Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Now the miraculous children

I've mentioned poet Sharon Doubiago previously in this blog from time to time, a mention of a book or a link to writing of hers that's available online. I'll say here a little more in depth about her work. When people ask me who I like to read, Sharon Doubiago is one of the two poets I usually name first. (The other is Thomas McGrath; see here, here, and here.)

I first met Sharon in 1981, when she was in Minneapolis briefly to meet with John Crawford, publisher of West End Press, who was preparing to publish Doubiago's first book of poems, Hard Country. I went to a meeting at a local literary center to talk about possibly forming a labor union for freelance writers; it was one of a number of such meetings around the country, that eventually resulted in the formation of the National Writers Union. After the meeting, several of us went to hang out at a bar up the street. In the booth sat five of us: the legendary writer Meridel LeSueur; longtime poet friend Jim Dochniak (publisher of Shadow Press, publisher of one of my early books of poems); poet Anya Achtenberg; Sharon Doubiago; and me. Sharon and I said hello, she asked me if I was a writer, and I said yes, I'm a poet, and that was the first time I'd answered that question with a simple yes.

A little later in the evening Jim, Anya, Sharon and I were in the house of poet Sue Ann Martinson, then the publisher and editor of the poetry magazine Sing Heavenly Muse!; Sharon was staying in Sue Ann's house while she was in town. While Anya collated and stapled newsletters on the floor, talk bounced around the room, and at one point I asked Sharon if I could see some of her poems. She disappeared from the room for a minute, came back, and plopped in my lap the 300-page manuscript of the forthcoming Hard Country. I sat there and read the first ten or twelve poems, and sat back blown away and beautifully exhausted. Earlier both Jim and Anya had told me Sharon was the most amazing poet they'd ever read; Jim told me she was the next Walt Whitman. The were right. That wasn't even the half of it.

Sharon and I met again the following year when she was in Minneapolis for the weekend of the Great Midwest Bookshow, a small press book fair with many poet and writer readings and talking events. We began writing letters to each other after that, and have continued ever since. Periodically we've also been able to connect face to face; we've traveled together, have visited and stayed in each other's homes. She sent me manuscripts to read and comment on. She wrote the introduction to one of my early books of poems. I've sent her I don't know how many poems over the years. Her love and friendship have been beyond measure in my life.

Doubiago refers to her book Hard Country (West End Press, 1982; second edition 1999) as an epic poem. The book is, on the surface, a large collection of separate poems, though it's epic in every other sense. The core of the book is a narrative, partly an exterior travel account, partly interior landscapes, of traveling overland across the United States in the first half of 1976, and of traveling through the winds and fires of a collective psyche. Here are some lines from "Hard Country," the title poem of the collection:
The sun crosses over the heavens and sinks below the prairie.
I walk from room to room as I have done now for a hundred years,
and keep coming upon new faces that make me recall
the one I was born in. That was the winter
the snow came early and lay so deep and white
no one dared go into the open without the face
dark-painted against the sun. Sometimes the mirror
where the hall turns will show the same red shoulders,
the same long black hair rising and falling with the motion
of horses before me, with eagle feathers in every mane and tail,
and beyond, a wide extent of desolate prairie, over which
little parties of naked horsemen and rapidly passing,
who vanish then suddenly from sight, as if
diving into the earth.

I rarely come to this room without the acrid smell of him rising to me.
Many times I've thrown open all the windows to air the room.
I'll think he's gone. Then one day I'll climb the stairs to his door
and smell him in there and remember how I lay with him those nights
moving my mouth over his back.

Each night the sun slides out below the clouds
and lights a section of the rainbow that feels like solid
air around me when I lean back into my chair.
If I could tell you what I see in the light then when it strikes
or in the center of the tornado when it sets down,
or in the mirror in that unearthly moment, before the vacuum
swallows up everything from the past and the future, and they come...
Well, they come. Ghosts. All around me, as far across
the burning prairie as I can see.
Sharon Doubiago's next book of poems, Psyche Drives the Coast (Empty Bowl, 1990), gathers poems from a period of 12 years, mostly exploring the poet's life along the length of the U.S. west coast, and the life of the world at large. I've always felt that Doubiago's poetry is essentially mythological in character, creating and rebirthing myths and dreams into the now and future life of the world. Especially central in much of her poetry is the Eros and Psyche myth, a story of (among other things) the nature of knowledge and secrets and mystery in love.
Now the miraculous children
without fathers
come of age
fly through the swinging doors
to find their places
beneath the great canvasses,
every painting in this room
a fairy tale they grew on,
now break on, the nightmares
we run from to be here
to await together the stunned bus.
They know the great cycles of history
began with the rape of their mothers
by the child of a god disguised as a bird.
I have sat here so long
they think I'm a painted fantasy
the air between us wild with erect thunderheads,
warm winds, the horizon breaking lightning,
a storm that has come up from the tropics.
In my gown of molted feathers they can't tell
if I'm young or old, male or female,
an irresistible siren blown in from the South,
or a disgusting harpy, with my great talons,
my beak opening and closing without a sound,
a flapping scarecrow.
But when I let down my golden hair
they know the weeping maiden,
the augur:

I wait here every night for the bus.
Someday you will have to come.
There is no other way out of this life
though I could die, how many times
must I lose my seasons, all my children?
I sit here drunk with loss, how many times
I've come to this place
to look for thee.
(From the poem "Seagull" in Psyche Drives the Coast.)

In her book-length poem South America, Mi Hija (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), Sharon Doubiago tells of traveling with her teenage daughter to the Andes region of South American, through Colombia and Ecuador and Peru, culminating in a visit to the ancient city of Macchu Picchu (where they stayed for a night). Every time I read Doubiago's poetry I have the sense of massive geological energies released from the earth, a story and lyric of almost inconceivable power. Here are the opening lines of South America, Mi Hija:
Out the window, Colombia, out the window
the road beneath the window, the mountain village.
Out the window men on white donkeys, women in a crooked door.
Inside the window, back of the bus
I carry our daughter down the Cordilleras, the Andes.
Out the window armed farmers
carry marijuana to market.

Out the window Bogotá, city of theves.
Out the window, the guns, the revolutionaries,
the lust of the police. Inside the window
the civil war, you must take turns, it is whispered,
to sleep. Everyone has had someone

Out the window the bus descends the continent.
Inside the bus the driver pilots an airplane.
We fly faster than last night's news warning of travel, we fly
over deep green valleys, mist-filled.
He sees around blind curves, he takes us over
flowering rock walls, landslides, a five-year-old boy
building an adobe brick house.
We fly past women washing clothes on a rock, we fly
above the clouds, above the road, how many days and nights
washed out to Quito, around and around
the Cordillera Centro, how many nights
over the fog, over the coffee plants, over the jungle, the swollen rivers,
the cows and clouds streaming down the mountain side, the dark sky
of the East, over the grass huts perched on the abyss, over
these people who never traverse
to the outside. If we go slow,
it is explained,
the bandits will stop us.

Inside I dream I carry your daughter down the world.
Outside the girl Cartagena holds the Spanish explorers
at the continent's northern door
five days after they kill her people.
When they overcome her
every man rapes her
first. Inside our bodies
four hundred years of America.
Sharon Doubiago has also published two short story collections: The Book of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (Graywolf Press, 1988), and El Niño (Lost Roads Publishers, 1989); both collections are rich with autobiographical texture, however much the stories may or may not be actual autobiography. Two of her more recent books of poems are Body and Soul (Cedar Hill Publications, 2000 -- at the page at the above link, scroll down till you come to the book) and Love on the Streets: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

She has lived her life in almost constant motion, and has said often (and sometimes in bio notes) that she considers the entire west coast her home, "from Los Angeles to Port Townsend, from Tijuana to Vancouver." For periods of time she's lived out of her van, other times housesitting in the homes of friends, working as a waitress, teaching from time to time when the chance has come along. Over the years, it's been common to receive a letter from her from, say, Mendocino, California (where she lived for a number of years in the astonishing community of writers and artists there -- see the poem "Seagull," excerpted above), then a month or two later a postcard from Laramie, Wyoming, or the Bahamas, or Oregon. In January 1991 she was in Paris for the birth of her grandson, the night the U.S. military began bombing Baghdad at the beginning of the first war in Iraq.
The last day with you. We dance again. Your head
when I pull you up lays on my shoulder. Like
getting on for the ride, where's
your ticket, Senor? How you fold
into me, how deep your sorrow, how with relief
you accept my condolences, let me
dance you. Oh what grieves you, Monsieur?
Oh why do you sob?

Stanza means room. Italian. I dance you
across the ancient room, your head
propped on the ceiling of earth's largest room
to the window again. Today
is warm. Your first warm day. Your crying stops. I pray always
to bring you to this window to watch the people
cross down there as they have at this crossroads
centuries. Rue de Varenne and Rue du Bac. Planned
the most famous assassinations
in the basement. Always I feel you watching
as learning how to be here. That you
are a stranger, that you've come whole, but wholly a stranger.
That you must learn like a prison system the way, the only
permissible way. The way you hang your head
onto my heart as if remembering before the pain
of entering here. The clouds of glory. As if
your flesh, hair, limbs, body and soul of a boy
must grow from all that's ever been
and all that is. War. The assassinated. As if
in that seat when I put you back your loud sigh
is the resigning to the long, longest road ahead.
(From the poem "Twelve Weeks" in Doubiago's book Body and Soul.)

If you're not previously familiar with Sharon Doubiago's work, the first book mentioned above, Hard Country, might be a good place to start. As the passages I've quoted might suggest, her poems open large roads. Anywhere you start will take you somewhere that will change your life.

Doubiago's most recent book is My Father's Love, Volume 1 (Wild Ocean Press, 2009), a dazzling and devastating remembrance and revealing of her childhood and family history going back generations, and dealing centrally with her father's sexual molestation of her when she was a child. In Sharon Doubiago's website are links to excerpts from the book available online (at the above link, click on the link for the book on the right-hand side of the page). Volume 2 of My Father's Love is forthcoming from the same publisher.

What a beautiful, generous, exhilarating post, Lyle. I picked up one of Doubiago's books many years ago, and I must have been in a bad reading space (I do get into those; suddenly everything I read seems thin or watery) because it didn't strike me as particularly powerful. Now—well, if there were a crow stalking by I'd have to eat it. I clearly owe it to myself to revisit her. Hard Country, here I come....
I love this post, too. Thanks!
I'll e-mail you but I wanted to comment. I told you I was very touched by your essay on my work sometime back and this essay is wonderful. I met Sharon a long time ago, I think right after Hard Country was published-- she read here. It is good to have years pass and to read someone this way, without the interference of other voices... I hope this works to post... Jenne' Andrews
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