Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alley Cat Books Hosts Four Poetry Lions

Last night, Alley Cat Books in the San Francisco Mission District (, was host to "The Shadows Have Their Say: A Night of Poetry featuring Forrest Gander, Alejandro Murguia, Chard deNiord, and Peter Everwine."  Based on the number of poetry readers compared with those of other genres, some would say that poetry itself lives in the shadows of the literary world. But last night these four poetry lions roared in the full daylight of not only contemporary American Poetry, but in the blazing heat of modern World Literature, as well. Gander graciously spent most of his allotted time reading poems by other poets, such as the Spanish poet, Antonio Gamoneda, and Latin American poets from Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America which he, Gander, edited; Murguia read from his work and from the work of others in both Spanish and English, and reminded us of the relationship of poetry to the other literary and fine arts; DeNiord told the story of interviewing Ruth Stone as she lay in bed for three years before she finally rose to try on a hat for her daughter, and read from his new book of interviews with her and other major American poets, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs; and Peter Everwine brought the lyrical wisdom typical of his work, acknowledging Po Chui as a major influence.

But the highest moments for me occurred in the reading of the poets' own work.

DeNiord read poems from his latest book, The Double Truth and from his new, yet unreleased, manuscript, Interstate, celebrating poetry's ability to make beauty out of sound and meaning out of mystery--both in the context of good story--to a degree only possible at the height of a poet's powers. Witness this passage from "The Golden Herd," a poem about the poet leaving his desk to investigate the possible reason for the disruptive frantic mooing of cows in the meadow:

. . . for something had to be wrong the way
they were lowing so loud in the distance
as if to sound the alarm of locusts or coyotes.
As if they were the golden herd of Apollo
and Odysseus's men had just arrived to slaughter them.
But there they were as usual in their huddle,
except for one who had wandered off
and was grazing by the beaver pond in a calm,
eternal manner. What could I know
of their bovine moods, that calculus that lay
embedded in the marrow of their skulls
like a problem beyond my solving, their sudden
explosive bellowing for what appeared to be no reason,
as if they needed no reason as a reason for bellowing
at nothing on this otherwise peaceful, April morning?

Before last night, I had not heard Alajandro Murguia read. It is so fitting that the new Poet Laureate of San Francsico is not only an excellent writer of lyrical, substantive poetry, but a superb reader of his work (and the work of others), as well. Murguia has deep roots in the San Francisco poetry scene through his mentors Jack Hirschman, Bob Kauffman, and others, his living in The Mission District, his teaching at San Francisco State, as well as the rhythms and content of his poems that do not fall into the ruts of rehashing the poetry of the 50's and 60's or making poetry that is in the service of any agenda other than the continuing restoration of our spiritual health and of poetry itself. His poetry is new wine in old wineskins, that will continue to ferment for the healing of our times. Unfortunately for the attendees of this reading, his newest book, Stray Poems was not yet available for the reading, and so I don't have a poem that he read to share with readers. However, it will be available soon through City Lights Bookstore. In addition, today, December 14, his personal collection of the postcards of Guillermo Kahlo can be viewed at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Library, Jewett Gallery, Lower Level. At 2:00 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium, there will be the Virgin of Guadalupe Celebration: Featuring Aztec Dancers, and you may meet Alajandro Murguia, and experience his vitality first hand.

I have been a fan of Forrest Gander for some time, having read Torn Awake several years ago. Many times I have been disappointed upon hearing a poet read, whose work I've enjoyed. This was not the case with Gander. His graciousness, his intellect, his vital voice, infused all of the text he read with an  insistent gravitas that demanded not only my mental attention, but the investment of my entire self into the language and thought of the poems, as well as into some kind of action as a result of hearing them. His reading brought to mind a passage of scripture from my childhood: "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only." By example, Gander seemed to be saying "Be ye doers of poetry, not just hearers only."  The highlight of the all too short fifteen minutes that Gander took was the reading of his poem "Entanglement" from his new chapbook, Eiko & Koma. I learned that Eiko and Koma Otake are a dance duo that perform a unique "theatre of stillness"--performances lasting as long as eight hours that take viewers "out of time and out of their own bodies," as Gander puts it. "Entanglement" is a gorgeous poem that enacts one of the performances with the gesture of reversing the lines midway through and repeating them to the end, providing a new context for each line, each word, each stanza. I will not repeat the entire poem here, but only share the first and last stanzas as true sample of Gander's moving and virtuosic work:


And begin to emerge.  From their
long float.  From cellars of sleep.
Here on the earth's wet
set.  Hair and leaves mixed
with leaves and hair.  Vision sheared
to make room for vision.
Two figures and
the caesura of
longing.  Bound by what is
unwritten.  Unwakened . . . 

. . . Their eyes done in, bound
by.  What is unwritten?  Two figures.
And the caesura of longing.
Vision shears away
to make room for vision.  Leaves
and hair mixed with hair
and leaves.  Here
on the earth's wet set.  From
cellars of sleep, from their
long float.  And begin
to emerge.

I met Peter Everwine in 2007 at a reading in New Hampshire.  I found him to be one of the kindest people I've ever met.  Without a trace of self-promotion or self-importance, this established poet--with way too little recognition by the greater poetry community--took the time to listen to my plans for my MFA Thesis and make suggestions.  (One was that I pick up the phone and call Philip Levine to ask him about Larry Levis--which I was hesitant to do, but finally did, and found Levine to be as generous with his time as Everwine.)  Most poets in their 8th decade (if they even make it that far), are not even writing, or have their best work behind them.  Peter Everwine's mature poetry is better than ever, and that we get to drink it from a transparent, crystal character and full, life-rounded voice is nothing less than divine.  I close with the ultimate poem from his latest collection Listening Long and Late (2013):

Aubade In Autumn

This morning, from under the floor boards
of the room in which I write,
Lawrence the handyman is singing the blues
in a soft falsetto as he works, the words
unclear, though surely one of them is 'love,'
lugging its shadow of sadness into song.
I don't want to think about sadness;
there's never a lack of it.
I want to sit quietly for a while
and listen to my father making
a joyful sound unto his mirror
as he shaves--slap of razor
against the strop, the familiar rasp of his voice
singing his favorite hymn, but faint now,
coming from so far back in time:
"Oh, come to the church in the wildwood . . . "
my father, who had no faith, but loved
how the long, ascending syllable of 'wild'
echoed from the walls in celebration
as the morning opened around him . . . 
as now it opens around me, the light shifting
in the leaf-fall of the pear tree and across
the bedraggled backyard roses
that I have been careless of
but brighten the air, nevertheless.
Who am I, if not one who listens
for words to stir from the silences they keep?
Love is the ground note; we cannot do
without it or the sorrow of its changes.
"Come to the wildwood, love,
Oh, to the wiiild wood" as the morning deepens,
and from a branch in the cedar tree a small bird
quickens his song into the blue reaches of heaven--
"hey sweetie sweetie hey."

Kudos to Marguerite Munoz, event organizer, and Alley Cat Books for bringing together these capacious voices for one of the best poetry readings I've been to in San Francisco in several years.

And, of course, to these four lions, roaring in the light!

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

Welcome back!

The Greek word for "doers" in that NT passage is "poesas" or something very close to that. Maybe it doesn't exactly mean "Be poets of the word," but it's close. Etymologically at least. I love that.

As always, the way you write about poets and their poetry pushes me straight to amazon before any awareness of decision or will makes itself known. Thanks. I love that, too.