Darkness on the edge of town; or, On Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha

Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha has been an engrossing read. It details violence against Mexicans in the United States in poems that splash and splatter across the page. Set in landscape format, the book unfolds with white space and quick bursts of text, as if almost every poem is a kind of erasure, the text a struggle to stand against the white space.

A central poem is “Prelude to a Mexican Lynching, February 2, 1848, Guadalupe Hidalgo; or The Treaty of Peace, Friendships, Limits, and Settlement” which is an almost-30 page erasure of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, as an end to the Mexican-American war, required Mexico to cede to the US all or parts of what we now know as the entire Southwest. The so-called treaty was bilingual, and Cody’s erasures show two erasures on each page, a dotted line separating the English and the Spanish. The erasures from the preamble and Article 1, for example say in English, “animated by a sincere desire to/end/the people/as good neighbors/There shall be/ America and the Mexican/without place.” And on the Spanish side: “las calamidades/que/existe entre/paz y/ciudades/sin/personas,” which I translate as “the calamities that exist between peace and cities with no people.” (Cody himself supplies no translations of the Spanish threaded throughout the collection, which meant some happy leafing through and discovery in my Spanish-English dictionary.)

Lynchings of Mexicans were widespread before and after the war, and many of the poems serve as witness.

Some poems bunch text, as in “Nightjars,” which ends with a flock of the word “before” or the cacophony of “this had a name.” Others play with the structure of text or interact with photographs. Official words are scrutinized, historical photographs are questioned.

The word “apocrypha” means hidden or secret writings. Cody takes history as a text to be broken open, and in so doing he reminds himself, and the reader, “Recall that beneath you, are the others.”

Sitting downtown in a railway station; or, On videopoem “Everywhere West” by Chris Green and Mark Neumann

I am mesmerized by this videopoem, linked below, the rapid flash images that nevertheless seem rarely to change, short stops in motel or diner parking lots nothwithstanding, and an occasional glimpse of the changing character of the landscape, but only a glimpse, as the landscape is chiefly anti-land, it’s the roadscape, mostly the highwayscape. We all know it. The blacktop, the yellow lines, the signs flashing by flashing by and the rear ends of trucks, stolid, unimpressed with your own meager mileage-eating.

The voice drones on and I mean that in the nicest way, because it’s saying interesting things, mournful things, meaningful things, and I drift in and out of focus, as I do on the road as the miles slip by and I think suddenly, wait a minute, where am I.

There is music in the background that is meant to live in the background, the way the radio blurbles along as if anyone is really listening, when often times it’s just noise against the great and awful silence, the silence of Life, or Aloneness, or Eternity, or The Grave, and the DJ prattles on, and the songs merge as if one long song and what you thought at one point was your finger bopping to a beat had become many miles before just a nervous tapping, or vice versa.

And arrival becomes a strange and new way of being, disorienting, and for a moment you forget how to live in one place, and you miss, a little bit, the moving road.

I skied today under a wide blue sky, and had the trail to myself, and was thinking about this videopoem, and also wondering, as I often do, what is the purpose of life, if life has a purpose. Sometimes I go down a nihilistic spiral with that question, but often I end up at Rilke: “Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate…”

I could skate away on; or, On Alice Oswald’s Dart

Another book-length poem has come to my attention, and although I don’t think I have the effort of will and attention to create such a thing, I do find I’m attracted to the ambition of them. This one is Dart by Alice Oswald, published back in 2002 by Faber and Faber. The Dart is a river in England, and Oswald traveled the length of it, talking with people who live by and on and with the river, and has created a chorus of these voices and the river itself murmuring and splashing through the length of the book.

In a brief intro she suggests that all the voices should be considered those of the river, but I actually found that conceit distracting. A river, after all, is not necessarily just the water running through a channel, but it’s the walls and marshes of the channel, the rocks in the way, the grasses smoothing the bottom, the fish in the grasses, the woman laying a fly along the surface with her line, the man floating on a tire, the kid kerplashing in from a rope swing. I think about The Wind and the Willows and its river, a character itself, which was the river’s own stories blended with the wind in the reeds and the River Rat in the bank and Toad splashily sculling.

Oswald’s voices include a bailiff seeking poachers, fishermen eluding the bailiff, a worker in a milk production plant that uses the river water, sailors, birdwatchers, kayakers, the dead, the living, the water, its currents. In truth, the first time through, it was not an easy read, so slippery did it move through different tones and material, although the voice changes are signaled with a note in the margin. But the second time through was smoother and I was more easily able to ride the current.

Here’s a bit from the beginning, the source, as it were:

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea.

Here’s another:

how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up
first in tatters then in shreds then in threads
and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase…

Not every bit has this level of movement and liquidity, but my favorite portions do. Here, memorably, terribly, the river takes a kayaker:

come warmeth, I can outcanoeuvre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head…

And here:

Sleep was at work and from the mind the mist
spread up like litmus to the moon, the rain
hung glittering in mid-air…

I saw a sheet of seagulls suddenly
flap and lift with a loud clap and up
into the pain of flying, cry and croup
and crowd the light as if in rivalry
to peck the moon-bone empty
then fall all anyhow with arms spread out
and feet stretched towards the earth again.

That’s just a taste and glimpse of all that’s encountered in the book. It was a wonderful ride.

I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.

And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.

Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

Have my seat; it’s for free; or, In Which I Discover I Know Nothing About Poetry…Again

I still remember the shock and betrayal I felt, not to mention the physical discomfort, when whatever little asshole kid I was see-sawing with jumped off when he was down, and I was up, and I came slamming down. It made me ever suspicious and I have been always careful with whom I see-saw. Well, the world of poetry sometimes feels to me like that kid — playing nicely then suddenly, inexplicably wham. And I’m down, bones rattled, teeth jarred.

I keep encountering poems lately I. do. not. get. Don’t get ’em. What are they doing? What are they talking about? Why has the poet chosen to do what they have done? What am I to take away from them? WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?

Obviously, I know nothing about poetry.

I mean these are well respected publishers and much lauded books and widely praised poets. So obviously everyone other than me sees something in them and I’m too much of a dolt to see the greatness.

No wonder I can’t get my poems accepted for publication lately! I clearly have no idea what I’m doing! I go along, writing my stuff, reading stuff, venturing my opinion about what I’m reading. Then wham. Who am I to have any opinions whatsoever on anyone else’s work when I am clearly so. out. of. my. depth. Who am I to be scribbling and typing and — good grief — sending stuff out?

Poetry? What the hell is it? Don’t freaking ask me. I ain’t getting on that see-saw today.

I want you to show me the way; or, On Reading Kay Ryan

I picked up Synthesizing Gravity, a collection of Kay Ryan’s essays, eager to discover what this brilliant poet has to say in prose…only to find the intro was written by another in my literary pantheon, Christian Wiman. Listen to this: He writes, “…Kay Ryan is…in some way native to…a realm in which gravity and levity are vivid kin….” Isn’t that amazing? That’s a realm I would like to move to. My literary Canada. He suggests Ryan’s purpose is: “…to light the space between mind and world. To light, and thereby lighten, the space between mind and world. To lighten, and thereby lessen, the space between mind a world.” I say yes to all that. Yes. And I haven’t even gotten past the intro.

+++++

Okay, now I have gotten past the intro, and yes, yes to many of these erudite little essays in which Kay Ryan thinks her Kay Ryan-ish delighted thoughts on poems that interest her interesting mind. I have had some friends in my life like Kay Ryan in whom I totally delight and with whom I’m always a little anxious. These are people SO much smarter than I am, totally idiosyncratic in their brilliance, and they just dazzle without being anything grand or fancy but just being their often small-seeming, darkly quietly brilliant selves. And I’m anxious that they find me likable and never discover the dolt I am. This is what Kay Ryan would be like if I could be her friend. And I would love to be her friend. Or at least her roommate at an AWP conference, about which she devotes one hilarious essay, her reluctant attendance at an AWP as a visiting alien, wide-eyed and exhausted by the planet-change. 

Here is something she says, in the context of considering a Robert Frost poem, but so relevant to the poetry writing process in general, I think, and relevant to a discussion I had recently with a poet friend. About her spare, crystalline poems, which I often find engimatic, I’m constantly asking basically, “Can you tell us just a little bit more?” Ryan says: “The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.”

I had to look up “punctilio” (“a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure”) and in so doing sort of lost track of things, but she’s addressing, I believe, choice-making — how to choose the words/syntax/form that will carry the greatest resonance, undone by either too much or too little actual information. 

Here, from another essay, this one considering William Carlos Williams, she comes at the same question from the other end: “How much can you take away? It’s always a question. Or maybe it’s exactly the wrong question, posed like that. If you think you are taking away, then you probably are — diminishing something. You have to be looking for something, feeling for the contours of the thing inside the distractions, trying to add just a little bit moreto what you know.”

All this is to say that Kay Ryan is a delightful essayorial companion, and I’m enjoying this collection without the anxiety of worrying about whether she is enjoying me.

There’s always something happening there; or, On Reading Phil Memmer’s Pantheon

I’m a gobbler. I vacuum my meals, I gobble the pavement under my quick step, I whip-read such that I’m always having to reread because I went too fast to remember what I read. But I’ve had this book of poems now for several months and I love it so much I can only bear to read a few poems at a time. This rarely happens to me, and I’m so thrilled to have the experience, especially during the pandemic, when everything seems to have slowed down around me, and my brain too, stumbling and bleary.

The poems are imaginative, beautiful in all the ways of beauty, sometimes funny, always poignant, almost unbearably so — but in a very good way. Indeed Phil was filled with some holy spirit with these poems, so full are they of wild winds and homely wonder.

Every poem is entitled by the name of the god who is speaking: The God of Wisdom, The God of Snow, The God of Driving Alone in the Middle of the Night. And each god reveals itself in tercets of its thoughts in the form of epistles to a “you” who is we, we who are staggering in the created world.

One poem is called “A Muse.” This might be my favorite. (No, even as I write that, others clamor for my favor.) Anyway, in “A Muse,” the muse describes how hard it worked to gain “your” attention so as to give you “…a worldly thing//to move you, in a world of things/by which you refuse to be moved….” The muse claims credit for the fog that canceled the flight that created a cascade of events that interceded with the haphazard car inspection that resulted in an accident that provided the writer with “…a copse of roadside trees//in peak spring, a perfect green/you might, on another ay,/have sped right by….”

And really that little quote does no service to the wonderful reeling out of the poem and its characters. I just cannot do justice to any of these poems with any snippet of lines. They are a wonder and a delight, and now that I have finally read every poem, I almost can’t bear/really can’t wait to go through them again.

Pantheon was published by Lost Horse Press in 2019. The book has a ghostly black cover that has a funny feel to the touch, as if it’s covered in soft leather, a pair of pale hands folded lit in the gloom.

You’re really hanging with the crowd; or, Someone Else on Keats and Negative Capability

Readers may remember my fulmination against Keats and this much-made-of notion of negative capability (https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/keats-pisses-me-off-or-the-beauty-of-fact-and-reason-or-art-and-reaching-irritably/). I have often felt very alone in my impatience with it. But then I encountered this welcome article: http://jacketmagazine.com/40/theune-keats.shtml. I pass it along, having little else useful to say on this or any other matter today.

Prepare ye the way; or, On Poetry I’m Reading, and Possibly Stealing From

I love when I’m reading someone else’s poem and find it’s inspired me such that I have to put it down and run over to my own notebook to write something. Usually when I go back to the triggering poem by the other poet, I can’t for the life of me figure out how I got to what their poem said to what I felt compelled to run to write down. But hooray for the whole enterprise. So I turned with relish to the pile of books of poetry that has been growing at my elbow, and will today share some of the choice lines from them.

So thanks to some trade deals, I have three wonderful little handsewn books from Ethel Zine & Micro Press:

– From Joanna Penn Cooper’s When We Were Fearsome, from “The Keening”:   “…That scene in The Shining that terrifies/a child, the beautiful woman falling old./Now when I see it I think, It’s just a woman./His whole big horror was just embracing/the woman’s changing body.”

And this from her “Existential Kink”: “…My whole life has been one long/creative exercise, a Life Prompt, if you will. Try it. Go/from something kind of funny to something kind of sad/and back again. Repeat. Keep repeating….”

– From Annmarie O’Connell’s Hellraiser, from “Tonight I’m sitting in the front room”: “Im telling you/that a story can remember me/hunt me down/and sooner or later/knock me dead into the past/with its invisible/arms.”

And this from “This is a road.”: “Suddenly inside we are better people/miraculous/with the undertow of failing.”

– From Barbara Ungar’s Edge, from “Madascan Moon Moth”: “To distract bats, he spins his extravagant/and expendable long red tail./They aim for that/and miss him as he burns through the dark,/improbably and fleeting, the Comet Moth.”

And from “April Journal, 2018”: “Though living in the end days/with thirteen kinds of crazy/still the birds return one by one.”

– From Prolific Press and Ann E. Michael came her Barefoot Girls, and this from “Roller Rink”: “…We never missed the novelty tunes,/triplet skate, Elvis and Glenn Miller recast as honky-tonk/organ numbers, blue collar kids doing the hokey-pokey/under the red lights and the mirror ball, you and I/at fourteen, putting our whole selves in.”

And this from “Beautiful Cause”: “You are sixteen. What you already know/about longing could fill/the relentless, empty sky.”

– Stuart Bartow’s new book Green Midnight is out from Dos Madres Press, with this moment from “Merlins”: “…To be//a merlin for one day, to eat life raw…”

And this from “Double Helix”: “…The infinite/must loop around itself/carrying chromosomes like galaxies,/genes like stars.”

– And finally a book I was excited to receive but ultimately could not make much sense of, Spring Ulmer’s Benjamin’s Spectacles from Kore Press. The philosopher Walter Benjamin pops up in my ken on a regular basis, so when I was looking for a book to order from Kore, I saw this and leaped on it. But I struggled to find what Ulmer was telling me about him or what she was making of his life and its work. I’ll work on it. Nevertheless, I share a couple of lines. Here from “The Typewriter”: “To write his way home pounding the keys of the Olympia, Benjamin (who normally employs someone else to do his typing) must break the glass voice of his childhood into fragments he shakes like dice. Each ding of the carriage’s end returns him to the city he can never again love….”

And this from “Fairy Tales”: “I pick at the glow-/in-the-dark stickers on my wall…//I take down the moon and all the stars, too.”

So if you heard anything that intrigued you, please support these small presses by buying a book.

And did I mention my own from Grayson Books? http://www.graysonbooks.com

You want it darker; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part One

I strut around thinking I know stuff, so it’s good for me to encounter minds that reveal to me readily that I don’t know shite. Marilynne Robinson does this reliably. Anne Carson. Doug Glover. Sometimes you. But lately it’s been Christian Wiman giving me my comeuppance. Wiman’s engagement with poetry is gut-level and reaching, such that I feel like I’m a kindergartner struggling to learn my ABCs.

His latest book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, is difficult in many ways. I am not always following his thought process as he grapples with art, the spirit, faith, death, and poetry. There is a bitterness to it as he confronts his own mortality in the midst of all that he loves. As the book goes on, he does begin making grand statements that I can’t always get behind, statements that seem arguable but he neither expands nor explains, and often leave me thinking “Hey, but wait a minute.” But he offers up some incredible poems, his own and others’, and deeply interesting ideas.

Here is something he says that I’m still pondering. He’s referencing A. E. Stallings’s poem “Momentary,” but he says this: “…it’s not simply that the hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be otherthan what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end.”

I think the “hunger” he is talking about is the human need for answers, for explanations, for meaning, for something other than randomness at work in the world, for something at work larger than our meager efforts. The art is the reaching, the inquiry. If art — or the poem — attempts to be an answer, it can only be an echo of our own noisy voices. Is that what he’s saying?

Here’s another interesting thing: He considers whether art is a redemptive activity, and bristles at the idea. “I think it’s dangerous to think of art — or anything, actually — as a personallyredemptive activity…For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it….” He writes: “You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point — whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss — you will have no efforts left to make.”

I had never thought of making art in quite this way — I don’t look to it as something to do something for me, but rather as something to do with myself and my energies, proclivities. If I get anything external from it, accolade or opportunity, it’s chance and luck. Grace? If grace is that inner peace that comes from a transient sense of oneness with all things, then a walk in the woods can do that for me. A poem is me nattering in the dark, my yelp as I bark my shins on life.

More on my encounter with this book next week.