Will Nixon's Blog, page 28
March 27, 2011
If you study the fine print on the acknowledgments page of Joshua Coben's first book, Maker of Shadows, you will read, "I am deeply grateful to Michael Perkins, the first reader of many of these poems, for his invaluable help in shaping this book. I could ask for no better guide and companion in the world of poetry."
Yes, that would be the same Michael Perkins who is my co-author for Walking Woodstock: Journeys into the Wild Heart of America's Most Famous Small Town. Joshua Coben is married to one of Michael's daughters. She's a lawyer. He's a school teacher. Together they have three children and live outside Boston. Beyond that, I know little, save that Michael has told me, "Josh worked very hard on this book." It shows. These poems have a confidence and a cadence that causes the Norton Anthology to echo in my ears. They aren't written in the contemporary confessional mode. They have a grander scale that's thrilling. Maker of Shadows won the 2009 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from the Texas Review Press. X.J. Kennedy, himself, calls it "one of the very best collections ever to grace" this series. How refreshing to have a prize named after someone still alive to enjoy passing the baton.
I'm reminded of my own former father-in-law, the late Harvey Segal. Though we didn't share literature—that was for his wife, Eloise, who wrote novels destined, alas, for her desk drawer—we certainly shared writing. After earning a PhD in economics, Harvey left the academic world to write editorials for the Washington Post. By the 1980s, when I met and eventually married his daughter, he was the publications editor for the economics department at Citibank, where my father worked as well. After the department was disbanded in the mid-1980s, Harvey used his retirement to write his first book, The Corporate Makeover: The Reshaping of the American Economy, one of the few such books I've read and enjoyed. "Because I opine on so many controversial issues," Harvey wrote, "the reader may sometimes think me in error but never in doubt." Harvey once described himself to me as an Anarcho-Capitalist. Whatever that was, he made it exciting to be around. Though he passed away in 1994, he lives on in my imagination like a Saul Bellow character, an Upper West Sider with a brain stuffed like a library and a mouth that could say "motherfucker" with a triumphant snarl.
In style and interests Michael Perkins and Harvey Segal are different breeds. It was Eloise who once recited that famous quip to me, "Every time I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it passes," but it was Harvey who lived it. He walked as if his body was stiff and out-of-joint, moving forward as if his shoulder had been ruined in one direction, his hips in another, the tin man constructed out of crooked swinging gates. Plus, he had a great swath of long gray hair combed over his baldness that stood up like a unruly flag in a breeze. Once in Soho, my wife and I spotted him, by pure chance, half a block ahead of us on the sidewalk, marching ahead slowly with that ungainly gait, not as if infirm, but as if caught up in great thoughts, while his hair blew up wildly in the wind, a shock of hippie hair on a New York Intellectual Jew. Before rushing to catch up with him, my wife and I shared a delighted smile in realizing that in all of Manhattan no one walked the way her father did. Harvey was one of a kind.
Harvey would never have collaborated with me on Walking Woodstock as Michael did. Michael has his own distinctive gait, high shouldered as if a small balloon under his shirt carries him along, but Michael moves in a forward direction and is at ease for miles to come. (For Harvey a block was a journey.) Yet in these two men I see two similarities. The first is a deep learnedness, a huge interest in books and in people's lives. The second is that they've been what a son-in-law would want in a father-in-law, not a second father but a mentor and an adviser, a man of experience in the world. Harvey helped me through writing crises still painful to recall. Alas, I didn't begin dabbling in poetry until near the end of his life. The first poem of my own that I ever read in public was at his memorial. In truth, I still had lots to learn about the art form. So let me take the liberty of choosing two poems from Maker of Shadows to honor two father-in-laws.
For Harvey, who spent a good part of his career in the Citibank office tower on Park Avenue and would have smiled at this wit:
Bank in the Rain
Where granite postal hall meets marble
sepulcher, young tellers schooled
in sullenness just shy of rude
red-stamp withdrawal slips, mete out
stiff bills with blackjack-dealing skill.
Their queuing, slick-shoed clients shake
umbrellas half-collapsed like loose-
winged bats, sprinkling the legal tender,
heedless as smokers flicking ash
in a fireworks shop. These are bane
of banks: paper and moisture mixed,
profaning hands that taint the sacred
money metaphor, the crowds
that jostle in with soggy dress
and gutter speech, their voices booming
under lofty stone until
as in a library or church
they're stricken with solemnity.
Once quiet they can hear, tamped down
as if by rain, the muted swish
of petty cash, the sotto voce
counting, counter-counting, whispers
emanating from the vaults
which they divine as holding not
their gold but tropes of comfort: bonds
of ease, certificates of hope.
They smell compounding capital
like batter folded on itself,
yeasted the first of every month,
slow-rising dough that stinks of I-
OU. Your money isn't here,
avers the bank, like Jimmy Stewart
stopping a run on the Building and Loan.
It's in the air, the measured rain
refreshing all of us, diffuse
yet massive in combined effect.
In winter one can't importune
the rosebush to repay the cloud
for sustenance its roots may suck.
One must await the burgeoning
and then the bloom. So be content
for now or stand in the line, fill out
the form permitting you to pluck
your puny share in all of this.
If you're impatient, here, withdraw
your kernel see, your tendril shoot.
Go plant at home, bring forth your weed.
See what slim shade, what paltry crop,
what fragrant impotence you reap.
For Michael, the rover, who has written an unpublished novel about Arthur Rimbaud.
Blue summer evenings, pricked by stalks of wheat,
I'll go on paths, tramp down the slender grass:
Half dreaming, I'll feel its coolness at my feet.
I'll let the wind bathe my bare head and face.
I will not speak or think: but boundless love
Will climb my soul, and like a bohemian
Far, far into the countryside I'll rove—
Happy there as if beside a woman.
For years, I've been mesmerized by Hart Crane's poetry as dazzling verbal displays that suggest stories lurking within their densities but always favor ecstatic language over explaining what's going on. To read his poems aloud is to hear jazz pouring out your mouth. Allen Ginsberg later aimed for the same in "Howl," though his poem is easier to understand. (James Franco, who played Ginsberg in "Howl" is now making a movie about Crane. Here's hoping!) Both took Walt Whitman as their forefather in creating an expansive poetry thick with spirituality and democratic brotherhood meant to transform our country. But if Crane's poems were difficult, his letters were easy and infectious, almost frolicking with casual brilliance. The guy could write. I've been fascinated by Crane, in part, because he spent some of the happiest episodes of his life on long escapes from his troubled Manhattan efforts at a career by visiting the rustic Bohemian enclaves of Woodstock and Pawling in the 1920s, the two communities that have been at the center of my own upstate life these past thirty years.
Now I'm caught up in the brand new annotated edition of Hart Crane's "The Bridge" edited by Lawrence Kramer, a godsend that's explaining what's going on. As I suspected, Crane wasn't indulging in abstract word spinning; he knew exactly what we was saying. I just didn't know enough to understand him. Now I'm enjoying one "Ah-ha!" after another. I particularly appreciated this footnote by Kramer for it adds to my collection of river impressions. Crane lived for a time in a Brooklyn apartment with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, his muse and icon.
"Crane wrote to his mother on February 10, 1925: 'I haven't had 6 hours of solid sleep for three nights, what with the bedlam of bells, grunts, whistles, screams and groans of all the river and harbor buoys, which have kept up an incessant grinding program as noisome as the midnight passing into new year. Just like the mouth of hell, not being able to see six feet from the window and yet hearing all the weird jargon constantly.' An earlier letter (November 16, 1924) supplies the contrary: 'All night long there were distant tinglings, buoy bells and siren warnings from river craft. It was like wakening into dream-land in the early dawn—one wondered where one was with only a milky light in the window and that vague music from a hidden world."
March 20, 2011
You may know what a bug coil is, an incense stick spiraled like an electric stove coil that releases smoke to ward off those tiny flying rigs of evil. I learned about them in a hurry one Memorial Day weekend at a campground in New Hampshire's White Mountains, where I'd arrived for some peak bagging. The days up along the ridgelines were marvelous, hiking through cool forests to come upon sunny views of mountain bowls filling up with the salad greens of spring. Happy hour back at camp was another matter; my tent site was down by a shady vale damp with ferns and nastiness. In order to read, I placed burning bug coils at both sides of me on the picnic table to be bathed by breeze smoke from either direction. So I was suitably placed to read "Ambition II: Mosquito in the Mist" by Tim Seibles in a valuable anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy.
Ambition II: Mosquito in the Mist
You human-types, you
you guys are walking smoothies
ta me, milkshakes wearin' trousers,
a cup'a coffee mowing a lawn.
I gotta hand it to you though—
all the colors, the smells, tall,
petite, skinny-minnies or whoppin'
whale-sized motha' humphries—you
got variety: I'm zippin' around
some summa' nights and it's like
an all-you-can-eat situation.
And I like the threads—hiphop
baggies, halter tops, baseball caps,
most'a the fabrics flexible enough
for me and my little straw.
But I sense some chronic
unfriendliness, some ongoing
agitation from you hemoglobes.
My family and me are small things
tyin'a quench a thirst. It's our nature.
The random violence is really
uncalled for. The bashing, the swatting…
And the cursing! Fuck you guys, man!
It's like you never heard'a the word
And the worst
is when you bring down the curtain
right in the middle
of a good suck. I don't think
I need ta spotlight the obvious
analogy, but ok: imagine yourself
alone wit' someone you want
real bad—her skin is toffee,
his hair is an avalanche
comes: the shared
shimmer in the eyes and you
lean into the kiss, warm
and rich as God's
good cocoa, your mouth's
slurping up the sweetness,
when— a smack
big as Godzilla, knocks the livin'
juji-fruit outta you.
The luscious touches, the hum
of two hearts, the holy
communion flung into the fat-ass dark forever.
What? You think we ain't
got feelings!? I got the memories.
It's all in the genes! See,
you big-holes-in-the-face motha' humphries
don't never think nothin'
about other kinds'a life,
but that's alright, I got dreams. I got
big plans. I'm all itchy and bumpy
wit' discontent—and you might not
see it but I'm getting' bigger—I
been liftin'—and someday I'm gonna
get a little payback on the go:
land on your cheek like a
round-house kick, and before
you can pick up your nostrils
I'm gonna drink you dry, drain ya
to the lees—you'll be
layin' there stiff as beef jerky,
your arrogant balloon
all flat and wrinkly
while I liff off like a, like a
helicopter, like a goddam
12-cylinda' angel, like a bulldozer
witta' probiskamus big
as a' elephant's dick.
Who knew a mosquito had the heart of a slam poet? Who knew a mosquito could be so right?
It turns out that Gretchen Primack is a big fan of Tim Seibles, whose poems she teaches to her students in prison. Now she has gotten me hooked as well. "Mosquito in the Mist" also appears in Buffalo Head Solos, an imaginative cabaret that mixes a mimic's ear for verbal storytelling with a magician's gift for metaphor. Seibles teaches English at Old Dominion University in Virginia, but doesn't do fusty and reflective. To the contrary, he writes in his introduction, "What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, court jester, priestess, visionary, madman?" Yet he's no pedantic ranter, either. He has too much wit and empathy and brilliance. He writes under the sign of his heroes Jimi Hendrix and Pablo Neruda, public entertainers and masters of loud volume tenderness. Best of all, he'll be at the Woodstock Writers Festival on Gretchen's poets panel on Saturday, April 9th. To quote Seibles again, he writes with "the kiss of a shark and the feet of a sparrow, a poetry at intervals beautiful then ruthless, frank but full of quickening delusions." I won't forget my bug coils.
March 19, 2011
(Poems from "The Woodstock Roundtable" on WDST on March 20th, 2011.)
* * * *
By Dennis Doherty
Heim, your blood is on this belt. We carried you through the jungle…
In a plastic bag at the base of the monument.
Cynical, that here among colossal displays
of nation – even the office buildings impose –
the threads of a kid killed at the confluence
of dubious, arcane motives and interests?
Tribute, honor, to an open society and those
who served when called, regardless the cause?
Sop to The People whose strings are pulled?
We went to Washington for a wedding.
Took a stroll with Molly to The Mall.
I only know, that moment the universe
entered me, my love for Mollies and families
and camaraderie; soldiers, pacifists,
sculptors, panhandlers, jungles, cities,
brides and grooms and Chinatown synagogues;
drinking, dancing on great lawns in sun
grass on moon streets by car light.
Heim, your blood belts my battered-tender vessels.
I went to Washington and found you.
Dennis Doherty's new book is Crush Test. He teaches creative writing at SUNY New Paltz.
* * * *
My Inner Mexican
By Mike Jurkovic
My inner Mexican
Loves yard work.
The 20-horse growl of 8am,
The edger's obdurate cut.
Don't we all look alike
Pushing seed, laying turf,
Watching your daughters ready for class,
Ripping up your flowerbeds.
My inner Mexican
Loves a good fight.
Ruts in jalapeno juke joints,
Collects my Social Security,
Salsa and tejano
Heat the night.
Mike Jurkovic is the author of Purgatory Road. He co-directs the Calling All Poets Series and helps run the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York.
* * * *
By Will Nixon
After the March rains I masturbate
over the thawed soil to plant more of us.
Hatched naked as mushrooms, we never grow
the green skin needed to survive by the sun alone,
so we must step off our roots, hungry
and curious, perfectly disguised
as fellow humans, cocky and protected
by ethical principles, scientific understanding.
Then a bee crawls in our ear to pollinate
the thousand folds of our brain.
Laden with the dewy residue
of dreams and Godly visions, the bee
grows too heavy to fly but can't stop buzzing
anymore than we can explain this sudden desire
to roll naked in mud, cloak ourselves
in seeds and minerals, dress in trumpet vines
that blossom and feed hummingbirds
at our breasts. Earth again, we forget the reason
we could be anything but pagans.
Will Nixon's last poetry book is Love in the City of Grudges. He blogs about poetry at willnixon.com.
George Drew pours himself into his enthusiasms. Retired a decade ago from teaching college English, he now devotes himself to writing, running, traveling, family life, and appreciating poetry. At readings, where we first met, I don't think I've seen anyone listen with more apparent pleasure while forcing himself to sit politely in his chair. It's as if poems turn into feathers that tickle all the way into his brain. As for running, George is built like a toothpick, or, more accurately, a Q-Tip with a full crop of whitish hair that has one last black spot above his forehead. After a reading at the Howland Center, I tried following him up the old incline trail on Beacon Mountain, once the steepest funicular railway in the world. Hard to do. Trotting up the staircase on the lower hillside, I was okay. But on the trail switchbacks, the man advanced like a billy goat, springing ahead on long legs, then pausing for the huffer and puffer to catch up. (And I fancy myself a hiker.) But at the top, marked by the brick ruins of an old powerhouse and the cleared flats that once hosted a casino, we enjoyed an expansive view of the Hudson Valley from the Catskills on the northern skyline to the Breakneck Ridge river gorge nearby. We had the idea of giving readings at stops along the river from Albany to Manhattan, perhaps troubadouring from lighthouse to lighthouse. Who knows? We're not dead yet. A Mississippi native with storyteller's blood, George relishes performing poetry aloud.
George has been writing poetry for 40 years. Lately, success has been catching up with him in a hurry. Last year, his American Cool won the Adirondack Literary Award. Later this year, The View from Jackass Hill will appear as the winner of the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize from Texas Review Press. Meanwhile, his current book is The Hand That Rounded Peter's Dome, the story of Michelangelo as told in the voices of people in Renaissance Florence who knew this sculptor and painter of the Sistine Chapel as a masterful craftsman, a son of a bitch, possibly a pervert, and a genius already destined to survive for the ages. This book resulted from George's fascinated studies of, as he writes in his preface, "the Italian Renaissance and the wonderful cast of rogues and heroes who for one brief moment lit the minds of men with the possibility of their own grandeur."
Here's a poem about young Michelangelo as told by a member of the Medici circle.
This young boy I have told
you of is everything I'm not: unlearned,
insensitive of speech, inquisitive of nothing
but a chisel plying stone, perhaps some paint,
and even in his stature blunt, ill-formed,
with black hair, eyes not quite defined in hue,
and teeth like the unfinished lumps of stone
he hammers at with the abandon of the damned.
As is my wont, normally I wouldn't bat an eye
in his direction. But Lorenzo praises him.
And where Lorenzo looks is value, rest assured.
So I looked, too. And here is what I found:
a sibyl in the manner of the ancients carved
from marble he had gotten, so I'm told,
from masons in the garden, begging them
with charm no one, not even I, would guess
exists beneath that rough exterior of his.
There's diamond there, in need of only
the sure jeweler's hand of Time
to shape it to a gem fit for a Medici,
or even—and I don't exaggerate—a pope.
Trust me: this young boy's going to be a god
creating gods. The spark he carries in
his fingertips bespeaks a greater fire within.
And like Prometheus he'll serve and master it
at once, both Beauty's henchman and her king.
I almost pity him the torment he will know.
("The Roundtable" on WAMC broadcast this "Listener Essay" on Friday, March 18th, 2011.)
I'm old enough to remember a time before vampires ruled as king of our fears, or at least of the young adult section of Border's and Barnes and Noble. That would be March 2006 when the Style section of The New York Times proclaimed zombies as the monsters of the Zeitgeist for their outbreak everywhere, or at least in books, movies, video games, and Halloween parades. At the time I happened to be writing a series of poems inspired by Night of the Living Dead, so I was delighted to discover that I was in sync with popular culture.
What is it about zombies? We know what it is about vampires: sex and the adolescent fears it excites. But what do the living dead tell us about what's suppressed in ourselves? Some day, I hope, a brilliant French critic will wow us with theories. For now, I've got some ideas I put in a poem.
Why I Love Zombies
They've let go of their pride.
They're not vampire aristocrats
spoiled by virginal necks,
or mummies older than Christ.
They're retired plumbers
in boxer shorts pulled snug
on beer-and-potato-chip bellies,
or housewives in dumpy nightgowns
wandering barefoot on the lawn,
hypnotized by crickets.
They're not Frankenstein's
monster with bolts in his neck,
or alien coneheads with 500 IQs
& rotten claw teeth.
They're volunteer firemen
with charcoal puffy eyes
from watching Carson night after night,
or secretaries softening faces
with cold cream before bed.
They're not bikers, hippies, or rednecks,
the stock villains of 1968,
but young men with good haircuts
& worthwhile careers,
teaching high school biology,
or managing a Chevrolet showroom.
All good citizens, they're eager to help
a young crew from Pittsburgh
film a low-budget nightmare
at an old farmhouse. Amid spotlights
slashing the lawn, they shuffle & groan
as cameramen kneel for closeups:
gunshots to the chest, spikes to the head.
They're thrown out & burned
like junk furniture. They have no idea
one day they'll be famous,
terrifying us by being so ordinary.
But there has to be more. For starters, zombies make a mockery of our sanctified notions about death. They are the fart jokes of mortality. (By the way, my favorite definition of good horror is that it makes us scream just a bit louder than we laugh.) Instead of the dearly departed leaving for heaven, they stumble after us with an appetite, cannibals who see us as sushi. A crass metaphor, of course. But anyone who has suffered through grief knows the terrifying power that lost ones have to suck out our life forces. Maybe zombies are trying to warn us that sympathy cards are weak medicine.
For those who find politics everywhere, zombies are the dead power structures that refuse to topple to allow change. Or the frightening fate that stalks many of us in this jobless recovery in an economy that hasn't done much for the middle class in generations. In George Romero's movies—Romero being the auteur of zombies since his classic Night of the Living Dead—zombies are the ones with heart, simple creatures crudely attempting to satisfy simple needs amidst the living who are callow, calculating, and too clever by half. The humans who treat zombies as jokes always seem to go down first.
Here's my theory for the day: zombies embody our latent fear of human overpopulation. Back in the late Sixties and early Seventies overpopulation was a five alarm topic—see global warming today—but by the early Nineties, when I worked at an environmental magazine, it was a third rail subject. Mention overpopulation and you immediately got zapped by the rage over racism, immigration, abortion, any subject that touched on the question of who should be born and who shouldn't. I humbly submit that it's not my decision to make. But that answer evades the issue of overpopulation. There are conservative thinkers, of course, who hail our planet's growing numbers as a source of vitality and perhaps genius to solve the problems we can't solve for ourselves. But I wonder if the rest of us don't feel an uneasiness. In airports, at the mall, in cities, on many occasions we encounter more people than we could possibly know as friends or acquaintances. We abide by an unwritten code of courtesy toward strangers. But what if we passed a tipping point, the zombie outbreak, at which they turned on us? Hold onto your popcorn. The movie's about to begin.
March 13, 2011
Last night, the first moth of the year landed on my window, a soft thump followed by that insatiably fluttering for lamplight. These past days I've been savoring firsts, stopped in my tracks while out on my walks to listen to the first red-winged blackbird squall of the year, or to look up at the first black vultures roosted in trees for the night, or to walk slowly beside the guardrail in order to trail a few steps behind the small muskrat swimming alongside the silty bare bush bank of the pond that shed its ice in the past week. But I don't recall noticing before this year the first moth to land on my window, surely testing the limits of the cold still preserving banks of white snow like reverse shadows in the woods. Window moths, in my experience, travel in hordes, but this one arrived alone, so I opened my window to welcome this harbinger into my cozy lit study. It landed on my desk, filled with such energy even as it stilled its wings that it seemed to be shivering at ten times human speed. I studied the ash gray shadings of its wings, a pattern as indistinct as smudgy soot, and decided that I'd never be able to identify moths, as challenged as I already am by butterflies with far bolder features. I watched this creature crawl about for an inch or two, hauling its wings like a stiff gown, then rise into short bursts of flight onto my computer or windowsill, powered by a papery spinning motor of wings that tickled but scared me off as I attempted, ever so hesitantly, to cup this visitor in my hands. Then it landed smack dab on the center of my computer screen, drawn perhaps by the white cloud light stitched with black type. Casting aside any pretense of scientific objectivity, I felt blessed by its gesture, as if this moth had come to approve to my efforts, seated alone at my computer at 10 o'clock on a Friday night to be with my writing. What can you say to an animal like that, except I'm glad to be sharing this planet with you. For a moment, I considered letting the moth stay overnight, my new mascot from the wilds, but knew that its motions would be too distracting to let my mind slip back into that imaginative quietude needed to write. Plus, the moth had its own life to live outdoors. So, emptying my pen holder cup, I trapped it, careful not to pin or damage its wings, then opened my window again and poured it out into the darkness. Moments later it was back at the window. But my thoughts sank back into the words on my screen. In time I finished, read in bed for a while, turned off the lights. This morning, as I sit down to write under the overcast of a new day and remember the moth that I'd already forgotten, I stir with the yearning for another first of the season, a feeling that in the six types of human love and affection categorized by the ancient Greeks would be added as a seventh, biophilia.
For several years each February close to Valentine's Day, our traveling poetry salon wrapped itself up in scarves and pulled on our boots for the sandy half mile trek out the Saugerties Lighthouse, where Patrick Landewe, the keeper, greeted us with his black winter beard and friendly manner, allowing us to cover his kitchen table with chocolate treats and then, after noshing for a while, crowd into his living room warmed by a coal stove and sunlit through windows offering views of the river ice, sometimes oatmeal mush, sometimes shattered plates shoved up here and there into giant white fins. Yet as fierce as the winter may be outside the Saugerties Lighthouse, inside we found a cozy refuge of historical Americana. Those white walls were as thick and secure as a bunker.
As the organizer of these gathering, I made it my responsibility first to carry out two gallons of apple cider in my daypack to be heated on the restaurant-size kitchen stove and served in mugs with cloves and cinnamon, then to lead the round robin sharing of poems read aloud, a romantic way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Since the lighthouse functions as a B&B, Patrick wasn't unaccustomed to guests, so he retreated out of our way, until at the end I invited him to read his own writing for us. One year he described the voices he heard in the ice, a captivating account I haven't forgotten. Thomas Wolfe's description of the various lights seen in the Hudson brought it to mind. Patrick has revised what he originally read to us. Here are the voices as he hears them now.
People ask me what I do out here alone on this remote spit of land when the world is frozen. Short answer: I listen. With the addition of ice, the Hudson River's slow but powerful current is made audible. Large chunks of frozen river move around with the tides, forward and back and forward again, grinding against one another as they flow, creating eerie sounds. A channel marker downstream resounds like a kettle drum each time it is hit by a large ice chunk. In the shallows on the north side of the lighthouse, piles of broken ice pop and crackle as they shift with rising or receding water levels. "The ice talks to you," some people say.
Alone in winter, I listen and lapse into reveries, trying to decipher the language of ice. Deprived of human conversation, the brain turns towards voluble aspects of its surroundings. Not unlike the way the human eye, wired to recognize faces, looks at lines of woodgrain and sees a face grinning back. The visage of Mary appears to believers on a piece of toast or the devil's eyes in a cloud of smoke. So too the ear is attuned to the human voice, hearing rumors in a rustle of leaves or long orations in the rainfall. What elaborate sentences are diagrammed by the frost on the window pane, I wonder. The scrawling of frost are mere whispers compared to the muscular epics of river ice. Ice talk must have been on my mind when I dreamt of of a book made of ice. The warmth of my hands and the heat of my breath melted the pages as I read them. When I awoke, I looked out the window and saw reams of river ice stacked by the muscle of the tides, piled in the shallows, shuffled into fractals of the underlying geometry of water molecules. I study the commotions of river ice–indecisive waters, constantly moving, back and forth with the tide, back and forth between liquid intuition and structured crystals, stiffening to commands of nighttime cold, eased by the sun. Whoop gasp moan grunt snore. As the winter chill seeps through my woolen jacket to my ribs, I sense the fierce indifference at the core of this frozen landscape. I snap from my reverie and recall a thought from Carl Sagan: "It takes courage to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotions on it."
I compiled a makeshift catalogue of ice sounds:
1) puffed-rice breakfast cereal sounds: krack, smack, krunch, kapow. knuckle-breaking comic-book brawl.
2) squeegee-like squeaks like furry little mice complaining about the icy cold.
3) old man noises: For example, one day, while taking a break from ice-sailing, standing with men around a burn barrel at the edge of the ice, hands outstretched towards the fire to keep warm. A sudden noise from the ice interrupted the conversation–a snow-muffled boom underfoot. Everyone looked around at the frozen landscape, then at each other. Someone finally piped up. "Ice fart," he said. Now, I hear the grumbling of old age, not quite speech but bodily noises, like hunger, groaning with the rough creaking of joints. A few coughs, as the ice complains under the stress of a shrinking tide. When the tide expands, a surge of gurgling and belching, followed by one long sigh.
4) sounds from deep space: High-pitched, ethereal ping, transmitted through the ice sheet like snapping piano wire, like steam-pipes and radiators singing with an ancient boiler. Space-age special effects. A metallic retort, then monolithic silence. The wake of a passing tug jostles the newly-formed half-inch layer of ice on the water. Undulating with each wave, the ice makes a thin, metallic sound. If you ever stood on a railroad platform and listened carefully as a train approached the station, you'd recognize this icy sound as something similar to the high-pitched pings darting through the rails in advance of the train.
5) primal animal motion: After dinner, sitting around the dining table at my neighbor's house, the dogs' ears prick up. They leap to the door and bark into the night. They sense something out there in the dark. It's the river ice, like a large, lumbering beast on the move.
I'm not the first person to listen to river ice and try to describe its noise. The naturalist John Burroughs heard a slumbering ice-god, snoring and grunting, with the occasional thunderbolt leaping forth. Or a gigantic phantom skater, "one who covers a mile at a stride and makes the crystal floor ring beneath him." The ice groans to the rise and the fall of the tide. It resounds to the daytime expansion and nighttime contraction of temperature changes. Tugs are brought to a standstill. Buoys are pulled off their moorings. The ice doesn't care, and I am glad of it. It speaks a naked voice, like someone, having reached the end of a lifetime and seen it all, shrugs off worry.
March 10, 2011
Should love poems come with warning labels? Well, dear reader, here they are, a stand up tragedy routine gleefully excoriating the ogres who first arrived as our fantasies. Though I knew Barbara Louise Ungar had been through a divorce from hell, I didn't know she'd make such good use of it until reading her new book, Charlotte Bronte, You Ruined My Life. Of course, anger without humor is hate, but anger with humor is sometimes the best medicine. Before getting to the title poem, let me add that there's more to this book than the irresistibly smart and comic rages. At times Barbara looks past the Divorce Wars to address the terrible brutalities inflicted upon women by men projecting witch fears. (See "The Brank" about a muzzle like a torture device. I had to put the book down.) Having wrestled with my late mother's drinking problems that cast her in my memories as a Jekyll and Hyde of white wine, loving by day, terrorizing by night, I must say these poems hit hard. They 're forcing me to reconsider. But now back to the fun stuff.
Charlotte Bronte, You Ruined My Life
A work is great, when it ceases to matter that it is bad.
With his big cur and little French coquette,
his blind eye and depraved first wife, his locked
room, malignant mood and dungeon house—
Reader, I married him.
Big Sister of the Shelf, what shy bookworm
would not be staunch Jane and fall for
Beneath the mask, sardonic and harsh:
his brooding sorrow, his sordid
past, his rancid secret, which love alone
can lance. You infected me
as soon as I outgrew my horse books.
Charlotte, how many girls did you doom
to brutes? What could you know
of marriage? Yours killed you
in under a year. Childbed, thirty-nine.
Like Eyre, tenacious of life, I survived,
only I could not miraculously
cure him. Nearing fifty and divorce, I weep
as Orson Welles plays Rochester, those lines
I'd waited all my life to hear—
I had a string under my left rib,
inextricably knotted to yours…
and if we had to part, that cord
would be snapt; and I should take to
bleeding inwardly. Goddamnit, Charlotte,
I married him.