Wonder and Sorrow

Recently, I picked up a book by a poet whom I’ve admired for many years—Doug Ramspeck. Previously, I had only encountered his work in journals, which is to say, one or two at a time. With his book, Black Flowers, in hand, I am reminded how your sense and appreciation of a poet can change when you start to read them in depth.

For example, I had not considered him with respect to the rural tradition. This is a genre that I associate with Southern poets—but the locales in this book are near the Great Lakes—Wisconsin, Upper Peninsula, Ohio. Nonetheless, the poems in this book have a distinctly “Southern” feel to them–but without the overt biblical references. 

Nature, writ large, is a brooding and impassive force in these poems. There’s plenty of mud, muck, and loam, and often it proffers the delicate skull of a small animal, bleached and moony. And the moon itself is a constant feature—it’s a rare poem in this collection that does not mention the moon in some manner. There are birds, too, of course. Herons, which typically assume a godly stature, and crows and grackles, which are vaguely associated with the poet’s mother. 

In general, the tone is wistful and nostalgic, but largely unsentimental. The lineation is often sparse, with unrhymed couplets the preferred style. Though the language is mostly plain-spun, Ramspeck is clearly enamored by the sound, the physicality, of words. At times, the phrasing can be wonderfully surprising:  “a clemency of clouds,” “alluvial darkness,” “the silage of stars,” “the cuneiform / tangles of your hair.” This is a poet who loves alliteration, and uses it to great effect.

I typically read poetry books in a desultory manner, but this one displays a thematic arc from start to finish. The poems in the first section (Conjuring) look back upon the poet’s childhood, or rather, adolescence—that transitional phase between childish longing and adult desire. We get a glimpse into a troubled homelife, and the parents’ eventual divorce. In “Notes on Beauty: The Skull,” the father finds a woodchuck’s skull buried in the dirt, cleans it off, and presents it to the mother “for their final / anniversary.” Such a wonderful image, as you’re not sure whether the gift was an honest gesture of love, or an assertion that their love is dead and buried. If it’s the first, then the father is (tragically?) unaware of their impending separation; if it’s the second, he’s handing over the divorce papers. 

In the middle section (Claiming), the poet is in his prime—he experiences love and marriage, haunted initially by a miscarriage but redeemed eventually by a child. This brief section is replete with primordial ooze—even in the titles, which include words like “Dust,” “Mud,” “Stones,” and of course “Moon.”

The final section (Burying) reflects on the final stages of life. Here we see the parents, no longer the hale and earthy creatures of the first section, but now wispy and shrunken with age. Death, and impending death, are the overriding themes. This section contains one of my favorite poems in the book, “Paper Skin.” While it focuses on an elderly neighbor, its real subject is the pragmatic and dutiful father, who “commanded” the poet “to mow her grass in summer and shovel her driveway in winter.” And while it seems that the father is driven by a sense of decency and courtesy, of noblesse oblige, he nonetheless tells the son to filch some useful tools from the lady’s basement after she’d died, before her relatives could come and claim them.

In fact, this is not the first we’ve seen of the elderly neighbor in these poems. Like many poets with an obsessive fascination with the past, Ramspeck replays and recasts scenes throughout the book. We see the elderly neighbor more than once, along with her granddaughter, an early subject of the poet’s gaze and desire. We see young lovers carrying blankets to the river’s edge again and again. We encounter the boy who drowned in the river more than once. As a young man, he lived across the street from a funeral home (is there a better place for an emerging poet to live?), which becomes another recurring theme. In fact, we occasionally get some variation of “formaldehyde” (e.g., “the stars // grew slowly mired in their jar of formalin”), which may be a direct result of his proximity to the embalmer’s workshop. He’ll often try different ways of executing the same idea—so for instance, to describe the color of sunrise or sunset, we get “the dusk sky / slitting the throats of the clouds” in one poem, and in another, “dawn / would slip its necklace / of blood over // the horizon’s neck.” On the other hand, the recasting and reviewing sometimes comes across as too much reliance on phrases or images that have worked in the past. The adjective “low-slung,” for example, sets a tone the first time it appears, but by the third time, it just draws attention to itself. And, as mentioned, the force of the moon as objective correlative gets diluted with repeated use.

Ultimately, what I love about Ramspeck is his joy in language and his ability to tweak and extend a phrase into something unexpected and beautiful. For example, these lines from “Ars Poetica with Heron and Dance”:

…at dusk, the grackles in the trees gave way
to bats, as though everything transforms in darkness
to something ancient.

Ramspeck also has a new book out from Cloudbank Books and another forthcoming from WordWorks. I look forward to checking them out, too.

The Divine Tragicomedy

Like many, I look back on the Covid era and think (with a nod to James Wright), “I have wasted my life.” Or more specifically, I have squandered my time. My self-reproach is all the more acute because I have been reading the final, posthumous collection by Jack Wiler, Divina is Divina, a book tinged throughout by the sad transience of life. It’s a remarkable collection by a man whose life all but demanded to be set down in poems.

book coverFor starters, Wiler worked for many years as a pest exterminator, and his experience in the field often inspires or informs these poems. He reveals an unexpected sympathy, or at least pity, for the creatures he’s paid to eradicate. They seem to be, in his view, unfairly demonized for trying to eke out a life, which, in their view, has nothing to do with us. In this, they become foils for the humans they plague, people trying to survive while the whole world seems bent on their destruction, people often on the margins, who could easily “fall through the cracks” as we say (a phrase all the more pungent when thinking about roaches, mites, and bedbugs).”Cherish your mice, your rats, your roaches, your bedbugs!” he writes in “Praises for the Insect and Mammalian Dead,” a poem with overtones of the Sermon on the Mount, “They are your poorest children / They have no other home but yours.” In his affinity for the uncouth, and in his sparse deadpan lines, Wiler seems very much like the Bukowski of Jersey City—except that Wiler lacks Bukowski’s overriding misanthropy and fundamental meanness. (I also doubt he ever achieved the celebrity that Bukowski enjoyed before his death).

Another defining trait—which presumably led to Wiler’s relatively early death—was his battle with HIV. His declining health influences many (maybe all?) of the poems in this collection, imbuing them with a mixture of fatalism, sadness, and awe. Many poems chronicle the vicissitudes of the disease, from bleeding gums to low platelet counts to neuropathic pain. Others come face to face with the inevitable: “I’m in a house with five other people, all infected with HIV. / One or the other of us could die, either sooner or later,” he writes in “On Death and Dying.” On the one hand, he expresses an acceptance of death, maybe even a readiness. But this is undercut by poems that convey a desire to keep going, even under miserable conditions. “Why I go to Work” recounts the dreary duties of his job, concluding with his desire

…to wake up
and do it all again.
And again.
And again.

And while many poems do convey a sense of anger and regret, perhaps a hint of self-pity, most seem to arise from a sense of love, the kind that comes from knowing that all desire ends in loss. Even the vermin are beautiful, and largely emblematic of the world itself, in which the collective goes on despite countless individual deaths.

But Wiler’s “love” is not merely an abstract love of the world, but of a particular individual–Johanna, whom he describes as “a gorgeous transsexual from El Salvador.” Johanna appears throughout the book, often providing the prompts that inspire the poems–most notably, “The Love Poem Johanna Asks For,” which again praises the ordinariness of their life together, the appreciation of the simplest moments. It is Johanna who allows him to make peace with the world, and stirs his desire not to leave it. Johanna is not alone—she brings a friend and fellow trans into their lives—Divina, who, in the title poem, dies:

Not suddenly. Not prettily, not like anyone should die.
She died in a hospital in the city of New York
and no one knew her name.

In fact, the preceding poem, “Futbol and Gowns,” is ultimately a eulogy for Divina, portrayed as an exasperating, melancholic, and unforgettable person. It ends with a sentiment that might well describes Wiler’s basic worldview:

The world is filled with tears and the song of birds.
Para siempre.

A form-idable guide

Recently, I received a copy of How to Write a Form Poem, an introduction and guide to ten poetic forms. As someone who frequently writes in traditional and made-up form, I was intrigued to see who and what might be included.

True to form, each chapter in the book follows a prescribed formula. The author, Tania Runyan, introduces a poetic form, then provides a few examples followed by some commentary on the formal elements. She then forges a personal connection to each form, and shares her efforts at composing a poem in that style. Finally, she gives a quick recap, and sets a challenge for the reader, complete with writing prompt. Throughout, she weaves a travel narrative, as if each form were a destination on a grand poetic roadtrip. I don’t think I did that justice, as it works much better than it sounds. This is all followed by a second section of the book—an anthology of sorts, which pairs each poem with a prompt.

book coverThe book starts with the villanelle and makes stops at the sonnet, sestina, acrostic, ghazal, pantoum, rondeau, ode, and found poem, and ends the whirlwind tour on haiku. These are all forms that will be (or should be) well known to any young poet. In fact, some of these poems are so well known, they almost need no introduction. Every school kid has probably written a haiku or acrostic, and it’s hard to get through high-school English without encountering a sonnet. But these are presented not to show the arc of English literature, but rather to showcase the strengths and optimal applications of each form. The selections are chosen not necessarily on the fame of the poet, but the paradigmatic nature of the poem.

Of course, several touchstone pieces are included—it would be unthinkable to discuss the sestina without Bishop, or the sonnet without Shakespeare, or the haiku without Basho. But what I found so remarkable was the wealth of writers who were previously unknown to me, though we clearly share a certain poetic sensibility. The vast majority of poets represented in this book are alive right now—clear evidence that the formalist tradition is also alive and well.

I know I’ll be returning to these poems again and again. I love the way the vicissitudes of married life are condensed in short blunt phrases in “It’s Not Hard to Write a Sonnet, Man” by Tom Hunley, and how the trials of married life are compared to the challenges of writing such a constrained form, with both efforts generally prone to failure. “The Creation,” by Jeanne Murray Walker, provides another new take on the form—in fact, it does not even look like a sonnet on the page—you could very easily miss the form entirely, misled by the whimsical sense of wonder that stands front and center. I love “The Front Room,” a sestina by Elise Paschen, which really shows off the form’s evocatively dreamlike qualities. In fact, the form seems uniquely designed for an excavation of childhood memories and trauma. I love the rondeau “Please Stay” by Rick Maxson, which showcases the form’s elegiac power. As someone who adores new versions of Greek myths, I was drawn to “Echo” by John Poch; the villanelle form is such the perfect container for the subject. I love the ghazals by Aaron Brown and Zeina Hashem Beck–I had previously associated this form with a delicate, courtly tradition, but here it demonstrates its versatility by chronicling the ravages of war in the place of its own origin. I love “Oblique Eulogy II” by Juditha Dowd, a stellar example of how form can surprise. The pantoum is a recursive form, and lends itself to pause and reflection; but in this case, the repetitive lines enact a merging of the speaker with her mother, so that the final line, spoken first by the speaker’s daughter and then by the speaker’s mother, just takes the top of your head off. And I especially love “Sestina to Bind a Goodbye” by Murray Silverstein. This poem depicts a familiar domestic scene—packing up a car for a trip–but it’s not clear until the very end that it’s not a family roadtrip. Rather, it is the daughter heading off to college, leaving the parents to face a lonely house with no one but each other—and judging by their internal and spoken exchanges (the daughter never speaks), they are facing a hard road. I found this poem to be absolutely devastating and beautiful, and one that will stick with me for many years to come. And again, with the exception of Paschen, these writers are all new to me (I didn’t realize I was so out of touch). 

So, yes, even at my age, I definitely learned a thing or two in consuming this book. For example, I never really considered the acrostic an adult form—until I encountered subtleties of O’Hara and Poe (I also never knew about Poe’s flirtatious exchanges with Frances Sargent Osgood). Who knew the acrostic could be so sly, playful, and subversive all at once? And I seem to have forgotten everything I once knew about the ode. Interestingly, in reading through the book, I also became aware that I have never written a rondeau. I have set myself the challenge to do so—eventually.

I suppose that is the strongest endorsement I can give this book. It has prompted me to re-examine what I thought I knew about form, and inspired me to try something new.

Possessed

Welcome 2021! Ring out the old, ring in the new!

So as I was browsing through the “G” section of my poetry shelf (see previous post), I came across a book that I hadn’t picked up in several years, Sandra Gilbert’s Belongings. Gilbert is perhaps best known for her early feminist theory, particularly her collaborations with Susan Gubar. While not questioning the value of that work, I think it is unfortunate that she has not received broader recognition as a poet. Her work is at times subtle, forceful, intimate, and challenging. It compresses serious intellectual discourse into engaging, superbly crafted verse. 

I am of course impressed by her formal acumen, but I find her personal narrative equally compelling. Gilbert comes from Italian ancestry—specifically, Sicilian—a heritage that I share. In fact, crazy synchronicity: her book of collected poems is called Kissing the Bread. The title poem describes her mother or grandmother kissing the stale bread before throwing it away. So, one day, I’m driving with my parents. We may have been on our way to visit my grandmother’s grave, or perhaps it was around the anniversary of her death. And out of nowhere, my father says, “Remember how she always used to kiss the heel of the bread before throwing it away?” I was stunned. I guess it just goes to show how even seemingly unique personal memories can have much greater resonance than we imagine. 

The title poem in Belongings is a traditional sonnet sequence that recounts her mother’s decline into senility, dementia, and ultimately, death. She is torn between the world of the living and the world of the dead, of the physical and the spiritual. Delusional, she is visited by the ghosts of her childhood—and apparently is at ease conversing with her deceased relatives. But she is also haunted by more malign spirits—the uncouth “others” who are plotting to steal her stuff. In fact, she clings to her belongings as a way of clinging to the world and her identity. She has come to define herself, and the fact of her existence, by her possessions. The overall poem comprises 14 sections, making it something of a meta-sonnet. They are linked not only thematically, but through the poetic device of repeating the last line of one sonnet as the first line of the next (I tried reading the first lines as a single poem, but it didn’t work). There’s also an interesting lack of punctuation and use of extra spaces to serve as partial caesuras within each line. It’s not intrusive or gaudy—just slightly edgy in a poem like this. The lack of punctuation is common throughout the book—perhaps in keeping with the poetic fashion of the day—along with the device of using the first line as the title (a practice I never quite agreed with).

The main figure in “Belongings” appears in other poems, as does the memory of Gilbert’s husband, who evidently suffered an untimely and unexpected death. In fact, Gilbert is at her best in the elegiac mode, lamenting—no, contemplating—both family members who have gone and the fleeting moments in her life that exist now only in memory. Another sonnet sequence bookends the collection, “A Year and a Day,” which dedicates a poem for every month, followed by “February 11, 2003,” presumably the anniversary of her husband’s death (a mere three days before Valentine’s day). This poem echoes the same dedication found in the prologue: “in memory of E.L.G.” It is a meditation both on poetry and grief—the formal structures that prop us up, and the heavy, seemingly futile, search for meaning. It ends with the lines,

Uncouplings shatter the couplet, but in the end,
in the empty, there isn’t room to turn around.

I’m noticing now that I did not pull many quotes from the collection. That’s because there are too many great lines to choose from. 

I should mention that in my senior year at Cornell, Sandra’s son Roger came to teach, fresh out of grad school. I was having trouble finding someone to direct my Independent Study and senior thesis, and was immensely fortunate that Roger accepted the task. I suspect he was happy to find someone who was more interested in his literary theory than his mother’s. He proved to be a great mentor and astute reader of poetry (even my self-absorbed college verse). Years later, I chanced to meet Sandra at the annual SLO Poetry Fest (and I recall hearing selections from this book, which was not yet published). I mentioned my connection to her son. We only spoke for a minute or two, but in that brief time, she made me feel like part of her extended family. 

Her poems do the same thing, even for those with no Italian heritage to draw upon.

Good Glück with that!

Big news in the poetry world: Louise Glück has been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Like many, I was inspired to revisit my poetry shelf. Yes, I was familiar with the name—Glück has achieved considerable renown—and yet, I could not call to mind a single poem or line. I found her first four books, in a single collected edition, as well at The Wild Iris. I flipped through them, waiting for that spark of recognition. It never came. I had to admit, despite being a receptive reader, that her work does not speak to me on any level. It is sparse, elliptical, often first-person though not Confessional. The diction is unfailingly deadpan. It’s not quite cerebral, not quite emotive. In fact, it’s largely devoid of affect. Interestingly, I could not discern any major shift or growth between her first book and her later works. For some poets, that comes from having a unique, compelling voice. But I don’t find Gluck’s voice to be particularly distinct, which is to say, I can’t tell the difference between a line by Glück and a line by, say, Jorie Graham.  In The Wild Iris, it’s initially intriguing to see so many poems with the same title (e.g., “Matins” and “Vespers”); but rather than collectively present a Cubist view of a subject, they each seem self-contained and interchangeable, and eschew any dialog amongst themselves. 

So, my initial enthusiasm at seeing an American poet honored with a Nobel prize was undercut by the uneasy suspicion that the committee had made yet another questionable decision in an effort to stay relevant or divert attention from its salacious recent history. And though I hesitate to disparage the work of any poet, I’m sure that a few critical words from me will do nothing to sully Gluck’s reputation, or detract from her widespread acclaim. There are clearly many people, in positions of authority, who find more in her work than I do.

Homie is where the heart is

Months ago, I was planning to write this post. But everything changed when the Covid nation attacked!

One of the wonderful things about poetry is that it invites you (and in some cases requires you) to view the world through someone else’s eyes, to embody a lifetime of accreted experiences. And it’s even more sublime when that perspective is one you might never enter on your own. 

That’s partly why I loved reading Homie, by Danez Smith. The brief bio on the back jacket says that Smith is “a Black, Queer, Poz writer.” I have never experienced life though any one of these lenses, let alone all three. In fact, I am old enough to remember when being HIV positive was a death sentence. Nowadays, it’s just one of many defining characteristics. That still leaves me flabbergasted.

I went to see Smith at the California African American museum in LA, back when public gatherings were not anathema. I had read the name, but was unfamiliar with the poetry. In fact, one of my goals for the evening was to learn how to pronounce Danez (two syllables, accent on the second). Smith read along with Fatimah Asghar, as I recall. They had a close rapport.

And more importantly, they knew how to work a (poetry) crowd. Sure, there was the banter, the humor. But more specifically, there was a sense of inclusion, of intimacy, as though everyone in the audience was a close, personal friend of the poets.

As for the work itself, it was performative, and not surprisingly rooted in identity politics. But it often leapt far beyond that. So I was eager to see how the work would translate to the printed page (which is in itself extraordinary—usually, it’s the other way around).

I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot more to this poetry than meets the ear—and that’s saying a lot. Though very much a performance poet, Smith writes with structure, if not outright form. And interestingly, some poems are “concrete” in that they need to be seen on the page to be fully appreciated. That includes poems that I first heard at the live event: “jumped.” “saw a video….” “rose.” “dogs!” “for Andrew.”

As for general tone, the first word that comes to mind is “ebullient.” Maybe that comes from being HIV poz, feeling that you’re living on borrowed time—much the way the ancient Greeks espoused Epicureanism as a counterpoint to fatalism. Or in other words, we all sit beneath the sword of Damocles, but some can see the cord actively fraying. Or perhaps it’s a lust for life that makes one more susceptible to HIV? The second word that comes to mind is “attitude.” These poems are often suffused with the defiant (dismissive?) posture of one who has almost convinced himself he has nothing to prove to the world, and no patience for those who are not quite on-board.

As for style, the book is nouveau Confessional—just about every poem is written in the first person, and there’s no mistaking that the poet is the speaker, but without the grandiose self-recriminations. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit too personal, as in “trees,” with its long litany of names, all of whom presumably have some connection to the writer but no meaning for the reader.

homie book coverOne wonders whether Smith appreciates his debt to Ginsburg, another unabashedly gay man (at a time when such openness was still shocking) writing effusive, unfettered verse. Smith draws upon Whitman’s self-celebration, of course (even the day-glow color of the book screams “Look at me! I’m electric!”), but seems more aligned with Ginsberg’s edgy and polemical stance.

Oddly, Smith owes another debt—to Tennyson, for much of this book was written “in memorium,” prompted by the suicide of a close friend (perhaps the homie/nig of the title?) I’m guessing this is the heart of “for Andrew,” a poem in several parts that seem to have arisen independently. The genius (yes, I said it) of this poem lies in the fact that many lines are crossed out, using that Microsoft Word format that, until now, never seemed to serve any useful purpose. They are not quite palimpsest, because the words are plainly visible, not quite early draft, because they survive into the final version, not quite erasure, because they are still clearly legible. You can’t help read them, but then question how you are supposed to consider them with regard to the lines that have not been canceled out. In the context of elegy, they suggest a persistence of a life that may be gone, but can never be unwritten. So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I hope I have praised this book enough to allow a final niggle. According to the foreword, the title is actually “My Nig,” but Smith explains, “I don’t want non-black people to say ‘my nig’ out loud.” That seems to me a bit of a cop-out, and a missed opportunity, because what could be more subversive and instructive than to force liberal-minded white people (these are poetry fans, after all) to say “my nig?” Unless, as with “for Andrew,” a goal is to emphasize by apparent retraction?

Regardless of the moniker you choose, you’ll find this book rewards your close attention.

So far, so good

A friend recently dropped off a small trove of poetry books—names that I recognized, for the most part, though I was not necessarily familiar with the work. One book really stood out for me: Robert Cording’s Only So Far.

Like Logan, Cording apparently divides his time between Florida and colder climes (at least during the writing of this book). But while he shares Logan’s stylistic reserve, his references are not so esoteric, and will probably be familiar to anyone with a Catholic upbringing. Cording’s work is plain-spun and meditative, and frequently elegiac. Indeed, the elegy seems to be his default setting, which might just be a function of age—these are mature poems, and what they lack in youthful energy, they more than make up for in grace and wisdom.

Great examples include “Belated Elegy, January 1, 2011,” and “Elegy for an Idea” (inspired by Philippe Petit, who also made an appearance  in my first book). There’s also “Last Day,” “Words,” and “Fall Cleaning, Windows Mostly,” which is a curiously moving elegy for a mouse. But of course, the elegy to his father, “Still Listening,” sets the standard. It’s written as a sequence detailing the period just before and after his father’s death. The first part, in particular, shows remarkable formal flourish; it portrays the family gathered with the ailing father in hospice, improvising a “Jumble” (like the sort typically found in the funny pages of the newspaper) to pass the time and keep his flagging spirits up. It’s written as a series of couplets, and the last words of the couplets are themselves word jumbles: read and dear, life and file, lamp and palm, etc.

Anything can be a form, but the form should arise from and reinforce the content. In this case, the form is a foil to the father’s mental state, as he struggles to make sense of his impending exit from the world, no longer able to solve even simple mental puzzles. And at the end of it, life remains a puzzle that he has never quite managed to solve. We also see him, in other poems in the book, buried behind his morning newspaper—and the fact that he has here set it down becomes emblematic of his letting go of life, of relinquishing the daily facts of the world, of surrendering his authority.

The final part of the sequence recounts the poet fiddling with his father’s hearing aids, which have been kept like relics in a drawer. It is an odd bridge to his dead father, one that brings him close but ultimately can not bring him back:

I fit one into my ear
as if, my own hearing amplified,
I might pick up something he is
still saying, but all I get is that loud hum
and screech….

The title, “Still Listening,” takes on added resonance, as it carries two very different connotations, based on which preposition follows. Listening “to” implies an active engagement, an understanding, a communication. Listening “for” implies an anticipation, an unmet expectation, a lonely silence. This distinction gains even greater significance with regard to a line halfway through the poem, “God is still speaking, but we’re not listening.” Is Cording expectantly (but fruitlessly) listening for God to speak? Or is he still listening to God as he speaks, with uncertain comprehension? Is the voice of God any more audible than the voice of his dead father?

It should be noted that the phrase “I am still listening” also appears in the elegy, “Words,” so there’s something in the phrase or act that carries some deep meaning for the poet.

Cording is an astute observer of both the natural world and human nature. We find a lot of ocean sunsets, local flora and fauna (manatees, pelicans, alligators), and walks in the wild. In fact, many of the poems exhibit a meditative, melancholy state that was apparently induced by a solitary walk. But there’s also the grit of what I think describes a childhood and coming of age in New Jersey: the conveyor belts of “Evolution,” the dilapidated porno theaters in “A Beginning,” the sky “tinged with green” in “1964.” Even the father listening to Sinatra in “Still Listening” conjures images of Hoboken or a similar town.

I’ll end with a quick look at the poems that bookend the collection. “Kafka’s Fence,” which occurs just before the first of four numbered sections of the book, can be viewed as the apologia. The tone of quiet frustration and complaint reaches its peak in the line, “Haven’t we / always known we’d reach and end we couldn’t complete?” It’s a take on the ars longa vita brevis theme, except in this case, it’s lamenting the fact that life is often too short to create a lasting work of art–or anything, for that matter. That stands in stark contrast to the final poem, “No-Name Pond,” which concedes, by its title, that even enduring works of nature are ultimately anonymous, much like great artists over time. Nevertheless, it concludes,

Maybe all these cairns are just a way of saying
it was good to be here […] Good to bring
a few stones together, and come to know,
so casually as I paddle off
that, most likely, I’ll never be back.

Those final lines may be deceptively simple, perhaps underwhelming, but they hold an acceptance, a resignation, that the poet has been driving toward throughout the course of the entire book. It is a quiet ending to what is often a quiet book, more elegiac than nostalgic, from a poet less intent on making himself heard than on listening to what the universe might have to say.

The horse(neck) whisperer

It wasn’t that long ago that the great debate in poetry was between the proponents of formal and free verse (the cooked and the raw, as it came to be known). While there were, of course, extremists on both sides, most of us felt that great writing could be found in either camp. Unfortunately, the debate also was framed as a struggle between the patrician, white men (you can’t say straight white men because so many were not straight) and the demotic multicultural masses. I say “unfortunately” because it unfairly tarnished a whole school of writers, most of whom were anything but provincial and reactionary in their worldview.

Some of them, however, were definitely not writing for the popcorn-munching crowds, but pursued an aesthetic that rewards a discerning palate and a contemplative atmosphere. William Logan is just such a poet. I’ve recently been reading The Whispering Gallery, a book that unabashedly seeks to realize the full potential of poetic form and language. This poetry is not just cooked, it is haute cuisine.

Logan’s poetry can be both lush and pointed at the same time. I am awed by his ability to craft the perfect phrase or select the perfect word (I’m sure he would prefer “le mot juste”), describing scenes and actions in ways that are at once surprising and obvious. Among my favorites: “Sand crabs scrabbled from our tightened palms” (from “Horseneck Beach Odalisque”) and “In an hour, the bats would batter through darkness” (from “In the Swamp”). Those verbs—scrabble and batter—not only conjure the action, but evoke the sensation in a visceral way. I can practically feel the little critters burrowing through my fingers trying to get back into the wet sand. And it’s wonderful how the name of the actor is framed in the name for the action—crab and bat. Imagine how different those lines would read if he’d instead said “scrambled” and “blustered.” Logan, at his best, embodies Pope’s admonition about sound and sense.

Though not, in any sense, a Nature Poet, Logan is an astute observer of the natural world. He apparently makes his home, at least part of the time, in Florida, and the local denizens—manatee, alligator, anhinga, coral snake, etc.—all make an appearance. Still, he saves his most piercing gaze for his most intimate associates—his parents, or grandparents, his wife and lover. These are often viewed with a nostalgic exasperation, or tragic poignancy.

Logan can render some rapturous descriptions, but sometimes, he’s most moving when he’s most pared down. Consider these lines from “After Easter”:

I saw the faintest passion in your eyes.
The doctors found new cancer in your blood.

Even here, though, it might be noted, he does not abandon the formal structure—the iambic pentameter that frequently supports his poems. A poet like Logan needs to keep his mooring.

I know that Logan has a reputation for being “difficult,” but I really don’t find that to be true. I suppose that’s because I am familiar with many of the references, even those that border on the obscure. For example, I have fond memories of Ostia Antica, the subject of one poem, and have always been a great admirer of LaRochefoucauld—not a name you encounter everyday.

That being said, there is a long sequence in the middle of the book entitled “Penitence.” Although the components are all intriguing in their own right, I can’t quite figure out what ties them all together. Sure, they all share a common structure—sort of an extended sonnet—but there must be more that I’m just not getting. Penitence implies an introspective examination of past sins, mixed with a genuine remorse, hopefully leading to redemption. There are 24 sections, which naturally invokes the 24 hours in a day. Is it, then, a book of hours? A day in thew life, in the mode of Joyce? The references are all over the map—from Coleridge to Garbo to Pol Pot to Austen to Fermat to Shackleton….

Well, this is definitely poetry for the well-read and well-traveled (which perhaps amounts to well-heeled?) References to the classics are sprinkled liberally throughout, with Dante’s Inferno well represented, and Shakespeare of course, along with the Greeks and Romans. Biblical references also abound. And yet, you’ll also find an occasional dab of the pedestrian, a spattering of brand names reminiscent of Lowell (e.g., “immortal as Saran Wrap” in “Adultery,” or “a foamy SOS-pad blue” in “Under the Palms”). Poetic language knows no bounds.

Logan’s is ultimately a grim vision—a philosophy pulled in two directions. On the one hand, an epicurean sense: enjoy the pleasures of life while you may, because they and you will soon enough be gone; and on the other, a nihilism: don’t bother trying to enjoy yourself, for even the stately pleasures are always tinged with the specter of death. The first poem in the collection, “The Rotting Stars,” ends with the line, “I could see everything that was to come,” a sentiment laden with foreboding and inevitability, as nothing good can be expected. The final poem, “The Old Burying Ground,” includes the stanza,

the mourners each spring resurrected
to words no longer said
but memory of the dead will never
resurrect the dead.

A devastating admission for a poet, who uses words, in part, to keep the past from disappearing entirely.

I mentioned that Logan is a keen observer, and the notion of “the gaze” recurs throughout the book—sometimes introspectively, as in a mirror, but often more ominously, as in the “odalisque,” a trope that appears more than once. The odalisque, in European art, typically depicts a recumbent, half (or wholly) nude woman of the seraglio. Deeply steeped in the orientalist tradition, it places the observer in the position of the sultan, with ultimate power over the observed. In a sense, every memory is an odalisque, enticing the rememberer, who chooses what to see and what to ignore, positioning everything to his satisfaction—perhaps a little petulantly, imperiously. My favorite poem in the collection, “Horseneck Beach Odalisque” (already mentioned) encapsulates all of this, particularly in its description of the sand castles we all have built at some time:

Our castles rose, dark and raggedly Gothic.
The dribbled turrets capped a moated wall,
and then the Muslim tide came roiling in
and took the holy cities one by one.
By August, we were Moor-wasps,
each boy a white-toweled sultan of the waves.

Logan is clearly writing for an audience that shares his desultory interests, his erudition, and maybe even his particular life trajectory. If you don’t get the references, you might feel a bit left out—like being at a party where everyone but you shares the same inside joke. But if you can get beyond that, the work is truly engaging and rewarding.

The horizon has been defeated

Much has happened since my last missive. I lost a job, found a better job, and moved into a new house. As I was unpacking my books, I grabbed one to write about, but after carrying it around for a few weeks, I realized I really couldn’t recommend it. I was reluctant to admit it, because I have met the poet, and we had a wonderful conversation. But I would much rather focus on books you should read, books that have impressed and influenced me. So I chose another one–this time by Andrew Hudgins, and greatly enjoyed rereading it. But I have already discussed the work of Hudgins in these pages, and much though he deserves all the attention I could give him, there are still many worthy poets who have not been mentioned here. Which brings me at last to the real subject of today’s column: Rhina Espaillat. Anyone who shares my poetic sensibilities will probably already know her work. She is strongly associated with the modern formalist tradition, and is proof that formalist poets are more diverse than many would believe.

Espaillat hails from the Dominican Republic, one of the Spanish-speaking nations in the Caribbean chain of islands that includes Cuba and Puerto Rico. Though she emigrated as a child, Spanish is her first language. Many of the poems in Where Horizons Go deal directly with the difficulties, ambiguities, and opportunities of straddling two languages and hence two cultures. “Bilingual/Bilingüe” is an obvious place to start. The poem describes both the thrill and shame of learning English as a second, soon to be dominant, language. Thrill, of course, because the new language is associated with a new world and new life; I don’t know much about the Dominican Republic in the late ‘30s, but I’d bet it was a far cry from the perpetual frenzy of New York. Still, that part is largely assumed; the shame is more directly portrayed. Learning—and learning to love—English was something of a betrayal of her father, who would never master the language as well as she. As such, she is essentially leaving him behind, and postulates his own dual emotions—the one that recognizes the need for his daughter to navigate the English-speaking world, and the one that fears the English-speaking part of her identity will always remain inaccessible to him, and that she would “lock the alien part… with a key he could not claim.” Interestingly, Spanish words are initially encased in parentheses, literally cordoning them off from the surrounding English, but by the last couplet, the parentheses disappear: “he stood outside mis versos.” In that simple device, Espaillat cleverly marries the two languages and reaches the synthesis of the two conflicting positions.

Of course, the conflict between English and Spanish is especially complicated, given the connections to colonialism and imperialism. Though we typically think in terms of American/English imperialism with regard to Latin America (Monroe doctrine, anyone?), Espaillat is acutely aware that Spanish was also the language of invasion. Columbus never actually reached the mainland U.S.–he first set foot upon Hispaniola, the island now occupied by the Dominican Republic (and Haiti). Espaillat addresses Columbus directly in “Six of One,” but although she describes, bemusedly, his many errors and ultimate neglect, she can not quite condemn him outright. “Should you regret the trip? Well, that depends.”

The imperial and colonial legacy is also examined to wonderful effect in “Bra,” a poem that I love even more because it is one that I could never have written. In it, Espaillat works through the quandary of finding the perfect bra that happens to be made in Honduras. Here, she must weigh her needs and desires against her principles and ideals. Was the bra made in a sweat shop, using child labor? How do these practices undercut living conditions in the United States? Is it ethical to purchase such items? On the other hand, how would the Hondurans survive without the wages, however paltry, that they earn? A further complication stems from the connection she feels, knowing that the seamstress “speaks that language that I dream in,” i.e., Spanish.  I love the way Espaillat condenses the split personality of the American consumer: we want cheap stuff, but we don’t want to support the practices that result in cheap stuff. Or as Groucho might’ve put it, “I’d never buy anything that I could afford.”

The poems in this book are, as I mentioned, generally formal. But while they are by no account elitist (as I hope I’ve shown), they do exhibit much of the precision and delicacy that is often used to discredit formal verse. Espaillat acknowledges as much in several poems. For example, “For Evan, Who Says I Am Too Tidy,” is on the surface a defense of ordinary neatness and organization; but it is also a defense of Espaillat’s poetic sensibility. “Tidy’s been blamed for everything we suffer,” and “tidy seldom goes where genius goes.” Ultimately, though, she embraces the label, noting that a solid consistency, and the commonplace tasks that consume our daily lives, is what connects us all. As with most formalists, Espaillat seems well aware of her tradition, and her debts are well acknowledged–directly through epigraphs or with a stylistic wink and nod. Several poems carry epigraphs from Dickinson, while others (including the introductory poem) are written in a style suggestive of Dickinson’s work. Others, such as “Poetry Reading” and the final “‘Why Publish?’” are reminiscent of the apologias of Herrick and the Cavaliers. I’m sure you can find echoes of Wilbur in there, too, if you look for it.

One final note. Where Horizons Go won the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State. Espaillat was born in 1932, according to the bio on the fly sheet. That means she was more than 65 when it was published (there is a delightful poem about being 65 years old, but I can’t say for sure that the speaker is the poet in this case). The book bio says nothing about an earlier book, though I did find mention of another one published in 1992, though it seems rather obscure. In any case, this arguably marked her debut into the broader poetry community. I find it remarkable, and encouraging, that she was just hitting her stride after six decades. Perhaps that’s why many of these poems speak with such unruffled wisdom and compassion. I hope I can achieve the same in my time.

Strange garment

Like many poetry aficionados, I was grieved the hear about the death of W. S. Merwin, among the last of the great poets born in the annus mirabilis 1926–1927, which also gave the world Snodgrass, Ammons, Merrill, Creeley, Ginsberg, Wagoner, O’Hara, Bly, and Wright, among others. I probably first encountered Merwin’s work in college—he didn’t appear in the Sound and Sense anthology that informed by high school days. That’s not entirely surprising, given the emphasis on form and meter, but it remains a embarrassing oversight.

I recall writing an essay as a freshman on this small poem (which has stuck in memory ever since):

Separation

Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

It turns out my reading was different than everyone else’s. It all hinges on the word “through.” To my mind, that implies a complete passage: when you go through a tunnel, it’s understood that you come out the other side, or when a camel passes through the eye of a needle, it’s understood that he emerges on the other side, if he passes through at all. So for me, the thread going through the needle meant that one end went through the hole, but the rest followed until it had all snaked through, leaving nothing behind. I wasn’t a very good seamstress, I suppose, and that had happened to me more than once in attempting to sew on a button. But to me, that made the poem all the more poignant and clever, as the stitches are literally the color of absence because they hold no thread—and therefore cannot hold anything together anymore. As I recall, my teacher didn’t buy it, but I still think such a reading is well within the realm of possibility.

Another poem from my college days that has stuck with me throughout the years:

Dead Hand

Temptations still nest in it like basilisks.
Hang it up till the rings fall.

I just love the brutality, the bathos, the cynicism, the utter lack of compassion, the whip-smart pivot from wonder to disdain. He presents a complete, singular vision of humanity in roughly the same amount of syllables as would make a haiku. Interestingly, Merwin lived out the latter part of his life in a place called Haiku, in Hawaii. That’s apt, insofar as his work often displayed an intense compression; but his work rarely strove to achieve the whimsy, serendipity, and pleasant shift in perspective we associate with haiku.

I recall the scandalous decision by Merwin not to award the Yale Younger Poets prize (in ‘97, I think). I later met one of the finalists that year, who did not have any kind words for a man who had nothing to lose by awarding the prize, but who chose to withhold it anyway. This poet subsequently went on to achieve considerable acclaim, including a Macarthur prize. But at the time, she really had no idea of who this Merwin character was. While I couldn’t defend his decision, I certainly did defend his poetry (often lumped in the “Deep Image” or “American Surrealist” schools). In particular, I raved on and on about The Lice, published in 1967 during the escalation of the Vietnam war, which heavily influenced the poetry of the time. This book sort of completed the transition away from punctuation. You’ll still find a few end stops, but those are rare. At first, I approached the lack of punctuation as sort of a gimmick, but I quickly understood what a powerful device it can be, stripping down language to its barest utterance. Many of his lines end with the completion of a thought or phrase, but many are enjambed–and the lack of punctuation really forces the reader to stop and backtrack to correctly follow the sentence. It can also impart a sense of simultaneity of thought, or a rushing together of disparate elements. Consider this poem (another that I committed to memory years ago):

Sunset in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way.

The first lines all present a complete phrase; but the last line runs two phrases together. Consider how different it would sound if the final phrase were also brought down to its own line. It’s not just the lack of punctuation but the lack of pause or caesura that makes it sing.

Like other Deep Image poets (e.g., Wright), Merwin started out writing in a more traditional style, but abandoned it to forge his own poetics. Perhaps he felt that he scaffolding and embellishments of formal structure prevented him for reaching the true essence of a thing. Certainly, much of his work is elemental, with more than a few stones, birds, trees, and visits from a quasi-personified Death. This focus often allowed him to create fabulous metaphors and images. I love, for example, the final lines of “When You Go Away,” which reads, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be / Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.”

Wow.

There is an undeniable misanthropy undergirding these poems—not surprising, given the public’s growing lack of faith in government and the general disaffection of the age. Nature is a redemptive power, but even Nature might not have the wherewithal to reform the excesses of humanity. Consider the final lines of “December Night,” which read, “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Or “Avoiding News by the River,” which ends bluntly: “If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything.” This sense of shame in humanity is another undercurrent. It appears most notably in one of his more famous pieces, “For the Anniversary of my Death,” which reads,

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.

That would of course be an apt place to end, though I could go on for pages and pages. But I’ll end by noting that I saw Merwin read—not once, but twice. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, as he rarely gave readings (as far as I know). The first was some time around 1990, in Atlanta or thereabouts, and the second many years later in LA (where Merwin was introduced by the inimitable Stephen Yenser). He read “Lament for the Makers,” which at that time felt like a swan song, even though he still had many years ahead of him. In it, he recalled many of his poetic influences and friends, from Frost and Eliot to Wright and Merrill, who had recently died. It was truly an emotional performance—and that’s not what comes to mind when we think about Merwin. In part, it is a straightforward dirge, but in part, he considers how his efforts to carry on the tradition are doomed to failure, and how everything eventually comes to nothing. It is precisely the sort of sentiment that Buddhists are supposed to embrace, but in this poem, he seems to rebel against the Buddhist sentiment, if only for a moment (he also returns, ever so slightly, to the formalism of his younger days). It ends poignantly,

the best words did not keep them from
leaving themselves finally
as this day is going from me

and the clear note they were hearing
never promised anything
but the true sound of brevity
that will go on after me