Sunday, October 15, 2006

a few new books

I used to try to keep abreast of things, read all the leading journals, the latest or newest books of poetry. I wanted to know what was going on, what was possible in the language I was participating in. I had to find out what had happened, too, in all the receding layers of the past. It was impossible, and I think I knew that, but when did impossibility ever stop anyone from trying a thing? I was relieved, though, when a poet friend said to me quite a few years ago that she had stopped trying to "keep up." The quest had moved inward, I gather, and that seemed a more reasonable place to be in at a "certain age." Part of the problem, too, was that I had come to poetry at a time when everyone believed, as Eliot had instructed us, that one had to have read everything that mattered to be a poet. Poems grew out of poems, plus a dash of experience. Poems have always done that, of course, but not quite to the extent that we felt they had to be back in the middle of the last century. Are we in a better place now? I don’t know. Maybe. We’re in a different one, certainly. And, so am I. I probably know most of what I’ll ever know that will make a difference to me, and it’s out of that residue of reading and experience that I’ll be able to grasp what lies ahead. Have I seen it all and done it twice? No, of course not. But the tools I have for coping with the future are not far away and, hopefully, not too rusty.

Which is a long-winded way to say that a few good books have come my way recently, almost by accident, one sent by a friend, one sent by a friend of a friend, one from having just learned that a friend’s wife was also a poet, one from looking for this last book on the publisher’s website (a friend from many years ago, long unheard from or about, was on the same website), and finally a book I got from being a member of a poet’s organization. So, let me tell you something about them. They’re all wonderful books.

Off the Grid Press (see has just published Henry Braun’s LOYALTY: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, a beautifully-produced book by a press devoted to publishing poets of a "certain age." Braun belongs to the generation that dropped out of mainstream culture in the sixties by demonstrating against the government’s policies in Viet Nam and later by constructing a life that was, in fact, off the electric, as well as the political, grid. The result in these poems is a tone of unwavering mildness, a kind of stern placidity, in the face of so much that is misguided and downright wrong with the way we inhabit ourselves and the world. The poems, like the life they mirror, stay close to the earth and, too, to a language that evokes the astral vastness as well as the feel of the local. Here’s "Coming From Childhood":

When I come from childhood
with all my bridges alight behind
the stars are already named.

Pages of readouts
bulk in the observatories
with enough stars to shame Sumer.

I slow my breath to name
the burning bridges stars
still shining as my own.

Sumer (the civilization that gave us writing) and the astounding discoveries of the most modern science, and between them the small flame of a life kept burning.

Tom Hansen, a poet from South Dakota, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize this year with FALLING TO EARTH, published by BOA EDITIONS. This is a first book, as I understand it, from a man in his mid sixties, one who has served a long and careful apprenticeship to his craft and his life. The poems are as artful as they are apparently effortless, these meditations on the obscure purposes and the equally clear endings. This one is "Walking the Dogs in January":

We stumble out into winter.
Half a foot of new snow.
It squeaks when we walk and
keeps track:
who comes and who goes and where
and whether or not they turn back.

Cold crawls up my nose.
Snakes its way down my throat.
With every breath I see
a piece of my soul leak away.
None of it ever comes back.
What if I use it all up?

But the dogs are happy,
they bound on ahead,
and what can I do but follow?
We have nowhere to go
and race through the snow
to get there as soon as we can.

When we arrive
we will become
citizen-inmates of winter:
a country so cold only four words
of its lost language survive:

and one there is no
human sound for.
Soon enough, we will be fluent
in that unspeakable tongue--
our footprints limping in circles,
dying to follow us home.

Hansen makes you feel as though the meaning of your life is always right there in front of you in the things you do every day. All you need to do is understand that and then write it down. Except that it takes a lifetime of looking and another lifetime of writing to be able to do that.

JAM is also published by BOA, in 2001. It is by Joe-Anne McLaughlin. Go to: Here is a dramatic, funny, dead serious voice that borrows from several corners of the world, as good poets must. Also a sense of form that’s as tight as a noose. The "take" in these poems is almost always from a position of severe strain, i.e., the earth and its heaven-sent arbiters leaning hard on mortal flesh. Hence her borrowings from jazz, the blues, and in a succession of poems, from Frost. Not the Frost of birch-bending, but the one who glanced once in the direction of Abishag. Little did he know what else she had up her sleeve. McLaughlin show’s us, though. Here’s "Abishag’s Brag" (which should be centered on the page, not aligned to the left):

Girl, in my foxtails
and fishnets, I was all
city. Exotic
as a Vatican
bagel, accessible
as Port Authority.
I wiggled, lightning
would fork,
sidewalks buckle,
wrong numbers ring,
Earth speak. I was
so out of this world
gorgeous men had to
use raincoats and
for protection.
And cool?–Sister,
I was Antarctica Express.
One night of me
and a fellow would
be lonely
all ways.

No time for lament here. These poems show us a woman who’s thrown herself into and at life in the same gesture.

Another poet who waited. How I admire the patience. Mary Rose O’Reilly published her first book this year, HALF WILD (LSU Press), and with it won the Walt Whitman Award. Where’s she been? Well, she’s written five (5) books of essays, and as the jacket copy says, is "active in Quaker ministry" and "also taken Buddhist precepts as a lay practitioner." A long lineage, that: Herbert, Hopkins, Merton, Snyder. The poems are narrow and quiet and don’t let go. "Scene of the Crime Photos" is aligned to the left:

I know
the trajectory
of this crumpled doll
to the bathroom floor.

I know
why the suicide
dropped his glasses.

I know
where you lie
with a rinse of darkness
under your head

in a ruin of faces
tried on,

in the uncontrollable gush
of words
you should never
have said.

This is a poet who has traveled far. I’m tempted to say, far FROM anything resembling concord. Only, thankfully, to return to it. When she starts a poem, "This might be considered/ a waste of time: to sit/ still at a window, telling/ one bud from another," as she does in "Durham," you know someone is lost and about to be found again.

Rochelle Ratner’s BALANCING ACTS just came out from Marsh Hawk Press ( If I count right, this is her fifteenth book. She dedicates the book to her students "who have continually pushed me to redefine the borders of poetry," and it is always "out there" that we find her, trying to get further dimensions of life into poetry, trying to make poetry as big as life. BALANCING ACTS is a book of prose poems that hangs clearly but loosely on a narrative of the speaker’s life. It is funny and terrible at the same time, which is one of the balancing acts of this work. Here’s "Going to Bed Alone":

Whenever she sleeps with her lover she doesn’t wear anything, so it’s just as well he’s out of town. Or in town, actually, she’s the one who’s away for the summer. As far away as she can get from noise and drunks and streetlights. So when the speeding car leaves the road, clips a telephone pole, ruptures a gas main, airborne, crashes through her bedroom wall, flies over her bed, then partly out through the bathroom wall, pinning her under it only momentarily, its tires leaving deep impressions on the mattress but her body sinking even further (it’s one of those pillow-top mattresses), she’s virtually unharmed except for cuts here and there, but she’s extremely glad she has an old T-shirt and panties on.

Was the lover driving the car, in a rush to see her? Probably not. Is the crash through the bedroom symbolic? I leave that to you, dear reader.

Well, this was fun. I wonder what the future weeks and months will bring.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

standing by

Arthur Gregor, in his memoir, A LONGING IN THE LAND, describes what it felt like as a teenager in Vienna in 1938 to have the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover, suddenly dropped on you. A friend of his had to leave the country almost at once, at a time when thousands were getting out and the train stations were filled with weeping parents sending their children away, etc. Here's his description of that feeling:

"Even his departure had for me that curious aspect of unreality--or is it reality?--we experience when confronted by something beyond our control, something that runs entirely counter not only to our wishes but to what we are able to comprehend, and we stand by, utterly helpless, letting what is happening happen as though will had been wiped away, choice an illusion, and something we sense dimly as destiny has taken over, and what must be, is, and we can do nothing about it."

the costless average, divine, original concrete

What is SPECIMEN DAYS but a life as told by blogging? Here's Whitman's last entry:

Democracy most of all affiliates with the open air, is sunny and hardy and sane only with Nature--just as much as Art is. Something is required to temper both--to check them, restrain them from excess, morbidity. I have wanted, before departure [that's "death," in case you missed it], to bear special testimony to a very old lesson and requisite. American democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices--through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophicticated life--must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will certainly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. [Does anyone even understand such an utterance any more, much less believe in it?] I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element and beauty-element--to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.

Finally, the morality: "Virtue," said Marcus Aurelius, "what is it, only a living and enthusiastic sympathy with Nature?" Perhaps indeed the efforts of the true poets, founders, religions, literatures, all ages, have been, and ever will be, our time and times to come, essentially the same--to bring people back from their persistent strayings and sickly abstractions, to the costless average, divine, original concrete.

[I'm not sure what "free skies" are, but I'm pretty sure we ought to go find out.]