Friday, October 24, 2014

On Tamka Street a girl's heels click.
She calls in a half whisper. They go together
To an empty lot overgrown with weeds.
A watchman on duty, hidden in the shadows,
Hears their soft voices in the bedding dark.
I do not know how to bear my pity.

Or how to find words for our common plight.
A little whore and a worker from Tamka.
Before them, the terror of the rising sun.
Later I would ask myself more than once
What became of them in the coming years and ages.

--from Czeslaw Milosz, A Treatise on Poetry


Yesterday, as I was doing Frost Place paperwork, I had occasion to answer a question that I myself had posed to the other faculty members of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching: "What poets/books have you been reading lately, and why?" Here was my answer.
Presently I am rereading Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Short Stories, Denise Levertov’s Selected Poems, and Robert Hass’s translation of Czeslaw Milosz’s book-length poem A Treatise on Poetry. All of these writers focus on civilian life during World War II: Bowen and Levertov in England, Milosz in Poland. For each, the damaged homeland, in terms of both landscape and civic integrity, becomes intensely important, narratively as well as lyrically. People are their place, for better or worse; and while the change that physical damage necessitates may sometimes be salutary, it also creates moral chasms within individuals and the nation.
Beyond their common themes, these three writers share an intense patience with both the tools of language and their own imaginative visions. I’m trying to absorb as many lessons from them as I can.
That public response is far more patient and measured than my inner response is.
I want to write like them, I want to see like them, I want to channel suffering into necessity, I want to speak what must be spoken, I want

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Yesterday's best Milosz quotation--
Perhaps it was not for nothing, the soldier's blood
Darkening into small stars beneath a birch.

Yesterday's best baseball news--
Ha! Royals won!

Yesterday's sweetest moment--
Cuddling on the couch with a giant almost-17-year-old, and, what's more, the cuddling was his idea, which made the moment even lovelier [although Ruckus did barge in and insist on cuddling as well, so there we were, trapped under the cat, who sociably bit us until he changed his mind and decided that he liked an empty bag better].

Yesterday's best email--
D, I just last night finished Same Old Story. WOW--it's one of the best books of poems I've read in a long while! I adore how it's grounded in myth & fairytale, as even the "non-mythological" poems absorb those flavors and ring with that kind of magic. 
BRAVO, my friend! I'll be recommending this to all who will listen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Whoever, in this century, forms letters
In ordered lines on a sheet of paper
Hears knockings, the voices of poor spirits
Imprisoned in a table, a wall, a vase
Of flowers. They seem to want to remind us
Whose hands brought all these objects into being.
Hours of labor, boredom, hopelessness
Live inside things and will not disappear.
The one who holds the pen, to whom this world
Of things is given, feels uneasy, is afraid.
He tries to achieve a childish innocence,
But the magic had fled from magic spells.

That's why it was that the new generation
Liked these poets only moderately,
Paid them tribute, but with a certain anger.
It wanted to stutter programmatically,
For a stutterer at least expressed a sense.

--from Czeslaw Milosz, "The Capital: Warsaw, 1918-1939,"
in A Treatise on Poetry


The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote his book-length poem, A Treatise on Poetry, in 1955 and 1956. The section I have quoted is from part 2, which, in the words of Robert Hass, "describes Warsaw and makes an assessment--almost poet by poet--of the state of Polish poetry in the first three or four decades of the century, particularly of its failure to account for the reality that overwhelmed that city."

Imagine an American poet undertaking such a task! I fear the result would be either cruel or banal. And how would one choose the poets?

Hass, a well-known poet in his own right, translated the Treatise into English in tandem with Milosz himself. Their version was published in 2001, nearly fifty years after the original Polish version first appeared. I wonder what it was like for Milosz to translate this work of his youth into a language that is so sonically different from Polish. According to Hass, "the [original] poem is written in a rather strict meter. The English equivalent would probably be a plain, regular, and forceful blank verse. It also breaks from time to time into more lyric forms. . . . To give some sense of the surprise of these forms, it would have been desirable to find English equivalents. But because their tone is often complex and because they have philosophical bearing in the poem, it also seemed desirable to hew fairly closely to the literal meaning, at least in this first English translation."

I wish I could find a recording of Milosz reading this or any other poem in Polish. But I've heard enough Polish on the soundtracks of KieĊ›lowski films to imagine the way in which the soft-crisp collations of consonants might wrap themselves around the vowels, the way in which two- and three-syllable words--stressed as loud-soft and soft-loud-soft--would dominate the cadence of the lines.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Today's post is late because I was off drinking morning coffee out of a beautiful blue and white cup with a friend whom I haven't seen for months, and we had a lovely, lovely time, so the question is: Why don't I drink morning coffee with my friends every week instead of hardly ever?

Among other things, we discussed poetry translation, and now we are thinking of choosing a couple of my poems and experimenting with an English-French translation. To the best of my knowledge, none of my writing has been translated into anything other than Pig Latin, and it would be so interesting to see how a shift into French might change a poem's sonic impact. I am sure I will be very surprised.

Czeslaw Milosz: "First, plain speech in the mother tongue. / Hearing it you should be able to see, / As if in a flash of summer lightning, / Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road."

Vladimir Nabokov: "Better a crude word-for-word translation than the prettiest paraphrase."

Monday, October 20, 2014


Dawn Potter

And on her mind is all the waste
and the waiting, and the pain
of wanting someone to listen
to the pain she can’t talk about, like how her lover
is a drunk, and how she is afraid
of time and of her mind
circling its mud-wrenched, idiot track.
And meanwhile a neighbor expires
in a strange bed, little birds
flutter in the bony lilacs,
            her lover slides another blank-faced bottle
                        under the torn seat of his pickup.
Wind blunders among the empty branches,
            raking their frail tips against a livid sky.
                        Another hour lost, she thinks, but hours later,
in the medicated dark, her mind
and what’s on her mind keep ticking, ticking,
stupidly ticking on.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]


Yesterday evening I received an email from Wesley McNair, Maine's poet laureate, who is organizing the project Poets in Public, a collection of short films featuring a number of Maine poets who will be reading and talking about their work. I'm very happy that he's chosen to include me among these poets, and even happier about the note he sent to me, in which he said that he thinks that Same Old Story "is a wonderful collection, a breakthrough volume." One of the poems he liked best is the one I've just reprinted . . . though it is such a sad and defeated poem, the characters trapped in their fates. I wrote it at a point of community misery: sudden death, persistent self-destruction, the dooms of age and aging. It was one of those poems that I spoke of in yesterday's post--a poem that surfaced from the dark underneath, into which the details that I transcribe every day (lilacs, birds,  pickup, wind, sky) entered as a sort of chorus behind the human pain.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The temperature dropped precipitously overnight, and this morning I started a fire in the wood stove. Today is the day to tear out sunflowers, dig up dahlias, plant garlic, haul brush, stack firewood. I've been reading the short stories of Elizabeth Bowen, still reading Levertov, still not exactly writing yet, but filled with the sensation of words blossoming. I will be patient. I keep telling myself this, and someday it may be true.

People often tell me, after I tell them a story, "Oh, that should be in a poem!" and maybe it should, but I can't write poems in that anecdotal way. The poems may be stories, but they surface from somewhere beneath story.

This morning I am drinking black coffee and watching the last of the browning maple leaves float down, down from the near-naked twigs, and I am struck again by the way in which my persistent need to describe what I see is not the same as my internal, explosive need to make a poem. I don't want to write a poem about those leaves, but those leaves might turn up in a poem. Perhaps this difference isn't clear as explanation, but I feel it.

I love Sundays, when everyone else is still asleep, and the early light filters through the early air.

The wood stove clicks. The small birds flock to the feeder. I have written down these details a thousand times; and here they are again. But they are not my poem. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

White dawn. Stillness             When the rippling began
     I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumors
     of salt, of treeless horizons. But the white fog
didn't stir; the leaves of my brothers remained outstretched,

--from Denise Levertov, "A Tree Telling of Orpheus"


A fellow poet inquired, in a general Facebook way, about why many women find the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice anti-feminist. He was puzzled but genuinely interested. The answer, in a general Facebook way, was that Orpheus was objectionable because he was forcing his dead wife to do what he wanted, which she herself may not have wanted to do: that is, return from the underworld and live with him again.

Reading their responses, I wondered what I'd been overlooking in this myth, which I have read and reread since childhood, and which has always seemed so intensely sad. And I realized, of course, that I have always identified with Orpheus rather than the shadowy Eurydice. It is the love and the loss that pulls me, and to me this seems to have nothing to do with gender roles, only with the intensity of the myth's delineation of character. Eurydice is not an interesting person in that story. She is a cipher, a symbol, a mist. I felt as if the women who responded to the Facebook question believed that the myth should have been a different myth.

What do you think?