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.

8.9.09

CHILD OF A TEMPORARY BLOOD

Dali said once that it took him his whole life to learn how to paint like an 8 year old child. I'm pretty sure he said this or something near it. This is during that last productive stint, he's wearing a white robe and a long thin white mustache that droops, and walks with a cane like some newage guru out of a sci-fi flick, hermit, guardian of the oracle, sage. He's near a canvas, swallowtail, cello-knob, black line on white horizon, swift, with all the force and grace of an accident.

I said in my last post I could accept Tomaz Salamun's work in a way I could not Ashberry's, though it is no less accessible or easy. I could be talking about my preference for Dostoevsky over Tolstoy.

Salamun is a kind of demon, and he calls upon passions in a manner to which Ashberry remains analytical and ultimately, as Vendler pointed out, comedic. This is really saying that Ashberry opens up moments of philosophical sadness that are redeemed by pleasures of critical and/or colloquial speech on the same plane. The effect can be deeply contemplative, if jarring. I'd argue that Ashberry is in this way more accessible than Salamun, who looks to history as if to flesh.

Stylistically, he's not as diverse as Ashberry, writing in successive short declarations that burst like fearsome fat berries. Sometimes they have that lyric intensity of a clean aphorism: "Heaven was conceived with a knife." "The grass is authentic." "Beauty of man is the furthest history." "Poetry is a martyr's hatchery." Sometimes their intensity feels symbolic, though their meaning remains oblique: "The foot is in the warmish place, secure." "Feathers in my mouth grow." "A bull's berry walks on a wire." "The crocodile stuffs my body into its tongue."

I think Vendler's assessment of Ashberry's writing--that it works on a horizontal level, equalizing different kinds of speech toward a surrealistic effect--is true of some of Salamun's poetry as well, though Salamun is a trickster of sorts and is not really funny at all. His vision is darker, and beautifully nihilistic. He reminds me of Breton's The Absence of Myth, in which he argues that a godless existence is the only one capable of miracles of attention. Here is the very center of Salamun's book There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair:

Eternity is
cruel and crystal.
It ruins

everything alive.
It replaces people and
loves and does not

open
the well. With your hand
you dust a glass

you do not
break it. Let every
love

die as
a man does. Death
protects us.


Here Salamun is working in a way much opposed to Ashberry, but it requires our attention to the relationship between the hand and the glass as elements: flesh and crystal. The domestic act of dusting a glass becomes a challenge: whether or not flesh is capable of "breaking" crystal. In the end, it is the cut that becomes mortal for Salamun, and what he wants to preserve is the possibility of the wound. Death is that barrier we cannot know beyond. We must care for it. There's also a finality to the end of the poem because Salamun has symbolic purpose, and I'd argue that unlike Ashberry, he doesn't believe that language is ultimately a joke of meaning. In this way, he's not nihilistic at all. He believes in a poem the way he believes in hot flesh. His is a reassignment of those religious doctrines that posit the body against the spirit--for Salamun the temporary blood is more valuable than eternity.

This allows his poetry to have an apocalyptic playfulness about it that invites both elegance and accident, and so leaps between them in an almost associative directness:

These are the islands of Vis and Hvar!
Two lullabies above the complexion of black golden
Saturns. Hills, charred long ago during
the bleating of sheep and lambs,
during the elliptical carriers of fire,
and rain forcing its way between
branches, without noticing the leaves, without
drinking them.
For years I felt that orange shovel.

I say "almost" associative, because though the locomotion of his brief sentences propels us into huge leaps, they are not exactly pulled from the unconscious the way lines from Breton's Soluble Fish might have been, leapt down, caught for their very strange, dreamlike elusivity. I saw Salamun read at AWP last year and I was struck by what I saw:

a boy. Reading to a tree. And in the tree a bird and a fox. The storm cloud was small. A head drawn inside a head. A black hairy raindrop on his cheek.

Strange, but that's what I saw. The outsider as a child. And I realized that what happens in Salamun's poems is what happens when children are serious, when serious children play. Things are said, described, in the simplest, most direct ways, but ways that are poetry, because they haven't yet learned the rules. When adults speak to animals, trees and storms, we call it witchcraft. We call it melodrama. We call it weird. But if my niece before bedtime says she wants ice cream, ("shoeberry ice cream" is her favorite) and we tell her it's too late she replies, "I'll brush my teeth with it." If you tell her no, she frowns and darkens and says loudly: "You make me sad--forever." Salamun too works in short sentences fraught with symbolic play, accidental intensity, but articulate with certitude and feeling. Though readers may find him difficult, inaccessible, even ridiculous, I'd argue there is an often overlooked relentless childlike simplicity to Salamun's work that affords him philosophical insight and descriptive prowess:

Nice Hat, Thanks.

Little burnt villages. Heavy drinkers.
Incredible! Such is my influence:
We're ducks.
I took the distribution and the title from Joshua.
Arms are a genuine feeling.
These are our mouths and palms.
Frogs are resoled.
O God, how near we are to each other.
I lick God's mind and roll over like a turtle.
The swallow's dome has pity and destroys.
Heaps of sand. Mothers, mothers.
The enemy is tortured and juts out.
Mommy carries the chapter.

. . . . . . .

Friends and Strangers, steal him if you can!

. . . . . . .

3.9.09

THE SAME STUFF WE GROPED THROUGH

I've never been able to fully enter Ashbery. Some Trees felt energetic but mysterious, especially for someone like me who arrived at contemporary poetry through those narrative confessional poets--James Wright and Ai--inheritors of Lowell and Jarrell. I can still remember the moment I first read Wright's "Small Frogs Killed on a Highway". Before this poem I sat in the library and memorized Shakespearean sonnets, eyeing the stacks for some answer to my loneliness. Instead I had lines that summoned some idea of the lover's brutality. I still remember them:

Sweet Thief, whence didst thou steal that sweet that smells
if not from my love's breath? Thy purple pride
which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
in my love's veins thou has too grossly died.

I was still a virgin when I found Wright's poem, that I loved but did not understand. I still remember the first lines, that in retrospect sound like something from Gluck's Wild Iris:

Still
I would leap too
into the light,
if I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
on the other side of the road.

I was moved first by the line break, the confidence of that word alone, and then by the symbolic weight of that movement into a light which is death. I'm sure my Catholic upbringing had more than a little to do with that. His work is filled with this kind of directness, filled with music and symbolic intention. My copy of Above the River, Wright's collected, was the first collection of poetry I ever bought and it's rifled with scraps of paper of copied lines, versions, love letters to a dead man's meter.

So coming to Ashbery has been long, tenuous. I don't feel as though I can read him. Mostly. There are lines I love, and then they feel corrupted by the vulgarity of, I'm not even sure how to say this, the commonplace. I've bought several of his books, and most recently--this past winter--really lived with A Worldly Country, which I must say overwhelms me in much the same way a book by Michael Burkard does, porous darkness, the halo of a hidden thing. Ashbery's is a book I clutch to me, but without really knowing why.

For Now

Much will be forgiven those
on whom nothing has dawned. But I wonder,
does our polemic have an axis? And if so,
who does the illuminating? Isn't not as though I haven't stayed,
stinking, in the dark. What does this
particular mess have to do with me, surely
one or more may have wondered. And if he
or she suddenly saw in retrospect
the victimhood of all those years, how pain
was as reversible as pleasure, would they stand
for nothing selling in shops now, the cornucopias
of bargain basements open to the weather?

From pantry and hayloft spiffy white legs
emerge. A way of sitting down
has been established, though it's the same stuff
we groped through before: reeds, old motor-boat
sections, skeins of herring. We brought something else--
some enlightenment we thought the months
might enjoy in their gradual progress through the years:
"sudden realizations," the meaning of dreams
and travel, and how hotel rooms
can become the meaningful space one has always lived in.
It's only a shred, really, a fragment of a life
no one else seemed interested in. Not that it can be carried away:
It belongs to the decor, the dance, forever.


If Wright has light and darkness, nature and the resurrections, Ashbery has the city, filled with lives, fragments and trash. We might think here of Doty's memoir Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, really a kind of ars poetica that explores his interest in the object, the glitter of commerce, and the way human history is an inheritance of beautiful trash, how experience is marked by artifact. One cannot abandon the literal in Ashberry, since his philosophical meanderings ("Much will be forgiven those / on whom nothing has dawned. But I wonder, / does our polemic have an axis? And if so, / who does the illuminating?) easily reflect other subjective experiences. Isn't the reader forced into a moment of self-examination here, as we become the "he / or she" of the poem and must consider "in retrospect / the victimhood" of our own years, how "pain / was reversible as pleasure"? Ashberry's thinking in the first stanza is anchored to a consideration of the objects at the "bargain basement" of the second, "reeds, old motor-boat / sections", an event to which any of us, in any part of the human city, surely bring along our own '"sudden realizations", the meaning of dreams". This is the dance, that in a capitalistic culture, we are always faced with the awareness of our own insignificance--our loved things end up for sale to strangers, "the meaningful space one has always lived in", indeed our very life itself, is no more than "a fragment / no one else seemed interested in . . . forever".

It's not until reading Helen Vendler's essay (from Invisible Listeners) yesterday on Ashbery, "John Ashbery and the Artist of the Past", that I finally had some insight as to why I can almost never seem to reconcile Ashbery's meaningful insights with his crass Americana. In it she writes, "Ashbery's greatest formal contribution has been to bring into lyric a vast social lexicon of both English English and American English--common speech, journalistic cliche, business and technical and scientific language, allusion to pop culture as well as to canonical works. . . . In his syntax, as well as his diction, Ashbery juxtaposes the high . . . with the demotic."

Ahh, that's it exactly. Vendler makes me so wet. Whereas Wright's spiritual vision is exemplified by the way words in his poems have a hierarchic value, so that the literal is regularly symbolic, in Ashbery all hierarchy becomes horizontal, and the effect is at times a surreal relationship between different kinds of speech.

I think it will be a lifelong struggle with Ashbery's work for me, and I'm ok with that. I'm drawn to his poetry because it's so tonally rich, even if, as Vendler says, he's ultimately a "comic poet". Though I think he's doing more to return language to language, I struggle and mostly feel uninvited, which I know is its own kind of invitation. I'm much more attracted to poems by Tomaz Salamun, who's so much more aggressive about the inaccessibility of language and the juxtaposition of the symbolic with the archaic. Still

in my sleepless brine, I toss between the struggle of Ashbery and the lyric meditations of Wright-like prayer, poems say, from Michael Dickman's first book, The End of the West. Here's the first section of "My Dead Friends Come Back", something James Wright may have been saying to those small frogs killed on a highway at night:

If you want to
come back, just you
I say, it's fine

From the flattened universe
From His side
of the bed

Shave my head and put me in the ground with you surrounded by
trillium

Trillium or
something else

Shit and violets

. . . . . . .



29.8.09

PINA MORTE

All summer, where have I been.

Amnesia of mediocrity. The walk again and again and again into a wall.

Then, school ends. I have a week off before I fall. To sleep. Read. Steal books. Touch my garden, pot fuschia, kalanchoe, kingshade. Reality as if it were a dream. The moon of a skating rink in the deep center of an abandoned mansion. The dead slump of a woman rolled into the darkening shawl of her blood--like the prey of a spider sleeping now in its raw cocoon. Dark glittering and cold. Half-eaten moon blurring over the sea. Night mist. Ghost mist.

Reading old news. Summer news.

Pina Bausch is dead.

. . . . . .


. . . . . .

I saw Pina Bausch twice. Once ten years ago, in a performance of "Carnations". Then last year at UCLA in a performance of "Ten Chi".

"Carnations": dogs, men, and women:

Color, speech, and repetition:

Is the flower a grave.

Is Form the Burden.

And the threat of the body: Helene Cixous:
"a given love merits a given death":: Kazuko Shiraishi:
"a leap is already / a tragedy".

. . . . . . .


. . . . . . .

Come on, honey--if you've got a demonside, let's dance.

. . . . . . .

6.8.09

SUMMER DUBIE AND THE STORMS OF TWILIGHT

It's after one and I can't sleep. I think it's the insomniac shellacked moonlight across the dark harp strings of the sea. I feel roped to the mast like one of Odysseus' crew. Stormed by blackness, rain, and the nightsong of a siren.

Pulled off my shelf Norman Dubie's The Insomniac Liar of Topo, and I don't know if he's my rope or my mad heart's need.


. . . . . ,


At Sunset

Fucking get back. I have cut
the white paper gasket
out of the apple. Yes,
it's a seed packet
like the wife's whalebone jacket
ruling the fat lamps of the Orient.
The faint straight lace of it,

sounds.
Ashes and wormwood
in a brand drawer.
The horses' testicles tossed
into straw for the cats.
Was it not mad John Clare--
that night, and it mad, last night Clare saying
it was a sound
going off in his head. A mainmast snapping.
The man standing next to you hears it.
Suddenly you're naked running through pasturage
like a woman's hair.


. . . . . ,


Dubie has this masterful phrasing that delivers a Frostlike alliterative richness to each sentence. His locomotion is matched by an unapologetic Victorian gothic sensibility, one marked by romantic visitations of a preoccupation for foreign exotic ware and a cinematic quality not unlike say late Francis Ford Coppola, Youth without Youth, imagery palimpsested over idea, as the camera pulls back upon the larger landscape of a larger historical scene. Small things carress their demons in his shadow. A remarkable intensity of the music makes his poems ever more intimate. He has Scarlatti's jealous intensity against the inevitable failures.

His eye is on the dream of history; History, like the dream inside each sleeper wakes.

History
like the linkage of the human nights of many strange and fragment visions.


. . . . . ,


The Tantric Master, Lord Marpa, Twice Dreamt of the Prophet, William Blake

The great translator thought
he had suffered the sleep of a cloudless day
in a boat of skins
on a cold and black inland sea.

Elohim, the eye of minor periphery
broke bread with him on the moonlit water.
He washed his beard and hair
and said your daughters are now stepping from furnaces.
But if we wake
by their drying looms
with a mountain of salt between me and them,
then the diarist wife
has taken these margins of yellowing shoreline
from us.

London sleeps with its cousins and sisters all winter
while naked surgeons cross through the city
bearing torches. . . well, citizens,

this is the cult of worms
who by physical inches of devotion are measuring a churchyard.
The owls forming a morbidly obese question
from Ovid.

The Word is always out weeping in the evening
refusing the hot custards, stealing
from sick and defenseless travelers.
The last Republic is out too, burning on the horizon.

Phoenician men sitting on the purple rocks
mending their nets, chewing
on roots, laugh
and then walk out across the water.

They've been doing it for centuries,
that is,-- mending their nets with laughter.


. . . . . ,


Dubie believes in ghosts, particle physics, quantum radioed spirituality. One gets a dizzy, wine-ful feeling when reading his poems. They are hallucinatory, and you don't seem to wake from them so easily. Suddenly daylight has dreamlike proportions, and personal history wormholes forward backward into the lives of artists, politicians, and other nameless lovers. Brutal, gorgeous, and playful with accident. I love these poems for their adjectives, their Shakespearean descriptions, and for their sonnetto echo.

. . . . . ,

Winter Rains off Pointe Du Hoc

The wind is a failure of forms
a calamity of content--it is
cutting the white peaks from great
green waves
making cold abbreviations of salt
that are the pith eyes on ghosts.

Across the cliffs
in the fields above the water
martyred dead rest in some soft
tropic of wind, some tropic of the hidden variable

that pierces sinew, neck,
or the helmet. The suits
praise his valor, the gunnery sergeant Nash
from Missoula, Montana, who says,
the bear nests up in the wind
with a smile of margarine,
has courage, and
the bear is my friend--

when the bear stumbles,
you ba-bas must understand,
the bear dies large
not like a pigeon at a Legionnaires convention.

. . . . . ,


My favorite poetry always brings me back to Lear. Lear and Odysseus.
Dubie is a kind of hybrid hero, Cause and Care of my solitude, my own heart's ruin.

He visits me tonight with mean wild storms.

. . . . . ,

3.8.09

SUMMER WITH AN OILY DARK

This summer: school is not a childhood moon
California is dead cash
AKA shoot me now shoot me up my eyes
Night is a white drip
My war is thirsty

. . . . . .


"The Dull Flame of Desire (Modeselektor Remix for Girls)" Bjork
"I'm In LA Trick" LMFAO
"Angel" Madonna
"Friend of Mine" Lily Allen
"Crazy In Love" Antony & the Johnsons

. . . . . .


"As of Monday, Aug 3, 2009, at least 4,330 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war since it begain March 2003, according to an Associated Press count."

Documented Iraqi Civilian Deaths: 92,519 - 101,006:

"Monday 3 August: 14 dead

Anbar
Saqlawiya: suicide bomber kills 5.

Babil
Iskandariya: car bomb kills 1.
Hilla: bombs kill 6.

Ninewa
Mosul: 2 killed in separate incidents."

. . . . . .

"I'm rockin' Vans / I'm in the sand / I got a rebel&vodka upin my han- / D!"

. . . . . .

Somewhere in my head is an essay that reads like an essay and not a schizolisting.

Still got a current for Fellner's idea that a good political poem should do certain things.

Still got a midnight like a white bat on my neck.

Somewhere I'm more than my blood's advertisement.
. . . . . .

A book I love: Warhorses by Yusef Komunyakaa.

A plant: Kingshade: bloodleaf before it's shot: that sootpurple, morbid cabbage

A dream: my grandmother dies but first she sews her pills into her pillow, and some buttons, and a gold cross, and some shapes the living cannot see but the dreamer can say thank you.

weepy falsetto: "your touch / got me looking so crazy right now / your look / your look"

. . . . .

"When our hands caress bullets & grenades,
or linger on the turrets & luminous wings
of reconnaissance planes , we leave glimpses
of ourselves on the polished hardness.
We surrender skin, hair, sweat, & fingerprints.
The assembly lines hum to our touch,
& the grinding wheel records our laments
& laughter into the bright metal.

I touch your face, your breasts, the flower
holding a world in focus. We give ourselves
to each other, letting the workday slide
away. Afterwards, lying there facing the sky,
I touch the crescent-shaped war wound. Yes,
the oldest prayer is still in my fingertips."

K's book is not so much a book against war, as it is a consideration of the warsome impulse.

His contemplation of the duality between murder and love is matched with kaleidoscopic flexibility by a muscular practice of poetic form. In three sections:

a sequence of (mostly) Petrarchan sonnets in which a historical or mythical war story as octet (Cain&Abel, Odysseus&Penelope, warriors counted by Homer and nameless tribal hunters) is mirrored by a sestet that contemplates erotic love as combat.

a sequence of more standard free verse poems that meditate on wartime implements in history (The Helmet, The Catapult, Grenade, Warhorses, Surge), Art (Guernica, The Clay Army, The Panorama, The Warlord's Garden) and Wartime places (The Hague, Twin Towers, Clouds, The Crying Hill)

a sequence of tiered couplets "Autobiography of My Alter Ego" in the voice of a bartender vet that illustrates with imagination and pinache the life of a soldier who murders, loves with desperation, loses everything, and must face the history of shame, prayer, loneliness, nationalism, hunger, and the frankly delectable brutality of his own experience.

The book is itself a sequence of variations on the theme of war in which Komunyakaa flexes his muscles, strikes with imagistic fervor, syntactical precocity, and with a direct, meaningful voice that both wonders that our human capacities for war and love are archetypal, inescapable, and violently beautiful.

"HEAVY METAL SOLILOQUY

After a nightlong white-hot hellfire
of blue steel, we rolled into Baghdad,
plugged into government-issued earphones,
hearing hard rock. The drum machines
& revved-up guitars roared in our heads.
All their gods were crawling on all fours.
Those bloated replicas of horned beetles
drew us to targets, as if they could breathe
& think. The turrets rotated 360 degrees.
The infrared scopes could see through stone.
There were mounds of silver in the oily dark.
Our helmets were the only shape of the world.
Lightning was inside our titanium tanks,
& the music was almost holy, even if blood
was now leaking form our eardrums.
We were moving to a predestined score
as bodies slumped under the bright heft
& weight of thunderous falling sky.
Locked in, shielded off from desert sand
& equatorial eyes, I was inside a womb,
a carmine world, caught in a limbo,
my finger on the trigger, getting ready to die,
getting ready to be born."


William Logan finds K's book overly sentimental, but I find his review of it rushed and insensitive. Who else is writing such viper-ed lyrics, with consideration for the line and a sensual rendering that takes the current wartime predicament seriously? Here, Bullet is well-reviewed and popular, but I don't understand the virtual invisibility of Komunyakaa's timely and more mature voice on the subject.

"Ah. Abu Ghraib.
Guantanamo. Lord,
if the dead could show us
where the secret graves are
we'd walk with bowed heads
along the Mason Dixon Line
till we're in a dusty prison yard
in Angola or Waycross,
or we're near the Perfume River
or outside Ramadi. You see,
the maps & grids flow together
till light equals darkness:
an eye, a nose, an ear, a mouth
telling a forbidden story,
saying, Sir, here's the skin
growing over a wound,
& this is flesh interrogating a stone."

. . . . . .

The dead body is a witness what
do the living see summers of

eucalyptus coastlines burning nightly
green soot in their mouths

bright shroud
skin

flag for my living
I'm addicted to the thought of your

absence color
of a sunset passing into ash

. . . . . . .




4.7.09

ELASTICATE ME

. . . . . . .

In Defense of My Desire To Elasticize the Meaning of the Word Political:

I think there is an important distinction to make between Poetry as a political act, and an intentionally Political Poem, written with a clearly drawn purpose.

The call to my edition of OCHO was clearly driven by a political purpose. Many of the poems in it, were not.

I agree. It was the call to, and answer from, poets like yourself that was political. (Dear Prince of Pansies).

If you are going to decide to write a Political Poem, which you date, and in which you name historical events and in which you make clear your purpose which may very well be reactionary, satirical, and which you mean to demand of the reader a recognition of a political engagement, then I think you should be held accountable for that purpose.

If you are going to write about your girlfriend's death, as elegy, or exploration of that loss, you do so without considering the outside world. Precisely the reason Octavio Paz says that love is anti-social. Perhaps this lesbian's poem will live up to your expectation of a Political Poem, perhaps not. Hopefully it will live up to a consideration of itself as an "Elegy".

For that matter, if our poems, which may be driven out of "magic" into the beauty of form, have political resonance, and not a clear political statement, it may be because, though we are politically engaged poets, and though we are writing out of particular identities, we are not choosing to write in response to the burdens of the state, but toward the burdens of loss, say, love, or toward some other ineffability, some other magic. And yes, I think the state and the ineffable are odd magics. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.

I am large. I am a half-breed. I don't assume one multitude excludes the other. A Political Poem can achieve that "ineffable" quality, though most are criticized for having an overt agenda that fails it. Perhaps Reece's poem is NOT in any way political, but I still argue that Poetry, yea Art itself, IS--because it aspires to, and takes place in, imaginitive freedom. A place that can risk opposition in all manifestations.

Does this mean that politically minded poets who are not writing Political Poems should be asked to avoid considering the nature of their poetry as a political act--by which I mean, an act that cannot be governed by the state, by cultural expectations, politically rigid forces (thereby demanding that they consider their role as a citizen, even if they are not specifically writing about it)?

Does this mean that a poet writing Political Poems cannot speak to the philosophical nature of Poetry and Art at large? Or are you saying that this kind of poet thinks there is only one kind of good poem, the Political Poem? I simply don't agree with this kind of homogeneity.

Perhaps Reece is writing about his parents, and not his dying lover. Should his poem be held to a Political standard, or an Elegaic? Perhaps your final comments illustrate one way that Truth, that Gemini, is another Trickster of the Revolution.

I know that I am a gay, single, immigrant migrant worker 2nd generation American 21st century (did I mention poor? coalminer? Xmilitary, once catholic now atheist?) poet and I still feel the ineffable when I read Shakespeare, Tsvetaeva, Dostoevsky, Joszef, Hardy, Puig, Genet, Doty, Valentine, Bishop, Joyce, Sachtouris, Carson, Donne, Celan, Arenas, Keats, Virgil, Lispector, Lorca, or any number of writers whose work speaks to me, even if none of them are speaking to a Politically Specific Me.

The truth is that we need poets to act as citizens, and we need the wealth of their poems to contradict them: we need Political Poems, and elegies, love poems and murder poems, hate poems and guilt poems, prison poems and sex poems, spiritual poems and godless poems, eco-poems, ekphrastic poems, language poems, etc. and we need them to sometimes be just that. More often than not, we need them to be more than one at once.

The real question that interests me here is why Reece's relatively benign poem is, as you say, "the queer poem the New Yorker chooses to include". Why doesn't the New Yorker favor those queer poems that hold their political intentions with uncompromising and purposeful audacity? Is this evidence of a political cowardice on their part, or is this kind of political engagement something we should expect from them at all?

I don't know that we should expect every poem from a Queer poet in the New Yorker to deliver us an anthem. I do know I would like the New Yorker to print an issue that only prints Queer poets. An issue that only prints Hispanic poets. And I'd especially love an issue for Queer Hispanic poets. And why not? There are enough months in its history for a whole slew of elasticized We's. I love a good parade and I love democratic variety in all its annoying competitive dangerous splendor.

But the poet and the poem are not the same. Form can be described, approach to form can be described. Beauty is ugliness at rest. Or as Wilde put it: "All bad writing springs from genuine feeling."

I think there is room to expect both. More than both. Blooms of both.

yours, with ardor,

Miguel Murphy

. . . . . . . .

30.6.09

STOLEN SHALLOWS

Solitude and twilight on the late shores. Cold blaze
of the waves' steady visitations. Footstep, hint of moonlight

into the soft dark sand: fist, or halo.
If I leave something white there, if I stand

my body against the night's three darknesses, ocean,
wind, and black calm . . . what

will I call this hour? Of my flesh broken
against the fleshless machinations the always resonant

flooding of time? Storm. Sickness. Waste. Belief. My frail
small human breath in the loud and emptied, emptying, gleam.

The night-flooding mind. Milkweed.

. . . . . .

I come inside and read Carl Phillips and know what it is to face that boundary between mind and world, the sensual boundary where sex and prayer collide. Speak Low, his latest book, in unafraid of the difficulty of describing human emotion, human mind. Our predicament, they seem to insist, whether it is love or history, is a metaphysical one. That is, it is faced with an understanding of abstraction hinged to experience. Plato thought that what exists lay beyond experience, but these poems use nature as a kind of relative explanation, a pathetic fallacy which helps us to try and understand our human considerations of time, love, history, faith. What I love most about Phillips is his unapologetic use of abstraction as a way to consider human experience--he uses a language most poets (perhaps schooled in the standard "show don't tell" arena of MFA programs) avoid for the most part altogether.

Patterns are of particular significance to this book: the physics of light, water, shadow, as well as the movement of animals, birds, and how the human mind might observe or interpret them. His poems have this almost archaic quality that allude to historical moments and intellectual movements of the Enlightenment at once. They are wrought, moreover, in a way that describes what is most familiar to us, though private, intimate, and even erotic: this, for example, is from the poem "Rubicon", a political point of no return, a river Caesar crossed illegally in 49 B.C., devoting himself to war against the senate, and also a game in which the loser's points are tallied for the winner:

. . . that moment in intimacy
when sorrow, fear and anger cross in unison the same face,
when at first can seem almost

a form of pleasure, a mistake as
easy, presumably, as it's forgiven."


History and philosophy here take on a life in the face of the beloved in the most alluring and attentive way. The more I read Phillips' poems, the more dissatisfied I am with a poetry of narrative(?) description. There is a weight to these lyrics that demands a secondary attention, our experience of the abstract world of emotion. How is it we've interpreted not just what we've seen in the world, but what we've felt?

. . . . . . .

Beautiful Dreamer

And when the punishment becomes, itself a pleasure?
When there's no night that goes unpunished? The larger
veins show like map work, as in Here winds a river,
here a road in summer, the heat staggering up from it
the way always, at triumph's outermost, less chromatic
edges, some sorrow staggers. Parts where the mud,
though the rains are history now, refuses still to
heal over. Parts

Untranslatable. Parts where, for the whole
stretches, vegetation sort of strangling sort of makeshift
sheltering the forest floor. To the face, at the mouth
especially, that mix of skepticism, joy, and panic reminiscent
of slaves set free too suddenly. Too soon. --Which way's
the right way? New hunger by new hunger? Spitting
on weakness? Raising a fist to it? The falling mouth falls
farther. Opens. It says, I was the Blue King. I led the dance.

. . . . . .

Eliot, in his 1929 essay, "The Metaphysical Poets" makes a distinction between the Romantics and their 17th century predecessors:

"it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

This is precisely what I love about Phillips: his thought is his experience. Symbolic, or fragmentary, the world takes place in his poem, and his speaker feels them. He does not fail, even if he does not explicate, the many disparate parts of his knowledge and identity.

I'm not a critic, I'm a commentarist--I read so that my inner life can save me from the brutal ugliness of this outer one. I write here about what I love, in a shameless way that a real critic has good reason to berate. A real critic may say something about Phillips' abstraction in that it goes too far for an average reader, that it obfuscates issues of identity, gender, race, class, all of those realms of experience we hold so specific and dear in this age. But when I read him, I feel that his poems teach me to read in a silence I had not before considered, a silence like prayer, a kind of devotion to an inner life I crave. I think if you read closely enough, you'll find these identities: the historical self and the fantasist: the poet and the philosopher: desired god and beloved flesh: all are given semblance. Yes, they are difficult to learn to read, especially, I think, for a novice reader, but they are deeply necessary in that they refuse to simplify the complexity in which the human mind renders itself.

Much more can be made of the comparisons between Phillips and Donne, nowhere perhaps more evident than in Phillips' collection The Rest of Love, in which the lover becomes a god of leather, commandment, relentless conditional belief. But this later collection seems more allusive to spiritual hymnals. Its tone is one of sad reminiscence for a spiritual freedom: to love? To understand death? To be free of bodily suffering? I'm not sure, exactly, perhaps all three. I do know that the joy of these poems comes from the middle of a pain, an isolation, that is basic, something Frost might have written about, inherent, too human, often unspoken for.

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

. . . . . .

Landfall

From here, I can see that ritual is but a form of
routine charged with mystery, and the mystery is faith--
whatever, by now, that might be. Twilight. The usual
eyeful of stars appearing, looking the way stars at first
always do: locked; stable.

My friend, to whom
sadness had once felt almost too familiar--Step into it,
he used to say, stare up and out from it--tells me now
he misses it. He wants to know does that mean
he's happy?

In the dark, he turns to me. The silences
rise to either side of us: silence of intimacy when
estranged from risk; of risk itself when there's no one
to take it--nobody willing to; silence, by which the dead
can be told more easily apart from the merely broken . . .

. . . . . . .

25.6.09

BEWITCHING HER BREATH

Read the first section of Jorie Graham's Sea Change after midnight. I don't want to admit this. Reading her poems aloud to myself. I cried. I don't know what for. Surf and sacrifice. They are not metaphysical so much as they are storm-full. Reading them aloud you get the feeling you are Lear, dethroned, naked, mad. Tearing your self against the elements.

I know she is unpopular to many poets who want a neat line, a nice stanza, the beauty of a clear image. I know I couldn't get through the book Never. But she's mad. She's on to something. These poems are daring for their risk in form, which I'll argue are not just pretentious, or didactic, or overly scaffolded. And if these poems are conscious of environmental politics, their politics is inward and not forced onto the reader like an agenda (much like another overlooked book, last year's Warhorses, by Yusef Komunyakaa: a timely, necessary consideration of our still warring nation.)

These poems are bewitching, I think, with a breath that reminds one of what it's like to read Whitman aloud. Whitmanesque is her breath, but not for any stylistic catalogues. Perhaps there is a likeness here in Graham's recognition that the body, in all its gross manifestations, is sacred fodder, but hers is no Whitmanian reincarnation of Blake's cosmic polarities. Graham's breath is large and contradictory and incantatory for its sheer expansiveness, its successive phrasings that are at once thought, description and prayer. Prayer, as in a seeking, a calling of the voice for a communion--with spirit, with the forces that are nature, the great instigator, the origin of movement, invisible, myopic prestidigitator, energetic, ionic, harp string. Hers is the human voice itself, thinking, moving, Joycean:

(I've copied the poem, including / to indicate indentations of smaller phrases at the right-hand margin and stanza breaks to indicate each new line at the left-page margin in her work.

Vendler remarks this is a kind of "brush work" in which each line ends with strokes of phrases. This kind of long line with "brush-stroked" finishes is stylistically consistent in Sea Changes, and one can't help but relate Graham's line to the crashing of waves, the tidal spill and suck, on and against, the shore of the page.)

Futures

Midwinter. Dead of. I own you says my mind. Own what, own / whom. I look up. Own the looking at us

say the cuttlefish branchings, lichen-black, moist. Also / the seeing, which wants to feel more than it sees.

Also, in the glance, the feeling of owning, accordioning out and up, / seafanning,

& there is cloud on blue ground up there, & wind which the eye loves so deeply it / would spill itself out and liquefy / to pay for it--

& the push of owning is thrilling, is spring before it / is--is that swelling--is the imagined fragrance as one

bends, before the thing is close enough--wide- / eyed leaning--although none of this can make you / happy--

because, looking up, the sky makes you hear it, you know why we have come it / blues, you know the trouble at the heart, blue, blue, what

pandemonium, blur of spears roots cries leaves master & slave, the crop destroyed, / water everywhere not / drinkable, & radioactive waste in it, & human bodily

waste, & what, / says the eye-thinking heart, is the last color seen, the last word

heard--someone left behind, then no behind-- / is there a skin of the I own which can be scoured from inside the / glance--no, / cannot--& always / someone walking by whistling a / little tune, that's

life he says, smiling, there, that was life--& the heart branches with its / wild arteries--I own my self, I own my

leaving--the falcon watching from the tree--I shall torch the crop that no one else / have it whispers the air--

& someone's swinging from a rope, his rope--the eye / throbbing--day a noose looking for a neck--

the fire spidery but fast--& the idea of / friends, what was that, & the day, in winter, your lower back / started acting up again, & they pluck out the eyes at the end for / food, & don't forget / the meeting at 6, your child's teacher /wishes to speak to you

about his future, & if there is no food and the rain is everywhere switching-on as expected, / & you try to think of music and the blue of Giotto,

& if they have to eat the arms he will feel no pain at least, & there is a / sequence in which feeding takes

place--the body is owned by the hungry--one is waiting / one's turn--one wants to own one's / turn--and standing there,

don't do it now but you might remember kisses--how you kissed his arm in the sun / and / tasted the sun, & and this is your

address now, your home address--& the strings are cut no one / looks up any longer / --or out--no--&

one day a swan appeared out of nowhere on the drying river, / it

was sick, but it floated, and the eye felt the pain of rising take it in--I own you / said the old feeling, I want / to begin counting

again, I will count what is mine, it is moving quickly now, I will begin this / message "I"--I feel the

smile, put my hand up to be sure, yes on my lips--the yes--I touch it again, I / begin counting, I say, one to the swan, one,

do not be angry with me o my god, I have begun the action of beauty again, on / the burning river I have started the catalogue, / your world,

I speck tremble remembering money, its dry touch, sweet strange / smell, it's a long time, the smell of it like lily of the valley

sometimes, and pondwater, and how / one could bend down close to it

and drink.


Reading these poems quietly in your head is useless. They must be spoken aloud, they must be spoken for you to lose and catch your breath, so that the whirling can become dervish, so the austerity of the voice can grow into Whitmanesque proportions, so the prayer of being can recognize the human Job, faced with the impossible task of overcoming himself, knowing and not knowing at the same time, caught in the tempest that is human nature, troubled and vulnerable and fighting, the body poised against the storms, world and Self.

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!

. . . . . .

16.6.09

STEALING THE DAYLIGHT

. . .
Summer. Let's see what we can steal from our sleep.

. . .
Daylight, white fugue, my face is shadow. My name, my name.

. . .
It Is Daylight, selected by Louise Gluck for the 2008 Yale Younger Poets prize, and published in 2009, is filled with poems of strange, lucid elasticity. Not quite confessional, not quite associative in its sensibilities, Arda Collins' first book smacks of both. Her colloquial monologues are filled with the impressive meanderings of an apparent housewife, or single woman, or contemporary witch. Which is to say, a woman who does the cooking for herself, watches TV, looks at the weather in the yard, drives nowhere and comes home before dark, and probably has to take a fistful of Xanax to ward off her serious depressions. This is the character I imagine.

Her straightforward tone is deceptive in that it almost feels as though you're going to read some boring confessional prose, but you're surprised by her adept maneuvering. Collins' speaker attaches herself to the domestic, mundane details of suburban life, and skillfully delivers the reader to moments of contemporary dryness, humor, even irony.

Spring

I was making a roast.
The smell wafted from the kitchen into the living room,
through the yellow curtains and into the sunlight.
Bread warmed in the oven,
and in my oven mitt, I managed to forget
that I'd ever punched someone in the face.
It seemed so long ago, I might not even have done it.

You can see in these lines a directness true of someone like Anne Sexton, without the imagistic flare. But in the confessional tone and in the volatile intentions of Collins' speaker there is something built over the feminism of the 60's. It almost feels as if you're reading the diary of a 1950's housewife, filled with, not quite restraint, exactly, but a politeness that neatly dresses some other psychological fervor.

There is a sisterhood too, to something like Frank Bidart's earlier poem "Confessional" in which his mother hangs his cat in Collins' longer poem written in sections, "Dawn". The title reminds me of William Carlos Williams' assertion that murder doesn't happen at midnight, that this is the classical error. Collins' poem surprises us with how it proposes violence and reason at the same time, with its psychopathic, calm invitation:

5.

It's wrong to kill.
That's why,
he explained to the person,
he was holding the person's
face and throat.
Nothing was supposed to happen,
not death and not pain. No one
should be doing anything right now,
that was what he was demonstrating
to the person, who didn't know:
this was an explanation.

One gets the feeling that Collins' speaker is something from a Flannery O'Connor story, a philosophical criminal, but really they are like any of us, filled with an attention to beauty, that somehow feels so far:

11.

Gentle, painful sound,
it's coming from his face.
He doesn't want to talk,
hates the air; it moves toward the same things,
beautiful night,
beautiful night again, best missed
from afar. He thinks his personhood
in the dark in a room is the same as the dark
inside a small bag or a drawer.

Essentially, there is a deep distrust between Collins' speakers and the civility of the cultural business of waking up, having a home and family, cooking dinners, watching the light die nightly, only to start over and do it again, again, again. These are somnambulist monologues in which Collins attunes to the ultimate order of the universe, which burns us alive:

January

A night fire,
and this one really burns the house down.
At dawn it's still smoking
and I love it so much,
like the world has happened the thing
I wanted;
not like it loves me, but like,
"I know, I know,"
it says, "calamity,"
like, "why not for you, too?"
and I feel so included and ordinary
like I know what real order is
and like it exchanges a look with me
together as the sky gets lighter.

. . .
Friends and strangers, steal it if you can.

. . .
If you can steal the daylight from the daylight, you will know what fire means.

. . .
The dog, the tree.
Blind mountains.

The darkness is me. Pulled from me.
Strange, migrant.

My shadow getting up from my body
like a man climbing out of his grave.

. . .

27.2.09

BEAST OF TWO HUNGERS

Henri Cole's latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf, has won him the prestigious Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, a purse of $25,000, from the Academy of American Poets. 

I re-read the book last night instead of going to the bar. Imagine, in my black-hooved boots and dark jeans, touching the silver knuckle of my belt-buckle, having showered and slicked my hair, cologne on my bare neck, unshaven, satyr-rough, the spill of my hairy chest just before throwing on a shirt, and there it glanced at me from the table, there it appeared in the suddenly opened book:


Dead Wren


When I open your little gothic wings

on my whitewashed chest of drawers,

I almost fear you, as if today were my funeral.

Moment by moment, enzymes digest

your life into a kind of coffin liqueur.

Two flies, like coroners, investigate your feathers.

My clock is your obelisk, though only this morning

you lunged into my room, extravagant as Nero,

then, not seeing yourself in the sunlit glass,

struck it. Night--what beams does it clear away?

The rain falls. The sky is pained. All that breathes suffers.

Yet the waters of affliction are purifying.

The wounded soldier heals. There is new wine and oil.

Here, take my handkerchief as your hearse.



. . . . . 


You can't get much better than that for a poem at midnight, especially when you're dressed for the promise of sex, like you're getting ready for new love or your funeral.. . 

. . . . .

I was thinking the title to this collection is why I stole it. I was thinking the first time I read it, I wasn't impressed as I was with his pulitzer nominated Middle Earth. It seemed to me the title felt more focused than the collection itself. But re-reading it last night, perhaps I'm changing my mind. 

The title isn't a reference to any phrase or poem in the book. It therefore seems to speak to some idea of the collection itself. But as you begin to read, you're not really sure what this book's purpose is--don't books have these? Don't we expect a book to deliver us? Why else give it a title and not just: Poems. 

The first poems seem to be autobiographical. Indeed, the title to the first section is "Birthday" and the poems themselves relay moments of reflection close to the speaker's animal birth and mother, and then his father, poems that relay moments from childhood or reflections of it: 


To Sleep


Then out of the darkness leapt a bare hand

that stroked my brow, "Come along, child;

stretch out your feet under the blanket.

Darkness will give you back, unremembering.

Do not be afraid." So I put down my book

and pushed like a finger through sheer silk,

the autobiographical part of me, the am,

snatched up to a different place, where I was

no longer my body but something more--

the compulsive, disorderly parts of me

in a state of equalization, everything sliding off:

war, love, suicide, poverty--as the rebellious,

mortal, I, I, I lay, like a beetle irrigating a rose,

my red thoughts in a red shade all I was.



. . . . .

I re-read this poem here, because I think it's secretly touching the title on the knee. Because it follows the speaker into some part of self that is not what he is, into the realm of sleep, that here in these lines is warm and corporal. Animal. A realm of instinct and not yet dream. Not yet narrative. No longer body, but being, blood in shade.

Blackbird and Wolf, two animals symbolic of two realms, wind and earth. Two predatory figures reflected in the water of the author's vision. As if the author were rapt in a caught wonderment between them, a beast between two reflected worlds. 

I think part of this book's project--and I think to speak of a book's project is to speak about something found, and not necessarily intended, by the author--is a contemplation of human instinct in relation to human spirit, soul. In the poem "Ambulance", for example, Cole writes, "I felt like the personification of an abstraction". Many of the poems work as meditations that return us to an animalism that is as spiritual as it is un-thinking. Take these few lines from a poem in the third and final section of the book, "Dune" (as if this, finally, is a human realm, a place in flux, between earth, sky, and sea): "Eating the Peach"



Eating the peach, I feel like a murderer.

Time and darkness mean nothing to me, 

moving forward and back with my white enameled teeth

 . . . . . . . . . . 

Eating the peach, I feel the long

wandering, my human hand--once fin and paw--

reaching through and across the allegory of Eden



. . . . .

I don't generally like the word "soul", because it is an assumption I find self-indulgent, like using the word "God". I want to know what these words mean, because I think they do mean something that I can feel and relate to, but their religious connotations are too large, and churches have already destroyed any version of them we can believe in. But in Cole's work these assumptions don't work in any didactic sensibility. His poems work backward, in an almost Whitmanesque, even gnostic, manner, as he contemplates cosmos by considering vulgarities of the flesh. But instead moving in a Calvinistic approach, one that finds the body disgusting first and then the "soul" a thing that can redeem or save humanity from itself, these poems discover transcendent aspirations by stripping us down to the animal. They wonder that we are creatures first, with hungers, but with an ability for metaphor. Cole wonders that a Human animal can be this strange and hybrid. 

In the middle section of the book, "Gravity and Center", aptly titled, as if the forces of nature affect both animal and spiritual hungers, comes the poem that best speaks to the question of the collection's title, and therefore the book's purpose:


American Kestrel


I see you sitting erect on my fire escape,

plucking at your dinner of flayed mouse,

like the red strings of a harp, choking a bit

on the venous blue flesh and hemorrhaging tail.

With your perfect black-and-white thief's mask,

you look like a stuffed bird in a glass case,

somewhere between the animal and human life.

The love word is far away. Can you see me?

I am a man. No one has what I have:

my long clean hands, my bored lips. This is my home:

Woof-woof, the dog utters, afraid of emptiness,

as I am, so my soul attaches itself to things, 

trying to create something neither confessional 

nor abstract, like the moon breaking through the pines.

. . . . .


So I've stayed up late, but stayed in, to read alone these modern sonnets. Half-dressed as I am, and ready with my own hungers. In this poem the murderous hunger of the bird is answered by the dog's contemplative, but instinctual, fear. And the human? A figure caught between confession and abstraction, "somewhere between the animal and human life". Nature and godhood, whatever that might be, loveless and literal, but drenched with selfhood, the cold, far indifference of a newly breaking but ancient moonlight. 

Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can.


. . . . . .

22.2.09

I LOVED THE MODERNISTS BUT LATE


On Facebook I was tagged to name 20 books that inspired or influenced me to write poetry. 

Can't.

I took this to mean poems from the beginning, that woke something up. That wounded me.

Books is too hard for me, but here's 20 poems I can remember lines from, poems I am sure called to inside me some calling:

--in no order, and with, I'm sure, severe omissions I will regret later--

1. "To Small Frogs Killed on a Highway" James Wright

2. "Carrion Comfort" Gerard Manley Hopkins

3. "Letter In November" Sylvia Plath

4. "Batter My Heart Three Person'd God" John Donne

5. "Death" Federico Garcia Lorca

6. "The Kid" Ai

7. "Lamium" Louise Gluck

8. "To the Black Madonna of Chartres" Jean Valentine

9. "Hamlet" William Shakespeare

10. "Legend" Hart Crane

11. "Les Stupa" Arthur Rimaud

12. "Elegy" David St. John

13. "Herbert White" Frank Bidart

14. "Letter" Larry Levis

15. "The White Fires of Venus" Denis Johnson

16. "The Window" Lynda Hull

17. "Aubade"  Philip Larkin

18. "The Waking" Theodore Roethke

19. "Take Me To the Airport" Yehuda Amichai

20. "Desert Places" Robert Frost
 

I'll throw in the Book of Job as a floating poem, since I went to church first and memorized those poems first, and surely learned my duende there. . . 

and three from my teachers:

"The Good Lunch of Oceans" by Alberto Rios

"The Funeral" by Norman Dubie (but I love "Hummingbirds" more. Shit just read The Springhouse Poems)

"Monsoon" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg


. . . . . .

20.2.09

Well From Which My Name Is Drawn


For all of the delicate crafting of his work, Li Young Lee absolutely fails the title to his latest collection of poetry, Behind My Eyes. I mean, really? Behind my Eyes? Why doesn't he just call it My Imagination? Is this Jill Bialosky's fault or his? What editor could let a ridiculous title like this go to print without some objection, some kind of innate scrutiny? Where were all the little red flags? Where were the voices and champions of this work?

Title: existing only in name, titulus

Title: a door into some unseen realm

Title: a wind through the darkness one can feel but not see

Title: what I call myself in a dream, curseword or ambition

Title: the question asked over again by the sea, 

asked over again by heartbeat, 

by fleeting absence, by flickering heat

Title: thirst without need

What I'm trying to say, Friends and Strangers, is that from a title what I want most is:

a provocative, compelling statement, that does the job of naming the true spirit of the book in all its repetitions, its ambitions, its direct and abstract mirrors.

I love this book by Li Young Lee, but I really have an aversion to its signpost. So much that re-reading it I felt compelled to do what I don't think either Lee or his editor at Norton bothered to do: ask the book for its name. 

The phrase itself comes from the final poem of the book, "Station", a wonderful songlike piece that invents the names of places we might begin or end, a poem that demonstrates the kind of care, and even one strategy of Lee's book, that of poetic naming: 

"Your attention please.
Train number 9, The Northern Zephyr,
destined for River's End, is now boarding.

All ticketed passengers,
please proceed to the gate marked Evening

Your attention please. Train number 7,
Leaves Blown By, bound for The Color of Thinking

and Renovated Time, is now departing.
All ticketed passengers may board
behind my eyes."

You can see how playful is this lullaby of a poem. The imaginary and poetic titles of gates and trains and places offer us a human metaphor for distance, memory in time, death and love. Ultimately, it is a great satisfaction that the poem takes its game seriously:

"Please leave your baggage with the attendant 
at the window marked: Your Name Sprung from Hiding.

An intrepid perfume is waging our rescue.

You may board at either end of Childhood."


But what works in the context of a ballad, fails as the title of a collection. As a title, this playful phrase reads obliquely, banal, and worse, it is completely forgettable. 

Title: a gate upon the heart, a name upon the gate, 
a street, a country, a number, a year

When I look at the cover of this book I have no intuition toward the collection, no way to read even the first poem. The book is doing all the work on its own to be itself, to be it's own naming, and it's frustrating. We are immediately displaced. As readers we feel as though we have not been welcomed. It's so unfortunate to be so unnamed.

Here are some titles of poems that at least sound like better names for this collection:

Self-Help for Fellow Refugees
Immigrant Blues
My Favorite Kingdom
First World
Little Ache
Changing Places in the Fire
The Lives of a Voice
Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics
Station

Some of them are better than others, some feel immediately more marketable, though some feel quaint, not right, but none of them are as bad as what's been printed. 

On my own copy of this book I have scratched out Behind My Eyes 
and pasted the letters of the poem I think best speaks to the book as a book: 

gate: question: ambition: mirror: 

My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey         by Li Young Lee

I have done this so that I can love the book more completely, and so that it can belong to me. I have done this because the poem seems to answer the many reflections in the book--it is the book's compliment:

1. Lee's poetic obsession with childhood as a source of delight and mystery
2. Lee's ability to make an epistle of metaphor, the poetry between language and meaning
3. Lee's ability to make the question of childhood the question of culture
4. Lee's ability to write love as one poem, a metaphorical palimpsest that layers the difficult attractions between husband and wife, child and parent, refugee and adopted country, immigrant and home, human memory and nature, God and humankind, waking and dreaming. 

In other words, we are each of us a refugee from heaven, 

child of Time, an apple fallen from the arms of a dream, mother or father, 
we are in this place of waiting, of naming, of praying, 

of bewilderment and sadness and joy. Childhood:
Death and love. 

We are refugees of heaven. We are home.

In this way, his political poems are love poems are religious poems are poems of memory and song.

The new title, the true title of his book: My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey, relays the humility of his work, his ability to speak to us quietly and directly, domestically, about the spiritual life, that is, the life of feeling in time. As in the journey that we make as immigrants from one country to another, from Childhood to Death, from time to memory, from love to history, from making the bed in the morning to talking in bed until we fall asleep talking. As in the poet's prayerful readiness to depart, all the while staying with us in his metaphor:

"My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey"

Dreamed some rain so I could sleep.

Dreamed the wind left-handed
so I could part its mane and enter
the dance that carries the living, the dead, and the unborn
in one momentum through the trillion gates.

Dreamed a man and a woman
in different attitudes of meeting and parting

so I could tell the time,
the periods of the sun,
and which face my heart showed,
and which it displayed to a hidden fold.

Dreamed the world an open book of traces
anyone could read who know the language of traces.

Dreamed the world is a book. And any page
you pause at find you
where you breathe now,

and you can read the open
secret of who you are. As you read,

the other pages go on turning, falling
through the page before you, the sound of them the waves

of the waters you walk beside
in your other dreams of the world
as story, world as song, world
you dreamed you were not dreaming.

Dreamed my father reading out loud to me,
my mother sewing beside me, singing
a counting song,

so I wouldn't be afraid to turn
from known lights toward the ancestor of the light.

It isn't the best poem of the book, and it doesn't have the best lines of the book. But it does act as a well from which the book's refracted purposes can be drawn. And just listen to what a fabulous, dramatic effect the new name has in relationship to the book's poems. One has only to consider the first poem of the book, My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey, in which a figure is literally caught in a posture between light and dark, considering his own existence, a kind of ars poetica in which the speaker must translate one darkness from another: mind from world: poetry from experience:

"In His Own Shadow"

He is seated in the first darkness
of his body sitting in the lighter dark
of the room,

the greater light of day behind him,
beyond the windows, where 
Time is the country.

His body throws two shadows:
One onto the table
and the piece of paper before him,
and one onto his mind.

ONe makes it difficult for him to see
the words he's written and crossed out
on the paper. The other
keeps him from recognizing
another master than Death. He squints.
He reads, Does the first light hide
inside the first dark?

He reads: While all bodies share
the same fate, all voices do not.

What I'm saying, Friends and Strangers, is that I can't recommend this book enough. 

Steal it if you can, but scratch out that terrible title (shame to his editor!) 
and write in for him its true name. 


. . . . . . . .

17.2.09

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE BRAYLESS THREE


I just read three stolen books, and not one of them is worth their weight in this poem by John Ashberry:


Floating Away


As virtuous men float mildly away
so do our minutes hasten toward the rain,
some speckled, some merely numinous,
and so it goes. The Traveler and his Shadow
find much to concur on. The wreckage of the sky
serves to confirm us in delicious error.
Congratulations on your life
anyway.
Not even doing it
makes up for the loss it guaranteed.
Only a 28-year water supply
shields us from the desert.

Sticker shock awaits plaid gutter boys
pissing out over a stream. Surely if you were 
going to count that against him the others would befall too.
That's not what he was saying, Uncle.
We're going to have a friendly chat with him
in the belief that someone will vote for you.

Pleated regret that is easier
by the end of the war inhibits only cats.

Some other holy man was here before
and the eunuchs made much over him.
In the small garden a harmonica was heard braying.

. . . . . . .

WHAT I DID IN CHICAGO AWP, 09

THURSDAY:

The Aphorism: Life Is Short

Union: A Conversation in Poetry

Diverging Lines: Understanding the Evolution of Contemporary Latino Poetry
The City: Real and Imagined

Six Ways of Looking at Stevens

Poetic Responses to AIDS

American Hybrid: The Meeting of Extremes

FRIDAY:

The Poets of the American Hybrid

The Poetry of Thom Gunn

The Academy of American Poets Presents: Frank Bidart and Mary Jo Bang It

A Tribute to a Stranger: Thomas James

SATURDAY:

Art to Art: Ekphrastic Poetry

Prison Poets: Teaching Behind the Razor Wire

Tomaz Salamun Reading

What I Really Did at AWP, Chicago 09

Draped my black coat over the fast noise and names.

Best Manuscript titles: Cocktails with Hitler, Granny's Taco Needs a Drink and Other Children's Stories, and the Pulitzer prize-winner: Breakfast With A Wet Gun.

A lapdance in Starbucks, or just Starbucks.

Hot chocolate in Kitty O'Shea's. A gay couch. No I am Not a wet dream.

Sean you were my best accomplice. You're going to burn in hell.

In the French Gardens, Lips and I watched the servants interrupt the chandeliers.

My valentine with the breakfast guy, who likes to be peed on. For REALs.

Getting a nibble from Lemon. Pockets full. Eyes full. 

Limon has secrets in her rainblack hair. Behave!

Moleface ruins my coffee but hands me his card. 

In the bathroom I meet the mouth for later. Later the snow falls on our dream. 

I defend the Eyepatch. The Eyepatch and I eat our miseries and then flee.

I text the leathergod, and he says Miguel.

Justice keeps her in line, good morning bitch. Did you sleep well? Good girl.

The books I wanted were already stolen. 

If you tell anyone I'll deny it completely.


9.2.09

DON'T BE MY VALENTINE

So I just got home from AWP, Chicago and opened my print copy. It's truly satisfying. This is a beautiful little collection and to see these poems in print is especially gratifying since I've had to endure some ridiculous criticism. Don't hate ladies. If you didn't bother sending anything in, then shut your hole. I read what was offered and listened to what was offered and turned things down and struggled over editorial suggestions and asked for more and asked for cuts and bled and cried with the worst and best of them, and in the space of my deadline these were my heroes. Not enough big names for you? Too many bloggers for you? Guess you should have passed around the notice. Guess you should have asked your friends and teachers and students to send something. Guess you should have sent something yourself.  

In other words, I'm not apologizing. There are some very fine poems here and some very hard-working poets. I'm proud of it, and if you actually read it, you're sure to find a poem or two you like. What can you ask of any book of poems, anyway, except that it give you one or two memorable deaths?


OCHO #22




18.1.09

A KISS IN NO KNOWN YEAR


A night like being in love. The winter night in California, cool, not cold, bearable chill heightening the senses, the sunset over the ocean and not the mountain, Orion and the Dogs close, like the backdrop of some great play in the theatre dark, the planets bright, the stars failing like flames like the sound off the palm trees near the rooftop, like the ocean in the distance.  Making ghosts of us. Someone's birthday, all the devastations. Someone spying us through the window.. .

Finished 2666 at the half moon. It hasn't finished with me. I don't even really know who to compare it to, and what's more, I don't want to compare it. Deliberately wrought. Satisfying in the way a Greek Tragedy is, yet the plot is unspoken, navigated by the constellation of outer lives. We draw close to the mystery of knowing who the murderers are. We draw close to the mystery of knowing, and remain in the mystery of not the known--though how we get there is through knowledge--we know what murder is, we know who murderers are (novelists, politicians, good fathers)--but we remain in the mystery of the unknown. How personal history delivers all there is of experience, and human experience can only go so far. Human knowledge, imperfect, filled with our own violent frailty, and still sacred for being our own, our total ability. We draw close to it, we misinterpret it entirely.. .

The mystery of the unknown. Outside of plot is the plot, which is to say whole lives are the plot, being lost and knowing all that being lost entails, our genuine loves and brutal lies and how the two seem to be two sides of the same creature we pretend we don't understand, alien, and true self, as in the dream side or the art side, where we are more ourselves. True to both faith and hunger, which are not the same things, like work and ambition. How the line between good and evil is a kind of mirror.

Then kissing him on the California rooftop, the palm trees burning madly, the grit of drug on his tongue, the perfectly awful swoon, the cold air and his hot face and a leg lifted up and an arm just pressing along the underneath of it firmly, it felt like I was a character in someone else's strange novel, I was inside a year traveling through the cosmos at the speed of light. I wanted all of my memories lit like this, like a chapter in the novel where two lovers bite each other in the castle, years before one of them is mercilessly murdered, years before they know what they've lost is remembered secretly and best, a wine in the darkness when you're old, very old, remembering what it is to be young, unspilled, old and still able to taste it, tang of salt and shit, of the infinite, a flavor beaten and devoured in the myth of ourselves, yielding the scarlet drops that mock us. I kissed him there, I bit him, I became briefly aware, I bled like an icon of eternity. 

7.1.09

BIG MONEY LOVE AT THE PINK PONY

All criticism is ultimately a nightmare
Roberto Bolaño

I started the new winter session this week and started some serious effortful hours for reading and writing every day. Have to to get some real work done and not be outdone by the world, i.e. work, sleep, and television. Did I mention cookies? Video games? Porn? 

I've seen a few comments that Bolaño's 2666 is "weird", which is a comment I just don't understand, especially if you watch the nightly news. On the treadmill today in the gym I watched a program that was muted, silently flashing still photographs of a man in a cowboy hat and a black suit lifting two bottles of champagne into the air and a small building with absurdly large and silken neon lettering, a few green trees and an empty gravel parking lot, and read the transcript of the case of a lottery winner who carried a briefcase with 1/2 million bucks in it in the passenger seat of his Ford truck. Parked it at the Pink Pony where a stripper waitress emptied two blue pills into his second drink. Woke up the next morning with a rock through his pickup window and his money gone all except for a packet of 5 grand left out by the dumpster accidentally. I remembered the story from a few years ago when I worked in downtown LA for Transamerica Insurance and collected the best news stories every day purely for entertainment. 

I think Bolaño recognizes the pure odd mystery of daily encounter.  He doesn't even mention the murders of Mexican women until page 287. We're like his characters who use up our days with failed loves, elusive ambitions, familial poverties, crude humor. We don't see the myth we're living in. By this point we're traveling with a black american journalist who's mourning his fresh dead mother. Why not? The history of a person's experience doubled by the complicated tendrilic history of their nation, nailed down by the crimes of men, or, our strange relationships to good men, who are secret beasts, who commit crimes. He's in northern Mexico and he overhears a conversation of someone who's worked on the mass murder case:

"What does a child do when he's afraid? He closes his eyes. What does a child do when he's about to be raped and murdered? He closes his eyes. And he screams too, but first he closes his eyes. Words served that purpose. And the funny thing is, the archetypes of human madness and cruelty weren't invented by the men of our day but by our forebears. The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all, but testimonies or proofs of this evil no longer move us. They strike us as futile, senseless. You could say the same about madness. It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes."

There's more here, more importantly addressing the way we write the significance of crimes, murders, how slaves could be massacred by thousands but a murder-suicide of a married couple could make the papers Europe-wide. Ditto for the unsolved torture and murder of several hundred missing women in Northern Mexico, near a border town, a whole civilization itself lit with corruption and desperation and hunger. I like these pages because they seem to set forth one triumph of the book, to give us the new testimonies, to write the evil inside us, the madness of our existence, in a way that will strike us meaningfully.

This passage reminds me of my lecture last night on Keat's "Ode on a Grecian Urn".  What I love about Bolaño's work is that it's characters find themselves in "mad pursuits" of mythic proportions, and like us, they don't seem to know it. 

I want other "weird" novels on the same shelf with this one, say

The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World by Haruki Murakami
Pubis Angelicus by Manuel Puig

The Assault by Reinaldo Arenas
My Mother: Demonology by Kathy Acker
They Call Me the Breeze by Patrick McCabe

The Castle by Franz Kafka
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

It's a really imperfect list, I can't seem to make up my mind.s. 

Well, I don't want to be a critic anyway. 
I'm after a different kind of monster.

5.1.09

SIGNS OF THE NEW YEAR

One dream: I wake up and realize that my teeth are made of wood. From the boatdock, damp, lightly frayed, bits of algae breathing in their ugly lacework. I inspect them in the mirror. I can't believe it, and I'm scared to chew anything or close my mouth. I don't want them to ruin.

On the way home from Arizona: I see three dead coyote. Roadkill, still wearing their black eyeliner. Asleep in their surprise anesthetic. You can't read their true faces until the fur mask is gone. Little baggaged death accidents. 

Friends and Strangers,

What is this the year of? 
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.