I need you to need me; or, On Favorite Poems

We often in the poetry world talk about “loving poet X’s work,” and I easily fall into that habit of speech, but in truth there are no poets whose work I unequivocably love; rather, there are poems I love. Sometimes it so happens that many of those poems are by the same poet.

The “who’s your favorite poet” question just does not equate with my actual experience of reading poetry, which is much more “yawn, yawn, hunh?, WOW, yawn, yawn, hunh?” in nature. Even the poets I think I can turn to with fairly reliable pleasure can, at some stages of my lumpy development, leave me cold.

I think I’ve talked about this with regard to Tomas Transtromer and how perplexed I’ve been every time I encounter his poem “The Baltics,” even by the same translator: sometimes with a shrug and sometimes with a WOW. I can’t explain it, because I can’t see inside the tinker-toy structure of my state-of-being in any given moment.

I have this experience with Keats — I read excerpts from his poems, that is, lines cited by someone else, and think wow, I need to read this. Then I do. And I fail to find whatever was the frisson that made me interested in the first place. It’s like seeing a star best by looking at it out the corner of your eye. Keats in full frontal is just not much of a view for me, at least — again — at the stages of development

I’ve gone through thus far. Dickinson too fails me, or I fail her, again and again, although I’ve greatly enjoyed some discussions I’ve listened to about her work, and a fascinating book I read about religious dimensions in her work, whose title and author I have no recollection of. Left to our own devices, Dickinson and I sit silently over tepid tea and dry cakes.

I’m saddened and of course self-blame-y over my inability to gush along with the crowd. But, again, I’m falling into the habit of mistaking a poet for the entirety of his or her work. In fact, Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…The Truth must dazzle gradually/or every man be blind–” is a central tenet for my thinking about poetry (that goddamn end hyphen notwithstanding).

And I found myself mentioning in passing in a conversation (I was obviously showing off) Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” not long ago — thinking more of, if truth be told, one of those pre-Raphaelite-type illustrations than the poem itself. And his ghostly hand is vivid in my mind, although the point of that poem rather escapes me.

I circle back to a whole variety of poets and poems in case I happen to “need” them in the given moment. And thanks to my leaky memory, sometimes it’s like encountering a poem for the very first time.

 

Doorbells and Sleighbells and; or, Reading A. R. Ammons’s Garbage

I love when literary synchronicity happens, that is, when I’m thinking about a thing or have just written about it and suddenly, randomly stumble on someone else thinking or having thought about the same thing. I decided, spurred by a mention of him in an essay on the long essay/poem, to finally explore the poetry of A. R. Ammons. He’s someone whose work I’m surprised I haven’t sought before, as his interests in science and the land are right up my alley. But it’s always been one of those, oh, yeah, I’ll get to that.

But I got my hands on Garbage, his booklength, multipart poem. And there in the first section were things I had written about that very day in my own notes: the competition of trees, the dismay of overabundance, and what has also been on my mind, which he puts this way: “…we tie into the/lives of those we love and our lives, then, go//as theirs go; their pain we can’t shake off…”

The book as a whole contains a lot of…well, stuff. Quite a bit of it is about itself, Ammons being clever about writing about writing, amusing himself to no end. So I have had to plow a bit through it all and hard-to-follow meanderings but just as I would get impatient and start to mutter words like “self-indulgent” under my breath, he’d hit me with something like this from section 3. We are watching the driver of a garbage truck on top of the municipal mound of garbage:

…the driver gets out of his truck
and wanders over to the cliff on the spill and
looks off from the high point into the rosy-fine
rising of day, the air pure, the winds of the
birds white and clean as angel-food cake; holy, holy,
holy, the driver cries and flicks his cigarette
in a spiritual swoop that float and floats before
it touches ground: here, the driver knows.
where the consummations gather, where the disposal
flows out of form, where the last translations
cast away their immutable bits and scraps,
flits of steel, shivers of bottle and tumbler,
here is the gateway to beginning, here the portal
of renewing change, the birdshit, even, melding
enrichingly in with debris, a loam for the roots
of placenta…

That “gateway to beginning” found among the ends of things, the detritus, the beginning found in the ends of things, as a tree grows outward from the center and rots that way too, having absorbed a lifetime of nutrients, having shared what it had.

I didn’t love much of Garbage, but it taught me something about the glory of excess, and the boldness of pouring it all into the poem, carrot peels and rotten meat, old receipts and fancy packaging, and having the patience and faith in the process to make a path and find a pattern.

 

Sweet Confusion Under the Moonlight; or, The kingdom of God is within you; or, Making the Better World

I had read the news as usual that morning and fell into the now-usual doom gloom. Then the radio reminded me that another of my music pantheon died recently. Dr. John has ascended.

And the station played a tribute to him for a few hours, but I was vacuuming and stuff so heard a bit here and bit there, nodding to the beat when I could hear it, otherwise swept in my own to-and-fro, but they closed with “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere,” and I thought, Right, Mac? Right?

But then I opened up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights.

The Book of Delights is Ross Gay’s almost-daily, always-exuberant, sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant record of his days’ delights. Which are often found in not so obvious places.

Although that groovy dude — and here I’m talking about Dr. John, although Ross Gay is indeed also one groovy dude — Dr. John’s oddball let’s-face-it-a-bit-whiny sly if-I-don’t-do-it-somebody-else-will devil on his angelic shoulder (have you HEARD the “Boogie Woogie Twins” with Jools Holland? Shut. Up.) makes it almost impossible for me to not leap up and boogie around the kitchen, there’s often a dark undercurrent in his music, that undeniable blue note, a hint of wrong-place-right-time. Some might call it duende.

And just as you might tire, thinking, all right, enough, you perky sonofabitch — and here I’m talking about Ross Gay — I don’t know that anyone would call Dr. John a perky sonofabitch — Gay will slip in an essayette that reminds us ever so subtly of that yin to yang, the old no-joy-without-sorrow note that sometimes being a black man in this world causes him to stumble over even in the midst of this practice of delight, or even just being a human in the world, and doing the hard work of loving in the face of losing.

And so Gay corrected me: No, Timothy Johnson and Shane Minor voiced by the good doctor were incorrect — there is not necessarily a better world someplace; the better world is right here, if we only notice it.

And we ourselves, with paean and call, hum and curve, laughter and the invention of a good can opener, are what can make it the better world. And old Mac Rebennack did that too, bringing us all into his funkin’ boogie woogie, his bluesy praise, his daily delights.

And I too, even my sometimes-crabby, impatient self can participate in this making. It only takes a moment’s notice.

Don’t Show, Tell; or, Reading the Book v Watching the Movie

I read the Game of Thrones series, and did NOT watch the TV version. I enjoyed the series for the most part, and am (somewhat) impatiently awaiting R.R.’s concluding volume(s?). And I was tempted to watch the show, given the infernal ubiquity of cultural references and endless Facebook spoilers, but I didn’t want to disturb my own inner vision of the characters and settings.

I often don’t want to see movie-ized or TV-ized versions of books I’ve read for this very reason — they are alive in Technicolor in my head, and why should I let someone else’s vision replace (as it inevitably does) my own?

I do have to say that, for example, the movie version of The World According to Garpeither so mirrored my own that I could accept it, or perhaps was superior — forever will Garp look like Robin Williams, who already in the movie sort of reminded me of the photos I’ve seen of John Irving, who is Garp in my mind, as one being. I confess I did not read the original Wizard of Oz books, so bowed always and forever to the movie, and I don’t think I want to disturb the movie’s sacred status with a reading of the original text. I actually think Disney did quite a good job with its cartoon of the Toad chapters of my sacred text, The Wind in the Willows. I can’t even remember if I read The Princess Bride, so thoroughly does the movie inhabit my brain. (And I can never forgive Mandy Patinkin, as I watch him age, for not really being Inigo Montoya, nor really ever living up to that role.)

I don’t want to have my opinions about the Game of Throne characters disturbed at all by some actor’s rendition. I want to remain thoroughly bored and irritated with tiresome Daenerys. Ugh, get over yourself. And I don’t want to see what they did with doughty Brienne of Tarth. I have my own complicated feelings toward the scoundrel Jaime. And my hating to love Jon Snow. Sansa is an idiot, and I’ll brook no doubt in that. Arya in the books has swirled into some eddy and I only hope R.R. has something better in store for her.

That brings me to the other problem — I know that the TV version veered from the books, and this would have made me crazy. No, no, I’d insist, that’s not what happens. And I didn’t want to be that person.

Why do people take books and make movies of them? What is this impulse? I guess it’s that the books live vividly in a creative person’s mind, and that person wants to show the world that vivid screen. But it’s kind of authoritarian — the imposition of one person’s vision on what is each reader’s individual right to create.

On the other hand, there’s something so tempting about being able to see into someone else’s brain this way, to see the same scenes through someone else’s eyes. This is all part of our need to connect, I think. Do we see things the same way? Is watching someone’s visual version of a book the purest form of communication, the only true way of seeing inside someone’s mind?

Of course, there’s also the money to be made from the vast audience of I’d-rather-watch-it-on-a screen people who can be extracted of money for, for example, years of HBO membership versus a one-time (well, okay, 6[?] times) for a book purchase.

I confess I would dearly have loved to see Peter Dinklage as Tyrion. But I held fast. Well…really, I was saved from my own worst impulses by not actually having HBO.

Looky Lou; or, Enjoying Lia Purpura’s Work and More on Form

I heard her read many years ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and thought I’d read her book On Looking. But I remembered nothing about it when I feel deeply into the fascinating essays of this writer’s deep gaze. I also picked up and am, based on how much I’m enjoying so much of On Looking, looking forward to her newest collection of essays All the Fierce Tethers.

Listen to this from “On Form” in On Looking (again I’m being drawn to discussions of form — for someone who stubbornly writes in free verse, this seems peculiar):

“Sketching, I consider the line: ‘These fragments I shore against my ruin’–from a time when so much felt to be coming apart. But no. My fragments I shore to reveal my ruin. And all the similarities my eye is drawn to: flaw. Torque. Skew. I make a little pile by the shore: cracked horseshoe crab, ripped clam, wet ragged wing with feathers. I look because a thing is off, to locate the unlocatable in its features, forged as they are, or blunted, or blown. I look because the counter flashes its surprising grin.”

The essays luxuriate in the odd things noticed, the lovingly catalogued deformities noticed in her fellow humankind, in herself, in the world.

In the wonderful “Glaciology,” she recalls a week in which she was waiting for the results from a cancer test as her area was wrapped in snow, school cancelled, the usual rhythms disrupted. She wrote: “Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.”

Her interest in similarities reminds me of Magritte’s interest in such things. Think of his painting of a bird cage containing an egg, the curve of the cage echoing the curve of the egg; the thing containing the thing containing the thing to be contained but not yet birthed.

Which is sort of the form of a good essay, it occurs to me.

DSC01249

Postcards from the Edge; or, On Reading Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I have been making my way slowly through Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Slowly because it is tough stuff, both the — what should I call it? theology? the study of his own faith/God/self-in-God?, and the intensity of it: a dying man sending dispatches from the edge.

Diagnosed with a rare and fitful disease, Wiman has been dragging himself through years of treatment sometimes as ravaging as the disease, approaching death only to have death pull away, only to catch up to it again, like some long drag race in the desert. Throughout much of it he has been trying to make sense of his call toward God or Christ or some ineffable -ness that is not captured by the wan word “religion,” with its weight of institutions and hierarchies.

I am interested in ideas of god, in the faith that seems something innate in our species, though long though a nonbeliever myself. Is it this lack of a religious upbringing that makes me struggle so to understand what he’s saying?

The writing itself also requires me to untangle sentences, to consider asides, to parse the meanings of words. He does have a tendency toward long sentences that take some effort to track. He also speaks at times in koans. For example, he used the word “contingency” several times, including in one gnomic statement early on that God is contingency. Which made me have to look up the word, as I’ve only used it with regard to plans-made-just-in-case, also known as Plan B. Which made me think of W.C. Fields — isn’t he the one who took up religion on his deathbed just to hedge his bets? But it turns out I had misunderstood contingency as meaning the plan itself, when in fact it’s the stuff that transpires such that Plan B is called for.

Contingency is a possible future event or circumstance, unpredictable, chancy, possibly fortuitous. It’s also, philosophically, “the absence of necessity; the fact of being so, without having to be so.” (That’s Random House Dictionary’s wording.)

Oh. Well, no wonder I’m confused. But of course I’m confused.

There’s nothing like the fact of one’s death to change perspective, I imagine, particularly from how one thought one would feel in the face of one’s death. The brief segments that make up the book were written over the course of years, at it has been years since he was diagnosed, years of treatment, years of the disease in abeyance, years of it breathing down his neck, years of a soul’s dark night, God as dark knight, as nothing like that at all. There is no arguing with a dying man, so if wants to speak confusingly about his wrestling with ideas and needs, saying the unsayable in the abstruse, well, there we are. Contingency is from a late Latin word meaning befall. Indeed.

He also has many interesting things about art and writing. And these I cleave to. About some poets and poems, he says they are: “…making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions…What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals–and it does feel like revelation–a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.”

He talks about the best art finding “multiple dimensions in a single perception.”

Regarding the amateur and the artist, he says this about photography: What the amateur offers, often poignantly, is “a chopped-off piece of life. An artist…makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.”

But the final chapters and segments become more and more achingly, confoundingly, terrifyingly beautiful. I think of Rilke’s terrifying angels. In these passages Wiman is transcendant.

Here are some excerpts:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.”

“To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God.”

And this: “Word after word ekes out of me as if I were in some bare, wasted place scraping myself forward, as if there were a ‘forward,’ as if I did not end up every time on this same circle circumscribing all I do not know.”

I was enamored of his words about writing and poetry, and these beautiful sentences of his experience. I felt in some ways I have failed him in my obtuseness with regard to his meditations on “belief.” He has been working so hard to communicate his sense of God.

It wasn’t until I came to the very end of the book, ironically, that I began to begin to begin to understand what he was saying. And it was by way of a poem. That old unsaid saying it best, the great expanse beyond the punctuation opening out:
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:

 

Easy on the Eyes; or, Book Report on Recent Reading

I find myself in the midst of some terrific reads right now, piles of jewels of books that I’m rolling around in like Midas.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass is a gentle murmur of profound wisdom, the breeze ticking the corn leaves, quaking the aspen as this botanist and member of the Potawotami people braids together different ways of knowing. I’m taking small bites of it, rare for me, a voracious eater. But it’s the proper way to absorb this book.

Ruth L. Schwartz’s Miraculum is poems of close observation, of some duende, and the intimacy of conversation with an old friend. I love encountering books whose authors seem like someone I’d like to know.

Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned is quick becoming a new favorite, sprawling, witty poems considering the soul and the sanity, tweaking the sacred mutterings of catechisms. Love his work, which always makes me laugh and be amazed at his creativity.

Lucia Perilla’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths is so full of life, often wry, vivid. Mortality is much on the mind of these lively poems, so it was especially startling for me to learn that this wonderful poet I just discovered died a few years ago.

David Sedaris’s new book Calypso is funny and poignant, as we spend time with his wacky family whom he loves to the bottom of his twisted little heart. I am reading more and more slowly, as I don’t want this book to end.

And my guilty pleasure: I read Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in two days. It’s been a while since I indulged in a page-turner and it was worth it.