Sleeping Beauty

18 05 2009

by paul

Forget, for a moment, the deception.
See the liquid eyes,
the sweet mouth, juices dribbling.
Watch her yawn and topple
onto a bed of moss and fern.

Observe the serene repose,
the cartoon bunny, the cautious wren.
Consider the spell, proactive.
How a single bite preserves
such ripe perfection.
 
From http://www.gotpoetry.com/Poems/l_op=viewpoems/lid=5234.html
 





the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind

10 02 2008

The trigger for this particular missive was this article in the New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu — about the book of poems A TREATISE OF CIVIL POWER, by Geoffrey Hill. [this blog entry is excerpted/edited from a letter written on the same day that I started this blog — Jan 23, 2008] The review made me think about art, and changed some of my attitudes toward poetry — and also changed the way I read it. Here’s a bit from the beginning of the article (written by a poet as well, I discover at the end of the review)

 

Living With Ghosts

By WILLIAM LOGAN

Published: January 20, 2008

Gloomy poets are rarely very good, and good poets rarely very gloomy. There was Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, denizens of that funereal, willow-shadowed decade of the 1840s, a decade half in love with Keats and half in love with easeful death. Thomas Hardy had his black moods, but also his moments of sour levity. For more than 50 years, however, Geoffrey Hill has written a pinch-mouthed, grave-digger’s poetry so rich and allusive his books are normally greeted by gouts of praise from critics and the bewilderment of readers who might have been happier with a tract on the mating rituals of the earwig.

 

Hill has made brutally plain that the common reader is of no interest to him. Indeed, he believes that sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse; with a withering pride he has refused, time and again, to stoop to such betrayals. This has made him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved. His poetry has been composed of harsh musics, the alarums of battle and the death struggles under the reading lamp — it takes to contemplation the way some men take to religion (Hill’s relation to Christianity has been famously cryptic).

 

Evidently Hill’s poetry is dense with allusion, and all but requires a library and an internet connection to begin to tease the meaning apart. Generally, I have a great disdain for art that disdains the untutored consumer. Art, I think, is a means to communicate — if it is opaque and requiring of special training, then it fails, somehow. But this article gives me a different perspective (although, not, perhaps, exactly what the reviewer intended). If Hill’s poetry is a deliberate tangle of allusion, but one that can be detangled,  then perhaps that is part of the fun, part of the contract. Rather than an unwarranted and arrogant assumption by the author, it could be an assumption of research. Judging from the review, this may not be the case — it may be that these poems are just a form of intellectual strutting, only intended for the informed. But that doesn’t mean that some poems could be approached this way. Near the end of the review (which is worth reading), comes this poem.

 

There are passages of stunning beauty, however, like views through the lens of a Leica, for which a reader will forgive many a sin.

I see Inigo Jones’s great arches

in my mind’s eye, his water-inky clouds,

the paraphernalia of a royal masque;

dung and detritus in the crazy streets,

the big coaches bellying in their skirts

pothole to pothole, and the men of fire,

the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.

 

Pasted from <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu>

 

So, I take the opportunity of reading this poem to read about Inigo Jones (I can’t help but think of another Inigo — of The Princess Bride — “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” — hopefully everyone in the world will have the chance to see that movie!). In any case, Inigo Jones, although Spanish in forename, is firmly English in surname and turns out to be “the first significant English architect.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inigo_Jones

He also designed sets for the theatre — “credited with introducing movable scenery and the proscenium arch to English theatre. ” Then I get to read about the proscenium arch — a lot I didn’t know here. This leads me (right now, as I write this), in a digression, to the alley theater — one with the audience on two sides. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theater

 

I hadn’t known that this was a type of theater — I grew up in Houston where I saw Huck Finn at the Alley Theatre — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theatre — although I can’t tell if this theater is actually an “alley theater,” I do remember that the audience at least partially surrounded Huck Finn when our school went there on an excursion. (My most vivid memory is of my soda — a rare treat growing up with a “health food” mom — with the can stretched out of shape from having spent the night in the freezer.)

 

I also get to look up link-boy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link-boy — they seem to be a kind of human flashlight, carrying torches through the streets of London for pedestrians and those riding on litters. Funny that — writing this e-mail is likely preventing me from finishing that so-Victorian novel Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, wherein one old pernicious character is borne about on a litter, or carried by on or another character. (This book wins the prize for having been on my “list to read” the longest — probably 20 years ago that I first started it, and I think I’ve started it 7 or 10 more times since then. It’s good that I like the first chapter…)

 

Anyway, you can see what I mean — rather than seeing this as a impenetrable mass, I suck it dry as an index to interesting lore. I can’t say that I really like the poem that much, even now that I understand it. But it has, at least for the moment, meant that I read even poems that are accessible (and I still think an artists job is to communicate through his or her medium of choice)… I see even these poems with a difference. So, when The Writer’s Almanac arrives (This week I’ve started a system so I won’t miss listening to it.), when it arrives with a Poe poem that is so much Poe as to be recognizable without need for the author to be listed, and that poem has this stanza:

 

Wanderers in that happy valley

      Through two luminous windows, saw

Spirits moving musically

      To a lute’s well-tuned law;

Round about a throne where, sitting

      (Porphyrogene!)

In state his glory well befitting,

      The ruler of the realm was seen.

 

I don’t skip over the word Porphyrogene as a toddlers do, in their intelligent way — ignoring what they don’t understand, rather than puzzling over things that are likely beyond them. No frustration for them — they just move on. And so do I, I realize, trusting to the future to reinforce the tiny bits of meaning that accrue to words through long familiarity. But now I am grown, and perhaps it is worth focusing on those remaining places where I am ignorant. My vocabulary has stalled, and I will not likely run into Porphyrogene again before the traces of this encounter have been erased by the paths of so many other words streaming through my brain. And, besides, it turns out to be interesting to read about Porphyrogenita — “born in the purple” — a true child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor.

 

Porphyrogenita is a medieval Greek word which was used in the Byzantine Empire, meaning “born in the purple”.

The female form is Porphyrogeniti (Πορφυρογέννητη) and Latinized to Porphyrogenita. The male form is Porphyrogenitos.

Being born in the purple means that one was born as the child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor. Being Porphyrogenita added much status to a person. For males it meant they were the legitimate successors of the last emperor, and had a real claim to the throne against rebellious generals. For females it meant they had higher status as a princess and had more value if they were used in diplomatic marriages.

Examples of Porphyrogenita:

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyrogenita>

 

So there, a new accretion of knowledge, knowledge without apparent purpose, my favorite kind. And from there I can slip into reading, should I wish, about Byzantine Emperors, the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, although I don’t, since it is late.

 





raccoon cadaver of colored crayon

3 02 2008

the poet (at his wurst?) as sausage maker …”supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue of language / which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of explication.”

 

Here’s another Stephen Dobyns poem (see always engaged in revision), found here (where they will read it for you)

Can Poetry Matter?

Heart feels the time has come to compose lyric poetry.

No more storytelling for him. Oh, Moon, Heart writes,

sad wafer of the heart’s distress. And then: Oh, Moon,

bright cracker of the heart’s pleasure. Which is it,

is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He looks

from the window but the night is overcast. Oh, Cloud,

he writes, moody veil of the Moon’s distress. And then,

Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon’s repose. Once more

Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the moon sad

or at rest? He calls scientists who tell him that the moon

is a dead piece of rock. He calls astrologers. One says

the moon means water. Another that it signifies oblivion.

The girl next door says the Moon means love. The nut

up the block says it proves that Satan has us under his thumb.

Heart goes back to his notebooks. Oh, Moon, he writes,

confusing orb meaning one thing or another. Heart feels

that his words lack conviction. Then he hits on a solution.

Oh, Moon, immense hyena of introverted motorboat.

Oh, Moon, upside down lamppost of barbershop quartet.

Heart takes his lines to a critic who tells him that the poet

is recounting a time as a toddler when he saw his father

kissing the baby-sitter at the family’s cottage on a lake.

Obviously, the poem explains the poet’s fear of water.

Heart is ecstatic. He rushes home to continue writing.

Oh, Cloud, raccoon cadaver of colored crayon, angel spittle

recast as foggy euphoria. Heart is swept up by the passion

of composition. Freed from the responsibility of content,

no nuance of nonsense can be denied him. Soon his poems

appear everywhere, while the critic writes essays elucidating

Heart’s meaning. Jointly they form a sausage factory of poetry:

Heart supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue of language

which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of explication.

Lyric poetry means teamwork, thinks Heart: a hog farm,

corn field, and two old dobbins pulling a buckboard of song.

 

Pallbearers Envying The One Who Rides

 (Penguin, 1999)

 

 I love his struggle —

Which is it,

is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He looks

from the window but the night is overcast. Oh, Cloud,

he writes, moody veil of the Moon’s distress. And then,

Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon’s repose. Once more

Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the moon sad

or at rest?

 

Excellent… Sometimes poetry can go for the technicolor image instead of the truthful one, the meaningless but evocative metaphor rather than true meaning. Of course, there are many other points in this poem, but, after all, you could truly say that I am enclosing another’s post and another’s poem in a thin membrane (oh so thin) of explication myself. Perhaps the thinner the better.

 





his safe smell was all around and he told me he was so sorry he would drink up every bit of water in Dresser’s Pond if that would make it all unhappen. it can’t

3 02 2008

LEARNING TO SWIM is a painful narrative of poems that — truly — I expected to hate as soon as I read the first page. I could see where they were going from that first page — as the poet intends —  and I didn’t think I had any desire to travel there.

 

I’ve only just begun to understand how to read poetry — reading particularly each word and phrase, not just the ideas and content, bringing a concentration that is unnecessary for comprehension but allows me to appreciate the art. It is not necessary to study a painting to understand what is portrayed, or even to appreciate it at some level. But if you do study it, and the artist has invested his skill in the painting, then you will be rewarded for your contemplation, especially if you have taken the time to educate your eye. This concentrated reading, I find, means that painful poetry has more power than painful prose.  And I’ve read enough “important” stories of trauma to have a distaste for it in literary form. So I set this book down when it got distasteful and ugly. I don’t feel that a book or a story has to be about some terrible act in order to be important, and I feel a distaste for the easy importance that clothes such stories. But that false patina of power is not what I found when I picked it up again — hoping to read swiftly until I found this passage, the one that had caught my eye in the first place:

 

There are veils

over the high bush blueberries,

like huge white wings

brushing the ground.

Mother and I scrooge under,

tin cans in hand,

and pull the berries down

so fast they rattle

and fill to the brim.

I hate their sour taste

but love being hidden

under the netting

where no one can see

me.

 

But as I quickly read, I found myself drawn in and found the story in these narrative poems so true as to be compelling. And these poems are true, reflecting not only the pain of the assault, but the eventual cleansing and moving on that happens in real life. A recovery that doesn’t make the original act any less repugnant, but is not a permanent destruction of youth and childhood either.

 

In the prologue, she says

 

This is what I remember:

that hot room,

your strange body,

your hands hurting,

and harsh words

telling me terrible things

would happen

if I ever

told.

 

But now you can’t

find me or reach me

or hurt me ever

again and once I tell the words

I am going to kick

you off my porch

and learn to breathe

again.

 

Perhaps you find this a promising beginning. I did not. But the speaker recovers, and so does the poetry.

Or, rather, first the poetry, then the person.

I hate the color yellow.

I hate limp curtains.

I hate iron bedsteads

and thick boys in shorts.

When I grow up

I will have a green room

with a soft, mounded bed

and white curtains

blowing in the windows.

In my room

there will never be

a thick boy in shorts.

 

For me this recovery was even more appreciated because I didn’t quite believe it was going to come, so fully, either in the story or especially in the almost poetry — I call it that just this once because it has so little besides formatting and intensity to make it such. Perhaps it is more fairly poetry that is almost not poetry…

 

Daddy held my hand

as we scrambled down

the path to Dresser’s Pond.

We waded in together,

and I thought of white, bony

things I could not see,

of a lake octopus waiting

to sucker its tentacles

around my skinny legs.

Daddy said,

“You are learning to swim,”

and I let go of his hand.

“I am learning to swim,”

I chanted

and when the bottom

fell away,

I bobbed on top,

my face like a white flower

before me.

 

Perhaps it is realistic because it is real — the book is subtitled A memoir. Perhaps parts are painful to read because they were painful to live — and to write, the author said that starting these poems was like eating ground glass (although I doubt she can truly make the comparison, I believe this right is included in the poet’s license.). The good thing to reflect on, is that perhaps she recovers so fully because that is what people do.

 

In the end, I don’t find this poetry to be many things that I want poetry to be. It is painful and uncomfortable in many places. But it’s true in a sense that includes emotions and goes beyond facts, and that is something.

 

LEARNING TO SWIM: a memoir by ann turner

ann turner’s books

 





Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars

30 01 2008

 

THE DAY THE SAUCERS CAME

 

That day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,

Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,

And the people of Earth stood and

stared as they descended,

Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find what waited inside for us

And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow

But you didn’t notice it because

 

That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,

Was the day that the graves gave up their dead

And the zombies pushed up through soft earth

or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,

Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,

But you did not notice this because

 

On the saucer day, which was the zombie day, it was

Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us

A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,

All bigger than the mind could hold,

and the cameraman could

Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out

But you did not see them coming because

 

On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods

day the floodgates broke

And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites

Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities

And charm and cleverness and true

brave hearts and pots of gold

While giants feefofummed across

The land, and killer bees,

But you had no idea of any of this because

 

That day, the saucer day the zombie day

The Ragnarok and fairies day, the

day the great winds came

And snows, and the cities turned to crystal, the day

All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the

Computers turned, the screens telling

us we would obey, the day

Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,

And all the bells of London were sounded, the day

Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,

The fluttering capes and arrival of

the Time Machine day,

You didn’t notice any of this because

you were sitting in your room, not doing anything

not even reading, not really, just

looking at your telephone,

wondering if I was going to call.

 

  • NEIL GAIMAN

 

Neil Gaiman is a well known fantasy author, this is from his book of poetry and short stories, fragile things. While I found these stories worth reading, I enjoyed them less than I should. I would probably have quite enjoyed them when I was younger and would have enjoyed more the transgressive macabre tone and have been more surprised by the inevitable twist (the fantasy short story has never left O. Henry behind,  only rarely following in the path of the modern short story laid down by Chekhov.) I found the twist in this poem quite satisfactory, however. And sometimes, even when the twist was obvious from the first few pages, the concept was good enough to carry it anyway, as in the short stories  Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire, or in Sunbird. But each of these stories is about one twist, and I guess I want just a bit more to be completely satisfied.

 

I did find his romp through the strange world of American fantasy — both immigrant and native, mind you — as realized in Anansi Boys and American Gods, quite enjoyable. They deserve the obvious (when you read them) comparison to Douglas Adams and the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. They don’t, of course, measure up to that high standard, but that’s OK.





always engaged in revision

29 01 2008

[HIS LIFE WAS THE PRACTICE]

 

His   life   was    the    practice   of   forming   a   single

sentence  which,  as   he  grew    older,  he   tried   to

simplify,   reduce  its  compound-complex  structure

into one statement ruled by the  separate, inviolate

pronoun within which he attempted  to live,  always

engaged in revision and the act of becoming;  as the

distilled   statement   gradually   became  a   fleeting

inquiry, a mild interrogative, which he repeated and

refined,   making  it  increasingly  concise, almost, at

his  conclusion,  producing no  more  than  a  distinct

sound,  not  quite a word, less than a  cry,  which his

death  erased  leaving  the question mark hanging in

the   air,   like  a  broken  halo,  emblem  of  his  birth,

evolution and release: a full life.

STEPHEN DOBYNS

 

You can read another of Stephen Dobyns’ poems, Yellow Beak, here (recommended!): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16845

 

He is a poet and an author, including the detective stories featuring Charlie Bradshaw, each title of which has Saratoga as the first word.

 

Here’s 2 somethings from The Porcupine’s Kisses:

 

Look at this dark night: no stars, no moon. Look at this crowd of

people. Do you know one better than the other?

 

It isn’t yours until you can stand to see it break.

 

The Porcupine’s Kisses (Poets, Penguin)

 

His book of essays on poetry, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, looks like a good way to pull myself further into this new world of the poem that I have started to enter. Here’s a bit more about Dobyns, from the Amazon.com review:

 

Dobyns, the author of eight volumes of poetry (and 17 novels), believes, like Baudelaire, that “each poem … has an optimum number of words [and] an optimum number of pieces of information … and to go over or under even by one word weakens the whole.” Poetry, he says, belongs to the reader, not the writer, and as readers, “at the close of the poem, we must not only feel that our expectations have been met but that our lives have been increased, if only to a small degree.” And, if that’s not challenge enough for the writer, add to it “that the conclusion of a given piece must appear both inevitable and surprising.”

Best Words, Best Order, 2nd Edition: Essays on Poetry

 

I’d add that a good story always seems that way — inevitable and surprising, just like a good life. Surprising at the time, but in hindsight, how could it have gone any other way?