There’s a new print and online journal that I hope you’ve heard of: The Common, based at the Frost Library of Amherst College and run by folks from that institution as well as a couple of us from the University of Massachusetts on the other side of town. Recently we celebrated our first year of publication with a fund-raising party in New York hosted by warm-hearted, wide-ranging author Ted Conover (The Routes of Man, Newjack, Coyotes, and others, ). The party featured Stephen O’Connor reading from his story in issue #3 as well as two sets by The Dog House Band, a literary super-group composed of critics and writers: James Wood (who is on our editorial board), Wyatt Mason, David Gates, Sven Birkerts, and others. There were celebrity sightings in the audience as well; I can verify one—whom I won’t name—because I made the mistake of stepping on her foot. Not the first time I’ve klutzed it on that scale—but the last celeb, Brooke Shields, was much more gracious when I sunk her canoe; in fact, she even smiled at me. This time I got a look that performed laser surgery on my small intestine. Sorry, X!
At The Common we purport to be interested in “A Modern Sense of Place.” When asked, I explain as poetry editor I’m more excited by work that does something surprising when it comes to place—and the poem itself may be the site in question—than I am by simple landscapes or seascapes, but I’ll consider strong work of any sort, and I like having my notion of what a poem is stretched. See from our new issue, # 3, for example, Angela Veronica Wong’s hilarious “Dear Johnny, In Your Last Letter,” part of a series, Denis Hirson’s “A Story with a Crack in It,” Jock Doubleday’s “Meeting Julie Christie at the Flower Booth at the Sunday Ojai Farmers’ Market…” or Norman Lock’s witty and very dark “Alphabet” poems, all of which complicate distinctions between narrative and lyric, elude boundaries between poetry and prose.
By the same token, I hope that when contributors receive their copies of the journal, they’re surprised to see the company they’re among: hopefully the party will be a success, and people will leave with brand new friends, but there are bound to be arguments, and that strapping youngster reciting whole pages from Absalom, Absalom! in the corner is a skilled bouncer. In any case, my highest expectations are for the readers: I hope they’ll go everywhere with us, if not with unmitigated delight, then at least with unwavering interest. I even expect them to appreciate poetry written in forms—both “traditional” and for the nonce.
From issue #3, co-written by Amy Lawless and Angela Veronica Wong:
It can feel amazing to be targeted by a narcissist
Let’s just see if it fits, and your voice blurred, your hand brushing away mine, me laughing because seriously who says that? I flashed out of my body picturing you saying this to other girls, and laughed again. Those are words that can only be said late at night in an outer borough, while Manhattan glitters in rows of mocking unison from over the bridge. Those are the moments when I think how did I get here followed shortly by okay whatever, like now, sitting in the park, watching couples strolling hand-in-hand. Once I made you cupcakes. In the morning before I left, I arranged them on a plate and left them on your kitchen table. Don’t worry, you weren’t the first one I’ve done that for. I’ll just think of the whole thing as a stretching exercise.
2 from ALPHABETS OF DESIRE & SORROW:
A Book of Imaginary Colophons by Norman Lock
ALPHABET OF SCRATCHES
At St. Mary Bethlehem (which the world calls Bedlam),
Jeremy Watt, shut up for insanity, discovered in a maze of
scratches scribed by others’ lunatic hands an alphabet with
which he might invoke things not apparent to the eye. So it
was that on a late November afternoon while winter
rehearsed in the soot and shadows of the ward, Watt
alchemized the asylum into a Moorfields mews where – in a
fusty upper-storey room – his wife, who had denounced
him to the magistrate, was partnered in adultery with a pie
man. Uttering an uncouth scratch of noise (unintelligible to
the madhouse staff), Watt slaughtered her remorselessly
with an airy dagger – a perfect telepathic murder for which the
pie man was condemned and hung.
ALPHABET OF TORMENT
Fluent in the languages of unnatural death, Luis Boscán set
down on thick paper the confessions of the Spanish
damned while, outside the cruel chamber furnished
ingeniously with instruments of torment, the fountains of
Seville produced liquid acanthus leaves to the sound of
castanets. Had he been otherwise than agony’s faithful
amanuensis in the service of the auto de fé, he might have
written liras to the woman in the silk bazaar (the whiteness
and elegance of whose neck reminded him of a swan’s)
with a calligraphy derived from limpid columns of water.
But the Latin’s stern characters – barbed and black – with
which he compiled for the Inquisition its savage history had
murdered all desire, as light pulsing in veins of water might
grow dark with the soot of the dead.
My approach to editing poetry for The Common has been centered on inclusion and variety: I’d like to include work in English and in translation from all over the world and all over the US, by writers from as many different places as possible. I hope the poetry will be as varied in style as it is by region or place. And to give you some idea of the variety of place, our first couple of issues include poems from and about the Philippines, Cambodia, Russia, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ireland, India, Kenya, Tasmania, Cambridge, MA, Hull, England, Chicago, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Jersey, Carnegie Hall, Honor Moore’s fantastic bedroom (I’d love to print Honor Moore’s beautiful poem “Song” here, but it will be in the next edition of Best American Poetry and I don’t want to steal that thunder), the Georgia coastline, and many other places.
The subject of the first poem in the first issue, “Ferdinandea,” by Maria Terrone, is the mysterious submerged volcanic island in the sea off Agrigento, Sicily, which re-appeared briefly in 1831—just long enough to be claimed by four different countries. Luckily it was overtaken by the sea again within six months, averting a four-way war between Britain, Spain, France, and the King of Naples.
A meditation on that briefly appearing and quickly disappearing island seemed especially appropriate to us, so we made it the first poem in the first issue. The implication of this poem—that place is temporal, inextricably bound to change—seems especially important to remember as we look for work with “A Modern Sense of Place.”
Here is the poem in its entirety:
One of several names given to a ghost island that appeared in July 1831
When the buried volcano erupted,
sulfuric smoke leapt from the Sicilian sea,
seeped through locked, felt-lined chests,
blackening the silverware.
It was like rage—flames and letting go,
the sea a bubbling cauldron of dead fish,
a bad taste in the mouth.
An islet rose from the depths—
not glittering Atlantis, but a desolation
swiftly spreading like news of its strange
arrival. Who can know why four nations
would stake claim to a stark mile
of tufa and pumice, what a naval surgeon called
“unhallowed ground”? Even the gulls fled,
screaming, but not the scientists, dreamers,
cartographers who eyed nearby Tunisia,
and writers seeking mythic inspiration—
Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott,
James Fenimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas.
Like a wine connoisseur, someone sipped
the water of its two ponds, living to pronounce
the red one “salty, spicy,”
the yellow one “sulfuric.”
By December, the ghost had vanished
to a smudge of shoal with a new British name.
Soldiers and sailors returned home.
Contessas reclaimed their silver spoons.
It seems that an interest in place is often shadowed by an attendant interest in—or anxiety of—displacement. An exceptional approach to place often helps define the literature of exile, partition, or emigration. Yehudit Ben-Zvi Heller, another contributor to the journal, grew up in Israel but has lived in the U.S. for over twenty years. She writes in Hebrew and publishes first in Israel, and the tension between place and displacement is one of her poetry’s primary causes. Heller was assisted in the English translation of her poems by two others who know something about what it is to live outside one’s birth country: the critic Stephen Clingman, born in South Africa, educated there and at Oxford, who has also lived in the States these last twenty years, and the late poet Agha Shahid Ali, who grew up in Kashmir but spent much of his adult—that is, his writing—life in the U.S.
Here is Yehudit Ben-Zvi Heller’s “Jerusalem Light”:
With burning eyes
she rose before dusk
the mountains beneath her
and all the hills
filling like window panes with liquid suns
In this hour
she lights her towers
or perhaps after blessing the fire
she has raised her hands
to cover her face with light
(translation by the author with Agha Shahid Ali and Stephen Clingman)
Much of the work in the first issue was solicited from friends, but a fair number of poems came from our first open reading period. Among these were two by Christopher DeWeese, someone I’d never met but had been working alongside for years: he’s a recent alum of the UMASS MFA program. His approach to place and to time is complex in the way I just mentioned. Even the poem itself becomes a site in flux.
Here is “The Narrows”:
The water oh the sounds
trapped between two bodies
when the gulls break down
into the waves
and I’m on one shore and you are away.
I raise my spyglass
sort of like a cheer,
drink you in my good eye
until darkness comes,
a backpack full of liquor.
Driftwood forts turn the years
inward like harmonicas
until we become the babies
policemen chase away,
their heavy beams
probing for monologues
across the sudden water.
It’s been a long time
since Divinity School,
but I still wear a tie,
even when I’m sleeping.
It makes me feel like something tangible
depends on me
to establish its gravity,
hanging like a lodestone
when I wake up.
I’ve been weeping
in the nature poem
buried just beneath this one,
a melancholy lyric
whose bears mistake me
for the kind of ghost worth nuzzling.
The images keep deepening
and I go down with them,
pawing the tucked-in dirt
like a living vibration
until I can’t see anything
but the words I’ve been
yelling this song.
By the time I reached the Brechtian moment that begins around line 27, I was surprised, committed to the poem. Fortunately it was still available. These days, you have to move quickly, it seems. Sometimes, you take six months to decide on three poems, and you lose them to some other publication. The breaks.