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.)

Liked the comparisons between these two poets. Thanks.
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