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Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.
Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows
The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head
Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out
Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead
Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.
But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies
And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.
She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,
Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something
Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?
–Excerpt from the poem, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
2011 will be remembered as a year with no novel deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. But thankfully the poetry recipient, Tracy K. Smith, has the gravitas to hold her place singlehandedly. Her award winning collection, Life on Mars, is a rich inquiry, complex and yet accessible. She has said the poems were inspired by her father who worked as an engineer on the Hubble project, and a contemplation of space and our place in that immense order of things runs throughout the poems. In the words of one reviewer in the New York Times, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery.”
Hold Everything Dear
as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey
as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind
as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks
as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost
as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air
as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark
hold everything dear
the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place
steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil
the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot
but given as a torch
hold everything dear
the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them
the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching
the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves
memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed
the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door
the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear
So begins John Berger‘s book of the same name, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Written about a post 9/11 world, these essays are very different from the exquisitely written books about art and life that most of us have come to know during Berger’s long career—his canonical Ways of Seeing as well as The Shape of a Pocket, About Looking and Sense of Sight. This book is full of discouragement and frustration with the state of the world and in particular Middle Eastern politics, and Berger doesn’t mince or soft pedal his views. This wasn’t an easy book for me to read.
But I am reminded of what he wrote in Ways of Seeing over 40 years ago: “Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” That is evident in these essays.
But as for the poem, that’s a keeper.
If there is no spirit unfolding itself in history,
No gradual growth of consciousness
Beneath the land grabs and forced migrations,
The bought elections, the betrayal of trust
By party faction in the name of progress—
What about spirit in the personal realm
Unfolding slowly inside us, so slowly
That our best days seem like a holding action?
Seasons repeat themselves, but the tree
Shading the yard keeps growing.
Don’t be chagrined that the sadness you felt
This evening beside the bed of a friend
Who’s growing weaker wasn’t more profound
Than the sadness of yesterday, that you still
Can’t imagine a fraction of what he’s feeling
As the world he loves slips from his grasp,
No progress from your perspective,
But who’s to say what you might notice
If the scroll of the last few months were unrolled
On the table before you, how clear it might be
That your understanding of all you’re losing
In losing him has been slowly deepening?
Another day, you say to yourself, at dusk
As you climb your porch steps, which you notice
Could use some scraping and painting this weekend,
A fresh coat that with luck will last a year.
The poignancy of this poem has stayed with me since I first read it in the New Yorker issue from October 24.
Carl Dennis is an American poet who has taught at State University of New York at Buffalo for a number of years. From The Poetry Foundation:
Dennis told Contemporary Authors: “I don’t see myself as belonging to any particular school of poetry. Yeats was the most important early influence, but I hope that his presence is now very difficult to detect. Like him I’m interested in making my poems sound like actual speech, something that one might actually say out loud to a single listener. In Yeats’s day this meant avoiding poetical ornament and mechanical rhythms. Today it also means avoiding poetry that is either too private (concerned with the play of the writer’s own mind and not with an actual subject outside himself) or too public (not concerned with the particular context of speaker and listener in a dramatic situation).”
Writing about writing poetry: It soothes my soul the way reading scriptures comforts believers. In an earlier post I referenced Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield (here), an inspiring and thoughtful meditation on how poetry comes into being.
And now I have another to recommend: Recklessn ess, by Dean Young. Young’s approach is, as the name suggests, wild and full of unexpectedness. But this small book is delicious at every level. Where Hirschfield’s approach is methodical and carefully constructed, Young’s is more rhizomatic and unstructured. It feels like he took the topic and then turned it inside out—a riskier ride, but full of memorable passages. Guidance for beginners (Young is undoubtedly a great teacher) is particularly inspirational as is his thoughts for us old dog veterans. This is a book I could send to just about anyone who is a maker and know they would find easy entry.
This book was my steady companion during a recent visit to Utah, the kind of book buddy you need when you venture into a culture that is starkly different from the one you have claimed for yourself. Young’s book was my pocket sized guidance system. This, plus the backdrop of freshly snowed mountains and the discovery of Les Madeleines‘ heartstoppingly delicious Breton confection, the Kouing-aman, made navigation easier than I had expected.
I’ll share a few passages here now, a few more later on.
For Western culture, the movement towards/return to the primitive is lastingly vigorous from the early twentieth century on. Beginning in painting but extending into literature, music, and dance, the artist turned from mastery of illusion and technique to a more unmitigated, raw relationship with the basic materials of the medium, and, at times, a spiritual even mythological assertion of the rights and perils of the artist and humankind.
Purposelessness is not meaninglessness. I wasn’t put on this planet to explain myself. The variety of nature is too astonishing to explain as a form of utility, it’s just not necessary. Functional concern does not look for plethora, it looks for single solutions. god must have loved beetles, Darwin remarked of their astonishing array. Myriad minded let us be.
People use language for two reasons: to be understood and not to be understood.
Some things must be made opaque to be seen.
John Ashbery writes in “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.”
I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.
Harold Bloom first wrote about his now famous theory of the anxiety of influence in the early 1970’s while I was in college. Bloom focused on poetry and traced the complex challenge facing a poet in search of his or her own unique voice while being inspired—and intimidated—by a powerful precursor.
The concept of “anxiety of influence” quickly moved from poetry to every creative endeavor. It opened up all sorts of possibilities, like viewing the history of art through a Bloomian lens where every major breakthrough represents a step away from a powerful precursor’s domain. It also helped me see how certain eras speak to one generation and not to others.
A good example is the recent film by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Light and entertaining, it embodied a fantasy that speaks directly to those of us who grew up in awe of a very particular era of time and its larger-than-life cast of characters—Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Luis Buñuel, et al. But for my daughter, 30 years my junior, the movie was a dud. It made no connection, offered no fantasy fulfillment. Unlike Woody Allen and me, she was not raised on the magic of Paris in the 20’s.
Another giant presence from my coming of age years was T. S. Eliot. (Where he sits in the consciousness of a younger generation isn’t clear to me. Please feel free to share your thoughts on that in the comments section below.) But discovering his poems, particularly The Waste Land, was a watershed during my teenage years. William Logan‘s review of a newly released volume of Eliot’s letters, T. S. Eliot’s Rattle of Miseries, brought back that feeling of awe and fascination. It was also a sharp reminder of the tragic circumstances of the poet’s life. Of course when delivered up by Logan, gifted and insightful and also a poet, the telling is its own pleasure.
Here are a few passages for those of you who are also (and still) Eliotians:
Eliot’s criticism is now undervalued, dismissed by critics without half his sensibility or intelligence. The poems have so long been the foundation of modern anthologies that their reputation has almost as long worked against them (the one indispensable poem of the 20th century is still “The Waste Land”). Eliot’s best poems have almost disappeared beneath dust heaps of commentary, and the dust heaps that lie on those dust heaps. Much of his early work — “Prufrock,” the “Sweeney” poems, “Gerontion,” even “The Waste Land” — could be called urban eclogues, part of the turn in English poetry from the country to the city. It may take a long time to appreciate those poems afresh, after the poets who struggled against Eliot, whether as allies or enemies, are long dead; by that time his world will seem as out of date as Pope’s.
It’s possible to read “The Waste Land” not as a po-faced rattle of miseries by a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown but as a collection of mocking growls, often at his own expense — “rhythmical grumbling,” he later called it. The poem’s pitch-black despairs are leavened by the knockabout portrait of a workingman’s pub (reading the scene aloud, Eliot was mordantly hilarious), the cynical rendering of the typist’s sleazy liaison with the house-agent’s clerk, and the mortal comeuppances dealt to Phlebas and others. Emotionally, it is a shockingly cold poem. The famous notes, scribbled out to pad the American edition, are more like Pope’s cod learning in the “Dunciad” than the scholar’s self-justification for which they are sometimes mistaken (Eliot called himself ill-read). Eliot’s poems, especially the pre-Christian poems, have been so weighed down by the concrete overcoat of reputation, their terrifying humor has sometimes been forgotten or misread. With Swift, Byron and Carroll, Eliot was one of the great comic poets in English.
Knowing a man by the week-by-week crawl through his life is a bit like understanding a locust by examining the dried casing. Still, these letters do reveal the anxieties boiled down into “The Waste Land”…Together these volumes are like a long Russian novel that ends in midcareer, terrifying, humiliating and finally exhausting.
Politics and art have been combined and comingled in the past, producing work that is powerful and provocative. Goya. Guernica. Beckmann.
But that isn’t the case for me and my way of working. In fact mixing the two is a toxic brew. Over the last week I have had to conscientiously firewall my studio from the acidic cloud emanating from Washington and polluting the summer skies in every direction.
So thank you Whiskey River for posts that helped me look out beyond my bunker. Maybe the water level rises a drop at a time.
I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
— Pablo Neruda
A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, “Hand me the sack,”
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thick ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?
A Ball Rolls on a Point
The whole ball
of who we are
the green baize
at a single tiny
spot. An aural
track of crackle
betrays our passage
It’s hot and
spring out of it.
The pressure is
intense, and the
sense that we’ve
As though bringing
too much to bear
too locally were
I am consistently drawn to Ryan’s work. Her poems are often epigrammatic, taut, terse, slightly off kilter, smart. All qualities I admire.
David Kirby honors Ryan’s work by drawing a comparison with those towering figures in American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson:
Emily Dickinson, hands-down champ at writing poems that are as compressed as Whitman’s are sprawling…
But of course there is no real competition between the Whitman who boasted “I am large, I contain multitudes” and the Dickinson whose niece Martha reported that her aunt once pretended to lock the door to her bedroom and pocket an imaginary key, saying, “Mattie, here’s freedom.” In other words, Ryan’s are the biggest little poems going.
Rather than hunting down the world and making it cry uncle, Ryan likes to create an elastic space the world can enter and fill.
Poems, poets and poetry provide a parallel universe that sometimes helps make a little more sense of my own huddled world of paintings, painters and art. A good example is this excerpt from an essay by Joel Brouwer that appeared on Poetry Foundation, In Praise of Promiscuous Thinking: On Charles Bernstein’s Attack of the Difficult Poems and David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless:
I understand the impulse to talk about poems. Poems are objects in the world. They appear on bus kiosks, in magazines, on makeshift stages in coffee shops, at weddings, in classrooms. They exist, like raccoons. We see or hear them. It’s natural to want to talk about our impressions of them, and what they’re up to. “This poem is confusing me.” “That’s one big damn raccoon.”
It’s harder to talk about poetry. Poetry is a subject, not an object. You can’t see poetry; you can only see poems. Poems are poetry like raccoons are nature. It isn’t nature that’s made a nest in your attic and given birth to four more mewling natures, batting their little black claws at the air. Poems, not poetry, have baffled you, or made you laugh, or reminded you that, in the words of Holderlin, “The flock of swallows that circles the steeple / Flies there each day through the same blue air / That carries their cries from me to you.” I have over time developed some methods for talking about what a poem is doing. I have no idea what poetry is doing.
Subject and object. Racoons and nature. This is really good.
Brouwer continues in a direction that continues to speak to me:
I don’t need Bernstein’s or Orr’s critical positions to be correct or incorrect—–I don’t need them at all—–but I want them to be…oh, let’s say “lovable.” (I choose the term in part because it’s embarrassing, vague, and dorky; criticism marked by cool, clear confidence is exactly what I’m trying to discredit.) By a lovable criticism, I mean a criticism that allows space for its readers’ imaginations without compromising its own convictions; which ventures its ideas rather than asserting them; which would rather start a conversation than end one; which not only speaks but also listens; which admits and embraces uncertainties. A lovable criticism is a criticism willing to make itself vulnerable, willing even to embarrass itself.
And are these books by Bernstein and Orr lovable? They are. Each ends with passages I find strange, ambiguous, and open to interpretation, and so, to my mind, lovable. Indeed, the extent to which each book’s closing contradictions can be engaged but not resolved is precisely the extent to which each is lovable.
What is “strange, ambiguous and open to interpretation”—that’s a credo I can live with. And by.
What am I doing inside this old man’s body?
I feel like I’m the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself,
From here inside myself, my waving claws
Inconsequential, waving, and my feelers
Preternatural, trembling, with their amazing
Troubling sensitivity to threat.
And I’m aware of and embarrassed by my ways
Of getting around, and my protective shell.
Where is it that she I loved has gone, as this
Sea water’s washing over my shelly back?
David Ferry, local luminary and recent winner of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement, brings me face-against-the-glass with the experience of aging in this wonderful short poem. The sensations he describes start to appear while we are still mid-lifed and vital, but slowly they become steady features. The metaphor of the waving claw, inconsequential, is haunting. That is a sense I know something about already—motioning, maddeningly, to no avail.
The Sudden Spring
The coyote had just spoken
and lay down to rest in a snowdrift.
March, like a fly awakened too early,
droned between somnolence
and a furious boredom.
No one remembers the autumnal
prophet, teller of drowsy stories
to be continued…
Winter, the unfinished, the abandoned,
slumped like a mourner
between two weeping candles.
This is the plaza of Paradise.
It is always noon,
and the dusty bees are dozing
like pardoned sinners.
The Mushroom Grove
Here the forest people
died of a sexual longing.
The ground trampled in their passion
healed into a cemetery,
with a few flowers
like frayed parachutes.
Their headstones are umbrellas,
black and weeping.
Three short poems by John Haines in quiet remembrance of how seasons move through the landscape with or without our approval. Haines was a homesteader in Alaska, and much of his poetry speaks to his intimacy with wildness, with solitude, with how nature happens around us with such clarity of purpose and intent. Whether viewed as a nature writer or a visionary, Haines is a poet whose short pieces cut quickly to the bone of knowing. He died in March at the age of 86.
A big thank you to Elizabeth Mead for introducing me to his work.