Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Old Movie Credits

Old Movie Credits
Matt Quarterman

The fanfare swells no matter who
lives or who dies, what explodes
or is contained, red wire blue
she jumps, she's caught, he's dead
but she's not and neither
were really who we thought but
still the strings and horns clash,
tied at the wrist and locked
until someone submits and usually
it's us because finally
we can be told the hidden truth
we'd been waiting for without
knowing what it was and there
it is in terrifying flame,
ninety feet high to tell us
this is the end The End THE END.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

To Want to Escape from These Things

I want to tell you about poetry and personality. There are a LOT of fun quotes from poets about poetry and what it does. (In some cases, I prefer the quotes to the poets.) Here are a few favorites:

"The poet is the priest of the invisible." – Wallace Stevens

"Poetry makes nothing happen." – W.H. Auden

"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." – Percy Bysshe Shelley (And knowing what we do about legislators, that poet make nothing happen comes as no surprise.)

All of these are fun to think about, think through or think around, but the one I've continually turned over in my head is from that patron saint of curmudgeonly grumps, Uncle Tommy himself:

"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." – T.S. Eliot

The not-so-subtle elitism doesn't impress me much anymore, but I've always tried to understand what he meant about escaping personality. What would that mean, especially in the context of writing? What would that sound like? Is that even something desirable?

I have to start with my belief that there's no-one alive who didn't at least begin writing poetry to express their personality: whether it's a love sonnet, existential angst, a political call to arms or an identity manifesto, we just need to get our thoughts and feelings out. We just need to be heard and, as the poet Madonna herself said: express yourself.

But I'm starting to change my mind. Maybe a poem is a way of creating something solid, completely apart from us. Maybe a poem is more like a chair: it has a purpose even if no-one's sitting in it. We don't need the craftsman's thoughts on life, her political perspective, even her signature, in order to participate in the reason the chair was crafted.

Now, I'm not doubting all of those aforementioned items inform the decisions that lead to the final product. It could well be illuminating and enhance my enjoyment of sitting in that chair to have a sense of the person behind it. But it's in no way essential.

Yet here's a fun thing: last year I read a biography of T.S. Eliot and it BLEW MY MIND how personal his poems are. In high school, I first read his late-period "Four Quartets" and I was impressed by the quality of the verse, the stateliness, the philosophical urgency:

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden

But for all its strengths, I also thought it lacked the panache, the punch of earlier poems like "Prufrock" or "Ash-Wednesday." They seemed colorless, lacking a personal touch.

Except this bio describes specific days, specific outings, specific landscape features that Eliot was referencing! It's not just any old passage, any old door, any old rose-garden: he's describing one superlative day in 1934 on the grounds of a mansion in Gloucestershire with an almost-but-never-quite love, Emily Hale.

So on the one hand, this is the most self-indulgent impulse, the one everybody starts from, the stuff of embarrassing teen journals and cryptic Facebook posts. On the other, this is a poet trying to take the raw material of his life and REMOVE HIMSELF FROM THE EQUATION.

Or is he? It's hard to tell. He's tricky that way.

So all of this to say, today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Here's something from a couple of years ago that seems relevant both to the discussion and to the day.

The Prank

They ring the bell and run.

I should expect it tonight. It’s the night

our house covered in white paper
soaks up turned eggs and the flaming brown bag.
The gourd is crushed, tradition fulfilled.

There’s sugar on my hands

melted, waxy. I give it up
I offer it freely.

My clothing is changed, the harvest brought in.

Descend storm clouds, raindrops, leaves.

I carry my head in my hands

like an orange basketball, jaw framed
and candle lit, stuck deep in my mouth
silent, illuminated.

Children are dressed carefully, tended.

They line up at the doorstep,
the ghosts receiving my blessings
this year, this season.

I’m snarling. I’m howling at the moon.

I’m not a man.
I’m not weeping.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

No Evil Star

There’s this podcast mostly (but not entirely) NOT about U2. It features a star of NBC’s hit show “Parks and Recreation.” It’s a little podcast called U Talkin’ U2 to Me?! I’d like to restart this blog with words made eternally famous by that program:

“It’s been awhile…”

So to catch you up, when we last met over TWO YEARS AGO it was mostly cheery talk about my grandfather and oldest friend dying within a few months of each other. Since then things have been mostly great: my wife got her Master’s, we vacationed in Hawaii and Portugal, we lost a pregnancy, so anyhoo… How are you?

But this isn’t about personal tragedy. (Except insofar as reading, writing, reading about poetry and writing about poetry could be considered a personal tragedy.) To quote another favorite podcast, Battleship Pretension – let’s get into it, shall we? 

I should preface today’s poem by saying that I have no idea what it means or why exactly it speaks to me. It’s one of the nice things about art that you don’t really have to calibrate your response as an eloquently framed argument – you respond however you do, and if you’re lucky maybe you learn something about yourself from the experience. 

Before I blather much more about aesthetics and critical response, let’s have the poem. It’s a doozy.


A palindrome seen on the side of a barn in Ireland

After Adam broke his rib in two
and ate it for supper,
after Adam, from the waist up,
an old mother,
had begun to question the wonder
Eve was brought forth.
Eve came out of that rib like an angry bird.
She came forth like a bird that got loose
suddenly from its cage.
Out of the cage came Eve,
escaping, escaping.
She was clothed in her skin like the sun
and her ankles were not for sale.

God looked out through his tunnel
and was pleased.

Adam sat like a lawyer
and read the book of life.
Only his eyes were alive.
They did the work of a blast furnace.

Only later did Adam and Eve go galloping,
galloping into the apple.
They made the noise of the moon-chew
and let the juice fall down like tears.
Because of this same apple
Eve gave birth to the evilest of creatures
with its bellyful of dirt
and its hair seven inches long.
It had two eyes full of poison
and routine pointed teeth.
Thus Eve gave birth.
In this unnatural act
she gave birth to a rat.
It slid from her like a pearl.
It was ugly, of course,
but Eve did not know that
and when it died before its time
she placed its tiny body
on that piece of kindergarten called STAR.

Now all us cursed ones falling out after
with our evil mouths and our worried eyes
die before our time
but do not go to some heaven, some hell
but are put on the RAT’S STAR
which is as wide as Asia
and as happy as a barbershop quartet.
We are put there beside the three thieves
for the lowest of us all
deserve to smile in eternity
like a watermelon.

Take a minute if you need one. 

No? Onward then.

I’ve mentioned before (to an extravagant, almost excessive degree) how much I love stuff about Adam & Eve or the Garden of Eden. It’s a surefire hook the same way a surf guitar riff or spaghetti western opening credits make me stop whatever it is I’m doing and take on a look of crazed enthusiasm. This Eden poem makes all the right moves: cynical, minimalist, barely sketching an outline of the scene but giving us weird details that fill things in. 

Some specific words that really work for me: “tunnel,” “blast furnace,” “moon-chew,” “pearl,” “kindergarten.” I notice they’re all nouns, which is one of those ten-for-a-nickel writing lessons a Yahoo! Answers page will give you: use descriptive nouns more often than descriptive adjectives. Your mileage may vary, please consult your doctor.

Then there’s the hint of repetition: “like an angry bird… like a bird,” “escaping, escaping,” “some heaven, some hell.” And the allusions: maybe some Leda and the Swan, maybe some Pied Piper of Hamelin, definitely some Golgotha. 

And the near-rhymes: “supper,” “mother,” “wonder.” There’s a lot of musicality here, and “musicality” is a word which in reference to poetry means: “I’m not sure what I’m talking about, but I like it!” Sexton is obviously a nimble, accomplished poet who uses the weird because she knows it’s weird. 

That doesn’t make it any less weird.

For example: while the palindrome obviously inspired the poem, why mention the barn in Ireland? Are barbershop quartets really an apt image for happiness? And the final image that seems to make the whole thing clatter to a halt: “smile in eternity / like a watermelon.” I’d say it’s a misstep but everything else in this thing is so assured, so effortless that it seems odd to say she just couldn’t stick the landing. It’s a visual metaphor, a slice of watermelon resembling a cartoon outline of a Cheshire Cat grin, but is that really the last impression she wants to offer us?

I don’t know, man, I honestly couldn’t tell you. Maybe that’s one of my telltale signs that something has art to it: a vague sense that it’s befuddling me but there’s something worthwhile behind it all. I think about Harmony Korine's “Spring Breakers” or Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of empty theaters or Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” – works of art that are baffling but somehow still deft, still capable. They at least give the illusion that there’s a key to unlock everything if I’m just patient enough.

Or maybe it’s proof I’m a sucker for a good mystery.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Blind Side -- Confessions of a Recovering Bigot

I knew that after the first year I would have to slow down with the blog, though I didn't intend to end it completely. So I apologize to my adoring fans for the radio silence, offering up only this excuse: it's been a rough year. 
But I'd rather not have all the posts for 2011 be about death, much though the subject entrances me. So I’ve got a much cheerier subject for today: race.
I read an incredible article today called “Writing Like a White Guy” by Jaswinder Bolina. It’s pretty far-ranging, examining  assimilation, the second-generation immigrant experience, a post-Obama American academia, the perceived necessity to write or not write about race in order to ingratiate yourself with a specific audience.
But my favorite part was this:
“When I say ‘privilege’ here, I mean the condition of not needing to consider what others are forced to consider. The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something.”
This seems to point a finger right at me. I come from a background of particularly male, heteronormative whiteness that not only has no need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality or class but positively disdains to. I saw those questions as side trails at best, but primarily as unimportant distractions. After all, why bother with such picayune details when one’s eternal soul was at stake?
And there’s the rub: as a straight white male American, such “minor” concerns don’t touch me unless I let them. I can focus on whichever I choose, or none at all. And this blind spot leads me to hold those in contempt for whom such questions are unavoidable, inescapable. I can see it in my choice of reading material: I favor male poets over female, straight over gay, religious over secular. 
I wonder if that blind spot is precisely what gets white people into trouble. You can see it in our stereotypes — the White Savior, the White Supremacist, the Great White Hope. And the obverse side — the Magical Black Man, the Black Sidekick, the Cool Black Guy. And that’s scratching a small surface of one side of the coin.
As a good 21st-century liberal, I feel a duty to be shocked and appalled by my own ignorance. I feel a little taken aback, actually: I’ve felt this dichotomy for years, but never seemed to stop and examine it. How can I claim to be sensitive to race, class, culture, gender, orientation, but still feel above it all? I tend to force writers to cater to my tastes and preferences, which includes not addressing the concerns mentioned above. I don’t care about such things, why should they?
In my worst moments, I can hear myself sounding like a bigoted member of your extended family, the ones who never seemed to get that you have to at least give some due obeisance to political correctness. For example: “Those black poets, always writing about how black they are. Why can’t they find something ELSE to talk about?” Or, “You’re gay, and you’re writing about being gay. Surprise, surprise!”
I think this revelation has led me in two distinct but complementary directions: dive far more deeply into writing that addresses these questions. And force myself to examine my own heritage of whiteness, privilege and apathy. 
I think I may be the worst kind of bigot: the one who believes himself a tolerant, respectful champion of (air-quotes) minorities. But I’m starting to appreciate Oprah’s favorite quote from Terence: “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” 
But I think I need your help to do it. How can a white guy learn to love and build up every human that is different from him? 
I close with one of Bolina’s poems I found online that obliquely addresses some of this:

Course in General Linguistics
Jaswinder Bolina

If I’m going to be attacked, let it be by a rare pathogen
not some yokel hurling
sand nigger at me
from a beat-up Cutlass Sierra at seven a.m.
If I’m going to be attacked,
let it be by asteroid or metastasis
not the toothless yahoo of my expectations.
What I can’t understand is
who has the energy to be a xenophobe at seven in the morning.
Not me anyway, though I have energy enough to think of language.
Thud meant the saying
of sand nigger, so a sign is more than a signifier
with its tongue neatly stuck
in the ear of the signified.
It sometimes slobbers around some.
Anyway, I don’t mind being attacked,
just let it be by precision guidance
or satellite track, a line item in the budget
instead of dead language. Sand nigger,
he hollered, hoping for a rim shot maybe,
or maybe meaning, Go back where you came from.
How could I explain I had nowhere to go,
no other way to get where I was going,
and I hadn’t meant to sully his morning
and hadn’t meant to make him uncomfortable,
but if he thought he was uncomfortable,
I mean the guy howled
Sand nigger! at me,
and there were people around.
I was so embarrassed for them
looking so uncertainly to me and what I might do,
so I set about explaining
how he’d gotten the country of origin wrong,
how my folks are from green fields
and there isn’t any sand there,
and I’m from Chicago,
and sure I’m brown, but I’m harmless.   
I mean, I don’t even believe in God.
Then I thought of all the people he meant
when he offered, Sand nigger,
and thought of all the people
he might’ve hoisted sand nigger upon
just that morning even, and how even now
he’s probably somewhere in his Cutlass Sierra
shouting, Sand nigger! Sand nigger!
at over-baked socialites strolling out of tanning salons,
squinting into the sun,
and how all us sand niggers are in this together.
Anyway, he shouted sand nigger,
and the others I told this to all agreed
it was just disgusting the way he shouted that at me,
so the signifier disgusting signified that
which signified sand nigger
which had meant disgusting all along,
but I could barely blame him,
all that concrete and glass
having fallen out of blue September,
the god-awful, sand-nigger sky,
how it was his sky, and I wanted then to embrace him
and murmur, I understand,
or, I’m sorry,
or maybe, I want to stab you in the heart,   
meaning, How easy it is to wound,
how much easier to be the wounded.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

They Have Their Day and Cease to Be

Sometimes friends or acquaintances ask me why I'm so "into" poetry. I have to stumble around for something moderately unpretentious, particular challenging for me and anyone, really, who admits to being a poetry geek. You could say it's the rhythm, the beauty, the captivation of the best words in the best order. Total bull.

The real reason I keep coming back to poems at dark, profound or troubled moments, is this:

What I gain from poetry is wisdom.

Not the kind of "deep thoughts" you glean from Oprah or Dr. Phil or chicken soup for the sentimental soul. This is the stuff that's always hard-won, the kind of thing you only win by losing.

Three weeks ago my oldest friend Raudy Steele died of a heart attack at the age of 30. We met when we were barely 13. In a few weeks he was going to drive from New Mexico to Seattle for a U2 concert with me. Instead he died, most likely in his sleep. 

I've never been in mourning before, and I had all the typical but still unexpected reactions: doubt, confusion, resentment, survivor's guilt, shock. I didn't know what to say, what to think, what was right or proper or expected. I didn't know how to honor his memory, commemorate our friendship.

So I did what I always do: I tried to find something to read. This is what I found.

In Memoriam: Preface
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;

Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou.
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,

But vaster. We are fools and slight;
We mock thee when we do not fear:
But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light.

Forgive what seem'd my sin in me;
What seem'd my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.

Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.

On my porch — simultaneously weeping, smoking, drinking and praying  — this poem was the only thing that spoke to me. It didn't comfort me or ease my pain, which in any case I had no wish to be eased. But it struck me with the strength that only truth has.

I'd hate to think that this makes poetry just literary self-help, something like Zig Ziglar meets the most well-worn Robert Frost lines. But there's a reason psalms aren't written in prose, there's a reason proverbs are poems in miniature. Sometimes you need that small, sharp spike of wisdom honed to a needle point.

Raudy wasn't one for poetry much. I didn't spend enough time around him to bug him with my mania for verse. But now my memories of him and Tennyson's of his dead soulmate Arthur have some invisible linkage. And sooner or later all poems are conversations with the dead. "In Memoriam" gave me something to start the conversation with.

It's sad that a blog post is all I have to honor him, but that which I have I give.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Elegy" is Greek for "Good-bye."

The other day a friend posted a translation of this poem into Russian and I realized I hadn't read this in quite a long time. It's very good and to my Yankee ear also very Welsh: histrionic, bombastic, somber, serious.

Dylan Thomas

Too proud to die; broken and blind he died
The darkest way, and did not turn away,
A cold kind man brave in his narrow pride

On that darkest day.  Oh, forever may
He lie lightly, at last, on the last, crossed
Hill, under the grass, in love, and there grow

Young among the long flocks, and never lie lost
Or still all the numberless days of his death, though
Above all he longed for his mother's breast

Which was rest and dust, and in the kind ground
The darkest justice of death, blind and unblessed.
Let him find no rest but be fathered and found,

I prayed in the crouching room, by his blind bed,
In the muted house, one minute before
Noon, and night, and light.  The rivers of the dead

Veined his poor hand I held, and I saw
Through his unseeing eyes to the roots of the sea.
(An old tormented man three-quarters blind,

I am not too proud to cry that He and he
Will never never go out of my mind.
All his bones crying, and poor in all but pain, 

Being innocent, he dreaded that he died
Hating his God, but what he was was plain:
An old kind man brave in his burning pride.

The sticks of the house were his; his books he owned.
Even as a baby he had never cried;
Nor did he now, save to his secret wound.

Out of his eyes I saw the last light glide.
Here among the light of the lording sky
An old blind man is with me where I go

Walking in the meadows of his son's eye
On whom a world of ills came down like snow.
He cried as he died, fearing at last the spheres'

Last sound, the world going out without a breath:
Too proud to cry, too frail to check the tears,
And caught between two nights, blindness and death.

O deepest wound of all that he should die
On that darkest day.  Oh, he could hide
The tears out of his eyes, too proud to cry.

There's so much richness here in the imagery and the power: "Let him find no rest but be fathered and found." "Here among the light of the lording sky." "I prayed in the crouching room, by his blind bed,/In the muted house." 

But he's also such a master of form and rhythm that he seems to keep everything whirling effortlessly: just in the first two stanzas he weaves "ied" and "ast" and "ay" rhymes with consonants of  "d" and "b" and "l." It's kind of showy but that's just something you have to accept with Thomas — regardless of how well you love his work, you can't hold a candle to how highly he esteems it. I think it's a testament to his labors that with an ego whose weight could crush Atlas he still wills you to enter into the sympathetic contract so completely and without artifice. 

I'll have this poem in mind today as I fly south for my grandfather's funeral. I doubt he and Thomas's father would have been able to stand being in the same room. But the son is fearless in facing this death, he has tremendous pride in his father despite the obedience death demanded of him.

I hope my father's father will never lie lost or still all the numberless days of his death.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Final Answer

Welcome, boys and girls! This is the portion of our program where I tell you all about the lessons I've learned.

Right off the bat, I learned every day is too often to write a blog. It's hard to keep finding new material that frequently without repeating yourself, and nobody has the time to read a new post every day that's not about Hollywood gossip. (Which was a close second to poetry in my choices for blog topic.) I think the absolute max would be 3-4 posts a week for something this esoteric; even that's pushing it.

I learned I don't know or like nearly as many poems as I thought I did. I was figuring I'd just fish through some of my anthologies and trot out an old chestnut anytime I got stuck. But I quickly went through the grade-A material and started getting desperate. It was a blessing in disguise because it made me search for new work, but it was definitely humbling to realize how little I know and what a small pool of poems I'm really drawing from.

I taught myself how to appreciate listening to poems. One of my early posts was about how I didn't even consider hearing a poem as reading it. I still think the "oral tradition" is somewhat overrated, especially in the age of Slam, but through podcasts and CD anthologies I've really learned that it makes a massive difference in HOW a poem gets read. Not every poet should read their own stuff: sometimes an actor should read it (Alfred Molina is especially good at this), sometimes another poet (see Dylan Thomas doing W.H. Auden). But when it's good, it's really on — see Li-Young Lee or Sylvia Plath.

I figured out pretty late in the game that it's a good idea to have a picture in every blog, so that people using visual RSS readers don't just have a boring old gray screen to stare at while they're deciding whether or not to click on the entry. Most of the time I could just do a Google image search of some weird phrase and pick one that amused me. But if I could do it over again, I might take more time to make the posts themselves more visually arresting.

Also, if I could do it again I might make more of an effort to draw readers in. I don't just mean expand readership, but make more of an effort to promote the blog or encourage friends and strangers that there might be something they'd find worthwhile. As it was, I mostly just kept scribbling, throwing posts into the black and hoping somebody paid attention. I think next time I'll get more on top of both interacting better with readers and networking to become linked with a larger community of bloggers and lit geeks.

There were definitely some missteps (like the PoemBowl to have people vote on which of my poems they preferred), but I found myself enjoying the infrequent features like "Saturday Suck/Silly," "Hollywood Versifier" and "Sunday Thoughts." It helps to break up the monotony of, "And here's .... another poem! I'd like to continue with some of those, find some more ideas for features that could help structure the blog.

So thanks to anybody who's been reading, whether it's on this site or on Facebook. I've really appreciated having your thoughts and feedback. I'll probably keep writing posts, but much less frequently. (I could really use that time for other things like picking my nose or rewatching the entire series of "Knot's Landing.")

Over all it was a good experience: I read and listened to a lot more poems than I would have otherwise, I read critical articles and found some other poetry blogs. It helped me to clarify some of my aesthetics, what I like and dislike and why. For the most part it was fun, but it could also be a real drag. I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad it's over. 

I'm not sure how "real" bloggers can do it day in and day out. In the immortal words of the anonymous limericist:

There was once a sad Maître d'hôtel
Who said, "They can all go to hell!
    What they do to my wife—
    Why it ruins my life;
And the worst is, they all do it well."

It's a new year. Time to change your life.