A HYBRID NOTEBOOK OF POETICS AND PORNOGRAPHIES

Pornography Disclaimer

This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered  all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.

30.7.08

STOLEN CROCUS

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The first collection I ever read by Gerald Stern is Bread without Sugar. What I remember about it now is Stern's positioning of voice--that's too technical and annoying--his movement in the poem that is always marked by left and right sides. In his left hand an ache, in his right a fist of bright crocus.  I love how these poems flex, in short and long lines, in great fat poems that are somehow bouyant: 




"This is how I bent

my head between my knees, the channels and veins
pumping wildly, one leg freezing, one leg

on fire.  That is the saxophone
and those are the symbols; when it gets up here 
the roar of the waves is only a humming, a movement
back and forth, some sloshing we get used to."

Even in these few lines we see Stern's characteristic associative and nervy locomotions. Always anchored by the body, always made elegant by some mental abstraction that dramatizes large and small perspectives, always the sense of humor that weighs beauty with the grotesqueries of our mortal limitations in song. His books feel large and overwhelming, unrelenting, I go numb. It's rare that I could read straight through. They're heady, too perfumed, dizzying, narcotic. Strong.

I've been a deep, enthusiastic fan of his since that first book, and made myself studious admiring the longer poems, "Hot Dog" especially. So much so that I was shocked and bliss-hit by a few short poems in the New Yorker a few years ago--the poem "Sylvia" I immediately set out to memorize. These poems were thrilling for me because I found them surprisingly, even uncharacteristically short, though they don't lose any of Stern's gusto or sting. In his latest books, American Sonnets and Everything Is Burning, he's written some of his strongest, sharpest lyrics. Short bursting bulbs, little flowers, little suns.  

His newest collection, Save the Last Dance, is a great collection that continues these short blossoms, surprising like a flock of crocus in a concrete alleyway. What I love about this book is how it flexes Stern's abilities. It begins with one of these harsh little beauties and ends with the longer poem "The Preacher", first published by Sarabande as a chapbook. In between are stout lyrics broken by longer poems of short singing couplets. The poem "Before Eating" is both fun and lovely: "Leave me alone, / I want to worry; // make me lamb chops / make me curry." This is not to say that Stern abandons any serious thought--this book is all brain: song philosophy. The first lines of the final poem, the long poem in the book, "The Preacher", are contemplative, elegaic lines that consider existence in a fashion relative to theoretical physics:

"As if the one tree you love so well and hardly
can embrace it is so huge so that with-
out it there might be a hole in the universe
explains how the killing of any one thing can
likewise make a hole except that without
its existence there was neither a hole nor not a hole"

It's true that the title to the book feels sentimental, self-indulgent. And it is! But in a serious, true manner. That poem, "Save the Last Dance for Me" is one of my favorites in the book. Stylistically it's reminiscent of poems in Stern's earlier collection "Last Blue" for the length of its lines. The poem concerns Stern's memory of saving a little Chihuahua from drowning in a sewer and being unable to remember the little dog's name:

"though he who weighed a pound
could easily fall into
the opening, such was our life
and such were our lives the last
few years before the war when
there were four flavors of ice cream
and four flavors only; I'll call him
Fatty; I'll call him Peter;
Jésus, I'll call him, but only
in Spanish, with the "h" sound,
as it is in Mexico;
Jésus, kiss me again,
Jésus, you saved me,
Jésus, I can't forget you"












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Speaking of dogs, song, and philosophy, the first poem of the book is another of my favorites:


DIOGENES


Diogenes for me and sleeping in a  bathtub
and stealing the key to the geneology room
close to the fake Praxiteles and ripping
a book up since the wrath had taken me
over the edge again and you understand
as no one else how when the light is lit
I have to do something. I couldn't hold my arm up
for nothing, I couldn't stand on the top step
barking--I'll put it this way, living in a room
two cellars down was good, I got to smell
the earth, I carried a long red wire down
with a bulb attached--after that it never mattered.

. . . . . . . .

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

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23.7.08

THE PRICE OF POISONED APPLES

Friends and Strangers,

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:


Gangrene

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".  

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My photo
I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.