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.

*

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 roundup: Whatever in passing

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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!

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.

 

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)

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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!

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

friday (mini-)roundup: “I too am not a bit tamed” edition

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“Hawk Poised for a Fight” by ZhOng Schan Tchow (wikimedia)

Dear Reader,

I had not intended to go quite so quiet for quite so long, but there it is.

I’m enjoying living in a house again.

I’m not enjoying the results of the election, and the aftermath.

In the bleak times, I usually turn to poems. But this time even most of my standby poems-for-troubled-times aren’t helping.

Still, a mercifully, a poem has presented itself to me, an unlikely candidate perhaps, from one Walt Whitman the self-appointed bard of this nation. (Right now, it feels like he was overly optimistic about the Republic. But that’s another post for another day.)

I’ve been reading and re-reading section 52, the last section, of “Song of Myself.” And although the text may not support it (#sorrynotsorry), I’ve been thinking of our nation as the speaker, and of the citizen as the speaker. I regret that, as a citizen, I’ve been mostly gabbing and loitering over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about the work we have before us, and how the ideals of our nation are elusive and endangered. That we must put on our boots, sound our yawps, and keep encouraged. But not be conciliatory: I too am not a bit tamed. 

I give you Uncle Walt:

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from SONG OF MYSELF

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of the day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to vapor and dust.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.

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