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.

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




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.