Monthly Archives: September 2009

Sept 28, 2009 Late September

Belgrade, NYU, the US Army, Chicago, New Hampshire, a black cat: what do all these things have in common? Give up? Prize-winning poet and immigrant Charles Simic. I recently read a good book of short stories by Wells Tower, which reminded me of nothing other than being young and mad, and I’ve since shouted about it to anyone who reads. A friend read it and told me the last story (which involves Vikings, roughly speaking) reminded her of a poem by Charles Simic, which she then described in some detail. I couldn’t find that poem but I found this one, which, well, is perfect for today. Aside from the fact that I’m on a sunny lake, not a coast, this poem presents a most accurate picture of my POV today. It’s Monday. Feels like Sunday.

I know so many people love fall, but do they love, too, the sense of impending death, which Simic doesn’t hesitate to remind us of here? Each stanza has a nice interplay between the quotidian and the grand, the natural and the personal. Remember WB Yeats?: “the whole rant is a mirror of my mood?” Only here, no rant–just a lot of flat vowels.

Enjoy fall. I could use it 20 degrees warmer… -ed.





LATE SEPTEMBER


The mail truck goes down the coast
Carrying a single letter.
At the end of a long pier
The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then
And forgets to put it down.
There is a menace in the air
Of tragedies in the making.

Last night you thought you heard television
In the house next door.
You were sure it was some new
Horror they were reporting,
So you went out to find out.
Barefoot, wearing just shorts.
It was only the sea sounding weary
After so many lifetimes
Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
And never getting anywhere.

This morning, it felt like Sunday.
The heavens did their part
By casting no shadow along the boardwalk
Or the row of vacant cottages,
Among them a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers.

Monday’s Verse; Sept 21, 2009.

Something a little different today. Every once in a while we read an essay, some poetic prose, literary criticism, or an anti-war polemic. Today’s brief “appreciation” is not by a scholar, a poet, or an essayist; it’s by an outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays. Fernando Perez graduated from Columbia with a degree in American Studies and creative writing.
It’s late September, and fans of the American game naturally wax poetic as they cheer the odds–or bemoan the fates–of their hometown favorites. With my equal and abiding love of both Red Sox and Mets, and given my new hometown of Pittsburgh, paean or dirge would suit me about now. I like Perez’s reflection, though: the way poetry clearly DOES something for him, but it is difficult for him to say WHAT. He doesn’t need it to comment on or enrich his main field of endeavor, but the two pastimes complement each other in some ineffable way.
If you want to read the article in its original publication, or read/make comments, please look here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=237498
And have a darn good week. -ed.
*****

Para Rumbiar

Robert Creeley in the outfield.

by Fernando Perez

I write from Caracas, the murder capital of the world, where I’ve been employed by the Leones to score runs and prevent balls from falling in the outfield. At the ankles of the Ávila Mountain amongst a patch of dusky high-rises, the downtown grounds of el Estadio Universitario packed beyond capacity are ripe for a full-bodied poem. A mere pitching change is an occasion “para rumbiar,” and the purse-lipped riot squad is always on the move with their spanking machetes swinging from their hips. The game isn’t paced necessarily by innings or score. It’s marked by the pulsating bass drums of the samba band that trail bright, scantily-clad, head-dressed goddesses strutting about the mezzanine. The young fireworks crew stand mere feet from flares that don’t always set out vertically, sometimes landing in the outfield still aflame. “The wave” includes heaving drinks into the sky.

In earning my stripes as a professional baseball player I’ve been through many cities and have stared out of hotel windows all over the Americas. Ball players are mercenaries, taking assignments indiscriminately. Throughout the minor leagues you’ll find yourself slouched on a bus, watching small towns roll by matter-of-factly like stock market tickers, on your back in a new nondescript room, or “shopping for images” (Allen Ginsberg) in a Wal-Mart, hunched over a cart in no rush.

Like poetry, baseball is a kind of counter culture. The (optional) isolation from the outside world (which I often opt for); the idleness about which—and out of which—so many poems are written or sung: I see this state of mind as a blessing. Sometimes, in fact, when I haven’t turned on a television or touched a newspaper for months, freed from the corporate bombast, poetry is the only dialect I recognize.

Long ago Robert Creeley confirmed my suspicion that words strung even sparingly together can be as aurally powerful as anything else we have. He has been my most important poet, because I can take him anywhere, like oranges—even reduced to nothing in both physical and mental exhaustion, nauseous and half asleep bussing from a red-eye.

One of my first managers always preached separation from the game for the sake of our own health, and for the sake of our performance. The game can be maddening, and we ought to corner ourselves in this trade only so far. I’m in love with baseball, but eventually my prime will end, and she’ll slowly break my heart. Baseball has remained remarkably impervious to modernity, but is, like any modern industry, highly alienating. I turn to poetry because it is less susceptible to circumstance. I’m not especially touched when a poet deals with a ball game; I’m not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other. Right now I need them apart, right now I’m after displacement, contrast. The thick wilderness of, say, late Ashbery can wrangle with the narrowness of competition.

Sept 14, 2009 In a Parish

The 8th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks came and went last Friday, and I was very moved to hear former U.S. poet laureate Robert Haas read this poem aloud on NPR. It is by Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), and it was first published in the New Yorker magazine on Sept. 17, 2001. I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t identify all these seemingly biblical-historical name allusions. Or maybe they are just names on headstones. Any help? -ed.

In a Parish

 

Had I not been frail and half broken inside,
I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself half broken inside.
I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church
To get rid of my self-pity.
Crazy Sophies,
Michaels who lost every battle,
Self-destructive Agathas
Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who
Is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation?
In hospital muck and the smell of urine,
With their weak and contorted limbs,
And eternity close by. Improper. Indecent.
Like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like
An elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island.
Our childishness and stupidity does nothing to fit us
For the sobriety of last things.
They had no time to grasp anything
Of their individual lives,
Any principium individuationis.
Nor do I grasp it, yet what can I do?
Enclosed all my life in a nutshell,
Trying in vain to become something
Completely different from what I was.

Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners.
With the hope that the trumpet of judgement will call us by our names.
Instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds.
They rise then, thousands of Sophias, Michaels, Matthews,
Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews.
So that at last they know why
And for what reason?

Sept. 7, 2009 M. Degas Teaches Art & Science

Dear readers,

Another Labor Day is upon us, which means we revisit America’s wordsmith of work, Philip Levine. And man, has this guy done some work: among his accolades are a Ruth Lilly prize, a Harriet Monroe Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle award, the American Book Award for poetry, 2 Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and the National Book Award. Son of Russian immigrants, Mr. Levine worked in a Ford assembly plant in his hometown of Detroit, where he “saw that the people that I was working with . . . were voiceless in a way,” he explained in Detroit Magazine. “In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway. . . . I just hope I have the strength to carry it all the way through.”

May we all be so foolish.

Here’s a poem from probably his most famous collection, What Work Is (1991). Rather than valorizing work though, this selection seems to want to run away from it–just the way a 15-year-old might. Wait, the way a 15-year-old might? I spent the long weekend with people in their 30’s, all of us* dreading Tuesday and the return of work. The way we all do, then. I kninda appreciate the way this poem defines work. How do you see it?

Have a great short week, and work hard,

-ed.


*Wait, I don’t have a job.







M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School–Detroit, 1942


 
He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, “What have I done?”
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, “You’ve broken a piece
of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile.
“What have I done?” he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle.” Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. “It is possible,”
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
“that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn.” I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I’d be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, “You’ve begun
to separate the dark from the dark.”
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.