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.

Things fall apart

My kids have been obsessed with the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and the soundtrack seems to be on perpetual loop in the house. So it’s perhaps not surprising that I woke up on Wednesday with the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” in my head. When I was a kid, I learned in school that the British piped that tune (the ballad, not the Broadway ditty) during the surrender at Yorktown. Modern historians are skeptical of that claim, but it certainly has an air of truthiness about it. And I’m sure many people on Wednesday felt much like the British did all those years ago—stunned and chagrined. What should have been an easy victory turned into a dirty and protracted campaign. The Continental army had no idea what it was doing, was breaking all the rules and seemed to be learning as it went along. No one seriously though they could win. And yet, they shocked everyone—including themselves, I’d guess.

But the lyrics from Hamilton were soon supplanted by a few lines from Yeats, written about 100 years ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines from “The Second Coming” have shown their relevance time and again throughout the years, and they seem even more ominous this week. The future is uncertain, but one thing seems clear: it will not be pretty. Centrist policies based on fact and reason cannot hold against the anarchy of ignorance, fear, and disaffection. What puzzles me, though, is that many if not most Trump supporters were of an older demographic. I always thought anarchy was a young man’s game. In fact, I recall showing up on my first day of college wearing my circle-A tee shirt, bought at Zipperhead in Philly. I didn’t really want a devolution into chaos, but I did feel that the authoritarian institutions and traditional expectations were standing in the way of individual freedom and self-actualization (kind of a hippy-libertarian stance, now that I look back at it). And the punk in me can still see the allure of tearing everything down, just to wipe the smug grin off the face of the establishment. But the rationalist (and cynic) in me does not believe in a progress narrative anyway, and assumes that any institutions torn down will just be replaced with something equally ignominious. I’m also perplexed by how easily people swallowed the massive lies and hypocrisy. I guess even a lie can be told with passionate intensity. But we’re still dealing with the havoc wrought by an administration that used propaganda and outright lies to sell it’s self-serving and paranoid vision of the world. And getting back to Yeats, part of me wonders whether all those evangelicals who turned out in force were consciously voting for someone who, they thought, would bring about the second coming, the war of Revelations, the rapture. It’s more likely they’ll get the zombie apocalypse.

On the bright side, tumultuous times often lead to the most enduring works of art, as Yeats’ poem demonstrates. Perhaps the new administration will unwittingly foster a renaissance in American art and literature, even as it dismantles the NEA and moves to stifle all dissent.

No bells

Bob Dylan, Yes: Dylan Thomas, No.

I don’t get it. Bob Dylan getting the Nobel prize for literature? Some commenters have no problem with that. I’m mildly flummoxed. If he were awarded the prize for economics, for example, how would that go over? Would people say, “Yes, that makes perfect sense—he often writes about the rural working-class poor.” Or would they say, “No, that’s just stupid—he’s not trying to be an economist.” To put it another way, how would people react if Robert Pinsky were awarded a grammy for his poetry?

It seems that the Nobel committee is purposefully sticking a finger in the eye of every living American writer. There are many who have worked arduously, perhaps in obscurity, in the service of literature. To give the award to someone with no aspirations toward creating enduring works of literature is nothing short of preposterous. And insulting.

Literature springs from a dialog among writers. Thomas fostered such a dialog, influencing his contemporaries and those who would come after. Many embraced his style; others (eg, the Movement) openly rejected it. In either case, his work directly affected the style, tone, and tenor of generations of writers, and shaped what we think of as literature. I doubt many writers would credit Dylan as a core influence on their work.

I am occasionally asked by folks who don’t read poetry if I can name any musicians who might qualify as poets. I begin by explaining that music and poetry strive for different ends, and have different tools and methods for achieving those ends. I generally find that setting poetry to music destroys it—in the same way that reading a song on the printed page destroys it, too. Music and literature are animated by different geniuses—and while they may share a common ancestor, they occupy different and distinct branches on the phylogenetic tree of human expression. Still, in terms of poetic musicians, I might start with Bruce Springsteen (and not just because of my Jersey roots). Many of his lyrics stand alone in their grittiness and angst, and their occasional delight in wordplay (cf, “Blinded by the Light”). Even better, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has written many lines that I wish I had written myself; that’s high praise from a poet. I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about Dylan.

Oddly, Dylan has so far maintained an intriguing silence with regard to the award. Perhaps he is simply too bemused to comment? Perhaps he, too, finds it bizarre, and is waiting for the prize committee to say, “Just kidding!” In any case, I am hoping that he’ll decline the prize. It probably means nothing to him, anyway, and it would send a message to the committee. Intentional mixing of genres can result in wondrous works of art; but mixing up your genres just makes you look ignorant, arrogant, and dismissive.


When people say, “I’ve told you fifty times,”
They mean to scold, and very often do.
When poets say, “I’ve written fifty rhymes,”
They make you dread that they’ll recite them, too.

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 AWP conference is here in LA. Hard to believe it’s already been three years since I attended the one in Boston. Remarkably, depressingly, I recognize almost none of the presenters and panelist on this year’s program. That’s partly why I didn’t register to attend. Well, that and the fact that the real fun happens after the conference, in the off-site gatherings. I went to some last night (it was great to take the metro there, even though I have to drive just to get to the metro—this is LA, after all). First, happy hour at a cramped bar downtown that clearly was not prepared for the deluge of thirsty, penurious, literary types. It was sponsored in part by The Common literary journal, and I had the chance to catch up with my friend John Hennessy, who is the editor. Someone actually asked for my card. Do poets have cards?!? I suppose they should, especially in this digital age. There’s something romantically and quaintly anachronistic about it. I don’t get out much, especially not to literary gatherings (if such things even happen in LA). I must say, there’s a wonderful, comfortable feeling that comes from looking over a crowd and thinking, “these are my people,” even if you’ve never met any of them before, and may never see them again. Also, a fun game for literary gatherings: try to guess the genre of the person you’re meeting before they tell you. You’ll probably be right more than chance would dictate.

After happy hour, a brisk walk up Flower took us to the Standard hotel for a reading that included a very old friend from college who has finally found a publisher for the novel she’d been working on for well over a decade. Yet another poetry reading followed—it was supposed to take place in the Library Bar, but was relocated to the much quieter and introspective District, in the basement of the Sheraton. One poet from Brazil read long lyrical passages in mellifluous Portuguese; most of them seemed to be paeons to love, requited and un-, which seemed so quintessentially Brazilian. As for some of the other readers, many of their poems left me somewhat nonplussed, but it was all the more encouraging to see writers following their own muses, regardless of readership or critical acclaim. On the other hand, I also got to chat with John’s wife, the novelist Sabina Murray, who regaled me with tales of fine dining with her publisher. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to poets very often. Though I suppose that’s not entirely true—I’ll be heading downtown again tonight for a family-style dinner hosted by my publisher. Then, the plan is to head to the PEN party, where I hope to run in to a few more distant friends. It’s strange to feel part of a literary community. I think I could get used to it.

Grateful I saw it

Not surprisingly, my daughters are all voracious readers—the eldest in particular. Reading is usually a solitary activity, but she still likes me to read to her, just like I used to before she learned to read for herself. Recently, I read The Wizard of Oz to her, which was intriguing, because I had never read it before. I had of course seen the movie several times, but never read the book. It’s different. Not better, not worse, just different. It reads far more like a standard fairy tale, where things happen for no apparent reason, and the only goal is to keep a child’s mind entertained for a while. The movie adheres more to the conventions of cinema, with an overriding narrative arc that trims away any episodes that do not directly advance the plot. There’s also no singing in the book!

More recently, I picked up Flowers for Algernon. I intended to read it to my daughter, but quickly realized she’d have to read it for herself to fully appreciate Charlie’s progression. The story is told in the first-person, from Charlie’s perspective, so the language (and grammar and spelling) are crude in the beginning, but quickly advance to an elevated diction and complicated style, and this has to be experienced first-hand. I tried to read along, as it were, staying slightly ahead of her, but I soon find myself catching up. She finished the book before I did (well, she’s got more time to read than I do). To be honest, I couldn’t remember whether I’d ever read the book, and after I started, it was apparent that I never did (in fact, if I’d been more familiar with the book, I might’ve held off, as some of the content is not really suited for a 10-year-old). I think I saw the movie as a kid, but now, I’m not even sure of that. I remember a specific scene—which, it turns out, is not even in the book—and now I don’t recall whether I saw the whole movie or just saw the ad a few times before it aired on TV, back in the days of the 4:00 afternoon special. But wow! I have to say, it is a brilliant book, and really quite devastating for anyone who values the life of the mind. It derides scholarly elitism, and the deification of knowledge as the greatest human good. And yet, it ultimately cannot propose any worthwhile alternative—certainly not the anti-intellectualism of the bakery crew, or even the bohemian iconoclasm of the free-spirited (but essentially empty) artist. Indeed, Charlie’s ultimate epiphany comes not through intellectual mastery, but through physical and emotional connection to another person in the face of inexorable entropy, the universal forces of space and time working to pull us and everything else apart.

Charlie is disgruntled to think that the lead researcher did not consider him to be human or alive before the surgery that ended his retarded state; but in a sense, the surgery was a birth, and the subsequent growth and decay of his mental faculties mirror the same arc that everyone must endure. He understands that his mind will deteriorate, much the way we all understand that we will die, and nothing we do can change that. There’s an element of Greek tragedy here, and part of the tragedy comes from sharing his realization that time is limited and life unfair. Who hasn’t felt the drive (especially upon reaching a certain age) to squeeze every drop from every minute, not knowing how many we have left? But even that invites conflict—between the desire to do something meaningful and enduring, and the desire to spend as much time as possible with those who will miss us most when we’re gone. And is any of it even worth it, after all? Is Charlie any better off in the end, or is he perhaps even worse, given his intimations of paradise lost? (Significantly, Charlie picks up Milton’s poem as his mind deteriorates, but can’t make heads or tails of it.) We all know where all of this is heading, and yet somehow, we go on.

Even now, I can’t read the final diary entry without crying, particularly this:

If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit.

This is what it comes down to. On the one hand, it’s easy to believe, as Silenus told Midas, that it is better not have been born at all. On the other hand, I feel, like Charlie, grateful to have seen it all, even for a little bit.

Trans trauma

So a crazy thing happened recently. I step into the office of my new boss for some sort of performance review and what do I see on his desk but a collection of poems by Tomas Tranströmer. That’s not the sort of thing I typically encounter where I work (an aerospace engineering thinktank). In fact, it’s not the sort of thing I see in LA, where the taste in poetry generally runs from Bukowski to … well, no one.

But it got me thinking about Tranströmer. I’m sure I encountered some of his work in the past, if only through my reading of Robert Bly. But if so, I couldn’t remember any. A good friend (at jeffschwaner.com) is a huge advocate. So, I decided it was time to read a bit.

My first impression is that it’s easy to see the connection between Tranströmer and Bly, both of whom produce (or rather, distill) deep images through tense, terse diction. But whereas Bly always seemed critical of humanity (and America) in general, Tranströmer seems to have given up on humanity already, and inhabits a world of intense isolation and disconnection. The people who appear in his poems (when they appear at all) are barely more animated than the stones and trees. Often, we don’t get complete human shapes, only faces, stamped with a cold resignation. “Bleak” is a word that immediately comes to mind. In fact, the sun and the seasons seem to have the most personality, though they operate according to a profound indifference to, if not disdain for, the human condition.

Interestingly, my reading of Tranströmer quickly devolved into a critique of translations. In particular, I was looking at this poem:


Ett blått sken
strömmar ut från mina kläder.
Klirrande tamburiner av is.
Jag sluter ögonen.
Det finns en ljudlös värld
det finns en spricka
där döda
smugglas över gränsen.


A blue sheen
streams out from my clothes.
Clinking tambourines of ice.
I shut my eyes.
There is a soundless world
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled across the border.

I don’t speak Swedish, of course, but with some German and Old English, it’s possible to parse the sense. After all, these are simple declarative statements. The power comes not from the nuance of the language but from the force of the image. I’m also struck by the one-word sentence, “Midwinter.” That construction is perfectly acceptable in Russian, for example, but in English, it sounds particularly elliptical, compressed—especially considering the end stop: an American poem with a one-word line probably wouldn’t end it with a period. But back to the point. Even a poem as straightforward as this has spawned numerous translations. The first line has been translated as “A blue light,” “A blue sheen,” and “A blue glow.” They are all fairly neutral words, but I ask myself whether the translators have already betrayed a bias. And in the next line, “streams out” most closely echoes the sound of the original, but “radiates” might better convey the sense. Interestingly, the greatest variation comes in translating the sound of the tambourines: “clinking,” “clattering,” “jingling,” “jangling,” etc. I suppose the word choice depends on how you interpret those tambourines: do they evoke the wind though a tree hung with frozen leaves, a cluster of icicles falling to the ground, a small patch of dry ice? Is the tambourine the drum or the cymbals?

And how about the distinction between “silent” and “soundless?” The first conveys a distinct mood. But silence is, oddly enough, a positive term, and by that I mean it does not convey a lack, or absence. In the mind, silence is something that can fill a space, as it were. Silence has substance. The neat thing about “soundless” (and by extension, I guess, all “-los” Germanic adjectives) is that it first presents the thing and then takes it away. It presents the idea of sound and then removes it. The effect is a bit more jarring, at least for speakers of English.

You might just say that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Or as the Italians say, “tradurre è tradire.” But I think it really comes down to the fact that a translator must first interpret, and then translate. And interpretation is by nature highly subjective. The word choices of the translator are just as critical as the word choices of the original poet. Indeed, a translator may end up belaboring a word far more than the original writer did. It’s a difficult business.

But as for Tranströmer, wow: bleak, depressing, chilling. (And what does that say about my new boss?!?!?!)

Those Swedish winters must be devastating.

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.

The simple truth

Philip Levine has died. That is the simple—the brutal—truth. I first encountered his work in the pages of a red anthology, which served as our textbook in Roger Gilbert’s modern poetry seminar at Cornell, back in the late ’80s (I still might have that book on my shelf somewhere). I remember taking great joy in the poem, “Animals are Passing From Our Lives,” with it’s bleak, defiant, somewhat mocking, and unexpected ending: “No. Not this pig.” It’s a phrase I still repeat to myself in certain situations. Similarly, “They Feed They Lion” made an impression, with the driving urgency of its language. But though these earlier works were remarkable in their own right, they barely hinted at what he would later achieve in What Work Is. For me, and many other young male poets, that book was a revelation. It deeply influenced everything I wrote thereafter, as it probably did for the likes of B.F. Fairchild, Joseph Millar, and others who would be hypnotized by the force and muscularity of his verse. Thin, taut, the cascade of lines carried the reader down the page, dragged the reader into a world that was far removed from the effete ivory towers of academia. But though they were powerful, I would not call his poems raw, for they were in fact impeccably engineered. Certainly, they taught me the importance of cadence, and the sense that you could not work on a particular line without considering every line that came before it, and the collective rhythm of the poem. I was also struck by what could only be called a dismissive attitude, a tone that said, “this is important, so forget you, if you can’t relate.” Levine also illustrated the difference between the personal and the confessional, as well as the distinction between honesty and truth; history is subjective, and therefore, so is truth—but the honesty with which we embrace that truth must be incontestable. And of course, the characters themselves, straight out of story by Isaac Babel! Nobody else was writing about such people at the time, with the intimacy that comes from first-hand knowledge and the wisdom that comes from detached regard. His politics were also out of the mainstream. As a young man, he had been an ideological communist, espousing the belief that “property is theft,” and displayed an apparent bond with the anti-fascists in Spain. This, too, influenced my work at the time.

Side note: Shortly after the publication of What Work Is, Levine gave a reading at a small bookstore in LA. I don’t remember now whether he was promoting that book, or the next one, The Simple Truth, but is strange to think now that he was still reading to sparse crowds at such a venue. But though I had devoured the book, I had never seen him in person. So, I was expecting this brooding hulk of a man, a steelworker or truck driver, with a stentorian voice like that of James Earl Jones. Instead, here was this wiry little guy with a whiny little voice. The incongruity was unsettling. It also intrigues me to think of him in the cattle burb of Fresno in California’s central valley, ground zero for the migrant farm-labor industry, about as far as you can get from the grimy confines of Detroit and the hearty eastern European stock that took root there. But perhaps it’s the vast open spaces there (ever redolent of dung and fertilizer) that focused his mind and verse.

It’s a shame that I often don’t revisit a poet’s work until I hear that they’ve died. But in this case, I’m looking forward to pulling those books off my shelf and reliving my early joy in discovering them.