Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Snow On the Backs of Animals -- A Poem by Dan Gerber

At the close of a January one might fairly call dulcet, winter has returned to Michigan. There is more than a foot of fresh "lake effect" snow in the wood lot, and as the temperatures sink toward single figures, we are expecting more. The red pines and the white pines and the cedars along the creek are snow laden. When I get up to walk the dogs, everything glows with a snow-gathered light. There are long interludes between cars passing the house and but for an occasional whinny from horses pastured in the field beyond the trees, there is no sound but that of falling snow.

This weather brings to mind the poet and fiction writer Dan Gerber, who grew up (and lived and wrote for many years) in Fremont, Michigan, not far from here. Someday, I will have to tell the story of how we met, but for now I should at least say that Dan is the first person who let me think it possible that I could revise my life and become a writer. I owe a great deal to his encouragment and friendship.

In addition to three novels, a nonfiction narrative on the Indianapolis 500, a short story collection and six previous books of poetry, Dan Gerber's work has been widely published in a variety of magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, Poetry, Outside, The Nation, The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre and Tricycle. From 1968 through 1972, Dan and Jim Harrison edited and published Sumac, the legendary literary journal. Dan was the recipient of the Michigan Author Award in 1992, had work selected for The Best American Poetry 1999, and in 2001 received The Mark Twain Award for distinguished contributions to Midwestern Literature.

Dan's most recent collection of poems is Trying to Catch the Horses (Michigan State University Press, 1999). His most recent book, a collection of biographical essays called A Second Life, was published by Michigan State University Press in 2001. After spending time in Key West and Idaho, he and his wife now live in the Santa Ynez Valley of California, where snow is not a daily concern.


I am eagerly awaiting Dan's newest poetry collection, A Primer on Parallel Lives, which is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in April, 2007.

Here is the title poem from Dan Gerber's elegant Snow on the Backs of Animals (Winn Books, 1986), the perfect poem for a snowy day.



SNOW ON THE BACKS OF ANIMALS

There is a peacefulness
when snow falls like this, over everything,
and keeps on falling, windlessly,
on fence rails and ditches, made level now,
filling the upturned pail in the yard,
wiping the field clear of corn stubble, even
smothering the news and anyone
attempting to reach us.

A man walks out on a night like this
and the darkness weighs down his arms.
He forgets his purpose, stumbles,
gives up whatever it was he wanted
and enters the bodies of his friends,
growing deep and luminous.

___________________________

NOTE: A detail from February (1941), a lithograph by Grant Woods (above left) appears on the cover of the 1986 Winn Books edition of Snow on the Backs of Animals.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Note on Hart Crane (1899-1933)

I was disturbed by William Logan's review of Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters (Library of America, 2006) in today's New York Times.* I wondered, after Logan's sneer-filled dismissal of Crane, why the Library of America wasted 849 pages on a poet so readily judged a failure:

"Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, gripping a rum in one hand and a copy of 'The Wasteland' in the other. Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded."

After telling us that Crane's early poetry "showed more style than talent," that Crane's poem "Chaplinesque" is a "dreadful mess," after sniffing at Crane's "voracious sexual appetites"--is there any American critic (or poet) more afraid of the human body than William Logan?--the critic writes of Crane's great project, "The Bridge":

"Much of 'The Bridge' seems inert now--overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney. Crane imagined the Brooklyn Bridge as a mystical symbol for art, for history, for America, for any old thing; in this spiritual version of Manifest Destiny, he threw his poem backward to Columbus and worked forward to the invention of the airplane. The canvas was broad, but its success would have required a language less Alexandrian than Crane possessed. At his best, he stayed just this side of wild-eyed prophesying, though his grandeurs might easily be mistaken for grandiosity..."

I have friends--otherwise bright people, mind you--who actually like Logan's criticism; people who find Logan's work in the New Criterion and elsewhere "intelligent" and "bracing." I don't. I think his critical work is annoying, predictable and consistently mean-spirited.** I think even less of Logan as a poet. His claim that Crane's work is "inert" is almost laughable. Years ago, I paid $1.92 at a circus-tent "Book Blowout" for a remaindered copy of Sullen Weedy Lakes, Logan's third collection, a book so bloodless, so dead-on-the-page, I still think he owes me change.

Yes, Hart Crane's life was a mess. He drank too much, loved profligately and died too young. But he left us with poems like "My Grandmother's Love Letters," "Sunday Morning Apples," the "Voyages" sequence, all of "Key West: An Island Sheaf," and yes, "The Bridge." That is far more than poets like Logan have ever put on the table.

And Crane, for all the despair that led his too-early death, also offered hope (instead of cynicism) for what we might accomplish as writers. In his Introduction to Marc Simon's edition of The Poems of Hart Crane (Liverwright, 1986) John Unterecker*** speaks of a letter Crane wrote to his father, a man who made his fortune as a candy manufacturer in Cleveland, and a man who hoped that his son might one day take over the family business:

"It was a difficult letter for Crane to write, for, as he was careful to indicate, he had no contempt for his father's world and his father's values. The 'dimensional world' has very real satisfactions. At the end of his letter, Crane tried hard to explain why creating something as useless and as invaluable as art seems to him the highest possible goal he could set for himself.

'And in closing I would like to just ask you to think sometimes,--try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful,--something that maybe can't be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between a man and a man, a bond of understanding and human enlightenment--which is what a real work is. If you do that, then maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward that end.'"

___________________________

*"Hart Crane's Bridge to Nowhere," New York Times Book Review, (January 28, 2007)

**My thanks to "Avoiding the Muse" for a reference to Brian Henry's recent remarks on the critical work of William Logan. Here is a link:

Verse Magazine

***John Unterecker is Crane's biographer. See: Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Almost Random Notes, Part 7

It must be Jim Harrison Week at the New York Times. Tomorrow the Book Review is publishing an essay by Harrison on Karl Shapiro, making a living, and the urge of American poets to write the "Big Poem."

Check it out.

It's nice to see someone touch on the "Big Poem" question (so fashionable lately!) who doesn't blather through "theory tainted lips," as Tony Hoagland might put it.

The blog entries are stacked against what we think we are.

Another dollop of oatmeal, Mr. Keats?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Almost Random Notes, Part 6

I'm taking the day off from work so I can go to the doctor with Marcia. After that, I hope to catch up on a few other real-world concerns. But first, these almost random notes:

1. Not to go all Galway Kinnell on you, but I'm making some McCann's Irish Oatmeal for breakfast. I am not really an oatmeal person, but it is supposed to be good for one's cholesterol and though mine is (amazingly) low, it never hurts to work at it. Heart-wise, I figure on balancing a bowl of oatmeal this morning against a grilled steak tonight.

As far as oatmeal goes, McCann's is pretty good.

This means that you, dear reader, are in the role of Galway's imaginary breakfast companion, John Keats.

2. Not quite a year ago, Marcia had a lobe of her thyroid removed and it proved to be cancerous. She is okay for the moment, but must take medication that both suppresses the operation of (what is left of) her thyroid and replaces the hormones, etc., normally produced by the gland. The principal difficulty lies in getting her on the proper dosage. The wrong amounts can render her "hyperthyroid" (too much medication) or "hypothyroid" (too little). Neither situation is good, (the thyroid helps regulate a person's mood and energy levels) but insufficient suppression is a particular problem for those with thyroid cancer, since it can reactivate the thyroid (or any remaining thyroid cells in the case of a complete removal), which risks the reactivation of the cancer. Anyway, there is a growing body of medical literature which suggests that not all generic thyroid replacement drugs are equally effective and that these differences among drugs pose particular problems for cancer patients. So we are going to try to get her on what has been rated as the most effective medication and get a "dispense as written" order from her physician, so that the pharmacy and the insurance company cannot switch her to a generic. I am not a physician (Keats: "Well, I am!") but if you are in a similar situation, or know someone who is on thyroid replacement medication for any reason, you may want to check this out.

3. Keats: "Mmmlf! (*slurp!*) Good porridge!"

4. I enjoyed the article in yesterday's New York Times about our old pal, Jim Harrison.The video segment on the NYT website was a nice touch-- I wanted to yell, "Hey, Linda!" when Jim's wife walked on-screen. It's good to see Jim getting around, but sad that he does not seem well. It's hard to think of Jim Harrison as an old man, (he's 69, according to the article) though time passes and he warned us often enough that the day would come. I guess I will always see him as the figure in his '80's-era poem, "The Theory & Practice of Rivers":


The river is as far as I can move
from the world of numbers: I'm all
for full retreats, escapes, a 47 yr. old runaway.
"Gettin' too old to run away," I wrote
but not quite believing this option is grey.
I stare into the deepest pool of the river
which holds the mystery of a cellar to a child,
and think of those two track roads that dwindle
into nothing in the forest...

For my money, "The Theory & Practice of Rivers" is one of the great longer poems of the past 50 years. I suppose it isn't necessary for me to make more extravagant claims for the poem (and for Harrison's work in general) because the passage of time will eventually sort this out. Still, you may want to take a look at The Shape of the Journey: New & Collected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2000)--which includes "Theory & Practice," to get a measure of what I'm talking about. You may also like his latest collection, Saving Daylight (Copper Canyon, 2006).

5. I'm reading the late Lynda Hull's Collected Poems (Greywolf Press, 2006). Lynda Hull was a genius and a brilliant poet. I distinctly remember how sad I was in 1994 when I heard that she was gone. I saw her read at Western Michigan Univiersity not long before her death in that mysterious car accident. She was an absolutely compelling reader. I remember that she read "Fortunate Traveler," (contained in The Only World, her final--posthumous--collection) a poem I had originally seen--and been knocked out by--in the Iowa Review. I remember she was leaning on a cane as she read (this, because of an injury she had suffered in another car accident!) and that she spoke almost sideways to the audience, often moving her free hand through the air.

Such a small, brave, fragile, fierce creature.

I have no idea what happened to my copies of her books Star Ledger and The Only World, so it is good to have everything of hers together in one place.

6. Keats! Pass the cream, would you, old boy?

7. I am also just starting Dante: Poet of the Secular World (New York Review of Books Classics, 2007)* by Erich Auerbach (1892-1957). The Introduction by Michael Dirda was published in the New York Review of Books on January 11, 2007, and the book looked interesting. Not to sound like an idiot, (Keats: "Oh? Why stifle yourself at this point?") but I'd never heard of Aurbach before reading Dirda's essay. So I also ordered a copy of Aurbach's most well-known work (that is, to everyone but me, it seems!), Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which was originally published in 1946. That book hasn't yet arrived.

8. I was thinking about John Milton the other day... (Keats: "Please God! Not onto Milton again, are we?") Seriously. There is this Miltonic thread that runs through Figured Dark and the good blind poet actually appears in two of that collection's poems. Anyway, I was thinking of what Mark Van Doren wrote...(Keats: "So, you were actually thinking about someone else thinking about Milton. Isn't that a bit attenuated?") Perhaps. Anyway, Van Doren suggests that Milton failed badly with "Paradise Lost" and failed for many reasons. Among them:

"His Eden is not so interesting as it ought to be. Satan out argues God. God is a dull dictator, and the absence of character in Adam is something we notice too often. He is the hero, but Satan, because he is more attractive, has been thought to be. Milton's catalogue of the things born into the world with sin––the seasons, wind, weather, war, the rebellion of beasts, death, women, disease, and history––is a catalogue of all that poetry knows, and it kindles the reader as Eve's bower never did. Nor can Milton escape the conclusion that in the long run our experience of the Fall has built within us, if we are virtuous, another paradise, and 'happier far.' These are some of the things in 'Paradise Lost' that work against its author's aim."**

That is probably all true. But still, I think there is something magnificent about Milton's failure; perhaps because he persisted long after it must have been clear to him that the project was not turning out as planned. There is something so poignant and brave about his determination to go on "justifying the ways of God to men" in the face of what must have become so obvious halfway through the effort.

Keats: "Are you talking about that speech you made me watch Tuesday night?"

Me: "Definitely not!"

9. I did get some good news last week regarding my eyes. I have an appointment in mid-May at the Carver Family Center for Macular Degeneration at the University of Iowa, one of the top research and treatment facilities in the world for retinal disease. I will be meeting with a low-vision specialist and with an opthalmalogist who is interested in working with writers. I'm hoping my follow-up with my local retinologist in April will generate enough data (along with whatever they find at Iowa) that the doctors at Iowa will be able to provide me with a short-to-medium-term prognosis. I mean, I know that the overall situation is hopeless--there is no cure for this and not much in the way of treatment options-–and I know that I will eventually be nearly sightless. But it would be helpful if I just knew how soon that will come. My vision has deteriorated so rapidly in the past several months that I'm thinking I have two, at best three years of functional sight.*** If all that can be done is to confirm that and help me acclimate to what's happening, I will be much happier, I think.

Here is a link:

UniversityofIowa

At least I made an attempt do something. It was the best idea I could come up with.

Keats: "Yes. So as I understand it, your wife has cancer and you are going blind."

Me: "Yes."

Keats: "And you have two children, ages 3 and 5."

Me: "Yes; and two adult children. And three dogs and two cats, but who's counting?"

Keats: "And you are 53."

Me: "Yes."

Keats: "And a poet."

Me: Silence.

Keats: "And you live here among them all, with your many thousand books in this...this simple artisan's cottage, shall we say?"

Me (after pause): "Yes."

Keats: "Ha! Good man! Now please, if you would, kindly pass the sugar."

_________________________________

*Originally published in 1929.

**In The Noble Voice: A Study of Ten Great Poems (Henry Holt and Company, 1946), Pp. 125-126.

***Almost no one gets AMD at age 53. And for whatever reason, mine seems peculiarly aggressive. My retinologist has been professional but not encouraging about my prospects.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Poem by Robert Hass

I don't have a copy of Field Guide, (Yale University Press, 1973) the debut collection by Robert Hass, which won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1972.* My familiarity with his work began with a discarded copy of his second book, Praise (Ecco Press, 1979) that I picked up some years ago at a public library sale. Looking back, I can't believe that a librarian would discard such an important book, but I'm happy to have it in my hands.

The most well-known poem in Praise is, of course, "Meditation at Lagunitas," and I sometimes think I would be happy with my poet-life if I wrote one half so good, but there are many other poems in this slender volume that are worthy of the book's title. One of them is "Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan." I've often wondered if the figure of Charlie in this poem is the "friend" in "Meditation" whose voice contains "a thin wire of grief, a tone / almost querulous..." I like to think it is. Perhaps I like the idea of having a name, and a bit of history as recorded in "Picking Blackberries..." to associate with the eloquent, grief-filled voice in "Meditation."

I also like the way Hass employs the word "stuns" in "Picking Blackberries..." to give a quick nod toward Sylvia Plath's "Blackberrying." Plath wrote of the flies buzzing round her English blackberries: "The honey feast of the the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven." The acknowledgment of the debt is a classy little move, typical of the work of Robert Hass.



PICKING BLACKBERRIES WITH A FRIEND
WHO HAS BEEN READING JACQUES LACAN


August is dust here. Drought
stuns the road,
but juice gathers in the berries.

We pick them in the hot
slow-motion of midmorning.
Charlie is exclaiming:

for him it is twenty years ago
and raspberries and Vermont.
We have stopped talking

about L'Histoire de la verite,
about subject and object
and the mediation of desire.

Our ears are stoppered
in the bee-hum. And Charlie,
laughing wonderfully,

beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get a bigger pot.

_________________________________

*According to Amazon, both Field Guide and Praise have been re-issued and are available in paperback.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Mary Biddinger at Seven Corners

Be sure to check out the five poems by Mary Biddinger, currently posted at Seven Corners. They're all great, with "Milfoil and Afterthought" a particular standout.

Here is the link (I hope):

sevencorners

p.s. Look, Hannah! I did a link!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Daisy Fried: National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

Congratulations to Daisy Fried, whose My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006) has just been named a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. I met Daisy when she was a Fellow at Bread Loaf in 2002. She is a great poet and one of my favorite people.

The other finalists are:

Troy Jollimore, Tom Thomson in Purgatory (Margie/Intuit House)

Miltos Sachtouris, Poems (1945-1971) (Archipelego Books)

Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

W.D. Snodrass, Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions)

Congratulations also to Robert Nazarene and all the good people at Margie/Intuit House.

That is a pretty big splash!

On Raymond Carver, Poet

The late Raymond Carver (1938-1988) is such an important figure for several generations of American short story writers, we sometimes forget that he was also a fine poet. Carver published six collections of poetry, including At Night the Salmon Move (1978), Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985) and the posthumously released A New Path to the Waterfall (1989). All of Us: The Collected Poems was published in 1996, and in a paperback edition in 2000. There are also several collections of his work (two published posthumously) that mix poems with essays and short fiction.

The poet Tess Gallagher was Carver's longtime companion. They were married in 1988, shortly before his death from lung cancer. She is also his literary executor.

I love all of Carver's work, but the poems in Ultramarine (Vintage Books, 1987) are particular favorites of mine. I bought the collection in 1989 in Missoula, Montana, at a great little bookstore called Freddy's Feed and Read, on my way to The Yellow Bay Writers' Workshop. This may be the book that persuaded me my future was in poetry, not fiction.

Here is a poem from that collection. I particularly like how the economy of Carver's phrasing is set against the odd vocabulary of this poem––Carver's use of the words "grilse," "parr," and "smolt"––all terms for young salmon at various stages of development. The speaker of the poem seems to be asserting a kind of brave mastery over the river, while simultaneously making it clear that he has entered an unfamiliar and dangerous place.


THE RIVER

I waded, deepening, into the dark water.
Evening, and the push
and swirl of the river as it closed
around my legs and held on.
Young grilse broke water.
Parr darted one way, smolt another.
Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out.
Watched by the furious eyes of the king salmon.
Their immense heads turned slowly,
eyes burning with fury, as they hung
in the deep current.
They were there. I felt them there,
and my skin prickled. But
there was something else.
I braced with the wind on my neck.
Felt the hair rise
as something touched my boot.
Grew afraid of what I couldn't see.
Then of everything that filled my eyes––
that other shore heavy with branches,
the dark lip of the mountain range behind.
And this river that had suddenly
grown black and swift.
I drew breath and cast anyway.
Prayed nothing would strike.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Caveat to a Recent Post by Reginald Shepherd

I was surprised by Reginald Shepherd's statements about Ted Kooser in his post "To Clarify" (Tuesday, January 9, 2007). I found Shepherd's comments troubling in the context of what Shepherd also says about the hazards of characterizing the work of others. Shepherd writes:

"...I don't understand the compulsion to categorize and label. Why must every poet be put in a box? And why are there only two (with a special, somewhat patronizing box for properly accredited oppressed minorities)? I have been much labeled and categorized in my life, and its rarely been to good ends. I have usually thought that one of the things that art offers is a way out of such categorical thinking."

So far, so good. But three paragraphs later, such generous thoughts seem to have slipped from Shepherd's mind. He writes (and I quote him at length and verbatim):

"I focus on the shortcomings of the poetic avant-garde for the same reasons that I focus on the shortcomings of political leftism: one is more sensitive to the failings of those one feels closer to. I expect nothing (good) of Ted Kooser or Billy Collins in the poetic realm, anymore than I expect anything (good) of the Republican Party in the political realm. Thus I'm not much disappointed by them. (Though the Republican Party does have a seemingly unlimited capacity to horrify.)

"Given the frequent conflation of so-called poetic conservatism and political conservatism, I must point out that Billy Collins, at least, seems to be a political liberal. I would also say that I don't consider him to be a traditional or conservative poet, because his work eschews most of the traditional resources of poetry; it certainly doesn't seem to seem to conserve those verbal virtues. In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser rejects and even disdains most of what makes poetry interesting and engaging, in the name of a highly patronizing populist clarity that assumes readers of poetry are lazy, ignorant, and unintelligent. While some readers undoubtedly are these things, it seems a very depressing enterprise to write on the assumption that one's readers are both incapable and unwilling."

I note the following:

1. I recently used The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (its full title; something Shepherd overlooks) as a text in an introductory poetry class. There is no question that Kooser's poetry is syntactically straightforward and written in a style which can be read, understood and, for my money even enjoyed (on some level) by almost every literate person. I will not argue for the merits of such poetry, in part because I think that Kooser's work defends itself. But for my class of beginning undergraduate poets Kooser's handbook seemed appropriate. My goals in that class were to persuade the students to write clearly and straightforwardly and to develop some appreciation of the poetic line and the image. What I hoped for was akin to what an introductory drawing instructor hopes: "If I can just have them spend enough time drawing lines..." It turned out that my biggest problem was persuading the students that it was okay to stop rhyming long enough to construct an image, but that is another post. I still think that Kooser's handbook, when coupled with a general anthology,* is a useful one for beginning poets. I don't think Kooser says a great deal in his book that will be of interest to poets and theorists like Shepherd, in the same way that I don't think a vocabulary workbook would be of great use to one whose life-goal is to unify competing theories on the phenomenology of language. To criticize what is expressly and clearly labeled a beginner's manual for failing to contribute to an ongoing philosophical debate about the future of American poetics seems unfair.

2. Kooser does not "reject and even disdain most of what makes poetry interesting and engaging" in favor of "a highly patronizing populist clarity." What Kooser actually says in The Poetry Home Repair Manual is that poetry should be written with an audience in mind, (I will grant that this is a debatable proposition, but it isn't contemptuous of anyone) and that those who write difficult poems can expect to find a smaller audience for their work than can those who write more accessible poems. That strikes me as a true statement, and for proof, look at the list of "bestselling" poetry books listed on the Poetry Foundation's website.

Rather than argue about Kooser actually says, or even the tone in which he says it, let's go to the text of Kooser's book (p. 2):

"It is possible to nourish a small and appreciative audience for poetry if poets would only think less about the reception of critics and more about the needs of readers. The Poetry Home Repair Manual advocates for poems that can be read and understood without professional interpretation. My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of the twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it is a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility towards them. Everything you'll read here holds to that."

He continues:

"One other point: Isaac Newton attributed his accomplishments to standing on the shoulders of giants. He meant great thinkers who had gone before. Accordingly, beginning poets sometimes start off trying to stand on the shoulders of famous poets, imitating the difficult and obscure poems those successful poets have published. That's understandable, but they soon learn that, somehow, no literary journal is interested in publishing their difficult poems. If these beginners were to study the careers of the famous poets upon whose work they're modeling their own, they'd find that those writers were often, in their early years, publishing clear, understandable poems. In most instances, only after establishing reputations could they go on to write in more challenging ways. In a sense they earned the right to do so by first attracting an audience of readers, editors, and publishers with less difficult poems."

_____________________________

*I used 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002), edited by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Landscapes and Voices


The Flemish artist Frans Masereel was born in Blankenberge, Belgium in 1889. He became one of the greatest woodcut artists of the 20th century and is best known for the "novels in pictures" he produced, including The Sun: A Novel Told in 63 Woodcuts (Shambhala, 2000), originally published in 1926, and Passionate Journey: A Novel Told in 165 Woodcuts (City Lights, 1988) which also first appeared in 1926. Massereel was identified with leftist and anti-war political movments all his life, and often produced illustrations for posters in support of demonstrations and other political events. He was also commissioned to illustrate special editions of the work of Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy and Emile Zola.

Masereel died in Gent in 1972.

My favorite of Masereel's books is Landscapes and Voices (Schocken Books, 1988) which originally appeared in 1929. Rather than a novel, Landscapes and Voices may be likened to a collection of poems. Each woodcut stands alone, and many of them suggest discreet little narratives. About 10 years ago, I wrote a series of poems in response to some of the illustrations in "Landscapes and Voices." Several of the poems were published, none with reference to Masereel or to the particular woodcut that provided the prompt.

Here's one that was never published, but for which I still have (as Louise Gluck might say) "an embarassed fondness."

POET & MUSE: A WOODCUT FROM
FRANS MASEREEL'S "LANDSCAPES
AND VOICES" (1929)


A man with his chin in his hand
looking at the stars.
The table and the empty paper
awash in starlight.
Suddenly, a woman, alabaster in her body,
the way light is always
a movement against darkness.
She inclines toward the window
reaching out to touch
the curve of his chair.
Of this, he remembers the absence of words.
And between the stars, the darkness.
The sweetness that is made of it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Among the Red Pines

"It is hard to tell the truth about this bird."

-Flannery O'Connor

I spent last weekend buffing up on Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), rereading her short stories, writing the syllabus for a class I'm teaching. O'Connor, of course, raised peacocks on her family's farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. She once wrote that though she had more than forty males and peahens wandering around the farmyard and roosting in the surrounding trees, "for some time now I have not felt it wise to take a census." Today, O'Connor is so closely identified with the bird that peacocks often appear on the covers of her books.

I work in a government office building set near the rural center of the county. The building is laid out among vast blueberry fields and acres of nursery stock. On its western edge, the grounds merge into a large county park of second-growth hardwoods and red pines. During the lunch hour, I go for walks in the park. It's something my doctor said I should do. Because we've had so little snow this winter, the cross-country ski trails are not much used, and I often have the park to myself. Despite the trail improvements, in its interior reaches, the park is a wild place.

By Thursday around noon, an all-night rain had lightened into a steady mist. I was on my walk, circling along a back trail when I saw a purplish-blue shape, burnished with a startling iridescent green, motionless, lying off to the right on a bed of pine needles. It was obviously a dead bird, and I thought wild turkey--we have many of those--or even, for a moment, a dead hawk.

I left the trail to look more closely and found the body of a peacock.

The bird was not long dead. Whatever had killed it (a feral dog, perhaps a coyote) must have attacked the peacock on its earthward flank. No wounds were visible and only the bird's left wing, twisted awkwardly into the air like a fin, spoke of violence. The bird's large gray claws were intertwined and seemed almost delicate. A few of its primary feathers were scattered back toward the path and its long, impossible tail feathers were still attached, trailing away in perfect alignment with the body.

I did not take any of its feathers. I did not touch the bird or turn the carcass over.

I can't say what a peacock was doing in that stand of red pines. And what are the chances that I would find its body? There are those in the area who raise exotic birds and the likely explanation is that the unfortunate thing had wandered off on a frolic. But because I ask for signs and wonders, I took my coming upon the peacock so soon after immersing myself in the work of Flannery O'Connor as a kind of answer.

And in the words of the poet Frank Stanford:

Such thoughts I had,
I cannot tell you.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Battle of Sedgemoor Plain

I've been reading along in A Year of the Hunter (The Noonday Press, 1994) by Czeslaw Milosz, using it as something of a day book. I found his entry for January 13, 1988, instructive, in light of recent commentary. Here, Milsosz is talking about his friend and compatriot, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980), one of the founders of the Skamander group of experimental poets, a school of poetics that competed for attention in pre-war Poland with adherents of the (by then, aging) Young Poland movement and the Awarngarda Krakowska movement. The Battle of Sedgemoor Plain (more often referred to as the Battle of Sedgemoor) took place on July 6, 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth was defeated by the Royalist forces of James II, in the second-last battle to be fought on English soil.

Miloscz writes:

"One time Jaroslaw invited several people to a reading of his new work, 'The Battle of Sedgemoor Plain.' That he would write such a story at that time (1942) gave me a lot to think about. It also illuminated many later events when he chose an open, programmatic collaboration with the Communists. Does anyone today remember what those religious-political factions that we learn about only by studying the bloody history of seventeeth-century England were actually fighting about? The author, not without reason, took the time of 'troubles' as his theme––actually a time of frenzied murders in the name of a faith that was equally strong on both sides and that excluded compromise. The characters in this story about Monmouth's rebellion are capable of every sacrifice; they refute the image of man as a being who is concerned above all with his own interests. The true name of their theories, however, is futility. Nothing remains of their faith, their yearnings; time carries everything away, ashes cover their traces. In old age, the heroine views her own youthful steadfastness as pointless; she cannot even remember why she acted one way and not another. Looked at from the perspective of some future time, the author seems to be saying, won't our cruel era lose the clear boundaries which now appear to delineate irreconcilable oppositions but which, for later generations, will be a matter of utter indifference?"

"In one of my conversations, Jaroslaw mocked the work of historians who rife through centuries in search of great syntheses; he quoted from a history of the Far East: 'From the seventh to the thirteenth century there was continual turmoil in China.' Then I remembered his 'Battle of Sedgemoor Plain.'"

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Paintings and a Poem


There are several poems in my forthcoming book that deal in some way with paintings. I don't think it quite proper to call them ekphrastic poems, because none of them is primarily concerned with the description of a work of art, although in this case, A Summer Night by the American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is described in some detail in the final section of the poem. I thought Sonnets at 4 A.M. might be a good place to bring a poem or two together with the paintings.

Winslow Homer painted A Summer Night in 1890, in a burst of creative activity that followed more than three years in which he did not produce a major work. According to William Howe Downes, who wrote a biographical study of Homer published in 1911, the painting is:

"...a virtually literal transcript of a scene which Homer saw in front of his own studio at Prout's Neck [Maine]. The platform is the only part of the composition which did not exist in the real scene. The girls were dancing on the lawn. As usual, the artist painted exactly what he saw. The group silhouetted at the right, on the rocks, was comprised of a number of young people belonging to the summer colony, and included several of the Homers."

There is an oblique reference in the fourth section of the poem to Homer's Winter Coast (1890) which was the first painting the artist finished following his three-year creative hiatus. Winter Coast has been described as "...in its details virtually the polar opposite of A Summer Night, substituting day for night, winter for summer, huge waves breaking against the rocks for a less turbulent sea, and a solitary hunter for the dancing couple."



A Summer Night is in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Winter Coast is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The poem appeared several years ago in The Southern California Anthology.



ELEGY FOR LIGHT AND BALANCE

In his seascapes, [Winslow]Homer depended on narrative structures that would, just as they began to suggest a normal unfolding, deflect the viewer from obvious and easy interpretations.

-Notes from a catalogue

Driving the winter road
that falls through the blueberry field.
Rows flicker as I pass, red letters
igniting a page of snow,
with my house, that gray paragraph
on the left. The road is aswirl, snow
so thick I might fall under its spell,
and will--my inner ear's infected.
I step into the drive,
let go the car door, the cinders blurred
with ice. And then––
the howl of wind, a too slick sole,
my body saying, I am not cured.

*

In the old cartoons, when a clown
is struck with a mallet, the birds twitter
around his head, rising and falling,
the way the swallows rose
that summer evening, you and I
in the gathering dark. They were so close––
their wings arced, then beat into a vast open.
We walked out into the field,
the moon alive and everything luminous––your face,
my hands––one dancer balancing another.
That night, your body pulling mine,
the simple hunger––your small
bird-like shudder, a swallow fluttering to leave
the lip of her nest.

*

To the unconscious mind,
any leap is possible––
the drunk stumbling along a cliff,
or the soul, harp in hand, lifting away
from the fallen clown––the music sweet, so sweet
we catch our breath and turn
as the soul-clown strums and wavers,
deciding whether to go on.

*

The snow begins again––
what the painter would not paint
until his last years in Maine––
snow swirling and a man along a cliff,
the howl of wind through dead sea-grasses,
all his options in the air. The seasons whirl
and turn on themselves, the planets slow
but spin back,
so many china plates set awhirl on wobbly sticks
in a show I saw as a child,
never falling until the juggler,
glittering in his beaded tights, said,
They must. I could hardly catch my breath
for the motion and shine of it. Last week,
ear howling, reeling as I haven't reeled
in ten sober years,
I circled the shed I meant for a studio,
my books inside and tables I might work at.
The glass caught fire in the day's last light,
snow adrift against the door,
wanting someone to open it.

*

Coming to, my lungs chuff to open,
waves pulling the empty suck,
gasping and then gasping again.
In my good ear, it could be crows,
who dance in the field
and do not trust the sea––
my lip numb and a taste of blood,
the sea salt and metal, where my face struck the ice.
What story could I have told, rising on one elbow,
casually looking out into the red-lettered world,
even as the world slowly turned to white?

*

I kept the catalogue you gave me
from the museum in Boston.
It says that in the dead of winter,
Homer began A Summer Night:
two girls dancing along a cliff,
their hands so delicately assembled
and bodies circling––
a song one can almost hear and the sea,
breaking, out among the kelp and limpets.
The moon isn't shown, though its light
is fully arrayed,
and the bodies of those who watch––do they watch
the dancers or the sea?--are silhouettes along the edge.
The sky is deep indigo, but here and there, and then
in great swatches, moonlight renders the waves
a cerulean blue; it fairly swirls across the page.
And the dancers glow, back-lit,
in perfect balance with the waves.
For months, he reworked the canvas,
finally adding the floor they dance on.
It is an odd detail.
Does he mean to keep the dancers safe,
though moonlight lifts the waves
and the bodies along the cliff
lean back, vertiginous, forever falling
toward the sea?

Dark Clouds Over Mordor

Reginald Shepherd keeps calling out Ron Silliman. Robert Archambeau isn't saying very nice stuff, either, in his recent post titled "Probably the Dumbest Thing Silliman Has Ever Said." One wonders how long Silliman will go without responding.

A vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight!

What Work Is, Part 3

A busy day. The first class of the new semester is at 4 and there is much that must be out-the-door at my day job before then. At least the syllabus is finished for my class. I don't know how everything that must be done gets finished, but recently, it seems to, which is a small joy. As Richard Yates wrote in his 1961 novel Revolutionary Road (Vintage Books, 2000):

"Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort. 'Sycnchronize watches at oh six hundred' says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of bringing two tiny pointers into jeweled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian-looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, the illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels, looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far everything's happening right on time."

If you've read Revolutionary Road, you may also want to take a look at The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (Henry Holt & Company, 2001). It is difficult to imagine writers like Raymond Carver or Richard Ford without the work and influence of Yates (1926-1992). He certainly led a hard life. His biography, Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador, 2003) is also a terrific (and harrowing) read.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Al Purdy (1918-2000)

I don't understand why it is more difficult to get Canadian books into the United States than it is to import Canadian hockey players. But it is, and we miss a great deal because of what barriers there are to the free exchange of books and ideas. To prove my point, here's a poem by the late, great Al Purdy, from Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems, 1962-1996 (Harbour Publishing, 1996).

I ordered the book in 2000 when I read that "Canada's greatest poet" had died--a man I'd never heard of. It took many weeks for this slim volume to arrive at my local bookstore; they finally had to go through a Toronto bookstore to the Canadian publisher. You'd think I was attempting to buy a book of poetry from Cuba.

Come to think of it, why shouldn't I be able to buy a book of poetry from Cuba?

But I digress.

ON THE FLOOD PLAIN

Midnight:
it's freezing on the lake
and wind whips ice eastward
but most of the water remains open
--and stars visit earth
tumbled about like floating candles
on the black tumulus
then wind extinguishes the silver fire
but more flash down
and even those reflections reflect
on the sides of waves
even the stars' reflections reflect stars

Ice:
far older than earth
primordial as the Big Bang
--cold unmeasured by Celsius and Fahrenheit
quarrelling about it on a Jurassic shingle
--before Pangaea and Gondwanaland
arrive her in the 20th century
born like a baby
under the flashlight beam
Bend down and examine the monster
and freeze for your pains
--tiny oblong crystals
seem to come from nowhere
little transparent piano keys
that go tinkle tinkle tinkle
while the wind screams
--and you feel like some shivering hey
presto god grumbling at his fucked-up weather
hurry indoors hurry indoors to heaven

People have told us we built too near the lake
"The flood plain is dangerous" they said
and no doubt they know more about it than we do
--but here wind presses down on new-formed ice
trembles it like some just-invented musical instrument
and that shieking obbligato to winter
sounds like the tension in a stretched worm
when the robin has hauled it halfway out of the lawn
I stand outside
between house and outhouse
feeling my body stiffen in fossilized rigor mortis
and listening
thinking
this is the reason we built on the flood plain
damn right
the seriousness of things beyond your understanding

Whatever I have not discovered and enjoyed
is still waiting for me
and there will be time
but now these floating stars on the freezing lake
and music fills the darkness
holds me there listening
--it's a matter of separating these instants from others
that have no significance
so that they keep reflecting each other
a way to live and contain eternity
in which the moment is altered and expanded
my consciousness hung like a great silver metronome
suspended between stars
on the dark lake
and time pours itself into my cupped hands shimmering

Almost Random Notes, Part 4

This will be a long and busy day, so I will number my paragraphs and write about the unrelated things that occur to me. No transitions, but for whatever my brain generates without conscious effort:

1. I teach one class per semester at Hope College. The constant reader (Who are you, b.t.w.? Don't you have anything useful to do?) will remember that last term I taught a poetry class. This semester I am back to teaching Freshman Composition. Things are made a bit more interesting because, topic-wise, the instructor is permitted to design the class. My students will be writing about creativity. The assigned texts include Twlya Tharp's The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use It for Life (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and The Habit of Being (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1979), Flannery O'Connor's selected letters. The first class is Wednesday. I have been working on the syllabus for my class and rereading O'Connor's short stories from the Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (Library of America, 1988).

O'Connor is a master of dialect and an amazingly economical writer. Today, her language (in stories like "Revelation" from Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1965) seems shocking. When originally published, her words must have seemed challenging and rude, but necessary. At the same time, the violence in many of her stories (which was once shocking) seems quaint by today's cultural standards and even melodramatic; perhaps too easily purchased. Too many of her stories resolve through "shots rang out and they were all dead" methodologies. Is it familiarity with O'Connor's writing that makes me think this about her work? Would I have said the same things thirty years ago?

Would I say the same things about O'Connor's stories if they were the work of--just speculating here--Cormac McCarthy?

2. Eight days into 2007, the award for most auspicious debut of the year in the poetry category has already been won by Reginald Shepherd's Blog. As Shepherd promises in his masthead, the blog is about poetry, it isn't about what he had for breakfast or what CD he is listening to. Shepherd goes right after Ron Silliman and Joshua Clover (to name two) in a devastating critique of some of the more outrageous claims made by them and their allies. Shepherd has a new book of essays coming out in the University of Michigan's Poets on Poetry Series. If his blog is an accurate indicator, I will be a big fan of his book.

And when they come after me, I want Reginald Shepherd in my corner.

3. Note to self: Before she goes back to NYC, have Hannah teach you how to do links within the body of the post.

4. Seth Abramson's poem "Public Defender" is featured today on Poetry Daily. Check it out. The poem originally appeared in The Iowa Review. Not only is this a terrific piece of writing, it is also a clear-eyed, dead-on accurate take on life as an attorney, representing the indigent and the baffled. I know something about that, and Seth's poem speaks from the very heart of the experience.

5. As my vision deteriorates, the quality of my typing becomes worse and worse. And I was not much of a typist to begin with. Generally, I catch my more egregious mistakes with spell check (or by rereading my own posts) but find that I don't catch all my errors when I post comments on the blogs of others. I apologize for this. When it becomes too embarrassing, I will quit posting comments.

Still though, alas, I invoke these deadly birds of the soul.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Work Is, Part 2

Today, my poetic efforts consisted of taking a personal pronoun out of one poem and changing "cadmium green" to "cobalt green" in another; the second change made for reasons of rhythm and accuracy. And I call that a productive day. I am reminded of what Annie Dillard said in The Writing Life (Harper Perennial, 1989):

"On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away. These truths comfort the anguished. They do not mean, by any means, that faster written books are worse books. They just mean that most writers might well stop berating themselves for writing at a normal, slow pace.

Octavio Paz cites the example of 'Saint-Pol Roux, who used to hang the inscription "The poet is working" from his door while he slept.'"

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Question of Protocol

With the help of my brilliant daughter, Hannah, I have figured out how to post images and how to set up a few links. There are several other blogs I would like to link to as well, but I had a little trouble making connections with anyone who is not working in Blogger.

Now for a somewhat stupid question: how does one go about having/asking/causing a linkee to link back to your blog? The sites I have listed are all by writers whose work I admire and I am not above begging. Just let me know what the protocol is. Thanks!

California Headlights

Those who follow this blog may have noticed that after what happened against Ohio State, I made no prediction about which team would win the Rose Bowl. I was too busy to pay attention to the pre-game hype and frankly, there is something about the State of California that frightens my Wolverines. So congratulations to the USC Trojans, who defeated the University of Michigan, 32-18.

The truth is that halfway through the third quarter, I'd seen enough.

Monday, January 01, 2007

How About This for a Cover?



This is "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" (1875) by James McNeill Whistler. The painting is at the Detroit Institute of Arts and is probably Whistler's second most famous work, after his Mother, of course. The painting was publicly criticized by John Ruskin, who wrote, "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won, in the most celebrated trial of its time, but was awarded only a single pound in damages.

The painting is a central figure in the title poem of my manuscript. I would love to to use it for the cover of the book. We'll see.

New Year's Day--Mid-afternoon

Endi Shomer sent two e-mails this morning with suggestions about a couple of poems.

She has a good ear.

So I have been wrenching and tapping on page 20 and page 30 of Figured Dark, aka "Freddy Krueger."

Wisconsin leads Arkansas 17-7 in the second quarter of the Capital One Bowl. A tough call, but I'm pulling for Arkansas.

To paraphrase, "What's (lately) in my wallet?"

Go Pigs!

New Year's Day--Early Morning

I hope you revelers enjoyed last night. I was asleep before 10 P.M., but I am a famously boring person.

Since reading his Nobel Prize Lecture in The New Yorker (December 25, 2006 & January 1, 2007) I've been on an Oran Pamuk mission. I'm currently reading his memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City (Knopf, 2006). It is very good.

I am also working on a poem about hummingbirds.

Here's a poem that I came across last night from Fernando Pessoa's A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, (Penguin Classics, 2006). An odd note on which to begin this year's entries, but something about the poem spoke to the closing year and what is to come:


ENGLISH SONG

I broke with the sun and stars. I let the world go.
I went far and deep with the knapsack of things I know.
I made the journey, bought the useless, found the indefinite,
And my heart is the same as it was: a sky and a desert.
I failed in what I was, in what I wanted, in what I
discovered.
I've no soul left for light to arouse or darkness to smother.
I'm nothing but nausea, nothing but reverie, nothing but
longing.
I'm something very far removed, and I keep going
Just because my I feels cozy and profoundly real,
Stuck like a wad of spit to one of the world's wheels.