Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mahmoud Darwish's "Your Night is of Lilac"

What drew me to Darwish's poem "Your Night is of Lilac," translated by Fady Joudah, is its slow, tranquil tenderness. Although there are fast moments in the poem, they are brief. And they are quiet--like a jazz drummer's small, brush fill between phrases.

At first I thought I heard a preponderance of dactyls in the poem's falling rhythms, but after a second reading, I don't think that's the case anymore. The poem is musical, yes, but it doesn't utilize meter--even in pieces--toward that end as much as it does smaller units of sound, namely its vowels and a few select consonants. The line that best exhibits what I'm talking about can be found 6 lines up from the bottom:
endlessness, nothing celebrates it except its                mirror

Here I hear a whole lot of "S" and a bit of "R," the most-loved consonants in the poem, and I think I know why: they have great sustain. That is to say, they require time to be pronounced, "S" because it lingers on the tongue as a sibilant, and "R" because it is voiced first (as opposed to voiceless), and breathy second. As soft consonants, each requires breath as it expires, as in endlessness and mirror. You can't stop those words--those sounds--short. Even after the vocal cords have have quit, they continue as a whisper (hmmm...whiSpeR...).

In the poem, "S" and "R" can be found everywhere, thus slowing the poem's pace and effectively granting it a serenity (hmmm...there they are again. coincidence?) apropos of the poem's content--it's something of a tranquil, romantic piece about poetry, possibly a lover. In the above quoted line, that slow, steadiness is easy to hear. In that case, too, the lack of monosyllabic words helps steady the pace and tone: "endlessness, nothing celebrates it except its mirror". And, the line is long. Although line length in and of itself is not necessarily the cause of rhythmic poetry, a longish line does have a tendency to allow rhythms to build in a way that a shorter line--simply due to its length--cannot. Consider this hacking of the Darwish line:
endlessness, nothing
celebrates it
except its mirror

Its continuity is broken now, not only into three lines, but into relative arrhythmia. The consonants, especially the "S," no longer have their sense of contiguity, thus the music falters.

As for the vowels, Darwish-through-Joudah likes them long, especially his "I." This is for the same reason he likes his "S" and "R": a long vowel is drawn out over time, and a short vowel is clipped. Thus, an abundance of long "I" and "E" and so on is likely to slow the poem's pace and help its tone settle into a calm.

If you're not buying this business about the sounds of vowels and consonants, consider a few words we use for bodies of water. I'll list them in the order from small, insignificant bodies to large, demanding ones. Note the use of hard and soft consonants as well as the use of long and short vowels. Picture in your mind the image as you listen to the sound of each word: crick, creek, pond, river, lake, sea, ocean. Maybe I'm being far-fetched, but the sound of each water word seems indicative of the size and presence of the body it represents. A crick is something that runs through the woods near your backyard. Maybe it contains some small fish. It certainly begins and ends with a hard consonant and shoves a short, stubby vowel in the middle. A sea is vast, virtually endless to the eye, though the brain is wiser (and deeper...). Like the word that represents it, it just sort of disappears silently off the horizon. It hits the shore with an "S" and ebbs back to the edge of the Earth with an "E."

Anyway, the first line of "Your Night is of Lilac" demonstrates what I'm talking about with regard to the poem's sounds:
The night sits wherever you are. Your night

"S" and "R" are there of course. Then we have the long "I" repeated in the word "night," the long "O" in "Your." Particularly, it's that pair of long vowels and the consonance of "R" at the end of the line that really extends the line's music. The beginning of the next line, too, is constructed in sharp contrast to this extension, highlighting those opening sounds in effect: ". . . is of lilac" is read quickly, running over its lone long "I" with the preceding short one and the hard "C" with which it ends. Interestingly, the poem slows and becomes rhythmic again for another line and a half or so, only to be clipped at "and lights up" in line 4, a nice echo of "lilac" in line two in terms of sound and placement.

I could go on, but I don't care to parse "Your Night is Lilac" any further. And that's pretty much the hard and soft, the long and short of it. As for content, I think that line about endlessness pretty well says enough. I also like "Night / is the covenant of night." This is a love poem after all, and well, what else is there to say?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Burn, Baby, Burn: On Shivani's thoughts of Graham, Olds, Levine, and Gluck

I had the pleasure of hearing Jorie Graham read in Iowa City back in…1998 I believe. My favorite part was turning around mid-reading to witness Donald Justice fast asleep—two rows behind me. But, you know—he was an older gentleman by then, and I figured he’s allowed.

Truth be told—I enjoyed the reading. Graham’s words spoke to me on a different level than they did on the page. I suppose I was more easily caught up in the airy, ephemeralness of her speech than I was of her written language, which for me was then largely as it is now: intriguing, intelligent, layered, occasionally an imbroglio, not terribly pleasurable but enjoyable for its leaps in thought as well structure, for its difficulty. I'm not a lover of her work, but I was honestly taken by her reading of it. And, I would contend that despite my lack of pleasure with her poems in writing, not to be confused with a lack of appreciation, she is absolutely worth reading because of her style, influence, success, and longevity—not necessarily in that order.

I would say the same for Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and Phil Levine—three poets I’ve enjoyed immensely. So, naturally, I felt annoyed when I read Anis Shivani’s recent article in the Huffington Post: “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What it takes to ascend to the Poet Laureateship.” He claims these poets—including Graham—have let their poetries fall into severe tedium and disrepair with which, mind you, they have waddled among the muck of unwarranted success for decades, their prizes and reputations riding largely on poetry-guild nepotism, which Shivani discusses a bit in “Beautiful and Pointless: New York Times Poetry Critic Says Poetry Isn’t Relevant,” an earlier post of his in the Huffington.

Actually, a fair amount of his observations, stripped of their pejorative décor, are accurate. I agree with him that Olds writes of the body and birth, Graham of material in a thought-world, Glück of the personal and its various sensitive hats, and Levine of the humdrum working life he may or may not have lived. But that’s all subject matter, and I don’t see how someone can be against subject matter. Lack of craft, lack of tempered skill—yes. But content? I mean—so what if these poets choose to write about these things? When I’m dead and famous—preferably not in that order—people may complain that my poems are obsessed with fish and birds, but I hope they don’t consider them trash as a result. This is America, dammit. Isn’t everything fair game?

Ted Kooser, an ex-Laureate himself, has a few nice things to say about content in an interview he did with Grace Cavalieri on her stellar radio show Poet and The Poem. He mentions that one of his ambitions was to be able to write a poem about anything, anything, and so he recounts the brief backstory of his “The Washing of Hands,” a completely mundane and—in the context of the poem—domestic task. The piece is terrific. But the content is banal. I mean—a poem about a woman washing her hands? Oh, yawn. But it’s what happens inside the poem as a reading experience that really kicks. That’s the poetry, not the theme or whatever.

My point is that content and its extensions just don’t really matter that much. They’re beside the point. And this is the truth for so many aspects of life—isn’t life not about what we fill our time with but how we fill it—why should poetry be any different? I got into a similar argument a long time ago with Kathleen Peirce over a Bukowski poem, “The Apple,” which I claimed was about meaninglessness and, therefore, was itself meaningless, and that that was the most beautiful thing about it—that what the poet (and for me, the reader) walked away with was that he walked away with nothing.

This is the self-defeating portion of my argument, of course. Poems must mean something after all. I’m just saying that’s not the point. Poems should not be judged by subject matter or theme but by their artistic risks and successes. The wrong question is always asked: What does it mean? That’s the scourge of poetry’s disfavor in high schools around the world—god forbid it ever be asked of children in the lower grades! The question should be—is it artful? If we asked that, maybe our kids would actually learn something about poetry other than that they don’t care for it. I contend they would learn a great deal, in fact, by wondering about the answer to that question.

Unfortunately, like so much talk about poetry and so many of its critics—both for and against—Shivani more or less avoids such an inquiry other than by blanket statement, degrading the work of some terrific poets—if not the poets themselves. As early as his essay’s second paragraph, Shivani writes of Graham, Olds, Glück and Levine, “Their very project is to participate. . .in the annihilation of common decency at all levels.” Seriously. I mean—seriously? We once burned witches over similar claims. I hope we don’t start burning poets.




Sunday, August 14, 2011

RSR tunes added...

Red Star RebellionTunes, videos, and downloads have been added to the Present Everywhere Music/RSR page.  All downloads are free to inclined listeners--both live and studio cuts. Same for my own acoustic tracks--no frills free downloads. Have a listen, leave a comment, read a poem here or elsewhere. "For what, ultimately, does poetry say to us?  It says that if we shoot a bird, we wound ourselves."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chris Abani's "In the Middle of Dinner"

I must admit--what first struck me about Chris Abani's poem "In the Middle of Dinner," recently poem of the day at the Poetry Foundation, was its resemblance to my own poem "Houseguest," first published in the North American Review and included in my first book, Exchanging Lives. Both pieces utilize the family dinner and its images, such as knife and fork, and both sort of leave their characters--and readers--hanging. Whatever conflict arises remains so, seemingly only partially resolved.

And I think that works well for Abani's "In the Middle of Dinner" (I'll let others make their own decisions about my piece...). The poem's loose ends don't make it feel incomplete but mysterious, and there's plenty of info in the piece for readers to make an educated conjecture about what just happened. We don't need to know the whole story to know what's going on.

The narrative to the poem is this: the speaker and his mother are in the middle of dinner--prime rib--when she stops eating, moves her wedding band from ring to middle finger, says a few words regarding her absent husband (absent at least five years), then returns to matters at hand--the prime rib. The moment is over and done with in less time than it takes to chew a piece of meat. The mother's comment about her husband, which is set-up to be important, becomes nearly off-hand. Thus, the poem ends a bit confusingly: say what? What?

Structurally, though, Abani does a few things to help us keep hold of the poem, which is cool: we're grasping for meaning through how the poem is made, not (solely) by what it says. For starters, he uses dinner imagery to encapsulate the poem's moment spatially as well as temporally. He opens  with the title, which acts as the first line--"In the Middle of Dinner"--then, "my mother put down her knife and fork." And, he ends with "This / prime rib is really tender, isn't it? she asked." These are the only lines that have anything to do with eating dinner, with the literal physical space of the narrative. Because they are bookends, they work well as signals into the poem and out, effectively containing the poem's true meat and potatoes within a nice, little box. Readers more or less finish where they started although a great deal has changed.

As well, though the action between that opening and ending line--literally in the middle of dinner--seems relatively quick, time in the poem slows down there. The action, wrapped up with the mother's revelation, becomes gradual, drawn-out. Those dinner-imagery bookends, however, keep the poem in place and ultimately at normal speed. They don't necessarily do this by increasing the pace but by acting as cues to readers that we are back from wherever we went with mother and son, with absent husband. It's as though we've stepped out of time and place and have returned. I like this because--to me--this is the experience of poetry at large. To write a poem is to definitely step outside time and place. I say this because I've lost track of both when engaged by the muse and know what it's like--as I'm certain many if not most poets do--to be someplace else even though I'm at the desk. My wife calls this being in my head. But, to be frank--I'm hardly there.

Reading a poem is not all that different. Often to enjoy a piece one has to enter the poem's time and place. That is part of the reading-poetry experience, and though it is not always required by a poem, I find most poems are better enjoyed when I can do this. They are microcosms with their own weather patterns. I won't experience their rain and snow and sunshine if I don't go there, so to speak. You won't either. In fact--I'd be willing to bet most people at large have no idea about this. Thus, they opt for pulp instead of poetry and have disdain for poems because they don't "understand" them.

But that's another blog probably, so--

What I was saying was--I like how Abani encapsulate's the poem with dinner imagery, the last line working as an echo of the first, thereby focusing reader attention in that moment that matters most. He uses repetition/echo in a few other places, too. In the very middle line--line 6 of 11--he writes of the mother, "Five years, she said, five years, once a week," explaining how often and for how long she wrote to her absent husband. This is echoed in the antepenultimate line with "Not one letter back, not a single note." I liken these lines to call and response although they are not so cut and dried as that. They help fill in the narrative---the backstory--and give readers the chance to think back in the poem. That's one of the effects of repetition is that it makes us think of what we've already read, of what's being repeated, in this case by the syntactic repetition of the lines--not their words or images per se.

The other repetition of note is the word tender, located in line 5 to describe the way the mother moves her wedding band from ring finger to middle finger--an interesting act in and of itself. Abani writes, "So natural was the move, / so tender, I almost didn't notice." In the last line he again uses tender. The mother says, "This / prime rib is really tender, isn't it?" Obviously tender is being used in two very different contexts here, but I can't help but sense the connection. Words are too precious to waste for most poets, so a repetition like this within such a small, short space has got to be for something. It could be repetition used to kick readers back into the poem, similar to how I discussed the earlier example, but I doubt it because that is the nature of repetition anyway. Abani wouldn't be getting much work out of the one word tender if that's the sole case here. I think he does it for two other reasons.

First, it helps demonstrate the mother's change, her epiphany or whatever she's had, through the ritual of moving the ring from finger to finger. There is something very tender about that moment, that exchange between mother and son, about the revelation of her feelings to him (and to herself), but there is nothing tender in that last line except the word itself. A simple comparison of rhythm and pace demonstrates this. You can't read "So natural was the move, / so tender, I almost didn't notice" glibly in the poem; and, you can't read "This / prime rib is really tender, isn't it?" with terrific ardor. It just ain't right that way. The effect is that the mother is now seen in a new light--and in fact she may be living in a new light, having passed through the loss of her husband, having more fully processed her grief--signified by that ring ritual--than she had done so before.

Second, and related to the above, that prime rib tender helps snap the poem out of the timeless space in the middle of dinner. We went on this brief sojourn with the mother, but--we're back, so to speak. That second use of tender does kick readers back up into the earlier language of the poem, but it doesn't kick us into that earlier portion's time and space. Instead, distance is created here. If the earlier repetition--that of the syntactic structure of those two lines--is used to tie together, this instance is used to separate.

Other aspects of Abani's piece? I like the image the mother uses to explain her lingering hope of her husband's return, that she "waited / until time was like ash on my tongue." It's a strange but effective image in that ash is the end of things--ashes to ashes, and so on--but, therefore, also the beginning. As a literal image, it would certainly provide a foul taste and texture, so it's apropos for the mother who seems to have waited and waited until she was sick of waiting, until it--perhaps finally--left a bad taste in her mouth. And, because the tongue is involved, it's an echo of eating. Consequently, it continues to pull the poem together and to allow other connections to be made between lines, between the poem's times and places that seem to be disparate and homogeneous simultaneously. Ash, too, may give readers a clue as to the husband's whereabouts. Perhaps he's passed on? Maybe he's just finally dead to me now, in the voice of the mother, but that seems far too trite a read.

Lastly, the poem sort of wears the guise of a sonnet. It's more or less a box of uniform lines--roughly 4 non-metrical beats per line for 11 lines--opens with an early end rhyme that made me think of a possible Shakespearean sonnet twist, and it is a love poem of sorts. Although I would not call "In the Middle of Dinner" a sonnet, I think considering the piece in the light of one does provide a worthwhile entry into it. This is a poem where the facts are open to possibility, and I think that's the case not just in terms of the narrative but in the poetry used to tell it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Olduvai Theory now for sale

[caption id="attachment_341" align="aligncenter" width="194" caption="2011 Toad Hall Press Chapbook Prize"]Olduvai Theory - Cover[/caption]

Limited edition, hand-bound copies of my chapbook Olduvai Theory, which won the 2011 Toad Hall Press Chapbook Prize, are now available on the BOOKS page of my website. My first collection Exchanging Lives is also available.

On the MUSIC page, all tunes are now available for free download. Songs from the Red Star Rebellion catalog will be added within the coming days.

And, hopefully, I'll have another quixplication online this week, too... been playing catch-up in all departments these days.