In a country that now regards money as the highest good, doing something for the love of it is not just odd, but downright perverse. Imagine the horror and anger felt by parents of a son or daughter who was destined for the Harvard Business School and a career in finance but discovered an interest in poetry instead. Imagine their enticing descriptions of the future riches and power awaiting their child while trying to make him or her reconsider the decision. “Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?,” the trial judge shouted at the Russian poet Josef Brodsky, before sentencing him to five years of hard labor. “No one,” Brodsky replied. He could have been speaking for all the sons and daughters who had to face their parents’ wrath.
4012 A.D. An archaeologist from Alpha Centauri who specializes in the Late Anthropocene has uncovered a strange text. Dark Things, it’s called — the work of a Serbian poet and a Serbian-American translator. She knows little of the wars and genocides that convulsed Serbia in this period, and only fragments of 20th-century poetry have survived — mostly copies of A Coney Island of the Mind, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and Jewel Kilcher’s A Night Without Armor — so she is not sure how to classify the writings in this miraculously well-preserved text. But based on existing knowledge, she and her colleagues generate several competing theories about its origin and purpose:
1. It’s the collected sayings of a Zen or Sufi teacher. The combination of standard syntax, non-specialist language and recondite, gnomic or hermetic meanings strongly suggest utterances intended for an audience of initiates to some religious mystery. How else are we to understand lines such as:
Poor us, we are all kings
when we gaze at the starry sky.
The rabbit is in the pot, the broom is behind the door.
(“While You Count The Stars”)
Strangers came and took my sheepskin coat.
Now, what will I cover myself with? Only with prayers
and with the light, trembling wings of a moth.
Under his coat, next to his ribs,
the collected work of some classic would fit.
Without a friend or acquaintance,
alone like a bone in a soup plate…
2. These are clearly lyrics for an otherwise unknown death metal band named Novica Tadić, who had an old man as a mascot. Consider:
I’m a cross of human flesh
on which nothingness is crucified.
You are all-powerful, you are a giant.
No mother gave you birth.
Every street is too narrow for you.
You pull back your shadows, burn holes with your eyes.
Everyone gets out of your way.
(“You Are Mighty”)
We’ll drink each other’s blood
as we have always done
and won’t dream of it anymore.
(“Someone Whispered to Me in a Dream”)
Time races on, bearing you along
toward your last
3. It’s a reporter’s notebook from the global conflict between reason and irrationality, which eventually spawned the Endless War:
an ocean of hatred splashes over me
Dark things open my eyes,
raise my hand, knot my fingers.
They are close and far away,
in a safe hideaway
beyond nine hills.
Out of some old thing
(a hideous ruin of a building)
people peek outside
They slap their heads,
chatter, stick their tongues out
Twist their mouths
in every direction
(“Out of Some Old Thing”)
4. These are Wikileaked communiqués from the Serbian ambassador to an unnamed superpower, possibly Hades.
Tonight he shows me
his wire-glass-and-flower hairdo
Ah he unbuttons
his silk vest
ah, even so, he has a body—
and a gold watch
We don’t know what he did,
where he went, what he suffered.
He stares at us crossly,
answers to the name of Rat.
(“The Seventh Brother”)
He needs to be an infamous and marked man—
it makes no difference for what reason.
A bird started to sing
on a clear day
over the gallows
Wind lifted the ashes
and spread them
over other ashes
(“A Bird Started to Sing”)
is being woven
and cut to measure
5. This is a 20th-century version of a much older text, a lost gospel attributed to the risen Lazarus.
On a low chair, the book
opened by itself.
A gust of air blew—
it was the Lord’s breath.
May the earth be easy on him,
since it was only today that we noticed
he was alive.
(“About the Dead, Briefly”)
it’s not easy for the dead to carry water
oh black she-goats black goatherd
you need to put your life in order Lazarus
make it clean as death
oh you risen from the dead
(“Whisk Broom 50”)
I wandered everywhere
like a God’s fool.
Whatever I acquired—I lost.
what I gave life to—died.
Go into town and buy a spade
as if intending to turn over a garden.
Instead, find your humble place
in the village graveyard,
swing high and dig yourself a grave.
Set it up, decorate it, write on it.
Find your humble place
in a world gone mad.
6. Finally, and most convincingly of all, a scholar of 20th-century children’s literature suggested that this was a children’s book that had grown up and gone wrong, after an abusive childhood.
Again that dangerous confusion
of things and people.
I see an ashtray next to a dozing armchair
and say it’s a baby-ashtray.
In the pantry: bottles-maidens.
In the tavern I spoke with a human cash register.
covered with nets and shining scales
walks down the hallway
beating a drum full of mice
Old shoes in the rain
next to a dumpster
wait for the one who will pass this way
Carrying the shoes in his hand,
he’ll find my room and bed
and will lie down in it and then vanish
just as my dream about him comes to a close.
I found an empty cardboard box
and sat down in it
My mad old sweetie
will pass this way and buy me
(“In Front of a Supermarket”)
Hey, little marsh, reed, cattail and water lily.
flies flies the gray crow.
here, there, there’s no one in the rotted boat.
let’s set out for the open waters.
let’s turn and lie on our backs forever.
“The obvious,” Charles Simic once wrote, “is difficult/To prove.” (“The White Room,” from The Book of Gods and Devils.) This is my new favorite quote.
Continue reading “Proof”
Nanopress Publishing: alternative poetry publishing, with gravitas
The indefatigable Nic S. has set up a website to advocate the new model of poetry publishing she’s pioneering with her own book, Forever Will End on Thursday (which I’ll be blogging next month).
The nanopress is a single-publication, purpose-formed poetry press that brings together, on a one-time basis, an independent editor’s judgment and gravitas and a poet’s manuscript. The combination effectively by-passes both the poetry-contest gamble and the dwindling opportunities offered by existing poetry presses, while still applying credible ‘quality control’ measures to the published work.
Join the discussion about this new paradigm at Nic’s blog — in particular, a post titled “Nanopress poetry publishing: Avoiding the publisher’s cycle of need.” Beth Adams, Ren Powell, Sarah Busse, and Rachel Barenblat are among the contributors to the comment thread so far.
The Washington Post: “In the Mideast, U.S. policy is still driven by realism” (Eugene Robinson)
Is it realism, or is it surrealism? It is certainly frustrating the way we never seem to have money for anything but destruction. We can only laugh to keep from crying: The Daily Show for March 21 was devastating.
The Palace at 2:00 a.m.: “The House of Words (no. 1)”
Novelist and poet Marly Youmans kicked off what she promises will be a 25-part series “on persisting, giving up, and other topics” connected with the writing life.
Giving up writing is easier than persistence because–surprise!–nobody much will mind if you give up. It’s not like giving up a job with a salary; there are few reproaches, and in fact many of your near-and-dear will heave great buffalo sighs and snort with relief. People will be glad to think that you may be a solvent person some day, rather than a struggling writer with the usual garret, heaps of foolscap, and bargain Toshiba laptop.
The New York Review of Books Blog: “The New American Pessimism”
Charles Simic is smarter than your average poet.
They say the monkey scratches its fleas with the key that opens its cage. That may strike one as being very funny or very sad. Unfortunately, that’s where we are now.
t r u t h o u t : “Instead of Bombing Dictators, Stop Selling Them Bombs”
But Gaddafi promised he’d only use them on terrorists!
NewScientist: “Fake tweets by ‘socialbot’ fool hundreds of followers”
“The success suggests that socialbots could manipulate social networks on a larger scale, for good or ill.” Good idea. I’ve heard that terrorists can use Twitter and Facebook to foment unrest.
It’s not every day that I get to read a web comic about my favorite organism, the dog vomit slimemold.
O: Maria Shriver interviews Mary Oliver
I’m not entirely sure who Maria Shriver is — some sort of Kennedy, apparently — but somehow she managed to lure the famously reclusive poet out of her shell. (And I’m pleased to see O magazine devoting its April issue to poetry. Here’s the New Yorker’s review.)
Finally, here are a couple of videos from Plummer’s Hollow that complement this past week’s podcast, “Creatures of the Night.” Thanks to our neighbors Troy and Paula for doing such a great job documenting the local wildlife with multiple trail cameras and sides of venison for bait.
It ends before it ends, “neither in the title nor in the poem,” and I feel sorry for flames that started out as feathers. A sparrow darts into the cedar tree and doesn’t come out — I’m watching — and the tree twitches all over like someone with a bad case of scruples. Novica Tadić looks a Trojan horse in the mouth and finds a comb.
There are many ways to descend and this poet knows all of them. He goes down to the salt cellar and finds the unknown soldier’s unknown uniform, maybe. And he would try it on, and listen to the martial music, and pledge fidelity with the tip of someone else’s tongue. Yesterday, my mother watched a large, dark milk snake mating with two small garter snakes, and refused for a while to believe in what she had seen: out of such refusals is this kind of poetry made.
The cast of characters includes something monstrous on every other page — most often a chicken, or “the life-giving zero.” Musical accompaniment is provided by “a drum full of mice” and “a giggle made up of the screams of the dying” — that kind of thing. The poet disappears into the set.
At this point in my reading (p. 51, “Nightingale”), a log cock alights on the side of a nearby birch, crest bright as a stop light, and starts whaling away with his deconstructionist’s hammer and nail. Someone opens the night curtains and discovers that the streets are filled with marchers: all the city’s cats have gone on strike. “Our Jesus” is “a pincushion,” a hairdresser campaigns for God’s empty seat, and an anti-psalmist prays for the ridicule of his enemies. Against the white of the page I can make out the blur of a hair on the end of my nose, that almost-invisible flesh-colored companion of all my reading.
It’s Holy Saturday, which means (among other things) that we have silence from the quarry over the hill. The poet says “now” and it sounds like an imperative to me, he says to bring a chair outside and I get the feeling I’m being watched, which of course I am: everything watches everything else, as Tadić says on a page I’ve already lost track of. “From the penetentiary quarry/ the song of songs reaches us,” he writes. (Or Charles Simic does, at any rate.) It’s all there in black and white — the magpie, I mean. Page 90. You can’t miss it.
(Click on the thumbnail to go to the book’s page in Open Library.)
The woods were full of question marks, Mom says at dinner. They’re migrating north. I am suddenly sorry I didn’t go for a walk in the woods. Instead, I spent an hour in the bottom corner of the field, crouched beside the artifically enlarged spring we call a pond, waiting in vain for the wood frogs to resume the chorus I’d interrupted when I had to change my camera batteries. After forty minutes, a single frog re-emerged; at least six had been quacking and fighting when I first got there. Even though I was watching the pond intently for the slightest sign of movement, the frog just suddenly materialized like some kind of amphibian ninja, floating motionless on the surface with a small lump of mud for a hat. He drifted back and forth in the breeze, not moving a muscle. Watching him watch me — this creature that can freeze solid for weeks or months at a time, his heart stopped — I too began slipping into a trance. I was reminded of Charles Simic’s “Stone Inside a Stone,”
On the border of nothing and nothing.
Fossils of the wind.
But what wind?
You can’t step twice in the same river —
With a stone you can take your sweet time.
The sun was sinking, and the temperature was dropping back down into the 40s. My fingers grew numb around the camera. I caught sight of the red-spotted newt that has been living in this spring for the past few years, feasting on frogs’ eggs and tadpoles and reducing the once-teeming wood frog population to a half-dozen long-lived survivors. The newt glided insouciantly along the bottom, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was the real “lizard in the spring” in the old Appalachian folksong.
Later, when Mom hears that the wood frogs had been out, she says she’s sorry she went for a walk in the woods instead. It seems we each took the other’s walk! But on the way back up the driveway to fix supper, I paused to admire a clump of newly opened coltsfoot at the edge of the driveway, small suns in a firmament of blue-gray stone.