May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
Only thirteen books? Cruel Neptunian Customs—as soon as I start thinking about pruning my list of indispensible poetry, paralysis sets in. How to choose? At the risk of sounding prosaic, I’d pick my poetry books pretty much like the food I’d pack for this dark trip: a little has to go a long way. No easily-digested poetry for quick consumption on a frozen Neptunian beach, only poetry that keeps on giving, that seduces with its music and expands, pushing its limits beyond the faint rings of Neptune and all the galaxies without names or numbers, inflating multiverses, all by smashing atomic words together, collisions that according to the laws of physics should have been impossible.
Here are my thirteen, one for each of Neptune’s moons. It’s my suitcase and if customs officials try to stop me I’ll throw them off by reciting a a couple of lines from my collected Gertrude Stein and make a hasty escape on one of the planet’s supersonic winds.
1. Miklós Radnóti, Clouded Sky, translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks (Harper & Row, 1972)
Miklós Radnóti was a Jewish Hungarian poet murdered by Nazi collaborators during a three-month death march in 1944 and buried in a mass grave. About eighteen months after his death, Radnóti’s wife, Fanny, located and exhumed his body. She found in his coat pocket a notebook of his poems. He had continued to write poetry during his internment in various work camps, his slave labour in a copper mine, and his forced march across his native Hungary, bearing witness to the horrors to which he ultimately succumbed.
These last poems, written under the pressure of the most degrading and desperate circumstances imaginable, unfurl visions of delicate pastoral beauty next to images of extreme degradation and wild, filthy despair. They give voice to the last vestiges of hope as Radnóti fantasizes being home once more with his beloved Fanny, as well as to the grim premonition of his own fate. This impossibly stark contrast blossoms into paradox: his poetry embraces humanity and inhumanity with an urgent desire to bear witness to both. Yet even at the moment when he is most certain of his imminent death, he never abandons the condensed and intricate language of his poetry. And pushed to the limits of human endurance and sanity, he never loses his capacity for empathy.
Radnóti’s poetry draws me in because of its steadfast courage and humane outlook in the midst of the living hell in which he was forced to exist. Maybe Neptune’s a lovely planet, but in case it’s hell frozen over, reading Radnóti’s poignantly homesick response to evil would be consoling.
The Second Eclogue
We went pretty far last night. I was so angry I laughed.
Fighters buzzed me like a swarm of bees.
They had good protection. Friend, you should have seen how they fired.
Finally another one of our squadrons appeared on the horizon.
I barely missed getting shot down and having pieces of me swept up down below.
But I’m back you see. And tomorrow I’ll tremble with fear again
and a frightened Europe will hid in its cellars from me—
Oh, forget it. I’ve had enough. Did you write again today?
Yes, I wrote. What else can I do? Poets write, cats wail, dogs howl
and small fish coyly scatter their eggs. I write about everything.
I even write for you, so you’ll know I’m alive.
I write when the light of the bloodshot moon stumbles
among the exploding, collapsing rows of houses,
when terrified parks are torn up, when breathing stops,
when even the sky vomits, and the planes keep coming.
They disappear and then swoop down again, like the roar of madness!
I write. What else can I do? And a poem is very dangerous,
if you only know how sensitive, how unpredictable even one line is!
You need bravery for all this, you see. Poets write, cats
wail, dogs howl, and small fish—
and so on— But what do you know? You listen to the plane
and your ear buzzes with the noise even when you can’t hear it.
Don’t deny it, the plane’s your friend. It’s part of you.
What are you thinking about when you fly over us?
You can laugh but I’m afraid up there. I close my eyes and think
about my girl, about lying in bed down here.
Or I only sing about her, between my teeth, quietly,
in the crazy uproar of the steaming soldiers’ club.
Up there, I want to come down. Down here, I want to fly again.
There’s no place on earth for me.
And I know the airplane means too much to me,
but up there the rhythm of our pain is the same—
You know what I mean! You’ll write about it. It won’t be a secret
any more that I, who only destroy now, lived like a man too,
homeless between the earth and the sky. O God, who will understand—
Will you write about me?
If I’m alive. If there’s anyone left.
April 27, 1941
2. Joe Brainard, I Remember (Granary Books, 2001)
Poets marooned on Neptune will be reading (and re-reading) their thirteen rationed books. Aside from that, what else can they do but remember the good old days on earth—and write their own poetry, of course? To me, there’s no better inspiration for the poetry of memory than Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” series. Brainard, a New York artist, wrote several books containing a series of (mostly) childhood memories, each beginning “I remember…”:
I remember sending some fashion design drawings to “Frederick’s of Hollywood” in hopes of being discovered as a child genius fashion designer, but—no response.
I remember the rumour that Mae West keeps her youthful appearance by washing her face with male cum.
I remember fantasies of all of a sudden out of the blue announcing “An evening with Joe Brainard” at Carnegie Hall and surprising everybody that I can sing and dance too, but only for one performance. (Tho I’m a smash hit and people want more.) But I say “no”: I give up stardom for art. And this one performance becomes a legend. And people who missed it could shoot themselves. But I stick to my guns.
After reading these, I always feel inspired to remember quirky-mundane flashbacks of my own. Writing them would help wile away an eternity on a strange planet.
3. Barbara Guest, The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan UP, 2008)
Homesick on a desolate planet, the senses will need inspiration, which is why I’d pack Barbara Guest’s scrumptious 525-page feast.
Barbara Guest is a poet for the inner eye, ear, and mind. Her association with abstract expressionist painters such as de Kooning and Pollock is well-known, and her painterly approach to language, using words like colours on a palette, reflects that visual sensibility.
The rich sensual texture of her poetry is not only imagistic but also musical: in many poems, it is as though she is treating the page like a musical score, orchestrating the words not only for their meanings and associations but also for the timbre—the quality in music that distinguishes, say, a clarinet from a violin. Guest has a poetic ear to die for. She also uses the sparse arrangement of words on the white page to achieve her polyphonic effects.
Old time seas of quilts
in the gull dawn
like picking up a sardine
on the beach I see those tickling threads
minnows on muslin
4. Frank O’Hara, The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Vintage Books, 1974)
I can think of few poets whose work would keep me warmer than Frank O’Hara, founder of poetic personism. In “Personism: A Manifesto,” he recalls the birth of the movement when, writing a poem to someone he was in love with, he realized “that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.” Personism places “the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” Gratified and warm, I’d add. Expats on Neptune could learn a thing or two (or three) from Personism and larger-than-life Frank O’Hara, head in the clouds, feet planted firmly in gaseous Neptune.
O’Hara throws out neither intimacy nor abstraction with the bathwater: “The only good thing about [ideas] is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.”
Speaking of refreshments, if Neptune serves cocktails, I’m ordering rounds of stingers for me and my fellow stranded poets—O’Hara’s de rigeur drink—to warm the cockles of our hearts while we wait for Earth to answer the phone, toasting Neptune’s thirteen moons that Frank would have loved.
We hardly ever see the moon any more
so no wonder
it’s so beautiful when we look up suddenly
and there it is gliding broken-faced over the bridges
brilliantly coursing, soft, and a cool wind fans
your hair over your forehead and your memories
of Red Grooms’ locomotive landscape
I want some bourbon/you want some oranges/I love the leather
jacket Norman gave me
and the corduroy coat David
gave you, it is more mysterious than spring, the El Greco
heavens breaking open and then reassembling like lions
in a vast tragic veldt
that is far from our small selves and our temporally united
passions in the cathedral of Januaries
everything is too comprehensible
these are my delicate and caressing poems
I suppose there will be more of those others to come, as in the past
but for now the moon is revealing itself like a pearl
to my equally naked heart
5. Lyn Hejinian, Oxota: A Russian Novel (The Figures, 1991)
Some sentences by Hejinian make the top of my head come off. Of her titles on my shelf, I’ve returned most often to Oxota: A Russian Novel. She wrote the 292-page book of sonnets during her travels in Russia, where she became close friends with poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko. Oxota is inspired by and modelled after Pushkin’s poetic novel Eugene Onegin, and follows Hejinian’s encounter with Russian culture and language during the early years of political reform in the 1980s leading up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I almost wrote “collision” with Russian culture—the book chronicles debates and misunderstandings with some of the people she meets—but “collaboration” is perhaps a better word, for the long poem is striking for the linguistic enrichment that results from the differences. One example is her learning of the difference between the English phrase “crime of passion” and the Russian “criminal of passion,” the latter being the Soviet state’s imprisonment of a person based on trumped-up charges of a sexual nature.
Simply put, the book is a tour-de-force of cultural cross-pollination, a good choice for traveling to an alien planet and learning the stories behind the Neptunian counterparts to passionate crimes.
I sometimes begin poetry workshops with an ice-breaker called “ask the book a question.” First, think of a question that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Then open a book of poetry at random and, eyes shut, point to a place and read the sentence. That’s your answer. It’s uncanny how prescient books are at this game, and for some reason, I’ve always gotten good results with Oxota.
So, Oxota, why should I take you to Neptune? My randomly (I swear) selected sentence from the book:
All the acts of a butterfly, all the acts of the canvas sheet, all the print acts, the comic boots, the selves bound in bed, the poetry strip, the frosted web, the change of attack, and the charge of impressions
6. Rae Armantrout, Veil: New And Selected Poems (Wesleyan UP, 2001)
A long trip wouldn’t be the same without a book by Rae Armantrout. Her deftly sardonic poems often collage together pithy observations that spotlight the strangeness of the self caught in the act of feigning itself into meaning. The sympathetic vibrations among these collaged little worlds lead to lucid cultural insights. As Armantrout puts it in a recent interview, she writes “as a way to ‘talk back’ to the culture.”
Although Versed won the Pulitzer Prize, I’d probably bring Veil: New and Selected Poems, as thus volume contains may of my favourites from several of her collections, such as this section from “Near Rhyme”:
That young girl listening
to “Angel Baby”
on a pink plastic radio
while staring out her window
at the planet Venus
was conscious of doing what girls do—
thrilled to correspond.
That is what it means
to be young.
7. Anselm Hollo, Corvus (Coffee House Press, 1995)
Ex-pats on Neptune will need friends, and to me, no poetic voice is friendlier than Anselm Hollo’s self-described “avuncular vernacular.” Although Heavy Jars, a perfect little letter-press book is tempting, as is the much thicker Sojourner Microcosms, I’d probably go with Corvus, which contains “Not a Form at All but a State of Mind,” a gathering of almost fifty sonnets, and the last groupings in the book, “Survival Dancing” and “High Beam,” among Hollo’s best work.
Factoid: When Billy Collins was selected as Poet Laureate of the United States during Dubya’s presidency, in protest SUNY-Buffalo’s Poetics listserv members created their own post of United States Anti-Laureate and elected Hollo. According to Bob Archambeau, “the Anti-Laureateship is a protest against the banality of the most recent Poets laureate, and a parody of the prize culture that permeates the small world of American poetry. BLAST the Laureate, and BLESS the Anti-Laureate. Long may he reign over us.” I’ll drink to that.
A sonnet from Corvus:
If there’s a little room up there
A waiting room that you can wait around in
For five hundred years
You can check from time to time to see
What they’re saying back there on Earth
As to whether you did it or not
“He did it”
But as for one’s self
One can’t use the word did
Because you’re not dead
So it’s just like you did that & you did this
but did you do it?
But even with Shakespeare
There’ll be fifty years when they’ll be saying, “This guy
You don’t have to read this guy Read that guy
8. Connie Deanovich, Zombie Jet (Zoland Books, 2000)
Queen of wit, Connie Deanovich is one of those poets who can make me chuckle aloud while simultaneously wowing me with her trenchantly intelligent spinnings on habits of thought. I’ll need a sense of humour on Neptune. Her two books, both published in the 1990s (Watusi Titanic and Zombie Jet), tie for inclusion in my allotted thirteen, but if I must choose one, it would be the latter, if only because I’d like to get to know it better.
Deanovich’s poems reward close readings because of their near-prefect balancing of manner/matter, an old debate in poetics (I say “near-perfect” because perfection is something that Deanovich satirizes). Her words are a pleasure to read (manner) and the content (matter) provokes thought that expands exponentially with the slowness of the reading.
This Is the Universe
to show it’s special
the universe is silver
like a necklace in a diner
to show it’s expansive
the universe is a ghost ship
covered up by a leaky cloud
the animal kingdom
and all of the moons
when it’s the universe
what part remains separate?
time because of its voodoo?
time is vodka in a shot glass
that stays the same
even when it’s on fire
space is very pleasing
widening at the center
bloodhounds circling are prophets
of the world’s worst news but then
stretch out dusty and dumb on the porch
sleeping they stretch like the universe
while more suns than you could imagine
come into being and end
9. Harryette Mullen, Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press, 1995)
The story of how Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T and Muse & Drudge came to be published is legendary. Gil Ott, publisher of Singing Horse Press, invited Mullen to give a reading at a gallery. Mullen, not as well known then as she is now, read to only a handful of people who showed up (haven’t we all been there?). Ott asked her if she had a manuscript ready (wouldn’t we all like to be there?) and thus S*PeRM**K*T was born, followed three years later by Muse & Drudge.
Ott knew a good thing when he heard it. Mullen’s work is known for seducing even the most resistant of audiences to the linguistic play that is characteristic of experimental work. Muse & Drudge has become so popular that poems from it have been used in ESL classes.
Mullen accounts for the reputation of Muse & Drudge thus: “I think it’s the rhythm and the rhyme, those musical qualities that the poem has. I thought of this as a poem that people could hear even if they didn’t really understand it all. I don’t expect anyone to understand it all. Even I don’t understand it all because some of it is literally nonsense. I mean some of it is my riffing around with words and just seeing what comes out. There’s an improvisational aspect to it, and it’s not necessarily meant to have a deep meaning, although in some cases it might be meaningful in ways not immediately apparent. My idea is to allow people to be carried along by the oral qualities of the work in those moments when they’re not getting it at some other level. So there’s still a way that they can be in and with the poem.”
Mullen’s jazzy, snappy rhythms are infectious, and I was a goner from the gitgo. I travel with this book. Obligatory for Neptune.
from Muse & Drudge
curly waves away blues navy
saved from salvation
army grits and gravy
tries no lie relaxation
some little bitter
wiped the floor
with spoiled sugar
back dating double dutch
fresh out of bubble gum
halfstep in the grave
on banana peels of love
devils dancing on a dime
cut a rug in ragtime
jitterbug squat diddly bow
stark strangled banjo
10. Gertrude Stein, Writings 1903-1932 and Writings 1932-1946 (Library of America, 1998)
To those endless debates about which literary titan owns the era of modernist poetry (Pound, Stevens, Eliot), I say Stein/Stein: Whose Era? She is “the mother of us all” (after her eponymous opera libretto title about Susan B. Anthony) and the poet who has cast the longest shadow over twentieth-century “other-stream” poetry. Just yesterday I was reading a newly released book of poetry that includes a passage about a “little dog,” a reference to Stein’s poetic essay about identity (“Perhaps I am not I even if my little dog knows me”). Stein’s influence is pervasive and deathless.
My first introduction to Stein’s work was Tender Buttons and she had me at “A CARAFE THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.” I started buying everything I could find by Stein and was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was lucky enough to attend a Tulane University production of Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, which has been described as “a bad dream by Dr. Seuss” (in a good way), that the words came to electrified life. Stein’s work is awash in sound, cadence, repetition, and this is perhaps why sceptical students encountering her for the first time on the page are often won over by listening to a recording of Stein reading her own poetry, such as “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
Stein is hypnotic, and what better way to make the time on Neptune pass than under hypnosis? I’ll have to cheat and claim as one book the Library of America’s magisterial two-volume set.
from Stanzas in Meditation
What I wish to say is this of course
It is the same of course
Not yet of course
But which they will not only yet
This brings me back to this of course.
It is the same of course it is the same
Now even not the name
But which is it when they gathered which
A broad black butterfly is white with this.
Which is which which of course
Did which of course
Why I wish to say in reason is this.
When they begin I did begin and win
Win which of course.
It is easy to say easily.
That this is the same in which I do not do not like the name
Which wind of course.
This which I say is this
Which it is.
It is a difference in which I send alike
In which instance which.
I wish to say this.
That here now it is like
Exactly like this.
I know how exactly like this is.
I cannot think how they can say this
This is better than I know if I do
That I if I say this
Now there is an interference in this.
I interfere in I interfere in which this.
They do not count alike.
One two three.
11. Peter Gizzi, Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan UP, 2003)
Peter Gizzi is one of the great contemporary lyrical poets—a poet’s poet, if you’ll pardon that rather undemocratic expression. Yet he describes himself otherwise: “I think I am a narrative poet—I’m just narrating my bewilderment as a citizen.” Bewilderment yet also discovery—and it’s this quality of meshing dualities, between what Gizzi calls “knowing and un-knowing” in the poem, or its condition of seeming both “random and inevitable,” that gives Gizzi’s poetry a warm feeling of openness to the reader. Light reveals mysteries and invites collaboration between poet and reader.
Gizzi on the pleasure of poetry: “It is an experience of an inner emotional and intellectual life alive and unfolding. It has a sense of numinous reality that is open. The deep, satisfying, symphonic mind conducted through the sonic frequency of language. When a moment—when either reading or writing—lights up and reveals consciousness itself free of expression, implacable, impersonal, alive and singing.”
A collected edition has yet to appear, so I’ll pack Some Values of Landscape and Weather, the one I’ve spent the least amount of time with. On Neptune I’ll have plenty of time to make up for lost time.
In Defense of Nothing
I guess these trailers lined up in the lot off the highway will do.
I guess that crooked eucalyptus tree also.
I guess this highway will have to do and the cars
and the people in them on their way.
The present is always coming up to us, surrounding us.
It’s hard to imagine storms, hard to imagine
hydrogen & oxygen binding, it’ll have to do.
This sky with its macular clouds also
and that electric tower to the left, one line broken free.
12. Ern Malley, The Darkening Ecliptic
There are so many more poets I could have included here, but to exclude non-existent poets would be irrationally biased. Ern Malley is the infamous poet concocted as a hoax by two Australian writers in the military during World War II in order to ridicule and satirize what they perceived as modernist poetry’s absurd excesses. The joke backfired on the hoaxers, and since the first publication of Ern Malley’s work work in Angry Penguins, the popularity of this phantom poet has attained cult status. Malley’s poetry has been anthologized, analyzed, and idolized.
The Ern Malley affair is a great story (better than Yasusada, IMHO) and even includes an obscenity trial in 1944. It’s the literary hoax that keeps on giving. Here’s one of the poems that gave rise to the charge of obscenity:
The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.
The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With rusty invidious beaks.
Among the water-lilies
A splash — white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.
13. Mina Loy, The Last Lunar Baedeker (The Jargon Society, 1982)
The poetry of Mina Loy, modernist iconoclast par excellence and sublime travel guide to celestial bodies, is an old friend—I’ve read and re-read her work and written several essays about her poetry. But whenever I revisit her words, I always turn the corner into strange new gardens.
While on Neptune, I’d relish “Songs to Joannes,” the poems that got her first book (Lunar Baedeker, 1923) seized by United States Customs on pornographic grounds. Its opening poem contains one of the most startlingly primal passages about sensual love ever penned:
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
I’d choose this particular edition of her work because, unlike the later The Lost Lunar Baedeker, it contains her long autobiographical poem, “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” about her Hungarian Jewish father and proper Protestant English mother.
The title poem of Lunar Baedeker is a deliciously anti-sentimental satire on the “Nocturnal cyclops.” Lest I become moonstruck watching the thirteen satellites swirl around Neptune’s enchanting atmosphere laced with methane and ammonia, I’ll ground myself in Loy’s wry observatory:
Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes—
It’ll be cold and dark on Neptune, so I’ll wear Loy’s thermometer earrings to gauge the temp,
one of her original hats to cap my chimney,
and one of her famed lamps to light my reading . . .
. . . as I huddle with my fellow poets on her Communal Cot.