I’m a fast but monogamous reader. Since I rarely have more than one book open at a time, I’m going to name the title I’ll be finishing this afternoon, the two I read over the last few days, and the two I’ll be tackling next.
Currently I’m reading Italo Calvino’s Into the War. Calvino is as important to me as any writer I could mention, and I assumed I had already devoured everything he had ever published, or at least everything I was likely to see, but suddenly a little flurry of previously untranslated books are finding their way into print in the US and England. (Next month, for instance, Princeton University is publishing a 632-page volume of his letters that is by far the volume I’m most eagerly anticipating this year.) Into the War, published in the UK as part of the Penguin Modern Classics series, comprises a trio of autobiographical essays about Calvino’s experiences as a sixteen-year-old boy in the months immediately after Italy entered the Second World War. Calvino didn’t value autobiographical writing very highly and considered this book one of his least essential, but the final essay, “UNPA Nights,” about a night of compulsory Fascist Youth service he and a friend spent guarding—or, more accurately, failing to guard—the local school buildingsis a gem.
I just finished Twins by Megan Milks—a chapbook published in a limited edition of fifty copies and distributed through Etsy by a tiny press called Birds of Lace. It’s a short, wonderful mash-up of the Sweet Valley High books and the Choose Your Own Adventure books, with a dash of both the Baby-Sitters Club and Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien, and it’s one of the cleverest and most purely enjoyable discoveries I’ve made this year.
I also recently finished The Man Who Walked through Walls by Marcel Ayme, a Pushkin Press edition of a collection of short conceptual fantasies originally published in France in 1943. Many of the stories here resolve as grimly as anything by Kafka, but they have this swiftness and this light comic tone that somehow makes them feel like a rock skipping over water, so fleet and so gorgeous. My favorite was “Tickets on Time: Extracts from the Diary of Jules Flegmon,” about the black market in time that arises when the authorities decree that “the unemployed and other superfluous mouths” must cease to exist for a few days each month.
And next on my stack are Godforsaken Idaho: Stories by Shawn Vestal, which was published just this week by Houghton Mifflin, and The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas, which was also published just this week, by Yale University Press. I know Vestal’s work only from “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” a chronicle of the afterlife in which the dead spend their centuries bowed under the weight of nostalgia, which I included in an anthology I edited several years ago. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his stories. As for Rojas, it would seem that he’s one of the great Spanish-language writers who emerged in the late-sixties, though I myself heard his name for the first time only this year. Lorca Ascends to Hell was translated by Edith Grossman, and the jacket copy compares Rojas to Marquez, Coetzee, and Saramago. I’m excited to dive into its pages.
Congratulations to Shira Dentz, Drunken Boat’s Reviews Editor, on the publication of her second book, door of thin skins (CavanKerry Press) – a hybrid of poetry, prose, and visual elements; a tale that unfolds in a psychotherapist’s and a state prosecutor’s office and the mind of the poet regarding it all.
PoetryNet has chosen Shira to be Poet of the Month during National Poetry 2013 as well.
Here’s what people are saying about door of thin skins —
door of thin skins is a perfect title for Shira Dentz’s latest work. In this fever dream of a book, Dentz’s language is like a spirit who can pass through the scrims of time and perspective, but not unscathed. These poems are the toll. She sings what fails to kill us. —Cornelius Eady
door of thin skins tracks the misuse of power in a patient/doctor relationship in shattering detail. A patient is cut off from her body and the doctor imposes his. Her senses have dispersed as if to escape the troubled site. In these poems, the experiences that tear the mind and the mind’s language must be recollected in language, which becomes a reenactment of the wounding. What the poet must do, and does, is let language be torn apart so that the senses (sense) may re-collect in beauty, in the body of the poem —Eleni Sikelianos
by Dan Godston
Exhuming, unearthing, uncovering, lifting rocks to let in light…lots of loaded imagery and associations — “…hacia allí me dirijo, no sin cierta fatiga, / piasando una tierra removida de sepulcros un tanto frescos, / yo sueño entre esas plantas de legumbre confusa…” — “I move toward it just a bit haggardly, / trampling a gravedigger’s rubble still moist from the spade / to dream in a bedlam of vegetables…” (from “Caballo de los Sueños” / “Dream Horse” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt)
We’re into the second week of National Poetry Month, and excavation crews in Chile exhumed Pablo Neruda’s remains earlier today. The poet’s estate maintains he was not murdered, but Manuel Araya (Neruda’s driver, who was with the poet during his final days), asserts that Chilean President Augusto Pinochet had him poisoned. (Intriguing 4’s: Neruda died 40 years ago, we’re in the fourth month, and the Chinese character for four is a homonym for death.) Neruda was a close friend of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected President of Chile who was deposed by Pinochet in September 1973. Neruda, who was an outspoken opponent of Pinochet, died within weeks of Allende’s death. Did Pinochet have Neruda murdered? If so, are the CIA and Nixon administration (at least partially) complicit in the murder? “The CIA sought to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office” in 1970, was “aware of coup-plotting by the military,” and appears to have condoned Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
It’s been said that everything is political, even something that’s intensely private and personal. It is fascinating to think of Neruda in a political context; many of his poems don’t seem to carry political implications. But he had such a gift for describing things in a way that imbued the mundane with poetry and power. Think about his odes about sheets, lemons, tuna, artichokes, el mar…one could swim in an ocean of Neruda’s poetry!
“Necesito del mar porque me enseña: / no sé si aprendo música o conciencia: / no sé si es ola o ser profundo…” — “I need an ocean to teach me: / whatever it is that I learn–music or consciousness, / the single wave in the sea, the abyss of my being…” (from “El Mar” / “The Sea” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt). Neruda was outspokenly opposed to Pinochet, and soon after Allende’s death one of Pinochet’s warships was stationed in the waters by Isla Negra, cannons pointed directly at Neruda’s house. It’s sinister and ironic that so many of Neruda’s poems include imagery and language that speak of his love for the ocean and its mystery, yet Pinochet would have one of his warships fill the poet’s final views of his beloved ocean with terrible cannons.
Will Chilean and international forensics experts be able to determine whether Neruda was poisoned? As a man in his late 60s who was living with prostate cancer, how much longer would he have been able to live (assuming he wasn’t murdered)? If DNA testing can convict murderers and help to reverse convictions for innocent people who have done time in prison, and other advances in forensics can discover the true causes of crimes, what will we learn about Neruda’s death?
It’s funny how investigations can call into question presumptions that have prevailed for decades or centuries. For example, did Shakespeare rely too heavily on Tudor historian-created portrayals regarding King Richard III, as he was writing his play about the king? The recently exhumed bones of the king — found under a Leicester, UK parking lot! — suggest the king wasn’t as ugly as the Tudor historians said he was, and maybe that Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king relied on the sinister look that the Tudor historians pushed. But studying 500-year old bones (even those found under parking lots) for clues is different from trying to find traces of poison in “soil that receives intense coastal humidity.”
In “Oda al Viejo Poeta” (“Ode to an Old Poet”) Neruda writes, “he was nothing but / bone, / alert and instructive / bone / a tiny / tree, finally, of bone, / was the poet / quenched / by the calligraphy / of the rain, / by the / inexhaustible / springs of time…” The Academy of American Poets chose April to be National Poetry Month because of The Waste Land‘s iconic opening lines – “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Bones and rain, spring and cruelty, digging and unearthing. There’s something Shakespearean here too—as in Hamlet at Yorick’s and Ophelia’s graves, trying to get to the truth of things.
Exhumations and forensics results can lead to a sense of closure, or at least a better understanding of how things happened. Controversy still swirls around President Allende’s death, as Pinochet’s forces stormed the presidential palace on September 11, 1973. Did Allende commit suicide, or was he murdered by one of Pinochet’s men? Isabel Allende (one of President Allende’s children, and cousin of the writer Isabel Allende) maintained he committed suicide — “It was an extremely courageous act for someone who loved life as he did.” Chile’s Legal Medical Service determined after the 2011 exhumation that Allende committed suicide.
“Los desgranados, los muertos de rostro tierno, / los que amamos, los que brillan / en el firmamento, en la multitud del silencio…” — “Those threshed out of life, the dead with the delicate faces, / whom we cherished, who burned / in the firmament in a multiple silence…” (from “Fin de Fiesta” / “Party’s End” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt) It’s remarkable how fearlessly and eloquently Neruda wrote about so many aspects of the world — from “small” things such as artichokes and lemons, to the “big” things such as life and death. Last week the Pablo Neruda Foundation stated on its website that it hopes the investigation will “clarify doubts that may exist regarding the death of the poet.” I’m not sure if I’d agree that April is the cruelest month, but it is a great month for one to reaffirm the value of reading and writing more poetry, and to look forward to hearing what the forensics experts determine regarding the cause of Neruda’s death.
This was a talk written for the AWP panel “Congeries of Voices: Vernacular and Diction in Contemporary Poetry” — with Carmen Gimenez Smith, Joanna Fuhrman, Samuel Amadon, Lara Glenum and Rodrigo Toscano)
In a recent interview in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle, Mark Doty says, “If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else.” I think he means this in a derogatory way, that someone who wears clothes chosen by someone else must look tacky and that if one betrays one’s prerogative to pick T-shirts one betrays the self. I have been thinking about this quote in relationship to poems that play with various levels of diction, that shift wildly from the “highs” of Latinate jargon to the “lows” of pidgin slang, and the way that poets might look for words to appear out of place within the poem, might chose to embody (or mimic) the awkward relationship to language of one who feels outside of it, of one who notices that certain discourses and types of diction are associated with power. Ah, what beauty there is in wearing language that doesn’t quite fit, in wearing words ironically, the way one flaunts the ugly pink reindeer sweater that was a gift from one’s aunt. And what joy there is in those moments when the irony suddenly vanishes or flickers the way it does when that sweater is seen in the green light of a car crash through the motel window. I believe that this kind of ragged, mismatched language, used with unstable irony or tossed about in moments of wild playfulness, can not only enlarge what we think of as a self, but create poetry more mimetic of our fractured experience.
One, of course, doesn’t have to use a reference book to find words alien to one’s persona, but one must have a sense that language isn’t ever completely one’s own or something that is easily a part of one’s self, that it is always haunted by the culture and history that created it. Many of the poems I love that contrast language borrowed from jargon with the lyrical remnants of imagery and slang use these shifts in diction to mimic the fissures between what the poem’s speakers are “supposed” to think and what they actually feel, or to mimic the movement between embracing the mercurial nature of emotion and trying to numb one’s feelings by intellectualizing them.
In an email to this panel, Carmen talks about certain aesthetics as “anti-capitalist.” I am not comfortable saying this because I think all poems are anti-capitalist in the sense that they exist outside of the market of what can be bought and sold. If I give you a page with my poem on it, it is worth less monetarily than a similar blank page, despite the hours I may have spent fiddling with the words. That said, both so-called “anti-capitalists” and poets who play with levels of diction see what they think of as a self as a complicated mixture of what appear to be “authentic” desires and culturally constructed wants. Poems that play with diction wrestle on a word-to-word level with this struggle. When we notice shifts in diction, we notice the poet becoming aware of the materiality of language and are reminded that language itself and our feelings about it are always subjects of the poem.
Every semester in my undergraduate poetry workshops, I teach a segment on poems that play with levels of diction. I always start our discussion with Gwendolyn Brooks’ sonnet “the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men.” In this poem Brooks uses Latinate, jargon-like diction to show white soldiers trying to justify racism to themselves. She uses shifts in diction to show us the difference between received wisdom and what the white soldiers actually observe and feel when they meet black men, most likely slaves, for the first time. The poem begins,
They had supposed their formula was fixed.
They had obeyed instructions to devise
A type of cold, a type of hooded gaze.
But when the Negroes came they were perplexed.
These Negroes looked like men. Besides, it taxed
Time and the temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness.
While there is some variation, most of the words in this section, such as “devise” “perplexed” and “congenital inequities,” are high-diction, fancy-pants words. The one exception is “These Negroes looked like men,” which is also the one phrase that contains the most truth, the moment when the men are seeing the reality in fr0nt of them instead of relying on the “official version.” It is not a coincidence that this is also the moment where the language is the most colloquial.
Later in the poem, as the men realize how wrong their preconceived idea of race was, Brooks writes, “Who really gave two figs?” This is the moment when the poem is not just telling a story, but enacting an emotion. When the language slips into slang, it feels like a Band-Aid being pulled off. The emotion comes not from what the words signify, but from the verbal gesture, the feeling of interruption in the poem’s high diction. I think this technique is similar to what Jakobson describes as the emotive function of interjections. He writes that interjections “differ from the means of referential language both by their sound patterns (peculiar sound sequences or even sounds elsewhere unusual) and by their syntactical role (they are not components but equivalents of sentences.)” When Brooks uses the phrase “two figs,” it isn’t, strictly speaking, an interjection, but, like “Ow” or “Ouch,” its impact is derived from its sound rather than any denotative (or connotative) meaning the phrase carries. In this poem, the power of the phrase “two figs” has nothing to do with the image of the fruit. Rather, it is a verbal gesture, freed from the nostalgia of denotation. Also, the phrase’s fricative sound has an interjection-like onomatopoeic effect. The two short words pop out in contrast to the more languorous sound of the rest of the poem. The sudden shift in diction creates a shift in tone, allowing a reader to feel what the speaker feels by experiencing the same sense of interruption. The words stop referring and become the event.
In my own poems, when I use high-level diction, it is almost always ironic. I find myself employing it to write about ways in which a Spectacle culture constrains our relationship to our bodies and emotions, but also as a way to make fun of my own narcissistic navel-gazing. It’s a technique obviously borrowed from poets like John Ashbery and mid-career James Tate, but hopefully with a feminist perspective—or at least a girl’s. I am going to share a short prose poem, but leave the close reading to you.
The best thing about this lipstick called Self-Pity is that you can wear it with both active wear and a couture chemise. Apply it slumped in your igloo with your panda bear oven mitts and/or regally in the powder room of the Silver Spoon Lounge. No one will care that you spent your teenagehood riding a leaf blower to the Model UN or that when you stagger to the window in your stacked claw heels, you resemble an elderly palm tree, swayed by millennial breeze.
I know people like to bash irony as hipster posing, as a comic gesture detached from emotion. But how could one write about “self-pity” without giving into its banality? For me, the ironically elevated diction gives me a way of signaling an awareness of the triviality of our first-world problems. My hope is that I have balanced this awareness with some pathos and that the two tones can ricochet off each other to create something new.
I find myself intrigued by my contemporaries who use shifts in diction in a way completely different from my own. Usually when I talk about shifts in diction in my own work, or even when I teach it to my undergraduates, I tend to think of “high diction” as somehow inherently less honest or true than low diction. I tend to think of fancy words as “jargon” and lower-level words as “truth,” so it’s interesting to me when I find myself moved by poets like Julian Brolaski and Jennifer Moxley who use higher-level diction in a non-ironic way, as a gesture towards negative capability.
I want to end by sharing a poem by Noelle Kocot, who uses higher-level, almost archaic diction as a way to elevate her subject, not to make fun of it. If the poem only used this kind of diction it might feel stiff, but the shifts to a lower-level diction are a means of signaling a playful, joyful approach towards language and life.
Ode to My Cat Euclid
Mackerel sky above my dinner bell,
A chicken flies across the sun.
A tail floats around a corner in smoothest luxury.
Loving fool, you are no surf among my kingdom.
Piano keys breathe onto your lamp
As gravity wraps its vectors around your bones.
In the next life, I see you batting
At the noon-toiled flies into your eyes.
For now its jazz can swat down woo-wee!
Just glinting like a moon-child,
Scooting like a scooter should.
I love that Kocot can include the archaic-sounding “Surf among my kingdom” in the same poem as the slangy, jazzy phrase “swat down woo-wee.” The high diction here serves to elevate the majesty of the speaker’s lovely cat, while the lower diction brings us back to earth. The ending’s playful vowel sounds and heavy alliteration remind us of the roots of poetry—those nursery rhymes and lullabies we first heard in the crib. This combination of “baby talk” with elevated diction creates a speaker who is both old and young, and the sense of a limited self is broken open. The tone is silly and playful, but not ironic. The diversity of dictions suggests an openness to all the language in the world, a sense that the past and the present live together in the same moment, that the world is fecund with language and we should be grateful for its messy multiplicity.
— March 2013
* * * *
Joanna Fuhrman is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Pageant (Alice James Books 2009) and Moraine (Hanging Loose Press 2006), as well as the chapbook The Emotive Function (Least Weasel Press).
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (W. W. Norton & CO. 1992)
I have been thinking about Thoreau’s account of sounding Walden Pond, in response to imaginative fantasies (hear-say) that Walden is bottomless. It is a painstaking process that evidences the fact that reality always inevitably decenters perspective as many measurements are gathered slowly by hitting depths with a rod. It also recognizes that movement into a wider range of presence requires the accumulation of myriad other points of view:
If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomena, to infer all the particular results at that point…Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveller, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form. (“The Pond in Winter”)
Sounding the depths offers one of the most beautiful revelations of Walden—namely, that destabilizing the melody of one perspective allows it to gather toward what Thoreau refers to as A CLEAR AND ANCIENT HARMONY in his Journal. It bolsters his conviction that the individual phenomena Walden attempts to chart will layer into a harmony of “concurring” laws, an essential economy that finally reveals itself in the form of a leaf as ice melts down an embankment in “Spring”:
You find thus in the very sands and anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype.
The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.
Thus it seem that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf.
This is a faithful affirmation that attention is a process of externalization and Thoreau cleaves to the poverty of his life as one budding forward.
Ronald Johnson’s Songs of the Earth (via To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems of Ronald Johnson, Talisman House 2000)
Like Walden, Songs of the Earth takes root in ancient harmonies that border confounding experience. Reading is the pleasure of being patterned into activity beyond the scope of thinking. Spring life as it rings itself in to be. It’s a marriage that distills visual and aural acoustics perforated by the echoes of other springs and their beings.
Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Works (University of California Press 2002)
I’m also happily reading the 1965—1967 section of Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Poems (University of California Press 2002) because I’m getting ready to talk about it with students in a couple of weeks.
Time to garden
my compost maker
of the cemetery.
Tend to life and its commotion like a garden, knowing we’ll return to the compost (another activity). And, who doesn’t feel glad to read that “the weeping willow still/ hangs green/ and the old cracked boat-hulk/ mud-sunk/ grows weeds/ year after year” (“Untitled”).
Shelly Taylor’s Black-Eyed Heifer (Tarpaulin Sky Press 2010)
I water the dirt for the weeds to grow, lo
(“She said this is mine, pine street”).
This is a great book! Have you read it? Black-Eyed Heifer is tough, plainspoken, loose (talky), and stridently exuberant, full of startling grace and presence. Deeply committed to the destabilizing intensities of Taylor’s respective environment(s), Black-Eyed Heifer calls us to “adorn [ourselves] with movement” by acknowledging the innate wildness of becoming: “as in morning shed a blue coat I wore all day” (“This sonofabitch land had to be broken”). There is real urgency to its music(s) and a drive to embrace each shift of attention as long as it lasts: “One minute you are a person, the next you’re a bird shadow over the concrete: a wide action given width, post-tree top harmony” (“Money for the horse”).
Bob Dylan’s Whitmark Demos: 1962-1964 (Columbia 2010)
B Dylan scatters the wild turkey toward muddy horses at pasture while I drive our trash to the dump: “Try and follow Gypsy Lou./ Hey, gone again.” Songs like “I Shall Be Free” are so raw and unsteady that Dylan forgets the words.
Taylor: “Put a carnation in your buttonhole. Gone” (“Keylight”).