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:

*

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.

*

I rest my case.

(From his collection The Incognito Lounge).

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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I attack the ruse.

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(art from wikimedia)

*

Nobody is attached
by Tomaž Šalamun

Nobody is attached. You too are not. You too
are undressed and warm, breathing like a

hare. We breathe slowly. I’m the thorn.
The thorn. I go into the goblet. I toss

the string. There’s a bucket on the string. It
splashes in the fountain. At the bottom of the fountain

there are does with big eyes. I limp, I eat kohlrabi,
point with a finger, and ask too much. Calm

yourself. It will come and vanish. You’ll be mute
and black and you will fall asleep on the shelf.

Combines will halve you. The shy ones
the rag opened the eyes to the timid ones.

No one loaded the duffle. The lamps along the path
were made of white plastic. I attack the ruse. I love.

*

I love this poem for its strange unconnectedness. Richard Hugo: “Connections are not stated, yet we know the statements are connected. They are connected because the same poet wrote all (of them). That is, they are products of one vision that, along with style, becomes the adhesive force. This adhesive force will be your way of writing. Assume the next thing belongs because you put it there.” From Hugo’s “Nuts and Bolts.”

I am almost mad when it ends up the lamps along the path are made of plastic. But then I see how it fits perfectly, waking us from the dream of the poem.

I’m not sure who translated this poem, but Šalamun translated his own work at least some of the time. I found this poem via the poet Gretchen Marquette, whose book May Day is fantastic. You should read it.

Happy New Year!

instructions

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(art is “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” from wikimedia)

C.D. Wright:

Be afraid. Love. Be true. Gnaw. Be brave. Clot. Be real. Scream. Hush. Listen. Womb. Sleep now. ‘Be still. The Hanging Gardens were a dream.’

—from The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.

bridges, headwaters

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[Hmmmm… the preview is not showing attribution for the art I’ve used here. Here it is: wikimedia]

I’ve been reading (re-reading) Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey. This is because I want to be able to write essays that are as smart, well-crafted, labyrinthine, and aesthetically pleasing as her lectures are.

In “Someone Reading a Book” she writes:

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

In the margin, I have scrawled: Maybe we write poems as bridges to the world. What I meant was: Maybe poets write poems in an attempt to bridge the distance between themselves and the world everybody else lives in. Maybe a poem is an attempt to enter that world.

I know that I often write out of a sense of bewilderment. The world bewilders me. My life bewilders me. Even my own mind bewilders me. Writing poems helps me to understand things, at least a little bit.

Maybe this desire to enter the world is the original wound. Who said it first—that all writing comes from a wound? Maybe Dorianne Laux?

Other times, I’m not so sure I want to enter the world everyone else lives in after all. Ellen Bryant Voigt:

HEADWATERS

I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there

who needed what no tracks in the snow no boot pointed toward me or away
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung

to my own life raft I had room on it for only me you’re not surprised
it grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier

but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better

wordless wednesday, not exactly: Bad Mood, Baker Beach

Happening now on my (temporary) kitchen cupboard:

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Because we need poems for the bad mood days. This one has been keeping me sane all week.

[Also, please someone tell Mom: BP O’s her $25. We need chocolate milk, ribbons for pointe shoes, cashews, peanut butter, Grape-nuts, spoons (??what??) and scrapers for the cars. Someone also remind her: Just do the next right thing.]

The poem is by Tracey Knapp, who I heard read a couple weeks ago at my friendly neighborhood independent bookstore. She read from her book, Mouthwhich is full of utterly hilarious and altogether heart-wrenching poems. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about how to execute humor in poetry, and especially humor alongside tender-heartedness, this book is a must-read. Or if you just need a good laugh-cry.

If you don’t want to have to squint to read the poem in the photo above (and I cannot blame you), here it is.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Baker Beach, it’s on the very northern edge of San Fransisco, in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. A singular location.

Friday is finally, actually-factually, MOVING DAY. Although it feels surreal, we will soon live in a house again. I will have my stuff. And by “my stuff” I mean: my books, my dictionaries (which are a class of “book” all their own), my desk, my two favorite kitchen knives, my flannel shirts and pajamas. Socks by the dozen. Scissors. Tea kettle. Gaston Bachelard.

In other words, you may not hear from me for a bit. Meanwhile, write on!

 

 

 

 

 

friday roundup: Emily Dickinson in the kitchen edition, and some other stuff

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Another Friday. Next Friday we will begin living in a house again. Granted, it will be a house full of many unpacked boxes and mostly empty of furniture, but it will be a house. And the  most important thing is this: my books and bookshelves will be there. I confess, I cannot wait to live in a house again. I cannot wait for the first time I’ll think of a poem I love that I haven’t thought of in a while and feel like reading, or of a poem I admire that I know can help me on a point of craft in one of my own poems, and then I’ll turn around, and walk over to my bookshelves, and find the book where the poem lives, and pull it down off the shelf, and open it in my own two hands. And there that poem will be. Bliss.

save me Meanwhile, can we talk about Emily Dickinson? Thank you. Because yesterday, Open Culture ran a story with the following headline: “Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake Recipe Hints at How Baking Figured Into Her Creative Process.” The article quotes the Dickinson Museum website which says:

The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where [Emily] Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home.” But the “many drafts of poems written on kitchen papers tell us also that this was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.”

Then goes on to point out a poem drafted on the back of a recipe for coconut cake: “Presumably the recipe inspired the poem.” [*raises eyebrow]

I’m going to call this romanticizing. Yes, Emily Dickinson—who once wrote “God keep me from what they call households”—spent a lot of time in the kitchen. She was a woman living in the 1800s, after all. Said the woman living in the 2010s who also spends a lot of time in the kitchen. Ahem.

I don’t think this necessarily means the kitchen was a place of creative ferment for her. More likely, in my opinion, scraps of language and ideas for poems followed her everywhere, including to the kitchen, where she would jot them down on anything that was available. Just like I do. Just like Edward Hirsch talks about writing in the car while waiting for his son to finish soccer practice. Just like Ray Carver is said to have written in the car so he could get out of the house and hear himself think. Was the car a place of creative ferment for these writers? Or were they just fitting their writing into their lives wherever and whenever they could? Just like we all sometimes stop in the grocery store aisle to jot down notes for a poem. At the basketball game. At the doctor’s office. In the middle of the night. &c.

[Okay, so I got that off my chest. Thanks.]

form again  I’m still thinking a lot about form in free verse poetry. Here are a few snippets from this week’s reading:

“Let chaos storm! / Let cloud shapes swarm! / I wait for form.” —Robert Frost (Poor Frost! and I mean that in the best possible way). From the Frost Friends website.

Robert Hass on the technical authority in the photographs of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams: “The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination.” From What Light Can Do.

And Susan Stewart on form (this is a paraphrase): Our creation myths are all about formlessness coming into form. Think of Genesis: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Thus giving form to things becomes an act of creation. From Poetry and the Fate of the Senses.

Yet how much room for memory  Someone shared a Hart Crane poem on Twitter earlier this week, and I fell in love with it, so I thought I’d share it with you. It’s called “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” and you can read it at the Poetry Foundation website. Aside from its many other wonderful traits, this poem made me realize anew how a tiny point of craft can have enormous power. I’m looking at the way he set the name Elizabeth out by giving it its own line. The effect of this for me is that it doubles as a beckoning, a form of direct address to Elizabeth, the speaker’s grandmother. I don’t think it would feel that way if it had come at the end of the line above where it sits on it’s own.

Have a wonderful Friday and thanks for reading.

friday roundup, half-heartedly

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Dear Reader, it’s Friday. The world we live in and life in general have me feeling quiet and half-hearted, but here I am.

[Editing to say that this image ===========> which I can’t get WordPress to let me label today is called “The Spider” by Nikolas Gysis, via wikimedia.]

I’ve been reading My Poets by Maureen McLane, a really lovely, super smart volume of what I’d call meditative criticism. In a variety of styles and from a variety of vantage points, McLane writes about the poets “who, in possessing her, made her” (quote is from jacket text). She does this, many times, through close reading of poems, but—unlike a lot of literary criticism—her close readings take into account the way these poems and poets have moved through her life as scholar, poet, and human being. It has become a VIB for me (Very Important Book). I recommend it wholeheartedly.

I’ve also been reading Fanny Howe:

Come, tinkers, among droves of acorn trees
Be only one third needful, O
Name things whereby we hope
Before the story scatters. A cardinal
Is red for fever where you passed

!

(from Introduction to the World ; sorry for linking to the Death Star, but could not find it anywhere else)

I’ve been remembering Buson’s poem (short enough to memorize, therefore no need to read), one of my all-time favorites, on this second day of autumn:

I go,
you stay;
two autumns.
(Robert Hass, trans.)

I’ve been writing, early mornings, earlier than ever, actually, since high school starts at 7:10 (!) and I now have a high-schooler (!). The world’s on fire, and there are some amazing world’s-on-fire poems circulating out there, and I would like to write some amazing world’s-on-fire poems. But I’ve been writing poems of the interior: mindscapes, emotional landscapes, questions of how to live. Sometimes I wish there existed a switch I could flip—turn off poems of the interior, turn on poems of public life. Alas, no switch. Still, yesterday I was comforted reading this interview with MacArthur Fellow, Maggie Nelson. In it she says,

“At the end of the day, maybe I’m old-fashioned in thinking that you just don’t get to choose what you’ve got in you to give. You’ve just got to do what each book demands.”

Or what each poem demands.

She also says:

“(T)he work eventually tells you what needs to be in it for it to work, and it has to have what it has to have.”

We know this already, right? But it’s nice to have a reminder. And from a MacArthur Genius at that.

Here’s a poem, a masterful conceit, a world’s-on-fire poem, a necessary poem, a heart-breaking poem, by Nikki Giovanni:

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Happy weekend & thanks for reading.

last missive from the wee, small house

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Dear reader, I am up with the birds stealing a few moments at my desk. My desk which I will likely not see again until August. It will be a summer of transience—some time at my parents’, some at my aunt’s and uncle’s, maybe some camping(?)—as we wait to get into our new house, do a bit of necessary work, then finally move in.

The thought of this for a homebody such as myself is a bit overwhelming. But books and blank notebooks have a way of saving us (me), so I have sent some ahead to be kept out of the moving van and storage. Let’s not think now about how I will have to haul them hither and yon all summer as we make our wanderings from place to place.

The books that have been saving me this week are these:

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I have always loved early C. D. Wright (Translations..).  The Poet, the Lion &c. is brand new, and I feel it should be required reading for all human beings. You could say it’s a poetic poetics. You could say it’s one, long ars poetica. You could say it’s a road map for how to live.

Here are some lines that have kept me going this week, from “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer”:

*

That the poems we snatch from the language must bear the habit of our thinking.

That their arrangement strengthens the authority on which each separate line is laid.

That they extend the line into perpetuity.

That they enlarge the circle.

That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.

That they rectify the names.

That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.

That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.

That they clear the air.

That they keep a big-box sense of humor at the ready (like an ax in a glass case).

That they bring the ship nearer to its longing.

That they resensitize the surface of things.

That they will not stand alone.

This is our mind. Our language. Our light. Our word. Our bond.

In the world.

–from The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. 

 

*

And now I’m off to gather bed linens and take them to the laundromat for washing (because I cannot even with the thought of used bedsheets of teenaged boys sitting in an un-air-conditioned storage unit all summer).

I don’t know when I’ll be back here, but I’ll check in when I can. Meanwhile, read on, write on. Meanwhile, let’s remember: You can quit anytime. Why quit now?