Tuesday, September 05, 2006

September is poetry month

Did I ever mention how, in my last year in school and my first year in college I had this rule about reading nothing but poetry. Seriously. With all the natural fervour of the very young, I'd convinced myself that poetry was the supreme art form (well, at least the supreme form of literature - music was a wholly different experience) and how reading prose was a waste of time. So for some 20 months I didn't read anything but poetry (and remember, this was college - all I did was read). It finally took a friend's gift of The Collected Short Stories of Kafka to break through my defences.

I'm older and less judgemental (if not wiser) now, but every now and then I feel the urge to return to those days. It distresses me that I don't read enough poetry, especially enough contemporary poetry. Think about it - with prose, I'm half way through the Booker long list. With poetry, I've barely read a single book published in the last 12 months.

So Saturday morning, with the long weekend ahead of me, I decided it was time I expanded my poetic horizons, and I went out and borrowed 16 volumes of poetry, all published in the last 5 years, from the library. I've only got through some ten of them so far, and I was a little bored with some of them, but here are some extracts (and more will doubtless follow):

the air is awful,
it's true, a companion
to vast

tensions, sad after-
effects, bewilderment,
and engine-drone,

and to breathe it
as we do
in the short run

we'd almost
have to feel that somewhere
very near

the edge
of at least one well-known
spring a sparrow

as if tethered to a stone,

to add even
a single feather
to the sky.

- David Rivard, 'Wednesday in September' from Sugartown

Kenyan stamps on blue tissue - the usual pregnant arrival of words.
Always a marvel with facts and specifics, she notices things

no one else notices, then shares them with a practical generosity.
You might as well know this.

And after she says she's grown fat on chocolate, outlines a day
of clinical work and tells of a hippo, the green mambas in the yard,

there is something else. A woman in labor. Undilated and staring
into the eyes of something, she arrived alone from the village.

No supplies in the cabinets, no time and two hours of one ruptured dirt road.
They carried her to the Jeep, knew they'd never make Migori before she collapsed,

then how stunned we were to find the road repaired! the ruts filled in, tangled
roots and rock removed, smoothed over. They made it in forty-five minutes,

delivered the woman and her child and afterward asked when the road was restored,
how, by whom. Why had they heard no shovels, no singing?

The nurses shook their head then, the hagglers in the market shrugged. At dusk
they turned the Jeep for home, lurched back onto the road and you must know this -

She writes of the endless ragged tracks, the old sprawling scar, and how for two hours
in silence they labored their way back, each star beating down.

- Rebecca Wee, 'Ajabu' (Magic) from Uncertain Grace

Sometimes one of the twins dies
in utero, without his mother
ever knowing she'd been twice blessed.
Hungy for life, the living twin
will absorb his double and, growing,
compress him until all that's left
is a tiny shape made flat, a silhouette
of the life it once contained.
While the one child is born pink
and howling into his parent's arms,
the other remains a faint imprint
barely visible in the translucent web
of amniotic membranes - a fetal hieroglyph.
Some people believe twins have
only one sould between them.
If that's true, how many
of us are born half -
ignorant of our paper twin, the ghostly
shroud of an other self,
the blank page onto which all
our imagined lives are written.

- Peter Pereira, 'Fetus Papyraceous' from Saying the World

What the scale tells you is how much the earth
has missed you, body, how it wants you back
again after you leave it to go forth

into the light. Do you remember how
earth hardly noticed you then? Others would rock
you in their arms, warm in the flow

that fed you, coaxed you upright. Then earth began
to claim you with spots and fevers, began to lick
at you with a bruised knee, a bloody shin,

and finally to stroke you, body, drumming
intimate coded messages through music
you danced to unawares, there in your dreaming

and your poems and your obedient bloo.
Body, how useful you became, how lucky,
heavy with news and breakage, rich, and sad,

sometimes imagining that greedy zero
you must have been, that promising empty sack
of possibilities, never-to-come tomorrow.

But look at you now, body, soft old shoe
that love wears when it's stirring, look down, look
how the earth wants what you weigh, needs what you know.

- Rhina P. Espaillat, 'Weighing in' from Where horizons go.


Anonymous said...

Whenever I feel like I'm slogging along with somewhat difficult poetry, I reach for Billy Collins. Especially 'Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House'
But I'm warped like that.

Raoul said...

I went through a phase like that too, in my junior year at college (some of us learn to appreciate poetry at a later age, I guess). Took a liberal dose of Dostoevsky to get me out of that.

Cheshire Cat said...

Ironic - certainly the first two poems would have done better as prose. The aim of reading poetry purely is a laudable one, but the unnaturally high yield of the American academy, with its mass-produced MFAs and its uncritical embrace of the confessional (or else the fetishized politicking with language), makes discrimination difficult. Poetry ought to be rarer than prose. The destiny of prose to make a fair impression, of poetry to play tricks with the nerves. When I find a Frank Kuppner or a Russell Edson or a Rae Armantrout, it's by happy chance, I imagine, the same way as to some a poem arrives...

Neela said...

I liked the one about the shadow-twin. Reminds me of the UP fellow who had his twin inside him for some many years.



Falstaff said...

anon: Nothing warped about wanting to read Billy Collins. Know what you mean - though my poet of choice in those moments tends to be Langston Hughes. Or Cavafy. Or Carver. Not that too much of what I read over the weekend was particularly difficult.

raoul: Ah, see, my Dostoevsky phase came later. Though it was Kafka that broke my resolve, what I really moved on to was Woolf and Joyce and Conrad.

cat: don't agree about the Rivard doing better as prose, though yes, the Wee would. Though to be fair, I was deliberately trying to choose a fairly wide spectrum of styles.

Agree with you about the MFA boom. Though my problem with it is less that it's hard to discriminate and more that it induces a sameness in the poetry one reads that is a little distressing. Too many of the poets I read this weekend sound curiously alike. REading them, you can just imagine a bunch of college grads pouring over their critical analyses of Bishop and Ashbery. I think the rareness of poetry happens anyway - each book will have maybe two or three (of if you're really lucky five or six) really good poems.

neela: Thanks. Careful though, before you know it you might end up being the kind of person who's interested in poetry.

Swathi said...

wow! did u say 20 months of poetry? makes me feel as if I'm 'ignorance personified' when it comes to poetry...

'Kenyan stamps on blue tissue...'
and 'fetal hieroglyph' ...

do posts more such wonderful poems.

sashi said...


I don't know if I should envy or admire your reading speed (10 books in a weekend!), given that it took me two weeks to read through one small volume of Seamus Heaney's latest! :)

That said, I liked the selections you have posted, especially "Fetus Papyraceous". Thank you.

Rajesh J Advani said...

I'm half way through the Booker long list...

Wow. I read between one and three books a week (though the number was '4' a few months ago, and has mostly been '1' for a couple of weeks), and I'm still too busy going through the SFF collection in my library to remember the long-list. How about maintaining some kind of ranking of the list, so slowpokes like me know which book to get first. You could put it in the sidebar. Would be darned useful.