Sunday, September 16, 2012
A fierce and relentless music
Naomi Replansky was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York; she began writing poetry as early as the age of 10, and was published in Poetry magazine when she was 16. She was active in the Young Communist League in her teens and twenties. The Collected Poems includes no biographical note; the little bit I know of her life and work is through her friendship with poet Thomas McGrath and the "Marsh Street Irregulars" (poets who gathered around McGrath during the years he was in Los Angeles in the 1950's and early 1960's), and from scattered other sources
The Collected Poems is comprised of two previous books of poems; a section of new and previously uncollected poems; and a few of Replansky's translations of several poets (from German, French, Yiddish, and Greek). It includes poems written -- or completed -- over several decades, from the mid-1930's through 2011. (All of the poems are dated with the year or approximate time period of completion.) Replansky has famously commented that she writes slowly.
Many of Replansky's poems have an deceptively simple sing-song quality, echoes of the rhymes children sing when they're playing, though the voice throughout the poems is of someone who has lived and seen much in the world. From the poem "Ring Song," dated 1944 (in the Collected Poems, from which all of the quoted passages here are taken):
...When that joy is gone for good
I move the arms beneath the blood.
When my blood is running wild
I sew the clothing of a child.
When that child is never born
I lean my breast against a thorn.
When the thorn brings no reprieve
I rise and live, I rise and live.
No matter how apparently internalized the landscapes seem to be in Replansky's poems, I keep finding clear threads weaving out of the labyrinth into the large daylight world. Her poems often travel remarkable distances.
One night when it was midnight in the bed
I turned my head and said:
The red thread of error looped around my wrist
Leads far away.
I cannot now untwist
From childhood stampings, from streets fierce in play.
I stumbled through the thicket of the law,
I wrestled, losing, with a man of straw,
I reared at shadows and I walked on cloud.
And from the fugitive I took
The many-colored cloak
And wore it somberly, as though a shroud.
I loved when sure of loss
Then stood and cursed my loss
And swore myself star-crossed.
And though I found a word, though at my breast
I warmed a word, I still was like a bird
That broods the offspring of another's nest.
(From the poem "The Journey Here," dated 1945.)
Though Naomi Replansky's poems are not like those of any other poet I've read, I do find resemblances or resonances now and then in her poems that remind me of the work of various other poets. William Blake comes to mind right away; Replansky herself has named Blake as a poet important in her own work. Also Muriel Rukeyser, at times, in the great candor of expression (though the careful footsteps of Replansky's poems feel different to me from the surging music that run's through much of Rukeyser's work). Another poet I think of sometimes, reading Replansky, is Bertolt Brecht: in the dance and the play, in the rhetorical strength and the persistent questioning. (Replansky worked with Brecht for a little while, translating poems, when she spent some time in Los Angeles in the late 1940's.)
-- When you are tall, you who are small,
Then take this word home from me:
It's only your brow's honest sweat
Will grow the money-tree.
-- Now I am tall my sweat falls down,
And honest all the time,
But scant and silver in the yield,
And thin as the thinnest dime.
-- Look here, goodlooking, life is short,
Grab from it what you can.
It's arms apart, and wide the heart,
And catch a wealthy man.
-- It's arms apart, and wide the heart,
And who comes marching in
But some poor guy with a loving eye
To make my hunger twin.
-- All's double-cross, and yours the loss,
So why not share the loot?
O fling your coins in the field of chance
And watch the tree take root.
(From the poem "The Money-Tree," dated 1940.)
Not all of the landscapes in Replansky's poems are interior; not all of the poems read as moral allegory or choral movement. Sometimes Replansky looks steady and close-up at a plain literal thing going on in plain sight. Here are some lines from the poem "On the Street," dated New York City, Winter 1988:
Her cough won't stop. Her bruises will not heal.
She plans her battle-plans for the next meal.
And she is mocked by smells from restaurants
And wasted warmth that steams from subway vents.
No place to hide between concrete and sky:
Snow or knife or passerby
At any time can penetrate her rags.
Mumbling, she guards from thieves her plastic bags
Amd spreads her cardboard mattress for the night
In shallow doorways raw with sulphurous light.
What happens to the psyche when we live in the night of empire? What becomes of our search for true human connection in the daily machineworks of commodities and profits? How do we find our living bodies and touch, and speak? These are among the questions Naomi Replansky's poems ask and confront.
That heart so hesitant
but chief among the guests.
The riddles of that bird,
the answers of that lamp.
The not-so-silent fish
who bring word of the drowned.
The street whose every stone
cries Paris to the world.
They come, they bring their friends,
and each is eloquent.
Their voices enter me
through any door they find.
Now this loud day withdraws
to its allotted place
among the other days
and there it is become
a thing, and animal
that looks from liquid eyes,
speaks softly, if at all.
(From the poem "The Things, the Animals," dated 1953.)
Each day we wake and try to make out way through the fogs and mutterings of half-lives and half-truths, what passes for the official version of existence in the ruins of capital investment and imperial conquest. The desire for real life, the striving for unblurred truth, are part of the breath and pulse that the great majority of us in the world share with each other, however much our commonality may sometimes be obscured. Naomi Replansky's poems offer a fierce and relentless music, reaching toward the greater life toward which we aspire and for which we struggle.
Here, in the quick-changed scenes of the waning night,
Failure climbs over failure as if triumphant.
In a cold blue light, age bares its gums, and sickness
Mixes its poisons.
I try to return to the underwater canyons
And the salt creatures and their blind entwining,
But I drift above. My eyes remain wide open
Beneath closed lids.
I drift above. Till at last I am wholly awake
And streaming with light I stand on the shore of the day.
Now my dawn-phantoms
(From the poem "Waking in Alarm Before the Alarm," dated 1972.)
Naomi Replansky's blog (named simply Naomi Replansky) is here.