Wednesday, August 31, 2005


These are the living

The best book of poems I've read in the past year of so is The Stone of Language by Anya Achtenberg (published 2004 by West End Press, PO Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125). I first met Anya, and read her poems, in the early 1980's when she was living here in Minneapolis. I encountered her poems at a time in my life when, although I had not stopped writing poetry, I had for the most part stopped doing anything public with my poems. Anya Achtenberg was one of the poets whose work helped me to find a way for my poems to come back out into the world, to write poems that I felt might be capable of engaging with the larger world.
This, from the poem "4A, Brooklyn" in The Stone of Language:

Why is she here, this street, this number,
between seagulls and the roar of trash?
How far can she pedal, can she run,
before her breath, extinguished, rises
to her throat and will not go down
to the cave where it flowers?
What marked the spot, built her into
the brick, another piece that fit,
arm caught in a slot,
leg caught behind her, always
stepping back, the perfect dance
away from the ledge?
Passionately human poems of encounter with the psyches and textures of city life in the modern world, and of life in the greater world. Throughout Achtenberg's poetry runs a stubborn insistence on telling the truth, no matter how terrible. From the poem "Questions of War" (subtitled "1991"):

This time is all surgical, Baghdad
is a hotel room with two or three frightened voices
whispering in Standard American English
what they hear through the floor,
what they see through the window.
There is no tall uniform blowing the brains out
of a thin Vietnamese peasant
who kneels on the screen until he flies away
from the bursting stream of his brains,
there is no screaming mother running
with her burnt and burning child in her arms
away from the village which is renamed napalm.
With a quiet lyrical intensity, Anya Achtenberg's poem draw out and illuminate the essential experience of what it is to be a human being trying to know deeply, and be known by, other human beings, an other and others, through the frantic and explosive interference of late 20th and early 21st century life.

We are lying together and you are
the one who is searching inside me,
you are the one I am eating and drinking,
the one whose hands hold me up,
whose breath keeps me alive,
whose body works against me until it loses its fury,
whose throat lies in honey,
whose limbs are sculpted in the journey,
whose aching forehead falls into song only once
or twice, then into fever,
then into the ancient cave of shadow.

(From the poem "Elegy.")

The early 1980's in Minneapolis was a thriving place for poetry, particularly for poetry written from a politically conscious outlook. Among the remarkable poets and writers and publishers who lived and passed through here during those years (some of whom still live here) were Anya Achtenberg, Ruben Medina, Teresa Anderson, Roy McBride, Kevin O'Rourke, Ivory Giles; Jim Dochniak (poet, and publisher of Sez Magazine and Shadow Press); Meridel LeSueur, Tom McGrath, Timothy Young; John Crawford (publisher of West End Press), Kevin Fitzpatrick (poet and publisher of Lake Street Review), poet Bob Edwards who a few years later would begin publishing the great poetry magazine Pemmican; Jim Perlman (publisher of Holy Cow! Press), Dale Jacobson coming down periodically from East Grand Forks; Mike Hazard who was starting to produce and distribute videos about poets through his Center for International Education; Johnny Hazard, publishing his free handout 'zine of lethal political satire and commentary, the Heathen Science Monitor...

Among the highlights of those years was the annual Great Midwest Bookshow, a lively and audacious gathering of poets and writers and small press publishers, from the midwest and anywhere else they made the trek from. (I specifically recall Place of Herons Press from Texas, Copper Canyon Press from Port Townsend, Washington -- in those days they were still essentially a "small" press -- and a consortium of small press publishers from Maine. Among the featured poets reading at the first Bookshow I attended (in 1982) were Carolyn Forche (shortly after publication of The Country Between Us), Sharon Doubiago (shortly before publication of her epic poem Hard Country by West End Press, and Tom McGrath (McGrath and Doubiago did a reading together on the third day of the Bookshow). There was also a good panel discussion on People's Culture featuring (among others) Jim Dochniak, Fred Whitehead, and Meridel LeSueur as panelists.

It was during those times and in this place that I first met Anya Achtenberg and read, and heard, her poetry. From the poem "the women" in her first book, I Know What the Small Girl Knew (published 1983 by Holy Cow! Press, and still listed available in the publisher's backlist):
the women who bear children alone
the women who were never children
the women alone at the bus stop
the women on the night shift
the women pulled into cars

the women who die in childbirth
the women whose children die
the women who listen to sirens
the women who wait at windows
the women with men in prison
the women who must hide [...]
The poem, written in three parts, shifts direction in the second section:
the women in the suburbs
the women in the sauna
the women at the salon
the women at the spa
the women are swimming
the women are tanning
the women playing tennis
the women [...]
Shifting again in the third section toward a living and defiant conclusion:
the women who are not slaves
the women who led slaves to freedom [...]
the women who fight in the river
the women who do not serve
the women who can speak
the women who can love

the women
the women
the women

O! the women
I like to spend time with books of poems. With the best ones, the books and the poems that reach me the most profoundly, that speak with the greatest truth and clarity about the beauty and sorrow and tenderness and struggle of life in the real world, I'll carry the books with me, day after day, week after week, reading slowly, letting the poems work on me, letting them grow within me and shape the world around me. Much of the greatest poetry works best taken slowly, even when the message is urgent and compelling. After I started reading The Stone of Language last year, I carried the book with me for months.
I run after,
shouting whispering or singing.
I can never tell it
at the university or office,
but in the middle of long nights,
in my dreams of the carnival,
the breathless meals of lips and flesh,
the chase and the final death,
the prophecies that plague me,
they are there, their song is there.
In my empty palms
they twist around my lifeline, my heartline,
through the numbers of my marriages and children,
and in the dry empty space where my pulse beats,
volcanic, under threats of fire, flood, avalanche
and ferocious winds that keep the earth turning.
(From the poem " 'They are there, their song is there' " in The Stone of Language.)

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!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


From the barricades

The poet Anna Swir (or Swirszczynska) of Poland took part in the Resistance during the Warsaw uprising in 1944. The experience infuses all of her poetry in one way or another, whether or not the actual subject matter is the Second World War or the Resistance, and -- in a way -- also shapes the poetry she wrote during the 1930's when much of the world was pushing toward world war.

Her father was an artist, and she spent much of her early life growing up in the workshop where he painted. From the poem "I Am Eleven":

I love father's paintings.
They are my brothers and sisters, my only
comrades, in the workshop
cut off like the struggle of a madman.

When nobody is home
I pass my ink-stained finger
through the flame
of the candle.
I want to become a saint,
I want to measure up to father's paintings.
(In the book Talking to My Body, translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, Copper Canyon Press, 1996. Passages quoted from Swir's poems are from this book except where noted; most of the poems in the book were published in books by Swir several decades after the Second World War.)

As her poems matured, Swir wrote about her life and the world with an intensity and directness that make a sharp contrast with more tentative or academic attempts common in the literature of the twentieth century. From the poem "Woman Unborn":

Here is Romanticism, where I could have been a spinster,
Here is the Renaissance, where I would have been
an ugly and unloved wife of an evil husband,
The Middle Ages, where I would have carried water in a tavern.

I walk still farther,
what an echo,
my steps thump
through my minus life,
through the reverse of life.
In the poem "Goddess of Matriarchy" Swir describes a figure of vast power and beauty and wisdom, directly addressing the goddess who approaches the world of human beings:

like the eternal ice of Antarctica,
you will arrive
for the future must arrive.

You will arrive on your legs thick as power,
you, powerful
as a million years of fire
enclosed in a million years of ice.
And you will open your mouth
walled shut for a million years.
Included as an Appendix at the end of Talking to My Body is an interview between translators Nathan and Milosz, and here -- inserted in passing through the interview -- we find several of Anna Swir's poems and prose poems dealing directly and explicitly with her experiences during the Warsaw Uprising: the most powerful and riveting heart of her work.

In a short prose poem, Swir describes a truck rushing down a winter night street, carrying in the back prisoners, bound in barbwire, mouths covered shut with plaster, temporarily "clothed" in paper clothing: prisoners being taken to the concentration camps. She describes one of the soldiers guarding the prisoners, who offhandedly watches the buildings and windows the truck passes:

He is somewhat sleepy after yesterday's bout with drinking and probably for that reason he does not notice that on the first floor a windowpane flickered in the light of the moon. Someone noiselessly half-opens a window and, standing, makes a sign with his hand to those who ride to their death.

One of them sees him.
Swir's poems from her work in the Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising (where she was a volunteer nurse at an improvised field hospital) were gathered into a collection titled Building the Barricade, a translation of which was published in Poland in 1979; I've never come across a copy of the book. A few poems from Building the Barricade are included the anthology Postwar Polish Poetry edited by Czeslaw Milosz (the 1983 edition published by the University of California).

The often-used phrase "poetry of witness" might easily come to mind when one reads Anna Swir's poetry; but "witness" is inadequate to describe the power of Swir's poems, her relentless insistence on presenting the truth free of ornament and pretense. "Along a street swept clean of people," Swir writes (in the poem "It Smashes Barricades"), "a tank rolls firing." The poem (a bare eleven lines long) concludes:
Out of the gateway leaps a kid
a bottle of gasoline in his fist.
Along the street swept clean of people
he runs
at a crouch
at the tank.
(In Postwar Polish Poetry, cited above.)

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