He is young. The father is dead.
Outside, a cold November night,
the mourner’s cars are parked upon the lawn;
beneath the porch light three
brothers talk to three sons
and shiver without knowing it.
His mind’s all black thickets
and blood; he knows
flesh slips quietly off the bone,
he knows no last looks,
that among the profusion of flowers
the lid is closed to hide
what no one could bear –
that metal rends the flesh,
he knows beneath the white pointed
that in the distant talk of brothers,
the father is dead.
The unanswered question is why a poet transforms experience, not so much to make it understandable, but to make it yield its aesthetic possibilities
— Jim Harrison
This is one of the quotes I carry with me from notebook to notebook as a reminder of why I write and what’s at stake. Pushing words to not just describe but to evoke life for others is a worthy endeavor, and one that the late Jim Harrison worked at book after book.
The poem above is a good example of what is meant in the quote. The poem describes one person’s experience of grief after a death. Yet, rather than being elegy, the poem gathers its human details (parked cars; shivering) and sets them against memories that keep edging in on the person grieving. The calm juxtaposed against the violence is where the son lives now, and is part of the new world without the father.
Another example of this kind of transformation of human details into aesthetic possibility is found in the following poem by Ted Kooser. Kooser and Harrison were friends and co-authored the book Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry. The poem below, which does a great job of turning over a human moment of grief for what it can further say about living, shows Kooser to be also working at the worthy endeavor Harrison will be remembered for.
Mourners – Ted Kooser
After the funeral, the mourners gather
under the rustling churchyard maples
and talk softly, like clusters of leaves.
White shirt cuffs and collars flash in the shade:
highlights on deep green water.
They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
but now they keep saying hello and hello,
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands.
Once upon a time, I was a young poet reading through an anthology of Latin American poetry when I came across a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto that just blew me away. I wrote the poem down in a notebook – it was in Spanish, translated from the original Portuguese – to translate into English later, which I did, happy to be in conversation with the poem.
The thing is when I discovered this poem years ago, I had it in my head that it was made up of only one part, and so for me, the poem was only one section long. And this one section is lovely. See for yourself:
Weaving the Morning – João Cabral de Melo Neto* translated into English by José Angel Araguz
One rooster alone does not weave the morning:
he will always be working with other roosters.
One to pick up the cry that he
and throw it to another; another rooster
to pick up the cry of the previous rooster
and throw it to another; and other roosters
with many other roosters crossing
the sun-threads of their rooster cries,
so that the morning, made of a soft fabric,
goes on being woven among all roosters.
Later, I rediscovered the poem and learned that the poet had written it with two sections, not just one. And what’s worse, that second, new (to me) section was kinda clunky (again, to me). Again, see for yourself:
And taking shape in this fabric, gathered,
stored and waiting where everyone will enter,
entertaining itself in the awning
(morning) sets down its frameless plans.
Morning, a canopy woven of such airy material
it rises by itself: a globe of light.
So there I was, mistaken and shaken. Was the poem I ran into in the anthology misprinted? Or had it been printed at the bottom of a page, and had younger me – floored and amazed by that first section – not turned the page when I copied it down? What else but poetry can have us slipping past ourselves like this?
There were also the questions of translation: Was the poem in its entirety a finer product in the original Portuguese? Should I consult other Spanish translations? What is a translation but a reaching into the material of memory, other’s and one’s own?
Now, my goal in sharing this story – well, not really story, more snapshots of poetic fumbling – is not to make a case against the second section, but to share the poem (it’s charm can withstand my fumbling). I also wanted to engage a bit with ideas of memory and enchantment (charm, enchantment: très magique) and how both work in specific ways in poetry. The way the roosters build off each other’s cries is much like the way one poem is answered by another, and how one memory is blurred and built upon by another. One reads and writes, in order to read and write some more.
In a recent postcard exchange with Edward Vidaurre, I held onto my earlier enchantment as I wrote the first section of the poem out. I figured, hey, the first section’s the best part and there’s only so much room on a postcard for a poem plus my own meandering explanation at how I failed to remember the second section initially.
So, really, this is a tale of failure. Speaking of: As I prepared to write this blog post, I flipped through my sketchbook, remembering distinctly that I had sketched a rooster sometime in the past, had the image of it vividly in mind (see above).
Alas, when I found the image, it was no rooster:
*p.s. Here is the poem in the original Portuguese as well as the Spanish translation I worked from:
Tecendo a Manhã – João Cabral de Melo Neto (original)
Um galo sozinho não tece uma manhã:
ele precisará sempre de outros galos.
De um que apanhe esse grito que ele
e o lance a outro; de um outro galo
que apanhe o grito de um galo antes
e o lance a outro; e de outros galos
que com muitos outros galos se cruzem
os fios de sol de seus gritos de galo,
para que a manhã, desde uma teia tênue,
se vá tecendo, entre todos os galos.
E se encorpando em tela, entre todos,
se erguendo tenda, onde entrem todos,
se entretendendo para todos, no toldo
(a manhã) que plana livre de armação.
A manhã, toldo de um tecido tão aéreo
que, tecido, se eleva por si: luz balão.
Tejiendo la mañana – João Cabral de Melo Neto translated into Spanish by José Antonio Montano
Un gallo solo no teje una mañana:
precisará siempre de otros gallos.
De uno que recoja el grito que él
y lo lance a otro; de otro gallo
que recoja el grito del gallo anterior
y lo lance a otro; y de otros gallos
que con otros muchos gallos se crucen
los hilos de sol de sus gritos de gallo,
para que la mañana, con una tela tenue,
vaya siendo tejida, entre todos los gallos.
Y tomando cuerpo en tela, entre todos,
erigiéndose en tienda, donde entren todos,
entretendiéndose para todos, en el toldo
(la mañana) que planea libre de armazón.
La mañana, toldo de un tejido tan aéreo
que, tejido, se eleva de por sí: luz globo.
Human beings pass me on the street, and I want to reach out and strum them as if they were guitars. Sometimes all humanity strikes me as lovely. I just want to reach out and stroke someone, and say There, there, it’s all right, honey. There, there, there.
Sandra Cisneros, from ” Never Marry a Mexican”
After last week, I’ve been enjoying hitting the books on my exams list again. This week I’m revisiting the work of Sandra Cisneros. In rereading her short story collection Woman Hollering Creek, written after The House on Mango Street with a book of poems in between, it’s interesting to note echoes of Mango Street, at least in terms of formal music and spirit.
The above excerpt, for example, has the nuance and linguistic power of evocation of the best short pieces that make up The House on Mango Street. Yet, even in this excerpt, one can see that the stakes are different. Where Mango Street is a book of childhood, of youthful observation and insight, here the speaker is possessed of the wildness of adulthood. And it’s there in the language. The last sentence’s “There, there, there” evokes the strumming of a guitar in an almost tangible way.
It is in this evocation that Cisneros builds off her previous collection of stories and continues in the spirit of what Charles Baudelaire, in dreaming and defining the prose poem, described as “the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and agile enough to adapt to the lyrical movements of the soul.”
Prose poem, flash fiction, short short, microcuento – whatever banner the lyrical movements happen under, the eye and heart are first to recognize the signs.
Rachel says that love is like a big black piano being pushed off the top of a three-story building and you’re waiting on the bottom to catch it. But Lourdes says it’s not that way at all. It’s like a top, like all the colors in the world are spinning so fast they’re not colors anymore and all that’s left is a white hum.
There was a man, a crazy who lived upstairs from us when we lived on South Loomis. He couldn’t talk, just walked around all day with this harmonica in his mouth. Didn’t play it. Just sort of breathed through it, all day long, wheezing, in and out, in and out.
This is how it is with me. Love I mean.
Sandra Cisneros, from “One Holy Night”
p.s. Check out a previous post on a Cisneros-inspired microfiction here.
I remember Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman as one of the first books of poems I carried around with me, young and possessed of that particular hubris termed a calling to poetry (Even the phrasing of that reeks of hubris, no?).
I remember being in high school and even then struggling with how to deal with culture and words, how to balance a love of Yeats (wherever Innisfree was, it sounded dope and fancy) as well as for Juan Gabriel (try listening to “Querida” and not feeling something!).
What I was moved by most in reading Cisneros is her ability to bring such worlds together. She was the first writer I read to bring together worlds I knew – Texas, books, and, yes, heartbreak (highschool amiright?) – and show how they can coexist through the tension of words.
In the spirit of this “world-togethering,” I’ve decided to pair up this week’s poem with the video for Sleater-Kinney’s new song, “No Cities to Love.” The chorus of the song (There are no cities, no cities to love/It’s not the city, it’s the weather we love!) brought me back to Cisneros and her poems which taught me how to take note of weather.
Bay Poem from Berkeley – Sandra Cisneros
Mornings I still
reach for you before
opening my eyes.
An antique habit from
last summer when we pulled
each other into the heat of groin
and belly, slept with an arm
around the other.
The Texas sun was like that.
Like a body asleep beside you.
But when I open my eyes
to the flannel and down,
mist at the window and blue
light from the bay, I remember
where I am.
on the other side of the bed
is only books, not you. What
I said I loved more than you.
In searching for images to accompany this week’s poem, I came across the photo below. The photo is from 1933 and is of the Metropolitan nurses home at Roosevelt Island, part of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital complex.
The image below stayed with me for the way it captured what might have been part of someone’s daily commute or walk, a scene that may have been overlooked in day to day life. The image is almost without center, or rather, the center is active, keeping the viewer staring off into the detailed distance as one would be able to should they be turning this particular corner.
This week’s poem – “Chart” by Rafael Campo (pulled from the latest issue of Poetry*) – takes on the idea of people being overlooked in a doctor’s work life. Through the detailing of the particular corners of the people that he knows, Campo keeps the reader looking into the very active center of his poem.
The Chart – Rafael Campo
Says fifty-four-year-old obese Hispanic
female — I wonder if they mean the one
with long black braids, Peruvian, who sells
tamales at the farmers’ market, tells
me I’m too thin, I better eat; or is
she the Dominican with too much rouge
and almond eyes at the dry cleaner’s who
must have been so beautiful in her youth;
or maybe she’s the Cuban lady drunk
on grief who I’ve seen half-asleep, alone
as if that bench were only hers, the park
her home at last; or else the Mexican
who hoards the littered papers she collects
and says they are her “documents”; if not,
it could be that Colombian drug addict
whose Spanish, even when she’s high, is perfect;
or maybe it’s the one who never says
exactly where she’s from, but who reminds
me of my grandmother, poor but refined,
lace handkerchief balled up in her plump hand,
who died too young from a condition that
some doctor, nose in her chart, overlooked.
* p.s. Read the rest of this month’s issue of Poetry here.
During my grad studies in NYC, I had the opportunity to go to a reading by Tomas Tranströmer. Sharon Olds and Robert Bly were chosen to present Tranströmer’s work, each reading a selection. Olds delivered his work in a fervent and direct manner, while Bly strode through the poems, pausing at times to exclaim over a line and asking us to listen, really listen.
The words I’ve chosen for each reader – fervent, direct and stride, listen – are key to my understanding of Tranströmer and his poems. There is definitely a passion behind the poems, an unabashed facing of what’s in the world. But his poems are also full of close, deep listening.
In the poem below, Tranströmer evokes the flight of a bird throughout his life, develops the transient flight of a bird to such a point that the bird becomes the constant and the self is seen as the one in transient flight. For me, poetry is much like this.
The Nightingale in Badelunda – Tomas Tranströmer *
In the green midnight at the nightingale’s northern limit. Heavy leaves hang in trance, the deaf cars race towards the neon-line. The nightingale’s voice rises without wavering to the side, it’s as penetrating as a cock-crow, but beautiful and free of vanity. I was in prison and it visited me. I was sick and it visited me. I didn’t notice it then, but I do now. Time streams down from the sun and the moon and into all the tick-tock-thankful clocks. But right here there is no time. Only the nightingale’s voice, the raw resonant notes that whet the night sky’s gleaming scythe.
* trans. Robin Fulton, from Selected Poems, ed. Robert Hass
I am happy to announce that my digital chapbook “Naos: an introduction” is officially out on the Right Hand Pointing site!
Here’s the “Introduction to an Introduction”:
Once again, Anne Rice is at fault. The VHS copy I had of Interview with the Vampire came with an introduction by the author in which she spoke of the character Lestat in terms of persona: how he was her devil, her dark lover, her alter ego, and possibly her conscience. The character Naos is none of these things for me. But I have gone back to the memory often over the years, and thought of Anne breaking down a persona as a fulcrum to get at other facets of self. The word naos comes from the Greek, and means sanctuary, the innermost chamber of a temple. I came across the word in a dictionary of forgotten words, read it, put it in my pocket. I reached for this word when I found myself working on poems I wasn’t sure were mine, poems that made me feel as though I had stumbled upon an innermost chamber of a thought. Which is where Naos lives. Not the brain, more like the mind, or a poem. Things that hold, only as long as we do.
Special thanks to Dale Wisely for giving me this opportunity & to Laura Kaminski for editorial feedback!
Part of the fun of the project beyond persona-ing was working out some formal games. Each poem follows a pattern of 5 in one way or another: either in the poem being five lines or being in five couplets (and sometimes a combination of the two). I also noodled around a bit with syllabics, each lyric having its own measure.
One more update: I’ve recently revamped the Poems tab and included some more recent publications including flash fiction and book reviews as well as recent publications in Pretty Owl Poetry, Short, Fast, and Deadly and Prick of the Spindle – the latter of which includes 3 more poems in the Naos series.
I believe this is now officially longer than most of my regular Friday posts. Excitement = loquaciousness!
One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
I’ve spent the past week reading through the Collected Poems of Yeats. He’s been a go-to guy since high school; each reading reveals him to be a darker writer than his more famous poems allow.
In the above, not one but three of the women of his life are summed up in a six line poem. And not even summed up, but rather quickly evoked, and just as quickly dissolved into an image. The reader is left looking at an impression of life, which is what the speaker is left with as well.
Without going into the details, I’ll say Yeats was a lonely boy, wronged and wronging in love in his respective way. Being sensitive and bookish has its consequences, good and bad.
On the one hand, Yeats is a technical master. But then there’s the hares, who, in truth, merit the greatest sympathy.
In the poem below, Yeats presents a speaker who would learn to change loves “while dancing,” but finds he can only imagine what that might be like. That it can only happen, even hypothetically, in a mythological realm is the first clue to Yeats’ bluff: for all the dancing and laughing, the speaker remains rather pathetic – both in terms of pathos and general sadness, and pathetic like the kid standing against the wall during a dance.
That the means through which the speaker spies this other realm is the bone of a hare – a collar-bone no less, the bone between the throat (where, in us, the voice lives) and the heart – the bone of a simple if fretful creature, means that something simple in him has died as well.
The Collar-Bone of a Hare – W. B. Yeats
Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king’s daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water
The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet, and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the thin white bone of a hare.
p.s. Please check out the latest issue of Right Hand Pointing – a celebration of 10 years of bringing (Right)eous poetry to the people, starring such riff raff as fellow poets Laura M. Kaminski and Marc Vincenz (and yours truly) – here.
The more time you spend around words, the more they keep moving around.
When I first read this week’s poem, “Epilogue” by Robert Lowell, I focused on the line: Yet why not say what happened? This line gave me permission and nerve at a time when I needed it.
Reading the poem again years later, a shorter sentence strikes me: All’s misalliance. I’m moved by the way the word “all” is in there twice, once mostly solitary, and then immediately crowded in, the letters playing out the concept of the line.
As I’m sure is clear by now, I’m awfully in my head this week.
I come back to this poem every time I do a long stretch of revisions, a stretch that usually involves some sort of paradigm shift, a change in outlook in my approach to the line.
There’s so much in here that is good. The poem throughout has the feel of advice given between conspirators. The conspiracy is the finding out and articulating of “living names.” Which is why we revise, to say it better.
You must revise your life, Rilke says in a poem, at least in one translation. In another translation, the same line reads: You must change your life. See what I mean? Words keep moving, and you must keep moving words.
I’ll try and be a little more grounded next week 🙂
Epilogue – Robert Lowell
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice: The painter’s vision is not a lens, it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
The above example of scansion is a good example of where my mind’s been at past few days. I’ve been and will be writing with an eye (and ear and heart) towards meter, mainly for a class, but more than the class, there is an inner drive to grow stronger in this regard.
Throughout the fourteen years I’ve written seriously (meaning at its most simply the years I’ve written and typed something up: typing up means business!) I have read several books on prosody. The most I’ve taken from my readings is a sense of how to work with the stresses of each line.
This usually plays out with me absentmindedly banging my fist on a table or tapping my foot – I say “tapping” but if you see me do it, there is a heave of my head forward as well, so that I constantly look like I’m about to get up and leave.
My take on it leaves me looking silly, but it does get me going. And that’s the point.
There is a moment in one of my favorite Jay-Z songs where he says:
Kitchen table – that’s where I honed my skills
At the same time he says the line, the music stops, and all you hear is the beat of a fist hitting a table.
It blows my mind every time I hear it. Something clicks in me each time in regards to process and what it means to work with words. Do anything to get the words out.
Linda Pastan’s poem below takes on the issue of prosody on her own terms as well. Like her, I believe that the work of the poem has lessons beyond the page.
Prosody 101 – Linda Pastan
When they taught me that what mattered most
was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping
over the page but the variations
in that line and the tension produced
on the ear by the surprise of difference,
I understood yet didn’t understand
exactly, until just now, years later
in spring, with the trees already lacy
and camellias blowsy with middle age,
I looked out and saw what a cold front had done
to the garden, sweeping in like common language,
unexpected in the sensuous
extravagance of a Maryland spring.
There was a dark edge around each flower
as if it had been outlined in ink
instead of frost, and the tension I felt
between the expected and actual
was like that time I came to you, ready
to say goodbye for good, for you had been
a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in
you laughed and lifted me up in your arms
as if I too were lacy with spring
instead of middle aged like the camellias,
and I thought: so this is Poetry!