Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Elegy for a Puritan Conscience, by Alan Dugan



He's one of my new favorites, and this bitter little pill shows what he does best, afflict the comfortable. I wish I'd been able to meet him.




I closed my ears with stinging bugs
and sewed my eyelids shut
but heard a sucking at the dugs
and heard my parents rut.


I locked my jaw with rusty nails
and cured my tongue in lime
but ate and drank in garbage pails
and said these words of crime.


I crushed my scrotum with two stones
and drew my penis in
 but felt your wound expect its own
and fell in love with sin.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Kinnell's Book of Nightmares/Under the Maud Moon

Probably everyone knows this poem and this book very well. Kinnell isn't exactly invisible in the poetry world. I loved this poem and this book from the very first time I read it, while I sat on the floor in the old Emerson College at 150 Beacon Street. I've loved kids from a time well before I had any of my own, and I could put myself in this narrator's perspective so easily it was as if I'd suddenly slid from my own life and become a real poet. ;-) I hadn't really read anything that used linebreaks so seemingly haphazard, but powerfully--I got a charge as I read it-- or a voice that seemed so assured of its right to the sentiments expressed. Irony is the rule of the day for many poets, and I don't necessarily cotton to it all the time so Kinnell is a balm for me; I can go back and read BoN and remember how it lit me up the first time and have energy to go back the page with. I'm sort of over his poems now, but the feeling comes back just a little every time I open the book, so it's never far from me.




Under The Maud Moon

1

 On the path
by this wet site
of old fires -
black ashes, black stones, where tramps
must have squatted down,
gnawing on stream water,
unhouseling themselves on cursed bread,
failing to get warm at a twigfire -

I stop,
gather wet wood,
cut dry shavings, and for her,
whose face I held in my hands
a few hours, whom I gave back
only to keep holding the space where she was,

I light
a small fire in the rain.

The black
wood reddens, the deathwatches inside
begin running out of time, I can see
the dead, crossed limbs
longing again for the universe, I can hear
in the wet wood the snap
and re-snap of the same embrace being torn.

The raindrops trying
to put the fire out
fall into it and are
changed: the oath broken,
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken,
to be sworn again,
over and over, in the clouds, and to be broken again,
over and over, on earth.

2

I sit a moment
by the fire, in the rain, speak
a few words into its warmth -
stone saint smooth stone– and sing
one of the songs I used to croak
for my daughter, in her nightmares.

Somewhere out ahead of me
a black bear sits alone
on his hillside, nodding from side
to side. He sniffs
the blossom-smells, the rained earth,
finally he gets up,
eats a few flowers, trudges away,
his fur glistening
in the rain.

The singed grease streams
out of the words, the one
held note
remains – a love-note
twisting under my tongue, like the coyote’s bark,
curving off, into a
howl.

3

A round-
cheeked girlchild comes awake
in her crib. The green
swaddlings tear open,
a filament or vestment
tears, the blue flower opens.

And she who is born,
she who sings and cries,
she who begins the passage, her hair
sprouting out,
her gums budding for her first spring on earth,
the mist still clinging about
her face, puts
her hand into her father’s mouth, to take hold of
his song.

4

It is all over,
little one, the flipping
and overleaping, the watery
somersaulting alone in the oneness
under the hill, under
the old, lonely bellybutton
pushing forth again
in remembrance,
the drifting there furled in the dark,
pressing a knee or elbow
along a slippery wall, sculpting
the world with each thrash-the stream
of omphalos blood humming all about you.

5

Her head
enters the headhold
which starts sucking her forth: being itself
closes down all over her, gives her
into the shuddering
grip of departure, the slow,
agonized clenches making
the last molds of her life in the dark.

6

The black eye
opens, the pupil
droozed with black hairs
stops, the chakra
on top of the brain throbs a long moment in world light,

and she skids out on her face into light,
this peck
of stunned flesh
clotted with celestial cheesiness, glowing with the astral violet
of the underlife. And as they cut

her tie to the darkness
she dies
a moment, turns blue as a coal,
the limbs shaking
as the memories rush out of them. When

they hang her up
by the feet, she sucks
air, screams
her first song – and turns rose,
the slow,
beating, featherless arms
already clutching at the emptiness.

7

When it was cold
on our hillside, and you cried
in the crib rocking
through darkness, on wood
knifed down to the curve of the smile, a sadness
stranger than ours, all of it
flowing from the other world,
I used to come to you
and sit by you
and sing to you. You did not know,
and yet you will remember,
in the silent zones
of the brain, a specter, descendant
of the ghostly forefathers, singing
to you in the nighttime -
not the songs
of light said to wave
through the bright hair of angels,
but a blacker
rasping flowering on that tongue.

For when the Maud moon
glimmered in those first nights,
and the Archer lay
sucking the icy biestings of the cosmos,
in his crib of stars,

I had crept down
to riverbanks, their long rustle
of being and perishing, down to marshes
where the earth oozes up
in cold streaks, touching the world
with the underglimmer
of the beginning,
and there learned my only song.

And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned,
emptied
of all wind-singing, of light,
the pieces of cursed bread on your tongue,

may there come back to you
a voice
spectral, calling you
sister!
from everything that dies.

And then
you shall open
this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Keetje Kuipers--"Across a Great Wilderness without You

If you missed this on the internet, you can catch it here. Don't say I never gave you nuthin'.


Across a Great Wilderness without You 
by Keetje Kuipers

The deer come out in the evening.
God bless them for not judging me,
I'm drunk. I stand on the porch in my bathrobe
and make strange noises at them—
                                                  language,
if language can be a kind of crying.
The tin cans scattered in the meadow glow,
each bullet hole suffused with moon,
like the platinum thread beyond them
where the river runs the length of the valley.
That's where the fish are.
                                   Tomorrow
I'll scoop them from the pockets of graveled
stone beneath the bank, their bodies
desperately alive when I hold them in my hands,
the way prayers become more hopeless
when uttered aloud.
                            The phone's disconnected.
Just as well, I've got nothing to tell you:
I won't go inside where the bats dip and swarm
over my bed. It's the sound of them
shouldering against each other that terrifies me,
as if it might hurt to brush across another being's
living flesh.
                But I carry a gun now. I've cut down
a tree. You wouldn't recognize me in town—
my hands lost in my pockets, two disabused tools
I've retired from their life of touching you.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Weldon Kees

Along with my Jack Gilbert kick, I've been reading the poems of Weldon Kees as well as the secondary material (very little of which seems to be available in book form), which is too bad. There's a pretty good book called Weldon Kees and the Mid-Century Generation: Letters from 1935 to 1955, which is structured in such a way that it seems more like a biography in letters. Normally, a writer's letters are collected and footnotes are rare except to sometimes identify confusing timelines. Robert Knoll includes more narrative about Kees than it does letters. I think otherwise it might not have made a full book, otherwise.Very interesting anyway. Kees seemed poised for mainstream uber-success at 41 years old when he simply disappeared.  His car, with the keys still in it, was found near the Golden Gate bridge, but with  no trace of whether he committed suicide or simply ran off to Mexico, as he talked of frequently in his last years. 


James Reidel's book Vanished Act: the Life and Art of Weldon Kees, is a more traditional biography which restates the (much more interesting and fuller) material Knoll used, but is worth your time as well. I'll finish it soon and have more to say, most likely.


Kees published stories and poems easily, and in the best journals, though his novels weren't published in his lifetime. He's still a recognized, that is, canonical poet for a single poem, For my Daughter, which most of you have read, I'm sure, or can find online easily enough, so I won't bother posting it. Kees painted as well, wrote documentary films, played barrelhouse piano, and took photographs of professional or show quality. But we know him for his poems, which are dark and odd and unlike his contemporaries.



The Coming of the Plague

BY WELDON KEES
September was when it began.
Locusts dying in the fields; our dogs
Silent, moving like shadows on a wall;
And strange worms crawling; flies of a kind
We had never seen before; huge vineyard moths;
Badgers and snakes, abandoning
Their holes in the field; the fruit gone rotten;
Queer fungi sprouting; the fields and woods
Covered with spiderwebs; black vapors
Rising from the earth - all these,
And more began that fall. Ravens flew round
The hospital in pairs. Where there was water,
We could hear the sound of beating clothes
All through the night. We could not count
All the miscarriages, the quarrels, the jealousies.
And one day in a field I saw
A swarm of frogs, swollen and hideous,
Hundreds upon hundreds, sitting on each other,
Huddled together, silent, ominous,
And heard the sound of rushing wind.


Kees' disappearance in 1955 contributes to what Dana Gioia calls his cult following, but I'd like to think there are more people out there reading his work and finding pleasure in its singular creepiness and the slow overtaking of your heart rate as a reader, something amply pushed by his pacing in this poem and in many others.

One person I know who's reading Kees is
Kathleen Rooney, of Rose Metal Press. Her chapbook of Robinson poems (Kees' New Yorker poems featured a persona he called Robinson) will be out from Greying Ghost Press, and in her book of essays, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, she hunts down Kees' haunts and habitations in New York City. Those poems and essays are all well worth your time and money. So there's Kathy and me. Anybody else out there reading Kees? Why?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Some Talk About Jack Gilbert, by Curtis Faville, and Some Other Talk




If you don't know Jack Gilbert's poems, I suggest you run out right now and get some. I've read a great deal about him over the last couple years, mostly to the effect that he was a poet who moved almost completely outside the poetry scene, which is an anomaly considering how well-known he seems to be. Curtis Faville writes about some of the poems and the man himself in this series of three posts. I hope you go read them all. Found via Silliman, who must spend half his life scouring the net.

Part I:


Jack Gilbert [1925-  ] is a poet I only recently had the experience of reading. After winning the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1962, at the age of 36--rather late in the game, as such things happen, even then, almost 50 years ago now--he went into a sort of self-imposed exile, steering clear of America, the American university system, the lecture and reading circuit, and spending large blocks of time in Europe, especially Greece.
In his formative years, Gilbert lived in San Francisco, rubbing shoulders with the local poet heroes of the time (Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth). Once Gilbert had published his first book, Views of Jeopardy, and gained national notoriety, he threw over these associations, and left for Europe. The American poetry scene--perhaps specifically the California poetry and art scene, with all its laissez-faire accommodation of counter-culture permissiveness and joie de vivre--just wasn't severe and demanding enough for his taste. Intuitively, he sensed that there were deeper levels to his spirit, and that older, Old World settings were the place to cultivate his austere daemon. This spiritual renunciation of the New World had symbolic as well as aesthetic meaning to Gilbert. More.
Part II:
Perhaps the saddest elegy of all is the one fate writes of our own demise, anticipated, acknowledged, postponed, denied, rejected--finally, unavoidable. The full weight of what we cherished, were given to experience, to know, to accomplish, is served up as a conclusive summary--what we thought to say, or tried to, over and over again, over years of chances, is telescoped into relief--but, like the soldier on Bierce's Owl Creek Bridge, the release into emptiness leaves nothing but a false memory, another version of the story.
 For the better part of his life, Jack Gilbert rejected the standard literary career, in favor of a kind of spiritual retreat, choosing a modest life, an attention to the detail of living privately, intimately, over the theatre of approbation and congeniality, of ambition and guile. One's tendency is to regard this renunciation as a virtuous sacrifice, but the benefits of aesthetic celibacy aren't what Gilbert was after. For a poet as committed to convulsive finalities and verdicts as Gilbert is, the drama of epitaphs is irresistable. More.
Part III:
In 1982, after a hiatus lasting fully 20 years, in which he had been living for the most part abroad, mostly in Greece, Jack Gilbert broke his aesthetic fast and published his second collection of verse, Monolithos: Poems 1962 and 1982 [Knopf].



 Imagine what the effect would be if your poems could only survive as fragments, moth-eaten papyri stashed in caves and forgotten for a thousand years in an arid, sparsely settled land. Would you be content to let half your lines--say, the left half--exist as testaments to the partial content of your assertions, to the sum of your sentiments? Are your poems as full enough of what you most wish to endure, over time, that what would survive would be somehow sufficient to your purposes? 
But our lives and our poems are like different versions of the shadows of our selves. Who knows what Sappho looked like, what she liked to eat for breakfast, or what color of skin appealed to her? Perhaps it isn't important that we know--certainly we never shall--only that the quality of feeling she was able to transmit, much in fragmentary shards, is apprehensible to us, across the barriers of time, language, context, and material surface. More.
On another completely unrelated note: I've been asked why I don't really analyze the posts or poetry I reference here. Part of it is that I envisioned a blog of  book excerpts and articles that I thought people should pay attention to, and part of it is that poetry is my first love and in some way everyone's first love is beyond rebuke and resistant to analysis. Ask me about fiction--I have an aesthetic already in place and a fairly lengthy history of publication to back it up. Poetry, eh, not so much. I still have the temerity of loose preferences and (why yes, I like Ted Berrigan and James Wright about equally; I think flarf is amusing, but written by well-meaning and intelligent folks lost somewhere up the tightly puckered asshole of theory; Ariana Reines and Lara Glenum both frighten and fascinate me (both are good things); Jack Spicer and Jim Harrison are both interesting for different reasons; I can't seem to read H.D. well but I love Vassar Miller) I plan to keep it that way, at least until my poetry library is 2/3 the size of my fiction library (it's about 1/5 right now). Sorry. If you want poetry analysis, you can go here and here and here and here.