Monday, January 31, 2011

Half Wild poems

This poet reminds me of Mary Oliver in a Zen way. I'm attracted to her spare language although I feel a clot of excess emotion with some of these poems.  It may be just be discomfort with poems that I feel mean nothing.  Or it could just be that I don't get the point of the poems.  Who knows? 

I've only read this book in glancing--and some of the poems are good. Let me concentrate on those  that I liked and leave those that gave me a blank feeling (or worse a feeling of overdone, or wince).

"The Dead," I liked simply because it carries with a booster shot against materialism. As the poet says:

I have cleaned out
the houses of death
too often to long for 
Although I don't think having possessions make us evil, I do believe our tendency to continually replace (almost as soon as we get bored)--is evil.  Why?  I've seen how the other half lives compared to the luxury half and the contrast hasn't been comfortable--at least for me.

We don't need what we have too much of.  In this poem, the poet mentions  how much time and trouble the dead have taken while they were alive of all their stuff :

Their clocks never 
run down,
their silverware
shines in its coats.

And yet, what of love?  What of true communion with loved ones?  What of the soul?  Is this all we are here for?  Mary Rose O'Reilley has clearly decided that we are not here for the material matters of the world but for the substantial invisible matters of the soul --and in her poem "When I Imagine My Soul," she takes time while she is still alive to focus her mind on this entity--created and perfected in life for what purpose--and for what desire?  In her poem, she visualizes her soul as a "fat,loping,patient, untiring bear." The animal is "escaping from a circus," and indeed, being in the empty carcass of society with its superficial chatter--often feels to me like the noxious whirl of a circus.

What is the work of her soul?  In her mind--her soul moves continually, "into constellations of ice, /swimming without ideas."  Once it arrives there --she visualizes it as not stopping--there will be still this " relentless continual swim." And perhaps this is a good way to think of the soul--as the little engine that could, that takes us continually forward, to some distant place, with mechanical indifference and patience.

I don't know why I liked "Field Guide to North Shore Geology" but perhaps it is because it conceives of the soul as a prisoner in rock, glittering flirtatiously at the sun.  Read it, the poem will hook your attention.

The poem "The Crossing" had some lines that got me back to dive again through a poem that I I dived into quickly and then, left the pool of. Listen to this from the second stanza:

Sometimes I don't know whether I'm dreaming my dreams
or yours, or just leaning back quiescent in
somebody's brain. 
This is how it feels to be a poet.  Almost as if you had visitations from others or leap out of yourself into other bodies. Space, time, body travel, All courtesy of the imagination.

Then out of all the background noise that is poetry in all its modern hum and buzz--a stanza that has the poet's voice ripping through and I'm given the value of the price paid for the book.  The only stanza that came to me on its knees and asked me to believe in this poet's sincerity:

Speaking in Tongues

I go to church every Sunday
though I don't believe a word of it,
because the longing for God
is a prayer said in the bones.

Perhaps it is simpler to feel the "prayer said in the bones" in private.   Perhaps it would be wiser to worship on a lonely forest trail, under the great cathedral roof of the forest canopy and ask for the courtesy and submission of the common grasses with their obedience to all that ask such yielding---A bending even to the rain's slap and the wind's dark words of velocity.

There is  a religion in the natural world far superior to any other.  Here is how she puts it:

the boreal forest composes itself in my mind:
first as  a rift, absence,
then in a tumble of words
undone from sense,


And what are these words but those of what she calls "a gift" and I call a benediction? These words are not formed into intelligible meaning -but if you wait it becomes clear. Rain, wind, light, shadow, dark, trees, animals, birds--speak and, as the poet says--it is "like a stutter/ you hear when somebody falls/ over the cliff of language."

"The Hidden One," by Harold Rhenisch in "Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poems"

I’ve admired Harold Rhenisch for the creative non-fiction books –“Tom Thomson’s Shack” and “A Palette of Birds,”  which I read last year. He is especially good in the second book, where there are some vibrant characterizations of birds and the imagery is wonderful. I’m an image freak—so finding so many poetical passages in that last book was a visual feast for me.

The poems he has proven himself with-- in this anthology, continue the same theme in the books, I have read--- of a writer who is lean and muscular in his writing. I like the fact that these poems (there is another one)  lack bull shit (i.e. aren’t pretentious); that they are bones; that they do not aim their arrows at every part of the physiology of the reader, distracting her from the main idea, the main weapon in the poem, but focus one arrow --clearly and well--to kill the reader.

In the poem “The Hidden One,” Mr. Rhenisch starts out with this line:

The ravens write with their claws in the snow.

And you can just see them, can’t you? The quills of the ravens-dipped in black ink, writing out their stories in the snow’s white pages.  You are taken into the poem with this first image and the rest will follow.

He then remarks in the first stanza—that although the ravens are scribbling away—of their work—he “can’t read a thing” and meanwhile the leader of the ravens—mounts his throne—“The king stands proudly on an old mattress.”

So here we are. In an assembly of writers, with a king among them. What are we to expect next?

The poet speaks of the king being called to speak in this way: 

He has found a piece of rusted steel
and is using it for a voice.

If you have ever been in the forest and heard a raven, it is pretty much metallic like this –their cries—and sometimes even more than “rusted steel,”  and approximate chain-saw harshness. They are fairly loud.

Then the poet speaks of the underlings in this lesser manner:  “His band/  call to him like politicians; self-effacing and loud.”  Now, I’ve yet to meet a self effacing politician but maybe things are different in laid back B.C. compared to cattle country Alberta.  I would say the politicians here are fairly unsubdued for all the mistakes they make.

Then he goes on to say the writer-birds “have found a small / clot of self-consciousness in a tomato sauce tin—“ and wouldn’t that be a happy find for all of us?  The poet, as before when he was unable to decipher the raven’s preachings, is now also out of luck—even though this tiny fragment of self awakening is “enough for the lot of them” –unfortunately it is not sufficient for him because he is “not a politician”.

Meanwhile the king has arrived to inspect the writing “breaking the sentences apart,” that the poet’s “footsteps lead illegibly through it” and finding something there—at least something to make him cry out and write himself:

Landing, he scratches a new sentence in the snow.
He looks like something that he found here—
or something he lost.  He stands motionless,
a black period, and stares at me.  I stare back.

And we have all had these encounters. I have stared into the face of a wild thing and felt my own heart skip in anxiety and joy—have you ever met a young bull moose on a hike  and backed slowly away along the trail and yet, been unable to break the eye contact with that big lump of flesh?  This next passages says it best—how this contact feels like:

In the clear light between us, above
the filthy soil, quivers the consciousness,
which we both at the same time
gently and wonderingly touch.

It doesn’t make a sound.

Yes, indeed, the silence between wild animal and tame animal is voiceless, motionless sometimes and as pure as this.

What's a Little Cold?

The light outside is excruciatingly beautiful. If you have never been to Alberta, you should consider coming. Not in the dead hive of winter with the white washed landscape made out like the interior of a frozen nunnery but in the summer when the crooked trees straighten out and then put on their hard green armor to fight through spring’s incessant mating and birthing of new birds, animals and humans; to arrive at the steady hours of summer when the marsh has croaked itself to exhaustion and the red winged blackbirds have stopped squabbling over property rights and assumed their rightful kingdoms.

You can tell me that there are more beautiful places than Alberta but I won’t believe you. Alberta has Jasper National Park and I spend nearly every summer there with my family.  Then there is B.C.  next to Jasper National Park and the raised finger of Mount Robson. If you can’t go anywhere else for a hiking trip in Western Canada, you have to go up Mount Robson and see the world as it could be –as pure as light splattering down on the garden outside my writing room. There is Mount Robson and then there is Yoho National Park. Why would any Canadian live anywhere else is beyond me. Oh, yeah, the -40’C temperature outside. Well, that is easily fixed. Go down to Mountain Equipment Co-op –as hubby and I did when we were students in Calgary (now we have a store in Edmonton) and deck yourself in every layer conceivable to mankind, buy the sleeping bags from heaven, cast yourself out as yuppie hiker and you will be fine. What’s a little cold?   

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Blackpoll Warbler," by Eric Cole in "Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poems"

This poem was a small gem. It chronicles the Blackpoll Warbler's migration.  I've tried to identify the birds around my tiny man-made marsh near my community and have only been able to identify the swarm of red-winged blackbirds, the ornery magpies, indifferent crows, massive ravens, noisy Pileated woodpeckers, Downy woodpeckers and overfriendly chickadees.There are hawks that use the power lines as perches and owls in the boreal forest near my home but I don't think I've encountered a Blackpoll Warbler (but who knows?  There are so many secretive little rustlings among the spruce, aspens, poplars and birch in that forest that I've never  been able to identify--- that this bird may be somewhere in there).  In any case, I love birds. They often seem more sensible and cheerful than many human beings.

This poem floats a long line that describes how the bird flares down to Argentina, how it is a "Drab flitter combing leaves...slipped in/ and out of shadows from hawks' eyes," --isn't that such a true image? --So many of these birds are can be visualized in this way: a "Drab flitter" always industriously grooming the trees for snacks.

The bird then leaves the Andes to "beef up in Brazil," among all the cattle there, "on a surfeit of bugs voraciously beaked."  Hmm. I'm not sure if the bird is "voraciously beaked" or the bug.

Then these wonderful lines:

When the season turns inside him like a maggot,
his plumage rises to the fulcrum of his urge.

Right away you can sense the twist of desire (the season) and the reason for "his plumage" to match "the fulcrum of his urge."

The tenacious tiny traveler (half-ounce) migrates back to the boreal forest and well, you have to read the poem to get to the surprise ending.

"The Animals Dream," by Alison Calder in "Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poem"

I went back and reread this poem and felt it was a very good poem for me to study and so I'm going to go through it in more detail. It is not a poem like Adam Dickinson's intricate braiding of taxonomy in science, nature, language, evolution, and some obscure parts that I've not managed to unhook from the tight weave; but this poem has merits--it shows how to take one concept--of animals in hibernation and asks us to think about what their sleep and dream life is like (assuming they have such a life)--and how the animal might be making a self.

Now this in itself is an interesting thought. Do animals think?  Do they have the concept of self?  And even if they have a rudimentary ability to think, then what thoughts do they have?

And when they sleep--especially during for the longer periods of hibernation --do they dream?  And if they do dream --what do they dream about? If other creatures are capable of these acts--can we say that they are any different from human beings?

I mean,it wasn't too long ago that African Americans were cattle; often treated worse than cattle, Were they considered to be incapable of thinking? Is this the reason why they  were not educated?  And because of our mental set as being rigid against the idea of animals being in a category that is utterly separate from us--we do not entertain the thoughts that this poet has entertained in her poem. A pity.  Maybe it is our species that does not think.

She starts the poem with a quote from Sigmund Freud that sets us imagining that animals do indeed think, and that they think of species specific matters. But when the poet considers her badger, she doesn't see him imagining in his dreams the set species-attached paraphernalia of ideas. No, she flings this animal into a kingly past of pharoahs, "reading hieroglyphic dreams," despite the reality that he is a mud-packed creature "Inside his salty shelter" and is engaged in the business of smelling and moving around in his sleep.

While he sleeps, snow is parked outside his door, and like a visitor "fumbles at his door/but cannot move the stones."  And so "The pharaoh sleeps " in his tomb of pyramidal stone under the marsh mud. The river is dry "under Faucette's field" (such nice specificity to name a field!) and no water arrives to alarm clock him to awake and in his dreams, "He yearns towards the grubs, seductive/as the call from any Cairo market stall." We get the continuation of the Egyptian theme started earlier, in this movement to an Arab souk where instead of silks, spices and dates, we have the badger buying his "grubs'. Neat.

Around him spring is posting its notes to awake--"roots grow, ribs surround/ his sleeping form."  He begins to move around, restless "blunt-snouted,/ noses at the webs that wrap him close," and tries to break out of the ties of entombment and dreams from "his opiate stupor" towards spring thoughts--"turning blue sky / to litmus red of poppies." I like this progression from sleep in winter, into spring, and now the early Oriental poppies being used to proclaim summer coming.

These markers of the seasons!  And then, he is dreaming of more activity --"digs/ his heavy head" and goes deeper into memory to think of the ripeness of birth--"mother with her bursting teats," and yet, it is not time.  He goes back into the sleep.The dream --a faint thing now--- except for his conviction of his own entity which the poet has admirably placed before us in these lines:

                                        He curls into his claws,
growls once to hear his voice. I am, he thinks,
I am, I am.  And then he sleeps again.

And you know what?  I'm beguiled as the badger was by this dream; I begin to wonder if dragonflies have prehistoric dreams and whether the red winged blackbirds dream of their dun colored mates at night; whether the pale white moths dream of the moon's lit candle face.....

"Two Magpies," by S.D. Johnson in "Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poems"

There were some good parts to this poem and I am going to only concentrate on these parts since the other parts detracted from the excellence of these segments.

The poem is brief as breath--and speaks about a wide subject--life and death in an observed scene of magpies eating of the body of a dead gull and look at the marvellous way this poet springs the wonder of life and death on us:

Two magpies
on the river's edge,---
                     on the carcass of seagull.

So fine, we are in known territory here. Two darn, annoying magpies scavengering for scraps out of the beached hulk of bone, feather and flesh that used to be a living thing.

Now the spring is sprung:

            They're like nuns
thrown out of the convent,----
heartling chortily,

And you have a characterization that is fresh, deliberately shocking (how the jump from the desecration scene to one of religious order in flight?)  You're refreshed by the sight of the magpies, in their nun hoods and long flowing dark gowns with the disruption and awakening sounds of their "heartling chortily."  Two made up words that we can take to mean happiness--perhaps partially suppressed but still coming out of them (perhaps because of the bounty of the feast.)

The rest of the poem was less attentive except for the part where the poet asks to stay in the gap between life and death---"or at least/until a quiet overtakes me,--and grass/ grows up through my mind."

I would have left out the last parts of the poem. The poem was perfect with the grass ending.

"Chain of Being" by Adam Dickinson in "Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poems"

Part of doing the cutting into a poem such as “Great Chain of Being” by Adam Dickinson, is that you are investigating a crowded and well stocked mind. Brain surgery is difficult enough but what if you only up to hacking and ablation?

In other words, I’ve not got the requisite tools to explore such a mind. All I have is an axe will and a needle and thread to sew up the living poem after my vivisection. But now that you know that I will be butchering this poem and doing maladaptive brain surgery –let me start.

The poet begins with a title—“The Great Chain of Being” and you wonder why he didn’t use something more scientific –or pithy –like “Evolution (non-Darwinian) Theories” or perhaps just “Evolution.” But he decided to use “Being” which is more of an inner thing; and then he uses “Great Chain” which immediately brings into mind food chains, the chain of heredity, the chain of the food web, etc. and you begin to wonder if he is not just chatting about man’s appearance, but the presence of all creatures.  

So now, we have hurtled over the title, let us begin this obstacle course-hopefully without landing splat on the Earth too often.

He brings up Linnaeus –and says that this man made order out of disorder; that he “connected the world through teeth/beaks and bills.”

I did a quick run to Wikipedia to find out who Carl Linnaeus was to find out he was some sort of Renaissance man (medical doctor as well as zoologist/biologist) who push started the current method of classification of both animate and inanimate forms of life (i.e. taxonomy). I’ve always been interested in such multi-talented creatures and sneaking a peek at his early childhood years was relieved to find that he had no fetish for scholarly work in school but instead liked to go off into the countryside to do his botanical explorations.  Of course, his father had started him early –teaching him Latin, geography and religion-- before Swedish and so this may have helped him to develop the interests he did.  The main contribution he may have made seems to have been to use the genus name and compile it with a second specific  name (species name) to give us –binomial nomenclature eg.  Homo sapiens. This system avoids confusion between named species; and it allows each species to have a permanent name, unique to it. 

But I digress from the poem.  Now that I know the tool this poet is going to use to explore the development of being in this poem, I’m a little less shaky about how to cut. Let me leave the brain and enter the body;  I make a long incision from neck to groin.

So we have this man who avoided classifying according to previous classification methods and started using the binomial method—and “Ornament entered function.” He used “Only Latin or Greek;” to make his designations.  In the first stanza the poet points out that “This was the point where one thing entered another: /minerals the appetite, voice/the open air.”  I’m not quite sure what he means by this. Does he mean that all beings were shown to have common attributes?  That each of their “Ornament”  had a similar function? I’m not sure. Let’s leave it and go to the second stanza (I find this a good strategy when I’m stuck in any poem—just zigzag around the road block and continue as if there were no dead bodies of thoughts left behind).

The poet then jumps from babbling about a taxonomy of the world (“minerals the appetite voice/the open air”) to hone on specific observations made by ? I assume Linnaeus since he is the proto-scientist of this poem.  The various minutely observed vicissitudes of the digestion of chokeberry seeds by black bears are elaborated on. I note that the poet has later stanzas (5 and 7) that pour into field notes of nature—first the chokeberry seed breakdown:  “This small amount of anxiety stimulates enough acid in the stomach to break down the hard/shell of the berry seeds.”  I’m curious how Linnaeus notes widely first that “a sow comes upon the patch on the open edge of / a river bank.”  Then he observes minutely that  “While chewing, something provokes her” and it is this scare that ends up in stomach acid release and breakdown of seeds.  How did he come up with this feedback loop?

The third and fourth stanzas were somewhat impermeable to me. The poet seems to be talking about the development of symbols: “The mouth is the symbol for a corner./  Phoenicians built the alphabet out of joints,”  and so why are we talking about symbols that lead to written solid forms of communication-that take “sounds whose shapes in the throat and lips” into forms “piled or bent on the page”?  Why are we in language transfer now? With spoken words first “translated into sticks” and then into “Small fires” that “grew” which I assume means the spread of knowledge? 

I’m not sure.  Nor the purpose of the Phoenicians morphing into Greeks and Romans—unless the poet is referring to the evolution of print in different formats and combining it with the evolution of being?

Anyway, let me avoid this whole quagmire and go to the next stanza which I’ve put down in the last post and is very tasty. I liked this stanza for a very ignoble reason. The density of print in this poem is overwhelming (oh, all right, maybe not as defeating as Tim Lilburn’s density-but its plenty enough.)  And so this pleasant little stream was a nice trickling flow of words after the roar and noise of the first three stanzas. But what the heck does it mean, Julie?

God knows.  Maybe he is speaking of how everything evolves : “Cough then glottal stop,” in speech; then heartbeat matching the beats of poetry (“heartbeat then iamb,”)  and similarly the land going from one form to the next to the next and finally ending as a “greenhouse,”  planet with the greenhouse gases allowing for life.

I like the way he combines bells, the sun, sound, plant life and language in the last part of the stanza. It works. We see the plants “tied to the sun, /just as language” “hangs above heads/rings in the ears.”  Everything “hangs above heads,” and “rings in the ears”  and depend on the sun (“are tied to the sun.”) How to explain this clearly?  I can’t.  But it works for me.

Stanza 5 and 7 are more fields notes.  In stanza 5, the speaker is describing “small pale plants” and continuing the bell theme started in stanza 4 –for these forest plants are graced “with flowers that hang from their tops like bells.”  These plants are independent of the need for light he says.  They belong to no Kingdom. And so why has the poet decided to put this outsider creature in the poem? Is it to show the “Great chain of being”?

In stanza 7 the speaker delineates the swallows’ winter homes in the marshes where they stay  “like hibernating/frogs.”  If the birds are disturbed , “they will appear in their masses, cold, asleep,/ and half-dead.” So why the insertion of another series of observations here? Again, for the showing of the “Great chain of being” that Linnaeus was trying to make order out of? 

Stanza 6 shows that Linnaeus made some mistakes, giving plants names they did not deserve (“plants in the high Andes” were given “names derived from the arid New Mexican plains.”)  But overall his system of grouping, naming and permanently ascribing a label to each species was helpful and showed that “Nature doesn’t jump.” He showed that beings were developing slowly but that within each kingdom, the changes were rapid –“Kingdoms are carefully spaced ladders/ against the sides of burning buildings.”  And each species is a “burning building.” 

The last two stanzas –8 and 9 are short jottings.  They basically point out we are in progress, revised constantly (man that is) and Linnaeus was first to group Homo sapiens with the apes.  The last stanza is simple but opaque—“Whatever is, is right.”  Does this mean –if  a species survives the business of survival of the fittest-that this is the only matter that is “right?”  That is the way of our world?  Of all beings? Then he goes on to end the poem in this manner:

This is not an order but a riddle,
not a single thought, but many.


This is a riddle that none of us can solve--merely make jabs at; this is a poem of many thoughts, forming a tight weave that has a pattern that asks for more work. I’ll be looking up this poet’s work.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poems --Part 2

So far I'm skimmed through this book (backwards) up to page 438 (Randy Lundy) and I'm impressed. I mean some of the stuff here is the same old nature poetry but some of it is actually --well-more than a big Mac and fries.  More than a strawberry milkshake or a quick bite of bagel. Here are some of the poems I like so far in this book:

1) I  liked Adam Dickinson's long poem (well,it was two pages and that is long for me)-"Great Chain of Being" that I'm going to do an archeological dig on and maybe write a separate post on because I'm so ignorant that I have no idea of what some of the lines mean. But not knowing is an opportunity to explore and this poem is a great archeological dig site and promises to yield up interesting finds.  I like the way this poet uses language--the juxtaposition of ideas/images/history/languages/nature. Not a boring poet.  Here is one section I liked:

Cough then glottal stop,
heartbeat then iamb,
marshland then coal
then greenhouse. 
All bells are held at the top,
just as all plants are tied to the sun, just
as language, despite its vacuums and cinder blocks
hangs above heads,
rings in the ears.

Now isn't this a dense piece of text presented so cleanly that you would imagine that you are eating cooked chicken breast--when you have the living squawking bird of language being hunted down before you? You're fooled into complexity; expecting it to be direct and easy, you enter the house of the poem and find a maze you must use your own mind to map and direct your own will to navigate.  I'll be looking further at this poet's work.

2) Ken Babstock's poem "To Lichen" --I read through in one gulp and went on, but I couldn't just pass it like a stranger on the street and pretend I never saw him. I had to go back. Don't ask me why.  But it was interesting in how it defined lichen --and how it shaped the poem on the page--how it flung a single word in space and then, reeled in the line again to end the stanza or just left a word hanging. I get the impression this poet is a fairly experienced lover of language and has been engaged in this relationship --in a committed fashion for years.  I've heard of him but not read any of his works prior to this poem. Here is a section of this poem I found neat:

and be low, be

sparse as moments of wholeness.
These lines came from the first and second stanza and sprung out at my mind like a rubber band and brought me to attention.  Yes, indeed --"moments of wholeness," are indeed in deficiency in our lives.  In fact the poem was a good poem for me to learn a few nifty matters from and I want to rehearse its components and learn them.  How did he come up with this line?

                   Scrapings off rock's
inner ear that's heard epochs
Now isn't that evocative? Imagine an inner ear in rocks that hears through time all the passing of living things--and you can almost see the inanimate as far more alive than the living.

3) Alison Calder's poem "The Animals Dream" was full of the imagery that dances into living life an animal --see this ---:

Inside his salty shelter the badger smells himself
the entombed pharoah reading hieroglyphic dreams
You see the hibernating badger entered into his pyramid of mud, like Egyptian pharaohs; and the "hieroglyphic dreams" he has is so well matched with the starting pharaoh and tomb image.

Later in the poem, she continues the Egyptian theme in this way:

He yearns towards the grubs, seductive
as the call from any Cairo market stall.
Their heat defies the barometric drop. He is beguiled.

The heat, the market, and the goods--as if the badger were mingling in among Arab merchants and the citizenry dazzled and hot despite "the barometric drop."  I'm beguiled as well as the badger.

4) Randy Lundy's poem "The Great Sand Hills," has the roughness and grit that I like in a poem. I don't like perfection in a poem. It must have something in it that rubs and frictions against the reader's mind to take it out of the charm and into real.  This poem has that grit.

Here is some of the grit:

Not even the mice, whose delicate bones you gather
as if they are relics, and perhaps they are.  A hawk
has left these offerings, but you don't know 
how to respond.

If he doesn't know how to respond I do--with great gratefulness. I'm grateful for these poems. They ache me because my poems are not at their level of exquisiteness; but they also goad me forward. And these are no trite dulled out tongues singing in this book folks (at least not so far) -these poets know their craft and then some.

"Barn Swallows," by Mark Callanan in "Open Wide a Wilderness Canadian Nature Poems"

When faced by the split log of a book containing a multitude of splinter poets--I often cavil at the termiting through the wood.  And so what I do is I "fool" the mind. I start at the end of the book and pretend I am done already -and hey-wasn't that simple!  This gets me from stasis into motion and is all that is necessary to keep me reading. I find the same type of approach works for writing as well (no, I don't start writing at the back of a notebook--I merely start babbling in print; and as my husband says --I never stop.)

And so,using my handy dandy end of the book trick to begin this immense book-- I started on the last poet of this anthology and immediately liked him. He's no one I've heard of -but this should not be surprising to anyone since I've not read anything but dead poets and so, being still alive, he is of course a stranger to me.

I read the poem quickly last night and I'm going to go through it now and try to figure out why I liked it and want to reread it again, for as I have interminably whined through most of the posts on this blog that was supposed to be about the books I read to my younger son (and who by the way, is bitterly unhappy by the hijacking of the aircraft of "his" blog by my poem dissections) -well, as I was saying--I haven't found much to admire in modern poets.

Modern poetry is so blah, blah, blah. But every now and again, I have to eat my blog words when I encounter someone like Ralph Gustafson, Raymond Souster, Richard Foerster, Dave Etter and others; and I'm happy to do so. God knows all I want is decent poem flesh to be refreshed to the world of living poets..

And so here I am again. What brought me back to read this poem besides the necessity to start this book?

Cutting it open with the dull knife of my mind yesterday, it seemed appealing just for the darn topic.  Then all the short, skimpy miniskirt lines. White space. Thin poem. No bloat. Yum.

In other words, I first felt attracted to it for the spareness of it.  In my post on Dave Etter, I had been under the delusion that such clean, skeletal but wholesome fare (as evidenced by his poem on Emily Dickinson) was the work of a talented mind that sprang words like a Jack-in-the-box does it's Jack;  but I was rapidly disabused of this notion by reading on the Internet that he is a fierce reworker and reviser and reshaper of his poems and this hard work is what makes his poems seem as natural and essential as water in a cup--ready for the thirsty reader's gulping down.

So I won't say anything about Mr. Callanan's mode of work since I have no idea how he works (and even if he does work or whether his poems rain down like crab apples from the tree while he is snoozing under the laden boughs to result  in Newtonian creativity ).  This poem seems as if it was "given" to him-as if he had been been tramping around, doing nothing (as most poets-as I have told you before tend to do being creatures of utter vacuousness during the "off" hours and these off hours, as their spouses will tell you (at least mine will tell you) are many.) The poem is naturally flowing, tight, fast and good.  I liked it. Lets look at it.

The poem starts with a question. I don't know about you but I like questions. I like answers even better. And I'm a practical sort so it doesn't bother me if there are no answers but I go off to explore the universe.  I mean that is all we can do right? And not knowing, lets us into investigation, keeps us happy, until the big drop down to death.

What is the question?  One on property rights.  Here it is:

Barn Swallows

Mark Callanan

But who owns it?
The barn I mean.
This may not be a question that plagues normal people (i.e. people who are not poets) but it bothers poets. When I'm travelling on the road (usually to Calgary or Lac la Biche) I happen to notice all these neglected pioneer barns with their rusty red paint, their gray shingles and their lacework of holes. I, too, whizzing by them, have wondered who owns the poor things (also whether the barn wood would be recycled; whether the wood would have a deep, aged grain to it; whether the original family lives on the farm or whether it is part of some large company's redevelopment plan and whether these barns will be around for my future grandchildren or not). These are all very solid questions that I believe more people should ask themselves for a question starting with the "who owns it? often progresses to "don't we all own it as part of our common pioneer heritage (well, maybe not my pioneer heritage as we only got allowed into Canada in the 1970's thanks to Trudeau)?" or even to "maybe none of us own it and the earth it sits on."

But I digress. The poem.

This poet doesn't progress beyond the tight nucleus of his question to enter cytoplasmic questions. He suggests that "an old man with a limp/one eye to tell the time of day/and one to watch"--and I'm caught.

Yes,  I'm caught. I never would have thought up a "man with a limp," with half of his mind on the time and the other on what?

the swallows in their flight
their brief glide
down from the loft
to the hay-strewn floor.

Now isn't that a flowing thought split into bite size morsels? The mind doesn't have to shatter. You go from the man with the infirmity -who is gazing first at the time (work to be done?) and then at the world (and the rest of his life).

He ends the first stanza with "Someone just like that." I believe this too. It could be this man who owns this tired barn occupied by flighty swallows bent on retrieving food on the floor, zipping down to where the man is.

In the second stanza, the swallows sing.  And they do not sing of health and endless unendurable happiness. Nope. For this poet and for this limping man he has conceived up for us--the swallows sing of disability--"of blindness and other afflictions." Strange, you think. Why would birds--who one normally associates with joy to the world, be sending out songs of "afflictions" which sound as if they are sorrowful --and then they don't just fly around cheerfully --but "slit their own throats/on the stalks of wheat", before hurrying to their nests to rest?  I'm curious now (I'm also slightly unnerved. I was expecting happy endings). Is the poet thinking these morbid thoughts or that man with the limp? And why?

But then the poem asks another question--"Who owns them?"  And of course these swallows have no one to own them--"no / one but the wind."  The second stanza finishes with an answer that echoes the end of the first stanza:  "Something as simple as that."

I go back and look at this poem again. Why do I like it? I'm still not sure. But it resonates. It feels good. Hell, that's good enough reason for me. A reason as "simple as that."


We stayed up late last night because of this book. We were both in agreement (for a change) about the final rating it would receive.

There are some books where the characters (from the first chapter) are mousy beings without much in terms of character, courage and commitment to life (the 3 C's) and you are appalled (well, at least I am appalled) at their blatant and cowardly failures to CHANGE THEIR LIVES.  I mean these are fictional beings situated splat in the writer's mind and therefore untangled. By untangled I mean --not caught in the ecosystem of others that most living human beings are in and yet, they choose not to alter their lives. I know they have the other beings that the writer has burdened them with but darn it--they are able to bring themselves to work on the writer and struggle free of her noose.

Change is what gets readers into a book.  Change in real life is almost impossible for most of us and so we go to books to get a facsimile of what we should be doing in our own lives.  We all prefer watching people exercise on TV than go out for a run ourselves and similarly, we all prefer to read about others changing their lives than having to do this hard work ourselves.  Why is this so?  Why can't we all be like the wonderful girl character --Juli Baker?  Well, change is multivalented work.  Changing our lives would mean that the others attached to us by different valencies of bonding would also have to change or disappear. And so, for most of us, in the out-of-print life, we trundle along sleeping to the end until we get the big bang that does us in, and never have to make decisions the in-print characters are required to make or not get read by readers.

So, we have this boy that I introduced in my first post ---Bryce Loski--who grows up in a family that is barely alive--living the dream life that most of us live--which is innocent of any real understanding of the falsities and rose colored glasses we have on---that enable us to live the same darn way, day after day, in obedience and futility.

His family is well, perfect. The parents have the requisite "stuff" that proclaims the success of their position in society, they keep up garden and house so as to maintain the fiction of status and they speak noncommittal useless bits of words to each other and call that relationship.

In other words, the perfect middle class family. The mother and father work, they have the boy (Bryce) who is a weenie in all the ways possible it is to be a weenie and who has learned the master code of men-which is that retreat is better than engagement; and they have a daughter --Lynetta--who is fiercely herself and the only interesting thorn in the side of this placid cow of family that simply goes grazing through the first half of the book.  Then, Chester Duncan (Chet) --Bryce's granddad arrives and begins --with the help of Julianna Baker (Juli) to do the work of enzymes --for that is the role that both Chet and Juli serve in this book--and in their work of catalysis of change--shows us what lies under the pretty facade of plastic credit card created family sophistication that Saran wraps the Loski family; and detrimentally contrasts it to the lack of facade and the entirely real, loving, unselfish and interesting family of the Bakers.

Who would not love a book with Juli in it?  As Bryce's granddad explains his affection for this girl--we understand ourselves why we have been caught by this imaginative, brainy, empathic little soul:

He just grinned and said, "Some of us get dipped in flat, some in satin, and some in gloss..." He turned to me.  "But every once in a while, you find someone who's iridescent, and when you do, nothing will ever compare."
And that about sums up Juli Baker. She's one-of-a-kind iridescent--herself----as individualistic as a leaf on a tree-as willing to love and be loved as any baby, as fiercely committed to her ideals, as no adult I have encountered.  I wish that there really was even one such Juli in the world.  When she discovers Bryce, she pursues him with a tenacity that is alarming to Bryce and essential for any artist--but she falls for the exterior Bryce--the inner Bryce is just in the egg, unwilling to hatch out and be himself.  Juli begins to understand through the course of the book, that Bryce isn't what she thought he was-just darling-and she begins to fall away from the false basis of her attachment for him.  The real Bryce starts showing up, under the influence of the hard metabolic cycle that Juli has initiated plus the enzymatic work of his grandfather who initiates the first forward reaction of this changing cycle---by showing Bryce's mother what an idiot she has married (for she --like Juli-had fallen for the facade--the blue eyes and twenty years latter--has discovered that what is behind that store front window is vermin). Will this Bryce be enough altered to be a match for Juli? You go read the book and find out. In any case, the romance isn't what we are here for. The romance is the cotton candy that motivated us to go on the roller coaster ride at the fair grounds of life--Of these two families' lives.

I'm impressed by this writer's work.  I've got a series of her books lined up for boy and I hope they teach him what to look for in a future mating partner. Men are so stupid in their criteria for the selection of a mate. Unlike brainy women they do not look for the mental, physical and emotional attributes that would make for progeny survival and success; nope,all they care about are rapidly devaluing physical assets (at least that is one good aspect to the aging process--to get us all to see below the comely facade). They look for the big hair and the "parabolas" as Ms. Van Draanen points out and fail to seek out the mind that is able to see beyond the facade into the interior of a person. That interior is what each of us must explore in ourselves and the ones we choose to love.  Without the inexhaustible joy of this work--what's a life for?

Rating:  5/5

Friday, January 28, 2011

"The Thing," (and a whole pile of short poems) by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

This darn poet is becoming as miniaturist and as prolific as Emily Dickinson. I'm going to have to start doing these poems in batches or I will never get back to Alden Nowlan. So here goes. The first one in this batch is "The Thing" which I'm not sure if it is about his brother dying again and  looking at the "The Thing by the bed," the winnowing creature of Death, at which the one on the bed stares at. The Thing --

Which keeps nodding its head
In its Yes Yes Yes

is waiting for the one dying.
"At the House of Hambourg" --I had no idea what the title referred to and had to go find out--is supposed to be  a jazz house.  Moe Kaufman unsurprisingly turns out to be a jazz musician.  I feel like I am in prehistoric Canada.

Hmm... so what is the point of the poem?  They make their way out "Through the fog of this cellar of boredom." They leave behind a jazz house where "huge drops of loneliness began to drip from the/ceiling" that was "served to customers as near beer" and "even Moe Kaufman couldn't drive the curse away." I've translated prehistoric Canada to the present language but what do the last three lines mean? Does it mean that Mr. Kaufman, in his jazz performance "rode out hot through the coitus of the reed" ?  Then what about the last two lines? Baffling. At least to me.

As he rode out hot through the coitus of the reed
With candle flames licking like mad
The most secret parts of the waltz.

I've done the "Six Quart Basket" in another post and I liked that poem. "The Top Hat"  was a short neat characterization of a top hat wearer and the poet's approval of the sight of one floating down the street--"the biggest shiniest top hat/Since Abe Lincholn".

"Night on the Uplands" was a swift run through a competition for who would get flesh; and the mosquitoes won-great little bit.

"At Split Rock Falls"--I could understand the poet feeling his future death at the sight of the falls because I get all giddy every time we go to Jasper and see Maligne Canyon. It is enough to make you twirl off the branch of land, float down like a heavy leaf and expire in the swift drench of a torrential, speedy gash of water.He starts the poem with "At Split Rock Falls I first saw my death"  --now I think this is probably not true but we will give him poetical license--I imagine he saw his death many times before this moment if he is a real poet--most poets are quite imaginative about the many ways they will become cooked liver and so it seems rather unbelievable that Mr. Souster would wait to arrive at Split Rock Falls before thinking of his mortality; but then again --he may be one of those poets who are abnormally upbeat and so wouldn't even contemplate death unless confronted by a force of nature.

So anyway, he sees his death at the Falls.  He thinks it would probably happen accidentally (well, of course, you're at the lip of a giddy drop and a fall of a ledge is quite possible) and he sees his "windmill body " going down "On uncounted centuries of stubborn rock."  I like that windmill image.  I do see him working his arms and legs like levers  and paddles to no avail.

Then he imagines the water he is about to go splat in as "that pure pool"  where he "recognized a fool." Some parts of this stanza were weary -such as "green as green" -what the heck does that mean? And this was tired as well--"dappled depths"  but then he slips out of tired language to the third stanza where he ends like this:

And the trees tossed down:  O let nothing matter
If not beautiful, swift as that singing water.

Which I suppose saves the poem from being what?  I don't know some sort of endless drop into death.

The next poem was "The Coming of the Magi"  and after that "The First Thin Ice," and then "The Small White Cat" and I'm beginning to wonder if Mr. Souster ever sleeps and if I will be reading in his collected works (pretty soon) --like thousands of small snowflake poems like this--and if so I won't be reviewing them because you all can darn well put out a tongue and have the snowflake melt there and be gone.

I'll leave the last poems for later.I need to read something longer like one of Henri Michaux's endless conversations in insanity.

"My Brother Dying" by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

I'm not sure if this poem is based on the poet's real life experience of a brother dying--but it sounds real life.  The poet speaks of how his brother must feel with his mother and him "Circling round his bed," like 'buzzards" waiting for the corpse and perhaps he might see them "Waiting patiently/For his death and his bones?"

A disquieting way to imagine death. But perhaps there is a germ of truth in it--for aren't  the living always the disposers of the body and the bones?

The last part of the poem speaks of how futile the poet feels about his brother --who he had not been able to help while alive and now --still cannot help "As he crawls toward death."

"The Bourgeois Child," (and other poems) by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

I skipped "Nice People," because it was about chatter in a group; I've posted on "Lagoons: Hanlan's Point," and "Study: The Bath," so I looked at this poem --and I can't see how I can post on it --since it is so brief but I encourage you to read it somewhere since it is so true.  Then I ran on to "The Attack" which I could not see how I could add or dissect since it too is a microscopic splinter of a poem and so ran to "Girl at the Corner of Elizabeth and Dundas,"  and I believe it was a proposition to a lady of the night for $5. Hmm... that seems rather a lowball offer but maybe that was the going rate then.  I've posted on "Downtown Corner News-Stand" and the poem "Flight of the Roller-Coaster" and splat on "The Need for Roots." You can tell I'm rather a pernicious digger of soil. I don't like to leave a sector unspared in terms of the spade and the fork tines.

So I read the poem "The Need for Roots," and went to "Night After Rain."  I liked that last poem.  I, too have felt unseasonably ashamed of myself when I contemplate the patience of a heron, the friendly insistence of chickadees to get their handouts in the forest, the joyous riot of the red winged blackbirds in the spring over iced over water, freezing rain and god knows nothing to eat.  I mean how could I think misery when every form of bird life as the poet has pointed out in this poem, is insensibly happy?  As he puts it:

After the day-long rain
Each tree seems to have a bird in it singing
Its fool head off
                           and why not, the little buggers
Have their bellies choked up with worms,/


I suppose the haul of worms after a rain fall is enough to make birds fat with wriggling threads--enough to make the birds, as he continues:  "almost dizzy/With the sight of so many floating in every gutter."

It takes a careful man to put worms, gluttonous birds, mad singing after the rain, and his own misery into a poem like this; and is as he puts it-- enough to make him "Almost ashamed of my sorrow."

"Search" by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

Now this was a good poem. Not a sentimental line in it at all. The poet starts off by the end of the meal, the last cigarette--in this line:

Not another bite, not another cigarette.

Then he shunts to their last cup of coffee, tells us they are at "the hamburger-/joint where the Wurlitzer/Booms all night without a stop,"  --and I have to assume that he is speaking about a Jukebox playing.  You get the sense of the cheap little neighborhood place they are in "where the onions are thick/between the buns."  And she's headed out the door, in a "cheap coat that holds back the/wind like a sieve," --obviously useless in the cold.

He tells her to dress warmly in that miserable coat--for she might have to "walk all night before" encountering his kind of affection--but he puts it more lovely -

Another heart as lonely, so nearly mad with boredom, so 
       filled with such strength, such tenderness of love.

"Poem for her Picture," by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

Now why can't my husband write a poem for my chin, thumb, lips and the whole darn picture? It's a good thing that hormones and chemicals do much of the work of bonding the opposite sexes in the human species because the dearth of flirtatious poems like this one --would otherwise make mating --a difficult and arduous a business. But we have this poem. He is obviously besotted with his love if he is sitting or standing or lounging around lazily (as most poets do--since "doing nothing" is our main job before and after poem making); a thought probably inserted itself into his ribcage and mushed his heart and here we have this poem.

And I always thought men were hard little reptiles.

So what is this poem about? He starts by describing the scene behind her --all of which is unessential since he is stuck on her "body dressed in its covering," and utterly unable to "see past your upturned hair, your smile."

He kind of spoils the whole clean intro with the line "O my warm goddess," --I've never understood why men call to their womenfolk in these silly ways---most women are more like Attila the Hun than a goofy goddess but there you are.  I didn't like that line and maybe this was just a sign of the times but heck, the goddess business seems pervasive even to this day. Get rid of it guys. Think of women in labor having kids, and anything less than a goddess title would be appropriate.

Then, he speaks of closing the "blackness of two years" since the picture was taken I suppose--in some skin to skin contact. Well. A nice poem. It has its uses.  It may have even worked on his girl.

"Night Watch" by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

I like this decision to devote a single post to the dreaming through a single poem. If you are a parent you understand the resistance of children to free their parents from constant supervision.  So if you are in the middle of chug-a-lugging a pitcher of delicious poetical mead and you want to write something sweet and sucky about the poet but are interrupted constantly by the brutal warfare between two premen in full testosterone mode--well, it is very difficult to get through more than one poem per ten minute interval under these circumstances.

And so, the boys are safely out of the way.  The poem is in front of me. I'm not tense and staticky with expectation of a series of "Mum, help, he's killing me!" to interfere with my concentration--and so what is this poem about? I mean you may not care, but I do. I like to trap a poem, murder it and then inspect the entrails. So what are the autopsy results of this poem?

Too sweet. I'm not going to write out this poem for you. Go look it up in the book or on the Internet or just think back to when you last read it (if you last read it). The poem begins with a couple of things the poet (or speaker if you want to be hairy about it) is NOT doing--which are all the masculine types of things men do for whatever reason men need to do these things (i.e. combine alcohol and food/sit with other men at "the Oak Room," Or "Joe's, Mabel's, or Tim's Place)  --and not in his own room either.  He is in a place without "chatter," or music.  In fact, he is in the cold.  Outside to be precise, inside a  " silence/grown too silent" with his partner and "Kissing the night with bitter cigarettes."

I had to look at that last line again.  Hmm. Is he kissing her? Or are they both just smoking? Oh, I'd just better go to the next poem.

"The Hunter," by Raymond Souster in "Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960"

 I’m reading Raymond Souster in “Poetry of Mid-Century 1940/1960” edited by Milton Wilson.

I’m really beginning to like this poet’s work. There is a tenderness in his writing that is easy on the reader and yet is not slimy sentimental.  I’m going to go through his poems in turn, in single short posts since this is more forgiving to the poem –allowing me to appreciate it longer (and is also more considerate of my gnat like attention span) The first poem in this book (and I’ve left reading Alden Nowlan to pursue this poet )– is “The Hunter” and what a blunt, cool poem it is. It starts with the speaker (I’ll just assume for all the poems that it is the poet in all the poems since this makes it so much easier for my mind to keep up with just one character rather than a bazillion of them in this series) –so let’s say it’s the poet off on an ordinary date with his girl. You’d imagine a sedate drive or a walk in the park, a meal at a city restaurant but nope, that’s not the case. The poet is hunting (I guess the title tells you that). He lugs along “the groundhog” –why –I can’t imagine-since I’ve never heard of groundhog hunting but there you go.

He has “blood/Dripping out of his mouth a couple of drops at a time,” so I imagine this is a fresh kill, the poor animal is “leaving a perfect trail for anyone to follow.”

Meanwhile, where is his lovely date?  She is ahead of him while the”half-wit hired-man” is indiscriminately shooting at “imaginary rabbits” on the field of battle.  His girl is all “swing of”  “hip in/cotton dress” and you get the sense of an independent little thing who is able to hunt without any help. This is confirmed by the poet pointing out “the proud way” she has her gun in her hands; the fact the he has seen her hold it while she killed a pig quite efficiently—just “blew his head in.”  The last line of the poem is delicious where the poet, thinks of the “hog caught in the trap,” and his ultimate demise at the hands of his love; and thinks about his own conclusion:

Wonder what fate you have in store for me.”

"Villanelle of His Lady's Treasures," by Ernest Dowson from "The Making of a Poem A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms

I don’t know. Sometimes I get the feeling that writers are all mad; poets --especially insane; and readers are merely visitors to the psychiatric wards where these folks are institutionalized (in their books). But it maybe that the readers and non-readers are the ones who are out to lunch and the ones who sit with words, worrying them like beads of a rosary saying the words of their stories or poems out aloud as prayers of the holy--  are the only ones who know anything.

Here’s the thing. When we put down words—what are we actually doing? Take the villanelle for example as presented in the book.  Why would any sane person take the rules and repeats of this verse form, take a concrete subject and tear it all to hell to make something with nothing in it of narrative and then streak, naked across the page for the reader to gawk at?

In fact, why does any poet do any of these shameless intimate acts in public?  I’m looking at Ernest Dowson’s villanelle on page 9 of the book and my head hurts.  What did the editors of this book say a villanelle was again?  Let me go check—and compare what is written as gospel against what Ernest Dowson has sworn on the page. It is required to have 19 lines.  I count. Yes, he’s followed rule 1 and rule 2. He’s made 5 stanzas of three lines each and the last line is made up of 4 lines—for a total of 19 lines. 

Next.  Apparently, this masochistic verse form takes the first line from the first stanza and sticks it into the last line of the 2nd and 4th stanza (for no apparent good reason).   My god, why?  Is there some sort of gene mutation in poets that requires them to be so idiotic? I mean how the hell do you remember this other than this way: first line of first stanza is last line of stanzas 2 and 4--in some sort childish singsong skipping rope mnemonic?

O.K. Stay calm. Go to the next fricking rule. To continue the hybridization process, you have to take the last line of the same oh-so-special first stanza (of three lines) and stick it into the last line of the 3rd and 5th stanza (at least here all you have to sing to yourself to memorize this is: last line of first stanza is last line of stanzas 3 and 5).

And if this wasn’t enough government bureaucracy—we are asked to take the purloined first and last lines of the oh-so-important first stanza and glue them together as a wafer to end our poem’s last stanza with. Now how shall I sing this to memorize it?  Oh, first and last line of first stanza is the final two lines of last stanza. I’m getting muddled. I’ll need to have a cheat sheet next to me if anyone ever cross-examines me at the scene of a villanelle crime. Now, madam, what were you doing when you came upon the decomposing form of this Villanelle?  Uh, I was just trying to remember if the first line and last line were married or singular.

On top of all these infidelities in lines and couplings, we are asked (pretty please) to have some courage and keep the rhyme scheme as aba.

 I’m getting grumpy. Mr. Dowson has been kind enough to supply a villanelle that isn’t too mischievous and deals entirely with the robust attributes of his lady love. Let’s look at this all so vitally important first stanza since I don’t want to inflict my own villanelle on any unsuspecting bystander.

Villanelle of His Lady’s Treasures
Ernest Dowson

I took her dainty eyes, as well                                          line 1 ( or first line)
         As silken tendrils of her hair:
And so I made a Villanelle!                                                line 3 (or last line)
He has the aba rhyme scheme  going (well/ hair/ Villanelle).  So he’s off and running. 

Now we look at the rest of the poem.

 In the second stanza, indeed we do find he has observed the rule of having the first line of stanza one (I took her dainty eyes as well)  end the second stanza (and further down the fourth stanza); he’s also kept the aba rhyme scheme—so that the “hair” ending line two of stanza one—rhymes with “prayer” of line two of stanza 2,3,4,5, 6 and 7. In the same way the “well” and  “Villanelle!” endings of line 1 and 3 of stanza one also happen to rhyme (sometimes roughly) with lines 1 and 3 of stanzas 2,3,4, 5,6,7.

In stanza 3, we see that the last line of stanza one (And so I made a Villanelle!) is indeed the last line of stanza 3 and of 5 later on.

Finally he has kept the faith and married lines 1 and 3 of stanza one to couple them in a pair at the end of stanza 7 like this;

I stole her laugh, most musical:
         I wrought it in with artful care;
I took her dainty eyes as well;
And so I made a Villanelle.


Perhaps it would have been a more judicious use of his faculties to have used less of “His Lady’s Treasures” and just kept quiet.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


We haven't yet found Louis Sacher's book "There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom," --its somewhere on our shelves and so I forced boy to accept another author for tonight's reading.  I first read this book to my older son and now I'm reading it to my younger son. It's a pretty seamless story of girl infatuated with boy.  We're up to page 44 already and boy is not whining that it is boring, it sucks, that I am bent on torturing him with pallid prose, etc. He even asked me to keep reading beyond his bed time and I was tempted (because even on a second read, the heroine --Julianna Baker --is simply irresistible) but I wanted to read poetry, and so selfishly denied him his futile assay at protracting his awake time. Now he writhes in bed, while I write a brief intro to this book.

Boy moves into town; he moves into a house  next to a dominant, force of nature, frightfully self confident, sensitive, gifted and irresistible girl --the said Juli Baker. Boy--Bryce Loski is a weakling preman, sort of eager to avoid any sort of contact with female flesh---(he's only in grade 2 when he meets Juli) and is unbearably delicate in all his chatter, dealings and acts. A wimpy boy. Why Juli would be interested in this dull, blurry male is beyond my understanding until she clarifies it in her chapter (oh, by the way Ms. Van Draanen, I like the boy chapter/girl chapter division of the book.  Having two characters speaking is like having 2 for the price of one purchase of a box of cereal.). The infatuation has --like all infatuations--everything to do with blue eyes and nothing else. But I can sympathize with this brainy girl--I, too, have been stricken by the lure of blue eyes and been lassoed in.

And so, we have the conflict. Boy is wimpy and terrified of strong pre-woman. Strong prewoman is delectable and far too good for pre-man.  And so it goes. I only hope that Bryce wakes up and realizes what a plum this girl is before she loses interest in him and signs up for NASA and ditches him to become an astronaut.

Good characterization so far, the second story of Juli and her father's rich relationship and and the third story of Bryce and his grandfather's budding relationship  make for a denser, hardier story tree. 

"Emily Dickinson in Boston, 1864-65" by Richard Foerster in "Visiting Emily"

Richard Foerster's poem  that I read in ‘Visiting Emily’ was a bit meatier than the others and I decided to spend some time on it. I’ve never heard of this poet before and this is the beauty of reading an anthology of poetry –short or long—it is always possible to find a poet that resonates with you. One poet that resonated was Dave Etter who I wrote about in the last post. The other poet who also sprung me open from the coffin, was Mr.  Richard Foerster, whose style of writing is more dense and crafted than Mr. Etter (who seems the type of poet who would be “given” his lines and enter into them)

In contrast, Mr. Foerster, seems to be the "chiseling on a boulder" type of poet--starting with a massive bit of mountain cliff and hewing out a poem on it. His poems require more investigation by a reader, you cannot simply suck this poem up with the straw mind and be done with it. Nope. This little beauty is meat and you have to sit and chew it, methodically, and then swallow what you have in your mouth (I mean mind), piece by bit and then offer it up as successive boluses to the gastrointestinal tract, which will then obtain more goodness from it. So what on earth am I raving about?  The poem –“Emily Dickinson in Boston, 1864-65’. I’m rather a nut for details and I like the fact, first of all that this poet took the time to establish a time zone and then put in under the title a fragment of Emily’s own words to her sister Vinnie—about her eye problem, the effect of the medical treatment she was receiving (“painful”) and the sad summation of her entombment:–“I have not looked at the Spring.”

Right there in the title and the fragment of Emily’s we get, setting (well, you do if you have read any biographies of Emily Dickinson) and you get time zone, and you get the mood and season we are to enter the poem with. So much luggage! And we have not traveled  into the country of the poem yet!  So let us enter this beauty.

The poem starts with the only known daguerreotype we have of our sainted poet—and the poet remarks on her “strabismic gaze.” Hmm... let me check the online dictionary.  You might have to be an ophthalmologist to get the right definition but here is what the online dictionary computes:

stra·bis·mus  (str -b z m s)
A visual defect in which one eye cannot focus with the other on an object because of imbalance of the eye muscles. Also called squint.

Sometimes, it feels like all I am doing is excavating meaning from dense text.
But let me stop whining.  OK. We are clear in the head now.   She has a squint. I’d never noticed this –has Mr. Foerster been glued to the picture for hours scanning the face of the beloved?

So now that I have stopped whimpering; now that we have cleared up the first line—what are we to impute from the next few lines of the first stanza?  Well, the first stanza is a vortex to suck the unwary, just passing through the neighborhood reader right in to the maelstrom of the poem and make her a goner. The poet reveals his esteem—that look at squinty Emily is enough to mess with the poet’s mind—to twist his “ understanding of her miracle years,”  and you ask yourself why for god’s sake why? And the poet goes on to side track you by talking about Emily’s work in this manner:

when all heaven seemed to spin on her lathe
and the work fell solid, by the hundreds.

And you, who also love and know Emily, understand immediately what this man is about. He’s not nuzzling at her neck, or frolicking in bed with her—the man is admiring her intellect-that was like the realms of “heaven” turning about the machinery (the lathe) of her mind—and giving us the “solid” logs of her pruning efforts—not just one or two wonderful, master poet poems –but “hundreds.” You, the reader, who have lived with Emily, like a lover, also feel the rightness of this tribute, the cleanness of this embrace, the modesty of the poet saying these words to a sainted poet. And of course, you want to hear more of this love.

The first stanza says the poet’s understanding of Emily is altered by her picture “with its strabismic gaze,” and does the second stanza explain why?  Nope. It presents the poet’s comprehension of Emily to date but delays any real answer to why his understanding of Emily has been messed with.

In the second stanza he remarks on Emily’s slowly progressing isolation—the “shutting doors” that accompanied her through the years, until “one day through a spume/of widow’s lace (or loosestrife or asters)/ she’d had enough,”---and have we all --not had those moments –those turning points in our lives when we just could not bear the thought of continuing a meaningless life and done something about it? So we understand perfectly Emily's decision to leave the social vacuum and do something. 

So what did Emily do about the narcotic life?  In the third stanza we find out just what she did—she decided to “select the white austerities,” –the white clothing, the white seclusion in her personal nunnery room, the white booklets of bound poems, --in other words, adopt all the restrained, minimal acts that freed her and gave her the time to write. This decision, taken with all the characteristic courage and determination of a woman whose mind was fierce and sharp and quick was simply because she desired. Desired what? As the poet writes out for us in stanza 3:

to know the world through an atlas circumscribed
and limned on a bedroom’s frost-etched panes.

Indeed. Emily was no world traveller; the circumference within which she stayed was tiny. She explored the life in her mind and those who were in  her father’s house; the creatures in her garden with all its multitudes of miniature discoveries and pleasures—the robin tugging on a worm, a death next door, the approach of death and put these into her poems. Anything beyond the circumference of “a bedroom’s frost-etched panes,” was only explored in letters, in rare contacts with visitors, in forced medical expeditions as required for her eyes; she was not brave in the sense of social immersion but brave in the sense of her mind’s willingness to penetrate the darkest (and brightest) thickets of her soul.

In stanza four, the poet speaks of her fight “each day with ‘ that little god with epaulettes’ “ which I assume must be the writing Muse (?) and invariably –she won.  Between stanza 4 and 5, we have the poet dividing her up—into a paradoxical divide—“Her right eye” seems to speak of “serenity” while “the left eye/strays to confront some hidden radiance”---and so were there two competing Emilys?  One calm and sure of herself; the other fighting through “some hidden radiance”  to meet with “a terror” ?  That terror is remarked upon in terms of medical pathology as such:

                              ---- lurking on vision’s periphery.
Symptoms: Foci out of sync, solids ghosted,
the gentlest lights clinging like burrs, ciliary shudders,

And here you get the sweetest sense of something sticking “burrs” and the excitement of it –little cilia in “shudders” and material matter becoming invisible –“ghosted” and her “Foci out of sync,” –so that sight is blurred.  And out of such a terror and dizzying state—she makes poetry.

In stanza six, the poet speaks of “small betrayals (is the poet speaking about betrayals --in the sense of her affections not being returned?) plus that final voltage: / whole foundries of print smeared across the page.”  I’m not sure what he means by “small betrayals” but the electric charge of making –that powers the factory that makes the print—well that seems just right.

The poet continues to ruminate that it couldn’t have been just “panic” at the evaporation of life that pushed her to flame into production mode of this high velocity—“rolling fires/for those three years.”  But he doesn’t want to think of this—and as he ambles along, he wants to contemplate an Emily who is “here, sure-footed, beyond the squinched regime/of her doctor’s care. “  He wants to see her whole –in “shadowed calm” and “willed clarity” but can’t quite achieve this state of belief. 

The jar caused by the “strabismic gaze” of her daguerreotype is recursively felt in the last stanza where the poet remarks:

and yet
it’s dislocated fear I sense—a blur—and hurry on.

And so he goes on, discomfited by the sense of an Emily of the squint-the one who behind the willed serenity—groped blindly with “a terror, /she later called it”  --and this poet, gives us the sense of this woman, in her room, fighting that terror with the only weapons she had—words, and defeating that terror with her magnificent sword of a soul embedded in her poems.

"Vermont Summer," by Dave Etter in "Visiting Emily"

I liked this poem by Dave Etter.   The poem starts out with a ramble in the forest that is "cool and damp and sweet with rot," and that is a very apt description of what the leafy clutter on the floor of the forest and in the darkening spaces under a tree canopy fettered with wood fingers and arms is like.

The walk in the forest is one of discovery--but not of big things but the delicious small hand prints of a child's finds--"red and yellow mushrooms," the gems of "silver speckled stones," just like fish beached "in the sand by the skipping stream." And you can see this can't you?  The "skipping stream" with its rope of water?

The next part deals with the joy of " skin of a birch tree," and how sweet, white and "loose and curly" it is --like hair and epidermis together that has is "hanging" from the tree.  He is even gifted by encountering "a frog no bigger than my eye." This poem is an easy, natural and inevitable  flow of images, finds, treasures to the whole point of this tramp through language which is the tribute to Emily that he sums up here:

And I think of you now, Emily,
knowing that you in your sure-footed joy
would know what secrets are revealed her
by mushroom, stone, birch, bark, frog.

Yours was the harvest of small mysteries.


Indeed, it was. Emily did not look out at the world of power, money, politics, religion and bound thought. She was a wide open sky of mind. A woman who was brave enough to enter the thickets of the mind and tramp about there, doing as Dave Etter has done in this poem, reveal to us the loveliness and satisfactions of "small mysteries." What "secrets" are revealed here?  Perhaps the secrets are  that joy and peace are in the present moment of small fractions of ownership of the world and is available to anyone who would but journey forth in search of such "small mysteries."

"Emily Dickinson Attends a Writing Workshop" by Jayne Relaford Brown in "Visiting Emily"

This was a very amusing poem.  I, too, have wondered how Emily Dickinson would have fared today. Would  she have been what she is with  the current cultivation methods of bringing up poets?  Would she have gone and done a MFA at some university, taken classes at the extension program of her local college in creative writing or entered the hive of workshops and come out as a worker drone?

I'm amused by Jayne Relaford Brown's corrections of one of Emily's poems which begins:

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun
and the commentary on the poem is something  like this:

"Why plural?  And why all the Caps? (-And dashes?)
Why a "loaded" gun?

Next to the successive lines started with "And" Ms. Brown indicates;

"Watch the repetition"

Then  she goes on to quibble about the rhyme scheme, suggests re-ordering the stanzas,comments on confusing parts and suggests omitting the last stanza.

Questions are peppered through out the critique--

Why don't you share a pillow?
Why "good"?

And at the end, Ms. Brown summarizes her critique as follows:

Emily--Nice language here, but I end this 
poem feeling confused.  We need to 
see the speaker's "Master." Who is he?
Why is her life like a "loaded gun"?..

It continues in this fashion--the critique that is and ends with this recommendation:

I'd like to see you bring this
through the workshop again.


This poem provides evidence ---why not all poets belong in creative writing workshops. Emily would have been homogenized milk at the end of such an apprenticeship. I often wonder if the current method of creating writers is the reason why all our poets are beginning to sing the same and shape the same and be the same in language.  We are all butter now; Emily was bread.

We need more weedy poets like Emily Dickinson, who in her poems was a mind exploring a mind without restraint -that resulted in--- prolific production with the poems  she made a miniature form of disciplined passionate expression that was unique to her.  Poets like Emily Dickinson, Alden Nowlan, Henri Michaux, Gerard Manley Hopkins --come out of the Earth like weeds---like dandelions--and are almost ineradicable and untameable. Have you ever tried to get rid of dandelions in your lawn? We'll not be able to rid our language of these poets either.

Visiting Emily

Robert Bly starts this collection of fan-poems with the question --"Why do we love Emily Dickinson so much?" This book of poems tries to answer this question.

And so,why do these poets love Emily?  In Robert Bly's beginning piece--he indicates it is for her courage, her plugging into her "source" and her willingness to keep going. Theodore Weiss in his poem "Between the Lines," indicates that she understood how to live her life "enormously,/containedly, between the lines."  Although she had a limited network of relationships, was reclusive and solitary; she still lived a large emotional life inside her poems.  And as Molly Peacock writes in her poem "Desire" -what she worked towards was something clean, unadorned, essential--the soul --and something  that provides "the drive for what is real,/ deeper than the brain's detail: the drive to feel."

Certainly, Emily felt deeply and passionately and was able to give us her intense experiences of feelings --in her poems--this sense of restrained desire--that thing "that doesn't speak and it isn't schooled,/ like a small feotal animal with wettened fur" that Molly Peacock speaks of. 

But it is not all about desire, heat and coil of menacing, approaching death. In her poem "Emily Dickinson," Linda Pastan surveys the poet and says:

Yet legend won't explain the sheer sanity
of vision, the serious mischief
of language, the economy of pain.

And in these lines we get what we love best in Emily--the  calm, restrained miniatures of every human being's life spread out before us in her "sheer sanity of vision,"  but also the saving grace of her "serious mischief," in using language joyfully and in fun. And when she speaks of darkness, she does it as minutely--on as small a scale-- as a pollen grain fertilizing an ovum.

Of course, she was considered strange and otherworldy.  Joyce Carol Oates writes in her poem "Half-Cracked Poetess,"  that her mind's eye was like the cracked opal in her antique ring:

Like an eye, in a way. Blind
but still seeing
except, what is it seeing? ---
and why?

The cracked opal like the cracked poetess--and what was Emily seeing "and why?"

Archibald MacLeish in his poem "In and Come In,"  writes about several male poets--Emerson, Whitman, Frost; and yet has this to say about them in comparison to Emily:

Stupid? Like all the rest: he didn't know.

And yet there's something does know in that poem.

And that's the difference.  Emily is not at the circumference of her being--even though she is obsessed with the matters of that periphery; she is always in the interior room of every poem; she exists fully so that "there's something does know" in every poem.

Edward Hirsch in his poem "The Unnaming," speaks of the new poetical territory created by Emily Dickinson out of the work of her mind's pruning shears:

And that was when she felt the dizzying freedom
Of a world cut loose from the affixed Word or words,
Appallingly blank, waiting to be renamed.

Emily took herself out of the rigorous fixed mental mindset of the day, challenging everything--if only in her poems--and blanked out the rest of indoctrinated "Word or words," to become a creator in the "Appalling blank," that she entered into "treating the garden as a page for revisions," and making her own Paradise on Earth.She was no cowardly creature in language. Thinking --doing her own thinking--altered everything for her and for us.

I am alarmed by how many male poets dream of ripping off Emily Dickinson's clothes and ravishing her but perhaps Billy Collins and William Heyen are expressing only their passionate devotion to the sainted poetess in the infatuated ramblings of their poems.

Perhaps Lola Haskins expresses what I have been thinking all along about modern poetry--compared to this poetess, how weak and cool, we all our in the flames we make:

Lola Haskins

       We are off the 
map, and cold.  The one who
holds the clearest light is


In this portion of her poem--Lola Haskins has said it clear "We are off the map," and indeed we are. We are all undiscovered territories and the only continent visible on this map is Emily.