White whales and clouds

I’ve been reading Janet Frame’s posthumous collection “The Goose Bath Poems” slowly – more slowly than usual. Partly this is due to a busy month of other reading, but also it is the density of her work. Her sentences are complex and her ideas are often obscure to me. And yet, I keep reading. Something about them touches me.
Martha’s Vineyard
The boy in the basement steers a spacecraft into heaven.
What is heaven? The flowering of the summer squash
in his small garden; a rack of carpenter’s tools; two gerbils;
a walk on the sand
hand in hand with his father
who conjures the great white whale out of print
into the ocean within a few yards of the house.
It is his mother gently disentangling his unhurt fingers from Charlotte’s web;
the morning ride on the punt to Chappaquiddick;
nurses and children; the private beach;
the best; white;
white whale and cloud.
Two or three feet taller where
adults turn their heads to say No,
it never happened, look who’s winning the game,
which ghost passed like a storm down the highway,
heaven though nearer is further away.
In this poem, we see a small boy playing with model spaceships and walking on the beach with his father. He has been born into a life of privilege: His parents live on Martha’s Vineyard (or summer there, at least), they walk upon a private beach, the boy has a private nurse. And his father has been reading Moby Dick – the story of the white whale, obsession, tragedy. 
And I cannot help but wonder… Is that what the boy’s life will become? A tragedy? He will go to the best schools and be given every opportunity, but he will squander his life on a foolish obsession? As Frame says, “heaven though nearer is further away.” Is the bar set too high already for this small boy? Will he ever live up to the expectations of his family, his social class?
The boy has been given “the best; white;” and yet, I feel sorry for him. We are all on the hamster wheel. Some of us possess a few more pieces of gold than others, but we each make our own happiness or our own hell.
Obviously, when we read poetry, we filter the meaning through our own prejudices, histories and beliefs. We read a poem in our 30s or 40s and it has different meaning for us than it did in our 20s. (This is a good argument, by the way, for attending a performance of “Hamlet” in each decade of our lives. Watch how the meaning evolves.)
I’ve been struggling with my own quest for happiness lately. Perhaps that is why this poem resonates for me. Janet Frame struggled most of her life to make peace with her illness. I hope she found some sense of satisfaction, at least, from the art that was its byproduct.
Have a good holiday weekend.

 

I’ve been reading Janet Frame’s posthumous collection The Goose Bath Poems slowly – more slowly than usual. Partly this is due to a busy month of other reading, but also it is the density of her work. Her sentences are complex and her ideas are often obscure to me. And yet, I keep reading. Something about them touches me.

Martha’s Vineyard
by Janet Frame 


The boy in the basement steers a spacecraft into heaven.
What is heaven? The flowering of the summer squash
in his small garden; a rack of carpenter’s tools; two gerbils;
a walk on the sand
hand in hand with his father
who conjures the great white whale out of print
into the ocean within a few yards of the house.

It is his mother gently disentangling his unhurt fingers
          from Charlotte’s web;
the morning ride on the punt to Chappaquiddick;
nurses and children; the private beach;
the best; white;
white whale and cloud.
Two or three feet taller where
adults turn their heads to say No,
it never happened, look who’s winning the game,
which ghost passed like a storm down the highway,
heaven though nearer is further away.
… 

In this poem, we see a small boy playing with model spaceships and walking on the beach with his father. He has been born into a life of privilege: His parents live on Martha’s Vineyard (or summer there, at least), they walk upon a private beach, the boy has a private nurse. And his father has been reading Moby Dick – the story of the white whale, obsession, tragedy. 

And I cannot help but wonder… Is that what the boy’s life will become? A tragedy? He will go to the best schools and be given every opportunity, but he will squander his life on a foolish obsession? As Frame says, “heaven though nearer is further away.” Is the bar set too high already for this small boy? Will he ever live up to the expectations of his family, his social class?

The boy has been given “the best; white;” and yet, I feel sorry for him. We are all on the hamster wheel. Some of us possess a few more pieces of gold than others, but we each make our own happiness or our own hell.

Obviously, when we read poetry, we filter the meaning through our own prejudices, histories and beliefs. We read a poem in our 30s or 40s and it has different meaning for us than it did in our 20s. (This is a good argument, by the way, for attending a performance of Hamlet in each decade of our lives – to experience how the meaning evolves.)

I’ve been struggling with my own quest for happiness lately. Perhaps that is why this poem resonates for me. Janet Frame struggled most of her life to make peace with her illness. I hope she found some sense of satisfaction, at least, from the art that was its byproduct.

Have a good holiday weekend.

Dipping into The Goose Bath

Apologies for my long absence. I took some time off and traveled to New Zealand – as many of you know – and then returned to some truly awful jet lag. I’ve been reading; I’ve been writing. I’ve missed you and I hope you missed me.

One of my favorite travel activities involves locating a bookstore in every town I visit. Some people buy postcards; I buy books. And I bought several books of poetry during my trip.

The Goose BathFirst up: The Goose Bath poems by Janet Frame. I must admit that before March, I was woefully ignorant about the poets from New Zealand. Indeed, I had not even heard of Janet Frame, who is perhaps the most famous New Zealand poet. Jane Campion’s film Angel at My Table is based upon Frame’s autobiography.

I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version of her life. Frame was born in Dunedin on the South Island in 1924. She lost her two sisters to drowning when she was young, and she made a number of suicide attempts – mostly feigned. She was in and out of mental institutions and was about to be lobotomized when one of her doctors heard that she had just won the Hubert Church Award for her book of short stories. They canceled the operation. She went on to write novels, poetry, short stories and her three-volume autobiography.

In 1983, she was granted the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and by the late 90s was considered a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Frame died in 2004 at age 74 of leukemia. In 2006, Random House/Vintage released The Goose Bath, a collection of previously unpublished work. 

It is from The Goose Bath poems (edited by Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire) that I am reading these days.

“I Do Not Want To Listen”
by Janet Frame

I do not want to listen
I refuse to listen
to the geometric noises
of black and white

My big colorful mouth
has enough to eat thank you
without tasting
a plain triangle or two.

Yes, I know rain-
drops are as heavy
and colourless as stones
and fall tropically

rain-bashing what
scurries
without obvious form
and certainly without hope

to the defining
shelter of a microscope.
And I’ve heard
of stick insects and figures

and striped beds
in the sky and rows
of disembodied black
and white flowers yet

poor as rainbows are
against the pressure
and purity
of no-colour

I must fight and fight
with my red and yellow head
even after I am dead, to stay
my own way, my own way.

The darkness is quite clear in her poetry, especially in early work like “I Do Not Want To Listen.” But I’ve only read a small portion of the collection, so I have not yet formed a solid opinion. I am delighted by her wordplay, though, as in “I Visited”:

“I Visited”
by Janet Frame

I visited
the angels and stars and stones;
also, adjectival poets, preferably original.
There was an air of restlessness
an inability to subside, a state of being at attention,
at worst, at war with the immediately beating heart and breathing lung.
I looked then in the word-chambers, the packed warehouses by the sea,
the decently kept but always decaying places where nouns and their
representative images lay together on high shelves
among abbreviations and longlost quotations. I listened.
Water lapped at the crumbling walls; it was a place 
for murder, piracy; salt hunger seeped between the shelves;
it was time to write. Now or never. The now unbearable,
the never a complete denial of memory:
I was not, I never have been.

Next up: poetry written while Frame was living in London, Europe and America. Stay tuned. Also, if you want to pick up your own copy of The Goose Bath, you may have to order online.

AWP recap – Part II

I won’t bore you with the details of all the sessions that I attended at AWP. Suffice it to say, I sat through discussions of what’s being published in literary magazines today and what kind of online poetry communities are being established. 

I spent a lovely 90 minutes at the William Stafford session, where a new book of never-before published work was launched. Fred Marchant – a wonderful poet himself and one of my instructors at the Frost Place many moons ago – moderated the panel, which included William Stafford’s son, Kim. I recommend the book to you: Another World: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 (Graywolf Press).

More than a collection
One session I do want to describe in more detail was titled “More Than a Collection: Imagining and Realizing Thematic Poetry Projects.” Jon Tribble, the managing editor of the Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by Southern Illinois University Press, was the moderator. But the poets on the panel were by no means Midwest-centric. Two were from the West, one from the Pacific Northwest and the remaining two from Wisconsin.

This was the best-run session I attended at AWP. Rather than start by reading the panelist bios, Jon passed out a single sheet of paper. It contained everyone’s bios on one side and an “opening statement” on the other. Brilliant! Why did no one else do this? We wasted 5-10 minutes in every session listening to a litany of “Bob Smith is the author of amazing poetry collection A” and “Jane Doe teaches creative writing at the University of B.” Yeah. I got it. I trust that if this person is giving a presentation at AWP, they’ve got some sort of credentials. Let’s move on.

Each poet gave a brief talk on how they happened to create a thematic poetry project. Some poets deliberately set out to write a body of work on a specific topic. Others found themselves returning to a theme over and over without any conscious intention. Yet another sat down to assemble a collection and found that she had a theme running through her work that she hadn’t noticed; she had only to write a few pieces to fill in the gaps.

In his opening statement, Jon writes:

These five poets have authored books that realize the promise a thematic poetry project can represent – a unique reward where the productive obsession of the artist re-imagines the narrative possibilities of childhood, adolescence, or aging and disease; where documentary and witness revisit cultural and political history, troubling the questions between the known and unknown to reveal the shifting spaces between knowledge and truth; and where the possibility of language, voice, and symbol reshape the fabric of understanding that can deepen in a body of work that truly is an organic and unified whole.

The five poets on the panel and a brief note about their collections:

Oliver de Paz
Names Above Houses began as a long epic poem while Paz was in graduate school. Upon showing it to his mentor, he was told that it was interesting, but there was no peril, no reason to care. Paz turned to his heritage and Filipino folk songs to create a mythology for his character and break his long epic into a series of prose poems.

In this next book, Paz wanted to stop writing prose poems and do something different. He wrote short and austere pieces that became Furious Lullaby, which was a fine collection, according to his publisher, but it had no “fury.” Paz decided he needed an antagonist, so he used the figure of the devil to provide a foil in his poems.

Jesse Lee Kercheval
kerchevalJesse stumbled into her theme due to her husband’s work in film making. He taught a silent film course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in which the students created their own silent films using old equipment found stored in a university basement. They decided to enter the films in the annual Cinema Muto film festival in Italy. Upon arriving at the festival, they discovered that they were the only living filmmakers to attend. All the others are dead! Of course! Silent film making not being a “living” art… Kercheval began writing about their experiences and found that she had become obsessed. The result is Cinema Muto.

Alison Townsend
Persephone in America is her collection centered, as you might guess, on the Persephone myth. She was in the middle of a different project when a “voice” began to emerge in her writing. She wrote a bunch of Persephone poems set in the ancient world that didn’t work. Then she decided to bring the character into the present day and began asking questions. Why is Persephone silent? What is she silent about? How can I use that to talk about women’s issues in contemporary America?

Sean Nevin
nevinIn Oblivio Gate, Sean writes about a man’s descent into Alzheimer’s. It was not planned as a collection. He found himself returning to the topic over and over, even when he thought he was done with it. He would show poems to his wife, and she would say, “I thought you were done writing about Alzheimer’s?” He would say, “I am. This poem isn’t about that.” But it was. He began to worry that he couldn’t write anything else! But he seems to have made his peace with it. He says now that he is “writing from” a place rather than “writing about” something.

Jake Adam York
A Murmuration of Starlings is his collection of “bio poems” about slain civil rights leaders. He has been working on this project for years, and he anticipates continuing for another five years. He published a previous collection – Murder Ballads – in which he used a metonymic device to tie each poem to the next. This time, he found that the image of starlings was recurring, so he began to consciously work to include the birds in every poem. He found it was a way to discuss racism as pollution. Oh, and he’s white, by the way, writing about black martyrs of the civil rights movement.

Of these five poets, I am most interested in reading Kercheval’s Cinema Muto and Nevin’s Oblivio Gate. Although they were sold out at the publisher’s booth, I ordered them post-AWP using the conference discount. You can do the same by visiting www.siu.edu/~siupress and using promotion code AWP09 when you check out. Each book was about $10 after the discount.

***

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Because we are speaking of thematic collections, I have to take this opportunity to plug a couple of my favorites. And there is an AWP connection. A. Van Jordan read on Saturday night (along with Frank Bidart, Paul Muldoon and others) at a special Valentine’s Day “Love on the Line” event at the School of the Art Institute’s Sullivan Galleries (in the old Carson Pirie Scott building).

If you haven’t read any of Van Jordan’s work, I recommend any of his three books:

  • Rise
  • M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A
  • Quantum Lyrics

    Rise is a traditional collection, but the last two are strong thematic projects. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A recounts the story of the first African-American spelling bee champion and Quantum Lyrics intermingles science and comics and the image of black men in America in remarkable ways. (I had no idea that Einstein had spoken out about racism.) Jordan taught for several years at UT-Austin, but just this past fall joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. I eagerly await his next collection.

    AWP recap – Part I

    This week, it was all about AWP – the Association of Writers and Writing Programs – whose annual conference headquartered itself just a few blocks from me at the Chicago Hilton. My poetry group (the SLANG 6) registered for the conference in lieu of our February workshop. Needless to say, it was an embarrassment of riches.

    Multiply six time slots per day times 15 concurrent seminars in each time slot, then times three days, and I believe you get 270 seminars from which to choose. Add to that a variety of competing readings each evening and over 500 exhibitors at the accompanying Bookfair, and it’s rather an overwhelming experience.

    I’ll be recapping two seminars at a time; here are the first two.

    1. The Sister Art(s): Toward a Feminist Ekphrasis

    resurrection-trade1

    Ekphrastic = writing that comments upon another art form, e.g., a poem about a photograph or a novel about a film. A famous example is Keats’ “Ode Upon a Grecian Urn.”

    Moderated by Grace Bauer from the University of Nebraska, each woman on the panel spoke about an ekphrastic project and then read some of their related poetry. Leslie Adrienne Miller discussed her book The Resurrection Trade, in which she writes about Victorian anatomical pictures created for male medical doctors of the time. I didn’t care for the poetry – very academic – but the pictures were horrifying.

    Robin Becker spoke about her experiences researching the first home economics programs at MIT and other prestigious universities, how empowering that was for women, and the effect of the end of WWII on those programs – dissolution or co-option into male-dominated departments.

    Joy Manesiotis did not focus so much on her poetic work, itself, but spoke about how her studies as a visual artist have influenced her poetry. Many of the processes are the same, she says. What is allowed to enter the frame of the picture/poem? What do you include and exclude? But of course, differences also exist: The viewer can take in a painting all in one look, but a reader can only read one word of a poem at at time.

    Joy also made an interesting comment about how – in her view – contemporary poetry has become so “noisy.” It’s all about having something to say, whereas, many writers need to wander around in the dark in solitude until they bump into something. I perked up at that, because I’m absolutely the “wander round in the dark” kind of writer. I hope to make strides in the other direction, too, but I do tend to go out into the world, observe, and then write.

    41jpb5dazql_sl500_aa240_2

    Fresh from grad school, Christine Stewart-Nunez just published her first collection of poetry, Unbound & Branded, which was inspired by a magazine portfolio of artists responding to the image of supermodel Kate Moss. She read from a paper she published on the subject and passed around the pictures of Moss, who was attempting to reinvent herself after childbirth. The following poem has to be the most entertaining piece read during the session.

    Bad girl
    by Christine Stewart-Nunez 

    Peel back the universe, bad girl. Wear black minis  
    and fishnets for us all. Tell that boss  
    to fuck off. Take blame for the affair.  
    Leave lovers bleeding in bed for other girls  
    to save. Spend your whole paycheck on yourself. 

    Punch through the rules, bad girl. Publish 
    nude photos of yourself. Stab the rapist to kill. 
    Shatter ceilings with your stilettos; find  
    new uses for your bra. Leave Sunday mornings  
    for the spa and evenings for sipping scotch. 

    Read more

    2. What’s in the Magazines: A Conversation

    Moderated by a staffer from Poets & Writers magazine, this panel featured editors from New Letters, Adirondack Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. Not a lot of revelations here, but some useful reminders. What do the lit journals look for?

    • Writing with intensity
    • Writing that advances the art
    • Writing that will stand up to numerous readings
    • Writing that offers hope

    Actually, that last one got disputed by several editors. New Letters doesn’t like to publish anything that doesn’t offer some hope. Thankfully, the other editors didn’t seem to care if the work ended in complete despair. Hooray for gloom and depression!

    The real contrast on this panel was obvious: the old guard (New Letters) and the new media (Adirondack Review). New Letters is a print journal that has expanded into a variety of online ventures, including podcasts, but their sensibility remains staunchly print. Adirondack Review is an online journal that seems excited about the ways poetry can be published online.

    Don’t mistake me. I’m not part of the “print is dead” crowd. I love books as objects. But while I won’t read an entire novel on a screen, I will certainly read a poem on my laptop. Also, the New Letters guy just sounded defensive about the online world. “And now we have to do podcasts,” is exactly how he put it. Yes, well, no one has to subscribe to your journal either. Poetry is optional in most people’s lives. I say let’s  give them as many ways to find it and “read” it as we can.

    More to come on AWP.

    From Dante to Ovid to Pinsky…

    I’ve been away from Ovid for too long, so let’s delve into Book VII of The Metamorphoses, where I learned that Medea is an origin myth for our modern witches. I’m not sure where I thought the story of witches came from – the middle ages, perhaps – but certainly not Ovid.

    Medea first appears in Euripides’ plays, but Ovid transforms her into something less tragic, more willfully evil. In his preface to Book VII, translator and scholar Horace Gregory says:

    348px-de_morgan_medea“Ovid’s Medea is far more bloody, more savage in her behaviour than the character conceived by Euripides. Ovid makes her an archetypal sorceress, a priestess of Hecate and all the evil forces of the night. Her image survives in tales of witchcraft, and her chariot drawn by dragons, became transformed into a broomstick.”

    In Book VII we hear the story of Jason of the Argonauts, his liberation of the golden fleece, and Medea’s obsessive love for him. She assists Jason in his labors with her magic, then brews up a pot of sorcery to save his father’s life.

    On the face of it, this seems a noble act. However, Jason’s father is not dying of disease or war wounds, before his time. He is dying of old age. Suddenly, Medea’s magic seems perverse. She is thwarting the natural order of time and human mortality. And the scene that Ovid conjures in a forest clearing echoes down the years to Shakespeare’s MacBeth. I can almost hear the chanting in the air: Double double, toil and trouble.

    Meanwhile in a bronze pot her liquor simmered,
    steamed, leaped, and boiled, the white scum foaming hot:
    There she threw roots torn from Thessalian valleys,
    Seeds, flowers, plants, and acid distillations,
    And precious stones from the far Orient…
    Wings of the weird scritch owl and his torn breast,
    Bowels of the werewolf which shudder and twist
    Into a likeness of mad human faces,
    The scaled skin of a thin-hipped water snake,
    Liver of a long-lived deer, foul eggs,
    And battered head of a crow that outlived
    Eight generations.
    The Metamorphoses, Book VII, Ovid

    Medea goes on to perform various feats of dark magic. She eventually attempts to poison a king, gets caught, and finally:

    ‘Scaping her own death, vanished in a cloud,
    Dark as the music chanted in her spells.
    The Metamorphoses, Book VII, Ovid 

    Ovid may have transformed Medea into an evil witch, but he has not been the only one to appropriate the myth for his own purposes. She is the old crone that frightens children on Halloween. She is Glenda, the Good Witch, who cares for the little people in the Wizard of Oz. For my own taste, I rather enjoy the modern feminist witch in her TV incarnations – Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Piper Halowell in Charmed.

    Now let’s skip forward from 8 A.D. to 2008 A.D. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. I’ve been reading Ovid slowly – over months and months – in between other novels and poetry. And I came to Ovid because I studied Dante’s Inferno last summer in a class at The Gleacher (University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies). And the text we used in the class was Robert Pinsky’s very critically acclaimed verse translation of the Inferno. From Dante to Ovid to Pinsky… 

    I dipped into some of Robert Pinsky’s An Explanation of America this week. He gave a free reading at the Art Institute on Thursday night – mostly from his more recent book of poetry, Gulf Music – and was very entertaining, if a bit … well … rehearsed. I studied individual poems from Gulf Music in a class on contemporary poetry (another course at The Gleacher), and while I enjoyed lines here and there, I didn’t really fall in love with it. After hearing Pinsky read his own work, I decided to give it another chance.

    Later that night, I realized that I don’t even own Gulf Music, so instead I opened his book-length poem An Explanation of America, which I bought used at Powell’s a year ago (two years ago?), but had just not got around to reading. I won’t pretend to be a complete convert to Pinsky’s work, but I did find it more accessible, now that I could imagine his voice reading the lines, the words, inserting the breath.

    On the radio,
    The FM station that plays, ‘All Country and Western’
    Startled me, when I hit its buttons one day,
    With a voice – inexplicable and earnest – 
    In Vietnamese or Chinese, lecturing
    Or selling, or something someone wanted broadcast,
    A paid political announcement, perhaps…
    “All politics is local politics”
    Said Mayor Daley (in pentameter):
    And this then is the locus where we vote,
    Prisonyard fulcrum of knowledge, fear and work –
    Nest where an Eagle balances and screams,
    The wild bird with its hardware in its claws.
    An Explanation of America, Robert Pinsky 

    I’ll let you meditate on that.