Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Sharon Doubiago, Lorna Dee Cervantes

A couple of pieces of writing online that I found especially powerful and moving:

Sharon Doubiago is one of the poets whose work has been most important to me since I first read her poems some 25 years ago. Two chapters from Sharon Doubiago's memoir of her childhood, My Father's Love, are published in the online literary magazine ensemble jourine: hybrid writing by women. In the two chapters, Doubiago gives an unflinching and devastating account of having been raped by her father at the age of 7, and the immediate aftermath.

To read the chapters from Doubiago's memoir, go to this page; click on the "chapbook" link below the photo; then in the next screen, scroll all the way down and click on "download pdf file" near the bottom of the page. That will bring up the memoir chapters.

Much other excellent writing is in ensemble jourine as well. The main page of the magazine is here.

Lorna Dee Cervantes recently posted a passionate and forceful essay in her blog, giving some ideas about Chicano/Chicana poetry, touching along the way on the essential connection of poetry with radical political conscioiusness and activism, the importance of various poets in her own growth as a poet, and giving a brief account of the brutal murder of her mother. The essay exudes fire and sadness throughout. It's posted here.

The main page of Lorna Dee Cervantes' blog is here.

Sharon Doubiago's books of poems include Hard Country (West End Press), South America, Mi Hija (University of Pittsburgh Press), and Body and Soul (Cedar Hill Books--scroll down the page until you come to the listing for Doubiago's book). She is also the author of two books of short stories, The Book of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (Graywolf Press), and En Nino (Lost Roads Press).

Books of poems by Lorna Dee Cervantes include Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press), From the Cables of Genocide: Poems of Love and Anger (Arte Publico Press), and Drive: The First Quartet (Wings Press).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


The weight of dreams

The first poet I knew personally whose work and ideas affected me profoundly was Sheryl Noethe. We were in a Poetry and Songwriting class in 1971-72, the last year of high school for each of us. The class (part of the Urban Arts Program), which included students from high schools and junior highs met weekday mornings in a large old house in south Minneapolis. Each morning we would do writing exercises offered by teachers Wally Kennedy and Gary Isensee, and read to each other what we'd written.

Here are some lines from Noethe's "Poem for Mary Karr," in her book The Descent of Heaven Over the Lake (New Rivers Press, 1984):
Let's go back to the beach together
somewhat sober, too hot to touch
without blistering. Let us go back
and dip into the water from a wooden
boat, our heads shaved, skin oiled,
gathering sponges and fans to sell along the road.

We could go back to the bar as strangers,
our hair tucked under our hats. You could
turn down the drink I'd send you, shaking
your head and turning away.
Let us go back to the beach and the bar
and my house together. We could just lay
exhausted upon the sheets, making no wrinkles,
no signs, simply the talcum of your hair
leaving its scent on the pillow. We'll
leave behind our silk shirts and mysteries
and walk back down to the water.
From the first poems I heard her read, in the quiet of the poetry class, I found myself incited by Noethe's freedom and abandon, the easy directness and warm sensuality of her work. There are many ways to write poetry. Sheryl Noethe's way of writing was a way I wanted to learn about.
These hycinths tremble and explode
in the troubled air. Their thin force
spills like a stain against the unmoving
day. I look across the bridge.

I have no heart. The water that I pour
into my hands stays very still.
(From the poem "The Descent of Heaven Over the Lake," in the book of the same title.)

Noethe has travelled widely, and has lived in a range of places. During the time we knew each other years ago, often in conversation she would mention offhand something that happened when she was in Mexico, or Oklahoma, or somewhere else, and worlds would open up. Noethe is one of those instinctive storytellers who bring you under their spell with their first words.

I awoke in Texas and pulled aside the curtain.
I looked out onto the songless flats and felt
my life grinding to a halt. I let loose of the
drape and thought about places where it snows
for weeks, where the night
is white and lacelike, opening with
dazzling contours like a silent host.

My days are like the narrow dance of a dog
along a fence. Meaning is pulled from beneath me
like a trick with tablecloth and plates.
I have these memories. It's like
licking at pictures of food in magazines.

(From the poem "Still Life" in The Descent of Heaven Over the Lake.)

Such an astonishing transition in the above lines: " white and lacelike, opening with / dazzling contours like a silent host." -- the ghostly floating beauty of it, followed immediately in the next stanza by "My days are like the narrow dance of a dog / along a fence." I love Noethe's subtle and glorious powers of alchemy. She conjures and reality takes shape in her poems. From her poem "The Weight of Dreams" (in The Descent of Heaven Over the Lake):
You dream that you are handsome and it's snowing.
You hold up a child to the window, and it's like
the two of you are inside a glass ball, a miniature
landscape that you shake and small flakes swirl in water.

But you are captive to a larger sphere; the ridiculous.
You take aimless walks in the rose garden and receive
letters from across the world, the world where others
live with grace, whose foreheads do not swell with sleep
and dreams, stampedes and thunder. The weight of dreams
presses your head farther into the pillow. Your neck
bends like a stem. Your voice rises in thin steam.
It's an odd comparison at first, but a poet I think of in whose poetry I find an affinity with Sheryl Noethe's work is Jack Hirschman, longtime poet of militant vocal joyous left-wing politics and current Poet Laureate of San Francisco. In much of Hirschman's poetry I find the same warmth and humanity, the same passionate face-to-face engagement, the same sensual physicality, the keen sense of a human being speaking directly to another human being, telling an essential story. From Hirschman's poem "Mother" in his book Front Lines (City Lights Books, 2002):
We are not in this world
a long time ago
it happened it was over:
the world the war the world war.
I took you by the hand
through it,
tiniest hand, tiniest star.
Why should I weep now now
that you have entered the darkness?
Many like me are around you.
Our ether is without end.
Should we never speak again,
you shall write our conversation.
Should my voice fall short of your heart
(but that is impossible,
you're still such a child,
I'm weeping at a window),
other voices will lift mine
and carry it to the center
of your breathing.
In her more recent book of poems The Ghost Openings (Grace Court Press, 2000), Noethe persists and expands her grappling with transformations and revealings of the psyche and the world. In the poem "Antimatter," with which the book opens, she races through ideas and questions about the character of physical reality and our place in it. The poem concludes:
Is it everything I am not? Does it lurk in a particle garden?
Why has it kept itself from us until now?
Can I compare it to the loss of a love?

Could it be the soup of ghosts?
Does it run hot and cold?
Is it for sale?

Should we compare it to death?
Should we fear it?
Should we fear anything?
One day in 1972, several of us were riding the bus (a regular city bus, not a school bus) back from the poetry class to our "regular" schools for conventional classes for the rest of the day. Sheryl was sitting with her notebook open, a stenographer's notebook, with the spiral binding at the top. She was writing a poem, intensely absorbed in it, and at one point as she was writing, the bus swayed slightly, causing an elderly man to lose his balance momentarily as he was walking toward the exit, before catching himself. Sheryl saw this, and at that point in her poem she wrote a line beginning "An old man stumbles on the bus..."

I wanted to write with that kind of immediacy and presence, that immediate response to what was happening in front of me. A notebook is, in a sense, a superficial thing -- language being highly portable -- though in a way also organic to the writing process. I'd been writing in larger size notebooks spiral bound on the left side. Sometime not long after that morning on the bus, I switched to steno notebooks, the kind Sheryl had been writing in that day. After trying it for a little while, I found the steno notebooks more portable, more compact, easier to write with in the middle of busy activity. I still use them for writing poems.
I see him in the faces of transient men.
I see him in the fearful eyes of boys.
I see him in my eyelids and muscles.
I understand he is almost entirely alone.
(From the poem "The Loneliness of My Brother" in The Ghost Openings.)

I'm not sure I would have persisted at writing poetry if I hadn't known Sheryl when I did. For this, and for great friendship at a delicate time in my life and the life of the world, I offer, however inadequate, my thanks.

Sheryl Noethe has a webpage, here, with ordering info for The Ghost Openings, and a brief bio.

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