Thursday, September 25, 2014

I Feel Horrible. She Doesn't - Richard Brautigan

I feel horrible. She doesn't
love me and I wander around
the house like a sewing machine
that's just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.

The images, humor, and sentiment in this great poem by Richard Brautigan are all held together by enjambment.  Enjambment is when the end of a line runs into the next, often creating functionally two sentences or meanings.  They are the bread and butter of this poem, its substance.  A few examples:

"I feel horrible.  She doesn't."
"I feel horrible.  She doesn't love me."
"I wander around the house"
"I [am] like a sewing machine that's just finished"

etc etc

The poem also has the delightful gross out image, "like a sewing machine that's just finished sewing a turd to a garbage can lid."  That's quite messy, I'd imagine.  I love it.

The Maldive Shark - Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flnak
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat-
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame, was also a poet of considerable talent.  I admire this poem because it does not try to moralize nature, making it into some human thing.  The shark, though described in terrifying language, is not evil.  It's unemotional, "phlegmatical" and "dull."  There is no moral imperative in the shark's teeth, no malice, just raw alien animal instinct.  Its foreignness is what attracts us to it.  The descriptions are phenomenal.  The shark has a "Gorgonian head" with "white triple tiers of glittering gates."  Melville focuses on the wondrous nature of the creature, and the symbiotic relationship between the pilot fish and the shark.

The pilot fish is the brains of the operation, so to speak.  It leads the shark to food (though doesn't partake of the spoils) and finds safe haven in its jaws during times of trouble.  It is the "eyes and brains to the dotard" that is the shark.  No positive or negative aspect is given to the relationship, Melville merely describes what is.  I like that.  It's easy to become preachy and unbearable in describing nature, particularly if animals are assigned with human traits.  How boring this would be if the shark was a menacing evil killer instead of a "pale ravener of horrible meat."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Husky Boys' Dickies - Jill McDonough

WTF texts Josey, and I text back OMG. We had to tell Maggie what LOL
meant - it's not Lots Of Love, though that almost always fits. Major
emailed LMAO when I assumed his inbox gets dealt with by an underling,
some undergrad, assumed it was Major's minor who invited me to read but
"can not pay much sum of monies." Sum of Monies? I emailed back.

Who wrote this? Your assistant's a Nigerian prince? WTF.
For a while we just played with these, joking, like I tried on
Wicked when I moved to Boston, called Lisa Liser, pizza pizzer, said
Fucken, wicked, pissah, dood. But before you know it, it's part
of how you talk, how I talk, fucken guy. Dude. When my ex

student saw me she said Sick a dozen times, amazed, delighted, meant
it's super I've moved back, and whoda thunk it, come in to her cafe.
She checked out Josey, my instant street cred. Josey bought new pants
for work with a cell phone pocket; the cell phone pocket pants
are Husky Boys' Dickies, which I can't get enough of, laugh every time

I think of them, or try to name them out loud. Josey wears
Husky Boys' Dickies. My darling, my husky, my husky little boy.
Hey, Husky, we say, around the house, just waking up, just bumping
into each other en route from basement to garden to kitchen. Hey,
Husky, do you want coffee? Hey Husky, Hey Bunny, Hey Hon.

When I'm helping my students translate Sappho's Fragments 1 and 31,
I get them to make a list of many-colored things, so they don't feel stuck
with colorful throne. One girl can't think of anything but Skittles. Terrific, I tell her,
you're breaking product placement ground. Then I ask them to think of voices
they love, the voice of someone they love. It's hard to describe a voice, but

I ask them each to try, put his or her beloved in the place of Sappho's, make her
theirs, more real than just sweet-voiced and lovely-laughtered. You have
three minutes. Get something down, I tell them, some adjective or comparison,
even if you just write the same word over and over again. 5:47 p.m. on a Wednesday,
me saying Do your best and You could just say husky husky husky husky husky.

A while back, I said it's important to read poetry and poets you don't particularly like.  Well, it's important for me to follow my own advice, and here we are!  Pretty much every aspect of this poem, from its text style abbreviations, to its subject matter, to its utter lack of poetic device repel me.  Despite that, it has value to someone, and I'd be a bad poetry blogger if I didn't look into it.

I will admit, I did enjoy the way the author captured stereotypical Boston slang.  Fucken wicked, kid.
Moving on, the poem reads like a fairly simple internal monologue, reflecting largely on the way we use language to signify meaning.  Beginning with the abbreviations, it ends in a meditation on what it means to use language descriptively.  Despite the teacher's sarcastic remarks about a girl who can only think of Skittles as a multi-colored thing, that's valid.  It can be very difficult to describe things outside of our comfort zones, to imagine ourselves in someone else's place, to describe the voice in words of our loved ones.

Making a text one's own is a good technique for giving insight into a text, but also a touch dangerous if one doesn't keep it secondary.  We as readers must be able to relate to a text even on a more abstact level, but for a first way to engage with a text, it's safe.  While it may be hard to imagine Sappho's love object from just phrases like "sweet-voiced" and "lovely laughtered" it's much easier to imagine the laugh of the apple of your own eye.  Coming up with your own phrases for that will help you understand the love and consideration that went into the original descriptive text.  That's what language is about, after all, communicating meaning and feeling.

Husky Boys' Dickies is indeed a funny phrase.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Father and Daughter - Amanda Strand

The wedding ring I took off myself,
his wife wasn't up to it.
I brought the nurse into the room
in case he jumped or anything.
"Can we turn his head?
He looks so uncomfortable."
She looked straight at me,
patiently waiting for it to sink in.

The snow fell.
His truck in the barn,
his boots by the door,
flagpoles empty.
It took a long time for the taxi to come.
"Where to?" he said.
"My father just died," I said.
As if it were a destination.

Intimacy and heartbreak, whether in a familial or romantic context, go hand in hand.  Being close to someone is allowing them the power to hurt you and accepting that, and in the titular relationship, "Father and Daughter" it means pain and love in equal measure.  Here, a daughter has to tend to her father's death: taking his wedding ring off of his hand, making him look comfortable.  It is a job for family alone.  His wife (presumably a second marriage and the narrator's step-mother, or else why not say mother?) cannot do this job, only his daughter.  It doesn't quite seem real to the daughter that her father has passed ("patiently waiting for it to sink in").

There's a pervasive sense of emptiness about this poem.  The second stanza in particular, with its catalog of the narrator's father's things, abandoned, disused, drives this home.  The narrator, saying "My father just died" absentmindedly to a taxi driver instead of a destination, as if she's got a far away stare in her eye.  It contributes to an atmosphere of loneliness and absence which makes the poem effective and heartbreaking.

Jerusalem - William Blake

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

The basis of this famous Blake poem is an apocryphal story of Jesus' unknown years, in which he visits pagan England with Joseph of Arimathea.  Conceptually it's linked to the idea of building a second Jerusalem on Earth, the idea of Revelations.  Blake doesn't assert truth, but merely wonders if this could have been the case.   One phrase that throws many off in the poem is "dark Satanic mills" which seems to be a reference to the changing landscape in the time of the Industrial Revolution.

He resolves to never cease from "Mental Fight" which I take to mean, he seeks to create that paradise, that conceptual Jerusalem.  This poem is a well-known anthem within the Anglican church, so my experience with it is somewhat limited.  Still, it's fairly easy to understand, I think.  It's a resolution to seek paradise through one's own efforts, by force if necessary, though somehow I doubt Blake had a literal Chariot of fire.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Elegy for Blue - J. T. Ledbetter

Someone must have seen an old dog
dragging its broken body through
the wet grass;
someone should have known it was lost,
drinking from the old well, then lifting
its head to the wind off the bottoms,
and someone might have wanted that dog
trailing its legs along the ground
like vines sliding up the creek
searching for the sun;
but they were not there when the dog
wandered through Turley's Woods looking
for food and stopped beneath the thorn trees
and wrapped its tail around its nose
until it was covered by falling leaves
that piled up and up
until there was no lost dog at all
to hear the distant voice calling
through the timber,
only a tired heart breathing slower,
and breath, soft as mist, above the leaves.

Is there a surer recipe for tears than something about a dead or dying dog?  Ledbetter successfully plays on those emotions with a supremely pitiful description of an old dog crawling through the forest to die.  There's a profound sense of abandonment running throughout the poem, this dog with no one to seek after or mourn him.  Any sense of peace one might expect to find in the nature setting is dispelled by the image of a dog dragging his useless back legs seeking a place to die.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Autumn - Amy Lowell

All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.

Amy Lowell, as I've mentioned before, is an Imagist poet.  Imagist poetry depicts in a way what is, without moralizing or trying to draw any sort of conclusion.  Some find it wanting; I find it refresing and enjoyable.  For me, Imagist poetry creates a scene in which one may mentally walk around.  The picture Lowell gives is just concrete enough to picture, yet not so concrete as to disengage the reader's imagination.

What's a better picture of autumn than a falling leaf in day and by moonlight?  Much as the poem's narrator spent all day watching the leaves fall, we, the reader, picture in our minds the leaf falling, limned by a sunset, by a glorious moonrise, by the stars off the water, gently touching and rippling that water's surface.  It takes us to that place without telling us how we should feel.  Is it sad?  Is it peaceful?  Happy?  That's not for Lowell to say.  She presents the scene for us to explore in our mind's eye.  I like that a lot.  This poem, for me, is a nice place to be.  Serene.  I hope you take your time to walk around this poem's landscape in your mind.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Elegy in a Country Courtyard - G. K. Chesterton

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And birds and bees of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.

Equal parts sincere and quippy, Chesterton laments some dead, and laments that some others aren't dead.  Those who worked for England, who lived there, presumably honest people, they have become part of England, interred in its soil, part of its landscape.  Those who fought for England are sadly dead far from it, much to England's loss.  Those that rule it?  Alas for England, they're still alive!  A funny twist, and a common one from anyone fed up with politics.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

City Lights - Mary Avidano

My father, rather a quiet man,
told a story only the one time,
if even then - he had so little
need, it seemed, of being understood.
Intervals of years, his silences!
Late in his life he recalled for us
that when he was sixteen, hí papa
entrusted to him a wagonload
of hogs, which he was to deliver
to the train depot, a half-day's ride
from home, over a hilly dirt road.
Lightly he held the reins, light his heart,
the old horses, as ever, willing.
In town at noon he heard the station-
master say the train had been delayed,
would not arrive until that evening.
The boy could only wait. At home they'd
wait for him and worry and would place
the kerosene lamp in the window.
Thus the day had turned to dusk before
he turned about the empty wagon,
took his weary horses through the cloud
of fireflies that was the little town.
In all his years he'd never seen those
lights - he thought of this, he said, until
he and his milk-white horses came down
the last moonlit hill to home, drawn á
from a distance toward a single flame.

This lovely poem by Mary Avidano is about cherished memories, and the story we hear about her father's past is one of hers.  We know from the intro that he was a soft-spoken man, content in his silence, so when he shares a special memory from his boyhood days, when he was entrusted with a job by his father.

The entire poem has a pleasant dreamlike quality, and its significance lies not in any message, but in the remembering itself.  Who can read this poem without thinking of some old family story, which you've cherished in your mind as lovingly as a musuem curator cares for some ancient exhibit?

That besides, the images are clear and beautiful, and my explanations could only serve to make them non-magical.