Breathtaking

March 6, 2018

I was talking to a friend about moments of magic in poems, a kind of conjuring that goes beyond craft and is inexplicable.  The first example that came to mind was the ending of Frank O’Hara’s’ “The Day Lady Died,” which brings tears to my eyes and makes me suck in my breath every time I read it.  It’s something about the way past and present are simultaneous, but it’s more than that, more than the sum of the parts.  Then I thought of an Alice Oswald poem, “Body,” that does something similar.  I was going to add two or three more poems that leave me awestruck, but then I noticed that both of these poems are about the border between life and death and I decided to include just the two of them in conversation with each other.

I hope you’ll add poems whose magic takes your breath away, whatever their topic.

 

THE DAY LADY DIED

Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

 

***

 

BODY

Alice Oswald

This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition

bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully finding themselves floating
but that badger

still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted
was shuffling away alive

hard at work
with the living shovel of himself
into the lane he dropped
not once looking up

and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase
towards him
with the grin like an opened zip
(as I found it this morning)

and went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

 

Ross Gay’s Unabashed Gratitude

February 18, 2018

The first time I remember laughing and feeling joy after the dark night of the 2016 election was at a Ross Gay poetry reading in Seattle.  The exuberance of his latest book title, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, was a first clue to the evening’s theme and tone.  The poems expressed it, and his body enacted it: he never stands still.  His energy and passion were audible and visible–and contagious.  And his sentiments are saved from sentimentality by being hard won.  They choose joy from a menu that also offers grief, rage, and despair–not by ignoring darkness, but by acknowledging it.  In “Spoon,” dedicated to a friend, it’s only after he’s spent six pages drawing a loving portrait that he says, “I swore when I got into this poem I would convert/ this sorrow into some kind of honey with the little musics// I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts/ of our desolation….”  And then, four couplets below, “After Don was murdered I dreamt of him….”

I often find myself giving into hopelessness in recent months, feeling as if our country and so many things I value have tipped irretrievably off a cliff.  But just yesterday a friend reminded me that hopelessness is self-indulgent–and indeed, I can feel the relief when I throw up my hands and decide there’s nothing to be done: great, it’s not on me to solve it.  But then I re-read Ross Gay’s “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning my Shirt,” and take in his pleasure at such a small thing.  And his celebratory odes, “To the Mistake,” and “To Sleeping in my Clothes.”  Maybe my favorite opening is the first couplet of “The Opening”: “You might rightly wonder what I am doing here/ in the passenger’s seat of this teal Mitsubishi….” Among the many passages I wish I had written is this one from “Feet”: “But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet says/ I am trying to do this/ or I am trying to do that./ Sometimes it’s a horseshit trick. But sometimes/ it’s a way by which the poet says/ I wish I could tell you, truly, of the little factory/ in my head: the smokestacks/ chuffing, the dandelions/ and purslane and willows of sweet clover/ prying through the blacktop….”  I am tempted to quote the book’s wonderful last lines here, but in case you haven’t already read the poems I’ll let you discover them for yourself.

Here is a Map of our Country

October 10, 2017

I just came across a poem by Adrienne Rich that struck me as a description of the present, even though it’s from a book published in 1991.  Or maybe it’s that it could be a map of our country at almost any time in our history.  It’s section II of the opening title poem of An Atlas of the Difficult World:

Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms
This is the breadbasket of foreclosed farms
This is the birthplace of the rockabilly boy
This is the cemetery of the poor
who died for democracy   This is a battlefield
from a nineteenth-century war   the shrine is famous
This is the sea-town of myth and story   when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt   here is where the jobs were   on the pier
processing frozen fishsticks hourly wages and no shares
These are other battlefields   Centralia   Detroit
here are the forests primeval   the copper   the silver lodes
These are the suburbs of acquiescence   silence rising fumelike from the streets
This is the capital of money and dolor whose spires
flare up through air inversions whose bridges are crumbling
whose children are drifting blind alleys pent
between coiled rolls of razor wire
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
then yes let it be these are small distinctions
where we see it from is the question

Unpacking the Poetry Books

September 27, 2017

The postings here have been sporadic lately because I was finally moving into a lovely apartment in Seattle.  I hope this will be my last move, but you never know.   It was exhausting and overwhelming, but one of the rare bright spots was unpacking my poetry books.  I keep them in alphabetical order so I can find things easily   Despite all the shuffling back and forth, it was full of pleasure.  Some poets take up half a shelf or more, with their books and books about them: Ashbery,  Berryman, Bishop, Carson, Dante, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Ginsberg, Gluck, Goldbarth, Heaney, Homer, Levine, Merrill, Merwin.  Plath, Pound, Rilke.  Simic, Stevens, Strand, James Tate, WC Williams.   From Jonathan Aaron to Martha Zweig.  From some of the earliest I read when I was starting to write–Margaret Atwood, Diane Wakowski, Transtromer, Bly, Kinnell, Plath, Stanley Plumly, to recent discoveries–Alice Oswald, Karen Solie, Tim Siebles.  From well known to maybe less so: a collaboration between James Tate and Bill Knott titled Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy?  A beautifully made book, Paul Hannigan’s The Carnation, published by Barn Dream Press in Massachusetts.  I remember where I bought many of the books, or who gave them to me: Jonathan Galassi gave me The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barret Browning when he had recently started work at Houghton Mifflin and I interviewed him for an article on poetry publishing in Boston.  Or my first reaction: reading Wind in a Box–Terrance Hayes can do anything!  Milosz’s Anthology of Polish Poets where I read Szymborska for the first time.  And I notice what’s missing: the little paperback of Stevens’ poems, Palm at the end of the Mind, that fell apart after I carried it everywhere with me for years.  And I don’t see the first anthology of contemporary poetry I ever owned, Poems of our Moment, edited by John Hollander.  As I remember, three of the thirty-seven  poets included were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.  It’s possible I finally threw it out.  Working my way through my shelves is working my way through my life–but in alphabetical rather than chronological order, so there’s a wonderful weaving back and forth between pieces.  There’s a murmur of conversation, whispers and shouts.  More than one mover said to me, “You should get rid of a lot of these books.”  Over my dead body.  I’d love to hear the stories of your poetry bookshelves.

John Ashbery

September 4, 2017

The first time I heard Ashbery read, he had just published a book titled Three Poems–much of it set as prose.  The Viking paperback edition I just took down from my shelf cost $2.25, and some passages that spoke to me at the time are underlined: “the ugliness of waiting”; “For starting out, even just a very few steps, completely changes the nature of the journey as it was when it lay intact and folded”; “But the light continues to grow, the eternal disarray of sunrise….”  I loved the lulling voice, the sprawling sentences, the way the mind moved, the sounds–just as I had when I picked up his first book, Some Trees, at the Corner Bookstore (in the middle of the block) in Ithaca, New York, and was mesmerized by the title poem.  When Ashbery read at Cornell, he sat down at a bare table, read with minimal inflection and without looking up, and left without commenting.  He refused to be a go-between or explicator.  I once heard James Tate respond to a student who said he found Ashbery difficult: “I don’t understand why people say that.  All you have to do is listen.”  I don’t find it as simple as Tate did–I’m often utterly baffled, and read Ashbery most happily when I’m totally immersed in his poems, the music of his mind.  But the music is where it all starts.  Just listen:

 

SOME TREES

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.