Beginning to Weed

I’m beginning to make room on my bookshelves for new things and so I’m picking up books I haven’t looked at it years to ask stay or go?

I can’t recall why I have Linda Pastan’s The Last Uncle. I recall being very interested in her work at one point but there’s nothing marked in this volume and so I’m uncertain. When I re-read now, it’s quiet, it’s speaking but there isn’t much music. I flip through pages, wondering was it for her poem “To Penelope”? I don’t like it’s conclusion.

I bounce off of Wendy Babiak’s Conspiracy of Leaves for what I think is the second time. I admit to myself I purchased Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling so I could look cool. I turn open the Galway Kinnell book which is not my poetry but which was a gift.

To my surprise, I find Monique van den Berg’s along the snow-road. What delightful memories of Mo on the internet so many years ago, such a different internet. And here in “Curves” she writes, “the moon would never call herself fat” and “we prefer curve // integrity in fullness” and I smile. Good for her, to say that then, to still say it to me now.

Full-Rhyme and Ribbons

I’ve been trying to read through all the early novels and poems written by women which have won Pulitzer Prizes. (There were quite a lot more of them in the 1920s and 1930s than later on.) This brought me to Margaret Widdemer whose collection of poems The Old Road to Paradise won the Pulitzer in 1919 (before it was even called the Pulitzer). I could only find a copy locally in a volume of her selected works so I got to hear a little of her different voices, in between her introduction discussing how she ordered the poems and how she introduced the sections and the poems themselves. (She put all the most widely-requested ones in a section of their own. I’m so tickled, both that she had, well, requests, and that she was so thoughtful for her readers.)

In this collection, I found one of two poems she included titled “Search”. (Scan of the poem available here.) I keep coming back to it and I wanted to share why it works so strongly on me.

The first four lines are very typical of their time, I’m assuming, and today they are the sort of thing that would make many people skip over this poem: rhymed couplets, iambic tetrameter (I do love tetrameter). Plus, she’s describing a very girly dress (“in wide bows like a butterfly”). Perhaps I was willing to keep reading because of the context I was in, meaning I was already flipping through a book of metered, rhymed poems, but the emotion that went along with the careful description of the dress really deepened in line 9: “I could put out my hand by night / and find it”. That’s a dress she really loves, that’s a dress that’s more than just cloth.

Lines 10 and 11 were special for me, for their specificity and for the difficulty. She is recalling where to find the dress:

Between my Leghorn on the wall

And Mother’s heirloom China shawl

I don’t know what a Leghorn is, I have to look it up, it’s a particular type of straw hat, but the proper name is magical here, next to an heirloom. So now I really want to understand the importance of the dress. Not just cloth, not just a pretty gown, so important she can find it without sight, she can picture where it waits for her. The description of the gown’s location continues to be very specific, ending with “In the blue room on the third floor. . .”

And that ellipsis is part of the poem. Widdemer purposefully trails off there. Which, of course, has the effect of propelling me on to read faster (at least, the first time, I slowed down there on subsequent re-reads, in anticipation). Ellipsis is a type of punctuation I don’t recall seeing often as a sign of a turn, it’s fascinating.

And then the speaker tells us how “hard to reach tonight” that room is. It’s “at such a height” and “two flights of stairs” away. And this is where Widdemer’s genius, to me, rattles my bones. The penultimate couplet of the poem reads:

I’d have two flights of stairs to climb,

And seven weary years of time

It’s a masterful use of full rhyme, in my opinion, effortlessly surprising the reader (well, me) with two transitions, a physical one and a mental one. In that one line, Widdemer stretches out this description of a dress into the life of the dress, the life of the speaker. That beautiful gown was seven years ago. It is still hanging there now but there is a difference even as the gown is still as loved.

But Widdemer does not stop there. There is more between that gown and today than just stairs of time. She closes the poem like this:

To find it, and the girl-heart, lit

With gay unwisdom, under it.

These are the first two lines in the poem with internal punctuation, slowing the reader down. These are the first two lines with some invented (non-standard) English words. Widdemer has taken what perhaps feels to a reader from today as a nursery rhyme, full-rhyme and ribbons, and written the reader right into its pain.


I can’t help but come back to the title of the poem after the final line. Because it is a bit of a boring title, it is not one that I feel most readers would stop at in a table of contents. And, at the beginning, it is clear we are searching for the dress, the first line says so, explicitly. But, by the end of the poem, we know that the dress is not cloth. And, perhaps because I am so moved by those final lines, I feel like the dress is not simply the speaker as a younger person. The lost dress may be youth, or naivety. It is most certainly light and joy.

Taking in talkbacks during spring cleaning (part 1)

As the executor of my mother’s estate (and also as the child able to work remotely), I spent a lot of time in Kentucky in 2008. Berea did not have a public library when I was growing up, and I was tickled that it had since acquired a branch that circulated not only books but fishing rods. (Nashville’s has a waitlist for ukelele kits, by the way).

A downtown Richmond bookshop (Paperback Exchange) had been a lodestone of my teen years: the proprietor made a point of saving Dorothy L. Sayers novels for me, and I picked up my copies of Religio Medici and Donne’s poems there as well. I think it was already gone by 1999. At any rate, at a different firetrap in Berea, I picked up a book of French fables and an anthology of Chinese poetry in between obtaining quotes on carpet and recaulking the bathtub.

I opened Sunflower Splendor last night to pick a subject line for my personal blog, and came across this pair, 122 pages and 550-odd years apart:

Su Shih [aka Su Tung-p’o], “Bathing the Infant”

Most people expect their sons to be clever,
My whole life was ruined by cleverness.
I only wish my son to be dull and stupid
And without suffering or hardship to reach the highest rank.

[translated by Chiang Yee; there’s also a 1918 translation in the POETRY magazine archives, and the original title translates to “third day” (the timing of the bathing ritual)]

Ch’ien Ch’ien-yi, “A Rebuttal of [Su] Tung-p’o’s Poem on ‘Bathing the Infant,’ Written on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month in the year I-ssu [1629]”

Master Tung-p’o, in raising children, was afraid of their being clever;
All my life I was ruined because I was dull and dumb.
I still wish my son to be born cagey and cunning,
So he could drill through heaven and earth to attain the highest rank.

[To be continued . . .]

Like 2020

Like, A.E. Stallings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

This year was not like many others. And A.E. Stallings’ book of poems, Like, though published two years ago, feels deeply relevant.

The titular poem is a sestina whose endword is “like”. Usually a sestina would have six endwords—and Stallings certainly throws in “dislike” and “unlike” and “alike”—but “like” falls into so many different buckets of speech that you cannot hear the repetition as overwhelming. It’s wonderful to see Stallings’ poetry, often on subjects so removed from contemporary life, bent beautifully into such slang and modernity. The poem includes commentary on what words like “like” do to language, while perhaps exhibiting what “like” does as language, but it read to me, in 2020, as a comment on giving in to peer pressure. In some ways, this year, the only way to reach a friend was the “like” mechanism of social media—but if I truly liked them, I wouldn’t want to endanger them by passing on the coronavirus, and so I would restrict my interactions with them to safe ones, like “like”.

Stallings, of course, is a masterful poet, and so, as in “Like, the Sestina,” every poem in the book is full of musical language accumulated and arrayed to help the reader peer deeper into life, be that physical or emotional or historical. The epigraph for “The Rosehead Nail” tells us the poem’s setting is a blacksmithing demonstration. In the first line, a boy asks if the smith can forge a nail. “He was a god / Before anachronism” and so he makes not simply a nail, but crowns it with a rose. The surprise of the boy’s request, the surprise of the smith’s response, the way in which Stallings draws Hephaestus into the smith’s description, the possibility that the nail is more than a nail with which the poem ends, the simplicity and apparent ease stayed with me.

Other domestic poems revel more obviously in their musicality. In “Cast Irony”, Stallings writes

Who scrubbed this iron skillet
In water, with surfactant soap,
Meant to cleanse, not kill it,

But since its black and lustrous skin
Despoiled of its enrobing oils,
Dulled, lets water in,

Now it is vulnerable and porous
As a hero stripped of his arms
Before a scornful chorus.

The digression into discussion of the Bronze Age warrior seems in line with much of Stallings translations of epic Greek poems, and yet the imagery is put to use as the poem progresses to comment on what is traditionally women’s work (cooking, washing) and a mother-daughter relationship. (And how wonderful is the poet who can throw “surfactant soap” into a poem without blinking?)

“The Stain,” too, is a domestic poem with short lines that emphasize its music (rhyming, in this case). The short lines cause the reader to race down the page and the accusatory tone of the language anthropomorphizes an object usually overlooked, adding to the poem’s interest. “It will not out,” the poem says, recalling every famous stain in literature. Stallings closes the poem with such prophetic fervor that I despair for the option to throw out the clothing, as I would throw out 2020:

What they suspect
The stain will know,
The stain records
What you forget.

If you wear it,
It will show;
If you wash it,
It will set.

Diving further into INTO ENGLISH

Turkish is an agglutinative language. That is to say, a word’s meaning can be elaborated on and added to by the attachment of suffixes. In fact, there is a single word in Turkish that can express the following English sentence: “You are not one of those who can be turned into a New Yorker.” Here it is: Nevyorklulustiramadiklarimizdansiniz.

— Sidney Wade, commenting on translations of Yahya Kemal Beyath’s “Gece” (Night)

It has been said that Russians believe everything can be translated into their language and nothing can be translated out of it; and wihle they cite Pasternak’s Shakespeare as a paragon of translation, his own poems are deemed untouchable.

— J. Kates, commenting on translations of Boris Pasternak’s Гамлет (Hamlet)

In the middle of comparing “the vocation for eternity” with “the vocation of eternity” and “the calling of the eternal” in translations of Sophia Mello Breyner Andresen’s “A pequena praça” (The Small/Little Square), Alexis Levitin writes:

Let me mention, parenthetically, that one of the greatest challenges for the translator lies in those pesky, elusive, mercurial little words that inhabit all idiomatic expressions and try to place us all in time and space. Prepositions are the tiny stumbling blocks that we translators, again and again, beat our shins against.

And then there’s new-to-me words from someone who wrote other words I have long loved . . .

I, who use just a small part
of the words in the dictionary.

I, who must solve riddles despite myself,
know that were God not full of mercy,
there would be mercy in the word
and not just in Him.

Yehuda Amichai, “אל מלא רחמים” (God Full of Mercy), translated by Robert Alter

(I’ve linked Amichai’s name to a page with a recording of him reciting the poem in English and Hebrew. So far, I like his own rendition the best.)

Returning to Fields and Gardens

I requested Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2017) after reading Marissa Lingen’s capsule review. This anthology (edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer) is indeed my kind of thing: twenty-five poems in a variety of languages, from Ancient Greek to Haitian Creole, accompanied by three translations, followed by an essay about those translations by another translator who sometimes adds their own. I remember almost nothing about the Aristotle class I took in college with the late Eugene Gendlin, but his advice to consult more than one translation of any text when possible has stayed with me throughout the years.

Interlibrary Loan finally wants the book back. I was able to keep it long past the original due date because of the pandemic, so there was time for it to accumulate some of the bookmarks that populate many of the other volumes in the house:

book + kittens book + kittens

So, what were some of the things I wanted to remember?

page 8: “History doesn’t only efface a text – it also builds ever-changing scaffolds of meaning around what is left.” —Karen Emmerich, commenting on translations of Sappho fragments (98a and 98b)

page 22:

“Returning to the Farm to Dwell” is a landmark poem by Tao Qian (365–427). It is the first in a series of five poems and celebrates a return to a simple life in the countryside. For over a decade, Tao Qian worked as a government official, but he felt constrained and grew increasingly dissatisfied. In 405, Tao Qian retired to the countryside, where he farmed, planted chrysanthemums, drank wine, and wrote poetry. In cultivating his spirit, he became one of the early, great dropouts in the tradition of Chinese poetry.

—Arthur Sze

page 20:

From early days I have been at odds with the world;
My instinctive love is hills and mountains.

—the beginning of James Hightower’s 1970 translation

pages 20–23:

Returning to Fields and Gardens I

“By mischance I fell into the dusty net / And was thirteen years away from home.” —Hightower

“I erred and fell in the snares of dust / and was away thirteen years in all.” —Stephen Owen (1996)

“I stumbled into their net of dust, that one / departure a blunder lasting thirteen years.” —David Hinton (2008)

In all three translations, it’s worth pointing out differences in the poem’s numbers. . . . In line 4, all three translators choose to ignore the literal text, which clearly says “thirty years,” and use “thirteen years” instead. Hightower asserts that thirty years makes no sense; that the time of government service was probably close to thirteen years, and so he transposes the “ten” and the “three” (ten plus three, instead of three times ten). Owen and Hinton follow suit.

In contrast to these translations, I chose to retain “thirty years” and want to offer a justification. First, the text clearly says “thirty years”—no one disputes that—and, although thirty years is not literally true, there’s a figurative justification for it. “Thirty years” has shock value, and it’s also justifiable in that one can conceive of thirty years as half a lifetime. In Chinese astrology, there are twelve zodiac creatures and five elements (wood, earth, air, fire, water), so one cycle with each of the five elements requires sixty years. That cycle can be seen as a completed lifetime. I take Tao Qian’s phrase to mean that once one departs from the true path, it may take half a lifetime to discover it.

When I was young, I did not fit in
with others, and simply loved the hills and mountains.
By mistake, I fell into the dusty net
and before I knew it, it was thirty years! . . .


Speaking of nets, it’s time for me to apply my own analytic powers to other people’s English and Spanish, so the rest of the sticky notes and scraps will have to wait for some other day.


[third attempt]

When you have literally watched both your parents die, and tenderly tended to your honorary parents on their deathbeds, you can forgive yourself for getting drunk on a Monday-Tuesday night because the anguish keeps you from falling asleep. You write dozens of postcards to voters while listening to Szell and then Muti conduct Beethoven’s 9th, which you have longed to sing for more than 30 years but have never been in the right place at the right time.

It is okay. Your poetry career is currently taking a back seat to the day job and doing dishes and doing your part to help save the republic, but you are also dipping into your copy of Raymond Carver’s collected poems when your head is in the right place, and your minister has on file that you want Carver’s “Late Fragment” printed in the program for your memorial service. You know that your odds of reaching the other side of the flattened curve are not great, given your history of respiratory distress. You recognize that you will be attending funerals on Zoom before a vaccine becomes widely available, but you also participated in a wedding-qua-namechange-ceremony Sunday afternoon with a friend you’ve known since 1985, and wasn’t that a fine thing? Your parents grew up in poverty, under martial law, and your now-demented aunt refuses to speak Mandarin because Chiang Kai-Shek’s goons murdered all the intellectuals when they fled China. You have the gift and curse of perspective. You will write more songs if you live long enough. You are crying as you type this, and you would be even if you had sipped only water for the past twenty hours. You have far too many ghosts making demands on you, but they also drive you to care more deeply and speak more truly sooner to the people who are still here. Which is ultimately what you hope for with your poetry, so it is okay that right now it expresses itself in haphazard emails and postcards rather than haiku and iambic pentameter. We will find our way back into form if we live long enough. And if we don’t, we will still know ourselves beloved on the earth when we draw our last breath.

my head’s a beach full of footprints

The subject line is from Bert Meyers’s “Homecoming, 1969,” which appears in a 1971 anthology titled Just What the Country Needs, Another Poetry Anthology (James McMichael and Dennis Saleh, eds.), which I bought for $1.98 from (IIRC) a mess of a shop in Kentucky some years ago.

Some of the poems in the anthology have not aged well. There are some household names in the the mix, but I bought the book mainly because the title made me laugh, and because a quick skim suggested that I’d find at least a handful of kernels amid the chaff. I slid a paper clip onto page 68 a while back so that I could return to these lines by Galway Kinnell:

“And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned,
of all wind-singing, of light,
the pieces of cursed bread on your tonuge,

may there come back to you
a voice,
spectral, calling you
from everything that dies.

And then
you shall open
this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.”

I am a heap of half-detangled memories at the moment, truth be told. I am getting ready to ship some old yearbooks, clippings, awards, and the like to the archivist at my grade school — the main emotion is relief, as it didn’t feel right to toss them into the trash, but I want the space for what interests me now — but as with far less significant belongings, there’s some mourning and wistfulness in the letting go.

I don’t care for the Philip Dacey poems in Just What the Country Needs, but Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory is across the hall and Strong Measures in the next room, and I first encountered his writing in a Paul Janeczko anthology in high school; tonight I learned that he had been a teacher at Southwest Minnesota State at the same time as my dad, which means we actually lived in the same county for a while. The overlap doesn’t mean anything, and yet I’m a tiny bit pleased to add that tiny detail to my mental file folder.

I looked up Meyers’s bio and obit as well, having not heard of him before: one could do worse than to be remembered as cantankerous and compelling.

I shall write more (both here and in general) in 2020, I hope. But I don’t intend to lose sleep over it, although owning probably a couple dozen anthologies (at a very rough guess — not counting the ones I’m in, even) is effectively keeping a warren full of rabbit holes. Mentally revisiting the store in Kentucky (which I may well be confusing with some other dusty middle-of-nowhere maze-shed in North Carolina) had me thinking about other shops there: I’m pleased to see that Hot Flash Beads is still in business. That’s a good note to end this ramble on.

Don’t Despair (Reaction)

Brenda Shaughnessy, The Octopus Museum, Knopf, 2019

I had hopes that this book would actually be about what it says on the tin: octopuses, different ones, in some sort of zoo or educational setting. But I also knew that I never get that sort of thing, that isn’t what other people write, a catalogue of octopuses, so I tempered my expectations, squashed them—

So I was very surprised to find that the table of contents for the book is titled Visitor’s Guide to the OM Exhibits and that it was explained how many “exhibitions spaces” the museum has (book sections) and that the sections of the book were titled phrases which contained “collection” or “gallery” or which sounded like art exhibit titles.

There is a prologue poem before the first exhibit—I am sure there is some museum analogue—called “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’)” and when I looked at it, I just told myself: read it like prose. Ignore the lines, the line breaks, just keep the sound going. This was a struggle but I did my best. An essay, a sort of monologue. Ignore the white space. It has no meaning. Squashed.

But I really identified with that first line, so much about an introvert’s desires. I was taken with the narrative voice, the choppy sentences, the little quirks of grammar. But to be honest, I have spent so much time telling myself to remember things by writing them down that the final verse-paragraph was a kick in the gut. I knew that feeling intimately.

What I didn’t know at the time was how skillfully Shaughnessy was using the background scene in this poem to set up the remainder of the book.

The poems in The Octopus Museum are about self, they feel confessional, they are political, they come at today’s concerns from an oblique angle—and they have a consistent narrator who actually has a narrative to share with us. Formally, they scrawl across the page, sentences and paragraphs, but they teem with anaphora and alliteration. Structurally we are reading to travel through the museum and the pieces of art are confessional poems that build up a narrative. Sometimes what carried me through the book is the poetic device and sometimes it is the world-building as it turns into action.

The ocean is in each poem, part of the narrator’s story, sometimes scenery, sometimes metaphor, but we do not have its implications clearly hinted at until page 14: the fourth poem begins “Before”, many of its sentences and verse-paragraphs begin “before”. It is not until the final verse-paragraph of the first section that it becomes a proper noun, a delineation of time.

In the penultimate section of the fourth poem, we meet the Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords and it becomes “clear that they were taking over.” The poem continues on, to make clear that this is not metaphor—not only metaphor—and then it becomes clearest that we—humanity—are the subjects in a museum for octopuses.

The remainder of the poem exhibits discuss the current world and the old, situation the speaker in it and the speaker’s everyday concerns, but also commenting on what threatens you and I today, such as the poem titled “Are Women People?”

Shaughnessy’s poems are science fiction the way Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was science fiction: slipped in so neatly it is unassailable and yet horrifying in the alternatives it shows us.

So this book is very much the cohesive, well-structured, integrated, interlocking artwork I was hoping for. But I don’t want to neglect the smallest pieces from which it is made.

From “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’):

I was a woman alone in the sea.
Don’t tell anybody, I tell myself.
Don’t try to remember this. Don’t document it.
Remember: write down to not-document it.

From “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)”:

Before health insurance there was health, a pre-existing condition

From “Letters from the Elders”:

Dear Humans,
   One word: plastics.
   I won’t withhold everything I’ve learned. I’ll tell you plain. You will miss plastic.
   I wish that, when people called in Cling Film instead of Saran Wrap, I’d have just let it go. It was a regional thing, not worth losing my long friendship with Mary over it.
   Everything was plastic. We thought it was hygenic. We put it in our eyes so we could see better. We put plastic earbuds in our ears so we could listen ourselves out of any situation. We’d take food that was half-plastic in plastic containers, but it into another plastic container, heat it in an electric box of metal and plastic, and serve it to ourselves, guests, and families.

And from “New Time Change”:

You had your time you took your time after time you had your cake by the ocean and ate it too but now the tide has turned the times tables too when it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange #timesup and for old times’ sake we will remember you in our time.

Shaughnessy has an amazing ability to take common language and make it work harder to expose our common lives simultaneous with what is precious about them. She foregrounds the artifice—and thus unleashes their utmost potential—in phrases so repeated they could have lost all meaning and devolved simply to tone. Shaughnessy’s poetry uses common phrases to shake you out of a world devolved simply to tone, to rote, or to despair.