Off My Desk

Christian Wiman‘s book, Hard Night, has been sitting on my desk for months, wedged open to “Reading Herodotus” and I have been able to set nothing on top of it—or nothing stably—for that whole time. Perhaps I can exorcise the need for the poem’s presence by sharing some of it with you folks.

It opens:

Sadness is to lie uneaten
among the buried dead, to die
without feeling a fire
kindled in your honor, that clean smell
of cypress rising and the chants, heat
increasing under you, into you, an old man
whose name the feasters weep and sing.

and closes:

Close your eyes
just this side of sleep and you can almost hear them,
all the long wonder of it, the lost gods
and the languages, the strange names and their fates,
lives unlike our own, as alien and unknowable
as the first hour on this earth for a womb-slick babe
around whom the whole tribe has formed a ring,
wailing as one for what the child must learn.

and dies the entire time in between. So powerful.

“adorned with laurel and lightning bolts”

If I could get all y’all to buy one poetry book in the near future (say, in celebration of spring, or National Poetry Month), at the moment it would be Alison Luterman‘s See How We Almost Fly (Pearl Editions, 2010). Today I quote to you from “The World Card,” which begins:

I always wanted the World card,
naked androgynous figure striding the globe,
adorned with laurel and lightning bolts…

and builds and builds to

…I wanted to cross the sky and come back
bearing dead stars in my hands, fossil fuel
for poems. I wanted to inhale God’s breath
till it singed my lungs; to be used up by love,
to hang from a tree by my heels.
“Be careful,” the old fortune-teller advised me shrewdly
at the shop where I paid her ten bucks
to turn the deck over in her ringed, swollen fingers.
“It’s not always a good thing, you know –”
but I wouldn’t let her finish. I didn’t want good,
good was too small. I wanted the world.

Speaking of Tarot cards, the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab has a new series to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot. I associate BPAL with poetry in part because many of the fragrance names and descriptions borrow from Poe, Swinburne, Keats, and others, and the CBLDF series is associated with Neil Gaiman. I should also note that, over the years, I’ve received some incredible responses to BPAL scents on me, and some fond memories (as well as a few “OMG scrub that off NOW!” moments — no risk, no reward) — a vial of “Embalming Fluid” came to the rescue in a too-small ScotsRail compartment after a too-long day sans showers, and there was an elevator ride where a stranger exclaimed “What IS that?” in a happily gobsmacked way in reaction to the Nanny Ashtoreth.

In other news, my sometime partner in crime Greta Cabrel has a new poem up at Thirteen Myna Birds, I have a booklet of hay(na)ku available via Open Hand Press (all proceeds donated to Haiti relief efforts), and last night I read Wendy Babiak’s The Uninvited Guest, thanks to a rec Joanne made on Twitter. (And speaking of Joanne and Twitter, I really like today’s tanka by Peter Newton on 7×20, the zine she edits, which incidentally is open to submissions…)

Name This Poet

Butterly poised on a thistle’s down.
Lend me your wings for a summer’s day.
What care I for a kingly crown?
Butterly poised on a thistle’s down.
When I might wear your gossamer gown
And sit enthroned on an orchid spray.
Butterly poised on a thistle’s down.
Lend me your wings for a summer’s day.

I’ve put the poet’s name in the first comment.

drink the wet / from the skin of the back

I’ve just ordered Pat Schneider’s Another River, after reading her poems “Sound of the Night Train” and “The Patience of Ordinary Things.” The latter was posted at Carla Zilbersmith‘s blog, which I stumbled upon via Alison Luterman‘s website, which I visited earlier tonight in part because I had California on my mind.

This weekend’s rereadings included Ronald Wallace’s answer to Donald Hall. The last line totally doesn’t work for me, but it’s clearly a darling to Wallace, seeing that it titles his explication page. *shrug* That said, I bought The Uses of Adversity years ago because of his sonnets “The Student Theme” (“The adjectives all ganged up on the nouns…”) and “The Bad Sonnet” (“It stayed up late, refused to go to bed…”); this time around, what made me sit up were “God’s Handiwork” (“We like to vilify our enemies / with metaphor’s elaborate construc-/ tions. Viruses are hoodlums run amok…”) and “Statutes of Limitations,” the latter dedicated to “C.L.L., 1946-1992”:

…Oh, why did we take
the trooper’s word that what we did was wrong
and slink home embarrassed and estranged
and lose the simple we in love’s sweet song,
and see the harm in harmony? Time’s rearranged
us. I am here, and you are gone. Because,
because. Oh, there are laws. And there are laws.


A fisherman mends a glittering net

I spent a couple hours this past weekend with Donald Hall’s This Old Life (1996) and was underwhelmed. I’d read “The Night of the Day” a couple times before, over the years, and caught my breath both at its closing lines (in part because the line “older / than my dark-haired father ever got to be” leapt out at me this time, though it won’t be true in my case for another two decades) and back-of-the-book postscript (in which two more deaths are mentioned) … but the rest of the book, I just didn’t connect with, poetically or anecdotally, except for an acknowledgment of midlife fucked-up-ness (Duthie: “look, self, Donald Hall was an alcoholic mess when he was forty, and he got past it, and you don’t have it anywhere near that dire”) and a flare of momentary self-pity (Hall, on losing the 1993 National Book Award to A.R. Ammons: “I went to sleep easily, / mildly let down, and woke / at three-thirty in a murderous rage.”) In his notes to “The Old Life,” Hall snarks about autobiographical “McPoems” – “prosy little anecdotes…perfect in their narcissism.” My difficulty is that, the rave reviews on the cover notwithstanding, and the sorrows delineated in detail, “This Old Life” comes across to me as an extended collection of prosy little narcissistic anecdotes.

Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires isn’t making itself matter to me, either. Although the fact that he and Hall were both writing about being widowed did lead me to revisit Milton’s sonnet about HIS dead wife…which, in all honesty, I find not especially memorable until the last two lines. But oh my God, those last two lines.

So what have I read lately that has held up in rereading? Parts of Camille Dungy‘s first book (the second one’s due out next year and already on my shopping list). R. T. Smith’s Shades. Jack Myers’s Cirrus. Milosz’s Encounter. And (especially appreciated after a morning reading aloud about Armageddon) Milosz’s Song on the End of the World.

linkage + linkage

It’s my last night in Jerusalem, and both my physical and mental spaces are crowded with Things I Need To Think More About, never mind the perennially overstuffed closet of Things I Need To Put Into Letters (both alphabetic and correspondential) Sooner Rather Than Later.

But in the meantime, I can at least clear a couple bookmark-threads from my list by mentioning them here…

  • Adrian Matejka’s “Do the Right Thing” (from today’s Poetry Daily); Victoria Chang’s reaction to Matejka’s reported stance on relevance
  • Laura Orem on poetry and collage; Merrie Haskell on using collage as a narrative-development/revision tool; Debi Orton’s Lose the Narrative
  • Blackbird‘s Spring 2008 feature on Lynda Hull – oh, my. I’ve only been through a couple pieces so far — I find reading Hull and reading about her to be like one of those dense, delicious cakes you cannot gobble up frantically if you know what’s good for you. But I am so excited – it includes an audio of Hull reading “The Window,” which is my favorite poem of hers, which I am saving for when I am back on a machine that doesn’t get seizures from a/v files.
  • For years, I held onto the Life magazine I’d bought in some airport at the start of 1990 that included photographs of the Berlin Wall getting sledgehammered by joyful Germans. NYT Op-Ed awesomeness: What Fell Apart, What Came Together
  • “And since we’ll devote all our years / To making things that disappear”

    So, my home phone/internet’s been out of commission since Friday, and there was an airline clusterfuck on Sunday that ended up costing me two cab fares, 50% of my too-late-to-cancel guest-house reservation for yesterday night, and several hours of my life that I don’t get back. Grr, grr, grr.
    That said, I was glad to end up with more time to herd a few more things into order… including completing the “Wishes At Time of Death” form my pastor keeps on file, which includes specifying any readings desired. For what it’s worth, I want Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment” and Jane Hirshfield’s “The Heart’s Counting Knows Only One” either in the program or read aloud. I’m betting there will be an Emily Dickinson in there as well – though how I will collect if the reader in question chooses as expected, I haven’t quite worked out. (Maybe a dram of Edradour poured over my ashes? But that would be a waste of good whisky…)
    I also treated myself to a glass of Canton ginger liqueur , a long hot soak in the tub, and some visiting with my poetry books. Of particular note:

  • “Dock Ellis Pitches a No Hitter While on LSD” – in Jilly Dybka’s Trouble and Honey. A fun sonnet.
  • Lights, Camera, Poetry! American Movie Poems, the First Hundred Years, edited by Jason Shinder (Harcourt 1996). A book I’ve browsed through in the bath before, judging from the water damage and dog-ears. What disconcerted me this time was seeing how many people have passed away since the anthology was compiled: Shinder included birth- and death-dates in the table of contents, with the youngest poet (Tom Andrews) born in 1961, and quite a few of the living-at-the-time poets are no longer (including Andrews, as well as Shinder himself). I’m used to encountering this in much older collections (e.g., Pockets and Penguins from before 1960), where it’s unsettling in a more expected way (akin to seeing photographs of older relatives and colleagues when they were teenagers). Seeing it in a book I received as uncorrected page proofs has me in the mood to revisit various laments for makaris and makers (cf. Scanlan (source of today’s subject line); Dunbar; W.S. Merwin (anthologized in The River Sound and Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology; I own the former and am now wishing I’d checked it before I left, because I can almost remember his couplet about Nemerov (“sadder than…”) but not quite). And for any Washington DC folks reading this, there’s a gathering on November 11…)
    Anyhow, I un-dogeared some older favorites, and marked some newly noteworthy to me. Current standouts include:
    • Paul Goodman’s “Documentary Film of Churchill” (“What is it with this race that does not learn? / I am weary for meaning and they tire / my soul with great deeds. Yet I cannot turn / my eyes from the stupid story in despair: / since I have undertaken to be born.”)
    • Michael Warr’s “Die Again Black Hero: Version II (Chicago, March 1990)” (“Predictable. / So same-old-shit predictable. / The Marine whose skin / Matches the surface color / Of an Uzi has to die first. /Even on another planet / This dogma cannot be escaped…”)
    • Thylia Moss’s “Hattie and the Power of Biscuits” (“What a wonder she didn’t use strychinine dough.”)
    From The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor, Michael Meyerhofer’s “Shame as Proof of True Love”:

    …real love, I’ve decided, is when
    you see your lover at their most
    awkward, wretched moments
    and still want to fuck them later.

    There are a couple upcoming deadlines I’ve been working toward, and I’m hopeful about meeting them, albeit not at the expense of time with friends and improving my Hebrew and other being-here-in-the-present priorities. That said, there’s a part of my brain that’s ruthless about testing words with and against each other until they fit just so, and when it’s in gear, there’s no getting any sleep until it’s gotten its due. (In other words, this is why I spent a good chunk of early Monday morning working on two new cinquains instead of sinking back into sleep. At this point, it shouldn’t surprise that me that putting together forty-four syllables = as complicated as shaping water. (Think of fountains. Think of ice. Think of how some faucets gurgle and some whine like tired teakettles. Some poems are downpours that clog up gutters and destroy posters; others strike as lightly as a flutter of drops on a lemon tree. And I seem to be writing a poem in spite of myself, so I’d best wrap this up and pour the rest of my words into something eventually submittable (it’s 1:15 am here, and where I’m staying, the only creatures still awake besides me are a cat in heat and the occasional palmetto bug scuttling across the stones).