Everyone’s a critic

Finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced this week. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read one of them (Olives, by A.E. Stallings). I notice that all of the books were published relatively early in the year—February, April, May, June (the one outlier is David Ferry, with a pub date of early August). From a statistical perspective, that makes sense: the earlier a book is released, the more time it has to get noticed by reviewers and award panels. (Though I suppose, if you’ve already got a reputation, your book is likely to get noticed right away.) I’m curious to know (but too lazy to find out) whether this phenomenon holds true for earlier years. If so, perhaps poetry publishers would do well to release their books early in the year, or time their releases to take advantage of a lack of competition—much the way the film industry holds certain movies to coincide with the summer blockbuster season or the film festival season. Perhaps some publishers already do so (though I get the sense that poetry presents too small a market to even bother with such considerations). My prediction? Well, Ferry’s book has already received the National Book Award, and considering Ferry’s age, it’s probably the last book he’ll write, so I suspect the auguries are pointing toward him this time around. But my predictions about the future are usually as off-base as my predictions about the past, so don’t bet any money based on my tip.

Also, a quick thumbs-up for the latest issue of Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. A solid collection all around. Many of the middle poems share a wonderful ebullience, a penchant for echolalia, the is collectively invigorating. I was particularly taken with the work of Hannah Faith Notess, previously unknown to me. Her language and images evoke Richard Hugo, with his keen sense of dispair in dissolution (perhaps not surprising—she apparently lives in Seattle). Consider, for example, these lines from “To the Church Across the Bridge Who is Claiming the City for God”:

The barges dredge and dredge, but turn up
nothing, and the drawbridge gapes open

like the gulf between Man and God, but nobody
is waiting to cross over…

I adore the deadpan, epigrammatic line later in this poem: “It hurts to watch the world split down the middle.” Or this line from “To the Body Carried Out of the Apartment Across the Street”: “The crocuses next to the dumpster are opening / their fat purple mouths.” An intense image of Nature at its most uncaring. The cruelty is accentuated by the turn: the line that ends on “opening” is potentially a positive image of renewal, but quickly remakes itself into an image of greed and bloat and selfishness.

And it’s always refreshing to read work by a poet who still holds down a day job. From great adversity springs great art.

LA’s new Poet Laureate

This morning, Mayor Villaraigosa announced the appointment of the first poet laureate for the city of Los Angeles, Eloise Klein Healy. I’ve never met her, as far as I know. But she did serve on the judging panel that awarded my first book the PEN book award. So, obviously, I’m predisposed to applaud the decision. But even putting that aside, her name has become synonymous with the LA poetry scene, such as it is (her presence on the PEN panel further testifies to that fact). As such, she’s a logical choice. Los Angeles is situated, both physically and mentally, on the margins of inhabitable space, and its poets have largely embraced that marginality. And if there is one attribute that unifies the disparate elements of the LA poetry scene, it surely is the respect for poetry as activism and the understanding that a poet is more than simply a person who writes poetry. And from what I know of Eloise Klein Healy’s work, she seems to embody that position.

When I first heard that LA was looking for a poet laureate, I reflexively put together an expected shortlist in my head. It was, indeed, a very short list, for not many LA poets have much recognition outside the city—or even within the city. There’s Carol Muske Dukes at USC (?), but she recently served as the state laureate, so I would think that would take her out of the running. Timothy Steele lives in LA, as far as I know, but I don’t think his poetry is indelibly associated with the city. Dana Gioia grew up in Hawthorne and recently took a post at USC—but he was head of the search committee. Stephen Yenser at UCLA has published books of poetry and critical analysis, and curates the wonderful Hammer reading series—but he’s probably seen as too much of an academic to represent LA’s counterculture reputation. David St. John comes to mind, Harryette Mullen. Elena Karina Byrne is another of those names like Eloise Klein Healy that seems to pop up whenever LA poetry is discussed. Charles Harper Webb at CSULB is well known for his brand of stand-up poetry. More than that, though, I’m kind of at a loss. The news reports said that the laureate search committee reviewed 40 applications, and that they presented three finalists for the mayor to choose from. I’m real curious to know who they are—and whether our new poet laureate can find some way to channel their collective energy.

Louis Simpson

Another luminary has faded from the scene: Louis Simpson. Overlooked in his later career—even I haven’t read him in many years—he nonetheless exerted a quiet influence on American poetry. Much the way Philip Levine gave us all permission to write in bare-knuckled fashion about real work and real workers, so did Simpson give us a green light to write about suburbia and its denizens. He showed us that even those lives that seem most unremarkable and pedestrian, most alien to poetry, have indeed their share of drama and humanity. This was of course fertile territory for the fiction writers, but poets were (and for the most part, still are) somewhat silent on the subject.

There was a time when I could rattle off any number of poems from memory; most have long since escaped me. But Simpson’s “American Poetry” remains. Here it is in its entirety:

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Like the shark it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.

I love how he encapsulates, in just those three opening lines, the energy, optimism, and industry of postWar America. And that progression from “rubber” to “poems,” stepping through a hierarchy that becomes less palpable as it grows more powerful, is altogether gripping. I love how the shark of the second stanza is somehow presupposed by the first—we seem to expect it even before we encounter it. And then, to turn it all on its head, to leap from the tangible and present to the surreal and Kafkaesque, is a master stroke. Ultimately, Simpson connects the amazing leaps of civilization—the discovery and application of uranium (and thus plutonium) and manned excursions into space—with their unthinkable and inhumane underpinnings and ramifications. And in this bizarre landscape, what is poetry but the cry of a creature far out of its element, heard but never quite understood?

If he had written nothing else, this one poem would be enough to secure his place in the annals of American poetry. But of course, he did write much more—and it’s worth checking out.

Descent into the underworld

Abbiamo il papa! Or the closest thing we have in the American poetry scene. Natasha Trethewey has been named Poet Laureate of the United States (can I coin a new acronym? PLOTUS!)

All kidding aside, I applaud the selection. Despite her tender years (I say that because she’s a year older than I am), Trethewey is a formidable talent, a poet of uncommon wisdom, understanding, and insight. Her Native Guard, justly honored with the Pulitzer Prize, surprised me with its formal range and intensity of experience. In numerous recent interviews, Trethewey has cast herself as a poet of collective history, and the titular sequence of Native Guard certainly fits that bill; but I was far more taken with the poems of personal history—and more specifically, personal loss. The poems that examine the absence left by her mother’s untimely death are, to me at least, the defining poems of the book. These often exemplify her gift for presenting the most telling detail or selecting the word that will resonate on the most possible levels in a given context.

In “What is Evidence,” for example, I love the image of the mother “leaning / into a pot of bones on the stove.” At once, it portrays her as a sort of ogre or witch, Medea stirring the broth of her own dismembered sons. And in the same moment, it suggests a real physical and psychological poverty, a person fallen on lean times (as the mind seeks to reuse the “lean” sound of the previous line ending). But when the poem then moves to a description of

Only the landscape of her body—splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal—her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.

suddenly, it become the mother’s own bones in the pot, which puts the poet in the place of the cook—the ogre ready to consume the body, or the witch stirring up the bones of the past.

Similarly, in the next poem, “Letter,” the images, the metaphors, are perfect and precise (and I love how the word “settled” in the second line ties this poem with “What is Evidence” before it. In “Letter,” a simple slip of the pen (and where writers are concerned, is any typo anything less than a Freudian slip?) changes the word “errand” to “errant.” Trethewey then riffs on the image of the “t” as:

…a mark that crosses
like the flat line of your death, the symbol 

over the church house door, the ashes on your forehead

I love the way death and religion are commingled. The ramifications are intriguing—the cross as the symbol of resurrection, for example. But then the speaker tries to “cross the word out,” only to find that a word crossed out only draws attention to itself. She is no doubt “cross” about the whole thing. But taken overall, the poem is a wonderful demonstration of how grief, held in check, can suddenly overwhelm our defenses, incited by the most innocuous of circumstances.

I’ll wrap up with my two favorite poems in the volume, “Myth” and “Monument.” The first poem is among the most intriguing recastings of the Orpheus story I’ve ever encountered. That’s perhaps because the synthesis of the speaker as Trethewey and the speaker as Orpheus is so complete. Trethewey’s failure to rescue and revitalize her mother is superimposed on Orpheus’s failure to bring back Eurydice from Hades (or perhaps it’s the other way around?). It’s interesting that the speaker does not use the familiar name “Hades” to refer to the underworld, but the less common “Erebus.” The latter name is associated with a host of personifications of light and darkness, day and night, so “Erebus” might have additional connotations for Trethewey as a person of mixed racial heritage. But much though I love the Greek myths, what truly astonished me about this poem is the formal structure. I love poems that do things that simply can’t be done in any other medium, and this poem does exactly that. It consists of two sections of nine lines each arranged in terza rima stanzas (aba aba aba). The second half rewrites the first half—in reverse! The effect is to convey the experience of traveling down in the darkness of the underworld and then to return (empty handed) along the same path. I’ve seen similar formal tricks—Larkin, for example, mirrors the end words in his two-stanza poem “Wires”—but here, it’s more than just a play of formal acumen, it extends the central trope in a visceral manner. Truly remarkable.

“Monument” can be viewed as a companion piece in that it also delves into the underworld. In this case, it’s a colony of ants that are doing the digging, the excavating. I just love the description of how the ants

like everything I’ve forgotten—disappear
into the subterranean—a world
made by displacement.

And in the next line, “In the cemetery / last June, I circled, lost—” the power of the line break is formidable, forcing the word “lost” into double duty. On the literal level, the speaker is physically lost (in the adjectival sense); but because the word follows immediately upon the previous verb “circled,” it wants to be read as a verb, too, as in, the speaker has lost something. The image then focuses on the ants that are building a hill on top of the mother’s grave. In a sense, this is also an Orpheus poem, the speaker descending in the guise of the ants to reclaim the lost love, but ultimately unable to do so. But there’s also a whiff of Hamlet, as the speaker chides herself for not trying harder to avenge or bring peace to the lost parent. And of course, in the image of the ants piling the dirt before her, like vassals offering tribute to the pharaoh, is gripping. Indeed, one can even detect a bit of the Osiris story, with the attempt to piece the lost lover back together again.

I must confess that even before I started reading Native Guard I was inclined to like it. Trethewey was the one who selected my second book for publication, so she’ll always have a place in my heart. But even aside from that, I do believe her poetry warrants the attention and accolades that have been lavished upon it.

The happy genius

Poets are generally consumed by the notion that no one in the world understands how brilliant they are. But this year’s list of MacArthur fellows has not one but two poets, Kay Ryan and A. E. Stallings. Ms. Stallings in particular is a superb poet and a wonderful person, and I’m delighted and gratified that her work somehow came to the attention of the prize committee (and that they recognized its worth). And what is my connection? Several years ago, I traveled to Athens (Greece, not Georgia) and had the temerity to contact her in advance, asking if she’d care to get together for a quick cup of coffee. Of course, we did not know each other–we had appeared in the Best Amer. Poetry together, but that was it. Well, she took it one step further and arranged a dinner party, where I got the chance to meet not just her but many of her friends in the Athens literary world. She was as charming in person as she is in verse. I suppose it’s not surprising that someone so well steeped in the classics should still maintain the ancient offices of hospitality. In fact, a line or two from Roethke seems appropriate:

Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

Congratulations, Ms. Stallings!