Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sadie is one year old and in a sense, so am I

Every day Sadie is perfect. But every day she is a little more herself than she was the day before. Futurity is part of her perfection: language, verticality. We call this growing up.

A sentence I want to write: The better we think we know ourselves, the less we know of what we're capable of. This sentence may not be true; I need to invent a character to say it.

From the Wikipedia entry for Wallace Stevens: "The poet should find the words that will speak to the delicatest ear of its modern listeners, echoing what it wants to hear but cannot articulate for itself." So listeners are like children.

I am pretty much already whom I'm going to be. My futurity's at least half exhausted. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. But I can't actually know this. At any moment I might make the journey to hell, purgatory, or heaven, and not necessarily in that order.

Pointing at what she wants: something on the table, something on the ceiling, something out the window. Whining when she doesn't get it, inarticulate, disjointed.

The seeing hand. "Let me see that" means give. The talking hand (not "talk to the hand"). Crying, both hands outstretched.

A child should not mean, but be.

Her aunt gave her a wooden box with red cylinders, blue cubes, and green pyramids, and a removable lid with circle, square, and triangular openings. The idea is to put the round peg in the round hole. Sadie just takes the lid off and tosses it aside, then drops the shapes into the box, like Alexander cutting the knot.

Emily visited a Montessori school: the toddlers working quietly and diligently at their play stations, or rather playing diligently at their work stations. Then they all gathered at a table for a snack. My friend Alex says the firm boundaries established there make the child freer within themselves, later in life. It's what I tell my students about the lipograms and homophonic translations I ask them to do, though I don't say "child within."

Embarrassing how often, when trying to teach a difficult concept such as Bakhtin's authoritative speech, I resort to the example of The Matrix. "The Matrix is all around you. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes." Too bad about the sequels.

Her fierceness and will, a rage boiling up from within. But language, so far, stands apart from that will. Instead it's syllabic joy: in "hat" (anything she puts on her head), in "apple" (rarely in reference to the fruit), in "duck" (not necessarily a bird that quacks). But: "up" is shifting from phoneme to morpheme, from plaything to entreaty and command.

Tonight we're meeting friends to celebrate a year of parenthood, without the object of that parenthood (we're getting a babysitter). A year in a strange country where the lights have changed. A year in which I seem to have become more porous, more easily seized by emotion. Can't think of a child's suffering now, even a fictional child, without suffering myself—is this profound or sentimental?

A year of learning to trust touch. I was recently asked, How do you hold a baby? First of all you support the head. Then you yield to the hand that seems to support you—a stark, impersonal strength that parents know. That drops you when it's done with you and leaves you breathless in front of the TV.

Standing at a nearly imperceptible distance from writing. As Sadie stands a hairsbreadth from speaking.

One strange and wonderful year down the rabbit hole, everyone seeming to fall at the same rate, but Sadie's already clutching that bottle, that cake. EAT ME. DRINK ME. Telescoping somewhere else, beyond us.

Now in the not-yet.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Poem by Allen Grossman

Pretty well expresses my feelings about Israel right now. From his new book, Descartes' Loneliness:

City of David

Jerusalem is a grave of poets. Name
two who are buried there:
the poet Dennis Silk is buried there.
He lived with a dressmaker's dummy,
in a cave, on the Hill of Evil
Counsel due south of Zion Mount.
She bore him children
after her kind.—In any case, whatever
she gave birth to did not live.
Famous Amichai, also a poet,
is buried there. From his apartment on
the eastern slope you can see
a gate of the City, called David's Gate.
In '48, on a beach at Tel Aviv,
the poet Amichai held a dying soldier
in his arms. The soldier whispered—:
"Shelley." And then he died.
Poets built Jerusalem. Therefore,
poets have a duty to destroy
Jerusalem. If I forget thee,
the world will be better off.
The tree a cat can get up into,
a cat can get down from by itself.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Once Again, It's Time to Apply for a Plonsker

A what? Read this, all you prose writers under forty, and get cracking.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Poem for the Inaugural Poem

Since public speech is dead, they say, since poetry is only
a private, even perverse affair nowadays, since in spite of this you and you alone
will rise to the occasion, let me rise to the occasion of you!
In Frost’s wake, after Maya Angelou’s multicultural mellifluities and Miller Williams’ stalwart
soporifics, it shall be you—brainchild
of Elizabeth Alexander, as worthy a poet as any, plucked from obscurity
to be returned to obscurity, Friend of Barack, who was himself so plucked
and now bestrides the puny stage available and makes it larger by his largeness
and gives voice to those whose voices are already a bit too loud (I’m looking at you, Rick Warren,
and the Pope too, why not, the unlovely dumbass, he says homosexuality poses as great a threat to the planet
as global warming) and who speaks himself so reasonably in his plucked, scuffed baritone,
enameled mellow speech like Johnny Hartman's in the studio dark
answering Coltrane’s horn as he, Barack Obama, answers Martin’s
and maybe Malcolm’s, well we can dream we all saw that New Yorker cover
and exchanged terrorist fist bumps and fantasized a bit
about his First Lady, who let’s face it is totally packing and totally hot—
and while this poem is rolling, now, inexorably toward the real poem
let us also pay tribute to Malia and Sasha and to the whole damn handsome family
who in a single moving day will renovate so much that is now just trash and spangles—
mission accomplished, Barack, getting elected was enough
and while banks and Detroit go under and the still-President’s dodging shoes
why do I yet wish to linger in the path of the electric door
letting it shut and shut again on my foot until it gets painful
to think of you, inaugural poem, unfurling on January 20th,
getting lots of things wrong or just unmemorably and inevitably disappointing
and stalling like an opening act that’s in over its head
but stalling’s what I want so I hope you’re really long
I hope you go on for hours and days, I hope the crowd will be well provided
with hot dogs and tents and porta potties while you spiel and spiel and spiel
like an elegy for a newborn like a Jimmy Stewart filibuster
that you’ll resemble, inaugural poem, growing hoarse and sweaty and exhausted
as the crowd begins to rumble wanting history to begin
but I’m prepared to wait I’m prepared to wait it out
for who could bear it if poetry were to really be reborn
untimely now as rhetoric like the losers told him they’re just words
words we could lift to our shoulders and carry triumphant as soldiers
to the Black White House we’re all secretly hoping you’ll give us
and preach it sing out testify amen brothers sisters speak in tongues
give us back our public ecstasy give us back the beside ourselves
give us back to nobler thoughts and gives us back to waking reason
give us the snake to handle it’s alright now we’re experienced
for history is a temptation after these nightmare years
these satanic treadmill years blackened with the smoke of bodies
flag-covered coffins and factories, flagged detention centers and lapels,
flagged schools and postoffices—simply to buy a stamp was to feel shame—
and now you’re here, inaugural poem, I and everyone can scarcely believe it—
let us down gently as you’re meant to, deliver an awkward common speech
salted with unmemorable metaphors but maybe a single metrical line
that will give us back the gift outright that lies soiled from neglect
some trace memory of untrustworthy eloquence for a moment we can trust
will open wide the door to what no one scarcely imagined
shouldn’t you shut up and just say what everyone is thinking
over and over till the taste of it is swelling in every mouth
President, our
President, black
President, our black President
so call him to preside
over what’s best and worst in us, masses yearning to breathe free,
masses yearning to be masses, many-purposed but a living ear
to hear you fall at last to silence. And let our President speak.


The lineation here's a mess—Whitman could never have used Blogger—but beyond my meager technical abilities to correct. I read this poem at the MLA off-site reading (maskless). It was going to appear in a chapbook of poems for the inauguration that will be published by DePaul University, but they objected to the line about the Pope and I decided to leave it in, so that means leaving the poem out of the anthology. My first time being censored, that I can recall, and a fitting moment of ambivalence.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


It should go without saying that I'm horrified and disgusted by Israel's assault on the helpless civilians of Gaza. Unfortunately, it doesn't. So, in case it matters to someone, even one person, I'll say it here.

Unlike most of my extended family, I was not raised with any special feeling for Israel—partly a byproduct of my liberal parents' distance from Judaism as a religion (I grew up attending a Unitarian fellowship, making us "Jewnitarians"). My sense of Jewishness was firmly diasporic, and—for better or worse—largely informed by the experience of the Holocaust, which my maternal grandparents had both improbably survived (as had my mother, born in 1942 and hidden by relatives in the Budapest ghetto till war's end). The stories I absorbed from her, from my grandfather, and the gruesome books that my mother collected on the subject, formed the kernel of my notion of Jews as victims of power. Jews as wielders of power were difficult to envision, but if I did envision them, I imagined that they would be called to a higher standard of ethical conduct both by the Torah itself and by the historical experience of near-extinction at the hands of oppressors. It's stomach-wrenching to see that experience being used, instead, to justify the oppression of others through routinized racism, the creation of new ghettos, and plain old-fashioned banditry.

Again and again I hear the argument: you'd do the same if rockets were being fired at you. Obama, who like every other American politician panders to, if not Israel itself than to the debased American discourse about Israel, said it himself. It's profoundly disappointing to see the people I must claim as my own, whom if they are to mean anything as a Jewish people must hold themselves to the highest standards of justice and equality, justifying their actions with an argument that amounts to "anyone would do the same in our place." It's a meaningless argument that makes the special cultural heritage and historic burden of Jewishness just as meaningless.

My tribalism, such as it is, is primarily invested in communities of choice: poets, intellectuals, D&D fanatics. But I would make myself part of another tribe, however small and splintered: secular Jews with a nevertheless religious feeling for the meaning of a chosen people—chosen not to prevail over enemies, or to take land based on Biblical claims, but rather chosen to be choosers of the more difficult, less expedient, most just path, whatever the situation. I am therefore not a Zionist, though I'm not an anti-Zionist either—a Diasporist, who rather thinks that Philip Roth got it right in his amazing metafiction Operation Shylock: A Confession. That's the Jewishness I'm committed to: suffering questions, and not punishing those who question us. The Jewishness of Marx and Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg; the Jewishness of Kafka and Benjamin; the Jewishness of Rosenzweig and Roth and Leonard Bernstein.

My identity aside, powerlessly, imperatively, I say simply: stop. Stop the war. Stop making widows. Stop making orphans. Stop making fresh hatred. Stop today. Stop now.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Lillian Ruth Rasof Corey, 1922 - 2009

Pictured at left, a couple of weeks ago, with her friend Helene in the background and Sadie Gray in front.

Goodbye, Grandma. You taught us all a lot about love.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Poets in San Francisco

First, some images, in more or less reverse chronological order:

Fog rolling in.

Michael Palmer reading Ernest Jones's "Songs of the Low" and other poems from the new Volume III of the Poems for the Millenium anthology, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson, and devoted to "Romantic and Postromantic Poetry."

Leslie Scalapino reading STC's "Kubla Khan" at the same event.

Carmen Gimenez-Smith and Richard Greenfield at dinner after the reading.

Obligatory shot of the Golden Gate Bridge

Brian Teare, right, and his partner Robert.

Angular view of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, downtown.

The Transamerica Pyramid and the Zoetrope building.

Me in a tree at Muir Woods.

My sister Vanessa and her neighbor's dog Einstein.

Shadows of Vanessa and me at Land's End.

This trip was just about everything I'd hoped for: five days devoted to poetry in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I did nothing whatever MLA related, though I did participate in the off-site reading at the Yerba Buena center on Sunday night (there's a story to be told about the poem I read but I'll save that for another post). But I went to all my favorite bookstores (the ones that still exist, that is; but I didn't make it to the East Bay to mourn for Cody's in any case) and bought a pile of things I have no time to read, and I hung out with my favorite people, and perhaps most significantly did a manuscript workshop on Saturday night with Richard Greenfield and Brian Teare and Catherine Meng (we also went over Cat's remarkable new manuscript, bits of which have appeared here and there, most recently in Fence: it's a book partly inspired by Lost and the questions of collective subjectivity and narrativity that that show's capable of raising in its finer moments). In the workshop, I was persuaded of a couple of things:
- The Odysseyan superstructure that I'd constructed this past summer as a means of freshening and re-opening the poems was actually a cumbersome distraction from the poems, which don't need its help.

- The title, Severance Songs, has to go. Brian doesn't like "severance" because he doesn't think the poems are about that; Richard doesn't like the unreconstructed romanticism of "songs." Cat doesn't mind the title, but she does agree the book needs a new frame, and Homer isn't the guy to provide it.

- The individual poems may or may not need titles so their density doesn't overwhelm the reader, a real risk in a whole book of formally similar poems. (More formal variation or ventilation of some of the poems may also be required.)
The problem of the new title really stumped me all day Sunday as I wandered about the city. I've used the old one for so long, and published many or even most of the poems with reference to it, including the chapbook-sized chunk that appeared in Conjunctions in 2004. The title has, at least in my own mind, taken on some of the attributes of a brand, which I'm leery of discarding. On the other hand, it's obvious that the poems need a new frame, a new handle, which will provide unobstructed (or unobstructive) access to them. At the same time, I need to honor the poems as they were written and the original impulses behind them, not thrash about in search of a "high concept" that will erase the slowness of their accumulation.

Because they were written day by day, more or less in response to events in my life while living in Ithaca, I considered using a term like journal, diary, notebook, or daybook in the new title. But this would suggest a casualness that the poems, in their post-Stevensian density, simply don't reflect. Then I thought of using the word "sonnets," since the sonnet form is the most unifying principle of the book. None of the poems use end rhyme in any systematic way, but they're all about fourteen lines long and play with the argumentative structure of the sonnet; more significantly, the pursuit of an impossible ideal is the most consistent theme in the poems as a whole. But to use sonnets in the title would imply a sequentiality and completeness that's as false as the retrofitted Odysseyan superstructre. This is a serial poem, if it's anything, with the open-endedness and anti-narrativity that implies.

Browsing in Green Apple Books with Brian the next day, I mused to Brian that maybe I should simply name the book after the place in which I wrote it. Ithaca is out, obviously, and Ithaca, New York is specific in the wrong way. What about Southern Tier, I asked him. Then he reminded me that the Fingerlakes Region, and western New York in general, has another, more remarkable name that it acquired in the mid-nineteenth century: the burned-over district.

This immediately appealed to me. First of all, it plays with the idea of the poem as field or territory, and the ventilation of the poems is my attempt to deterritorialize the "little room" of the sonnet. Then of course there's the term's actual reference to the region I lived as a place so prone to spiritual uplift and transformation on a massive scale (in the Second Great Awakening) that it was spoken of as a place in which all the spiritual timber had already been used up. The Oneida colony, Joseph Smith and his golden tablets, the Shakers, and other such Transcendentalists avant la lettre all made their most significant spiritual discoveries in western New York. Finally, while on the one hand the term suggests devastation—a spiritual commons turned stale, flat and unprofitable from overuse—it also suggests renewal, as in slash-and-burn agriculture. All this seems to apply to what the poems actually are and do, in a way that the Odysseus model simply doesn't.

So, that's the new title of my revised manuscript: Burned-over District. I think that turns the corner and takes the poems into a new epoch, which is a movement I really need. Not just so that the book itself might see the light of day, but so I can begin to close the door on this project and start seeing what new things arise. I'm grateful, above all, for my poetry companions Richard, Brian, and Cat, part of my Montana cohort and, as I said that night, invaluable "continuity girls": the people who have known you and your work long enough to remind you of who and what you're really about. I've been struggling with my own love of beautiful language—a kind of Oedipal struggle with Stevens, who's the poet that first enabled my own writing at a tender age, and who's in my DNA now for better and for worse. My comrades gave me permission, and the book permission, simply to be myself. There's no greater gift.

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