Sunday, January 13, 2013

Addition to the Reading List: Kathleen Graber

I had not read Kathleen Graber, but I needed nothing more than the opening poem in the September/October issue of American Poetry Review to place her book, The Eternal City, on my 2013 reading list.

America (Peaches)

America, if you think I could do better by you,
I have no doubt. Though I stoop conscientiously
to pick up my dog's waste from the grass
with black biodegradable bags. And lest you suspect
some pretension, know my dog was one at the shelter
no one else would take. He is fat & lazy,
& I coud do better by him as well, though
I do not know if a long walk in the park
in 97 degree heat is a good idea. Please cue
a Presidential sound-bite to reassure me
all hearts are more resilient than I think. I confess
it would have been a moral error to have embraced him
if I did not have the means to keep him fed. But
I am writing tonight because there is something wrong
with your peaches. The ones from the supermarket
were so soft & cheap--half the cost of the ones
sold by the local farm--but the flesh near the pit
was so bitter & green. It is a fruit like the mind
we are making together: both overripe & immature.
Trust me, I still have the simple tastes you gave me:
I am delighted by the common robins & cardinals,
the way they set the trees at dusk aflame. Thank you
for Tuesday's reliable trash collection. If you are
constellated somehow a little bit inside
each of your people, I am sorry that there is more
& more of you lately I do not understand.
Sometimes I want simply to sit alone a long time
in silence. American, you must want this too.

(from American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct, 2012)

But then I read three more of her poems in the same issue of APR, along with her interview, and I was hooked.

Essential Poets & Artists

If you look at her entry in the Poetry Foundation website, you will find that Graber, "after years of teaching high school English, was inspired while leading a class field trip to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival to begin writing poems." What the article does not tell you (but you might guess if you read her work), is who makes up her blood lines--her essential poets and artists (in addition to her own students) who were catalysts to her epiphanies that fuel her poems. The interview that follows her poems in the same issue of APR does just that. Here is a sampling from her answer to the question "Can you talk about how you came to write the particular kind of poems you write?"

I learned to write a certain sort of poem by teaching composition and the personal essay. . . there were three instances over a span of about five years in which my mind became clear to itself. . .the earliest one was my first vision of a Cornell box. . . I was looking at a visual analog for the poems I wanted to write. . . The second moment came when I opened Larry Levis's collection Winter Stars randomly for the first time in a bookstore that was sadly going out of business. Standing there in an aisle, I read the line "Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy." The third was reading Walter Benjamin. He described an idea he called "nonsensuous similitude." This is a likeness between things that is not dependent upon any sensory similarity but on another kind of kinship. This gave me a term for what Cornell and Levis were able to perceive and manipulate.

As part of a follow up to the same topic, Graber continues . . .

I think the two most important poets for me are Larry Levis and Charles Wright. . . I came to poetry through the front door, the doorway of contemporary poetry, and Levis showed me a way to put the associative mind to work and Wright gave me permission to think on the page. I think my poems are actually quite derivative of theirs in many ways. I do get some tonal and thematic distance, though, as a result of the gender difference.

Image and Thought

In her answer above, Graber provides the concepts to explain why I am taken with her work (it modulates between image and thought), and in the final sentence to her interview, provides the language to refine those concepts--"precise" and "accurate" thought, and "beautiful execution" of lasting images--in part, because of their "emotion[al]" charge.

In the following lines, image and thought dance with one another without either one leading or being led. Who does not resonate with the thought "I am writing tonight because there is something wrong," and who can forget the image of those peaches: "The ones from the supermarket/. . . so soft & cheap--half the cost of the ones/sold by the local farm . . . the flesh near the pit/so bitter & green?" But try to pull apart the idea from the image in "a fruit like the mind/we are making together: both overripe & immature" and all you get is mushy juice. That's the precision, the art, the poem.

I'm not sure how these ideas will play out in her book, but I'm very excited about reading it with them in mind. And with an open mind to be surprised by anything. That's one of the reasons' I'm adding her to my list.

The Widening Spell

The other reason is less rational--I "feel" that Graber is a part of "the family," part of "the widening spell"--not only from her poems and her interview, but because of who she likes, as well--not only Larry Levis, whose finding holiness in the ankle of a horse is emblematic of his genius of binding images to unlikely language, creating unpredictable lines and poems, but Charles Wright, whose first seven lines to "In Praise of Thomas Hardy" catch him thinking aloud on the page:

Each second the earth is struck hard
by four and a half pounds of sunlight.
Each second.
Try to imagine that.
No wonder deep shade is what the soul longs for,
And not, as we always thought, the light.
No wonder the inner life is dark.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

Being retired from teaching composition and poetry to teenagers myself, I am enchanted by the trajectory of Ms. Graber's poetic life and, particularly, the poetic life that moves, well, dances between word and experience, thought and image.
How wonder-fully different is the organizing tool I was encouraged to teach my students - Cornell notes - to the "nonsensuous similitude" of Cornell boxes! (is nonsensuous similitude a phrase to describe metaphor?)

I, too, am deeply attracted to the mysterious quality of Joseph Cornell's boxes and those of others who have followed his path. I have several large boxes of evocative elements collected over many years, awaiting my entry into the creation of such things. For years I carried a small slip of paper with an artist's name and the phrase "emotional archaeology" on it, intended to hold on to contact with an artist whose work followed Cornell before I knew Cornell. The paper is gone, but the connective idea is still dancing, as lively and alluring as the frozen moments of objects and images and the living moments of experience and mystery that may be seen - in light and in dark - with the poet's eye.

As for seeking shade, here's a bit of understanding I taught my students: the poet writes light into the darkness and darkness into the light. An idea better understood through a Cornell box than Cornell notes.