Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Moist Lotus Open Along Acheron

photo by Timo Ketonen

A whelming if not overwhelming time. You'd think I would like a drug called Versed, but I didn't. When they pump you full of Versed and Fentanyl and then (later) tell you to go home and not make any major decisions, you have to wonder what they're imagining.

As somebody else must have said (please come forward mysterious personage), I'll cross that bridge when I jump off of it.

But things are fine: one is just rather tired of death and tubes and Versed. Flames shooting out the windows of the Old Executive Office Building, as though even the vice-president's walls were longing for release.

Goodbye, goodbye no more water, the fire next time. Or Mayakovsky: "In the church of my heart the choir is on fire!"

Indeed. Only a couple of weeks ago the title of an Alan Williamson poem had sent me spinning into the dictionaries: I had heard of psychopomps before, but somehow I had never been besotted with them.

Now I was, since the OED said they were "conductor[s] of souls to the place of the dead. Also, the spiritual guide[s] of a (living) person's soul; a person who acts as a guide of the soul."

And there was this, too, in the OED, from a letter of Rupert Brooke: "I, Hermes-like, am coming to fetch you psychopompically to Hell." Even if "the handsomest young man in England" (as Yeats called him) has not been kissed by time, this is a missive I'd dearly love to finish.

Because wasn't this what I was trying to be for Richard Nixon: his Charon, so that he might see (in Sappho's words, tr. Mary Barnard) "the moist lotus open / along Acheron"?

Surely I could not be as cruel as she was:

Rich as you are

Death will finish
you: afterwards no
one will remember

or want you: you
had no share in
the Pierian roses

You will flitter
invisible among
the indistinct dead

in Hell's palace
darting fitfully

I should be more cheerful by New Year's! Bah humbug, fellow curmudgeons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Important Looking Men (with a Note from Mairéad Byrne)

Late one October night I read all of Mairéad Byrne's Talk Poetry in one addictive sitting, greedily, as if it were a plate of hot onion and cauliflower pakoras, which it was.

I asked her to say a few words about her poem "The Important Looking Men," her crisp and spirited book or anything else that struck her fancy, and her comments follow the poem.

The Important Looking Men

The important looking men are not always the important looking men. Sometimes the important looking men are women. Sometimes the important looking men are the woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively. Sometimes the important looking men are not the important looking men but visitors from out-of-town where they are not important either. The tortured artist is not always the tortured artist. The tortured artist is not always the guy in the thin cardigan smoking a cigarette outside the studio. That might be the electrician. The tortured artist is sometimes the small priest who stands in the corner of the salon balancing his cup of tea. Or the woman nobody sees. The lover is not always the lover. The lover can be a liar, refracting images of himself back into infinity. The lover might be this beagle, this couch, this slipper, this child who shouts out to me this morning late for school tumbling from his father's car & again from the side-walk Clio's Mom! Or this other child, this evening, alone, walking home, who tosses his glorious hello across Camp Street to land at my feet.


Mairéad Byrne writes:

This poem was originally called "Appearances." You can see that's what it's about. Usually, poems begin with titles for me; this one oscillated between two titles. Ultimately, "The Important Looking Men" was irresistible.

Flat statement is very much part of Talk Poetry, even flat contradictory statement, as this early poem on my blog indicates:

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


I write every day.
But not really.
But really.
This is a new way of speaking.
Talk poetry.

Except for "the important looking men," who are generic, the images in the poem are all very specific for me. "The woman with the brown helmet of hair, head tilted attentively," or "solicitously," as it once was, is a colleague. "The tortured artist" is glimpsed on my way to work. The small priest is Gerard Manley Hopkins, isolated at a soirée hosted by John Butler Yeats, when William was about 17, the star of the show. I guess the woman nobody sees is Emily Dickinson, although she was seen by many she loved. And that's how the poem goes. I didn't always find love where I looked for it but it sprung up around me nonetheless. The child tumbling from his father's car is a boy I know. When I taught poetry in my daughter Clio's third grade class, the children wrote list poems beginning "I wish." He wrote "I wish Clio was my friend." He wrote more than any of the other children. He had a lot of heart and was not afraid to show it. His father was sick at the time I wrote the poem. He was a single parent, his three boys lived with him. He died this year. The second child who shouts out to me in the poem is also a boy. A valiant, friendly boy.

The public schools in Providence and in all American cities probably are very poor. It really grieves me. The children are made grey. But I have faith that they are untarnishable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Woody Allen on the WGA strike, via the union web site.

Have been a bit speechless myself, for different reasons. It's amazing how sick you can get when you put your mind to it.

Actually overdosing on the vitamins and so on but would much rather be out on the picket line.

"What say you / soldiers of the lyre, we wait / for some o’clock and then stop / singing? Oh I would stop, oh yes / and let the feckless meadow fill / with xylophones and snow, the striped / tail of the muse slap in her burrow."

(from "Poetry and Sorrow in a 'Right-to-Sing' State")

Monday, December 03, 2007

Rose, Oh Pure Contradiction

photo by Timo Ketonen

Season of faxed cremation papers, which one shouldn't read, one really shouldn't.

But here's arguably the best blurb ever:

Since Knox favors premise over conclusion, her poems simply speak — they do not explain. In this way they are not entirely unlike scripture. The part that is unlike scripture is the one that’s like “Wait, I was reading these poems and laughing but my hearing aid fell out and then my face just kind of blew off in a beautiful rainbow spray of bullshit-dissolving napalm.”

This from Sarah Manguso, writing about Jennifer L. Knox's Drunk by Noon. I'm looking forward to the book, and perhaps (with a virulent head cold) living up to its title.

But what else might one expect from someone capable of writing these lines, as Manguso did in her book Siste Viator (wait for the last rim shot):

My great-grandmother's lamp is mine now. It is made of rose quartz — that is, it is made of poetry.

More poetry: A coin you dropped when you took your pants off is still on the floor. Please come back and pick it up.

More: The scar on my hand I got cleaning the house for you has outlasted you. In this way you are indelible, but only as long as I have my hand.