Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Aunt Grace Wears Beautiful Clothes

Collected Poems by Marie Ponsot

In an interview for Guernica Magazine, the American poet Marie Ponsot insists, “…there is a very serious reason for poetry: it takes us back to our most primitive language cells. Poetry comes first, historically. It’s really primitive. Ten thousand years before you have prose, you have poems, you know.” Indeed for all the modernity of her poems, for all her experimentation, her tussling with established forms, there is something ancient, elemental, even rudimentary, about them. Yet to say so seems somehow a cheapening, not enough, for her poetry has also been described as “preternatural”, quivering—like a bowstring—between the miraculous and mundane. Read some for yourself and see:


After a long wet season the rain’s let up.
The list my life was on was critical;
reproach soaked it and infected my ears.
I hid, deaf and blind, my skin my hospital,
in the inoperable ache of fear.

Today the rain stops. I can hear! Trees drip.
The spatter & whisper as I walk their
breathing avenue. The wind has died back;
edge-catching light elaborates the air.

Form the road car-tunes rush close then slacken.
I climb the green hill. There at last I read
a figured stillness where no nightmares slide.

Green leaves turn inside out to grow. They breach
their barriers. I come, eyes wide, outside.

Drunk & Disorderly, Big Hair

Handmaid to Cybele,
she is a Dactyl, a
tangle-haired, leap-taking
hot Corybantica.

Torch-light & cymbal strikes
scamper along with her.
Kniving & shouting, she
heads up her dancing girls’
streaming sorority, glamorous
over the forested slopes of Mt. Ida

until she hits 60 and
loses it (since she’s supposed
to be losing it, loses it).
Someone takes over
her sickle & signature tune. Son
they leave her & she doesn’t care.

Down to the valley floor
scared she won’t make it, she
slipslides unlit to no rhythm,
not screaming.   But now she can
hear in the distance
some new thing, surprising,
She likes it. She wants it.
What is it? Its echoes originate
sober as heartbeats, her beat,
unexpected, It woos her.

The rhythm’s complex
—like the long to improvise
or, like Aubade inside Lullaby
inside a falling and rising
of planets.  A clouding.  A clearing.
She listens.  It happens
between her own two ears.

Aunt Grace Wears Beautiful Clothes

Asleep, she has no idea she is old.

She’s running uphill, no lightfoot, but quite fast
past the houses and driveways of family friends
toward the higher fields juts breaking into flower
that weren’t there before, when she was awake.
She stops at the tree edge. The sight that yields
is daisies. Careful she enters the pathless field
of daisies daisies hundreds sunning. She takes
her time. She crouches among their stems. Bowered
low, she looks up at their heads, their far sky.
The wind’s soft. The sunclock’s high. It can’t last.
Aunt Grace is coming to lunch, she’s been told.
Good. Maybe bring her a love-me-not daisy or
love-me. Aunt Grace will know what daisies are for.


Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Poetry and Prose

Andrew Motion, Coming In To Land (poems)

Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles (stories)

I had an opportunity to travel to Santa Fe last week and to visit one of my favorite bookstores--it is intimate, has a tasteful but not overwhelming collection, possesses lots of cozy seating for reading, and a nice in-house coffee shop (de rigueur these days).  It reminds me of Politics and Prose, my old NW DC bookstore.  Of course I love Powell's in Portland and The Strand in New York, but those are different kinds of stores, ones where you need days to browse and where the overwhelming feeling one has is of one's own illiteracy. Collected Works, on the other hand, reminds me of small independent bookstores in cities like Chicago and New York and Paris--it's a reader's sanctuary. I passed an afternoon browsing and picked up two books that I read this week and wanted to recommend to readers of TR.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not read more than one or two poems by Andrew Motion, former poet laureate of the United Kingdom (1999-2009) until I found his selected poems, Coming In To Land, in Santa Fe. I grabbed a coffee and started reading, and was hooked after this poem:

Anne Frank Huis

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief
and anger in the very place, whoever comes
to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how
the bookcase slides aside, then walks through
shadow into sunlit rooms, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats
itself outside, as if all time worked round
towards her fear, and made each stroke
die down on guarded streets. Imagine it--

for years of whispering, and loneliness,
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;
fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.
And those who stoop to see them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for changes

like my own: to leave as simply
as I do, and walk at ease
up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch
a silent barge come clear of bridges
setting their reflections in the blue canal.

Motion's poems rely on plain diction and ordinary meters to convey the richer meanings of things (e.g. "The Fence"), the hidden truths in everyday life ("A Pine Cone,"), or the inexorable facts of our existence--loss and sadness (as in the beautiful "Passing On.") Motion creates memorable lines in the midst of his poems without ever seeming studied or glib: "The hand of God/ is a burst of sun." He's also a marvelous ventriloquist, narrating his historical poems in the voices of dead or dying soldiers ("Home Front") or taking on the point of view of an animal with complete conviction ("The Fox Provides for Himself).  Motion writes compact lyrics as well as long, rambling narrative poems, always with an eye to the telling detail, the flash of meaning, that makes a poem about not only language, but the inquisitive eye of the poet himself--a record of consciousness.

I think that's Keats on the wall--a fitting image.


If you read, and you should, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (2012), you won't be surprised to learn that his recent story collection Fortune Smiles is imaginative, harrowing, and utterly engrossing. I don't like to make simplistic comparisons, but there is much in Johnson to remind one of Don DeLillo, especially the DeLillo of the earlier novels.  Both writers convey a sense of menace, of an emptiness at the heart of even the most ordinary of lives. Johnson is able to create a credible version of North Korean lives (in the title story of this collection for example), but he also has the ability to infuse what Daniel Mendelshon has called a "Blade Runner-esque" weirdness into the most banal existences imaginable.  The story I liked best--that's an understatement; I dreamed about it--is "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," a surreal recounting of the life of the warden of a Stasi torture prison after the Wall has come down and Germany has been unified.  The prison, just down the street from the narrator Prinz's ordinary bungalow, is, in post-Cold War Germany, the site of a museum of atrocities. Johnson has a gift for turning the horrors of recent history into memorials to our tendency to forget the past, or to reshape it to fit our naive view of the present.  Prinz interjects himself back into now "curated" prison (this word has taken on a new life in the age of Twitter--the collection and organizing of things best forgotten) with results that are both horrifying and enlightening. As I reread the story I not only relished the brilliance and economy of Johnson's story telling--every little piece fits, no image or encounter is wasted--but the profundity of the message. Orwell, it turns out, is a friend of us all.

"Hurricanes Anonymous" is the story of a FedEx driver in the wake of Katrina.  Check out these sentences: "Climbing the Lake Charles Bridge, None can see the muscles and elbows of the petrochemical plants, their vent stacks blowing off maroon-blue flame. Below are the driven edges of a brown tide, and everywhere is the open abdomen of Louisiana. At the top of the bridge, there is no sign of what happened here, not a sippy cup in the breakdown lane, not a little show. None looks out on the city. It looks like one of those end-times Bible paintings where everything is large and impressive, but when you look close, in all the corners, some major shit is befalling people."

Yup, major shit.  That's about it in the world of Johnson's stories, which is, minus just the tiniest bit of weirdness, our very own.

George Ovitt (2/21/18)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Rainbow-Colored Soap Bubbles

The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth

It was on January 28, 1800 that the first feuilleton appeared in the great French newspaper, Journal des débats. Literally “a leaf” or “a scrap of paper”, the new supplement quickly distinguished itself in France as a highly popular chronicle of the latest non-political news—that of art, literature, music, theatre, gossip, and fashion. The “The Talk of the Town” section in The New Yorker magazine is a contemporary version of the same.

Admired and practiced as a form by writers as varied as Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, Marcel Proust, Isaac Babel, Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Ilya Ehrenberg, and Walter Benjamin, it found a particularly worthy muse in the Viennese writer and drunkard, Joseph Roth. Best known for his novels Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth spent the better part of his adult life living in hotels and cafés where he passed the time reading, eavesdropping, and generally surveying the world around him. I am a hotel citizen,” he once wrote, “a hotel patriot.” Indeed it was in hotels and cafés that Roth developed his particular vision as a writer, working daily to capture what he witnessed, to sketch what he called “the portrait of an age”, an age—that doomed if glittering interregnum between the wars—which for Roth stretched roughly from his return from the War in 1919 to his death from alcoholism in Paris in 1939. 
It is in Roth’s feuilletons, writes translator Michael Hofmann in his illuminating introduction to the collection, “…with his variable thoughts on exile, on monarchy, on literature, on the military, on nations, on east and West, that he regales us. He is capable of hanging a set of political opinions on a quirk of facial hair styling (‘a large blond mustache that went out into a couple of butcher’s hooks’) and of turning a manicure into a threat (‘a hand with flashing pink nails dangled over the chairback’); of inferring the state of the nation from a chance observation (‘the railway conductor wolfing chocolates), and of shrinking another nation into a natty synecdoche (‘on the right a mosque, on the left a rudimentary café terrace where guests bake and fezzes talk’). He has at times a wonderfully simple, radical imagination…”

It then was largely in the troubled years between the wars, when Roth lived in Vienna and Paris, when he traveled  through Germany, Galicia, Poland, Albania, Italy, and the USSR, that he wrote these many feuilletons, what he himself called his “rainbow-colored soap bubbles”. Indeed their variety and lightness are striking, though such a characterization fails to do justice to what, in many of the pieces, is a startling moral-political clarity. 

Here, by way of example, are a few selections from the book, the first and third but the opening paragraphs, the second one complete:

Arrival in the Hotel

The hotel that I love like a fatherland is situated in one of the great port cities of Europe, and the heavy gold Antiqua letters in which its banal name is spelled out (shining across the roofs of the gently banked houses) are in my eye metal flags, metal bannerets that instead of fluttering blink out their greeting. Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid—and between us we put on such a consummate performance that the notion of merely checking into a hotel doesn’t even raise its head. The look with which the doorman welcomes me is more than a father’s embrace. As  though he actually were my father, he discreetly pays my taxi out of his own waistcoat pocket, saving me form having to think about it. The receptionist emerges from his glass booth with a smile as wide as his bow is deep. My arrival seems to delight him so much that his back imparts friendliness to his mouth, and the professional and the human are mingled in his greeting. He would be ashamed to greet me with a registration form; so deeply does he understand the way I see such a  legal requirement as a personal insult. He will fill in my details himself, later on, when I am installed my room, even though he has no idea here I have come from. He will write out some name or other, some place he thinks deserving of having been visited by me. He is a greater authority on my personal data than I am. Probably over the years namesakes of mine have stayed in the hotel. But he doesn’t know their details, and they seem a little suspicious to him, as if they were unlawful borrowers of my name. The lift-boy takes my suitcases one under each arm. Probably it’s the way an angel spreads his wings. No one asks me how long I plan on staying, an hour or a year, my fatherland is happy either way…

                                                                                                         Frankfurter Zeitung, 9 January 1929


I am woken by the sound of carpets being beaten overhead. The muffled thudding  provokes my neighbor’s canary, and he cheep and twitters and warbles like a bird song imitator. In the yard a window flies open, a second, a third: the whole building seems to be tearing off its windows.
     A ray of sunshine splashes in my violet inkwell. The bronze maiden on my desk protects her bosoms from the intrusive beam and sweetly tans.
     A hurdy-gurdy is playing in the yard. The streams of melody burst through, melting and freed.
                 From these and other signs, one notices eventually that it is spring.
     On the Kurfürstendamm the cafes put out spring awnings, the ladies have new wardrobes, the gentlemen natty yellow twittering gloves. In side streets the children  play with shiny buttons and marbles. The blue-bedizened sky checks its reflection in the brass shaving bowl outside the barber’s shop.
     Everyone is freshly varnished and ”please don’t touch”. Slips of girls wander about on the asphalt in sheer stockings and new boots looking like costumed willow trees.
     In the afternoon I sit in the window and think that Sunday is on it sway. To Grunewald, for instance.
                 After six or still later, a girl in purple rings the doorbell. Love is like that.

                                                                                                   Freie Deutsche Bühne, 16 June 1921
The Third Reich, a Dependence of Hell on Earth

After seventeen moths, we are now sued to the fact that in Germany more blood is spilled than the newspapers use printers’ ink to report on it. Probably Goebbels, the overlord of German printers’ ink, has more dead bodies on the conscience he doesn’t have , than he has journalists to do his bidding, which is to silence the great number of these deaths. For we know now that the task of the German press is not to publicize events but to silence them; not only to spread lies but to suggest them; not just to mislead world opinion—the pathetic remnant of the world that still has an opinion—but also to impart false news on it with a baffling naïvieté. Not since this earth frit had blood spilled on it has there been a murderer who has washed his bloodstained hands in as much printers’ ink. Not since lies were first told in this world has a liar has so many powerful loudspeakers at his disposal. Not since betrayal was first perpetrated  in this world was a traitor by another, greater traitor: has there been such a contest between traitors. And, alas, never has the part of the world that has not yet sunk into the night of dictatorships been so dazzled by the hellish glow of lies, or so deafened and dulled by the screaming of so many lies. For hundreds of years, we have been accustomed too lies going around on tiptoe. The epoch-making discovery of modern dictatorships is the invention of the loud lie, based on the psychologically correct assumption that people will believe a shout when they doubt speech. Since the onset of the Third Reich the lie, in spite of the saying, has walked on long legs. It no longer follows on the heels of the truth, it races on ahead of it. If Goebbels is to be credited with a stroke of genius, then surely it is this: he has caused official truth to walk with the limp he has himself. The officially sanctioned German truth has been given its own club foot. It is no fluke but a knowing joke on the part of history that the first German minister of propaganda has a limp…

                                                                                                    Pariser Tageblatt, 6 July 1934
Peter Adam Nash