why are poetry books getting so expensive lately? After a long recovery of an early summer surgery, I'm finally up and around and rebel. Last night, instead of working on a resume I fled the beaches and ended up in a bookstore. Simic, Salamun, Graham, Zagajewski, Stern. A small stack of new books I'd love to buy, except their all 24-26 bucks! Not a little annoying is the strange but lovely fact that Doty's new collected is only $23! I understand that books are business, but who's really buying these things but us poor, idiot poets? It's also frustrating that Barnes and Noble is selling nice collected editions of classics for ten bucks a pop. Isn't there something wrong here? I'm complaining because I'm poor, not because I don't know how to steal.
Speaking of which, I got my hands on a copy of Graywolf press' Re/View series edited by Mark Doty, the great gay guru of glam, newest re-release of the cult poet Thomas James' first and only volume, Letters to a Stranger. In the introduction by Lucie Brock-Broido, she admits to her long obsession with the poet including both stealing his book from a library and stalking members of his family. Though yesterday I did pay for this edition, I also have a slender volume I unapologetically pilfered from my undergraduate library and I incant Yevtushenko's joy over boyhood's stolen apples:
Let slander pursue me;
love isn't for the feeble.
The odor of love is the scent
not of bought but of stolen apples.
For the longest time, James has been one of those poets I refuse to share, because I loved his poems so intensely. Call me Golum, hunched over his preciouss, his secret love, glowing dark like a bird over the hot jewel of a small opened heart. He, like Sexton, killed himself the year I was born, 1974, and for that reason alone I felt drawn to him. The number of the rat year of my birth is a hushed magnet to me. Reading him is another experience altogether. This new edition includes 13 uncollected poems, and like Plath, who he's regularly compared to, I mourn his unwritten life.
Here's one of them:
All morning I have been turning into jade.
Ambushing the semiprecious bone,
It takes me in my swivel-bed
Where I watch my toes go out one by one.
A Victorian lady changes the sheets every Sunday,
The pigeon-colored nurses leave me alone
With clouds fingerprinting on the grapeskin sky.
I nestle in these white, icy hillocks
As their razors clip me clean as a boy.
I am inattentive to their deepest looks.
Now I have whitewashed walls and a white pitcher,
Armloads of white, virginity that speaks.
Light blunders in rich and gold as beer
From a world where people wake and kiss,
Images shaken free on dark water.
I await the syringe, its needleful of brightness,
As my leg yields to a century of stone.
I am a fossil, hugging its dry rose.
I wake slowly, just at the outskirts of pain.
A light-winged lady rushes off into the dark,
Her beacon red as my garnet tiepin.
Nobody minds me at all now as I suck
Greedily at darkness, its flaky soot
Blown in at the window crack,
A mouthful of honey. Under my bedlight
I am a park statue, I am all verdigris,
Tenable as an old penny. Tonight
Nobody stops at the door. In the hospital garden
The moon rises like a white button out of a bed
Of brown chrysanthemums. Sickness
Begins to mount me like a bright counterpane,
Intractable and ripe as a middleaged bride,
And my head goes under. Dark is a sudden kiss.
The poems speaks for itself, ripe imagery run on the currents of iambic pentameter and an enjambment that creates a locomotion fit for candled midnights. In James, sickness is beauty. Perhaps this most attracts me to him. The emblems of mortality are "semiprecious" and darkness is either "a mouthful of honey" or "a sudden kiss". Here is the young heart's romantic: death cloaked by moonlight, and love, "Virginity that speaks". It's as if he's permanently vulnerable, as if gangrene is the only way we are loved in this body. How else are we so held alone, in communion with bones and moons, or a light that "blunders in rich and gold as beer"? Who else has said, with such tender, if not criminal and childlike clarity: "I suck / greedily at darkness"? Who isn't a child of the darkness into which "a light-winged lady rushes off"? This is the comfort of such morbid work: it reminds us we are small. We are Children alone in the darkness of our own body. We are children of the moon, stealing beauty from the pain of being awake, turning our rotting flesh to "jade".
. . . . . .