We are always
a ladder, but it's
crashes; easy doors
Or, in the body,
there's too much
swing or off-
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
- 'Carrying a Ladder'
Kay Ryan first. Her sparkling new collection, The Niagara River. Each poem polished to delight - the quicksilver rhythm, the deftness of the imagination. They are all like this: bite-sized lines flecked with the most unexpected of rhymes, the central conceit a sweet, sometimes sad tune, made dazzling by the breathlessness of Ryan's improvisations. Etudes of words balanced just this side of cleverness, that side of profound. There's a playfulness to Ryan's poetry, but it's a serious playfulness. Consider:
It's hard not
to jump out
waiting to be
hard to be
alone so long
and then hear
like some form
of skin's developed
in the air
than have torn,
- 'Hide and Seek'
A marvellous book.
Even more delightful though, is Ryan's essay in the May issue of Poetry. Ryan's central thesis is that at it's heart, poetry is precocious and hilarious, a sort of sublime nonsense, what she quotes T.S. Eliot as calling "a superior amusement". Ryan writes:
"I have always felt that much of the best poetry is funny. Who can read Hopkins' 'The Windhover,' for instance, and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh."
She then goes on to clarify:
"I do not want to suggest in any way that...poetry is something silly or undangerous; it is great and a causer of every sort of damage. And I do not want to say either that the poem that prompts me to laughter is silly or light; no, it can be heavy as a manhole cover, but it is forced up. You can see it would take an exquisite set of circumstances to ever get this right."
"If this strikes you as nonsense, it is. Something nonsensical in the heart of poetry is the very reason why one can't call poetry 'useful'. Sense is useful; you can apply things that make sense to other circumstances; you can take something away. But nonsense you can only revisit; its satisfactions exist in it, and not in applications. This is why Auden and others can say with such confidence that poetry makes nothing happen. That's the relief of it. And the reason why nothing can substitute for it."
The other day Prufrock Two pointed me to an article by Jai and Nilanjana in Business Standard listing the top reading picks for the summer. It's a nice article, and added several titles to my already groaning reading list for the coming months, but I couldn't help noticing that it didn't have a single volume of poetry. Oh, I know, I know, no one actually reads poetry, and anyway, you can never get any decent poetry in Indian book stores, so I'm not criticising the article (really, Jai, I'm not), but still.
Here then, for what it's worth, are four recently published books that I strongly urge you to read if you can get your hands on them:
1. Louise Gluck's Averno
I've always found Gluck's work a trifle inconsistent, but I have to admit that at her finest she's easily one of the best poets writing today. And Averno is a superb collection, meditative and moving (an extract from which, along with my comments on the book, can be found here).
2. Robin Robertson's Swithering
Surrounded by trees I cannot name
That fill with birds I cannot tell apart
I see my children growing away from me;
The hinges of the heart are broken.
Is it too late to start, too late to learn,
All the words for love before the wake.
- 'To my daughters, asleep'
Okay. I'll confess it. I'm obsessed with the man. Reading Robertson is like reading a combination of Heaney and Ondaatje with a touch of Hughes (Ted, not Langston) thrown in for good measure. His new book, Swithering, has the obligatory nods to Greek myth - a long, somewhat macabre poem about Actaeon, and another one that riffs on the Actaeon legend, making Actaeon a boy growing up under an emasculating mother, plus some nice takes on the Proteus story. But it's the other, more intimate poems where Robertson really shines. For one thing, he has a great gift for description, an ability to bring an image vividly to life. Take this description of a buzzard feeding on a dead rabbit for instance: "she breaks in / flips the latches / of the back, opens the red drawer / in his chest, ransacking the heart". Plus which, Robertson has this ability to balance realism with abstraction, to conjure with the images of the everyday till they become just transparent enough so you can dimly see the shapes of a deeper truth behind them. In a poem called 'La Stanza Delle Mosche' (literally The Room of Flies) Robertson sits writing at his desk while flies buzz in the air around him. He writes: "They drop on my desk, my hands / And spin their long deaths on their backs / on the white tiles, first one way / then the other, tiny humming tops that / stop and start: a sputter of bad wiring / whining to be stubbed out". Lovely.
Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun re-made her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.
Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.
- 'Swimming in the Woods'
3. Kay Ryan, The Niagara River.
I just talked about this one above, so I'll say nothing more. Except to add this one further poem:
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
each step makes
a perfect stamp -
smallish, but as
sharp as an
goes the emperor
down his wide
the sea bows
4. Dean Young's Elegy on a Toy Piano
Whether or not you find 'The Windhover' funny, you're going to be hard-pressed not to laugh out loud reading Dean Young's Pulitzer prize nominated new collection. I've blogged about this collection before, and included some extracts from it, but I don't think they quite capture the spirit of the book. Maybe this will:
Like deaf mutes in airports selling cards
saying they're deaf mutes, the avant garde
sold poems saying they're poets.
Or everyone's a poet. Or what's a poem?
Or die whitie die. Or representation =
kapitalism's whore. Meanwhile someone
messes up a bunch of packing instructions
and that's pretty avant garde. Someone else
writes about smacking a deer with his car,
feeling kinda bad, and that's not avant garde
so off to Russia, here's your carbine.
But then a whole class of poets
gets out of going to Russia through connections
and bands together to form the Academy of American Poets
to protest high dry-cleaning costs.
Then someone comes up with a book
that's not even in words, publishes
20 copies on butcher paper and burns them
and that's so fucking avant garde,
the sea floor rises 10,000 feet
and becomes a desert, perfect
for a school where the poet slash
critic slash professor says, Take off your clothes,
and when the students take off their clothes,
shouts, Too late! Wreck subjectivity!
Too late! The blood of Walt Disney
is on your hands! Explode syntax
allude to the renaissance metaphor
is fascism memory is a lie.
Too late too late too late.
Roses are blue, the quality of mercy
is chow mein, first thought butt-shake.
See this shoe? It's a text.
- from 'Whoz Side U On, Anyway?'