Wednesday, February 15, 2012

If the Rise of the Fish (Jane Hirshfield)

If the Rise of the Fish

If for a moment
the leaves fell upward,
if it seemed a small flock
of brown-orange birds
circled over the trees,
if they circled then scattered each in
its own direction for the lost seed
they had spotted in tall, gold-checkered grass.
If the bloom of flies on the window
in morning sun, if their singing insistence
on grief and desire. If the fish.
If the rise of the fish.
If the blue morning held in the glass of the window,
if my fingers, my palms. If my thighs.
If your hands, if my thighs.
If the seeds, among all the lost gold of the grass.
If your hands on my thighs, if your tongue.
If the leaves. If the singing fell upward. If grief.
For a moment if singing and grief.
If the blue of the body fell upward, out of our hands.
If the morning held it like leaves.

Writing about Szymborska yesterday reminded me of this poem, another one I discovered during my formative poetry years. There's something compelling about the fragmentary nature of it, like it's tentatively reaching out for something but keeps drawing its hands back. Reaching out for the perfect phrase, trying one, then abandoning it and trying another. Trying phrases on like clothes.

I also like the mixture of the body images, which are sort of straightforwardly sensual, with the more metaphorical images. I feel like these could have ended up muddled together, but instead they feel... crisp? It's more that the two things are side by side, and the connection between them is drawn by proximity, rather than trying to make an explicit link between them.

And I like the imagery of reversal, the recognition that to undo a loss would be to press rewind on the world, to make leaves fall upwards. There's something about entropy in this, I think - the fundamental thing we know about how the universe functions is that we can only go forward, not back. When we grieve, we are in some ways grieving not just an individual loss, but the fact that to exist is to experience loss, that we cannot live and still escape grief.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Cat in an Empty Apartment (Wislawa Szymborska)

A Cat in an Empty Apartment
I wanted to post here when I read about her death, but couldn't figure out what I wanted to say. I still can't, really. Szymborska is one of the poets I discovered during my formative poetry-reading (and writing) years, one of the writers I admired most. Although I have only read her work in translation, it was always clear that she had an amazing grasp on the subtleties of language, a way of saying things simply and honestly and beautifully.

I love A Cat in an Empty Apartment because it gets at those ineffable somethings that make a person uniquely themselves. There is no one thing that defines us, but many things - the pattern of our footsteps, the way we turn on a lamp at a certain time of day. What it makes me think of is these scientific experiments I read about - I can't find a good reference so I'll just mangle through explaining it here - where the researchers asked people to define an object, like a chair. And then they'd present people with lots of different pictures of chairs, all shapes and sizes, some of which didn't quite meet all the criteria but which were still (debatably) chairs.

So basically, the conclusion was that there wasn't a straightforward definition of what makes a thing a chair - instead, there's this fuzzy cloud. Not everyone will agree on every point of a definition, and some people will say, "Yes, object 7 is a chair" while other people will say it isn't. And people can't necessarily put their finger on why they think something is or isn't a chair - they just know. But when you aggregate all the information from a bunch of different people, you can get a sense of what the word "chair" means.

Anyway, the point is, I feel like if you asked a bunch of people "who is John Smith?" then all of them would give different definitions. Even if you asked people to be as comprehensive as possible - to describe him physically and relationally and how his mind works and his history - even if you asked him to define himself. You'd still get this fuzzy set of descriptors, a lot of which apply to other people, and some of which are mutually exclusive, and this fuzzy set is what makes John Smith who he is. And somewhere in that set would be things like how he smells to his cat and when he turns the lamps on.

(One last reason to love this poem: "Caress against the furniture." Is there a more perfect way to describe cat movement than this? No, there is not.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Come From Cowboys (Ron Wallace)

I Come From Cowboys

and I don't like ties;
boots and blue jeans fit me best
     when I head out the door.
I'm carved wood, sculpted stone,
and tooled leather.
I'm green trees, blue sky, native earth
     a circling redtailed hawk.

My dad taught me how to read,
how to swing a hammer and cast a fishing line.
Mama taught me how   not what   to think.
     She said, "Keep it simple, son,
          always try to do the best you can.
The world gets complicated as it is
     without you chipping in."

Fifty years have marked me now with scars
of bent ten penny nails,
     fist fights and books of poetry

but in the end when the wind moves the grass
across my grave,
     I ask only that I rise
          on feathered wings one time
               and loose a last defiant cry
before I'm gone back into the stone
     below the dirt
          to sleep awhile.

--Ron Wallace

Wallace's book was given to me as a Christmas present and I'm looking forward to digging deep into it. This is the first poem in the book and it definitely sets the tone, though I'm curious to see whether the rest of the book handles the tone with or without irony.

The poem is kind of like an ode to the mythology of the cowboy. I don't think you can grow up in Texas and be immune to the power of those images, but then again, I'm someone who grew up there and then went away as an adult. I think for me, the cowboy mythology is something that's become suspect as I've grown older. There's a purity to the cowboy, an alone-ness. "Keep it simple, son" - that's the essence of it right there, I think - that the world is simple. "The world gets complicated," yes, but the world gets complicated, it doesn't start off that way. People make things complicated that could/should be simple, that's the implication there. If you're just a man alone in the country then all you need to know is how to hammer, how to fish, how to think (thinking is inside, not outside yourself).

But I'm not sure I believe it. I'm not sure I think it's possible to keep it simple. The world isn't simple, and people aren't separate from the world.

So I'll be interested to see where the book goes from here, whether what we get is a real cowboy, a real person, or whether what we get is the image of a cowboy, tooled in leather and ready to be sold.

Friday, December 16, 2011

To the Oracle at Delphi (Ferlinghetti)

To the Oracle at Delphi

Haven't been reading much poetry lately. Poetry is the opposite of escapism - it doesn't let you get away from the world you're in, but rather makes you  more in that world, I think. Well, there are some exceptions, of course, but in general I think that when I read poetry I'm always comparing its truths to how I see the world, trying to measure how real it is. Not real in the sense of describing something that actually happened, but real in the sense of getting at something true underneath. Expressing in words the things that can't be expressed in words (to paraphrase LeGuin).

So, this poem. Not written so long ago (2001). The language of it is powerful, and probably a lot of people would say it was insightful. But I don't know. Are we in "the dusk of our civilization" now, any more than we were in the 60s or in the Depression? Are we more the metaphorical Roman Empire now than we were, say, 20 years ago? 40? I'm not sure. We're always on the verge of sliding back into the dark ages, or at least that rhetoric has been used before. Not that I think America is "too big to fail," but I think it's too big to fail with a bang. I think we're much more likely to go with a whimper, slowly, and we won't know it's happening until we've become something else.

There are parts of the poem, however, that do ring true for me. We want an oracle, someone to "tell us how to save us from ourselves / and how to survive our own rulers." I think it's a natural human urge to want that - to want to be able to hand off responsibility to someone who we can trust is wise. We think that if we just find the cave where the oracle is hiding then we can coax it out, make it tell us what we need to know.

The trouble is, there isn't any oracle. There's only us. We are responsible for our own dreams. If we want "new myths to live by," we have to create them ourselves. In some ways that's frightening, but in other ways I think it's liberating. We make our own future - it's only inscrutable because we don't yet have the tools to know it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Changing Light (Ferlinghetti)

The Changing Light

I like this one because it talks about quality of light, which is something that I've noticed before. There's a particular type of late-afternoon golden sunlight that's sort of my favorite, because it seems to make everything more intensely colored, more vibrant. Whereas morning light seems colder, crisper, thinner somehow. Reading this, I ended up thinking of that morning light as the "East Coast light" and the afternoon as the "island light" - it's the kind you get on vacation when you're someplace with long days that seem like they'll never end, when it's like a physical thing that's reaching out and oozing over you like honey.

The other thing I like about this poem is that Ferlinghetti is so clearly from there. There's an identity of place - when he talks about "your East Coast light" and "your pearly light of Paris" there's the implication that San Francisco light is his light. It's personal. I think I find that appealing because even though I'm not from here, I'm really enjoying being a Boston person. Boston is my home. It's sort of the same reason that people get attached to sports teams, only since I'm not really a sports person, my local attachments are to things like the tone of the light and the color of the leaves in autumn and the smell of the marshes on my favorite walking trail.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

i love you much(most beautiful darling)

i love you much(most beautiful darling)

Cummings has always been a favorite of mine because of his wordplay. I think it goes especially well with love poems because, well. It will come as no surprise to any of you that Alyson and I are wordplay types. We're both fascinated and delighted by the ways you can fit words together, the way you can make new and clever things out of familiar things. So Cummings' love poems feel like the sorts of things that we say to each other, schmoopy and metaphoric and playful things. Like "i love you... better than everything in the sky," like the hyperbole of "such sunlight as will leap higher than high." And the repetition of "most beautiful darling" rings true to me as well, because it's the sort of romantic habit that you find yourself falling into - you develop your own nicknames for each other.

The other thing I like about this poem beyond the language itself is the overarching statement of it - that if everyone could feel passion, they would "believe in nothing but love." And really, "nothing but love" is kind of my life philosophy. Love is what it's all about, the thing that we each of us should be seeking. Although for me that doesn't always mean romantic or sexual love - you can just as well have love for nature or a well-made object or a song. It's about intensity of feeling, it's about joy.

I should read more poems about love because they always make me a bit soppy. Which is a nice feeling.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Latin & Soul (Victor Hernández Cruz)

Latin & Soul

I like this one because it's a good example of written poetic form actually being relevant and important for what the poem is about. This is a poem about dancing, and the words are dancing on the page. When I read it my eyes move back and forth, rhythmically, organically. All the distinct fragments make me think of the way, when you're dancing, you sometimes move to a position and hold it, just for a split second, before you move on. Or you don't really mean to hold that position, and maybe you don't actually stay there for longer than you've stayed anywhere, but it feels like a moment. When you're twirling someone outwards with your arm, right when they get to the end of the twirl so that both your arms are outstretched, and then they rebound - right before the rebound, that's what I'm talking about. There's a moment when you feel yourself being at that point, being at a place of changing direction, though you haven't actually changed direction yet. (Think of points on a graph.)

I also love this:

a piano is trying to break a molecule
is trying to lift the stage into orbit

There's something about the language of effort here, like you can picture the piano groaning under the strain of  being played so furiously, so enthusiastically. That's one of my favorite things about going to see live music; when you can see that the musician is so into it, it just brings this whole other level of excitement to being there. A musician can bring a certain type of joy to a performance that just heightens the joy of the audience.

And I like the repetition of "dance" in the first bits of the poem. What that makes me think of is the way dancing can be very zen, the way you can get lost in it. It drowns out everything else and the music takes you "away-away-away" and all you know is dance-dance-dance. All you are is a dancer (sometimes not even a dancer, but just the dance).