I’m not dreaming. I’m reading. I don’t expect to touch the sky with my two hands. What a relief to read this now, this fragment of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell. A human body can only do what a human body can do. I don’t expect: how about working with that as a practice when I lie down at night and in the morning when—if—I rise again?
Rereading Zagajewski’s poems now, I’m struck by a particular vision often running through them. Of course, any poet who published fifteen collections over forty-seven years will have engaged a variety of themes, moods, moments. But in my current reading of Zagajewski, what’s standing out for me is what I’ll call his “poems of possibility.”
“Start with a woman watching a man / catching his daughter.” But find you see with the eyes of the child: yourself, small as a gangly loaf of bread, gripped and flung and caught at the ribs by your father, whose boyish face pumps up and down in the summer yard where he, years ago, once played.
I’ve long enjoyed what are referred to as “meta” art forms: works that take their very medium as their subject. So, for instance, there’s fiction about fiction (say, Borges’s stories) painting about painting (like Jackson Pollack’s drip-action canvasses), film about film (Fellini’s 8 1/2 comes first to mind).
Are there other ways of responding to what’s unknown? Might we even train ourselves to recognize the human mind’s habit of perceiving as threats those things, human and more than human, that do not conform to the world as we know it?
I’ve never really understood why Georg Trakl talks about foreheads so much. I mean, you can imagine the word coming up once in a poem for some reason or other. I can even see that there is something fascinating about foreheads in that they are both of and not of the face. That’s to say, you don’t generally get a face without a forehead.
In another poem, I imagine the etymology of my surname as though my ancestors were plowmen, and I then tried that metaphor of turning earth for the poet’s task of “turning words / back to life, to light not stellar / but diffuse, like moonlight spread // across some field I must cross / by foot, by dream, by shadow.”
“It was good to be in Chicago.”
What comes next? How about this: “On the way to Santiago.”
That’s Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. He’s demonstrating how one line of a poem leads to another.
Howard Nemerov, far from an absolutist about form, meter, and rhyme, nevertheless
preferred to write within certain boundaries of poetic tradition. “I like filling out the old forms,” he’d say with a bemused smile as if referring to his income tax returns, “they keep me from being stupider than the law allows.”
Here, in his latest volume of poetry—Teaching the Soul to Speak—Murray Bodo is saying some goodbyes. Bodo is in his eighties, as he mentions in several of the poems. His yearly pilgrimages to Assisi are apparently over, but the city and all that it has meant to him stay alive in his poems, filling an entire section of the book.
Two poems of A. R. Ammons, in particular, have stayed with me as touchstones for over thirty years, the much-anthologized “Corsons Inlet” and his lesser-known poem on the nature of thought, “The Misfit.” These poems seem important to me as warnings against the rigidity of a closed mind.
And that’s where “the sound begins.” Mindfulness of hearing. What sound? Here again the poem pauses. Instead of jumping ahead to disclose the source of sound, which is revealed to the speaker soon enough, the poem offers us an experience of what the mind does when it encounters an unknown.
When the magnitude of the possible
Dawned—a morning doubly brilliant—
Many were so near they vanished instantly.
Others ran to the city’s rivers, naked
But indistinguishable, woman from man.
As a black rain fell on the fires, the wounded
Dug for the buried wounded.
I never intended to get Frost’s birds by heart. For some months I’d been memorizing various of Frost’s lyric poems, moving from one to the next without agenda, allowing my taste for Frost’s wit and craft to guide me. But before I knew it, there they were, his birds, some named, some not: quiet, without fanfare, easy to miss, almost wanting to be missed.
Reading poetry is not like reading fiction. A good novel pulls me onward, makes me turn its pages, wondering what the protagonist will do next. A good poem does the opposite: makes me pause, draws me into itself and holds me there.
I’ve learned much from looking at visual art with my brother, John. He approaches a painting in stages, often bending close in search of clues to technique invisible to me. I got to thinking about his interest in how the finished work does what it does while reading two volumes of poetry published this year: Martha Serpas’s Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press) and Claude Wilkinson’s World Without End (Slant).
The initial reason is that Miss Irene Ashley, my ninth and tenth grade English teacher, told me (and her other students) that we had to. Her assignments: A selection from Hiawatha in ninth grade (“By the shores of Gitchee Gumee…”) and from Idylls of the King in tenth (“And slowly answered Arthur from the barge…”)
Probably the best poet to write about her own experience of living with HIV was Tory Dent, who was diagnosed with AIDS at age 30 and died from it at age 47. In between, she published three poetry collections focused mainly on her illness. (One, HIV, Mon Amour, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.)
When the May issue of Poetry dropped through my mail slot, it landed so I got to read the back cover first, lines from classicist/poet A.E. Stallings’s “Daedal”: “To build a labyrinth it takes / some good intentions, some mistakes.” Perfect, with allowances for the imperfect.
Here’s a game: in the lines below, can you tell which are from the Bible and which from an English poem?
Ho, every one that thirsteth,
to the waters,
and he that hath no money;
buy, and eat;