Tuesday, April 15, 2014
A few paragraphs from John Berger
I've read much of John Berger's writing over the years, mostly his art criticism and other essays, also his novel From A to X, which I loved. I often go to his writing when I need to clear my mind, sharpen my critical thought, step back and get some perspective on things. I've learned a great deal from Berger's work, about looking at art and looking at the world.
In his essay "A Professional Secret," originally published in 1987, Berger begins by talking about a painting by Hans Holbein he wants to go and see in Switzerland (he's lived for many years in the foothills of the French Alps). He arrives in Berne, discovers the Holbein painting is in a different city in Switzerland, so he and his companion go and visit an art museum in Berne.
He talks a little about painted Christian images of violence and brutality (depictions of Christian martyrs, the crucifixion, etc.) -- the contradictory nature of such images, such subject matter painted so beautifully -- and then he asks: "how can the brutal be made visibly acceptable?"
The question begins with the Renaissance. In medieval art the suffering of the body was subservient to the live of the soul. And this was an article of faith which the spectator brought with him to the image; the life of the soul did not have to be demonstrated in the image itself. A lot of medieval art is grotesque -- that is to say a reminder of the worthlessness of everything physical. Renaissance art idealizes the body and reduces the body to gesture. (A similar reduction occurs in Westerns: see John Wayne or Gary Cooper.) [...]
At the beginning of the nineteenth century Goya, because of his unflinching approach to horror and brutality, was the first modern artist. Yes those who look at his etchings would never choose to look at the mutilated corpses they depict with such fidelity. So we are forced back to the same question, which one might formulate differently: how does catharsis work in visual art, if it does?
Berger then says, in effect, that catharsis doesn't work in art: "Paintings don't offer catharsis. They offer something similar, but different."
Berger mentions several paintings in the museum, from the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century: Courbet, Monet, Braque, Klee, Rothko.
Quoting Berger again:
How much courage and energy were necessary to struggle for the right to paint in different ways! And today these canvases, outcome of that struggle, hang peacefully beside the most conservative pictures: all united within the agreeable aroma of coffee, wafted from the cafeteria next to the bookshop.
The battles were fought over what? At its simplest -- over the language of painting. No painting is possible without a pictorial language, yet with the birth of modernism and after the French Revolution, the use of any language was controversial. The battles were between custodians and innovators. The custodians belonged to institutions that had behind them a ruling class or an élite who needed appearances to be rendered in a way which sustained the ideological basis of their power.
The innovators were rebels. Two axioms to bear in mind here: sedition is, by definition, ungrammatical; the artist is the first to recognize when a language is lying.
I read this passage, and I think immediately of those poets and writers I've known over the years who have survived (and occasionally prospered) by getting one foundation grant after another, eventually settling into teaching jobs somewhere; poets and writers who have spent much of their lives and efforts in service of the custodians Berger talks about here: adept at (and comfortable with) rendering appearances in a way which sustains the ideological basis of the power of their custodians.
And again from Berger's essay:
Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing -- when it is an urgent activity -- is a two-way process. to draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever one is scrutinizing. Giacometti's life's work is a demonstration of this.
The encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and inarticulated dialogue. To sustain it requires faith. It is a burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.
I offer no explanation for this experience. I simply believe very few artists will deny it. It's a professional secret. [...]
There's much more in Berger's essay, and much more in his other writings. If you're not familiar with John Berger's art criticism, a good place to start might be his book Ways of Seeing, published in the 1960's, based on a BBC T.V. series of the same name that he was involved with. I found the book especially useful because of the many pictures it includes to illustrate the art and art criticism concepts he talks about.
I've written about John Berger's novel From A to X previously in this blog, here. I highly recommend it also.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Muriel Rukeyser's Elegies
The events of the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930's were among the original sources of impulse for the poems; also, in a different way, Rilke's Duino Elegies. Rukeyser dedicated the Elegies to Otto Boch, a German man she met on her way to Spain at the outbreak of the civil war. Boch became Rukeyser's lover, and later he died while fighting against the Fascist invasion of Spain.
The poems form a remarkable and varied river of moods and tones and textures, sometimes flowing and lyrical, sometimes keenly philosophical, sometimes fervent and urging, sometimes verging on prophetic ecstasy. Here are some lines from the second elegy, which is titled "Age of Magicians":
Does this life permit its living to wear strength?
Who gives it, protects it. It is food.
Who refuses it, it eats in time as food.
It is the world and it eats the world.
Who knows this, knows. This has been said.
This is the vision of the age of magicians :
it stands at immense barriers, before mountains :
'I came to you in the form of a line of men,
and when you threw down the paper, and when you sat at the play,
and when you killed the spider, and when you saw the shadow
of the fast plane skim fast over your lover's face.
And when you saw the table of diplomats,
the newsreel of ministers, the paycut slip,
the crushed child's head, clean steel, factories,
the chessmen on the marble of the floor,
each flag a country, each chessman a live man,
one side advancing southward to the pit,
one side advancing northward to the lake,
and when you saw the tree, half bright half burning.
You never enquired into these meanings.
If you had done this, you would have been restored.'
I read these lines, and others of a similar surge in the book, and I think of the news events of our time, of this year, the rattlling of heavy guns along borders, the proud strutting of members of Congress accompanied by lobbyists from Exxon Mobil or JPMorgan Chase or Comcast... I think of the young men and woman who lured into joining the militaries of the world out of some notion of serving a "country" or because the available choices for any kind of livable future are shinking in the shadow of the ravenous mega-economies of corporate empire.
And here are some lines from the seventh elegy, titled "Dream-Singing Elegy," which evokes a world of a greatness and beauty and possibility that touches the sleeping and waking dreams of all of us, all of us who have not given up, who have not forsaken life or succumbed to the feeding frenzies of the commodity world:
When we began to fight, we sang hatred and death.
The new songs say, "Soon all people on earth
will live together." We resist and bless
and we begin to travel from defeat.
Now, as you sing your dream, you ask the dancers,
in the night, in the still night, in the night,
"Do you believe what I say?"
And all the dancers answer "Yes."
To the farthest west, the sea and the striped country
and deep in the camps among the wounded cities
half-world over, the waking dreams of night,
outrange the horrors. Past fierce and tossing skies
the rare desires shine in constellation.
I hear your cries, you little voices of children
swaying wild, nightlost, in black fields calling.
I hear you as the seething dreams arrive
over the sea and past the flaming mountains.
Now the great human dream as great as birth or death,
only that we are not given to remember birth,
only that we are not given to hand down death,
this we hand down and remember.
Brothers in dream, naked-standing friend,
rising over the night, crying aloud,
beaten and beaten and rising from defeat,
crying as we cry : We are the world together.
Here is the place in hope, on time's hillside,
where hope, in one's images, wavers for the last time
and moves out of one's body up the slope.
That place in love, where one's self, as the body of love,
moves out of the old lifetime towards the beloved.
I've been reading and rereading Elegies. I find new roads and depths in each reading.
The new edition includes a perceptive Introduction by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller, written in ten brief sections, which provides useful background on the poems, and on Muriel Rukeyser's life during the years when she was writing them.
I've written about Muriel Rukeyser's poetry previously in this blog, here.
Friday, March 14, 2014
Poet Bill Knott
I've always loved many of the poems in The Naomi Poems, the deep blue sensuality and delicacy of his love poems, the sharp acrimony of his politically explicit poems. In Knott's later books, he experimented in other directions with his poems, and I didn't always feel drawn to his later work.
I didn't know much about Knott's life, and more or less lost touch with his work for a number of years. Over time he apparently came to feel cynicism and rancor about the inward-looking office politics of the literary publishing world in the United States, and in recent years he stopped searching for publishers for his books of poems, in some cases refused offers to bring earlier books of his back into print, and at one point he started publishing his poem old and new on an online blog and making his work available for free.
In one interview, Knott discussed in detail his reasons for considering himself to have failed as a poet, or at any rate to have failed at a career in the the world of literary awards and contests and other sorts of literary competition. He did in fact receive several major literary awards and grants over the years, and he taught for more than 25 years at Emerson College. There were many other poets and professors his age and younger, of weaker ability as poets, who received greater literary and career acclaim much earlier in their lives.
A good interview with Bill Knott, from sometime around 2004, is in the online literary magazine Memorious, here.
An insightful article by John Cotter on Bill Knott's poetry is in the website of the Poetry Foundation (affiliated with Poetry magazine in Chicago), here.
A obituary for Bill Knott, along with four of his poems, is in the online magazine Open Letters Monthly, here.
Thanks to poet blogger Elisa Gabbert, in whose blog The French Exit I found each of the above weblinks.
Here are four short poems by Bill Knott that I've always liked, from The Naomi Poems, Book One: Corpse and Beans.
If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.
Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.
Retort to Pasternak
The centuries like barges have floated
out of the darkness, to communism: not to be judged,
but to be unloaded.
Let the dead bury the dead:
it is said. But I say it is we living
who have been shoved underground, who must now rise up
to bury the dead, the Johnsons, Francos, Fords and McNamaras.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Writing Process Blog Tour
The four questions are: What am I working on? How does my work differ from others of its genre? Why do I write what I do? How does your writing process work?
My first impulse was not to attempt answering the questions, because these are pretty broad questions, and they touch on stuff that writers and artists and philosphers and workers of all kinds have been tangling with for, what, thousands (or, possibly, hundreds of thousands) of years. I had no notion how I might answer most of the questions.
But after talking with Julia about it a little more, I decided to attempt this. This will likely be kind of muddled.
What am I working on?
I write mostly poetry. I've been writing for 45 years. I write somewhat sporadically, some days I find it relatively easy to write, the poems come out without great effort, other days I have to push with a real act of will, dig for the next line, I'll find maybe a line or two for something I'm writing and that's it for the day. Some days nothing comes out. I try to spend at least a little while every day sitting with my notebook open in front of me or near me, waiting to see if something will bite. (I write by hand with a pen in a paper notebook.)
(I just paused here for a minute, went and looked out the window at the sun setting in a chilly northern March sky, long swashes of flaming pink and pale rose and lilac clouds ranged across a faint blue evening sky, the sky near the horizon so pale it's almost white, above the intricately tangled tree branches in the old cemetery across the street.)
I always try to sit with the notebook open at least for a little while each day, whether or not I'm able to write anything.
At any time I'm usually working on several poems in progress, and at any time the poems I'm writing are gradually gathering together into three or four poetry book manuscripts in progress. (I also have, right now four or five completed poetry book manuscripts that are, theoretically, looking for homes, though I'm not highly vigorous in searching for publishers.
Right now the two manuscripts I seem to be paying the most attention to are one titled, probably, Road Song and Annunciation, which may be completed or nearly completed, and one titled, maybe, Twentieth Century Modern, which probably isn't completed yet.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Each time I think about this question, I'm put off by how arrogant and smug it sounds. I don't know whether my work differs from any other work. Much more interesting to me what one person's poetry may have in common with another person's poetry. Written poetry has existed in the world for several thousand years, and oral poetry (and its ancestor, chant and song and solemn ritual and ecstatic dance) has likely existed for several tens of thousand years at least. (Poet Gary Snyder, among others, has written much on this -- the enduring practices of literature, i.e. oral literature, that begin long before the practices of writing.)
I tend toward poetry that tries to have some perceptible connection between a person's interior world and the exterior world around us. Poetry that is relevant to the billion daily events of our individual lives and our collective lives, our individual and collective histories. Political, would be one word to describe what I intend when I write poems, at least much of the time. All human activity is political; all human activity takes place in the context of all other human activity, in the past and the present and moving into the future. Poetry is a part of this collective act, just a much as any other human action is.
Why do I write what I do?
I maybe have partly answered this in my answer to the previous question. In the more basic sense, why I write poetry, why anyone does, or paints paintings or makes music or dance, these things are, at least in part, rooted in the most basic questions that face all of us. Questions about why we exist, what it means to exist, what it means to think these things, to be conscious of our own existence and thought and longing.
Poetry is one way for the mysterious inner life of one person to meet and speak with the mysterious inner life of another person, through the medium of the common world and life we share, which is, among other things, political. Long-time poet friend Roy McBride said, "You don't make poetry out of nothing, you make poetry out of everything."
How does your writing process work?
Of the four questions here, this is maybe the most difficult to answer. I sit with my notebook open, feel or "listen" in myself, around myself, for anything that might want to come out. Writing seems to come and go in cycles for me; I have periods of active almost constant writing, for days and (now and then) weeks, and then periods of little or nothing, "dry" periods, or days or (sometimes) weeks. One of the difficult and necessary disciplines I've needed to learn has been how to wait out the dry times when I'm not writing, or not writing much, or grind out just a line or two every few days.
In a certain sense -- in the sense of sitting with the notebook and waiting and listening -- I'm always writing, though not always literally writing something down on the page.
Sometimes after a dry few days or week or two, I'll start feeling a kind of vague irritableness, something grumbling and rumbling just below the surface of clear articulation. By now, after many years, I've found that this often means a poem or two are taking shape (but, sometimes, not yet ready to come out).
A poem often comes to me (whatever "comes to me" means exactly) as a kind of three-dimensional geometric shape (or, maybe, four-dimensional, though I'm not entirely sure what a four-dimensional shape looks like). I'll get a kind of quick glimpse of what the poem might be, how long it might be, where it slows and quickens, how wide-reaching it is, how many parts of the universe it pulls into itself, how close-up-detailed it is, things like that. Little by little, I start attaching words to the points and pieces of the geometric shape, the flicker of universe that's emerging from whatever place it is that poems emerge from. I'll write the first line.
I don't have a very clear notion of where it is that poems "come from," or what it exactly means when a poems comes or comes out. It might be possible to describe writing a poem as being in a state of dreaming and waking at the same time, maybe not literally so, but at least some state of mind resembling that. I do know that some of the techniques I've found effective at remembering dreams when I've waken up remembering only a brief scene or moment or fragment, also seem to be useful in finding a full poem when all I have are one or two lines. At least in a sense, poems often seem to me to begin in the silence and space before words.
I don't write multiple drafts of poems. Typically I start with the first line, and I cross out and rewrite, as needed, as I work line by line through the poem. So, most of the time, the first draft is in effect also the final draft. Sometimes I get stuck, not sure what comes next in a poem, and then there's nothing to do by sit and wait for it. Sometimes I've waited a day or several days or a few weeks, then more of the poem starts coming out again. Sometimes I've waited years. I have at least a couple of poems that sat half-finished in my notebook for more than ten years before I figured out how to finish them. Usually it doesn't take that long...
For many years the whole preliminary incubation of the poem was entirely interior for me, I just sat and waited for it. In recent years I've sometimes started writing a few notes for a poem as it starts taking shape. Once it's at the very brink of forming and coming out, it can happen very quickly, and sometimes I can lose the thread of it. I've found that writing down the bits and pieces of lines as they took shape has been helpful in not losing track of a poem once I start writing it. It took a long time before I felt sure enough of what I was doing, before I started writing down notes for a poem before I actually wrote it. And even now I don't do that all the time. Sometimes it just seems to work best to let the poem come out as it comes. Most of this is a more or less mysterious thing to me.
At some point when I'm working on a poem, it's done, or as done as I'm going to get it. Learning when to leave off, when to stop working and working the poem and let it be done. A poem that is worked too much, that is too oversmoothed, may loose some of the power it had when it first emerged into articulation, it may start to become a little too mass-produced. (This may be a way to start to approach questions about the differences between art and craft, though that's maybe another discussion.) It took me a while to learn the discipline of letting the poem be done, to understand that there will be more poems.
That's what I've got right now on the four questoins Julia Stein passed along to me. Thanks for the nudge, Julia.
Monday, March 03, 2014
AWP in Seattle 2014
The conference event I liked best was a panel and reading in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of poet William Stafford. I've always liked Stafford's poetry -- his quiet plain-speaking manner, his poems that often seem simple and innocent, or just odd, at first reading, and that seep more deeply into bedrock after sitting with them a little. Panelists were writer Kim Stafford (William Stafford's son), and poets Brian Turner, Toi Derricotte, and Coleman Barks; the panel moderator was Jeff Schotts of Graywolf Press (Graywolf has published several of Stafford's books). The panel members recalled their encounters with William Stafford, and read poems of his, with much warm humor and quiet reflection. * If you're not familiar with Stafford's poetry, a useful recent collection is Ask Me: 100 essential poems, edited by Kim Stafford, published in 2014 by Graywolf Press.
Another good one was a panel exploring the poetry and life work of Hayden Carruth. Carruth is a poet whose poems I've only read a little over the years; I've known him mainly through the anthology he edited in the 1970's, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, which has been widely used by poetry teachers over the years since. Panel members were Malena Mörling, Lee Briccetti, Douglas Unger, Sam Hamill (who, when he was publisher of Copper Canyon Press, published several of Carruth's books), and moderator Shaun Griffin. The panel began with an audio recording of Carruth, in his sonorous baritone voice reading his poem "The Impossible Indispensability of the Ars Poetica." Each of the panelists in turn then talked a little about the importance of Hayden Carruth's poetry, his long difficult life (especially his struggles to make enough of a living to survive from week to week, and his struggle to publish and to keep his books in print in the face of academic and critical indifference); each of the panelists read a few of Carruth's poems.I found myself following along with the poems sometimes in a copy of Carruth's book Toward the Distant Islands (see the list of books at the bottom of this article); I don't usually do that during poetry readings, though I found it useful in keeping pace with Carruth's sometimes tangled and insistent poems of philosophical argument. One of the things I like to do at writing events (such as AWP) is to seek out the work of writers I'm not deeply familiar with, to try to see what I may have missed; I'm glad I went to the panel on Hayden Carruth's work.
The panel Hyphenated Poets: Ethnic American Writing Against Type featured electrifying readings by poets Barbara Jane Reyes, Cathy Park Hong, and Solmaz Sharif. (A fourth scheduled panelist, Farid Matuk, wasn't able to attend; the panel moderator was Kaveh Bassiri.) While I found some of the poetry difficult at first (sometimes made of broken sentences, sometimes code-switching rapidly from one way of speaking to another), I didn't find the occasional difficulty or unfamiliarity alienating; I generally found that the poems spoke to me through the initial difficulty I found in them; I was usually able to reach past my own unfamiliarity with what the poems were doing. For some time I've been reading poet Barbara Jane Reyes's blog, and was pleased that we were able to meet face to face at the event.
Other AWP events I attended and enjoyed were the panel "Writing Inside Out: Authors' Day Jobs;" the panel "Native American Poetics: The Fourth Wave" which featured poet friends Erika Wurth and Marianne Broyles;and a reading by several poets to celebrate the 25th year of the magazine Image, which included poet friend Gina Franco.
There were a couple of other events I had hoped to get to, and as usual at these things, my energies started to fade toward late afternoon, and my concentration started to wander, and I had to retreat and rest.
When I wasn't at readings and panel events, I spent quite a bit of time wandering the giant bookfair, which filled a couple of huge exhibit halls and a connecting space between them. I had a chance to chat with John Crawford, publisher of West End Press; also with poet friend Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, publisher of Mongrel Empire Press; Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press; Gary Willkie of Anthology Books in Portland, Oregon, who was filling in briefly at a bookfair table for someone else; I also had the pleasure of meeting again poet Pamela Uschuk, and poet Natalia Treviño (her book is listed in the book list below). * (Note regarding the above link to Anthology Books: although the web address says "acequiabooks" -- the previous name of the bookstore when they were in Albuquerque -- the webpage itself now shows their new name Anthology Books.) Also talked a bit with M. Scott Douglass, editor and publisher of Main Street Rag.
Most of the AWP events, and the bookfair, were at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. I found the maps of the convention center fairly confusing, with floors layered one atop another at apparently impossible angles to each other. I found it a little easier to find my way around just searching on foot, though still almost became lost once or twice. The building seemed to have been designed randomly, with escalators to some floors but not others. In one instance, an escalator from the 4th floor went up one level to the 6th floor, with no mention of a 5th floor. There were a couple of sets of rooms with identical room numbers in different parts of the convention center; some were being used and some weren't, and to find the ones that were being used it was necessary to follow a twisting passage to another wing of the building with its own set of conflicting escalators. There was yet another set of event rooms, and the only way I found to get there was to go down an escalator that could be reached only by making your way through the entire bookfair to an access doorway at the back of the largest exhibit hall. One runs into such things sometimes in cities that are built on hills.
There were also some AWP events that took place in meeting rooms at the Seattle Sheraton a block from the convention center. Occasionally I saw people running madly up or down multiple escalators, trying desperately to get from one event to another during the 15 minute interval between events. Reminded me of trying to get to class on time in high school...
There were plenty of places to just sit between events, which I appreciated, especially as the days eased toward late afternoon. The weather in Seattle was beautifully mild; high temps around 60 degrees the first couple of days with plenty of sun, then a little cooler after than with grayer skies (though the highs were still in the low 50's or early 40's). It rained a little on Saturday. Here in Minneapolis the temperature was something like minus 10 the day I flew to Seattle, and was around 10 above zero when I got back on Sunday; the Seattle weather felt like spring. Here and there, if I looked in the right direction, a glimpse of mountains or water; seagulls floating above the downtown Seattle roofs.
As I've done each of the previous years I've been to the AWP conference, I brought home too many books from the bookfair. Here's a list of the items I found, all of which I recommend:
Life's Good, Brother by Nazim Hikmet, a novel (published originally in 1962) by the great Communist poet of Turkey, translated by Mutlu Konuk Blasing (Persea Books, 2013).
Sueño by Lorna Dee Cervantes, her most recent books of poems (Wings Press, 2013).
Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems by Hayden Carruth (Copper Canyon Press, 2006).
Lavando the Dirty Laundry, poems by Natalia Treviño (Mongrel Empire Press, 2014).
The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan, poems by a poet of China from the T'ang Dynasty period, translated by David Hinton (Archipelago Books, 2004).
Woman on the Terrace by Moon Chung-hee, poems by a present-day poet of South Korea, translated by Seong-kon Kim and Alec Gordon (White Pine Press, 2007).
4-Headed Woman, poems by Opal Palmer Adisa (Tía Chucha Press, 2013).
Engine Empire, poems by Cathy Park Hong (W. W. Norton, 2012).
Eye of Water, poems by Amber Flora Thomas (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005); I found this one on the Cave Canem table at the bookfair.
Poems of Love and Madness: Selected Translations by Carlos Reyes, a gathering of translations of various poets; includes the English translations and the Spanish originals (Lynx House Press, 2013).
M. Scott Douglass, published of Main Street Rag, also kindly gave me a copy of the Winter 2014 issue, after I realized that my subscription had lapsed. * Thanks, Scott -- I'll be sending a renewal shortly.
** I haven't inserted weblinks for the items in the book list here. All of the publishers have websites -- I encourage you to go and find them online.
Next year the AWP conference will be here in Minneapolis the second week of April. Weather can be variable here that time of year. Bring a winter coat and shorts.
Friday, December 20, 2013
Review of my book online
A poem of mine is published in the same issue of 5_trope, here.
The 5_trope issue has a lot of other great writing and reading in it too. The Contents page for the current issue is here -- go check it out.
Friday, December 13, 2013
Secret Traffic gives a good sense of the range of Roy's work, his deep compassion at the daily suffering of the people of this world, his audacious sense of humor, his somewhat incredulous outrage at the ignorance and corruption of those who perpetrate hurt on other people and at those who act in complicity, the open wound of his own and others' sorrow and loneliness. Another poet here in Minneapolis, Ivory Giles, said that Roy told him once, "You don't make poetry out of nothing. You make poetry out of everything."
At various times over the years, I took part in poetry writing and performing groups Roy had organized or helped organize. Many of his poems in Secret Traffic are familiar to me from hearing him read them at one time or another. Here's a little of a longer poem called "Scraping, Pushing and Pulling," about a job he had in a restaurant kitchen. (All of the poems quoted here are from the book Secret Traffic.)
His first day on the job the new manager:
caught the head line-cook in the pantry
with a seventeen-year-old waitress,
caught the pantryman loading a side of beef
in the trunk of his car,
caught a busboy polishing off a fifth of scotch,
fired him and had to catch him again when he took
his clothes off and was terrorizing customers
in the parking lot;
then caught a party of six trying to slip out
on a two-hundred-and-forty dollar check,
caught the cook's helper blowing his nose
in a batch of clam chowder,
caught the dishwashers sending silverware out
without sending it through the sterilizer,
caught the maintenance man and a waitress
smoking a joint in the storage room,
caught a hostess with a purse-full
of little creamers,
caught hell from the owners for upsetting all the help
and was fired.
Scraping, pushing and pulling at La Cafe de Costra Nostra.
Roy McBride was constantly observing the world, feeling the world through his own skin and through the lives of friends and family and strangers. He evokes people in his poems that I'll never forget. In the poem "Watergate," he tells about his grandmother Lurene, who "reads her Watchtower/ in the corner/ behind her bed" and who "forgets her cane/ ten times a day":
In her room
we sit and watch
images of America
in black and white.
THE CBS EVENING NEWS:
with Walter Cronkite in New York
and Robert Bell in Washington
and Marvin Kalb in Paris
and my grandmother in America.
One hundred thousand dollars
moves through Minnesota
moves across America
moves into Mexico
moves into Washington.
I wish I could just see
a hundred thousand dollars,
my grandmother of nobility
welfare, old age pension,
food stamps and poverty says.
I wish I had
a hundred thousand dollars,
my grandmother says
Roy wrote love poems that ached with yearning and loneliness, and, sometimes, that opened blossoming worlds of spring and sunlight. His poems move with a widely varying music. Sometimes the tone changes in great sudden leaps through the poem. Other times the tone and song flow with more subtle and gentle modulations. Here are lines from the poem "You Are Near":
You are near.
I can hear your breath (quick intake --
sigh through the leaves of my soul).
I am the gentle monster inside this dragon.
Ride this flesh.
Scratch behind my ears.
I will catch your tears in my fiery throat.
Holding you near.
Calling you dear.
My hear is red and blooming.
Listen to the church bells in my chest.
Roy McBride was African-American, and lived his early years in the segregated South. In his poems he touches often on the many large and essential questions about what it is and was to be African-American in the United States. Sometimes this comes up in his poems almost offhand, part of the background of a common day. Sometimes it comes forward into large clear view, central to the great wide world we all live in.
From the first section of the poem "Traffic," a poem Roy read often to audiences, frequently improvising, dancing with the words, pulling in events of the day and the hour:
I meet a woman walking
over on Third Avenue
by Fair Oaks Park.
It's around ten o'clock / dark
and she is so frightened it frightens me.
Should I stop / run away / say
I'm harmless, though big, black;
full of the same fantasies that
fuel the fire, fear, the tear.
She jogs away.
I slow down.
I want to crawl under the ground.
It's a pleasure to get back to my cell.
Away from this traffic traffic traffic traffic.
We have needed this book of poems for a long time. We have needed, and need, the poems of Roy McBride. Amid the hundred academic debates worming along from one year to the next in the drowsy catacombs of one English department or another, the poems of Roy McBride offer examples of the greatest possibilities we're capable of. I love this book.
The book Secret Traffic includes a DVD about Roy McBride, "A Poet Poets," produced in 2011 by Mike Hazard of the Center for International Education in St. Paul. I'm delighted that the publishers included the DVD -- I think it's necessary to get at least a little sample of Roy reading his poems out loud, in order to get a full sense of who he was and is as a poet.
I'll finish here with an excerpt from the poem "Soul Food," which recounts a visit Roy and his family made to relatives in the South in the 1950's, sometime not long after the racist murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. (Some basic information on the murder of Emmett Till is in the PBS American Experience website, here. There are also other online sources if you go and search.) "Soul Food" is one of the poems in the book that moved me most deeply.
we went to the store,
my father, mother, aunt and me.
My parents were nervous.
All the grownups
black and white
Let's get our groceries
and get back home!
Mama asked my aunt
if we needed some meal.
My aunt said, Yes!
I said, I know where it is!
and started running back
down the aisle
turning the corner
smashing into a display
of canned goods
all over the floor.
A white man came up,
I think he was the manager,
he shouted at me and raised up his arm,
but before he could hit me
Daddy grabbed his arm,
Go get in the car, boy!
is all I hear him say.
I went to the car.
They came out without the groceries.
We drove back to the quarters and went to the house.
It wasn't his fault, Mama said.
Daddy said, He shouldn't have been running
in that store!
Boy, you have done it this time, my aunt added in.
Grandfather cleaned his rifles,
his shot-gun and loaded them
stuck them behind the front and back doors.
all the kids
had to go to bed early.
I couldn't sleep
hearing their voices
talking low on the porch...
woke with a start
in the brightness of morning
packing the car...
And right after breakfast
with lots of hugs
and lots of tears
we started the long drive
with a shoebox full of cake
never discussing what happened
never discussing how it made us feel.
Thank you, Roy.