“True Bones” at The Poetry Foundation, on Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison died in March. I’ve written an essay called “True Bones: The Many Appetites of Jim Harrison,” about his work as a poet for The Poetry Foundation.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 9.16.28 AM

It contains a chunk of the poem “Counting Birds,” which is a poem I particularly love. There are also ten of Harrison’s poems on the Poetry Foundation site.

– John

Some of Us Press at Beltway Poetry Quarterly

The surprise of the week for me is Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Winter 2016 issue on Some of Us Press. As nice (reassuring? comforting?) as it is to believe that absolutely everything is now catalogued online, you won’t find much on Some of Us Press. There’s a list of the titles it published here, but there’s no Wikipedia entry. And really, if there’s no Wikipedia entry, did something even exist?

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 7.53.22 PM

The answer in this case at least is yes. Yes, it did, and it was glorious. I’m not a wholly unbiased source, since Some of Us published work by Tim Dlugos, who I regard as one of the major poets of the late 20th century. In any event, Michael Lally, the first editor for the press, covers everything from the Mass Transit poets to the history of Some of Us Press in his introductory essay. He remembers having come out as an act of solidarity with his gay friends, and through that act of solidarity, winning Dlugos’s admiration and friendship.

Lolly published a book called The South Orange Sonnets, which I’m immediately inclined to like, and not just because I bought groceries in South Orange on Tuesday. This is the type of literary history I’m heartened to see someone preserving.

Beltway Poetry Quarterly is doing good, important work. There’s the journal, but they go above and beyond to present opportunities to writers. I can’t sum up their efforts better than they do:

In addition to the journal, we are pleased to provide information and extensive links.

The Poetry News section is updated monthly. This section lists new book publications and new issue releases by DC-area presses and journals, calls for entries, poetry readings, workshops, and other events.

The Resource Bank offers extensive links for poets and their audiences in the Mid-Atlantic. Links include reading series, literary presses, grant-making organizations, workshops, libraries, and other relevant information.  Our only non-regional listing is the massive international list of Artist Residency Programs, and we believe ours in the most complete listing of this kind to be found anywhere in the world. With programs across the US and in other countries, these links can help artists of all disciplines find a place away from home to create new work.

Without publications like BPQ and the people behind it, we stand to lose a great deal. Go to their site, click, enjoy.

– John McIntyre

Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer, dead at 83

The Nobel Prize-winning (2011) Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has died at 83. He had been partially paralyzed since a 1990 stroke, but there was long the expectation that the Nobel committed would recognize his work. He was nominated for the Prize every year from 1993 until his eventual win.

the great enigma

Since he was awarded the Nobel, American readers have been treated to a wider range of his work. New Directions had offered The Great Enigma: New and Collected Poems, in 2006. In 2011, they followed that with Memories Look at Me: A Memoir, written after Tranströmer lost his capacity for speech. Farrah, Straus and Giroux brought out The Deleted World: Poems, late in 2011. A particular treat (I’m unapologetically partial to letters) came from Graywolf Press in the form of Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, a 2013 release spanning more than 25 years of correspondence between the two poets.

airmail

The letters are fond and lively, as in February 1968, when Tranströmer addresses Bly as, “Dear Robert, defender of the barricades.” Later that year, Bly writes back from Norway, “The thing that amuses me is that the FBI is unable to open and read my mail over here! That is a terrible frustration to them – they’re falling behind on various plots.” They also send poems back and forth, and little sketches to illustrate them at times. There is talk of translations (the correspondence begins with Bly sending literary magazines to Tranströmer and talking of translating his work, as well as the revelation that Tranströmer had translated a few poems by James Wright). All of this is simply to suggest that if you’re new to Tranströmer, or never got around to reading as widely in his work as you’d have liked, now is as good a time as any to catch up.

Tranströmer’s work is often apparently quiet, but this translates to a sort of elegance, a sense of control rather than detachment. Consider the opening lines of “The Half-Finished Heaven”:

Despondency breaks off its course.

Anguish breaks off its course.

The vulture breaks off its flight.

The eager light streams out,

even the ghosts take a draft.

Tranströmer’s register here is measured, and if the lines are nearly cryptic in sense, there is much to engage the reader in their sound, the consistency in the way each is formed. Spend time with Tranströmer, his poetry and prose alike. We are poorer for having lost him.

– John McIntyre

“Haiku” from The Great Enigma

Birds in human shape.

The apple trees in blossom.

The great enigma.   

Poems by John Burnside in London Review of Books, September 11, 2014 edition

Several years ago, after reading Who Sleeps with Katz and immediately adopting Todd McEwen as one of those rare writers whose every word I have to read, I came upon the following lines as the epigraph for his novel Arithmetic:

I live in an invented place whose only purpose is avoidance, and what I would avoid, I carry with me, always.

The lines came from a poem called “Suburbs,” in a book called Common Knowledge, by John Burnside. The name wasn’t familiar to me then. The book was out of print and not to be had for less than $100 US. I see cheaper copies now, but poems from the collection have appeared since as part of his Selected Poems (a worthy addition to any poetry shelf), rendering it slightly less mysterious and elusive. In any event, I emailed John Burnside, probably mentioning the lines in the McEwen book and expressing my regret at how hard it was to lay hands on a copy of the full poem. To my surprise, he offered to send me a photocopy of “Suburbs,” from Scotland to Memphis, TN. It was no more than a small act of kindness, I suppose, and the cynic could paint it as self-serving, since it meant the promise of another reader, but there was a sort of purity to the act as well. He was, I imagine, proud of the work despite the fact it was out of print, and pleased to share it with someone he knew would take to it eagerly the moment it arrived. Understand: Arithmetic did nothing to dim my admiration for McEwen. It gave me the amusing and apt concept of “sofa feelings,” for instance, and to this day it’s one of the reasons I can’t fathom McEwen being so ignored in the U.S. But better still, it put me on to John Burnside’s work, and that’s an introduction I’ve never regretted.

A few years later, four or five I suppose, I applied to the PhD in Creative Writing at St. Andrews University, where Burnside teaches. I got accepted and went through quite a bit of paperwork and preparation before it became clear there was no way I could afford the cost of attendance. It was a missed opportunity of sorts, though if I’d gone, or been able to go, the losses in other areas would be immeasurable. I’d have a different life entirely, in short, one I can’t fully imagine.

I’ve kept an eye on Burnside’s work since, for the simple fact that he’s both prolific and uncommonly talented. He published a memoir earlier this year entitled I Put a Spell on You, but my purpose here is to mention his three new poems in the September 11, 2014 London Review of Books.

cov3617

I don’t mean to reveal too much of what’s there, certainly not poems in full, but consider these lines from “Pluviose:”

Late afternoon, and further along the canal
the lock-keeper’s prettiest daughter is setting
eel traps in the clockless silt and purl
of waters her mother fished, before marriage and barter,

and though she has been dead for forty years,
she is living the life I lost on the way to school
in the body I failed to grow up in, her hands in the flow
of the river, finding the current

and teasing it loose, like a story, the word by word
of trains running through in the dark, in a seasonless rain,
and the faces in every compartment familiar and strange,
with a sister’s disdain, or a grandmother’s folded smile.

It hardly bears mentioning what a sure hand a poet as established as Burnside shows. Try not to linger over “clockless silt and purl/of waters her mother fished,” or “trains running through the dark in a seasonless rain.” Maybe you keep moving without a backward glance, but I can’t help sitting and turning those lines over and over, savoring the wholeness of the world in which they exist. By the time I read the closing lines of “An Essay in Sangfroid,” I wondered why I ever stopped writing poetry. “Faces/grinning from the dark,” Burnside writes, “a boyhood walking home, in autumn rain,/chill with the hope of being left untouched.”

He’s no secret, John Burnside, nor is his work, though I suppose he could be better known stateside. For those aware of him, those familiar with what he does, the pleasures are consistent in both poetry and prose. These poems are no exception. And that moment when the London Review site asks you to subscribe for access to the poems? They’re not asking anything unreasonable. They pay their writers, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a publication that attracts a higher caliber of writer, issue by issue. To put it another way, it’s no coincidence Burnside’s poems are there, and nothing so good should come for free.

— John McIntyre

Collected Poems by Reynolds Price

NIGHT SPEECH

In ten years of this

The most you’ve said

Is the odd “I’m glad”

To my declarations.

The rest is silence and

Its works –

Your silence, open as

Our window toward the sea

And above it your whole

Face charged

Again with my

Visitation: raft

Combusting in the night,

Moored to me.

— Reynolds Price, The Collected Poems

Reynolds Price was best known as a novelist. A fairer assessment would class him as a man of letters, given the breadth of his work, his mastery of multiple genres. His first book, A Long and Happy Life, received the William Faulkner Award. The  1986 novel Kate Vaiden earned him the National Book Critics Circle Award. A volume of memoir, Clear Pictures, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1989. And though he never received that level of formal recognition for it, his work as a poet shares the sensibility so widely appreciated in his prose. It also establishes Price as a poet with a sure hand, light when need be, though he is capable of rumination when appropriate, of elegy as well. He is a poet conversant with a range of poetic traditions and able to adapt them seamlessly to suit his own ends.

Price began writing poetry gradually for, as he notes in a preface to his Collected Poems, “Through most of the 1960s and early seventies, my energies continued to concentrate on the writing of more novels, stories, plays and essays…It was only in the late 1970s, however that I found myself more and more subject to the arrival of poems and to the eventual awareness that many of my experiences had begun to present themselves in the shapes and tones of verse.” His first published volume was Vital Provisions (1982). Price was 49 years old at the time. It was a mere two years before a spinal astrocytoma left him a paraplegic. It did not, I hasten to add, inhibit him as a writer. He told Frederick Busch, in an interview which appeared in the Paris Review, “I’m compelled in a very invigorating way to write. It’s not some Dostoyevskian ax-murderer compulsion to spend the day at the keyboard. No, I love to do it.” In addition to the novels and memoirs which came as part of his late flowering, Price produced three substantial volumes of poetry: The Laws of Ice (1986), The Use of Fire (1990) and The Unaccountable Worth of the World (1997). The four are available in his Collected Poems, a worthy addition to your library on any number of accounts, be it as a contribution to Southern Literature, to bolstering your poetry shelf, or as an acknowledgement of the full range of Price’s talent.

cvr9780684860022_9780684860022_lg

It’s a formidable talent indeed. I’m not going out on a limb saying that, I realize, but his poetry was something of a revelation to me. It cuts directly through the first years of the AIDS epidemic in America. “Jim Dead of AIDS an Hour Ago, 25 September 1988” is a stark, pretty farewell to a man fortunate enough to know, “a decent man you taught years back/Who saw you through.” Price writes, “You’d walk through fields of broken glass/For a smell of surf, its battering light,” and offers a brief, wrenching benediction: “Sail far, kind/Ancient luckless boy.” They aren’t strictly elegies in the same manner, but his three-poem “Pictures of the Dead” sequence, devoted to Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell is equally memorable. Take his last words on Auden, for example:

At one unheralded moment, mid-sentence,

You lean with the grace of an oak umbrella-

Rack, kiss me twice rapid-fire

On the dry right cheek.

They remain – and my thanks.   

Price, as openly and unapologetically Christian as he was openly and unapologetically gay, is no less authoritative when writing of religious matters. His Nine Mysteries series offers lively readings of everything from the annunciation to the ascension. “Two Caves, a House, a Garden, a Tomb (Memories of Israel and the West Bank with J.C.A., 1980)” unfolds in six parts. The language is fundamentally earthbound, a fitting vehicle for Price’s humble verse, as when he writes,

This one’s Mary’s house and has been so honored

Since at least the second century – small, low, shallow

With a marble altar saying Here the Word Was Made Flesh,

That hilarious unthinkable moment when a virgin God

Merely boarded a spotless likely-teenaged girl

And spoke some sound, known only to her (she’d already

Agreed), and thereby flooded her darkest space

With scalding light – her eventual death, our torturing shine.

Of course there’s a great deal more, both in terms of subject matter and formal acrobatics. “Black Water,” which was written after a German folksong, could also be an unsuspecting cousin to Michael Ondaatje’s “Skin Boat.” Among the early poems, “Rescue” is a highlight, the account of a man on shore watching, almost diffidently, as his lover swims in against the turning tide.

Apart from his work as a writer, I loved Price in a documentary Checkerboard Films made about James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime. In it Price, who reviewed the novel when it was initially released in the late 1960s, weeps as he reads from the book’s closing lines*. This from a man who had no doubt read and reread the chosen passage dozens of times over the years. It’s an unassuming, affecting moment, an instance of real humanity from a deeply human writer, a man we should remember and honor.

— John McIntyre

* This is not the clip in question, but is still a worthy example of Price’s gifts as a reader.

To quicken the pulse: Lawrence Durrell’s “Sarajevo”

9780571288809-frontcover.225x225-75

The worst days for me as a reader are the ones when nothing hits the right note, when I feel dry and dull. Somehow it only gets worse when I redouble my efforts to find something to break the spell. I flit from one book to another and feel increasingly restless. On rare occasions, though, I’m lucky to come across something that does cut through the fog, does quicken my pulse. Today was one of those days, and I was fortunate to pick up Lawrence Durrell’s Collected Poems: 1931-1974 and take time to read “Sarajevo.” It’s immediately identifiable as Durrell in its lyricism, and over the span of four relatively brief stanzas, he, again true to form, establishes an unmistakable sense of place. On this occasion, though, he gives the impression he may do so on the strength of physical detail alone, a curious choice. At the start of the final stanza, he even writes, “No history much? Perhaps. Only this ominous/Dark beauty flowering under veils, Trapped in the spectrum of a dying style.” But read on and the payoff is there in the last line, sudden and definite as the act Durrell alludes to. We see him as more novelist than poet, Durrell, and that’s fair enough, but he has his moments in verse, and “Sarajevo” is one of them:

Sarajevo

Lawrence Durrell

Bosnia. November. And the mountain roads
Earthbound but matching perfectly these long
And passionate self-communings counter-march,
Balanced on scarps of trap, ramble or blunder
Over traverses of cloud: and here they move,
Mule-teams like insects harnessed by a bell
Upon the leaf-edge of a winter sky,

And down at last into this lap of stone
Between four cataracts of rock: a town
Peopled by sleepy eagles, whispering only
Of the sunburnt herdsman’s hopeless ploy:
A sterile earth quickened by shards of rock
Where nothing grows, not even in his sleep,

Where minarets have twisted up like sugar
And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on
Tinkling among the mule-teams and the mountaineers,
Under the bridges and the wooden trellises
Which tame the air and promise us a peace
Harmless with nightingales. None are singing now.

No history much? Perhaps. Only this ominous
Dark beauty flowering under veils,
Trapped in the spectrum of a dying style:
A village like an instinct left to rust,
Composed around the echo of a pistol-shot.

From Faber and Faber’s 1985 edition of Lawrence Durrell’s Collected Poems: 1931-1974. 

— John McIntyre

New poems by Maurice Manning at LA Review of Books

NPM_Poster2014_Newsletter

This Monday brings a small, good thing in honor of National Poetry Month. Maurice Manning has four new poems on the LA Review of Books site. I reviewed Manning’s most recent collection, The Gone and the Going Away several months ago, and interviewed him sometime last year. He’s abundantly talented and thoughtful, and these new poems do nothing to dispel those impressions. I’m especially partial to the opening lines of “My Aunt Fanny”:

What do you think of the tale bandied
about, the grandly elevated
tale, that’s used to justify
the unimaginable and, therefore,
the not so true?  A tale that says
we must do something now, or else.
And it turns out, the bravest plan
is to do what we’ve already been doing,
only we must do it more.

When you’re done reading these new poems, seek out Manning’s work in book form. You can’t go wrong, but Bucolics weaves an especially powerful spell.

— John McIntyre

Child Helga and Her Father by George Szirtes

chinese-american-father-and-daughter-making-new-year-calls-chinatown-new-york-city-canvas

There is danger inherent in commenting on work in progress. This is true of unfinished final works, but perhaps even more of work still unfolding from a living writer. The view from the outside may not reveal the whole of the project’s structure, or the full variety of notes which will be struck in the final product. Yet among the fragments it’s possible to glimpse remarkable things, fully realized moments that prompt impatience in the reader for the whole work, complete and refined.

In recent weeks, the poet and translator George Szirtes has shared a series of, what? Aphorisms? Epigrams? Very brief poems? Couplets from a long poem? He has shared lines via his website and Twitter. The series comes in response to an old photograph of a Chinese-American girl and her father making New Year’s visits in early 20th century New York. Thus far Szirtes’ efforts hav run under the title “Child Helga and her father” on Szirtes homepage. In fact I’m making a number of inferences here. Szirtes concedes that he doesn’t have a specific, firm plan for the lines at this juncture. “I wish I knew. I carry on writing these things and maybe there’s a way of publishing them,” he told me via Twitter. There’s no evidence of whether they are individual, very short verses or part of a longer work. There’s also no indication of what length that work would run to if completed.

The format here is wonderfully simple. Child Helga asks her father a question. He answers. Neither question nor answer need be logical. If that sounds like a pattern likely to yield some surreal exchanges, it does, but also some tender, some wry and some of genuine beauty. In the simplest terms, it is a catalogue of a father helping his daughter get acquainted with the world. There is of course the temptation to imagine Szirtes recalling questions he’s been asked before, particularly when Child Helga asks about poetic forms, or translation:

What is a ballad, asked Child Helga. The king sits in Dunfermline toon, then something bad, then something worse, said her father.

As any self-respecting poet/litterateur would, Szirtes adds the wink-nudge allusion with Dunfermline town to “Sir Patrick Spens”, a popular early child ballad, clever and accurate. He doesn’t stop with the ballad. Among others, we get:

What is a sonnet, asked Child Helga. Fourteen years of your life, said her father.

What is a villanelle, asked Child Helga. Fingernails with fine manners, said her father.

What is translation, asked Child Helga. Elephants in clouds, shadows dancing, a downpour of fine particulars, said her father.

At various times, reading lines from the series, I’ve thought offhandedly of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s novel Madeleine is Sleeping, David Markson’s singular book Reader’s Block, and Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines. None of those quite accounts for what Szirtes is doing here, though the dreaminess of Bynum’s book is evident at times. Like Markson’s book, Szirtes pulls the reader along in a direction that’s hard to predict but which eventually seems beside the point, the journey is so rewarding. And there are shades of Feneon in the lines’ tantalizing denseness, their sense of compressed possibility, of entire worlds the writer could open to us, if inclined. Imprecise comparisons, all. None of that compares with the bare fact of these verses:

Should we close the door to keep the dusk out, asked Child Helga. No, best let it in,

grumbled her father. I like a bit of dusk in the hall.

Szirtes also maintains a sense of wonder without lapsing into preciousness:

Where does the grass go at night, asked Child Helga. It runs into the fields and spreads all kind of gossip, said her father.

What is silence, asked Child Helga. I have a small box of it in my pocket but you might have to imagine it, said her father.

Why do my nails and hair keep growing, asked Helga. So you may have a house to live in if all else fails, said her father.

Each verse is a small jewel, worthy of being turned in the hands, examined from a range of angles. The lines are often playful but never quite nonsensical. I’m drawn to their gentleness, and a purity running throughout. The sum of these efforts, thus far, is a clear sense of a father’s love for his daughter, a matter Szirtes conveys without anything in the way of characterization or, really, narrative.

Who made the world, asked Child Helga. I did, said her father, but now you have to remake it all over again.” I don’t know if there’s anyone who fills the Child Helga role in Szirtes’s life, or who did once upon a time. Nor do I know if she is capable of remaking all over again the world her father made first. Szirtes is a formidable translator (does formidable do him justice after Satantango?) and a poet of surpassing skill. An heir to all that is maybe too much to ask. If so, I’m satisfied with his work so far. And for the moment, “Child Helga and her father”, however improbably, has pride of place. 

The Gone and the Going Away

manning gone

The poet William Carlos Williams, in his essay “Revelation,” writes that “The objective of writing is to reveal. It is not to teach, not to advertise, not even to communicate (for that needs two) but to reveal, which needs no other than the man himself…Reveal what? That which is inside the man.” Hints of this mission appear in work by the poet Maurice Manning as well, notably in his new collection, The Gone and the Going Away. “The Slate” is a lengthy, swirling catalog of the names given to people and places in Manning’s hometown. Manning, in the name of evoking those particulars and by extension himself, writes that,

I learned it young,

when I was just a scratch of a boy

and I skipped down Shoestring Branch

to Fog Town Holler and found

Old Tiny Too, who told me where

I was from, and who my people were,

and how they named the world around them.

This is not the first time Manning has spoken to the roots of his project as a poet. Consider “Moonshine,” from his 2010 collection The Common Man, when he concludes with the observation that: “This was the first time I heard the story I was born to tell, the first I knew that I was in the story, too.” It sounds almost like a calling, and Manning treats his subjects with gravity and respect. He is gentle-spirited and generous, but he doesn’t paint the life around him as an idyll. None of this is a surprise, given the tenor of his earlier work. In “A Panegyric Against the Consolation of Grief”, also from The Common Man, Manning writes,

That’s what I mean by grief, and why

it shouldn’t be consoled; it hides

a deeper, unanswerable grief

and where it comes from. What the hell’s

a panegyric anyway?

Some pretty praise, a speech. We’ve had

enough of those, especially

on the rural scene – the fields at dusk,

a dog and a man admiring it.

Fortunately he also appreciates the value of humor to the proceedings, though it’s more irreverence, gentle bemusement and good-natured teasing than mockery. Consider the opening lines of “The Slate”:

Way back, the men had funny names

like Tiny, who was anything

but small, and Tiny’s son was called

Too Tiny or Double T,

and Tiny’s wife who was big and mean

was called Honey, and everybody

called Honey’s sister Birdie, and Birdie,

who couldn’t talk much less whistle,

was beautiful but touched in the head

The Hour of Power and the Sassafras Tree” recalls an early encounter with a young woman, the daughter of a preacher. The speaker has misgivings:

Well what about your Holiness?

I asked, and stretched my arms across

the rock as if I needed ballast.

We only play the music there,

she laughed and wiggled down.

The Prayer” is addressed, “O Lord of all greening,/Lord of night, probably Lord/of jiggling things like ladies.” There are also moments of playfulness, as in the case of “The Louder Finch”, a poem devoted to a pair of birds, both of which “are yellow, but/the louder one’s the yellower,” and then “True wit arrives like this,/to pluck the branch then flit away – not fly, flit.”

Manning moves deftly between artifice and observation in these poems, particularly where the voice is concerned. He recreates the cadences of speech, exaggerating them just enough at key moments to heighten the impact, particularly in the Roney Laswell poems, the first of which, “The Complaint Against Roney Laswell’s Rooster”, opens the collection and sets a tone:

Attention, Mister Roney Laswell – Roney,

short for Tyrone, I hear –

the hour your rooster blows,

four, is too early.

Another two would do. Go, speak to your rooster, Roney.

There is also the brief, almost imagist quality of poems like “The Old Mule”, in which “I see/the woman driving the mule. Shading her face, the bonnet.” The stark, regretful tone of “The Hill People” stands out as well, with its trip into “a town that wasn’t a town,” where the people “had appetite but not desire” and no doubt no hope no lie no mirth/no tenderness no shame.”

Maurice Manning has established himself as a vital and prolific American poet. His work might chase up thoughts of contemporaries like Rodney Jones at times, but the sheer variety and control sets Manning apart. The seventy poems in Bucolics create an almost meditative spell as they run from page to page. Manning, a Kentucky poet, reimagines the great Kentuckian Daniel Boone’s commonplace book in verse in A Companion for Owls. The Common Man’s gradual accumulation of details and personalities forms a panoramic picture of the unassuming world Manning has made it his business to chronicle. W.S. Merwin chose him as a Yale Younger Poet more than a decade ago now, on the strength of Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, his daring and vivid debut, a collection as suited and rewarding to repeat readings as any in recent years. Manning ends The Common Man’s “Ars Poetica Shaggy and Brown” with a question: “You reckon I could ever run out/of stories in my heart to tell?” The Gone and the Going Away suggests he hasn’t. If the energy and richness running through these poems are any indication, he’s not likely to anytime soon.