Open Books: The Goods - Archive
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Books in December 2010
We've become intrigued with the work of a poet new to us, and to U.S. publishing. Manoel de Barros, born in 1916 in the wetlands region of Brazil, has received his country's highest literary honors, but his poetry has not been available in English. It's our good fortune that the skillful translator and poet Idra Novey has rectified the situation with the publication of Birds for a Demolition (Carnegie Mellon $16.95), a broad selection from nearly 50 years of de Barros's enchanting, at times surreal poetry. Lyrical, often aphoristic, his poems are steeped in the natural world, or maybe we should say layered with it. His is "communication by infusion / by rite / by incrustation"; his belief, "Before anything else a poem is an un-utensil." He writes --
I am more concerned with rust
than with luster
I work hard to do the unnecessary....
Only low-lying things make me star-like.
I get twitchy for idleness.
It's violets that enlarge me.
Stones, birds, trees, words themselves draw his attention, until "with pieces of Manoel I assemble an astonished being." With their marvelous, original clarity, his poems are astonishing, where if a boy "wanted to end up a bee, it was only a matter / of opening the word bee / and stepping inside it."
This month marked a notable publishing event -- the arrival of The H.D. Book by Robert Duncan (University of California Press $49.95). Duncan (1919-1988), a leading participant in what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance, published chapters from the work in small journals from 1966 to 1985, but it has not been available in a complete, fully edited version until now. Begun as an homage to the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), it became, as editors Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman explain, "an epic exploration and meditation on what Duncan felt were the hidden springs that fed the roots of modernism." The result is an over-600-page volume that Rachel Blau DuPlessis has called "an important, even magisterial work of literary imagination, collective literary history, and poetics." One can open the book anywhere and find rich, thought-provoking passages --
"The power of the poet is to translate experience from daily time where the world and ourselves pass away as we go on into the future, from the journalistic record, into a melodic coherence in which words -- sounds, meaning, images, voices -- do not pass away or exist by themselves but are kept by rhyme to exist everywhere in the consciousness of the poem. The art of the poem, like the mechanism of the dream or the intent of tribal myth and dromena, is a cathexis: to keep present and immediate a variety of times and places, persons and events. In the melody we make, the possibility of eternal life is hidden, and experience we thought lost returns to us."
C.D. Wright's new volume, One with Others [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon Press $20), is both the excavation of a volcanic time in American history and a tender "tribute" to a woman who was not only the poet's mentor and friend but also a participant in that history. A native Arkansan, Ms. Wright brings the investigative poetics she has become known and lauded for to the life of V., as her friend is called, and to the Arkansas town where V. lived, and from which she was forced out. The town, marked by profound racial inequities, often violently enforced, was the site of a March Against Fear in 1969, conducted by a group of African-American men and actively supported by V., a white woman. Though her support upended her life, this frequently housebound woman with seven children and a loveless marriage said, "It is the most alive I ever felt." The poet writes, "Some would say she was in full pursuit of her ruin // Some would call it her pathetic adventure // I would say you did not understand the magnitude of her longing." Composed of excerpts from interviews, lists, news accounts, signs, and the poet's own meditations, the book-length piece flows and circles back on itself. Lines and images repeat until the reader is brought near the deeply troubled place and time and those who inhabited them -- the black men, women, and children who suffered profoundly under racism, both de facto and legal, as well as the white people who were tainted by its use: "King called 'it' at disease, segregation. [Sounds contagious.] / It's cradle work is what it is. It begins before the quickening." One with Others expands C.D. Wright's already impressive body of illuminating work, books that only she could write.
Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook (University of Iowa Press $29.95), edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, is a collection of short, vibrant essays by 99 poets on the art and craft of teaching poetry, offering guides and goads to the writer and teacher. Among the standouts we've found so far is the hauntingly challenging piece by Ron Silliman in which he points out the importance of taking an accounting of a writer's preconceptions about the art. "Once you begin [writing] you instantaneously discover yourself burdened with thousands of ghosts and beliefs about what writing is. It's like trying to swim with a team of elephants on your back." It seems to be liberating and confounding at once, and extremely valuable, to try to articulate to yourself your ingrained beliefs about writing. Another choice piece is Lisa jarnot's essay on why she stopped teaching in an M.F.A. program. Her issues with M.F.A.'s include the careerist mindset of students studying an art and the mediocrity of the workshop process. She closes with a marvelous curriculum for "a perfect world" M.F.A. program -- a three-year course of study which is just that; her first year includes studying basics of grammar, prosody, historic overviews of Western and Eastern poetry, and more. Workshops appear only in the third year of her program! There are other provocative and entertaining pieces here, too. Of less interest, at least to us, but certainly of value, are pieces by poets whose teaching is concerned with the experience of writing as a chance-based process. And though we've found a clunker or two, too, such is the world, eh? The varied perspectives in Poets on Teaching is one its strong suits.
Who knew? We certainly didn't. But with their anthology Decomposition (Lost Horse Press $18), editors Renee Roehl and Kelly Chadwick have made clear that a gathering of "fungi-inspired" poems is not only possible, it makes for good reading. The list of writers who've contemplated (in whatever poetic way) mushrooms, slime molds, or lichens is impressive -- A. R. Ammons, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Alan Dugan, Dorianne Laux, W.S. Merwin, Tomaz Salamun, Arthur Sze, Nance Van Winckel, W.B. Yeats, to name a few. Even experiemental composer/author John Cage is represented here with three prose poems, including the breezy -- "After an hour or so in the woods looking for mushrooms, Dad said, 'Well, we can always go and buy some real ones.'" Mysterious, primal, coveted, feared, fungi do indeed seem a natural for verse, as this closing stanza of Adam Dickinson's poem "The Good" so vividly shows --
For some time, we expected
the end of the world
to be a mushroom.
A vengeful good, a good
of fire, of clouded thought.
But every spring they come out of the ground
like universal suffrage,
a writ of habeas corpus,
speech before writing.
They say, dirt. They say, get up.
Dorothea Lasky's pamphlet, Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling $10) argues against the fairly popular current use of poetry as a tool to be applied to a project. An example from Ms. Lasky -- "he told me he was working on a project where his goal was to go to the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day." The charm of this book, besides its highly fascinating topic, is the thoroughly present and compelling fact of its author's voice. Her argument is offered with welcome verve -- "I might argue that a poet with a 'project' that he can lucidly discuss is a pretty boring poet at best." But as opinionated as Ms. Lasky is, she's aware of nuance and does not hide her discomfort in making pronouncements. Regarding her example project she writes "[several] of my own poetry idols used projects as generative forces in their own poems. But the poems were the most important parts of the whole thing.... You can plan a party, but you have to make people show up for it to really be a party. Any other way, all you have created is just a decorated empty room." Poetry is Not a Project is a kick to read (though we hear there are those who've taken offense), both for the thought process and Ms. Lasky's engaged presentation of it.
Ahhh, the charm and almost guilty-pleasure-ness of David Lee's good ol' boy and good ol' girl poems. In Texas Wildflowers ($11) we get three tall tales in a chapbook of lovingly handset type and hand-carved images, the work of Paul Hunter at Wood Works. You who are familiar with Lee's folksy poems through his books with Copper Canyon Press and Wood Works know the joys of his spot-on vernacular writing (and spelling) and the over-the-top narratives this speech carries along. You who are unfamiliar with Lee have, if you're willing to take the plunge, some wonderfully careening, comic, occasionally moving reading ahead of you. Here's a sample from "Wheelis House: A Texas Tragedy"
in which Wheelis loses a leg in a grim car wreck,
later finding his first, ill-fitting, and lost artificial leg being used in Charles Huffman's Halloween "Horrer Show" --
Wheelis called in on the radio
and then the newspaper
four letters to the Editor
to take his case to the public
said That leg was his private personal property
that should of never been took away from him
while he was being incapacitated
and reduced to begging the rest of his life
any act of decency would give it back to him
Charles said No
it's become a major aspect
of my financial income
I caint let it go
without substantial recompension.
The case ends up in court is all we'll say. You'll learn the upshot with book in hand.
Two long esteemed elders in the world of poetry have released new work. From the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska comes the bilingual collection Here (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $22), translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, and from the former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur comes his first volume in a decade, Anterooms (Houghton $20). Though slim books, they nonetheless are filled with their authors' unmistakable voices. Ms. Szymborska continues to produce sharply contemplative poems in her trademark plainspoken style, those from this collection often focused on the passing of years, as in these closing lines from "Greek Statue" --
... only the torso lingers
and it's like a breath held with great effort,
since now it must
all the grace and gravity
of what was lost.
And it does,
for now it does,
it does and it dazzles,
it dazzles and endures --
Time likewise merits some applause here,
since it stopped work early,
and left some for later.
Mr. Wilbur's Anterooms includes what he is best known for -- his own formal verse and his translations, in this case from French, Russian, and Latin. While the book at times bears a touch of humor and play (the last several pages consist of riddles by Latin poet Symphosius), it often, like Ms. Szymborska's, charts the drift of time --
The sun in Aries
Shines on the plum tree full of risen sap,
And prints on last year's grass the map
Of a black river and its tributaries.
As yet no bud
Has broken, but we have not long to wait
For shadow streams to merge in spate
And under blossoms deepen to a flood.
You've heard us sing the praises of Caroline Knox before, a writer for whom the term sui generis is most apt. Snappy bright, linguistically athletic, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, her poems nevertheless hold a depth at the core of their whimsy. She casts a keen eye on humankind across the centuries, but it is not an unkind one. Her latest book is, well, rather hard to describe. Or maybe not hard to describe, just hard to codify, to place within the framework of contemporary publishing. But it is indeed an intriguing, strangely captivating thing. Called Nine Worthies, it has been lovingly published by Wave Books as a limited-edition chapbook, hand-bound with a letterpress-printed cover and priced at $20. Its beautiful design echoes that of 18th-century volumes, including the placement of "catchwords" at the bottom of each page to facilitate reading aloud. The design is a perfect conveyance for the text, which consists of nine prose monologues by the "worthies" who are having their portraits painted by Nathaniel Smibert in 1756 in Boston and Newport, interspersed with the painter's own thoughts, as well the occasional poem by others (truly by Caroline Knox). The sitters are haughty, silly, touching, irritating, brave, and marked by their place and their place in their time. Smibert is quirky, forthright, and evidently sickened by the lead in his materials (he would die the year the portraits are painted). It all makes for an oddly affecting piece, a quiet study in transience and preservation, as in the painter's musings on a shilling --
In defiance of the Crown, precious metal is struck into coins for New-England. The design of a tree -- oak, pine, or willow -- covers the whole field of the slug, to indicate that the coin has not been shaved or clipped.
The symbolic weight here is not far to seek. The oak, of course, is the triumph of the unprepossessing acorn -- strength and permanence. The pine gives masts, joists, and mountain shelter. The willow grows aslant the brook and teaches us to mourn. But any silver specie, formerly liquid, may soon be liquid again, to reappear in the form of a teapot.
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