And so does my life tremble, or, the poem I can’t stop reading

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Paul Klee, “Signs in the Sky,” wikimedia

I had not known the poems of Denis Johnson before he died last week. This is the fate of the mostly-self-taught: holes in the tapestry. The Internet came to my rescue when someone posted this poem, and I fell hard. Bought his books. Am amazed.

Here is the poem I can’t stop reading this week:

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NOW by Denis Johnson

Whatever the foghorns are
the voices of feels terrible
tonight, just terrible, and here
by the window that looks out
on the waters but is blind, I
have been sleeping,
but I am awake now.
In the night I watch
how the little lights
of boats come out
to us and are lost again
in the fog wallowing on the sea:
it is as if in that absence not many
but a single light gestures
and diminishes like meaning
through speech, negligently
adance to the calling
of the foghorns like the one
note they lend from voice
to voice. And so does my life tremble,
and when I turn from the window
and from the sea’s grief, the room
fills with a dark
lushness and foliage nobody
will ever be plucked from,
and the feelings I have
must never be given speech.
Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,
and I am almost ready to
confess it is not some awful
misunderstanding that has carried
me here, my arms full of the ghosts
of flowers, to kneel at your feet;
almost ready to see
how at each turning I chose
this way, this place and this verging
of the ocean on earth with the horns claiming
I can keep on if only I step
where I cannot breathe. My coat
is leprosy and my dagger
is a lie; must I
shed them? Do I have
to end my life in order
to begin? Music, you are light.
Agony, you are only what tips
me from moment to moment, light
to light and word to word,
and I am here at the waters
because in this space between spaces
where nothing speaks,
I am what it says.

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I rest my case.

(From his collection The Incognito Lounge).

friday with another screen door and balance juggle

The screen doors pursue me.

I went 44 years without reading a screen door poem, and here in the last two weeks I’ve come across two that will fold into the Important Poems file of my mind.

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But first a word on balance. Earlier this week, I shared a Gwendolyn Brooks quote about “poeting” (her word) being just one element of a lived, human life.

I went on to say: Yes, but. Yes, but creative people must sometimes say no in order to make their art. I said: It’s all in the balance, I suppose.

A reader wrote asking if I think the balance is really possible. My answer is no. I used the wrong word. I’ve never balanced my life, I’ve only juggled the various elements of it. So, if the balance (whatever that is) seems to you impossible to achieve, you’re not alone. Also, the non-art-making world may wish for us to balance rather than juggle. The non-art-making world may not understand why simply parceling out a certain number of hours per week for our creative work, for example, does not work for the art-makers. [*Returning now to say: Yes, but. Yes, but setting aside regular time is also important]. That the art-makers must respond to the art when it’s ripe for making. Or sometimes, let’s be honest, when the deadline approaches.

Making art is Other. Let us juggle avidly.

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Bachelard:

Shall we repeat with the logicians that a door must be open or closed?

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Here’s a little ars poetica from Franz Wright that makes use of the screen door’s liminal equivocality:

BEFORE THE STORM

The poem seeks not
to depict a place
but to become one—

synonymous
_____________summer
and loneliness…

Mute child-ghost
of yourself
at the screen door.

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The poet Kaveh Akbar recently organized a tribute to Franz Wright to coincide with the first anniversary of Wright’s death. It’s here and in the latest issue of Pleiades if you’re interested.

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Also Bachelard:

But is he who opens a door and he who closes it the same being?

“human being being human”

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This POETRY tribute issue (June) devoted to Gwendolyn Brooks is fantastic—poems of homage, notes and photos from her archives, essays on her work and her life and their bearing on our poetry and our times.

One of my favorite bits is the following quote “written on a slip of paper in her archives”:

Who “does life” as a “poet”? One lives as a human being. In that activity, life “as a poet” is included, I guess, along with life as a black-eye pea boiler, life as a baby-maker, life as a lecturer, life as a Listener, life as a typist-for-five-lawyers. I never gave up love, lunch, book-reading, movies, restaurant-romping, strolling, friend-visiting, for “life-as-a-poet”-ing. Poeting has been, always, part of this life, my life as a warm-hearted resilient, open eyed human being being human. —Gwendolyn Brooks

This  may hold a little something back—creative people must sometimes say no to things in order to have time, space, and solitude to make their art. But the idea of art as one element of a very human life seems just right to me. The trick is in the balance, I suppose.

Also not to missed in this issue: Patricia Smith’s poem, “A Street in Lawndale.” Its third section begins,

Murders will not let you forget.
You remember the children you had—suddenly quarry, target—
the daughters with gunfire smoldering circles in their napped hair,
the absent sons whose screams still ride the air.

—Patricia Smith, from “A Street in Lawndale”

Here’s the POETRY Magazine website if you want to get your hands on this issue.

friday with screen door and Bill Knott

Doors are such a rich symbol. I could spend my life thinking and writing about them. As Gaston Bachelard writes in his The Poetics of Space, “[T]he door is an entire cosmos of Half-open.” Yes.

In my personal mythology the screen door is amongst the pantheon. Mine is an old screen door, wood-framed and warped, scuffed and cat-scratched, patched and pressed into. It never quite latches, just thwacks against its doorsill and remains open by a crack.

Recently, thanks to the good people at Open Books who know every book by every poet ever, I discovered the work of the poet Bill Knott. I was stunned to learn that he was from a little town in Michigan called Carson City, about ten miles from the little town in Michigan where I grew up.

It would be hard to overstate how little these towns are. Between them are backroads and farmland, soybeans and potatoes.

Barns and farmhouses.

Screen doors.

I confess to a fondness for poems that engage with liminalities ( this bit from C.D. Wright’s One With Others is another of my favorites: “The river rises from a mountain of granite.”).

Here’s a Bill Knott poem I spent some time with this morning:

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Just this:

What if we never entered then—        

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Here’s more about Bill Knott from The New York TimesHis selected is called I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems 1960-2014, and is edited and introduced by Thomas Lux. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.

Horse, then, unhorses…

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view from here

It is finished.

That is, I have finally sent off both my creative thesis and my critical paper to my Master’s program.

The creative thesis I could’ve sent months ago. The critical paper was a particular, and long, labor of love, and I must admit to shedding a few happy/sad tears upon finishing.

I have also removed all the index cards, with the voices of so many writers written across them, from my study walls. It ends up I could not bear to part with the cards altogether, so I fastened them to paper and put them in a folder in my desk drawer.

I’ve lived with these cards and their voices for months now, and although I find the mostly-bare walls more aesthetically pleasing, I miss being able to look up and see the quote I knew would be there, just where I’m looking.

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“Urge and urge and urge” —Whitman

“It’s almost as if we sing to each other all day.” —Robert Pinsky

“Love buries these ghost forms within us.” —Frank Bidart

Plumly: consonance, assonance, & surprise.

“No verse is really free.” —T.S. Eliot

“Wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall” —Robert Duncan

“[S]ilence is finally the only perfect statement.” —A.R. Ammons

“The poem’s form is where resemblance and distinction intertwine. It’s where you can’t tell something. Dancer from dance, for example.” —Heather McHugh

“It is always less tiring to substitute method for intelligence.” —H.T. Kirby-Smith

“Meter developed in response to the motion of human lives… .” —Stephen Dobyns

“I long for the imperishable quiet at the heart of form.” —Theodore Roethke

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful…” —Charles Darwin

Paul Fussell: the pleasures of meter are physical

“I and this mystery here we stand” —Whitman

“Craft dries your tears.” —Molly Peacock

“The rhythm is like an other, attending to me.” —Pinsky again

Calvino: not light like a feather, light like a bird.

“The form of the poem unlocks the mind to old pleasures.” —Donald Hall

“Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning. I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.” —Annie Dillard

Is this then a touch? … quivering me to a new identity… —Whitman

Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.” —C.D. Wright.

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And more, so many more. I will carry them with me. It’s almost as if they’re singing to me all day.

friday roundup: Whatever in passing

Alexander_Mann,_1883_-_Soubrette

Spring is trying to arrive; some days yes and some days no.

(I think) I’m nearly finished with my creative thesis and my critical paper.

There are nine weeks of school left for the kids.

We just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb known to humankind.

There is an app that will wake you up to the sound of birdsong.

I’m not sure what to make of any of it, but here are some things:

no Creative people say no. Women, especially, are conditioned not to say no. And never the twain shall meet.

Someone once tweeted (I can’t remember who, but the words have stayed with me): You will have to say no in order to do your work. It will be worth it. I have said no to lunch invitations, movies, shopping days, volunteer “opportunities,” children, laundry, dinners (as in making them), hairstyles (as in having one), arguments (both having them and settling them), sleep, and more, in order to do my work. I just said no to a second game of PIG on the driveway basketball hoop with my darling girl. “I wish I could, but I have to work today,” is what I said. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Here are two articles about saying no, and one even gives you some good ways of saying it: One. Two. Spoiler: Even Dickens said no.

reinforcements A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and it’s now hanging above my desk. In case your will to say no requires reinforcements:

A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. —Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Men may also need to be careful about this, but since those who identify as women still do most of the child-rearing, household-running, and the Administrative Caca that comes with those tasks—none of which are ever “finished”—, it’s especially important for the Sisterhood.

Whatever in passing  This morning I read two poems at Poetry Northwest‘s website written and translated by two women—Ye Lijun and Fiona Sze-Lorrain—who said yes to their art. We will never know what they said no to in order to do it, but I am so glad they did, because these poems are exquisite and they kindle in me the desire to keep trying to make exquisite things with words.

You can read them here.

one more thing I recently—and finally—created an author website. If you click on it, it will become more findable. Would you? Thanks. www.mollyspencer.com.

Happy weekend!

from the notebooks

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I love to look at artists’ notebooks. ^^Here^^ is mine. (Well, actually, I prefer to look at the insides of the notebooks, but sorry, this one’s still too fresh to bare).

It is a messy place, scuffed, tagged, dog-eared, x’d out, scrawled across. I’m against making the notebook a sacred place. I’m in favor of messes.

When I start a new notebook, I always write this quote from Robert Hass inside the front cover, even though I don’t really believe it: “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.”

It’s the half an hour part that I don’t believe.

But you can do at at least some of your life’s work in half an hour a day, so there’s that.

Here are some snippets from my notebook, selected at random:

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“Over again I feel thy finger and find thee” Hopkins… Deutschland

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Lament for Untitled

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Also, that Goya painting.

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(Imitating Wright, god help me)

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3/15/2017 ( and you? )

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wing
broken wing
snapped wing
snapped wing of your doubt

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S-P as a Paper Boat

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Also: the moon as ashen

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bleh
bleh bleh bleh

Note: written below attempts at poems

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A.R. Ammons “A Tree Full of Cleavage Bared Branching”—one word from it: chantless

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papery->chartaceous(!), tissue, parchment

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flange
rail
cringe
blear
share (as n.)
unchild
shoal
vault
reeve

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From Linda Gregg’s poem “Blake”:

“I am finished with knife and window / My bed will be underground soon enough. / I will persist in this impermanence / that flesh holds. The body smooth, / the voices speaking within.”

nevertheless

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A STUBBORN ODE by Jack Gilbert

All of it. The sane woman under the bed with the rat
that is licking off the peanut butter she puts on her
front teeth for him. The beggars of Calcutta blinding
their children while somewhere people are rich
and eating with famous friends have having running water
in their fine houses. Michiko is buried in Kamakura.
The tired farmers thresh barley all day under the feet
of donkeys amid the merciless power of the sun.
The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.
All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.
When Gordon was released from the madhouse, he could
not find Hayden to say goodbye. As he left past
Hall Eight, he saw a face in a basement window,
tears running down the cheeks. And I say, nevertheless.

 

shit goes wrong

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I have mostly been writing my thesis nonstop for the last two weeks. A draft is due tomorrow. I should be working on it now (and will soon), but I’m stopping by here to share a link to two of my poems in this month’s THRUSH poetry journal.

They are poems from my first full-length manuscript which is currently making the rounds.

At first glance, they might appear to be poems about love gone wrong—Persephone and Hades, you know the story. But when I wrote them they were attempts to reckon with the reality of serious, chronic illness. Illness that was never going away.

More broadly, I was attempting to reckon with the problem of suffering. Suffering, which—as long as there are sentient beings in existence—is never going away.

Shit goes wrong.

Sometimes something dark kidnaps you and takes you underground through a rend in the earth. You’re down there, you’re hungry, you miss your mother.

But after a while it becomes your life. YOUR life. And so, while you wouldn’t choose it, you can’t exactly wish it away either.

Here are the poems, and make sure to read the rest of the issue, too. Thanks for reading.

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(Note: The first poem is also an ekphrasis of the painting above, View of the Campagna, 1832 by Friedrich Wasmann; oil on paper mounted on cardboard, Hamburger Kunsthalle. You can find a larger image of it here).

friday roundup: long time no see edition

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This terrible photo of the book fair is apparently the only photo I took at AWP.

Well. I have my reasons.

I am thesis-ing.

I have been to D.C. and San Francisco and D.C. and back again in the last three-and-a-half weeks.

Care and feeding of the young.

Doing my own work first.

Etc.

But I’m here to tell you a little bit about AWP and to share a poem I read this morning.

AWP was a meat-grinder of the best sort. You run from session to snack bar to book fair to the place you told your friends you’d meet them for dinner. On loop. You finally see in person the editor who was so good as to publish your poems, poets whose work you admire, and your writing friends from distant outposts (or perhaps you are the one in the distant outpost now, but you get what I mean). It is tiring. It is overload for 12,000 introverts. But it is also a little bit of heaven. Here’s why:

You only have to be yourself: poet, critic, editor (in my case). Everyone sees you as a professional, a colleague. They ask about your manuscript and encourage you to keep sending it out. They mention seeing your poems here and there and how much they enjoyed them. They ask about your thesis and encourage you to send it to this conference they know about so you can present it there. To them, you are no one’s mother, wife, daughter, sister, auntie, neighbor, or potential PTA volunteer. There is no laundry to fold, no ground beef to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner. People want to talk to you about poetics, about the work of Poet X in Journal Y. They wonder if they can send a review copy of their book to the journal where you work. They ask what kind of work you’re looking for. They heard the panel you moderated was great. They ask what your next project is and tell you about theirs.

And that’s what I loved best about it.

Now I’m back in my study-with-the-door-that-closes working on my thesis. Writing a few little poems or notes for poems. Starting my day by reading poetry because that’s how I make sure the day will be okay. Here’s one I read this morning from Donika Kelly‘s debut collection Bestiary. Which you should buy here.

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