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):


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.”


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

Old gold

While I was searching through my shelf for Mary Oliver, I chanced to notice a book by Sharon Olds: The Gold Cell. I must’ve had it for a long time, but as I flipped through it, I realized that I had never really perused it. My loss—here’s another poet that everyone should read again and again.

It’s a long book, as far as poetry collections go, clocking in at 90 pages. It’s divided into four sections of thematically linked poems. The first section is something of a grab bag, including poems about the seamier side of life in NYC as well as meditations on the violence that underpins the human condition. Though many of these are engaging, they offer only a glimpse of the extremely powerful writing that is to come in the second section, which focuses on the poet’s early life with her father. Yes, the mother figures in, too, but mostly as a foil for the father.

The writing here exhibits what I most look for in poetry—a raw emotional intensity combined with a deft handling of form, even if the form is simply a tight narrative technique. This is old-school Confessional poetry, which can be truly moving when done right. Olds is a master of the extreme metaphor, as evidenced in the first poem of this section, “Saturn,” which compares her father to the titan devouring his kids. Goya’s painting immediately springs to mind, though this Saturn seems more pernicious; he does not simply swallow his children whole, but rather cracks them open like shellfish, needing not only to consume them but break them in the process: “My brother’s arm went in up to the shoulder / and he bit it off, and sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of a lobster.” The father is shown to be passed out on the couch every night, so perhaps alcoholism was part of the problem, though that is never expressly stated. A similar hint appears in a later poem, “June 24,” which states, “You died night after night in the years of my childhood, / sinking down into speechless torpor.”

One of the highlights of this section is “History: 13,” which describes the father coming home late one night covered in blood—perhaps from a bar fight? The cause is never made clear, though the image of the blood-covered father reoccurs in other poems, where the father assumes overtones of both victim and butcher. Plath famously compared her father to Hitler in “Daddy,” but in “History: 13,” Olds compares her father to Mussolini (who seems to be fading more and more from our collective memory). The effect, I’d argue, is more visceral in Olds’ poem, as it shifts seamlessly from the injury of father to the death of the dictator, whose body suffered all the abuse of a traumatized nation waking up from its war-torn nightmare. Just as the desecration of Mussolini’s body served as a watershed for Italy, so the unexplained violence against the father marks a defining moment in the poet’s life: “I turned my back / on happiness, at 13 I entered / a life of mourning.” In the last poems of this section, the poet achieves some sort of rapprochement with her parents—or at least their memory—and seems to reach a point where the tyranny of the past no longer controls her. Of course, such reconciliation can be oddly unsettling, necessitating a hefty dose of soul-searching. Olds makes this starkly evident in “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood,” where she writes, “I could not / see what I would do with the rest of my life,” and later, “I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.” Even pain and anger can be hard to let go, when they’re the two qualities that have defined your entire life.

The third section pivots to more sensual concerns, with a lot of poems about sex, desired and consummated, in all its messy glory. These, too, tend to be unabashedly straightforward in their description. As I’ve said before, a straight man cannot write in such terms, using the same sort of diction and imagery, without inviting accusations of toxic masculinity. Of course, these poems were written 30 years ago, so prevailing sentiments were different. I’m sure they must’ve seemed even more scandalous at the time.

The final section completes a natural progression from the third; that one focused on making babies, the final one focuses on raising them. Some of these seem a bit self-indulgent, with references that presumably hold more meaning for the poet than the reader. Still, the description is masterful. I suppose that’s no surprise. Olds specializes in focusing on the smallest but most telling details, and as a parent, she’s predisposed to notice the infinite minutiae that define her kids. Consider these lines from “When My Son is Sick”:

… his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold…

I could’ve selected any passage nearly at random and found similarly engaging language. That deft turn of phrase is what I love about Olds. Annoyingly, though, I was recently working on a poem and composed a phrase that seemed perfect and unique, and smiled at my good fortune to have discovered it. Then, in reading this book, I found the exact same phrase! Olds had beaten me to it!

If I have any gripes at all with this book, I would say that it might’ve been even more powerful if it had been a bit shorter. Perhaps some of the poems in the first or fourth sections could have been omitted—though it would, admittedly, be hard to choose which ones. And what about that title? Well, there is a poem entitled “In the Cell” but that doesn’t seem representative of the collection overall. The cover shows a snake curled around a gold circle that resembles the sun. So on the one hand, it conveys a sort of alchemist aesthetic; but on the whole, it looks rather like an ovum, a round human egg cell, which makes a lot more sense, given the focus of the poems.

This was Olds’ third collection of poetry; other books received greater acclaim, but I’d say that this one ranks among the best of them. Even after 30 years, it has not lost its currency or freshness.

More lilies

I don’t want this to become an obituary blog, but I need to note the death of another of my poetic luminaries: May Oliver.

I think I first became acquainted with her work through the Poulin anthology, Modern American Poetry (the same can be said for a number of my favorite poets of the last generation). I felt an immediate affinity, as I considered myself (and still do) a nature poet at heart. Still, whereas I sometimes feel compelled to include the occasional human in my poems, Oliver did not.

I’ve been flipping through House of Light recently, and I’m struck by the general lack of human contact. Most of the poems stem from a walk by the poet through secluded woods and fields, and center on an observation made during the excursion. That may sound a bit formulaic—and OK, if I have one gripe with Oliver’s poetry, it’s that it is forumulaic—but the insights are beautifully rendered in sparse language that speaks directly to my inner sensibilities.

Sparse, direct, plain language is a defining feature of her poetry. She adores flowery plants, not flowery language. Adjectives are typically simple, and often simply indicate color. Interestingly, the main colors found in House of Light are white, black, and red, with occasional patches of green and blue. And again, it’s just “red,” not “blood red” or “cherry red” or scarlet or fuchsia—just “red.” She gets away with this partly because the objects she’s describing are so familiar, they hardly need describing at all. We all know what color is a crane, or a bear, or the sky; any attempt to portray them with more specificity would mar the image. I started flagging all the poems that mentioned white, black, or red, but I ran out of stickies.

And it’s not just colors that appear throughout. The familiar woodland creatures make multiple appearances: deer, cranes, owls, frogs—not to mention lilies, her favorite flower (lilies for Oliver are like ballerinas for Degas). These are not exotic creatures, and that’s partly the point. Nature is not what you find in zoos or on safari, it’s what you find in your own backyard. On the other hand, you don’t find many dogs, cats, and squirrels—such creatures are far too domesticated. Nature is not the antidote to civilization, it’s the default state. Buildings and structures and mechanical devices are the anomaly, and though they may distract us from our natural state, they do not erase it.

Her poems often convey the serenity of nature, which, on its own, does not typically change in human timescales. Death is ubiquitous, but it’s typically a quiet, and sometimes quick, death: a heron nabs a frog and moves on, a turtle gulps a duckling and is gone. And afterward, the quiet returns. Death is to be welcomed as an opportunity to return to the earth and set the cycle of life in motion again. In fact, when she declares in “Foxes in Winter,” “I never said / nature wasn’t cruel,” I’m suddenly taken aback by the defensiveness of the line and the surprising truth to it. Yes, she never said nature wasn’t cruel, but that’s because she didn’t need to; cruelty is a human construct, implying some sort of malicious intent or pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Nature can’t be cruel, though we may perceive it to be. She also says, perhaps with a bit irony, “I think this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying.” Of course, most people do mind a little dying, especially when they’re the ones doing the dying.

I sometimes find myself starting to write a poem, but then stopping and saying, “Wait a minute, are you really going to write another poem about snakes? Shouldn’t you try something different?” Oliver’s work repudiates that advice. She returns to the same subjects, the same tropes, time and again, following a well-worn path through her poetic woods, literal and figurative. But as with a favorite hiking path, I never get tired of following her.

Open and Shut

A few years back, I moved to a new house. All of my books were packed up in boxes—where they remain even now, stacked up in the garage, waiting for me to find or build some shelf space for them. I miss having them in the house. I miss walking past them and randomly scanning the spines to find one I haven’t looked at in while. It was a bit like being in a used-book store with the sort of poetry section that you’d never find in real life but always fantasized about. I miss book stores, too—used and new. They still exist here and there, like stubborn tree stumps on the parkway waiting for the city to come and grind them down—something that could happen any day or maybe never.

Of course, the problem of being a compulsive buyer of poetry books means that when I do find myself in a book store with a book in hand, I often can’t remember whether I already own it.

One book that I purchased twice, unwittingly but without regret, is Open Shutters by Mary Jo Salter. Her last name does not start with a silent “P,” but that would be appropriate. Salter is a formalist and traditionalist, and her poems evince a distinct musicality and classical sensibility. Not surprisingly, she was a devotee of James Merrill, and one of the more whimsical poems in this collection, “Tanker,” stems from a sudden insight into a Merrill pun. In a sense, she finally got the joke, long after the joker had died. The joke, here, is the play between “tanker” and “tanka,” a poetic form related to the haiku (a form that appears in actuality or in essence several times in this book).

Salter loves a nice wry pun, too, and a dose of dry wit. In “Tromp L’Oeil,” for example, a painting on a wall shows “shirttails flapping on a frieze.” You hear an echo of “flapping in the breeze,” so the phrase is at once familiar and foreign. On a grander scale, that’s one of the hallmarks of great poetry: it makes us “re-see” things that we’ve always taken for granted. And of course, who could not fall in love with the title of the book, which truly provides a window (with balcony) into the poems that follow.

Salter is a deft formalist, and this book contains an assortment of villanelles, quatrains, sonnets, blank verse, haiku, and various invented rhyme schemes—even a ghazal (which, even in Salter’s accomplished hands, does nothing to endear me to the form). One of my favorites, “Another Session,” is a long sonnet sequence composed upon hearing about the death of her former therapist, which paints an intimate portrait both of the writer and the therapist (at least, as much as the writer could discern through the professional distance). Other favorites deal with more familiar, familial issues. The poems about Salter’s daughters are particularly poignant. In “Snowed-On Snowman,” when her daughter suggests making a snowman, Salter considers it “her last such invitation,/ maybe: she’s thirteen.” How often have I made that same calculation! She goes on to describe the photo she took of her daughter with the snowman: “a snapshot side by side—/ each soon to disappear,/ him shrinking as she grows.” In a similar vein, “For Emily at Fifteen” describes a poem that arrives in a letter from her daughter. The central figure (both the poem and meta-poem) is a mermaid, a ready-made metaphor for straddling (well, maybe that’s not the right word) two worlds. Her daughter embodies the “Half-human and half-fish/ of adolescence.” The metaphor extends to the chimerical juxtaposition of the serious near-adult who writes a poem with deep connotations and the ordinary child who writes a letter that is mostly superficial.

As it turns out, that child, Emily Leithauser, is now a poet of some renown in her own right. And as is evident from the name, Salter was married to Brad Leithauser, another of my favorite poets. I cannot think of many such legacies—Franz Wright and Frieda Hughes are the only ones that come immediately to mind.

Salter’s strength, I believe, is in the half-rhyme: for example, “shutters” and “shatters” in “Tromp L’Oeil,” or “shutter” and “scripture” (in another poem about her daughter, “Advent”). The half-rhyme is, for poetry, what the blue note is for jazz—unique, and hard to replicate or predict, a fall from perfection into an in-between state that defines its own perfection.

Open Shutters, too, defines and achieves its own perfection.

Westward ho!

Hardy’s “The Oxen” might just be the archetypal Christmas poem, for me, at least, with it’s hints of awe and wonder, it’s willingness to set aside doubt and agnosticism to entertain the possibility of something mystical. Of course, that doubt and pessimism is never fully vanquished, and ultimately underscores the futility, the silliness, of adherence to any established religious doctrine. To the holiday canon, I’d like to add another piece, from a modern poet with philosophical ties to Hardy. That poem is “Xmas Tree Lot Tribeca 2001,” from the collection Driving West on the Pulaski Skyway, by John Bargowski. Like Hardy’s poem, Bargowski’s juxtaposes a child’s view of the season (through the lens of an imagined pop-up book) with reality as comprehended by an adult mind. The desire to rekindle an experience of innocence, naiveté, and magic is undermined by a sense that all the glitter is just a tawdry facade, in terms of the physical ornamentation and the emotional underpinnings. I love how he describes the bargain trees with “their bottoms nailed / to little wooden crosses,” succinctly compressing the religious and commercial intersection of the holiday. Even his decision to use the word “Xmas” rather than “Christmas” in the title is significant for an Italian Catholic from New Jersey.

I mentioned Bargowski’s philosophical ties to Hardy, and by that, I mean his pessimism, his sardonic outlook, his overriding sense of defeat. Hardy, who never really recovered from the untimely death of his first wife, wrote poems such as “Hap,” which looks with a resigned sense of helplessness at the overwhelming power of sheer randomness. Bargowski also suffered an unimaginable loss, of a daughter. The details are never specified, but the enormity of the event figures enormously in this book, both in the individual poems that address the loss (and what comes after) and in the world-weary tone of the work overall. The poems that deal with the daughter’s death and memory are among the most wrenching in this collection. I’m thinking particularly of “The Purple Bike,” which describes how he and his wife would try to avoid being the first home at night, that is, avoid coming home to an empty house. There’s also “After the Monument Salesman’s Pitch,” which describes a visit from the man selling tombstones, “smiling / as if he’s selling roses or / trips to the Caribbean.” And “Dust and Sleep,” which describes making plans for the daughter’s birthday—not cakes and presents, but a visit to the cemetery. I’m not sure whether “On Three Legs” describes the funeral of his daughter or someone else, but it’s certainly in the same mold, with its emotionally deadened attention to detail, the sense of devastation in an uncaring world, as evidenced in lines such as “When we returned home the florist / bill was in the mail.” And of course, the most memorable in this mode must be “Cleaning Out the Closet,” which captures a scene in which his wife is trying on old clothes to see if they still fit:

We both see it when you lift the next hangar
off the bar, through the little window in the plastic

—the dress you wore to our daughter’s funeral,
the cloth already faded to the color of dried roses

If any poem can be described as “heartbreaking,” this is it, especially in its subtle portrayal of how tragedies never end, its depiction of how loss defines us, and its revelation of how the self can feel oddly shamed and betrayed by its own ability to continue no matter how completely the world falls apart.

While the daughter’s death figures prominently in this collection, a similar sense of loss and grief punctuate the poems of memory and reflection. Bargowski reminds me in some ways of another Jersey poet, John Hennessy (about whom I’ve written before). But while Hennessy looks back on his Jersey heritage with a sense of nostalgia and humor, Bargowski looks back with a sense of despair and pity. When we encounter his parents and grandparents, they are for the most part near to death; they seem to have been absent from this childhood. And in fact, poems of childhood also suggest the Catholic school equivalent of a juvenile delinquent. Any joy, if it appears at all, arrives too late, as in the flowers that bloom after the one who planted them has died. Or its found in the flight of pigeons, back in the day when rooftop coops were not uncommon—though even those pigeons, ultimately unable to escape their surroundings despite their wings, become oddly mournful. The title of the book will hold special significance for locals: if you are driving west on the Pulaski, you are leaving Jersey City, with your back to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Driving West on the Pulaski Skyway won the Bordighera prize for poetry, and as such, each poem appears with an Italian translation on the facing page. This leads to some amusing misconnections, as when Bargowski cites an Italian adage and then gives its English translation; the Italian version just repeats the adage twice (i.e., Hello, reader! Which loosely translated means, Hello reader!”) Another translates the bouncing ball that appears above old song lyrics (is that the origin of modern karaoke?) as an actual rubber ball. In the original, a dog in a car would “scare the shit out of” anyone passing by, while in Italian, he would only scare them to death. Well, as I’ve said before, translating poetry is an endeavor predestined to fail—my hats off to those who try. And Bargowski’s poetry can be pretty grimm—I’ll take my humor where I can find it.

Boxed in

Prose poem: contradiction in terms, right? I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the prose poem. One gripe I have with many contemporary poems is that they seem to be prose chopped up to look like a poem, with no rhyme or reason (pun intended) as to what constitutes a line. The prose poem, of course, doesn’t even try to look like a poem, at least not in the typical sense. And yet, on the other hand, they do have an odd visual appeal, appearing as a self-contained brick-like edifice on the page (assuming they don’t go on for more than a page). Sometimes, I wonder whether the poem would achieve the same effect if it had some sort of line break. And sometimes, I decide that the answer is no. At its best, the prose poem achieves a certain urgency, an immediacy, which comes from stripping away all pretense and ornament, all the traditional trappings of poetry. Yet even this can be deceiving, for the prose poet, like the concrete poet, must be attuned to mechanical process of putting words on page, on typesetting and font styling.

I bring this up in the context of Jehanne Dubrow’s latest book, The Arranged Marriage, which is a collection of prose poems. Maybe “collection” isn’t the right term, because this book is a cohesive project, with all the poems sharply focused on family history (and more specifically, her matrilineal history). In this regard, the individual poems function like chapters in a novel—a postmodern novel, where the narrative does not necessarily progress in a chronological manner. Does the prose poem lend itself to this structure more than, say, a book-length sonnet sequence? In this case, I’d say it does. The tone is often plainspoken, anecdotal. More ornament would detract from the immediacy of the message. Many of the details hint at violence (OK, some do more than simply hint), and an elevated diction or focus on form might blunt the inherent brutality. The tension comes not from breaking phrases but by stringing them together. Several poems refer to some sort of sexual assault, perhaps even a hostage-like confinement, at the hands of someone who is not a complete stranger. Others present the more psychological confinement of married life in a tropical environment far from home. And there are knives—lots of knives, and shards of broken things. The sense of confinement and sexual assault becomes a recurring metaphor for marriage, with the women both looking for a means of violent escape and experiencing a strange connection to their oppressors. From Dubrow’s perspective, marriage is the ultimate Stockholm syndrome.

The typography is intriguing, too. The titles are rendered in a font that imitates the old ribbon-style typewriters (for those of us who remember them), complete with minuscule ink spatters. This situates the stories within a specific historical context. Back then, typing was considered women’s work, and one could argue that the typeface imparts a feminine aspect from the start. It also makes it possible to view each poem as a letter (in the prehistory of email), or even as a document in a dossier. And if viewed as a letter, it’s easy to go a step further and imagine that the letter, composed in prison or confinement, might have to pass through the censors, and so would have to encode its message, which might ultimately be a call for help.

Still, in regard to the prose poem as a genre, I’m not altogether onboard. I still find myself mentally pausing at the end of each line, which tends to blunt the driving momentum. I also tend to scan the righthand side, wondering whether the poet specifically chose to end on those words, or whether the end words were dictated by the margins. I admire randomness for its own sake—not as a poetic device. Still, this is an intriguing book—disturbing, even—and one that will reward repeated close reading.

The Fine Print

I’m not dead—just busy. But I happened to steal a few minutes this past weekend to pop into a used bookstore (that is, the books are used. I presume the bookstore is, too) where I chanced upon a copy of George Bradley’s Terms to Be Met, which won the 1986 Yale Younger Poets Series, selected by James Merrill. I know I’ve encountered Bradley’s work in the past. Certainly, the titles of some of his books ring a bell—The Fire Fetched Down and Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—but I don’t recall any specific poems. My loss, because these are wonderful poems. In some ways, they are emblematic of the mid 80s, combining something of a world-weariness with a wry wit. They also bridge the gap between the confessional and formalist modes, with an easy, colloquial delivery that often masks an astute structural underpinning. The first poem, “In Suspense,” is a fine example. The poem is occasioned by a trip across the Verrazano bridge. The language itself is soaring—no aversion to multisyllabic words here—though the tone conveys a slightly bemused self-effacement:

…We hadn’t been paying attention
To much besides a perception of ourselves
As puny and audacious, caught in a monumental

The form is itself the “monumental undertaking,” structurally symmetrical as the bridge itself. The end-words of the first 13 lines become the end-words for the final 13, though played in reverse. The middle (14th) line ends in the word “summit.” I’ve discussed poems like this before (and have even written some), but this is among the earliest instances I’ve encountered. In this way, Bradley is somewhat of a harbinger for the later school of “neo-formalists,” who did not simply revive traditional forms but sought (seek?) to create new forms, to bridge the river between medium and message. Bradley even dapples in concrete poetry. “Life as We Know It” is shaped like a circle on the page—or more specifically, a sphere, which comes to represent not only our planet but the ideal or most efficient form of matter. “The Old Way of Telling Time” assumes the shape of an hourglass. That in itself is not remarkable, but the genius in this poem lies at it’s very heart, as the last word of the top part of the hourglass is broken to become also the first word of the bottom part. But wait, it gets better: the word is hypenated—and the hyphen occupies the midpoint of the hourglass. Wow.

Also remarkable is the way Bradley weaves cosmology into his work. I don’t know how much of this science had entered into pop culture (the book predates Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), but it’s intriguing to see references to Planck time, or the ruminations on the various stages of a star’s life—red giants, blue giants, white dwarves, and black holes. I can’t help wonder if that red, white, and blue is a coincidence, especially as they lead ineluctably toward the black hole at the end or in the center of everything. And yet, these science-inspired meditations are found alongside poems about vestiges of antiquity, of ancient cities and marvels such as Alexandria and Hagia Sofia, and bucolic destinations dotted throughout the Adriatic. It’s no wonder that Merrill selected this book–much of it seems an homage to Merrill himself.

And speaking of Merrill, I was intrigued by an inscription on the title page, which seems to read, “To Priam, from James.” Attached, as it is, to the “Foreword by James Merrill” type, I can’t help wondering whether I have stumbled across a book signed by Merrill. In comparing it to other signatures, there is a definite similarity, but unfortunately, no last name. I’ll have to consult an expert. Regardless, I’m delighted to have chanced upon Terms to Be Met, which is definitely a book to be read. Again and again.

The title page of my book.

The title page of my book.

Merrill signature

Samples of Merrill’s signature from about the same time period.

Corners of the Mouth

Another new anthology arrived in the mail recently: Corners of the Mouth: A Celebration of Thirty Years at the Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival. As the name implies, the book is a collection of poems from folks (like me) who have read at the annual SLO poetry fest. It’s a fairly hefty tome, weighing in at about 400 pages—so I must confess that I have not read every single piece yet. But I probably will, eventually. It’s a remarkable collection, and though not all of the poets are from California, the overwhelming majority of them certainly are. In that regard, it’s an intriguing view of contemporary California poetry. The poets are arranged alphabetically—perhaps not the most imaginative scheme, but it does produce some intriguing juxtapositions. I was a bit surprised at how many poets were unknown to me—though perhaps that’s to be expected: poetry in California still has a connotation of being outside the mainstream, off on the margins, and decidedly counter-culture. One such poet is Nixson Borah, whose “Back from Old Country” is one of the stand-out poems for me (at least, of those that I’ve read so far). His keen eye for imagery and metaphor is something that I try to cultivate in my own work. He describes a blossoming plum tree’s “pearl-embroidered dress,” and the individual flowers as “faint photographs punctuated / with dots for eyes and mouth.” I also love the language and sound of “the oaks are gnarled, / arthritic, lichen-flecked” and “frog song resounds.” I was also moved by Edward Martin’s “The Barracks Game,” which dispassionately recounts his experience as a bomber in WWII. The poem stands among any that have been written on the topic.

A few sweeping generalizations can also be made about California poetry, based on this collection. For one thing, it does not favor formal meter and rhyme–though stanzas are in vogue. It is deeply rooted in place, and takes inspiration from the stunning and unforgiving landscapes, from the coastal cliffs to the inland valley. California poets are also in conversation with each others. And I’m not just talking about the occasional epigram or dedication—something about these poems, collectively, seems self-referential. Perhaps it’s the influence of natives and transplants such as Larry Leavis and Phillip Levine. Perhaps it’s because poets in California are social, or lonely, and have to seek each other out. A quick look at the poet biographies indicates that most are not full-time college professors (or at least, choose not to emphasize that), while a surprising number edit literary journals. There is an undercurrent of activism, literary and social, that connects many in this anthology.

The editors, Kevin Patrick Sullivan (who started and still runs the poetry festival) and Patti Sullivan, have included a listing of all the festival participants by year. It’s curiously interesting to read through the names. At least one, Glenna Luschei, appears on both the first and final rosters.

I love the midstate region, up around SLO and Paso Robles, and am always happy for an excuse the get up there. Of course, if I actually lived there, I’m not sure how much poetry I’d get written. There’s really no need for poetry in heaven (which makes it all the more remarkable that SLO has such a vibrant poetry scene).

News that stays

I recently shared the limelight with an LA poet and artist, Jen Hofer. We read together at Cal Plaza as the culmination of our City of Los Angeles (COLA) literary fellowships. We made an unlikely pairing—I gave a rather staid and traditional poetry reading, while she premiered a performance piece in which she and her cohorts read a poetic re-scripting of scenes from Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which were looped without sound (mostly). It was an intriguing presentation, though it’s impossible for me to view such “neo-benshi” without thinking of Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily.”

Since then, I’ve been perusing Hofer’s chapbook, Front Page news. The book is a work of art in itself—hand-stitched, with a silkscreened fabric cover. But though the chapbook is small, the poetic conceit is large: Every day for a year, from birthday to birthday, Hofer created a poem by excising all but a few words from the front page of the local newspaper wherever she happened to be that day. The newsprint is glued to an old-style ledger of some sort, and this is another feature that makes the chapbook such a joy to hold. The concept of erasure is of course not new—I first encountered in back in the ’80s in Ronald Johnson’s Radios, which was an erased version of Paradise Lost. But while Johnson’s work seemed more like an academic exercise, tailor-made to suit the deconstructionist zeitgeist of the day, Hofer’s is more firmly rooted in the seamy world at large. The use of a newspaper as the substrate conveys an odd sense of urgency mixed with banality. Pound famously declared that “literature is news that stays news.” In Hofer’s case, the news is literature that stays literature.

The chapbook only includes two weeks worth of poems, in April and May of 2011, which are remarkable for their repetition. Does the news ever really change? Have we all become so inured to tragedy that we fail to see it repeating or proliferating day by day? I don’t know Hofer’s actual birthday, so I can’t say whether the chapbook begins with her preliminary birthday poem, but it was certainly an eventful two weeks. The limitless war on terror was still in full swing, so words such as “war,” “kill,” “force,” and similar terms dominate the poems. More significantly, the time span includes May 2, 2011, when front pages across the country trumpeted the killing of Osama Bin Laden (Hello, NSA! Welcome to the blog!). It also includes Shakespeare’s birthday, though through some strange oversight, that failed to make the front page.

Hofer was (I think) born in 1971, so 2011 would’ve marked her 40th year. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the poems average about 40 words apiece. It’s more likely, of course, that the word count was not intentional, but informed by an imagist or zen sensibility that seeks to convey the grandest truths in the fewest words. Unlike Radios, Front Page News erases a text set in multiple columns, and takes advantage of the format. There is not always a linear progression down the page, and no grammatical sentence structure. Words and phrases can be read in several directions, rightward and downward, or as loosely connected but isolated images and phrases. At times, the format can be reminiscent of refrigerator-magnet poetry—but at its best, it conveys a progression of ideas that gain significance as they build, ultimately revealing a consciousness shaped by a sense of dread, horror, outrage, and impotence. It is hard to quote such poems—not just because of the uncertain line breaks, but because the physicality of the medium is part of the meaning, much as it is for concreate poetry—but the May 2 installment is worth attempting. The “title” comes from the headline (set in a huge pont size the dwarfs everything else): “Kills.” The poem reads: “terror / murder / death / war / terror / fighters / and / terror / days / ravaged / grim / violence / and / terror fact / killed / killed in the city / killed   killed   killed / killed / fight     forces / attacks   death     war     a corpse / crowds / the / people / dark streets / the former   World / bitter / still.” The result is a damning summation of our entire imperialist endeavor. And as in the best Deep Image poetry, the lack of punctuation expands, rather than confounds, our understanding. The ending of this poem is fine example, allowing the dual readings, “the former world still bitter” and “the former world bitter and still.” Even focusing on the single word, “still,” we get—depending on our own mindset—a sense of continuation, as of something still happening, or conclusion, as in the stillness of death.

Front Page News is probably not available on Amazon or in your local bookshop—because it’s more than a book. Perhaps that’s just the direction we’re headed, where books will become more than just another exchangeable container for words, but artifacts and objets d’art in their own right. Certainly, Front Page News fits (or should I say breaks?) that mold.

When you are ode and gray and full of sleep

The Winter holidays have again brought a sublime and blessed abundance. Three of my favorite journals have all arrived within weeks of each other to help me through the bleak and blurry embers of the year: Cave Wall (12), River Styx (90), and Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (39).

One thing I love about these (and other) journals is the personal connection that the editor has to the poetry, and to the readers. This always comes through in the editor’s letter, which opens up each issue and sets the reader’s expectations. It also shows the connections among the journals, which probably should not come as a surprise, as they seem to favor a similar aesthetic. For example, Cave Wall opens with a poem by Nathaniel Perry. He’s the editor of Hampden-Sydney. The River Styx poetry competition in this issue was judged by Terrence Hayes; his work also appears in the latest Hampden-Sydney (I’ve never met him, though we shared the National Poetry Series honor in 2002). I also see that Renee Soto has joined the staff of Cave Wall. She was the editor of the short-lived magazine, roger (she’s also a fellow UNCG alum).

And speaking of UNC, I was pleased to find two poems by Michael McFee opening up River Styx. He hasn’t lost his gift for poignant yet whimsical nostalgia. It’s fitting that he open up an issue dedicated to the American ode. It’s remarkable how many poems have “ode” in the title, and I wonder whether they were written or renamed specifically for this themed issue, or whether they were composed independently. I particularly love Jim Tilley’s “Ode to a Martini,” a drink which does indeed merit a dry sonnet, smugly stirred. Another standout is Lee Upton’s “Love’s Ode,” and I love the device of taking a piece of each metaphor to craft a new metaphor (hard to illustrate without reprinting the entire poem). George Bilgere is certainly not the first to trawl for meaning in the preparation and consumption of a lobster, but he does so with a buttery richness, capping his ode with a description of “their red steaming vaults / ready to be plundered.” Niamh Corcoran gives us a different kind of love/hate ode in “A Love Affair.” The poem is a lush and exuberant indulgence in the patois of the English language, with its history of assimilating foreign words (in that way, the language becomes the synecdoche of empire). The turn comes in the last two lines, when the plundered language is Irish. It is probably no coincidence that some of our greatest English writers were in fact Irish, writing in what is essentially the language of the subjugator, and many if not most Irish writers have had a troubled relation to it. River Styx also includes a poem by Joan Murray in an obscure and intriguing form known as the cento—a poem composed entirely of lines from other poems. This is the sort of form that must appeal to poets who read and memorize great poems (and I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve never attempted one). One the one hand, it is severely constrained and contrived, but on the other hand, deliciously random. And as a reader, it’s fun to recognize the lines and the myriad associations they induce.

In a sense, several of the poems in Cave Wall can be considered odes, including several focused on the father figure. Bruce Bond’s “Ground Zero” is one such ode, juxtaposing the destruction of the Twin Towers with his father’s illness or operation in a hospital. And Perry’s “In Bloom, Where the Meadow Rises,” has some fabulous imagery. In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo presents some of his rules for writing poetry; one that has always stuck with me suggests that the word “so” should never be used as an adverb unless it sets up a larger subordinate clause. Perry applies that admonition to great effect in lines such as “a field so bleached with drought the giant cross / of shadows from the pines is friction enough / to set the day on fire.”

Robert Wrigley’s “Tinnitus” in Hampden-Sydney is at once a nostalgic ode to the pay phone, but on retrospect, speaks more generally to the alienation and lack of intimacy in a world where personal communication is ubiquitous, and in which the excess of connection spawns its opposite, where speech is reduced to a dull white noise. Though not a cento, the poem does lift a few lines verbatim from the past, notably Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse.” Appropriate, perhaps, considering those poets’ inability to connect with Margaret and Maude. I was also singularly impressed by Craig Challender’s “Alzheimer’s Cookout.” I had already read it three or four times before I even realized the poem is a sestina. And again, an appropriate form, given the subject matter, as the repetition (with variation) accentuates the struggle of the central figure to reconstruct a cohesive narrative of the past-into-the-present, or even to remember simple words and names. I love the way the poet actually leaves words out, and represents them simply by blanks, as in “with the _______________ sponging open her hand.” The reader becomes complicit in the process of creation, and I wonder whether the poet had specific words in mind or not.

Many more in this issue deserve more than a shout-out—Eamon Grennan’s “Camouflage,” Don Johnson’s “Hazard,” Hannah Craig’s “Turkeys”—but that’s all I’ve got time for today. The new year is pacing by the door, jiggling its keys in its hands, impatient to get on the road.