“Toy Marine, 2011” by Alex M. Frankel (This poem vanished from the web when the journal Word Riot suddenly disappeared; however, it can be seen here–but not heard!–as well as at this link, thanks to the Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20160822232115/http://www.wordriot.org/archives/6501
of ancient queens posing online as babes
and famished youth easy to deceive.
I’m none too proud of my invented self—
hardly the life my parents dreamed for me
when we lit the Shabbos candles long ago
or when they watched me walk in cap and gown
among Greek statues, ivied walls and fanfare:
who could’ve guessed that walking next to me
was our Head-of-State-to-be, admired and loathed
by billions now, but way back then my equal?
These days He preaches from the White House steps,
the Dow Jones hanging on His every word
while I sneak pictures of a random schoolgirl
to surfers, swimmers, wrestlers, soccer jocks.
from a rugged friend I’ve made on AOL
(he can’t see my baldness or my beard,
he can’t see my wrinkles or my back hair):
Edgar Ramirez, SupermanMarine,
twenty-one and stationed in Iraq—
to him I’m just a snapshot of a girl,
while he treats me to webcam shows so hot
I nearly weep. Hours and hours a night
I run away from drabness to my strangers,
but of all the twinks I dupe, this one is gold,
of all the body parts, this chest is heaven,
how he’s sculpted and defaced it with an S:
huge Superman tattoo across the chest—
imagine I could access it with tongue,
lips, nose, even teeth: they’re always rushed,
these urgent sessions in the barracks john.
While he performs, I sniff my wrists and forearms—
can’t get enough of my own smells, they’re great!
After he’s done he needs some pillow talk,
as if we were going out—I cringe, it’s nuts.
I’d like to tell him, “I once knew God a bit,
the well-known One who speaks from the East Room.
At school we were two nobodies together!
(I began my death, my flight into the Web,
the day I realized He’d become a Star.)
Look, I’m not your peer, I’m not the coed
whose pics I spread around the Internet.”
But…I let the fraud go on…Was it for this
my parents spent a fortune on Columbia?
“I hate Iraq and I’m lonely,” he’ll type,
“I love that you’re somewhere in my life, Jasmine.”
He wears a lot of gear, looks like a spaceman,
which makes it hard to get to know the legs
and all a soldier’s legs can do for men,
but once or twice he shows them and I’m smitten
with the reckless tats he’s inked around the ankles.
“You ever see combat?” I ask one night.
“You ever see a man blown up?” “Yes ma’am,”
he types, “right next to me and had to save em.
Can we change the subject LOL?
Horned up and need to bust!—you down at all?”
That night he puts on a flawless webcam show,
I’m drained and filled at once. In the shower
I have a vision of a house—my own house!—
try to scrub away all vestiges
of Tina, Lana, Maricela, Jasmine,
take my mind off SupermanMarine.
“Edgar Ramirez died in Helmand Province
among five victims of a roadside blast.
On his chest he had an S for Superman
since he’d always get in trouble, come out fine.”
His buddy says, “I loved his goofy smirk.”
A local news report from Florida:
Puerto Rican father with a portrait
of a white-gloved boy in formal Blues:
“Yo quisiera que hubiera paz…”
Two brothers helpless. “Edgar he’s my life,
he meaned the whole world for me, part of me
isn’t coming back, he’s my baby brother
and I’m mad. Got his Superman on his chest
senior year. Always thought he could save you.”
Edgar is still my pal on AOL,
but what’s his status there? It says only
We find no visible activities
in this Lifestream. I hit him up tonight,
I send him an emoticon salute.
About the author:
Alex M. Frankel’s poetry collection Birth Mother Mercy has just been published by Lummox Press. He has published poetry and prose in magazines such as The Antioch Review, The Comstock Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, and The Gay and Lesbian Review, among other journals. He is working on a full-length memoir, based on his essay “Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four Parents,” viewable online in the journal Switchback. About Birth Mother Mercy, Alicia Ostriker has written, “Days and nights in Los Angeles, roots tugged out, wrung out, chat rooms, classrooms, malls, toilets, Help Wanted at the 7-Eleven, elusive boys, ‘urgent hunger,’ the American 20th century, loneliness and betrayal—these poems have begun to haunt me. Alex M. Frankel sings in a register almost beyond hearing, the pain is so keen, the writing so fine.”
Here are the first few cantos of a book-length poem, Carmina Burana, by Robin Wyatt Dunn, who recently left Los Angeles and now resides in New Brunswick, Canada. The whole poem is read by the author on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVAN0i0CJMI
by Robin Wyatt Dunn
Come, come, come!
You old wastrels; bored and beautiful. Bountiful and diseased men and women of Los Angeles.
Bad men. Wanton women. Lackadaisical omnipaths! Ritual seekers and golf caddy sundressers.
Bogey men. Bench-sitting men. Black white and yellow, red. Ocean red.
Gay and straight garrulous hulks, masking mad fakirs orchestrating disaster, who are you come to?
What pork and pasture milks your great orison, bad chalker, mercurial disaster. Who walks the name out of your feet, and writes his peace into your sleeve, black blistered and calked into the sea of asphalt, attenuated. Broad feet, no mare, in east coast hats and west coast hair, lost to memory.
Philter philanderer of drugs; teetotaler. Ritual garbanzo bean. Maze being.
Come into the maze with me for a minute; it won’t be long; I’ve seen you before, scab.
I’ve seen you in your mighty hat, old gun, oath keeper, totem breaker, salt mine son, who was it hurt you, in the mud and main drag, over my beckon and breach, dear heart, I told you, in the taxicab, that it was I who made your mother scream, such tremulous things, written over the yellow yellow yellow city;
Well, maybe it wasn’t you. But you could be guilty anyway. You never know.
We’ve been keeping count, on our phones, like a metronome, for the right hour to speak. The right name to forget. The ordination.
Which is it, priest? My mighty priests and priestesses of los angeles!
You horrible cultists!
We’ll have a song for you.
Humming under the sleeve.
Written in lightning!
gabled and garmonized!
Glee goat and gull!
Hull me under your two bottom car, noxious methamphetamine afternoon somewhere in echo park in your gangster death.
O Fortunate Angel!
Cut into squeak.
Set sail to hair.
Over the telephone
Who heard your name
Who photographed your face
muddled and forgotten
in your changed name
in your new religion!
Cut down your hair!
Let out your semen!
Open your legs!
You’re in Los Angeles!
We’re counting now; underneath the blue daisy. Where the hot plate has been heating the water but will not boil it; where the squirrel has stolen your avocado; because it was his avocado. But then it was your avocado.
Where the black man from Rhode Island explains that he will make it big honestly, and will prove it, right before he leaves in his white Acura, never to return:
No love song for you!
We must sing of your ambition!
ambire, ambire, delicate child, around the mountain!
Come around the mountain with me!
She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes, so demon eyed, made into music.
LA Woman, snakes in her hair.
Radiant and with no comeuppance, archangel cut into the weight of the cut of the book in wood, lightning and red, shaped into memory for your children, some story they never heard.
It wasn’t your story, not from the angels.
No rhyme with reason with your fury woman, for we’re going to burn you at the stake again, and every night, on the pier.
burn well and heavy for our dreams.
We’re counting now;
We’re counting up
We’re counting to the memory of the event.
Some black space in our minds, filling with regret.
There is no sweeter regret than in Los Angeles, where we all came to die. I died for you in Los Angeles, like Jesus Christ, and you died for me too here, that fucking child rapist, improbable divine, made over the Emperor a lover, and sign from god, or at least some good graffito on the toilet, a good bloody mob death, to please the finest nobility of the land, in El Sereno and Highland Park, and even in grumbling Glendale, where we came to sun, and persecute our enemies, we’ve heard your name, your glorious name.
We salute you in your absurdity, bloody red, racist capital of the world. holy rocker, lone and old, broken on the cross of love.
© 2018 Robin Wyatt Dunn
As I was reading Carol V. Davis’s new collection, Because I Cannot Leave This Body, I was often reminded of Sidney Lumet’s great 1964 film The Pawnbroker, about a troubled Holocaust survivor in New York City. Even though he has managed to escape the horrors and evils of the Old World, he can’t—understandably—let them go. They haunt him and they add depth as well as an atmosphere of doom to all his encounters in what should be the capital of the Free World and the Land of Opportunity. No matter what happens to him, the ghosts of the Old Country will not go away. And they don’t go away in Davis’s poems, either. Superstition hovers over this collection like an ominous Easter Island statue, and often the “old wives’ tales” come from the Jewish experience in the Old World, though not, in this case, the Holocaust.
From the beginning, the reader is made aware of this dark, almost Gothic atmosphere with Davis’s affinity for words like raven, crow, willow, omen, hemlock, ghost, dybbuk, witch and Satan. One of the early poems is called “Long Shadows,” and that could be an alternate title for the book. It’s the long shadows of the past that can’t quite go away, even in an American landscape so different from (and supposedly much cheerier than) that of Poland and Russia. The shadows and the burdens of an antique European and Jewish past come into particularly sharp focus in “Speaking in Tongues,” in which Davis, an avid traveler, has come face to face with cowboys in a Wyoming bar. Even though she’s an American, she finds that on a deep level she doesn’t speak the cowboys’ language, nor do they speak hers:
In unfamiliar landscapes
Yiddish diminutives, terms of endearment,
drop from my tongue, morsels, a little sweet, a little sour.
Then the curses begin their training: bulking up
on a diet of sarcasm and sneers, centuries of practice
honed to this art.
The Wyoming cowboys in the bar
stare at me in disbelief.
They’re used to horses that whinny but this sounds
like something you’d attach to those decorated manes,
the kind no real cowboy would get near.
What exactly “this” is remains intentionally mysterious. Davis is condensing whole conversations, gestures, looks, into very concise language, but the key word is “curses.” It’s not spelled out entirely what she means, but I take it as a way of looking at the world that is tinged with, as she says, sarcasm and sneers, and a heavy load of shtetl suffering without (as she tells us in another poem) the usual humor we might associate with that worldview. “Speaking in Tongues” continues:
A geologist, also not from these parts, explains in a tone
reserved for restless third graders, just how to find a vein of coal.
Never mind the tops of mountains sheared off crew-cut style.
If he doesn’t find it, someone else will.
In Virginia they asked if
I’d ever seen a real movie star. I’ve seen plenty:
without all that makeup, they’re not so special.
In these two stanzas she does something very interesting: she dares to introduce people and set up quite a bit of “exposition” in a short poem. Normally this isn’t a good idea, and the way Davis does this doesn’t always work well, but here it’s fine. Nor does she ever attempt to be too musical; I sense she has no time for musical musings. She wants to get to the point in her direct, austere way. As for the content of these stanzas, she temporarily removes herself here from the persona of a shtetl survivor, to a conscientious (blue-state) American concerned about the environment in a state that ought to be protecting it; then suddenly she’s in Virginia—a big leap—confronted by people who believe Angelenos are always running into movie stars.
But she returns to Wyoming in her last stanza:
These curses didn’t know where to go. The bar was full.
Every time one fiddler sat down, another jumped in.
Barely room to squeeze in between one slide of a bow and the next.
The windows fogged up; outside the snow thickened like insulation.
It was time to get serious: the curses hauled out
everything they had and let them have it.
The fogged windows and thick snow happen in a Wyoming bar, but inside the poet, she’s somewhere in the Old World. Instead of embracing nature, she’s fighting the elements. Instead of enjoying herself with the locals, she’s engulfed by the old curses. She’s more in the world of Fiddler on the Roof than that of the American West (could the reference to fiddlers be unconscious?).
As for actual superstitions, they are mentioned time and again. In “Animal Time,” she relates how her parents “drove cross-country to / Death Valley, last leg of their escape from New York, / the thick soups of their immigrant mothers, generations / of superstitions that squeezed them from all sides.” In another poem, “Flying Off the Page,” she writes:
After I had babies, I’d rise in the dark, sleepwalk
to their rooms to check their breathing.
People once believed the soul escaped the body at night
to return to heaven and had to be enticed back every morning.
And a sneeze, an omen of death, expelled the soul.
Only a blessing would prevent Satan form snatching it.
And then, toward the end of the book, there is a really remarkable poem called “On a Suburban Street,” in which the superstition imagery reaches quite a climax. It’s got almost everything: snakes, spiders, scepters, a Greek chorus, crows, squirrels, lanterns, mockingbirds, warblers, an evil eye, tree roots, and an earthquake.
So what’s with all the superstition? Different things are going on. She is not noticeably religious, nor is she—I sense—genuinely superstitious, but all the old tales have come down to her as a quasi-religion, as her cultural inheritance, as a way of coping, and a way of connecting to a mythical past. Christian Americans have their religion, and Greek and Roman myths before that, either as something to believe in or as a reference point and a way to decorate their work. Davis lays claim to superstition as her own personal stock-in-trade, if you will. As much as it infuses her work, though, she’s not obsessed with it, and there are plenty of places where she reveals she’s a fine nature writer. From “Late January: Wyoming Storm”:
Sediment to rock, trilobites
in the sandstone and shale.
Minerals float to the surface, limestone
to marble. Pink-tinged granite,
there for the gathering.
You can track this landscape the way
a phrenologist traces protuberances of a skull.
Topography that expands, then
compresses to its vanishing point.
Davis is by no means always on the lookout for the czar’s horses and sabers; she may have concerns that haunt her book, but she lets her poems breathe. She has a whole series of fine ekphrastic pieces, for instance, and in her last poem she valiantly touches on a topic dear to all creative people, and maybe all people full-stop: the wish for applause and recognition. Here she is in “Master Class,” sitting in an audience but nervous for students singing their difficult arias in front of a demanding teacher:
They may not be here for applause, but isn’t that what we all want,
if only once: to be tossed a bouquet onstage, cheered and greeted
by throngs of well-wishers at the stage door.
I have been reading Alicia Ostriker’s newest book, Waiting for the Light. When I saw that ethereal title (Ostriker is a senior now), I was preparing for sunsets, tunnels, and late autumn days. That title, however, is a tease, but I will not reveal how exactly, except to say that most of the poems here are far from autumnal, and in fact are emphatically contemporary and relevant. I doubt she composed most of the poems after the election returns came in, which means they speak about our times and our country in general, but they do have a particular resonance during the weird era we’ve suddenly found ourselves in since November 8 of last year.
One of the most memorable pieces is called “America the Beautiful.” It is a ghazal. I’ll quote from the middle of it:
School days school days dear old Golden Rule Days
when we learned how to behave in America
What to wear, how to smoke, how to despise our parents
who didn’t understand us or America
Only later learning the Banner and the Beautiful
live on opposite sides of the street in America
Only later discovering the Nation is divisible
by money by power by color by gender by sex America
We comprehend it now this land is two lands
one triumphant bully one still hopeful America
What I notice about this work is its fresh wisdom and directness of approach. It is not glamorously layered writing meant to dazzle and impress, the kind an ambitious up-and-comer would write to make a big splash in the world. On the contrary, this is the style of someone who “arrived” long ago and no longer needs to show off. This style is the only thing remotely “autumnal” here. As for this poem in particular, the references to the bully and hopeful America are clear to us in 2017, but what is striking is that there have always been two Americas: this was true during Ostriker’s school days circa 1950 (a time of a rising middle class, a time of optimism free of Depression and—more or less—of war, but also a time of puritanism and continuing racial injustice); and this was still true in 2010 (with a shrinking middle class and less prosperity but also more rights and freedoms for large swaths of the population). In our new post-November 8 world, however, the skies seem to have permanently darkened and an era of disbelief and gloom has set in. Those who resist our new Overlords are often now referred to as belonging to the Indivisible movement. Ostriker’s ghazal could be, and maybe should be, the anthem of that movement.
Many of the poems in this collection celebrate the Big Apple. Ostriker does a fabulous job of evoking what is glorious and hideous and sublime and shameful in that most neurotic of cities (and other cities like it). In this vision of the metropolis, things aren’t black and white. “The Glory of Cities” is an Ostriker poem that pushes us headlong into the crazy capitalist soup without heavy-handed irony:
Let us now praise famous cities, our human fists against heaven, let us praise
their devotion to wealth and power and art, goals toward which we swim
ferociously upstream, tearing ourselves apart, to lay our eggs and die
along with swarms and herd of our brothers and sisters, let me especially praise
the cities of the Northeast Corridor from Boston to the District
of Columbia, birth-lips of trade and industry, thumbs of unbeatable deals,
their mayors and their mistresses, their Chinese and Korean neighborhoods
their Pakistani taxis, their Afro-American subway systems igniting
their steel drum arpeggios, moonwalks, laden shopping bags, all superb
for staring at people while sinking into invisibility.
All this is great writing, as good as it gets when it comes to the urban experience, or at least the Northeast Corridor urban experience. It’s a poem that doesn’t lecture but sings. And then it takes a turn in its last two stanzas. Having covered cool men and hot women and anarchists and waitresses, it now focuses on an immigrant:
I watch this boy
he is off the boat, he is thinking food and freedom, he is sending
the money order back home, it is so easy, there is a bank
on every corner of the Upper West Side,
he is a little high, so when the officer detains him,
he is slow producing his ID. Fuck. Fuck.
Watch his hands. Now watch the cop’s fast hands.
What could be more timely? The restraint and the artistry are exquisite. I can just see the poet sitting in an outdoor café recording her impressions. They have the smell and flow and rhythm and taste of real life; Ostriker never gets on a soapbox. It is a loving, generous voice we find in these pages.
Gotham really serves as the foundation of this collection, which after many urban poems proceeds to explore America and the world more broadly. Ostriker was right to put so many New York poems at the beginning, since that city contains everything that is fabulous and hideous in this world, and not just the USA, and helps build up the rest of the collection. In “Times Square,” which I’ll quote here in its entirety, Ostriker offers the history of that iconic place from about 1950 through its low ebb in the ’70s and ’80s (as I remember it!) to its current more clean-cut incarnation:
Great white way when I was a tender ten
first time downtown agape at cheerful billboard
smoke rings every four seconds puffed form the painted
lips of a man who would walk a mile for a Camel
then sordid shabby & sleazy, risky & stinky & low
digital Godzillas catapulted from manhole
now crazy clean your Disney scene
warrior girl in heels, boy with banana
sky-high waxed torsos & the crawl at the bottom
to let us know how the Dow is doing this very minute
selling everything in the world—luxury limos, lattes
fashion entertainment & sport—your neon fire
forever changing forever displaying the same
intolerable unquenchable human desire
I hope this poem will still be around in a thousand, two thousand years, so that people of the future will know what the capital of “civilization” was like. How much will they be able to understand? Will they have a tough time with words like “Disney” and “Camel” and “Dow”? But from our viewpoint, now, this poem offers a rich history and slice of life. Her last word is, importantly, desire. Mad, crooked, amazing desire simmers in almost every part of this collection. Here she modifies desire brilliantly with two adjectives: intolerable and unquenchable. This desire—what we might also call the Will—is responsible for all that is wonderful and awful in this world. Left and right, First World and Third Word, bully and victim, cop and immigrant, sheriff and protester, mogul and peon—wherever we turn in this book, there are likely to be conflicts and tensions, and desire is at the root of all of them, a raucous desire that hums along like crazy New York City itself.
At an advanced age I decided to start writing plays, or at least try one play. The initial inspiration took place while I was actually standing in a theatre, the Studio Theatre at St. Denis Building, where I host my monthly poetry series. I had done poems, nonfiction, and fiction, so why not plays? I started attending the theatre regularly and rereading some of the classics. After six months, I began writing a play about a homeowners’ association, basing it on meetings I’d participated in and characters and conflicts I knew about. It didn’t go well. Then nearly a year later, I started on a new project, Revocable Trust, based on a chapter in my memoir. This time I managed to finish the project: two acts, ninety pages, an old house in the fog, people fighting over an inheritance. . .
I’d been going to writing workshops for twenty years, but where was I going to take my play to be workshopped? I brought bits and pieces to my Saturday poetry group, and they were very well received. My workshop co-facilitator, Bob Foster (who used to act with Katharine Hepburn), was initially skeptical when he just heard one scene, but when I showed him the full manuscript he was won over. Where, though, was I going to take the manuscript to be read and performed and, ultimately, staged?
I heard about a theatre company, Fierce Backbone, that meets every week at The Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard. Their format works like this: every Monday, from 7 to 10 pm, playwrights bring in scenes from new or revised work, and it’s then read by actors in the company and critiqued by everyone.
I was getting a bit fed up with the written word, the word that sits squarely on the page and never rises from it. On the one hand, I have come to see poetry as mostly FOR THE PAGE. Many poets (especially in Los Angeles) get too excited about the performative aspects of their art. I’ve become disenchanted with the limitations of performance-oriented poems, and excited by the quiet subtleties available on the page. On the other hand, there’s something creepy about living only on the page or computer screen. The written word has been exalted to the point where the human voice is on the verge of going quiet, or not mattering. So, outside poetry, I was pining for the naked voice with all its splendor and imperfections.
Another thing I was looking for was actual warm human contact. When I recently won a prize for a memoir excerpt, I never heard any of the voices awarding me this prize. I simply received an email and, later, a check in the mail. I was dissatisfied with the coldness of the purely literary world. Too many people were hiding behind the written word!
When I started going to the weekly sessions at Fierce Backbone, I discovered that human warmth was not on offer. Even if you just glance at the picture I’ve posted, you get an idea what the people are like. I realize they are in the middle of a scene, but even when they were not acting, the were acting: it was like being in high school again and unable to get into the long-established cliques. The actress in red, second from left—De Ann M. Odom—was one of the most cliquish people in the clique. In four months we never exchanged one word. I tried, but she, and most of the others, were unapproachable. I think she is a fine actress, but I never felt that she—or any of the others—wanted me there.
And who were some of the others? Bob Telford, veteran actor and now on the board of directors, always sat haggard and downtrodden against a wall, and never opened his mouth to opine on anything. If I wanted to cast someone in the role of a depressed sex offender at the end of his rope, it would be him. Then there was Clifford S. Blackburn, another person on the board: an imposing nonentity currently working on a two-hour monologue about the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. If you ever want help getting to sleep, find a recording of someone reading from this monologue. And finally, there was Paul Messinger, a roly-poly, sheep-clad wolf of a man who relished his power and authority as a board member in the little world of Fierce, and someone thoroughly accomplished in the art of the pointed baritone question and the slap-in-the-face rebuke.
So why did I stay? 1) I didn’t know where else to go. 2) I thought I’d give them a chance. 3) They are all serious and committed to their art. I tried to disregard the clubbiness and the weekly snubs, hoping that better things would follow.
It was clash of personalities from the start. They probably sensed right away (and correctly) that I’m more a literary than a theatre person. And this brings me to maybe the heart of the conflict: poetry is an extreme example of a purely literary enterprise; theatre, on the other hand, straddles the world of serious art and show business. What most actors end up doing is not Shakespeare or Sophocles or Ibsen or even Neil Simon: it’s commercials, it’s TV, it’s Netflix, etc. etc., though SOME of the time what they do is in the service of “serious art” and “literature.” Way back in college I read an essay by Arthur C. Danto on the question of whether philosophy was literature. His conclusion was that while there were many overlapping areas, philosophy was certainly not literature. The same with theatre. This explains why, to an extent, I was such a fish out of water. Theatre’s another discipline. When Fierce actors raised their hands to announce that they had just landed a part in a commercial, or in a new Netflix series, I had to ask myself, “What am I doing here?”
Here’s the good news: One of the actors from Fierce, Anne Ryerson Hall, came to my monthly poetry group and read a scene from my play with actor Beverly Swanson. This went extremely well and, as the Brits would say, I was chuffed. A few weeks later, at Fierce, the first three scenes from my play got a solid reading. Again, it went well—the actors there are so talented. But the comments, when they came, were not always useful. I knew that I was expected to make revisions and bring the piece back in a few weeks. In theatre you’re always revising, and I understood this. And revise I did—but I didn’t rewrite. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, during the last phase of my “audition period,” after which I was to receive a verdict about being accepted into the Company.
November 21 was a busy night (four different plays were to be done, I mean scenes from four different works-in-progress). My scenes from Revocable Trust came first. The actors read very, very fast and quietly. I was cupping my ears to understand them. The audience was losing patience. If these actors had been trying to sabotage me, they would have done exactly what they were doing: reading so fast and with no expressiveness or interest or care for what they were doing. Even before they were done, I was almost in tears. Playwright Tom Cavanaugh, sitting right in front of me, was taking copious notes and vigorously shaking his head. The scene ended and the applause was scattered and weak and deadly. I went up on stage, alone, to hear comments. The knives were out, and the assembled clique was gonna be Fierce. (I do not doubt this manuscript needed work.)
And when I say the knives were out, I need to stress that most of the comments were not that negative. It was the atmosphere in the room, after the miserable “performance,” that was so discouraging. But three of the room’s heavyweights—Paul Messinger, Clifford S. Blackburn, and Tom Cavanaugh—came at me hard. “Did you even try to rewrite after we saw this last time?” said Paul. Clifford said, “I don’t like any of it, not the characters, not anything.” Tom Cavanaugh (who’d been shaking his head so vigorously) now gave a deep critique that I couldn’t take it in because I was too upset. I then said to him, “So, I have too many words, I’m too verbose.” He got angry: “What kind of word is “verbose”? That’s a poetry word! This is theatre!”
After the night was over, I sometimes thought of the play scene and critiquing scene as my Fierce Baptism of Fire. Perhaps they all had a plan for me? Perhaps this was a ritual? To be taken apart by them and put back together in their image. Like fraternity hazing. “Yes, I’ll probably go back,” I said. “They have a plan for me, yes.” And I told myself, “Maybe they can see things I can’t.” But that wouldn’t account for the very poor reading. That wouldn’t account for the weekly awkwardness and snubs.
A few more days and nights went by and I knew my sixteen weeks at Fierce were at an end.
But it won’t be the end—trust me—of Revocable Trust.
Radomir Vojtech Luza has a new collection out and it’s called Eros of Angels. A few months ago I was pleased to be present at the launch of this book, which is a big one: nearly four hundred pages and well over three hundred poems. Radomir writes like the Patron Saint of L.A. Poets, Charles Bukowski, who often wrote several poems a night while he drank beer. Radomir doesn’t go down with alcohol but up with caffeine, though in moderate amounts. He goes to a Coffee Bean or Starbucks, orders one coffee, and spends an entire day writing multiple poems. And the results of this way of working are often brilliant, and often fall flat. I wish Radomir had chosen me as editor or collaborator on this project, because then the book would have been much shorter and a little more polished. However, as I may have said before about Radomir’s work, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get it too polished, because then you risk taking away his voice and replacing it with something else.
One of my favorite poems in Eros of Angels is called “Full Moon Over Laguna Beach”; I’ll reproduce it here in full:
The medication cannot be missed
for even one day
The music vanishes
If it is not taken
Steps to the door of the castle
Replaced by ankles
Trees rotten on the inside
They tell me to get off of it
It will break me
Take my talent away
But I walk in the moonlight at Laguna Beach
Staring the future in the face
The past in the back
Words come like spaghetti
Passion like a green forest
And love like a cowboy
Medication leading to synonyms and subjects
Dancing under the full moon
Like wolf on tundra
Illness medicated must be
Insanity at bay
Lingering like salt water
Floating like ice cream on soda
Feet fueling faith
Frolicking fingers feeling like
Free form floating
Spirit and psychiatrist one
I just love this. A lot of Radomir’s poems are marred by heavy-handed rhyming and over-alliteration, but not this one. Not at all. I like the images a lot: a wolf in the tundra; words coming like spaghetti; a poet walking on the beach in the moonlight meditating on his medications! What really makes this stand out is its stance: he doesn’t ask to be free from his medications and embrace some kind of “natural high”; rather, this poem is like an ode to those medications, an acceptance of science and its role not just in keeping insanity at bay but stirring up and managing creativity. The last line is amazing.
There are a dozen or so poems in here that are really first-rate. What Radomir has done is, in essence, present us with a sketchbook. We choose what we like and leave the rest. It’s a very illuminating glimpse into the creative process.
He’s at his best when describing homelessness, being down and out, being institutionalized. How many of us can say we have had such experiences? It’s like we’re looking through a peep-hole at something we’re not supposed to see. In the poem “Me” he calls this the “crowded chaos of” his “closet.” Here it is in full:
I am beginning to like me
All commas and apostrophes
Mostly Shakespeare and Hemingway
Living through this rusted day
I am starting to appreciate me
All subjects and clauses
Mainly Dvorak and discipline
And the kind of lows only my highs know
I am loving myself more these days
Holding back the avalanche of acrid alliteration
Moving forward on the clear sky sanity of the promised city
Forgetting the vanquished vowel of vanity
I am speaking up more these days
Secrecy no longer a floating carp
But an avenue away from the
Crowded chaos of my closet
I enjoy the way he makes fun of his alliterative tendencies. He’s able to step away from inside himself and take an honest look at himself and at the same time like what he sees. Rereading this poem just now, I was thinking about one day in forty or fifty years when Radomir (and the rest of us) aren’t here anymore, anyone who finds this poem will find it very touching. Right now Radomir’s poems both thrive and suffer from being close to (associated with) his larger than life persona. When he’s no longer there, how will these poems fare without his voice to back them up? I think some of them will fare quite well, when people of the future will be able to read them without his big voice reciting them: these pieces—the best of them—do have quite a lot of life on the page, as all good poems should.
I’ve been reading Marsha de la O’s new collection, Antidote for Night. De la O edits the literary journal Askew and lives and hosts readings in the California seaside town of Ventura. Her book, which won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2015, is published by BOA Editions.
Two strands come together in de la O’s work: one is edgy and urban, and the other ethereal and—for want of a better word—“moonlit.” The edgy, urban poems always come with a dollop of moonlight, and this gives them strength and depth. On the other hand, the moonlit and more delicate/pastoral pieces live in a realm inhabited by poets since ancient times.
“Antidote for Night” is a poem of the latter kind. And it is very consciously for night, not to night. Nighttime for de la O is not, in and of itself, some malady that she needs a remedy for. It is a time fraught with uncertainty, struggle, speculation; it is a time not to eradicate but to survive and maybe thrive in, when ideas come and go, some gentle, some monstrous. And like any conscientious artist, she is intent on using her nocturnal tossing and turning to feed her art. As a therapist once told me, try not to say “Oh no!” Instead, say “Oh boy!” In a sense her whole art is an antidote for night: she accepts the dark side and allows it to feed into her creative process. Here are some lines from the poem:
There’s the moon, in the high window, her wall-eye
glancing off me, and a few bobbing stars,
every tawdry shining thing.* [*indentations in the text can’t be reproduced here]
I’ve identified Venus more times
than I can count as an agent for insomnia,
a broad sail that catches the wind and slides away.
This is elegant and understated. De la O never tries to hit the reader over the head with any thoughts or images or words that call too much attention to themselves. (I don’t think there’s one exclamation mark in the whole book!) But the most striking passage comes near the end, when the narrator is momentary startled: her bed-partner seems to stop breathing:
Not even halfway through the hours,
his fitful sleep, wheeze of a saber saw,
waves receding on a rocky shore,
breath whip-snaking down a chute, until his body
forgets—how still, how close the kingdom,
one stalled-gulp away,
and I jostle his dying shoulder—he recoils, yes,
rebels, back now, mouth full of silver,
What? he moans to darkness, what?
I can’t be sure, but this may well be (?) the best description of sleep apnea in literature. I love the way de la O says “how close the kingdom.” And “breath whip-snaking down a chute, / until his body forgets.” It’s all vivid, and at the same time so restrained.
This piece, like so many—if not all—of de la O’s poems, uses a lot of the vocabulary handed down from a well-worn tradition: night, heart, breast, breath, moon, moan, stars, wind, kingdom, silver, darkness. Anyone who’s been with me in workshops knows how I feel about the moon. When I was much younger and still writing short stories (or trying to write them), I disliked reading poems because they were always going on about the moon. That’s why I was excited to discover Auden, one of the first poets to embrace the twentieth century (of course he did slip the moon in on occasion). I liked Auden’s urban, industrial voice, which for me was a way into poetry. So when I come across the well-worn words (usually having a nocturnal or pastoral setting), I tune out a little. “Antidote for Night” is a very strong poem, but there are some in this book that don’t turn me on as much because they linger—for my taste—in a kind of pre-Industrial Revolution atmosphere.
What really works for me is when de la O weds the feminine pastels of poetry’s Ancien Régime with the scuzzy realities of contemporary Southern California. De la O now lives in Ventura but she’s from LA and, I believe, worked there as a teacher for many years. Like most big cities, Los Angeles is a heap of contrasts. There are well-educated, well-heeled whites with glass houses on stilts in the lush hills of South Pasadena; but living at the bottom of the hill are the less fortunate, usually not white, with bars on their windows, attack dogs in their yards, and walls sprayed with graffiti and gang symbols. As a teacher in the public schools, de la O negotiated her way through both worlds, and my favorite poem is one that beautifully braids the two; it’s called “Sanchez.” What a name. Like Smith. How many thousands of Sanchezes are out there? And the name is even more ordinary if we say it with an American accent. Sanchez. A teacher reminisces about a boy who used to be in her fourth-grade class; towards the end of the poem, we learn he died in a drive-by shooting years after he was her student. It begins:
I don’t recall how dark or gold his eyes were. I remember
a darkness that might
not have been iris, something that put me in mind of my dog,
his grateful look
and underneath, a well of grief. Maybe not his eyes, more
the way he bore pain
with dumbfounded dignity, his trouser leg going black with blood,
and Sanchez quiet
and far away as it ran freely down his leg, the fastest
blood in class.
It’s a lovely, understated description. There are the poetry words/expressions: darkness, iris, put me in mind of, well of grief, bore pain. But they serve a purpose. The title is “Sanchez”—connoting immigrants, underclass, danger, manual labor. But the poet’s voice is that of someone from a different socio-economic class. It’s also a feminine voice—nurturing, warm. And this joining of the two realities is what makes the poem: there’s white, female, relatively privileged teacher who narrates, and then there’s the brown, underprivileged, undeveloped but already tragic Sanchez, the subject of the poem. His bleeding wound is a harbinger of things to come. The nicest touch is when the narrator speaks of the boy’s jailed father:
he knew there was nothing
his father could do—
locked up at Rose Valley. I wanted to tell Sanchez only the best
ones go to prison there—
addicts prone to beauty set down in a backcountry clutch
of Quonset huts crouched
beneath their discourse with the wind. Rose Valley didn’t
bother with prison walls,
a six-foot cyclone fence was all there was, each link crying
go if you want to,
but nobody did.
This is magnificent. The sounds are magnificent. I love “only the best / ones go to prison there.” I love “prone to beauty.” The ambiguity and gentleness really work. It’s the gentleness of the voice and at the same time the roughness of the situation that’s unique. And, by the way, why call him by his last name? Not “Joe” or “Peter” or “Pedro”? Sanchez could well have been his nickname, but to call him this all through the piece! His last name makes him into a kind of statistic, a name on a roster, a name in some bureaucrat’s file, or on a mausoleum wall.
It’s poems like “Sanchez” that make this collection worthwhile: to study, to learn from, to show what the heightened language of poetry can accomplish with many unusual touches and never a false note.
I’ve also been reading Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony Lee’s translation of some of the Arabic poems of Rumi, the first time, I think, the Arabic poems have appeared in English. They were written some eight hundred years ago in a language and within a culture and religion light years away from the U.S.A. circa 2016. And yet he’s just about America’s most popular poet. I suspect this could be as much for the wisdom and humanity in the work as for its literary merits. This new book, Love Is My Savior, does not have as many memorable quotes and stories as the Rumi most of us are familiar with. But like that other side of him, this is work that the reader turns to for comfort, for healing, and to get in touch with mystical states.
I note the dictionary definition of mysticism:
1) belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. 2) belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.
Interesting duality, if one can call it that. This isn’t a book to pick up the way one picks up Antidote for Night. This is a book to reach for the way Queen Victoria reached for In Memoriam, which she always kept on her bedside table after she was widowed. These are poems to read for knowledge, comfort, enlightenment, and also to transport the reader to a distant time and place.
This is also work with much moon in it, and on a literary level it doesn’t hold up as well as on a purely human and, yes, mystical level. I was struck by these lines:
If you’re not in love, life has passed you by.
The foundation of life is love’s sweet cry.
On the face of the Beloved holy
verses lie. Blessed be he who will read them.
Love just in the romantic sense? Or does it extend to family, friends, animals, country, God? I believe it does. One needs context to understand these verses and, to an extent, this is provided in the Preface, the translators tell us, “Rumi’s devotion to Shams-e Tabrizi . . . is the central theme of his poetry. Rumi expresses his mystical passions for Shams, his guide and teacher, in joyful lines as a symbol of his love for God. Rumi’s poems virtually pulsate with desire, longing, sensuality, and ecstatic celebration. His experiences of yearning, pain, lust, and joy flow out in timeless verse. These poetic visions move easily between dreams and real events, between internal states of luminosity and encounters with mundane external reality—always in a state of loving. . . . Rumi offers an interpretation of Islam that knows nothing but love. . . . The purpose of faith is to unite all human beings in their quest for the Beloved.”
I was also struck by these lines:
Without a mouth, I drank. With no soul,
I found bliss. With no head, I was proud. No feet,
I walked. Without a nose, I smelled perfume.
With no mind—suddenly—I understood.
Then, with no mouth, I laughed. No eyes, I cried.
God bless the place I found my beloved.
These are poems at once very easy to get through and hard to fully grasp, which makes Rumi at once the easiest and hardest poet, a rare distinction. The Essential Rumi may still be the best place for a novice to start: it has the imagery, the humor, the brilliant parables he is known for. These Arabic poems are more like ecstatic songs, in which the poet is freer, more drunk, if you will, and more sensual than in the better-known Persian texts.
No doubt all the yahoos hell-bent on banning Muslims from the U.S. have never heard of Rumi, let alone picked up one his books. But in our current climate of hate and division, what better sage to turn to than this gentle mystic who lived in medieval times but speaks with as much relevance as if he were still among us?
I am in awe of Meg Day’s work and intellect. I first met her some time in 2014 when she featured at the poetry venue I host. I bought her book and didn’t really get a true sense of her poetry until I read Last Psalm at Sea Level over Christmas break, 2015, in one of the loveliest mountain retreats on earth. I hadn’t gotten much out of her reading: I’m not a great listener and her writing is so intricate it works much better on the page than the stage. Meg Day is a very approachable, down-to-earth artist, and I somehow don’t think I was prepared for the ambitiousness and complexity of her poems. It’s not that they’re difficult or obscure, but there’s so much going on in every sentence, in every word choice; these poems need your full attention. Day doesn’t write directly about how she feels or what’s happened; instead, she uses events and experiences as points of departure to weave an elaborate web of metaphors and conceits, and she does so with a vocabulary three times the size most of us can ever hope to amass.
I put down her book around Christmastime, and over the last several months the piece that has most stayed with me is “On My Way to Meet Her in Liberty Park Before the First Snow.” I’m not saying it’s the best, but for me it’s the most striking and typical. Here it is:
I walk tilted so as to let the violent wind anoint my head
or take it from me. Lord, you give me so little courage:
like a ship aimed seaboard, wavering in the surge, I come to you
listing & hungry for cert, rushing each gust’s inhale with the beams
of my legs, lurching in empty airstream toward some chance harbor
invisible behind that solid hill of green slurry. Why, as I tear
toward it, won’t you right me? A chalk wharf only lends refuge
with a lighthouse to baptize its mouth—& though this full season
wills all its ochre leaves to fold around me the grandest
of canyons (the wind bending its breath through the harmonica
of pines), no amber is bright enough to project the forecast
as shadow or shade. Is it water that carves the gully to gorge
to valley, or the sheer face of rock that bows, a deep grin,
& rips open at its seam to welcome the flood?
Knowing something of Day’s bio, I figured out this is the Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. The “her” in the title never returns in the body of this sonnet. Is it a friend? Probably much more than a friend. Meeting a lover in a lovely park in late fall or early winter: this is what we learn in the title. Day sets the stage, gives us the bare facts; there’s windy weather and anticipation. We never learn much more: the setup is introduced in the title and first lines, and off we go to the high seas. The wind is the poet’s antagonist: the poet is up against many headwinds, was we know from the previous forty pages of the book—sexual orientation, disability, and now romance, the biggest headwind of all. She invokes God, but who is this God exactly? Not John Donne’s, I think, but her own personal higher power (and the word “courage” is found in the Serenity Prayer).
Struggling on the high seas—this has been done in poems before; Day has many illustrious forebears. And it’s very vivid, the way we go from Liberty Park to the middle of the ocean. That’s how Day’s mind works. I am intrigued and baffled by her use of the word “cert.” Not sure why she has chosen it, but I think it has something to do with “certitude” the way Arnold used it in “Dover Beach”: “for the world . . . / Hath really neither joy nor love nor light / Nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain . . .” She is hungry for certitude—but when one is in love, one does not have absolute certainty, and one has to say the Serenity Prayer many times a day. Instead of despairing the way Arnold does and turning exclusively to the beloved object (“ah, love, let us be true to one another”), she still clings to her concept of Lord. The “you” in the poem is not the lover, but God. He (She?) is somewhere beyond the “hill of green slurry” that the poet’s ship must surmount without sinking. But then we shift from day to night. The lighthouse “baptizes” the mouth of the chalk wharf. (Earlier in the poem we had the term “anoint”). The poet is searching for a haven in the storm. Thus the sonnet’s octave.
In the sestet, we are once again on land. The ochre of late fall leaves puts her in mind of the Grand Canyon, a natural phenomenon as awe-inspiring as the ocean in a storm. I confess to not getting these words: “no amber is bright enough to project the forecast / as shadow or shade.” When I see “forecast,” I’m once again believing we are in the tricky territory of romantic attachments and trying to predict the future. I note that in this sestet, there’s no more mention of God; everything’s more secular. Is Day thinking of the amber as a gem that casts light and predicts the future? As if to increase the new uncertainty opening up in the poem, we end with a question of a quasi-geological kind: “Is it water that carves the gully to gorge // to valley, or the sheer face of rock that bows, a deep grin, / and rips open at its seam to welcome the flood?” She’s now questioning, no certainty here. I take the water as the tumult and violence of the sonnet’s first eight lines, whereas, after the sonnet’s turn, the “sheer face of rock” bowing with a “deep grin” is the “higher power” or Lord whom the narrator is trusting to see her through life’s vicissitudes. A kind of Rock of Gibraltar.
As you can see, Meg Day’s work is exceedingly (some might say excessively) rich and layered. She doesn’t use drama or fanfare to ease us into her world: we have to be attentive to every detail, every nuance. She’s more like the Metaphysical Poets than any contemporary writer I’ve read. She doesn’t deal with primary or even secondary colors; she’s alighted on the tertiary colors and stays there. (Thus a poem “about” the San Francisco quake of 1989, after an accessible epigraph, begins with these lines: “The buttons were the hardest: // baby teeth folded tightly into piano silk . . .”) This is work to read and reread. Somehow, at a young age, Day understood what poetry is all about—not the poetry of quick Facebook postings and Twitter fandom, but real poetry as it’s been practiced since the time of Homer and Sappho. Clearly the future is in good hands.
And this applies to the work of Malachi Black as well. I hadn’t been familiar with him until he contacted me to do a reading from his collection Storm Toward Morning. What’s fascinating is the contrast between Black and Day. Malachi Black comes across as very formal and erudite, and a bit intimidating, and yet when I finally read his book (in the same snowed-in mountain retreat where I read Last Psalm at Sea Level), I found it less dense and easier to get into than Day’s work. And whereas Black invokes the Metaphysicals in epigraphs and so on, he doesn’t actually write like a modern Donne or Herbert. He’s digested their influence and seems to have moved on, at least in his manner; as far as his matter, he’s even more concerned with God’s presence in our lives than Day. When I interviewed him before his reading began, I asked him about favorite poets, and one of the names he mentioned was Ted Berrigan. I can’t remember if he said Plath too.
I also asked him about translations. He doesn’t much believe in them—too much gets lost. When he teaches, he only has English-language poets (as I recall) on the syllabus. In his own work, the music of language is paramount. Listen again to the book’s title: Storm Toward Morning.
At the heart of this collection is a suite of poems, known as a “crown of sonnets,” devotional lyrics that explore faith and doubt; it is titled “Quarantine.” Though some of these intense poems were published individually prior to the appearance of the book, they are really not meant to be separate entities and shouldn’t be discussed in isolation from one another. So I’ve chosen another poem, one that can stand more on its own without context, “Insomnia & So On.”
Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth
each morning. Unfasten all the bones
that make a head, and let me rest: unknown
among the oboe-throated geese gone south
to drop their down and sleep beside the out-
bound tides. Now there’s no nighttime I can own
that isn’t anxious as a phone
about to ring. Give me some doubt
on loan; give me a way to get away
from what I know. I pace until the sun
is in my window. I lie down. I’m a coal:
I smolder to a bloodshot glow. Each day
I die down in my bed of snow, undone
by my red mind and what it woke.
A Petrarchan sonnet in a loose iambic pentameter. Given that the subject is insomnia, how could it be strict iambs? The octave is about the urge for rest; the sestet is more about trying to escape. I was at first confused by “Give me some doubt / on loan.” One would think that doubt is the very thing one wouldn’t want to be plagued by, that doubting is the reason the poet is unable to get to sleep; certainty, on the other hand, would be therapeutic (Day, remember, was hungry “for cert”). But he goes on: “Give me a way to get away / from what I know.” And that clears it up: it is knowledge and certainty, being stuck with what and who one is, that keeps the would-be sleeper awake.
But is this a poem about sleeplessness? It is “Insomnia & So On.” Yes, it is ostensibly about the traditional literary insomniac, but this literary individual is also cursed by his vision and his genius. The rest of us can rest fine because we aren’t burdened with genius. He knows too much, sees too much. His status is that of a quixotic outsider.
There isn’t a line in this lean poem that is overwritten or unmemorable. Consider the first: “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth.” To call a bed “fat.” To have the bed lick a black cat. To have the black cat in the narrator’s mouth. It’s all so new, so unusual, and yet Black (playing here with own name, too, I guess) has found a way to fit the new into the centuries-old form of the Petrarchan sonnet.
Like most poets, Day and Black are professors. When I met Black, I remember thinking, “I wish I were eighteen again so he could be my teacher.” I imagine that Black’s students might have an easier time with his poems than Day’s have with hers; his poems might be easier for them to use as models for their own early efforts. Black’s vision is brilliant, but he isn’t as far-out as Day: he deals with the primary and secondary colors that most of us encounter and process every day and night. Undoubtedly Day, being part of both the deaf and gay communities, has had to contend with obstacles most of us haven’t and has thus learned to hew her own fierce path in a jungle of words and voices. Hence the extreme individuality of her writing. Black’s lapidary and more dramatic style owes less to the Metaphysicals than to Sylvia Plath (at least to my mind). I suspect his poems will last. We are lucky to have both these new voices. As I said, the future looks good.
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.