Thirty Years of Carolyn Kizer’s YIN

Hypatia Death

Death of Hypatia

This year, 2015, shouldn’t come to a close without some mention of the thirtieth anniversary of Carolyn Kizer’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her book Yin (published in 1984).

I was lucky enough to see and hear Kizer read from her work. I didn’t realize until recently that she had died a year or two ago, from Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home. That time I saw her at a writing retreat in Southern California, I was sitting in the audience and she was on a panel about to speak. The event hadn’t started yet when I noticed her focusing on my T-shirt. It had a picture of George W. Bush and it read HE’S NOT MY PRESIDENT. She liked the shirt and mentioned something about her son having one like it (or needing to tell him about it). Well, that was my only direct contact with her. Later that day, she read before a much larger audience, and Gerald Stern was upset by how “mean” one of her poems was.

I didn’t pick her up and read her until this year. Yin is a strange collection. One of the strangest poems is “Running Away From Home,” a lengthy “Howl”-like outpouring comprised of neat quatrains that begins:

 

Most people from Idaho are crazed rednecks

Grown stunted in ugly shadows of brick spires,

Corrupted by fat priests in puberty,

High from the dry altitudes of Catholic towns.

 

Spooked by plaster madonnas, switched by sadistic nuns,

Given sex instruction by dirty old men in skirts,

Recoiling from flesh-colored calendars, bloody goods,

Still we run off at the mouth, we keep on running.

 

It is a big, bold, bald declaration of freedom; it is admirable and provocative, but I have trouble loving it the same way I love the first two poems in the book, especially the first one, “Dixit Insipiens,” so relevant for our times.

The title references Psalm 14, which begins, “The fool has said (dixit insipiens) in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ / All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; / There is none who does any good.” It is a poem about Western civilization’s rejection of faith over the centuries; the cause that the West rejects is now fanatically taken up by those of the East who cry out for armed jihad. The poem contrasts the sophistication of the intelligentsia with the crude, rugged faith of the European masses. God was “swept out” by the enlightened few; science took God’s place. But then, centuries later, the East, which had never lost God, came at the West armed to the teeth with weapons and holy books.

The poem begins:

At first, it was only a trickle

Of eminent men, with their astrolabes and armillae,

Who passed cautious notes to each other, obscurely worded.

Of course, the terrible news leaked out

And the peasants were agitated.

Moans arose from the windowless hovels.

Men, hardly human, shouldering crude farm implements,

Gathered in knots along the roads and raved:

Storm the great houses! Smash the laboratory,

The retorts, the lenses—instruments of Satan.

But the minions of the manors

Lashed them back from the bronze gates,

Back to the foetid darkness, where they scoured their knees,

Praying for us.

 

(“Us” here means the nonbelievers.)

I love the witty ominousness of this voice; and, even more, I love the way the poem gets at truth without a pretense of historical accuracy. Were scientists and intellectuals ever the objects of mass scorn and uprisings in the way this poem describes? The only episode I can think of is the famous death of Hypatia in fifth century Alexandria, depicted beautifully in the film Agora. She represented science and the Hellenistic tradition. As Christianity took over the later Roman Empire, she became isolated, and eventually died at the hands of the Christian mob. Perhaps Kizer had Hypatia in mind when she wrote this poem. In any event, the episode was symbolic of the way that, for the next thousand years, faith reigned unquestionably supreme.

The poem continues, we seem to go from the age of astrolabes to the Enlightenment:

 

The magnificent correspondence between Madame A.

And the more eminent, though less notorious,

Monsieur B. reveals a breathtaking indifference

To you: not even the target of a bilious epigram.

They move intently towards their prime concern:

Which voice, this time, will loose

Its thunderbolt? The straggling troops of revolution

Must be rallied yet again.

In perfect confidence of their powers,

As if they, who after all are people of flesh and bone,

Despite their attainments, had replaced you;

Not by storming the throne-room, nor by those manifestos

They so supremely compose.

You were swept out, and they swept in, that’s all.

 

Here, “you” is introduced and refers to God. This stanza and the rest of the poem are now addressed to the Deity. (Kizer is not afraid of using sentence fragments. For example, the lines that begin with “In perfect confidence.”) This reads like a kind of bloodless palace coup. God is out; nonbelievers are in. It happens quietly, insidiously. And it happens without naming Rousseau or Marx or Nietzsche. The poem recreates the subtle evolution of thought and opinion in an organic, unpedantic way: no dates, no proper nouns (except Satan), no celebrities except the shadowy Madame A. and Monsieur B. Notice they are French: all this Godless thinking is somehow wittily connected with the French, the City of Light, and the lofty Encyclopédistes.

In the last act of the poem, we go from the Enlightenment and Evolution to the late twentieth century of violent religious fanaticism:

Out there, on the edge of the familiar world,

Are knots of men, burned dark as our own peasants

Used to be, but better armed, we know;

We armed them.

From time to time they bang their heads on the sand

And shout, unintelligibly, of you.

Their version of you, of course, quite different

From the blandness you metamorphosed into

Over the centuries, progressively edited.

Holy war! Can they be in earnest?

After all, this isn’t the fourteenth century.

Is it the uneasiness we feel, or the remnants

Of ancestral superstition, which makes us ask ourselves,

Can this be your planned revenge?

 

How can you be vengeful when you don’t exist?

If only the weight of centuries

Wasn’t on your side.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

The angry ancient and Medieval Christian peasantry have turned into Muslims, with a starker, wilder religiosity than Christendom ever possessed. I initially questioned the phrase “but better armed.” Weren’t the Crusaders well-armed? Weren’t the armies for Fernando and Isabel la Católica very well-armed? Or the armies of Charles V, when Spain brutalized the Low Countries (Christians killing Christians)? But Kizer is referring to the peasantry of the first two stanzas and their “crude farm implements” and is, as we have seen, not concerned with literal history: her poem is getting at larger truths.

Kizer quickly adds, “We armed them.” It’s remarkable that this poem was written in the early 1980s, long before it became tragically clear how Osama Bin Laden got his start! (Of course, by then the Iranian Revolution had given the West its first major taste of Muslim fundamentalism.)

Religious fervor has passed from West to East, and it hits and hurts with its “well planned revenge.” Now in 2015, the religious feeling has gradually declined in the West as a whole; the very notable exception to this rule would be the good old U.S.A., where God is still alive and well, more so, probably, than when Kizer wrote her poem. If by the West we mean Europe and the U.S. coasts, then Kizer’s vision remains valid.

If only unbelief was more like faith.

 

The poet flouts strict grammar again here: the fussy, more correct subjunctive “were” in this last sentence is replaced by the more colloquial “was.”

And the “weight of centuries”: this poem beautifully illustrates that weight in just a page and a half. Now, instead of Crusaders, we are confronted by violent jihadists. Our sophisticated unbelief, the unbelief of Madame A. and Monsieur B. is a very brittle thing confined to an ivory tower constantly threatened by the vengeful masses.

Thirty years since Kizer’s Pulitzer Prize: she wrote a poem in the early ‘80s that could have been written today. And many like it are being written (by bad poets posting their hasty thoughts on Facebook and Twitter), but few of them come close to her wit, her sophistication, her prescience, her keen sense of irony and the deep currents of history and belief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Trautmann: July 26, 1920-Oct. 12, 2015

Swimming into CloudsIMG_0732

Mary Winfrey Trautmann was born in Des Moines in 1920, and raised in Indianapolis. Her father was the theologian Frederick Kershner, who wrote many books including PIONEERS OF CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, a great book I read a few years ago. She began writing poetry in the ’30s and helped her father by reading to him, since he lost his eyesight in late middle age. She got married, moved to Whittier, California, and had three daughters. She lived in the same house from about 1955 until earlier this year. Mary was active in the women’s movement in the ’70s. She lost a teenage daughter to leukemia and wrote a memoir about it, called THE ABSENCE OF THE DEAD IS THEIR WAY OF APPEARING. In 1979 she lost her husband in a plane crash in Chicago. Another daughter is mentally ill and has been institutionalized for over thirty years. In the early 1980s Mary helped found a publishing house called Cleis Press, which just two years ago came out with her book of selected poems, called SWIMMING INTO CLOUDS. Her third daughter Julie Trautmann lives in Seattle and is a speech therapist in a hospital.

Over the past twenty years, ever since I first arrived in Los Angeles, no one has been a better friend to me than Mary. She was wise, funny, supportive, a good listener–she was a patient, dear friend. I had been writing mediocre short stories until I first met her in 1995 at a writer’s group in Pasadena. She was one of the first people who inspired me to start writing poems seriously at the ripe age of thirty-five (I had dabbled a bit as a teenager and in my early twenties). She was always so funny and smart and kind-hearted and giving. She’d experienced so much loss in her life but she didn’t dwell on it, she bore it lightly. Though very talented, she was never really comfortable promoting herself and hunting for a long list of publication credits and renown. I admired her for this. I admired her for her strength and modesty.

I learned so much from Mary: how to craft a free-verse poem; how to edit my own prose, watching out for awkwardness and unnecessary repetitions; how to keep prose elegant and muscular. In the realm of living, I learned from her about fortitude in the face of adversity. She was not plagued by status anxiety. It so happened that the author Kurt Vonnegut went to her school at the same time she did, was in a class below hers at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis.  I asked her if his world renown etc. ever got her down, and she answered, “It would, if I let it.” I’ll never forget that. (I myself went to high school with a fellow now sort of world renowned, and later went to college with a world-mythical figure now living in Washington DC in a big white house–and so I try to keep her attitude.)

Where is Mary now? I know she is with her daughter Carol and her husband Paul, and with her parents and her beloved brother Fred and sister Bea . . . How do I know? Can anyone know something like this? Probably not. From the last pages of Thomas Mann’s BUDDENBROOKS, here’s some of the dialogue. The decline and fall of a great North German dynasty is now complete. Some ladies, left behind, remember all who have passed on:

“Hanno, little Hanno,” went on Frau Permaneder, the tears flowing down over her soft faded cheeks. “Tom, Father, Grandfather, and all the rest! Where are they? We shall see them no more. Oh, it is so sad, so hard!”

“There will be a reunion,” said Friederike Buddenbrook. She folded her hands in her lap, cast down her eyes, and put her nose in the air.

“Yes–they say so.–Oh, there are times, Friedericke, when that is no consolation, God forgive me! When one begins to doubt–doubt justice and goodness–and everything. Life crushes so much in us, it destroys so many of our beliefs–A reunion–if that were so–”

But now Sesemi Weichbrodt stood up, as tall as ever she could. She stood on tip-toe, rapped on the table; the cap shook on her old head.

“It is so!” she said, with her whole strength; and looked at them all with a challenge in her eyes.

She stood there, a victor in the good fight which all her life she had waged against the assaults of Reason: humpbacked, tiny, quivering with the strength of her convictions, a little prophetess, admonishing and inspired.

 

Here is a poem from Mary’s early, formal phase:

To One Now Blind

What you have lost is not so great a losing

As many think, or say in smothered phrase:

The green and yellow-throated hills, refusing

Winter’s black stare; the violence of day’s

Familiar whiteness; count of birds combining

Their narrow wings in patterns on the wall;

The curving cone; the languor of declining

Wet birches; rainbows; fire—are all, are all

Which, by this subtle cheating, have been hid.

How shall you lack the pageantry of these?

Color and shape and thought still pyramid

From undiscovered sources; still they please

And, one world gone, the galaxies arise

To spires of light behind your darkened eyes.

 

And here is a later poem:

shadow river

once

            the river was young

as we were

            graced with small summer islands

that entice   lead us toward the shallows’

lucent brimming pools

 

each island different   though every

windward shore churns with rapids

            wild shudders and foam

            a ragged din

            that swings fear up the throat   drives us

headlong past the tumult

 

to stagnant shoals

soft as fresh ferns

to long hours that grow feet sunk in mud

fingers

            straining after driftwood

            shells   crawdads   whatever

the river sends

 

show-offs we put together dams and pyramids

skip rocks until the river’s skin

is stamped with silver rings

or wade   beguiled

            among the lazy fish

            torn bits of honeysuckle buds

 

we claim it all – islands   the brindled crescent beaches

the mud and gnats –

the river   too   is ours

until

            one golden buoyant August afternoon

traps

an unknown child on the windward islands

            face down in the reeds

            fishlike body striped

            bluegreen from algae

the tawny hair a net for water spiders

 

some mistake   we think   some sort

            of knife change in the weather

            bringing him here

            without heat or breath

a child like us

but not like us

 

tears

singeing our cheeks

we cut him loose

and let the rapids fling him near the town

 

then

run   go

give up forever

            the sunlit pools   the dams

            the honeysuckle islands

abandon summer

            to the waves

            of this hypocrite river

we never mastered or owned or understood 

*

NOTE:  On November 8, following S.A. Griffin’s reading at the Second Sunday Poetry Series (3433 Cahuenga Blvd West, 5 pm) I will read a few poems from Mary’s books, SWIMMING INTO CLOUDS (available from Cleis Press and Amazon); THE ABSENCE OF THE DEAD IS THEIR WAY OF APPEARING (on Amazon); and KEEPING CAROL (which can be purchased by writing to me: alex m frankel 2000 at att.net )

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shadow of Silver Birch, a Novel by Terez Peipins (Black Rose Writing)

Peipins novelTerez Peipins couldn’t have known while writing The Shadow of Silver Birch, which is all about European wartime immigration and partially set in Catalonia, that, by the time she published the novel, Europe would be engulfed in its worst refugee crisis since World War Two, and Catalonia would be making news around the world for declaring (sort of) its independence from Spain. The Shadow of Silver Birch is thus a very timely book and worth reading for its strong, believable characters and its depiction of the way the Latvian nation struggled all through the twentieth century and particularly during and after WWII.

I have known Terez Peipins since the early ‘90s. We both lived in Barcelona at the same time, though she spent even more years there than I did. For a while, we workshopped our stories and poems in the same writing group. Now I live in Los Angeles and she’s in Atlanta. Though born in the U.S., Peipins has always been closely connected to her Latvian heritage—more closely, I would say, than most second-generation Americans of foreign-born parents. Interestingly, she chose to settle for a long while in Catalonia, which, like Latvia, is a small nation dominated by bigger states around it, and “occupied,” for hundreds of years, by Spain. Peipins has visited Latvia often and has all her life been immersed the Latvian language and culture. Her love for her parents’ homeland is plain to see on every page.

This is the story of Juris and his two daughters, Olga and Laura. During the war both daughters leave Latvia, Olga spending time in a DP camp before eventually emigrating to Canada, and Laura falling in love with a young Spanish soldier and settling in Barcelona (though not with the soldier!). Peipins is at her best when she describes the immigrant experience. She has heard stories about immigration and exile since childhood; characters, situations, and locations have an authentic ring to them that can’t just be the result of research. Take this passage—the virtual exile of the one character who stayed at home—as an example:

Sometimes Juris, who had spent his entire life in Riga, felt displaced. The names of the streets had been changed so many times that no one knew what to call anything anymore. First the Russians, then the Germans, and now the Russians again were trying to erase any sign of Latvian.

Or this one:

Today there was a familiar thin envelope from Latvia. Envelopes revealed the economic status of each country. In Latvia, the paper was so thin as to be almost transparent; in Spain it was a bit thicker, and the letters from Canada always had a pleasant weight to them.

What was especially convincing for me was the description of one character’s life in a Siberian gulag. Whether Peipins knew about this from family stories or research, it’s amazingly well done:

While Juris had been chopping down trees and working outdoors, he was never sick. Now that he worked indoors, he had a persistent cough he couldn’t shake. He rationed out his tea, making endless pots from one spoonful which he shared with his companions. It was still stronger than what they got with their meals. Juris tried to breathe in the warmth of the tea as if it were Lilly herself, as if he could capture her essence.

The writing has an authentic feel, and the style is lyrical and serene. Here’s how Peipins describes Laura at home in Catalonia:

Laura sat in the garden with her needlework, marveling at the warmth of the sun in the garden. At the end of the winter when absolutely everything was dead in Riga, here orange blossoms filled the air with a sweet fragrance. The white blossoms could even be made into a tea used for its relaxing effect. Aina was learning to talk and Laura laughed as the little girl tripped every other step and looked up at her mother from the ground, surprised, as if to ask how she got there. Laura could keep one eye on her and one on the tapestry she was cross-stitching from memory of one which hung in their living room in Riga.

This gentle style, and Peipins’s portrayal of the Latvian diaspora, are the reasons to read this book. We sense, on nearly every page, a longing for homeland. Both Laura and Olga do well overseas, but somehow never find happiness. Ironically, their father Juris who remains in Lativa, feels more contentment by the end of his life than his daughters do abroad. The material well-being that life in Canada and Spain brought to these immigrants was not enough to heal a very old wound. As in Herbert Gold’s Fathers, one immigrant-character just can’t adapt to his new land, and slips into permanent depression.

The only issue I had with this narrative was the lack of drama and big scenes. I missed more intensity, someone losing their temper at some point, a little bit of tension here and there: real life, in every stratum of society except maybe in a Buddhist monastery, has people angry, excited, in suspense. In Silver Birch we have a convincing chronicle of characters’ lives through fifty years of history, but not enough conflict. In this sense, the depression one character falls into is significant: depression, they say, is anger turned against oneself, directed inward. And to the outside world this inner conflict is perceived as deadness and resignation. This atmosphere of wistful resignation I think intentionally permeates the book. Still, with so many characters and situations and pages of history covered here, I would have loved to see Peipins make more of the potential for intensity here and there, and a couple of evil or semi-evil characters. Perhaps Peipins meant for the real antagonist to be the cataclysm of World War Two? At a few points toward the end, characters remind each other of why things turned out the way they did, with statements like, “It was the war, you see, all because of the war.”

And it’s this wistful resignation that seems to shut out, for all the characters except one young girl, the comforts of religion. First the Nazis and then the Russians and the Fascists and the factories of Canada, seem to have shorn away the last traces of faith in God or a higher power. But there’s something else going on. More than once in the novel, if I recall right, Peipins talks about religion in Latvia, how it was one of the last parts of Europe to embrace Christianity, and how some Latvian places retained pagan practices till only a few hundred years ago. This absence of faith makes the book more poignant, as does the absence of artistic pursuits. Laura, for example, started out as a pianist, but later gave up her concert hall ambitions. Many characters who started out as professionals ended up working in factories. This brought material prosperity, but there was always something missing from most of these people’s lives, forever changed by war and occupation and, yes, stunted, condemned not to really know their true potential and to always ask, “What if? What if?”  I’ll end with a lovely passage that takes place in a church; it seems to exemplify better than any other the mood of quiet determination mixed with sadness that pervades The Shadow of Silver Birch:

Now that she attended church, Olga tried to believe in a larger figure who controlled, who decided who lived and who died, but she still couldn’t make any sense of it. It was impossible to imagine a God who would let Laura be so stupid or let Astrid die, let alone permit the war they’d all lived through. She took her comfort in the space of the church itself, in the candles and smell of incense.

I wonder what kind of German and Swedish novels those second-generation Syrian-Germans and Syrian-Swedes will be writing in thirty or forty years from now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suzanne Lummis: Our Lady of Beneficent Talent

Lummis Open 24 Hours Over the past thirty or forty years, one of the most popular and visible people in the Los Angeles spoken-word scene has been Suzanne Lummis. She is admired as a poet, an actress, a performer, a festival organizer, a poetry promoter, and a skilled promoter of herself. Last year Lynx House Press published her most recent collection, Open 24 Hours.

I’ve got to confess, right off the bat, that most of my interactions with Lummis have not been positive. For example, I once approached her at an event to ask if she might like to read at the series I host. She asked if I paid. I told her I couldn’t.  She then informed me that, due to her popularity, she only did readings for a fee. “Wherever I perform, it’s standing room only!” she declared. Recently on Facebook, when asked why more writers of color were not included in an anthology she’d put together, she began her defense by saying, “No one knows the L.A. poetry scene better than I do.”

And, speaking of confessions: a priest friend of mine always tells me, based on what he hears from me about the L.A. poetry scene, “It just sounds like a bunch of people shouting Look At Me, Look At Me!” On the other hand, I doubt people can get very far in the arts, or in any field for that matter, without vigorously and tirelessly promoting themselves the way Lummis does.

I have heard her read aloud. She is a good performer and always gets the laughs she’s looking for. So I was curious to find out how her work holds up on the page. Open 24 Hours has been my first exposure to Lummis as a writer.

Last week I read the whole book, and just now I’ve opened to a random page, to a piece called “Eurydice Finally Finds a Working Phone Booth.” After a long quote used as an epigraph (having to do with a massive L.A. sardine die-off), it begins:

I’ve got bad news

and worse news: first, I’m in hell

and, secondly, I’m calling collect. Come get me.

And hurry up, will you, I don’t like the weather—

muggy most days. And this seaside town

that maybe served once as an annex to heaven,

is shot, well, to hell I guess, the wharf eaten,

strewn with threadbare nets, stalls

where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine

of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now,

the storefronts turning to salt then

to thick and itchy air. Wow—

what was that? Can you believe all those words

jumped from my mouth? Don’t know

how I did it . . .

This material is nice, and it’s entertaining, kind of funny stuff. If read aloud by Lummis herself, I’m sure it does well at spoken-word events. One of the “schools” Lummis belongs to is the Stand-up Poetry school; as a performance piece, it would work. She has a good voice: it’s feminine, well-trained, expressive, just the right volume; and her appearance usually includes her trademark red or black beret, jet black dyed hair, dark clothes, and a deathly pale face, which brings me to the other school she belongs to, that of the “poem noir.” And what is the poem noir? There are two ways to define it. In a broad sense, as explained recently in a lecture given by British scholar John Challis, the poem noir takes characteristics not just from the famous ‘40s and ‘50s U.S. movies commonly labeled as noir, but much later ones such as Taxi Driver and more recent ones still, such as the series Breaking Bad. What do they all share? Here are my lecture notes on the films:

“Ordinary people get into extraordinary situations in which they break the law . . . Complex studies of the human condition . . . we are in the age of the film noir: hopelessness, sense of speculation . . . anxiety, paranoia, obsession, pessimism, death.”

And Challis goes on to cite some poems whose characteristics are (again from my notes): “running through the city at night . . . cemeteries . . . hard-boiled tone of voice . . . seen-it-all-before tone of voice . . . wit . . . unresolved endings . . . drinking & smoking . . . black and white: shadows . . . descent into underworld . . . hellish urban environment . . . tattoo parlors, clubs, etc. Hopelessness, despair . . . being trapped . . . ALSO: bars, trench coats, booze, cigarettes, diners.” Interestingly, he states that the poets he mentions (all males with international reputations) are not aiming to actually write noir poems and might even be unaware of doing so.

As far as Lummis’s own, more specific definition, I have not had a chance to read her essay in which she spells out her ideas (there’s a paywall for anyone wishing to read it, or the journal it appeared in can only be ordered). What I gather from her poems, however, is that many of the above characteristics apply to her work too, with the crucial difference being the tone Lummis is going for: she works and thrives in a noir atmosphere, yes, but we’re not supposed to take it seriously. There is no hopelessness or anxiety in her work, at least not on the surface. There’s not much crime; there are no tortured souls. On the other hand, she does give us an atmosphere, a setting reminiscent of the film noir world: Los Angeles, night, diners, rain, tenements, people down-and-out, definitely a “seen-it-all-before” tone of voice, a “hellish” city of night. I put that word in quotes because it’s not of course really hell. Films noirs took themselves very, very seriously. What Lummis gives us is, essentially, high camp.

I note from Challis’s lecture the phrase “descent to the underworld” and this applies perfectly to the poem I quoted above, which is all about someone stuck in hell. It ends:

Get me outta here! And this time,

Orp, we’ll make it. Because at this dump,

believe me, you will not look back.

Oh, but one good thing—no flames here,

no brimstone, like the Fundamentalists believe.

Although when I wade thigh deep

in that infected, oil-glossy tide, it kinda burns.

She calls to Orpheus to get her out. Yes, it’s hellish here all right, but the tone is worlds away from the films noirs of old, or even the deadly serious poems which Challis quotes from (one of them is by Paul Maldoon, I believe). Lummis inhabits the world of noir, but she doesn’t want us—on the surface at least—to take her seriously. Under the surface, I believe she does have a very serious intent (doesn’t all comedy?). “When things are really hellish, all we can do is laugh”—that’s what the poems communicate. The subtitle of her poem noir essay is “Too Dark to Be Depressed.”

Lummis as stand-up and “noir lite” poet—she succeeds in being both. Her poems are the edgy contemporary artifacts she wants them to be. How good are they, though? Hold on! What is “good”?!

Lummis does not try to be anything like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens. That’s not her intention. She is not a “failed Wallace Stevens.” She is very consciously doing something different. We can’t fault her for not being Frost-like or Stevens-like any more than we can fault Andy Warhol for not being more Rembrandt-like. We judge Warhol’s Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe and Mao prints as “important” and “successful” by a different set of criteria than we would a Rembrandt.

Having said that, it does seem that Lummis’s poems work better when read out loud, and especially when read out loud by Lummis, than they do on the page (she even warns us in subtitles, just half-jokingly, that some poems do not “work on page”). She has her good voice, her good beret, her pallid face, her very black hair, but on the printed page? In recent comments on KPCC radio, she quoted from some of her writing about what good and bad poems are (and not specifically stand-up or noir poems): First the good:

Well you have to be absolutely engaged with language, you have to be in love with language. And it would be helpful to have some talent.

Then the (more fun) bad:

I mean poetry in which the language is not alive — holds no charge, does not spring from precise observation, vivid recollection, luxuriant or stark imaginings. I mean poetry couched in platitudes, generalities, absent of imagery, physical details, texture and surprise. Or, I mean poetry with language that’s energetic but chaotic, murky, unfocused. Or, I mean poetry that’s careless, ungrammatical, not because the poet has set out to capture the vernacular of a particular speaker, but because the poet has not bothered to learn the basics of language.

Let’s go back to the last part of the Eurydice poem I quoted above. Where’s the charge? Where’s the precise observation? Where is the vivid recollection? Where are the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Where are the textures and surprises? If we go to the first part of the poem, the only interesting lines (and they are very good) come here: “where fishermen displayed the open-eyed shine / of the day’s catch just rotted sticks now, / the storefronts turning to salt then / to thick and itchy air.” I enjoy this, especially the “thick and itchy air.” But we see that, going by Lummis’s own criteria, there’s not much going on (verbally) that’s worthwhile, that can stand alone on the page without the femme fatale, phantom-like presence of the poet herself.

In another poem, “About Misses Iverson,” narrated by the voice of a low-rent building’s super/handyman, we have an old lady locked up in her apartment, dying in her bed. It has the noir characteristic of taking place in a sleazy residential hotel; there’s death; there’s Los Angeles; and above all there is an inconclusiveness to the piece, and an air of speculation, which are both noirish things I jotted down in my lecture notes. But what of the actual writing? The style on the page? Here’s how the poem starts:

She don’t open the door,

that old lady there, four-oh-six.

You know she shy, quiet, and never

do nothing, never call attention.

But the manager come for rent and she

don’t open. And he, you know,

’s calling Misses Iverson!—Come

back the next day—Heriberto—she

don’t open.

All very plain and simple. This would make a good passage in a screenplay or play. And the poem ends with speculation about Iverson’s motives:

The way I see it,

she work for some boss,

you know, some little place, her whole

life, where they do your taxes or sell

you insurance, something like that,

and she shy and she never do nothing. Well—

she do what she supposed to do.

Now she dying she push back some—

she don’t have to answer to nobody.

Don’t have to jump up for every knock.

Ahh no, she think, Uh Uhh.

I ain’t gonna open the god damn door!

This piece, with its lack of resolution and its speculations, works as a bit of noir; but how does the poem hold up if divorced from its avowed noir and stand-up intentions? Can it really stand on its own? Would you want to commit this to memory? Again, where are the precise observations, the vivid recollections, the luxuriant and stark imaginings? Okay, I admit there’s plenty of starkness here, nothing but starkness. What we have is a kind of torso, a short speech from a play.

In another piece, “Last List: Tenement Lexicon,” Lummis writes a list of things she is (or may be) called, things such as “Boss Lady” and “Tough Little White Girl” and “La Roja Loca.” Then she has a list of things she should be called, and one of them is “Our Lady of Beneficent Talent.” She also says “She Who Should Be Paid Attention To.” And she goes on to say “Miss Netherworld” (again, a reference to hell) and concludes:

Astarte   Leaping Deer

Philip Marlowe

 

Late-Night Sue

A Relatively Sober Dorothy Parker for the New

Millennium

 

Frank O’Hara in a

                     Joan Didion Mood

La Mujer Bellisima

Amiga

My Friend

 

My Love

This is fun and it’s revealing. She no doubt does fancy herself a kind of L.A. Frank O’Hara for the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. She does, I’m sure, fancy herself a kind of poetry incarnation of Joan Didion. Lummis is a good performer and a fabulous self-promoter, but, I have to ask once again, where are those precise observations and vivid recollections and luxuriant imaginings she imagines we’ll be dazzled by in her poems?

Where is the love affair with language?

The empress of L.A. poetry has no clothes.

New Books by Jack Bowman and Sherman Pearl

JackBowmanNewShermanPearlNew

Recently Jack Bowman (left, or top on mobile devices) and Sherman Pearl (right, or bottom on mobile) read at the Second Sunday Poetry reading series that I host once a month. Over the last week I’ve been reading their books.

Sherman Pearl has been around the L.A. poetry scene for many years. He started out as a journalist and began writing poetry relatively late in life. His book, Elegy for Myself (Conflux Press), is excellent for its unity and the way he has of bringing some poems to surprise endings that work. Many poems are about the poet/narrator alone in the desert or in front of abandoned stores or contemplating a traffic “crossing guard.” They deal with getting old, forgetting things in rooms, ruminating about the past.

One of the best poems is “Crosswalk.” The poet contemplates the seemingly boring, unfulfilling life of the elderly “crossing guard” at his grandchildren’s school; the guard “holds up his sign like a martyr’s crucifix.” The poet wonders if he should come out of retirement and become a “crossing guard” too:

I’m thinking of retiring

from the morass of retirement, of starting a life-

ending career. I scour the classifieds

for openings in the field of boredom, which

I’ve become highly qualified for. And what could be

more boring than waiting for death to cross

before the children do.

 

Sherman has chosen a great subject for a poem: the kind of character only artists would pay any attention to. We have seen this kind of person again and again in American cities, and yet we see him with fresh eyes with the help of this poet’s insight. The poem ends, “As I step off to start / my own crossing the guard leaps / from his chair, raises his sign, and leads me.” I love the religious tone of this: it’s understated and touching. The poet is at once observing the guard and identifying with his outwardly insignificant life. But what could be more significant than safely shepherding children (and grownups) across the street? There’s a lot to think about here.

In another poem, “Salvation in the Dead Zone,” the poet is gently critical of the country/western sounds moaning out of his car radio when he’s far from civilization and unable to hear anything more interesting. Soon the music dies and he winds up with only religion:

Then twist the dial

like a gambler betting everything

on his last toss of dice.

A faint voice comes through the haze,

some snake-oil preacher

hissing about Jesus and life everlasting.

You turn up the volume.

 

That last line is a surprise, but it makes perfect sense because the narrator is getting old and he’s driving through the “dead zone.” He’s cast off his big-city cynicism and opens himself to what the preacher has to preach. The poem is written in the second person, which serves to universalize the theme of aloneness and dread of mortality and isolation.

And there are many other similar good last lines in these pieces. If the poems have any faults, they have to do with a tendency to write too much, use too many words, not allow for white space and suggestiveness rather than spelling everything out. You get the feeling reading these pieces that everything was planned out, premeditated, like a magazine article. In fact, a few of the pieces might have worked better in prose. Sherman is at his best when he’s using fewer words, trusting the reader more to read between the lines and bring the reader’s own life wisdom to the experience of the poems. For instance, in “Man and Boy” what we have is a really magical encounter that involves an unnamed man and boy who are none other than the poet looking at himself at two different stages in life. It verges on the sentimental, but it’s not that at all; it’s a touching, lovely little poem that needs to be read in its entirety. Towards the end, the nimble, girl-obsessed boy reaches out to help the older man along, and tells him, “Good game. You’ll be a star some day.”  ( ! )     I suggest you buy the book.

***

Jack Bowman’s new The Troublesome Tales of Frank Macabre couldn’t be more different from Sherman’s book. The lines are shorter; more is (often) suggested rather than said directly; there’s little punctuation; the eye runs down the page easily in a vertical way very different from the horizontal orientation of Elegy for Myself. Jack’s world is rougher, his spirit crazier and more spontaneous. Sometimes he hits the jackpot, so to speak, with these poems; other times the pieces seem like hastily assembled thoughts on life. I love the way he has an alter ego, Frank Macabre, who enters into a good many of the poems and gives the book unity it might not otherwise have.

Interestingly, this is the only book I’ve ever read without page numbers. The poems here are numbered (there are eighty-one), not the pages.

When he’s good, he’s very, very good. In one poem, “Simple,” Frank Macabre plugs himself into some kind of device to get himself “clear” (as the Scientologists would say) and ready to start his day or whatever he needs to start. It’s a terrific poem. The device could serve as a metaphor for the many ways we use substances to zap us into shape for what we need to do. I’ll quote the full poem in this case:

Simple

In an effort to reduce stress

and back away from the razor,

Frank decides to sweep out his mind,

rinse out his heart

and hallow out the demons in his soul

 

he prepares the devices; cleans them

thoroughly,

straightens the wires,

untangles the conduits,

connects it to power

and begins

 

he shudders, trembles, as each chakra

fires;

sending blue fluorescent beams into

his head,

hair changes color,

skin adds green and violent hue,

translucent scales then shed,

feathers grow then detach

 

he mumbles phrases in Aramaic,

Swahili

and Togolese

each a proverb of strange, unknown

import

and then . . . he is back

exhausted, clear and ready to press on.

 

In another poem, the first one of the book, entitled “Nightmare Ave.,” we have, similarly to the above poem, a kind of little story, this one equally weird, about a home invader who tries to strangle a woman in her bathtub. That poem was very well placed at the beginning, because it’s strong and sets the tone well to head the collection. Jack works as a psychotherapist, so not only does he write from a place of exhaustive self-knowledge and exploration, but he has plenty of material from those he has sought to help. One poem, called “I Am Hurting,” has twelve lines that all read “I am hurting” followed by: “I am still hurting / And I want it to end.” And that’s a kind of sonnet, I guess, minus the “volta” that sonnets are supposed to have. It’s risky, it’s raw, and it works.

Jack’s pieces that use a lot of long words, jargon, and abstractions work less well than the ones I’ve quoted above; one poem starts, “From the moment eyes open / sounds echo throughout the cool / house / things known and unknown / emerge to connect / this world and the others.” A lot of this is generic sounding, empty. I think he’s at his best when there is some kind of story involved, even if (or especially if) the story is jaggedly-madly told. In “Threadbare,” he masterfully describes a spider imprisoned in an upside-down goblet. I think it’s just a wonderful metaphor for not just spider life but the whole human condition. There’s no escape. The poem concludes:

this is it,

was it worth it?

Was all that webbing and trapping

and spinning

worth it?

 

Hope so.

 

 

(You can purchase a copy of this book by writing to:   Jack Bowman L M F T @ yahoo dot com )

 

 

 

 

My Journey Ends in Your Eyes, the Graveyards of Everything Mysterious: Desert Sorrows by Tayseer al-Sboul

Translated by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony A. Lee (Michigan State University Press, 2015)

It is very hard for English speakers to find anything on the Web, in bookstores, or in libraries, about the Jordanian poet and fiction writer Tayseer al-Sboul, who was born in 1939 and died young, by his own hand, in 1973. Now translators Nesreen Akhtarkavari and Anthony A. Lee have gone some way to rectifying this situation with a bilingual volume entitled Desert Sorrows, containing all of Tayseer’s poems. It is an impeccably made book, with long and informative pieces at the beginning to help readers get acquainted with the late Jordanian writer. Translator Anthony A. Lee’s preface, in particular, stands out. It is beautifully written and touching, and it explains the deep kinship he feels with Tayseer’s struggles and work.

As Lee says in his piece, some of the writing may at first strike a sophisticated Anglophone reader as clichéd and simplistic. This is a problem that has as much to do with cultural differences as with the act of translating. There is a reason (beyond language) that North Americans and Brits and Australians (etc.) know so little about Nigerian and Palestinian and Egyptian (etc.) writing, whether it be poetry or prose: there remains a huge divide between people of different cultures. And it’s not just “relatability”; it has to do with the question of what is considered good/new/fresh. For example in much early 20th century Spanish poetry, writers were still referring to the soul, el alma. But for Americans or Brits, the word or concept of soul seems, and has seemed for a long time, abstract and old-fashioned. Antonio Machado, who mentions the soul a lot, just hasn’t traveled as well as Lorca outside the Spanish-speaking world. What is anointed a good poem within a comfortable MFA context in 2015 is not so easily going to be accepted as a successful poem on the occupied West Bank, and vice versa. And I’m not even referring to the intricacies of translation.

Which brings me to Tayseer, who had a tragically short life but produced a novel, a few stories, and poems still much admired in the Arab world. Lee cites the following lines as examples of what could strike us as “flat. The images of the desert [are] too clichéd, and the narrative [seems] too stereotyped to represent the author’s real experience”:

From time before time,

in the darkest caves of eternity,

it [a Bedouin’s voice?] stretched through the Arabian Desert

flowing like a dream, magic, melancholy,

like the nights of Scheherazade.

As Lee discovered more of Tayseer’s poems, he realized there was more to him than he first realized. He cites these lines, and recognizes depression:

Winter has ended.

Boredom has ended.

I know I love the spring.

I long for it with desire.

But my suffering heart, full of winter,

……………………………………………………..

Appears at no fixed season.

……………………………………………………

My life is winter.

I read the preface after the poems, and I confess those lines jumped out at me too; they are especially poignant if read in the context of the whole poem.

Tayseer’s voice is lugubrious and heavy with abstractions; it is rife with lines that in most American workshops and MFA programs would meet with disapproval, lines like “The flowers of love will not grow in my barren heart. / If you come, my heart will not remember you.” Consider the first of these. It was written in the 1960s but could strike the sophisticated American as something from 3000 B.C.: the issue is the pairing of “flowers” with “love” and the phrase “barren heart.” If you look at much of this work from an “MFA perspective,” you’d say there’s not much here. But in this sense the three introductory prose pieces at the beginning of the volume do help us put Tayseer’s work and words in perspective. We do need a lot of background. We do need to know that he lived in Syria and Lebanon for a time and believed passionately in Arab unity, was suspicious of Western cultural intrusions, and was deeply (catastrophically) thrown by the outcomes of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973. If we as readers come to know about his life and times, his struggles and passions, then lines that may at first seem dull take on new meaning.

I believe the poems in this edition are not presented chronologically. (I could be wrong about this.) For some reason, the strongest poems come in the last third of the book, when the poet, never cheerful to begin with, goes into exile, despairs, and takes his leave. I love “Andalusian Song” and “A Gypsy.” When I first read these pieces (before reading the introductory remarks), I imagined the poet  temporarily in exile in Spain and visiting Seville. I took “A Gypsy” to be about the stirring song of “ancient” Flamenco performers as they sing and play castanets and guitar and stomp their feet. They remind the poet of the splendid days, a thousand years ago, when the Moors prospered in Spain and Arab culture thrived all through the Mediterranean. My interpretation could be off, but it is an enjoyable poem to read; speaking of Lorca versus Machado, it invokes the spirit of the great Gypsy poet from Granada who also died young and violently:

Gypsy!

I am running away, carried along by distant roads,

my black faith, unknown, terrifying.

My journey ends

in your eyes, the graveyards of everything mysterious.

Gypsy!

If I make a sacrifice to you,

it will be my heart.

Rain on me!

Rain on me

torrents from your cloud of mystery.

Rain on me! You are still wealthy

with the scent of grass on your breasts,

and the dew-drenched earth.

If Tayseer hadn’t shot himself in 1973, he might still be with us, and would be in his seventies. I wonder what he would have made of developments over the last forty years. Possibly he would have seen some good in the way his country has developed, an enclave of relative peace and prosperity. Given what we know about his character, he probably wouldn’t have much positive to say. Recently Jordan was in the news because of the savage killing of a Jordanian pilot by Islamic State fanatics; he was burned alive in a cage. I wonder what Tayseer would have made of that atrocity. I wonder what he would have made of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Obviously he left the world—for reasons we’ll never know for sure—much too soon.

 

The Biological Half-Sister I Never Got to Know

 

Samantha

Bio half-sister Samantha Havens in the early ’90s.

As I wind down work on my memoir about adoption, I realize that one character will not be appearing until the end, and then only a little: my biological half-sister, Samantha Havens. Why only at the end?

The memoir, Fallen David, chronicles my childhood with my adoptive parents, Henry and Vera Frankel and my accidental discovery at the age of seven that I wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t until 1990 that I asked my father for more information. When I found out that my birth parents were Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges, it was easy to track them down. The book tells about our reunion and its aftermath.

In the early ‘90s, when I was living in Spain, I made a trip back to the States and met more of my birth parents’ relatives, including Samantha, a year younger than I am. Our father (how odd to put it this way: “our father”!) Frank Verges, after leaving the young Marcia Cranston to take care of her pregnancy situation on her own in 1960, went on to date many other young women, and one of them was Penny. What the two of them shared was guilt: both had given up children. Frank (through Marcia) had let me go; and Penny had let go of a child whose whereabouts are still, to this day, unknown. This fact from their pasts—so I am told—was the glue that held them together, for a time, a very short time. They married, and less than a year later, Frank took off again, leaving Penny behind with a daughter, my half-sister Samantha. Penny had to raise Samantha on her own, with rare visits from Frank after the divorce. In the ’80s father and daughter began to get acquainted a bit more (both lived in California, she in the north, he in the south). And then in ’90s I came along. Samantha—usually known as Sam—was living in Sacramento when I first met her. She had a tall, serious husband, Lyle (a lawyer, I think) and three children. Our meeting was pleasant. We had lunch in a beautiful restaurant by the river and toured the capitol. We were a large party: my birth parents and I, Sam and Lyle and their three young children. We toured Sacramento as one big, awkward blob, and Sam and I had no chance for a tête-à-tête or anything remotely resembling a tête-à-tête. What was she like? I’ll say it again: pleasant! She had a friendly, warm, candid face. She talked a lot and very, very fast, and didn’t listen much. It was a struggle to wait for her to stop talking so you could get a word in edgewise: you really had to plan carefully when to jump in—she was an express train going by, oblivious to everything. I’d always wanted a sister when I was little. Not a brother, but a sister would have been perfect. Could it be that even when I was seven or eight I sensed that she was out there? Nothing much happened in Sacramento except sightseeing. I thought it was an all right start.

I moved back to the States three years later, in 1995, and around that time we met again, when my birth parents rented a house in Laguna Beach. She was visiting for a few days with her children (by that time she’d already divorced her husband). I was excited to see her. I went up to her in the living room and asked when and how we could find time to talk and get to know each other. I was struck by her manner: she seemed guarded, cautious around me, evasive and puzzled when I asked questions. Later that night my birth father said, “Obviously a lot of sibling rivalry on her part, and almost none on yours!”

It wasn’t until many years later that we met again, in Frank’s old Fullerton house this time. I was not good company: my adoptive father had just died a few weeks before and I was grieving. Once again Sam was very, very talkative, and I couldn’t help noticing how much she loved her beer. Her beer-guzzling boyfriend loved his liquor even more; he was an L.A. transplant up to the Central Valley, who, when he had enough liquor in him, would begin pontificating about urban planning, baseball, Eastern Europe, and related topics. She was like an empty vase next to him, needing to be filled up, always playing the role of the co-ed hungry for knowledge about the world, hungry for instruction by strong male figures. I know I’m using an overused phrase—“no there there.” And I almost want to delete it. So I’ll take something from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: a character who compares himself to an onion; you peel and peel and there’s nothing at the core. I could have said to her, “I might go to Peru to spread the Gospel and father eighteen children,” and she would have said, “Oh! Nice, when are you leaving?” and her big, open face would have looked at me untroubled. I could have said, “Now that my adoptive father has died, I have no one and wish to end my life, do you have any suggestions on how to do so?” and her big, open face wouldn’t have looked concerned or the least bit emotional, and she would have fired away questions, cheerfully asking to be fed more facts and opinions on suicide as she drank her beer. Nothing of substance ever really got started.

I complained (to some people) that she never tried to reach out to me, include me in her family, invite me to be an uncle to her children. But I myself didn’t reach out, and didn’t particularly care. I didn’t care, but I wanted her to. Biological siblings—whom adoptees have no history with—are like dog littermates. When your puppy is weaned and whisked away from “brothers” and “sisters” there is no ceremony, no expectation of later bonding, nothing. They just go their own way. Samantha and I are littermates.

My birth father—a heavy smoker, drug user, and diabetic—began showing signs of senility several years ago. I lived thirty miles away and saw him often. I tried to communicate to Sam—still in Davis—how badly he was failing; it took her a long time to catch on, but when she finally did, it wasn’t long at all before she took charge. She helped him sell his house, and moved him up to Davis. After that, I always had to hear news about him from third parties. With all the money she’d inherited after the sale of his house, Sam took an extended tour of Europe. Then she bought a house in Oregon, and he went along (he had to, now that he was declared incompetent). There isn’t much left of the old man. He talks a bit, walks a bit. The last time I spoke to my sister, six months ago, she was in an awful hurry to get off the phone, and as for him, he only had the strength to chat for a few seconds: “I’m stuck here at the house, lost my license. Not much to do. Well, okay, bye.” She promised to text me their new Portland address, but I didn’t hear from her again.

A friend said to me, “I’m sure she’ll call you when he dies.”

Samantha. Who is she? Who are her children, my “nephew” and “nieces”? I don’t even know their names. Sharon, Brenda, Brandon, Brennan, Brandy? Who knows? I doubt they remember they have a biological half-uncle. Why would they?

This is what many reunions are like.

 

 

RADOMIR LUZA’S TWENTY-FIFTH BOOK, “NEW YORK NADIR” (AuthorHouse, 2014)

 

New York Nadir is Radomir Luza’s twenty-fifth (!) book. Two things, I believe, set it apart from his other efforts: it chronicles marital break-up, mental illness, homelessness, and institutionalization in a journal-like manner; and also the poet recently rediscovered it (as he tells us in a preface) “under a pile of newspapers after it had been long forgotten.” New York Nadir was originally composed “in ten days in the [appropriately named!] Journal Square section of Jersey City, NJ.”  A poetic journal about being down and out, a manuscript forgotten and then dug up years later: the reader is prepared for something rough, confessional, brutal, crammed with brilliance as well as first-draft chaff, and that’s what’s delivered. If this were a polished, meticulously crafted book years in the making, it would not be the honest account of manic depression and outsiderness that it is. Since Luza produced this manuscript in just a few days, it no doubt served as a form of emergency therapy for him. I have done this kind of writing, too, and know how healing it can be.

When I read this collection, I realized (and not for the first time) that Luza is one of the most naturally gifted poets around Los Angeles. Here are some examples of what I mean:

[America], where you and me and every person in their house should take the TV set and ram a dictionary through it.

Then look up imagination. (“America”)

 

The Starbucks on West 6th matters tonight

It slices through the poetry critic in my head like

The birth of death (“Cleveland”)

 

The wooden confidence taker

Has me in its grip

I think

Because its brain is bigger than my heart (“Stage”)

 

The streets shimmer with sweat like housebroken monkeys

The addresses don’t fit the buildings

The toys aren’t big enough for the boys

The traffic light over there way over there

Should be over here (“Mineola”)

 

There was academic poetry in all its cold uncanny warmth

There was jaded you and jaded me

Def Poetry Jam in its television performance mode

Three minutes for half an idol (“Just Do It”)

 

There was no air conditioner at the Al Gore movie

The one about global warming

 

There was no air condition at Gladys’s beating today

Her husband Al wiped himself clean afterwards (“Air Conditioner”)

 

I wonder every night

Why the train passes,

Without stopping,

To help the lost,

 

Why the priests

Give such magnificent homilies,

Then hide in their rectories,

Like mice without a soul. (“Under Oasis”)

And there are many passages like these; I, for one, was in awe of Luza’s intellect. There aren’t many poets who would consider starting a poem with the air conditioner at the Al Gore movie! He’s quirky; he’s spirited; he’s more alive than most of the “academic poets.”

What makes this a great document about manic depression is also what keeps it from being a masterpiece: Luza was not concerned with meticulously editing/sculpting/refining the pieces here. He had a therapeutic goal in mind; his allegiance was to the process of restoring sanity, not to crafting little poems that would please academicians. For instance, he has quite a few lines like these:

[America], Where ecstasy has replaced cocaine as the mature drug.

Where America dons a disguise too ugly for

Halloween and too pure for Christmas. (“America”)

 

Where a truck driver like Elvis Presley changed the world. By not listening to it. (“America”)

 

These lines don’t contain much that is new or interesting, and then suddenly we come across pure brilliance: the next line reads: “Where Jesus speaks every Sunday morning. And is mute the rest of the week.” Yes! This is just great. This book is loud, uneven, inspiring, weird, fun, and touching. Let’s finish with some of Radomir Luza’s own words, the complete short poem “On the Set”:

At dawn the world finally makes some sense

The agonies and compromises of the night no     longer matter

Words sabers

Garnished like razors

Cutting through this moss of misery like pizza

 

Then the night

And sirens

I don’t care if

 

And the night

Covers my head

Bleeding from the wrist

I trip

 

Susan Sarandon breaking my fall.

 

OBAMA GETS 295 PAGES, JUSTINIAN THE GREAT ONLY 81!

Justinians FleaI am referring to the number of pages these leaders are allotted in the current Encyclopedia Britannica, if viewed with a rather large text-size on the Britannica iPhone app. Does this really mean that Obama is almost four times as important as the Roman historical figure who did so much to change the world?

And to think that on May 17, 1983 I sat near Barack Obama in the graduating class at Columbia University while school president Michael Sovern delivered his boring homily on U.S.-Soviet relations and Isaac Asimov rose to silently receive his honorary doctorate. I didn’t know the future president. I knew very few other seniors. Neither Obama nor I graduated with honors, as can be seen in the Columbia Senior Class Day booklet, handed out the day before.

I realize more is known about Obama than Justinian, but surely the editors at Britannica are doing their readers a disservice when they devote so much more space to a contemporary politician than to the ancient ruler. Can Obamacare really compete with Justinian’s Code? I note as I type these lines that Microsoft Word does not try to correct me when I type “Obamacare”: it’s now part of the lexicon! And yet the Affordable Care Act remains a lesser achievement than the aforementioned Code, the Hagia Sophia (ah! Microsoft wants to correct “Hagia”!), and the re-conquest of Italy.

All of which is by way of introducing the volume JUSTINIAN’S FLEA: THE FIRST GREAT PLAGUE AND THE END OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by William Rosen, published in 2007. It’s a fun and memorable read, especially of course for history buffs; but it is flawed. The problem is the title and the way the book has been marketed. Its main thesis can be summed up simply: the (for us) little-known sixth century bubonic plague had a role in toppling the Roman Empire. Due to depopulation, the Empire was left vulnerable to the spread of Islam in the following century. The emphasis on the plague serves as a great hook, but most of the book isn’t even about the plague; it’s more a survey of Late Antiquity as it transitioned into Medieval times. When Rosen finally gets to the “demon,” he delivers a dramatic and eloquently scientific chapter on bacteria, flees, rats, and the conditions that carried plague to the world at large from its original “home” in Africa. These are very intricate and detailed passages; I felt he was building a grand pedestal. But the statue never arrived. I suppose I wanted Camus. I wanted novelistic scenes of the first arrival of rats, the piling up and mass burial of bodies, the spread of hysteria and pain. A solemn overture is played—no fully realized opera ever shows up. What’s missing is a detailed account or even imaginative speculation about how people living back then experienced the spread of humanity’s first great plague. Instead, Rosen veers off to . . . Persia, and then the Franks, and the Silk Road. The topic of the plague comes up often enough following its arrival, but it’s not developed, not in the right way. Just twenty or thirty pages of cinematic description of what the plague felt like, and then a chapter with some concrete theories connecting the scourge to Rome’s fall would have made this book a masterpiece.

Nevertheless, what we do have is a well-written, engaging look at Late Antiquity that whets the general reader’s appetite for such classics as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the histories of Justinian’s contemporary Procopius. There are enough scintillating facts and nuggets to keep the reader engrossed. What Rosen does especially well is create an atmosphere; we read his words and we know we are in the presence of something mighty and dreadful and grand. Oliver Stone succeeded in creating this kind of atmosphere in JFK. There is a scene in which the New Orleans district attorney is seated at a round restaurant table going through documents and photos related to Kennedy’s assassination and the Illuminati-type characters who might have been responsible. The lighting, the camerawork, the eerie choir music in the background—I get goosebumps just remembering that scene. Rosen has the same gift. There’s isn’t a page that’s dull. Like Stone, he opens doors for the reader, in this case doors that lead to wide open spaces of depopulated farmland, horrific battle scenes and massacres, heresies, dark theology, glorious architecture, “barbarians” on the move across wide swaths of land. From Part III, “Bacterium”:

When the demon began the last stage of its own evolution, its immediate ancestor may have been living anywhere between the River Nile and the Bay of Bengal, but for now, it is probably more useful to adopt the creature’s perspective, and to say that it lived in a somewhat more circumscribed universe: the mammalian gut. Like all bacteria for the previous three and a half billion years, it was very small—so small that it approached the lower limit of life itself. Fifty of them, stacked atop one another, would just about equal the thickness of a dollar bill. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, as it would one day be called, was, by the scorecard kept by natural selection, a highly successful organism: wide ranging, gigantic in numbers, and, in general, so innocuous in its effect on its host that it could survive for decades in the same human intestine, causing little more than an occasional flulike stomachache.

Most of us have heard about the Black Death, but Justinian’s Plague is less famous, even though it may have been even deadlier and more consequential for Europe and the world. Rosen has done a fine job of shedding light on those almost forgotten times.

HOT JOCKS SPOUTING APOCRYPHA: ON ALEX LEMON’S “HAPPY” (SCRIBNER, 2010)

Happy_AlexLemonAt the end of 2014 I took a two-week cruise to Hawaii and read like mad in preparation for the next draft of my memoir (but also for pleasure!). I didn’t mingle much with others. This was my third adult cruise (I mean since the ’70s): the first one, in the Caribbean, at the end of 2011, I sat at a table every night with a warm group of fake friends. We almost bonded, but then came the cutoff. I never heard from any of them again. My second cruise was to Alaska. I went with my birth father, Frank Verges, and during the course of the week I realized he was suffering from dementia. And still I managed to have a good time. This last cruise I was both traveling alone and not scheduled to share my meals with anyone. A real retreat. I sat in the nicest parts of the Grand Princess. I ate a lot, exercised, slept better than ever in a dark interior cabin. One book I read was Alex Lemon’s Happy.

I don’t have great memories of Lemon. I saw him at the 2007 AWP Conference, heard him read, bought his first poetry collection, Mosquito. I got him to sign it for me. “Thank you for purchasing my book!” he said. Later I noticed that in addition to being young and good-looking, he was popular as hell. I watched him from a distance at an AWP event as people came up to him and shook his hand and so on. I read his book—mostly poems indirectly about his  battles with brain disease—and of course realized how gifted he was. I tried to write a review and submit it to Alehouse, the now defunct journal created by my New England College fellow-student Jay Rubin. Jay insisted the short review go through weeks and weeks of revisions. It was like being thrown back into grade school again. Jay emailed me, “I hope you are enjoying this process!” After weeks of back and forth, I gave up. I never published the review of Mosquito. But I never forgot Lemon in spite of these negative associations.

So when I opened Happy I was hoping for some fine writing. Or maybe I was hoping it wouldn’t be so fine. I discovered the only really top-notch passages are the poetic ones related to his catastrophic illness. This book has people coming and going but no characters. Lemon doesn’t make the least bit of effort to draw anyone here except himself. We have a series of names; we have girls, boys, bodies, body parts, parents, doctors, nurses, teammates, coaches. But the book is strong in two areas. It is, as the blurbs on the back tell us, poignant and persuasive when it comes to a body’s succumbing to disease. And this after all was the main point. Lemon knows he’s not really a novelist. But what was equally interesting to me was his vivid depiction of his relationship with his buddies—his bros. Oh and what’s a bro? NPR will help: “[The] pillars [of bro-ness], which may overlap, are stonerish-ness, dude-liness, preppiness, and jockishness.”(For more, see here: Jeah! We Mapped Out the Four Basic Aspects of Being a Bro.)

All through this book, but specially near the beginning, I noticed a dramatic contrast between the rich inner life of the main character, on the one hand, and his easy relationships with his seemingly shallow, generic regular-guy-friends on the other. First some background: during college he was beginning to have vision and balance difficulties, headaches, dizziness—couldn’t, for example, catch the baseball when he needed to, surprising everyone. He brushed these off at first as maybe symptoms of a bad hangover or the flu. Finally he went to the college doctor, who immediately knew something serious might be wrong. The rest of the book is a chronicle of his descent into illness, his experiences in the hospital, his relationship with his mother (“Ma”), and his limping journey to recovery. An interview with the author serves as an epilogue to the book; I was struck by the fact that Lemon speaks about his wish to write a series of essays on masculinity (I have the feeling he’s now published those thoughts). In this book I could experience first-hand, as never before, how virile, popular guys interact with one other. I always suspected, especially in school, that the tough guys, the “real” guys, were continually acting, putting on a good show, role-playing. They may have had inner lives, but they concealed these lives and became the male equivalent of cheerleaders: cool surfers and lifeguards, shut-down ballplayers, taciturn studs emitting the occasional formulaic phrase. In this memoir we see what an act it is—at least for some of them. And definitely for the protagonist. He’s smart. He reads poetry! He does not talk poetry with anyone in the book, especially his teammates. Here’s a passage. Note: Tree is a fellow bro; the narrator’s nickname is Happy.

Tree stares at me, leans to Rick, and says something about the freshman being fucking worthless, just loud enough so everyone can hear it. “Kidding, brudda!” he shouts, punching my arm.

“Man, check your shit.” KJ pushes me. “You’re fucking bush league! BUSH LEAGUE, HAPPY!”

Rick spits in a bottle, pulls down his hat, and nods hello. “Nice to see you, Happy.” He smiles. “Glad ol’ Chester got all his shit done.”

“Whoo ha!” I yell like Busta Rhymes, punching my fists and forcing myself to laugh. “Whoo haaaa! I’m canned already. What a fuckin’ night! Sorry, fellas.” Everyone chuckles watching me fall sideways onto the couch. My head throbs. The world bounces in time with my heartbeat. I hiss a beer open with my key chain, and Rick tosses me a tin of Skoal. When we clink out bottles together it feels like I’ve got a tuning fork inside my chest.

The drinks spill as we spout our apocrypha, and I tell them how good my life was—the big game, the Super 8, at the farmhouse, the playoffs, in the cornfields, the state tournament, the superhero, the pond, jumping naked off the cliffs. And then the tapioca-thick sex stories—the backseat of a Buick, the church parking lot, a friend’s mom’s minivan, with the parents upstairs, while my friends pounded the car’s steamy windows, under the stars on home plate.

“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time,” I say, belching out weed smoke. The light is frayed, grayscale. Empty bottles turret the tabletops.

“BACK IN TIME!” KJ slurs.  “Fucking Huey Lewis and the News!”

And this is typical. The bros are shooting the breeze, not much to say, and yet the narrator is capable of the beautiful “Empty bottles turret the tabletops,” using a poetic trick he is fond of (as are many poets): transforming nouns into verbs. And yet when Happy tries to say something a little bit deeper (“Moving to Iowa Falls was like going back in time”) his friend playfully upbraids him (“BACK IN TIME! Fucking Huey Lewis and the News”). At one point the narrator actually admits, “I don’t usually talk to my teammates about how I was raised because I want to fit in with them.”

Much of this book is devoted to the disconnect between bros joking around and a lonely inner soul contemplating both the world around him and his illness, his body betraying him. This reminds me of Genet’s Thief’s Journal: an articulate, sensitive “ruffian” surrounded by inarticulate, insensitive ruffians. And so we witness a divided self: Alex Lemon, “Happy,” plays a role in order to be accepted by his buds, a role helped by genuine enjoyment of drink and baseball and appreciation of the opposite sex, but inside his head he’s comparing the beer bottles to turrets; inside his head he is capable of dazzling language to describe his own pretended superficiality: “We spout our apocrypha.” Apocrypha?  Well, that’s stretching the meaning of a word, but it’s spot on: apocrypha as in fakeness, tall tales, a façade of masculinity, easy camaraderie. But inside him he’s focused on the great poets; inside him he’s struggling with the first signs of loss of heath and even of life. In the same vein, here’s a baseball passage; it’s now becoming harder for him to play:

My eyes roll in their sockets, and everything between Coach and me goes blurry. It’s like he hasn’t yet thrown the pitch. Like there is no ball at all. I feel myself falling, legs quivering to right myself, and then, suddenly, the baseball appears right in front of me, shooting celestially through the watercolored light, snipping over the dish. The ball hits the net, and I’ve barely started to swing. The guys watching hoot and clap and I shout, “Fucking shit!” and toss the bat off the ground.

“Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” KJ laughs. “Let’s go, man. Punish that shit!” He sticks a bat between his legs and thrusts his hips. “PUNISH IT, MAN!” He makes gorilla noises. “Get primitive on that shit!”

I love the contrast between “shooting celestially through the watercolored light” and “Happy, you’re swinging like a bitch.” The inner and outer worlds. A lovely and strong bit of writing about how a sensitive boy can be one of the bros. And that begs the question: The other pack members may not be poets, but they must have inner lives too. Maybe they’re not thinking about celestial shots and watercolored light, but something is going on inside them; they’re just keeping it well-hidden. They’re doing what guys do, especially adolescents. In a sense, you could call Lemon a “closeted artist/intellectual”; his peers might even have the same reaction as Wallace Stevens’s fellow lawyers did to Stevens being a poet: “What?! Wally a poet?” (I realize Lemon is still very young in the passages I’ve quoted, but even at that age he knows he’s an artist.)

As the memoir proceeds and illness takes its toll, the baseball “friends” gradually recede, and there’s much more now about Ma, doctors, girlfriends, etc. The memoir doesn’t have an upbeat ending, though the poet is still very alive and successful in the world. I’ve been looking through my copy of the book and see that I underlined most in the first fifty or so pages. It’s like a horror or disaster movie: the set-up and the first premonitions of disaster are the most intriguing moments. But I found the pleasures of Happy lay mainly in its candid examination of outer coolness/inner depth. On a bigger scale, I’m reminded how our lives are full of different discourse modes: we talk to our pets differently from the way we talk to our boss; we have one way of talking to a spouse, another way to a shoe salesman. Most of us are split into many different voices throughout a single day. Even when, back at AWP in 2007, Lemon said to me, “Thank you for purchasing my book,” he was using the formal word for “buy” that he never would have used with Tree, KJ, or Ma.

Happy contains (among many other things) a complete portrait of a late adolescent who can have it both ways: a rich life as a budding artist alongside easy relationships with other males and acceptance in their peer group. And yet I can’t help juxtaposing the Lemon from this book and the Lemon I observed at AWP, a center of attention, surrounded by supporters and friends. I always used to believe that high school popularity was a very different thing from success later in life, which I assumed depended solely on “artistic,” “intellectual” merit. Now I see that, usually, knowing how to work a crowd, connect with potential followers and influence them, build a network, and fit in with life’s teammates is what most successful people know how to do well, no matter the field. Lemon was training for his later role in the arts when he bonded with fellow bros. These days you are much more likely to hear about Lemon than Christopher Davis, phenomenally talented, reclusive, shy, but not shy in his writing about gay love. At AWP I watched them on a panel discussion together. Lemon stood up at the lectern and read a beautiful elegy. Davis didn’t even want to leave his seat; a somber, ghostly presence (or absence), he didn’t care if the audience liked him or not. And thus high school and college mostly continue, most of the time.

l’ll end with some lines from a Christopher Davis poem:

For My Pen Is

a pink glass office tower erection dominating
our brand new south downtown. Designed
by Chinese architects to intensify evening,

its sun-burned, glaring panes refract twilight,
hot air blossoming, dyeing dull gray sidewalks
bloody, rosy, color of a bad taste in the mouth.

A possum, ripped apart, reminds me of a men’s
room, brown liver served upon a bed of noodles,
death’s stench not unlike ammonia, piss, cologne.

(from the Project for Innovative Poetry blog)