So far the new poetry of the last year that I have read has been a smorgasbord of social commentary, hard love, and varieties of contemplative humanism. If you were a realtor showing new books of poems as houses, you’d be trying to sell your buyers husky bungalows situated in tidy but aging neighborhoods of deeply felt lives, neo-delinquent alcazars dandy’d up with facades shaped like puzzles, or rakish saltboxes that open their rope-and-pulley windows to the sounds of the quick-witted, the slick, the worldly-wise, the Brooklynesque.
Christopher Gilbert, TURNING INTO DWELLING, Graywolf Press.
I can think of few things in the literary world that are as honorable as poets and editors doing the Lord’s work of getting into print the unpublished manuscript of a late poet. It’s enough just to write one’s own poems, but then to feel called by friendship, by allegiance to the poems of your late comrade, by a wounded sense of an untimely or early death as somehow wronging the very art of poetry itself, and finally by a duty to rectify the past and even, optimistically, to influence the future of poetry, a handful of writers and editors, as I say, will forge a path to return a poet to publication. They’ll gather the manuscripts and compare the drafts. They’ll finalize an order and secure a publisher. And they’ll send the poems on their way, pushing them from out-of-print back into posthumous existence. It’s like sending the poems on a raft from the underworld back across the river Styx.
Turning into Dwelling is a two-books-in-one-volume deal published in the Graywolf Press series that returns to print what curator Mark Doty deems essential books of contemporary American poetry. Opening with a warm introduction by Terrance Hayes, Turning into Dwelling includes Gilbert’s first collection and also includes for the first time an unpublished manuscript, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation, edited by his reverential friends and fellow poets, Mary Fell and Fran Quinn.
Gilbert won the 1983 Walt Whitman Award, selected by Michael Harper, and published his first, and for the rest of his life, his only book of poems, Across the Mutual Landscape, the following year. This was seven years after he founded with Etheridge Knight the Worcester Free People’s Artist Workshop in western Massachusetts. Most of his professional life was spent as a psychotherapist. He was born in 1949 and died from complications of kidney disease in 2007.
Gilbert’s poems from the 1980s are plain-spoken narratives and candid takes on experience without much dazzle. They so epitomize a decade in American poetry dominated by suburbanized meditations that their enduring sentiment is a warm appeal to the kindnesses of living. Excerpts like —
She knows the resonant dark
and she won’t be bound
Whisper it as he saw it —
intensely, the material part of being
A Black boy. I can see
His reflection in the window —
A 3 year old cosmic thing
Crying in his mother’s arms
So possessed with some bad pain.
Then suddenly he whirls to me.
I stare the pock where his eyes are —
See the moon is hidden by clouds.
Pointing out the window up into sky,
He pleads, “fixt, Mistuh, fix it.”
And some god in my hands lifts my hand
to touch this child’s phenomenal flesh.
Whirling from a seat way back of my self,
I say, “ok,” as something intense
in me flies forward, not unlike
stars burning in the sky come forward.
Now the moon descends its distance.
Our eyes are luminous spheres
looking out upon each other, we —
we go floating forward becoming mutual
landscape in our different lives.
— from “Muriel Rukeyser as Energy,” “And, Yes, Those Spiritual Matters” (Gilbert’s elegy for his teacher Robert Hayden), and “Glimpses of Power,” respectively, show a poet troubled from the beginning with clarifying the meaning of unconscious freedom, extolling the poetic voice as the idealized sound of truth, and defining the scourge of African-American poverty in a nation of excessive wealth. All this is mixed in with uneasiness over the conflict between those who need spiritual salvation and those who need it more.
Unlike Robert Hayden Christopher Gilbert is not a chiseler but an exuberant teller of tales. His method is to gather and tally. At least that’s the main characteristic of the second collection in this volume, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation. These later poems embody an art of the colloquial voice Gilbert would come to value — voice prioritized over metaphor, voice prioritized over literary forms, voice as personality and also identity. These monologues are records of day-to-day poetic feelings, as in his elegy for Eric Dolphy, the jazz saxophonist and clarinetist. While crossing the street in the poem “Metaphor for Something That Plays Us: Remembering Eric Dolphy,” Gilbert feels sick as he believes “even the righteous tire of trying to get it right.” Then he summons the musician’s image:
We made Dolphy into that,
and where did it leave him. So out of this world,
a bothered god in his music, against the lavish nothing
mass produced by the orchestra of indifference.
that was not his what-is-here, a striving
thing standing beside himself in light of the times —
bud, breath, beautiful momentary being —
a demo of the striving. Undoing
the definition of the diatonic scale, or
displaying his life as a vice, his only future
was to invent a language where he became
his own name pouring from the mouth of his horn.
This is far-removed from what you’d think of as Haydenesque — Robert Haden might have carved this passage into something like, “We made Dolphy into that / and where did it leave him / a bothered god / pouring from the mouth of his horn.” But it is also purely Gilbert. He is passionate and out of his mind with genuine and generous love. He is afflicted with euphoria. Gilbert’s is a poetry of “blood, neighborhood, words, [and] dreams” that wants more than anything to spill — and I mean spill, spill and scatter and well-over and lay bare — whatever he can say about the “truth between us.”
Lorna Crozier, THE WRONG CAT, McClelland & Stewart.
Unlike many of my peers, I’m not hostile to sentimentality in poetry — I mean, not violently so. I get the complaint. Sentimentality enables a writer to look away from the darkest things of human existence. Just the same, there is so much disinclination toward any warm feelings out there in a lot of contemporary poetry, even dreamy, impressionable, or slushy feelings, that a poet like the Canadian Lorna Crozier, who was born in 1948 and who has written more than a dozen collections, offers some relief to today’s chillier period style. Reading Crozier is like binging on the charms of Richard Linkletter’s Before trilogy instead of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
I confess sometimes Crozier’s sugariness can make me feel blackmailed with sentiment:
This is the hour of the blackberry pickers,
before the birds bring in the dawn,
before the smell of coffee wafts from the window
of the farmhouse across the road.
But still, at the heart of even these lines from “Blackberry Pickers” is a temperament, not so much struggling, but eager to chronicle lives of everyday folks. And if poetry is not about the inventive chronicle of lived experience, then what’s it good for?
On the other hand, when you get to know Crozier’s writing, you realize that perceptual transformation is of limited interest to a poet who writes poems with titles like “Book of Small Mistakes,” “A Disturbance of Flies,” “My Mother Lies Dying,” or even the book’s longest sequence, a dozen-page series called “Man from Elsewhere,” that makes snapshots of men from Hades, the Promised Land, Eden, the Sargasso Sea, and even the stars. Which is to say, not transformation but portraiture is at the center of Crozier’s poetics of affirmation — as in the opening of the poem called “The Question” where she gathers your attention to the sudden sparkles that butterfly out of the mundane:
After they agreed to buy a new mattress, the one
they’re lying on half the age of their marriage, she asks,
“Do you think it’s true? That in any liaison one person
is more in love than the other?” He knows his answer’s
Crucial. How much time does she have?
“One, two, three,” she’s counting in the dark. He says,
“Isn’t that like asking if you love one of your children more?”
“Since I don’t have any, your question’s moot.”
Rhymes with shoot, he thinks. Feels like he’s in a chute,
An about-to-be steer, his balls exposed.
Husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, mothers and fathers, and all manner of animals — crows, deer, moles, dogs, beetles that “can strip flesh off a saint,” and especially the wrong cat of the title poem — are the characters and sometimes caricatures in Crozier’s vignettes.
That title poem, for instance, “The Wrong Cat,” chronicles an event in the lives of what I take to be, and I could be wrong about this, Crozier and her husband, the writer Patrick Lane (the two were once hailed by Toronto’s Globe & Mail as British Columbia’s “poetry power couple” and, I should say, in the poem the couple is referenced only as a novelist “husband and wife…who was a writer too, a poet”). Anyway, the couple, whoever they are, is looking at a nude painting of the husband that’s been painted by a female artist. And all of them together are trying to come up with a title for it. While the poem portrays a comeuppance against art and also against aging, in the end it becomes a celebration, too, of long, sometimes difficult love. Here Crozier tells the story of the couple together with the artist of the painting as they discuss possible titles:
The woman, not the artist
But the poet, kept gazing at that purple-black on the canvas,
how charged, how kinetic. If she looked away, would it blast
through the walls and deep into the night? “Infinit’s
Origami,” she said, the artist making a hmmm
of appreciation or a polite I-don’t-think-so. The poet argued
for infinity’s deft fingers in the cold of outer space
folding the darkness into shape after shape, killing time.
The husband, who’d been quiet, stumped, both women thought,
said, “The Wrong Cat,” and for no reason she could understand
his wife knew it was exactly right, and said so. In the end
the artist chose infinity over cat…
The wife, poet that she was, couldn’t stop thinking of his title,
so odd and apt. It brought the evening back, the stories
they passed around the table, their laughter candlelit,
their sadness too.
That story happens to be, mostly, about a failed earlier marriage. The husband’s first wife wanted to end the marriage —
she claimed she just wanted to be happy. “How could she be happy?”
he asked that night, more wax on the tablecloth than under the flames.
No one was happy then. Not the kids, not him, not the cats.
This is about as Carveresque as Crozier gets. For sure she detests the idea that anyone would want a false optic of some old, longed-for happiness. But, at the same time, her poems make a wistful music, even as the melodies are absorbed and transitory.
Corsino Fortes, SELECTED POEMS, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and Sean O’Brien. Archipelago Books and Island Position.
When you think of poets who have worked in elective political life, you may remember that William Butler Yeats served, by appointment, two terms as senator in the Irish Senate or that, in 1992, Blaga Dimitrova was elected vice-president of Bulgaria. Certainly you’ll think of Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic for over ten years — not a poet, I know, but my point is that by and large the sphere of poetry has become so specialized, even by poets not working in the academic industry, that it’s rare to read the writing of a poet whose days are filled with the work of civic needs. I say this, but there’s a cautionary side too. Joseph Stalin fancied himself a poet as did Osama bin Laden.
Corsino Fortes, who was born in 1933, in Mindelo on Cape Verde’s São Vicente island, is a judge, lawyer, and diplomat who has served as Cape Verde’s ambassador to Portugal. He published his first book in 1974. That’s the same year Antonia de Oliveira Salazar was overthrown as Portugal’s dictator, a turn of events which started the process of Portugal’s decolonization of the Cape Verde islands in 1975. It should come as no surprise that Fortes, who favored independence in politics and also independence in poetry, writes not in standard Portuguese but in Cape Verdean Creole.
Writing in Creole, I take it, is a testament to the island’s African roots because the colonized history of Cape Verde is at the heart of Fortes’ poems. The book opens:
Year by year
Skull by skull
The eye of the island
Where stone wells
in a goat’s eye
And the earth’s limbs
In the mouths of the streets
Statue of bread alone
Statue of the sun’s bread
Year by year
skull by skull
the promise of the earth
Restoring to the mouths
Of many oars
The mixture of capital letters at the start of lines and half-lines above aren’t typos. The poem is called “Proposition” and comes from Fortes’ first and, to my mind, best book, Bread & Phoneme. Here you see how Fortes fashions a lyric island identity that is separate from his European colonizers. His poems are a statement — well, more a summation, given Fortes’ legal background — that the creative spirit of the colonized individual, like poetry, can be restored to the mouths of the honest, the earth-bound, the island-bound, and the wounded.
In this sense, Fortes is a torn-mouth poet of anti-colonial lament:
…Inside the guitar of the island
The roofs of Europe
break over our heads
His poems are most often indictments of oppression. They represent answers to questions like — why did Cape Verde let Portugal lord over it for so long? Why has Cape Verde been so needy that it relented its identity to those outside its borders and then followed them back to Europe looking for a loan or a lifestyle? How did islanders arrive at this broken place with such a perilous future? His answers begin with what he will no longer say:
I will not say
This soapbox throat-clearing is typical of Fortes’ style. To read his Selected Poems is to forgo interest in narrative or expressionism in favor of oration, which I suppose is a hallmark of any poetry in any language that seeks to rouse and arouse the public:
But have you
No exiles’ ballad
From those with neither
morning nor dusk
for me to bring to the voice of our people?
Go! Tell São Vicente
That my body’s shadow is a cross
Far from the sun of my home
running to Africa
running to Europe
running to America
running across the map
running across the globe
Go! Tell Porto-Grande
Not to call me saudade
Because my name is blood
And the blood of this saudade is
Like the blood of the far land
the hope of the morning
Saudade means a feeling of melancholy or nostalgia and, as I’ve learned, it’s characteristic of the Portuguese literary temperament. The idea is common also in Brazilian and Cape Verdean literature. A fusion of pleasure and pain, suadade is a cousin to Catullus’ famous cry, “Odi et amo” — “I hate and I love.” And yet it’s this emotion of saudade that Fortes struggles to find and sustain throughout his writing. By my reading, when he does locate it, he doesn’t sustain it for very long. Instead, he is apt to return quickly to his bardic bullhorn. To be fair, when he does sustain those softer, stilled moments that link pleasure and pain, he is able finally and humbly to expose the sources for true political suffering:
But when your voice
becomes a chord on the shore’s guitar
And the earth of the face and the face of the earth
Extend the palm of the hand
From the seaward edge of the island
A palm made of bread
You will merge your final hunger
With your first
Ali Cobby Eckerman, RUBY MOONLIGHT, Flood Editions.
Ali Cobby Eckerman is a different kind of island poet. She has written, weaved really, a stinging narrative that dramatizes the isolation and loneliness of the displaced. Eckerman, who lives in Koolunga, South Australia, was born in 1963. A poet of the Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha people, she is one of the Stolen Generations, children of Aboriginal Australian descent who were removed from their families by government agencies and church missions. Ruby Moonlight tells the story of a young Aboriginal woman who survives the massacre of her family in the late 19th century and wanders alone through Ngadjuri land in South Australia until she meets a lonely Irish trapper. Together they forge a brief life of paradise along the rivers and arid plains at the edges of frontier violence and colonization.
Bound to observable details, Eckerman’s writing is a form of naturalism tinged with melancholy:
this survivor is a lubra
of the Shadow tribe
who have lived here
since time began
in their passing
will anyone notice?
She begins a poem like “Shelter” with a simple declaration and then proceeds to make the following portrait of Ruby:
there is a bend along the river
where fish slow in shallow water
she hears them splash
in the shelter of sandstone
under the overhang hidden by trees
she slumps in shadowed sorrow
in this overhang a cool breeze blows
language sings on her skin
she lies within prayer and prospect
there is little movement
days pass without incident
she tunes to the river flow
This is myth-making poetry, for sure, but not of the allegorical variety. I can’t say I’m riveted by the language here either. But I am attentive to its intent to unveil a quest as familiar as Dante Alighieri’s journey to depart the troubled life for the prospect of paradise. Through her means of extreme lyric concision, Eckerman’s poems strip away the fever of imposed culture, such as when sometimes Jack the Irish trapper is “unaware of danger,” while other times he walks “an unknown path,” and still other times he “staggers like a puppet” until he “feels the familiar cold / of failure sting his skin.”
By the end of the book these two distorted, Edenic figures, Ruby and Jack, resume lives that have long defined them. She is stripped to the essence of primitive human consciousness and he is trapped in his Western cultural predicament:
Ruby walks naked to join the old dancer
Jack stays trapped
motionless inside himself
the dress worn once
empty on the floor
The effort for paradise fails, and unredeemed sadness ultimately wins out. Even the moon with its “ruby moonlight” cannot break the conditions of suffering that an entire people have endured. If one of poetry’s interests is to be a revelation of the spirit in crises, Ruby Moonlight is a particular kind of success. Eckerman is repulsed by evil. Offering a new story of a familiar myth, she exposes suffering that exists in our lifetimes. She demonstrates the psychological repression of the wounded. And she offers a glimpse of the idea of another life, a new life, as representative of a finite hope.
Paul Muldoon, ONE THOUSAND THINGS WORTH KNOWING, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The first poem of Paul Muldoon’s that really got my attention was “October 1950” which comes near the beginning of his 1980 collection, Why Brownlee Left. Muldoon’s wink-and-nod sense of humor and profound affection for words as things, as entities, as both instructive and dramatically, in and of themselves, as overtly transfiguring, took hold of me back then, as I remember it, with this one rhyme, Pope/pub:
Cookers and eaters, Fuck the Pope,
wow and flutter, a one-legged howl,
my sly quadroon, the way home from the pub —
anything wild or wonderful —
How many dodgy chancers turned fathers when, gee-eyed and fluttered, found their wolfish salvation in a taproom is a question that doesn’t need an answer from us. What strikes me now is the word quadroon which I had to look up to prepare this review. It defines a person who is one quarter black by descent. Looking at “October 1950” now, I can see it’s this question about identity, its complex whatever-ness, that is most prevalent in this new book of poems by Muldoon — his 15th by my count — about travel, history, theater, mortality, blues, film, and the Irish bog “fenced up there on Slieve Gullion.”
About that bog. It appears prominently in the book’s last piece, a 19-page rat-a-tat sonnet sequence, “Dirty Data,” that reads a bit like Ken Burns on peyote — I mean in a good way. The poem is a direct address to Gen. Lew Wallace, whom I remember from Ulysses Grant’s memoirs only as a disgraced Union general — Grant blamed Wallace for the defeat at Shiloh. I didn’t know that Wallace later became governor of the New Mexico Territory and author of the popular Christian novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ, published in 1880. A year before Ben Hur was published, however, Wallace ordered the arrest of rabble-rousers in Lincoln County in March, 1879. One of the arrested was William H. Bonney, known to us down the ages as Billy the Kid.
What happens next between Wallace and the Kid is a bit bizarre. Muldoon has set out to weave Gen. Wallace, Billy the Kid, and various Ben Hurs’ sordid stories with all manor of American, European, and Irish wars, including mentions of the Third Reich and Bloody Sunday, and more. “Dirty Data” is part cross-chronological history, part kitsch, and part crazy epistolary indictment of all that is not misleading. Dirty data, I’m told, means information that is not entirely correct or, at least, distorted. Lyric distortion is the method Muldoon takes to figure this poem, too, especially when Wallace’s Ben Hur morphs into Charlton Heston’s cinematic Ben Hur who morphs into someone named Ben Hourihane who I think is a make-believe Irish Ben Hur but it could be a digital advertising professional of the same name I googled on the Internet who is the head of strategy at Amnesia Razorfish, a full-service digital agency at the intersection of creativity, media, and technology. I’m not making that up.
Here is one of the climactic sonnets:
So it was that the funeral of Winston Churchill would gradually morph
into the funeral of an innocent victim of the Paratroopers.
Father Daly. His handkerchief. The innocent victims of the bombing of Canary Wharf.
Two kinds of grass. Regular and super.
One need only tweak the Vari-X a smidgen
to make an adjustment
in windage or elevation. A canary is also a stool pigeon,
of course, someone who sings in an English accent,
the accent reserved for the Romans. The cars in the high-speed chase swap
insults as they cross the border. In the way Ben was asked to rat on his coreligionists
you asked Bill the Kid to turn informant. It’s something like a badge
of honor that our children spare us the details of the undercover cop,
tattooed glipe that he is, tied by his ankles and writes
and staked out over an anthill in South Armagh by the Chiricahua Apache.
Reading these lines you my come to the conclusion that One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is intended as a book about imaginative lineages. Some of Muldoon’s lineages are public — written for the occasion of the Durham Book Festival, the Folger Poetry Board (that’s the Shakespeare Folger in Washington, DC, not the coffee product), a commemoration of the Civil War, a Phi Beta Kappa of Princeton University event, an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, and such things. Others lineages are more typically private.
Which brings me back to “October 1950.” Where Why Brownlee Left begins with a dark tip of the hat to the poet’s father, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing begins with an elegy for Muldoon’s literary father, Seamus Heaney. Well if Heaney is not exactly a precise literary father figure for Muldoon as he was for many Irish poets who, like Muldoon, were born in the 1950s, then Heaney is certainly an avuncular figure. Louis MacNiece has been cited as a literary ancestor for Muldoon, and that connection has always struck me as right, especially the MacNiece who wrote these cheeky lines: “In the beginning and in the end the only decent / Definition is tautology: man is man, / Woman woman, and tree tree, and world world, / Slippery, self-contained; catch as catch can.”
And yet Muldoon mourns — of course he does, naturally, undoubtedly, fully — for his master: “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.” With that one sentence Muldoon is speaking for a lot of us, isn’t he? “Heartsore yet oddly heartened,” Muldoon writes —
I’ve watched these six otters make their regal
progress across the threshold. I see how they might balk
at their burden…
I straighten my
black tie as the pallbearer
Here you get Muldoon’s word-love all over again: “I cannot thole the thought.” Why not just say tolerate or endure or resist, you ask? I suppose there’s the homage to Heaney’s rattle bag of word-stock — and naturally Muldoon’s as well. But also there’s the argument, found over and again in this book, that language is the inspirational source for recalibrating, reframing, and renewing perception. In other words, language flashes. Which is precisely where Muldoon’s elegy for Heaney winds up:
We know neither the day nor the hour of our summons.
The same Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
whose body will be carried aloft by monks fleeing those same Danes.
Mountbatten of Burma. Montgomery of Alamein.
All with the same insignia on their scale-armored sleeves.
Refulgent all. From fulgere, “to flash.”
It isn’t just that Muldoon extols one-thousand things worth knowing in his new writing. No, he makes a poetry that insists that sometimes one thing alone is worth knowing, worth speaking. Thole, refulgent — the idea is that the genealogy of words are metaphors for the lineages of life lived in its most modern sense of cultural mixtures and networks and, with all of that too, in the bloodlines of imagination, in the complexity of art and poetic utterance, and in our insights into human consciousness and histories.