Monthly Archives: March 2009

Monday’s Verse, March 30/09

Readers,

If I’m not mistaken we’ve yet to run a poem by Kay Ryan, the relatively newly-appointed Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, aka “Poet Laureate.” Prior to winning a major poetry award in 2004, Ms. Ryan was little-known. I’m not going to say much about this piece but do wish an art history expert (or even someone who remembers an undergrad class) would peep up about what the heck she’s talking about with this vanitas business. -ed.

DEATH BY FRUIT

Only the crudest
of the vanitas set
ever thought you had to get
a skull into the picture
whether you needed
its tallowy color
near the grapes or not.
Others, stopping to consider
shapes and textures,
often discovered that
eggs or aubergines
went better, or leeks,
or a plate of string beans.
A skull is so dominant.
It takes so much
bunched up drapery,
such a ponderous
display of ornate cutlery,
just to make it less prominent.
The greatest masters
preferred the subtlest vanitas,
modestly trusting to fruit baskets
to whisper ashes to ashes,
relying on the poignant exactness
of oranges to release
like a citrus mist
the always fresh fact
of how hard we resist
how briefly we’re pleased.

-2000

Monday’s Verse, March 23/09

Here’s something quite amazing: a John Ashbery poem. I fecking love John Ashbery (anagram: “a BJ; he’s horny”). And yes, he’s that guy with the funny name and the funny poems which are so “hard” they don’t always seem funny. His aim, he once admitted, was “to produce a poem that the critic cannot even talk about.” But that should not prevent us from reading them, and talking about them. Maybe we have to adjust the way we talk about them. And the way we read. We often talk about the critic’s quiver of analytic arrows in this forum, but Ashbery has also said, “For me, poetry is very much the time that it takes to unroll, the way music does… it’s not a static, contemplatable thing like a painting or a piece of sculpture.”

This poem is one you really have to step into, maybe twice, to get the feel of. It’s long, but listen to it unroll like a fugue. Or flow like a river?

-ed.

PS: Visitors to the northern Italian town of Pavia will appreciate the final stanza.

INTO THE DUSK-CHARGED AIR

Far from the Rappahannock, the silent
Danube moves along toward the sea.
The brown and green Nile rolls slowly
Like the Niagara’s welling descent.
Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire
Near where it joined the Cher.
The St. Lawrence prods among black stones
And mud. But the Arno is all stones.
Wind ruffles the Hudson’s
Surface. The Irawaddy is overflowing.
But the yellowish, gray Tiber
Is contained within steep banks. The Isar
Flows too fast to swim in, the Jordan’s water
Courses over the flat land. The Allegheny and its boats
Were dark blue. The Moskowa is
Gray boats. The Amstel flows slowly.
Leaves fall into the Connecticut as it passes
Underneath. The Liffey is full of sewage,
Like the Seine, but unlike
The brownish-yellow Dordogne.
Mountains hem in the Colorado
And the Oder is very deep, almost
As deep as the Congo is wide.
The plain banks of the Neva are
Gray. The dark Saône flows silently.
And the Volga is long and wide
As it flows across the brownish land. The Ebro
Is blue, and slow. The Shannon flows
Swiftly between its banks. The Mississippi
Is one of the world’s longest rivers, like the Amazon.
It has the Missouri for a tributary.
The Harlem flows amid factories
And buildings. The Nelson is in Canada,
Flowing. Through hard banks the Dubawnt
Forces its way. People walk near the Trent.
The landscape around the Mohawk stretches away;
The Rubicon is merely a brook.
In winter the Main
Surges; the Rhine sings its eternal song.
The Rhône slogs along through whitish banks
And the Rio Grande spins tales of the past.
The Loir bursts its frozen shackles
But the Moldau’s wet mud ensnares it.
The East catches the light.
Near the Escaut the noise of factories echoes
And the sinuous Humboldt gurgles wildly.
The Po too flows, and the many-colored
Thames. Into the Atlantic Ocean
Pours the Garonne. Few ships navigate
On the Housatonic, but quite a few can be seen
On the Elbe. For centuries
The Afton has flowed.
If the Rio Negro
Could abandon its song, and the Magdalena
The jungle flowers, the Tagus
Would still flow serenely, and the Ohio
Abrade its slate banks. The tan Euphrates would
Sidle silently across the world. The Yukon
Was choked with ice, but the Susquehanna still pushed
Bravely along. The Dee caught the day’s last flares
Like the Pilcomayo’s carrion rose.
The Peace offered eternal fragrance
Perhaps, but the Mackenzie churned livid mud
Like tan chalk-marks. Near where
The Brahmaputra slapped swollen dikes
And the Pechora? The São Francisco
Skulks amid gray, rubbery nettles. The Liard’s
Reflexes are slow, and the Arkansas erodes
Anthracite hummocks. The Paraná stinks.
The Ottawa is light emerald green
Among grays. Better that the Indus fade
In steaming sands! Let the Brazos
Freeze solid! And the Wabash turn to a leaden
Cinder of ice! The Marañón is too tepid, we must
Find a way to freeze it hard. The Ural
Is freezing slowly in the blasts. The black Yonne
Congeals nicely. And the Petit-Morin
Curls up on the solid earth. The Inn
Does not remember better times, and the Merrimack‘s
Galvanized. The Ganges is liquid snow by now;
The Vyatka’s ice-gray. The once-molten Tennessee s
Curdled. The Japurá is a pack of ice. Gelid
The Columbia’s gray loam banks. The Don’s merely
A giant icicle. The Niger freezes, slowly.
The interminable Lena plods on
But the Purus’ mercurial waters are icy, grim
With cold. The Loing is choked with fragments of ice.
The Weser is frozen, like liquid air.
And so is the Kama. And the beige, thickly flowing
Tocantins. The rivers bask in the cold.
The stern Uruguay chafes its banks,
A mass of ice. The Hooghly is solid
Ice. The Adour is silent, motionless.
The lovely Tigris is nothing but scratchy ice
Like the Yellowstone, with its osier-clustered banks.
The Mekong is beginning to thaw out a little
And the Donets gurgles beneath the
Huge blocks of ice. The Manzanares gushes free.
The Illinois darts through the sunny air again.
But the Dnieper is still ice-bound. Somewhere
The Salado propels irs floes, but the Roosevelt’s
Frozen. The Oka is frozen solider
Than the Somme. The Minho slumbers
In winter, nor does the Snake
Remember August. Hilarious, the Canadian
Is solid ice. The Madeira slavers
Across the thawing fields, and the Plata laughs.
The Dvina soaks up the snow. The Sava’s
Temperature is above freezing. The Avon
Carols noiselessly. The Drôme presses
Grass banks; the Adige’s frozen
Surface is like gray pebbles.

Birds circle the Ticino. In winter
The Var was dark blue, unfrozen. The
Thwaite, cold, is choked with sandy ice;
The Ardèche glistens feebly through the freezing rain.

Monday’s Verse, March 16/09

While perusing this book, “Hush,” by American poet David St. John for poems on our theme of dislocation, I found this one that was just too good to pass up. Plus I’m on spring break and can’t realistically be expected to sit on my ass searching for poems completely on point, can I? This gentle lyric reminded me of the one we read about the piano a couple months ago, especially in its final simile. As for dislocation–well, your editor is in Chicago sleeping on a fold-out couch, doesn’t that count for something? Have a good week and GO BUTLER.
THE EMPTY DANCE HALL
Resin swirls across the floor.
The country band has left;
and a mandolin
still sits in a window,
half a wooden pear.
The dry boards creak and pop,
the brass chandelier clinks softly.
I take the mandolin, and go out
under the ivy arbor,
and the swaying canopy of oak.
A folding chair falls shut
on the patio;
on the dark, uneven bricks.
I lean in the doorway,
and slide my fingers along
the rosewood neck.
As I begin to play
the wind rises,
like a girl
getting up from her chair,
for the last dance.
-1975

Monday’s Verse, March 9/09

Well I just discovered this great poem, thanks to a tip from an alert reader, but I don’t know anything about the author. Which is OK–I’m just gonna leave that section blank and let others fill in if they want to. You don’t have to be an expert: Any jag can do the Google and then say, Ah yes, I remember first hearing Ann Deagon read from her work at an exclusive reading in a chateau outside Prague, an affair which was actually catered by Roger Waters. She was born…” Seriously, enlighten me, and lie if necessary.

Anyway I really dug this one with its lyric shape and sound and allusions, where vision–a mirror–refracts the speaker’s POV on a relationship, displacing her from her rather quotidian surroundings. -ed.

IN CAMERA OBSCURA

To often lately
my eyes have strayed
across the beveled mirror that reflects
our bedding
to the prismatic edge
where an un-world of color, clashing in planes
kaleidoscopes into a rage of light
the subdued furnishings of our ten years.

What message shall I leave
walking out of our mirror, out of your life?
I do not have illusions. I know
now here is forever framed in nowhere,
movement is an illusion of stopped frames
and all loves out of focus.
We have seen each other through a glass darkly;
I do not expect to see anyone more clear.

I leave this room, love,
only to walk a little in the sun
wear green while my season lasts
and then take on
the kaleidoscopic colors of decay.

-1974

Monday’s Verse, March 2/09

Revisiting a classic. This, one of my very favorite poems, goes out to all my Boston and NY homies with a snow day. And it fits with our recent theme: reading Stevens is almost always disorienting. Stay warm,

mjl

*****

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


–from Harmonium, 1923