A Fairer House Than Prose

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Emily Dickinson Museum recently, as I’m serving on the steering committee for the Amherst Poetry Festival. It’s a real treat for me to be able to help plan an event that has been so meaningful to me in the past — even when I lived in eastern Massachusetts I’d make the drive to see readings by the likes of Kaveh Akbar and Sahar Muradi and Ocean Vuong and Rafael Campo, and to experience poetry in spectacular venues around Amherst, like the Amherst College Planetarium.

This year’s lineup is no less spectacular, and it’s incredible to have been part of lining up our headliners and plotting out the logistics and reviewing the proposals for workshops, performances, and panels.

But what’s most incredible for me is that I’ll be enjoying a lively discussion with the other members of the committee and it’ll hit me that I’m sitting in Emily Dickinson’s house. That her room is right down the hall. That her kitchen is just downstairs. That her gardens are all around us.

It’s humbling, to be sure. And exhilarating.

The Amherst Poetry Festival is September 19-22 this year. Come hang out at Emily’s house.

Review: "The Unbnd Verses" by Kwame Opoku-Duku

[This review was first published in Lily Poetry Review Vol. 1 Issue 1, Winter 2019. Thanks to Eileen Cleary for giving it a home there.]

Kwame Opoku-Duku and I follow each other on Twitter, and have interacted on that platform several times, always in positive ways. I've enjoyed the individual poems he has shared there, as well as his interviews with other poets (such as Devin Gael Kelly). So I was excited to read his chapbook The Unbnd Verses (2018, Glass Poetry Press) because I sensed a keen and thoughtful poet at work.

And so I had. The Unbnd Verses unfolds more with each reading, as I learn to read Opoku-Duku's personal poetics, to follow his leaps and turns through poems that shimmer with holy music:

the rain has ended, and up the block Lauryn Hill blasts

out of the back of somebody's car.

And they pray that I violate.

They pray to you, Lord.

I've been murdered by the eyes

of thousands. (i. Ghosts, p.1)

In these lines I hear the percussive sounds of consonants — the /d/ and /b/ sounds, the /k/ of “block” and “car”, and the gradual giving way to the vowels found in “eyes” and “thousands”. I also hear echoes of Paul Celan, particularly his poem “Tenebrae”, with its invocation “Pray to us, Lord./We are near.” and its amplification of the voices of the silenced dead. The poems in this chapbook also amplify voices, though not of Celan's silenced dead, but rather those living lives made difficult — sometimes deadly — by racism. I have wrestled with how to quote or excerpt these poems, given the essential and nuanced manner in which Opuko-Duku uses variations of the n-word as integral elements in his poems. In reading these poems I never felt unwelcome, or like I was being shown something I should never see, but I was certainly aware that these are poems that make use of language and poetics that my own writing will never access.

And this is no bad thing. In fact, it is a good thing to read poems that are challenging (and also, in this case, beautiful and lyrical) and to wrestle with how one responds to them. I like to say, half-joking, that poetry is the closest thing to telepathy that we humans will ever experience, but the serious side of that is that we can briefly enter the world of the poet through their words and voice. And so I will never know the same sense or the same experience as Kwame, but I am no longer able to consider just my own sense or experience, either. So I am changed, and the speaker of the poems changes, too:

i see you my son i'm looking at you i can see that

the lord wants to work through you the lord favors

you he wants you to own your own business the lord

has a woman picked out for you son the lord's will

the lord willing my son guide you through the lord son

has a plan the lord wants my son he wants my son in

mysterious ways my son the lord wants you to go to Africa

the lord is the lord is the one who can guide you through

this time son the lord lives the lord lifts up your troubles

son he wants the lord to heal you son i'm looking at you

son i see you son i've got chills all over lord my body lord

the lord my son my body what is it that you want my son

have you ever truly wondered what it is you have (viii. prophe-see, p.17)

What are we to make of this burst of familiar phrases, of stock exhortations like “the lord favors/you” and “the lord lifts up your troubles”, of the familiar-yet-distant “son”, of the lower-case “i” throughout? The speaker in this poem feels to me like an elder (or “old head”, as other poems throughout the collection might have it) trying to reach across a generational divide through the rhetoric and rhythm of religious invocation. I hear the voice of a humbled messenger of divine truth, but I also hear the voice of a parent who cares clumsily, without a nuanced understanding of this son who may not want to hear all of these things the lord wants him to do. It's a vulnerable, desperate speaker I hear, rushing to connect, pinned between the lord and the son. The tension in this poem, pulled taut by the lack of punctuation, is never resolved. We don't know if the son hears the parent's exhortations. We don't know anything after the last line ejects us from the poem: “have you ever truly wondered what it is you have”.

Opoku-Duku's precise use of tone in these poems is a marvel, and showcased so well in “ix. afro-beat paradise with the disembodied spirit who now believes he can love”:


i'm sho there was

times I talked slick in

the past

&

everything i'm about

to say is true

(beat)

i want to take you back

to africa/ i want to father

many children with you/

dress them with red earth

& leaves/ put their photos

on instagram for all the

haters to behold (p.18)

The full poem, which runs another 8 stanzas, maintains this heightened tone, which rings of the promises made by one person to another in an attempt at seduction, and we the readers are led to wonder how sincere these words are. Is this a speaker who believes these words himself, or is this a speaker who is manipulating us? Is the speaker working to convince himself of the existence of an afro-beat paradise, beyond the effect of “all the haters” and in the rarified realm of Michelin-starred restaurants? The first ampersand feels like a leaning-in, the creation of a physical intimacy (desired or not — that, I think, is up to the reader.)

There are three intrusions on this narrative; the first takes the form of parenthetical stage direction-like notation to indicate that the speaker has paused, which you can see in the excerpt quoted above. The second is similar, though more complex: “(short beat, thinks of words carefully)”. We're given a view of the speaker's thought process here, at a time when the intensity of the discourse increases, with 4 short lines putting tremendous pressure on the words:

to

only

dream

in twi

Each line feels like someone leaning in, speaking low and forceful directly in the reader's ear to lodge this notion directly into the reader's mind. And then, after these four lines expend their power, there is the lean-back with another ampersand, followed by a stanza that leaps to a future in which the speaker and the reader have become a “we” who return to their children after a vacation together. This is where the third intrusion on the narrative exists, in the voice of the children singing:

mama & papa have come

home to see their children/

now the war is over

mama & papa have come

home to see their children/

now we will have peace (p. 19-20)

What I read as this poem's physical choreography is remarkable, giving the sense of motion, of intimacy, of setting without ever actually describing the here-and-now of the speaker and the addressee. And I'm reading this as a seduction in a bar or a club, but that's the baggage of my experience, and I suspect anyone who reads this with different experiences will understand that choreography in a different setting — but still as choreography.

Due to limitations of time and space I chose to focus on some exemplary poems from this chapbook, but I do want to call out the series of linked poems that occur throughout The Unbnd Verses, sharing the title “the old head verses (ecclesiastes)” followed by the numbered lines contained in each poem. The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to Solomon, is one of the “Wisdom Books” of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it engages with “the big questions”, including the meaning of life. So, too, do “the old head verses”, functioning as a collection of wisdom passed from elder speaker(s) to younger listeners, without judgment flowing from either side. This voice, or these voices, carry deep affection for a beloved-but-imperfect community, an identity that grows with each successive generation.

December 10: A Day of Poet Births (EDITED)

Though I’m not a superstitious sort, I do think synchronicities are interesting, and are also very helpful for making broad connections between events.

Today, December 10, is the birthday of three poets to whom I owe a great debt.

The first is Emily Dickinson, without whom it is impossible to imagine the world of contemporary American poetry. Her interior turn and imagistic inventiveness exerted a powerful influence over that which followed. Is there anyone in America who is unfamiliar with at least a few of her poems? If so, I should hope that someone who loves them corrects that deficiency very soon.

The second poet born today is less well-known than Dickinson, at least here in America. Part of that is due to the fact that she wrote in German, having been born in Berlin, though she lived out her life in Sweden after fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. Nelly Sachs was one of the great poets of post-war Europe, and along with her close correspondent Paul Celan, she wrote into being a response to the unthinkable horror of the Nazi death machine. Her verse was deceptively simple and stark, but contained within it an astonishing complexity and depth of emotion.

The third poet born on this day was Thomas Lux, whose work I became aware of shortly before his death at far too young an age. He was a master of irony, of tension, and of observation — one of those poets whose voice was such that you felt drawn in and intimate with the speaker of his poems, and yet the poems still held their surprises.

Today was also a day that I was able to see my friend Stephen Furlong read from his first chapbook via a livestream, and it was a profoundly moving experience. His work is stunning, and I’m grateful for the chance to see and hear it out in the world.

Edited to add that Aracelis Girmay was also born on December 10th — a remarkable confluence of events that has a 4th magnificent poet sharing this birthday. And we are fortunate that she is still very much with us, and writing and publishing poems this world needs. (and thanks to J.B. for sharing the calendar knowledge with me!)

Trailer Trash by July Westhale

[Edit: This review has been reprinted in the Lily Poetry Review Vol. 1 Issue 1: Winter 2019, edited by Eileen Cleary, alongside several of July’s poems. What a true delight!]

In our age so badly in need of transparency and of plain language it is important for me to note the following facts:

  • July Westhale and I are graduates of the same MFA program, though we did not to my knowledge overlap at all in attendance

  • I received my copy of her collection Trailer Trash (2018, Kore Press) for free, from her, on the day we met

  • She gave it to me out of the kindness of her own human heart, and with no expectation that I would review it in print or online

What follows may also be factual; it is, more importantly, true.

Let's start with the cover image, this arresting photo of a bird, one leg banded with a silvery cuff. It lies inverted, cruciform, beak pointed to the viewer's left, seemingly dead. Of course, we invent the context as we view the cover, with this image floating over the title (Trailer Trash in red) and the author's name (July Westhale, in grey that matches the grey image of the bird.) When I first saw it I was startled, discomfited, and immediately suffused with complex reactions rooted in my symbol-dominated Irish Catholic upbringing. I still don't know what to make of this roiling up of half-remembered ideas and fears, tamped down for so long. What I do know is that the epigraph from Flannery O'Connor didn't dispel this connection.

Westhale's collection opens with an ars poetica that establishes the idea that identity is not only innate, but also may be chosen:

            One would like to see oneself walking through the forest as two girls,

                        along a creek, the golden carp under the ice like blurred poppies.

            The tall, hooded girl will extend a basket, offering bread and water, a kindly

                        face and a thick cloak.

            The other is small, with sly hands. She will eat her fill, wrap herself

                        in the warmth of the wool cloak, cut a branch from a tree.

            Whittling the end to a point, she will pull the arrow back, and shoot it

                        into the throat of the hooded girl. She will retrieve the basket.

The innate qualities (the tall girl is tall, the other girl is small, and both are products of the poet's longing, of her imagination) are inarguable. The choice for the small girl to become (to invent?) murder and robbery is mysterious. It is my hope that undergraduate English majors will spend years discussing the meaning of the relationship described in these 8 lines, tracing out the web of fairy tales and femmes fatale that precede Westhale's ars poetica in existence, and whose shadows enrich it.

Westhale's ability to understand multiple selves suffuses this collection. Realities of gender and sexuality and class are as vital to these poems as the landscape. In fact, they join together in a sort of inescapable terroir that the poems carry with them out of time, out of Westhale's native California, and into the reader's understanding.

I don't know exactly how far Blythe, California, is from where Larry Levis grew up, but I find some of Westhale's work to be complementary to poems (particularly those in Winter Stars) about Levis' upbringing, about his father. Westhale's complex relationship with her mother (and her mother's absence) resonates with Levis' writing in a wonderful way. As I was reading Trailer Trash I found myself understanding more of Levis (and of my own poems about my own mother) through the precise manner through which July renders her own relationship with the world that lacks her mother. In “Night On Memory's Convoy, Or, Ohio”, for example, the poet makes plain her quest:

            I know nothing of Ohio, only

            that it's a place I have not searched,

            that remains unturned. Here and everywhere,

            your face fogs the glass: a sudden, shifting bog.

                        In memory, you and I have wintered

 

            every December's petulant tantrum,

            and we have missed the breaking blossoms

            of milestone and notches. I wait

            for you every season to arrive.

                        You must be exactly like Ohio,

This lyrical meditation on unknowing, rooted in the persistence of memory and the inescapable aspects of absence, establishes the poet's emotional geography as being uncharted, like her Ohio, where even seasons do not fill the open space, where milestones are missed. The departed mother is unknown, “exactly like Ohio”, and the poem concludes with the poet waiting, hoping that the departed mother “will come back,/that this heartland will someday thaw.” Such self-aware grief over those who are lost is one of the particular elements that constitute the terroir of this book, becoming as much a part of it as the dust and fields of the Inland Empire.

Dust and grief are not the only important aspects of this collection – there is also a lushness to the language with which Westhale describes relationships, language that sometimes makes use of religious elements, as in the haunting “Conversation Among Dirt Before Rain”, and sensual sonic effects, as in “After Time Has Rumpled The Sheets Of Your Mouth”. That these two poems arrive in sequence in the book is, to me, a brilliant piece of meta-rhetoric. “Conversation” places the reader in a heightened, almost ecstatic (at least in the sense of ex stasis) state, with litany-like effects (“Let us begin.”, “Praise sun, praise roof, praise angles of light/in solemn passing, that penetrate our church.”) that recall, and call to, elements of religious services, and with recast elements of the religious ordering of the world (“Our bargain pews”, “a ministry calling all further missionaries/to stagnant dark, where all mishaps turn/appalling and sinful –“). This is just one of the poems in which Westhale makes use of resonances with Christian imagery and the theological imagination.

Meanwhile, the experience of reading “After Time...” thrusts the reader back into the body – even reading silently the assonance and consonance of this poem beg the reader's sonic imagination to the forefront, and it glides forward under the momentum of its sonic leaps and pirouettes. Here, try reading it our loud and pay attention to the way your mouth moves as you form the words:

            After Time Has Rumpled The Sheets Of Your Mouth

           

            When I am winter, shutting privately down in my own deep snow,

            allow me solace in stinking rooms of books, typewriters cold and dressed

            for procession. Great old ghosts grousing on stairwells, tumblers in cuff

           

            and not a kind word on their paper lips. Allow me mercy in my frozen

            thicket, where parties will have come to call and left to hibernate, leaving behind

            small tracks of silent pears, tepid angels in wakeful repose.

 

            & allow me comforts – sliced quince, an avocado churned by a spoon,

            port in crystal tasting of exquisite girls, black cherries, a photograph smoldering

            magenta. Leave me hopeful for another. Waiter! Another.

Do you notice the motions of your mouth and tongue as you make the sounds that make up the poem? How the Ws of “When I am winter” begin the poem at a low point, lacking for breath, and carry that feeling through “down in my own deep snow”, leaving that first line to feel like the silence of a heavy snowfall? The next line starts down with “allow”, but moves quickly to harder consonants – the staccato beats of “stinking” and “books” and “cold”, the music of the word “typewriter” acting as contrapuntal balance to the soft S of “solace” and “dressed”. That soft S wraps around to the third line, in “procession” and “ghosts” and “grousing” and “stairwells” and “tumblers”, but Westhale doesn't let the S dominate, doesn't let it collapse the line into just more breath exhaling. Instead she brilliantly punctuates it with hard Gs (“Great old ghosts grousing”) and quick exhales of a short U (“tumblers in cuff”.)

These sonic fireworks continue through the poem, which really rewards reading aloud. Reading it aloud also brings to life the half-internal semi-soliloquy aspects – the audience for the speaker of the poem isn't just the speaker and the reader, but there's some movement (mysterious though it may be) to reveal that this is a shared space, that the speaker is not shut “privately down in [her] own deep snow”, but is instead able to interact with a waiter, and we're left to wonder at the drama of it all.

It is a struggle to not simply go through this book providing close readings of every poem, to praise the wit and inventiveness on display, to shout in accompaniment to the moments of deep resonance that occur in poems like “There Is No Room For Jesus In This City”, which makes deft use of a rhetorical maneuver that is as startling as it is effective:

            All day long the buildings sleep, and dream of the people in them.

            When the sun shrugs its shoulders into the horizon,

            the world is full and the evening that passes, promising.

 

            I was lying just then. There is nothing hopeful

            about being a bringer of light. What do I know of cities? Urbanity

            makes a mess of skies, leaving stoplights scabbing overhead.

The reversal of our expectations, set as solidly as the buildings and as reliably as the sun in that first stanza, has the effect of pulling the rug out from under us as readers. We are lowered, slowly, into a darkness that is “promising” in a world that is “full”, and then told that nothing is what it seems. The world's ugliness is brought into sharp relief, and the reader must either trust or not trust the speaker – who is the only voice speaking in this poem. And this voice continues to speak throughout the poem with an authority almost Biblical in nature – certainly the poem is awash with references to Judeo-Christian scripture, but in Westhale's hands these references bridge the experience of the Divine and the human. Of course, there's also the sly reference to Lucifer, “bringer of light”, associated with Satan in contemporary usage, that underpins the ironic turn to darkness.

Westhale's work is full of these layers, freighted with meaning and connected through wit. Read Trailer Trash, and then re-read it. See what changes. My money's on you.

 

Silos and Bones

This piece in Ploughshares got me thinking about the use of critical lenses to engage with literature. Or, I should say, it was the latest piece asking the question of separating art from artist (though obliquely) that had me considering the point where a tool becomes an ideology.

As I wrote to a friend earlier, when discussing this essay, it seems to me that one of the unintended consequences of the changes to literary criticism over the past half-century has been fragmentation of the critical viewpoint.

This is a good change, in that it allows the emergence of perspectives rooted in diverse experiences, which had been sorely lacking and treated as tokens for most of America's literary history.

It's also bad, in that it has created or enabled this weird false dichotomy based on experience. Which is to say, there's no reason Abbey shouldn't have written from his experience to truly capture what it was he was after in the desert. After all, it's his story and his view based on his experience. I don't believe that invalidates or supersedes the experience of others. Yes, this is where it gets tricky, in that others at that time — particularly others who were not white men — did not have the same access to publishers and outlets for their writing.

And this is why his writing should absolutely be considered through various critical lenses, including feminism.

Unfortunately, what often happens is that critical perspectives become ideological silos, rather than a set of lenses that can be swapped out as needed to view work from different vantage points. From where I sit, it's not only possible to love Abbey despite his peccadilloes, but it's important to build on and write past them. Abbey owns his experience of the desert, but it isn't the final word by any means.

I find the streak of absolutism that has arisen in the wake of these ideological ossifications to be discomfiting — multiple perspectives and views of the desert (or anything else) can coexist. I'd argue they must coexist, actually, and that we find truth in the tensions between them. It's our duty as readers to locate these perspectives, to enter the tension. Of course, we don't seem to be in a cultural moment where such a thing is in common practice.

So how do you read beyond the peccadilloes? No author is ever exempt from critical evaluation, and no author will ever be perfect. The best of them engage in regular self evaluation, and you can see them evolve through the years. The worst of them are Ayn Rand. But even Ayn Rand is worthwhile in terms of the overall conversation that literature is supposed to be. (I don't want to reread her dreadful "novels", but dismissing the ideas that have managed to endure simply because we disagree with them makes it difficult to counter them thoughtfully. And we all know how that's working in our political sphere.)

We have seemingly few critics or professors who read and comment broadly and outside of their chosen ideological viewpoint any longer. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is that it's difficult to change directions mid-stream when you're part of a faculty or hold a position at an ideologically-driven magazine or journal. There are even some professors who have made names for themselves in the public sphere (such as it exists for these folks) by criticizing anything outside of their chosen ideology.

Ultimately, we the readers need to figure out what works for us, what we're willing to endure in our search for truth. And it's not going to be the same for all of us. Nor should it be. This silo approach, the demand for fealty to an ideological position, the need for perfection — it's stifling. It expects perfection, which will never occur in a human endeavor, and writing is a very human endeavor.

Enter Absence

What's an unreasonable amount of time to be silent for a poet? Since the last time I posted here I've moved from the Boston area, where I spent the first 20 years of my adult life, to western Massachusetts, where I hope to spend whatever remains of it.

This part of the Commonwealth suits me down to the ground. For instance, the population density is lower, and the number of bookstores per capita is higher. There's much less light pollution, so on cold clear nights the sky swallows the earth. Every corner I turn has a mountain hiding around it.

Of course, I feel a strong sense of my own absence from the community I left behind -- the friends I made at work and at school, and the knowledge that life there continues without me to see it or be part of it. I'm not sad about that, or angry, and I'm not afraid I'm missing out. It's a 90 minute drive if I want to go back and visit, and I've done that several times since the move. It's more just a recognition that I'm not forever, and that when I go I'll be remembered, but nothing will stop without me here.

This is a theme that's been cropping up in my work for the past year or two, and I don't yet know if it's simply my sense of mortality now that I've crested the hill of my 30s and am picking up speed into my 40s, or whether it's motivated by some larger cultural current. (Do we still talk about the collective unconscious, or has that been banished by scientific methodology? Whatever. It's a useful narrative framing device.)

I digress, though. I made one of those trips back to Cambridge last week to participate in Lesley University's Community of Scholars Day along with my friends and fellow MFA grads Robbie Gamble and Eileen Cleary. We presented a panel on witness poetry adapted from the one we did at the NH Poetry Fest last summer, and I was thrilled that it was both well-attended and well-received by Lesley graduate and undergraduate students. I think this witness poetry panel is going to become a regular thing for us, so if you're interested in bringing it to your community, your library, your conference, or your school, shoot me an email at mercurio@poetmercurio.com. 

After the panel we made our way to Porter Square Books for a reading by Kevin Prufer and Martha Collins, whose new books came out recently. Both of them read wonderfully, and Kevin's recent work is incredible - he really has a marvelous ability to pull a poem in all sorts of unexpected directions, and I am so grateful to have had him as a mentor in grad school.

NH Poetry Festival - Witness Poetry Panel Remarks

On Saturday, September 23, I participated in a panel discussing witness poetry at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival. The panel was convened by my good friend Eileen Cleary, and also included Robbie Gamble and Richard Waring. Below you'll find a lightly-edited version of my remarks from that day:

I don’t think of myself as a witness poet, necessarily, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have interacted with people for whom the act of witness shaped their entire lives, and through those interactions I suppose the idea of witness has crept into my own work in some small ways.

My first interaction with such a figure, and the one that had perhaps the most profound effect on me, was during my senior year at Providence College, when I met Father Edward P. Doyle, O.P. Father Doyle was one of the retired Dominican Friars who lived on campus in the Priory. He had lived much of his life on the campus, actually, having studied at PC as an undergrad and subsequently joining the faculty following his ordination in 1939. When the United States entered the Second World War, Father Doyle enlisted as a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Army, where he would serve with the 109th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Timberwolves. In 1945 the Timberwolves liberated the concentration camp at Nordhausen, part of the larger Buchenwald complex.

Father Doyle’s active involvement in the liberation process, his recognition of the horrors enacted by the Nazi regime, and his careful and thorough documentation of that moment in time profoundly reshaped his life, and it became of paramount importance to Father Doyle that the world know what he witnessed during his service. He, along with other Army chaplains, had been provided with Brownie cameras, and in addition to ministering to those who were still alive in the camp, Father Doyle preserved the conditions found during the liberation to ensure that the world would know. Upon his death in 1997, Father Doyle entrusted his archives to Providence College, so that all who entered might know that the Holocaust was real. The collection has been digitized and is available on the Providence College website, as is a short documentary on his life, and the video of a commemoration held in April as part of the College’s Centennial celebration.

Father Doyle’s witness shaped the development of a course called Gender and Genocide: Perspectives in Holocaust Literature that I took as a senior. It was envisioned and taught by one of PC’s Jewish faculty members, the poet Jane Lunin Perel, and in that class we were introduced to a number of writers, including Nelly Sachs, Gerda Weissman Klein, Primo Levi, and Charlotte Delbo, to name just a few. For me, the work of the poet Paul Celan was a particular revelation, and Celan’s poems and Father Doyle’s photographs and spoken witness are bound for me in that associative way we poets do without thinking.

For those who aren’t familiar with Celan, or perhaps know only a few details about his life, or have only read his best-know work “Deathfugue”, I’ll give just a brief overview:

Paul Celan was born to a Jewish family as Paul Antschel in Bukovina, in what was then the Kingdom of Romania, in 1920. Throughout his lifetime it would change borders frequently; it is currently part of the Ukraine.

Celan was multilingual. During his early years he learned German from his family and Hebrew at the insistence of his father, and he would later learn Romanian, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and English, and would translate from all of these languages into German.

When the Nazis came, Celan and his family were first forced into a ghetto, and then subsequently deported. Celan would lose both of his parents to the camps; his father succumbed to typhus, and his mother was shot after being exhausted by forced labor. Celan himself would survive the war in a labor camp, liberated by the Soviet Army in 1944, and after the war would live in Paris. Celan wrote in German as an act of defiance against those who oppressed him and murdered his family.

In a speech entitled “The Meridian”, given on the occasion of receiving the Georg Büchner Prize in October of 1960, Celan mused on the nature of poetry. The following is a quote from that speech, translated by Rosemarie Waldrop in Collected Prose:

The poem becomes conversation --- often desperate conversation. Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a ‘you’ around the naming and speaking I. But this ‘you’, come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings its otherness into the present. Even in the here and now of the poem --- and the poem has only this one, unique, momentary present --- even in this immediacy and nearness, the otherness gives voice to what is most its own: its time.

With logic typical of Celan, the poem’s transformation into conversation undoes the writer/reader dynamic we’ve all come to expect, and invites the reader – the “you” – to enter the experience of the I who wrote the poem by recognizing the moment of the poem itself. It is a call to deep witness, to claim and re-claim, I believe, a humanity that had been denied to Celan and to those who suffered through the Holocaust, and those who did not survive it.

I’d like, now, to read Scott Horton’s translation of Celan’s poem “Tenebrae”. This translation appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 2008:

Tenebrae

We are close, Lord
Close and within reach.

Seized already, Lord,
clawed into our selves as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
who are close by.

Against the wind we went there,
went there to bend
over hollow and ditch.

To drink we went there, Lord.

It was blood, it was
That which you shed, Lord.

It gleamed.

It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Our eyes and mouths stand open and empty, Lord.

We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.

I chose this version over two older, better-known translations for the simple fact that Horton was better able to uncover – or discover – imagery in Celan’s original German that echoes both the symbolism of the Passover story and the imagery of the Eucharist, that remembrance of the Last Supper that took place during Passover at the end of the life of Jesus.

Among these many layers, in conversation with all of them, are the voices of the Jewish people who suffered in the camps, who were dehumanized by the Nazi regime, who were treated as slave labor, so many of whom died before liberation came.

It is those voices we can hear as a “collective Jesus”, “as though/the body of each of us were/your body, Lord”, who implore the Lord to “pray to us,/who are close by.” Unlike the Resurrection of Christ, however, those who are “clawed into [them]selves as though/the body of each of [them] were” the Lord’s body are not promised life everlasting, and instead find that their “eyes and mouths stand open and empty” despite having drunk “[t]he blood and the image that was in the blood”.

It is not difficult to hear survivor’s guilt and anger in this poem, but I hear a deep longing, too. One of the marvelous complexities with which I wrestle in this poem some twenty years after first reading it in Jane Lunin Perel’s Holocaust class is that the collective voice here that has been abandoned by the Lord is still talking to the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that there’s hope in that, necessarily. Just that not-silence is worth noticing here.

Stanley Kunitz at 112: Simple Thoughts On A Legacy

"The poet is an embodiment of resistance: resistance against universal apathy, mediocrity, conformity, against institutional pressures to make everything look and become alike. This is why he is so involved with contraries." (Stanley Kunitz)

I think often about this quote, and how it brilliantly locates the work of the poet in the world. And it's not just the contemporary world (though we clearly face all of these things), but as the noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann often points out, the prophets of Israel were poets who were concerned with these very issues as well. In our secular time we need poets who will open paths of resistance to these social ills, who will make sure that the people have voice and that individual voices are heard.

Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester, MA, would have turned 112 today. He was a remarkable human being -- and two-time Poet Laureate (in 1974 and 2000) -- and his life and his legacy are worth remembering. Generous in spirit, he founded the Poets House in New York City and was one of the founders of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, both of which continue to support those engaged in creative work. Kunitz was also deeply committed to intellectual freedom, and his work as editor of the (now-defunct) Wilson Library Bulletin spurred many in that profession to oppose censorship and protect the freedom to read.

Here's a short poem of his that should provide you with a good place to start your reading of his work:

DAY OF FOREBODING

Great events are about to happen.
I have seen migratory birds
in unprecedented numbers
descend on the coastal plain,
picking the margins clean.
My bones are a family in their tent
huddled over a small fire
waiting for the uncertain signal
to resume the long march.

(From his 1985 book Next To Last Things.)

Whenever poets gather the conversation invariably turns to influences - who we're reading, who we want to sound like, whose careers we wish we had. I don't know that I'll ever be remembered as a great poet, or that my poems will survive my generation, but I'd like to be remembered as a generous poet, one who, like Stanley Kunitz, thought about keeping the resistance alive, and giving younger poets a place to work.

A short list of things I'm listening to while I'm writing.

Some writers I know swear they can't write without music. I've been at writing retreats and coffee shops with folks who spend twenty minutes figuring out what should be in their headphones while they bang away at a novel or an essay or a screenplay. One poet friend of mine puts together soundtracks for her manuscript-making time.

And honestly, I'm a little jealous of all of them. When I'm writing my ability to listen to things is limited. It's pretty much just the following noises that pass muster:

  • Silence
  • My dogs snoring
  • Background noises in my generally quiet neighborhood
  • Other people typing
  • Indistinct conversations

When I'm reading other people's poetry I can get away with listening to instrumental music, generally jazz (and specifically hard bop or post-bop stuff), or some of the ambient works of Eno or Aphex Twin. Reading prose of any sort I can listen to just about anything. There's fMRI-based research that suggests the areas of the brain active during the reading and (I would imagine) writing of poetry include the parts active during the act of listening to and (again, I would imagine) composing music. The activity in the music-related area brain is absent while reading prose. This jibes with my experience.

There's no official term for it that I'm aware of, but I often practice a sort of musical ekphrasis and take inspiration from songs for my work. Here's a recent song that's been on my mind. And I've been quite taken with Hannah Larrabee's chapbook Sufjan, named for Sufjan Stevens, in which she takes lines from his songs and builds off of them to create gorgeous, vivid poems that are very much their own thing. You can get a copy for yourself here, which I highly recommend: http://www.hannahlarrabee.com/poetry.html


 

On Language? In Language? Of Language? Through Language?

"I feel more connected to language right now than I ever have, perhaps because it feels like a lifeline to the many things I love that I feel are being erased around me."

A poet friend of mine wrote that to me this morning. It resonated with me, in part, due to my love of language and its richness of possibilities.


We'd been talking about Paul Celan, whose work and thinking about poetry has profoundly influenced my own approach, and I'd just sent her the text of Celan's speech upon receiving the literary prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (as translated by Rosemarie Waldrop in her slim volume of Celan's collected prose) after she'd posted a photo excerpt of Tess Gallagher's essay "The Poem As Time Machine" as found in Claims for Poetry, edited by Donald Hall.

I haven't read the full Gallagher essay yet, but the section pictured was quoting Octavia Paz, and talking about the manner in which a poem is a means of approach. And aren't all poems means of approach? I can't say whether they function this way more than other instances of language, but I know the poems I read and the poems I write make that motion towards something, and towards someone, with that someone always being the reader.

Here's Celan from the speech I mentioned above:

A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the -- surely not always strong -- hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed toward.

Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.

Such realities are, I think, at stake in a poem.

I've met a number of people who tell me they don't read poetry because it's too confusing, that they feel like poems are puzzles to be solved or riddles to be unraveled. And I understand that. I've read some of those poems, too, and it's frustrating to feel as though one has encountered a massive smooth granite wall of language with no hand- or footholds, no way in or up or through it. But for many of us, there is something sustaining about the balance of powerful imagery and precise diction, something vital and real about the tension inherent in every poem.

Today, when I share my friend's worry about erasure of meaningful things, I hold close to language as a means of transmission and preservation, and I think of Celan, whose childhood and memories were destroyed by the Nazis, and who chose to write in German as an act of defiance against his oppressors. I, too, think that such realities are at stake in a poem.