Sunday, August 15, 2010
"READING MODERN POETRY" Explained
All my bookshelves are 34 inches wide because that’s about the span a one-by-twelve board can be without sagging under the weight of books. Once I tried wider spans and sawed the boards out of plywood that was too thin and the effect was a series of hammocks attached to the wall and only barely. That was in Helena near Last Chance Gulch in apartments divided out of an old brick printing plant with a pasta restaurant on the first floor where my friend Jon used to buy me wonderful meals. He has slipped away. (Not died.) Maybe it’s just as well. But I’ve kept all the boards, even the section that is the same width but made of one-by-nines because when I went to buy more boards in Saskatoon the lumberman laughed, saying there WERE no one by twelves in Saskatchewan.
Only two shelves are of poetry specifically: one of anthologies and one of chapbooks. I’m not good at poetry. It slips away from my grasp, except for the kind that Garrison Keillor often reads on the radio -- little stories with a button on the end. That’s what he personally likes best and so do I, not least because sometimes I can write them.
Tim writes like this: “nighttime touches just the dark of us/ leftover light and cups/ what rag of sunlight to wash our eyes with lye/ what logic is there left to trace/ lips/ milk-pale path of sky/ minute by minute/ the dawn like childhood/”
I didn’t ask if I could quote him -- I just stole it because I love it. I steal words when I love them but no one ever knows because normally I just put them in some secret place. Once I kept a beautiful green leather book into which I copied poems with green ink. It was one of those conceits girls have. At least I didn’t dot my i’s with little hearts. Someone stole it. I didn’t mourn the loss of the poems because I was more invested in the mental image of me writing them than in the actual words, but I did grieve over the loss of a sketch I once made of Bill Shaw, the boy I loved in college undergrad. He died of a brain tumor but not until having establishing a brilliant career and a family. His daughter wrote to me -- full-grown -- because she had decisions to make and found my blog with her father’s name. I told her to have adventures, to take risks. She never made contact again.
In grade school Mrs. Othus, the library teacher (the rumor was that her husband loved her dearly though she was gaunt and wore a wig), made us memorize poems and I chose Wordsworth. “I wandered lonely as a cloud. . .” (The clouds in Montana are not lonely and they don’t wander -- they charge across the sky in great herds like albino bison.) In high school I was always in “enriched” English. If you were a boy, you were in “enriched science.” Why couldn’t I have had both?
Anyway, Martha Shull was our teacher in our sophomore year and she was also the president of the national NEA. She was very stylish, the princess daughter of an important lawyer, and she threw her fiancee’s diamond engagement ring at him right there in the creaky old hallway. Her lifelong partner was female. We thought nothing of it. Martha Shull read us “The Frogs” by Aristophanes, her stylish bright lipsticked mouth (now middle-aged) pronouncing, “Krek ka ka kek, ko-ax, ko-ax.” (I wrote about this once before and someone said I was spelling it wrong. The frogs would find that funny maybe. I did. Who knows how frogs spell?) She taught us “modern” poetry and I was changed forever.
It wasn’t until I was in grad school classes with Richard Stern that I found again the anthology we had used to read “modern” poetry. (Copyright 1955, no longer modern now -- almost as old as Tim.) Our copies were robin's egg blue with white dots, hardback. In it Stern had a translation of Rimbaud’s poem, MY BOHEMIA:
Underway, my pockets split only with my fist,
My topcoat as well looking somewhat platonic;
Under the skies I walked, the muses’ sidekick.
Oh la la! What lovely dreams I kissed.
In my one pair of pants a large hole,
Hop-of-my thumb dreamer, I shelled rimes
En route. Put up for the night where the dipper climbs.
My stars in the sky had he sweetest roll
And I heard them, squatting at the roadbelt,
Those good September evenings when I felt
The dewdrops on my brow like a wine of spirit,
And where, amidst the fantastic shadows,
I drew the laces of my injured shoes
Like lyres, one foot approaching my heart.
Stern also translated Baudelaire, as in this poem called “Correspondences.”
Nature is a temple from whose living pillars
Confusing words are now and then released.
Man wanders trough this huge, symbolic wood
While it observes him with familiar stares.
Like long echoes which far away confound
Themselves in oneness, deep and tenebrous,
Vast as the night and vast as clarity,
Colors, sounds and perfumes correspond.
There are some perfumes as cool as children’s flesh,
Gentle as oboes, green as the prairies --
And others, rich, corrupt, triumphant,
Having the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, benjomin, incense and musk,
Which sings the transports of spirit and sense.
So now you know why I love Tim and the boys and the dogs and all the places they inhabit, but particularly the dreams, even the ones that Sustiva gives them, full of terror and the falling in or out, or the slipping away. Because it is T.S. Eliot’s gyre, coming back around like a merry-go-round and I know it again as though it were the first time. I throw the ring of gold mined in Last Chance Gulch back down the creaky hall but want no other companion than my old eMac even if there are the fingers of invaders on the underside of my keyboard recording all I write. Or not.
You go on ahead. I’ll linger a while to pick some sage. The harvested sweetgrass already haunts my house, braiding into the coffee smell and something else -- wet earth? One doesn’t translate these days -- one learns the language.
http://lesenfantterrible.tumblr.com/ Tim Barrus