“the thing steady and clear”

During church this morning, in the Story for All Ages, the minister retold the parable of the prodigal son, and I found myself sympathizing wholeheartedly with the brother who refuses to participate in the celebration, pointing out to his father [paraphrasing], I have done everything you asked of me, every day, and even tried to anticipate what was needed before you asked for it. Where is the feast for me? And Jack Gilbert’s The Abnormal Is Not Courage — a poem that knocked me off my feet when I was a teenager, to the extent that I copied it out by hand and sent it to friends, came to mind: “I say courage is not the abnormal. / Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…”

The older I get, the more I end up arguing with Gilbert’s postulates and conclusions throughout his oeuvre, to the extent that five years ago I drafted a poem about dumping a drink over his head. But on less irritable days I am capable of being captivated by texts I don’t fundamentally agree with (readers of my other journals may recognize this in my repeat visits to Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and C. H. Sisson’s “A Letter to John Donne”). I disagree with “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” because it casts a false mutual exclusivity between the burst of bravery and domestic drudgery. As much as I identify with Martha rather than Mary, the cook instead of the countess, yadda yadda etcetera, the either/or angle doesn’t work for me: whether it’s a one-time stand or a stoic stretch of endurance, call it courage if it propeled the person into harm’s way or out of their comfort zone. I’ll allow that there may be better words than “courage” for assessing and elaborating on such acts, but that is also a reflection of where I seem to be headed both artistically and theologically: a general preference for discussing and examining things in terms of what they are rather than what they are not.

In that vein, “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” remains a touchstone poem for me because I’ve known it for almost thirty years, because it does steer the reader/listener toward those things of many days and long accomplishment. and because thinking about it in tandem with this morning’s services may be the kick in the pants I needed to rework the Pittsburgh poem and the Martha poem and draft some new ones on related themes. This morning’s sermon presented a bounty of springboards. Rev. Gail mentioned that she had planned the service with a worship associate, Rachel Rogers, who had read the parable from Luke (15:11-32) as a story about three kinds of courage: the courage of the prodigal, first in claiming his inheritance for adventure and later in admitting that he had screwed up; the courage of the older brother, in showing vulnerability by voicing his anger and hurt; and the courage of the father, both in welcoming the prodigal back into the family and in going out to the unhappy sibling — the courage of trying to keep connections alive. (The title of the sermon was “Loving without Limitation.”) Rev. Gail also spent some time describing her experience of reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son — about identifying with all the bystanders Rembrandt depicted in his painting. (She placed a copy of the book next to the pulpit, and there was a QR code linking to the painting in the order of service.)

Plenty to think about. Plenty to write about. As ever.


New & Selected (Eleanor Wilner)

I take my direction from the “new and selected” subtitle of Eleanor Wilner’s Reversing the Spell to discuss two of her poems, now both selected, neither new as time adds ring after ring even to the tree of a page printed in 1998.

“Never Apologize for Poetry” was originally published in Sarah’s Choice in 1989. It may appear to be an easy poem to open with, a poem for poets—and in one sense it is, for Wilner writes early on:

gives tongue. And when we say, “I, too, hate
poetry,” it is not modesty forbids
the brag of art, but this abundant
wily earth our words must fail.

But that choice of line break separating “hate” and its direct object comes out of the earlier lines, the opening lines that do not begin in a workshop, a poetry reading, anything limp and academic, but the “cunning spiral of a snail” and the falling water whose beauty “beggars speech”. It is a line break that makes you pause even as you rush over the falls with it, headlong into the direct object, wondering about the inclusivity of hate, extending far beyond poet vs non-poet to the whole human world. That whole line taken as one (while simultaneously three bits—end to the previous sentence, preface to quotation, beginning of quotation—) works as one, a meditation on speech from three different angles.

But it is not simply that we hate, it is that we hate poetry, a sitting duck waiting to bite a bullet no matter the metaphor used. And Wilner turns that twice: first, giving our hatred the benefit of the doubt, we might do it because no poem is ever as good as we might like. But that second turn opens out the issue into the universe: we hate poetry because our words will never be good enough. Standing before the Hallmark cards, even the non-poet has felt that, searching for someone else to have gilded the words we wish we could come up with to express the maelstrom inside.

The poem does take a side step into literary device:

here the trope must fail before
the fox, who suddenly gets up, swerves out
of our conceit…

but how is it then we end the poem “joyful and assured of our defeat”? That is why you read Wilner.

“Sunflowers, Repossessed” emphasizes how you never know where a Wilner poem will end. And that is the most basic reason to read Wilner’s poems: adventure into the unexpected.

The title gives you many possibilities for a starting place but I doubt anyone actually is thinking Indian mythology before reading the opening lines:

Dreaming, we turn the gods into such shapes
as lead us on, as in the Ramayana
the warrior Mareech turned himself
into a golden deer to lure the lovely Sita

We do come to the sunflowers by the end of the first verse-paragraph but before we get to the end of the poem we have stopped with Van Gogh, the Rijksmuseum, Tokyo, earthquakes, and young girls counting off their love on flower petals. (I’ll save the final few lines as incentive for reading the poem itself.) Could you have known that when you started? Even an admirer of Wilner’s poetry has little chance of predicting a poem’s trajectory.

It is the strength of the poem that you willingly go all these places, that the resulting trajectory is coherent if unpredictable, that while you transfer from one shade of gray to the next you cannot quite feel yourself do so. The wonder doesn’t diminish on re-reading.

Wilner’s more recent work is also excellent—I highly recommend The Girl with Bees in Her Hair—but “Sunflowers, Repossessed” has a magic that encapsulates the rewards of reading Wilner’s work.

Eleanor Wilner was born in 1937 and has been publishing poetry since [at least] 1979. She speaks about her poems and her writing process in an interview with Rebecca Seiferle in Drunken Boat.

Tap, Tap… This Thing On?

It’s a bit dusty here but that seems almost normal for such a collection of beloved poems and their criticism set about them like baby’s breath in a flower arrangement.

But it’s that time of year again and I do mean poems, not spring, although if spring were to arrive with a poem, how joyous that would be here in northern climes.

So have a poem.

Weeds by Abbie Huston Evans

Weeds need no man’s abetting,
It well may be a sin,
But I am all for letting
The worst of all come in:

Hawkweed, that pest pernicious,
(More orange than a flame!)
And blue vetch, full as vicious,
(Too beautiful to tame!)

Frown now, it is your duty,
Chide me for one who dotes.
I cannot sleep for beauty
Of charlock in the oats.

And some pictures of charlock, hawkweed, blue vetch, and oats.

there’s so much going on…

I won’t fit it all into this post, but here’s some of it:

Mary’s in the thick of a move, publishing articles about tessellations and other niftiness, and receiving great reviews for The Scientific Method.

Joanne’s giving away copies of 140 and Counting over at Goodreads, and coordinated Couplets: A Multi-Author Poetry Blog Tour, which included posts by her, Mary, and me, and a horde of other writers with lots to say (and show) about poetry.

Joanne also runs Upper Rubber Boot Books, which published my new chapbook, Measured Extravagance, earlier this spring:

Measured Extravagance

It’s available in a bunch of electronic formats at a bunch of vendors in a bunch of countries, listed here. The link will also take you to excerpts from some of the immensely flattering press it’s been receiving.

(Not to worry about getting my head through doors, though — nothing, but nothing can puncture one’s ego faster than the newest draft refusing to gel… *wry smile*)

Science, Sonnets, and Speculation

npl reading

Please join award-winning writers Mary Alexandra Agner (The Scientific Method; The Doors of the Body), Joanne Merriam (A Multitude of Daggers; The Glaze from Breaking), and Peg Duthie (Measured Extravagance) for Science, Sonnets, and Speculation. Ranging from tales of goddesses, immigrants, physicists, and werepenguins to Shakespeare-laced hallucinations, the poems you will hear at this gathering include pieces praised for their ferocious lyricism, eloquent explications, and compassionate heresies.

The event will be in the library’s West Reading Room. We look forward to seeing you!

Adrienne Rich’s “The Explorers”

I found this in Rich’s second book, The Diamond Cutters, but there isn’t a citation noting whether it was published prior to this book.

Why should you read this? Because it’s a science fiction poem and rather excellent, only the latter of which you might have expected from Adrienne Rich but you will not be disappointed.

The Explorers

Beside the Mare Crisium, that sea
Where water never was, sit down with me,
And let us talk of Earth, where long ago
We drank the air and saw the rivers flow
Like comets through the green estates of man,
And fruit the colour of Aldebaran
Weighted the curving boughs. The route of stars
Was our diversion, and the fate of Mars
Our grave concern; we stared through night
On these uncolonized demesnes of light.
We read of stars escaping Newton’s chain
Till only autographs of fire remain;
We aimed our mortal searchlights into space
As if in hopes to find a mortal face.

O little Earth, our village, where the day
Seemed all too brief, and starlight would not stay,
We were provincials on the grand express
That whirled us into dark and loneliness.
We thought to bring you wonder with a tale
Huger than those that turned our fathers pale.
Here in this lunar night we watch alone
Longer than ever men have watched for dawn.
Beyond this meteor-bitten plain we see
More starry systems than you dream to be,
And while their clockwork blazes overhead,
We speak the names we learned as we were bred,
We tell of places seen each day from birth—
Obscure and local, patois of the Earth!
O race of farmers, plowing year by year
The same few fields, I sometimes seem to hear
The far-off echo of a cattle-bell
Against the cratered cliff of Arzachel,
And weep to think no sound can ever come
Across that outer desert, from my home.

“a few old socks and love letters”


Today’s subject line comes from the last paragraph of George Whitman’s obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Whitman had variously called himself a communist, a utopian and a humanist. But he may have also been a romantic himself, at least concerning his life’s work. “I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions — just a few old socks and love letters,” he wrote in his last years. Paraphrasing a line from Yeats, he added, “and my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.”

That’s a Whitman manifesto at the top of this entry. This is my partner in front of Shakespeare & Company, browsing through a book on the Japanese economy:


This is what the rest of the front patio looks like on a chilly November night:


Lori-Lyn asks (in her “Loving 2011” series), What books made an impression on you this year? One of them was Mademoiselle London Hearts Paris (Sometimes), which I picked up on impulse inside S&Co. I especially like the poem that starts out with her throwing rocks at Hemingway’s geraniums.

I deliberately searched for was Yves Bonnefoy’s translations of Yeats’s poems (which I eventually picked up at the Gallimard shop, along with Fuzier and Denis’s translations of Donne into French). The thing is, I knew about their existence because I’d come across part of Bonnefoy’s rendition of The Circus Animals’ Desertion back in college:

J’ai cherché un thème et ce fut en vain,
Je l’ai cherché cinq à six semaines.
Peut-être qu’à la fin, vieux comme je suis,
Je dois me contenter de mon coeur. Et pourtant,
L’hiver comme l’été jusqu’à ce grand âge,
Ce qu’elle a paradé, ma ménagerie …

Les images sont souveraines de par leur forme achevée
Et celles-ci grandirent dans la pureté de l’esprit.
Mais de quoi naissaient-elles? Du dépotoir
Où va ce que l’on jette et le balayage des rues.
Vielles marmites, vielles bouteilles, boîte cassée,
Vieux fer, view os et nippes, et à la cassée
Cette souillon qui délire. Mon échelle est tombée,
Et je dois mourir là, au pied des échelles,
Dans le bazar de défroques du coeur.

But the last words for tonight should be Monsieur Whitman’s, non? [click the images to enlarge]



“Tomas, get to work”

Susan Scheid, within a post on Tranströmer’s hadynpockets:

In 1990, Tranströmer suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and affected his speech. In 2007, The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry awarded Tranströmer its second Lifetime Recognition Award. Robert Hass, in his tribute to Tranströmer at the event, related that “when he had the stroke, his wife Monika . . . who is a nurse, drove into Stockholm and bought, because Tomas loved playing the piano, the entire Western literature for piano for the left hand, I’m told, and brought it back and said, ‘Tomas, get to work.’”

(via http://paper.li/WeLoveToRead/1309499372)

from this morning’s New York Times

Violence Suffocated a Father’s Poetry, but Not His Voice

The two passages that leapt out at me:

[After reading a poem about his murdered son,] Mr. Sicilia, one of the country’s most acclaimed poets, told those who had gathered that they had just heard the last poem he would ever write.

“Poetry doesn’t exist in me anymore,” he explained later in an interview.

He said he did not belong to any of the major political parties — “I am an anarchist, in the good sense of the word” — but had participated in demonstrations before, mostly for causes dear to the left. Until a few weeks ago, he did not even have a cellphone, but one now trilled incessantly as he made plans for the next step, including a caravan to Ciudad Juárez, the border city that is Mexico’s most violent, next month.

He admitted to being anguished that he had never received this kind of notice for his works.