Thursday, October 20, 2005


Where the world awakes

There are some poets I read often, whose work continues to speak to me and deepen my experience. There are others I read less often, at odd moments, for a perspective or sensibility they offer that I don't find elsewhere. One of the poets I read only occasionally, but who never disappoints, is Hart Crane.

Tom McGrath named Hart Crane as one of the 20th century poets whose presence McGrath felt in his own poems. Reading Crane, I can often hear the sea-sound and surging language that echo later in many of McGrath's poems.

And in the autumn drouth, whose burnished hands
With mineral wariness found out the stone
Whose prayers, forgotten, streamed the mesa sands?
He holds the twilight's dim perpetual throne.
(From "The Dance," in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, edited by Brom Weber, published by Doubleday, 1966. All passages quoted from Hart Crane here are from the above edition.)

Again and again when I read poems I listen for context. Sometimes their context when they were written, sometimes their context and relevance in the world now. Think of the Bushes and Cheneys and and Rumsfelds and Condoleeza Rices of the world, and the less publicized people who fund them, the pettiness and willful brutality, while reading the following lines from Crane's poem "Cape Hatteras":

The nasal whine of power whips a new universe...
Where spouting pillars spoor the evening sky,
Under the looming stacks of the gigantic power house
Stars prick the eye with sharp ammoniac proverbs,
New verities, new inklings in the velvet hummed
Of dynamos, where hearing's leash is strummed...
Power's script -- round, bobbin-bound, refined --
Is stropped to the slap of belts on booming spools, spurred
Into the bulging bouillon, harnessed jelly of the stars.
Towards what? The forked crash of split thunder parts
Our hearing momentwise; but fast in whirling armatures,
As bright as frogs' eyes, giggling in the girth
Of steely gizzards -- axle-bound, confined
In coiled precision, bunched in mutual glee
The bearings glint, -- O murmurless and shined
In oilrinsed circles of blind ecstasy!
Crane was born in 1899 (on July 21, the same day as Ernest Hemingway). His family was wealthy. During childhood he spent time in the Caribbean, on the Isle of Pines south of Cuba, where his grandfather had a fruit ranch. As he grew older, Crane's father, a hard-driving businessman in Cleveland, was outraged that his son was determined to write poetry. In 1932 Hart Crane ended his life by suicide, jumping off a ship in the Caribbean heading to New York.

I can't speak with any authority on the extent to which his being gay may have affected his relations with his family. Nor am I equipped to speculate on the reasons for his suicide. He published two books of poems during his lifetime, White Buildings and The Bridge, and he left behind at least an equal amount of uncollected and unpublished work.

In much of Crane's poetry, I hear a mixture of revulsion at the predatory commerce of modern empire, together with a fascination and attraction for the raw energy and gleaming trappings of industry and power. Crane's poetry at times depicts brilliantly the decaying corpse of early 20th century industrial capitalism, but for the most part remains stalled in time, does not move forward to articulate a vision of a living future.

To the white sand I may speak a name, fertile
Albeit in a stranger tongue. Tree names, flower names
Deliberate, gainsay death's brittle crypt. Meanwhile
The wind that knots itself in one great death --
Coils and withdraws. So syllables want breath.

But where is the Captain of this doubloon isle
Without a turnstile? Who but catchword crabs
Patrols the dry groins of the underbrush?
What man, or What
Is Commissioner of mildew throughout the ambushed senses?
His Carib mathematics web the eyes' baked lenses!
(From the poem "O Carib Isle!")

The writer Meridel LeSueur spoke often of the limits of of the bourgeois world outlook. The bourgeoisie, she said, conceive of the world in straight lines. They don't perceive that life moves in circles, in changing and renewing cycles, in which actions have consequences that may meet us down the road. The bourgeois world outlook sees only down a narrow tunnel, can conceive only of constant rape and plunder and death.

There are other possibilities. In a world in which change is possible, history can teach us if we will listen and learn. While it is necessary to perceive clearly the horror and destruction of the present; we can also reach beyond the present, toward a potential new world of sustaining life and beauty and resurgence.
Nancy Morejon, a poet of present-day Cuba (she was born in 1944), writes in one of her poems about her mother's childhood; the lines below are from the poem "Mother," in the selection Where the Island Sleeps Like a Wing translated by Kathleen Weaver (published 1985 in a bilingual edition by The Black Scholar Press):

What days, those days when she ran barefoot
over the whitewash of orphanages,
and didn't laugh
or even see the horizon.
She had no ivory-inlaid bedroom,
no drawing-room with wicker chairs,
and none of that hushed tropical stained glass.
My mother had the handkerchief and the song
to cradle my body's deepest faith,
and hold her head high,
banished queen --
She gave us her hands, like precious stones,
before the cold remains of the enemy.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


More recommended reading

Some more recent (more or less) items I've enjoyed reading:

Unfortunately, It Was Paradise by Mahmoud Darwish, translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein (University of California Press, 2003). A selection of poems by the most widely known contemporary Palestinian poet. Poems of stunning beauty and power. Includes a brief introduction, and a glossary of Arabic words and other terms that occur in the poems.

Little Stones At My Window by Mario Benedetti, translated by Charles D. Hatfield (Curbstone Press, 2003). A selection of fierce and tender poems by this remarkable poet of Uruguay, covering more than 50 years of work, much of it written in political exile from Uruguay during periods of military rule. Includes the original Spanish of the poems. Also has a useful introduction by the translator.

Maria Sabina: Selections edited by Jerome Rothenberg (University of California Press, 2003.) A rich intricate collection by and about a shaman poet of the Mazatec people in Mexico. Includes an ample selection of the chanted oral poetry Sabina uses during the healing ritual work she performs; and prose material by Henry Munn, Homero Aridjis, and other authors, relating various encounters with Sabina, and including an account of her life written by Alvaro Estrada as told to him by Sabina. The book also features poetry by several poets whose work has been touched in one way or another by Sabina's poetry and life, among them excerpts from Anne Waldman's "Fast Speaking Woman" which Waldman has acknowledged was inspired by and patterned on the poems of Maria Sabina. This is a wonderful, essential collection. Includes a short bibliography of related written and audio material.

Walker Woman and Shulamith, both by Julia Stein (both published 2002 by West End Press, P.O. Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125). Walker Woman journeys through the daily circumstances of urban life and political struggle in the modern world and in particular in Los Angeles where Stein lives: riots in South Central, the impossible overcrowding of classrooms, the death of her father, the vast danger and beauty of the earth, the beauty and intelligence of the people who work and live the life and work of the world. The poems in Shulamith explore the lives and histories of Jewish women, starting from the many biblical stories and tracing forward through the Holocaust and heroic resistance in Europe, and the relentless work of labor organizing in the United States through the 20th century, pulling together a personal and collective story that stubbornly insists on the truth. *** If you would like to know more about poet Julia Stein, you can also visit her weblog California Writer.

Down Wind, Down River by William Witherup (Published in 2000 by West End Press, P.O. Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125). Warm, gritty, tough poems full of the stark beauty of the land, particularly of the western United States, and bearing the sharp political edge that has characterized Witherup's poems since I first read them more than 30 years ago. The poems make rugged weather essential for life. *** More about William Witherup can be found at his web page, here.

Exile in My Homeland by Dale Jacobson (published 2005 by the print-on-demand publisher Author House). This one is just out -- a copy arrived in the mail last week. A booklength poem casting a many-layered narrative, partly historical, partly mythological in texture, illuminating the vast epic story of political oppression and resistance that shapes the world we live in. I plan to spend much time with this one.

The Ghost Openings by Sheryl Noethe (published 2000 by Grace Court Press, 375 Riverside Drive #5C, New York, NY 10025). Sheryl Noethe was one of the first poets whose work affected me, shaped my outlook on the world and my ideas about what poetry is and how to write it -- more than 30 years ago when we were in a poetry writing class in Minneapolis during the last year of high school. Her poems bear a gift of deep humanity and and hunger for knowledge of the world, the desire to cross the vast space that lies between each of us and the other people in our lives and in our world. All these years later, when I read Sheryl Noethe's poetry, it still speaks to me with the same essential intelligence, helping me to find, again, what poetry is and why we need it. *** Sheryl Noethe's web page is here; and here's a short interesting interview with her.

That's it for now. In future posts I'll talk in greater depth about some of the poets here, and will list more worthwhile reading. There's always more.

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