Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Work Women Do

Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English
Philip Davis, in the introduction to his recent biography of George Eliot, states that “Literature is transmitted being.” It is an expression I love and one that seems ideal for describing the poems in this fine collection, each of which, if variously, seems an attempt to do just that, to transmit one’s life as it is lived and felt in a particular moment, in a particular place, in a particular frame of heart or mind. Consisting of the work of over 250 contributors, the poems vary greatly in style and form, and cover subjects as wide-ranging as love, loss, marriage, betrayal, memory, work, childhood, politics, race, religion, language, war, history, exile, displacement, identity, nature, longing, and death.

Opening the collection at random, I read this poem first:

The Shipfitter’s Wife

I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat,
smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked  hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me—the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

                                  Dorianne Laux

Sujata Bhatt

Brazilian Fazenda

The day all the slaves were freed
their manacles, anklets
left on the window ledge to rust in the moist air

and all the coffee ripened
like beads on a bush or balls of fire
as merry as Christmas

and the cows all calved and the calves all lived
such a moo.

On the wide verandah where birds in cages
snag among the bell flowers
I in a bridal hammock
white and tasseled

and bits fell out of the sky near Nossa Senhora
who had walked all the way in bare feet from Bahia

and the chapel was lit by a child’s
fistful of marigolds on the red velvet altar
thrown like a golden ball.

Oh, let me come back on a day
when nothing extraordinary happens
so I can stare
at the sugar white pillars
and black lace grills
of this pink house.

                                P.K. Page

June Jordan

Muriel Rukeyser


Sit down among the boxes and write a poem,
he told me; obedient, I’m writing.
Moving house, he said, is such an ordinary
thing to do—a regular activity,
especially for you—no obligation
to unpack at once or be dutiful.

Find a vacant corner and there among
half-empty cartons spilling crumpled paper,
piles of sofa cushions and rolled-up carpets,
dining chairs like acrobatic couples
or swimmers, chest to chest, one pair of legs
trialing through water, the other flailing air,

and think about important things—not builders,
plumbers, electricians. I try to remember
how it began, this restlessness: a lifetime
trying to feel at home. A need and hope, he
hints, which might be programmed in my genes,
bred in the bone—nothing to do with him—

and makes me realise again those complex
ties that hold us together: everywhere,
both of us are strangers. Then: “Let’s open
a bottle of wine and drink a toast to life,”
he smiles and holds me close, “then go upstairs.”
Why not? I ponder, putting the poem aside.

                                       Ruth Fainlight

Kay Ryan

Lucille Clifton


The universe is sad.
I heard it when Artur Rubenstein played the piano.
He was a little man with small hands.
We were bombing Germany by then.
I went to see him in a dark warehouse
Where a piano had been placed for his practice—
Or whatever he did before a recital.
He signed the book I had with me—
It was called Warsaw Ghetto.
I later heard about him—
His affairs with young women
—if only I had known—but I was
in love with you.
Artur is dead;
And you, my darling,
The imprint of your face, alert like a deer—
oh god, it is eaten away—
The earth has taken it back
But I listen to Artur—
He springs out of the grave—
His genius wired to this tape—
A sad trick of the neural pathways, resonating flesh
And my old body remembers the way you touched me.

                                                     Ruth Stone

Vona Groarke 

Anne Sexton

The men wore human skins
but removed them at night
and fell to the bottom of darkness
like crows without wings.

War was the perfect disguise.
Their mothers would not have known them,
and the swarming flies could not find them.

When they met a sprit in the forest
it thought they were bags of misfortune
and walked away
without taking their lives.

In this way, they tricked the deer.
It had wandered into the forest at night,
thinking antlers of trees
were other deer.

If I told you the deer was a hide of light
you wouldn’t believe it, or that it was a hunting song
that walked out of a diviner’s bag
sewn from human skin.

I knew it could pass
through the bodies of men and could return.
It knew the arrow belonged to the bow,
and that men only think they are following
the deaths of animals
or other men
when they are walking into the fire.

That’s why fire is restless
and smoke has become
the escaped wings of crows,
why war is only another skin,
and hunting,
and why men are just the pulled-back curve of the bow.

                                                      Linda Hogan

Mimi Khalvati
Mrs Darwin
7 April 1852

Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him—
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of

                                                  Carol Ann Duffy 

Janet Frame

This remarkably engaging collection was edited by Eva Salzman and Amy Wack. Enjoy. 
*The lead photograph is of poet, Judith Wright

Peter Adam Nash 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Tell It Slant

Janlori Goldman, Bread from a Stranger's Oven

Each year, White Pine Press (hereafter WPP) sponsors a contest, selecting the best book of poetry from what I imagine must be hundreds of worthy submissions.  Don't be fooled by the fact that the mainstream book chat people don't write about poetry--there's oceans of wonderful poems being written these days.

This year's winner of the WPP Poetry prize was Janlori Graham's first book, Bread from a Stranger's Oven, a volume whose remarkably intelligent and heartfelt poems have been following me around all week. My general habit on workdays is to brew coffee and read the front page of the Times--one has to be half-asleep nowadays to digest what comes our way above the fold--and then, just as the sun rises above the mountains, I read a few poems to cheer me up. Wednesday was a particularly bad day, but Ms. Goldman made my day with this poem:

Yom Kippur

Today everything hurts, and I'm as close to god as I'll ever come
or want to be. I try to forgive myself, fist knocking at my chest,

a door that forgot how to open. The prayer book's spine
against my palms, I sing loudly to drown out the dandruff

flaked on the suit in the next row, sing as if I believe,
as if the fervor had not been rocked out of my by the cantor

whose polioed leg rubbed into me as we sang together in front
of the high holiday congregation, as if I were still his student

and he could still grip my waist--always his smell of yellow breath
and wear. That was when the old men said girls can never be

rabbis, girls can't stand before the torah. And now in the synagogue,
familiar as the couch leg that catches my pinky toe when I walk past it,

I think of the woman asleep in the window well, blonde wisping
out of a hoodie, sneakers on the sidewalk like slippers by a bed.

No, I'm not hungry, she said. I come to this sanctuary from that chill,
wonder if this is the night I'll open the door. If this is the night.

Many of Goldman's poems feature a detached observer whose recollection of a deceptively simple event reveals the ways in which meaning ripples out from past to present--to put it more simply--we see more as we move away from the present than we see within the moment. Or, as I've been feeling lately, there's a joke at the heart of life that I'm just too dense to decipher.

Mother, So Happy

Drunk. She walks into the Atlantic
             swims into that angle
                             where wave hits sky.

We three wait on the sand
             like eggs cupped in a carton
                          nestled and separate.

Long strokes into swells
         the ocean gulps her
                    as she shrinks to mist.

Head and arms in lunar beams
             even her teeth lit
                         by a mix of moon and sea.

Disappears as drowned
              only to surface in triumph
                           coming up for air.

Full of luck.


["like eggs cupped in a carton"--the verb makes this line memorable; also "that angle," not "the angle;" "even her teeth lit," the doubled voiceless alveolar plosive sealing the deal; and the coda--"Full of...luck!"]


Every day we listen to more lies--particularly from those who are supposed to serve us, from those we are enjoined to trust--from our bosses and coworkers--and at a certain point we cannot help but distrust not only those who tell the lies, but also language itself, as if all words were lies, as if the presumed connection between language and truth has ceased to exist. Words now bully and distort--a four-star general appears publicly to fabricate a story that (at once!) is presumed true because when lies are told with enough conviction, who cares if they are lies?

Post-truth: the idea gives me the creeps, but titillates many. Why? Well, we in the West have been fabricating the unassailable Self for three centuries; the only aspect of divinity we've failed to put on so far, the final piece of prosthesis, is the Logos, creating Our Own World from words.

It's odd that Aristotle, the first literary critic, followed the lead of Plato in accusing poets of lying, thinking, perhaps, that only what could be broken into tautology could be true.  If words are obliged to mirror the world and nothing more, then we have to presume a single way of seeing, a single world open to us all.  I don't doubt that there was once such a place, such clarity--we find this mirrored world across literature from Dante and Chaucer, through Cao Xueqin and Wu Cheng'en (for example)--and even if this concocted place were magical, it was clear that magic and truth could coexist.

I've been rereading Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, and in his brilliant survey of Western literature it strikes me yet again that it was Shakespeare who invented irony, that vertiginous sliding of language toward uncertainty. But irony carries with it a form of truth, one that winks at us, as if to say: Careful, there's more here than meets the eye! Auerbach doesn't quite say so, but after Prince Hal the West began to look askance at the presumed reality of things. Which is a far cry from behaving as if there were no truth: to acknowledge complexity is a form of modesty, not duplicity. It's the meretriciously inclined who have abandoned truth, not out of conviction, but self-interest and ignorance.

Anyway, I'm thankful for the consolation of poems. Here, at least, from Tu Fu to the late Maxim Kumin, the point of the exercise is truth-telling, the central article of faith is the urgency of communicating something fundamental to human life.  Goldman belongs to this tradition.

Winter Solstice

Bring me the old season
             that winter familiar

a slow sheathing of moon in shadow
            as if sky were a gill
                          through which all things

flow in and filter out--
             bring me a home with no right angles
                          a space of curling in

not too bright or sharp
          and bring me the time before that
                       with the garden dark with broken down

coffee grounds and rows of flowing mustard greens
           the smell of ripped roots fresh
                        from the pull

and then before that--
            to my round house a friend will come
                            or maybe the friend's mother

I'll say, Stay for dinner
            she'll say, Let me sew that button.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all. 

George Ovitt (11/19/2017)



Monday, November 13, 2017

Chasing Allusions

In the first forty-five pages of his novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard’s unnamed narrator makes some seventeen allusions, that is, direct or indirect references to people, places, events, or other works of art outside the text itself, a working familiarity with any of which would inevitably enrich one’s reading of the story. If literature is fundamentally about connecting us to others, and in this way connecting us more deeply to ourselves, then allusions are an instrumental part of this phenomenon, as they not only increase the breadth and depth of the particular characters within a given tale, helping to flesh them out, to make them sympathetic—real—to us, but they also have the nearly magical ability to expand the scope and implications of the novel itself (its themes, its language, its situation) by linking it (and us) to others in space and time in a rich, unstructured communitas of fellow human beings, each struggling to make sense of our fraught and otherwise remote and lonely lives. Well-chosen allusions give a story roots and dimension, binding us together in a rich narrative world of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.

On page 45 alone, the narrator refers to the baroque composers Purcell and Handel, to the thinkers Montaigne, Novalis, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bloch, and Wittgenstein, and finally to the modernist composers Hauer, Schönberg, and Webern. It is then, to the latter composer, that the narrator alludes more specifically, recalling the fact that his recently deceased friend, a scientist and genius named Roithamer (in whose study he is now living as he pieces together the puzzle of his breakdown and death), was immensely fond of the work of Anton Webern, particularly the opening of his string quartets, Webern’s intensely expressive “Slow Movement” or Langsamer Satz

As you read this dense and demanding novel stop here in the story to listen to at least the opening bars, as played, interpreted, by the brilliant Quartetto Italiano:
Webern String Quartets. Each time I hear it I like to think that Bernhard himself is listening, too.

Peter Adam Nash