Poetry Reading Month 2010: the upshot

my poetry library
My poetry library (click through to the full-sized image to read the titles)

My exercise in close reading is over: I read a poetry book every day of the month except for two of the days when I was putting podcast episodes together (typically a six- to nine-hour job). I’ve retroactively tagged all the posts Poetry Reading Month 2010, in case you missed some.

I enjoyed it tremendously, even when my blog posts in response to the books weren’t as creative as I would’ve liked. I found that if I’d read the book with the slowness and attention it deserved, then the response post practically wrote itself. It was actually kind of refreshing not to have to wonder what to blog about for an entire month, even though the focus on reading meant I had little time for anything else, such as writing poetry of my own.

Not all were first-time reads. A book of poetry isn’t something you just read once, like some trashy novel. The best books only reveal their mysteries slowly, after repeated readings, and I didn’t see any point in depriving myself of that pleasure this month. So twelve of the books — nearly half — were ones I’d read before. This saved me time only in the sense that it meant I didn’t have to worry about stopping half-way through a book and having to start another because the first wasn’t to my liking (I’m not interested in posting negative reviews of poetry). Otherwise, it’s no less demanding to read a book the second time than the first, I think.

Only nine of the 28 books were chapbooks, which is surprising to me: I had assumed limits on time and quality of attention would prevent me from reading more than a handful of full-length collections. But thankfully I’m unemployed. The longest book I read was the David Young translation of Du Fu, at 229 pages, which took me most of the day.

The plan had been to read each book in one sitting, adding it to my daily morning porch ritual. But many times I was only able to read half or a third of the book at that time, and had to finish up in mid to late afternoon. I often then put off writing the response post for several hours in order to give my thoughts time to gestate.

Six of the chapbooks were from this month’s featured publisher, Seven Kitchens Press, all but one (Christina Pacosz’ Red Zone) from their Keystone series of Pennsylvania authors. (See all six posts here.) If I do this again next year, I’ll continue to make an effort to focus on Pennsylvania poets, as my friend Sherry Chandler did with Kentucky poets on her blog this month. In his book Slow Reading, John Miedema suggests that readers should consider taking a page out of the Slow Food movement’s book and read locally whenever possible, and I agree. His description of “slow books” also fits with the hand-made aesthetic of literary chapbooks like those from Seven Kitchens:

Fast books are those produced for the broadest possible appeal, stamped out in assembly lines and distributed at points of maximum exposure such as Amazon or warehouse-sized bookstores. Fast books may be associated with movie deals and celebrity endorsements. … Slow books, on the other hand, may be characterized by local events which may be of great interest to residents and visitors seeking to learn more about a particular region, but too limited in market appeal for mass production. Slow books are not written for profit so much as for pleasure, developing a local tradition in writing and micro-publishing. As with Slow Food, there is a much closer connection between readers and their information.

I suppose nearly all poetry books in our culture might be considered slow books in terms of their limited popular appeal and the effort required to read them. A strong regional focus often presents a bit of a dilemma for literary publishers, though, because “regional” is typically taken to mean “provincial,” and reviewers for national publications tend to ignore such titles, because we all know that only that which is universal — i.e. written by sophisticated city-dwellers, or by those in approved regions such as New England — can be great. This prejudice ignores the fact that the American poetry scene itself is fairly provincial, with far fewer books in translation published each year than in any other industrialized nation — this despite the fact that poetry in translation from Spain, Latin America and East Asia has been a crucial influence on almost every major U.S. poet from the 1960s on.

Personally, I think poets and poetry readers need to become simultaneously more aware of diverse traditions from abroad and more rooted in our local and regional geographies if we want to stay engaged with the larger world, and want to have a chance at reaching those who don’t currently read poetry, and “die miserably every day/ for lack /of what is found there,” as William Carlos Williams put it (thanks to Howie for reminding me of the quote). Six of the authors I read this month were from different cultures, and eight from Pennsylvania (counting Liberian poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley in both categories: she’s been teaching at Penn State Altoona for five or six years now). If I do this again next year, I’d like to increase the number of international poets to at least ten.

Fifteen of the 28 authors (ignoring translators) were female. I did make an effort at gender balance as I went along and tried to include as many male authors as possible, but somehow the women poets still came out ahead. Actually, if I wanted to more accurately represent the proportions of published female versus male poets in the U.S. today, it would probably be closer to a 60%/40% split.

When I announced the plan on March 31, I speculated on the effect of reading this much poetry in a month: “Will it be mind-altering? Almost certainly. Will it change the way I read poetry? Maybe. Will it prove to be an overdose, and send me rushing naked and screaming into the streets? Well, let’s hope not.” I’m pleased to announce that there were no episodes of indecent exposure, frenzied or otherwise. But exposing myself to all that poetry did leave me feeling a little sun-burnt and raw. It was almost too much of a good thing. My usual pattern is to read four to six poems first thing in the morning, and this often leaves me energized to write. But extend that to 20 or more poems, and the creative energy dissipates, or more accurately gets transformed into reading energy.

Did it change the way I read poetry? I think so. In the past, I’ve only been able to sustain this level of attention sporadically, but now I think I can conjure it up almost at will, and if nothing else it does make me feel that the kind of quickie reading I was doing before, while fun and inspirational, isn’t quite as rewarding as this slower, more tantric kind of textuality. So I think you can expect to see a lot more book blogging here from now on.

Could this be a model for other bloggers, a fun challenge for those who perhaps are tired of doing the poem-a-day thing for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) — or even for those who don’t write poetry at all, and would simply like to focus on reading poetry for a month? I’m thinking there might be some real benefit to formalizing this next year as InPoReMo, International Poetry Reading Month, and launching a coordinating site sometime in January, especially if I can talk some chapbook publishers into offering special deals for bloggers: ten chaps for $50, that kind of thing. Because I do imagine that most people with full-time jobs aren’t going to be able to read a full-length book of poetry a day, but would be open to reading chapbooks, most of which take less than an hour to read. And what better way to advance the cause of poetry than to support poets and small publishers?

Long Corridor, by Lisa Sewell

Long Corridor cover
I thought it would be appropriate to finish out this month of intensive reading with a book of poems that are each creative responses to a text. I read each poem several times, but a few still remained above my head — hard to believe I was once a Comparative Literature major! Fortunately, I don’t mind getting out of my depth if there’s a pay-off, and most of the time there was: the language was interesting, and some of the composition techniques were impressive. One poem had lines arranged in a palindrome-like manner, for example, so it read almost the same backwards as forwards. Another was “completely composed of phrases from Cordelia’s speeches in Act I, scene i” of King Lear.

Some of the poems that I felt I got a firm grasp on I really liked, such as “The Eden Express (1978),” about an American Jew making Aliyah and attempting to reconcile her liberal beliefs in civil rights with the reality of anti-Arab prejudice and persecution and the invasion of Lebanon. Of the IDF soldiers she was romantically involved with, she wondered

Four years later
which ones blocked the exits at Sabra and Chatila
firing flares that lit the camps up
like a football stadium and claimed
“We know, it’s not to our liking, and don’t
interfere” as you continued to let hormones
crush the odor and burning, the cranky sound
of tanks and unended future of returning.

In “Little House in the Big Woods (1968),” the narrator envies what appears to have been a more grounded and authentic upbringing than her own modern, strip-mall surroundings.

O semi-circular drive and window seat
tract dining-room living and kitchens
of three-bedroom half-acre homes
in my own pan of cubed ice not snow
no sugared maple leaf hardened toward delight.

A poem about the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans takes as its text Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. As in other poems in the chapbook, the lines in italics are taken directly from the text:

…but in the air above the Superdome
where pigeons fly, it was a desperate SOS

the low stifled sound that arises
from the soul when overcharged with awe

from the lost yards and fumbles
the interceptions that added nothing to our gain.

To my way of thinking the book could stand to be a little less cerebral; there’s a certain desolation at work that I’d like to encounter a bit more directly. And this is the only Seven Kitchens book I’ve seen where the design was a little off: the font, Nicolas Cochin, actually impedes easy reading. But I liked the concept, and would love to see more poems in this vein — might even try writing some myself. An image in the final poem, “a Personal Matter (1978),” captures for me the essence of this book about stories and how we receive them:

Months later in the movie theater of refuge and refusal
with the once known and reliable in shambles
and a story nothing like hers unfolding rapidly in light
and shadow’s indivisible progress across the screen

the low unmentionable chord returns
or climbs from the murky depths, a drowned bell
striking and deepening in rings.

Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library. I’ve been trying to read a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Though the month is now up, I hope to continue blogging books in this fashion on a regular basis.

Becoming Ebony, by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Becoming Ebony

“We just extended our daylight hours,” Liberian poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley explains in “A Letter to My Brother Coming to America.”

Our houses stand in silent rows here in Kalamazoo.
When I can almost hear the breeze pass, I wonder,
did a neighbor die, move away? Get a divorce?
Get married? Do they have children?
Do they not have children? Is my neighbor
white or black? Would my neighbors like me
if they knew my name? Do I have a neighbor?

These are in-between poems, poems of exile from a war-torn but still longed-for homeland. Driving the winding roads through the Alleghenies of upstate New York with her friend Sandy, she notes, “we’re in a maze.”

Sandy says when the trees
come out, this place is a paradise, but this year

the snow was forever falling. When the trees
come out, tell the trees, Sandy, to make the flowers

white and purple; to mourn the life, lost, the laughter
in Morovia’s streets, of people in the market places

and on the long beaches…

Wesley and her family endured privations and were witnesses to their share of horrors before they got out of Liberia. The refugee camp was right next to a killing field, and was suffused with the stench of rotting bodies.

We ate leaves we did not know we could eat;
we ate anyway, and lived through eating. We tried this

or that to see if we would die eating this or that.
We made laughter we did not know we had.

But I found the poems about her childhood before the civil war the most affecting of all. In “Requiem for Auntie,” she describes a household stricken by grief. It’s twilight, and the tidal river’s “tireless going and coming// leaves one empty of words.” Her aunt’s body is laid out in the parlor.

I watched my father’s fruitless making
of the bed, laying his youngest sister down, though

wide-eyed, she stared. What is she looking at, I
wanted to ask someone. What is it that the dead see,

that the living cannot know? My father stood there like
a wet bird standing in the stillness of shallow water.

In another poem, she recounts “The day I discovered Marie Antoinette” at the age of fourteen, “a hard-willed African girl,” and felt outraged on her behalf. “I wept — it was not fair.” She concluded,

How fortunate to be a concubine, to be the other
woman who didn’t have to carry the world’s guilt to
the gallows. The look on their faces, those pretty French
girls, their half smiles and grins, their tearless cheeks,
and how lucky to be left outside history like this.

But how fortunate we are to have a poet like Wesley, who, though she was not left completely outside history, still managed to escape with her life, her sense of humor, and these poems so full of both.

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

Instructions to the Double, by Tess Gallagher

Instructions to the Double
Instructions to the Double is as mute on the subject of the soul as the oldest books of the Bible are about the afterlife. In contrast to a poet like Charles Wright, Gallagher makes little use of other people’s metaphysics; she invents her own. The double of the title is a shape-shifter: in one poem it is poet’s translated body of work, “smuggled back to you by a woman/ looking very much like yourself.” In another, it is a Platonic ideal of home:

But always,
above the town, above
the harbor, there is the town,
the harbor, the caves and hollows
when the cargo of lights
is gone.

A grandmother walking on her husband’s arm talks “into his silence/ as into some idea of yourself/ grown to his side.” “This flesh is your halo,” the narrator tells her shadow in another poem. In “Two Stories,” the author confronts a fictional version of herself in another author’s short story, based on her uncle’s murder by thieves.

Now there is the story of me
reading your story and the one
of you saying it
doesn’t deserve such care.
I say it matters
that the dog stays by the chimney
for months, and a rain
soft as the sleep of cats
enters the land, emptied
of its cows, its wire gates pulled down
by hands that never dug
the single well, this whitened field.

“Whitened field” refers I suppose to the page, but I think too of the poet’s face, round and pale and full of humor the one time I saw her read. (Years later I wrote a poem about it, Time Lapse with Tess Gallagher, the title derived from one of the poems in this book, “Time Lapse with Tulips.”)

Gallagher’s metaphysics of the double has an ethical dimension. In “the Absence,” for example, vengeance is

a hurt given to the self
in the name of another. It has to do
with becoming a purpose
which is an absence not unlike
a gun.

In “Strategy,” the narrator offers to take another’s place, placing his head on her shoulders, so she can deliver an apology he’s unable to give by himself. This kind of magic is a sleight-of-hand, “an attitude of sight/ that amounts to seeing,” she suggests in “Zero.” It allows mundane objects to acquire luminosity and become doorways to the infinite, and thereby the magician “multiplies/ himself like the doves in his hat.”

Such fruitful multiplying is fully shamanic, requiring no Abrahamic covenant with a deity. And in lieu of a Song of Songs, Instructions to the Double features an 11-part “Song of the Runaway Bride.”

Together and together —
the exact coffin of pleasure
crookedly in the blood.


Husband, all night I slept on your neck
and a man went through my dreams
and was not you. With a knife
I sliced the yellow dress
he mistook for me…

The title poem, when we finally get to it in Part IV, begins in an evangelical vein:

So now it’s your turn,
little mother of silences, little
father of half-belief. Take up
this face, these daily rounds
with a cabbage under each arm
convincing the multitudes
that a well-made anything
could save them.

She goes on to detail the poet’s mission, but I don’t want to spoil the effect of encountering the poem in context, as part of this brilliant and multifaceted collection. If you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat. If your local library doesn’t have it, there seems to be no shortage of used copies available around the web.

I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read it now, but it reminds me why I collect poetry in the first place: not just for the convenience of having favorite poems at hand, but also for the company. Who needs a double when there are so many other selves to try on?

I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month (except, I’m afraid, on days when I’m putting a podcast together). Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.

Appalachia, by Charles Wright

Appalachia cover
Again I marveled at how easy it was to read, this difficult book. The language is beautiful, the syntax natural, and a smattering of vernacular expressions put the reader at ease, despite all the wrestling with big questions. This time I came with a small question of my own: Why “Appalachia”? And I read the dedication, which I probably skipped last time: “In memory of my sister, Hildegarde Wright,/ who lived there all her life.” That’s probably a sufficient explanation in itself, given how many poems address mortality. (Note that he says “there” rather than “here,” though.) Five poems describe sections of an apocryphal Appalachian Book of the Dead, which is also referenced in other poems.

Appalachia is a potent cultural landscape, one as often idealized as it is scorned. For Wright, it seems to represent both ordinariness and transcendence, both his suburban backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia at the edge of the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge on the horizon to the west. It serves as a synecdoche of sorts for landscape in general, landscape being a central theme from the opening lines:

East of town, the countryside unwrinkles and smooths out
Unctuously toward the tidewater and gruff Atlantic.
A love of landscape’s a true affection for regret, I’ve found,
Forever joined, forever apart,
outside us yet ourselves.

Otherwise, the book is not specifically about Appalachia. But given how many negative connotations the toponymn has, I love the fact that Wright chose it for the final title in his 9-volume master work, a trilogy of trilogies about life, the universe, and everything, and filled it with references to Italian painters, European mystics, and Spanish and Chinese poets. Since this is a lot of the same intellectual terrain I like to wander through myself, naturally I can’t help feeling that in some way Wright has really captured the soul of this weird, wild, and abused region. (Of course, it’s equally likely that we’re both out to lunch.)

Wright has a gift for aphorisms, and some of them did strike me as somewhat Appalachian in their fatalism or Calvinism:

  • Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
  • If we were to walk for a hundred years, we could never take
    One step toward heaven—
    you have to wait to be gathered.
  • If you want what the syllables want, just do your job.
  • Listen, my friend, everything works to our disregard.
  • All forms of landscape are autobiographical.
  • Even the brightest angel is darkened by time.
  • Our mouths are incapable, white violets cover the earth.

I don’t know that Wright is generally classed as a nature poet, but his poems are almost always explicitly situated in time and space, and in this book we cycle through the seasons one and half times, beginning in February and ending in August. Possibly this was so he could include poems from two Appalachian springs (each one is different).

Tomorrow the sun comes back.
Tomorrow the tailings and slush piles will turn to gold
When everyone’s down at the river.
The muscadines will bring forth,
The mountain laurel and jack-in-heaven,
while everyone’s down at the river.

Some of the poems spoke to me in my own situation as a typically Appalachian homebody and loner. “We spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave,” he writes from the cabin in Montana where he spends the summers. In “Reply to Wang Wei,” he says, “The dream of the reclusive life, a strict, essential solitude,/ Is a younger hermit’s dream.” Yep. On a poem about Valentine’s Day called “Half February,” he notes how out-of-tune with the season the “heart-wrung/ And sappy” holiday is, then declares:

All of us, more or less, are unfaithful to something.
Solitude bears us away,
Approaches us in the form of a crescent, like love,
And bears us away
Into its icy comforting, our pain and our happiness.

Oh hell yeah, buddy! And then when I read,

I sit in my plastic stack chair,
unearthly and dispossessed,
My eyes on the turning stars,

I almost started to feel like I was being watched. I laid down for a nap and had a vivid image of my body stretched out in a pine box, and heard the first heavy clumps of clay hitting the lid.

We disappear as stars do, soundless, without a trace.

Nevertheless, let’s settle and hedge the bet.

That’s as Appalachian a sentiment as you’ll ever find.

My friend Peter has also been blogging about Charles Wright at Slow Reads — check it out.

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

Shannon: a poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Campbell McGrath

Shannon cover
In many ways, Campbell McGrath has picked the perfect subject for a book-length narrative poem: an historical figure embarked on an epic, nation-building adventure, who fortunately did not keep a diary of the period described, giving the poet plenty of imaginative space in which to roam. And this book is all about space and roaming. George Shannon was the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, just 17 or 18 when he got separated from the rest of the expedition, going after a couple of horses that had broken free. He wandered the high plains along the Missouri River for 16 days and nearly starved to death, since he had gone off with only five bullets in his pouch.

Bookended by passages from Clark’s diary, the poem is a dramatic monologue in Shannon’s voice, and since Shannon was one of the most educated members of the party, it doesn’t stretch credulity too much to have him expressing fairly lofty thoughts about God and destiny and evincing a scientific interest in Indian laws and customs and in natural history. He encounters his first prairie dog town, marvels at unending herds of buffalo, and flashes back to hunting and fishing expeditions with his brothers in Kentucky and Ohio. He’s a skilled marksman, frustrated by his lack of ammunition and experimenting with improvised bullets. Here’s how he expresses the book’s central irony:

In a land of plenty
I travel hungry.

In a country of herds
I wander alone.

On a journey of discovery
I am the lost.

Narrative poetry can be a good break from a steady diet of lyric poetry, especially when it’s as spare and descriptive as this is, mostly eschewing elaborate metaphors and leaps of insight. Though Shannon falls prey to starvation-induced delirium toward the end, the only true epiphany he describes is a remembered one from back east in Kentucky, a dogwood tree blooming alone in a bare woods and glowing in such a way that he didn’t recognize it at first and fell to his knees.

That was a true & terrible fear
& near as I ever came
Or will come to believing.

On the other hand, the book is all about discovery.

Shining so, in the autumn sun, the river
Is like my Mother’s silver necklace
Slipping across my fingers
Moving, jaunting, sparkling, restless
Coursing & entwining the many streams as one.

What if, beyond these mighty plains are plains
Even more magnificent
As this Dakota Country exceeds Ohio
In that regard, even
As heaven overshadows earth?

Even today, fenced in and bereft of buffalo, the high plains can intimidate by the vastness of their skies and the severity of their weather. Imagine being like Shannon, or Coronado centuries earlier, and not knowing if they would ever end.

Not a tree
On the horizon all day
Only buffalo herds
Unbroken some hours keeping pace.
All these grazing creatures fed upon
The grass of these plains
Is it not strange
To believe that I might feed
A host of nations
Upon my own heart, feeling it swell so?

Lonelier than he has ever been in his life, at night he talks to his brothers, the one who drowned in the Ohio as a boy and the one who didn’t get picked for the expedition:

is the day come, brother John?
are the stars come down to keep me, Thomas?

dewdrop, the source, fog of breath
& the river of light widening toward sunrise
this astonishment of grass, this extravagance

animals in the darkness all around me

huffing & lowing of the buffalo
sound of their lungs steaming into the light
I am not alone in the darkness

Even with the associations of death-by-drowning that the river has for him, he still prefers its company to the emptiness of the plains.

Empty is one way to put it, another
That they are overfull
But not in keeping with a man.
Too large in both emptiness & fullness
Is what I mean to say.
I have a conception of my soul
Being taken up in their austerity & solitude
To be devoured
By the stars
& I mind it no longer.

If you’ve ever wondered why, in the age of the novel, people still write long narrative poems, read Shannon. If it were prose, I’d have come to it with too many expectations: nothing worthy even of a short story really takes place. The narrative stops short of his reuniting with the expedition; the monologue ends with his premature will and testament. And yet I found it a fully satisfying read, with just enough narrative interest to keep me turning the pages, but not so much suspense that I skimmed impatiently. I was able to relax and enjoy the open spaces between the thoughts.

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

Barefoot and Listening, by Margaret Bashaar

Barefoot and Listening cover
Ah book without ISBN, uncharted territory! Ah sextant. I Odysseus was a crayon on the wall, I spidered my way onto the belly of a sheep and slept uncounted through a one-eyed giant’s dream. I watched nymphs and sibyls remake themselves in clay. Things always turn surreal in the retelling, don’t they, like bodies seen from the inside, pulsing with spirits of hunger. Take away the adventure story and what do you have?

In this case, I got my breath back. I lay among fresh-picked thyme and violets and listened to other people’s myths: Sita found at a construction site, a Norseman without a longboat, “a missionary who spikes trees,” and the giraffe woman counting “brush strokes on the ceiling.” Don’t make a haruspectacle of yourself, I told the neighbor’s cat, but it was too late. I knew better than to call the alien incubus a tumor, and so did the poet: “It is a thorny thing, a thing full of metal and holes./ It digs in — a hundred angry claws, and she is sick with it.” How can you tell arms from claws from tentacles if you don’t know their rightful owner? How can you tell the future anything? It never listens. “When she tells stories/ to herself, she is the color of mud, wants a space/ to write down her prophecies, a place to make them unknown.” As she should.

Things harder than syllables still rattle in my pouch and seed the heavens with hunters and their hounds. When Kalypso touches me, “her fingers are threads/ of pulled sugar,” and she lets me extract her crooked teeth like some kind of swashbuckling orthodontist. It’s not what I wanted, but O.K. Evidently my own “mouth/ will become wax, breaths/ numbered like eyelashes.” The poet mentions cicada shells, and I am reminded she’s probably too young to have seen the 17-year ones more than once. As for the other “Things of the Earth,” I am relieved to know about a seven-year drought in secrets out of the ground — I thought my hearing had gone. I was beginning to worry that we might have to surrender Ithaca to the psychoanalysts. Ah speech, ah mind: sisters running barefoot over the rocks.

For a straight review of this chapbook (which I loved), see The Scrapper Poet.

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

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

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.)

Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

Spring Essence cover
It’s almost axiomatic that any poetry that relies too heavily on word-play for its effect can’t be translated. I remember my brother marveling at the elaborate double-meanings in Kalidasa when he was learning Sanskrit: lengthy passages could have two, completely different meanings depending on how one reads them. According to poet and translator John Balaban’s Introduction to Spring Essence, something similar is going on in the poems of the 18th-century Vietnamese courtesan Ho Xuan Huong (sorry, I’m not doing the diacritical marks!). Since a syllable in Vietnamese can have up to six different tones, each with a different meaning, the possibilities for imperfect puns are correspondingly large. And in Ho’s work, “These second meanings, and phrase reversals, or noi lai, are usually obscene.”

I think it’s very much to Balaban’s credit that he manages to convey something of these double entendres through a combination of suggestive imagery and informative endnotes. The resulting poems often feature panoramas of erotically charged natural imagery. I also thought the mountains in traditional East Asian landscape paintings looked phallic; evidently Ho thought so too.

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
and shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

The author herself was a fascinating figure, one of the most skillful poets of her day, who somehow got away with tackling forbidden subjects like sex and corruption in a repressive, Confucian society. In one especially risqué poem, “Swinging,” she capitalizes on the fact that the word for “swing” and the word for “copulate” are virtually identical — and the translator in turn gets to take advantage of the double meaning of “swinging” in American English.

A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.

Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs side by side.

Spring games. Who hasn’t known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.

Not all the poems are about sex, though — or if they are, it wasn’t obvious to me. In almost all cases, Balaban makes the surface meanings appealing; what’s unusual is that he didn’t stop there. And the publisher matched his efforts with its own, getting special typefaces made to reproduce the two Vietnamese versions, one being the obsolete Nom writing system, which Balaban wanted because some of Ho’s puns are visual, relying on the similarities between the Chinese character-derived Nom graphemes.

What I’m trying to say is that the book is a treat for readers of every interest level, from the most casual to the most scholarly. Two or three of the Amazon customer reviews by people fluent in Vietnamese criticize the translations, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Even without the puns, accurately reproducing the complexities of highly formal verse in another language is a fool’s errand. None of the critics offers a specific example of a passage that they would translate differently.

In my response to Du Fu the other day, I suggested that it was no longer true that “the state goes to ruin, but mountains and rivers survive.” Writing during a similarly chaotic period of political upheavals a thousand years later, Ho Xuan Huong offers a very different estimation of what endures, and what other precious thing is fated to collapse:

A bell is tolling, tolling, fading
just like love. Only poetry remains.

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

Soot, by Jeff Walt

Soot Sootpoems by Jeff Walt; Seven Kitchens Press 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
This might just be my favorite so far in the Keystone Chapbook Series from Seven Kitchens Press. For one thing, the poet is very local: I can’t tell you how cool it is for me, as someone who grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, to read poems this good by a guy who grew up in Clearfield, just one county over. For another thing, the publisher took the hand-made aesthetic so literally with this one, he appears to have personally added the inky fingerprints to each copy himself, in addition to the usual hand-cutting and stitching. I say that because the pattern on the book cover image here, which I stole from the Seven Kitchens blog, is quite different from the pattern on my own copy, and they’re from the same printing. The only way this could be cooler would be if they were the author’s own fingerprints, but since he currently resides in Hawaii, I don’t imagine they are.

But the poetry is of course the main attraction, and these poems left me pretty much speechless, which might be why I’ve been nattering on about other stuff instead. I love how over-the-top some of the images are. The sky before a storm is “suddenly the color of rotting meat.” A smoker’s heart is “stained yellow from yearning.” Anxiety is “a dog that always needs walking.” There were a few things in the book I didn’t think quite succeeded, but I always admired the brio. Because Jeff Walt is, as they say in hip-hop circles, keeping it real. I was hooked from the opening lines of the lead poem, “All Day I Have Been Afraid.”

I heard Mrs. Lee scream Kill me! Kill me!
from inside her house and I did not move.

At noon, all the dogs in the neighborhood
began barking wildly. Was it an unbearable truth

told in a pitch only they could hear?

Clearfield Country has the most strip-mined acreage of any country in Pennsylvania, so the subject of the title poem came as no shock:

Down deep they dug, the men
of my family. Shovels & picks,
backs bent. Night on their grave
faces. Monday blues black
every bituminous day of the week.

Though a mere 20 poems long, Soot presents a broad cross-section of Western Pennsylvania working class experience. One poem describes becoming a regular at a neighborhood bar. Another takes us through a sex shop. “Joyride” captures the weekend car culture:

Every Sunday we cruised
in Uncle Jack’s rusted Cadillac,
driving by the sign that marked the edge
of town, honking at stray dogs,
our lives abandoned and hungry.
Swigging Black Velvet
from a silver flask, he was a man
mastering the profession of debauchery.
His hands cracked, fingernails black
from ten hours a day behind
the dragline, excavating his own heart.

These are far from the subtle, understated poems of Harry Humes, but strike me as no less authentically Pennsylvanian. Exaggeration and swagger are a big part of the culture, too, especially in this part of the state. The eponymous “Three Drunk Angels” are “Sick/ of saving lives, escorting/ each delirious spirit from its hollow// body,” and by the end of the poem, the souls they’re charged with have been reduced to plastic shopping bags fluttering down the streets and getting stuck to the bottoms of shoes (soles?)–

Just another something
for the dog to bark at, its owner asking,
“What is it boy, what’s there, what do you see?”

As in the opening poem, the dogs are seers. There are a lot of dogs in this book, and not all of them are well treated. In “My Brother Walks His Neighborhood at Night,” the protagonist is “scavenging the streets” for a lost dog named Lucky, who sounds as if it had every reason to run away. By the end of the poem, the protagonist is in confessional mode.

As a boy, I wanted to kill
everything smaller than me: beetles sprayed
with AquaNet, butterflies smacked
from the bright air, wings dipped in motor oil.

No wonder the angels get drunk behind Fat Jack’s Tavern. By the end of the book, I needed a drink myself.

I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month (or trying to — I missed yesterday) with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.