Sunday, February 26, 2006

Thanks to all who have expressed congratulations and good wishes about my forthcoming chapbook, both inside and out of the comments box.

Blogging from the swank hotel in NYC where Emily and I are staying as an engagement present from her father. In spite of a cold, made it out here yesterday and immediately took a 6 train downton to see the Elizabeth Robinson-Robert Kelly reading at the Bowery Poetry Club. A magical evening. First of all, while browsing the little bookstore I ran into my old Vassar friend Camille Guthrie, author of The Master Thief and a forthcoming book based on the Unicorn Tapestries, which I blogged about last summer. Wonderful to get a chance to catch up with her and to hear how her husband the poet and novelist Duncan Dobbelman (we were all three in the same creative writing class at Vassar) and their new adorable baby Pierre were doing. Then there was the reading itself. Elizabeth Robinson started with poems from her newest book, Apostrophe, forthcoming from Apogee Press. She's a master of the luminous abstract—I especially loved her reading of a poem called "Anemone," which as the poem itself says is a kind of "botanical abacus," a kind of luscious counting poem. Some newer poems came "from a persona of rage since I have no rage myself" (said completely deadpan). A poem called "Flesh," solicited for an anthology of poems about meat. A very sexy unfinished poem in "two ragged parts." Parts of a longer poem based on Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White reimagined as—hey presto!—a pastoral: "The patsoral lies diaphonous on itself." And wrapping up with some poems about having children: "Commingling is a loose term for the ocean." The BPC is an interesting space: really a bar, with a dark industrial looking stage in the back hemmed in by brick walls and what looked to be a portrait of Whitman in day-glo colors to one side. The ventilation system rattled like ice in glasses throughout Elizabeth's measured, witty, and quietly charismatic reading.

Robert Kelly was something else again. With his leonine appearance, deep and velvety voice, and the legacy of a lifetime of poetry behind him, he cut an extraordinarily impressive and yet charming figure. He makes a life in poetry look like the only life to live. A compelling reader who persuaded me as I've rarely been persuaded that I was in the presence of a genuine visionary, almost a Blake—a Great Poet. He began with a remarkable poem about Moses as stutterer from his new book Lapis that made me want to go out and buy it immediately. But I was blown away by the selections he read from another new book that is not I don't think available yet in the United States: a book-length collaboration with the German poet Birgit Kempker called Shame (you can find a description of the book, in German, here). Apparently they wrote the book in e-mail correspondence with each other and then each, though hardly a master of the other's language, translated the other's contributions. The parts Kelly read had German and English embedded in them (Germglish?) and the theme, which he claimed at one point to be the theme, the theme of the Odyssey and Hamlet and dozens of other classics of world literature, was the return of the repressed. He read from the last section of the book—a tour-de-force meditation on a shameful childhood memory, on Proust's Madeleine-as-Magdalene, on the shame of trespassing on the borders of the invisible, that had me and I'm guessing most everybody else breathless. He finished off with some selections from a self-published (for legal reasons) chapbook of homophonic translations of Celan (of course I thought of my own homophonic version of Celan's "Psalm" that's the opening poem of Selah) and a few older poems from his selected, Red Actions. As good as poetry readings get.

But the marvelous evening was just getting started, for I found myself invited out to dinner with the readers and a bunch of other poetry people, including but not limited to Camille, Kim Lyons, Gary Sullivan, Max Winter, Lisa Lubasch, Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner, and Annie Finch, with whom I had an incisive and useful discussion of pastoral (she has an essay in the new Michigan book on decentering the self which sounds closely analogous to one of the major threads of my dissertation). It's such a heady pleasure to drop down out of Ithaca into an atmosphere absolutely charged with poetry—people living their lives by its incandescent and unreliable light. After the most delicious Indian dinner the party broke up, but Annie and I ended up wandering over to the St. Marks' Bookshop, where we goaded each other into buying too many things and talked more poetry. I've always been attracted to the idea of her work as someone who takes the formal impulse very seriously and who is deeply knowledgeable of prosody, but I haven't read it in any sustained way. That's about to change.

Today I'm worn out from superlatives and resting in the hotel waiting for my sister to arrive from New Jersey. We're going to hang out this afternoon before meeting up with Emily and my parents and everybody for our New York engagement party. And after all this there's still my own reading to look forward to! Good night.

2 comments:

Mark said...

Josh,

I am sick as a dog. Am hoping to make it tomorrow night, but I fear I may not. Total bummer, down with bacteria.

Robin said...

I'm a little behind the tide here, but I wanted to congratulate you too!

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