Friday, June 04, 2004

A beautiful day has become, I imagine, a beautiful evening. I have to imagine it because I'm stuck here at The Bookery. Outside the Ithaca Festival has begun: musicians, food stands, craft booths, and other miscellany in celebration of "ten square miles surrounded by reality." This seems to mean slightly more business at the store than usual, but only slightly. Folks must do their serious book buying during the day. But they do buy them, even the wacky things I insist on stocking. Renee Gladman's The Activist has sold, I'm glad to see. I've just gone through the SPD catalog doing my part to keep the shelves cutting edge. Hopefully I'll be here when they arrive: it's fun to stack up all the new books at once and give each on a glance before I shelve it.

Tonight I'm looking through the newest Yale Younger Poet, Peter Streckfus. His book The Cuckoo seems like a vast improvement over the last dozen or so Yalies (though I do have a soft spot for Loren Goodman's Famous Americans). Lovely images are rigorously and surprisingly confined by form, then released by wit. Here's his poem, "Ode":
The most beautiful thing in my life today. A nut brown flea
floating in the middle of a lake underlain with white flowers.
                                                            My bowl of tea.

The armor glistens, its equine head and legs stammer
in this new element, knocked by arrow or hammer

                                                  that fatal moment in the field.
That's rather nice, isn't it? Like a tiny samurai movie. He has a few poems referencing the career of Ronald Reagan that aren't too successful. I like when the wit flirts with creepiness:

If your drop of lemon juice leaves the lemon in your hand and the oyster doesn't wriggle upon being touched by the juice of the lemon you should not eat it for the oyster is not whole in its mind.
It's a book with lots of world in it, particularly fragments of Buddhism, Basho, and general Japanophilism. A blurb on the back from Arthur Sze perhaps defuses charges of Orientalism. What the book really seems to practice is a brand of aestheticism that hopes to make contact with reality by referencing another culture whose traditions and rituals were once matters of life and death. We Westerners are probably unable to see the apparent seriousness around the Japanese tea ceremony any other way. That there are rituals in our own lives every bit as important, but less colorful due to our casual intimacy with them, is difficult to remember. It's easiest when traveling back in time: I cringe when I think of the clothes my mother let me wear in junior high. Who knows how much grief I would have been spared if I'd stopped wearing those horizontally striped polo shirts a size too big for me? Anyway, this is not meant to dis Streckfus; I think I deploy similar manuevers in my own poems often enough. I try to remember that it's not the real Asia refracted through a poem like my "She Is Made a Gift to the Emperor," but a palpable fantasy of it. Is this clear to readers? Probably not. A similar activity, but one less fraught with cultural imperialism, is the co-optation of past Western cultures—really even just simple allusion. When a bit of Shakespeare manifests in one of my poems, it's meant largely to activate the reader's sense of the past, of a world not like ours that we nonetheless fit for our purposes. Hm. These thoughts may stem from my current reading of, yes, Ezra Pound. Yes, I'm reading The Cantos. Completionist madness? I'm certainly not looking forward to all the warmed-over Confucianism; the Malatesta bit is already boring me and I'm not even in double digits yet (well, actually I'm in four digits: Canto VIII). But there's also some achingly beautiful stuff in there: no one writes better about the sea except Pound's protege H.D. So much flows from Pound; not coincidentally, I find thinking in the wake of Heidegger to be very useful and stimulating, though I'm often bored by Heidegger himself (and of course his politics are as bad or worse than Pound's; Pound at least, arguably, expressed remorse for his activities). Should everyone read The Cantos? I would never say that. But I think there's a very real sense in which it can be said that any poet who does page as field, or who incorporates others' texts into their work, or who uses poetry to think about history, or pursues (perhaps even non-disastrously) a political engagement in their poetry, already has. Maybe he isn't speaking to you, but I feel pretty directly addressed by Basil Bunting, here:
On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l'on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

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