Wednesday, October 31, 2007

From the Bookshelf

I've been accumulating a pile of books as I finish them. Time to put them away somewhere. But first some quick reviews. Here's what I've been reading lately.

Cage of Stars, by Jacquelyn Mitchard.
I really enjoyed this author's first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, a book that catapulted the author into fame. But this book was a total disappointment. It's about a murder committed by a schizophrenic in a Mormon community. The narrator is the sister of the victims. She witnessed the murders. Sounds like it ought to be compelling? It's not. It matters little that the family is Mormon. I suspect that the author thought a novel about Mormons might be a hot ticket. The voice of the young narrator is unconvincing, stilted, and not at all the voice of a twelve-year-old child. When her parents decide to forgive the murderer who, by the way, recovers from his single moment of schizophrenia and is released from the facility for the criminally insane and reunites with his faithful wife, I was left unconvinced. Nothing about this book rings true.

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me, by Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor.
Surprisingly readable memoir in spite of the occasional strangely constructed sentence. Takes you behind the whole Beatles' era scene. An incredible amount of alcohol and drugs and infidelity. Music, fashion, mansions. Pattie Boyd was married to George Harrison but was wooed away by Eric Clapton. Not bad, Pattie! She was the inspiration for three great songs from the era: Harrison's "Something" and Clapton's "Layla" and "You Look Wonderful Tonight."

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, by Jonathan Harr.
I give it an okay+. I thought this hunt for a lost painting by the famous painter would have more intrigue than it did. But it was readable and I learned a bit about the art world and restoration and fraud.

Digging to America, by Anne Tyler.
I find Tyler's novels quiet but lovely and written with nice touches of subtle humor. This novel was no exception. It's about two couples, one American, one Iranian, who adopt babies from Korea. So lots of culture mixing. Raises the question of what does it mean to be American? What is that exactly? Good mixture of happy and sad. I liked it a lot.

The Best American Poetry 2007, edited by Heather McHugh.
I felt let down by this year's collection. Didn't find too much that knocked me out. Of course, there were some knock-outs. My four favorites were Elaine Equi's "Etudes," Julie Larios' "What Bee Did," Natasha Saje's "F," and Charles Harper Webb's "Big." I'll end with Larios' poem, originally published in The Cortland Review:

What Bee Did

Bee not only buzzed.
When swatted at, Bee deviled,
Bee smirched. And when fuddled,
like many of us, Bee labored, Bee reaved.
He behaved as well as any Bee can have.

Bee never lied. Bee never lated.
And despite the fact Bee took, Bee also stowed.
In love, Bee seiged. Bee seeched.
Bee moaned, Bee sighed himself,
Bee gat with his Beloved.

And because Bee tokened summer
(the one season we all, like Bee, must lieve)
Bee also dazzled.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

What the Fall Hath Brought

Who says there's no foliage in New Jersey this year? It's true that our usual profusion of colors is somewhat diminished due to our dry summer which caused many trees to shed their leaves early—Goldengrove unleaving. But then we also have the occasional spot of beauty as pictured here.

I received a lovely surprise yesterday—a video of Alex Grant reading at the 2007 Oscar Arnold Young Award program. Alex won first prize for the best book by a North Carolina poet for his chapbook, Chains & Mirrors. This same collection also received the 2006 Randal Jarrell Poetry Prize. The collection is beautifully reviewed in the current issue of The Pedestal Magazine.

Chains & Mirrors is available online at Main Street Rag Bookstore.

Here's one of several ekphrastic poems from the collection:

The Steps of Montmartre

after Brassai's 1936 photograph

On the steps of Sacre Coeur
Cathedral, in that same winter
when junge leute filled Bavarian

beer-gardens, ten years before
Adorno proclaimed that there
could be no art after Auschwitz,

Brassai captured his flawless
image. Through the tunnel
formed by the parting trees,

battalions of lamp-posts advance
and retreat in the morning mizzle,
clamp chain-link handrails hard

into sunwashed cobbles. In less
than a year, the corpseless heads
on Nanking's walls will coalesce

with Guernica's ruined heart, mal
du siècle will become Weltschmerz,
and the irresistible symmetry

of a million clacking bootheels
will deafen half a continent.
The red brush never dries --

adagio leads finally to fugue,
haiku to satori, and the image
fixed in silver to remembering.

This poem also appeared in the ekphrastic issue of Poemeleon. In addition, because of editor Cati Porter's nomination, it also appears in Meridian's Best New Poets Anthology.

And now the video:

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Teaching Days

I've had two really nifty professional experiences in the last two weeks. If you've read my profile, you know that I'm a former high school English teacher and that I now work part-time (which is so much nicer than full-time!) as a poet-in-the-schools. I do short-term residencies, mostly with elementary school kids. I also do professional development with teachers. Last spring I was invited into Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to give an after-school reading for the combined middle and high school English departments. That was absolutely delightful. I matched each poem up with a teaching tip, and the teachers seemed to enjoy the whole thing. Plus, their excellent supervisor bought one copy of my new book for all 40 teachers. How nice was that!

As a result of that experience, I was invited to give a six-hour workshop for English teachers at the high school, so I spent three hours with them last week and three more hours yesterday. I was so impressed that these teachers, six of them, would sign up for three hours of anything after a long day in the classroom. But I could not have asked for a nicer, more energetic, enthusiastic group. Nor could I have asked for a more ideal group. They were so smart, so interested in learning more about how to teach poetry, and so willing to try all twelve of the activities I offered them. Yesterday one of the teachers told me that she'd already used one of the previous week's activities and that it was a big success. Can't ask for better than that! Another one of the teachers is doing an independent project on how to teach poetry for a degree she is working on, so of course she was hungry for whatever I offered. Apparently the workshop is going to get an entire chapter in her project. So I'm feeling very good about that entire experience.

The other experience was also the result of last spring's department reading. The supervisor passed my name onto someone who was planning a conference for the NJ Language Arts Leadership Association, aka Lala. I was invited to give the afternoon presentation. My topic was "Poetry: A Natural Bridge to Writing K-6." My argument was that when kids read, listen to, and write poetry they become better writers, not just better poets, but better writers. I talked about the various skills poetry imparts and how those transfer to prose and what can be done to enhance the likelihood of transfer. Then I took everyone through three different poetry prompts. I was worried there might be some resistance, but there wasn't any at all. They just came alive when we started the writing. Initially, there was some reluctance to read drafts aloud, but once we got to the second prompt, the hands were flying in the air. That was an audience of fifty people who can now have some role in bringing more poetry into the classroom. Poetry is magic.

And then this morning I received a surprise email from two former students of mine. Both were in the same AP class, both fabulous kids. The girl is now married, lives in Boston, and works for the NY Times. The boy is making his living as an actor. Apparently, they got to thinking about me and decided to google me which led them to my website. It was great to have them come back into my life, albeit from many miles away. It was great to be reminded that teachers do make a difference.

I ended yesterday's session with a poem by Matthew Thorburn. I'd like to end this post with that same poem.


But it was coming down that hill,
back to the city’s prime-time sprawl
of neon, pink as her garters’ frill
peeking out from her skirt (still all
rucked up in back), and the chill
and shiver of summer giving in to fall
that I found my second, darker thrill.

Isn't that a beauty? I love its music, its brevity, its playfulness, and then that enigmatic last line. Makes me want to get out Fats Domino and dance.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Upcoming Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Even though it's almost a year away, plans for the 12th biennial Dodge Poetry Festival are well underway. Mark your calendars: Thursday, September 25 through Sunday, September 28, 2008.

The festival will again be held at the historic Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey. Those of you who have attended previous Dodge Festivals know that it's in a beautiful setting running along a river. You'll find lots of green grass, gravel pathways, and charming buildings. For as long as you are able to attend, you will feel yourself transported into another world.

The best part, of course, is the poets. The line-up so far includes Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Martín Espada, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Simic, and Franz Wright. Many other poets will be added in the coming months. (By the way, if you've applied to read at the festival and haven't heard yet, don't panic; invitations go out as late as the spring.) Keep up to date with developments by visiting the website: Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Lucille Clifton is always a favorite at the festival and has been the festival's most often featured poet. Here's a poem of hers I admire.

Miss Rosie

when I watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when I watch you
in your old man's shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week's grocery
I say
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Valparaiso Poetry Review

The new issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review is now online. This is one of my favorite online journals. The poetry is excellent, the book reviews abundant, interviews comprehensive, and essays thought-provoking. My only regret about the new issue is that its appearance means I'm no longer the featured poet. But the good news is that I enjoyed a lovely six months in the spotlight and the feature, including 3 poems, a book review, and an interview, will remain in the archives for all eternity. If you missed visiting, look for me at Valparaiso Poetry Review Archives.

Also on the good news side: I have a book review in this new issue. It was a pleasure to review Kathleen Flenniken's Famous, her first full-length poetry collection. This book won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

My review concentrates on the reasons why this collection might have been selected by the judges. Check it out: Review of Famous

To whet your appetite for the book, here's one of my favorite poems, first published in Cider Press Review:


This is solace: a bowl of shredded wheat
softened perfectly in milk and today's paper

turned to the Lifestyle section.
The Russian sub is pinned front-page down

on the bottom of the Barents Sea. I'm dipping
into "The Dos and Don'ts of Shampoo,"

the distinction between lathering and cleansing,
a drown of suds in my imagined fingers

and just like that I'm lost in the silver
of my mother's hair, back in the hospital

where she sank into infirmity, her heart foundering
and all of us helpless, standing by.

I hadn't brushed her hair since I was a girl,
or ever fed her pared fruit with my hand.

A man with an ultrasound machine
pointed to the soundless blips

and in the shadows of that small screen
we saw her trapped inside her aging body.

The divers still hear taps. If I stop to think
I'll hear them too. One hundred eighteen men

in a vessel I imagine falling
like a pearl in a bottle of green shampoo.

Here's another one I very much admire, a wonderful persona poem. This one first appeared in The Iowa Review and then was featured on Poetry Daily.

To Ease My Mind

If I woke as Mary Todd Lincoln

and if Abraham Lincoln slept next to me
like an uprooted tree, his knobby fingers

unearthed, his face a burl,
grey as a Mathew Brady photograph,

and if my country were at war,

my own cousins killing my cousins,
and I'd been told to tear the country's

damask down, shred its opulence
to bandage the wounded but

I knew it was hopeless, hopeless,
there'd be no stopping the blood

of filthy, putrid common men until
every human left had lost a child, a leg, an arm

and if I'd already given everything,

if I'd given over my grieving husband —
not without kicking and screaming —

and the birds were silent
to mark the never-ending end,

then God forgive me, perhaps I too
would turn my mind to the pleasures

of kidskin gloves adorned with pearls,
embroidered daisies and chrysanthemum

stars, white on white filigree so fine
one might believe a fairy tatted them.

I might need box upon box upon box of them
to tell me who I am.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Akhmatova and the Art of Translation

First a confession: I avoid reading poems in translation. Usually when the issue of Poetry comes that's all translations, I toss it aside. I don't think I'm a xenophobe, but I can't help feeling that there's so much poetry to read in English that I'll never get to it all. Then if I start adding translations to the pile, that pile really will become insurmountable. Plus, there's the suspicion that when I read a poem in translation I'm not getting the real poem. I feel like I'm reading it through a veil, through someone else's eyes. And yet several years ago when I was part of a group of poets and we were each handed a packets of poems without poets' names and told to select one for oral reading, I selected one in translation. That was the one I liked best. So I have this little conflict going on.

Before reading Akhmatova's poems, I read Stanley Kunitz's "Notes on the Translations." He says, "The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination." So the translator also faces a conflict: he must "respect the text" and at the same time "make it new." I mentioned in my last post that the collection, Poems of Akhmatova, contains only 40 poems, yet Kunitz reveals that it took five years to complete the translations! He goes on to say that "Translation is a sum of approximations, but not all approximations are equal." He points out the difficulty involved in dealing with Russian word order, of maintaining the sense and still achieving clarity. He says that the challenge is to "produce an analogous poem in English out of available signs and sounds, a new poem sprung from the matrix of the old, drenched in memories of its former existence . . ." He refers to another Russian poet, Nikolai Zabolotski, who said that translating poetry was "like rebuilding a city out of the evidence of its ruins."

Kunitz talks also about the difficulty involved in translating Akhmatova's formal poems and acknowledges that one of the sacrifices is in rendering metrical and rhyming patterns. These simply do not transfer from one language to another. So instead "of rhyme, our ear is often better pleased by an instrumentation of off-rhyme, assonance, consonance, and other linkages."

With Kunitz's wise words in my mind, I then turned to the poems. Here's another one I like.

July 1914

All month a smell of burning, of dry peat
smoldering in the bogs.
Even the birds have stopped singing,
the aspen does not tremble.

The god of wrath glares in the sky,
the fields have been parched since Easter.
A one-legged pilgrim stood in the yard
with his mouth full of prophecies:

"Beware of terrible times . . . the earth
opening for a crowd of corpses.
Expect famine, earthquakes, plagues,
and heavens darkened by eclipses.

"But our land will not be divided
by the enemy at his pleasure:
the Mother-of-God will spread
a white shroud over these great sorrows."

From the burning woods drifts
the sweet smell of juniper.
Widows grieve over their brood,
the village rings with their lamentation.

If the land thirsted, it was not in vain,
nor were the prayers wasted;
for a warm red rain soaks
the trampled fields.

Low, low hangs the empty sky,
tender is the voice of the supplicant:
"They wound Thy most holy body,
They are casting lots for Thy garments."

We can see the poet's growth here. The poem is more fully developed, more intense, more impassioned. Akhmatova now uses a good deal of dialogue. I noticed this as characteristic of her work. And obviously, this poem is political.

One more:

"Why Is This Age Worse . . . ?"

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?

In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Akhmotova Mentorship

Today I finished reading Poems of Akhmatova. In my last post I said that I was afraid I might have selected the wrong text, but having read the book I now think I picked just the right one for someone with minimal familiarity with the poet's life and work. The Russian poems on the left pages that I feared would be like flies buzzing didn't distract me at all. I quickly adjusted to just reading the right-hand pages. The Introduction by Max Hayward is very readable and informative. I learned that Akhmatova was reticent in her personal life, a quality reflected in the economy of her poetry. She hated the term "poetess." So do I! Petersburg, where she spent the first sixteen years of her life, had a lasting influence on her work. The importance of place is seen throughout her poetry. She married Nikolai Gumilev, another poet, but it was not a happy marriage and ended in divorce. She was influenced by another Russian poet, Innokenti Annenski, who did for her what she would later do for Jane Kenyon. Reading his work changed hers and helped her find her own voice.

Like other poets of her day, Akhmatova was very interested in architecture. She followed the advice of Mikhail Kuzmin, who wrote the introduction to her first collection. He advised, ". . . be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax . . . be a skillful builder, both in small things and in the whole . . . love words, as Flaubert did, exercise economy in your means, thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity—then you will discover the secret of a wonderful thing: beautiful clarity." That still sounds like good advice.

My collection contains only 40 poems, a good number to begin with. I also liked that they are arranged in chronological order so I could trace Akhmatova's evolution as a poet. As time went on, her poems became longer, more personal, and more political as she witnessed the upheaval in Stalinist Russia and was profoundly affected by it. She was a popular poet, on one occasion reading for an audience of three thousand people. But she was silenced and prohibited from publishing her work. Her son Lev was imprisoned, later released, then imprisoned again, and released and imprisoned a third time. After the third arrest, she burned all her papers. For a brief period she was compelled to write poems in praise of Stalin. One can hardly fault her for this with her son in prison. Later, she was permitted to travel and to again have a public life as a poet. Hayward concludes that at the end of her life she believed that she had fulfilled her destiny.

I want to include some of my favorite poems. Instead of trying to locate them on the internet, I'm going to type them in here. I want the poems to go through my eyes, into my brain, down into my heart, and out through my fingers. A total infusion.

"Heart's Memory of Sun . . ."

Heart's memory of sun grows fainter,
sallow is the grass;
a few flakes toss in the wind
scarcely, scarcely.

The narrow canals no longer flow,
they are frozen over.
Nothing will ever happen here,
oh, never!

In the bleak sky the willow spreads
its bare-boned fan.
Maybe I'm better off as I am,
not as your wife.

Heart's memory of sun grows fainter.
What now? Darkness?
Perhaps! This very night unfolds
the winter.

"Three Things Enchanted Him . . ."

Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
. . . And he was tied to me.

These two early poems were written during the years of Akhmatova's marriage to Gumilev.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Beautiful Clarity: The Poetic Mentorship

I've been thinking a lot about an article I read in the September issue of The Writer's Chronicle: "Beautiful Clarity: Jane Kenyon, Anna Akhmatova, and the Luminous Particular," by David Harbilas. Harbilas attributes Kenyon's achievement of mastery to a "never-ending apprenticeship." I was immediately drawn to this article as I have long subscribed to its premise. I think our best teachers are the ones who appear on the page before us. I read poetry for pleasure but also for information about craft. When I read a poem that stays with me, that keeps noodling my brain, I begin to ask myself how I might use that poem as a jumping-off point into a new poem of my own. What has that poet done that intrigues me? What new moves are there? I sometimes try to uncover the pattern beneath a poem, extract it, and then build my own poem on top of the pattern or skeleton. The result is never anything like the original so imitation doesn't worry me. I think it's a good thing, a way to learn and move beyond what you are already doing.

But I was also interested in the article because Kenyon went beyond using single poems to influence her. According to Harbilas, Robert Bly once paid a visit to Kenyon and Donald Hall after they moved to New Hampshire. Bly suggested that Kenyon select a single poet as a master. When she responded that she could not have a man as her master, he recommended Anna Akhmatova. Harbilas believes that in studying her new mentor's poetry, Kenyon found "an equivalent in terms of emotion, allegiance to place, and expression of the self." More importantly, she was attracted to Akhmatova's "obsession with clear and evocative language," or a "beautiful clarity." He offers this poem as an example:

Along the Hard Crest of the Snowdrift

Along the hard crest of the snowdrift
to my white, mysterious house,
both of us quiet now,
keeping silent as we walk.
And sweeter than any song
this dream we now complete--
the trembling of branches we brush against,
the soft ringing of your spurs.

I don't know why Harbilas uses a translation by someone other than Kenyon, but I've included Kenyon's translation above. He points out the rural setting, the description of that setting, the address to a loved one--all characteristics that would be found in Kenyon's work. Harbilas is most interested in the power of the images—especially in the last two lines—in how Akhmatova lets them do the work of the poem in conveying "physical joy or sexuality." Yes, I thought, how often do we not trust the image to do its work and instead jump in and tell way too much. Habilas then goes on to discuss three of Kenyon's poems which show her increasing mastery of the image, the last of which is "Let Evening Come," a poem I love.

Harbilas ends by pointing out some differences between the two poets, primarily that Kenyon never became the political poet that Akhmatova was, that her work remained more private and personal in subject matter and that she gave more attention to daily routines and weather.

So I went to the bookstore and bought a collection of Akhmatova's poetry, the one translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward. I'm not sure I'll be happy with this collection as the original poems appear in Russian on the left page and I'm afraid I will find that distracting. But I need to get to know this poet better. Since I very much like Kenyon's work, I'm hoping that I too will learn from Akhmatova.

I'm also looking ahead to another mentor. Not someone wildly experimental but someone who will stretch me in directions I haven't yet gone. Today I ordered Nin Andrews' Sleeping with Houdini, Stuart Dybek's Streets in Their Own Ink, and James Hoch's Miscreants. That should keep me busy. I hope these poets and their poems will set off a flurry of poetic activity. I also bought Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils, a collection of prose and poetry.

Who are your mentors?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Word Slinging

Here's a poem I keep tucked in a folder I call "Poems I Like." It's by Rod Jellema.

Because I Never Learned the Names of Flowers

It is moonlight and white where
I slink away from my cat-quiet blue rubber truck
and motion myself to back it up to your ear.
I peel back the doors of the van and begin
to hushload into your sleep
the whole damn botanical cargo of Spring.

Sleeper, I whisk you
Trivia and Illium, Sweet Peristalsis, Flowering Delirium.

Sprigs of Purple Persiflage and Lovers' Leap, slips
of Hysteria stick in my hair. I gather clumps of Timex,
handfuls of Buttertongues, Belly buttons and Bluelets.

I come with Trailing Nebula, I come with Late-Blooming
Paradox, with Creeping Pyromania, Pink Apoplex,
and Climbing Solar Plexus,

whispering: Needlenose,
Juice Cup, Godstem, Nexus, Sex-us, Condominium.

I admire the wordplay in this poem, the sexiness of it. It feels romantic and fanciful. Mostly I love the musicality of it. This is a poem to first just enjoy and then study and learn from. I like the made-up words like cat-quiet and hushload. The beauty of the flower names in line 7. I'm not much of a gardener so am not sure if those are real names or made-up ones, but they are fun to say, to roll around in the mouth. What nice alliteration in Buttertongues, Belly buttons and Bluelets. And the rhyming of Paradox, Apoplex, Plexus, Nexus, Sex-us (surely this is invention!). And the playfulness of that final Condominium which makes no sense but nevertheless enchants and seduces. Wouldn't it be lovely to be that Sleeper and have someone whispering all this in your ear as you nod off?

Prompt idea: Focus on an outdoor scene, something full of nature rather than man-made objects. Brainstorm a quick column list of all you see. To the right of your list, after each word, add some related words, a made-up word, a rhyming word (or alliterative or near rhyming). Imagine an auditor. Then drawing from your word hoard, write a poem delivered very privately to that person. No one else is listening.
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