Poems You Might Have Missed: The Memories of Fish by James Tate

Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Paul Hermans, commons.wikimedia.org

The absurdly imaginative and surrealist poet James Tate finished living yesterday at the age of 71. Tate, one of my favorite poets, stocked his poems with fantastic concrete imagery and amusing phrasing. He built strange worlds in his poems, but the genesis of his strangeness was generally rooted in everyday reality, except for instance, when characters like aliens ambled delightfully into his work (see his poem “The Cowboy“).

Tate’s poems are tiny stories, full of of characters, conflict, and heavy doses of dialogue that draw you in so quickly you forget you’re reading a poem. His poems often end abruptly, leaving the dust of a whirlwind in your head and a strangeness settling all about you. Reading his poems is like feeling uncomfortable and unnerved in your own home. You want to simultaneously escape and remain. This is the sort of opposition that has and will continue to distinguish Tate’s work–humor and tragedy, light and darkness, imagination and reality–all blended together in what one publisher called “surprising pleasures”.

While it’s difficult to select only one Tate poem, I enjoy “The Memories of Fish” because it demonstrates a wonderful blend of tragedy and comedy so often evident in his poems. I also enjoy the poem’s enjambment and hidden technical aspects, such as its use of sonic elements (alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, etc.). They’re subtle; they don’t jolt you out of the poem, yet they’re still doing a great deal of work to pace the poem and its reader.

The Memories of Fish

Stanley took a day off from the office
and spent the whole day talking to fish in
his aquarium. To the little catfish scuttling
along the bottom he said, “Vacuum that scum,
boy. Suck it up. That’s your job.” The skinny
pencil fish swam by and he said, “Scribble,
scribble, scribble. Write me a novel, needle-
nose.” The angel executed a particularly
masterful left turn and Stanley said, “You’re
no angel, but you sure can drive.” Then he broke
for lunch and made himself a tuna fish sandwich,
the irony of which did not escape him. Oh no,
he wallowed in it, savoring every bite. Then
he returned to his chair in front of the aquarium.
A swarm of tiny neons amused him. What do you
think this is, Times Square!” he shouted. And
so it went long into the night. The next morning
Stanley was horribly embarrassed by his behavior
and he apologized to the fish several times,
but they never really forgave him. He had mocked
their very fishiness, and for this there can be
no forgiveness.

– from Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate, published by Ecco Press, 2005.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Big Heart by Anne Sexton

Image Credit: Grand Canyon National Park There I was, a capricious sixteen year old boy, holed away at my desk, reading line after line of Anne Sexton’s poetry. Strange as it sounds, the autobiographical work of this depression-laden adult female writer spoke to me. Shouldn’t I have been reading Dylan Thomas or Ernest Hemingway instead? I was, but I was also reading Sexton, mesmerized by the window into her mind that her poetry afforded.

Even now as I return to her work as an adult, I’m startled and enchanted by how openly she probed her own tempestuous interior life. Critics often cornered Anne Sexton’s poetry as merely confessional, but others later defended the artistry with which she expressed her autobiographical turmoil. At the very least we can say that her work contained more honesty than artifice, which is not to say she lacked technical skills of an accomplished poet. Both the number of awards she garnered and the popularity of her work attest to her abilities.

“The Big Heart” captures both sides of this critical discussion. From the start we see an incredibly transparent persona offering us a litany of those she is thankful for, actual names of actual people she esteemed for their willingness to give whatever it is she needed. But we also see wonderful imagery (the sea’s fingers on the shore), several similes (doubt as hollow as the Grand Canyon), and biblical allusions (the metaphorical staff, the slain ram). These allusions and the references to God should not surprise us–the poem was written not long before her suicide, and many of the poems she wrote during this time demonstrate a violence (death), but also a spiritual seeking (the afterlife). Notice in the final lines that love arrives, but it does so with fury in a monstrous heart.

The Big Heart
Too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold
. – from an essay by William Butler Yeats

Big heart,
wide as a watermelon,
but wise as birth,
there is so much abundance
in the people I have:
Max, Lois, Joe, Louise,
Joan, Marie, Dawn,
Arlene, Father Dunne,
and all in their short lives
give to me repeatedly,
in the way the sea
places its many fingers on the shore,
again and again
and they know me,
they help me unravel,
they listen with ears made of conch shells,
they speak back with the wine of the best region.
They are my staff.
They comfort me.

They hear how
the artery of my soul has been severed
and soul is spurting out upon them,
bleeding on them,
messing up their clothes, dirtying their shoes.
And God is filling me,
though there are times of doubt
as hollow as the Grand Canyon,
still God is filling me.
He is giving me the thoughts of dogs,
the spider in its intricate web,
the sun
in all its amazement,
and a slain ram
that is the glory,
the mystery of great cost,
and my heart,
which is very big,
I promise it is very large,
a monster of sorts,
takes it all in–
all in comes the fury of love.

– from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton by Anne Sexton, published by Mariner Books, 1999.

Litany: 10 Excerpts from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Image Credit: Christine Zenino, Wikimedia Commons Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is aptly titled. “Disquiet” refers to a feeling of anxiety, and this story has plenty of unease for both its narrator and readers.

The narrator, perhaps a stand-in for Pessoa himself, is clearly a distant literary relative of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Eliot’s Prufrock. He is a man of inaction, excessively and perhaps obsessively analytical. He is beset on all sides by the ills of modernism–fragmentation, cynicism, paranoia, spiritual emptiness. Due to the personal, first-person perspective, it is difficult for the reader to avoid the resonance of these same ills, particularly the fragmentation.

Pessoa writes, “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.” Sounds beautiful, yes, but after only a few pages one realizes this “profusion of selves” is also problematic. It is the paradox of choice in terms of self. Who should I be, and when, and why, and how? The narrator is frustrated, and consequently, frustrating, but that does not make him any less sympathetic.

The writing itself is the book’s best quality. Pessoa is a stylist. Like Nabokov his prose sparkles like a multi-faceted diamond bathed in light. But he is not a storyteller; he is a thought-teller, and therefore this book is not for the adventurer, but rather the contemplator. He is, in a sense, Hemingway’s exact opposite. If as a reader you can accept that then you can appreciate not only what Pessoa has written, but also how he is written it–marvelously. Below are some excerpts over which you may marvel, but I recommend you read the entire book for yourself.

1. …and from the majestic heights of my dreams, I return to being an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon.

But the contrast doesn’t overwhelm me, it frees me. And its irony is my blood. What should theoretically humiliate is what I unfurl as my flag; and the laughter I should be using to laugh at myself is a bugle I blow to herald–and to create–a dawn into which I’m transformed.

2. And at this table in my absurd room, I, a pathetic and anonymous office clerk, write words as if they were the souls’s salvation, and I gild myself with the impossible sunset of high and vast hills in the distance, with the statue I received in exchange for life’s pleasures, and with the ring of renunciation on my evangelical finger, the stagnant jewel of my ecstatic disdain.

3. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes.

4. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place.

5. To heed the present moment isn’t a great or lasting concern of mine. I crave time in all its duration, and I want to be myself unconditionally…Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I’d languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.

6. Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

7. Absurdity is divine…Let’s buy books so as not to read them; let’s go to concerts without caring to hear the music or to see who’s there; let’s take long walks because we’re sick of walking; and let’s spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us.

8. Sadly, or perhaps not, I recognize that I have an arid heart. An adjective matters to me more than the real weeping of a human soul.

9. Whenever I see a dead body, death seems to me a departure. The corpse looks to me like a suit that was left behind. Someone departed and didn’t need to take the one and only outfit he’d worn.

10. I want to raise my arms and shout wild and strange things, to speak to the lofty mysteries, to affirm a new and vast personality to the boundless expanses of empty matter.

Bonus – My march of triumph didn’t get as far as a teapot or an old cat. I’ll die as I’ve lived, amid all the junk on the outskirts, sold by weight among the postscripts of the broken.

– from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Richard Zenith, published by Penguin Books, 2001.

Poems You Might Have Missed: The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac by Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver probably doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves, and that is unfortunate because she is one of our best. Her style is accessible, yet profound. At times her style borders on conversational, engaging her readers in vital dialogue about human life and the sacredness of nature that surrounds it. That is the content she works over as a poet–the space where nature and humanity intermingle. What can a flock of geese or a field of golden rods tell us about our humanness? Oliver explores this question with the patience and keen observational eye necessary to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment from her surroundings.

So why isn’t she more popular? I surmise that readers find her work too bucolic for modern times. Personally, I find it refreshing; others may find it passé. Perhaps another criticism is that her range is limited, that she covers the same ground again and again. However true that may be, we should recognize the quality with which she covers that ground. Her focus is narrow, but exquisitely so.

Oliver wrote “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” after a bout with lung cancer, which she fortunately survived. I especially love the third stanza in which she reminds us to make the best of our time, which with cancer and disease lurking around every corner, is as fleeting as ever.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac

1.
Why should I have been surprised?
Hunters walk the forest
without a sound.
The hunter, strapped to his rifle,
the fox on his feet of silk,
the serpent on his empire of muscles–
all move in a stillness,
hungry, careful, intent.
Just as the cancer
entered the forest of my body,
without a sound.

2.
The question is,
what will it be like
after the last day?
Will I float
into the sky
or will I fray
within the earth or a river–
remembering nothing?
How desperate I would be
if I couldn’t remember
the sun rising, if I couldn’t
remember trees, rivers; if I couldn’t
even remember, beloved,
your beloved name.

Image Credit: Jay Sturner, flickr

3.
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belong to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

4.
Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more
life.

– from Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, published by Penguin Press, 2014.

Boss Songs Part IV: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy
Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy

Song – “Johnny 99” on Nebraska

This is yet another Boss song in which the central character’s hand is forced by his grim economic reality. The tempo of the song is rather fastpaced, especially in contrast with the majority of the Nebraska album, which can be unnervingly slow. In this case a blue collar man dubbed Johnny 99 loses his factory job, resorts to the bottle, gets his gun, and ironically shoots one of his blue collar brethren, a store clerk. The loss of a low-to-middle wage job is a common circumstance in numerous Springsteen songs, yet it continues to resonate because it’s still such a reality in America, where one economic injustice can lead inevitably to a string of others. There’s the legal injustice that is invoked by telling us that Johnny gets a “public defender,” a moniker that instantly connotes inadequacy, if not downright incompetence, and the drawing of “Mean John Brown,” who attempts to intimidate Johnny with his stare and gives him a life sentence. Johnny’s analytical response is that “it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” In his final act of defiance and hopelessness, Johnny requests a death sentence rather than the life sentence the judge gives. The “thoughts in his head,” he says, are deserving of such a sentence. It’s a classic Springsteen song conundrum where the blame game is complicated. For a lighter take, note that the Boss alludes to Tanqueray gin long before Snoop Dogg ever mentions it in his 1995 hit “Gin and Juice”.

Song – “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on Born to Run

While no one, including the Boss himself, quite knows what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is, the song is a favorite of many fans and often finds itself on Springsteen’s set lists. It’s one of my favorites for two reasons. First, I love the upbeat tempo created by the piano and horn interplay. I also like the “here I come” attitude of the song’s narrator. Bad Scooter (Bruce alias) had swagger before “swag” was a thing. “Well everybody better move over,” he croons, an artist on the verge of breakout, much like Springsteen himself, whose superstardom begins with Born to Run. “And kid you better get the picture / And I’m on my own, I’m on my own / And I can’t go home.” Success is a must because there’s nothing else left. Blessed with nothing but the naïve dreams of glory, he’s got his “back to the wall,” which we all know is the perfect motivation to “make it.” Throw in a little help from friends like “the big man” (Clarence Clemons), and he’s confident that he’s about to “bust this city in half.” The freeze-out, whatever it is, is in full effect.

Poems You Might Have Missed: Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72 by Charles Harper Webb

If you want to bring a neophyte or skeptic to poetry, Charles Harper Webb is your man. His work is an easy and enjoyable entry into the poetry arena, which is not to say his work is too simplistic. It’s not. His poems are emotionally resonant, their topics atypical, often written in an almost conversational narrative mode that includes deft touches of humor and irony.

The first time I read his poem “Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72” it absolutely stunned me. As someone who adored his father, I could entirely relate to Webb’s rage. My own father was destroyed by cancer at the age of 55, much too young to die, and I wanted to annihilate his cancer cells the way Webb wanted to destroy the man who accosted his father. There’s something completely human about the desire for vengeance–it’s so emotionally irresistible. It just feels right. Yet intellectually it doesn’t solve anything. The hole created by loss is still there and we spend the rest of our life trying to fill it, or live with an abundance of absence.

Image Credit: Brookie, commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Brookie, commons.wikimedia.org

The title is superb, creating a curiosity in the reader who wonders why a poet would pray for a criminal. It isn’t long into the poem before we understand the irony built into this prayer. Even better is the ending, which although predictable, feels right–a son’s reprisal, so futile in reality, but so emotionally satisfying.

Prayer for the Man Who Mugged My Father, 72

May there be an afterlife.
 
May you meet him there, the same age as you.
May the meeting take place in a small, locked room.
 
May the bushes where you hid be there again, leaves tipped with razor-
blades and acid.
May the rifle butt you bashed him with be in his hands.
May the glass in his car window, which you smashed as he sat stopped
at a red light, spike the rifle butt, and the concrete on which you’ll
fall.
 
May the needles the doctors used to close his eye, stab your pupils
every time you hit the wall and then the floor, which will be often.
May my father let you cower for a while, whimpering, “Please don’t
shoot me. Please.”
May he laugh, unload your gun, toss it away;
Then may he take you with bare hands.
 
May those hands, which taught his son to throw a curve and drive a nail
and hold a frog, feel like cannonballs against your jaw.
May his arms, which powered handstands and made their muscles jump
to please me, wrap your head and grind your face like stone.
May his chest, thick and hairy as a bear’s, feel like a bear’s snapping
your bones.
May his feet, which showed me the flutter kick and carried me miles
through the woods, feel like axes crushing your one claim to man-
hood as he chops you down.
 
And when you are down, and he’s done with you, which will be soon,
since, even one-eyed, with brain damage, he’s a merciful man,
May the door to the room open and let him stride away to the Valhalla
he deserves.
May you—bleeding, broken—drag yourself upright.
 
May you think the worst is over;
You’ve survived, and may still win.
 
Then may the door open once more, and let me in.

– from Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems by Charles Harper Webb, published by University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Poems You Might Have Missed: Ice for Eagles by Charles Bukowski

I read somewhere that Bukowski never wrote a great poem but rather numerous good ones. I’d agree, but argue that he wrote a glut of bad ones too. He wasn’t an “artist” or “craftsman” but that doesn’t mean his work doesn’t have its place in the poetry arena. His poems appeal and belong to the downtrodden and demoralized, or those interested in such exiles. Those caught in the fierce whirlwind of youth also adore him. I loved his work in my early twenties, and still like to dip into his work on occasion, though now I can’t stand his odd line breaks.

Image Credit: paul_houle, flickr
Image Credit: paul_houle, flickr

The academy, however, despises his work since it is so far from cerebral in its content and so unsophisticated in form. Bukowski probably took being scorned by literary elites as a sort of gold star, although I guarantee he hoped to sell more. His best work is visceral, like an unexpected shot to the gut, and he excelled at eviscerating the delicacies of life while somehow balancing the humanity among the ooze. When the poet Anne Sexton wrote, “Man is evil. Man is a flower that should be burnt,” Bukowski knew what she was talking about. In one of the many documentaries about Bukowski, one of his friends recalls him saying, “If your parents begin to like your work, it’s getting bad. If the cops are around something good must be going down.” I think that quote encapsulates both his life and work rather well.

Many of his poetry book titles, by the way, obliterate all other poetry book titles considerably. Here are a few: Burning in Water Drowning in Flame, Love is a Dog from Hell, War All the Time, You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense, What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, Night Torn Mad With Footsteps, and The People Look Like Flowers at Last.

Here is Bukowski’s poem “ice for eagles”, which appears in The Days Runs Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, yet another stunning title. I love how the poem demonstrates that wild animals can also be paragons of tenderness, perhaps in contrast to supposedly civilized humans who often destroy one another. The last two lines, “those red tongues slobbering / out their souls” creates quite the concluding image.
 
ice for eagles

I keep remembering the horses
under the moon
I keep remembering feeding the horses
sugar
white oblongs of sugar
more like ice,
and they had heads like
eagles
bald heads that could bite and
did not.

The horses were more real than
my father
more real than God
and they could have stepped on my
feet but they didn’t
they could have done all kinds of horrors
but they didn’t.

I was almost 5 but I have not forgotten yet;
O my god they were strong and good
those red tongues slobbering
out their souls.

– from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills by Charles Bukowski, published by Ecco Press, 1969.