apocalypse, how to make me happy, shit creek banjo, wood rat midden photo, poem about not being a dick, poems about being rescued from climbing, explanatory poems on mitosis, or 20 gauge crow hunting. Most of all, this is not a site about the via negativa. I’m sorry. Better luck elsewhere.