In celebration of National Poetry Month, the Keystone College Concerts and Lectures Series will present a poetry reading by David Lehman on Tuesday, April 1 at 7 p.m. in Evans Hall, Hibbard Campus Center. The event is free and the public is invited to attend.
Founded in 1868, Keystone is a private residential college in the rural community of La Plume, Pennsylvania, roughly 150 miles west of New York City.
Lehman will read new work as well as from his recently published New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 2013).
For more information, go here.
Jewish Poetry Now
Celebrating The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry
Sunday March 23 2014 5:00PM
Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street, NYC
The reading will spotlight a dynamic and talented troupe of troubadors including Sharon Dolin, Edward Hirsch, Deborah Ager (coeditor of the Bloomsbury Anthology), Jacqueline Osherow, David Lehman, Victoria Redel, Amy Gottlieb, Nomi Stone, Judith Baumel, Jason Schneiderman, and Cheryl J. Fish. Moderated by Miriam R. Haier. A wine and cheese reception will follow.
Admission is FREE. Seats are comfortable. Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke. You don't have to be Jewish to eat Levy's Jewsh Rye Bread, one of the better commercials of its time, beat out the New York Times ("if you're without it, you're not with it") in the category of subway posters. It is rumored that Shawn Green and Mike Piazza will attend the event, with the former reading the late Ralph Kiner's elegy to Hank Greenberg.
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present...
Monday, March 24, 2014
Hosted by John Deming and Matthew Yeager
Series founded in 1997 by Star Black and David Lehman
Doors open at 7:00 pm
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY
Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books, most recently, MOTHERs and The Pedestrians (forthcoming, April 1). Her book Museum of Accidents was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in New York with her husband and their three sons. She teaches at New York University and is currently a National Endowment for the Arts fellow.
Remaining Spring 2014 Lineup:
So a poem is in my head today, and I thought of you.
The Song of Wandering Aengus - W. B. Yeats
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
This is what happens when you carve a hazel wand to use as a fishing rod. You catch a magic trout who turns into a glimmering girl who calls you by your name.
Not much on her beauty, my friends, but the repeated bliss of her magically knowing his name. It is nice to be known, to be called out specially by the uncanny.
And what a fantasy of certainty and conviction. Certain that he needs her, convinced he’ll find her. Then five full lines on what that pleasure will look like and how long it will last.
It’s a story about a god of Irish Mythology, Aengus, understood to be a god of love and poetic inspiration. I think Yeats made up this particular story, but his theme sure is looking for one's love and having a blissful reunion. Also, a lot of bloody kin-killing.
His story begins when the Dagda (and important father god) had an affair with Nechtan’s wife, Boann. To hide the affair, the Dagda made the sun stand still for nine months so that Aengus was conceived, gestated, and born on the same day.
When he grew up, Aengus tricked the Dagda out of his grand home, the Brú na Boinne (famed for its passage tombs). He arrived after the Dagda had divided his land among his children. There was nothing left. So Aengus asked dad if he could live in Brú for "a day and a night", and the Dagda agreed. But Irish has no indefinite article so “a day and a night” is identical to “day and night,” so Aengus, pointing this out, took possession of the Brú permanently. Theft by grammatical interpretation!
Aengus famously killed his step-father for killing his foster-father; slew a poet for lying about his brother’s sex life; killed his foster mother for jealously turning a horse goddess into a pool of water, etc.
He fell in love with a girl he had seen in his dreams. His mother searched Ireland for her for a year, then his father the Dagma did the same. A year later the King of Munster found out where she was.
Aengus went to the lake of the Dragon's Mouth and found a hundred and fifty girls chained up in pairs, with his girl, Caer, among them. The girls were regularly turned into swans and Aengus was told he could marry Caer if he could identify her as a swan. Aengus did, then turned himself into a swan, and the two flew away, singing. Their song put all listeners asleep for three days.
Aengus had a foster son Diarmuid, who died young. Aengus took his body back to the Brú where he breathed life into it whenever he wanted to talk.
Shall we worry about shame and money, health and the health of our friends? Or shall we spend some time with Aengus, doing things he might have done? Lately I've been thinking of the sea-dark wine, and the winedark sea. The sea cold fish and the fishcold sea. It does the trick, poor Odyssus wasting all that time in clever exiles, weeping on the shore when we first meet him. Penelope weeping in their bed.
Today though, Aengus and his transformations. Well, I guess I just felt like talking. Hope you are well. Check out my new website if you want jennifermichaelhecht.com. Don't kill yourself and I shall return to encourage you again.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on March 21, 2014 at 12:17 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (11)
We just received word that David Lehman has won the Virginia Quarterly Review Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry for his translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone,” which appeared in the journal's Spring 2013 issue. This award cannot be applied for; it is a VQR staff decision regarding the best work of poetry published in its print or online pages in 2013.
The Balch Prizes were established by Emily Clark Balch, the founding editor of The Reviewer, a publication that was key to the literary awakening of the American South. When Balch died, she left the bulk of her estate to the University of Virginia, for “the encouragement and production of American Literature.” (The money was divided to endow prizes in fiction and poetry and to create a writer-in-residence position—first occupied by William Faulkner.)
Past recipients of the poetry prize include Wendell Berry, John Berryman, Hayden Carruth, James Dickey, Carolyn Forché, Albert Goldbarth, Donald Hall, Lisel Mueller, May Sarton, Charles Simic, Natasha Trethewey, and Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Read David Lehman's introduction along with his translation of his winning poem, Appollinaire's "Zone" here.
Congratulations, David! Bon travail!
Man had a big house outside
Iron Mountain, his wife hot at
The swimming pool, laughing
As Nasko Hooten introduced
Himself: 'What kind of a name
'Is that?' But not in the slightest
Was he pissed off. Light shone
In her eyes, he saw the woman
She would have been were she
Duncan Oklahoma born and bred.
Man had a truck they looked at
For a while – Nasko Hooten said,
‘I’d put a winch on the front
‘Of it were that truck mine.’
It is believed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was mourning her brother when she wrote this Victorian era poem. Sadly, it seems that she had to justify her feelings.
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death—
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
There are poems, more than can ever be counted, about death and dying. That are about the act of becoming dead, an experience none of us can actually give a first-hand account of. Such poems are about something the poet has not really experienced, and so is drawn to write about it. In many ways death is the great unknown. It has often been said that Emily Dickinson was obsessed with the subject. These poems of death may or may not be comforting to a reader.
There has evolved another body of work sometimes called bereavement poetry, from which poems to read at funerals and memorial services are often culled. These poems, then, are read and often written to bring comfort to the grieving.
These death and bereavement verses may or may not be poems of grief which are, and should be thought of, as a completely distinct category of poetry. And a wide body of work it is. I have even found a substantial sub-category within it that are poems all about the loss of a pet. I suspect that we have been writing grief poems as long as we have been writing. Some of the great Greek lyric poet Sappho’s surviving fragments are of mourning a lost loved one (though it is unclear if her lover had died or walked away).
Grief poems are first-hand accounts, they are always about what has been experienced by the writer. They communicate in some way the experience of loss by a poet connected, probably intimately, to a death. Often the poet is speaking directly to the deceased. They are not about understanding death necessarily, they are about bearing witness to it, and the bearing is usually visceral and intense. The poet’s intention is not to bring comfort to anyone else. Similar to the great body of poetic works on the subject of love, grief poems are often written while the poet is in an altered state of psychological being. But unlike the fleeting euphoric experience of love, the defeating experience of loss fundamentally changes us psychologically from the way we were before the experience. Profoundly and permanently. Also unlike love the experience of loss can and does trigger depression, physical illness, and even hallucinations, which are normal reactions to it.
More than any other emotion or experience a poet may be writing about, the experience of grief is strangely acute. It is like no other. It is a physical, emotional, social, and perhaps even financial, life alteration that one has little or no control over. It is most likely perceived as pain. For some it progresses into what is called complicated grief, for some it may even develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Loss of a beloved is a shocking raw wound one might equate to a disemboweling, but that medicine cannot really heal. And though there is some truth to the old dictum about time, grief obeys no temporal boundaries.
It is so vast, and so consuming, that it is simply human nature to want and / or need to express it from oneself. And poetry can be one of the safest and healthiest ways to do so. The therapeutic value of poetry is well-documented in medical literature though scientific study is hardly necessary. I am just one of so many thousands who can testify to it.
In fact, I was so assisted in my healing process by reading and writing poetry that together with a friend, poet Kyle Potvin, I founded a little non-profit foundation we call The Prickly Pear Poetry Project simply to share the profound healing power of poetry in processing the cancer experience as survivors or caregivers of those who lost their battle. We had both experienced those battles and we had found solace in poetry that quite literally helped us to endure it. We designed a writing workshop that we team-teach at oncology and community centers. We mentor participants from diverse writing backgrounds in tapping into their experiences and releasing them onto the page. We share the work of well-known poets as well as our own. We prompt participants to produce work that we often share in the group in a work shopping atmosphere that is always filled with light even as we go into the darkest places. And getting into the light is what it is all about.
As can be found in The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival (Kent State University Press, 2014) grief poetry is as varied as the writers themselves. Just like the experience of grief, it is all over the place. Some experts claim that the bereaved go through five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Naturally all of these emotions, and many more experts probably can’t attest to, will show up in grief poetry. In the Browning poem that I opened with it is believed she was waylaid by guilt when she wrote it, another big one the experts rarely mention. Some emotions, like humor or relief, may be as hard for others to read of as the saddest admissions of suicidal ideation or roars of rage at God.
There is I believe only one thing all grief poetry has in common; that it is not what Browning wrote of, it is not hopeless grief, and that is evidenced by its passion. That is what is behind the healing power of grief poetry. It is in that searing anguish of deepest despair when we,
“beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach”
that we find hope. That is what grief expressed is and does. It extinguishes hopeless grief. And allows us to live, which we may have previously thought impossible.
And still, though we have come so very far since Browning’s era in allowing the demonstration of normal human emotion, we remain undeniably uncomfortable dealing with the bereaved. Here grief poetry helps both the writer who can express their deepest truth, and the reader who can process it in his or her own time and way. And thus we are all served - those of us carrying the weight now and those who care about us.
The Widows’ Handbook is a book of hope. Please know it and share it as such, with hearts not heavy, but light, like a thing with feathers.
And thus we get to this; one of my favorite poems, from The Book of Light, (Copper Canyon Press, 1992, page 20).
By Lucille Clifton
after he died
what really happened is
she watched the days
bundle into thousands,
watched every act become
the history of others,
every bed more
but even as the eyes of lovers
strained toward the milky young
she walked away
from the hole in the ground
deciding to live. and she lived.
The word deconstruction has entered the lexicon. It can mean anything from dissection or exposure to the use of a wrecking ball. "Laws governing how people deconstruct their marriages differ from state to state," Time reports, as if the 50-cent word made the sentence less trite. Sportswriters admit they spend too much energy "deconstructing" Johnny Football. Susan Sontag is said to have "deconstructed cancer." David Mamet observes a man in a Japanese restaurant "deconstructing his California roll to eat it."
Other recent objects of deconstruction—I keep a file—include Sousa's marches, the tuxedo, the building at 130 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan, the causes of the Great Recession of 2008, "Romeo and Juliet," the boxer Miguel Cotto in his bout with Manny Pacquiao, oyster stuffing, joblessness, New York City's mayoral ballot, and the "whole world." In line with the thinking of actual deconstructionists, the word "deconstruction" has wandered far from its ostensible meaning: the esoteric nexus of French theories that was all the rage in American universities in the 1970s and '80s.
Language, the argument went, has a mind of its own, subverting the intentions of those who speak or write it. Between the word and its meaning falls an ever-lengthening shadow. Every text reduces itself to the same ultimate indeterminacy, and all the world can be treated as a self-referring text. Jacques Derrida, deconstruction's inventive papa, who shuttled often between Paris and the United States, propounded the concept of "différance," according to which the sense of any term is never present but is constantly deferred. "There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of differences," Derrida wrote. There is nothing to keep in check "the infinite play of signification" that marks language in action.
Deconstruction as an academic movement, first in literary criticism but later in other fields, was more than a fad. Inasmuch as it provided a rationale for the busting of canons, the debunking of authority and the rejection of the concept of meaning, deconstruction laid the groundwork for the crisis in the humanities that we face today. English majors, for instance, were once wooed by the prospect of studying life-changing books. Surging to the fore, proponents of deconstruction and related theories wanted everyone to "problematize the text." English is no longer quite so popular a course of study.
The movement found its American champion in Paul de Man (1919-83) of the Yale University English department, at one time considered the nation’s best. De Man’s essays—austere, tightly argued and rigorously skeptical—were a rite of passage for a generation of graduate students. His students revered him. But he was, it turns out, a fraud, a small-time crook, an Ivy League con man in tweed and, before all this, a Nazi collaborationist. Evelyn Barish’s “The Double Life of Paul de Man” is the first full-length biography of its subject, although outlines of his story have been known for two decades.
The Belgian-born professor’s death in 1983 caused great mourning. Barbara Johnson, an apostle who spread the creed to Harvard, said, “In a profession full of fakeness, he was real.” Then came the discovery by a Belgian graduate student that de Man had written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for Belgium’s newspaper of record, Le Soir, during the occupation. In 1940 and ’41, de Man had written in praise of Hitlerism and opined that deportations of the Jews would entail little anguish or grief for European civilization.
De Man never talked about his days as a Nazi apologist—except to misrepresent himself, when it suited him, as a man of the left, a veteran of the Popular Front. But his critical work rests on the proposition that such rhetorical modes as confession or apology are terminally unreliable. When faculty lounges were abuzz with de Man’s doings in Brussels in World War II, such aspects of de Man’s thinking began to seem self-serving.
One article of the scores that Paul de Man wrote for the collaborationist press received the closest scrutiny when the story broke in 1988. “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” which ran on March 4, 1941, minimized the value of “the Jews” as writers or thinkers. They “have always remained in the second rank.” They are not “among the most important figures.” The act of expelling the Jews would not have “regrettable consequences.” You would lose at most “some personalities of mediocre worth.” Critics of deconstruction cried “aha!” Fans rushed out to excuse the fallen idol.
Derrida wrote a lengthy essay using deconstructive methods in a vain effort to prove that de Man, his ally and friend, meant the opposite of what he wrote. Yet the disclosures of de Man’s wartime activities raised doubts about his views on language and literature. Those views had long been held suspect by humanists who believe that texts have meanings, albeit complicated and ambiguous ones.
De Man’s defenders thought his transgressions were limited to one flagrantly anti-Semitic piece. Not so. In “The Double Life of Paul de Man,” Ms. Barish provides details on “how far and actively Paul de Man had entered into collaboration, how creatively he sought to support Nazism.” In addition to writing for Le Soir and a similarly tainted Flemish-language journal, de Man worked for two other publishing concerns committed to Nazi propaganda, starting at a low level but rapidly reaching positions of prominence. After the war, Ms. Barish notes, “each institution was tried and found guilty of treason.”
Ms. Barish also adds to our understanding of the shady financial dealing that precipitated de Man’s escape to the United States in 1948. De Man was a bad businessman as well as a dishonest one. As the head of a publishing house that called itself Hermes—fittingly, since Hermes in Greek myth is the patron of thieves—de Man signed advances he never paid, forged receipts and, in the common parlance of the genre, cooked the books. For swindling and embezzling he was found guilty in absentia in Belgium in 1951 and was sentenced to five years that he never served.
For by then the politically and financially bankrupt young man had fled Europe and his irate creditors, and charmed his way into a temporary job at Bard College. He shipped his European wife and their sons to Argentina and started another family in upstate New York without bothering to deconstruct the first marriage. His bigamy has long been known, though Ms. Barish has uncovered other misdeeds. It was not de Man, who took the credit, but his American wife who translated “his” version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” (“Paul’s English wasn’t good enough,” she explained.) The author also adds to the record of a “lifelong series of evictions or disappearances for nonpayment of rent.”
De Man usually talked his way out of trouble—at a tribunal in Belgium in 1946 convened to mete out judgment to suspected collaborators and again nine years later at Harvard where, in Ms. Barish’s alliterative phrase, “a detailed and deeply damaging denunciation” of de Man reached the higher ups at the ultra-elite Society of Fellows. Can we trace de Man’s concept of language as slippery to the point of indeterminacy back to his own rhetorical mastery of what Ms. Barish calls “concealment and invention”? Maybe. But his skill as a liar, and command of the academic vernacular known to insiders as “Fog,” do more to convict him of bad faith than to locate a loophole in the nature of language itself.
Though “The Double Life of Paul de Man” adds much to our knowledge of this brilliant intellectual counterfeit, Evelyn Barish’s book disappointed me. At times she doesn’t seem quite attuned to the way deconstructionists use language. She explains at one point that de Man punned on the name Archie Bunker to toast Derrida, deconstruction’s ultimate guru and “archie Debunker.” What made the lead character of “All in the Family” relevant? The answer: Archie’s response to his wife, Edith, when she asks whether he likes his bowling shoes laced over or laced under: “What’s the difference?” Ms. Barish treats the anecdote as a mere “fleeting comment,” but the pun’s wit lies in its complexity. It salutes Derrida’s concept of “différance” by turning it into a rhetorical question that can’t or shouldn’t be answered.
There is also at least one place where Ms. Barish ought to have checked her facts. Early on, she brings up a much-discussed Newsweek article about de Man that made waves in February 1988. According to Ms. Barish, the scandal so rocked the academic world that “Newsweek put the story on its cover, together with a picture of a Nazi prewar march.” This is untrue. It wasn’t a cover story. I should know: I wrote it.
Finally Ms. Barish persists in regarding de Man as the hero of his life, “an iconic figure” (how I hate that adjective) of the kind that is slipping away—like ocean-liners, three-martini lunches, and “perhaps, much of our trustfulness concerning assertions of ‘greatness.’ ” The de Man affair has little to do with the “greatness” in that last phrase. This linguistically gifted con man favored the Nazis when the Nazis were winning. After they lost, he endeavored to erase his past at a time when literary gamesmanship in the form of deconstruction bedazzled the professoriate.
“America is deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida once pronounced. But largely because of the de Man affair, the movement’s prestige has gone the way of all flesh and most theory, while things it thought to displace or bury—such as the belief that language and truth-telling are not utterly incompatible—cling stubbornly to life.Read Lehman's "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man."
Klein Conference Room (Room A510),
Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall
The New School
66 West 12th Street
New York, NY 10011
David Lehman’s New and Selected Poems appeared in November 2013 from Scribner. His other books of poetry include Yeshiva Boys (2008), When a Woman Loves a Man (2005), The Evening Sun (2002), and The Daily Mirror (2000), from Scribner, Operation Memory (1990) and An Alternative to Speech (1986) from Princeton.
Lehman has edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006), Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003), among other collections. He has written six nonfiction books, including A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (2009, Nextbook / Schocken), which won the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday) and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (Simon and Schuster).
He initiated The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues as the acclaimed anthology’s general editor. With Star Black, Lehman originated the famed KGB Bar Monday night poetry series. He succeeded Donald Hall as general editor of the University of Michigan Press's Poets on Poetry Series and served in that capacity for twelve years. His poetry and prose have appeared in journals ranging from The New Yorker, The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal to American Heritage, The American Scholar, Harper's, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, and Art in America. He has taught in the graduate writing program of The New School since the program's inception in 1996 and has served as poetry coordinator since 2003.
Moderated by Laura Cronk, associate director, School of Writing.
In the middle of a pool of falcons, I am voluptuous
but lame. And marbles. And more
marbles on the table. I wear a rose
dress perfumed with lament.
In this room, I have hurt myself so I become
dangerous and even the mourner’s bouquet
cannot save my wolf head.
I am a cadaver, but what do I do with it?
I am dead labor, but what do I do with it?
It’s like having blood but no prey.
My visions are pale gold shadows
over my eyes which make my head just ache
and ache like some sort of historic idiot.
When night falls, I rest on this table
and think about the white skin of revulsion.
Oh on this bed, I am the secretary
of abandonment. A rosary and coins
of gold and the leg, the damned blue leg!—
there can be no diamond skulls
in the world after all.
I am the portrait of my own provocations
and what strange feelings of strangeness
I have felt being here on this table.
Oh I am elegant! But irritated.
And everyone should desire me.
Respond to me, Felix. Once you called me deranged
and impure but I am the world
and I am that strange creature
inside of you, this mysterious
table and hand and the constant
eyeball of death.
KGB Monday Night Poetry is pleased to present...
John Yau + Lawrence Joseph
Monday, March 17, 2014
Hosted by John Deming and Matthew Yeager
Series founded in 1997 by Star Black and David Lehman
Doors open at 7:00 pm
Reading starts at 7:30pm
Admission is FREE
85 East 4th Street * New York, NY
John Yau has published over 50 books of poetry, fiction, and art criticism. Yau’s many collections of poetry include Corpse and Mirror(1983), selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series, Edificio Sayonara (1992), Forbidden Entries (1996), Borrowed Love Poems (2002), Ing Grish (2005), Paradiso Diaspora (2006), Exhibits (2010), and Further Adventures in Monochrome (2012). Honors and awards for his work including a New York Foundation for the Arts Ward, the Jerome Shestack Award, and the Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by France. Yau has taught at many institutions, including Pratt, the Maryland Institute College of Art and School of Visual Arts, Brown University, and the University of California-Berkeley. Since 2004 he has been the Arts editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He teaches at the Mason Gross School of the Arts and Rutgers University, and lives in New York City.
Lawrence Joseph is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (which includes his first three books, Shouting at No One, Curriculum Vitae, and Before Our Eyes), published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is also the author of two books of prose, Lawyerland, also published by FSG, and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose, published by the University of Michigan Press in its Poets on Poetry Series. Born in Detroit, he is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the University of Cambridge, where he received a M.A. in English Language and Literature, and the University of Michigan Law School. He is presently Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law in Queens, and has also taught in the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton. Married to the painter Nancy Van Goethem, he has lived for the past thirty-three years in downtown Manhattan.
Remaining Spring 2014 lineup:
Lynne, we met the day Don asked to suck me off
– not my cock, he made clear, but toes, without socks
[boys in sandals got him off] – you wheel through that memory,
your legs in casts, [the virus rhyming RNA
to [reverse transcriptase] your DNA]
bones sapped [combivir, saquinavir, ritonavir] by the daily
pharmablasts to make you gag and keep the docs away.
Those were the days we worked in then:
homeless guys down on 2nd drunk on Old Stock beer by 10,
sex workers [hookers] dazed by night work
up from the streets for the free lipstick
and condoms [safes] we dispensed, high on heroin [smack],
or [as the cell becomes a sieve] coke [crack],
eyes blue with [another negative test] mascara or black
from pimp beatings in the parking lot [turns positive] out back.
Lynne, you fundraised, you spoke, you organized,
you were one of the few who could help men die
and I never once saw you, like me, teary-eyed.
Every day since then [this, the line I tend], I
see it, think it, caught [daring words to mean]
by habit [everything I’ve touched and seen]
my fingers still type its name [all caps]: “it”
that floating thing [Sex = Silence = Death] called a referent
as in The doc says I’ve got IT – voice quiver bold italics
carrying us away from the linguistic
things we never wanted meant: GRID, the gay plague,
the empty cipher AIDS, and Christian placards saying God Loves Fags
[Insert thread: deadbody: doc, i’m 21
& just found out ive got HIV – i’m done]
Dead. I write it now between the faces
of the faceless
men who came and went [Figure 1: see this micron pic
of a lymphocyte swarmed by neon pink
viral replicants, look how they shimmer and dance -- a sequin dress
of nothingness] like so many torn couplets
each with something new to mend.
Lynn, we were the same age but you got fucked
[the body with sex is blessed] and I didn’t
that’s where our stories split – fucked
by a boyfriend who didn’t know he had it,
fucked by the used needle he shot with, the pusher who pushed it,
fucked [it’s also never at rest] by the grower
who grew it, the mule who shoved it up his ass at the border
and got through it, fucked [and can churn for years] by their needles
and plastic, the politicians with their votes
and budgets, and fucked [in its own blood] by the poster saying
He [a woman carrying a boychild] Was An Innocent Victim meaning
everyone else [and tears] deserved it.
You got fucked by [the infinite] a virus [and its 33,000,000 faces]
that loves everything it erases.
Lynne, so many words [you and the drugs got better] to say it,
why [we slept together in your bed] I haven’t looked
for you since then, [no stupid rhymes] scared
of knocking you from that past [the living with the dead]
tense where [your bones began to mend]
a whole new life [no one screamed when you bled] was inserted in.
a recombinant documentary poem
so doc what do I do?
every time my fear of getting aids
is so intense
(too much soul pain)
iam a 25yr old guy
(from a very small town
and moved to the city for a better gay life)
gave fellatio to a Thai lady boy
(i had my curiosity, i aint gonna lie)
we met through web chatting
hand jobs in the cafeteria
her mouth in the theatre
(last 1 minute, ejaculation
I believe the fear of AIDS
is remorse when sex is bad
(trans , girl that I dont like
and that is not very serious.)
I would like an advice from you
on how to manage death :
Is it acceptable to be with trans girl
that he does not like?
I kissed her sucked there nipples
Could this be late conversion?
blow jobs with lots of tongue
i purchased a lot of condom,
when you go to france
you gonna need em!!
i met with lot of girls
this guy i shared bleached needles with
hiv+, i am worried this guy
i can't eat or drink
I realise I’m a late converter
god, i don't have much time
i need to know if you think this case?
I was at a strip club and the stripper tongued my ear --
is this HIV?
1 in 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?
listen I am totally fuc
i might actually kill myself
I have a friend, 35,
bottomed his way to the top
(los CD4 eran 620 y la CV indetectable)
b/f cheated with a trisexual
the girl he was killed herself
because her husband had aids
He said he had been being tested
butt he condom broke
there might have been pre cum,
I can’t say there wasn’t pre cum
could there have been precum?
should i start talking pep?
ive always known I was positive
(it must be a rare strain)
i have no desire
for a med filled life with sides
Is my whole life pre cum?
.please save me
Now i want to make sex with wife
shall i wear that latex garbage condom?
52 year old woman in menopause
she is a slut or i dunno
but god i love this girl
unusual vaginal discharge
(five years in that army)
(antigenic shift and drift)
lubed with spit it hurt so bad
i had blood
and sucked his nipples
(I am pretty
sure there wa snom ilk)
I just need to know if 1.
Was the protracted bj and nipple sucking
even worth it?
would HIV survive a lollipop?
book? brother in law?
(cuz the virus is all over the place
but gets active when it gets into an orgasm)
God, I'm only fifteen and I don't want something like that!
i swallowed my own sperm
and its quite many!!
PLS help me!!!
If a guy give another guy oral
(everyone cums in his mouth)
does he can still live healthy forever
& live happily ever after with me?
i love him so much! very2 much!!!
I parked my car
mon chere docteur, j'ai tellement besoin
I guess I’m reching out tonight
I guess I find my strength
I guess i wanna know
whos neg whos poz
when every ache, every cough
is the virus taking away
I mean, I knew it was the HIV
killing me slowly
you see, i’d been neg 23 times
when he raped me
and ejaculated inside me
and youre the first person I’m shearing this with
Hello, I can’t pay for one of my meds this month
Hello, I’ve become resistant
Hello, I’m using a vibrator in the shape of a pussy
with an open sore on top of my virginia
we did it in my backside
(illegal in North Carolina)
I licked her clit vigorously
barebacked three tops
(fucked by man with Jesus tattoo pero
no hubo eyaculación interna ni sangramiento)
and wonder if that makes the odds more even?
you see, we lost our baby
and he wants to have another
(viral load over 10 million)
but I won’t make it –
so doc what do I do?
it’s all there is
it’s expanding, bit by bit
it’s broken, as you can see, into little units
it makes it difficult to predict
it’s there one moment, you can see it, and then
it’s here, though, hot with spirit
it’s terrifying, yet,
it generally mimics and resists
it’s this intuitive structure, though, when you read it
it’s so full of it
its gathered itself into it
it’s soft and abundant as ocean sand, yet
it holds more appeal than its flimsy content insists
it’s the only thing you’ll need to know because of it
it’s, as you can imagine, a conduit
it’s so eager to profit, yet, to its credit,
it has left little deposits
it’s still, albeit, hit and miss
it’s on the very edge of it
it keeps it fit
it’s here, where we, as you can feel, so intimate, kissed it
its clit, yes,
it aches for it
it aches with it
its antithesis, yet,
it’s, like Plato, discomfited by it
it doesn’t know how to act when it’s like this
it’s embarrassed by its habits
it gets repetitive, though, after a while
it’s getting so big don’t be surprised you can’t finish it
it could, I admit, use some judicious edits
its derelict surfeit
its black vomit
it has, when you see it, this, sort of, limitless kitsch
it’s an, some would say, impediment, yet
it’s so much more than even I can say it is
it preens its counterfeits
it’s waited so long at the margins, silent, against it
it’s, I mean, against all of it
it’s gone too far
its killing it
it’s, as you can see, reached its limits
it can’t remember where it is, what it is
it’s had it
it means it
(Poems are excerpts from Err by Shane Rhodes, copyright © 2011 by Nightwood Editions. Used with permission from the publisher.)
Using the prescriptive constraints of found poetry, all words in these poems from X are from the Government of Canada transcripts of the Post-Confederation Treaties (also called the numbered treaties, one through eleven). Conducted by the British Crown and the Government of Canada over a fifty-year period, the treaties are the legal and literary basis of one the largest systematic, colonial land appropriations in the world. Daunting of the history and future they carry and their impenetrable legal diction, these texts are the foundational logic of Canadian colonization and ongoing settler, First Nations, Inuit and Metis relations.
the place of commencement
from the mouth
our starting point
at the Blackfoot Crossing of the Bow River
at Manitoba Post
in this present year 1899
this fifteenth day of September
we anchored off the mouth
where the North river flows out of the main stream
where no white man would have any claims
we found the Indians
we found many
we had grave doubts
we were then carrying a great weight
we came to the conclusion
we had to
and we left
on the several dates mentioned therein
in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy
on this day of October
to preserve her Indian subjects
to deliberate upon certain matters of interest
to Her Most Gracious Majesty
of the one part,
and the said Indians
of the other
each performed their several duties
to our great satisfaction
at a point where the “Suicide”
made and concluded
WE, the undersigned
Indians of Wapiscow
we and our children
we thank thee
we thank thee
we thank you (commissioners)
from our hearts
that we may be saved
from the evil
from Fort Garry westward
and from Her Majesty
Indians of the said
Indians of the other
we begin again
so long as the fur bearing animals remain
in the year of Our Lord
on this day of
at the place of
as may have been grunted
As aforesaid within, hereunto the hereinafter, thereupon and hereby thereof. That is to say, within the aforesaid that whatsoever thereto, that is, the whereas within, thereon. Therein, however, that whereas, hereinafter elsewhere, thereto unless therefor. That within the that that is that, what soever, forever within the hereby, that thereupon, there is is heretofore that within. Whereas, that is to say, inasmuch hereby in that, therefor hereinafter within this. Within therein that is. Within, that is, thereabout unless thereof—hereafter throughout. And, as aforesaid, any part thereof otherwise elsewhere or hereinbefore hereby—thereto, as aforesaid, hereof within whenever. Thereon thereof whatsoever wherever forever. That is to say, however, therein thereout, therefore within. Whereas thereof, hereby within. Within the aforesaid, therefor within the hereinafter.
where there is oil
fOr his majeSTy
all THeir rights titlEs
that iS to say: an area OF apprOxImateLy three hundred AND
square mILeS seventy-twO thousand
tO have and to hoLD
aNd his majesTy
to lay asiDe
(Poems are excerpts from X by Shane Rhodes, copyright © 2013 by Nightwood Editions. Used with permission from the publisher.)
Ben Ladouceur: Do you consider poetry to be an effective medium for instigating change in the world? To what extent, if any, do you consider yourself an activist?
Shane Rhodes: A molotov cocktail, a political slogan or a legislated bill are probably better ways to instigate change in the world than a poem. In many places, poetry is part of the larger cacophonous conversation that a society has with itself about what it is doing, what it has done and where it is going. Poetry does nothing. Poetry does everything.
Does writing about important things, things that perhaps some would rather not talk about, make one an activist? That seems a low threshold. Or, in a society engineered only to work and consume, maybe such couchbound passivity is now seen as activism? I write poetry about the things that interest me – whether that be how racism and colonization function within Canada or how we approach sexuality, homosexuality and something like the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Given poetry’s lifeblood is language, it’s a useful art to understand, investigate and display how certain phenomena – like race, like sex, like historical myth making – function and exist in and through language. I don’t buy the prissy clichés of poetry being beautiful words about beautiful things. I write ugly poems about ugly things. I'm an uglivist.
Ben Ladouceur lives in Toronto. His work has been published in many Canadian magazines including The Walrus, and in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology series. He was awarded the 2013 Earle Birney Poetry Prize.
Shane Rhodes is the author of five books of poetry including his most recent X (2013) and Err, both with Nightwood Editions. Shane has won an Alberta Book Award for poetry, the P. K. Page Founder's Award for Poetry and a National Magazine Gold Award. Shane is the poetry editor for Arc, Canada’s national poetry magazine.
Robin Neidorf and I were classmates in graduate school and whenever I think of her or we exchange e-mails I have to remind myself that she's not still one year out of Williams College. In grad school, even though she was studying non-fiction, she would try anything! Like the sestina she wrote a few hours after learning the form - it was hilarious, a narrative, from the point of view of an actress who didn't want to kiss her leading man. Here's what Robin has to say about her recipe for hamentaschen (sdh):
It has been many years since I’ve had proper hamentaschen, which to me means my grandmother Lillian’s hamentaschen. This is only in part my own fault: The last time I tried to make her recipe, my aging gas oven gasped its last just as I heated it up to bake the goods. That event precipitated three months of eating sandwiches and microwave foods from a makeshift setup in the dining room and $60,000 in renovations. Not unexpectedly (if somewhat illogically), I was a leery of trying that recipe again.
Over the next few years, I tried other recipes. I’d purchased a book of Jewish holiday crafts, stories and recipes, and naturally my daughter Talia wanted to make those recipes, rather than the one scribbled on an index card. Since part of the purpose of the book had been to engage us both with the traditions and the (now fabulous) kitchen, I could hardly say no.
But these weren’t my recipes, or my tastes. We tried the butter version – too like a shortbread. We tried the oil version – I couldn’t get the dough to stick properly. We filled with pie filling – the lazy-mom’s version… feh! We filled with chocolate chips – Talia was delighted, but the texture was all wrong. The ideal, to my mouth, was cakey rather than crispy, and filled with a savory mixture of golden raisins, prunes, apricots and… something.
Hamentaschen, for those who are not familiar with this gift to the world, are filled cookies baked for Purim, an early spring holiday celebrating Queen Esther’s courage in speaking up for her people. Bad guy Hamen (for whose triangular hat the cookies are shaped) takes the death sentence he planned to mete out to the Jews. And in commemoration of this noble victory, Jews forevermore stave off constipation with the prune-filled sweets.
There are as many versions of the cookie as there are Jewish kitchens. The matrix of options is almost mind-boggling: The cookie can be milchig (made with dairy) or parve (suitable for either meat or milk). The filling can be tangy, sweet or super-sweet. An endless array of options for tasting and testing. (As long as the oven doesn’t let you down.)
The last butter version was a disappointment. For the cookies to be shaped around the filling, the dough needs to be chilled to stiff-but-workable. I couldn’t get the ratios right, and the dough either melted in my fingers or crumbled into sweet dust.
My cousin Malcom’s wife Kara came to my rescue when I announced in a Facebook status update that only an extra stick of butter seemed to save the day. ‘They can’t be Lillian’s, then, because hers were parve and they were perfection.’
She was right. Lillian’s were perfection. Why was I looking somewhere else when I already had what I craved?
So. Grandma Lillian’s hamentaschen. Know that Grandma Lillian was a wretched cook – her baked steak was legendary for its jaw-strengthening properties. Her percolated coffee, re-perked throughout the day, could hold a teaspoon upright. Her salads featured a bright arrangement of fruit (both fresh and tinned), boiled eggs, radishes and greens of uncertain provenance. But the hamentaschen were, as Kara reminded me, perfection.
A Friday evening I prepared the dough and chilled it. On Saturday morning Kara and Malcom’s daughter Tsaudik (only a few days younger than Talia) came over to play. At mid-day I convinced both girls (pictured above) to help me assemble, squeezing little triangles together.
The oven worked. The aroma was just as I recalled. The great-granddaughters paid little attention to the whole process, more interested in creating outfits for the cats (and trying to catch one) than creating with me. That was fine. More than fine. It was perfection.
Grandma Lillian’s Hamentaschen:
Keep in mind this makes approximately 300 cookies. I usually make half the recipe, but this is the unaltered version:
6 eggs (5 makes crisper)
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups oil, (Lillian used Wessen)
2 oranges--juice and zest
1/4 tsp salt
5 tsp baking powder
6-7 cups flour
-mix all until barely dry, (adding flour as you go)
-chill overnight to make it stiff and workable
-roll out on a floured surface, (not too thick, thin is better)
-add about 1/2 tsp filling and form into triangles.
Filling: Grind up packages of prunes, white raisins, dark raisins, apricots. Lillian added a small jar of apricot jam, juice and zest of one lemon.
Bake at 375 for 10-16 min.
Robin Neidorf lives, writes and cooks in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she wrote a memoir about her grandmother Lillian for her thesis. Current projects include essays on being a community volunteer and notes towards a book about preparing for an interfaith-friendly Bat Mitzvah.
Ed note: This post originally appeared on April 2, 2010.
From Paul Farley's The Dark Film
The places and circumstances of certain poem readings have stayed with me through the years. The first time I encountered William Carlos Williams’ plums and icebox, I was sitting on the floor of the old (now replaced) Fayetteville High School hallway near my locker (pure fifteen year old angst!). I remember Dickinson’s “If you were coming in the fall/ I’d pass the summer by” in Miss Eddy’s tenth grade English class. I will always associate the New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Barbara Guest and James Schuyler) with the 1970s architecture of the University of Illinois-Chicago because that’s where I was introduced. On Martha’s Vineyard one January, in a borrowed trailer-turned-apartment of a photographer friend, the disembodied voice of the Canadian writer, Robert Kroetsch, is called up for me along with his Snowbird Poems. Another Canadian, rob mclennan, whose book, Paper Hotel, companioned me one summer when I bartended at the Hotel Vernon in Worcester, Massachusetts. From Providence to Chicago, I sat on a plane memorizing from Garcia Lorca’s Cante Jondo. I’m convinced that if you’re in this business of poems, the experience of firsts or those moments of deep reading stay with you like any other significant relationship. You remember where you met them and what they wore and the wood smoke in the air just off of Taylor Street that October.
This week I’ve mostly been writing and asking questions about the geographic nature of place and the names that evoke them. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve been trying to connect or subsume my relationship with these geographies to poetry. My favorite poems call up places, but not necessarily geographic ones. I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that feels like a poetic place to retreat or return, to indulge in, to argue and turn away from the tiresome self, to dance and sing and drink boxed wine, to meditate and live within what seems like the last privacy.
A few books that I go to as places familiar: Robert Kroetsch’s The Sad Phoenician with ditches of space between its poly-syndetons and lines of retractions, plays on cliché, threads of stories and the tortured humor of the writing self and of writing itself:
but I keep my trap shut, I was dealt a tough mitt
and any port in the storm they say: the dreamer, himself:
lurching, leaping, flying; o to be mere gerund; no past,
no future,: What do you do in life: I ing (15)
Or Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend that embraces the American landscape and history and rolls it back to us—from west to east—like a very smart, intricate rug that you can dance on:
I took them with me, though I went alone
Into the Christmas dark of the woods and down
The whistling slope of the coulee, past the Indian graves
Alive and flickering with the gopher light (5).
Or Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems with its “Kitchenette Building” as a place to consider what is necessary to dream, what is essential to create art and the political reality of that creation:
But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms (3)
Or Jennifer L. Knox’s poem “Crawling Out of the Mouth of More” in The Mystery of the Secret Driveway, where I go to laugh and laugh at our excess:
Have you ever seen that website with ER X-rays
of weird stuff people have unfortunately tried to
insert in their butts? Lightbulbs, pepper grinders,
Mrs. Butterworth’s bottles, hammers, high-heeled shoes,
Ken dolls, umbrellas, unexploded WWII artillery shells….
My favorite: the man who’d poured wet concrete
in his anus and waited for it to harden before his lover
drove him to the hospital. I took a sculpture class
in college: Concrete grows startlingly hot just before
it hardens, like a bad idea before your own strange
hand shoves you in it whirling blades (70).
Ann Killough’s book, Beloved Idea, is a book that I return to in order to consider metaphor as a way of thinking. The poems are politically charged and in a nuanced way, lament the nation’s imagination. They seem essential in this current political geography. They are also funny and beautifully reaching.
In the poem “[(The) Horsemen],” she uses allusions and the space of the page to move her central metaphor along, exploring the nation’s love of “the end metastasis of the imaginary of the / end” (25). The place of the poem allows for white space and feels like a room in which you would go to think:
they come galloping out of the Good Book like metaphors gone
the faces of the horses are immaterial, the motive of the riders is
what happens is the people’s desire for them (25)
It’s this space that Killough uses to turn the poem from one allusion to another that still allows our own thoughts even as she travels and seems to lightly trip from one allusion to the next: the four horsemen of the apocalypse to Faulkner’s Light in August, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather and finally, my beloved Everly Brothers:
through which from the study window he watches the so hidden
sign which he calls his operational destitution monument the nation rushes
toward the site where were last seen [(the) horsemen]
and falls into a deep sleep
there’s no place like home
in the formal and topological sense however she has hope
and thus like the godfather at the end of her poem beheads the horses
one by one and leaves them in the bed of her nation wake up screaming
my darlings wake up little Susie (26)
What I go to in this poem (again and again) is the tension between the space it provides to think and dream, to get angry and to reminisce, to study and to sing in contrast to its allusive travel. It’s a poem in which I get to stay at home among the ferns and comfortable sofa and get dressed up to go to town all at once.
It has been lovely being with you all this week. Thank you for reading!
Lea Graham, Poughkeepsie, NY
The writer, Claire Hero, and I are neighbors here in the Mid-Hudson River Valley. I live in Poughkeepsie and she, across the river, in Esopus. We are also both transplants to the area. We thought it would be interesting to begin a conversation about our sense of the river valley and see where it took us. We were curious to find out how or if it had influence in our current writings. You’ll find New York’s Hudson here, but our talk moves out to New Zealand, Northwest Arkansas, Minnesota, Chicago and Worcester, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll enjoy the ranging and exploratory nature of our talk as much as we did.
Claire Hero is the author of the chapbook, Dollyland (Tarpaulin Sky); Sing, Mongrel (Noemi Press) and two other chapbooks: afterpastures (Caketrain) and Cabinet (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Handsome and elsewhere.
LG: I have been thinking a lot about how much I love the Hudson—and the trains that come with it and how it ties me to my home geography on the Arkansas, but how so often I feel daunted by all that the Hudson River brings--the historical significance of it (the Half Moon, the Hudson River School of Painters, etc.) and the enormity of its geographical properties (the estuary itself and the canyons that exist within it). Sometimes the information bundles that come with the river and this valley sort of stun me in my writing.
Btw, I like the notion of the frozen river between us! We are neighbors, for sure, but the river as some kind of division or organizing line is interesting. I always love how people say to me: "Oh...you really need to move to this side of the river." What they mean is the political left-ness of the communities to the west of the river, but they use "this side of the river" as a metaphor to talk about it.
How does this particular geography affect you?
CH: Stuns, yes. The Hudson River Valley reminds me so much of New Zealand. In part this is due to the silencing factor of the landscape. What is there to say about the sublime?
But I also like the Hudson Valley, I think, because it has always been a shipping lane. A thoroughfare. The means of exploration. It's like a poetic line.
LG: Yes, the sublime.... I think in some ways for me, the Hudson River Valley reminds me of a grander version of the Arkansas River Valley, partly where I grew up and where my paternal side of the family is from (originally, store owners and cotton farmers in the bottoms). We just didn't have that sense of grandeur. I mean Arkansas is, after all, considered--or at least for me in my childhood—part of the raffish edges of America! So in so many ways, it is easier to see it without the grandeur of early U.S. history and the connection to the ocean (hence, Europe) getting in the way. One of the things that I learned years after I had left home which helped me to reverse this notion of my home place as "backwards" was to read that there were so many accessible rivers that crossed and connected in the state of Arkansas that there wasn't an immediate need for roads. You could get anywhere more or less in the state on the waterways. Roads have always been a sign of progress, a measure of how successful or progressive a community is and its desire to connect with the outside and exceed the parochial. It was a kind of relief and delight to read that the delay in road building was at least in part because of the river roadways that naturally existed.
CH: Rivers as roads. The Hudson River has frozen this year, two feet thick in some places, but the shipping lanes continue. Things - information - passes through the Hudson Valley. We are a thoroughfare. We are a destination and a means through. We can stand on the Walkway and watch the river move through and some of us cross over and some of us jump.
In New Zealand I was intimidated by the landscape. It was too sublime. Either you call out your name and hear only echoes of your own mutilated voice, or you pass through areas so empty, so unfinished, that you realize your car could tip over the edge and no one would find you. In New Zealand I had to focus on the animals, which were entirely prosaic: sheep, millions of them, bleating each spring into silence.
But in New York, everything is wild. It bears the oldest marks of white colonization of any place I have ever lived; stone walls, like rivers, like arteries, pass information through the broken forests. Yet it doesn't feel entirely settled yet. Coyotes howl through the nights. There are whispers of bears. New York doesn't have billboards, not really, no signs to clutter up the view. The landscape feels almost languageless, in a way, as though anything could be scrawled across it, yet it is so wild, so lush, that you know that any mark you made would be, within the month, eaten by weed or water.
LG: Languageless. I completely agree. But here's the dissonance for me: It looks wild, lush and all, but the knowledge of how long people have been here--and particularly, the Europeans--makes me feel like anything I think about this river, this valley has already been thought, already been written about, discovered, or rendered into art. I especially think about the painters—Thomas Cole and the other Hudson River School. Cole was thinking seriously about this place, its water and sky, or as he referred to it, “the soul of all scenery,” about 200 years ago. While his concerns were mostly different than mine, I still find it daunting to think about the length of time people have been here and thinking hard on this place.
CH: "Already been written about, discovered." - To say that is to say we live in a fixed place, but the thing about places is that they are never fixed. They bleed through boundaries. Seeds, animals, humans: everything moves through, leaves traces, makes changes. I'm thinking about the problem of this dissonance in two ways: palimpsest and translation.
Place names, stone walls, brass plaques: these are palimpsests. I can see traces of the world that was here before, but somehow, I can't really touch it. A mile and a half from my house is the church where Sojourner Truth's owners went each Sunday. It's a museum now. Inside, an older woman in a floral hooded sweatshirt will show you cases with wampum and bone fish hooks, moonshine bottles and an egg beater, the remnants of a sleigh factory destroyed in 1901. None of these things help me understand where I have landed, yet somehow they congregate into an image. A sentence. A vocabulary for Esopus. And there are other palimpsests: the bones of animals on the shoulders of the road, the wasp globes in the trees that winter reveals, the remains of someone's picnic washed up on the river bank. In a poem like "reviving Coyote" I was trying to address such palimpsests: the coyote roadkilled at the end of my street growing through elements taken from women's Indian Captivity narratives.
Coyote slinks out of the road & into my hands. Out of my hands & into my mouth. With my teeth she bites the bark in two that binds her. With my tongue she licks the placenta off the words. Coyote steals out of my mouth & into my hair. Out of my hair & into my skin. In my skin she drags the forest floor, looking for the bodies. In my skin she hacks back the dark. (& who are those masked that ring round the wood?—) Coyote sneaks out of my skin & into my lungs. Into my nose. With my nose the earth is clean as paper. Coyote scrawls herself across it, crawls into my hands. With my hands she rends the voles in two. With my hands she opens a door. Inside I am waiting. Inside I offer her a kind of apple, some Indian cake, a bed of hides, & didn't we bed down, Coyote & I, in this shabby cave while the hunters searched for us in the vast boscage of the body? Didn't we couple in our fear? Coyote runs over my snowy terrain, marking my skin with her claws. How do I tell you that my body is the road upon which Coyote dies? How do I rear what births from my mouth?
CH: Then there's translation. Recently I've been interested in bacteria, specifically in invasion and translation. Bacteria exchange DNA with members of their own and other species in three ways, but the most interesting to me is translation, whereby a bacteria cell can absorb naked DNA left by a dead cell and add it directly to its own. This leads to change, to adaptation. The “evolutionary butterfly effect,” as explained by the Italian biologist Telmo Pievani, is “the uncontrollable propagations of nonadaptive effects beginning from a functional modification.” Or, as Emily Dickinson would put it, “Infection in the sentence breeds.”
I am an invasive species. Anything I wish to say about the Hudson Valley has to pass through a mouth that has opened in many places. These places change my language, my hearing, my sense of how to name the world and what the world includes. I carry place in my accent, my mouth which refuses to give up the Minnesota O even after years away, and in my vocabulary, which swaps and absorbs new names for old things. To be transient is to be always translating, it seems, so there are gaps, but there is also that possibility of infection, of a new organ arising from a new combination. This is what I was getting at in a poem like “[Dredge up].”
onto your tongue –
& the slow
joint to joint
with various organs &.
LG: The palimpsest and translation, yes. As you talked about the church turned museum and all of the traces (moonshine bottles, egg beater, etc.) that are left from the turn of the century, I began to think of the various ways I’ve experienced that in all of the places I’ve lived. Growing up for a time with my maternal grandparents on a large and working farm outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas, there were all kinds of traces of what had been there before. One of the enduring images in my work is a toolbox stowed in the bathroom that was full of arrowheads, fishhooks, grinding stones, and Civil War cannon balls. Each morning I would go into the bathroom and consider the mystery of that box containing the objects discovered from plowing. These physical objects in this particular place connected with my learning Arkansas history: my grandparents’ farm wasn’t so far off The Trail of Tears. A few years ago, while visiting my father, who lives in the Arkansas River Valley area, I went to look at the gallows where Judge Parker, the “hanging judge,” presided. I discovered not only that the names of those killed at the gallows were largely indigenous names, but that nearby was a bend in the river where you could have seen the tribes floating by on their forced relocation to Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears happened in more ways than one.
When I moved to urban places, I found these remnants in different ways. In Chicago, there are the storefronts and cornices that are left over from businesses long gone that you notice for their elegance and/or out of place-ness within the surroundings. For about a year or so I worked at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum as a docent. The house is located on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus and was a pretty stark difference against the surrounding architecture. To be sitting in this house that helped birth the Settlement House movement and early social work, but that was adjacent to the 1970s architecture of the campus, felt like a secret, in some ways. I had a sense of that neighborhood before the university had arrived. There was a quiet and solemnity among the 19th century furniture and art that created an energy against Halsted’s traffic bustle, co-eds and Greektown up the street. Teaching at the university when I was a grad student was a similar experience (though different sense of time) since we were teaching in classrooms with bolted down desks and these long, thin bullet-proof windows. The university had been built around the time of the Chicago Riots and that history was built into its very rooms. One of my early teaching tactics around analysis was to ask students why they thought their seats were bolted to the floor.
When I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where I lived for eight years, I noticed the palimpsestic nature in the names of places. When you talked to a Worcester native about Rizutti’s Goodnight Café burning down, he or she might say, “Oh, you mean what used to be Old Billy’s Lounge.” There was even a certain pride among people who could name what the place had been called several businesses earlier. And as you said, I wasn’t quite sure that it helped me understand where I was, but it did accumulate as image and tone of the place.
I think you’re exactly right about translating. The mouth that has opened in other places. While the Mid-Hudson River Valley may seem overwhelming at times, I, too, think that I translate the place out of my various accumulations and sensibilities that come from elsewhere. You with your Minnesota O, me with my love of double modals and slower, circuitous talking and walking.
CH: I envy you your toolbox of mystery! My grandmother’s house was similar. She was a hoarder, part of the generation that went through the Depression. Everything, from button to jar, had value and a multiplicity of possibilities. Like words, they accrued and offered. They were for picking over and dreaming through.
You know, Lea, it’s funny that we’re both from river towns. I grew up in a river town in southern Minnesota, and I have been wondering lately if living beside the river made me restless. Is this why we are both so transient? Oceans are grand but annihilating, and lakes are stable but stagnant, but a river is somehow always new. It is passage and possibility. It endures and erases and alters. Often as a prelude to writing I go for a walk, and here in Esopus it means down the hill, past the overgrown orchard where the deer linger, to watch the Hudson. And even better, the Hudson is tidal! It moves both ways. Like a poem,
In Billings, Montana my grandfather—a handsome young guy from Fayetteville, Arkansas—worked as a baker in a basement with a window that looked out onto a main street. This was the Great Depression. From there, each morning, he could see the legs of passersby, and from there he picked out the legs of my grandmother on her way to nurses’ training. The story goes on to include her jilted fiancé, a whistle or catcall (not quite sure which), the strategic pink bathing suit tossed over her shoulder as she walked down that same street and a decision to wed that took about 24 hours. I love this story for the specific place and perspective which tells me about these people, my family before they were my family. Billings, Montana helps me call into place a place I’ve never been. It helps me, in the words of Yi-Fu Tuan, “render the invisible, visible, …impart a certain character to things” (qtd. in Cresswell 98). Our grandparents and parents—all of those people who came before us—are, in part, a mystery. They knew the world before us. They were, at least, slightly different people before we came along. The fixture of proper names helps make visible that world we never knew.
In his essay, “The Reach of Place/To Reach in Place/Places Reaching,” the poet, Michael Anania, tells us:
Places, those areas of collective perception we have names for (home, the playground, Omaha, Chicago, Texas, The West) are conventions through which we offer a kind of stability to the world’s welter, even though our experience of places is, as much as anything, about change. “You know, when I was a kid, the city ended here, and that,” you gesture toward an expense of highways, shopping malls and office buildings, “was cornfields.” And the names that hold these conventions together are as certain and arbitrary as myth and as essential, though they are in general, but especially in America, the record of one or another kind of political, economic or cultural ascendency. To the winner goes the naming.
While Billings was named after the president of the Pacific Northwest Railroad, Frederick H. Billings, the English name is rooted in the word “sword.” Given the history of westward expansion and the indigenous peoples of the area, the name is indicative of “the winner.” To complicate things and reveal our American complexity, Montana is derived from the Spanish montaña, mountain. Names: The Crow Nation, Benjamin F. Harding, Pompey’s Pillar, Beartooth Highway, Montaña del Norte.
Proper names work like mailboxes, according to the philosopher, Saul Kripke. You may have visited Billings, Montana and so what you know of it—its restaurants, the light in the evening, the fact you lost your wallet there, its geographic expanse— all gets sent to the name. Now that I’ve told you the story of my grandparents’ courtship and of the etymology of its names, you have other associations that all add to what you already know. The name becomes, as Anania says, “a kind of stability to the world’s welter.”
Susan Briante’s Utopia Minus (Ahsata, 2011) provides such stability in her naming without dispensing with mystery. When I first encountered the book, I was on a reading tour with another poet. We drove hours from Oklahoma City to Tulsa to Fayetteville, Arkansas to Kansas City to Fulton, Missouri and back to Tulsa. We read poems out loud. We listened to Jay-Z’s Black Album. We talked about our formation as writers. We laughed at the various bumper stickers (Save the Ta-Ta’s) and the Moorish architecture of the Cheesecake Factory. We talked about Paris and Spain and our growing up years. Reading Utopia Minus on this particular trip felt both comforting and estranging: Another mind in its reading and attentions and thinking on the daily occurrences. A mind clearly engaged with, but also in awe of the world. The poems didn’t seem to keep much—if anything—out of them.
In “Notes from the Last Great Civil War Story,” she begins in the note taking of the day’s events and reading, but as the stanza moves, it turns towards a slightly eerie temporal meditation:
Our dog licks my teacup;
days of summer, I study
new urbanism, racial
uprisings, cultural memory,
patterns of glassworks
n some foreign field of sand,
“high mortality events.”
Death makes such a blunt box
such a 24 hour news channel,
video of a cypress tree
which refuses to grow
while a window
around the screen
goes from dark to light,
day to night (11).
This reflection on the passage of time presents us with a kind of desolation. While death keeps technologically rolling or being portrayed 24 hours, the window provides a natural world passage of time through its light and absence of light. This opening stanza presents the backdrop for the “great story” we’re about to hear in which General Joseph Johnston “removes his hat as the corteges passes” at General Sherman’s funeral—his old adversary—
“saying Sherman/ would have done no less./ Johnston dies of pneumonia/ 2 weeks later” (11).
While the first part of the poem is the speaker moving among the banalities of the day, her studies, the observations of reports of death within the temporal life and death, it’s the ending that reveals the naming that exceeds stability:
Woke this morning in Dallas
with Bentonville, NC
written on my palm (12).
It is the ending with the place names of Dallas and Bentonville, NC that provide us with two different energies—one, stability and the other, mystery. Dallas, in this case, is a place where the actual life occurs. The light in the window around the screen goes from dark to light. Dallas is that waking place, the living—with all of its properties. Bentonville, NC, on the other hand, works both as a place name, but also, as an allusion and one that arrives with ghostly properties. It works as both the name penned to the palm and forgotten about until morning, and as the site of a battle between Sherman and Johnston, the old adversaries, who came to terms after the war. Sherman’s death inadvertently leading to Johnston’s death.
Like my own Billings, Montana, these two place names—Dallas, Bentonville, NC— serve to stabilize what the speaker knows (and remind as to what she’s been reading/thinking about), but also to unveil mystery. Place names contain the unknown as much as what’s known, what’s stable.
Perhaps Lydia Davis is best known as a prose writer,
most recently of very short stories. But her work has
also appeared in BAP anthologies,
Lydia's new book of stories
is called Can't and Won't.
There's also a profile of Lydia
in this week's New Yorker magazine.
The link is below.
One little problem (maybe.)
To read the New Yorker online
you have to be a subscriber.
So if you're not a subscriber,
you can subscribe. Or if you're
not a subscriber, and you don't want
to subscribe, there's a link to another
article about Lydia.
Maybe a better one. Or maybe not.
But about Lydia. And free.
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.