The ninth season of the Mission Poetry Series wraps with a reading on Saturday, April 28, 2018, at 2 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Public Library.
In Bright Sky Blue: Two Poets in Spring features award-winning authors Marisol Baca and Christopher Buckley. The title of the event is taken from a poem by Joanne Kyger, a major poet of the San Francisco Renaissance who studied poetry and philosophy at UC Santa Barbara.
The reading will be held at The Santa Barbara Public Library, in the Faulkner Gallery, at 40 E. Anapamu Street, Santa Barbara, CA, and is free and open to the public. The event offers complimentary broadsides, refreshments, and poets’ books for sale. The Mission Poetry Series is hosted by program director Emma Trelles and production coordinator Mark Zolezzi. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/missionpoetryseries/
This week's post was a call for submissions with the following prompt:
Pack your bags and set up your travel itinerary, because we are writing travel poems! But not in the way you'd have guessed.
This week, pick a place that you have never been to and write a poem envisioning your time there. What are your favorite parts of it? What are some things you might do and see? Will you meet anyone there? Is it as beautiful as you expected?
Take a look at some similarly prompted works by Elizabeth Bishop (“In Prison”), James Merrill (“Peru: The Landscape Game”), and John Ashbery (“The Instruction Manual”). These poems and others show that you don't need to go someplace to say something new or unique about it.
Write about the place and what you like most about it in two stanzas of five to seven lines each. The last line of both stanzas should be identical, or nearly so. Let the name of the place serve as your title, e.g. “Belgrade” or “Cruising the Caribbean.”
Or just play Bobby Darin’s recording of “Sunday in New York” and write whatever comes to mind.
Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate!
In the opening pages of the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s time-haunted heroine drifts toward Bond Street for some early-morning shopping, hardly noticing the busy thoroughfare as happy and unhappy memories swirl in her mind. Suddenly, an open book in the window of Hatchard’s bookstore catches her eye, and she reads these lines of Shakespeare:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages.
The lines stop her cold. They frame her thoughts and put her mind in order, giving form and meaning to the welter of momentary impressions and recollections that had previously overwhelmed her. “The late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears”—this is what the poem tells her, this fundamental and inescapable truth. It is a defining moment in the momentous day that stretches before her, a day in which the lines recur as a bass note in her consciousness.
In Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical melodrama, James Tyrone, the patriarch of the dysfunctional Tyrone family, delivers speeches from Shakespeare to remind his feckless sons that he was once a great actor. (They respond by spouting passages from Swinburne and Dowson, whom they know he detests.) In A Touch of the Poet, O’Neill’s later play, the lead character, Cornelius Melody, poses in front of the mirror and recites histrionically from Byron’s "Childe Harold":
I have not loved the World, nor the World me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed
To its idolatries a patient knee. . . .
Like T. S. Eliot embedding bits and pieces of Baudelaire, Dante, Goldsmith, and many others in his brief epic, The Waste Land, O’Neill knows that an enlarged vision of experience is incomplete without the verbal formulations made by earlier writers for a range of rhetorical effects.
Fiction writers, dramatists, and poets resort to quotation constantly in order to create stop-motion effects like Woolf’s and O’Neill’s. Filmmakers too appreciate how verse creates a change of register, a complicating of character and plot. If poetry naturally pops up in films about poet’s lives or in “toast and eulogy” scenes that mimic real life—Shakespeare quoted by Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, a Tennyson pep talk uttered by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Auden‘s “Funeral Blues” recited by John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral—it also appears in dramatic ways that go beyond the expected.
Find a partial list of poetry in movies here.
David Lehman on "Drunken Winter" by Joseph Ceravolo (born today):
Oak oak! like like
cold some wild paddle
so sky then;
flea you say
“geese geese” the boy
June of winter
-- Joseph Ceravolo
Joseph Ceravolo is a great overlooked American poet. Born in the Astoria section of Queens, New York, in 1934, Ceravolo began writing poetry while serving in the U. S. Army in Germany in 1957. He wrote his first poems while on all-night guard duty in a stockade tower. A civil engineer by trade, he studied with Kenneth Koch at the New School in New York City in 1959. Koch's teaching had a strong and lasting influence on him. Frank O'Hara called him "one of the most important poets around," and it was fitting that Ceravolo's debut collection, "Spring in this World of Poor Mutts," won the first Frank O'Hara Award in 1968.
Though little known, Ceravolo’s work is admired intensely by those who know it. David Shapiro calls Ceravolo “the best religious poet writing in the English language.” Asked to name his three favorite poets, Jordan Davis begins with Ceravolo then tacks on Whitman and William Carlos Williams. “The Green Lake is Awake,” a posthumous volume of Ceravolo’s selected poems, won favorable notices in 1994.
Nevertheless Ceravolo remains a secret ardor in part because the New York School as an entity or category has until perhaps recently eluded academic attention. I love his simplicity – his apparent simplicity, I should say. In reality Ceravolo is, as he writes in his poem “Happiness in the Trees,” “no more / simple than a cedar tree / whose children change / the interesting earth / and promise to shake her / before the wind blows / away from you /in the velocity of rest.”
Ceravolo uses mostly simple words of few syllables. The effect of their conjunction is startling. He makes the words seem as actual as objects and as strange. In some instances he resembles a painter who has limited his palette to a few colors used in dazzling combination. In "Drunken Winter," look at how the poem punctuates space. The meaning is in the arrangement. The line breaks, the syntactical breakdown, the spacing, the incidental punctuation (exclamation point, quotation marks) are crucial to our experience of the poem. It's as though a complicated narrative has been reduced to bare essentials delivered breathlessly, and what is communicated is not an anecdote but a stammering excitement charging the words themselves.
In this and other poems, Ceravolo displays an uncanny ability to convey the child’s conception of the world. The child seems older in “The Wind Is Blowing West”:
I’ve been waiting in my tent
Expecting to go in.
Have you forgotten to come down?
Can I escape going in?
I was just coming
I was just going in.
Ceravolo pushes the laconic style to achieve a sublime innocence. A six-line poem begins: “O moon / How ghost you are.” All the pathos of childhood informs the moment in “Ho Ho Ho Caribou” when the speaker says, “Like a flower, little light, you open / and we make believe / we die.”
Ceravolo’s poems are lean, full of working nouns and verbs stripped of modifiers. He is unafraid to end a poem abruptly. He can move from whimsy to high tension in a line. Yet none of this finally explains the magic of these poems – how they transform the commonplace into the extraordinary or why they make this reader feel he is in the presence of a natural poet, for whom poems came as freely as leaves to the tree.
Ceravolo lived quietly with his wife and three children in Bloomfield, New Jersey. He avoided the “poetry world” beyond the local. He was 54 when he died of an inoperable tumor on September 4, 1988.
- David Lehman, 2002
Joseph Ceravolo (1934-1988). "Drunken Winter" (1967) owes its effect to "the things in it," Kenneth Koch felt. "Even the words like like seem thinglike." See The Oxford Book of American Poetry for this and other poems by this extraordinary talent. Jose[ph Ceravolo’s Collected Poems was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2013.
I believe in Romeo, as Juliet said
when she lay in the coffin pretending to be dead.
That Tonto is no good, said the ambush chief
and I guzzling gas can get no relief.
The father figure resembling Charlie Chan
believed in the decisiveness of a fatal gesture.
I believe the most important news of the day
is that Lindsay Lohan is an also-ran
and the disease will have no cure
when my reasoning, sound but obsolete as bonnets,
has gone the way of Sir Thomas Wyatt's sonnets.
Because you can't strut your stuff
when you're old and gray
and there isn't time enough
there'll be some changes made
beside the hemlock tree in the shade
A change of heart or in the weather
or the bread and butter eaten by Werther
who has to decide whether
or not or not or not or not or not
nobody wants you when you're doubt and out
and this I know without a doubt
let the luck that was once a blaze remain an ember
I swear to be true to you come December
as long as we're together.
-- Molly Arden
This year, my first year back in Charlottesville, Virginia, I had the opportunity to participate once again, both as a reader and an audience-member, in the annual Virginia Festival of the Book. Of all the book festivals I've ever attended, this one is my absolute favorite. It always has stellar poets and writes of all kinds, and I leave it feeling uplifted and inspired. Among my favorite readings this year was one given my Mary-Sherman Willis. Witty, smart, and entertaining, Willis mesmerized the audience as she read from her new book of translations of Jean Cocteau's prose poems, Grace Notes. I was so happy when she agreed to an interview.
NA: I heard you read from Grace Notes at the New Dominion Book Shop at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, and I was enchanted both by your translations of Jean Cocteau’s prose poems and by your reading and explanations of his work. When and where did you begin translating Grace Notes?
MSW: It was a very happy accident that led me to find him in the poetry section of a small bookstore in a seaside town in Normandy a few years ago. We’d been visiting friends who put us up in what was essentially a garden shed. You had to walk through the greenhouse to get to the bathroom, working your way through hanging grape vines, with slugs and centipedes climbing the walls. I thought it was magic, everything alive like in Belle’s boudoir in Cocteau’s beautiful film, La Belle et la bête—the original 1946 version of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Then I spotted Appoggiatures on the shelf. I saw that they were prose poems. I don’t write prose poems, so I thought I might translate them and learn something.
NA: Could you talk about the title, Appogiatures?
MSW: It’s a term from opera, appoggiatura, meaning the little added note the singer inserts before the principal note, a flourish that delays the note and heightens it. In English it’s a grace note.
This was Jean Cocteau’s thirteenth book of poems, published in 1953 when he was 64 years old. (He would publish 23 books of poems before his death ten years later, to add to his astonishing list of artistic works.) He’d survived two world wars. The first he’d spent “volunteering” on the Belgian front (the army had rejected him) in a uniform stitched together by a costume designer. In WWII, he was in Paris under Nazi occupation as an openly gay opium addict living with his muse, the actor Jean Maret. He was making films, writing, painting, and doing what it took to survive.
By 1953, although his living circumstances were stable for the first time in his life, his health was poor and he was feeling his mortality. A wealthy divorcé had turned over her villa in St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera to him and his “adopted” lover Edouard Dermit. His work was coming smoothly and his reputation was secure. So he wrote about death with wit and irony, and disaster as fateful caprice or even a joke.The poems are short scenarios that capture the surreality of ordinary life, where there’s a thin membrane between states of consciousness, between life and death. Poems are the artistic flourish that heightens the experience of life, in full awareness of death. They have a kind of Gallic duende, if you can apply Federico Garcia Lorca’s term of art.
NA: What was it about Jean Cocteau that particularly attracted you to him and his work?
MSW: I’ve loved Jean Cocteau since 10thgrade, when somebody gave me his scandalous memoir, Opium, The Diary of a Cure.
We were feeling French and cool, and thought you needed to suffer and get high to make art. He had written the book during one of his many opium “cures,” long stays at a clinic in the country with meals and quiet, usually funded by friends like Coco Chanel. These stays would result in outpourings of work—a novel, some painting, a book of poems—before he was sent home. That sounded like a life to me!
Later, it was the films, especially La Belle et la bête, which was on heavy video rotation when my kids were small. The poems came later, as they’re not much translated in the US.
NA: I would love you to pick one of the poems from the book, post it here, and then talk about it—as a way of introducing us to the book.
MSW: Let’s start with this one, about the risks and dangers of artistic creation, and the artist disappearing into his work. Typically, the imagery is cinematically precise. This makes sense; Cocteau had been a busy filmmaker for almost two decades by the time this book appeared. He’s describing a miracle as if it were a documentary.
I admire the control he keeps over his syntax. His sentences are plain and declarative until the final one, a sequence of paratactic clauses that mimics the skater’s self-annihilating tour de force.
The skater launched himself on the virgin ice compelled to reproduce with his weaponized feet the inextricable meander of a line that he carried inside himself, from which nothing could release his soul, straightjacketed as it was and under police interrogation. He would be free if he chiseled at great speed a surface from which the gash threw off shavings of snow. A masterpiece that the spectators applauded as if it were a simple acrobatic exercise. Sometimes he left behind several images of his body that would then rejoin him, preceding him and inviting him to join them. With crossed arms, he leaned, straightened up, sped ahead fast, turned, took off, careful never to break off his calligraphy. For an hour he inscribed his curled upstrokes and downstrokes without a single error. Suddenly, in the middle of the rink and standing still, his scarecrow arms outstretched, he spun into himself, a speeding tornado, until he became a translucent like a spinning propeller, with one difference: he passed through the zone of the visible and
NA: How did you go about translating this collection? Did you have a particular technique? Did you read a lot of Cocteau’s other works? Did you consult with other translators?
MSW: At first I was just translating these poems for fun. I was in France and just started knocking off one or two a day as we travelled. I’d grown up speaking French as a girl and always intended to try a French translation project but never found the right poet.
Cocteau interested me as soon as I began to channel his voice into English. He writes a rather formal French, but his ideas are so
wild! He blends irony, wordplay, humor and melodrama into these short pieces in ways that have no parallel in American culture. I just loved being in his head.
My first pass was to paraphrase the meaning and capture the elevated diction of his French. But then I worried that I’d taken too many liberties, and did another complete revision by translating literally—what’s known to translators as a trot. That produced a stilted mess with the life drained out of his words.
The final revisions looked for a middle way, keeping the meaning but dropping in as much as possible of the original syntax, word order, and sound. When those were done, I showed the manuscript to three native French speakers who extracted all sorts of clever double-entendres and idiomatic expressions that had slipped right by me.
While I was working on this, I read biographies and translations of Cocteau’s other work. Richard Howard’s translations of Cocteau’s autobiography, Professional Secrets is particularly great I found a Gallimard annotated edition of Cocteau’s complete poems and discovered that the fifth edition of Appogiaturesthat I was working from differs from the first. So I ordered a first edition from Paris, the only one published during Cocteau’s lifetime, and adjusted the discrepancies. I also found a 1982 translation of the book from a small San Francisco press—with enough errors in it that I felt justified in doing a new translation.
NA: What were some of the biggest challenge of translating these prose poems? Could you give us an example of a passage or prose poem that simply does not translate well into English?
MSW: Being French, and a genius, and probably manic, Cocteau could not resist a pun or a word game. Many of these poems hinge on double meanings. For instance, in the poem “The French Language,” a countess utters a declaration to her young lover: “Vous ne supposiez tout de même pas que je le susse!”He bursts into giggles and accuses her of being obscene. She becomes enraged and banishes him, “a victim of love and the French language.”
The joke in the poem depends on a problem of conjugation. “Que je le susse”is the literary imperfect subjunctive tense of savoir, to know. The sentence translates, “You don’t really suppose I should have known it!”
But to the young fool, it sounds as if she’d said, “ . . . que je le suce,”as in “You don’t really suppose that I should suck it.” (No wonder the countess becomes unhinged!) I stayed with the first meaning of the verb, since it was the countess speaking and using fancy verb tenses. Notes at the back of the book give the alternate readings.
Cocteau also composed by stream of consciousness, using a rhyming word game popular with French children. Several of the poems, for instance “Art” and “Crime of Passion,” are particularly surreal in English because their French version is in rhyming soundplay. Luckily, my publisher, Word Works Press, agreed to a bilingual edition for readers who want to sound out these poems.
NA: During your reading, you referred to Cocteau’s movie, The Beauty and the Beast, as a film that might have some current as well as historical relevance. Could you elaborate on that?
MSW: While immersed in this project, I became interested in the plight of artists in Paris during Nazi occupation, and the choices artists make under oppressive regimes. The Germans admired French culture, but some artists still did things to survive and work which would come to haunt them after the war, when the slur of “collaborator” was being flung around. Cocteau himself made alliances with culture-loving Germans in high places. He made some inoffensive films throughout the war, getting past Vichy censors with relative ease. So his decision in 1946 to make his first post-war film be an old fairy tale was no accident, I believe.
“Beauty and the Beast” is about a pure young girl whose love redeems a prince transformed by a curse into a beast. Belle is able to see beyond the Beast’s terrible exterior to the good man inside, and her reward is a prince restored to himself. This girl is a familiar figure to the French: brave Marianne, symbol of the French Republic immortalized by Delacroix and painted in town halls across the country. So I believe that Cocteau was offering an allegory of redemption to the French to remove the stain of collaboration.
These days, the story has been Disneyfied into a cartoon that even appropriates the living statues and dancing teapots of Cocteau’s original movie. But how powerful that magic still is!
NA: How has translating Cocteau changed you as a poet?
MSW: I’m writing prose poems lately, after not really seeing the point before. If you’ve got a powerful tool like the linebreak for punctuating your sentences into poems, why give it up for prose? Although he was considered a surrealist, Cocteau was quite traditional in his form. His poems were usually in quatrains in alexandrine meter in abab rhyme. Typically French. So this book was a departure for him too.
But after channeling Cocteau’s voice for a few months, I started playing with his associative process to assemble poems. Around 3 a.m. if I can’t sleep, I wait for a line, and then another. Pretty soon I have a little vignette, little flash fiction delivered from the unconscious. That’s new for me. (It beats worrying in the wee hours!)
NA: Could we close with a short poem from the book?
MSW: Here’s the last poem in the book, a sort of coda. The juxtaposition of beauty and decay, the swan, the sewers, the Chopin waltzes, and the orange gown of sunset on the sea—are pure Cocteau.
How sad he was while writing his lines, proactively coated with swan fat on a lake of birdshit and iridescent mud. How sad he was. He navigated on the ink of pens that had leaked into the pockets of travelers at high altitudes. He navigated and smiled a sort of rictus that fooled no one but the blind reading the Travel News in braille. The fingers of the blind themselves were sad. The reading ended with Chopin waltzes and the hospital echoed with the sadness of their fingers. It was a night when the days grew shorter and dragged upon the sea in a long orange gown. It was a night when the lake became increasingly iridescent next to the seaside sewers. He felt he should follow the vanishing day and sing his death song elsewhere.
Mary-Sherman Willis, translator of Jean Cocteau’s book of prose poems, Grace Notes / Appogiatures, is the author of two poetry collections and numerous essays and reviews on poetry. She has taught at George Washington University and NYU/Shanghai. She earned an MA science writing from the University of Maryland, and an MFA in Poetry from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Her poems and reviews have appeared in the New Republic, The Plum Review, the Hudson Review, the Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Archipelago.org and Poet Lore, Beltway, Gargoyle and the Southern Poetry Review. Her poetry has been published in former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's column, "American Life in Poetry." She lives in Virginia.
Brendan Constantine is an LA poet whose most recent book "Dementia, My Darling" was published by Red Hen Press. You can visit his website here. The poem was selected by Dana Gioia for the Best American Poetry 2018.
This video was created by Mike Gioia for Blank Verse videos. For more videos, subscribe to the Blank Verse YouTube channel.
The New School After Hours on April 20th, 2018
Come one, come all, to the hippest literary scene in the East Village!
Hosted by Virginia Valenzuela and Co-host Sam Roos
Every third Friday of the month, New Schoolers new and old come to the Red Room
to strut their stuff. Poets, novelists, essayists, musicians, and YA galore!
The Red Room at KGB Bar (3rd floor)
85 E 4th Street, New York, New York
Doors open at 6:30pm
Event to begin around 8pm
We can't wait to see you there!
On Saturday, I spent the morning saying goodbye to an Albany institution: the Playdium bowling center in the city's Pine Hills neighborhood. The Playdium has been there since 1940 but the valuable land on which it sits has been sold to make way for apartments; the building will be torn down. There was an auction to sell off everything inside: bar fixtures, signs, TVs, kitchen items, and a telephone booth to name a few. For two dollars, you could take home a bowling pin. I bought five. There were some hardcore auction folks there to scoop up the bargains, like dishes, glasses and stools, but many more were there, like myself, to pay our respect: ex-college students who remember going there for inexpensive recreation, parents showing their children where they spent their Saturday mornings in youth leagues, and older folks who just had to stop by one last time and reminisce.
I bowled in my office's Thursday night league for ten years. I hadn't been inside the Playdium in 20 years. It didn't take long for nostalgia to kick in as I walked around. Most of the lanes had already been stripped, machinery exposed and pins missing. The sanctity of the foul line was gone. The lanes that were still intact stood as the final soldiers on sentry duty. The seating area was still there. So I sat down behind lanes 27 and 28, looking around and thinking back to Thursday nights in the late 80s and 90s.
My league, the PSC Mixed, was an assortment of co-workers, their spouses and a few special guests. Bowling abilities varied, but we were mostly there for fun. Several of the higher average bowlers - Eddie, Jeff, Dick and Craig and a few others - would give a dollar to whomever had the highest game of the evening. By the end of the season, I think we all broke even.
One of the spouses who joined in that fun was Bill. His wife had worked at the PSC. Bill was a jovial guy, smiling and always telling stories. Everyone seemed to know him. As a teen in the 1940s, in the days before the lanes were automated, Bill worked at the Playdium as a pinboy, setting pins in between frames. Bill would tell about getting an extra two bits when a guy, wanting to impress his date but perhaps lacking bowling abilities, would have Bill, hidden above the lane backdrop, throw an extra pin towards the deck as the ball hit the pins, guaranteeing a strike. He also told us about the secret door in the back of the lanes. Since most of the pinboys were underage, state labor officials would make surprise inspections. Someone at the front desk would send a signal to the pinboys whenever the inspectors would show up, and the boys would flee out the secret door and scurry down Park Street. My favorite Bill story was the time he told us he was shooting pool at the Lamp Post, another long time Albany institution and watering hole. A news report came on the radio, prompting Bill to look up from the billiard table to ask "what the hell is Pearl Harbor"? It was December 7, 1941.
Bill also was in the Playdium on September 27, 1990. So was I, bowling that night on lanes 27 and 28, the last two lanes in the house. I was having a pretty good night as I entered the 3rd game. I started with a strike on lane 27, followed by a strike on lane 28, and that pattern kept repeating - four in a row, then six and then eight. The thing about bowling alleys is that word spreads pretty quickly if someone has shot at 300. I had reached this pinnacle several times before but never made it to nine. I got up on lane 27, pulled the shot a bit, but carried the 6 pin; nine in a row. That meant I'd have a chance in the 10th frame for bowling immortality. I sat in a chair trying to blank out anything that entered my mind. It wasn't easy when you picture your parents bringing you to Saturday morning youth leagues, but I did my best; check your emotions - this may never happen again.
And so I stood on lane 28. By now, more people had drifted down to towards my lane. The first shot in the 10th - strike - and a roar from the crowd. The ball is returned, I lift it, and place my fingers all so carefully in the holes. I take my five step approach, release the ball, watch the ball drift a little high but strike eleven. The roar is louder as the ball is returned. I pick the ball up, except this time, I have no feeling in my hand, or arm or most of my body. I take a very deep breath. My five step approach feels more like the one you take right before being asked by an officer to blow into a breathalyser. The ball is released somehow and the pins explode - strike twelve; I bowled a 300. The crowd roars and I jump up and down like a maniac. I receive hugs and high fives from all around. I collect my $1 from Bill. The owner of the Playdium, Neil, also watching, shakes my hand and buys me a vodka and tonic.
It's 11am and the auction was about to begin, so I got up from where I had been sitting. I saw an older man and realized it was Neil, who was in about the same place as he was when he bought me that drink 28 years ago. Clad in a bomber-style jacket, he was seated, being interviewed one by one by local TV stations as he watched as his bowling center was being sold off, piece by piece.
The Playdium was the last bowling establishment within the city limits of Albany. Farewell Playdium; it was a honor to have bowled there. My gold 300 ring sits atop my dresser.
Last week on Next Line, Please, David Lehman proposed a list poem that included three out of the following four words: “listless,” “invent,” “Tory,” and “catalogue.” The contributors to the column went above and beyond, creating clever spins on the list words, as well as the lists.
Millicent Caliban’s “After My Wife Left Me” imagines possible recipes for a newly widowed individual who shall heal through good food:
I find myself shopping listless.
I am a creature of impulse,
meals for gustaTory delight:
plump anchovies in aspic,
fresh chanterelles with shallots and cream,
spicy sautéed quinoa with kale,
orzo fennel orange salad,
pureed chestnuts with chocolate.
My catalogue of recipes
mixes memory with desire.
How does a poet learn to cook?
In Elizabeth Solsburg’s poem we receive the great promise of a “catalogue of peace”:
Is music invented that actually soothes the savage breast?
Perhaps something like Liszt, less
like the daily cacophony from the composer of this mess
we are trying to mute.
Let’s choose notes
from a catalogue of peace,
like we chose seeds
to plant in the garden
where we hope to sit in summer—
smelling these embryonic flowers,
listening to the night symphony of crickets
Ravindra Rao’s “We are Are Always Preparing for the End” is both charming and musical:
Listless, I invent a list. Seven
dying doves for Christmas, the good Klaus
will deliver. Every dove
is a dying dove. Every love,
too, though we don’t mention that.
Some say love is nothing more
than a catalogue of fading memories,
that lovers are always stuck in September.
I am not claiming to agree, but please
don’t wake me up when
the soundtrack ends. I am busy dreaming
a list of possible futures.
Visit the American Scholar's page to read the full post!
Terence Patrick Winch's new book is The Known Universe
and it is now Michael Lally's new favorite book.
The Known Universe should become better known
because it is universally appealing.
Among my favorites is "Small Potatoes,"
which is what Hyman Rioth says to Michael Corleone
about someone the latter wants bumped off.
"Small Potatoes" is not small beer. It is not small time.
It is living large and dining with the gusto of a fat man having dinner.
I was lucky enough to interview the author who confided
about his writing "process," which is a word I hate,
"You have to break a lot of eggs to make an omelette,
and the proof of the pudding is in the brandy you light, the fig-infused vodka you use to make a vesper
with gin and a little Lillet, shaken not stirred, like the hero of at James Bond movie in the glory years,
or when the champagne flowed in the locker room after the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series.".
-- David Lehman
I went out with one of them last night.
He looked at me and saw a pair of tits pointing upward good child-bearing hips plummy ass nice belly that could grow big with seed.
According to Baudelaire, the answer to "too many literalists" is "do many literalists."
A critic was walking beneath my window and I dropped a vase on his head without smashing the flowers.
He looked up and saw nothing.
The gods and angels were laughing.
The critic said: "Make life beautiful!"
The poet said: "Life is beautiful."
Who was right?
I'll just say this.
The poet was a literalist of the imagination.
Reader, I married him.
– Molly Arden
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.
Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.
Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.
Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.
In a year of losses we lost a mainstay of the poetry scene yesterday when J. D. McClatchy (pictured at left, with James Merrill) succumbed after a long bout with cancer. Of his poems he wrote this In 2009:
Poems accumulate--or mine tend to. Tremulous globules . . . an image, a phrase, a feeling . . . begin to condense on the pane of a larger idea. Proximity encourages their combination into something larger, moister, more glistening. Even so, there are times when some bead or other doesn't join, is left at the edge. Most are then merely shaken off. Sometimes, one is transferred to the notebook, a note too sharp or flat to go with the rest. I noticed a few of these, and strung them together as "Lingering Doubts," the title pointing to their common occasion. I might have let each stand on its own, but the age of the epigram seems to have passed with J. V. Cunningham. Hence this small suite of doubts, their tone of voice shifting from the ironic to the embittered to the plaintive. >>>
The occasion was poem Sandy wrote that David Wagoner selected for The Best American Poetry 2009. The richness of metaphor, the elegance of composition, were the virtues of McCatchy's prose, which was itself continuous with his finely wrought, formally ambitious poems. McClatchy did so much so well -- he wrote libretti and taught at several major universities -- that I would point to one area for which he has not yet been fully recognized. He was a tireless editor -- of books and collections of poetry, of anthologies and, for a quarter of a century, of The Yale Review. I love literary magazines and know how much work goes into editing an issue, let alone four of them in a year.I was thinking of some of the pieces Sandy published and remembered a day in 2008 that was brightened by my reading of The Yale Review. -- DL
During the summer I like picking up an old literary magazine lying around from some previous season to see what I might have missed the first go round. To the hammock today I went with the October 1999 issue of The Yale Review (vol. 87, no. 4) smartly edited by J. D. McClatchy. There's a nice little piece on Auden by a Cambridge Fellow, Ian Sansom, and a very fine poem on the same subject by Jane Mayhall, which I am going to type below. In Mayhall's poem I admire the way the writing -- the line-lengths even -- approach prose but turn back at the last minute into the terrain of verse. The landscape imagery is sustained and given a biographical edge ("the wrinkled Grand Canyon of your face") and the diction moves from high poetic ("madrigal sunlight") to academic vernacular ("radically moral score-keeping") in a single bound. I think Auden would have liked "the dreamy / semen of a distinguished flotsam." It's a line he might have written, but he would have revised it out of a subsequent reprinting of the poem.
Auden in 1970
(photo credit: Tyrone Dukes / New York Times)
Uncensored Note to Auden
To bask in your intelligence, when the wither
and time-gaps are stalking around me,
when the literal husks and brains never tried are
going to steer me off the road, I service
myself to the faint yellowed pages of this book, its
tiny lighted torch figure,
the running insignia on the spine of
a 1958 Modern Library Edition, and I come to whatever dense
trilogies; compassion, spirited wit, wide-reaching
intellect, emotional power. These obviously
unstable and ridiculous concepts given
over to donkeys, ("some great
gross braying") predicaments out of date -- in these
I would take long breaths of pure joy. The madrigal sunlight,
roboust willows of your radiant, asymmetrical
and radically moral score-keeping. The dreamy
semen of a distingushed flotsam. I need
that satirical pastiche,
against the false simplicity
your imitators have become.
The wrinkled Grand Canyon of your face gives me that
wreath, infinitude; the tropics and winter of
the real world, you have reproachfully
-- Jane Mayhall
From our archives. Originally posted August 4, 2008.
And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character. It permits or constrains the formation of new acquaintances and the reception of new influences that prove of the first importance to the next years; and the man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener is made the banian of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men.
This week's poems were prompted by a list of given lines which were offered up by our master of ceremonies, David Lehman:
— A good liar needs a first-rate memory.
— This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.
— Neither fugues nor feathers enchant the fool.
— No one will read what I write here; therefore,
— The desire to make love in a pagoda
Elizabeth Solsburg combines two of the prompt lines in these beautiful, musical, and symmetrical stanzas:
This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live beyond his time—
that he will find a kestrel feather floating on the lake
and mistake it for the power of flight,
as I will believe his passion is true love
and not merely its illusion.
He will be seduced by dreams of air slipping over wings,
as I will be enthralled by promises and song.
But at the last, we shall both sink into the dark pool,
unmagicked and unloved,
because feathers and fugues can enchant the fool.
Charise Hoge’s “Rampant Writing” fragments Kafka’s line in a funny and refreshing way:
no one will read … for poets
are cropping up like a luxury
of weeds: sagebrush, mugwort, nettle;
not the sort of plant anyone chooses
for plots aiming to be garden beds,
but the kind that catches by
that creates a seismic shift
along cranial synarthroses,
refocusing the eyes, and somewhere
someone will say “bless you”
Next week's prompt is to write a list poem of 12 lines or less including at least three of the following words "listless," invent," "Tory," and "catalogue." Visit the American Scholar's page to enter your candidate!
The other day the charm of a poster beguiled me into visiting Musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac for an exhibition called Peintures du lointain, paintings of exotic subjugated people and places by Europeans of the colonial era.
It’s an odd truth that everything turns to metaphor as time goes on. Also, many things advertised as one thing just turn out to be quite another, no metaphors involved: Peintures, for instance, is about colonialism, mostly in North or West Africa – places like Algeria or Senegal, as rendered, mostly, in paint, charcoal and encre de Chine. And though it may, much, much later, turn out to be a handsome metaphor, for now the exhibition is definitely just a squib.
Worse than mere esthetic disappointment, Peintures provoked vague moral depression in me – as my late brother used to say, there was the whiff of brimstone but no devil in the damned thing. As I wandered through, I could just smell, off-stage, the sickly night-sweat of Rimbaud beguiled into gun-running and slave dealing by the urge to respectability, hear the revolver’s echo just out of earshot, but, though respectability did, has done, does so much to propel cruel and bootless enterprise, there was no actual reference to it and its relation to the notion of exotic in the exhibition…
Luckily, synchronicity is at work in my life. Yours, too, maybe.
When I got home from Peintures, I was cheered up to find a package in the mailbox. I took it on upstairs and while anxiously tearing off the tough plastic stuff the sender had wrapped it in, I banged into the bookshelf. The resulting jiggle caused Ferdinand the Bull, a book that reminds me of the delight of reading to my young son, to tumble to the floor, along with Algérie, c’est beau comme l’Amérique, a graphic novel by Olivia Burton very charmingly illustrated by Mahi Grand, which will be published in a few days in the US as Algeria is Beautiful like America. I keep Algérie around because it moves me; I love the character of Djalla, the guide.
A photo of Jacques Chirac – former mayor of Paris, former President of the Republic – which I cut out of a newspaper long ago now, fluttered from between the pages of Ferdinand, preternaturally settled on the coffee table.
I pick it up.
Despite all manner of earthly honors, titles and rewards, and ‘though he died at home in bed, respectability, as for Rimbaud, always eluded Chirac. I can’t really say and, as far as I know, Chirac never rudely went at a photographer with his sword-cane, but I believe responsibility for this lies in a combination of the odd look on wife Bernadette’s face and a certain slouch he seemed to bear as he strolled through life.
Chirac is the very image of mensch in the photo, lolling in a chair, pinching a fattish cigarette.
No doubt, it’s a strong, foul-smelling Gauloise cigarette – Au Plaisir de Vivre! Tabernac!
Before Chirac stretches a demolished repast; his own goblet yet half-full, the table is cluttered with empty wine bottles of many different shapes, sizes and shades.
He seems to be amicably chatting, perhaps making a questionable deal possibly involving the doubtful use of public favors or funds…
As I gaze, I feel, as I have before felt, that maybe Chirac was, really, as his supporters claimed at the time, dismayed by the second Iraq war. I mean, not just astonished by the sheer stupidity of it, not just flabbergasted by the political folly of it, but dismayed, as a mensch should be, by heartless cruelty, but without being particularly surprised by it; we can imagine Voltaire’s buttless, but wised-up, Cunégonde feeling such unsurprised dismay, for instance.
If you don’t count the Peintures exhibition on paintings about places such as Algeria at the museum that bears his name, unsurprised dismay, which we may also call “pro-active acceptance”, is what, in my mind, spiritually-, intellectually-speaking, mainly synchronizes Chirac and Burton’s novel.
Chirac didn’t give in about that particular god-damn war and Burton doesn’t give in to nostalgia or romanticism in her illustrated story of her voyage to her family’s native Algeria, either.
That’s “native Algeria” since, European ethnic origin aside, by the 1950s, when the family left the countryside for Algiers and, finally, for France, it was certainly as “native” for them as, say, Minnesota was for immigrant Swedes.
And, for most Algerians, “rapatriés” (ethnic Europeans, called Pieds noirs) and “réfugiés” (ethnic North Africans) alike, cruelty, present, perfect, continuous and past, petty and big, made their experience of “emigration” and “immigration” as one of “dispossession” and “dislocation”: the burning of the Burton family’s farm, its fear, the expropriation of its city property, are just examples among many others of the injustices of Algeria’s colonial period, the anti-colonial struggle and its post-colonial period that, since, have fueled so much burningly resentful rosy nostalgia.
In France, between 1962-65, Burton’s family joined more than a million other “repatriates” and “refugees” for a fairly snarly unwelcome.
Burton told me she “was taken aback” when the publisher offered to put Algeria is Beautiful like America on the US market. But there are few Americans – even those of us who can think of themselves only as natives – who won’t understand the resentful rosy nostalgia that informs almost any consideration of immigration or who doesn’t know that the choice to emigrate isn’t always much of a choice at all.
However, it’s really the unsurprised dismay tone or, just to put it simply, the sense of acceptance I’ve mentioned that really makes Algeria is Beautiful like America into a good read for anybody, not just Americans.
Acceptance, an utter lack of anger with or judgment upon the human beings around her, whether her pied noir relatives or her Algerian hosts, combined with her balanced, unsentimental story-telling, sets it apart from most other search-for-roots stories.
Which does not mean Algeria is Beautiful glosses anything over or emits rosy reports and comfortable conclusions when there's nothing much to be rosy and/or comfortable about.
The Algeria that Burton’s mother is always looking for and can never find in France, is currently run by the successors to the authoritarian “nationalists” who won out against everybody else in the long, painful post-independence struggle for power. These, in the fullness of time, constituted a ramshackle and despotic kleptocracy strong enough to choke but not to completely strangle the “Islamic terrorists” who had won elections during an aborted period of attempted social and economic reform.
Burton’s conjuration of the place manages to make me imagine it as a place where everybody, except the heavily-armed, twitchy, vaguely corrupt white paramilitary police, is, nervously, African-American.
The woman who is living in Burton’s family’s expropriated apartment sequences all this before, after and present political stuff thus:
“All that, neither you or I are responsible for it. We have to move on. You were right to come.”
If all that is good in Algeria is Beautiful could be summed up in a single character, that would be in Burton’s guide, the chain-smoking Djaffa.
Djaffa is a personality so true to itself that I can’t help identifying around it, off of it, in spite of it.
Of the same generation as Burton’s mother, of whom his sister is a friend, Djaffa lives in France, too, also as a result of the same events that brought the mother there, too, demonstrating the quantum corollary that the same events generate optics as different as the causes, or experiences, are similar.
Djaffa is as off-putting as he is charming and, of course, his center of gravity is himself. But this self-centering is not by egoism, though he is egoistic, but, rather, because he, Djaffa, is the only thing he, Djaffa, really does know he, Djaffa, knows something about.
Knowing something about himself, Djaffa knows whom he loves and who loves him is the most signifying of all knowledge assembled on earth (or in heaven), now and forever.
Like Burton, readers only meet Djaffa after much sensitive personal reflection and growth, someplace between pages 50 and 70. After an off-hand analysis of Algeria’s catastrophic politics that is not-exactly-calculated to deflate Burton’s sense of having better-understood herself, her own folks and Algeria itself, Djaffa gets to the point:
Ah! Ah! Look, I thought you were coming here to look for your roots? My sister told me ‘This is my friend’s daughter, you have to take care of her.’ What are you looking for?
So, you don’t know what you’re looking for?!
Ha! You’re right! That’s a lot nicer and faster than 10 years of psychoanalysis!
A moment passes, Djaffa carries on.
Algiers is easy. But the countryside, the Aurès? That’s far, not likely to be safe…
Are you nuts? Are you crazy? What will your mother say if I let you go all alone by train? And my sister! Do you want her to kill me?
I came to understand that Djaffa, like a dear, old, now-dead, friend of mine, also Algerian, once “liberation fighter”, once “dissident”, finally doesn’t think there really is that much difference between the things that we “do” and the things that “happen”.
In other words, in Djaffa’s world – though Burton is too clever a writer to ever allow him to declare something like it, I think – there is really not much difference between hurricanes and human beings, like in a Grimm’s folk tale. This is what acceptance, unsurprised dismay, finally is: to accept that we humans are phenomena.
My old dead friend used to say, typically, as he cooked up couscous-enough for 46, “If we aren’t phenomena, happening, like everything else, how is it that we affect the world around us? The climate, or even the weather, for instance?” He’d pause, leer, sneer, “Or maybe you believe Allah’s doing it all while you’re not looking?”
I’d deny the accusation.
My friend would segue to something like, “Once you admit we are like other phenomena, maybe you can see it might be a good idea to deal with humans as we deal with hurricanes, say, or wolf populations... The time to deal with a hurricane is before and after it happens; the time to take care of wolf populations is before they start devouring everything in sight or after they’ve eaten: you don’t get far plunging in during a kill.”
Between times, my friend would claim, a sensible person hunkers down and takes responsibility for his or her little patch of space, hopefully pacified space – “you just make a fool of yourself ‘battling’ or letting your ‘failure to win’ or your ‘loss’ clog up your limited mental space.”
So, for me – above and beyond the ambivalences and ambiguities of the immigrant experience, above and beyond the shared mountain majesties and fruited plains and wide open spaces – it’s this sense of human beings as phenomena that makes Algeria beautiful like America.
That and a sense of what a human person is for. In Djalla’s view, I think, maybe in Burton’s, humans are for each other; this was certainly the view of my old, dead, friend, too.
A “sense of human nature” isn’t also a “dream”. But no dream is possible without a sense of what people are what they are for; the angry frustration of success that never seems to succeed which now has America by the scruff of its collective neck makes this plain enough.
A sense of what we are and what for kept my old dead friend going, made it possible to keep a dream of a better day going, leads Djalla to show Burton an Algeria beautiful like America: a modest “Algerian dream” with a grandeur all its own. Which makes me to wonder, is America beautiful like Algeria?
Tags: Algeria, Algeria is beautiful like America, Algérie, American Dream, c'est beau comme l'Amérique, colonialism, Cunégonde, dislocation, dissident, emigration, France, immigration, Jacques Chirac, liberation fighter, Mahi Grand, Olivia Burton, pied noir, Rimbaud, Voltaire
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.