Saturday, November 17, 2012

Six Books of Poetry

Internet is back up after going down for four days. This post is a composite of things.

First off, I just finished reading Cyril's new book Straw, Sticks and Bricks. As the title suggests, this collection of prose poems is built on the idea of language as a possible home. Each poem is a "protracted" sentence, joining clauses and phrases with the useful glue of semi-colons. Formally, the book is the the most unified sequence that Cyril has written. That formal unity undergirds an expansion of subject matter. These poems venture from meditations on self to criticism of society. "Notes from a Religious Mind" and "Programme for Transcending Acquisitiveness" aims at social deformations indicated in the poems' titles. The more relaxed form of the prose poem permits Cyril, it seems to me, to experiment with other tones besides the  fiercely and exquisitely lyrical voice that he has perfected. My favorites of the collection are "Telephone," "Da Capo," "On Reading," "Lies that Build a Marriage" and the summative poem "Zero Hour."

For months now I have been dipping into Hyam Plutzik's Apples from Shinar in bed. The opening poem "Because the Red Osier Dogwood" inspired me to write a poem after its repetition of "because." All the poems in the book are finely weighed, with lush imagery and alluring music. Many poems are written in regular quatrains. "A New Explanation of the Quietitude and Talkativeness of Trees" convinces me that trees "belong to the genus thunder." There is an angry poem written "For T.S.E. Only" that tries to see the latter's pain in his anti-Semitism. The refrain "Come, let us weep together for our exile" tries to find common cause. The metaphysical and image-making powers of the book come together most dizzyingly, for me, in the ten-line poem "The Geese." The "miscellaneous screaming" of the birds raises the speaker's eyes to the geese pressing southward. Seeing the hopeless will of the birds to prevail against time, the poem concludes, "Value the intermediate splendor of birds."

Marina Tsvetaeva is, pardon the cliche, a force of nature. In the translations of Elaine Feinstein, that force also shows its formal intelligence. I read "POEM OF THE MOUNTAIN" in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the poem transported me elsewhere, to the mountain, on the mountain, away from the mountain. Her passion ennobles her, as the poet is very well aware:

Let now some neighbour say whether your
hair is black or fair, for he can tell.
I leave that to physicians or watchmakers.
What passion has a use for such details.

No American poet could have written this. The American poet, and those poets influenced by the American tradition, will feel as an ethical imperative the compulsion to express her passion through details. Tsvetaeva brushes such details aside, because they belong to the common world of gossip, medicine and work.

I finished reading Natalya Gorbanevskaya's Selected Poems a while ago. She is a poet very much to my taste. Perhaps she is less passionate than Marina Tsvetaeva but she is intelligent, restrained and concise. She writes a poetry of clear statements, enlivened by surprising turns of thought or phrase. The translation by Daniel Weissbort does not reproduce her rhymes, but seems to have caught her directness. In Last Poems of the Last Century, she advises,

A citizen?
So, live independently.
A poet?
So, travel the world...

That tough matter-of-factness is very attractive. After arousing the ire of the Soviet authorities, she escaped to France and lived among the Russian emigre community in Paris. She lived there long enough to see the city change.

How few pinball machines now in Paris,
what's more, no smoking in cafés,
you screw up your eyes, like a half corpse,
insufficiently cooled.

I picked up Zhang Er's book of poems Translating Rivers and Cities at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September. The book brings together a selection of poems from three earlier books. A modern Chinese poet, Zhang writes in free verse, with surrealistic imagery to depict some interior landscape. She has been living in New York City since 1986. The poems go on for too long, too loosely, to hold my attention. The translations, done by six different people, render the foreign in all-too-familiar English. I like best the poems in her first book The Autumn of GuYao. In those poems, she re-writes Chinese legends by inhabiting imaginatively the minds of female protagonists: NuChou (Ugly Girl) from The Legend of the Western Lands; NuWa Jing Wei (Baby Girl, Jing Wei) from The Legend of the Northern Mountains; Princess NuShi from The Legend of the Central Mountains; and XiHe, the wife of the Emperor Zun, from The Legend of the Great Beyond to the South.

Effigies collects the work of four Indigenous poets, selected and introduced by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. dg nanouk okpik is an Inupiat-Inuit from Anchorage Alaska, Cathy Tagnak Rexford is Inupiaq, French/German and English from Anchorage too, Brandy Nalani McDougall, from Upcountry Maui, is of Kanaka Maoli, Chinese and Scottish ancestry, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt, from Hawaii, is of Spanish, Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry. The danger in such a book is exoticization, and it is a danger that poets and editor do not successfully overcome, in my opinion. The problem is knotty: how does one who live among "baleen row, razor clam edge, rabid willow ptarmigan plume ... white buds of plumeria, gardenia, lei, shaded grave of dried lauhala and graying niu" (from Editor's Note) write about these things without sounding exotic to readers from the American mainland? The best poems in the book treat these wonderful images as background to an unfolding human drama that readers can understand from their own lives. So in "Oblong Moon," Perez-Wendt writes,

The night Harry Pahukoa died
He was driving up from Honomanu
After laying net
He had to lay the net
Before the full moon.

The poem also succeeds in reaching out to the reader because it does not assume that its reader will understand the timing of laying a net. It explains without condescension or servility. The opening is also a skilful exercise of suspense.

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