Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Angles of Departure by Marcene Gandolfo: A Study in Repetition with Restraint

Like the black hole at the center of our galaxy that retains on its event horizon all of the information about the matter it has swallowed up, Marcene Gandolfo's first full-length collection, Angles of Departure, pulls its readers into a place of absence--a place of lost pregnancies, lost futures, lost identities--but it is not a place of total emptiness "Because nothing remains empty. Come in. Listen with / me and we will hear the phonograph play the song that / was lost before we were born." ("Anamnesis," p. 11, lines 15-17.)

The virtuosity of these poems lies in their restraint and unfolding craft.  Hear both elements in the opening lines to the same opening poem:

My summerhouse is empty now.  You may know the
house. I built it one night in a sugared dream. The lights
are always on and the oven bakes cookies. The backyard 
trees blossom but fruit never ripens and the sweet-
toothed child eats strawberries and dances to a scratchy
phonograph song no one has beard before. But one
night, the music stops. I wake. The doctor says no
heartbeat and I see the child is only a folded cloud on an
ultrasound. Then I say my summerhouse is empty now.

Gandolfo's prosody is one of repetition. Not merely within her poems, as in the first and ultimate lines of "Anamnesis," but between poems, as they call and answer to one another like a mother and a child who is learning to sound like her,  like "evening garage doors open[ing] and clos[ing,]" like "peace flags [that] lined [the] street" shape-shifting their sounds, their images, the meanings we attribute to them as if they were the melodies and harmonies of a three-movement piece of music.  

The best poems in this collection are microcosms of the entire work, not merely by visiting yet another loss, but by tracing the evolution of the poet's growing metaphoric sense, with a growing consciousness of their own lines like these from "A Careful Angle": "Some days your truths are shoes / that won't fit: // so unlike the message that lies / in your doorway. // There's a technique to opening / another address, // a careful angle by which you unveil."

Gandolfo enacts this craft of cutting "careful angles" with lines of precision and restraint in the overwhelming majority of her poems.  In "Lost," "The summer after the baby died," we are told the story of  trying to "keep the cat alive, her old kidneys closing."

That's all I remember that summer, saline bags hanging from the wall,
the faithful drip of the needle, my hands

steady as I pinched her skin and pushed the needle under her shoulder,
where she would lie against my swollen belly and purr

as her hollow body filled again with hunger and she would dance young
for an hour and then moan for more water.  That's all

I remember that summer. Hanging those bags of water, breaking open
a new needle, finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push,

the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over
my knuckle, some days a drop of blood on my thumb

and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying
for water and only wanted to sleep

and the bag of saline was a folded lung on the wall.

All that is required to tie this story to the death of the poet's unborn baby is the one line "The summer after the baby died."  But Gandolfo is a master at reinforcing the relationship without hitting her readers over the head with similes: the couplets that end in a single line, the images of how her cat "would lie against [her] swollen belly and purr," of " . . . finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push, // the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over . . . , some days a drop of blood on my thumb, // and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying," the repetition of "That's all I remember that summer"--as if there were two remembrances, which there were.  Even the final line, with its "bag of saline" conveys the directness of a metaphor alongside the subtlety of the closing down of a life that cannot be forgotten with its "folded lung on the wall."  

In "In December" the idea of folding is modified and amplified: "It was the day for origami, / the day I taught my daughter to fold / a perfect five-point star . . . " to "feel each paper square / as a body, see its scars // and creases against our own."  The word "fold" or "folded" is used four times in this poem--each time growing in emotional intensity from "fold[ing] / a perfect five-point star," to "fold[ing] corner-to-corner," to "fold[ing] flat" to

When we finished folding
I couldn't tell her it happened again.
I couldn't say, "No Baby

in May. . . 

Galdolfo's use of call and answer, incorporating repetition never more slant, and restraint never more subtle, finds its zenith in the two poems, "Taking Down the Crib" and "A Tide," although the poems inhabit almost opposite ends of the book and concern themselves with opposite ends of a life. In the former, after an opening description of disassembling the crib and placing the pieces into a "wooden box," all that is left is "a press / against the rug, a smudge of dust, no stain / . . . [except] one streak / of light across the wall. It must have been / a sunbeam through the window, against bleak / blue paint. It bleached a line white. . . "  In "A Tide," we are presented with a car crash, the driver's life "an eyelash flutter away / from the river," and witness her "break[ing] / from the half-opened / door, scream[ing] to the black / morning and crawl[ing] / to the ground, worm[ing] her way / through mud and climb[ing] the bank."  Afterward she walks to town, limping at first. But then "her walk steadies as day / takes shape. A vein / of light scales the river bank / through the dark in the road / and her eyes open to a wave / of blue air, transparent."   

In Angles of Departure, Galdolfo takes her readers to places that at first glance look familiar, like the "There" in the ultimate poem, "Beatific."

There you can hear a child cough in a canyon. There you can see
her sweatshop awl bore your coat buttons.

There you can hold her calloused hands. There you can taste
the boho's bourbon and the blood on his broken dog's claw.

But upon a closer inspection of the details of this landscape, we find ourselves in unchartered territory:

There you can listen to the beaten child stutter all the languages
you've never heard.

But [we] "can't stay long, for fear [we] may dissolve." So we return to "where sweet plums grow outside [our] window," where we "can have meringues and tea // and read old books and dream in our comfortable chair."  But that place, these poems, come knocking: ". . . There where a hungry woman / offers // a piece of bread . . . / There where you find a book in your pocket. // There where you turn the first page and know it wasn't written here / in a comfortable chair. // There where you feel the poet's pulse rush from the other side / of the page."

With convincing poems, Gandolfo pulls us back to that other side enough times that she fulfills for me (in the words of Larry Levis), the reason I read and write poetry: "To stop time."  Thank you Marcene Gandolfo for not only providing us with "Angles of Departure," but so many angles of arrival, and the not-quite-empty, timeless space between them.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Maxine Kumin: Poet of Rescue, Poet of Witness

Maxine Kumin died yesterday.  According to reports, she was at home in Warner, New Hampshire, where she and her husband of sixty-eight years had rescued countless dogs and horses to run free on their hillside farm--her garden, her swimming pond and, at least for the dogs, her rambling country house.  This was the same house where she taught countless numbers of poets to free their poems by "pounding them into form"--a phrase that, at first, seems oxymoronic, but makes sense when you witness her life--a life of freedom not only in spite of (in the case of those placed upon her because she was a woman in the first half of the 20th century), but because of the external parameters she placed upon herself: the wife of one man for nearly seven decades, a pastoral, domestic life, a writing life that unfolded not out of ambition, but out of love for the art form, for her mentors, her colleagues, her peers, her students.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those students.  I sat in workshop in her farmhouse, stepped over her dogs on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, saw her horses, walked her property, listened to her stories about animals as dear to her as her own human family members.  I remember one poem of mine ("New Mexico Sighting") she was commenting on.  It was a poem about seeing a rare black coyote while standing on a dike that extended from the famous peak in New Mexico called Shiprock.  The dike was formed millions of years ago by lava flowing underground that hardened and then was exposed by erosion.  In my poem I called it a "plutonic spine."  Maxine said "What does the word plutonic mean?"  I replied that it was a cognate for volcanic.  To which she replied, "Then why don't you just say that?"  That was Maxine.  Say it like it is--no facade, no dressing it up, call it what it is.  The draft I had brought to the workshop was 15 lines, and I knew what was coming next.  "This is almost a sonnet," she said.  "Why don't you hammer it into fourteen lines and see what happens?"  Which I did.  Which tightened the poem and made it better than it had been.

The consistency of Maxine Kumin's life with her writing life is exemplary.  It speaks of a kind of truth that is all too rare these days, when poetry has become an industry for many, and an art for a dwindling number.  In Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Chard deNiord asks Maxine how she would say she crosses "that boundary, between the pastoral and the political?"

MK:  Well to me, my so-called animal poems . . . are truly political.  We've been in the rescue business for about forty years and this little dog that you just met is our newest waif.  She came up from Tennessee in April from a horrible life, unspeakable life, and we were told we could never let her loose because she would run and run and never be seen again.  And here she is, totally at liberty.

Maxine Kumin spent a lifetime "rescuing the perishing; caring for the dying," and standing in her place of witness for the living--her animals, her friends, her family, her students, her garden, her country, her home.  She did so within boundaries that she either created or accepted or changed.  And now "here she is, totally at liberty."

The best tribute we can give to her is to stand in our place of rescue, our place of caring, our place of witness.  To pound our lives into form, and to be at total liberty inside of them.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, by Chard deNiord--Jack Gilbert!

After reading Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, I realized that a "review" of this capacious work--interviews of seven of America's best contemporary, Post-war poets, as well as three of Chard deNiord's own essays dealing in one way or another with three more--would be impossible on this blog and in one post.  So instead, of a review, I prefer to call this an annotation.  And instead of one blog post, I am spreading it out over eight separate ones.  After a brief summary of the book's format, over seven of those eight, I will share a portion of each interview that speaks to me in a special way.  Each post will deal with only one significant topic of the many that deNiord investigates in a thorough way in each interview, along with an embedded poem that either the interviewer read back to the poet, or the poet recited to the interviewer to illustrate the point.  In a final post, I will make a brief statement concerning the topic of each of the three essays that close out the book.  I leave it to you, the reader, to get a copy of this significant volume for yourself, and delve into these intense and amazingly comprehensive interviews with these poets whose lives and work have affected American poetry in a significant way in the latter half of the 20th century, and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

The book is delightfully organized.  In addition to a general introduction to the interviews and essays, each of the interviews is preceded by one-page description of the setting where the interviews took place, the state of mind of the poet, and the relationship of deNiord to the poet and his or her work, many times through a personal story.  This provides a wonderfully human touch to these interviews that balances out the brilliant scholarship and life-long preparation on the part of deNiord, as a reader, writer, and teacher of poetry.  At the end of the book, the Biographical Notes provides an objective frame of reference for the poets interviewed:  Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton.

Jack Gilbert

Right from this first interview, I sensed that these interviews were going to be different from any other interviews I had ever read.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Jack Gilbert interview was experiencing the little (and not-so-little) quakes caused by the pressure between deNiord's questions and Gilbert's answers--two giant, tectonic minds grinding against one another, sliding along their fault lines, neither one ever buckling under or vaulting above the other's ideas or points or opinions.  Each, in their own way, charting and changing the geography of their conversation with the material that the other had provided.  Witness the following exchange concerning Gilbert's reticence to publish, the current state of poetry, and whether or not poetry can change anything!

CD: I have heard that you have several hundred uncollected and unpublished poems lying around your house.  Do you plan to publish these poems?

JG:  That's right.  I'm not sure what I intend to do with them.

CD:  Why?

JG:  Well, there are several reasons.  One is, I've never had much impulse to publish.  I waited fourteen years between my first and second book.  Ten years between my second and third book.  I love to write poetry, and I love to get it right.  Sometimes I'm a workaholic, getting it to where I think it's right.  But, I guess one of the things is that I don't believe in poetry today, because it's involved with money so much, and careerism.  I don't believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.  You don't make money directly in poetry, but if you get noticed you get jobs in colleges, things like that.  Then you can buy a house and raise a nice family so you can be proud of yourself.  But I don't like that use of poetry.  I love it, and still love it, in my memory, when there was no money to be made in poetry.  When nobody could make money off poetry.

CD:  But perhaps you're hiding your light under a bushel basket.

JG:  Well, it's not going to change anybody's life.

CD:  You just said that a good poem changes a person's life!  [In an earlier exchange.]

JG:  Absolutely.

CD:  And you write good poems.

JG:  Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to do it all of the time.

CD:  Every ten or fourteen years?

JG:  Yes.

CD:  The MFA students were deeply moved by your reading last night.  [This portion of the interview was held in a dormitory at New England College during one of their Poetry MFA residencies.]

JG:  That's impressive.  When I give a reading I'm surprised at the people who take it seriously because we live in an age of entertainment.  Today's children grow up on electronic games, sports, and other things.  But I think generally there isn't time to take things seriously nowadays.  I'm not bitter about it.  I don't feel like it's sour grapes because I'm lucky enough that I can publish what I publish.  But I don't know what you're going to do about the fact that the audience for poetry today is basically not there, unless you're writing a kind of puzzle that gives people a rush of happiness in solving it.

CD:  There's a young woman in the program who was thinking about leaving yesterday.  She confessed that she was terrified of taking herself seriously as a poet.  She approached me about an hour ago to tell me that she had decided to remain in the program.  I asked her why and she said because of your reading last night.  That was the only reason she gave.

JG:  Bless her.  That's a very nice thing that you told me.

CD: And because of Jack Gilbert's poems that she heard last night for the first time.  She's twenty-one years old and she's been brought up on electronic games.  She's a reader also.

[At this point, Gilbert goes into a tirade against the recent failures of poetry, video games, careerism, and MFA programs.]

CD:  That is the state of things, but if we had more of your poems wouldn't that be a service to the world?

JG:  That's not a fair way to argue.

CD:  Why not?  Wouldn't it provide an invaluable cultural and social service, as your reading did last night for the students, faculty and guests?

[Again, Gilbert deflects the question into the historical vs. the current value of poetry.]

CD:  Well, this student deciding to stay here in this program instead of going to law school--we have you to thank.

JG:  Well, it's wonderful and so flattering.  It's great to hear.  I went to a reading several years ago and after it was over--this is going to sound pompous--several people who knew I was in the audience came over to me and formed a circle, which was good for my vanity.  I'm saying this ironically.  Then suddenly a man in his early forties, maybe his late thirties, just an ordinary guy, came pushing through this group that had formed around me, and without saying hello or introducing himself said, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive with your poetry since 1982."  Without giving me time to respond, he pushed his way to the other side and disappeared.  I never could find him.  But that was deeply moving.

This exchange concluded Part I of the interview, conducted July 10, 2003.  During Part II, conducted some time later in Jack's home, deNiord discusses, among other things, the idea (which Jack brought up), of vanity in writing poetry.  We pick up the interview with deNiord reading to Jack his poem "Tear It Down," and follow this thread to the end of the interview.

Tear It Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows.  By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage.  Love is not
enough.  We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time.  We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.

JG:  That's very nice to hear.

CD:  Do you feel this was written out of vanity?

JG: Yes, but also more a delight.  What moves me is hearing what I've done.

CD:  You write in this poem, "Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh" and "Rome is better than Rome."  Do you feel in some curious way that Jack Gilbert is better than Jack Gilbert when he's writing?

JG:  Yes, sure, but I take that for granted.  It's like coming across a blade of grass.  It's just a pleasure. It's manifest in front of me.

CD:  So you feel like a witness that transcends yourself.

JG: I just feel lucky.  I don't feel like I own it.  I made it, but that's different.  It's more about the pleasure that's just there when it's done, whether anyone sees it or not.  I see it myself, quietly.  I'm not showing anyone.

CD:  So you have a very large but selfless sense of your own audience?

JG:  Yes.

CD:  This selfless awareness reminds me of Ivan Ilych's death-bed ipiphany in Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilych."  Ivan struggles to ask for forgiveness from his wife, but in his weakness utters "forgo" instead of "forgive," knowing in the end that it doesn't matter if he's understood.

JG:  That's a very nice way to say it.  I have so much gratitude and I don't have any regret for it.  My gratitude is very simple in this way.

CD:  You must get up in the morning feeling very happy.

JG:  Yes, most of the time, but I'm also very angry about aging, about not being able anymore to do things I want to do.  I don't bother myself about the loss.  I feel it, and the anger diminishes.  So much has been given to me.

CD:  I remember you once telling me when you lived with my wife and me in Iowa for a few months that many poets of your reputations and prestige enjoy flying on planes and going places, but that you're content just to stare out the window of the Greyhound bus.

JG:  Yes.  I like my memories of being hungry and lost.  I relish all those things.  The experience of being myself.  To be privileged to have been there, in my life.

CD:  Like a guest of yourself?

JG:  Not a guest, but to have had it.

Both because of the substance of Jack Gilbert, the interviewee, and the preparation, deep insight, and perseverance of Chard deNiord, the interviewer, we are privileged to be the guest of a unique conversation between the two on Gilbert's writing and life, and to have it always, to return to again and again.

Next week:  Chard deNiord's interview of Maxine Kumin!


Monday, December 23, 2013

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: El Dorado by Peter Campion

I read a lot of poetry collections in 2013.  In addition to the fifty-some-odd published books, I read two-hundred unpublished manuscripts, searching, along with the other editors of Trio House Press, for the best work that we could find to publish.  I found a lot of good poems in more books that I have time to list or write about.  But far fewer books impressed me as complete works, every poem earning its place in the manuscript, contributing to the larger work as if it were one long poem, as well as standing on its own.  I've come up with thirteen books that did it for me.  They were not all released in 2013 (some were), but that's when I got around to reading (or re-reading) them.

Here are the books.  After the list is a brief review of one of them, Peter Campion's El Dorado.  In the next twelve posts, I will review the remaining books.  Perhaps you've read some of them.  Perhaps you'd like to do your own list.  Feel free to join in on the comment section.  Note:  I've already written about some of them, and in those cases, I'll be elaborating on what I have taken (or can take) from them for my own work.  They are listed in the approximate order that I read them, beginning with a copy of the original issue of Awake which I read in January (and re-read when I purchased my copy reissued by Carnegie Mellon), and ending with El Dorado, which I just finished today.

My Thirteen Best Poetry Books Read in 2013

Awake by Dorianne Laux
Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman
Holding Company by Major Jackson
Blue Rust by Joseph Millar
Gospel Night by Michael Waters
Throat Singing by Susan Cohen
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
Inventing Constellations by Al Maginnes
No Other Paradise by Kurt Brown
The Double Truth by Chard DeNiord
Eiko & Koma by Forrest Gander
Listening Long and Late by Peter Everwine
El Dorado by Peter Campion

Readers of this blog should know that I'm a huge fan of Peter Campion.  But placing El Dorado on my top thirteen list for 2013 was far from automatic.  It earned it's way from the very first (title) poem, where I recognized Campion's voice--tight, understated, lyrical, narrative, with virtuosic metaphorical sense--as one that I trusted.  If I didn't know better, "El Dorado" might have distanced itself from me in its opening lines with the very accessibility of its diction, the cool reporting of the trauma of an accident involving a family where

safe on the shoulder . . . she leaned against me
gripping our son as the cruiser
strobed blue and red

there came the helplessness    the bare
nerve shudder giving up to air

so in those moments
"I" was this person with my name and also no one

so remembering
                           crumpled steel and
sun on the silos for miles beyond us

I can make no connection

But, true to form, Campion makes a move that shows his readers the connection between the existential angst of being "this person with my name and also no one" and the ancient story of El Dorado, of

                         how a man
clambered from caves where days he dwelt alone
and tribesmen came anointing him
with balsam gum then
sputtering gold dust
through wooden tubes all over him

He walked the talus to the lake where a raft awaited
braziers lavishing shine on the heaped gold

At the center of the lake he scattered
handfuls of gold to the water
and returning to the shore
he doused himself
so colors elusive as the coins and squiggles
on the dorsal of a trout

fell to the cratered basin    treasure
the invaders found
vanishing always to wild interior

fell as the tribesmen
bellowed through jaguar masks


and then another move back to the present:

No one along the breakdown lane in northern Iowa
dressed as a jaguar

No one dripped with gold

But that shiver of surrender
flooding my chest
                            that tremble of unclenching muscle

stranded in the miles of soybean fields
between one home we left and one we'd never seen

In the remainder of the poem, Campion muses on the reflections that shine between ancient ritual and modern life by showing "wife and son," "the houses," "the billboard above [them] . . . even [his] own skin//shin[ing]"

. . . with the promise
there was nothing more than this
train of moments

streaming through air
                                   everything gathering
light to its contours
before it disappears

With the beginning lines of this section, Campion introduces "Ancient Story" as the first of three themes I found in this work; with these last two lines he brings in "Appearance/Disappearance" as a second theme.  The third, "Inside/Outside," creeps up on its readers as subtly as the curvature of a sixty-page-long mobius strip, beginning with only the slightest hint of an inward/outward tilt in this opening poem: "crumpled steel and/sun on the silos," the "clamber[ing] from caves," the "treasure/the invaders found/vanishing always to wild interior," and "surrender/flooding my chest," as examples. This interior/exterior motif grows from the interaction between the first two themes, poem after poem, until it declares itself in "1986: Recurring Dream."

 The dream was that the wilderness snaked up
against the house.   Except the wilderness
    was inside.  Which meant inside the house
       was the outside. . . 

The delight of reading El Dorado is found in both the ingenious way these three themes dance with one another throughout the collection, and with Campion's typical gorgeous language and spot-on metaphors.  "Elegy With Television," a four-part, seven-page poem, is emblematic of this complexity within a singular vision.  Witness the following lines selected from section II which intertwine the theme of interior/exterior with the theme of the (ancient) story, introduced in section I, a story of "Auntie Wisdom" who had "In her ranch house/wedged to a wicker cabinet, her TV/[that] fluttered above me all the afternoons/my parents dropped me there.  And the stories/up on the screen. . . "

I'm reading scholarship about TV.
The writer claims it streams two ways at once.
It pours the aggregate inside the home
so people of every race and cheetahs
in the Okavango, sales on furniture
and faces of refugees (some flattened ghost
at least in digital particulate)
all overflow the limits of the place
we're watching from.  It also filters out.
The spectacles of public life now shrink
to the console.  And what gets blinkered off
turns easier for power to control.

I've drifted from the theories.  But a trace
of networks cinching us between what screens
we're allowed to see--from the side porch, June heat
still thick at evening: the street lights strung
in forced perspective could be bastions, driven
into whatever's out there as inside
(shivers branching the gut) white heat coils down. 

Long corridors.  A whiff of disinfectant.
The complex she endured the last ten years
until she swallowed the pills she stashed . . . 

And with that last line (of the quote, not of the section), Campion begins stirring in the theme of appearance/disappearance that bubbles up as a question in section III:

. . . These entrances
of others in your life, however long
they stay, and then their disappearances:
I want to ask you is this all, this press
of faces more and more eclipsed to gray
and no great pattern holding us together? . . . 

By the conclusion of section IV, all three themes are mixed together to form new images rising from ancient ones:

. . . (her fingers liver-spotted on a plastic cup
enameled with daisies)
                                     could be preserved

and even her suicide appeared her slicing
through her expected slow occlusion to this
shiver of both arrival and departure

where any other pair of eyes meets yours
in long-remembered but till now forgotten
silent, articulate, animal glimmers.

And it snapped off.  No world behind the world.
Only the forced perspective corridor.

Only the crawl of numbers on the screens.

And hours later, like a dream but clear:
solidity of strapped-in bodies.  Snoring.

Out the window near Wichita, blue lines
of streetlights ascended from the snow.

Campion's knack for introduction and amplification of themes, pacing, and poem placement are never better demonstrated than in the ultimate poem of the collection, "Dandelions."  In it, the three-way marriage of ancient story, interior vs. exterior, and presence vs. disappearance is consummated.  The "small shock/of emptiness" that was born in the opening poem, that grew throughout the collection, comes to full maturity in

. . . this pure luxuriance to feel
the pull of dirt
                       again: sense mist uncurling
          to reveal
no architecture hidden behind the world

except the stories that we make unfolding:
as if our sole real power
                                       were the power
                    of children holding
this flower that is a weed that is a flower.

In El Dorado, Peter Campion, the poet outside the poems he creates, makes connections that his "I" inside its poems cannot.  These connections are as old as humanity, and as young as a child begging his father to "stay no stay/no Daddy just a minute."  The question Campion puts to us all is "Will we fully reside in the only minute we have?"  El Dorado can transform our minds and our hearts to be capable of exactly that.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alley Cat Books Hosts Four Poetry Lions

Last night, Alley Cat Books in the San Francisco Mission District (http://www.alleycatbookshop.com/), was host to "The Shadows Have Their Say: A Night of Poetry featuring Forrest Gander, Alejandro Murguia, Chard deNiord, and Peter Everwine."  Based on the number of poetry readers compared with those of other genres, some would say that poetry itself lives in the shadows of the literary world. But last night these four poetry lions roared in the full daylight of not only contemporary American Poetry, but in the blazing heat of modern World Literature, as well. Gander graciously spent most of his allotted time reading poems by other poets, such as the Spanish poet, Antonio Gamoneda, and Latin American poets from Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America which he, Gander, edited; Murguia read from his work and from the work of others in both Spanish and English, and reminded us of the relationship of poetry to the other literary and fine arts; DeNiord told the story of interviewing Ruth Stone as she lay in bed for three years before she finally rose to try on a hat for her daughter, and read from his new book of interviews with her and other major American poets, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs; and Peter Everwine brought the lyrical wisdom typical of his work, acknowledging Po Chui as a major influence.

But the highest moments for me occurred in the reading of the poets' own work.

DeNiord read poems from his latest book, The Double Truth and from his new, yet unreleased, manuscript, Interstate, celebrating poetry's ability to make beauty out of sound and meaning out of mystery--both in the context of good story--to a degree only possible at the height of a poet's powers. Witness this passage from "The Golden Herd," a poem about the poet leaving his desk to investigate the possible reason for the disruptive frantic mooing of cows in the meadow:

. . . for something had to be wrong the way
they were lowing so loud in the distance
as if to sound the alarm of locusts or coyotes.
As if they were the golden herd of Apollo
and Odysseus's men had just arrived to slaughter them.
But there they were as usual in their huddle,
except for one who had wandered off
and was grazing by the beaver pond in a calm,
eternal manner. What could I know
of their bovine moods, that calculus that lay
embedded in the marrow of their skulls
like a problem beyond my solving, their sudden
explosive bellowing for what appeared to be no reason,
as if they needed no reason as a reason for bellowing
at nothing on this otherwise peaceful, April morning?

Before last night, I had not heard Alajandro Murguia read. It is so fitting that the new Poet Laureate of San Francsico is not only an excellent writer of lyrical, substantive poetry, but a superb reader of his work (and the work of others), as well. Murguia has deep roots in the San Francisco poetry scene through his mentors Jack Hirschman, Bob Kauffman, and others, his living in The Mission District, his teaching at San Francisco State, as well as the rhythms and content of his poems that do not fall into the ruts of rehashing the poetry of the 50's and 60's or making poetry that is in the service of any agenda other than the continuing restoration of our spiritual health and of poetry itself. His poetry is new wine in old wineskins, that will continue to ferment for the healing of our times. Unfortunately for the attendees of this reading, his newest book, Stray Poems was not yet available for the reading, and so I don't have a poem that he read to share with readers. However, it will be available soon through City Lights Bookstore. In addition, today, December 14, his personal collection of the postcards of Guillermo Kahlo can be viewed at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Library, Jewett Gallery, Lower Level. At 2:00 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium, there will be the Virgin of Guadalupe Celebration: Featuring Aztec Dancers, and you may meet Alajandro Murguia, and experience his vitality first hand.

I have been a fan of Forrest Gander for some time, having read Torn Awake several years ago. Many times I have been disappointed upon hearing a poet read, whose work I've enjoyed. This was not the case with Gander. His graciousness, his intellect, his vital voice, infused all of the text he read with an  insistent gravitas that demanded not only my mental attention, but the investment of my entire self into the language and thought of the poems, as well as into some kind of action as a result of hearing them. His reading brought to mind a passage of scripture from my childhood: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." By example, Gander seemed to be saying "Be ye doers of poetry, not just hearers only."  The highlight of the all too short fifteen minutes that Gander took was the reading of his poem "Entanglement" from his new chapbook, Eiko & Koma. I learned that Eiko and Koma Otake are a dance duo that perform a unique "theatre of stillness"--performances lasting as long as eight hours that take viewers "out of time and out of their own bodies," as Gander puts it. "Entanglement" is a gorgeous poem that enacts one of the performances with the gesture of reversing the lines midway through and repeating them to the end, providing a new context for each line, each word, each stanza. I will not repeat the entire poem here, but only share the first and last stanzas as true sample of Gander's moving and virtuosic work:


And begin to emerge.  From their
long float.  From cellars of sleep.
Here on the earth's wet
set.  Hair and leaves mixed
with leaves and hair.  Vision sheared
to make room for vision.
Two figures and
the caesura of
longing.  Bound by what is
unwritten.  Unwakened . . . 

. . . Their eyes done in, bound
by.  What is unwritten?  Two figures.
And the caesura of longing.
Vision shears away
to make room for vision.  Leaves
and hair mixed with hair
and leaves.  Here
on the earth's wet set.  From
cellars of sleep, from their
long float.  And begin
to emerge.

I met Peter Everwine in 2007 at a reading in New Hampshire.  I found him to be one of the kindest people I've ever met.  Without a trace of self-promotion or self-importance, this established poet--with way too little recognition by the greater poetry community--took the time to listen to my plans for my MFA Thesis and make suggestions.  (One was that I pick up the phone and call Philip Levine to ask him about Larry Levis--which I was hesitant to do, but finally did, and found Levine to be as generous with his time as Everwine.)  Most poets in their 8th decade (if they even make it that far), are not even writing, or have their best work behind them.  Peter Everwine's mature poetry is better than ever, and that we get to drink it from a transparent, crystal character and full, life-rounded voice is nothing less than divine.  I close with the ultimate poem from his latest collection Listening Long and Late (2013):

Aubade In Autumn

This morning, from under the floor boards
of the room in which I write,
Lawrence the handyman is singing the blues
in a soft falsetto as he works, the words
unclear, though surely one of them is 'love,'
lugging its shadow of sadness into song.
I don't want to think about sadness;
there's never a lack of it.
I want to sit quietly for a while
and listen to my father making
a joyful sound unto his mirror
as he shaves--slap of razor
against the strop, the familiar rasp of his voice
singing his favorite hymn, but faint now,
coming from so far back in time:
"Oh, come to the church in the wildwood . . . "
my father, who had no faith, but loved
how the long, ascending syllable of 'wild'
echoed from the walls in celebration
as the morning opened around him . . . 
as now it opens around me, the light shifting
in the leaf-fall of the pear tree and across
the bedraggled backyard roses
that I have been careless of
but brighten the air, nevertheless.
Who am I, if not one who listens
for words to stir from the silences they keep?
Love is the ground note; we cannot do
without it or the sorrow of its changes.
"Come to the wildwood, love,
Oh, to the wiiild wood" as the morning deepens,
and from a branch in the cedar tree a small bird
quickens his song into the blue reaches of heaven--
"hey sweetie sweetie hey."

Kudos to Marguerite Munoz, event organizer, and Alley Cat Books for bringing together these capacious voices for one of the best poetry readings I've been to in San Francisco in several years.

And, of course, to these four lions, roaring in the light!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

And The Spell Widens Even More . . .

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop at Reed College in Portland Oregon! I had been looking for a new direction for my work, and I found it under the guidance of my workshop leader, Dorianne Laux, our fantastic class of poets, and the inspiration provided by the entire staff of Tin House--especially the example set by Matthew Dickman of being both an artist in community with all of his "brothers and sisters" and a terrific poet. In the next few weeks, I will share salient features of my experience, but for right now, let me get the ball rolling by mentioning two books you have to read, if you have not yet read them: Awake by Dorianne Laux and Mayakovsky's Revolver by Matthew Dickman.

Awake is a reissue of Dorianne's first book, originally published in 1990 (selected and blurbed by Philip Levine), and now reissued by Carnegie Mellon Press. It ranks as an essential document in the history of 20th century American poetry, and if you haven't read it you must! In his introduction, Levine writes of Laux that "she has a stunning eye for the way the world actually looks, and when it is looking good, she is there to record it:"

I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.

This passage, from "On the Back Porch," is true sample of the many joyful poems in the collection. You will want to return to Awake again and again. Thank you to Carnegie Mellon that we can.

No less lyrical, although at times more dark, are the poems of Matthew Dickman, a former student of Laux, in Mayakovsky's Revolver. Section II is a lengthy elegy to his older brother, dead at his own hand at a young age. It is, however, surrounded by the joy of living and loving, as evidenced in these lines from "Getting It Right," one of my favorites:

Your ankles make me want to party,
want to sit and beg and roll over
under a pair of riding boots with your ankles
hidden inside, sweating beneath the black-tooled leather,
they make me wish it was my birthday
so I could blow out their candles, have them hung
over my shoulders like two bags
full of money. Your ankles are two monster-truck engines
but smaller and lighter and sexier
than a saucer with warm milk licking the outside edge.
They make me want to sing, make me
want to take them home and feed them pasta,
I want to punish them for being bad
and then hold them all night and say I'm sorry, sugar, darling,
it will never happen again, not
in a million years.

Matthew Dickman's poetry does the same thing for me.

Two small examples of the power and tenderness I experienced in Portland.

And if you didn't know, you can hear Dorianne Laux and her husband, Joseph Millar, read this Saturday night, 6:30 PM, in San Francisco at The Emerald Tablet, 30 Fresno St.

I'll definitely be there to "widen the spell . . . "

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Throat Singing by Susan Cohen

What a delight to attend a terrific reading by a local (bay area) poet that I know, who has just published her first book. Throat Singing surpasses its blurb by Chana Bloch, who claims that "The music of Susan Cohen's poems is close to that of Coleman Hawkins, the jazz saxophonist who could make honey sting / and gravel sing." For Cohen does not merely write (and convincingly read) narrative poems that sing, but has established herself as a poet of substance with this perfect-pitch work that delivers just the right amounts of redemption and longing--temporarily sating our appetite for connection with our deepest selves, but moving outward toward a horizon that promises ever-increasing challenges to our identity.

Cohen immediately sets the tone with the title poem, "Throat Singing:"

Throat Singing

he can make his bass
notes rumble with the pulse
of hoofbeats on the Steppes

while his larynx also squeezes
the freakish whistle of thin air
heard in the highest passes

and his words ride hard rasping
where have you gone my ponies
where have you gone my country

as he scrapes his hopes together
across the chords
tensed in his throat

but so much straining
as he oscillates the octave
between what he has and what he wants

drives his blood until the veins
leather to reins around his neck
and throat singers die young

with the effort of singing
so many notes at once so much
longing wears out their hearts

Navigating through a life stalked by death--by falling tree limbs in "Under Trees," by the momentum of history in "That Year I Read Anne Frank's Diary," by cancer in "At The Radiation Clinic," by dementia in "My Mother's Future, Named,"--the poet continues singing poems that both ruminate and paint images about our entropic existence, poems that take care, like we are warned, "not to startle a grizzly--but if you do-- / to wave your arms above your head/and calmly speak, so that the bear / does not mistake you for a caribou, / which wanders mutely, and with no imagination."

Cohen's poems are replete with imagination; see "The Woman Who Feels No Fear" about a woman that doctors reported had a brain anomaly that left her without the capacity to feel fear, "Playful Abstract Painter, 79" about a painter who "Once . . . licked a Vermeer at the Frick / to taste the colors," "Rewriting War and Peace" which summarizes the entire novel in eighteen two-word lines, after the epigraph "'Drops Dripped' is the shortest sentence in War and Peace."

And these poems never stop moving--not merely blindly away from emptiness like the dog swimming in circles to keep from drowning in "Iraq War Blues," but toward a real, if only temporal, happiness. Like the happiness that comes from reading them.

The Most You Can Hope For

"Wanting and dissatisfaction
are the main ingredients
of happiness - Ruth Stone, 'Wanting'"

Mix salt of tears, salt of the sea-womb, salt
of blood lively with your pulse.

For fidelity, snip rosemary. Crush
till pungent with pining. Add sweet basil,

because the Mediterranean is only semi-arid,
which may be the most you can hope for.

Pick a lemon that's brilliant, avoid the palest
yellow of caution or cowardice. Sugar it--

you're after the sweet and sour taste
of contradiction on your tongue.

You're making hope, which won't exist
without dissatisfaction. You're making life,

which fattens on hope. Avoid blandness,
avoid bitterness. When you're making happiness:

Don't ever stop to test for doneness.

Susan--never stop writing poems like these in your debut book, and I'll never stop reading them!