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Bluefin tuna, one of many ocean fish at risk

Book updates:

Dorothea Lasky‘s most recent book, Black Life, is reviewed in the Boston Globe today. I just recently discovered Lasky and am a fan of both Poetry is Not a Project and Awe. In this review Michael Brodeur speaks to the contrasts at play in her work:

But where “Awe” balanced Lasky’s fascinations with the spiritual self with a caution to “be scared of yourself,” the poems of “Black Life” stay fixed in a darker stare, charting death, desire, jealousy, loss, love, and loneliness with equal parts emotional warmth and factual chill. All the while, Lasky’s mix of stark truth and playful affect effectively foregrounds the former…Though Lasky’s language is simple its often stark clarity is also the source of each line’s force. And in “Style is Joy,” she takes care we know that fidelity to the unpracticed is central to her practice: “every poem full of blood and guts/ Must be stylized to be so.”

Lewis Hyde, author of two books that have touched me deeply , The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, has published a new one, Common as Air. From the review in the New York Times by Robert Darnton:

Hyde, the author of “The Gift” (1983), a defense of the noncommercial aspects of art, does not merely cull the works of the founding fathers for quotations. He pitches his argument at a level where historians and political philosophers have contributed most to our understanding of intellectual history. Instead of treating the ideas of the founders as self-contained units of meaning, he explores their interconnections and shows how they shared a common conceptual frame…Hyde builds his argument by telling stories, and he tells them well. His book brims with vignettes, which may be familiar but complement one other in ways that produce original insights.

Paul Greenberg is the son of an old friend of mine, Harvey Greenberg. Paul’s latest book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, is personal and extremely well timed. I have seen glowing reviews in a plethora of publications. I’ve just started reading his account of the vanishing population of four iconic North Atlantic fish: salmon, sea bass, cod and bluefin tuna. With a son who also approaches the ocean and all creatures therein as the earth’s most sacred domain, I am approaching Greenberg’s book as prescient essential reading.

From a review by Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times:

Didactic — however worthy — is not much fun. Ecological and planet-saving literature tends to argue for the essential. The discoveries, the questions, the issues it raises must exercise us. And exercise is an excellent thing. Only, in a contemporary contentiousness, that pits puritans against know-nothings, rather excluding play.

So much as preface to Paul Greenberg’s “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” He deals in weighty though never ponderous detail with such matters as the despoliation of our seas by industrial overfishing and the tension between the need to feed our world and to preserve it. He writes with evocative passion about the individual animal wildness of a bluefin tuna, a king salmon, an ocean-spanning cod.

More unusually, he goes on to convey what can only be called the fisherman’s happiness: part battle, part sense of primeval freedom in a constrained world. At 13, he got his hands on a used dinghy and taught himself to navigate and fish: ” Long Island Sound still felt to me like wilderness — a place to freely search out and capture wild game. I thought of the sea as a vessel of desires and mystery, a place of abundance I did not need to question.”


Whatever you Paid for That Sweater, It was Worth It

Be scared of yourself
The real self
Is very scary.
It is a man
But more importantly
The man is tall
And is everything in you that is an absolute reverse of all your actions.
In you he will do things and in you no one will know the difference
Still the honey and the herb, the bright lights.

The piece of fiscal fish, the lemons,
The blank above with stars will praise you
But he, he puts his legs over frail women
And tries to get to the thing they won’t give up.
Just as true loneliness gets to the very real thing in you
Scary or not, is part man for all it is wanting and can’t get
To the place where it has married woman, it sits
In a sea of lemons, its tail dragged bloody across the floor.

Still, here I do not speak of mutilation.
The real self is not muddy, it is pure
Still here it is a thing of murder
The self comes off itself and murders the woman in its path
Her skirts effortlessly careening back there up into the stars.

–Dorothea Lasky

This poem is from Lasky’s volume, Awe. I’ve written here about another of Lasky’s publications, Poetry is Not a Project. Her work is new to me, but I’m digging in and loving the spade work of discovery. This one grabbed me right around the midsection on first reading. It traces many of my personal themes, and does so deftly. Phrases from this poem are still singing inside, like “fiscal fish,” and “it sits/In a sea of lemons, its tail dragged bloody across the floor.”

I fell upon a small hand-assembled book while I was in New York: Poetry is Not a Project, by Dorothea Lasky, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. (A visit to their site is a quirky and “artisanal” (but of course—they are located in Brooklyn!) adventure that made me want to know more, much more about what they are doing.)

Simple and straightforward, Lasky’s book consists of 19 short pages that offer her view of poetry. The lineage of her thinking about the creative process is complicit with my own. Throughout this short essay it was easy to substitute “visual art” or “painting” every time she refers to a poem or poetry.

For example:

Nowadays, poetry critics and scholars often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project,” but I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, tather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain. I think a poet intuits a poem.

When people talk about poetry as a project, they suggest that the road through a poem is a single line. When really the road through a poem is a series of lines, like a constellation, all interconnected. Poems take place in the realm of chance, where the self and the universal combine.

Having a project (and naming it) is a powerful tool. A poet with a nameable project seems wise…But this kind of thinking strikes me as a load of BS…I think that if you really are a poet, you don’t think this is how poetry works.

To create something like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it enough to name it.

Naming your intentions is great for some things, but not for poetry. Projects are bad for poetry…I think the notion of a poetic project may actually be very toxic to poetry.

It’s hard enough to create a poem. If he is destined to be a great poet, he will never know what his project really was, no matter what he says it is, was, or what he might imagine it could be. Which is to say that a poem, as a thing, resists being talked about linearly in its very nonlinearity.

What differentiates a great poet from a not-great one is the capacity to exist in that uncertain space, where the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual.

Note on the author: Dorothea Lasky has published two volumes of poetry, Awe (2007) and Black Life (2010). For more information, visit her website, Birds in Snow.