Saturday, March 28, 2020

Jack Gilbert: More of Chard deNiord's Interview in Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs

After reposting today my original post about Chard deNiord's interview with Jack Gilbert, I went back to the original source in Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs and felt remiss that I hadn't shared Gilbert's spot-on response about concrete detail in poetry. It occurs near the beginning of the interview, so I include the latter part of his response to deNiord's first question as well. Gilbert's interests in poetry, although they didn't shape mine and I depart from his view that "all the technicalities [are] a waste of time," line up almost precisely with my interests in concrete detail and emotional connection with the reader. He eloquently renders their importance in his response to deNiord's second question.

     CD: Jack, your poems have so much human presence and pressure
     in them. Do you achieve this by working on the poems or by living
     your life? Or both?

     JG: I don't write poems as a way of writing a poem. I think I'm more
     prone to writing a poem on something I think I see or know or un-
     derstand that is new. It's like what I've said about having an illicit
     relationship. [Gilbert goes on to explain that it's not about cheating
     or getting laid or physical pleasure, but about the "emotional quality"
     in that apartment, and that it can't last. He continues...]

                                     ...I want to confront death in my poetry. Like in
     the lines I read last night from my poem "A Brief for the Defense."
     "Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / aren't starv-
     ing someplace, they are starving / someplace else. With flies in their
     nostrils. / But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants." We
     must not let misery take away our happiness. It's a crazy thing to
     say because life can be horrifying. We live in a world that has death
     in it, and injustice and all these things. But it's important to go on
     being capable of happiness or delight in the world, not to ignore
     these other things, but to recognize that we have to build our poems
     with a bad terrain. It's just how life is.

     CD: Yes, but what I'm amazed by is how you bring that reality, that
     life, into a poem, and also how you wed your lyrical craft to what
     Matthew Arnold called "high seriousness." [This first question was
     suggested to me by Li-Young Lee.]

     JG: To get the technicalities straight, so the form is done right, sim-
     ple, all the technicalities, I think that's a waste of time. It's nice.
     But that's not what great poetry is. I think one of the main things
     is simply concrete detail [My bold]. After all, speaking is one of
     the newer arts of human beings. Seeing is infinitely older. We react
     from seeing something much more than we react from hearing it said.
     We are designed to respond to physicality. Like in a basketball game,
     the man is going [to] shoot the ball to win the game, is standing there
     doing nothing at the line. Now, what he is doing often is visualizing him-
     self taking the ball, making it bounce in his hand, lifting the muscle,
     shooting, watching it go up and up, and down and down and in
     the basket. When he does that, then his body can sense, Oh, I can
     do that! And I can imitate that! If you tell me an abstraction then,
     it's no good. [My bold.] It may or not get through. Draw me a picture,
     make a movie, and let me see. Then I think that's what the large thing
     with poetry is. It's not all of it. It's one of the big parts. The concreteness.

Gilbert then discusses how the abstraction of the modern experimentalists and post-modern theorists doesn't work for him because...

     It's not human and therefore it can't have an emotional impact on the human
     reading the book, and therefore the person reading does not experience
     the things we talked about. At least that's how I see it. And if it's not going
     to have an emotional impact on the reader, that's ok, but I'm not interested.
     [Once again, my bold.]

This interview is an excerpt of one of seven interviews deNiord does with significant 20th century poets. Others are Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton. The remainder of the book is a series of essays about James Wright, Philip Levine, and Robert Lowell.

Chard deNiord is an American author, Poet Laureate of Vermont (2015–2019), poet, and teacher. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz. He is the author of five poetry collections: Asleep in the Fire (1990), Sharp Golden Thorn (2003), Night Mowing(2005), The Double Truth(2011), and Interstate (2015). His new second book of interviews from The University of Pittsburgh Press titled I Would Lie To You If I Could: Interviews with Ten American Poets, was published in the spring of 2018.

Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs: Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets, is available from Marick Press HERE, or from other online distributors and fine bookstores everywhere.
   

Friday, March 27, 2020

Judy Halebsky: Spring and a Thousand Years [Unabridged]

If one knew nothing of the Tang Dynasty poets or of Sei Shonagon’s A Pillow Book, or literary history or pop culture or a dozen other fields of study that inform Judy Halebsky’s Spring and a Thousand Years, one could still relish these poems for their fresh language, delightful juxtapositions, vivid imagery, and humor. In this regard, Halebsky’s grasp has at least attained her reach described midway through the book in her poem “Days Idle, Cumulative.”

(1) I want all new language, I want the words hosed off and scrubbed 
clean. I want to come back tomorrow and see them gleaming and
single and unattached, willing to hook up with any word that has at
least two vowels. 

Later in the same poem she further illuminates her aesthetic sensibilities with an enactment of her own similes and metaphors:

              (3) Don’t confuse me with a haiku poet. I am firmly here in free verse. 
              I want it big like a cherry Slurpee, a boob job in an anime film, the
              biceps of a trainer at Gold’s gym. Bursting, pushing on prose, veering 
toward a movie script with popcorn and hair-salon updos and all the 
hours until dawn.

But armed with even a cursory knowledge of Li Bai and Du Fu or Shonagon, Spring and a Thousand Years—a master class in observing the collision of poetic galaxies centuries apart—creates completely new constellations among the more familiar stars of Ilya Kaminsky, Robert Hass, and Charles Wright, e.g. And Halebsky’s expert commentary not only points out what we’re seeing, but as commentator-poet-teacher-referee holds these worlds together with her own linguistic gravity. Listen to her subtle yet dominant presence in “The Sky of Wu,” a poem set in a hotel room the night before a poetry workshop. 

            It’s 4 a.m., the bar is closed, and Starbucks isn’t open yet, so they keep
            talking, Li Bai at least. Du Fu is shuffling a deck of cards that is missing
            the ace of spades. 

            Play anyway, Li Bai says

            Du Fu hesitates

            Li Bai wants to meet Robert Hass, but I don’t know his room number.
            And he’s got a poem due tomorrow. How about hot chocolate? No dice.

            Li Bai wants the party to start

                        (I have not been displaced by the war, discomforted maybe)

            Du Fu is smoking an e-cigarette. Li Bai is laughing at him. They want to
            meet Charles Wright but I don’t have his number.

            The night is already over. There’s nothing that’s going to start, except
            the nature walk and then workshop.

            We don’t write the poems together, I explain, we just talk about them

            Li Bai rolls his eyes

            America, he says, it’s worse than I thought

And yet it is the collaborative effort that Halebsky brings to the page that adds the thousand-year depth to her bright-as-spring poems. Her knowledge of Tang dynasty and 10th century Japanese poetry—particularly The Pillow Book—infuses her poems as they transport thousand-year-old plus poets into the 21stcentury. And she makes the most of the resulting juxtapositions, notable in “Between Jenner and a Pay Phone,” by adapting Tang dynasty formal poetic elements and customs of Japanese Court Society to 21st century free verse prosody.

Between Jenner and a Pay Phone


on the longest day of June
dusk finally falls
I cut my hair flat across my forehead

Li Bai, the shadows tonight are from street lights

I’m in the middle of a parking lot
wondering where the locals drink beer

from now on:
         
                        only practical clothing
                        only blank pages


The tone, as in The Pillow Book, is light-hearted, almost gossipy. The style is appropriately rambling (as is the assemblage of poems within sections and the arrangement of sections in the book). But instead of recounting events of the day, as was the custom of the time in the Imperial Court in Kyoto where Shonagon lived, Halebsky flips the switch in the second line and concerns herself with what’s happening tonight, a much more American gesture. The ensuing lines hearken back to Li Bai in ways deeper than the mere mention of his name. 

Those familiar with Li’s work will remember his poem, “Drinking Alone by Moonlight” containing the following lines, which inform Halebsky’s “shadows” formed “from street lights,” and the reference to finding a place to drink beer:

            A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
            I drink alone, for no friend is near.
            Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
            For he, with my shadow, will make three men.

Li Bai, of course, was part of the “Eight Immortals” who drank wine to an unusual degree and wrote about it. And Li Bai, in particular, wrote much about shadows formed by the moon. Halebsky not only brings this information to bear thematically, but also changes the wine to beer, and the moon to streetlights in order to thoroughly Americanize the ancient poet’s influence. It is noteworthy that, like Li Bai, Halebsky escapes formal meter and rhyme, but still retains his type of musicality (“wine” / “alone” / “moon” / “men”) with lines like “Li Bai, the shadows tonight are from street lights.”

The final three lines of “Between Jenner and a Pay Phone,” as do additional lines and, no doubt, as do most of the poems in this collection, combine an homage to both Chinese Tang Dynasty and Japanese court poets. Hyperbolic statements, such as “from now on: / only practical clothing / only blank pages” are typical from poets of the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry.” Additionally, these two indented lines are a short, personal list, a preview of several lists in poems throughout the collection, echoing the 164 lists found in The Pillow Book. And their content may be seen as references to the clothing requirements of the court and the minimalistic style (blank pages) of ink brush arts such as painting and calligraphy.

Five sections in all, the first has poems like “Dear Li Bai” a prose poem answering an imagined letter from the poet who in his lifetime traveled extensively, now visiting Melbourne and the Galapagos, with lines like “…I’m glad you liked / Melbourne and I’m sure the Galapagos were amazing. I’ll look up / the pictures on the Internet (that’s a new kind of library, more on / that later)…, and “Lai Bai Considers Online Dating,” closing the section out with “About Last Night,” hearkening back to the Japanese Heian court practice of writing a poem to the beloved the morning after. 

Section two is entitled “Glossary.” The first entry, “Ambient,” let’s us know this is more than merely a tool for understanding unfamiliar or technical words, and unfamiliar customs or times. Here are examples of Halebsky’s ability to “hose off and scrub clean” language, making them “gleaming and single and unattached, willing to hook up” with words she chooses to significant points about her poetic, political, and personal lineage, the state of affairs in America and the world. 

            

            Ambient—What you hear right now, wherever you are—this requires 
            switching from hearing to listening and waiting a minute for your
            attention to adjust like your eyes in the dark.

            American—Permeable to water, sunlight, radio waves, river runoff,
            mass media, mania, conspiracy theories, thunder storms.

            Fossil Fuels—Coal, sulfur, seamen, rigs, wells, oil, comfort, ease,
            quality of life.

            Geographic Distribution—Range, wingspan, shade cast by tree
            branches, how to count whales, bird habitat, air temperature, ice floe,
            polar, panda, grizzly.

                        Note: This is a record of what is living now. In the future, it will
                        serve as a historical record.

            January—This year I will trace my lineage, a female line, starting with
            Sei Shonagon and moving on to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne 
            Rich (search extant texts for years lost in between). I will remember
            that these pages have been passed down to me, some at great risk, that
            value is assigned, that my mother has asked me to be brave.

            Z.cookie—Writing the cookie with a Z before it.

                        Note: Li Bai: It’s too much. This whole freeway art murmur,
                        airplane, avocado toast thing. Du Fu: I can’t sleep one more night
                        with central heat.

            Zule, Zuppa, Zuz, Zythum—I knew it would be a hard ending.

                        Note: No more vegan donuts, no more craft beer. Now, I will
                        become the girl poet packing tuna fish sandwich in wax paper
                        and waving from the Amtrak platform.

            Li Bai: I’m used to traveling alone.

            Me: I know.


Section three poems weave back and forth between lyrical narratives about life like “River Merchant in Blue" with gorgeous lines like “blue plum—a kind of apricot / in the damp heat of this summer night, wherever you are // blue for pale / blue for livid and leaden and bruised // know that I chose you as my spouse / you were never my king or my lord”—and poems that continue to articulate, albeit sometimes in a slant fashion, the poet’s task. In “Ikebana Instructions” the poet says “what shall I say? // the work of my life has been to arrange flowers / cut at the stem." And the delightfully brief, one-line poem with instructions:

Poem

            
to live as bright as wild as close to the fire as possible

            [repeat for 14 lines]

“Field Exam” comprises the entirety of section four. Poets must ostensibly pass this test in order to become a licensed poet with the “State Board of Poets.” The five-page piece is humorous and sometimes frighteningly similar to reality in the context of Li Bai’s comment “America…it’s worse than I thought.” Section A is titled “Self-Identification” and asks test takers to select all that apply under categories such as “Hoarder,” “Drifter,” “Romantic,” “Deal Maker,” and “Failure.” In Section B, “The Elevated Heart,” Halebsky imagines reactions to the exam from ancient and contemporary poets, including Li Bai (“…furious that this is even on the exam”), Du Fu (“…suggests that applicants write an ode to loneliness every day and then we average the results”), Grace Paley (…wants us to give a license to anyone who applies), and others. Halebsky inserts an editorial note prior to additional responses from Grace Paley and Donald Hall. 

            [I would go on but I kind of hate poems about poems] [since this isn’t 
            a poem, it’s an exam, and I hope you pass, I hope I pass, I hope we can
            all be healed, and my father, for a moment, from the haze, would nod,
            would glow, because we are trying to write a poem which will mend
            the wreckage he lived through]

At the close of Section C: Craft, the following statement appears:

            Applicants who score 80 or above receive certification. Remember, we
            are writing with the living and the dead (see rubric). With my father
            and Grace Paley and all the workers who believed things would get
            better but didn’t see it in their lifetimes. What is hidden floats, what is
            buried rises.

Lists, ramblings, letters, and a prose poem entitled “Li Bai Interviews for a Job at Green Gulch Zen Center” rounds out the final section. It is my favorite for its advice to Li on how to get the job—something I have personal experience with as a retail executive for decades. Here is the first paragraph in section I. with the accompanying footnote.

            No ragged beard. No wild gray hair. No ink-stained pants. In that
            Macy’s suit you don’t look anything like the poet I know. It’s just that
            we need to find some way to trade part of ourselves. (I’m trying
            to not believe this) (unless you have a rich uncle or can claim a family
            connection to the Kardashians, which might have worked for you in
            Changgan but at Market and Geary, it’s doubtful.)*

            *Instructions on how to dress for a job interview, for a position that might
ruin your life, are included, because I have tried this and failed 1(to get a job) 2(to escape ruin). 

Spring and a Thousand Years will expand one’s understand and appreciation for what poetry can do and how far it can range even with only the investment of one afternoon for a quick read. But given the time to go down all of the rabbit holes that Halebsky provides, one can tunnel back and forth between 20thand 21stcentury American poetry and its 7th-10th century Asian roots, making connections both clear-cut and nuanced. In “Appendix: Lost Sections of the Pillow Book*” Halebsky even points the way with seven more pages of addendums and notes.

          [these sections were found at the Bureau of Song by an appropriately
          depressed graduate student looking for her stash of pretzel sticks and
          chocolate-covered almonds**]


Judy Halebsky is the author of the poetry collections Tree Line and Sky = Empty. 
Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she spent five years studying in Japan on fellowships from the Japanese Ministry of Culture. She now lives in Oakland and teaches English and Creative Writing at Dominican University of California. More about Judy and her work can be found HERE.

Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), (The University of Arkansas Press, 2020) selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2020 Miller Williams Poetry Prize is available for purchase directly from the press HERE, as well as from several bookstores and online sources.



Sunday, March 22, 2020

Meryl Natchez: Catwalk

In these trying times I search for silver linings. This blog post is the result of two. First, unable to host The Poetry Connection, where Marin County poets are introduced to a wider audience and readership, and unable to attend readings of my own work and of the work of others, I now have ample time to fulfill my commitment to review new poetry collections by Marin poets. There are ten such books on my desk that await a more careful reading and / or their respective reviews. Second, my reading of Meryl Natchez' Catwalk (Longship Press, 2020) has caused me to fall in love with poetry all over again. I told my partner, Janet, the previous sentence should be the standard for all poetry collections. Congratulations, Meryl Natchez and Lawrence Tjernell of Longship Press for creating such a book.

I imagine doing a word search on Catwalk, entering favorite word after favorite word, and finding each one of them somewhere in the manuscript, chiseled into an apt image, fleshed out into a fresh metaphor or engaging narrative, riffed upon to create a lyrical variation or an entire prose poem without punctuation—in short, whatever I’m in the mood for, delivered in poetic spades. 

And this would be no idle exercise on my part because Catwalk is the result of the poet’s own search among the details of her capacious life embodied in forms as appropriately chosen as they are varied in content. The student of poetry will recognize her free verse, haibuns and cinquaines, but perhaps not her Looseplexes, an adaptation of Jericho Brown’s Duplex, that begin each section. Scowering her embryonic and past failed poems, Natchez rescues lines that deserve a home and builds a nonce form structure for them. To assemble it, she literally cut out with scissors the best lines from poems on life support, as if she were selecting DNA strands to genetically engineer a new breed of poem, placed them upon a white board, and rearranged and massaged them until her Looseplex was born. 

The poems in Catwalk, however, are not mere poetic detritus cleverly cobbled together to make meaning from their sound work or their visual presence upon the page. They are the result of sifting through a language and a life to find what, if not permanent, will at least give the comfort of meaning while they are here. In Judaism this rigorous process of fixing and rectifying has a name—tikkun. It is the closest word in the Torah to perfect—the kind of perfect I believe Natchez writes about in “Perfect Balance,” from section II, Dark Shell.

Perfect Balance

We imagine
a world of perfect harmony

We imagine imagining
how the lion

lies down with the Xbox
as the dragon needle

of dread
ceases its endless stitching.

We imagine this, strapped
to the wheel of this world

as it creaks
against sinew and nerve

where the work is to grasp
perfection

in every terrible turn.

Turning the terrible into the tolerable and the tolerable into the loveable is one of the features of Catwalk I love most. Here is the second half of my favorite poem from section I, Heart of the Matter, entitled “Full Circle, A Diptych.” Each half reverses the line order of the other half.

Full Circle, A Diptych

Sleep-deprived, disoriented, your nipples so sore
you can hardly bear the baby’s ruthless gums,

and when they cry, you pick them up again,
and wander the few rooms your life has narrowed to,

the soft floss of their hair, the bluish pattern that blooms
under transparent skin, shrimp-shell fingernails so fragile

they bend when you try to cut them. Soon
they begin to know who you are, they reach their chubby arms

toward you, they smile, they nuzzle the soft bones
of their fontanel into your neck and cover it with kisses

limpid as soap bubbles, and there has never been anything
more delightful, not sex, not the best meal, not driving fast

in a convertible on a winding road by an azure sea,
and you would do anything for them, and you do,

give up nightlife, adult conversation, hour-and-a-half
massages, spicy food, uninterrupted thought,

and they learn to walk,
to swim, to read, and you’ve paid for the orthodontist

and endured the teenage years, and paid for college
and helped out with grad school and they’re launched,

with their own lives, their own ways of salting meat,
their own ways of slicing it, their own partners and opinions,

here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems
for which it turns out you are the cause.

It is not only the specificity in Natchez’ diction that pulls me into her poems, but it is the way these poems seem like the news from this morning’s paper, stitched from the celebrations and concerns of my own life, as I nod yes, yes, yes over morning coffee recognizing myself in their lines. In “Another Morning on Earth,” the poet itemizes pictures on the altar in her living room: “…parents, / my brother at forty, Larry’s parents, / my mother and her sisters on Atlantic City Boardwalk in the thirties, / and Erwin, my mother’s last love, for the besotted, lively gaze / she turns on him, though I try to keep him / behind the flowers.”

This passage reminds me of Malena Morling’s short poem “Traveling” with it’s first stanza: “Like streetlights / still lit / past dawn, / the dead / stare at us / from the framed / photographs.” However, unlike Morling’s photographs that are “traveling / continuously / backwards / without a sound / further and further / into the past,” Natchez’ dead stay close by and reach their long lines around us because the poet tends to them.

              I change the flowers as they wilt,
alstroemerias, anemones, the last sweet peas,
because I want my dead to keep watching out for us,
for the children and grandchildren and beloved friends
in this chancy world where death lurks on the landing
or in the car, or microbes
or snipers or breast
or bone or stomach.

And instead of cold, Spartan lines marching down the page, ending abruptly to leave the white space of nothingness, Natchez fills her poem with an abundance of “random moments that can converge / into a ravishing pattern” walking right up to the cliff of sentimentality, placing her toes over the edge and only glancing into its depths, avoiding jumping into the abyss by keeping her eyes on those concrete images.

             What do they think about the time I waste?
Such an abundance that I throw whole hours
into online Scrabble or Threes,
because it’s hard to be here now,
now being a confused elixir
of sun and fog and email and bird shadow and superstition
and chicken feet and toast and news
and insatiable longing and I have to pee, a fusillade
of random moments that converge
into a ravishing pattern,
which I have, from time to time and briefly, glimpsed.

            But mostly I wander the planet with blinders on,
            going somewhere fast.
            I like to keep moving.
            I like my time full.
            And I like to believe that because
            Their photos look out from their niche
            In the living room, they are present, and if
            I keep a fresh parade of flowers on the altar
            They will keep on keeping me
            from harm.

Some critics would say that the poem ends with the penultimate stanza, that the final stanza is an unnecessary afterthought and, thus, out of place. Natchez never shies away from “telling us” in the midst of “showing us”—not from a lack of writing ability, but rather, seemingly, from an abundance of wise commentary earned from a life lived to its fullest. I would say that what works about this final stanza is the repetition of “like” that softens any didactic tone.

“After” is another fine example of this blend that works, partly, because it is in the second person—in reality a “first person light”—bridging the emotional gap between reader and poet, accentuating, as do many of Catwalk's poems, its haunting echo of facing the COVID19  pandemic.


After

At first, to be alive is all you need.
The sweet bitterness of coffee,
the hand with the umbrella,
the blanket’s warmth
as you step from the wing of the plane
afloat on icy water
onto the deck of the rescue boat.
Even the air’s acrid sting
on the skin of your cheeks
is welcome.

But soon
you begin to miss your laptop,
your keys, the numbers
stored in your phone.
This is the daily wonder,
to take life for granted
each time
it’s restored to you.

Natchez utilizes multiple forms in her quest for a permanence beyond permanence and impermanence. Here is a prose poem from section III, Brief Poems on Physics, rendered in one breath, enacting the cycle of connection / dissolution that embodies our existence.

Made of molecules

I take for granted that the earth is solid the idea of permanence
seductive as I move about checking the time going here going there
the small chores and pleasures of daily interaction shaken when
the lanterns in the Hunan restaurant suddenly being to sway and
we run outside remembering that the reliable ground under our
feet can suddenly shift that the live oak with its wrinkled elephant
trunk and ancient lichen its catkins and acorns reassembles itself
moment to moment as if forever as if predictable as if not vulner-
able as if not a continuous regrouping a notion a casual kiss that
might be the last

“Looseplex: Despite everything, spring” is emblematic of Natchez’ intriguing nonce form. A quest poem, uncovering the darkness and the light, universally and inexorably bonded together, as we are to all things, it appropriately introduces the final section of Catwalk and concludes this review. 

Looseplex: Despite everything, spring

No one was watching. We searched the silence
Like a farmer in drought, ears open for rain.

            Each morning, each evening, scatter of yellow.
            Whatever else may occur, it’s spring,

A framework for the rags of this world,
Real joy mixed with a certain uncertainty.

            Overnight a fuzz of tender green.
            It glints and shimmers. It pulls me towards it—strong

Carpet of newborn shoots under last year’s weeks.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies.

            Aretha’s hat, Yo Yo Ma’s delight,
            Is this our work, to love what is here?

To move along the skin of this earth
Married like enamel to the tooth.


Meryl Natchez' most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. She is co-translator of Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001, and her new book, Catwalk, is forthcoming from Longship Press in June 2020 (pre-orders available now HERE). Her work has appeared in Hudson Review, Poetry Northwest, The American Journal of Poetry, ZYZZYVA, The Pinch Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Lyric, The Moth, Comstock Review, and many others. She is on the board of Marin Poetry Center and blogs at www.merylnatchez.com

Catwalk may be pre-ordered HERE







Sunday, July 28, 2019

Barbara Swift Brauer: Rain, Like a Thief

In my continuing series of reviews of collections by Marin poets, I turn to Barbara Swift Brauer's Rain, Like a Thief (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2019). I had the privilege earlier this year of hearing Brauer read at Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael, Ca. I found her deceptively simple poems an apt counterpoint to the lush, dark poems of Camille Norton, another Sixteen Rivers Press poet. Although Brauer's Rain, Like a Thief explores the weather of our existence that is often "...wind [and ] black clouds," they are also are perennially infused with light. And it is this light, sometimes only "brief sun" or a "small globe flicker[ing]" we are able to lean into for solace and comfort. Brauer's collection is divided into four sections. I have attempted to share the best example of her writing from each.

From section I, "You Think This Is You," the poem that remained with me longer than other poems emblematic of Brauer's light/dark poems, was "The Professionals." Those "loose materials... [that] arrive in any freighted crate / or on a sun shaft / through grimed windows" seems about right for the way poetry comes to me.

The Professionals

     Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up 
     and get to work.
          --Chuck Close

I.
We are busy getting on with it,
every day surveying the loose materials
scattered about the studio.

They arrive in any freighted crate
or on a sun shaft
through grimed windows.

Soon we are hammering
a new apron to broaden the stage,
seducing form into brazen acts

of primary color, ever
exploring the intimate cracks
in the surfaces of things.

II.
Tonight an evening from long ago
rumbles into memory
with the passing of a truck.

I am here at my desk as an old light,
long extinguished,
spreads everywhere in the room.

How to tell you of the age-darkened walls
of that once-summer cabin--
kerosene lamp on the table,

flowered tea service
thought from the kitchen.
What was it we talked of,

my grandmother and I,
the lake outside knocking
softly on its shores?

The conversation vanishes,
only the light remains.

A vastly different take on light and dark--one that widens into racial and socio-political realms--emerges from "Brothers," a poem from section II, "Our Brittle Doors."

Brothers

     It cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were
     symbolic expressions of the Neanderthals.
          --Alistair W. G. Pike

     Sin crouches by the door.
          --Genesis 4:7

We knew them from the caves,
their handprints on the wall.

Held our own palms against them,
our five fingers matching.

We were not alone.

Just over the hill,
their fires and dark burrows.

Someone knew us
as certainly, warily, as we knew them.

We were not alone. Knowing
comforted and chafed.

By dark, we watched from the distance.
By day, we found them at the hunt

bloody over their kill, the fat herds startled
and out of reach. We turned back in hunger.

By the lakes they gathered,
the streams fouled and muddied

in their wake. It chafed and galled.
We coveted the caves,

the forests and fields, first strike
at the bison, the calves, first chance

at the eggs in the nests. We coveted
and then we struck. Surprised them
from behind, struck and struck again.

In section III, "The Mountain Is Our Weather," I find the title poem particularly compelling because of the specificity and compression of its diction, paired with its ubiquity of content.

The Mountain Is Our Weather

     A Traveler's Notes from Denali

Skim-milk moon
above Igloo Creek,
fireweed at the door.
Is someone knocking?
            ~
Savage River with its glacial song
glides through the dimming light,
disappears far down the valley
like a great flock of birds.
            ~
Site 142 with its knee-high
quaking aspen, mosquitoes
easy to swat from the sky.
That wind, black clouds.
Brief sun, redemptive.
            ~
This thick stand of spruce,
minyan of elders,
keeps its own counsel.

I look for clues, omens
whenever I meet
what's larger than myself.
            ~
Here at Wonder Lake
it's all abut the mountain:
our last view at night,
the first each morning.

The mountain is our weather,
our darkness, our light.

In section IV, Brauer gives us this short elegy to a mother that encapsulates a life in fourteen lines. "Temporal," could be a final poem in this note-worthy collection--like Janus, looking backwards to our origins and "what remains in this world," and forward to the tasks before us...

Temporal

I recognize my mother's body
as I soap in the shower: the soft undersides
of my arms, the round of my hips.

Year later, I am washing her,
face and neck, withered legs,
her small hands between my hands.

Now I wash the dishes
from her cupboard,
lay the places at my table.

How careful we must be
of what remains in this world,
how careful of ourselves,

fragile vessels, and the light
through these small windows.


Barbara Swift Brauer is a freelance writer living in San Geronimo, California. Her first poetry collection, At Ease in the Borrowed World, was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2013. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies as well as in art exhibitions and installations. With portrait artist Jackie Kirk, she is coauthor of the nonfiction book, Witness: The Artist's Vision in "The Face of AIDS" (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996).


Saturday, June 22, 2019

A World-Class Poetry Journal in Marin: Nostos

As the new poet laureate of Marin County California, my project is "Poetry as Connection." I won't elaborate on all that might entail over the coming two years, but one thing I'm doing is making as many personal connections as I can with poets, as well as people and organizations in Marin that read and support poetry.

A few weeks ago I met with Lawrence Tjernell, editor of Nostos, a relatively new literary journal published in Marin. This post is a brief summary of what I learned from Tjernell about Nostos, and a review of its latest issue: Volume II, Number 2 (2018).

Those of you who know your literary history will remember that in Greek Nostos refers to a hero, such as Odysseus, returning home by sea. The name is an apt one. Tjernell is a former professor of literature at San Jose State University, and has long dreamed of founding a literary journal that brings serious literature by local and national authors to the page. After visiting with this knowledgable teacher, and reading this 3rd issue that demonstrates his exacting editorial skills, I am impressed with what he has accomplished in a short time. And I'm convinced that the erudition evident in this issue is only the beginning of what he will accomplish over time.

Each issue of Nostos is themed. The theme of this issue is "familial"-- the relationships between and among father / son / mother / daughter. Tjernell could not have picked a more appropriate series of poems than Louise Gluck's Telemachus poems to open with. Rebecca Foust, Marin Poet Laureate Emerita, writes of them in the foreword:

The poems by Louise Gluck in this issue of Nostos are from Meadowlands, a collection that looks at The Odyssey in a new way, embodying Penelope and Odysseus in a contemporary marriage conversation resonant with the domestic minutiae bickering that can overlay fundamental and tragic conflict...Gluck show[s] that her themes of love, grief, and loss are timeless and universal.

The first seven of Gluck's eight poems are from the point of view of Telemachus, each speaking to a different facet of his experience as the son of an adulterous, absent, hero father and a courageous, albeit stoic, distant, and in-denial, mother. Telemachus' detachment, guilt, kindness, dilemma, fantasy, confession, and burden are examined in turn.

In "Telemachus' Kindness" we learn that instead of blaming his parents for his trials: "...in practical terms, hav[ing] no father; [and having a] mother / [who] lived at her loom hypothesizing / husband's erotic life," Telemachus "...gradually / realized no child on that island had / a different story...." Gluck ends the poem with these lines that resound throughout the entire series: "I can look at my parents / impartially and pity the both: I hope / always to be able to pity them."

The eighth poem, "Reunion," is in omniscient third person.  After returning home and killing Penelope's suitors Odysseus motions for Telemachus to leave. Standing before Penelope,

...he tells her
nothing of those years, choosing to speak instead
exclusively of small things, as would be
the habit of a man and woman long together:
once she sees who he is, she will know what he's done.
And as he speaks, ah,
tenderly he touches her forearm.

It is with a tender touch that Tjernell reaches out to readers of Nostos, giving them credit for their familiarity with and appreciation of the growing literary canon, without presenting material so obscure or opaque as to lose their interest--above all, quietly assuming their longstanding love of the written word. And there is much to love in the stories and poems by these authors, a complete list of which appears at the end of this review. Most of them, if not residents of northern California, have roots there.

Six poems appear by Rebecca Foust, each honoring an iconic family image. In "Mom's Canoe" the poet remembers the life of a mother and a canoe, each with poignant images that inform one another. "Remember how it glowed like honey in summer / rubbed with beeswax and turpentine / against leaks, cracks, weather and time." And then later in the poem and later in the life of mother and canoe: "I still see you rising from water to sky, / paddle held high, / river drops limning its edge." And then later still: "Parting the current, you slip / silently through the evening shadows. / You, birdsong, watering, slanting light, / following river bend, swallowed from sight."

All of Foust's poems are noteworthy. In "No Longer Medusa" the poet positions the transition from the time "I turned men to adamantine / with a glance" to when "I am alive / all night with fear for you, undone / by your sweet, milky breath, / the bobcat tufts on your ears, / your pink ribbon gums" with the birth of a daughter, "...my mirror / the chink in my armor." In "Preparation for Pirouette," "Hangfire," "Ice Skating at Night," and "fearsome & wondrous," Foust uses no less gorgeous diction and spot-on imagery to connect deeply with readers, both cognitively and emotionally.

Before reading Nostos, I knew Lisa Rappoport as a letterpress printer creating poetry broadsides under the imprint Littoral Press. Now I know her as a poet, equally capable of working in free verse as in form. Her "Coffee Cake" presents lines of rumination between recipe directions to give readers not only the ingredients of, no doubt, a family recipe, but the recipe for a family: "...powdery memories of your mother's kitchen, / entire, fragmented, smashed, a mishmash of love, regret cracked hope, nourishment bestowed / and withheld, acrid white dust. Leaven[ed] with / 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder, for levity, even / chemically induced; for ease, / whatever is light, what rises, what floats."

Her final poem of four, "Proud Flesh," is a Shakespearian sonnet depicting a daughter as "the scar of parents, not their child." Instead of a hero's journey that ends in either redemption or utter loss, Rappoport's character approaches the final couplet with "By speaking now I hope to find a way / to soften angry edges, or atone," setting up the qualified resolution: "so healed or not, the proud flesh and its ache / hold life beyond that long ago mistake."

Tjernell doesn't make a false step or a wrong turn in his journey from Gluck's account of the trials of an ancient Greek family through the voice of Telemachus to the trials of a modern California family in the aftermath of a divorce precipitated by an affair, complete with custody problems, power plays, the burning down of the house where they used to all live, and the ensuing trial in "Disneyland Dad," a short story by Heather Altfeld, and the journal's final piece.

Along the way, the editor guides us seamlessly through multiple genres on an obviously predetermined route, while treading so lightly as to make us feel we are voyeurs looking in on the private lives of families different enough from ours in regards to their superficial trappings to be interesting, but similar enough in the depths of their pathologies and ecstasies, to be hauntingly familiar. The following are particularly emblematic of this process.

In Javier Zamora's "Then, It Was So," a father, age 19,  speaks of the agony of leaving his family to find a better life for them all.

To tell you I was leaving
I waited and waited
rethinking first sentences in my sleep,
I didn't sleep,
and my heart was a watermelon
split each night Outside,
3 a.m. was the same as bats
and you were our kerosene lamp.

Zamora's "Postpartum" is a lamentation by a mom, age 18, that begins:

My son's in the other room. This little
burlap sack of rice came out yellow,
some deficiency, got incubated, hasn't
stopped crying--his father wasn't there,
he was "out fishing."

And then ends with:

Maybe he hears, I wish he hears my moans
when he's on to of his whores.
Like I don't know. I am crazy, but not
estupida. If I catch him, me las va pager.
Me las va pagar, that dipshit
deep in debt over a fishing boat
he can't catch nothing in. My son
won't drink from me. I pump breasts,
rub sugar and honey on them,
why won't he drink from me?

In Troy Jollimore's "The Arrow Man" we meet Nate, stuck in a going nowhere relationship whose difficulty in meeting people or making new relationships presents itself as people confusing him with the actor who used to play a vampire on the TV show, The Undead Chronicles. Or worse, as the vampire himself.

In the second of Lorna Stevens's diptychs, Cross Purposes, two child-like renderings of a house is overlaid on itself as if in four dimensions, implying the passage of time. Centered in each are two sentences set at right angles, intersecting at the "A" shared by the middle word,"WAS." In the first image: "BEN WAS SORRY" (vertical), and "MOM WAS ANGRY" (horizontal). In the second: "BEN WAS SAD (vertical), and "MOM WAS SORRY (horizontal). Afterimages of these sentences fade into the background as echoes or reverberations.

Who doesn't remember stories from their parents about when and how they met, as in the opening lines to David Rollinson's "Watching Dance with the Dancers?"

I always knew there was dancing.
My parents danced the ballroom dances:
my handsome father with his black,
slick hair and his pencil thin black mustache,
my pretty mother with her Andrews Sisters hair
and shapely calves--they
could dress up beautifully and go out dancing to "peg o' my
Heart,"
their cocktails on a white tablecloth
at their table near the bandstand.
Somehow, I got to be there.

Who has not accused their parents or has been accused by a child of ruining their lives, so well documented by Meryl Natchez in "Theodicy" / or How Evil Enters the World. After what seems a lifetime of sleep deprivation and crying, and giving up the pleasures of being a childless adult,

...they learn how to walk,
to swim, to read, and you've paid for the orthodontist

and endured the teenage years, and paid for college and
helped out with grad school and they're launched,

with their own lives, their own ways of salting meat
and slicing it, their own partners and opinions,

here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems
for which it turns out you are the cause.

Finally, to celebrate what may be an appropriate universal response to our families--natural or otherwise--and to the words and images of these poets and writers and artists about them, here are the final lines of Karen Poppy's poem, "On Your Birthday."

Rain dampens the leaves, lacquers their mottled beauty.
I touch them as if they were slick skin
And swallow in their swollen scent.

Their veins open to the air,
Spread through their star-shaped bodies,
Glistening fire on my hands.

Such temporal brilliance.

Come winter, leaves under snow,
My teeth cold, and the air strongly mineral,
I will say your name
Against the pure, colorless sky.

Such temporal brilliance...I will say your name...

The name is Nostos. The editor is Lawrence Tjernell. The contributors are listed below.

Contributors to Vol. II, Number 2 

Louise Gluck's collection The Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1993. The author of twelve books of poetry, she teaches at Yale University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Born in El Salvador, Javier Zamora published his first collection of poems, Unaccompanied, in 2017 (Copper Canyon Press). He is the co-founder of "Undocupoets," an advocacy group calling on publishers to extend grants and first-book contest awards to writers with DACA status or Temporary Protected Status.

Rebecca Foust's books include Paradise Drive (2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry), reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Georgia, Harvard, and Hudson Reviews. She is Poet Laureate Emerita of Marin County, Poetry Editor for Women's Voices for Change, and an Assistant Editor and Team Leader reading fiction for Narrative Magazine.

Lisa Rapport is a letterpress printer and book artist, creating artist's books and poetry broadsides under the imprint Littoral Press, as well as a book designer and poet. Her poetry collection, Penumbra, was recently published by Longship Press.

Troy Jollimore is the author of three books of poems: Tom Thomson in Purgatory (2006), At Lake Scugog (2011), and Syllabus of Errors (2015). He teaches at CSU, Chico.

Lorna Stevens is a mixed media artist whose work has been acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, di Rosa, the New York Public Library, and Numakanai Sculpture Garden, and the SF MOMA Research Library. She teaches collage and sculpture at City College of San Francisco.

Keleigh Friedrich received an MFA in writing from Mills College in 2009, where her thesis won the Amanda Davis MFA Scholarship Award. For the last 12 years she has served as a volunteer for the Awareness Institute. She lives in Northern California.

David Rollison moved to San Francisco in the late summer of 1963 to study with Kay Boyle, John Gardner, Leonard Wolf, Jack Golbert, and others. His recent collection is Ghost Poems & Wetland Ballads, and he has published several poems in early editions of Nostos. 

James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon, A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008), based on the true story of William Wordsworth's great love. Tipton is also a poet. Gary Snyder called Tipton's book of poetry, Sacred Places, "keen, taut, and skillful."

Grace Marie Grafton has published six collection of poetry. The most recent, Jester, was published by Hip Pocket Press. Ms. Grafton taught with CA Poets in the Schools, earning twelve CA Arts Council grants for her teaching programs.

Meryl Natchez's most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Meryl is a board member of Marin Poetry Center.

Sharon Pretti works as a medical social worker at Laguna Honda Hospital where she also runs a poetry group for seniors and disabled adults. Her work has appeared in Spillway, Calyx, MARGIE, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Comstock Review, The Healing Muse and other journals.

Karen Poppy has work published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, ArLiJo, Wallace Stevens Journal, and Blue Unicorn. She has recently compiled her first poetry collection, written her first novel, and is at work on her second novel.

Joanne Esser writes poetry and nonfiction in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A teacher of young children for over thirty years, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University and published a chapbook of poems, I Have Always Wanted Lightening (Finishing Line Press, 2012).

Heather Altfeld is a poet and essayist. Her first book of poetry, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. "Disneyland Dad" is her first short story to be published since 1997. Heather teaches at CSU, Chico.

Editor's Note: Themes of future issues include "East Wind" (The influence of Asian art and literature on Western writing), and "Loss." For more about Nostos and Longship Press, click WEBSITE.