friday roundup: the first fact of the world, exile, and the only warm thing for miles


Happy Friday! It’s “ski week” in the Peninsula Town, so I haven’t spent much time at my desk this week. A hike in the foothills, a trip to the city, many hours snuggling on the couch reading The Tale of Despereaux, and—let’s be real—settling arguments amongst siblings, reminding people to take out their laundry and put their dishes in the dishwasher… this is how I’ve spent my week. No complaints. Now on to the roundup:

the first fact of the world  I’ve slowly been making my way through Robert Hass‘s essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures. I’ve read some of these essays before, but it’s been a while and a re-visit seemed needful.

I’ve also been reading poems (Larry Levis, James Wright, Frances Leviston, Chase Twichell) with an eye to trajectories: What is the journey of this poem, and how is the journey implemented?  What are its structures and formal properties?

In Hass’s “On Form,” he writes: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.” He argues that, from our earliest days, “we are clued into the hope of a shapeliness of things”—hunger felt, then satisfied; the school bus coming along right on time.

But what is form in an era of poetry dominated by free verse? It’s so much harder to define than a certain number of lines, with a certain metrical pattern, and a certain rhyme scheme.

Hass defines it this way: The form of a poem is “the shape of its understanding”; it “exists in the relation between its music and its seeing.”

Not exactly a step-by-step guide for finding a poem’s best form, but worth thinking about… .

exile  n. 1. the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. 2. a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry by Paul Goodman. Regarding why he writes poetry, Goodman says:

“I am in exile. Like everybody else, I live in a world that is given to me—I am thankful for it. It is not made by me—and that too is very well. But it is not my native home; therefore I make poems.”

Goodman writes of a spiritual exile, of course, and I’m not entirely comfortable with using the concept of exile vis-a-vis art-making in a world when so many people are in actual, physical exile, and/or are risking their lives to achieve it. But his words resonate with me, and have me thinking about of poetry as a means to reconcile ourselves to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Each poem a little bridge, a little patch, a little healing, a little closer to home.

the only warm thing for miles  Speaking of home, it’s that time of year when those who live in winter climes are beginning to doubt that spring will ever arrive. While I’m leaving my house in a light sweater and enjoying the earliest-blooming trees, I remember well that slightly crazed doubt, and I miss the way the sharp edges of changing seasons can mirror our inner lives. A friend sent me this poem by Danez Smith; you could call it an argument for winter:




O California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for him? I’m bored with the ocean

I stood at the lip of it, dressed in down, praying for snow
I know, I’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.
I know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

& it’s so sad, you know? You’re the only warm thing for miles
& the only thing that can’t shine.

(originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review)


Stay warm, Reader, stay warm. And thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “friday roundup: the first fact of the world, exile, and the only warm thing for miles

  1. Oh dear I always feel gauche when I visit–the way I felt when I went to a very elegant art gallery with Rob the Firefighter in a backpack in 1972 or so. I had no idea how to behave. (It has been awhile, and I have become very comfortable at every sort of art gallery, begging the question of why I am still awkward in the court of Poetry.)

    However. I loved the Danez Smith piece (& its ampersands), which reminded me of our first visit to San Diego, where my New Jersey-born in-laws had retired. “Oh, what a beautiful day!” I told my mother-in-law (as if perhaps she had not noticed). She looked out the window and sighed. “Yes, every day is beautiful out here.” It had never occurred to me that there might be such a thing as a surfeit of loveliness.

    Which brings me to the subject of exile and first world problems. No point in making art from experiences we haven’t had – lots of point in telling our own stories truly. You are right. That is how bridges are built. Of course, we must glimpse the other side of the chasm to begin to know how to build the bridge, and welcome other exiles as they cross it.

    Final note: Robert Hass was the featured star at the first annual Bear River Writers’ Conference in 2001. I was, predictably, stricken mute. Still . . . a memorable week, and I came away with an autographed copy of Sun Under Wood.

    It is NOT a beautiful day here just at the minute. I am going out to clean off the 22 steps before taking the dogs for their walk. In spite of feeling gauche, I have enjoyed my visit very much.

    • Oh, Gerry—this little room is made better by your entrance every time! And I know how you felt in 1972 at the art gallery… sometimes *I* still feel that way in the court of Poetry. And as for surfeits of loveliness, I must say I still feel surprised leaving my house without a jacket in February (and I still miss the beautiful, winter Torch Lake views). And I have been struck mute by the mere proximity of more Very Famous Poets than I can count. Since Robert Hass is pretty much one of The Most Very Famous Poets, having been struck mute is utterly understandable, but I’ve heard (and sense myself) that he is a very nice guy. Thanks for coming by!

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