Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Albuquerque Cultural Conference 2007

I plan to attend and participate in the Albuquerque Cultural Conference taking place Labor Day weekend this year.

From the conference website (see link below): "We call upon organizers, writers and artists, journalists, teachers, architects and dreamers to join us in planning a new society based on mutual respect, alternative education, and democratic expression. ...We will have panels and workshops focusing on working class culture; alternative education, investigative journalism; Southwest Arts and culture; fine arts, architecure, music and drama; prison writing, small press publication; and creating a people's almanac."

See the conference website for more information and details (click on the "Dreaming Big" link to get to the main page). The itinerary is still being updated, further info may be posted in the website in the near future.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


The wind in the eaves

From time to time I'll find a poem I really like by a poet whose work in general doesn't move me much. An example is Philip Levine's poem "Spanish Lesson" in his book Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press, 1968).

We look down into a garden
of spines as the evening gathers
in the shadows of the new wall.
The blank stone terrace has no rail,
and I feel I could walk in air.
"Rosemary, cactus, sweet-basil. . ."
It is night, and he is naming
the gems of his captive garden
like Ophelia or like the God
he no longer allows.
The first time I read the poem, I was immediately drawn in. The poem evokes the green of the garden, the silence and tension of the night and the air, by oblique hints, the terrace with no rail, the lightness of the body that might step off and float or fly. I think right away of the many night poems of Lorca. (Although Lorca lived in southern Spain, and the place Levine talks about here is in Barcelona, in the northeast; this from an essay Levine wrote separately, published in his prose book The Bread of Time, published 2001 by University of Michigan Press.)

The poem bears a dedication, "To Juan R. and his father, with Machado at the end." In 1939 in the last months of the Spanish Civil War, poet Antonio Machado was among the streams of refugees pouring over Spain's northern border into France, to escape the impending victory of the right-wing military takeover of Spain. Machado made it across the border, though he didn't live long after that. The fascist regime headed by General Francisco Franco remained in power for more than 30 years, until shortly after Franco's death in 1972; it was in power when Philip Levine and his family traveled to Spain and lived in Barcelona for a year in the 1960's.

The man who gave Levine Spanish lessons was a native of the Catalonia region in northeastern Spain. During the time of the fascist government he could have been arrested for speaking his native Catalan dialect. What does it mean to offer lessons in a language you're required by law to speak? "We sit and resume the lesson," writes Levine in the poem, "but it won't/go."

The wind is catching in the eaves,
and the garden bangs in his ears,
and beyond the garden the lost wars
and the lost poets, and the names
of the defeats blessed by saints
at the Ebro, the Llobregat,
the Guadalquivir.
In the section of The Bread of Time that deals with Levine's time in Spain, he tells about a small shop near his house in Barcelona that sold tobacco, paper, pens, and other items. In the shop he noticed a sign offering Spanish lessons. The teacher turned out to be the owner of the shop. Eventually, Levine's teacher came to trust him enough to talk, a little, about his politics: he had been a supporter of the elected government of Spain during the Civil War, and was an opponent of the fascist regime. For saying this he could also have been arrested. "His brows," Levine writes in the poem,

are like twin, stiff arches above
his eyes, but he is not surprised--
nothing in himself is surprised--
and the jaw's latent movement
is without fear, and the shadows
along the jaw are without fear.
This is a poem I come back to from time to time, to feel what I can of the moment of nerve and desire and clear focus of the life and world Levine writes about here.

A poet whose work I've read and liked much over the years is Lorna Dee Cervantes. Her poem "For Virginia Chavez" in her early book Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981) is in many respects a very different kind of poem from the poem by Philip Levine above, however Cervantes' poem speaks to me, I think, in a similar way. Here again I feel immediately pulled in to engage with the presence and life of another person.

It was never in the planning,
in the life we thought
we'd live together, two fast
women living cheek to cheek,
still tasting the dog's
breath of boys in our testy
new awakening.
We were never the way
they had it planned.
Their wordless tongues we stole
and tasted the power
that comes of that.
The voice here is quieter, more intimate, the landscape is more interior and builds more gradually. In Cervantes' poems I feel a driving insistence toward saying what the poet perceives to be true, no matter how difficult or forbidden.

[...] We could utter
the rules, mark the lines

and cross them ourselves--we two
women using our fists, we thought,
our wits, our tunnels. They were such
dumb hunks of warm fish
swimming inside us,
but this was love,
we knew, love, and that was all
we were ever offered.
One of the essential responsibilities of a poet is to tell the truth, to the degree the poet can perceive and understand it, however complicated or variable or painful or unwieldy it might be. Truth generally includes facts although it is not limited to facts, and is not limited to the mere recording or reporting of facts.

In the still house
your mother left you,
when the men were gone
and the television droned
into test patterns, with our cups
of your mother's whiskey
balances between the brown thighs
creeping out of our shorts, I read
you the poems of Lord Byron, Donne,
the Brownings: all about love,
explaining the words
before realizing that you knew
all that the kicks in your belly
had to teach you.
Lorna Dee Cervantes' poem "For Virginia Chavez" and Philip Levine's poem "Spanish Lesson" both offer questions, about learning, about language, about reading, about the history carried in a life lived, about truth and how one comes to perceive and understand truth. These are two of the poems I come back to, to remind myself again how I want to write poems, and why.
In the years that separate,
in the tongues that divide
and conquer, in the love
that was a language
in itself, you never spoke,
never regret. Even
that last morning
I saw you with blood
in your eyes, blood
on your mouth, the blood
pushing out of you
in purple blossoms.

He did this.
When I woke, the kids
were gone. They told me
I'll never get them back.

With our arms holding
each other's waists, we walked
the waking streets
back to your empty flat,
ignoring the horns and catcalls
behind us, ignoring what
the years had brought between us:
my diploma and the bare bulb
that always lit your bookless room.
(From "For Virginia Chavez" by Lorna Dee Cervantes.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


The earth takes it softly

On the eve of the National Festival of Glaring Rockets and Bursting Bombs, it's a good time to read Kenneth Patchen.

Kenneth Patchen was born in 1911 and grew up in Ohio, doing factory work in his early years. He became interested in literature early; a poem of his was published in the New York Times in 1932. During his life he wrote more than 40 books of poetry, prose, and other writing. For some thirty years a spinal ailment kept him in almost constant pain, and he was bedridden for the last thirteen years of his life. In his later years he did many paintings with poems painted into them, boldly colorful images stunning in their innocence.

Innocence is a quality that infuses much of his poetry, and an often raucous humor, along with a quiet sadness and, sometimes, a public voice, politically radical and angry, almost a prophetic quality similar somewhat to William Blake.
Therefore the constant powers do not lessen;
Nor is the property of the spirit scattered
On the cold hills of these events.
Through what is heavy into what is only light,
Man accumulates his original mastery
--Which is to be one with that gentle substance
Out of which the flowers take breath.

That which is given in birth
Is taken to purer beginnings.
The combats of this world
Rise only upward [...]
The sources of nature are not concerned
In peoples, or in battlefields; nor are they mindful
Of the intensity with which man extinguishes his kind.
He who can give light to the hidden
May alone speak of victories.
(From the poem "The Climate of War" in Patchen's Selected Poems, published ca. 1957 by New Directions, from which all quoted passages here are taken.)

During the 1930's Patchen's work was somewhat associated with the Proletarian literature movement; much of his work of those years bears a tough quality, ground-in and industrial. From an untitled poem with the first line "THE FIGURE MOTIONED WITH ITS MANGLED HAND [...]":
Join the world and see the army
The slime is quiet tonight, along the Jersey coast
The chippies discuss Democracy in awed tones
Breathes there a heel with man so dead...
Shoot the liquid fire to Johnnie, boy
With every rendezvous-with-death we are giving away
An autographed photo of J.P. Morgan taken in the frontline trenches

They took him down stone steps
To a cellar thick with rats.
The guard gave him a cigarette
And slapped it out of his mouth.
Moral. Don't ever knock off a cop.
Ethel, looking like a movie queen,
Descended on his cell in a mink coat.
When they fitted the black cap over his head
He knew that he'd never have another chance to be president.
Another poet who comes to mind when I read Kenneth Patchen is Kenneth Fearing; in Fearing I find the same denunciatory rising notes, the sharp accusing aria. Patchen also wrote some sublimely beautiful love poems, glorious in their simplicity; here he reminds me somewhat of Bill Knott, or maybe of a handful of the poems of e.e. cummings (although in Patchen's poems I feel a more iron weight anchoring the poems that I don't find in cummings much; cummings in his poems tended to idealize, where in Patchen's poems I feel an actual human being responding with another human being).
Exaggerate the green blood in grass;
The music of leaves scraping space;

Multiply the stillness by one sound;
By one syllable of your name...

And all that is little is soon giant,
All that is rare grows in common beauty

To rest with my mouth on your mouth
As somewhere a star falls

And the earth takes it softly, in natural love...
Exactly as we take each other... and go to sleep.
(From the poem "Fall of the Evening Star.)

What would Bush or Cheney or Condoleeza Rice make of poetry like this? Where is the place in them that can be touched the way Patchen knew how to touch? Where is the voice in them that could say, or dream, these things?

There is a webpage devoted to Kenneth Patchen in the Academy of American Poets website, here. I also found a Kenneth Patchen Home Page online, here; it gives many links to online materal by and about Patchen, and some bibliography to other sources; I haven't checked the links in detail. And I found a webpage with samples of Patchen's beautiful painted and silkscreened poems, here.

Kenneth Patchen looked out into the world with sorrow and wonder, with fury and tenderness, and he spoke. He left us his poems. They are lanterns that light our days, and stars that fill our nights.
O the lions of fire shall awake
And the valleys steam with their fury

Because you are sick with the dirt of your money
Because you are pigs rooting in the swill of your war
Because you are mean and sly and full of the pus of your pious murder [...]

O the lions of fire
Wait in the crawling shadows of your world
And their terrible eyes are watching you
(From the poem "The Lions of Fire Shall Have Their Hunting.")

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?