30 June 2011

Mario Vargas Llosa

[from Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, tr. Alfred MacAdam, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986]

He swallowed the last mouthful and wiped his mouth with his handkerchief. The semi-darkness in the room had at first hidden the flies, but now he could see them. They formed a constellation on the walls and ceiling, and they strolled arrogantly over the plates of food and the fingers of those eating. All the houses in Quero had to be like that: no light, no running water, no drainage, and no bath. Flies, lice, and a thousand other bugs must be part of the poor furniture, lords and masters of pots and pelts, of the rustic beds pushed up against the daub-and-wattle walls, of the faded images of the Virgin and of saints nailed to the doors. If they had to pee at night, they probably wouldn't feel like getting up and going outside. They pee right here, next to the bed where they sleep and the stove where they cook. After all, the floor is just dirt, and dirt soaks up urine, leaving no trace. And the smell doesn't matter much because it disappears, mixed in with the other smells, thickening the multiple smells of garbage and filth that make up the household atmosphere. And if at midnight they had to shit? Would they have enough energy to go out into the darkness and the cold, the wind and the rain? They'd shit right here, between the stove and the bed.

As they walked in, the lady of the house, an old Indian woman all wrinkly and rheumy, with two long pigtails that bounced off her shoulders as she walked, put some cavies that had been walking loose in the room in a corner behind a trunk. Did the animals sleep with her, cuddled up against her old body in search of warmth? How many months, how many years had that lady been wearing those skirts she had on, which no doubt had grown old with her? How long had it been since she had washed herself from head to toe with soap? Months? Years? Had she ever done it in her entire life? The dizziness of the mountain sickness disappeared, replaced by sadness.

Yes, Mayta, millions of Peruvians lived in this same grime, in this same abandonment, amid their own urine and excrement, without light or water, living the same vegetable life, the same animal routine, the same elemental existence that this woman was living. This woman with whom, despite his efforts, he hadn't been able to exchange more than a few words, because she barely knew any Spanish. Just looking around here justified what they had done and what they were going to do, didn't it? When Peruvians like this woman came to understand that they did have power, that all they had to do was become aware of it and use it, the whole pyramid of exploitation, servitude, and horror that was Peru would collapse like a rotten roof. When the understood that by rebelling they would finally begin to humanize their inhuman lives, the revolution would be unstoppable.

Mario Vargas Llosa

28 June 2011

Paul Celan

[from Paul Celan's Poems of Paul Celan: Revised & Expanded, tr. Michael Hamburger, Persea, 2002]

Your Hair above the Sea

Your hair too hovers above the sea with the golden juniper.
Together with it turns white, but I dye it stone-blue:
that city's colour where last I was dragged to the south . . .

With ropes they bound me and knotted a sail to each one
and spat at me from their misty mouths and sang out:
"O come over the sea!"
But I as a dinghy painted my pinions purple
and wheezed a breeze for myself and before they slept sailed away.
Now it is red I should dye them, your locks, but I like them
O eyes of the city where, felled, I was dragged to the south:
With the golden juniper now your hair too hovers above the sea.

Dein Haar Überm Meer

Es schwebt auch dein Haar übern Meer mit dem goldnen Wacholder.
Mit ihm wird es weiss, dann färb ich es steinblue:
die Farbe der Stadt, wo zuletzt ich geschleift ward gen Süden . . .

Mit Tauen banden sie mich und knüpfen an jedes ein Segel
und spieen mich an aus nebligen Máulern und sangen:
"O komm übers Meer!"
Ich aber malt als ein Kahn die Schwingen mir purpurn
und röchelte selbst mir die Brise und stach, eh sie schliefen, in See.
Ich sollte sie rot dir nun fárben, die Locken, doch lieb ich sie
O Augen der Stadt, wo ich stürzte und súdwarts geschleift ward!
Mit dem goldnen Wacholder schwebt auch dein Haar übern Meer.

Paul Celan

17 June 2011

Mark Salzman

[from Mark Salzman's True Notebooks, Knopf, 2003]

At half past ten, Mr. Sills wandered past the library and looked inside. The boys were all working, but Mr. Sills did not seem impressed. To me, it looked as if he was searching for any excuse to throw us out. He stood motionless in the doorway for two or three minutes, then returned to his office without any comment. My relief must have shown when he left, because Francisco asked, "Wha'chu trippin' about? He can't do nothin' to you!"

"I'm not used to being watched like that."

"Try takin' a shit that way." Francisco slapped his pencil down on the table and looked around the room. "What the fuck's that, Chumnikai? Some kinda bird?"

"It's a penguin."

"What you drawin' a penguin for, fool?"

"In school the other day the teacher asked us what animal we thought we were most like. I said penguin."

"Fuckin' Chumnikai!"

"Fuckin' Javier."

"Why a penguin?" I asked.

Patrick shrugged. "Because a penguin is small, it has wings but it can't fly, and it can withstand cold temperatures. That's me." He began crossing out the drawing, but pressed so hard with the pencil that the tip snapped. He froze, bracing for my angry reaction.

Francisco winced; he also seemed to expect the worst. "Damn, Chumnikai! You fucked up his pencil!" I sensed that this was more of a plea than a reprimand. Francisco seemed to assume that I, as an adult, would naturally go ballistic over a small infraction; he was trying to keep me from taking it out on the whole class.

I handed Patrick a fresh pencil, told him not to worry about the broken one, and asked if he'd finished his essay.

"Yeah – I'll read it if you want." As he had never volunteered to read before, I took this as a gesture of gratitude.

"Go ahead."

It was a Thursday, around mid-October of '94. It seemed like a normal day, but something happened that day that changed my life forever. I used to be a good kid doing good in school, but that changed. I arrived at my cousin Ryan's house. He was about fifteen at the time, bald-headed, and wore khaki pants and a white shirt. He told me that a group of his friends were coming over to kick it and drink. Ryan's friends were different. They were from a gang. A gang I used to see on the store walls when I was young.

Soon the house was filled up with gang members. It seemed like they were like one happy family having fun, and I wanted to be part of that family. I was sitting on the couch drinking. The air was filled with smoke from the cigarettes, and loud and noisy from the guys who were yelling and singing because we were all drunk from drinking forty ounces, tequila, and vodka. I was a little dazed when I saw a guy who was about twenty, stalky-looking, and had a fade. John was his name. He asked me if I wanted to join. I thought about it for a while. I mean it seemed OK, because we were all talking, dancing, drinking, just having fun. I told him I'd join. So he told me to just hold on tight, and suddenly, two guys just rushed and jumped me. They beat me for about twenty seconds, then they stopped. All of them in the room were watching me. ALL EYEZ ON ME. They shook my hand and gave me a name. Now I was a part of their family. It was about 2:30 p.m. I had to pick up my brother from school. I told John that I was going to walk to the school. But he insisted that he drive me there to pick him up. We went and when I saw my old friends at the school, I felt different. I was from a gang now. I felt like I had power. People would fear me and my friends when we went into places. Little did I know how much trouble I got myself into. I now have enemies I haven't met before, police watching me, endangering my family, and sending me to a place like this. Sure, I thought it was cool three years ago, but I didn't know it could put me in jail. If I had the chance to go back to that day and not join, I would. And maybe I wouldn't be in a place like where I am today.

. . .

Deep down inside, this angry person awakens. Another day facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls, as we are inmates.

Deep down inside this angry person there is an image of a rejoiceful person who's facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls. Just like your fellow inmates, as you think about the happiness in the past you'll like to shout out for mercy upon your life. But living in darkness for so long, you're taught not to express certain emotions. The voice no one hears is the voice that yells out for freedom in the mind of a forbidden child. Struggling to survive in an ongoing war that seems to have led me and my fellow troops to a meaningless situation. But as I'm found innocent in God's prison, the light should shine on this voice of mine that people just can't seem to follow and understand and I could say farewell to all my hidden voices. And the loneliness in my life shall run for cover.

. . .

"So you sayin' we deserve to get locked up for life for one mistake we made?" Victor asked, getting heated up.

"I'm sayin' if you want the benefit, you gotta face the consequences. Same goes for society. They want the benefit of lockin' kids up and throwin' away the key? They playin' they cards wrong. They gonna face the consequences."

I asked him what he thought the consequences of adult sentences for juvenlies would be.

"Most of us gonna get out someday, right? Teen gangbangers be steppin' out of the pen after twenty, thirty years of livin' like animals, comin' of age in a place where nobody trusts nobody, bein' treated like less than a piece of shit. Wha'chu think they gonna do? Most they family be dead by then. What they got to live for? Revenge. Nothin' else."

Mark Salzman

16 June 2011

Nick Lantz

[from Nick Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t KnowGraywolf, 2010]

“Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake”

      “It is for certain knowne that they have died for very anger and
      griefe that they could not learn to pronounce some hard words.

                     – Pliny the Elder

When you buy the bird for your mother
you hope it will talk to her. But weeks pass
before it does anything except pluck the bars
with its beak. Then one day it says, “infect.”

Your mother tells you this on the phone,
and you drive over, find the frozen meals
you bought for her last week sweating
on the countertop. “In fact,” she says

in answer to your question, “I have been
eating,” and it’s as you point to the empty
trash can, the spotless dishes, that you
realize the bird is only saying, “in fact,”

that this is now the preamble to all
of your mother’s lies. “In fact,” she says,
“I have been paying the bills,” and you
believe her until you find a cache

of unopened envelopes in the freezer.
More things are showing up where
they shouldn’t. Looking out the back
window one evening you see craters

in her yard. While she’s watching TV,
you go out with a trowel and excavate
picture frames, flatware that looks like
the silver bones of some exquisite

animal. You worry when you arrive
one day and see the open, empty cage
that you will find the bird dead, stuffed
in an oven mitt and left in a drawer,

but you find it sitting on her shoulder
in the kitchen. “In fact,” she says,
“he learned to open the cage himself.”
The bird learns new words. You learn

which lies you can ignore. The stroke
that kills her gives no warning, not –
the doctor assures you – that anyone
can predict such things. When you

drive home that night with the cage
belted into the passenger seat, the bird
makes a sound that is not a word
but that you immediately recognize

as the sound of your mother’s phone
ringing, and you know it is the sound
of you calling her again and again,
the sound of her not answering.

Lightly at First, Then Rapture

      “I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable
      than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it
– Donald Rumsfeld

Beyond the blue chalk line
of the highway, acreage
of corn, stalks cuckolding
one another in the wind.
Closer, the yard crusts
over with rotten plums;
a delirium of squirrels
natters in the upper limbs.
And here in the kitchen
the dishwasher jet thuds
its muted round, too like
the sonogram heartbeat.
When the washer finishes,
even sound will abandon
the house. Each dawn
is a piece of dark flint
hefted under dim light.
But not to worry. My
neighbor tells me that
any time now, an angel
will sound a few notes
on its bleating trumpet.
Jesus will poke the divine
straw into the atmosphere
and suck the righteous
up to heaven, their bodies
jangling like pennies
through the Hoover tube.
Whether we’re taken
or not, says my neighbor.

Nick Lantz

Hans Ostrom

[from Hans Ostrom's The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, Dog Ear, 2005]

Emily Dickinson and Elvis Presley in Heaven

They call each other E. Elvis picks
wildflowers near the river and brings
them to Emily. She explains half-rhymes to him.

In heaven Emily wears her hair long, sports
Levis and western blouses with rhinestones.
Elvis is lean again, wears baggy trousers

and T-shirts, a letterman's jacket from Tupelo High.
They take long walks and often hold hands.
She prefers they remain just friends. Forever.

Emily's poems now contain naugahyde, Cadillacs,
Electricity, jets, TV, Little Richard and Richard
Nixon. The rock-a-billy rhythm makes her smile.

Elvis likes himself with style. This afternoon
he will play guitar and sing "I Taste a Liquor
Never Brewed" to the tune of "Love Me Tender."

Emily will clap and harmonize. Alone
in their cabins later, they'll listen to the river
and nap. They will not think of Amherst

or Las Vegas. They know why God made them
roommates. It's because America
was their hometown. It's because

God is a thing
without feathers. It's because
God wears blue suede shoes.

Hans Ostrom

11 June 2011

Larry Levis

[from Larry Levis’s The Afterlife, Iowa, 1977]

The Double

Out here, I can say anything.
I can say, for example, that a girl
disappearing tonight
will sleep or stare out
fixedly as the train moves her
into its adulthood of dust
and sidings.

I remember watching wasps
on hot evenings
fly heavily over chandeliers
in hotel lobbies.
They’ve torn them down, too.
And the elderly drunks
who seemed not to mind anything,
who seemed to look for change
in their pockets, as they gazed
at the girl in the Pepsi ad,
and the girl who posed for the ad,
must all be dead now.

I can already tell that this
is no poem to show you,
this love poem. It’s so
flat spoken and ignorable,
like the man chain smoking
who discovers he’s
no longer waiting for anyone,
and goes to the movies
alone each Saturday, and grins,
and likes them.
This poem so like the hour
when the street lights turn
amber and blink, and the calm
professor burns another book,
and the divorcee waters her one
chronically dying plant.
This poem so like me
it could be my double.

I have stood for a long time
in its shadow, the way I stood
in the shadow of a dead roommate
I had to cut down from the ceiling
on Easter break, when
I was young.

That night I put my car
in neutral, and cut the engine
and lights to glide downhill
and hear the wind rush over
the dead metal.
I had to know what it felt
like, and under the moon,
gaining speed, I wanted to slip
out of my body and be
done with it.

A man can give up smoking
and the movies, and live for years
hearing the wind tick over roofs
but never looking up from
his one page, or the tiny
life he keeps carving over and
over upon it. And when everyone
around him dies, he can move
a grand piano into
his house, and sit down
alone, and finally play,
certain that no one will
overhear him, though he plays
as loud as he can,
so that when the dead come
and take his hands off the keys
they are invisible, the way air
and music are not.

Larry Levis

07 June 2011

Robert Creeley

[from J. D. McClatchy's The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Vintage, 2003]

For Love

            for Bobbie

Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,

different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.

If the moon did not . . .
no, if you did not
I wouldn't either, but
what would I not

do, what prevention, what
thing so quickly stopped.
That is love yesterday
or tomorrow, not

now. Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything

as earned. Now love also
becomes a reward so
remote from me I have
only made it with my mind.

Here is tedium,
despair, a painful
sense of isolation and
whimsical if pompous

self-regard. But that image
is only of the mind's
vague structure, vague to me
because it is my own.

Love, what do I think
to say. I cannot say it.
What have you become to ask,
what have I made you into,

companion, good company,
crossed legs with skirt, or
soft body under
the bones of the bed.

Nothing says anything
but that which it wishes
would come true, fears
what else might happen in

some other place, some
other time not this one.
A voice in my place, an
echo of that only in yours.

Let me stumble into
not the confession but
the obsession I begin with
now. For you

also (also)
some time beyond place, or
place beyond time, no
mind left to

say anything at all,
that face gone, now.
Into the company of love
it all returns.

Robert Creeley, 1973

03 June 2011

Anne Carson

[from Anne Carson’s Nox, New Directions, 2010]

Anne Carson's Nox

1.1 History and elegy are akin. The word “history” comes from an ancient Greek verb ίστωρειν meaning “to ask.” One who asks about things – about their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell – is an historian. But the asking is not idle. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.

. . . The phoenix mourns by shaping, weighing, testing, hollowing, plugging and carrying towards the light. He seems to take a clear view of necessity. And in the shadows that flash over him as he makes his way from Arabia to Egypt maybe he comes to see the immensity of the mechanism in which he is caught, the immense fragility of his own flying – composed as it is of these ceaselessly passing shadows carried backward by the very motion that devours them, his motion, his asking.

1.2 Autopsy is a term historians use of the “eyewitnessing” of data or events by the historian himself, a mode of authorial power.

. . . Note that the word “mute” (from Latin mutus and Greek μύειν) is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.

5.4 . . . Always comforting to assume there is a secret behind what torments you.

7.1 I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101). Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is known of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there. I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind. I never arrived at the translation I would like to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends.

Anne Carson

Michael Walsh

[from Michael Walsh's The Dirt Riddles, Arkansas, 2010]

Morning Milkings

Mother slaps every sleeping cow
with a chapped, leathery hand.
Once, twice, as many times as it takes.
Then, with the lightest touch, she announces
to the first startled flank
her bucket, her brown paper towels, her iodine,
her plastic syringes for the sick.
She washes each udder,
overripe and leaking
faster in the rag
with each wipe, careful
of any touchy warts.
One long squeeze
into her palm and she's done.
The milk's ripe and opaque
in her lifeline,
no flecks of red
today, no odd clots.
A skeptic, she pushes
her greasy glasses
back up her nose, closer
to her nearsighted eyes,
then tosses the sample, quick as spit.

After His Lessons from the Belt

my mother would always sit on the bed
and spread out the great map
of his fault lines – that webwork
of unpredictable tensions.

We studied where the quakes
were most likely to occur: in barns, fields
near sheds.

                   We learned to sense the shifting,
the slow grind of plates, the opening
chasms of his hands.

Quilt Rags

Every time we molt our blue jeans,
Grandma takes the busted pairs.
First she trims that feathery fringe
from the worn-out knees.

Then she hangs them
over a cardboard box, unravels
long, golden threads from the seams,
and razors the empty legs

down to spare parts, squares
and triangles for her quick pins.
The awkward crotch she cuts last,
pulls out the zipper like a gizzard.

Miller Williams & Michael Walsh