Rousseau, Neuhouser, and Me

I picked up Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality by Frederick Neuhouser and read it with sadness and regret. A long, long time ago, way back in New York in the early 1980s, Fred and I were close friends. I left America to move to Spain in 1985 and Fred was the person who accompanied me to the airport. Even though I was not unhappy about leaving New York, I assumed we would always stay close, and that did happen for a few years. But in 1988 Fred found a position at Harvard and his personality began to change: he grew colder, more aloof. We still took meals together when I visited from Spain but I could feel a little difference. By the mid ’90s—when I was about ready to return to the States (California) after a decade overseas—he had cooled even more toward me. Being a Harvard professor—he told me—was inextricably linked to his identity. When he mentioned phenomenally successful students who appeared in The New Yorker magazine a few short years after graduation, I asked him, “Is that hard for you?” and his answer was, “Yes, it would be hard if I weren’t a Harvard professor.” We no longer had meals together, just “a drink” in the presence of others. We said good-bye on Broadway and 110th street only a few blocks from where we first met; we hugged, and I never saw or heard from him again. I found out (because my birth father was a philosopher, too!) that he didn’t get tenure at Harvard and was now at U.C. San Diego. How he’d always hated California and called it stupid! That first year that I lived in L.A., I wrote him several times but heard nothing (I was “ghosted”). Almost twenty-five years have gone by and it’s still hard. I have often theorized to myself that if he’d gotten tenure at Harvard, we might still be friends. But the experience of losing the status that meant so much to him must have been excrutiatingly hard, and I wasn’t the appropriate person, during those wandering-in-the-desert years, to confide in, so he let the friendship lapse.

Thanks to the Internet, I found out that he later worked at Cornell and eventually ended up at Columbia in New York City, just a few blocks from the spot where we first met. I’ve seen him lecture on YouTube. He’s changed a lot. In the old days he used to laugh at older professors for being pretentious stuffed-shirts, and when I watch his lectures I see a pompous stuffed-shirt. I recognize him as the same person, the same look, the same voice, but at the same time not the person I knew. He sometimes lectures with his eyes closed. He does a lot of teenage uptalking (Valley Girl Speak) but mixes it with a trace of German intonation (he’s fluent in German) so it sounds respectable.  It’s sad to look at those videos and ask “What happened?” and it’s sad to read his book, and to suspect what happened: I don’t think my above theory is wrong. His life was changed by Harvard and the departure from Harvard, and I had no place in it. Here are some thoughts about the book and about Fred (but this is not a book review!).

  • Fred, being fluent in German and an expert on Hegel and Fichte, was always “supposed” to stay in the realm of German thought and letters, but what happened? Since leaving Harvard, he has written not one but two books on Rousseau (I’ve only read the second) and they both have to do with status and the quest for recognition. Very doubtful that this is a coincidence. His elevation to Harvard and his later loss of his perch there were life-changing experiences, and thus began his interest in Rousseau (who is required reading for most undergraduates and with whom he must already have been quite familiar). Let me backtrack. Recently I’ve become interested in Enlightenment thinkers and especially Rousseau. This is what led me to Fred’s book. The Second Discourse is all about how humankind started in a theoretical “state of nature,” went through a kind of “Golden Age,” and then ended up in our present situation where status plays such a negative part in our lives (especially in many First World countries). Rousseau and Fred don’t use the term status at all but this is what it amounts to. The term Rousseau prefers is amourpropre, a kind of self-love that didn’t exist in the “state of nature” but developed when men and women stood in front of their huts and thought about things like “Who can dance better? Who can shoot an arrow better? Who’s prettier? Who’s more accomplished?” And from there things pretty much went downhill. According to Fred, “Rousseau isolates amourpropre—a passion to be looked at, to be highly regarded, to acquire public esteem or respect—as the principle source of social inequality.” Back in the old days in New York, Fred talked about his craving for recognition and attention from people, but he hated this aspect of himself, especially because as a Marxist, such vanity went against his egalitarian principles. Then he rose to Harvard (the pinnacle of civilization), where he found esteem, but was lowered again in the world with his departure. I believe that Fred turned to Rousseau to painfully and comprehensively ruminate on the whole concept of amourpropre as the motor which has driven not just Fred but many if not most of us (definitely me too!), whether it be in the arts or sciences or in a company or at a university (where people compete for tenure). So much for the autobiographical impetus behind the fascination with Rousseau.
  • Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality is a long, laborious and intricate book (not a difficult one, exactly). It’s considerably longer than Rousseau’s original treatise. I don’t have the expertise or space to go into it in depth, but, given the ubiquitousness of amourpropre, does Rousseau offer any way out, any hope at all? These aren’t self-help books (here I’m referring to Rousseau’s treatise and Fred’s dissection of it). It’s all speculation and theory, but the long and short of it is: Rousseau concludes (according to Fred) that a certain amount of relatively benign (not “inflamed”) amourpropre is inevitable in our present societies as long as it doesn’t get too out of control. In our present societies and even in much more idealized societies or situations (which Rousseau goes on to develop in The Social Contract and Emile) a certain dose of “amourpropre light” is all right as long as it doesn’t harm other people too terribly much. I can’t remember exactly, but I think Fred does mention, indirectly, very competitive academic institutions where inflamed amourpropre gets a bit out of control. The way I see it, Fred’s Rousseau envisions a kind of Dutch or Scandinavian model of culture where amourpropre exists but in moderation, unlike in the U.S.A. or Britain or France.
  • Here’s a thought Fred dwells on: Is it enough that I’m okay and you’re okay and we are both equals? That would be nice, but according to Fred the whole amourpropre urge includes the drive to be not just equal but better than one’s peers. It’s not keeping up with the Joneses; it’s proving one’s superiority to the Joneses. Here’s Fred: “It remains an important question whether these political measures [as in The Social Contract] by themselves constitute a sufficient solution to the entire range of problems generated by social inequalities and inflamed amourpropre. The answer to this question turns in part on whether winning equal respect in the political sphere is sufficient to satisfy completely the longings of even non-inflamed amourpropre. There is plenty of evidence in the Second Discourse to suggest that this is not the case…Rousseau refers to amourpropre as a ‘universal desire for…preferment and a frenzy to achieve distinction.’” And yet, if this “frenzy” can somehow be tamed a bit, then it won’t be so bad? So: Obama’s pomposity instead of Trump’s monstrosity?
  • Just one or two more thoughts. Early in the book Fred makes a fascinating point: “[P]ossessing a good—wealth, prestige, power, or authority—is inseparable from someone else being disadvantaged by the other’s possession of it; the goods that make up the stuff of social inequalities are goods that can be enjoyed only ‘to the prejudice’ of another.” I don’t think he goes on to elaborate on this later in the book (I could be wrong). So my high school classmate Canin’s selling thousands of books in many languages is somehow not just “better than” me but actually existing at my expense? Jim Carey’s having millions of Twitter followers is somehow coming at My expense? I never, until now, thought of Canin or Carey as taking away from me, but I guess (on this theory at least) they are.
  • A word about Fred’s style. As I said, it’s complex and very analytical (in the Anglo tradition, though he is explicating a Continental thinker). I never found it difficult and since the topic is fascinating I followed almost everything with relative ease. But I object to the way he writes (as opposed to “thinks”). Couldn’t he have learned something from Rousseau’s prose? Of course, then he wouldn’t be “analytical”: he’d be “sloppy,” as Rousseau was (very sloppy). It would be unacceptable to write in a more literary way. Or, in Fred’s language: “inacceptable.” I realize “inacceptable” is a valid word (somewhere, in some circles), but please tell me one good reason for using it instead of “unacceptable”! Later on, he says “non-compossible.” Microsoft Word has never heard of this word. Why couldn’t Fred simply have said “incompatible”?  And on page 195 occurs Fred’s worst assault on the English language: “universalizability.” Okay here I recognize there probably is no exact synonym, but couldn’t he have put it another way? Does he actually use that word during lectures? Even my birth father Frank Verges, who published many papers but never (sadly) wrote a book, was a better writer than Fred, with many colorful and smart turns of phrase…On the other hand, perhaps this kind of writing (while too technical for Harvard?) is just the kind that is expected and valued almost everywhere else. He has to write this way to please his higher-ups and impress his lower-downs. So he is participating in a strict kind of caste system that I doubt Rousseau would have approved of at all. Rousseau got to where he was because of the elegance of this style (not just the thoughts themselves). Fred inhabits a very different world. Rousseau might have looked at Fred’s life and work and said, “That is a man in chains.”  ………And yet, for all that, I did get a lot out of the book. There is fascinating material here and it is written in the thorough, logical (not beautiful) style that allows no confusion, as in First I’m going to discuss A, then B, but before getting to C I will delve into certain aspects of both A and B as they pertain to X (studied in the previous chapter…) As Fred explained to me when I visited his Harvard office in ’94, he had good reasons for writing in the precise, dry way he did because to write in another way would mean not capturing his precise points and would be a kind of showing off. (NB: My critical tone does not reflect the way I ever felt at the time, but only in the wake of his distancing and later estrangement. When a person is still a friend and “on our side” or “in our camp” we permit many things and sweep others under the rug. Friendship strives to be blind.) So I guess I understand. It’s a pity we have never, over the last quarter century, been able to discuss any of these matters at our leisure in the Hungarian Pastry Shop or over breakfast at Happy Burger or at Tom’s Restaurant or walking through Central Park on an autumn day, as we did so many years ago, way back when we were young adults. Ah well…

 

 

Carol V. Davis’s “Because I Cannot Leave This Body” (Truman State University Press)

Carol V DavisAs 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.

Alicia Ostriker’s Waiting for the Light (University of Pittsburgh Press)

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.

Radomir Luza: From the Crowded Chaos of His Closet

Eros of AngelsRadomir 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

Poetry unfocused
Vision unclear

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.

Three Books I Bought at AWP

I don’t like the Associated Writing Programs annual convention. You feel so small. It’s like trying to go on a date in a fluorescent-lit garage. It’s like walking around O’Hare Airport and brushing against the multitudes and not being recognized by anyone.  I don’t think too many other writers like it either, for the same reason. But these conventions, I guess, are a necessary evil.  I felt I had to go this year, because this event was held right here in LA and I could pick up some good books and go to some good talks. One of the highlights was seeing a tribute to John Rechy, the iconic gay novelist from the 1960s and ’70s. Very few people showed up! This was surprising. Maybe because he wrote most of his great books over forty years ago, the hot young things of today do not know him or care. He’s now 85 and looks and sounds great. Another highlight was hearing Alicia Ostriker read a prose piece (not sure if she’d call it a prose poem—I think it was) about childbirth in ’60s/early ’70s, which were still fairly unenlightened times. It was included in the anthology Far Out: Poems of the ’60s.

I bought three books (and a few journals I’ll discuss in another post). They are Swing State by Michael T. Fournier; I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life by Michael Czyzniejewski; and The End of Being Known by Michael Klein.

Swing State is a gripping tale of life in a contemporary New Hampshire small town. After about page 40 or 50 I couldn’t put it down. Fournier tells the story from the point of view of three young people; two are in high school and one is in his twenties, a vet from the war in Afghanistan. Each character’s narrative is told in a different way, with a distinctive voice. Zach is an overweight boy who lives in a dreamworld. He’s obsessed with and tormented by Dixon, a female bully fond of firecrackers. Roy occasionally encounters these two in the street and elsewhere, but doesn’t know them: he’s got enough problems of his own. He can barely get by. He has PTSD and shoots pool in his spare time. And he has nothing but spare time. All these characters are struggling and desperate. Fournier is even able to get the reader to sympathize with Dixon the bully during her monologues. We come to understand how she became a bully. She’s often beaten by her stepfather, just as Zach is often beaten by his single father. All the portraits are nuanced, subtle. And Swing State is an apt title because the fortunes of these three characters swing dramatically. Towards the middle, there’s hope. I wanted to believe things were getting better . . . I won’t give away how it all ends. Fournier’s plot is ingenious. Sometimes the book did have the tone and atmosphere of young adult fiction. It could probably have been marketed as such. But maybe not; maybe it’s too literary. I also would’ve liked to see a little more New Hampshire local color: descriptive passages, regional accents/colloquialisms. But read Swing State for the grim, masterfully constructed plot, and for Roy’s voice in particular:

Wasn’t sleeping. Heard noises. Weren’t there before. Or didn’t notice them. Maybe there before. But kept waking up. Sitting up in bed. Yelling. WHO’S THERE? Falling back asleep. Basic dream. Over and over. Standing with everyone. Heads into clouds. One after the other. Always woke up before it was his turn. But had to watch.

***

 

Michael Czyzniejewski’s I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life is an unusual collection of very short stories. The common theme: they are all, in one way or another, about breaking up, but never in a conventional way of typical romantic breakups. One of the most memorable pieces is the first, “A Change of Heart,” a perverse and deliciously sick version of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” Czyzniejewski has an amazing imagination. Where do all these ideas come from? I’m curious about his process.

The short story is now a somewhat alien art to me. At one time, in the early ’90s, before I turned to poetry, nonfiction, criticism, and memoir, I did write short stories myself. The issue I have with them has to do with character. There’s a sketchiness, even a bloodlessness about most short story “characters.” This applies to the above-mentioned O. Henry story and Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow” and Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” and most other stories I can think of. And this is especially true of contemporary American work. The language, the situations, the atmosphere, the action, can all be brilliant; but when it comes to character, I always feel the reader is expected to, if you will, go potluck: supply his/her own characters (based on hazy mental stereotypes) to fill in what cannot be done in the confines of the story itself. Short story characters generally don’t have three-dimensionality. In Flannery O’Connor’s novels we also get fascinating characters—not in her stories, which may be admirable for other reasons (what we get are hints of potential characters). I recently read a whole issue of The Santa Monica Review. I saw good craft and ingenious turns of phrase. But no people with flesh on them, just the stock characters from the back of my mind that I recruited to bestow life on what I was reading.

Here I am going on a rant. In spite of the (for me) traditional constraints of the genre, the pieces in I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life are surprising, fun, sick, slick, diabolically clever, and very individual. Just listen to some of the titles: “Pregnant With Peanut Butter”; “The Last Time We Had Intercourse”; “You Had Me at Zoo”; “Night of the Scallop.”  I like “When the Heroes Came to Town” most because 1) it’s like a poem and 2) it’s about a whole community, thus skirting the whole issue of individual character. It’s about a team of “heroes” who mysteriously appear in town and fix everything, make everything “right,” and then just as mysteriously depart. He begins:

The consensus, among many of us, was that we were unimpressed. Before the heroes, things weren’t that bad, and, depending on whom you asked, they were going pretty well. The county had just paid to have the throughway resurfaced, our boys had made it to the state semis, and business boomed at the tire factory up by the mall, which in turn, made business boom at the mall as well. Everyone felt confident about the economy, the kids were getting into good colleges, and if a town with prettier women existed, we hadn’t been there. . . . Which is why we scratched our heads when these heroes showed up, their jaws, their capes, their stoicism all in tow.

It’s the “we” that makes this so memorable. It’s the voice of a community, and it has character, insofar as a whole community could be said to have a character, a spirt. And it proceeds like a poem, in a vaguely sinister way. It has both the analytical, doggedly prosy style of Kafka and yet the potential to be a narrative poem. This subtle, quiet first-person-plural story—along with several other of Czyzniejewski’s creations in this book—could and should show the way to the short story of the future, which might consciously shed the tired “miniature novel” mode and develop an aesthetic that combines the best qualities of the essay and the prose poem.

***

And speaking of prose poetry, that is what Michael Klein’s memoir/essay collection The End of Being Known really is. This is a stunningly beautiful book, one that I will be rereading, often. Is it a memoir? a collection of essays? It’s neither and both. Klein writes about incest and abuse and being gay in New York in the ’70s. Every sentence, every paragraph is a work of art. After a while I got tired of underling passages, because I was underlining almost the whole book.

Many readers might have a hard time with Klein’s leisurely pace and idiosyncratic wording. This book can’t be read like a conventional novel. He’s dismissive of chronology. And he’s an uncomfortable writer to read. Many of the things he writes about, particularly his incestuous relationships, are grim in the way I’ve always felt French New Wave and Italian neorealist movies are grim: no sweeping Hollywood music, not much music at all, just gritty interiors and drab street scenes and drab people trying to cope. Hollywood is where we might want to be; these gritty mid-century European films are where we actually are. And it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes savagely uncomfortable. Here’s an example of Klein’s prose, from “A Wedding in the Sky”:

I loved a man named Richard. I told my parents. I moved away from one house into another house. If the family is a cult, the journey out of Brooklyn was leaving the cult for love life. I knew I wasn’t going to get the love kit down in Brooklyn. Thomas Wolf said only the dead know Brooklyn.

I’ll let Klein speak for himself and end with “Once, My Brother.” Its first paragraph:

Once my brother was in a hospital. He walked around in a paper crown after the nervous breakdown. The crown was made by a group of fellow crazies who gave it to him because he used to let them circle around his bed at night and jerk off on him. The dirty light in the public ward made my brother look old. I didn’t have a lot of family around at that point to go with me to visit him in the hospital. I was relegated to going with a cousin of my stepfather’s, who was at least as crazy as my brother was. Her name was Miriam, and she took medication, the residue of which painted the corners of her mouth with white powder. Toothpaste or drug? I never knew for sure. I was going to the crazy house with a crazy person.

And the essay ends:

I came home one night with a stranger from the park and my brother stormed into my room while I was sleeping. He screamed into my face,  “You’re the devil. You’re the devil.” I told him to leave. He stormed down the stairs and left the building after shattering the plate glass in the front door and becoming the ex-mental patient, without a place to live. My brother had become the kind of New Yorker that has always lived here, but one that nobody knows. The kind of person (the future will make this happen more often) who pushes people in front of trains because they hear a voice that tells them to do that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marsha de la O and a New Translation of Rumi

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?

The Poetry of Meg Day and Malachi Black

Liberty Park Salt Lake

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.
*****************

Storm Toward Morning
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.

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.