* Akhmatova & some news on the friday influence

Willow – Anna Akhmatova

 “And a worn-out cluster of trees.”

                                  — Pushkin


In the cool nursery of the young century,

I was born to a patterned tranquility,

The voice of man was not sweet to me,

But the wind’s voice I could understand.

I loved burdocks and nettles,

But the silver willow best of all.

And, obligingly, all my life it lived

With me, and its weeping branches

Fanned my insomnia, with dreams.

But – strangely – I’ve outlived it.

There’s a stump, with strange voices,

Other willows are conversing,

Under these, under our skies.

I’m silent…as if a brother had died.


This week on The Friday Influence: the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

Akhmatova lived under the reign of Stalin and consequently had her work censored and condemned by the government.  She is known best for her poems of witness during these times, notably the poem cycle “Requiem”.  I first discovered her work while reading Carolyn Forche’s book “The Country Between Us”.

The poem above was the first poem I came across when I laid her collected poems on a table at a bookstore.  I should point out that her collected is 948 pages long and so the book kinda flopped open to this poem.  There were a few weeks that summer where I repeated this exercise over and over again to sheer illumination.

In “Willow”, I am taken in by the power of the direct address.  There are some poets who send the “you” out in a poem and you can dodge it.  Here, the tone of the poem is such that you feel taken into the confidence of the speaker.  While the speaker does not speak to a “you”, it is felt no less distant.  I guess I could call it an indirect direct address.

Whatever it is, the poem pulses with it, and I read the last line for all its implications of loss.  The worlds traveled here, nature, human, dream – all ring in that last line.

This intimate address makes sense seeing as much of her early work is made up of love poems in this vein:

‘He loved three things, alive:’ *

He loved three things, alive:

White peacocks, songs at eve,

And antique maps of America.

Hated when children cried,

And raspberry jam with tea,

And feminine hysteria.

…And he had married me.

It takes not only nerve to say something like this but to write it, and write it well.


While thinking about Akhmatova’s intimate tone, I found myself thinking about the tanka poet Izumi Shikibu.  Something of Akhmatova’s connection with the willow and the heart can be found in this:


I watch over

the spring night—

but no amount of guarding

is enough to make it stay.

(Izumi Shikibu) **


In other news, my chapbook, The Wall, is officially out from Tiger’s Eye Press.  I am working on a page for this blog with excerpts and ordering information but for now please know info on how to order a copy can be found here:


Ok, fine.  I’m excited.


Happy exciting!


* translated by A.S. Kline here:  http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Russian/Akhmatova.htm

** translated by Jane Hirshfield, The Ink Dark Moon (read this!!!)

divagations, & the friday influence

Elms – C.K. Williams

All morning the tree men have been taking down the stricken elms skirting the broad sidewalks.
The pitiless electric chain saws whine tirelessly up and down their piercing, operatic scales
and the diesel choppers in the street shredding the debris chug feverishly, incessantly,
packing truckload after truckload with the feathery, homogenized, inert remains of heartwood,
twig and leaf and soon the block is stripped, it is as though illusions of reality were stripped:
the rows of naked facing buildings stare and think, their divagations more urgent than they were.
“The winds of time,” they think, the mystery charged with fearful clarity: “The winds of time…”
All afternoon, on to the unhealing evening, minds racing, “Insolent, unconscionable, the winds of time…”


The above poem is taken from C.K. Williams’ book “Flesh and Blood”.  This book stands out from the rest of his work because the poems in it consist of eight lines each, a dramatic change from his usual epic poems which tend to sprawl down the page visually.  I say sprawl in a good way; Williams has for most of his career written in a longer line, a line he has worked at, earned, and done amazing things with.

The shorter poems in this book find him working that same line to more intense effects.  “Elms”, for example, has a lot in its eight lines.  Williams first paints the scene vividly, using his adverbs to not only describe but move a poem along.  The “choppers in the street…chug feverishly, incessantly, packing truckload after truckload…”  You almost get the sense of something being shredded in the language itself.

Adverbs tend to be no-no’s in poetry, but they way they serve to build things visually and conceptually makes them work here. Adjectives are another no-no, yet later here we get the surprising juxtaposition of “Insolent, unconscionable.” This move continues the tone of severity while keeping the momentum going in following each other.

After the scene is set, Williams moves on to have the buildings speak.  Nice.  He gets away not only with them speaking but with the phrase “The winds of time”, a cliché if a person says it, but not when buildings do.  How he gets away with it, I don’t know.  But he does, and, as you know, what a poet can get away with is a fascination/aspiration for me.


One of the great things about working at a bookstore is the privilege to leaf through hundreds of books on a daily basis.  Once, I came across a scene in a novel where, after writing a poem, a person asks another: Is it a poem, or is it description?  This question has stayed with me and come up during my revision process.  What moves me most about “Elms” is how Williams shows how a long, descriptive line can work in a short lyric and still sing.


Happy singing!


p.s. Just looked up the word “divagations”.  You should too.

p.p.s.  I got to see the proofs for my upcoming chapbook, The Wall, yesterday.  Maybe I’m excited.  Maybe.  *big grin*

* translation 3/3 on the friday influence

(from Proverbios y Cantares – Antonio Machado) *


Oh faith of meditation!

Oh faith after deep thought!

When a heart returns to earth,

the human cup overflows, and the sea swells.


This week, The Friday Influence presents the work of the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

I first ran across the above poem during my first trip to Powell’s in Portland two years ago.  I spied Machado’s Poesias Completas on the shelf and immediately flipped through to these lines.

I was moved by the tension between the mind and the senses implied in these lines.  I mean, that’s what it’s like to be overwhelmed, to be interrupted and taken from thought to body.  The sea swells!  I fell in love and took the book home with me.

I see in these lines the days when I am so focused on the page that to be taken away or distracted hurts – mainly it makes me fussy.  Phil Levine once said: when a poem comes, the phone can wait, the knock at the door can wait, it all can wait.  Ignore it.  I respect the necessity for that kind of attention.  I figure: it’s my poetry – if I don’t make time for it and give it the attention it deserves, who will?

I believe this is a shade of what Keats meant when he spoke of the poet as being “the most unpoetical of any thing in existence.”


I have enjoyed this three part stint of translating.  I guess four, if you count my riffing around with Goethe.

For this week’s post, I collaborated with Andrea Schreiber, a self-styled polyglot and linguist with a true love of language.  She is also my girlfriend.  Meaning, she puts up with me when I get fussy.  And she has seen Machado’s Spain, the roads he saw, the sea…  She helped steer my translations towards the spirit of the poems.  I thank her.

Here are a few more from Machado:


Last night I dreamed that I saw

God and that I spoke with God;

and dreamed that God listened…

later I dreamed I had dreamed.


Everyone has two

battles to fight:

in dreams, you wrestle with God;

awake, with the sea.


It is common knowledge that cups

are used for drinking;

Sadly, it is unknown

what use we have for thirst.


Everything moves on, and everything stays;

it is our lot to move on,

move on making roads,

roads over the sea.


To die…and fall like a drop

of ocean back to the ocean?

Or, be what I never could be:

a man, without shadow, without dreams,

a man that goes forward

without roads, without mirrors?


Happy forwarding!


* all poems translated by Jose Angel Araguz and Andrea Schreiber.  (word to your late night conversations!)

* Goethe

(Roman Elegy V – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) *

I find myself on Classic soil;

the past and present speak to me.

As I was told to, I leaf through the works of Ancients and find joy.

Through the nights, love keeps me busy at other things;

even though I am half-educated, I am twice happy.

And am I not educated when I take in the forms of a breast,

or let my hands glide down hips?

I begin to understand marble statues, I think and compare;

I see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand.

And though my love steals a few hours of my day,

she gives me hours of the night in return.

We not only kiss, we talk great talks;

and when she falls asleep, I lie awake and think.

I have composed poems in her arms,

have tapped and counted out hexameters on her back.

She breathes softly when she sleeps,

and warms me with her breath.

Meanwhile, Cupid stokes the fires,

as he did for his other great poets.


I am on a Goethe kick these days.  It is one of those instances where I find myself getting into the work of one writer and, when I look up his sign, am endeared to them even more.  And not just because he is a Virgo like myself.  It is that he is such a Virgo.

I find myself referring to the poem above in particular when talking to people about the man.  I mean, alone, the line: “I see with a feeling eye, feel with a seeing hand” is both motto and manifesto for poets everywhere.  And couple that (ahem) with the sensuous nature of the poem, and it is quite the performance.


Seriously, he is famous for the line about counting out hexameters on his lady’s back – but, few realize that the man is truly keeping count.  The Virgo loves to multitask.  This whole poem – a great love poem, yes – is also an ode to the multitasking spirit.  He is in Rome reading as much as he can while on a romantic vacation.  And why else the defensive tone of, “We not only kiss, we talk…”

The bit about her being asleep and him lying awake thinking – I’ve totally been there.  A Virgo makes use of every moment to the point that they forget how to live in the moment.  I have a feeling, though, that Goethe, like me, figured out that much of what drives this spirit is restlessness.

Restlessness can be a great generator of creativity if approached the right way.  Hence the line: “though I am half-educated, I am twice happy.”  I can tell he really means what he says here, and that it is a hard-won victory.

To not only work hard but also to stop, assess, celebrate and dream – these are lessons it takes a life to learn.


Happy learning!


* the translation here is my own rendition of a more scholarly translation by Stanley Applebaum. (word to your Dover Thrift editions!)