Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Night words

Sitting up late, listening to the rain. Books of poems scattered around me. The blather of news from the Bush administration. The mother, joined by a growing number of supporters, holding vigil outside the president cowboy ranch in Texas, demanding an opportunity to ask him a few questions he'd like to avoid answering. Another news item, about a National Guard unit in Minnesota ordered to active duty, they'll have a few months of training and prep in the states and then will go to Iraq. The news story calls it the largest troop deployment from Minnesota since the Second World War.

One of the books in front of me is Another Spring, Darkness by Anuradha Mahapatra, translated by Carolyne Wright with Paramita Banerjee and Jyotirmoy Datta (Calyx Books, 1996). Mahapatra is a woman originally from a small village in Bengal, more recently living in Kalkata (Calcutta). From her poem "City Nocturne":

There's nothing to be said for middle class life;
there is deep-seated meaningless fatigue
yet no end to hypocrisy; the burning ground's
first crackling of fire is not
their writing. Through the hole in the poster on the wall,
on the madwoman's rotting back, you can see
the starred nocturnal tracery of the city.
The uncalled-for insult never quite blows itself out.
The rain grows heavier for a little bit, then eases off. Quiet tapping outside, bright and wet under the streetlight at the end of the back alley. A warm slightly sticky night. A small electric fan blows at me, a larger one blows hot dense air out the back window.

Another one here is the Selected Poems of Miroslav Holub published by Penguin Books in 1967, translated by Ian Milner and George Theiner, long out of print. I originally read a library copy of it back in the '70's, and a few years later came across a copy in a tiny used book store in Minneapolis. Holub was a scientist -- a pathologist and immunologist -- as well as a poet, and his scientific work helps give his poems a quirky vocabulary like almost no other poet I've read.

Above the fields the wires hissed like iguanas.
A car's horn faded on the air
like a voice from Greek tragedy.
Behind the walls the guard paced back and forth.
Hares were sniffing the distant down.
Wood rotted in the ground.
The Avars were winning.
Trees cracked at the joints.
The wind came and veered off.
They kissed.
(From the poem "Night at the Observatory.")

The rain letting up now. Quiet outside. Weather forecasts promising a break in the heat later this week. Earlier this summer a Freedom of Information lawsuit that somebody had filed forced the Defense Department to release video of the burials of some troops killed in Iraq. The Defense Department has been reluctant to release such video footage, worried that people seeing it in the United States might find it disturbing. They apparently don't realize that quite a few of us -- here in the United States, and elsewhere, not least of all in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are disturbed already. That sound of the pavement rattling under our feet is the sound of disturbance. (Disturbing the peace is a misdemeanor; disturbing the war is a felony.)

I open another book, The Ink Dark Moon, poems of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani (Vintage Books, 1990), to a random page, and find this tanka by Izumi Shikibu:

No different, really--
a summer moth's
visible burning
and this body,
transformed by love.
Sitting up late, a rainy night in a city near the center of a continent, the night hissing with the engines of conquest, the poisonous air of empire. I look through the Selected Poems of Thomas McGrath (published 1988 by Copper Canyon Press). McGrath's tough weathered poems, poems of granite and forged iron, poems of warm blood and warm breath. "They stand there," he writes, "weeping in the stained daylight./ Nothing can stop them now from reaching the end of their youth." The poem is "Fresco: Departure for an Imperialist War." It was one of the poems I read at the public memorial for Tom in Minneapolis in the fall of 1990, a month or so after he died. The poem concludes:

Somewhere prayer; somewhere orders and papers.
Somewhere the poor are gathering illegal arms.

Meanwhile they are there on that very platform.
The train sails silently toward them out of American sleep,

And at last the two are arrived at the very moment of departure.
He goes toward death and she toward loneliness.

Weeping, their arms embrace the only country they love.
I met poet Zoe Anglesey in 1986 and we became quick friends. In the years after that, we sent letters back and forth, talked now and then on the phone (she was living in New York, I was in Minneapolis). We saw each other face to face briefly a couple of times after our first meeting, when she passed through town on a cross-country move to Seattle in the early 90's, and then a couple of years later when she came through here again moving back to New York.

We sent each other poems, and whatever else we were writing. I sent her copies of many, most, of the poems I wrote during the years we knew each other. Zoe was active in the New York poetry scene, doing frequent readings, hosting reading series. She also spent much time in jazz clubs and wrote much about jazz. What always stayed with me as the indelible impression of Zoe was her boundless optimism, her boundless energy, her capacity to find her way through any crisis or difficulty, no matter how overwhelming. Her spirit was never broken. She always embraced possibility.

In February 2003 she died, of lung cancer which had been diagnosed a little over a year before that. (She never smoked; when I talked with her shortly after she was diagnosed, she speculated briefly about the possible environmental toxins that might have caused it.) Zoe died a little more than a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She died on February 12, 2003, the date Laura Bush had scheduled the poetry event at the White House which was subsequently cancelled after Poets Against the War gathered thousands of anti-war poems, and announced plans to deliver them to the White House.

Zoe Anglesey edited several poetry anthologies which were published, and published one book of her own poems, Something More Than Force: Poems for Guatemala 1971-1982 (Adastra Press in Easthampton, Mass.) This in addition to some number of unpublished manuscripts of her own poems and of translations of various poets of Central America.

One of the poems in Something More Than Force, "For Nora Paiz," begins with a brief note explaining that in 1967, during a period of guerrilla warfare against a repressive government in Guatemala, Nora Paiz and poet Otto Rene Castillo were captured by the military, tortured for four days, and then burned to death. The poem "For Nora Paiz" concludes:
We look beyond the probings of blood and ash
nourishing the clenched roots of a charred sierra tree,

Tree they bound you to, tied by your own hair--
your mother said, moving in the wind.

Though the press ignored your death
and officials waved off the inquiries

With the word "disappeared,"
their ban of you fails.

We announce
you are with us!

The poetry quotes here...Lyle, you have a gift for finding words that are not only beautifully writ, but so very moving.
Thanks, Pris.
I was reading the responses from Sheehan's blog and while many were supportive, the ones that were not frightened me. They were so aggressive and crazy. One Sgt. from the army writes something to the effect of, "slap you up side the head"--it's disturbing and scary.

yes, some gorgeous prose betwen these excerpts, enjoyed this post.
i always go back to trakl when the war pushes hard into the living room and so have been reading him a lately...and my old mentor, bruce weigl, who pulls the beautiful even from a pile of shit...there is some work coming out of this war...brian turner's forthcoming book, _here, bullet_ i think will be a good read. i've seen some of the work and find it interesting, esp. since he doesn't always seem to real reveal a significant 'statement' as to how supportive he is or isn't as a soldier, depsite the stark and grim realities that his images convey...
Jenni, thanks for your comments. Yeah, the extreme political divide between people opposing the war and people who support what the govenment does no matter what is beyond belief sometimes. Much like it was during the Vietnam war, only this time it hasn't taken nearly as long for the political oppositions to become so sharp.

Ruth, I like Georg Trakl's poems too -- not sure if I'd name him among my most favorite, but I do like to read him. The book Here, Bullet sounds interesting, I might seek it out and have a look.
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