Saturday, April 08, 2006
Kamu Brathwaite, Michael Palmer, Sylvia Legris & Erin Mouré are all shortlisted for Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize.
And a Flarf Fest.
Francophones will want to note that Nicole Brossard will be talking and reading on Monday at Swarthmore en francais. Lecture from 2 to 4 in room 330 of Kohlberg Hall, reading at in the Scheuer Room of the same building.
You can still bid on (and win) Michele Buchanan’s portrait of me as a baby as part of WSKG’s fundraising auction. Bidding closes at Sunday. But there is a catch. You have to pick the painting up in Vestal, NY (tho they will take it to a site in
I will be traveling off & on this week, mostly without the notebook. If I can post from where I am, I shall, but it may be spotty. Mostly I just need to chill.
Friday, April 07, 2006
Thursday, April 06, 2006
This one is for
Friends ask us why
we decided to get married,
reflecting true affection.
As close to a love poem
as I'll ever get.
Your daddy sits on our sofa,
blue checked golf pants
and orange sweater, rereading
Ice Station Zebra. Mom's
on a hanger in the sun
from the padlock's clasp
to the shed door.
I wake by water's edge
Willingly I'll say
there's been a sweet marriage,
seabirds loud with dawn
in the harbor. Last night's
boneless breast of roast duck
topped with apple,
strong sweet aftertaste
lingers on. I won't forget your eyes,
the way they saw, tears
streaming, as you recited
words of Robert Duncan
and I my Zukofsky, and I
would fill your arms
as if with flowers
with my forever being there.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
It was only when I began to put together this note that I realized that Zach Barochas’ book, Among Other Things, was not published by Flood Editions, but in fact by his own press, Cultural Society. It has the look and feel of a Flood Editions book, both print wise and design wise, and – most important of all – in terms of the poetry contained therein. Indeed, Peter O’Leary (whose brother Michael co-edits Flood) is one of the collection’s three blurbistes. It’s an interesting – perhaps telling – association for a poet who has made a living, it would seem, as a post-punk drummer for much of the past 15 years, but who lists Hayden Carruth, Denise Levertov & Muriel Rukeyser among his “heroes” on his MySpace page.
But it’s not the design of the book that made read it as tho it were a Flood Edition effort, it’s the values expressed in the poems themselves. Here is a case in point:
Pick a color, any
color (remember, black
is not a color; white,
too, is not a color).
Keep your selection in
mind & on the tip of
your tongue; hold it, let it
sit, savor its warmth or
cool. Make it primary
& don’t blend it away.
Know oblivion’s no
place for color. Vivid-
ness is key, clarity
is key, exactitude,
like purity, is key.
Right down to the use of the semi-colon to structure a complex, joined statement & the use of the ampersand to nod to his post-avant heritage, this poem enacts the very values for which it argues. It is, in that sense, almost perfect.
But perfect – in this sense – is not necessarily a superlative. Rather, it’s a desire for precision that reminds me of nothing so much as certain bug fanciers’ preference for pinned specimens under brilliant lighting to the whizzing critters of the garden. The result, as in this piece, is an open poetics striving for a closed – which is to say highly finished – poem. There is a tension in all this that can be – as this is – fascinating, precisely because Barocas’ sense of craft is so high that the strain of the impossible comes through as compressed energy. It’s a dynamic I find in a lot of the poems in this book & my reaction to it is positively visceral – I’m compelled to read the poems but almost want to shout No as they come to their hard-edged conclusions. I can’t think of a poet whose work has set off quite this same reaction in me since William Bronk.
It’s as if Barocas has tapped into this contradictory vein one finds in certain members of the post-avant, notably along the Zukofskyan side of things. On the one hand, here is a poet with considerable skills and a great sense of craft. On the other, the focus of all this feels so constrained as to be maddening. Just as Zukofsky himself bemused & befuddled his admirers with both his willingness to pursue open-ended innovation with great rigor, but proved so anal retentive that each copy of every book his house is said to have been stored separately in its own clear plastic cover, Barocas seems to be heading in two directions at once. In general, in Among Other Things, the person who would think to equate exactitude and purity is the one who wins outs. But in fact, I think the more interesting Barocas is (or would be) the other, the writer who would use this sense of craft to kick out the jams and boogie more.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Mohawk / Samoa Transmigrations, just out from Subpress, is a slender project for a perfect-bound book, containing really just eight short poems apiece by James Thomas Stevens & Caroline Sinavaiana, but it also is quite a bit more than that. What that is lies all in the setting. Stevens is an Akwesasne Mohawk poet, teaching now at SUNY Fredonia. Sinavaiana is a Samoan-born poet, teaching now at the
Both are poets one might easily associate with the post-avant – Stevens, who carries the Mohawk name Aronhiotas, has an MFA from Brown & studied at Naropa, Sinavaiana has published before with Subpress, the small press collective whose 19 editors commit themselves to putting one percent of their annual income into a series of book projects, and which grew originally out of the efforts of some SUNY-Buffalo grads. But what I don’t sense here is much interest on the part of either writer with how she or he fits into any western frame or literary traditions. If anything, both have more in common with the great poet of the Sioux nation, Simon Ortiz, himself a one-time student of Charles Olson who has gone on to situate his poetics fully into his community in the American Southwest.
But what this book isn’t, and what makes it so interesting, is a simple celebration of community as such, so much as a recognition that these very different communities share more than a few things in common. The book is divided into two sections, with some front- and back-matter as well. The first, “From the Mohawk,” consists of four poems by Stevens with four “answering” poems by Sinavaiana. The second, “From the Samoan,” reverses the process. In each section, surrounding each set of poems is a traditional verse of some sort, both transliterated and translated into English. Stevens’ topics, to think of them like that, include songs concerning canoes, mosquitoes, cornbread, and thunderers. Sinavaiana’s include rats, funerals, pigeons and sarongs. Facing each right-hand page of text is a drawing by Stevens, who is really superb at this, “illustrating” the page. Thus, for example, we find roughly the same mosquito opposite both his and Sinavaiana’s poems, save for some patterning on whatever it is – an arm? – that the mosquito rests on. For his own poem, the pattern (which shows up in multiple places in this book, including on its cover) is of an Iroquois celestial dome design. For Sinavaiana’s, it’s a Samoan tattoo pattern appears to be a variation on Pandanus blossoms, that being the plant used in so many Samoan mat-plaited woven products.
The text for the opening sequence will give you a better idea of what’s going on. The section is titled “Kahonwe:ia Kare’na / Canoe Song,” the translation of which reads:
The canoe is very fast. It is mine.
All day I hit the water.
I paddle along. I paddle along.
Opposite an illustration of a canoe (kahonwe:ia) is Stevens’ poem:
I am the hull – rapid against your stream.
Birch beneath the ribs
circumnavigating your body.
Endless propeller of my arm
as it circles to find the flow.
I move this way against you.
I move this way.
Opposite a second illustration – it’s not clear if this is a Samoan craft or not – labeled “Va’aalo” – is Sinavaiana’s text:
Fly canoe to blue reefs
Sing to bonito
swimming in green
Let your chant angle
through the deep water.
A hook for the ear
of fish, a line
of cadence to mark
From your hull
I will strike the beast.
I will mark it.
The approaches taken by the two poets is quite different, with Stevens using the occasion to create a metaphor for intimacy, Sinavaiana the more Objectivist in her fishing song – I really love the idea of singing to the tuna as one goes out to meet them. Both poems end focused on the speaker, Stevens in the present tense, Sinavaiana in the future.
This is pretty much the range of this book, which is at once its strength & its limit. The poems are not overly ambitious, but all are well crafted & one has the sense of being present almost at a gift exchange between the two poets. The poems themselves are only implicitly collaborative, as each responds to the other, but always framed within their own hand – it’s a model that reminded me, actually, of the way Leslie Scalapino & Lyn Hejinian mark their sections of the book Sight with their initials (which I know has set some readers on edge, tho I found I liked it, that it seemed completely appropriate to the project at hand).
Mohawk / Samoa Transmigrations is a hopeful token of globalization as it can be, positively, experienced by individuals. As such, it’s a far cry from the term as it shows up these days in the Wall Street Journal, but ultimately it’s much closer to the dream that Marx himself voiced some 150 years ago, of people – he would have said workers – from radically different communities and histories offering a literary equivalent to mutual aid.
There are other layers here that one might contemplate – the connection of Samoan experience to Native American culture, literally that of any native peoples engulfed in the historic expansion of American imperialism over the past two centuries, or of Stevens’ appropriation of multiple Native American songs & cultures – for example the Iroquois – and how that does/does not differ from the ways in which European culture adopted & adapted much that it found here to its own purposes, Stevens’ tendency in his poems to sexualize experience – he’s a very male writer in that regard – which I don’t find at all in Sinavaiana.
By itself, this isn’t a book that proposes to change the world. Yet, in itself, it offers a vision of a much more healthy planet, of sharing & exchange & finding that place in the context of another’s experience in which one’s own perspective resonates. It would be great to have a lot more books like this in our lives.
Monday, April 03, 2006
Thursday, when I got back from
Reading – devouring, really – these last few poems, less than three dozen in all, virtually all in the characteristic halting gait of Creeley’s late poems, not all that different from a sense of line & stanza that evolved from the late 1940s up to the early ‘70s, after which it seemed content to serve almost as a homing device. One thinks in one’s poems & never is that reality more evident than in Bob’s work, but Creeley’s line, so identifiable he could have patented it, seems finally not so much how as it is who is thinking:
Up a hill and down again.
Around and in –
Out was what it was all about
but now it’s done.
At the end was the beginning,
just like it said or someone did.
Keep looking, keep looking,
One might argue, with some justification, that this is a poem that Creeley has written before, and yet it seems clearly so beside the point. Approaching this work, possibly any work, with an air of judgment ultimately will tell you so very little about what is going on when there is so much more to be gained by not doing so, by reading through that old nagging sense, getting beyond it to see what the poet was sensing, was after. I find this poem, as I do several others here, absolutely compelling, memorable in ways that forced me to commit so many of the poems in For Love, the first of Bob’s books I owned some 40 years ago, to memory. Is this a great poem? I don’t care – it certainly for me will be a touchstone of what I personally love about poetry going forward.
The concerns of the poem are not a young person’s, and this is a book filled with elegies, with saying goodbye, recalling regrets:
I’ll never forgive myself for the
violence propelled me at sad Paul
Blackburn, pushed in turn by both
our hopeless wives who were spitting
venom at one another in the heaven
we’d got ourselves to, Mallorca, mid-fifties,
where one could live for peanuts while
writing great works and looking at the
constant blue sea, etc. Why did I fight such
surrogate battles of existence with such
a specific friend as he was for sure?
Our first meeting NYC 1960 we talked two
and a half days straight without leaving the
apartment. He knew Auden and Yeats
by heart and had begun on Pound’s lead
translating the Provençal poets, and was
studying with Moses Hadas at NYU. How
sweet this thoughtful beleaguered vulnerable
person whose childhood was full of
often absent poet, Frances Frost! I wish
he were here now, we could go on talking,
I’d have company my own age in this
drab burned out trashed dump we call the
phenomenal world where he once walked
the wondrous earth and knew its pleasures.
Four of the 26 lines here break on the word the, an enjambment that calls up Robert’s familiar rasping voice immediately to mind, yet the stanza that is so often a defining pulse in his writing has been set aside for the wealth of detail about Blackburn, aspects that might seem odd to us now – who recalls the poetry of Frances Frost, best known to poets of my generation for her work as editor of the children’s book edition of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a commonplace in the 1950s?
The last few times I saw Bob read, he invariably spoke openly about the approach of death, concerned more with the loss of others, particularly of his own generation, who were going ahead of him. No more than a dozen of the poets in the Allen anthology are still living, fewer still who continue to write. Even the essay that concludes On Earth, ostensibly on Whitman but wide-ranging ultimately, focuses on the questions of age:
I could go on quoting. Age wants no one to leave. Things close down in age, like stores, like lights going off, like a world disappearing in a vacancy one had no thought might happen. It’s no fun, no victory, no reward, no direction. One sits and waits, most usually for the doctor. So one goes inside oneself, as it were, looks out from that “height” with only imagination to give prospect.
Given all this, it is not surprising, I suppose, that the poems in this book, perhaps to a degree not seen in Creeley’s earlier books, have a harder time closing – the last line of the poem for Blackburn, which feels forced, is a case in point. Similarly, the longish (five pages, even tho these pages, at 4.5 by 7 inches, are small) anti-war poem “Help!,” and even the final “Valentine for You,” one last echo of Zukofsky, seem not so much to finish as to be turned, finally, aside. What else, after all, is there to do but keep looking, keep looking?