Tag Archives: Poetry

Holy the Firm – Annie Dillard

I’ve been a fan of Annie Dillard forever. She turns woods walking into a profoundly mystical experience. And her prose–her prose hovers always at the edge of poetry. In this slim collection of three connected essays, it slips over the edge. Holy the Firm is purely poetic. Every word seems chosen from a depth of meditation like some bit of mineral from the ocean floor. Dillard uses words as she imagines them, not as we remember them. She makes language into music and ideas into fragments of sky. And she is as ruthlessly brutal as the wonders and horrors she describes.

In Holy the Firm, Dillard watches a moth stick itself into the molten wax of a candle, burst into flame, curl, shrivel, ash apart until it is only a slender husk, a vertical wick for the flame. She reads by its light for two hours.  The metaphor is apt for an artist–a writer–and stunning. And terrible. Her cat brings gifts of dead birds. She tosses the cat out the door and a bird over the porch rail for whatever fate of consummation awaits it. And she writes: “Into this world fell a plane…It fell easily; one wing snagged on a fir top; the metal fell down the air and smashed in the thin woods where cattle browse; the fuel exploded; and Julie Norwich seven years old burnt off her face.”

Now let your breath out. This is a child, not a moth, and this, too, happened at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where Dillard was holed up in a one-room house with a glass wall facing West. The weight of words is no different for a view of the mountains, a spider behind the toilet, a human tragedy of unimaginable agony.  The writer tries to make sense of it, tries for the numinous in all of it, supposes the ruined child will be gifted with a wisdom far beyond her years. Better she should have a face. But how do we comprehend the unapproachable? Where in the sea or sky is there space to contain the unforgivable, the inexplicable?

A moth becomes a wick that contains the flame. The bright hope of a child’s life flames out. There are islands hidden behind islands in the mist. Dillard believes in a god who has something to do with all of it. She accepts the hardness of rock, the vulnerability of frailty. And she must wait, at the water’s edge, at the place where the land ends, for the exact word, the never-before-used-in-exactly-this-way word, to fit the puzzle of her observations precisely within the frame of a skinny book, page by page.

Holy the Firm   Annie Dillard | Harper Colophon  1984

Narrow Road to the Interior – Matsuo Basho

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Basho is a favorite poet of mine and, apparently, of Sam Hamill, too. Nearly 325 years ago, Basho yielded to his wanderlust and left his home by the plaintain tree to walk across Japan’s interior. He kept a record of his adventures, mostly events of spiritual insight and pilgrimage but some harsh rains, perilous mountain paths and encounters with kindness. The jewel-like book to survive Basho’s walkabout is called Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior

Hamill reveals that Basho’s account of his travails is not wholly reliable. The old poet was famous and welcomed by wealthy patrons into their homes along his journey. But the odd night or so of roughing it gave him plenty of inspiration for the spare, arduous tale he published. Basho’s words are as unadorned as his haiku–and the tiny travelogue is sprinkled with haiku.

All night long

listening to autumn winds

wandering in the mountains

And

Intense hot red sun

and this autumn wind

indifferent   

Solitary journeys like Basho’s (he was accompanied for most of his trip by one friend) were dangerous in 17th-century Japan. Basho was in poor health and in his forties when he set out and he wasn’t sure he would ever return. That seems to have heightened the exquisite clarity of the adventure for him–how much more intense to live in each moment when it might be your last? But he did return and he organized his notes and calligraphy and left an evocative record of one man’s search for something larger than himself.

Sam Hamill’s translation respects Oku-no-hosomichi’s simplicity. Basho’s personal quest has an honored place in the Japanese canon. Narrow Road to the Interior makes its graceful insights and encounters accessible to us. It reads like a really great trip.

Narrow Road to the Interior (Shambhala Centaur Editions)   Basho | Shambhala   1991

Diving into the Wreck – Adrienne Rich

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Adrienne Rich died this week. Her voice, in her poems, writing, and speaking, was never strident, always insistent that we remember our highest selves and live for them. She wrote about class differences and indifferences and the pain and joy we cause ourselves and others in concise and brilliant language that placed her at the forefront of American letters. She never compromised—and she rued the compromises we make in the pursuit of comfort. Someone, she reminded us again and again, always pays for that untroubled comfort. She was unwilling to settle for comfort.

Diving into the Wreck, a collection of poems written in 1971-72, remains one of my favorite of her books. “…poems taut with pain and intelligence,” writes Marge Piercy of this volume. “…nobody else writes quite like this,” said Margaret Atwood. The poems are observations, introspections, revelations. They range wide and go deep, skating from social commentary to searing metaphor. Even the early poems never seem dated. It’s possible to slip inside every one and experience the life it transcribes as the poet did.

The title poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” is a marvel of fact and symbol. I don’t know whether Rich was a diver but she gets the precise detail of a scuba dive on a wreck in the shallows exactly right, so I assume she’d been there. She gets the rest right, too. What is the wreck but an image of a life, an emblem for the battered heart, broken against rock or shoal? Rich writes: 

 I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed

 

the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters. 

You tend to realize, at the end of a line or a stanza, that you have been holding your breath, loathe to miss a beat or a syllable or the architecture of an unexpected phrase. Adrienne Rich wrote powerful, powerful poetry—poems designed to conjure or, at the very least, agitate for keen personal awareness and social change. Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award. Rich won nearly every award bestowed on a poet in her long writing life. But she never lost her edge, her discomfort, the pebble in the shoe that leads, inevitably, to the poem.     

Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972   Adrienne Rich | W. W. Norton & Company 1993

New and Selected Poems – Mary Oliver

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It is reported that the poet Mary Oliver is seriously ill and has canceled all her appearances. The heralds of this sorry news have urged people to share via social media something about what the poems and the poet have meant to them. That sounds like code for “mortal” or “fatal” or “terminal”—why do all the ending words rhyme?

Rather than scribble unoriginal comments on a laundry line of the same thoughts over and over, better to read the quiet and the dazzling poems. New and Selected Poems (volume 1) holds bears, egrets, snows, swamps, winters and springs from 1963 through 1992. Oliver has her fervent fans—devoted to the holy gospel to be read in the pulpy guts of a freshly filleted fish and the epiphanies to be found in a host of pond lilies. She has her dismissive detractors—high-minded lovers of the lofty and the abstruse who might never have broken apart an owl pellet to let its history spill out in their hand or dared to offer a drift of sugar to a grasshopper. I’m in it for the epiphanies.

“Nature poems” sounds like the artifacts of a pastime for ladies of leisure who pen couplets in gardens. But poems rooted in nature can be muddy shards of a rough world that remind us where we come from and how we should live in this world. Oliver insists on this disorderly encounter with reality as a means of remembering what is authentic, of being mindful. In “Rice” she writes:

I don’t want you just to sit down at the table.

I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.

I want you to walk out into the fields

where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.

I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.

I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Of course, my favorite is the well-known “The Summer Day” with its heart-stopping last lines:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

And, while you ponder your answer to that, contemplate the final stanzas of “When Death Comes” which is as much a game plan as a reflection:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.

Dig into some Mary Oliver. And then get out of the house and turn your face to the wind or step out of your shoes and walk barefoot on the ground. Feast your eyes on a garden slug or a breaching whale and be as deliberate as that slug or as exhilarated as that whale. Wear some crumbs of rich dark dirt or a scatter of salt spray. Reconnect to the physical creature that you are to rediscover your soul.

New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1   Mary Oliver | Beacon Press   1992

Howl — Allen Ginsberg

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Maybe it was reading Patti Smith’s memoir that sent me to the poetry shelves for Howl. I have a City Lights pocket-size square of a book, slightly warped from some dousing or other—probably one of the upstairs neighbor’s floodings. I hadn’t read it for years. Hadn’t seen Ginsberg for years either.

But he used to show up sometimes at the loft with the bathtub and toilet behind a curtain in SoHo where a dancer lived and held open meditation sessions. A Tibetan monk ran the talks and meditations—I think he might have lived there, too, in a curtained-off corner of the huge open space. We arrived to share momos—Tibetan dumplings—on feast days, talks and reflections and a meditation on others. We sat on cushions scattered around the floor and I don’t remember if Ginsberg ever talked—I think not. I was a little bit in awe of him then but not entirely.

The first time I saw him was in Miami at an elegant party in the fabulous home of wealthy Cuban exiles who were feting some arts group or museum or something. My life in Miami had a lot of yacht racing and little-black-dress parties in it. Ginsberg smiled politely and shook the requisite hands but kept mostly to himself–introverted? bored?–and kept his eye on a skinny young guy in black jeans and black shirt. When the guy slipped over the low wall off the patio and vanished into the night, Ginsberg disappeared, too. I never actually made his acquaintance.

I owned Howl by then, though. It was a rough intrusion into my Pablo Neruda/Audre Lorde/translations-of Rumi/Yeats/Whitman/Dickinson world. The life Ginsberg described was so unadorned, so graphic, so frightening in its poverty, bruises, depravities and blood. At the same time, the poems—the volume contains “Howl” and a number of additional poems—were so clear-eyed, appreciative of beauty amid the ruins, hopeful in an uncompromising grimly optimistic way. The poet seemed to me to have extraordinary courage—and he owned language the way a master artist owns the colors of his paints.

Back in the day, Howl was grabbed by the local constabulary and the U.S. government and subjected to an obscenity trial. Today, most of the material, if not all of the specific language, is available on nightly TV. Howl’s depictions of the chasms of experience between the artists and the merchants survived the passage of time. We still starve our poets and parade them at receptions. A few have the self-preservation, or self-gratification instinct to duck out the back. We still relegate the insistent questioners to the fringes and celebrate the mediocrity that feeds commerce. We still regard imagination and idiosyncrasy with suspicion or contempt. We’re still not getting it right.

Howl peels back the covers and exposes the raw heart. Ginsberg’s poetry embraces life. He elevates a dead sunflower in a railyard to something holy. He exults in a litany of Holy!s like the repeat Sanctus in a liturgical chant. His beat poet friends, lovers, coldwater flats and filthy streets are holy. His sin and his salvation is that he wrote it true, used his own unrefracted lens, left the dirt and snot on the images, saw those as holy, too. Howl hasn’t lost any of its power in more than half-a-century. It’s worth a revisit.

 Howl and Other Poems   Allen Ginsberg | City Lights  37th printing

Just Kids – Patti Smith

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Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir of her twinship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, is many things. It is a primer on how to follow an inchoate longing and become an artist out of nothing and nowhere. It is a testament to a bond so unbreakable it survived gut-wrenching poverty, sexual ambivalence, homelessness, hunger, and an assemblage of male lovers—some his, some hers.

The two kids who swanned around Greenwich Village, Coney Island and the Chelsea Hotel in their thrift store costumes fed each other, supported each other, used each other in their art, moved apart and came together from their earliest days in New York City to Mapplethorpe’s death at 43 from AIDS in 1989. Along the journey, Smith discovered how to merge her poetry with rock and roll and Mapplethorpe turned away from his Catholic boyhood into a fascination with hustling, S&M and a singular vision of photography. Her first album, Horses, with an iconic cover photo shot by Mapplethorpe, exploded into public consciousness. His evocative and disturbing photos, collages and drawings established him as a polarizing rebel who inspired love and hate in equal measure.

Smith writes description in poetic riffs that transform memory into dream. She has clear recall of telling moments with the pantheon of musical, literary and artistic greats who hung out at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, CBGB and Horn & Hardart’s. Allen Ginsburg once supplied the missing dime that allowed a starving Smith to snag a cafeteria sandwich then, ever on the prowl, asked her if she was a boy or a girl. Smith once cut her long hair in the style of Keith Richards and earned instant acceptance from some hard-sell members of Warhol’s crowd. Mapplethorpe saved Smith from a dinner date gone wrong by pretending to be her boyfriend—and then he became her boyfriend. They were silly, naïve, intensely serious about becoming artists, worked on their art day and night, shared a single hot dog, a single museum ticket, a single room with a hotplate, a single vision that filled their empty bellies and warmed their unheated digs.

Just Kids is the “this happened” and “then that happened” and then “this is who was there” formula of celebrity memoirs that capture a rich period in time. But it’s much more. It’s the story of a connection that seems almost mystical to Smith. Mapplethorpe embraced his homosexuality but turned to Smith as his permanent muse. Patti Smith went on to marry and have two children. The last photograph Robert Mapplethorpe took of her includes her infant daughter, reaching out to him from her mother’s arms. When they were young, hungry and just starting out, a tourist urged her husband to take a picture of Smith and Mapplethorpe at Washington Square Arch in the Village, a hangout for colorful types all dressed like impoverished artists. The husband surveyed the two of them, real artists deep in anonymity and still searching to define their art, and said “Nah. They’re just kids.” They were. But he missed a great shot.

Just Kids   Patti Smith | HarperCollins   2010

Selected Translations 1968-1978 W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin at OWS

The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.

I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe. 

Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”

Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:

“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:

“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.

Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.

Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.

And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”

In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.” 

This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.

A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.

W. S. Merwin  Selected Translations, 1968-1978   Atheneum  1980