Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Gabito, Brandi, Nemerov

"Before adolescence, memory is more interested in the future than the past, and so my recollections of the town [Aracataca] were not yet idealized by nostalgia."

In the late 1980's I undertook two trips to Mexico City and to Cuernavaca to catch a glimpse of the man who was, in my mind, the greatest living novelist.  While I put in a lot of bus time, passing through tiny, dusty pueblos in Morelos, Puebla, and Oaxaca, I never spotted my idol, whose novels, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had read over and over through the 70's and 80's.  Knowing of Márquez's ill health, I wasn't shocked by his death, but still it feels as if a chasm in the world of writing has opened.  The hypocrites at the Washington Post--enthusiasts for the war in Iraq, dupes of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal--fell all over themselves condemning Márquez's embrace of the Cuban revolution and of Fidel Castro.  And what sort of politics was a man like Márquez supposed to have, growing up as he did on United Fruit lands, witnessing the goons of UFCO massacre the banana workers (recounted in Cien años de soledad and throughout his books and stories), a Latin American living in the era of Abrenz and Allende, of Kissinger and the Reagan Doctrine?  The pundits on the Potomac who have been busy condemning Márquez's leftist politics are able to count on American forgetfulness; the whole point of Gabito's life's work was that the poor of Latin America don't have that luxury--in their vast solitude all they have is memory.  I have been reading his memoir Living to Tell the Tale, a lovely glimpse into the intersection of Márquez's life and books--it is full of tender portraits of his family, his youthful colleagues, his friends, and lovers.  One story Márquez told (on the anniversary of the sale of the ten-millionth copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude) was how he and his wife Mercedes took the manuscript of the greatest twentieth-century novel written in Spanish to the post office but only had enough money between them to mail what turned out to be the second half of the book to his publisher.  Forty-two pesos.  Luckily his publisher liked the novel well enough to send Gabito the difference.

All Márquez ever wished to do was write--and, thankfully, despite years of poverty and struggle, that is what he did. 

I was fortune enough to attend a gala used-book sale last week and purchased forty-two--yes, that's 42--books of poetry.  Among them was John Brandi's Heatbeat Geography, Selected and Collected Poems, 1966-1994. I have wanted to write about Brandi for some time; I have his newest book somewhere in the chaos of my study, but I was happy to read through this earlier collection and to get a feeling for the development of Brandi's unique sensibility.  Brandi and I live in the same general neighborhood--New Mexico, a wee state perched on either bank of the Rio Grande and wedged between the madness of Tejas and Arizona.  John B. is up the road from me in the northwest corner of our state; we're not too far distant in age, and while he has traveled considerably more than I have, we have visited many of the same places.  His sensibility, if not his poetic style, reminds one at once of Whitman and of Gary Snyder--it's my surmise that these poets, plus Neruda, Kenneth Rexroth, and Denise Levertov have influenced his work--but I'm only guessing.  Poetic influence is difficult to make out among older poets.  Nowadays, with most poets trained in MFA programs, there are clear affinities between writers and their mentors; in Brandi's day one read a lot of poems but worked out one's style alone, perhaps in the Altiplano or on the road in Chiapas or Alaska; Brandi, as I said, has been around, and this collection has a strong sense of place attached to its great variety of voices, styles, and subject matters. Here's one I like:

It is Spring Now

The stars rush out
with a special odor through the weaving pines.
There are sparks in my mouth. A whirling universe
stands still on the blue beach of our bedcovers.
Nobody is dancing but us.

It is a great dance floor
& we are simply alone.  It seems like
an eternity, then out of nowhere spectators applaud
from the walls.  All is finished. The lights dim.
Your fingers slowly release
their grasp.

It is spring now,
aroma of sage & lucious portions
of ripe fruit from little fruits peeled beneath your eyes.
Everything in bloom!
Beyond the windows, a severe wind picks up.
I watch the blossoms spin through
the deepness of night.

And feel the greatness
of your smile, forever warming me.

Brandi wrote this poem in Guadalupita, probably in the same little motel I have stayed in a few times.  Once, in the middle of a freezing winter night, my wife and I were driving through the snow from Guadalupita to Angel Fire and a herd of elk crossed the narrow road just in front of us.  I turned off the lights and opened the windows and all we could hear was the wind riffling the snow and the breaking of the ice under the rush of elk.  These beautiful wild corners of our state retain enough desolation to allow the poet's imagination to imprint whatever he wishes on the landscape.  Brandi has a gift for fitting his life into the places he's visited--leaving something of himself behind, but also taking something away and sharing it with us.

Thanks to a lucky prompt from a friend, I reread Howard Nemerov's Selected Poems a couple of weeks ago and remembered as I did how much his writing has meant to me over the years.  Nemerov wakes us up and forces us to pay attention:

Running and standing still at once
is the whole truth. Raveled or combed,
wrinkled or clear, it gets its force
from losing force. Going it stays.

This stanza opens "Painting a Mountain Stream."  How about these lines from his famous poem "The Town Dump": "Objects of value or virtue, / However, are also to be picked up here, / Though rarely, lying with bones and rotten meat, / Eggshells and mouldy bread, banana peels / No one will skid on, apple cores that caused / Neither the fall of man nor a theory / Of gravitation."  Nemerov has the sensibility of a metaphysical poet, jarring us with oddball images and associations, in quietly balanced lines, with diction that runs the gamut from Philip Levin's vernacular to Mark Strand's stately sophistication: this is "Learning by Doing:"

 They're taking down a tree at the front door,
The power saw is snarling at some nerves,
Whining at others. Now and then it grunts,
And sawdust falls like snow or a drift of seeds.
Rotten, they tell us, at the fork, and one
Big wind would bring it down. So what they do
They do, as usual, to do us good.
Whatever cannot carry its own weight
Has got to go, and so on; you expect
To hear them talking next about survival
And the values of a free society.
For in the explanations people give
On these occasions there is generally some
Mean-spirited moral point, and everyone
Privately wonders if his neighbors plan
To saw him up before he falls on them.

Maybe a hundred years in sun and shower
Dismantled in a morning and let down
Out of itself a finger at a time
And then an arm, and so down to the trunk,
Until there's nothing left to hold on to
Or snub the splintery holding rope around,
And where those big green divagations were
So loftily with shadows interleaved
The absent-minded blue rains in on us.
Now that they've got it sectioned on the ground

It looks as though somebody made a plain
Error in diagnosis, for the wood
Looks sweet and sound throughout. You couldn't know,
Of course, until you took it down. That's what
Experts are for, and these experts stand round
The giant pieces of tree as though expecting
An instruction booklet from the factory
Before they try to put it back together.

Anyhow, there it isn't, on the ground.
Next come the tractor and the crowbar crew
To extirpate what's left and fill the grave.
Maybe tomorrow grass seed will be sown.
There's some mean-spirited moral point in that
As well: you learn to bury your mistakes,
Though for a while at dusk the darkening air
Will be with many shadows interleaved,
And pierced with a bewilderment of birds. 

"A bewilderment of birds."  Yes, that's how they sound these days, blown about by New Mexico's relentless April winds, mourning in the clear dawn the passing of a great writer.

George Ovitt (4/29/14) 

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