Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Angles of Departure by Marcene Gandolfo: A Study in Repetition with Restraint

Like the black hole at the center of our galaxy that retains on its event horizon all of the information about the matter it has swallowed up, Marcene Gandolfo's first full-length collection, Angles of Departure, pulls its readers into a place of absence--a place of lost pregnancies, lost futures, lost identities--but it is not a place of total emptiness "Because nothing remains empty. Come in. Listen with / me and we will hear the phonograph play the song that / was lost before we were born." ("Anamnesis," p. 11, lines 15-17.)

The virtuosity of these poems lies in their restraint and unfolding craft.  Hear both elements in the opening lines to the same opening poem:

My summerhouse is empty now.  You may know the
house. I built it one night in a sugared dream. The lights
are always on and the oven bakes cookies. The backyard 
trees blossom but fruit never ripens and the sweet-
toothed child eats strawberries and dances to a scratchy
phonograph song no one has beard before. But one
night, the music stops. I wake. The doctor says no
heartbeat and I see the child is only a folded cloud on an
ultrasound. Then I say my summerhouse is empty now.

Gandolfo's prosody is one of repetition. Not merely within her poems, as in the first and ultimate lines of "Anamnesis," but between poems, as they call and answer to one another like a mother and a child who is learning to sound like her,  like "evening garage doors open[ing] and clos[ing,]" like "peace flags [that] lined [the] street" shape-shifting their sounds, their images, the meanings we attribute to them as if they were the melodies and harmonies of a three-movement piece of music.  

The best poems in this collection are microcosms of the entire work, not merely by visiting yet another loss, but by tracing the evolution of the poet's growing metaphoric sense, with a growing consciousness of their own lines like these from "A Careful Angle": "Some days your truths are shoes / that won't fit: // so unlike the message that lies / in your doorway. // There's a technique to opening / another address, // a careful angle by which you unveil."

Gandolfo enacts this craft of cutting "careful angles" with lines of precision and restraint in the overwhelming majority of her poems.  In "Lost," "The summer after the baby died," we are told the story of  trying to "keep the cat alive, her old kidneys closing."

That's all I remember that summer, saline bags hanging from the wall,
the faithful drip of the needle, my hands

steady as I pinched her skin and pushed the needle under her shoulder,
where she would lie against my swollen belly and purr

as her hollow body filled again with hunger and she would dance young
for an hour and then moan for more water.  That's all

I remember that summer. Hanging those bags of water, breaking open
a new needle, finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push,

the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over
my knuckle, some days a drop of blood on my thumb

and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying
for water and only wanted to sleep

and the bag of saline was a folded lung on the wall.

All that is required to tie this story to the death of the poet's unborn baby is the one line "The summer after the baby died."  But Gandolfo is a master at reinforcing the relationship without hitting her readers over the head with similes: the couplets that end in a single line, the images of how her cat "would lie against [her] swollen belly and purr," of " . . . finding the proper angle, the pinch and the push, // the push and the skin breaking and some days water spilling over . . . , some days a drop of blood on my thumb, // and the pushing and the dripping until one day the cat stopped crying," the repetition of "That's all I remember that summer"--as if there were two remembrances, which there were.  Even the final line, with its "bag of saline" conveys the directness of a metaphor alongside the subtlety of the closing down of a life that cannot be forgotten with its "folded lung on the wall."  

In "In December" the idea of folding is modified and amplified: "It was the day for origami, / the day I taught my daughter to fold / a perfect five-point star . . . " to "feel each paper square / as a body, see its scars // and creases against our own."  The word "fold" or "folded" is used four times in this poem--each time growing in emotional intensity from "fold[ing] / a perfect five-point star," to "fold[ing] corner-to-corner," to "fold[ing] flat" to

When we finished folding
I couldn't tell her it happened again.
I couldn't say, "No Baby

in May. . . 

Galdolfo's use of call and answer, incorporating repetition never more slant, and restraint never more subtle, finds its zenith in the two poems, "Taking Down the Crib" and "A Tide," although the poems inhabit almost opposite ends of the book and concern themselves with opposite ends of a life. In the former, after an opening description of disassembling the crib and placing the pieces into a "wooden box," all that is left is "a press / against the rug, a smudge of dust, no stain / . . . [except] one streak / of light across the wall. It must have been / a sunbeam through the window, against bleak / blue paint. It bleached a line white. . . "  In "A Tide," we are presented with a car crash, the driver's life "an eyelash flutter away / from the river," and witness her "break[ing] / from the half-opened / door, scream[ing] to the black / morning and crawl[ing] / to the ground, worm[ing] her way / through mud and climb[ing] the bank."  Afterward she walks to town, limping at first. But then "her walk steadies as day / takes shape. A vein / of light scales the river bank / through the dark in the road / and her eyes open to a wave / of blue air, transparent."   

In Angles of Departure, Galdolfo takes her readers to places that at first glance look familiar, like the "There" in the ultimate poem, "Beatific."

There you can hear a child cough in a canyon. There you can see
her sweatshop awl bore your coat buttons.

There you can hold her calloused hands. There you can taste
the boho's bourbon and the blood on his broken dog's claw.

But upon a closer inspection of the details of this landscape, we find ourselves in unchartered territory:

There you can listen to the beaten child stutter all the languages
you've never heard.

But [we] "can't stay long, for fear [we] may dissolve." So we return to "where sweet plums grow outside [our] window," where we "can have meringues and tea // and read old books and dream in our comfortable chair."  But that place, these poems, come knocking: ". . . There where a hungry woman / offers // a piece of bread . . . / There where you find a book in your pocket. // There where you turn the first page and know it wasn't written here / in a comfortable chair. // There where you feel the poet's pulse rush from the other side / of the page."

With convincing poems, Gandolfo pulls us back to that other side enough times that she fulfills for me (in the words of Larry Levis), the reason I read and write poetry: "To stop time."  Thank you Marcene Gandolfo for not only providing us with "Angles of Departure," but so many angles of arrival, and the not-quite-empty, timeless space between them.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Maxine Kumin: Poet of Rescue, Poet of Witness

Maxine Kumin died yesterday.  According to reports, she was at home in Warner, New Hampshire, where she and her husband of sixty-eight years had rescued countless dogs and horses to run free on their hillside farm--her garden, her swimming pond and, at least for the dogs, her rambling country house.  This was the same house where she taught countless numbers of poets to free their poems by "pounding them into form"--a phrase that, at first, seems oxymoronic, but makes sense when you witness her life--a life of freedom not only in spite of (in the case of those placed upon her because she was a woman in the first half of the 20th century), but because of the external parameters she placed upon herself: the wife of one man for nearly seven decades, a pastoral, domestic life, a writing life that unfolded not out of ambition, but out of love for the art form, for her mentors, her colleagues, her peers, her students.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those students.  I sat in workshop in her farmhouse, stepped over her dogs on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, saw her horses, walked her property, listened to her stories about animals as dear to her as her own human family members.  I remember one poem of mine ("New Mexico Sighting") she was commenting on.  It was a poem about seeing a rare black coyote while standing on a dike that extended from the famous peak in New Mexico called Shiprock.  The dike was formed millions of years ago by lava flowing underground that hardened and then was exposed by erosion.  In my poem I called it a "plutonic spine."  Maxine said "What does the word plutonic mean?"  I replied that it was a cognate for volcanic.  To which she replied, "Then why don't you just say that?"  That was Maxine.  Say it like it is--no facade, no dressing it up, call it what it is.  The draft I had brought to the workshop was 15 lines, and I knew what was coming next.  "This is almost a sonnet," she said.  "Why don't you hammer it into fourteen lines and see what happens?"  Which I did.  Which tightened the poem and made it better than it had been.

The consistency of Maxine Kumin's life with her writing life is exemplary.  It speaks of a kind of truth that is all too rare these days, when poetry has become an industry for many, and an art for a dwindling number.  In Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Chard deNiord asks Maxine how she would say she crosses "that boundary, between the pastoral and the political?"

MK:  Well to me, my so-called animal poems . . . are truly political.  We've been in the rescue business for about forty years and this little dog that you just met is our newest waif.  She came up from Tennessee in April from a horrible life, unspeakable life, and we were told we could never let her loose because she would run and run and never be seen again.  And here she is, totally at liberty.

Maxine Kumin spent a lifetime "rescuing the perishing; caring for the dying," and standing in her place of witness for the living--her animals, her friends, her family, her students, her garden, her country, her home.  She did so within boundaries that she either created or accepted or changed.  And now "here she is, totally at liberty."

The best tribute we can give to her is to stand in our place of rescue, our place of caring, our place of witness.  To pound our lives into form, and to be at total liberty inside of them.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, by Chard deNiord--Jack Gilbert!

After reading Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, I realized that a "review" of this capacious work--interviews of seven of America's best contemporary, Post-war poets, as well as three of Chard deNiord's own essays dealing in one way or another with three more--would be impossible on this blog and in one post.  So instead, of a review, I prefer to call this an annotation.  And instead of one blog post, I am spreading it out over eight separate ones.  After a brief summary of the book's format, over seven of those eight, I will share a portion of each interview that speaks to me in a special way.  Each post will deal with only one significant topic of the many that deNiord investigates in a thorough way in each interview, along with an embedded poem that either the interviewer read back to the poet, or the poet recited to the interviewer to illustrate the point.  In a final post, I will make a brief statement concerning the topic of each of the three essays that close out the book.  I leave it to you, the reader, to get a copy of this significant volume for yourself, and delve into these intense and amazingly comprehensive interviews with these poets whose lives and work have affected American poetry in a significant way in the latter half of the 20th century, and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

The book is delightfully organized.  In addition to a general introduction to the interviews and essays, each of the interviews is preceded by one-page description of the setting where the interviews took place, the state of mind of the poet, and the relationship of deNiord to the poet and his or her work, many times through a personal story.  This provides a wonderfully human touch to these interviews that balances out the brilliant scholarship and life-long preparation on the part of deNiord, as a reader, writer, and teacher of poetry.  At the end of the book, the Biographical Notes provides an objective frame of reference for the poets interviewed:  Jack Gilbert, Maxine Kumin, Ruth Stone, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton.

Jack Gilbert

Right from this first interview, I sensed that these interviews were going to be different from any other interviews I had ever read.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Jack Gilbert interview was experiencing the little (and not-so-little) quakes caused by the pressure between deNiord's questions and Gilbert's answers--two giant, tectonic minds grinding against one another, sliding along their fault lines, neither one ever buckling under or vaulting above the other's ideas or points or opinions.  Each, in their own way, charting and changing the geography of their conversation with the material that the other had provided.  Witness the following exchange concerning Gilbert's reticence to publish, the current state of poetry, and whether or not poetry can change anything!

CD: I have heard that you have several hundred uncollected and unpublished poems lying around your house.  Do you plan to publish these poems?

JG:  That's right.  I'm not sure what I intend to do with them.

CD:  Why?

JG:  Well, there are several reasons.  One is, I've never had much impulse to publish.  I waited fourteen years between my first and second book.  Ten years between my second and third book.  I love to write poetry, and I love to get it right.  Sometimes I'm a workaholic, getting it to where I think it's right.  But, I guess one of the things is that I don't believe in poetry today, because it's involved with money so much, and careerism.  I don't believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.  You don't make money directly in poetry, but if you get noticed you get jobs in colleges, things like that.  Then you can buy a house and raise a nice family so you can be proud of yourself.  But I don't like that use of poetry.  I love it, and still love it, in my memory, when there was no money to be made in poetry.  When nobody could make money off poetry.

CD:  But perhaps you're hiding your light under a bushel basket.

JG:  Well, it's not going to change anybody's life.

CD:  You just said that a good poem changes a person's life!  [In an earlier exchange.]

JG:  Absolutely.

CD:  And you write good poems.

JG:  Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to do it all of the time.

CD:  Every ten or fourteen years?

JG:  Yes.

CD:  The MFA students were deeply moved by your reading last night.  [This portion of the interview was held in a dormitory at New England College during one of their Poetry MFA residencies.]

JG:  That's impressive.  When I give a reading I'm surprised at the people who take it seriously because we live in an age of entertainment.  Today's children grow up on electronic games, sports, and other things.  But I think generally there isn't time to take things seriously nowadays.  I'm not bitter about it.  I don't feel like it's sour grapes because I'm lucky enough that I can publish what I publish.  But I don't know what you're going to do about the fact that the audience for poetry today is basically not there, unless you're writing a kind of puzzle that gives people a rush of happiness in solving it.

CD:  There's a young woman in the program who was thinking about leaving yesterday.  She confessed that she was terrified of taking herself seriously as a poet.  She approached me about an hour ago to tell me that she had decided to remain in the program.  I asked her why and she said because of your reading last night.  That was the only reason she gave.

JG:  Bless her.  That's a very nice thing that you told me.

CD: And because of Jack Gilbert's poems that she heard last night for the first time.  She's twenty-one years old and she's been brought up on electronic games.  She's a reader also.

[At this point, Gilbert goes into a tirade against the recent failures of poetry, video games, careerism, and MFA programs.]

CD:  That is the state of things, but if we had more of your poems wouldn't that be a service to the world?

JG:  That's not a fair way to argue.

CD:  Why not?  Wouldn't it provide an invaluable cultural and social service, as your reading did last night for the students, faculty and guests?

[Again, Gilbert deflects the question into the historical vs. the current value of poetry.]

CD:  Well, this student deciding to stay here in this program instead of going to law school--we have you to thank.

JG:  Well, it's wonderful and so flattering.  It's great to hear.  I went to a reading several years ago and after it was over--this is going to sound pompous--several people who knew I was in the audience came over to me and formed a circle, which was good for my vanity.  I'm saying this ironically.  Then suddenly a man in his early forties, maybe his late thirties, just an ordinary guy, came pushing through this group that had formed around me, and without saying hello or introducing himself said, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive with your poetry since 1982."  Without giving me time to respond, he pushed his way to the other side and disappeared.  I never could find him.  But that was deeply moving.

This exchange concluded Part I of the interview, conducted July 10, 2003.  During Part II, conducted some time later in Jack's home, deNiord discusses, among other things, the idea (which Jack brought up), of vanity in writing poetry.  We pick up the interview with deNiord reading to Jack his poem "Tear It Down," and follow this thread to the end of the interview.

Tear It Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows.  By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage.  Love is not
enough.  We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time.  We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.

JG:  That's very nice to hear.

CD:  Do you feel this was written out of vanity?

JG: Yes, but also more a delight.  What moves me is hearing what I've done.

CD:  You write in this poem, "Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh" and "Rome is better than Rome."  Do you feel in some curious way that Jack Gilbert is better than Jack Gilbert when he's writing?

JG:  Yes, sure, but I take that for granted.  It's like coming across a blade of grass.  It's just a pleasure. It's manifest in front of me.

CD:  So you feel like a witness that transcends yourself.

JG: I just feel lucky.  I don't feel like I own it.  I made it, but that's different.  It's more about the pleasure that's just there when it's done, whether anyone sees it or not.  I see it myself, quietly.  I'm not showing anyone.

CD:  So you have a very large but selfless sense of your own audience?

JG:  Yes.

CD:  This selfless awareness reminds me of Ivan Ilych's death-bed ipiphany in Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilych."  Ivan struggles to ask for forgiveness from his wife, but in his weakness utters "forgo" instead of "forgive," knowing in the end that it doesn't matter if he's understood.

JG:  That's a very nice way to say it.  I have so much gratitude and I don't have any regret for it.  My gratitude is very simple in this way.

CD:  You must get up in the morning feeling very happy.

JG:  Yes, most of the time, but I'm also very angry about aging, about not being able anymore to do things I want to do.  I don't bother myself about the loss.  I feel it, and the anger diminishes.  So much has been given to me.

CD:  I remember you once telling me when you lived with my wife and me in Iowa for a few months that many poets of your reputations and prestige enjoy flying on planes and going places, but that you're content just to stare out the window of the Greyhound bus.

JG:  Yes.  I like my memories of being hungry and lost.  I relish all those things.  The experience of being myself.  To be privileged to have been there, in my life.

CD:  Like a guest of yourself?

JG:  Not a guest, but to have had it.

Both because of the substance of Jack Gilbert, the interviewee, and the preparation, deep insight, and perseverance of Chard deNiord, the interviewer, we are privileged to be the guest of a unique conversation between the two on Gilbert's writing and life, and to have it always, to return to again and again.

Next week:  Chard deNiord's interview of Maxine Kumin!