A few quotes + links (please click through!) from the Poet Bloggers Revival Tour (plus occasional non-tour poetry bloggers from my feed reader: in this edition, George Szirtes). If you missed last week’s digest, here’s the archive.
This week, poets were blogging about loss and order, memory and embodiment… In short, they were being poets. (OK, to be fair, they were also blogging about more nitty-gritty, #amwriting types of things, too, I just chose not to feature those posts this week. By the way, if anyone wants to start an alternative weekly digest, I’d be happy to link to it.)
The poem has taken the liberty of interpreting a symbolic hint in the picture. The inverted flame shape, suggested by the woman’s headscarf, is a conventional symbol of death. Even if we do not consciously interpret it as such – and I doubt whether Kertész did, or at least we do not know whether he articulated such a thought in his own mind – once the photograph opens its multitude of doors onto the fields of memory and imagination, the symbol, even though we cannot name it, begins to speak to us and organise other parts of the image into a possible coherent whole. The man’s one leg, the halo of his boater, the absoluteness of those stern planks of wood with their jagged waves at just about neck-level, combine to support the death narrative. There is nothing dramatic in the narrative itself. Nothing is obvious: it is all apprehension, all shudder, all admiration and marvel.
George Szirtes, The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs 7
My mother’s history and my own are intertwined. I feel the tugging almost viscerally when I clean. How much it meant to her to give us all a perfect house. How much I’d rather spend time doing almost anything else because I can never do it right. How much our patriarchal culture has colored everything we do, including what we’re taught as children about our roles and values.
At public readings, when I read poems from my book Every Atom, I sometimes find myself wanting to explain my mother, explain myself. Even though the poems explore what our relationship was, honestly, sometimes painfully, I want to defend her, defend myself. Every person is just one domino in a long chain. She became who she was with the input of all the people and events before her, and I have become (continue to become) who I am for a thousand reasons.
So now I’m going to sit down and read a book. Watch the sky. Allow myself to be present in this moment, remembering my mother.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Sunday Cleaning
So much of my work involves imposing order, or revealing order that is occluded. Divine the bones of a student’s idea and help her build an essay or a poem that will stand steady, bear some weight. Uncover and tell a story latent in the survey results, the aged manuscripts, the tangle of movements and mavericks that make a literary period. Organize aspirations into weeks of future labor, then write the grant application.
But first comes the mess. Notions, images, daisy-chained phrases with their slightly crushed petals unevenly spaced, like teeth in a first-grader’s mouth. Mess precedes order, often succeeds it too, and some of the best writing remains redolent with it. Mess is smelly and exciting. Noisy and damp.
Lesley Wheeler, Excerpt from a mess in progress
The apparent plainness of this and its stripped-down observation draws me, the reader, into a strange meeting, poised between then and now, on the threshold of leaving. The place is studiously real, but what happens in it is disturbing and dreamlike. Haunting. There are little discords that snag. A sack under the tired Xmas lights that’s a grey cowl. The face in the rain might be dream or a drowning refugee. Why can’t the poet remember the face? Why can’t he help? It’s a poem that bothers me and won’t let go. I think that’s what poems should do. At least some of the time.
John Foggin, Them and [uz], or just us…and a polished gem. Ian Parks
Louise Glück’s critical eye reminds me of the red-tailed hawks that patrol the highways, sharp of eye, beak, and talon. Even in my car I feel like prey.
In American Originality, a book of essays published previously, mostly in The Threepenny Review, and introductions to books she chose as award winners for Yale University Press, Glück examines the state of contemporary poetry with her baleful eye. Even her praise is fierce.
Marilyn McCabe, Eye for an I; or Thinking About Louise Glück essays and Art for Our Time
I didn’t blog last week. I was thinking.
About Neruda. And that was because I was thinking about Burns.
I was not thinking about their poetry.
When I met my partner just a few years ago, one of the first things he gave me was a book of Neruda’s love poems. Since his reading (at the time) was largely restricted to non-fiction and Dan Brown, it meant a great deal to me. He’d done his homework. But just a few months later I saw an article about newly uncovered letters, in which Neruda boasted about raping a woman.
The Neruda poems just sit there on my shelf now. And every few months, I notice them, and consider tossing the book in the trash.
Ren Powell, On Ruminating
At the center of this affair is the body. What is it that the body knows? What intimacies and intricate registers of longing exist in the depths of muscles and across the landscapes of skin? What betrayals lodge there as well? [Sophie] Klahr’s poems work to show us the way the body dreams, the way the body stores its longing and often works against our will.
Here, (turn the body)
the spinal column, then buried:
galloping from palm to cunt to sole, this picture
where the bed is a feeling you can’t shake, a migraine, a cage
containing sea stones,
a script, a string of red lights—
It’s a dream:
there is a girl, a bed, a gun, a fire
Throughout this poem, “Opening Night,” the speaker creates layers of distance from her own body, she considers it in pieces as in close-up photographs, she considers herself as if in a movie she doesn’t belong in, her body having involved her in a story that is working to dismantle her.
Anita Olivia Koester, Desire as Desire: Meet Me Here at Dawn by Sophie Klahr
You dream there is a hole in the floor and someone you love falls through in slow motion: you can’t get there fast enough to catch her. You dream a black dog stands at the wood’s edge, still as tree stump: you don’t know what he means to say. You dream your body arcs gracefully through stained-glass air, then shatters. Death comes, again and again—for others now. You live. The sky spits sleet.
JJS, February 4, 2018: ice storms
I submit that it is possible to have a body
in this world and not understand the extent of it
to discover its mass and velocity only
through repeated trials, to misplace one’s body
and then find it, by hammering it again
and again against the cage that contains it
Dylan Tweney, my heart
Count your heartbeats
one by one as you fold
into your grief. Not as if to say,
“I am still here inside my life”,
but to declare that for as long
as that old muffled bell still booms,
your crazy rainbow self will hear it
and you’ll be, as ever was,
just one heartbeat distant.
Dick Jones, Jacqui
Like many poets (and people generally) when I’m under a great deal of stress, I function pretty well, but the stress shows up in dreams, and when I’m able to honor it, through poems. My new manuscript is a departure for me, it is more intimate and risky. It’s full of pain, but also hope. May we all survive this year.
In the crush of regret subject and object
exchange garments. Time is a notion too
liminal to survive. If you’re willing to amend,
there may be hope. For a moment, the stricken
sparrow’s shivering heart still beats. It’s time
to loosen the strangling cord that binds us so
painfully to one another and consider freedom.
Just like last year, I thought I’d put out a call to poetry readers to contribute to a favorite poetry books list that doesn’t pay much heed to critical fashions or even date of publication. I asked people to try to select a single favorite book, which I realize is a tough assignment… and not quite everybody managed it. (I allowed a few reviewers to sneak in a second book, as you’ll see.) Unlike last year, I forgot to do this earlier in December so people could use the list for holiday shopping purposes. Oh well. Poetry books do make great Valentine’s Day gifts! And the responses I got are, I think you’ll agree, wonderfully varied, personal and eccentric. Thanks to everyone who took part. —Dave
I fell happily upon European Hours, collected poems of Anthony Rudolf, published a few months ago by Carcanet. First joy is the cover painting of the poet by his partner, the dazzling Portuguese-British artist Paula Rego, and the joys continue through a volume of exquisitely spare, skilled, quirky poems from a long working life as writer, translator (from French, Russian, Hebrew), editor, publisher… Many are abstract and minimalist, but somehow the voice is never less than individual and recognisable. Others evoke lovers, friends, children and places with understated, tender directness. The extended title poem, completed around the time of the Brexit referendum result, praises sights and memories in a long list of European cities. The collection includes just one sonnet, Branca’s Vineyard:
The grapes are drowsy […]
I drink the wine […]
then, for a moment, lingering alone,
wineglass in hand, pen upon this paper,
inhale an ancient oneness which I’d thought
lost for all time, except when I made love
with the woman who has just spoken to me
and broken the spell, as spells are always broken.
So satisfying that I yearned for more, and keep rereading.
Here’s the opener to my review of Susan Hankla’s Clinch River, published in the last Hollins Critic: “I doubt that any other reviewer of Susan Hankla’s first full-length book, Clinch River, has had the great good luck of seeing her, a young woman, dance playfully with an enormous rattlesnake skin. Such is my sparkling luck. In Clinch River, though, we all may find good rural luck, freshly dug from Appalachian coal country. Progeny of R. H. W. Dillard’s new Groundhog Press, this handsome collection will lure readers and not disappoint (Roanoke, VA: Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017.)” And here’s the closer: “These sound-loving poems of the Appalachian South give us the truth of place and memory. They tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!”
This has been a difficult, painful year. I wanted books around me that helped me to understand and express that pain, words that described being broken and stubborn. Much of what I’ve been seeking has not come from poetry, but from graphic memoirs, mashups of terse words strewn across pages of (usually) dark and limber sketches. I prowled through In Between: The Poetry Comics of Mita Mahato (2017) which was magical, but I wasn’t sure it suited this list, or was the poetry book that I felt resonated most strongly with me right now.
It was actually the day I met Mita, before her book was published, that I found Jillian Weise’s book in the used book section of Left Bank Books in Seattle, at the Fisherman’s Wharf. I was unsettled, having struggled up the steps on crutches to the poetry section, rummaging through the shelves for something, something that fit the strange mood I was in.
I’d already gathered half a dozen when this slim dark book emerged from hiding between several much larger volumes, the title jolting and powerful. The poem titles were similarly potent — “The Scar on Her Neck,” “Body As Cloud,” “Beautiful Freak Show,” “The Body In Pain,” “Incision,” “Ode to Agent Orange,” “Let me be reckless with the word love.” These are reckless, fierce, naked poems, full of dreams and nightmares.
Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open by Diane Seuss (University of Massachusetts Press). It’s a few years old — 2010 — but I came to it because a poem from the collection showed up in my email. I forget which poem-a-day source. “Song in my heart” begins:
If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it
Before she’s done she has God shaving with a straight razor, using the Black Sea as a mirror.
I had to check, and no, the poem isn’t an aberration — she manages some neat dance moves with sacred and profane, comic and dead serious. Her voice feels familiar, like the one in the back of my head when I start to write, before I mess things up.
I read only a little poetry this year. I think last year I may have nominated Paradise Lost, which I read as part of the “hard-book” reading club I belong to. At the moment we are mid-Karenina, we just finished Nabokov’s Ada, and next will be Gravity’s Rainbow. You see?
But it does leave me just enough time to have waded into Garbage by A. R. Ammons (Norton, 1993). I am enjoying it for its rolling quality — he keeps hammering and yammering on like an Old Testament beard or the EverReady bunny. That is what makes it difficult to quote, without cutting him off in mid thought. But I’ll try:
[…] and here we are at
last, last, probably, behold, we have replaced
the meadows with oilslick: when words have
driven the sludge in billows higher than our
heads—oh, well, by then words will have left
the poor place behind: we’ll be settling
elsewhere or floating interminably, the universe
a deep place to spoil, a dump compaction will
always make room in! I have nothing to say:
what I want to say is saying: I want to be
singing, sort of: I want to be engaged with
the ongoing: but I have no portmanteau filled
with portfolio: still, I am for something:
My favorite poetry book of the year has been The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013 (Macmillan, 2014). It’s a big book, and it’s been beside the bed all year, where I’ve dipped into it for an hour or just a few minutes, always finding phrases or metaphors, descriptions and emotions that touch me. Walcott’s background is entirely different from mine, but we share some loves, such as classical literature, European cities, the sea, nature, and watercolor painting. But I’ve been moved the most by his writing about being a black man in a white world, his writing about the American South, and his poems about the Caribbean, where he felt at home. His mastery of our language is astounding and often surprising, but I think this collection has brought me a lot closer to sensing the man behind the poems.
I’d like to recommend a book I just started reading, written by a poet I just met: Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater by Sam Roxas-Chua 姚 (Lithic Press, 2017). This is a startling, beautiful book. With titles like “The Laotian Man Who Offered the Lake a Plate of Turtles” and “The Story That Bit the Butterfly’s Breast,” these are poems of precise, heartbreaking detail. From “Palpate the Third Rib Break It If You Have To,” Roxas-Chua 姚 writes “I miss China – the infant apple of her. / Her mountain bruises singing under rain / / and menthol.” These poems are chewy and dense, like black bread, and just as nourishing.
The best book of poems that I read this year was The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith (Tupelo Press, 2015). AMAZING poems. Lots of poems that reference fairy tales in new ways—perhaps they all do? Lots of interesting imagery about the dangers of the world.
It was one of the few books that I read twice this year. When I was waiting for a friend in Panera, and I was going to be loaning her this book, I reread it, and my opinion of it was the same, a month later.
For a book of older poems that still seems to have so much to say to us, that would be a volume by Adrienne Rich: Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (Norton, 1995). Wonderful book. “What Kind of Times Are These” continues to haunt me.
Millennial Teeth by Dan Albergotti (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) is a wonder of a poetry collection. Personal, familial, political, theological, formal, intellectual, and emotional, this book seems by turns severely wrought and effortless in its formal beauty. Albergotti works almost exclusively in strict forms, but he is freer to say what he wants than most who write in free verse. Though we differ theologically, his own heartbreak over the absence of God seems to me a feeling that I share, though strangely I find God to be ever-present and this absence my own shortcoming and blindness. Albergotti uses both a telescope and a microscope (and a keen human eye) to get at an understanding of who we are and the deep paradoxical nature of our lives and the beauty and horror we find in our daily lives and our history. But best of all, he even puts his ear to the viewfinder, to listen surreally to what others hope to see. His “Ghazal for Buildings” is one of the best 9/11 poems ever written. And his own invention, the albergonnet, will force any good poet to try her hand at it. So many good poems.
Hard to pin it down to only one. But I would like to offer Vincent Toro’s Stereo. Island. Mosaic. (Ahsahta Press, 2016) for its dazzling language and use of form/s, and the exploration of what it means to be a hybridized subject — not just “Sorta Rican” — in the 21st century.
Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman are just some of the acting legends given a fresh voice by Alvarez, who peels away the studio-manufactured facades to explore their inner thoughts and troubled lives. It’s a chapbook I return to again and again.
For me, it’s a toss-up between a book that was new and an old book that I had never read before.
First, Kaveh Akbar’s book Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017) deserves all the accolades it is receiving — rich and original language, and despite it being hailed as a book about addiction and recovery, to me it was more a book about desire — physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual — and how we seek always something greater, especially in the face of adversity.
Second, I had read Neruda’s odes and love songs as well as Residence on Earth, but I read El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions) for the first time this spring (both in Spanish, then in the English translation by William O’Daly from Copper Canyon Press since my Spanish is rusty) before visiting Chile this summer. It was one of the eight unpublished manuscripts he left behind when he died and it is both child-like and profound in its wonder. I keep going back to lines like:
And what did the rubies say
standing before the juice of pomegranates?
Why doesn’t Thursday talk itself
into coming after Friday?
The Blomidon Logs came to me when it was most needed. I had been away from my home in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia for many months when it arrived like a starfish thrown out of the waves on a beach. Would anyone other than me think it special? Perhaps you will need to know of this place by the Bay of Fundy, or have spent summers at your family cottage in the 1960s. Maybe you should have grown up around farmers, and loggers, cattle and farm dogs with “pink, spoon-shaped tongues” or slept in your “sleeping bag lined from head to toe with cowboys / repeating their lassos and campfire songs.” Have you wondered how the local brook got its name, or pondered over how your birding field guide might describe a macramé cottage owl? Deirdre Dwyer’s collection of 148 poems builds upon the contents of six logbooks her parents kept of her family’s summers in Cape Blomidon. However, they are just a jumping-off point — field notes from which to draw imagery and much speculation. While the subject matter may seem tame, the delivery is anything but.
I found it smart and moving, and his mastery of sound always makes me want to read the poems out loud. Also, great use of space on the page, fun titles, and the poems converse with each other across the pages.
Westerns by Richard Dankleff (Oregon State University Press, 1984). When I read a description of Dankleff’s Westerns in another book, Erik Muller’s excellent Durable Goods: Appreciations of Oregon Poets, I realized that I had a copy of Westerns tucked away on a shelf and had never read it. So I pulled it down, cracked it open — and ended up in one of those literary epiphanies that I wanted to tell all my friends about, spending the next three nights engrossed in that book, reading and rereading each poem and reciting them out loud to my sleepy cat. Dankleff’s approach — crafting into poems the historical accounts, diaries, and journals of Old West settlers, trappers, Native Americans, explorers, and journalists — could have been trite or patronizing in the wrong hands. But Dankleff, who died in 2010, was a hell of a poet, deftly moving between lyricism, narrative, and visceral punches depicting the more disturbing aspects of the Westward Expansion. He shows true genius in the small intimacies—a ranch hand alone with his beloved horses, the dreams of a gaunt buffalo, or a haunted roadside in modern-day Kansas. From the shockingly violent cover photo to the meticulous and entertaining endnotes (which made me want to read every historical book he cites), Westerns made me constantly wonder why Dankleff isn’t a better-known poet.
The book that touched my heart most deeply in 2017 is Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). His voice is lyrical, intimate, yet measured. The poem in the collection that floors me with its mastery is “Aubade With Burning City.” Hearing him read the poem is an intense experience. The reader is in the room with the two lovers as ash floats outside their hotel room, ashes like snow falling in the lyrics of White Christmas that played over the loudspeakers during the Fall of Saigon. All of Ocean Vuong’s poems are highly imagistic—clear, yet complex.
I’d like to recommend Cristina J. Baptista’s The Drowning Book (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I do know Cristina (virtually), although we’ve never met in person. I know her well enough to ask her to sign my copy of her book for me. I like the book well enough that I haven’t been willing to part with it long enough to mail it to her and wait for it to come back. It’s a powerful collection of poems… they demand my full presence and attention whenever I sit down with them, and I read only a few at a time, and those stay with me for days after.
Bethany W. Pope’s Silage (Indigo Dreams, 2017) hums with tension. Two forces pull on the string that threads this work. At one end of the string, there is a dire need to tell an extremely traumatic story and to tell it well. The other end leads to a tiger, waiting at the bottom of a pit, ravening, ready to drag the speaker down. So to keep the tiger at bay, the speaker recounts her story, as flatly as possible. It works, mostly. But then again, there are scars. There is blood.
Dave Bonta’s Ice Mountain (Phoenicia Publishing, 2017) is my favourite collection read this year. The book takes us for a walk comprised of many walks, through changing seasons in woods near to Dave’s home. Each step is well grounded. Each poem consists of three-by-three lines, a formal repetition I found satisfying as a frame for the writing of each day. I admire the discipline of Dave’s multi-faceted creativity, which includes publishing, video making, writing and photography. His dedication and long experience pays off in the refined simplicity, keen observations, intellect and emotion of this collection. I chime in various ways with Dave’s views of the world and the creatures in it, including human. On this level, Ice Mountain reads to me as an elegy for the land, and for life on earth.
My disclosure of personal connection to Dave is as one of his many friends over the net over the past few years (as long as I’ve been involved with video poetry, he was instrumental in getting me started). We have corresponded by email occasionally and he’s published some of my videos in Moving Poems. Because Dave publishes his poems on a Creative Commons license, I have been free to make a few videos from his writing, including two from poems in Ice Mountain. My connection with Dave is an extension of my respect for him as a key creative artist in the field of contemporary poetry, as I experience it.
OK, that’s embarrassing. Thanks, Marie! Here’s to online collaboration and community. I will resist the urge to insert a self-deprecating remark and move swiftly on to my own review.
Rachael Boast’s Void Studies (Picador, 2016) is the book I kept re-reading this summer. I found it in a London bookshop, opened it at random, read a couple of poems and was hooked. I guess I’ve always been a sucker for poems that exhibit negative capability… and as you might be able to gather from the title, this book has negative capability out the wazoo. The premise derives from something Arthur Rimbaud had B.S.ed about but never gotten around to doing himself: a collection of poems written more or less along the lines of musical etudes, which “would not convey any direct message, but instead summon the abstract spirit of the subject” as the back cover description puts it. So Boast took up the challenge, and while apparently the results aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (3.33 out of 5 stars on Goodreads?!) if you like poems that pulsate with magic and dwell in possibility, Void Studies is as close to a perfect collection of poetry as you’re ever likely to find. And it only works because the poems are full of keenly observed particulars; the “void” of the title is no airy emptiness, but something closer to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā, in which the absence of any intrinsic nature or essence enables a direct apprehension of reality. I mean, check out this spot-on description of a murmuration of starlings in “The Call”:
Stepping through the last of the sky
held by half-asleep mirrors
of the rain storm along the path
by the river where over
the other side the trees uphold
a language picking away
the fabric of reality, the woods
rising with everything to say
at once, with black wings,
with sound shuffling the air.
In you the earth, murmurs
the make-believe sailor,
dipping his old-fashioned
straight razor into a bowl
of steamy water. Little rose,
he croons, beginning to feel
that familiar stirring in what
he has always supposed to be
his heart. Tiny and naked—
he clutches the razor like a pen,
like his poet’s scalpel— you have grown, watching
that celebrated moon emerge
from the shaving foam,
its sensuous lips, its ravenous snout. You are loosed, my love. You are full and fleshy. I am all at sea.
Only by becoming an object of love does the woman come into being. Without her male lover, she is “vacía, sin substancia” (“El amor,” LVDC). This portrayal of woman in the texts is sharply juxtaposed with that of the male speaker, who does not depend on the physical presence or the love of the female for his existence. At times, the woman’s absence is even considered preferable, since it allows the male to recreate her in the text, and thus provides him with a heightened level of inspiration.
—Cynthia Duncan, “Reading Against the Grain of Neruda’s Love Poetry: A Feminist Perspective“
Thanks to Rachel Rawlins for prompting this with her unexpectedly negative reaction to The Captain’s Verses, which is making me rethink my admiration for Neruda’s love poetry. Thanks also to musician and SoundCloud user Hani Maltos for uploading the music I used and licensing it under the Creative Commons (since I’m too rushed this morning to be able to get permission). I have a video in mind for this, but don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do it before my departure for Chicago tomorrow afternoon. (Incidentally, if you’re going to be at the AWP conference too, please get in touch.)
I hadn’t expected to be so impressed by Blackwater Falls. The West Virginia state park was just a place to camp, conveniently located close to twomicrobreweries in the towns of Thomas and Davis, not to mention a portion of the Monongahela National Forest which my hiking buddy Lucy and I planned to explore the next day. But we dutifully went down to look at the falls after pitching our tents, and were blown away (see the photo in my postcard). The tannic color of the falls (whence its name) was striking, and the location in a wooded gorge couldn’t have been more picturesque.
I made an audio recording of the falls, then switched to the video camera. At a certain point, Lucy — who has an excellent eye — drew my attention to the water spraying off a large boulder at the foot of the falls and suggested that might make a good film “for a poem by you or Nic S..” I saw immediately what she was talking about.
After several more days of relishing the unparalleled silence, breathtaking scenery and wilderness quality of the “Mon,” we made our way back to Central Pennsylvania, and I discovered to my shock that Via Negativa and all its associated sites had been down for two and a half days (sorry about that). But my gloom at the unreliability of my webhost was soon cancelled out by my excitement at seeing what other, more diligent online poets had been doing during my absence. Luisa had continued to write daily poems for publication on Via Negativa even without the benefit of access to The Morning Porch archives for prompts, which is especialy impressive considering all her other commitments. And Nic S., who had recently decided to close submissions to Whale Sound, her online audio archive of contemporary poetry, had just launched a new audio project called Pizzicati of Hosanna, featuring her readings of work by dead poets in English, French, Spanish and Italian. One poem, Neruda’s “Fábula de la sirena y los borrachos,” seemed like it might make a good fit for my waterfall footage.
I whipped up a fairly literal translation — good enough for subtitling, I thought. But finding the right soundtrack consumed quite a few hours more, using various search terms at Jamendo, ccMixter and Soundcloud. Part of the problem was I couldn’t decide on the mood I wanted to establish. But once it became clear it should be elegiac (rather than, say, angry or dissonant), I quickly found something I thought might work. I shared the result at a private Facebook group where a few of us aspiring videopoets critique each other’s work, and was encouraged by their positive reactions. Brenda Clews suggested I increase the sound of the falls after the poem ends. I decided to go a little further and include waterfall sound throughout the title and credits, using the higher-quality audio from my portable recorder rather than what was on the video.
Here’s my translation, for those with dial-up connections who don’t feel inclined to wait for the video to load:
Fable of the Siren and the Drunks by Pablo Neruda
All those gentlemen were there inside
when she came in completely naked
they’d been drinking and they began spitting on her
fresh from the river she didn’t understand anything
she was a siren who’d gotten lost
insults streamed down over her smooth flesh
filth drenched her golden breasts
she didn’t know how to cry so she didn’t cry
she didn’t know how to put clothes on so she didn’t put clothes on
they branded her with cigarettes and charred corks
and laughed until they fell down on the bar room floor
she didn’t speak because she didn’t know how to speak
her eyes were the color of distant love
her arms were made of twin topazes
her lips were cut from coral light
and she went out that door as suddenly as she came
no sooner had she entered the river than she was clean
she shone like a white stone in the rain
and without looking back she swam anew
swam toward never again swam toward death
As they recited poetry, people were admirably organized and generally festive — singing, dancing and staging improv-theatre — showing us all that a revolution could be a work of art, and a way of life, even.
While The Morning Porch is Dave’s, there are plenty of porches — or at least perches — in every neighborhood. With that in mind, I’m calling my little collection A View From Another Porch. While I’ll certainly be adding new posts on other subjects throughout the season of Lent, each day an additional observation will be tucked in here. After not quite a week of looking around, I’m enjoying the discipline far more than I expected to, and I’m looking forward to continuing the heart and eye-opening exercise until Easter.
Revamping Via Negativa’s About page this week, I came up with my best thumbnail description to date: “Via Negativa is a personal web log with delusions of grandeur.” I also included a new take on my old “Words on the Street” cartoon by Siona (the blogger, not the inchworm genus). Check it out.
You want an oracle? Consult Neruda. This morning, I was mulling over a very persuasive argument against hope from the latest issue of Orion magazine. If hope is counter-productive, I wondered, what will take its place? I opened The Book of Questions at random, and read:
Se convierte en pez volador
si transmigra la mariposa?
Which William O’Daly translates as:
If the butterfly transmogrifies
does it turn into a flying fish?
Though I think transmigra actually means transmigrate, i.e. reincarnate.
If hope isn’t to be trusted, what about other religious or quasi-religious impulses? For example, what about faith, belief, or simply trust in the universe? Let us consult El libro de las preguntas once again.
No te engañó la primavera
con besos que no florecieron?
Did spring never deceive you
with kisses that never blossom?
It occurs to me that Bible doesn’t say that hope or faith are essential to understanding. Instead, fear or awe are held to be the beginning of wisdom. To most contemporary North Americans, fear is without any virtue; we like to quote Roosevelt — “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” But let me put it to Neruda.
Tendré mi olor y mis dolores
cuando yo duerma destruido?
Will I have my smell and my pain
when, destroyed, I go on sleeping?
I think about the dour ending of the book of Proverbs, with its magnificent (and often mis-translated) poem about the ruined face in old age. I can never make up my mind whether or not tragedy or sorrow have anything in common and wisdom. It often feels as though laughter is the only sane response to the slings and arrows of outrageous whatever. What say you, Pablo?
Por que razón o sinrazón
llora la lluvia su alegría?
By what reason or injustice
does the rain weep its joy?
But perhaps this is an abuse of Neruda’s poetry. He was, after all, a committed atheist, so presumably he wouldn’t think much of bibliomancy. Would he?
Dónde puede vivir un ciego
a quien persiguen las abejas?
Where can a blind man live
who is pursued by bees?
Today is the deadline to send tree- and forest-related links in for the upcoming Festival of the Trees. Email your submissions to kelly (at) ginkgodreams (dot) com, with “Festival of the Trees” in the subject line.
I just opened up my copy of Pablo Neruda’s El libro de las preguntas (The Book of Questions, a bilingual edition from Copper Canyon, with translations by William O’Daly) at random, and found this:
Cuánto dura un rinoceronte
después de ser eternecido?
Qué cuentan de nuevo las hojas
de la reciente primavera?
Las hojas viven en invierno
en secreto, con las raíces?
Qué aprendió el árbol de la tierra
para conversar con el cielo?
I can’t improve on Daly’s translation:
How long does a rhinoceros last
After he’s moved to compassion?
What’s new for the leaves
of recent spring?
In winter, do the leaves live
in hiding with the roots?
What did the tree learn from the earth
to be able to talk with the sky?
El libro de las preguntas bears a strong, if superficial, resemblance to the 4th-century B.C. Chinese work Tian Wen, “Questions of Heaven” (which are really questions for heaven, though I’d be the first to agree that there’s something divine about the impulse to raise difficult questions). It too features riddles without answers, such as:
ç„‰ æœ‰ çŸ³ æž—? Yan you shi lin?
ä½• ç?¸ èƒ½ è¨€? He shou neng yan?
Where do the stones have their forest?
Which animals can talk?*
Of course, both books were written in the absence of internet search engines. I typed “question tree” into Google and found this intriguing sentence: This is a leaf Question in a boolean Question tree and its pointers to boolean operands are null values.
It occurred to me this morning that if I wanted to make the contents and purpose of this blog more readily apparent to first-time visitors, I could replace the Rene Char quote with something like, “Living with the questions.” But that’s not a question, is it?
*I studied classical Chinese in college. I haven’t kept up with it, but the grammar is fortunately quite basic and I haven’t forgotten how to use a Chinese dictionary.
Steven Field did a translation of Tian Wen for New Directions, but I haven’t seen it.
Incidentally, if you see only question marks in front of the Pinyin in the two lines of Chinese above, that’s not me trying to be cute. It means you don’t have Chinese characters enabled in your browser.
Of the most ancient origins,
who can tell the story?
Before “above” and “below,”
how to venture a description?
With light and darkness undivided,
who can discriminate between this and that?
The supposed chaos of forms without substance –
how do we know anything about it?
Thus begin the Questions of Heaven (Tian Wen), a 4th-century B.C. text from southern China. This short book consists entirely of questions, addressing first cosmology, then mythology and history. Modern scholars have their own questions about the work: why was it compiled? What genre should we assign it to?
One traditional view is that it may have been a kind of final exam for candidates to public or ritual office in the ancient kingdom of Chu. Thus, we should read the title as “Divine Questionnaire.” But David Hawkes, translator of Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South – the larger anthology of works that includes Tian Wen (Oxford U.P., 1959) – argues that the questions are in fact riddles. “One of the indications that the questioner . . . is neither asking for information nor challenging accepted beliefs is the frequency with which he uses kennings and other riddling devices in order to conceal the subject of his questions . . . If this explanation is correct, it would seem to follow that [Tian Wen] was written as pure entertainment, and not with a view to fulfilling any religious or philosophical function.”
Although there is obviously a strong riddling quality to the work, I am more inclined to view it as a collection of questions for Heaven. (Heaven was still personalized as a divinity during the time it was written.) In other words, I see it as a secularized, poetic version of the questions posed ritually to Heaven during divination. The I Qing (I Ch’ing) and its innumerable commentaries testify to the immense philosophical significance accorded to the arts of divination in ancient China.
And in fact, one of the companion texts to Tian Wen, Bu Zhu, consists of two brief dialogue-stories in which the limits of divination are assessed. Both address the mythic poet-scholar-public servant Chu Yuan’s Hamlet-like dilemma (in Hawkes’ translation):
“‘Is it better,’ Chu Yuan asked [the diviner Jan Yin] ‘to be painstakingly honest, simple-hearted and loyal,
Or to keep out of trouble by welcoming each change as it comes?
Is it better to hoe the weeds and put one’s strength into husbandry,
Or to win a name for oneself by dancing attendance on the great?
Is it better to risk one’s life by speaking truthfully and without concealment,
Or to save one’s skin by following the whims of the wealthy and high-placed? . . .
Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened?
Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?
The world is turbulent and impure:
They call a cicada’s wing heavy and a ton weight light;
The brazen bell is smashed and discarded; the earthen crock is thunderously sounded.
The slanderer proudly struts; the wise man lurks unknown.
Alas, all is silence: no one knows of my integrity.’
Jan Yin threw aside the divining stalks and excused himself.
‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when a foot is too short; and there are times when an inch is too long.
There are times in which the instruments [of divination] are of no avail, in which knowledge can give no enlightenment.
There are things which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power.
My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours,
The tortoise [shell] and the divining stalks are really unable to help.'”
In the other dialogue, a cynical fisherman advises him basically just to “go with the flow” and ape his corrupt lords. Chu Yuan’s famous suicide by drowning is anticipated in the mean-spirited suggestion that he try to become more like the fish.
The posing of questions without obvious or immediate answers may possess superior powers to educate or enlighten: one thinks immediately of the koan (gong-an), literally “question/response,” in which the response is not merely provisional but tailored to the needs of the questioner and the exigencies of the occasion. To quote more or less at random:
“What was [Bodhidharma’s] purpose in coming from the West?”
The Master replied, “[You must be hungry after such a long trip;] there’s gruel and rice on the long bench!”
(Master Yunmen, trans. by Urs App, Kodansha, 1994)
“What was the intention of the Patriarch [Bodhidharma] when he came from the West?”
The Master replied, “What good is it to mumble in one’s sleep in broad daylight?”
The closest modern literary parallel to Tian Wen of which I’m aware is by the indefatigable Pablo Neruda, El Libro de las Preguntas, or The Book of Questions. This is one of his last and most playful works, ably translated by William O’Daly for Copper Canyon Press (1991). It begins:
Why don’t the immense airplanes
fly around with their children?
Which yellow bird
fills its nest with lemons?
Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from the sunlight?
Where did the full moon leave
its sack of flour tonight?
A similar playfulness infects the last poems of the equally prolific William Stafford. (Despite my gentle mocking of him the other day, I do place Stafford in the same class as Neruda – two of the greatest poets of the last century.) In “Facts” he questions the most basic data of received opinion about the world:
‘Zurich is in the Alps.’ I learned
that, and had a fact. But I thought the Alps
were in South America. Then I learned
that’s the Andes – the Alps are somewhere
else. And Zurich is famous, for something.
So I gave up fact and went to myth:
Zurich is the name of a tropical bird that
whets its bill on the ironwood tree in south America
singing about life and how good facts are. . . .
Another poem in the same collection (Even in Quiet Places, Confluence Press, 1996), echoes the traditional reading of Tian Wen: an existential questionnaire.
My NEA Poem
A blank place on the page,
like this here “______,”
means, oh it means,
you know, but not said.
And it is better when you come to these
to leave blank places.
But some people
get a grant
and want to show
So all they say is,
Also among Stafford’s final works are the almost effortless-seeming Methow River Poems, written in answer to a request from a couple of imaginative forest rangers for a series of poetry road signs. Out of the twenty he submitted, seven were ultimately chosen to be etched and mounted on signs along the North Cascades Highway in Washington state. These are poems that, in a very understated way, go to the heart of our call-and-response relationship with the world,
. . . the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still – this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
(“Time for Serenity, Anyone?”)
In the Afterword to Even in Quiet Places, William Stafford’s son Kim asks, “What do we make of a line like, ‘How you stand here is important’? The line hardly says anything, asserts nothing in particular, turns in place clear as water or air.” He goes on to describe an incident from his youth in which his father deflected the attention of a gang of Hell’s Angels solely by adopting “the most pronounced nonchalance I had ever seen, a kind of studied slouch. His baggy pants helped, and the way he leaned back into his left heel, face turned up. It was the quiet, the insistent, the unmistakable posture of a pacifist: Nothing is going to happen. You can do as you will. You will not draw me into violence.”
I can’t help thinking William Stafford would’ve given a more useful response to the disgraced exile Chu Yuan than either the diviner or the cynical fisherman.
Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or owls calling.
How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.