Given the dictum
That we must love one another
-- Greg Griffith
Alan Ziegler is the editor of Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms (Persea Books); his other books include Love At First Sight: An Alan Ziegler Reader; The Swan Song of Vaudeville: Tales and Takes (with an introduction by Richard Howard); The Green Grass of Flatbush (winner of the Word Beat Fiction Book Award, selected by George Plimpton); So Much To Do (poems); The Writing Workshop, Volumes I and II; and The Writing Workshop Note Book. His work has appeared in such places as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House. He is Professor of Writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he has received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching and was chair of the Writing Program. He is currently at work on Based on a True Life: A Memoir in Pieces.
In other news:
NA: Tell me about No Tell Books. How did it begin?
RL: After I started the online magazine No Tell Motel in 2004, publishing books seemed the obvious progression, something I always wanted to do. My trial-run was The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, an anthology I co-edited with Molly Arden. After that I started publishing individual author collections.
NA: I love the name, No Tell Books. How did you think of it?
RL: First came No Tell Motel, a phrase on a t-shirt I bought when I was child (and oblivious to its implications) at mall gift shop called Heaven. No Tell Motel was already a recognizable name by the time No Tell Books started and I only published books by poets who first appeared in the magazine, so another natural extension from the magazine. Everything began with No Tell Motel.
NA: I was hoping you would say a little bit about the authors you have published. Maybe describe a No Tell book. And provide a poem from one of the books.
RL: I’m not sure how I would go about describing a “No Tell” book. Like the magazine, and my personal tastes, the press was fairly eclectic and difficult to categorize. There’s not one particular style or sensibility, but many overlapping, occasionally conflicting.
The authors published during the first year were Bruce Covey, PF Potvin, Rebecca Loudon and Ravi Shankar. In the following years I published books by Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Shafer Hall, Laurel Snyder, Karl Parker, Lea Graham and myself. Some of these authors and their books could be labeled “experimental,” such Bruce Covey’s Elapsing Speedway Organism and Glass is Really a Liquid or Karl Parker’s PERSONATIONSKIN and that might be what I lean towards. Then again the press’ best-selling title, Harlot by Jill Essbaum, is formalist, something I don’t usually go for, yet I loved that book. Harlot was also probably the most obviously “spiritual” book, yet Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s Shy Green Fields, Laurel Snyder’s The Myth of the Simple Machines and my own God Damsel would fall into that category as well. Most of the books are “playful,” like Lea Graham’s Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You or PF Potvin’s The Attention Lesson or Shafer Hall’s Never Cry Woof. Some of the books might be considered dark or wild, like Rebecca Loudon’s Cadaver Dogs. Every title put out by No Tell Books falls into several of these categories.
I could go on coming up with labels to attach. The most accurate way for me to describe a “No Tell” book would be simply to say that it’s the type of book I wanted to read strongly enough that I went through all the trouble getting involved and helping put it into the world so others could read it, i.e. books I felt passionate about.
Perhaps it’s fitting to share the final poem from the last book No Tell Books published, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You by Lea Graham.
Crush Starting with a Line by Jack Gilbert
Desire perishes because it tries to be love
& so, I think, why search or seek it? Entering
its way out the backdoor, calling as Narcissus
himself, curious to himself only—only
this echo. Yet, some days wild turkeys wing clumsy
across windshields, or poets come to town
& language flocks before flying south, before
jubilee, before hush & slack. In chance,
what we flush from beech & oak, or her flush blooming
at a table, remains, persists as flight, or flown:
trace of bird in my eye, balloon drift among sky,
proposing hand, arm. What is not sexual, though
sex is part, catches life en theos. Not love, but its
roaming kin & nonetheless, wonderful alone.
NA: No Tell Books has been on hiatus for several years. Why? Do you plan to start it up again?
RL: No, at least not in its previous inception. I’m pondering ideas for new publishing projects, nothing decided yet. If I do start something new, whatever it may be, it’ll be different than No Tell Motel and No Tell Books. I’m not interested in repeating myself.
No Tell Motel and No Tell Books both had phenomenal runs. I couldn’t be prouder of the work published through both outlets. Everything has its cycle and No Tell’s cycle ran its natural course. The joy and enthusiasm I had in the beginning and middle began to wane due to multiple reasons. Some of it was inevitable frustration with the challenges of independent publishing. Some of it was personal. Some of it was the desire to redirect myself elsewhere. No Tell required a large investment of time, energy and money which took away from my own writing and family. Some people were disappointed when I closed up shop and offered suggestions for how they believed I could (and should) continue, which missed the point. No Tell wasn’t a publishing empire or some kind of legacy to be passed on for someone else to carry on.
Every poem published at No Tell Motel is still online and accessible. Every book published by No Tell Books is still in print (aside from 2 chapbooks which are available as free downloads). The existing books & authors still receive full support from me. Nothing went away. I simply stopped taking on additional publishing commitments.
NA: I am a huge fan of your Bibliomancy Oracle. It’s just brilliant. How did that come about?
RL: This was my first project after No Tell. It came about from having enough time to play around and be creative without the concern of deadlines, results or a budget. I’ve always been interested in oracles of all types and obviously literature. There were already a couple of existing online Bibliomancy generators with very limited and uncurated source material. I didn’t find them useful and figured I could come up with something better, at least for my own purposes.
NA: It’s such a beautiful site. Did you design it yourself? Could you provide a link so everyone can access it? Does it inspire you to write, just working on it?
RL: Thank you. I used a standard Tumblr template and customized it using existing features. http://bibliomancyoracle.tumblr.com
Like any committed writer, I’m regularly reading literary magazines. So whenever I come across lines that I think would make a good “prophecy” I add them to the oracle. New prophecies are added each week. As I write this, there are 2415 prophecies. Next week there will be more.
I use it for a variety of purposes, as a writing prompt, to help interpret dreams or for answer to any random question I might come up with. I would say there’s no wrong way to use it, but I’m sure some Lex Luthor-type could come up with a nefarious use that I wouldn’t approve.
NA: You have a new book called Bombyonder coming out? Could you say a few words about it? Provide an excerpt?
RL: Sure, it’s a novel. In the beginning I called it “Psychic Memoir” but people took that to mean it was a memoir of a psychic’s life. It’s also poetry. Here we go with labels again. Selections from Bombyonder have been published as fiction, novel excepts, poems and hybrid-texts. Whatever the editor wanted to call it, I said OK. But we’re calling the book a novel to lure new readers. Like when you sneak vegetables into a kid’s smoothie without his knowledge. He’s drinking broccoli! Don’t tell him that.
Bombyonder is about a woman who swallows a bomb in pill form (invented by her father) and the psychic fracturing that follows.
The unplanned devised a plan to decide what was important and what was unimportant. Passed out the straws and realized they were one short. By luck or accident this was something that happened all unto itself. Perhaps it was a pregnant plan performing atrocities from bed.
It was about taking a stand.
And about shoes. I lost mine, then stepped on something sharp. On this hill even the grass was sharp and cracked.
Did I bleed?
Did it matter?
Dyeable shoes making do in a shit economy. Drab shoes. Sample shoes. Seasonal. Heeled. Sparkled. Sneaks. Tying on the discounted. Discounts for the hoard. You couldn’t discount how his political process creeped out his guests but nobody wants to be rude to the guy providing the dinner and booze. They all decided to keep things light. This is what they agreed. They will not think about pictures of his penis either angry nor sated.
No penis to see here.
The pregnant carried weight. The pregnant had to go. Wobbly never won a beauty pageant.
Out-of-sight and off the scale.
A cart full of discounts and grimaces making way to higher ground. Maybe there was a flood coming or maybe I was there for the view or maybe I was taking my stand at a very reasonable price, albeit one with blisters.
NA: I’d love to close with another poem from No Tell Books.
From PERSONATIONSKIN by Karl Parker:
A DISCONTINUOUS GIFT
I drive to and from work each day
in a station wagon with fake wooden panels
on either side, half-amused.
My name is Marvin. I refuse to die.
Plastic flowers are real. They endure.
When I was young I wanted to be
a magician, and make things appear
from nothing, like this, just
like that. A rabbit out from behind the found couch.
Feelings from a furnace, into which we push
our clothes. (This area is patrolled by moving lights.)
What I am is in appearance. It is not old.
Soon the radiator next to my knees is not what it was.
For these last recent things, I am untroubled, glad.
Reb Livingston is the author of Bombyonder (Bitter Cherry Books, forthcoming 2014), God Damsel (No Tell Books, 2010) and Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, 2007). She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son. Find out more about Reb Livingston here.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here. Follow Nin on Twitter here.
(Note: Earlier this month, Saveur magazine published my short piece about nocino, the Italian liqueur made from underipe or "green" walnuts. Here's the back story.)
It is June 24, 2006, in Umbria and Giancarlo Giubilaro has invited me to help make nocino, the green-walnut infused liqueur that is traditionally made in Italy at the beginning of the Feast of St. John the Baptiste. I am staying at the Civitelli Ranieri Center where my husband David Lehman and several other artists, writers, and composers from around the world are enjoying six blissful weeks of free time while cosseted in this fifteenth century hilltop castle. As David’s wife, I am welcome to stay for two weeks.
The nearest village is Umbertide, the nearest town, Perugia. During outings to Perugia, and Assissi, Gubio and Bevagna, I'm reminded of writer Kate Simon's observation that the high hill towns of Umbria "dare one to invade their secret places — virgin princesses sequestered in towers."
To say it is paradise would overstate the case but not by much. Fig and cherry trees line the gravel path near our apartment just outside the castle walls. We have more living space here than we do at home in New York City. David has already appropriated the lone hammock that hangs between two trees near the painters’ studios for his afternoon reading and nap. It's only later that we discover that the hammock is part of an art instillation made by a previous visiting artist.
I like taking long walks, sometimes to the village of Umbertide, where I browse the market stalls and treat myself to a porchetta sandwich or an espresso or gelato. The sun is hot, the sky is blue. This may be the part of the world that inspired Henry James to remark that “summer afternoon” is the most beautiful phrase in the English language.
Giancarlo is the operations manager here, a shy man who becomes animated when talk turns to food and cooking. After dinner on our second night Giancarlo placed an assortment of digestifs on the table – Grappa, Limoncello, Amaro, and a dark liquid in a carafe, the nocino he made last year. It was a syrupy brew with flavors of nuts and spices and the pleasing after-burn one looks for in a good digestivo. I had one small glass, then another. It seemed prudent to stop after two, but when Giancarlo announced that he would be making more this very week, I asked if I could observe. He went one better and said I could help.
We meet outside the small kitchen from which has issued a parade of regional dishes that has far surpassed my expectations, high though they were. Romana Ciubini, the head cook, prepares them with two assistants, both named Patrizia. Romana, a Tuscan native, cooks for the Civitella residents from Spring through Fall. With her tattoos and changing wardrobe of chandelier earrings, she bears no resemblance to the stereotype of the Italian cook who learned her trade at mama’s elbow. She is well traveled and highly skilled in the kitchen. (Several years ago she came to the States for an apprenticeship with acclaimed chef Dan Barber at his Blue Hills at Stone Barns restaurant.) I’m told that later in the summer she’ll make Limoncello, another digestif, but only when she can get the superior lemons from Sorrento. Although I consider myself well-versed in many cuisines, I’ve already tasted several local products and preparations that are new to me, thanks to Romana.
After dinner, Lynne Yamamota, a visual artist from Amherst, Massachusetts, and I interrogate Romana to find out how she’s prepared one dish or another. I’m determined to duplicate some of them in my own kitchen. I write everything down with the translation help of Mauro Lanza, a young composer from Paris by way of Venice who is one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic gourmands I have met.
The scent of jasmine is in the air when Giancarlo and I negotiate the rocky slope to castle orchard. It is a lovely June morning. The medieval castle against a sky unbroken by clouds looks less unreal with each passing day. After collecting a basketful of under-ripe walnuts, Giancarlo establishes our workspace on the table in the gazebo where we eat our dinners. It sits under a canopy of honeysuckle in full flower. The background noise is courtesy of bees getting drunk on their sap punctuated by the occasional distant cry of the resident peacock and the musical voices of Romana and the two Patrizias as they prepare our lunches.
Giancarlo tests the walnuts for the proper degree of softness. He explains that they must be soft enough to pierce with a pin and according to lore, damp with morning dew. They remind me of key-limes with their pale bumpy surfaces. With his OK, we proceed to quarter roughly twenty-five and place them in a large wide-mouthed jar. When we’re through, he instructs me to wash my hands quickly or the walnuts will stain them black. My already-tinted fingernails prove the point. Next we add some sliced lemons to the walnuts along with a few sticks of cinnamon and some cloves. Giancarlo empties two-and-one-half liters of 95-proof grain alcohol and a couple of cups of sugar into the jar with the cut fruit. He agitates the jar so as to combine everything. He screws a cap on the jar. Finished. “Now we wait,” he says. I am disappointed that my culinary adventure is over so quickly.
Every morning for the next forty, Giancarlo will place the jar outdoors to sit in the sun. Every evening he will bring it inside. Giancarlo explains that the only significance of the forty-day wait is that this is the amount of time necessary for the alcohol to extract the flavors from the fruit. At the end of this period, he will strain the liquid and discard the solids. In a twist on tradition, Giancarlo adds between one and two bottles of white wine instead of the usual water to his liqueur, which he believes adds sweetness and depth to the finished product. Once strained, diluted with wine, and bottled, the nocino will age for six to nine months before it is ready for drinking. I like imagining the faces of a new crop of resident artists enjoying the mysterious flavors as twilight falls and – to quote Henry James again – all frowns expire “in the teeming softness of the great vale of Umbria.“
In the years since my stay at Civitella, I've experimented with making nocino at home, thanks to walnuts shipped to me by Laura Orem from rural Pennsylvania and to a recipe translated from the Italian by Moira Egan and Damiano Abeni. I age my nocino for at least a year in a small oak barrel. Last year's batch will be ready for drinking soon. I can hardly wait.
To find out about commercially available nocino, go here.
Shakespeare asked whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. The question’s more complicated than it looks.Take the moniker of the Washington Redskins. By revoking the squad's trademark, the US Patent and Trademark Agency did its bit this week to get the football team to change its name from one that is patently "disparaging to Native Americans."
Unless you can make the case that the team's market value would go down if it changed its name -- and that's a hard case to make -- there are only sentimental reasons for resisting the writing that's on the wall.
Team owner Dan Snyder has no intention of making a change. To him "Redskins" must be as innocent as the games of Cowboys and Indians that kids used to play. Good clean juvenile red-blooded American fun.
But say he kept an open mind. There are a lot of options, and remember he is legally entitled to keep using the logo and image associated with the 'Skins. From the summer-camp practice of pitting the “shirts” versus the “skins” in games of pick-up basketball, he could opt for the Washington Red Shirts. In time this would be abbreviated to Reds, just as baseball’s Cincinnati Redlegs became the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Stockings became the Chicago White Sox..
But where’s the gain in doing that – other than good will toward a group that is sensitive to its unique place in American history? There's no getting around it. The native Americans, who were here before the rest of us, were vilified, its people depicted as savages and brutes, when in fact the tribes were routinely victmized as the United States moved is frontier to the Pacific Ocean.
Snyder is the defiant type. Perhaps he fears that his fan base will lose its ardor if he caves. Maybe it's a macho thing, a bit of Republican resistance to the forces of political correctness.
Or maybe he just hasn't come up with the right new name that will set his spirits soaring?
Here's a suggestion. Surely Dan remembers the old Washington Senators, hapless cellar-dwellers, in the 1950s when the mighty Yankees diominated baseball. The joke had it that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” There was even a novel about the plight of the Senators’ fan: Douglas Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. It was turned into one of the immortal musicals of the 1950s, Damn Yankees -- with great songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and a superb performance by Gwen Verdon as the naughty bawdy temptress Lola. "Whatever Lola wants, Lola Gets." She it was "who took the wind out of the sails / Of the Prince of Wales."
In Damn Yankees, the long-suffering fan makes a deal with the devil – his soul in exchange for a Senators’ pennant. It turns out that the devil is a Yankee fan, but you’ll get no more spoilers from me -- except to say that the show's all about "heart": "When the odds are saying, you'll never win / That's when the grin / Should start."
There is, at the moment, no Washington team bearing the name of the Senators. If you’re Dan Snyder, you could change that in a flash. I say, keep the logo and the helmet, but embrace the heritage of the Washington Senators and see if you can't get the perennial losers to redeem themselves.
I am open to other suggestions and hope that readers will suggest away -- just in case Dan is one of the blog's secret admirers. -- DL
David Lehman is the featured poet on Poetry Daily. You can read about him and his poem "A Conversation with Paul Violi," here.
I can hear the the garden on 10th street singing
across from the church where men climb past the steeple toward a clock.
Goodbye New York. Goodbye FDR and the West End.
Goodbye Soho jewelry tables, goodbye ostrich eggs the farmer brings
from Jersey. Leaving you, I drink a cup of coffee
in a small room by the sea where I will sit and not talk,
where, for the next ten years, no telephone will ring.
Across from the church men climb past the steeple toward a clock
whose tick counts off the names of my friends
whose faces are stars on the city map constellating
the streets I am leaving. Oh, to hold a cup of coffee again.
No, to set the cup down and collect fossils and rocks.
To set those treasures down, to be quiet and listen.
Across from where men climb past the steeple toward a clock
on blue scaffolding, I stand at this door and knock.
If it opens, where will I go? If I go, what should I bring?
Will I leave these streets, leave the cups of coffee behind,
across from the church where men climb past the steeple toward a clock?
-Amy Leigh Cutler
I was in 10th grade when I read “A Refusal to Mourn,” by Dylan Thomas. Perhaps like many boys my age, I was stymied by the opening sentence. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to be a guest-blogger for Ideasmyth, a creative consultancy where Victoria Rowan presides as the fabulous Creatrix-in-Chief. It was in one of my entries for the Ideasmyth blog that I put down some preliminary thoughts on how this Dylan Thomas poem, and that sentence, worked. I then developed those ideas into a short paper I delivered earlier this month at the West Chester Poetry Conference, in a critical seminar on Dylan Thomas led by the excellent and estimable poet R. S. Gwynn, or Sam to those who know him (you can visit his Facebook page here).
My blog entry for today includes a few excerpts from that paper. But please bear with me. I love grammar.
“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” is Dylan Thomas’s monument to an anonymous girl who perished in the firebombing of London during WWII. If you accept the poem’s denotational gloss, Thomas says that he will never cry or pontificate over the death of this girl. Such is his “mighty vaunt,” as Seamus Heaney called it, but as mighty as it may be, the music of the language is in counterpoint to the title and is clearly the orchestration of a monumental sadness. The sorrow is in the syntax. It is the tortured, hyper-dramatic utterance of a poet keening operatically. I’d like to look at how the orchestration works.
The poem is divided into four six-line stanzas, each rhyming ABCABC. Working across these four stanzas are four grammatical sentences, the first of which may be the strangest, most tortured sentence in twentieth-century poetry:
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death.
The round Zion of the water bead! (My friends and I in 10th grade went around repeating this phrase, for no other reason than its odd, emotional conviction.) In basic terms, the sentence says that he will never until the apocalyptic end of time mourn the girl’s death. On the page, however, it’s not that simple. The sentence is 83 words long and top-heavy with a massive adverbial clause (in the excerpt below, it is set off in brackets). The adverbial clause contains 52 words, including a 10-word adjectival modifier nested inside. The grammatical subject of the sentence, “I” occurs in line 10 (highlighted in yellow below), more than half way through, followed by its two main verbs, “let pray” and “sow” (underscored below). This opening torrent concludes with another multi-word adverbial modifier (set off in parentheses below), at the end of which is the word that signals the key idea of the poem, “death.”
Never [until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn]
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth (to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death).
In its contortion, the syntax conveys the tumult of anger and sadness the speaker feels facing the girl’s obliteration, even as he claims that he will never cry for her. The energy pent up in this crazy syntax reflects, to some degree, the horror that generated the expression. Let’s look at how this mega-sentence draws to a close. Here is the schematized subject-predicate phase of the sentence:
[I] shall [never] let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth (to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death.)
The phrase “to mourn / The majesty and burning of the child's death” is an infinitive verbal phrase functioning as an adverb, modifying the two main verbs, “let pray” and “sow.” We see, therefore, that this massive opening sentence of the poem begins with an adverbial construction, and it closes with the same kind of construction, albeit shorter, at the end of which is lodged the central phrase of the poem, “the child’s death.” The positioning is significant. This phrase is located in a grammatically less powerful syntactic unit, an adverbial phrase, which limits its rhetorical punch. Thomas showcases the phrase but subtly limits its power. Secondly, that phrase “the child’s death” is grammatically buried at the bottom of a vast sentence that is heaped upon it. The syntax, we might say, sets up a linguistic equivalence for the child buried under the rubble.
For all its teetering at the cliff, the meaning of this psychotic sentence is, in fact, construable, and the sentence is grammatically correct. It is a masterful demonstration of control over grammar and meaning. Thomas acknowledges, in the poem, that flesh and bone are subject to disintegration, but he simultaneously demonstrates how the poet, taking a stand against mayhem, can integrate his material into a life-affirming verbal structure that coheres. The determination to write something this complex and the effort involved in getting all the parts to settle and putting all the right words in the right places to rhyme is an act of love and a gesture of survival, maybe even triumph, which puts this poem on the side of life.
Here’s an audio clip of Dylan Thomas reading “A Refusal to Mourn.”
My thanks again to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for having me back as a guest-blogger this week.
Many years ago, when Tim and I were first dating, I wrote a poem called “Dulcimer.” In it, I tried to capture how the “muted mauve&gray sky” of a winter’s afternoon, the dulcimer music on the radio, and our lovemaking all came together to create a beautiful outside-of-time moment.
Tim always liked that poem and not just because it was sexual. “That’s the way it really was,” he’d say.
We married and had a child, Zeke. We were not a picture-perfect couple by any stretch of the imagination, and we both had pretty good ones. But we got each other. He was my toughest critic and my fiercest supporter. “If I’ve done nothing else in my life,” he told me, “I’ve tried to be supportive of your writing….I believe you have what it takes to be a great writer.”
So, when he was killed in a car accident, I was lost and not just because I suddenly found myself a 34-year-old widow with a three-and-a-half-year-old child. My best friend, my cheering section, was gone. And for what seemed like a long time afterwards, I could not write. Then a poem came to me. It wasn’t a very good one. But it let me know that there was a survivor in the wreckage.
More poems began to appear. One of them was “The Wild Things”: it deals with the weeks after the tragedy and two “small good things” that happened, bringing me out of the fog….
One muggy afternoon, I walked listlessly out into the backyard. There, at the edge of Tim’s vegetable garden, stood a doe. I stopped. Time stopped. In that space, only the deer and I existed. I stared at her, and she returned my gaze without fear. Never had a deer – or any other wild animal, for that matter – looked at me like that. I felt oddly comforted despite my grief.
Not long afterwards, I was going out to the shed when a hummingbird flew by, drawn to the red bee balm alongside it. We’d never had hummingbirds before despite all the fancy feeders I’d hung to lure them into the yard. And, once again, the pain inside me loosened its hold for a bit.
Both deer and hummingbirds have a rep as messengers, symbolically speaking. Tim and I had both loved animals, birds, and just being out in nature. Among the many things he had given me over the years were a river otter sculpture, a book – America’s Favorite Backyard Wildlife – and a beaver-chewed stick that he’d picked up by the river, knowing that I’d like it. And once, during the holidays, I’d picked out a wildlife calendar for my mom to give him. He’d thanked her, then said, “I suspect Tammy had something to do with this.”
So, when the deer and the hummingbird appeared so soon after his death, I couldn’t help suspecting that Tim had something to do with it. That it was his way of letting me that he was O. K. Both creatures lifted my spirits – made me feel as though, yes, he was out there somewhere – and then they went into my poem.
Writing that poem – and the Tim poems that followed – gave me a way of processing all that grief that I didn’t know what to do with. But doing so also gave me a life-line. Slowly, I drew myself up out of the sad, dark place his death had sent me to.
I haven’t had a lot of contact with the other contributors to The Widows’ Handbook, but I get the sense that their poems have worked in much the same way for them. Patricia Savage speaks in “How Could I” of “turn[ing] toward the light, the children in the kitchen, bound to the care of the living, choosing alchemy to create cold sense out of the molten lead of your passing.” In “Wonderland,” Gail Braune Cormorat writes about being “shaken, transformed” and then “stepp[ing] through the door once again.”
Because it is a transformation, a going through the looking-glass into a world where nothing makes sense. And we use – we need -- the alchemy of poetry to make something transcendent out of our wanderings there. That is what characterizes the poems in The Widows’ Handbook for me and why it’s ultimately an inspiring and not a depressing book.
The landscape of grief is an ever-shifting one, and no two people experience it quite the same way. Those moments out in the yard – the doe greeting me from the garden, the hummingbird whirring about like a tiny jeweled miracle in a world gone gray – have stayed with me. At a time when I hurt too much to cry, they were a connection with Tim and more. They took me out of myself and brought a kind of healing with them.
When I read “The Wild Things” now, I find that I tend to skip over the opening, which deals with Tim’s death. Instead, I focus on that last section…on the deer, the hummingbird, and the messages they brought me. On the gifts that came to me when my hands felt hopelessly empty. I read those lines, and it all comes back to me in a rush. Because that’s the way it really was.
T. J. Banks is the author of Sketch People: Stories Along Way, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Derv & Co.: A Life Among Felines, Souleiado, and Houdini, a cat novel which the late writer and activist Cleveland Amory enthusiastically branded “a winner.” Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, was the winner of the 2007 Merial HumanAnimal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, she is a columnist for petsadviser.com and has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine, and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Guideposts’ Soul Menders, Their Mysterious Ways, Miracles of Healing, and Comfort From Beyond. She has also worked as a stringer for the Associated Press and as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School.
Earlier this year I was put to thinking about lines of poetry that meant a lot to me. This began when the poet Gerry Cambridge, who edits a fine, international literary journal in Scotland called The Dark Horse, asked me and several other poets to write brief essays on particular lines that had shaped us. So I wrote a short piece, published now in the current issue of The Dark Horse, about this line from Thomas Wyatt:
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind
The line had an effect upon me during my adolescence when I was just starting to see how language could light you up and open the doors of the heart and mind. Of course, all poetry seeks to hold the wind, a thought that imparts beauty to this line. So I wrote my appreciation for The Dark Horse. But in doing so I realized it was impossible to zero in on just one line of poetry. I decided, therefore, to go back and select more lines from other poems that have, in one way or another, put me on the path.
… Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thy self against thy fall.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
(W. B. Yeats)
Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
It pleases me to stand in silence here.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
There are more, but that's for another time.
John Deming, editor in chief of the important on-line journal Coldfront, has posted Part 2 of a 3-part interview with David Lehman.
I want to get back to God, briefly. At the end of your poem “Existentialism,” you write, “Such perhaps is the fate of certain avant-garde movements in art or thought. They arrive with the intent to move heaven and earth, and after they’ve gone, what they leave is their faded glamour, and it’s same old hard earth, and heaven’s as remote as ever.” To what extent is this statement true of any major idea, or any theory of God?
I think it’s true of all philosophy, including even the greatest, the most systematic thinkers from Plato to the present, who have done their best to confront the ultimate questions about the meaning of our existence: what would make a perfect state, what makes a great work of art, what would constitute an adequate explanation for how the world came into being, or what will happen after we die. Great works have been written, and none of them has settled these questions. You can’t do that, so at the end of the process, you still have what you started out with, a hard earth and a distant sky, by which I mean that the earth is resistant to your wish to assert yourself and heaven is too far away to reach. Time is resistant to your desire to make a name for yourself. Mortality resists your wish to endure. And at the same time as there is all this material resistance to your accomplishing what you want to achieve, you also have a self that aspires to a high spiritual state. And that’s a state very different from our quotidian lives, because we’re mortal beings whose bodies corrupt, and who are susceptible to lust, and whose behavior is not at all to be idealized. We are living contradictions in some ways. And movements come and they go. Existentialism came along and it was the killer philosophy of its day. And where is it today?
(Ed note: Sharon Dolin continues to join us from Barcelona, where she is running the Writing About Art in Barcelona poetry workshop.Find out more about Sharon here. )
Painting with silver leaf (in process) by Chelsea Davine
Yesterday I went to visit an English artist named Chelsea Davine who lives here in Barcelona, and whose studio is in my neighborhood of Gracia, just opposite Casa Vicens, one of Gaudi's early houses. After spending time with Catalan masters such as Picasso, Miro, and Tapies, I wanted to hear a contemporary artist talk about her art. She paints. It is possible to still paint. Her works are absract. She said she strives to make something beautiful. Another unfashionable thing in art. She works with paint and metal: gold leaf, or silver leaf, or copper leaf. So there's a gestur in the direction of old icon paintings that shine in patches, but abraded. Think of a botched Klimt. Or Klimt marrying Anselm Kiefer.
Davine says she works like a sculptor, applying paint and, gold leaf, for example, and then rubbing a lot of it away to reveal chipped layers of color. An abraded door or window into itself. As Daniel Kahnweiler famously remarked to a woman in his gallery who wanted to know what that mark was in the corner of a painting (a comment repeated and much celebrated by William Carlos Williams): "That, Madam, is paint."
I swim in the abstract with no need for explanation. Though Davine chose to offer one about a work-in-progress: saying that it represented her response to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, of the West confronting the East. For me, that added little to my appreciation of the work and probably reduced it, briefly, to finding (or my frustration with not finding) signs of a violent geography. Trust the painting, not the painter, to wrench Lawrence into the realm of the visual arts. I am more interested in process. How she knows when a painting is finished. In one, for her, the drips of color were not of a strong enough tone and would have to go. In another, she said the painting had not yet achieved—what were her words—a luminosity (or something to that effect).
Process in poetry, especially when the poem is not overtly a narrative poem is somewhat similar. How do I know when a poem is finished? There is the initial draft, which I always write by hand in an unlined notebook. I hate pages with lines. As a poet, I will make the lines. I want a clear field in which to start. Then there is the act of typing the poem into my laptop, at which point much gets edited out/written in along the way. I might also make decisions to lineate the poem differently than I did in the written draft. Then I do try to print out a copy of the poem in an early draft before I do too much more to it, to see it on paper, and pencil it up before going back to the screen. If Chelsea Davine sees her painting as akin to sculpture, to taking things away after building them up, then I see my poetry writing as drawing, sketching. My notebook is my sketchbook.This process of penciling up a draft then typing in those changes and printing it out goes on any number of times. And I save and number and date all my drafts (usually). When am I finished? When I sense I can do no more or don't want to do more.
I talk to students often about leaving a bit of the rough energy that initiated the poem in the final draft. I can only resort to analogy. I don't want entirely smoothed out hair; a few tangles, even knots, creates greater liveliness in a poem. So the challenge in revision is to revise without polishing away all the moments of resistance, be they sonic, visual, or in sense.
Eloisa Armand Ugon reading from her novel Cabo Negro
One of the artists in residence with me is a novelist from Uruguay named Eloisa Armand Ugon. I was surprised and happy to see and hear her tell me that she always writes her novels longhand in a notebook. How many fiction writers are there who do such a thing. It became an exotic thing to discover a number of years ago that Larry McMurtry, writer of huge tomes, typed his novels out on a manual typewriter. Que raro! one would say here. Eloisa explained that by writing longhand, she was able to pay attention to the rhythms of the sentences in a way she could not do if she were typing on a screen. I wonder, as I have turned to writing memoir (as so many of us poets do), what am I losing by writing directly onto my laptop or iPad? Surely I am aware that my sentences don't have the same rhythmic density, nor does imagery predominate. Rather, essayistic observations and narrative are in the forefront.
Part of the problem with not writing pages of prose longhand is my handwriting, which was always awful, and has become barely legible. This is probably more and more true of all of us as we continue to become more agile typing on small and large screens. Which parts of our brains are we failing to stimulate? Is there something about the tactility and coordination required in using a pen or pencil on paper that creates a deeper, more nuanced engagement with language? Are parts of my brain lighting up when I compose poetry longhand that lie dormant when I type prose?
Well-constructed plain lines have always held a fascination for me. From George Herbert to Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, it’s always thrilling to see depth and beauty in what, on the surface, looks plain and simple, be it in a poem or in lines spoken in a play. To write lines like that requires care and attention to the smallest detail, so that every syllable, every letter, is functioning as part of the whole.
Two lines that have always epitomized this for me come from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They occur in Act V, Scene I (lines 117-118). This is where Brutus, on the plains of Philippi, bids farewell to Cassius, his co-conspirator. They are both doomed:
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.
These two unadorned lines, in modulated iambic pentameter, contain 18 words, with 9 words in each line. Symmetry! All the words are one syllable, except for “again” and “parting.” Each line is a grammatically complete sentence, each is cast as a conjecture, and each begins with the word “if.” When we drill down further, it gets even more interesting. There is the middle rhyme – and this isn’t even a poem! – of “again” with “then,” which holds the lines together, reinforced by the sonic repetition of “why” in each line. Then there is a rich network of consonantal links, mainly “M”s and “W”s. There are three Ms and six Ws:
If we do Meet again, why, we shall sMile;
If not, why then, this parting was well Made.
The understatement of these lines, as both men say goodbye, is profoundly moving. It suggests the noble equanimity of Brutus, even during this fateful moment as each Roman goes off to meet his death. It implies a balance and a stoical restraint, both linguistic and moral, that reflect Brutus’s willingness to follow through on the logical extension of his ideas about life, honor and Rome.
It’s the dramatic context, of course, that gives greater power to the lines and creates the option for understatement, but I always marvel over how tightly these two lines are put together and how they work their magic with everyday material.
I wanted to find a video clip of this particular scene on Youtube, so I turned to my friend, the poet David Yezzi, who is also a Shakespeare aficionado. (His longer poem based on Macbeth appears in his latest book, Birds of the Air.)
We came up with two versions of the scene.
Have a look at this segment from the 1950’s film adaptation directed by David Bradley, with Brutus played by Bradley himself and Cassius played by Grosvenor Glenn. It’s around the 2:56 mark in this clip. Apparently, none of the actors got paid for making this film, except for a young Charlton Heston, who played Mark Antony.
Here's another version of the scene. The passage starts at 13:48 or so.
I was looking for the version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1953) with James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius, but I could not find a clip of the exact moment. Here, at least, is the movie trailer with all of its 1950’s Hollywood charm:
In 1968 I didn't really know you though
Dick Gallup, who sat next to me
in Kenneth Koch's Modern Poetry
class, invited me to a party and
there you were and I went to hear
you read and I went through old
copies of Columbia Review to read
your poems (including the one
signed "the sloth sloth") and why
am I telling you this? Because it's
your day of the year, and you're a gem
as well as a Gemini twin, and I
would tip my fedora to you if
I were wearing one as men used
to say when men wore fedoras.
-- David Lehman (June 17, 2013)
It cost 95 cents at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City in the summer of 1980. It was a second-hand copy of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Waldo Frank and published by Doubleday Anchor Books in 1958. On the cover was a rough drawing of black suspension cables and one tower of the Brooklyn Bridge (in lurid magenta and black), with a flock of soot-black birds flying above the cables. On the right side was the dusty orange brick wall of a tenement. The cover art was by Antonio Frasconi, the typography by Edward Gorey. The book was already used when I put down my 95 cents. Now, so many years later, I see it on my bookshelf wedged between John Berryman and Robert Lowell, and it gives me peace of mind to know it’s there, though I’m afraid to touch it for fear it might disintegrate in my hands. I keep it in honor of the effect it had on my life.
Back then, when I was twenty, I did not realize that Hart Crane had in many ways failed as a poet. What I did know was that I had not read a passage as rhetorically dense and passionate as this since Donne or Shakespeare:
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.
(from Voyages, Part II)
This didn’t quite make sense to me, but the emotional power of the utterance was palpable, and I understood, perhaps without fully understanding, that this had something to do with a supra-human gaze toward the transcendent. I also sensed that this imperative was driven by a kind of ecstatic love.
Sure, many of the poems in the book didn’t make sense in a conventional way, but the integrity of the emotion came through clearly:
Down Wall from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn …
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
(from Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge)
The majesty of Crane’s dynamic cityscape was indisputable. The “cloud-flown derricks” turning through the afternoon above a bustling city brought to mind Vergil’s cranes over the dysfunctional Carthage, in the Aeneid. And then the epic line, “Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.” I knew it took ambition to write a line like that. And it took vision.
That was what I wanted, something big and pure.
Striking, too, was the bitter simplicity—and prescience—of this line:
The bottom of the sea is cruel.
(from Voyages, Part I)
These lines made me want to be a poet. I had to get to the source of those lines, the source of that power, and try to tap into it and draw up language like that from the chthonic depths or pull it down from the sky. This desire seemed to chart a course, clear if wholly impractical. The fact that someone out there (Hart Crane) had taken pains to write such lines was in itself a validation that this path meant something to someone, maybe to many people, if you could go down it the right way.
But what was the right way? Did Crane do it the right way? He did in certain passages. In other passages, he failed embarrassingly. In his life as a human being, he failed completely. As T. S. Eliot said, “it’s a mug’s game.” Who can tell now which poets will be read a hundred years hence? That’s the beauty, and the gamble, of the game. There’s no money in it.
Sometimes poetry is what's found in the local customs of a people. The ones not on display for the tourists but the ones where people display themselves for each other. In Catalunya (and I intentionally use the Catalan spelling), this poetry takes the form of building human castles. For the last several Fridays, I have attended the rehearsals in a local gym constructed especially for the Castellers.
The origin of this "sport," or sculpture in motion, dance practice, even, is obscure, but goes back at least 200 years. In the book I'm consulting, Human Towers: Castells: Touching the Sky with the Hand, by Josep Almirall, the theory set forth is that sometime between the 18th and 19th centuries, small castles were built as part of a dance. With some rivalry, the forming of human castles became independent of the dance and took root in the city of Valls. Eventually the practice spread throughout Catalunya.
The formations that the members of a particular colla, in this case those from Vila de Gracia (the particular neighborhood where I reside), are intricate and dangerous, and require enormous skill and group effort to make sure that everyone is safe. They demonstrate what Robert Hughes and others call the characteristic spirit of the Catalan people: seny, meaning commonsense, down-to-earth wisdom. Stability. One needs lots of stability to build a human castle.
Castellers from Gracia, Badalona, and Sitges making a Pillar formation
This past Sunday, only because one of the members had been kind enough to tell us about it, a photographer, another resident here at Jiwar, and I went to an outdoor display of three different groups or colles in a nearby plaza: the one from Gracia (in blue), one from Badalona (in yellow), and one from Sitges (in dark red). I had hoped to film a video of the building of one of the towers but my IPhone malfunctioned. Here are some stills instead.
Musicians from the Gracia colla playing the timbal and gralles
Why do I call it poetry? Because there are structures that the members follow. But each time a castell is made, it will look different because of the people composing the structure. As it should be. I think of the levels as stanzas and the number of people at each level the number of lines. For instance, in the image above, There's also live music played on two instruments: a gralla (a strident-sounding pipe) and a timbal (small drum), which I got to hear for the first time in the plaza. Even the way the members of the colla dismantle themselves is done with careful grace.
Since the Eighties, women have participated as Castelleras. In fact, they have become very useful in the higher layers of the structure because they often weigh less than the men. But no one is too old or almost too young to participate. I have seen corpulent men and women as part of the base of the structure. And, at the very top, I have seen young children (no more than 7 or 8 years old though they look even younger).
In a world of exclusivity, this practice is one of inclusivity. If I lived here, I could join the local colla. In fact, the young woman we met at the rehearsal urged me and my friend to join in as part of the base, but both of us begged off with bad backs. Perhaps, with my poor sense of balance, I could only be part of the pinya, the base, which stabilizes the entire structure. And in the plaza, I saw members of different colles helping to form the pinya while a particular colla created the rest of the castell.
Many thanks to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me back as a guest-blogger this week.
I recall reading somewhere – maybe someone can help me with this – that ancient druidic rites, or perhaps they were Welsh bardic initiation rituals, included the following. You had to lie in a trough of water on a cold night, wholly submerged and breathing only through a straw, and compose in your head a long poem in a complicated meter. The next morning, you had to emerge from the water and recite your poem.
I earned my MFA in the early 1990s from a reputable institution. I am, therefore, a Master of Fine Arts. Anyone who has earned the degree should take careful note of this particular passage from The White Goddess, by Robert Graves. In my tattered edition, the passage appears on page 457:
“Who can make any claim to be a chief poet and wear the embroidered mantle of office, which the ancients called the tugen? Who can even claim to be an ollave? The ollave in ancient Ireland had to be master of one hundred and fifty Oghams, or verbal ciphers, which allowed him to converse with his fellow-poets over the heads of the unlearned bystanders; to be able to repeat at a moment’s notice any one of three hundred and fifty long traditional histories and romances, together with the incidental poems they contained, with appropriate harp accompaniment; to have memorized an immense number of other poems of different sorts; to be learned in philosophy; to be a doctor of civil law; to understand the history of modern, middle and ancient Irish with the derivations and changes of meaning of every word; to be skilled in music, augury, divination, medicine, mathematics, geography, universal history, astronomy, rhetoric and foreign languages; and to be able to extemporize poetry in fifty or more complicated meters. That anyone at all should have been able to qualify as an ollave is surprising…”
Best of all is that “appropriate harp accompaniment”! He made no mention of poetry workshops or lying in troughs of water all night.
In Miami the ocean behaves like a painting, diversity like an artist’s brushstrokes on a canvas, the immigrant like a dreamer. Swaying like a northerly, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art”— a powerful art exhibit curated by E. Carmen Ramos and a permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum — made the second stop on its national tour in the temperate landscape of South Florida.
From May 9th until May 11th, nine poets from Miami, Tampa, and El Salvador — Elisa Albo, Adrian Castro, Silvia Curbelo, Mia Leonin, Rita Maria Martinez, Caridad Moro-McCormick, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, and yours truly — convened at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum to respond to the exhibit’sdiverse collection of works. Under the guidance of Francisco Aragón and Emma Trelles, we engaged in a phenomenal workshop entitled, “PINTURA:PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis”—the brainchild of Letras Latinas, the literary initiative of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
I felt at home around these brilliant writers whose work I had previously read but who now sat next to me, taking down notes and preparing to give me feedback on my ekphrastic pieces. With these poets, I knelt on the floor to engage with a sculpture, or I hopped imperceptibly to establish a relationship of movement with a large painting. I also laid flat on the floor to re-appreciate certain lines and photographed myself against any piece that could reflect me. Throughout, I maintained mental discussions with a sculpture (Luis Jiménez’s Man on Fire) and with how I could offer it a poem. "How do you want me to read your nakedness?" I asked.
"How can I be your medium?" Each time I received a different answer.
Through rich exchanges with my fellow poets, I found out some of them had received a newfound creative jolt from the exhibit and this project. We were provided with context and outside materials to help us consider, for example, each work as a cultural artifact or a visual text. My creative productivity increased since I, too, found myself a part of an inclusive community of Latino writers — a community seldom seen while I was growing up in Allapattah, Florida, but which is currently burgeoning in Miami through a wide range of projects and festivals, such as the O, Miami poetry festival.
Spending time with the exhibit itself, the poetry we were assigned to read, the theoretical essays we analyzed, and what we ultimately produced allowed us to discuss ekphrastic poetry as an exchange that occurs in translation, the body, sensuality, gender, borderlands, Spanglish, diaspora, and family.
Trelles found ways to engage us with the artwork and with the work of other poets who have embarked on similar journeys. She gave us an outstanding bibliography to understand what we were there to produce. Suddenly, we developed the perspicacity to unravel multifarious tensions between Latino vs. Latinidad, Latino vs. Art, Poetry vs.Class; Creation vs. History, Identity vs. Perception, Culture vs. Ontology. And respond respond to the artwork we did!
Weeks before I witnessed it in person, I gravitated — almost out of submission — towards Luis Jiménez’s Man on Fire, a robust fiberglass sculpture first unveiled in 1969. The figure’s size, gloss, color distribution, and
themes of sacrifice, martyrdom and sexuality all appealed to me. These factors enabled me to reconnect with my own past as well. I went to art school when I was a child, but because of money and stigma, I was never able to properly fulfill that dream. This exhibit reminded me that as a poet, I am also an artist. Man on Fire, a take on the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, whose death is recontextualized as a protest emblem against the Vietnam War, helped me reflect on how my mother emigrated from Honduras and my stepfather from Cuba, and how countless of lives are lost in the pursuit of concretizing a dream. Jiménez’s figure stands as tall as a rock ‘n’ roll star, but his skin melts under tragedy and memory’s burden. He’s pride and suffering, simultaneously.
Elia Alba is another artist whose photography I found arresting; she celebrates and further complicates identity in her work. Her Larry Levan-inspired pictures, forinstance, depict different people wearing masks of Levan’s face. Levan was an American DJ, a pioneer of house music, and a staple of New York City’s nightclub scene. Alba highlights Levan’s interplay of genres to show that identity is always shifting, forever reveling in contradiction.
As a gay Latino poet who writes from the margins, I find in Alba’s work a Latino community whose makeup is defined by oppositions, conquests, and confusion, and whose lives are a daily negotiation through them. Alba and Jiménez are just a few artists in this exhibit whose work demonstrates precisely the diversity of our Latino perspectives.
Of course, diversity is a condition that goes beyond exteriors, and through “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” and “PINTURA:PALABRA” I have discovered much more potential in my writing. I have also developed more pride in the work of my fellow writers and pride for those artists who constantly try to overcome innumerable challenges to celebrate our numerous traditions. Latinos have an important voice in the United States and these brief but fertile exchanges remind us of that.
Roy G. Guzmán is a Honduran-American poet whose work has appeared in The Acentos Review, BorderSenses, Compose, Drunken Boat, NonBinary Review, and Red Savina Review.
He received his BA from the University of Chicago and his MA from Dartmouth. A Florida resident, he will be pursuing his MFA this fall at the University of Minnesota.
This week we welcome back John Foy as our guest author. John’s first book of poems is Techne's Clearinghouse (Zoo Press). He has been busy this year, with poems, reviews and essays published or forthcoming in The Hudson Review, Alabama Literary Review, The New Criterion, The Raintown Review, The Dark Horse, Contemporary Poetry Review, Ducts.org, 823 on High and The Poetry Porch. He also has work forthcoming in Rabbit Ears, the first anthology of poetry about TV (published by Poets Wear Prada, edited by Joel Allegretti). His poetry has been featured in the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets and has appeared widely in magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Parnassus, American Arts Quarterly and Barrow Street. His work has also been published on line at Poetry Daily, Kin, The Nervous Breakdown and other sites. He has an MFA from Columbia and has taught writing at Harvard Business School, Columbia and Barnard. He lives in Manhattan with his Brazilian wife (the painter Majô L. Foy) and their two children, Catherine and Chris. Find out more about John here and follow him on Facebook. He has just returned from the West Chester Poetry Conference, where he gave a paper on “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” by Dylan Thomas.
Welcome back, John.
In other news . . .
Catch up with the latest on the American Scholar's crowd-sourced sonnet. . .
Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her eighth post.
My term posting poems to this blog fortuitously spanned Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and I happened to have just the poem for each in the Little Star larder. (For Mother’s Day, see Abby Rosebrock’s “Future Baby” on May 11.)
The two poems speak powerfully to me, and ring with each other in certain ways. Rosebrock addresses a hitherto nonexistent child, and the absences she magnifies; the child in Kirchwey’s poem is quite familiarly real, and his daily presence echoes back into the fatherly past, and into the parental relations that gird our art and sacred stories. But both poems are pulled by the tug of parental love into the embrace of celestial love; and both are themselves in miniature the gift of cherishing love that they identify in art.
“Letter from Istanbul” is addressed to the speaker’s distant son from a church, and it begins with various parodoxes surrounding our sacred places and what they are able to communicate—Keats, claiming that he knew Homeric Greece more deeply from Chapman than the land itself, when all he knew of that was a squalid room in Rome; the speaker’s father, in mourning, finding in Greece the ability nearly to convey to his adolescent son an exultant vision of love, spiritual and physical; surely, given our locale, in the background Yeats’s “gold mosaics” that offer a transport from the diminutions of the body in old age. The tone—conversational and yet with only one speaker, the long sentences spread over long lines promising logical consequence but delivering a string of associative affinities.
The son avers (from the past) that he doesn’t like to look at art in crowds, prompting the father, who is, though distant, looking at art with his son, to retort that one rarely has it any other way, and the views of paintings that he remembers as the poem moves outward are indeed crowded, but not with tourists: rather by the loops of love and grief gathering parents and children—Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, Anna and Joachim, as well as the speaker, his parents, and his child—from the ancient past to the domestic present.
Kirchwey’s work, most visibly like Hecht’s, engages the ancient world—its art, its places, its literary forms—as a medium for engaging our continuous search for meaning, but Kirchwey’s search is less conflicted than Hecht’s, more exultant and warmly inhabited. His enthusiasm for Walcott indicates a confidence that our poetry's forms can be born into a living and organic present with their full freight of historic value. “Letter from Istanbul” has as its theme art as a gift between the generations. The speaker looks to his son and sees not a certainty but, thankfully, an opening, and reminds him to remain attentive to beauty, “let it speak, / and tell it over for yourself and others” and receive its gift, if only momentary, of unity of body and spirit, a gift shared by art and love.
At the poem’s midpoint its language dramatically simplifies: Anna and Joachim thought “that they were not going to be parents at all … but then were given it.” The effect recurs at the end: “I thought of you in this ancient church: that is all.” The simple fact of the child, that person, is the cadence. But before it, a parent’s poignant longing to provide sustenance takes him as far as he can go into the world's heart.
The love poem seems sometimes the paradigmatic gesture for poetry, but these poems make me think that the love poem for one’s child, ultimately selfless as it is—envisioning the future without the self—take the love poem’s reach a step farther.
This is my last post as a guest blogger for Best American Poetry. It has been such a pleasure to revisit these poems and to bring them to you. Thanks so much to the Best American Poetry blog for this opportunity.
Karl Kirchwey is the author of six books of poems, most recently Mount Lebanon.
A Letter From Istanbul
March 19, 20––
My Dearest Son,
I write to you from what Keats called “the realms of gold”
—not that he ever saw them, beyond the coffered ceiling
and its gilded rosettes, from his deathbed on Piazza di Spagna
in a mean small room now echoing with the shouts of drunken
Nor do I mean Greece, where your grandfather, a strait-laced man,
experienced, I believe, a kind of sensual epiphany
in August of the year 1972.
Under the dictatorship, he had taken us
to the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean,
where the forge-god Hephaestus once fell to earth,
cast out of Olympus, and where the archer Philoctetes
howled with pain from his suppurating foot.
My father belonged to the generation of World War II,
for whom talking about feelings was a kind of anathema,
but in February of that year, my mother had died,
leaving him broken; and something in the beauty of that place,
in the contrast between the parched earth and the sea’s aquamarine,
led him to say to me,—I hope you have the chance
to be here once in your life with someone you love;
and I don’t mean just the physical part, either.
I was startled by his candor, being of an age,
you understand, when the slightest thing could arouse me:
the smell of figs, or of wastewater on the garden,
the shank of a key in the door, the cool flagstones
beneath the linen of an empty bed,
the pale skin in the axil of a girl’s arm.
By that time, my father was speaking out of the memory
of what he had had and lost, rather than the thing itself—
love, I mean: for I believe he and my mother
did love each other, though they made each other unhappy;
but in any case, it was as if two parts of his own nature
had been explained to him for the first time,
body and spirit, by some god of that barren place,
so that in his voice were both a kind of wonder
and an unaccustomed severity,
since he knew I was already eager to experience love,
although I did not know the costs; and he knew
that all his love could not spare me from those costs.
Instead, I thought of you in the Church of Saint Savior in Chora
here in the Golden Horn, one spring morning
—or rather, I thought of your having told me,
on the Palatine in Rome, one hot July afternoon,
that you hated being with art in the presence of crowds,
that you hated being a tourist; and at that time I responded
that I have spent most of my life trying to learn from art
but have very seldom managed to be its sole audience.
In this fresco, for instance, Christ hales Adam and Eve
out of their graves with an unholy physical roughness,
in an Anastasis, a Harrowing of Hell,
and though there were tourists who looked on imperturbably,
transforming the image over and over in their photographs,
diffusing it into a cloud of data, an atmosphere,
a sensorium on which other consumers could feed,
I would not have wanted to miss it for the presence of others.
I saw locks in the Topkapi Palace, their wards oiled and
that in this fresco seem to lie shattered under Christ’s feet,
as if a camera had been dropped on the floor,
all its stored images suddenly inaccessible,
its parts foolish, in their ingenious articulation,
before the original and its primary awe,
the gates of Hell broken down for once and for all,
and Satan bound up tight, like the hapless fly
in a spider’s web. Belief might come like that,
explosive and rapt, once or twice in a lifetime,
but in my experience it is more often the product
of long study and a loving routine,
as in the mosaic of the Virgin caressed as a child
by her parents, who were older parents, and who perhaps thought
as we did, before we were given that sacred trust,
that they were not going to be parents at all,
Anna and Joachim, but then were given it.
We have tried to give you love with the force of almost-was-not.
I wonder whether it is true that we come full circle,
in our lives, and end more or less where we began.
In this mosaic of the Dormition of the Virgin,
Christ cradles the soul of Mary who is his mother,
container of the uncontainable,
and she is depicted as an infant in swaddling clothes,
while under the feet of saints spring crimson poppies,
and in the pendentives there are gorgeous peacocks,
the bird that is the symbol of incorruptibility,
as we once saw them at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
in New York City, not far from where your maternal grandmother
now lies diapered in her final illness,
her confusion varying with the opiates
she is given against the constant pain.
On the path leading to the Topkapi Palace,
there was a cypress tree, the tree of mourning,
split by the trunk and branches of a fig,
the fig growing from the midriff of the cypress,
the fruit of the body from the dark wood of grief,
as in the Dream of the Virgin by Simone dei Crocefissi,
where the Tree of Life on which Christ is crucified
grows from the womb of the Virgin on her deathbed
while a companion sitting beside her reads to her,
for perhaps she is not dying, perhaps she is just asleep.
And here Christ heals the woman with an issue of blood.
My mother was often sick with female troubles,
during my childhood, but there was also depression,
some days so bad that she could not rise from her bed.
I once saw a painting of St. Margaret of Antioch
who, having been swallowed by a demon, hacked her way out
with the help of a simple wooden cross.
I heard someone say my mother’s demons got her in the end,
but she had good days and bad days, like anyone else.
What she needed was St. Margaret’s wooden cross.
I do not know the medium in which you will read this,
except it must be adequate to the primacy of my love.
I want this letter to be a shorthand between us,
like the quotations from old screen comedies
we bandy back and forth to raise a smile:
a set of cues, a way of recovering the years
that have intervened by now to separate us
irrevocably from your infancy and childhood;
a closed system, then, a human artifact
proof against the insinuations of eternity:
for if even two of us, caught as we are in time,
understand that spirit may be reached through the body
by which we apprehend the beauty of this world,
then there is hope for everyone else as well.
When Sinan built the Süleymaniye Mosque, he created
capture-places in the dome for the smoke that rose upward
from candles illuminating the prayers of the faithful.
This smoke, being mixed with egg, was made into ink
for those writing scripture in the nearby medrese:
so the light and breath of those prayers became their text.
And workmen repairing the keystone of an aqueduct
forty-five minutes north of Istanbul once found a bottle
containing Ottoman script. It was a message from Sinan,
who had long been dust, saying the keystone
would need to be replaced after four hundred years,
and it specified the type and source of the stone.
But most of us lack such foresight, lack a system:
we cannot face time down like an architect.
It is fear I see, in the eyes of Adam and Eve,
confronted with Christ in his robes of dazzling white,
who grabs each by the wrist: fear, and the reluctance
of those who are dead and then called back to life.
They had sinned and had grown accustomed to sinning,
just as we habituate ourselves, over the years,
until we cannot imagine another course.
It is art that hales us out of our graves,
if the Christian mystery is unavailable—
for I know that we have given you no belief
except the capacity to believe, over a lifetime.
It is your restlessness I love most about you.
We are all orphans in the world of spirit,
and though I once knew a poet of a very great age
who boasted that he had never written a poem
about a work of art, this seems perverse.
Beauty is an avenue to belief,
realized in art and what we can take from it.
By art, I do not mean Demetrios’ silver idols
of Diana at Ephesus, against which the Apostle Paul
railed in the theater until they shouted him down,
for those were mere duplicates of a lost original,
nothing inhering in them of that first great power,
like the photographs made by those solemn tourists,
exhalations into an atmosphere of image.
I mean something altogether more ineffable,
uniting body and spirit for a moment.
Perhaps it was this that your grandfather was referring to
long ago, when he spoke to me with wonder—
with wonder and yearning, he in whom so much appeared
for landscape can do it too, as well as art,
provide a medium for our only true life.
Would you be an artist? Oh, my beloved son,
you must worship beauty, then; you must let it speak
and tell it over for yourself and others—
cross, cloud, keystone, peacock, poppy, shattered wards,
blood’s issue, cypress, fig—wherever you find it,
though few will understand what you are doing.
I thought of you in this ancient church: that is all.
I send you my love and hope to see you in the summer.
(Ed note: Yesterday David Lehman was the guest commentator on NPR's "This Weeks' Must Read" segment.)
After his unexpected defeat in the Republican primary, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor opened a press conference by saying, "In the Jewish faith, you know, I grew up, went to Hebrew school, read a lot in the Old Testament, and you learn a lot about individual setbacks."
This is not mere piety, and the King James Version of the Bible, made up of the Old Testament and the New, is a terrific book. The heroes of these stories do not lead the race wire to wire. Those who are elevated are tested and taught by disaster.
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.