crowding out everything else.
SOUP OF GLASS AND CHALK-STAINED SKIES
Nora Brooks is a writer whose work has been published in Poets & Writers, PopMatters, Monkeybicycle, Redactions, Alimentum, and The Best American Poetry blog and is forthcoming from H.O.W. Journal. She is an MFA candidate at The New School and lives in the East Village. This piece originally appeared in Redactions. Nora can be found online at norabrooks.org.
Before I learned to play, I knew the harp was the only instrument fit for God. I had seen paintings of angels and saints strumming it atop clouds. They deigned lift a trumpet for the people of earth.
During our first lesson my brother told me the strings were made of catgut—the internal parts of an animal we weren’t to eat.
My father carted us out during his parties and quieted his guests and told them to listen as his cherubim played. My brother sat in the chair and plucked the chords, just as he was told, and when he finished, I followed. My father always wanted his little girl to play last.
Neither of us learned it very well. Our teacher would admonish us. Remind us to practice. Tell us to pluck more gently. Keep our fingernails short.
My brother quit before I did.
The last we heard of him was a resounding note before I took my turn in front of our bay windows. All he and I had in common, really, was that neither of us understood how such a delicate sound could echo from something so vulgar as catgut. But he left before he could come to know our father.
Scott Dievendorf grew up in California and now resides in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from Columbia University. His work has appeared in Epiphany. He currently serves as fiction editor of Apogee Journal and is polishing his novel on a Charlie Chaplin impersonator.
SOME FACTS ABOUT WHALES
Whales are difficult to trust because they are large and because they will not tell you about their blowholes or ever offer you the option of subtitles for their conversations, which are often called songs. Whales can travel vast distances. Whales reproduce one at a time, and very slowly. Whales have a lot of love to give. Whales will make a house for you inside of their bellies for all of your days. They will ask that you not light a fire, as it tickles them. Tickles is a whale word for the ways in which they will kill you. My mother once told me about being swallowed by a whale but then I realized she was talking about Pinocchio, who was a puppet made out of wood. Floorboards are made out of wood. Chairs are made out of wood. The cabinets in the kitchen are made out of wood and the burners on the stove are ringed by fire. This is a sure sign whales are not around as I go to sleep. As I go to sleep I am bathed by streetlights and surrounded, on all sides, by darkness.
Sasha Fletcher is the author ofit is going to be a good year(Big Lucks Books, 2015), one novella, and several chapbooks of poetry.
No telling what time it was
As he woke in darkness with
The sleeping cat’s warmth,
A gift from God, on the back
Of his neck and, weeping,
He willed himself to perfect
Stillness lest the cat leave.
But wait. Here was a thought,
Here was another possibility:
He was dead and, willfulness
Be damned, could no more
Stir himself than trisect an angle!
Yes, that might be it --
And this was paradise!
* This fictive conversation comprises factually-based dialogue I have put in the speakers’ mouths along with their actual words (sometimes lightly adapted), which are in italics.
TIME: The never-present
SETTING: The Théâtre du Splendide Hotel. The backdrop—hand-painted by Manet—reads: “And the Splendide Hotel was built amid the tangled heap of ice floes and the polar night—Rimbaud.” The stage is bare except for five café chairs for the inductees. The audience includes members of the Short Prose Society, who represent several countries and centuries. Because it is my fantasy, I get to be the host.
Welcome to the Short Prose Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction, coinciding with publication of Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms. Thank you all for coming from such distances of time and space; I expect that many of you will be sitting on this stage in future ceremonies. Our first honoree’s only book, the posthumously published Gaspard de la Nuit (Gaspard of the Night), is widely considered to be the first book of prose poems, though he didn’t use the term. Louis (Aloysius) Bertrand lived most of his life in Dijon, with forays into the Paris literary scene. He attended Victor Hugo’s salon, where the great literary critic Saint-Beuve described his “shrewd and bantering expression” as he read his “little ballades in prose.”
(Louis “Aloysius” Bertrand enters, a bit dazed by the applause.)
Edgar Allan Poe, our only non-French honoree, is a writer of tales, poems, and essays, as well as an editor. He is known as the master of the macabre and the inventor of the detective story. Of most concern here is his enormous influence as a writer of short prose.
(Edgar Allan Poe enters, not terribly surprised by the acclaim.)
And now the man who did the first important translations of Poe’s work into French, and credited Bertrand as inspiration for his Paris Spleen, the first self-identified collection of prose poems—alas, also published posthumously. He is also an art critic and essayist whose work chronicles and fosters modernism: Charles Baudelaire!
(Charles Baudelaire runs out and engulfs Bertrand and Poe in a group hug.)
Stéphane Mallarmé published prose poems and verse poems in the same book, further establishing the prose poem as a form of poetry. He has had enormous influence in spite of—and due to—his celebration of the difficult and the obscure. Even his good friend Degas fled a eulogy he was giving, exclaiming, “I do not understand. I do not understand.”
(Mallarmé enters and addresses the audience.)
I become obscure, of course! if one makes a mistake and thinks one is opening a newspaper.
(Mallarmé introduces himself to Bertrand and Poe, and enjoys a warm reunion with Baudelaire.)
I’m not sure if our final inductee has arrived, but let me tell you about him. His star shone bright but was self-extinguished before the age of 21 when he embarked on a new life in Africa as an itinerant entrepreneur (though reports of his involvement in the slave trade are greatly exaggerated). His two books of prose poems, A Season in Hell and The Illuminations, have been enormously influential, and his face and last name are cultural icons: Is Arthur Rimbaud here?
(After a minute of anxious waiting, Arthur Rimbaud reluctantly saunters across the stage, looking bemused at the Splendide Hotel sign. He nods to Mallarmé (whomhe knew only in passing) and gives a respectful bow to Baudelaire, whom he never met but called “the first seer, the king of poets, a real god.” As much as Rimbaud tries to act blasé, you can tell that he is glad to be here. The inductees take their seats. I invite members of the audience to stand and speak whenever they feel so moved.)
Bertrand and Poe were born two years apart (1807, 1809), separated by an ocean and a language. But they shared a sensibility that would set in motion this anthology.
Louis, it was while thumbing through—for the twentieth time at least—your celebrated Gaspard de la Nuit that the idea came to me to try to do something analogous. I knew it was going to be a remarkable book but was sure that it would pass unnoticed.
Paris Spleen established you as the inventor of the prose poem.
Excuse me, but I published a prose poem, Eureka, fifteen years before the first of Charles’s.
Yes, but that was a different creature, almost 40,000 words. In 1765, Jaucourt used the term poeme en prose to discuss “poetry in prose works…which might have never seen light if their authors had to subject their genius to rhyme and measure,” but he gave as an example Fénelon’s novel-length Les Aventures de Télémaque. Let’s stipulate that “prose poem” and “poetic prose” are not necessarily synonymous. But let’s also stipulate that we go with whatever the author says: John Ashbery published a book called Three Poems, the shortest of which is 37 pages, and I’m not going to tell him he can’t call them prose poems.
You had a formal notion of the short prose poem, even if you didn’t call it that.
I did try to create a new kind of prose; I referred to my paired paragraphs as couplets,and I left instructions for Monsieurtypesetter to cast large white spaces between these couplets as if they were stanzas in verse. I sold the book—including my illustrations— to Eugene Renduel, then I waited and waited for him to publish it. After five years I made one last plea for his good will, leaving a conciliatory sonnet by his door. Five more months went by, and I stopped living.
Two years later, your friend David d’Angers acquired the rights by returning your advance to Renduel, and the book was published.
(Hisses and boos from the audience. One figure skulks out the rear door, while another gets handshakes from those around him.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
It has been such a pleasure to guest-blog here at BAP and I’m a little sad to be hanging up my spurs when I hit “publish” on this entry. This last post is a bit more scattered than my previous ones--it’s a round up of poetry-related (or kissing cousins to poetry) projects I wanted to share with you.
First, I want to mention that our reading period is open at Augury Books. Do you have a poetry manuscript, a short story collection, or a nonfiction book (full-length or a collection of shorter pieces) that is looking for a home? Send it to us please--we’re really excited to read new work. Secondly (I’m going to keep everything connected to organizations that I represent here in this one paragraph), The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit center located in Stamford, Connecticut, is offering two half-scholarships this summer for Vijay Seshadri’s (this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book 3 Sections) workshop. The class is called Transitions and Transfigurations and runs from August 18th through August 22nd on Mayapple’s campus. If you want to study with an amazing teacher somewhere beautiful this summer, you should send an email inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org with your CV and writing sample by June 30th.
Are you familiar with cellpoems? It’s a poetry journal that sends out one weekly text message containing a beautiful short poem. It’s free to subscribe and they publish a great mix of emerging poets, as well as established names like Charles Simic and Sherman Alexie. This poem by Heather Cousins has run through my head since I first read it almost four years ago. You may also like Motionpoems, a nonprofit production company that makes short film adaptions of contemporary poems. I can’t get over how gorgeous their movie-poems are--watching each one is like being able to step into a snippet of someone else’s dream.
Girls in Trouble is another project that I love, although related to poetry more tangentially than directly; it’s an art-rock band helmed by poet Alicia Jo Rabins. Girls in Trouble’s music tells the stories of women in the Torah through songs that fuse American folk, indie rock, strings (violin and cello!), and gorgeous verse. Also, this is my new favorite tumblr--it isn’t poetry-specific, but poets (and everyone) should contribute. Cristina Henriquez’s newest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, tells the story of immigrants whose voices aren’t often heard. She created a tumblr to accompany it that asks people to share their own and their families’ experiences moving to the United States. I’ve loved reading the stories that are posted and I hope some of you will want to add yours.
Finally, I want to leave you with a poem:
A Book of Music
Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves’ boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.
There are many things to love Jack Spicer for, ranging from the Vancouver lectures where he described the poet as a radio receiving “transmissions” from the “invisible world” (“The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio.” Sporting Life) to his apocryphal last words as he died at age forty in the poverty ward at San Francisco General Hospital (“my vocabulary did this to me”), but this poem is one of the things I love best. There is so much beauty inside the darkness here--we have come to the end of things, the lovers are exhausted, and yet the title reminds us this is “A Book of Music.” I also love the plaintiveness of the you saying, “But...we loved” and how it leads into the ambiguity of the three lines below: is the “you” still speaking or can we potentially read the “And some parts of us loved / And the rest of us will remain / Two persons” as the speaker briefly agreeing, acknowledging that there was love (“some parts of us loved”) there, but then asserting separation again. What moves me the most about the poem every time I read it is that sudden shift at the end from love into poetry, the implied conflation of these two things: how the last line (and the “Yes” above it) are simultaneously devastating--the rope and its gallows-connotations, that the rope ends--and yet also somehow strangely uplifting. Despite the actual stated meaning of that bleak last line, the word “rope” also includes within it a subliminal rhyme with “hope,’ as well as connotations of rescue, of salvation.
Thank you for listening to me this week.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the multiple ways writers use the second person; how, depending on the situation, the “you” functions as an address to a specific other, to the unknown reader or readers, or to the self when the long litany of I I I grows too tiring or when what’s being written about is too fraught.
I’ve always loved writing in the second person and was horrified years ago when reading a sociology book about sociopaths (sociology and true crime books: my guilty reading pleasure, no longer a secret now that I’ve outed myself here) and learned that they speak in the second person more often than most other people--particularly when asked to express emotions. One of my best friends was reading the same book at the time and we both briefly worried we might secretly be sociopaths--in Diana’s case because sociopaths also apparently love spicy foods and she loads her pizza slices with chili flakes as thick as snow in a Siberian winter; in my case because I was writing a lot of poems where I swapped in “you” when I really meant “I.” Of course the reasons are different: sociopaths say “you” so they have a coat hook to hang emotions they don’t feel onto, whereas my longstanding joke title for my future memoir has been I Had Too Goddamn Many Feelings--I used “you” in the poems I was writing back then because I needed the illusion of distance from my subject matter.
To leave talking about myself aside for a minute, my co-editor at Augury Books, Kimberly Steele, wrote a great piece a few years back about John Ashbery and Richard Siken’s use of the second person in their poems. Sadly I can’t link to the essay, but I can quote her when she says, of Siken, “The details are too singular to implicate the reader, but the absence of a first person calls attention to the ‘you.’ The speaker stands out as the subject just as transparently as if he had employed the first person.” One of my favorite of Siken’s poems, “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves” (Crush), is a perfect example of this--the “you” so clearly an “I” who needs to speak through displacement into the observational eye detailing the scene. And yet I would also add that, despite the specificity of the details, the emotional trajectory the poem follows is common enough that many readers can and will put themselves inside this “you”--not only as we see with Penny Lane’s analysis of the poem on The Rumpus in the link I included, but also because a lengthy Google search for “A Primer...” brought me to a number of tumblr pages where fans had transcribed the poem but misquoted the last line, adding a “never” before “leave you alone.” Not only does this addition entirely change the line’s meaning, but I think it also reveals how fully the transcribers conflate the “you” of the poem with themselves; because they feel themselves inside the poem they need it to end less bleakly, even if they have to create the new ending themselves.
When I write in the second person now, I find that it allows me to direct my poems simultaneously to myself--the Other Kate who writes the poems--and to someone else, giving me a way to try to understand my own thoughts at the same time that I present them to others, hoping for them to understand (or, at least, see) me. Sometimes the other person is simply The Reader / a stranger, but more often it’s someone specific, usually chosen from the handful of people I care about who I no longer talk to except in my head; speaking to them through my writing is a way of keeping my lost ones in my life, even if our conversations have become one-sided and imaginary. I suppose when I use the second person, I feel like I’m sending a message out into the ether even though I know the “you” I address is unlikely to ever read it. Still, using the “you” is a way of reaching out--for understanding, for acknowledgement, as an invitation for a response, for connection. Because I am talking to someone, what I’m also saying is, of course, always “please answer.”
Today, sister and I visited
an apartment for viewing.
Smaller than my lungs, it
felt like a fragment of a rock
among rocks scattered in the sand.
I was unable to ask for more
of other kinds, and my sister
stood still near the entrance.
But there was a brick wall
above a furnace, and I saw
it was much darker burgundy,
had order and weight and
dignity like the Great Wall
of China which people wished
to see from the Earth’s low orbit.
Each time when surveys
were given to us asking what places
we wanted to travel to, I wrote down
the Great Wall of China, though
I knew I could only walk for days
or years and might die in the middle
of walking like those hundreds of
thousands of workers who died
building the fortification.
Onto the brick wall I leaned,
how cold it was! Similarly, down
to the bottom might have been
buried piles of corpses waiting
to share their withered flesh,
their bread, their eminent labor.
The dead were dead although
there were those who died and
rose again. Did any of them know
the Christ? The door shut after
my sister. I too let them see me leave.
You’re still real, still a gorgeous mess of flesh.
You’re a businessman in the bathroom mirror.
You’re a barrier reef, an echo, an atom splicer
You let off spurts of steam
& crazy-person laughter.
You spill liquor on the rug.
You step on Christmas bulbs
& yell mazaltov!
You flicker in my stitched peripheral every night.
Let’s weigh ourselves down with uprooted rose bushes
Let’s buy a watch together.
-- G. Andrew Collins
I wait for signs of it, my body in drought, pulled teeth
housed inside drawers. Gates, empty.
Yesterday, another girl
dead. Her plantains
left on the lips of a balcony—
flies digging inside the cupboards.
A red pepper is hemmed
beneath my breasts tonight. They say a moth
flew from my hair—
into woods heavy as a closed door. Lampposts calling
-- Raven Jackson
Today I’m without anchor
without overcoat, without morning commute
eating my lunch on the Staten Island Ferry,
making roundtrips in the heat of the day,
stretching my legs, and then boarding
the same boat that brought me here.
The changed scenery is a thrill
with the sun in my lap, the water at my throat
as I sprawl across the bench, or my irises
contracting as I walk along the synapses
of my neighbors, the day as detailed as an inner ear.
The sea scrapes the old docks, the grinding
as the ferry moves its mass from one island to another;
I am so alive with looking – even the statue turns her torso
to face us, the sky adjusts to every drag and blur.
Around the corner of the corridor, I see myself
of three weeks ago. Summer Pia
behind sunglasses, bag burst with books and scribbles.
Pia looking so young in my old seat
eating chicken salad, dropping lettuce
in her lap and laughing while Fall Pia
looks on in a small yellow scarf.
After the“You?” and “You?” again, I watch Old Pia
with her worn little notebook,
and in the lines she writes, I can see their opposites.
I can see a million decisions and their antecedents,
a steady stream of questioning and pivots.
Pia, I know you.
When the boy beside her waves
his blue arm and hoots, “I can see a shark! I can see his teeth!”
Old Pia swore she saw the teeth too.
And perhaps, she can see me,
New Pia, perched on the rail.
A near, watermark of a Pia
in the brief future,
Pia of the beer garden and the turkey sandwiches.
Pia of the incense, the celebrity sighting.
Pia who tried parting her hair on the other side.
Pia, I am as good looking as you.
I have written more poems, eaten more bowls of instant oatmeal,
given more morning kisses, more flosses, more gargles,
(my teeth are ever-so-much cleaner than yours are).
More dog watching in our corner of the park.
And there are artists you have never heard of, Pia!
Films yet to be released from their shiny canisters.
There is a book right now sitting on your shelf
that you have not read yet,
but I have.
You are the Pia of the almost full notebook,
Pia before the bar revelation,
before the haiku on the back of a deli receipt.
Pia before The Pillow Book
before Baudelaire, before Celan.
Did you think I wouldn’t recognize you? Those pale arms. That arched foot.
You gorgeous being! You don’t even know it,
but I do.
The way your hair smells and your skin itches,
the way your voice gets a little pitch,
your stutters, your slips, your failed sense of direction.
There’s no one else I’d rather ride the ferry with,
even if you cannot sense that I am with you,
even if you did not ask me to be,
so I’ll just hover here
beside the water and recite
Gregory Orr’s “Love Poem” in a whisper
because I know you have it memorized.
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 sixth post.
Though Geoffrey O’Brien’s criticism is very richly furnished and densely populated—with genres, artists, languages, milieux, characters high and low—his poetry is spare almost to the point of invisibility. Indeed, the boundary between being there and not being there is very often his theme, as in “Another One for Joel”: “This is not the poem, / this is just the place / where the poem disappears.”
In “The Chimes,” the intervals between the chiming of bells demarcate time and isolate its worldly cargo. Each chime, announced by a numbered stanza, creates a cross-section of time that the poem scrutinizes for evidence of being: “The nature of time // Is to dissolve / Into reverberations // The character of dusk / Is to proclaim them.” O’Brien’s characteristically short lines are another manifestation of this inquiry: the poem keeps returning to the point of origin ( “2 / I am once again / where I never was before”). They look from a narrow ledge into an expanse of emptiness.
This scrutiny creates a synesthesia in which the evidence of different senses is interchangeable, tested for its truthfulness: The chimes “sound like shivers of light”; “like the sound of glass.” A sky “seen from inside itself” reveals “blue glow // Flame color / Not seen but heard / Not heard but // Apart from.” These isolations invoke Zeno’s problem: how do the items of presence that we perceive coalesce into the continuous world we know? (“Unending coincidence / Of separations // A walk / Through frosty air”). The language of description is both an alternative in a range of presences and an estranging mechanism itself.
The resulting hypnotic repetitions transport the reader into a zone where sensation is thought and feeling is inquiry. They register a mournful remoteness from experience within their tender regard for it. The “unidentifiable archways” past which the poem returns home in the last stanza summon the possibilities of art—De Chirico? Piranesi?—without engaging them. But that homeward journey, these crystalline poems’ yearning extension toward the world we know and feel, is their heartbeat.
Read twelve more new poems by Geoffrey O’Brien in Little Star #5 (2014). He is the author of, most recently, a book of poems, Early Autumn, and Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002–2012.
The nature of time
Is to dissolve
The character of dusk
Is to proclaim them
I am once again
Where I never was before
In a town unknown to me
Even when I lived here
They sound like
Shivers of light
Like the sound of glass
As it shatters
Into shadows of shadows
They sound like
The inmost lock
The subtlest catch
Or a bundle of keys
Dropped on a metallic sky
Where we are walking
Is always somewhere else
Sliding sideways through time
In the same place
And the same hour
A different place
And a different hour
Through frosty air
Seen from inside itself
In which is blue glow
Not seen but heard
Not heard but
Jars the street
Or as when
Pressing one surface on another
The registration is off
The body finds a way
To the contours
Of what was ditched
And in the wrong year
Past unidentifiable archways
Daughters of Zeus, you know what man's life is,
How brief, and yet how long the while—
Its epics, falls of sparrows; its tragedies
Half farces and half vile;
How every hero's sword at last grows brittle,
How his dream fades, and night comes in a little—
And you smile.
All else turns vanity: but yours the day
Of little things, that grow not less.
Our moments fly—enough if on their way
You lent them loveliness.
Alone of gods, you lie not; yours no Heaven
That totters in the clouds—what you have given,
There is a woman on TV and I care
about what she’s selling. Pets are
involved, wildlife, maybe the earth.
In any event we’re moments away
from something. A red steam engine
pumps under my sternum, drives me
to a black sand beach where I return
washed-up jellyfish to the water
and at five o’clock drink the sun under
the ocean. This lady, this lady on TV
I am sad with her. I am going to send her
saffron bulbs and tiny cymbals
with instructions on how to play them.
Everything can lead to everyone
doing nothing. I spent too much
on this TV. It’s huge and so
quality. Just look at that picture. Look
at this lady, she’s on the verge of tears.
We’re all on the verge of tears, but look
at hers, racing slalom down her nose.
-- J. B. Fredkin
I hope your boyfriend
around the same time I get famous.
While I am off blowing my MacArthur on deluxe espressos
and rent in the East Village.
I hope that my being famous brings this poem to you,
which is why I’ve written it, every poem.
-- Greg Griffith
You’re tired of subdividing
down the whole so
you can better understand
the whole — no one cares
about the whole because
no one can handle the whole.
You are not a person
but a series of quarks,
each tendon only a fraction
of energy. And now that
you’ve realized this
you’ve become a slave
to the business of
so that eventually you can
get to nothing. You’re
could handle you best
if you were nothing.
-- Julie Levine
2. He was someone you’d fake friend, more stuffing than boy.
3. He’d be your puppet, your mannequin, and your funhouse mirror.
4. He’d become the you that you knew, the you that you told him to.
5. George would take you to the abandoned railroad tracks to meet his friends,
the ones who found old fuel containers and lit them on fire.
6. That place doesn’t exist.
7. George lived at the bodega, playing the original Mortal Kombat.
8. When George lost video games he’d smash his fists against the monitor
until he was asked by the owner to leave.
9. He was a doll, a skinny stick figure, those knockoff Doritos that would stain
your tongue orange.
10. George was useful for his complicity in acts of vandalism.
11. He was a doll, the kind you’d bury in your closet until you needed him again.
-- Micah Zevin
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.