Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Ear Eve all. Before I go out, get shitty and begin wandering the streets screaming “WHY?”, I’m gonna write about music rather than poetry in honor of this special occasion.

W, my dear old friend who lives with B and I gave me the double CD reissue of CROOKED RAIN, CROOKED RAIN by Pavement for xmas. Were it not for Pavement, I don’t think I’d have made it out of my teens, and CR CR was the first Pavement album I bought, right when it came out. It’s planted firmly somewhere at the base of my sense of self. This reissue, which came out in 2004, and which includes things from singles (many of which I had), unreleased songs, and some early versions of things that made it on WOWEE ZOWEE (their best album) and BRIGHTEN THE CORNERS (their last good album), is something of a revelation. It sent me back to my other Pavement records, to the second Malkmus solo album that a friend burned for me, and to the record store where I bought TERROR TWILIGHT (their last album, which is not so good, save the last song, “Carrot Rope”), the first Malkmus solo album, and the new 7” by Cat Power, which is really fucking exciting.

Malkmus’s lyrics certainly share the fragmenting tendencies of contempoetry, and it’s not surprising that his cohort David Berman of the Silver Jews has also become a successful and well-regarded poet. Anyway, I’d never forgotten how good this music is, but I didn’t realize how good it could be to me right now.

TERROR TWILIGHT, which I’d heard when it came out, though I thought I was over Pavement then, is something of a disappointment. I remembered not thinking much of it years ago, and I don’t think it’s going to open up for me very much right now. The two songs by Cat Power on the 7” are a little preview of her upcoming album, called THE GREATEST, are both stunning. I gather she went into the studio with a band of Memphis pros. After MOON PIX, it seemed like everyone thought she was on the downhill slope. I really liked YOU ARE FREE, which has a number of really beautiful and haunting songs. The new music is as dark and moody as ever, but, with the tight backup band, has a power and thickness to it that her sound often lacks. I’m excited as hell for the rest of the record.

Haven’t gotten to the Malkmus solo yet.

Well, I’m off to hit the bottle. I hope everyone has a lovely time celebrating.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Reading a strange and wonderful forthcoming book by Yannick Murphy, due out this spring from McSweeneys. From what I gather, Murphy is a native New Yorker transplanted to California. Knopf published her first collection of stories in ’87, and she followed up with a highly regarded novel from, I think, Mariner. I haven’t gotten to check these out yet, but I will. She tends to write about families from the perspectives of children, who, it would seem, afford her access to a kind of nieve insight adulthood precludes. Her prose is strange, keeping the looping language at the forefront of the action, somewhere between stream-of-consciousness and standard first-person narration. Her work is not unlike Stephen Dixon’s (Mcsweeney’s has done one of his books and has another on the way). There is certainly a kinship there. It seems like Murphy’s been off the map for a few years, and I think this new book HERE THEY COME will make for a triumphal return. McSweeney’s loyal, built-in audience, and lovely book-objects, won’t hurt either. Here’s a stunning sample:

“We are cold at night. We sleep with sweaters on and hats. The cats claw at our faces, they want to get under the covers too. We let them in and keep our heads under the covers, breathing in what the cats breathe out.”

There’s also a stunning scene about an apartment evacuation due to a fire out back, which I read today, and which is very apropos as my toilet flooded this afternoon, drenching much of the building.

I wonder, is there a fiction blogging scene? Do story writers yammer on about the process and progress of their art like we do? A lot of the young fiction writers I know hardly seem to read anything. That’s not quite fair, but there isn’t anything resembling the dialogue and community that poetry has seemingly always engendered. Perhaps the issue is money: maybe when your art pays, you don’t need friends. Then, of course, most of the poets I know are voracious readers of poetry, fictions, nonfiction, cookbooks, anything with words on it. And often poetry is the least of their preoccupations. Why do poets read so much? That’s a rhetorical question—the answers are both too multiple to describe and too obvious. Point being, it’s a shame not to have access to a dialogue about young fiction the way we have one for poetry. If anyone knows anything I don’t, please chime in.

It was a long day. Playing catch-up at work with the backlog from last week’s transit strike. B is away for the month and I’m finding myself tired at the end of the day and more than willing to enjoy a lazy, quiet night at home. Blogging, writing letters, whatever, amount to nice ways of reclaiming my brain from a day of somebody else’s business. I don’t have too much trouble with the notion of splitting time between a day at work and moonlighting as a writer—I really couldn’t handle it when I was teaching and drowning in free time. I did just that: drown. But there must be a better way to pass those eight daily hours so that I don’t come home feeling pillaged. But I guess if there was a better way, somebody would have found it by now and suggested it to the rest of us. Perhaps they already have. If you need me, I’ll be in the self-help isle.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

I don’t think I have it me to provide an adequate response to Seth Abramson’s post, The Sociology of Poetry, or Joshua Corey’s response to it, each of which is impressively thorough in its argument. I can say I empathize with Corey’s points more. I don’t see any chaos, which is Abramson’s refrain, in the national poetry scene. I see a bunch of different people each of whom is doing his or her own thing, trying to fulfill the needs of an obsession. That’s as chaotic as any other human endeavor, but I wouldn’t call it chaos—if I let myself term all human endeavors as chaos I don’t think I’d be able to handle things.

I like Corey’s image of different currents or streams. They meet up sometimes; they diverge; and there are some, in which certain poetic traits or characteristics or habits are prevalent, that are wider, more visible, stand out on the map, at any given moment. For instance, I don’t think it’s very controversial to point out that poetry with an intellectual or heady bent, with a focus on surfaces, with (and this is an abstract characterization, I know) a sharpness, in which emotion and “experience” is not foregrounded, tends to win the Iowa poetry prize, the now defunct Georgia prize, and tends to be published in Fence. But the University of Louisiana press is always publishing poetry in a confessional mode. I don’t see that as chaos; it’s just different things happening at the same time, and sometimes they overlap.

I guess my most powerful reaction to Abramson’s post is a feeling that the reading and writing of poetry begins and ends in a much more private realm than the one Abramson discusses. I’d like to believe that if any writer or reader of poems thinks back to how they got started, they would remember a need to find a place within the community they found in books, a community composed not of people but of poems, of artifacts of human imagination. Meaning there was something they needed that they (we, I) couldn’t get through interacting with actual people, whether that was an endlessly ongoing conversation, a distraction for an overly busy mind, or some verification that they were not alone. For me, and I imagine this to be the case for most folks, my private interaction with poetry and books in general comes before, supersedes, is ultimately more important than, any public interaction with the community of poets.

This is not to say I’m not ambitious and that I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about my “career” as a poet. I am constantly worrying over whether and wither I will place my poems, whether or not anyone is aware that I write at all, whether or not my poems are any good. But I see all of that thinking as an extension or projection or externalization of my own psychological hang-ups, insecurities, and desires. And I take solace in the fact that my own relationship to reading and writing will always be more about me than any public poetic front. And, generally, I believe it’s like that for everyone. In the end, no matter what happens with my career, I’ll always have my own relationship with poetry to sustain me. I try to remind myself of that so that I don’t become bitter and jaded in the face of competition and whatever comes between me and the realization of my ambitions, whether than means the fickleness of editors, my own shortcomings as a poet, or poetic politics.

I began writing book reviews in earnest a couple of years ago. Of course, when I started I was hoping to connect myself to magazines I liked, make some kind of name for myself, interact with favorite poets, and hopefully gain something out of the experience. But what led me to choose that method of participating, and what ultimately keeps me at it—because, honestly, it’s a lot of tedious work, it doesn’t pay much if anything, and I never know if anyone is reading the damn things, if they care, if they think I’m a moron—is that I really enjoy the opportunity to engage deeply with a book, to spend a lot of time with it, to answer the book’s language with language of my own. I always keep those duel motives—the ambitious and the personal—in mind. My fiancé, who is also a poet, often wishes I’d shut up about poetry, but I can’t (hence this blog); if I didn’t have poetry to think about, I’d be preoccupied with much grimmer and more counterproductive thoughts. Poetry is constantly saving me from misery.

As far as Silliman and Ashbery go, I don’t see what the worry is. From reading his blog, I don’t get the sense that he fancies himself a tastemaker. What I like so much about it is that it presents an extraordinarily astute mind, the mind of someone with a long history in various poetry communities, engaging with its own preoccupations. The Ashbery NYorker profile is interesting, but not to poets. What bugged me about it was the fact that it presented ideas and habits that are pretty common to all poetry-writing people I know as something unique and unusual. But I chalk that up to the New Yorker’s need to make a poet’s life palatable to its non-poet audience. And in terms of the Best American anthologies, part of the setup of the program is that the editor changes every year, and almost every editor wrestles with and debunks the word “best” in their introduction. That word is more a marketing ploy than anything else. Scribner needs to sell books. And we all know that judges pick their friends and students, that hiring is as much about politics as merit. I think it’s great that CLMP established a code that many contest sponsors are using to make their contest fairer. But that’s life, it ain’t fair, and, again, it’s nothing to loose too much sleep over. My point is that subjectivity, not chaos, is at the heart of poetry and the poetry community.

All of which is to say I don’t care much about how organized poetry is on a grand scale. I believe that, on average, poets are at it for good reasons. Poets are saving themselves and each other from being miserable bastards all the time. This may not be a very savvy way of thinking about it; it may be rather nieve or romantic, but it’s what gets me through the day. I share a lot of Abramson’s concerns, but when I get as frustrated as he seems to be, I return to my personal engagement with poetry and I’m grateful for it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Trains and Poetry

My posts on the transit strike struck a sour note on one blog. I was providing my subjective perspective on that particular day. Certainly I understand the argument being made against mine. And I feel somehow wrong not sticking up for the little guy. Of course, what, finally, does any worker have as leverage against his/her boss other than the ability to withhold his/her labor? The troublesome thing in this situation is that it’s not just the bosses who are affected. New Yorkers, and the inconveniencing of New Yorkers, were a part of the transit union’s leverage. We were a kind of bargaining chip in this scenario. The transit union meant us to blame the MTA for the strike, for forcing them to resort to striking. I suppose that makes sense, but it still left millions who had not power to help or hinder the strikers in the lurch. I think the union could have handled their PR better, perhaps done more to rally commuters to their side. I followed the reportage on the strike pretty closely, and still felt uninformed. Everyone, from the union Pres. to the MTA to Bloomberg and Pataki, just seemed hostile and stubborn. Not a good way to solve a problem in my mind.

I’m fine with having my argument refuted, but the thing that bugs me the most about the above-mentioned blog post is the person who felt that criticizing my musical tastes was a sound counter to my argument. I like Ani Difranco’s music, and have for a long time. Granted, her name carries some pretty silly associations, but she makes great music. I’m especially fond of the albums that feature the excellent band she put together at the very end of the 90’s. To anyone who thinks that’s lame, it’s your loss.

Anyway, on to the subject at hand: poetry. B and I spent the holidays with her family in AZ. For reading material, I brought along an interesting anthology from England’s Salt Press, VANISHING POINTS edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella. The book is subtitled “New Modernist Poetry,” making it an unusual take on the current state of experimental poetics. The editors want to draw a bold line from the high moderns to the present day. Mengham, in his introduction, claims that this selection of writers represents “a strand in recent poetry that has stayed in touch with the agendas of modernism; they are not postmodernist, but late modernist writers.” Both editors make the usual claims that their anthology represents experimental veins that other anthologists are too timid / unwilling to represent, which, given the truckload of recent anthologies of experimental poets, seem untrue and unnecessary. But, because the editors chose writers from many English-speaking countries, there are many interesting and surprising things to be found here. Alongside names that will be familiar to American readers, such as (recent )John Ashbery, Lisa Jarnot, and Peter Gizzi (who seems to have a strong following in England, for good reason) are a few less known American writers, such as Stephen Rodefer, who is my favorite find here, the author of cynical and slippery lines like these: “My future daughter or son / could undergo / a bone marrow transplant before birth / even if he she has my profile or not // I guess we know / how wonderful / life can be / at the end of the 20th century”. Also interesting is the English poet John Wilkinson, among many other notable inclusions. Overall, the tone is much more heady and hearty, perhaps too much so for my tastes. But I’ve been eager to get a look at the English take on experimental writing, and this book certainly offers a good view.

Alright, it’s late. I hope everyone’s had a lovely holiday so far. I did. Hung out with my hilarious soon-to-be niece and nephew, as well as the rest of B’s wonderful family. Now, with the trains running again, it’s time to head back to work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The transit strike continues through day two. I made my way back to work after two days off, one because of a pinched nerve, the other because of the strike. W and I caught a cab this morning near our apt. The twenty-minute cab ride took an hour. Imagine it: hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers (I don’t have real numbers on this, but it must be that many if not more) are underground on the trains at all times; today, they were all above ground today. Many stayed home, and so were off the streets, but many, many did not, and so they trudged through the swamp of other people to get to their jobs. Moreso than ever, the city is a human traffic jam. The streets, are of course, constantly filled as well: a parking lot that lurches forward from time to time.

Getting home was a bit more complicated. I got a cab at 24th street that took me to the Brooklyn Bridge. The driver, and I, felt that the bridge was too slow to make driving worth it. So I walked in the stream of thousands of other New Yorkers bound for home in Brooklyn. I kept my headphones on—I couldn’t deal with the sounds the world was making—and listened to In Utero and Ani’s To The Teeth. Strange to be suspended over the city with all those other people. As B pointed out just now while we were eating, this is one of those times when you feel a sudden solidarity with other New Yorkers who you usually do everything you can to ignore. When I made it to downtown BK, I walked to Court Street, where I caught another cab. All in all, it took about two hours to get here.

I’m aware that I don’t know much about the history of unions and the politics of striking. I’ve kept up to date with the Times and followed the strike proceedings as best as I could. But, at this point, the Transit Workers Union seems pretty selfish to me. It’s the interests of 37,000 people vs. the interests of 7,000,000. The city is pretty well crippled. I can’t justify it. Can they?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What to say about today? A pinched nerve (a lovely hereditary gift from my father, though he says it’s not hereditary, though that sounds suspicious to me) in my back kept me in the house Sunday and Monday. After planning to get back on my feet today, the transit strike gave me another enforced day off. I’m actually rather eager to get back to work. And the city seems a bit ghostly and panicked, sort of similar to how it felt during the blackout of a couple of summers ago. But there’s also a Christmas day vibe (I got that notion from one of the papers), as if everyone is at home eating turkeys. A strange feeling here in Brooklyn, and stranger, I imagine, in Manhattan.

So B and I have had three days together, which we’ve spent enjoying each other’s company, indulging ourselves variously--we’ve both been playing with our xmas presents for each other. She got me the complete New Yorker, I got her the complete Sex in the City—and warding off the weird ‘playing hooky’ feeling we’ve both experienced.

The strangest thing is realizing that no one outside of the city really understands what it means for the NY transit system to go down. One can hardly get anywhere in the city without it. The city is no longer really accessible (especially with the increased traffic the strike is causing) without the trains. Brooklyn might as well be Maine. Though it’s not like the supply lines are cut off—we still have rations enough for the winter. But I do feel oddly barred from the center of things.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Lots of disparate things on my mind. Conducted a short interview today for PW with Alice Quinn, who edited Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems, titled EDGAR ALLEN POE & THE JUKE BOX. It comes out in March, and I’m sure it spark much debate—do these fragments, unfinished poems, and small pieces stand up as complete poems on their own?—but Quinn handled the material lovingly, annotating all of the poems with bits of Bishop’s letters and journals, as well as testimony from friends. And there are many complete pieces, or major poems that simply weren’t finished. For me, the most important thing is to suddenly have access to more Bishop. Here is a bit of a poem that breaks my heart:

Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you

You’ll see what I mean when you’ve got the whole poem. The book also offers a glimpse at how Bishop composed—we see her alternate lines and stanzas alongside the working versions. We see her slinking her way into free verse. We see the surprising sophistication of her early work. It’s going to be a major event, and I just hope the power and wonder of the book doesn’t get drowned out in petty complaints.

On another note, Netflix, that wonder of Internet innovation, has entered the poetic cannon in a forthcoming book by John Koethe:

…I walk to what I try to
Tell myself is work, entering at the end of the day
The same room, like the man in Dead of Night—
The dinner, the DVD from Netflix,
The drink before I go to sleep and wake alone


What does this say about where we’re at? Something in me resists the inclusion of utterly contemporary elements in new poetry, or at least elements that are unlikely to stand any test of time. In a hundred years, will anyone remember Netflix? More worrisome is whether anyone will remember the poems we are pouring into the eternal ether at this moment. Yet, how else can one get across that sentiment. I certainly come home to my lonesome DVDs on many a night, and perhaps the imagine of the lonesome book is getting a bit tiresome.

What else? The Joan Didion book, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, is heartbreaking, and something of a trial to read, not because it’s not a lovely piece of literature, but because it’s a tough ride through hospitals and thwarted, desperate hope. But it’s an important book on the subject of grief, and anyone with a need for writing on that subject should read it.

Also, look at Joshua Corey’s post about Michael Coffey’s book. And look at this link to a complete facsimile of every issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=U=E.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

I indulged myself tonight with the purchase of two books and a lit mag. Gosh, I must seemed like a spoiled little brat getting new books every day. I’ve always been addicted to buying toys, though. In the long run, I think it’ll work out better than a lifetime of buying drugs all the time.

Reading a poem by Peter Gizzi the other day sent me longing for his work again. I reviewed his last book for Pleiades a while back, but I still hadn’t gotten my hands on his earlier books. So, tonight in the St. Mark’s Bookshop, while waiting for a friend, I happened to see the rest of his oeuvre, ARTIFICIAL HEART (1998) from and PERIPLUM AND OTHER POEMS from the excellent English poetry press Salt (perhaps they are to the English what Graywolf is to us, though maybe Salt’s a bit more edgy). It’s too much to take in all at one time, but I just couldn’t help myself—I needed a reward for my hard week of work.

I’ve come to love a number of things about Gizzi’s work. First the blending of musical and mechanical language. The two fight each other only to end up harmonizing in a way that perfectly evokes the overlap of registers in the contemporary urban or suburban environment where there are flowing trees next to dirty above ground subway tracks, etc: “abundant refreshment/ in the circuit// of this system.” The other thing I love is that the poems are rarely perfect. Sometimes they’re lumbering, awkward, too big for their tight pants, which provides a much needed break from too-slick surfaces. And they’re often deeply earnest, sad and sweet. For a stunning love poem, look at “It’s raining in Deflt” (I think) from SOME VALUES OF LANDSCAPE AND WEATHER.

I also grabbed the new issue of American Letters & Commentary, with poems by my dear friend Penelope Cray (who reviews Arielle Greenberg in the next Octopus), Samuel Amadon (who also has a review in the next Octopus), Mary Jo Bang, DA Powell, Danielle Pafunda, John Isles and a heap of others.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

More new books, as ever.

SEEING, by Jose Saramago
-Due out in April, a sequel to BLINDNESS. I loved BLINDNESS, though the ending is too optimistic. I haven’t read his earlier work and wonder if, when I do, I’ll find that it’s even better than these late books. Though I can’t quite get used to his endless paragraphs and comma-spliced sentences. I’m reviewing it for PW. I’ll let you know.

SUBJECT TO CHANGE by Matthew Thorburn
-Acquired gratefully in trade with the author. One of Brenda Hillman’s selections for New Issues. They make such lovely book-objects. I’ve just begun to look inside this one, but check out this stunning ending line of the first poem: ‘and snow fell all night like shredded photocopies of snow/ on a thin white cat.”

Also, look out for Matthew’s review in a roundup I edited for the next issue of Octopus.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I’m listening to Stairway To Heaven as I write this, which you know makes it more important.

Really, do get a copy of COLD SKIN, the novel mentioned in my last two posts. B had just read it and was awed as well. Now I’ll pass it on to W, who, I know, will feel the same way.

Also, check out my friend Jesse Ball’s poem in the new Boston Review. It’s really a good one. Someone gets “menaced with my little knife.”

I’m trying, really hard, to take a little break from thinking too much about poetry this weekend. I overdid it last week, editing a series of reviews, sending out poems and chapbooks, soliciting poems. Just too much. I’m out of mojo. And the cisterns from which writing might come are totally empty, which is, of course, rather depressing. Normal, given the circumstances, but depressing. Hopefully, with a little break, they’ll refill.

Doing some holiday shopping as well, and making wedding plans. Some stressful stuff.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Book of the Week

by Albert Sánchez Piñol
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 (182p)

This beautiful, nearly perfect book held me in its thrall for the entirety of the two days it took me to read it. It has the haunting quality of a dream: it’s half nightmare, half bliss, frighteningly mingled such that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The story begins as a young European man who has elected to exile himself from his home lands on the remote island on which he is to be stationed for the next year monitoring the weather on a government assignment. He finds the cabin he is to inhabit in shambles and the man he is supposed replace vanished. Upon investigating the nearby lighthouse, he meets Grunner, gruff and possibly insane. That night, he learns, through horrifying experience, that the island is also inhabited by bloodthirsty humanoid amphibian creatures who attack any source of meet on the island in frenzied packs. I won’t tell you much more—this is, first, an adventure story; it brings to my mind other shipwreck tales that I’ve liked: Malamud’s God’s Grace, the acclaimed Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Let me say, though, that there is a woman-amphibian involved, and that the novel graphically explores the human impulses toward violence and sex, as well as how the two are intermingled. It’s an easy read, and really a stunning book.

Also reading Charles Berstein’s poems this week. More on that this weekend, I hope.

Two things I never really noticed, never having paid attention before today, about Led Zeppelin: the music is pretty freaking awesome, but the lyrics are stupid, just absolutely stupid.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I’m nearing the end of an excellent new novel from FSG called Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol. A little review to follow when I finish it. I gather it was a big hit in Europe.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The post below about the quality of soft skull's books (as objects) has caused some controversey--folks from Soft Skull have written in to explain their printing practices (see comments). I don't want to remove it, but I do want to make clear that I think soft skull is doing wonderful work right now and that I'm excited and honored to be able to read and write about the books mentioned here. My anxiety about the quality of the books has much to do with anxiety about the perminance of contemporary poetry, about wanting to make sure that great books by young poets can be taken seriously when put next to books by older poets who've already stood up to the weathering of time, and who, perhaps had someone, or some institution, with a luxuriously fat purse paying for their books. This is a complicated problem for the poetry community, because we love our books more than anything, but our patronage is hardly enough to support the business end of poetry. Something's got to give. Certainly I'd prefer to have poetry in whatever kind of book is economically feasable than not have it at all. The rise of so much online publishing frees poetry from economic contrsaints, but it also deprives us of our beloved books. Somewhere alogn the line it seems we have to settle for the better of a number of evils.

Also, please see the comments for the post about soft skull below for a breakdown by soft skull's publisher of the economics of publishing a poetry collection.
I’ve been reading Charles Bernstein this weekend, his book of essays, interviews, and poems MY WAY. He’s a writer whose work I’ve managed to miss, though I’ve felt it nagging at me for years. And of course when I dip in I’m wholly and suddenly obsessed. In “Revenge of the Poet-Critic,” he says “I like the idea of semi-autonomy as opposed to disjuncture.” That seems to me to be a good way of thinking about how we can have poems that acknowledge the overwhelming and fragmentary nature of contemporary culture that can also contain earnest expressions of emotion—poems composed of almost discreet fragments or clusters of images that are clear objective correlatives for particular emotions or moods, but which resist the idea of simple and obvious coherence.

Thinking about chapbooks too, how I like them, wish I had/read more of them. A 25 page chapbook is a really appropriate format for poetry, which doesn’t bring in money anyway. Since poetry doesn’t have the economic burden of having to repay some company’s investment, and because one of the major factors that separates pieces of poetry from most pieces of prose is that poetry—the complete unit of poetry, a poem—is short and can be read more quickly than an essay or story or novel, a short, inexpensive book is an ideal way to consume it. And groupings of poems often cohere in clusters of 25 pages, hence sections in many full-length collections. But then, of course, there are so many presses making chapbooks, most of them invisible to anyone but the readers in the neighborhood, dorm, house, etc, where the press is based, that one hardly knows where to look. And few bookstores sell the damn things. And so few of the presses are reputable, it seems to me, though I don’t know; few of them seem to be making high-quality books. Poetry should always strive to stick around longer than its author—it should never be disposable, but that doesn’t mean it should be prohibited from being published because no publishing house wants to finance a whole book of the work of a particular poet. Someone should start a website that is a hub for chapbooks, where new books are reviewed and presses linked. Hmmm…sounds like a project.

The lovely long weekend is over. Back to the ole’ orifice tomorrow.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Does anyone know of good chapbook contests other than the Poetry Society of America, Tupelo Press, and Center for Book Arts?

Hope everyone had a good T-giving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

It’s suddenly frickin’ cold in New York. Why? Who’s idea was winter? Can’t we just have it as a metaphor, rather than a real, and endlessly prolonged, season?

• New books for review:

A GRINGO LIKE ME by Jennifer L. Knox
IN THE MIDDLE DISTANCE by Linda Gregg (galley)
GOD’S SILENCE by Franz Wright (galley)

I’m excited to read the Knox. For a long time, as her poems appeared increasingly in journals, I was skeptical. I wondered, “is this poet just being funny for funny’s sake, just to get people to like her and her poems?” But as I continued to read the poems as more and more editors fell for them, I began to think those editors had made a good call. Knox’s persistent, sometimes overabundant silliness is offset by a formal rigor, as if she is fitting banana-shaped pegs into square holes, an accomplishment that turns out to be quite impressive. And the poems are fun as hell, too. I would say this, though, to Soft Skull Press, the publisher of Knox and Pafunda’s books: Over the last couple of years, you’ve built up a compelling and increasingly important list of poets. Please, put a little more money into the books themselves, the objects. They seem rather flimsy, as if they’re not meant to last, and these are your poets’ bids for some time outside of the passage of time. Don’t let their books disintegrate.

Linda Gregg sits atop a deep well indeed. Her muscular, clipped sentences spring from a fountain of hard earned wisdom. It doesn’t matter how much we know about how she’s earned her wisdom—the poems are wise and sustaining, and that is enough to know.

Wright’s new book is much like his old books, but much longer—it’s 140 pages! What that means is that there are many tiny, negligible poems, most of which contain a few stunning (and I mean absolutely stunning—one is arrested, stopped) lines. There are also a few major pieces, poems of such penetrant power that, like reverse ants, they can carry countless poems a fraction of their size. I’m not sure, yet, whether there is anything here as momentous as “The Only Animal,” the most important poem in Wright’s last book, which, to my way of thinking, is a poem that will last.

• Recent Book I want but haven’t been able to get my hands on yet:

FORIER SERIES by Joshua Corey

• Forthcoming Books I’m looking forward to:

Joshua Clover’s next book, forthcoming, I believe, from U. of California sometime in the next year or so
AMPUTEE’S GUIDE TO SEX by Jillian Weisse coming next year from Soft Skull

I know this is a lot of yammering on about books, but it saves B and other friends from having to listen to me talk about them all the time. At least you can choose not to read this if you don’t want to; they’re stuck with me.

Monday, November 21, 2005

New Books:

My Kafka Century by Arielle Greenberg
First Boredom, Then Fear: The Life of Philip Larkin by Richard Bradford
--Isn’t that a great title for a book? I’m so jealous he stole it for a biography. I’d love to steal it for a book of poems.

Are folks out there reading Larkin? He’s one of the poets I keep in my back pocket. I need to know he’s out there. So far the biography’s good, if a bit stuffy. Look for my review in PW in like a month. (I know you won’t look for it, but it’ll be there if you happen to chance upon it.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

My advice: if you’re someone who runs or edits a small press, make sure—and this is as important and choosing high-quality manuscripts—that you can afford to print nice books, nice objects, because there is nothing worse than reading wonderful writing packaged in a shabby book. Books like that do a disservice to their author, the press, and everybody in the whole frickin’ gosh dern world.

Got some review books in the mail today:

PRETTY YOUNG THING by Danielle Pafunda
GLORYLAND by Anne Marie Macari
THE VIOLENCE by Ethan Paquin

I’m especially excited to read the Pafunda—every one of her poems that I’ve read in magazines has made me very happy.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Reading through some poetry slush, a few ideas about my preferences as a poetry reader (and I mean “reader” not as someone who occasionally reads submissions, but as a fan, a recreational reader of poems) occurred to me. To my way of thinking, a poet has two main things to work with: the images they are creating in their readers’ minds, and the language in which those images are rendered. Certainly, that’s oversimplifying, but, to an extent, it’s true. For me, the images are of foremost importance, so I like poems in which those images are interesting, unusual, and set the emotional stakes at a high level; I like the language to be transparent enough that those images are visible. But, of course, the language in which those images are rendered is almost as important to me. I want to be stopped by the surface, to be beckoned to study it before I look, or while I look, at what’s beneath. It seems to me that many contemporary poets, one strain perhaps, is much more concerned with the surface than with what’s beneath it; the surface is opaque. I crave a certain amount of transparency, so I tend to gloss over, lose concentration for, poems with very opaque surfaces. But then there are poets whose language is so transparent that it’s easy to ignore the surface altogether. I tend to liken these poets to James Tate (though what makes the best of his work so compelling is the complexity of tone he is able to muster), and I read their poems quickly and never want to go back to them. The poets that excite me most are the ones who write somewhere in between those two extremes, in whose work the surface is arresting, though it gives way to images fairly easily, though the images may point me back to the surface and vice versa. Cole Swenson, James Galvin, Plath, Berryman, Stevens, Lucie Brock-Broido, C.D. Wright, and D.A. Powell come to mind as a random sampling of the kind of poet that tends to stick with me. Again, these divisions are too simple, but they seem to hold true for the poems I like best.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

What am I thinking tonight:

The progression of Ani Difranco’s early career

Good thoughts about B

The progression of my “early career”

The pile of books I have to review
(Andra Baker, Sarah Arvio, Franz Wright, Brett Lott)

The lovely birthday party I just went to where a boy wrote and orchestrated an entire play involving everyone at the party for his beloved, whose birthday it was

Another friend’s birthday party to which I did not go

The fact that there is still one more day left of the weekend

The fact that when I see lines of text that are different lengths, I think it’s a poem

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I'm all excited about Dalkey Archive Press, publishers of much out of the way, unusual, and translated fiction. I'm reading one of their new titles, Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic. They also published Ben Marcus's first book, The Age of Wire and String, among many other wonderful things. If you're up for some an unusual, though not necessarily mind-boggling (though they've got that too), anything from them comes highly recommended.

Check out the new Harvard Review, issue 29, for my review of Thomas Sayers Ellis's first book, The Maverick Room.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Anonymous blog comments are lame.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Saw Rachel Zucker and DA Powell read on Wednesday at Fordham U’s Lincoln Center campus as part of the Poets Out Loud series. An extraordinary reading—they each read for about 35 minutes, which could be a long time, but they had us all rapt. Zucker’s poems about motherhood just keep getting better. And Powell read from Cocktails, a few poems from each of the three sections. By the end, when he read I think the last of the biblical poems, we all felt awed.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Some Thoughts on Dark Brandon

Is Dark Brandon the book Ashbery would write if he were Brandon Downing's age?

Downing is a very clear Ashbery disciple; he incorporates whatever's in the air--in his case, images and associations called up by movies--into the stream of consciousness of the poems.

Unlike Ashbery, however, Downing's poems are motored by a palpable outrage at what's going on around (Bush, the apathy built into our culture) and within (his own apathy and flippancy) him. That outrage and anger is one of the book's most compelling features.

I don't feel the need to read the whole book. The whole thing seems to be cut from the same cloth, in pieces of different shapes and sizes, but it's all the same substance.

Of course, I would get more out of individual poems if I were more familiar with all the movies that are referenced.

Intentional grammatical errors and colloquial language figure that apathy and flippancy.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

“Richard Siken’s Crush…represents a common and very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry that treats as incidental both the lay reader and the world beyond the poem.”
-Michael Hansen from Speakeasy Poetry Series

This is an argument about contemporary poetry that annoys the crap out of me. The quote above is taken from the reviews section of the website for an important and popular NYC reading series. Siken, to whom the quote refers, is the most recent Yale winner. Never mind that I love his book. Never mind the fact that it seems pretty straightforward to me—it’s about the self-consciousness and inner isolation that comes, very naturally, with being misunderstood by other people—in the case of Siken’s speakers, the cause of misunderstanding is often homosexuality, but the feeling of being misunderstood portrayed in the book applies broadly—and which can be fostered by language. What is the root of this notion that poetry, or literature in general (see Ban Marcus’s recent article in Harper’s in which he, albeit unfairly, trashes Jonathan Franzen for advocating only accessible literature), should be careful not to alienate anyone by being challenging? One of the best things about contemporary poetry, because it has proliferated in so many different directions, is that it caters to a wide variety of tastes and needs, from those who want poetry that neatly and obviously refers to the world at hand, to those who want poetry that requires intimate and esoteric knowledge of the culture of poetry before it makes any sense. To call Siken’s book representative of a “very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry” (and let me stress that I think this is a misreading of Siken’s book in particular—it’s not that weird) is to confess a fear of difficulty in general. We don’t come to poetry for the same pleasures we expect from TV and Sci-Fi novels. We come to it for a challenge, for its capacity to portray less familiar emotional states, and for empathy with our own experiences of those unfamiliar, but no less real, emotional states. To deny that in favor of poetry that is easily accessible to “the lay reader” is to miss the point entirely. We should work hard to understand some things—poetry is an exclusive club, but we each have the capacity to initiate ourselves through patient apprenticeship. Most of us spent our high school and college years in our rooms curled up with books gratefully struggling for understanding. Certainly, for me, those years paid off.

Monday, October 31, 2005

I got hold of Dan Chiasson’s new book today, a book which I think will be very much in the minds of poetry-folks for a little while. I was skeptical, filled with a tinge of bitterness about why Chaisson gets to come to the forefront of his generation by publishing a book with Knopf. I read Josh Corey’s blog posting about it, and the correspondence alluded to there, which encouraged me. I should admit that I prefer to like a book than not to like it—poetry is more useful to me if it makes me want to write or read more poetry. So I like Chiasson’s book. In fact, I think it’s pretty damn great. There are some major poems in it. Look at this wonderful stanza:

When you ran towards me, I said, Stop there,
stop now, you’ll end up
in a stranger’s life; and when you ran away
I said the same words over again, louder.

There are many moments which are that accessible, that plain, that full of truth about an experienced phenomenon. What’s more true of love than that? It reminds me of the scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July) in which she labels her shoes “Me” and “You” and films them approaching each other and backing away. So Chiasson accomplishes many things like that. but there are also many moments of highly self-aware language, moments when we are reminded that we are constructing our world through words, in which multi-layered speakers describe language and experience simultaneously, as in this snippet from “The Elephant”:

We elephants are images of humility, as when we
undertake our melancholy migrations to die.

Did you know, though, that elephants were taught
to write the Greek alphabet with their hooves?

Worn out by suffering, we lie on our great backs,
tossing grass up to heaven—as a distraction, not a prayer.

That’s not humility you see on our long final journeys:
it’s procrastination. It hurts my heavy body to lie down.

(blogger won't do it for some reason, but the second line of each stanza should be indented)

The proposition that we should accept this serious speech from an elephant is ridiculous, which the poem acknowledges with silly details—which are silly even if they’re true—such as the second stanza quoted above. And yet, it’s also rendered with such gravity (“as a distraction, not a prayer”) that we can’t help but superimpose the poem into our own human voice. The serious, human language, a combination of carefully modulated tone, vaguely timeless vocabulary, and dark subject matter, creates a speaker who is simultaneously poking fun at humanity and also deeply empathizing with human suffering. The elephant is heroic in its denial of death, but also pathetic, too lazy to die, too lazy (and too afraid) to face that its time is over. It’s very subtle and masterfully done. And, of course, it’s more accessible than the work of many other younger poets, hence a good vehicle for bringing contemporary concerns about the lack of faith in language as a tool of communication to a broader audience.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Not much to report on the poetry front. Haven’t had time to read any poetry this weekend. Still slowly and vaguely working my way through Sarah Arvio, which doesn’t seem to be of much interest to anyone out there. It’s not the new thing, but everything can’t be. There has to be a place in this hip, young poetry world for things that aren’t so young and hip. It’s important to make use of more straightforward work. Not that Arvio’s so straightforward.

B and I just watched Me and you and everyone we know, a feature length film by Miranda July. It’s pretty damn brilliant. About people who are unable to connect head on, who are too scared, who have to go at each other sideways. But they end up finding each other, thank god.

So I’ve decided to try something new. I’m going to pre-type my blog entries in word first, then cut and paste them into the blog page. I bet everyone else thought of that forever ago. Ron Silliman was blogging about the software he uses to write his blog, so why shouldn’t I, I am thinking to myself. I’m late to tune in to every blogging game, but a hell of a blog Mr. Silliman’s got. But it makes sense to me in terms of how I think of blogging: when my loved ones and friends can’t stand to hear me yammering on anymore about poetry, I know you, who choose to read this and can choose not to, can stand me. Blogging is good for overactive minds.

And thank you Mr. Thorburn for you kind birthday wishes.

My Longest Birthday Ever

So it's 2:30 in the morning, but a few minutes ago it was 3:30. Today, October 30th, is my birthday. I was born 26 years ago, making me not too old and not too young. I get to have a 25 hour birthday this year, which is good.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Has anyone read Sarah Arvio? She's 51, and Knopf published her first book, Visits From The Seventh, in 2002. If you haven't read it, you've probably noticed the book in stores--it's the lovely light blue one with the bubbles--and thought, "that's some random fancy Knopf book, of no interest to me." That's what I thought, anyway. Her second book is coming out early next year, again from Knopf. I'm reading it along with the first one, and you know what? she's a really good poet. She's a poet of doubt and confusion, of being overwhelmed. Wordplay heads off clear insight at the crucial moment. Her voice, which figures the above mentioned qualities with its frantic playfulness, is more central to the meaning of the work than her content. Here's are some typical lines from the first book:

Well, the night is blooming. Death may not be
(as the atheists would have it) nothing
at all, but rather (think many of us
who've abandoned god for a sense of god)

a moment to move through, on the other
side of which to find, no one knows, but more
than worms and darkness.


And here is something from the forthcoming book:

...and did I know I'd have a host;

no, a line of sheets is never a bed,
a gaggle of hosts is never a love,
a host is never as good as a home,

a ghost as good as a dog or a god.
But I had my heart, always had my heart
for a god and a home as much as it hurt.


Her style doesn't change much between the two books, but we've got a bit of Fanny Howe's doubt-filled faith, an intentionally thwarted striving toward Gluck's clarity, and a touch of the lyrical play of Lucie Brock-Broido. The frantic energy is hers. She may not be 25 and the next big thing, but there's certainly something here I can use.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Thoughts on Book Reviewing

Never a person to keep anyone waiting, I’m going to say a bit—at the suggestion of Matthew Thorburn (and, yes, I suggest you start w/ BB, then move on to Live at the Filmore East)—about book reviewing. Over the last couple of years, I’ve written a heap of reviews, and though there are many, many young poets whose critical writing I respect a hell of a lot more than mine, I think I’ve done enough of this stuff to say something about it.

I dunno, I guess I got started because my poems were too undergrown to make their way into journals, but my enthusiasm was too big to keep to myself, and I wanted to be involved somehow with the bigger little po-biz game. Then, of course, there was the part of me that always loved writing long critical papers in college and didn’t want to give it up. That’s pretty much how I’ve always thought of it—how can I engage with this book such that my favorite college prof. would give me an A? Also, there is the desire to open or join a conversation with the people in the contemporary poetry scene, to place new books in relation to old books and other new books, to try and establish the mini-cannons that go in each pocket of the contemporary poetry pants. So, too, there’s an element of trying to speak in such a way as to evade the comprehension, at least a little, of the old folks whose poems bore me. Still, I also want to impress them and make them realize that young poems are way cooler than theirs.

Striking that delicate balance, juggling all those balls, seems very difficult to me. Stephen Burt is very good at it; he tends to lean toward the accessible side of things, making himself something of a popularizer. But anyone excited about popularizing D.A. Powell is doing good work in my book. On the other end, you have someone like Cal Bedient, whose critical writing is full of gadgets and sneaky tricks, can be nearly as inaccessible as his poems, meaning he often goes for flair over fair, but is thrilling to read. Lots of young reviewers write reviews that are so far in their head—and often too full of praise (without a healthy dose of skepticism, which, granted, can sometimes be hard to muster, criticism doesn’t matter)—that they don’t really make any sense. Then other young writers have too little flash, and are boring (I think I tend to lean more toward this kind of writing).

A big problem with the reviews in many literary magazines is a lack of editing. For whatever reason—whether because book review editors, like most other little mag editors, are not being paid, or because young editors don’t want to seem presumptuous to young writers—many book review editors do very little actual editing. Really being challenged, poked, and prodded by an editor is amazing. It’s hard, but great, to be called on the holes in your argument, to be made to fill them, and to feel like someone else in the world gives a shit about your prose and whether or not you’re saying anything. My best experiences with really engaged editors have been with Christina Thompson at Harvard Review, Timothy Donnelly at Boston Review, Kevin Prufer at Pleiades, and Mike Scharf at Publishers Weekly. All of them have sent back reviews with massive red lines through my paragraphs (Harvard even rejected an entire review before accepting my next one), and the final published piece in each case is still work I’m proud of. Anyone interested in reviewing should pick a mag, find out who the review editor is, and send ‘em a query. Editors are always looking for new reviewers, and chances are they’ll send you a book.
How do folks feel about 70's miles davis? It's taken me years of playing Bitches Brew over and over to really get my head around it and get really into it. The thing that strikes me as most outstanding about those albums--B's Brew, Silent Way, Live Evil, Big Fun, Live at the Filmore, etc--is how spooky they are. Miles plays these sparse, haunting melodies over his band, which is playing some kind of murkey, insistant pulse. The music borrows from rock, but it's much darker than any of the artists who influenced jazz fusion, and really much darker than what fusion became in the mid 70's.

Hey, check out the review of the new Louise Gluck book in Publishers Weekly. I don't know if I'm supposed to say, but I wrote it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bill Knott sent me a trove of his self-published books. He may be bitter and feel alienated, but, like fiction writer Stephen Dixon, he's one of my models for how to handle the writing obsession. It seems clear to me that Knott is deeply compelled to write, that writing is, as Dixon says, his "great satisfaction." I hope, no matter what happens with my publishing carreer, that I never lose sight of that for myself.

Also reading Chris Ware's new Acme Novelty Library collection. Neverminding how good and dark the stories are, just looking at the pages, how Ware bounces colors and shapes off of each other, is enough to keep me occupied for hours.

B and I went to meet with the Rabbi who is going to marry us today. He's asked us, since we are not both Jewish, to undergo a bit of Jewish education, and to commit to making Judaism the only religion practiced in our home. He is not asking B to convert, and both B and I feel that this is an opportunity to examine our relationship to each other and to our conception of the world in general. We are going to take an intro to Judaism class. I'm excited about it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Books I'm reading right now:

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (enjoying it very much, wanting to slowly settle in to the lives of a bunch of characters I'll live with for a couple of weeks)
U.S.! by Chris Bachelder (forthcoming--I'm reviewing it)
The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck (it's time for a revisitation)
The Cuckoo by Peter Streckfus (I'd been meaning to pick it up since it came out, and I'm finding myself 2/3 seduced)
Dark Brandon by Brandon Downing (still working my way in; I'll report again on this one later)

B and I had a little dinner party tonight for two friends. We made sukiyaki in our new sukiyaki pot.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

So I bought two books this evening: Dark Brandon by Brandon Downing and The Cuckoo by Peter Strekfus. I read a couple o' poems in Downing's book, and maybe I behind the times or closed-minded or something, but I'm not sure about it yet. Somebody sell me on this book. I want to get into it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

everyone loves a list

Lots of responses to my list posting of two days ago. I have to get this Dark Brandon book. I absolutely love the idea of a poet naming his book after himself. That's so good and up my ally. I'll begin my search for it tomorrow.
God jesus damn I'm stressed. Why am I so stressed? Why do I get so stressed? It's not because of anything stressful happening, it's because I have a lifelong prediliction for stress. Wow. It's time to cool off. Cooool.

You know when you have all kinds of little things to do--you have a heap of crap to do at work, but them when you get home, you have another heap of crap to do for your life...that's what I hate. But who can you complain to? The irony is, I'd be miserable as hell if I had nothing at all to do. Trust me, I've been there.

Top 5 Things 10/18/05

1. My new copy of On Beauty by Zadie Smith
2. Sesame Sticks
3. Tobacco
4. Jazz piano with jazz drums
5. Happy Puppy

Bill Knott, one of the poets on the list below, posted a comment on the list below. I hope he knows how much people love his work.

Sending the ole' manny out to contests again. Aren't we all? I've got 4 out so far, to Alice James, Yale, Walt Whitman, and New Issues. And a few more on my list to go. The ms. is significantly revised since last year, but who knows if anyone will notice it. But that's not why we send out manuscripts. We send out manuscripts to practice sending out manuscripts, so that we'll be good at it later, when it counts. I wish everyone luck and hope we all win.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Randomly Ordered List of Poets Who Are Important To Me, Over 40 Or Dead

1. Frost
2. Stevens
3. William Carlos Williams
4. Louise Gluck
5. Richard Hugo
6. Bin Ramke
7. Ashbery
8. Keats
9. James Galvin
10. Randall Jarrell
11. Michael Palmer
12. Richard Howard
13. Jorie Graham
14. Larkin
15. James Tate
16. Ted Hughes
17. Allen Grossman
18. Frank Bidart
19. Bridget Pegeen Kelly
20. Bishop
21. Eliot
22. Bill Knott

Similar List of Younger Poets and their books that have blown my mind

1. Shrikanth Reddy: Facts for Visitors
2. Rachel Zucker: The Last Clear Narrative
3. Timothy Donnelly: 27 Props...
4. D.A. Powell: Cocktails
5. Andrew Zawacki: Anabranch
6. Karen Volkman: Spar
7. Brenda Shaughnessy: Interior With Sudden Joy
8. Matthea Harvey: Sad Little Breathing Machine
9. Mark Bibbins: Sky Lounge
10. Oni Buchanon: What Animal
11. Richard Siken: Crush
12. Dan Beachy-Quick: North True South Bright
13. Maurice Manning: A Companion for Owls
14. Joshua Clover: Madonna ano Domini
15. Mary Szybist: Given

No big surprises here, I suppose, but compiling such a list kills time and it's wicked fun.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

I've done a piss-poor job of keeping this blogspot fresh of late. B's family was staying with us, including her hilarious niece and nephew, which necessarily put the computer a bit out of bounds. But I'm back and all is well, despite a creeping cold.

I'm giving a reading this Wednesday at Black and White at 8, so come if you haven't had an earfull.

In my last post, I was trying to say I'm not sure how I'm feeling about the new Cole Swenson book, The Book of a Hundred Hands, and I'm still not sure. But I'll let you know.

Now I'm off to read poems, weep into my hands, and later I'll post a picture of the tears.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Has anyone seen the new book by Cole Swensen,

Monday, October 03, 2005

Not wanting to get into anything else, I'll talk a bit about books.

Read the pre-pub galley of Louise Gluck's forthcoming book Averno (next March). Hold on to your seats, folks, it's her best book since The Wild Iris, and, I think, the most important of her career. Gluck is still among the most vital of our living major poets.

I have a short essay on Simon Armitage coming out in the next Pleiades. Hopefully they'll put it on their website, and I can link it.

Met Stephen Dixon, who I interviewed for PW, at the Great Read in Bryant Park. He was very sweet, and I was very grateful to meet a writer I respect so much and whose work I've been able to do something to promote. If you get his new book, Phone Rings, look at the blurbs on the back. I wrote the PW one. Also saw my new friend Owen King read. You should buy his book of stories--it's wonderful, funny, disturbing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

background: John Coltrane, stellar Regions

Two rejections this week, one the day after the other. But, I must persevere! My Immortal Ship is sailing this way to pick me up at the Dock of Last Days, you know what I mean?

B and I got netflix this past week. It's my new favorite thing--a promise of guaranteed mail! And they even send emails to say when something's coming! A steady stream of correspondences!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Look! A wierd Virtual Puppy!

my pet!
This is perhaps one of my favorite things in the whole world. I proudly add it to the list of links to the right.

And this entry is dedicated to H, a friend and, I've been recently flattered to learn, a devoted reader of this blog.

Not much to say about poetry today, except that Merwin's new book is pretty good, his best in a few books, I'd say.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Soundtrack: John Coltrane: Live at Birdland

It's sad, really. I come home every day all excited, hopeful, about the mail, anticipating news from poetry city. No news of late.

On another front, the poems are coming, and I'm reading with deep and ernest engagement--this Graham Greene novel is softly blowing my mind. And Mary Szybist's tightly coiled poems, too.

What's anyone out there reading these days?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Soundtrack: Juju, Wayne Shorter

Reading Material: Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, Granted by Mary Szybist

Good News: Spent the past weekend in upstate New York, lake country, at a wonderful wedding with boat rides, puppies, interesting new friends.

Bad News: The dog my family's had since I was about 10 is being put to sleep tomorrow. She's about fifteen, and very infirm. I will miss her.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Stressed today, can't quite say why. Lots of work I should be doing but am not. Went out drinking with friends, one of whom boarded a motorcycle with a strange fireman, the thrill of the night.

Need to teach myself to relax, never my stong point.

Read the Bret Lott Story in the newest Colorado Review. And the new Cole Swenson poems about gardens. Looking forward to her upcoming book about hands. Her work makes more and more sense.

Wrote a sad poem about my dog, who, I think, will have to be put to sleep soon.

Most things go well.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Wonderful New Poems By Friends

Check out Jesse Ball and Zach Schomburg in the new issues of The Paris Review and Fence. And check out the stunner by Olena Kalitiak Davis in Fence, and the stunner on the cover.

Continuing the generational discussion that's going on below, I was talking with "Anonymous B" about it. It's interesting too to wonder when the poets now in their mid to late twenties will coalesce into a kind of recognizable group or generation or whatever, as poets in their thirties have in the last five or so years. I guess that's part of what I was sort of sarcastically questioning in my previous post--I'm starting to have a sense, for the first time, of who the poets I consider my contemporaries are. It's kind of like a terrifying and vast high school getting smaller, like in that old commercial when the new kid didn't know where to stand when using the drinking fountain, and then he did.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Talkin' Bout My Generation

Who are the poets in my generation? If I'm friends with poets in another generation, are they in my generation too? Or do I have to skip ahead to theirs? I don't really want to. And what about the poets in between my generation and the older one? Are they closer to my generation or the one ahead of us? Who, even now, is staying up late into the night, editing the anthology that will tell me how old I am?

Monday, September 05, 2005

5th Season

Soundtrack: Live At The Fillmore East (March 1970), Miles Davis

This summer's extreme heat was worth slogging through for these few lovely days of calm cool breezes and sun. This lovely weather is ironic in light of what's going on down south, and it seems unfair to enjoy it, but wrong not to.

We're just having a lazy weekend around here, lots of naps, cooking meals, not leaving the house. B. is in the kitchen preparing for the class she's teaching this fall, and I'm in our room, listening to music and blogging to have something to do while I'm listening.

Today I've been playing all my electric Miles Davis albums. They used to seem too sloppy and crazed, but now they're just beautiful. There's really nothing else like them, a sort of tidal wave of sound out of which sparkles of melody rise. And it's relentlessly aggressive.

Sending poems out into the world again, to VOLT, The Hat, elsewhere. And the manny this week to Alice James.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Soundtrack: Bitches' Brew, Miles Davis

Well, just finished revamping the ole' manuscript for this fall's round of contests. Wish me luck, and I wish you the same.

B. and I had a long, complicated talk the other night about the value of new literary magazines that may not have the rescources to hold out in the long run, that may fold after two or three years. Basically, I said that the important thing is that young magazines create venues for new writing, offer opportunities for young, professional-quality poets who are unlikely to get into APR or The Yale Review to publish their work and become part of a larger community of poets all of whom share various aesthetic interests. B. contended that magazines that don't last do a disservice to young poets because in five years, if the magazine folds, no one will be able to find a copy, and the poems will be essentially lost. No one but the few people who actually got a copy of the issue will remember them. The publication credit, too, loses value because a defunct magazine doesn't carry much prestige, especially if people don't remember what it was about in the first place. I said, however, that no one expects the magazines, or the poems in them, to last; a poet needs to publish a book for his or her poems to stick a while. There are so many young magazines now, so many new ideas, so many folding all the time. It's hard to imagine this varied, compelling, trend-oriented, ever-blossoming poetic climate any other way. And hasn't it always been like this? But what will the consequences be in ten or twenty years?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What I'm Liking

I'm liking these Noah Eli Gordon poems in the first issue of Fascicle. I envy that ability to speak without utilizing a character as a speaker, just speaking as a voice defined by the things it says, rather than having a character as a crutch.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Stephen Dixon Interview

My Q & A with fiction writer Stephen Dixon (whose excellent new book, Phone Rings, will be released in early October) is in this week's issue of Publishers Weekly. If you happen to be by a newsstand or work for a subscribing publisher, check it out. It's on page 30.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Home Swat Home

It's still hot in NY, but I assure you it was hotter in Dallas. Roughly 100 degrees, no matter what time of day. HOT. But we're back, just got back. It was a wonderful trip--B met the rest of my family, all of whom liked her a very great deal, and all of whom she liked a very great deal. My Grandma, who is 93, is having a rough time, which made the trip a bit hard for everyone, but I'm glad B and I were there to help out, to see her, for her to meet B. We played with my sweet baby and todler cousins, cute as all hell. I'm very grateful for the trip.

Just finished a novel with a too-happy ending. I won't tell you which one. The rest of the book was wonderful, but the author ties it all up too neatly in the end--it doesn't pay to go through a whole heap of suffering with a series of characters only to learn that the moral is something like "everything will turn out fine if you wait a while." Why do novelists feel compelled to do that? That goes out to all you novelists out there.

Also, I'm excited to make my way through fascicle, an impressively full plate of new poems and poetica.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


B and I are off to Dallas today to meet/visit (respectively) my extended family. I think it will be fun--my Aunt, Uncle, Gramma, Cousins, and little baby Cousins are all wonderful, fun, and interested people; I think they will have a good time getting to know B, and she will feel likewise. So, you may not hear from me for a few days (though you may). I hope to go swimming in my Aunt or Cousins' bean-shaped pools.

Bad Poetry News: rejected by Barrow Street, very quickly; poems sent back by Paris Review in their recent mass purging.

Good Poetry News: wrote a little poem about a dragon.

Everyone check out next week's issue of Publishers Weekly--I did a Q & A that's in there.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I want Malcolm Gladwell's hair

Working on a strange poem, or strange for me, anyway. The title, as it stands, is adapted from a sentence by Susan Sontag, whose essays have come to mean a lot to me lately, primarily for the complete strength and confidence of her mind. She asserts, she formulates, she states; she does not grasp after. Anyway, it's one of those poems where you don't quite know if it's working, if you're trying for some particular effect instead of listening to what the poem needs. I had this idea yesterday that I wanted to try writing really long lines for the first time, so I reoriented Word so that the page is set up the long way. I think the long lines may be my favorite thing about the poem. I have to let it sit, bake, a bit to see if I still like it...

Also, Harvard Review accepted a review I wrote of Thomas Sayers Ellis' book. I'm glad about that--I worked hard on it, and they had (rightly) rejected another review I did. So look out for that in the fall issue.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly, where have you been all my life?

Finally, I've found some poems to read. Had heard good things about Kelly from my friend G, who I think spent some time around her at Breadloaf last year (wasn't she there?). And I've gathered that her newest book, last year's The Orchard, has been causing a bit of a buzz. So I picked it up today on my way home. Gratefully, I'm amazed. She's got some of Plath's self-seriousness, and a kind of bewildered melancholy, revising and reenvisioning in order to put emotions in plain sight, next to the objects and people that call them out of their darkness. I'll have more to say later, but for now, a brief quote:

The bees came out of the junipers, two small swarms
The size of melons; and golden, too, like melons,
They hung next to each other, at the height of a deer's breast,
Above the wet black compost. And because
The light was very bright it was hard to see them,
And harder still to see what hung between them.
A snake hung between them. The bees held up a snake.

("The Dragon")

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Not Much To Report, but I Report Nonetheless

I don't know what to say about poetry tonight. Not really reading any poems this week. Reading a wonderful novel by Elizabeth Strout, who went to my college, Bates in Lewiston, ME. Not too many of us writers from Bates, so we gotta read each other.

Anyhoo, revising some poems, sending them out. If anything comes of it, I'll let you know. Looking for new poems to make me crazy. Maybe it's time to hit ole' Stevens again.

I been busy: working, tryin' to socialize. Mostly reading on the trains. At least I'm not writing about my socks or something.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


So, I must say, we had a pretty frickin' awesome party last night. Dancing till 4am, care of DJ Charming (woody). Not even the heat could bring us down. To all of you who missed it, I hope weeping in your cold, lonely homes was fun.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dixon Day

Did an interview today with the fiction writer Stephen Dixon for work. I reviewed his last novel, Old Friends a year ago, and am reviewing his forthcoming one. It was my first interview and it went really well. He's a wonderfully nice man whose writing practice is deeply ingrained. He's written 25 books. After I went through my questions--about how he manages to be so prolific, how he feels about being labeled an avant-garde writer, about the new book--we talked for a few minutes about my writing life. He summers in a part of Maine I know, so we had that in common. And he was very encouraging, made me feel good about my writing practice, like a real writer, like writing is all it takes to be one. He said he's never had a period of writers block in his life. Oh if only...but he reminds me to just keep at it, to put words on paper--that's what writing is after all.

I like his fiction very much. It's sad, about the commonplace sufferings of everyday people, about the minutiae. The books are very empathic. He's not as well known as he should be and I hope this new book brings him some much deserved recognition.

Also bought the new Bill Frisell live album today. Not yet sure what I think...maybe he's been more exciting on other records.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Good Po-Biz News, and Goodbye My Beard

So! My good po-biz news is this: the excellent web-mag Typo has accepted one of my poems. I am very proud indeed to have a poem appear in such a kick-ass journal.

In other news, I've shaven off my beard, mostly because it's time for a change. B is very wierded out. She keeps calling me "Stranger." This reminds me of a story I heard about my older cousin, who has had a beard since he was a teenager. Well, one day he said he might shave it off, and his kids said "No! Don't! We won't love you as much!" But I think he did, and everything worked out fine. His kids' love for him grew by the day, is growing even now. Don't worry, B.

Also, check out the new issue of Octopus, which features only new poets--there's some good stuff there, and 8 tentacle-like poems by each.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

friday on thursday

Well, only one more day of teaching night classes until I'm only working full time at my day job. How absolutely wonderful. I like my new job; I don't mind spending my days there--I like being so busy all day. I hate my old job, however, and am eager to be done with it. Monday night is the last one.

Finished reading Andrea Baker's book. Highly recommended. Now I'm reading Kay Ryan, T.C. Boyle, Stephen Dixon, Forest Gander.

No po-biz news to report. I'm writing little poems though, despite all my business.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

New Music Now

To celebrate my new job, I've purchased a whole heap of new music. Here's what:

Meredith Monk: Atlas
I deeply love her last new album, Mercy. What she's doing makes a great deal of sense to me--for the most part, I've never paid much attention to lyrics, so singing without words seems almost more expressive to me, because you get the emotion without having it cluttered with what is often bad poetry.

John Zorn: 50th Birthday Celebration volums 4 and 11, Electric Masada and Bar Kokhba
I haven't been listening to Zorn so much lately, but I saw Bar Kokhba at the JVC jazz festival four or five years ago, and they changed how I listened to music a great deal. So having a live disc of them is kinda like reliving that concert. Electric Masada sounds just like 70's miles davis.

Perneice Brothers: Discover a Lovelier You
Not quite as ghostly and luminous as Yours, Mine and Ours but still frickin beautiful

Brad Meldau: Live In Tokyo
His trio work sometimes annoys me, something about the drummer, too cluttered or something. But I love solo piano, and I love what Meldau does to the rock and folk of Radiohead and Nick Drake. I love Nick Drake so much and Meldau pulls something very sad and beautiful out of his already and sad and beautiful songs.

Ryan Adams: Cold Roses and Rock N Roll
It doesn't seem to get much better than this guy. He hears Dylan, Joni Mitchell, 90's rock, blues, everything, and makes something fresh out of it all. What I like most, I think, is that he's not trying to make anything new, just to make deep, exciting songs. Cold Roses is two discs of near perfection. And Rock N Roll is a kind of send up, but it's as deathly serious and moving as the rest of Adams work.

--------------Much later that night...

Trip to IKEA with B and Woody. We bought two giant books shelves, a wok, some other stuff. Stuck in traffic for a long time, then exhaustedly assembled some furnature.

Just read some very irritating reviws of Ryan Adams' work on The reviewer seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about Adams, wanted the songs to be worse than they are, to make Adams into an asshole. Who cares who Adams is? The songs are fucking great. It was the kind of reviewing in which the reviewer wants to draw more attention to himself and how smart he is than to the work. It's an easy way to make a review, but it's not too useful.

Reading Forest Gander's forthcoming book. It's good--more accessible maybe. Couldn't really get into his work till now. Must sleep.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

To Begin Putting In My Time

Well, tomorrow I start working full time. I've been finishing my two summer teaching gigs while working part time at my new job. It's kind of strange to think about it--having the same schedule every day, 9:30-5:30, after years of working an hour one day, two the next, and always having grading hanging over my head. Less time to myself, but also less time to torment me.

B's just very graciously prepared dinner. I'm very grateful. Off I go.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Two New Books

that I've been enjoying recently came in the mail.

The first is Andrea Baker's Like Wind Loves A Window from Slope Editions. I had read and heard bits of Baker's work, but didn't really get my head around it until I was able to take it in at my own pace on paper. These poems are full of shifts and transformations, but they are quiet, work almost imperceptibly the way snow accumulates on the ground--it wasn't there, and then the whole landscape is mysteriously different. Lovely and quietly surprising moments like this abound:

And so I paid $2.35 for the artichoke because I wanted that type of intimacy with my husband. Though we all agree we don't like having these feelings, I keep looking for something I can steal.

The other book is a debut by a slightly older poet named David Woo, and my relation to this book comes with a little story. I used to be a reader at the Paris Review during a period when they were not really accepting any poems. The slush still needed reading, though, and if I found anything good, I was to pass it on to the poetry editor. In the middle of a long and mind-numbing day of reading dozens of sleepish poems, I found a stunning piece by a poet I'd never heard of who had nonetheless published in the New Yorker among other places. I put the poem in the editor's box, and before he had the chance to read it, it was, not surprisingly, scoffed up by another magazine. Here is the first stanza of that lovely poem, called "Ballad of Infinite Forgetfullness":

And strangers will arrive as they'll depart, shaking your hand,
And friends will say, "Sorry," and walk right through you,
And though will slip through a sieve, honeyed with sadness.

This is the best poem in the book, and there are two or three others, such as the title poem and the first one in the collection, that I really like. The rest is a bit too free of irony for my tastes, as I imagine it will be for most of the people who might read this. Woo, I think, takes himself a bit too seriously to fit in well with younger contemporary poets. But then, he is not trying to, and it's lovely to find a few good poems in a surprising place.

Monday, July 25, 2005

I'm A Modest Blogger

The truth is, I haven't said much about poetry lately. I haven't really been reading that much poetry. Finished reading Harry Potter. A satisfying time-destroyer. And B. brought home a couple of novels from Portland, one by Dorothy Allison, that I think I'm going to move on to. This is a hell of a mundane entry, the kind of thing blog-skeptics make fun of, saying blogs are just people going on about how they chewed gum that day. But it's more than that. I guess I'm writing tonight because I want to feel that I'm keeping up with the kind of community that I've made myself a part of by blogging. I just want to check in, make sure that everyone's alright, and that they all still know I'm out here, living my real life, working hard as ever.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Escape From Friend Zone Game

My amazing roommate and Friend, Woody, who is an extraordinary comic artist, has designed a kind of choose your own adventure comic/video game about the undending difficulty of finding a lover in this crazy city. Check it out at his website,

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Sweet My Ass

I hear there are some folks out there who think of this as a pretty sweet blog, like cuddly, like the kind of blog a teddy bear would write while the little boy or girl who owns him and smothers him with love is at school learning to multiply and write "My name is nervin" in cursive.

Well, this ain't no sweet fucking blog! This is a mutherfuckin' bad, complainin' ass, frickin' piece o' work of a blog! I hate almost everything. And the things I don't hate make me bitter. I want things I don't have, and instead of blaming myself or my own shortcomings, I turn it all outward. It's the world's fault. World, you owe me. And I'll blog at you till you pay up.


I'm working far too much right now. help

Saturday, July 16, 2005


I've read the other five...say goodbye to me for the next two weeks...I should apologize to B. and all my friends...I just bought the new Harry Potter book...I'm sorry...I'll miss you...goodbye...

Tears, Transience, Tomorrow, Today

I want to mention that I've just finished reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, a book that anyone who has lost a family member should read, especially anyone who lost them at a formative age. Robinson captures so well the fleetingness that an early experience of loss can cause one to superimpose on the world, the sense that as soon as something comes into view--like a ship that appears from behind a seaside cliff and sails toward the horizon--it is already going away. The sense that the beginning of anything is really the commencement of the first stages of its ending. And so the only way to feel any steadiness is to endeavor not to attach oneself, to wander, to believe one can move with the wind, though of course one can't, being attached to so many things. And then there is the absolute rightness of Robinson's ending, in which those we lose are only present in as much as their absence can be described in the minutest detail, such that it becomes a presence that only the imagination could observe, being too specific and clear to be observed in the flesh.

It's 4 am. Listening to Tears for Fears. After a smoke, going to sleep.

Friday, July 15, 2005

books books books

The end of my first full day at Publisher's Weekly. Imagine being surrounded by every new book that you'd like to buy. Then multiply the number of books around you by twenty; that's roughly how many crappy new books--romances, weird memoirs, seemingly self-published advice books--are flying out of publishers' doors every day. And they all come here, burying the fifteen or so good books in a pile of muck so thick it's nearly impossible to spot survivors. And yet the brave staff here, of which I am so suddenly a member, does. Yes, yes, read Pub Weekly, it's better than the rest.

But I feel good, not stressed or mean or anything. Sort of calm. I can do this job, and in fact, I can even enjoy it. Yes, I think this will be good.

Working three jobs--the two teaching gigs I have to see through until the end of the month plus this one part-time--has run me pretty ragged this week, though. Haven't done any writing, really. Looking forward to doing some of that not too long from now.

friends visiting from ME and CT this weekend, when, on Sunday, we'll attend the wedding of JP. And then, on Sunday night, home comes B!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

This Blog: What People Are Saying

"I ran across your blog and it's a pretty damn good one I must say. Got me reading Robert Frost on the toilet the lastcouple of nights. "To Earthward" is fucking bad ass."
-A Recent Visitor

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Long hours

Today was my first day at my new job: Assistant Reviews Editor at Publisher's Weekly. I took on a great deal of teaching work this summer, which I've got to see through, so I'm working part time at PW until the end of July. So, my day looks like this:

11-1: Teach high school kids at Columbia
2-5: Pub Weekly
6-9: Teach college kids at New York City Technical College

By the time I get to the last teaching job, I'm just blabbering. But it's only three more weeks; I can make it somehow, right? Then, for the first time in years, I will have only one job, one boss, one set of responsibilities, no homework/grading. But I'm gonna be pretty ragged for the next few weeks. Wish me luck.

New Job

I got a new job today...full time, benefits, salary, the whole frickin' deal. I've been teaching college for pennies for the last year and it's been not quite good enough. It's an administrative job at a magazine. I'm very excited. More later on that.

Reading Robinson's Housekeeping, which really is remarkable. The sentences dramatize the senses of slippage and loss that are the subject of the novel. Bought Gilead, her recent book that won last year's Pulitzer.

Monday, July 11, 2005

My Po-Biz is Yo Biz

Received an encouraging rejection today from J.D. McClatchy at Yale Review who, on YR stationary, said he liked my poems but didn't ultimately find them right for YR. But he encouraged me to send more. Not too bad for a first try at a mag like that. It's back to stuffing envelopes for me.

Reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It's absolutely extraordinary. A sad, yet resolved narrator offers a dreamlike account of a life in which family members keep dying. The sentences seduce like ghosts--they're frightening, yet interesting, mysterious, terrifying, but impossible to look away from.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Where do we go now, ay, ay, ay...

Honesty, Sweet Child, I don't know. I seem to have hit one of those dead ends in my reading which always closely correspond to dead ends in writing. Though I've stocked up on biographies of other poets (Eliot, Auden, another one on Frost--shit, I'm crazy), I can't just move on, though I think I've had enough Frost for a while. And B. is gone, working far away in Portland, OR for the next 9 days. I'm lonesome, I miss her, I'm buying books to fill my heart. It's not working, I don't want to read them, I'm over-filling my already full apartment, which I share with B., as well as a fellow collector of pop and high culture artifacts, W. We have too much stuff, and are adding to it every day (though B., you are the least guilty, and W. and I know it (though you did just move in all your stuff and furniture, etc. Hmmmm.)). Anyway, I digress...but I've been digressing from the outset here. Anyhow, anyone with a good suggestion of something post-Frost to read is encouraged to write in. Hope all's well for all.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Onward and Awkward

So, the Frost book is done. I've just bought the Library of America collected Frost to replace my very split and mangled softcover. After this period of engagement with his work, my current favorite Frost poems are "Directive," "I could give all to Time," "Aquainted with the Night," and, let's say, "A Servent to Servents". Not too obscure a list, but a good one. The Parini biography was, as I said last night, fun but too enamored; I want something more. Soon, I'll pick up the Prichard biography--he wrote the excellent book on Jarrell I was blogging about a few weeks ago--which, I hear, has strong close readings of the poems. But I think I need a little break from Frost.

You may think me crazy, but I'm on a poet-biography kick. I think it's Meldelson's Later Auden next. I'm enjoying the dance of biographical writing--the skeptical distance a biographer needs to try to maintain tempered by their own love of their subject. And what better subject for me than modern poets? Frost and Auden are two poets who I haven't (or at least hadn't--I think I've put my time in with Frost now) attended to enough. And it's a damn refreshing change from reading tons of contemporary poetry.

And I've got that Armitage essay to work on, as well as a review of two new Iowa books.

Impending Thaw

I'm nearing the end of my Frost biography. He died today as I was riding the train home from work. Now there's only the concluding chapter and an essay on Frost's biographers. This is the Parini biography I've been reading. I've enjoyed it a great deal, but I should say that I think Parini likes, or loves, or needs to love Frost so much that he can't let him be too bad or selfish. He treats Frost's ego, which must have been extremely formidable, as though it never caused too much trouble, which I think it certainly did. And the readings of the poems are overly exalting. But it's a pleasurable read, very much so, nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Simon Armitage

I'm working on an essay about the British poet Simon Armitage. I'm excited about it, and instead of more Frost, here's an excerpt. Please forgive any spelling and grammar errors--it's a first draft:

The center-piece of The Shout, and one of Armitage’s foremost achievements which originally closed his collection The Dead Sea Poems, is the long poem “Five Eleven Ninety-Nine”. The poem is a meticulous account of the building and burning of an imagined bonfire, a kind of ritual where all the residents of a fictional town ransack their homes for everything combustible until they burn their present and their past to cinders. Into the blaze they toss:

a mantelpiece and a lazy susan,
a table-top, the butt of a shotgun,
a toilet seat, two thirds of a triptych,
a Moses basket with bobbins in it,

a pair of ladders, half a stable door,
a stump, one stilt, the best part of a boat,
a sight-screen stolen from the cricket field,
a hod, a garden bench, a wagon wheel.

The awful and visionary gathering goes on, roping in such gruesome kindling as “seven children…/holed up inside the mound of bric-a-brac,” until “by one degree the brightness fades.” At this point, these arsonists become more desperate to keep their fire going, lobbing in “a sack of potatoes going to seed, a peacock feather, the skull of a sheep.” It gets grimmer still, but in almost twenty pages, we never know these people are compelled to light this blaze, only that must, that they will stop at nothing to keep it going as long as they can. This is typical of Armitage’s surrealist mode; the proof is in the pudding, and the poem enacts the kind of senseless self-destruction that people commit all the time. The conclusion is typical of Armitage as well:

We wait, listless, aimless now it’s over,
ready for what follows, what comes after,
stood beneath an iron sky together,
awkwardly at first, until whenever.

This has the same kind of visionary power as Frost’s “Directive,” but instead of “[Drinking] and [being] whole again beyond confusion,” which is hopeful in spite of the fact that it’s a fantasy, Armitage’s villagers are apathetic; having followed the compulsion to commit an incomprehensible ritual, they “stood…awkwardly,” having learned nothing, having grown not at all, simply waiting “until whenever.” Armitage, like Larkin, does not dare to hope that humanity is moving toward a better rebirth; we repeat ourselves, as uncomprehending before as after.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Witness Tree

I have reached the point in Parini's Frost biography where Frost's wife of 43 years, Elinor, dies of a series of heart attacks. Not that Frost was every short of grief-stricken inspiration, but in A Witness Tree, there is a series of poems that address Time and the difficulty in accepting its passing with painful directness and precision. I'm most struck by "I Could Give All to Time," in which Frost figures Time as a kind of Customs agent who stops travelers and takes from them what they are not allowed to keep. The middle stanza illustrates a point about Frost's writing about nature that strikes me again and again as I read:

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time's lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

First of all, this strikes me as very deft and nearly perfect, excepting the somewhat cute last word, cuteness being one of Frost's occasional ticks. But what strikes me most here, as in much of Frost's writing, is the employment of nature for metaphor. The first two lines are sweepingly visionary. While Frost is hailed as a writer who had an unusual fidelity to nature, to the world, it seems to me he never writes about the world at all, but about himself, his emotions, imposed on the world. In those first two lines, Frost makes time pass with such god-like speed and power that I can hardly see the world in them; what I do see is the terrifying and anxious power of the imagination to refigure the world as it needs to. Nature was Frost's muse--and it worked for him because the world is the biggest, most inclusive source of metaphor possible--but he could have written this way about anything, cars, factories, people in cities, though I guess nature is the baseline, and his imagination worked from the bottom up.

And before closing for the night, I need to quote a few more lines that seem incredible wise and alive to me, written at a time when perhaps Frost was not perceived to be at his best. These are from the first section of "The Wind and Rain," the second section of which I like less. Frost reassesses himself, having, as a young man, written a great deal about loss; now, as an aging man, he sees how little he understood what loss really is:

I sang of death--but had I known
The many deaths one must have died
Before he came to meet his own!
Oh, should a child be left unwarned
That any song in which he mourned
Would be as if he prophesied?
And yet 'twould seem that what is sung
In happy sadness by the young,
Fate has no choice but to fulfill.

As a poet, I feel I've courted a lot of that "happy sadness," which seems so accessible and useful a muse. This, I think, is an important warning for all of us, or at least a kind of useful wisdom from one who knows. And, of course, the rhymes, especially in the first bit I quoted, are unlikely in their perfection; the rhymed words--"died" with "prophesied," "unwarned" with "mourned" seem uncanny in how well they match, as if they were born to be paired.