Saturday, March 15, 2014

Short Takes on Two Recent Books

The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

Each poem in this book is comprised of three speakers, the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, and each speaker always speaks in this order, although the Dog does not always get the last word, so to speak.  The Old Woman speaks of human concerns, the Tulip is the voice of Beauty, and the Dog speaks for the animal.  Yet they also speak of what they are, woman, flower, dog, just themselves, if those selves could all cogently speak. The trio discuss God, Love, Death, the nature of Man.  I thought I'd had other books by Ostriker on my shelf, but I can't find any now.  I do remember using her book Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America when writing some papers in grad school. This one will remain on my shelf--I love the interplay of the three voices, how their conversations open up the world, and how, when you listen to speakers who are good at arguing their case, your loyalties and opinions shift and change like leaves in the wind.

Here is one of the shorter poems in this collection:

Soften and Melt

The man man made me soften and melt
said the old woman.

The bee made me shiver like a rag
said the dark red tulip.

The bitch made me push
said the dog.

Bay of Angels, by Diane Wakoski

Why do we chew again and again on the bones of old wrongs?  Why are we (are some of us, many of us, most of us?) haunted by old love, love gone wrong, ancient betrayals, decades-old heartbreak?  This can be true, I think, even if our present is relatively happy and drama-free.  Wakoski examines her past with movies and myth as her companions, finding tropes in both that twine and echo in her own life.  In the last section of the book, "The Lady of Light Meets the Shadow Boy," she writes poems that are inspired by a new friendship/mentorship with the poet Matthew Dickman, yet these poems, too, are meditations on the past, and what both poets share from it. I am always in awe of Wakoksi's catalog of imagery: the natural world, the urban environment, jewels, cloth, flowers, cinema, the qualities of light, as well as her ear for prosody and her skill with line-breaks. This collection, along with her previous book, The Diamond Dog, indicate to me another flowering in this poet's career.  Some of the fieceness of her earlier work is not here, but she has replaced anger (which was exciting) with a hard-won wisdom (calmer, but perhaps more beautiful.)  I look forward to her work, always.

Here's the third stanza of "Some Beauty Needs a Dimness." The poet is describing how a winter scene would be different if the sun were out:

                                                Now the 
gold and green and orange snow blowers and shovels
would come out, a reminder of
worldly destruction; the kids in red gloves would
dirty the world with snowballs, the car mufflers
would blow out a column of asserive, lively particles,
some perhaps staining the snow blue. Even the light itself would be
cheerful and lose its sonority.
Edward Weston's pepppers -- wouldn't you shudder
if they were green? Would you ever want to see a Greta Garbo 
film in color?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The World Will Find A Way to Break Your Heart

From an interview with Mark Doty in Tricycle

Mark Doty: Grief does not seem to me to be a choice. Whether or not you think grief has value, you will lose what matters to you. The world will break your heart. So I think we’d better look at what grief might offer us. It’s like what Rilke says about self-doubt: it is not going to go away, and therefore you need to think about how it might become your ally.

I find that line all the time in my notebooks, "the world will break your heart." Or better, " the world will find a way to break your heart."

Friday, February 21, 2014

The idea of the leap

"I love Robert Bly's idea of the leap and Lorca's duende. For me, these two concepts can supercharge a poem. They are jet fuel. Bly defines a leap as movement from the conscious to the unconscious and back again. For me this is true to the way the human mind works. We are continually moving between the reality and dream, daydream, memory, fantasy. And duende is that acknowledgment of mortality—the shadow of death. So for me these concepts are central to the poetic process: the self or voice, sense images, moving from the conscious to the unconscious, and duende." -- Barbara Hamby, in an interview in Superstition Review
I've really been enjoying her New and Selected Poems

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dear Wrought Iron Fence,

In troubled times I imagine turning you into
a weapon. Tonight in full

moonlight I decide what you might say
if you could speak,

a voice that sounds like Mary Tyler Moore when
she holds a spear.

In December ice is your secret
friend, I can tell

by the ferocious way each glass
knife finds

a way to embrace you.

(One of the 69 Letters poems)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hidden From Me in Veils of Cloud

I was in Seattle for much of this past week at Winter Institute, a conference for booksellers. It's always such a buzz to be with 500 other slightly insane bookstore types and writers, discussing business, authors, reading, and the like. Not to mention hauling away a metric ton of free books. The sad part was that I didn't actually get to experience much of Seattle. The conference business starts in the early morning and goes on through the day, with publisher sponsored dinners at fancy venues in the evening. On the last day I took a walk with my coworker Sarah and we went to the Pike Place fish market.  And on the first night there was an opening party at Elliot Bay Book Company, where I could not resist buying the new Mary Ruefle collection and Frank Stanford's book-length poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. They were right there on the staff recommends shelf, looking at me.

After a breakfast with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, among others, It was off to the airport, where we discovered a nerve-wracking wait to see if our 11 am flight would actually ever leave.  Two things make the wait worth it. I was daydreaming, looking out at the trees-- it was a sunny warm day-- and I realized suddenly that the huge bird that had just landed on a telephone pole about 200 feet from me was a bald eagle.   All winter long I've been wanting to see a snowy owl, but this was just as good; it was the first bald eagle I've ever seen that close with my own eyes. The eagle was only there for two minutes before two crows swooped down and drove it away.

About the same time I saw the eagle, I noticed Mt. Rainier in the distance. Since there was not much chance of crows casing the mountain away, I got to see it over a period of several hours, mist-shrouded, clear but distant, and suddenly sharply clear, as if it had moved closer when I wasn't looking. I suddenly remembered the poet Denise Levertov wrote several poems about the Mountain when she moved to Seattle at the end of her life.


Sometimes the mountain
Is hidden from me in veils
Of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain 
In veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
When I forget or refuse to go
Down to the shore or a few yards
Up the road, on a clear day,
To reconfirm
That witnessing presence.

-- Denise Levertov, in  Evening Train

Monday, January 13, 2014

One of the Ancient Spirits of the World.

Just before Christmas I went to the lakefront, hoping to see one of the snowy owls who have landed here in Chicago for a while. I drove past a group of people who were all staring up into the black branches of an apple tree, some of them pointing, some of them aiming cameras. By the time I parked the car and reached that slushy point on the lawn, the group was disbanding. One woman walked away yelling" who- wee, who- wee" over and over, like she was calling a pig in at slop time.  I hoped a snowy owl would not respond to that sort of thing. I went walking on a sliding cold trail, through the slush, out into the prairie field at Montrose Point.  I saw a squirrel, and a man with binoculars looking at finches, and breathed in the scent of dry grass and winter. But I didn't see a snowy owl.

I thought of the first poetry workshop I ever attended, led by Diane Wakoski. For the first session, she just read us recent poems she'd written, and one of them was the poem "Removed from Natural Habitiat," about the speaker viewing snowy owls in a zoo:

...Part of their beauty is
In their stillness, the unblinking eyes like money that is hoarded,
The head cocked a little, the body stationary, and seemingly

I wanted to see a snowy owl at the lakefront, in the snow fields on the beach, or in a low tree, or out on the cold pier.  I wanted to see one snowy owl, even though I'd seen videos and photos of many of these recent city visitors online.  you can't google " snowy owl chicago" without plenty of information. And images appearing. I found for example, that these owls descending from the north are called an irruption, not a migration, and that more than likely it comes of there being an overabundance of owls in the north, so that the younger ones are driven away by the elders, and come to us looking for food.

I thought I might see one of the ancient spirits of the world.

I wanted to see a snowy owl, with my own eyes, but did not, and so had to cast around for other forms of ferocity, and beauty.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pretending to be Morpheus: An Short Interview with Dave Awl

I've known writer/performer Dave Awl since the late 1990s, when I used to see him as part of the famed Neo-Futurist ensemble and their long-running Two Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind evening of 30 plays in 60 minutes. I have always appreciated his work, both the plays, monologues, songs, and skits from TMLMTBGB, and printed work from journals and his collection of poetry and prose, What the Sea Means, and was reminded of that fact when I saw he'd been featured recently in the on-line journal Escape Into Life. Dave was kind enough to respond to some questions that occurred to me after reading this lovely batch of work.  (I originally typed "lovely bath" of work, which also seems apt--one bathes in his work and emerges warm, refreshed, and clean, ready for the day or the night to startle and begin.)

Lives of the Spiders: Can you talk a bit about your process with the Night Diary poems? Do you compose drafts late at night while you are already (still) up, or do these writings stem from those middle of the night "oh crap I woke up and can't get back to sleep" times?

Dave Awl:  I do often find myself writing poems at two or three a.m -- it's a natural writing time for me, when my inhibitions and my guard are down and things flow a little more freely. But it's not a requirement, and I write by day sometimes, too ... I'm pretty sure I scribbled some of my first Night Diaries poems down in my spiral notebook while riding the bus in broad daylight.

The main idea behind the Night Diaries poems was that I wanted to try writing poems that followed the strange logic and surreal thought processes of dreams -- kind of like dreaming out loud into my notebook or keyboard while fully awake. I had been studying Jung for years, taking classes at the Jung Institute in Evanston, and keeping a dream journal for a while before I wrote the first Night Diaries poems. But rather than turning my dreams themselves into poems, I wanted to try to consciously write like the part of my brain that makes up my dreams. Pretending to be Morpheus, for a few minutes at a time.

LOTS: Do you consider yourself to be a "night person?" What associations or tendencies do you have with writing at night that might not be true of writing in the brazen light of day?

DA: Yes, I'm very much a nocturnal person. I've always found nighttime peaceful and relaxing, and it's when a lot of the most fun things happen. Night is when all the fabulous monsters come out. I like that nighttime is less crowded ... my literary hero and eventual friend Russell Hoban used to say that as an artist you need empty spaces in which to create, and I think at night there are more empty spaces to write into. It's easier to be imaginative at night, too. To steal a line from a performance piece I once did on this subject, non sequiturs and useful twists of expression breed in the moonlight.

And I think of this lovely line from Russell Hoban's novel The Medusa Frequency: "At three o’clock in the morning the moments patter like rain on the roof of night; the silence is a road to anywhere."

LOTS:  The titles of these works in Escape Into Life indicate more material--of there's a "Night Diary 82" one would assume there's a "Night Diary 1" and a "Night Diary 81."  Other poems found on-line, such as "Film Loop #12" for example, would lead one to consider the existence of other Film Loop poems. Do you have an archive of Night Diary entries?  And if so, can you quote from another of those entries for the readers of Lives of the Spiders?  (Dave's answer, after the break.)