Friday, November 28, 2008


Book on U.S. war crimes in Vietnam

Interested readers may want to check out The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, by Deborah Nelson (Basic Books, 2008).

I have not yet read the book myself; according to the website for the book, and a review in the Chicago Reader, in 2005 author Nelson (former Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times) and her collaborator, military historian Nicholas Turse, began delving into a Pentagon archive of investigations and evidence of atrocities committed by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam war. The records -- some 9000 pages of evidence -- were kept secret, and were only recently declassified by the government after more than 30 years.

Again according to the book website and the Chicago Reader review, Nelson and Turse found preponderant evidence that atrocities by the U.S. military were widespread and common throughout the war; the Pentagon archive contained "hundreds of sworn statements from soldiers and veterans who committed or witnessed rapes, torture, murders, massacres, and other illegal acts." (Quoting here from a short excerpt from the book, in the book website at the first link above.)

During the years of the war in Vietnam, and in the many years since, persistent reports have surfaced and circulated repeatedly of all manner of war crimes carried out by the U.S. military. Occasionally the reports made their way into corporate news media; more typically, they came to light (over and over again) in smaller news outlets -- radical newspapers and magazines, small community-funded radio stations, and in the countless public speaking and teaching and learning events that have gone on unabated in all places during the continuing resistance to the fog of military-industrial noise and silence. And Nelson and Turse make the same point -- that the evidence has been available, however scattered and fragmentary, over the past several decades, to anyone with a will to pay attention to it.

I plan to track down the The War Behind Me and read it.

Author Deborah Nelson is currently traveling and reading from the book, and has readings scheduled in early December in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Seattle; see the Tours link at the book website at the first link above.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Veiled Lineage

Received an e-mail from poet and artist friend Terry Hauptman, announcing an upcoming art exhibit featuring her work together with the work of sculptor Jerry Geier, at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington, Vermont.

Quoting from the announcement for the exhibit: "Terry Hauptman's Songline Scrolls feature colorful multi-cultural processions on wall-sized scrolls of paper. These scrolls are a metaphor for life, representing a continual unfolding revelation of change and celebration." And: "Jerry Geier's assembly of sculptures, or totems, feature carved faces of wood or clay derived from indigenous and modern societies. The totems are hollowed and act as functional drums."

The exhibit opens December 19, 2008 and will run through February 14, 2009.

Further information on the exhibit, and on the work of these two wonderful artists, can be found at the website of the Firehouse Gallery, and in the websites of Terry Hauptman and Jerry Geier. I encourage you to go and have a look.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast

I first read Dale Jacobson sometime in the 1970's when I found his long poem Dakota Incantations, a book (or "chapbook") published by Territorial Press (book imprint of Dacotah Territory magazine) in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 1973. At some point in the years after that we met, and have become friends and enthusiastic colleagues in the time since then. Dale's work is characteristically large in scope, with densely worked imagery built in strata layers, effecting a kind of narrative partly explicit and exterior, partly interior and impressionistic, creating a cinematic movement through the poems.

This fall I got my hands on Dale Jacobson's most recent book, Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast, a substantial selection of his shorter poems, published 2008 by Red Dragonfly Press. Though perhaps smaller in scope in one sense, the poems in this collection carry the same epic and invocational impulses, and the same rich imagery and textures, and Jacobson's longer works. It's a great pleasure to have this generous selection of poems by a poet whose work I've long found essential reading.

Jacobson plainly embraces explicitly left-leaning political content in his poems, as well as in essays and articles and literary criticism he's written over the years. From the poem "George W. Bush Reads the Future" (all quoted passages here are from Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast):
The ruler of all past empires
gazes down the long centuries
where dust does nothing
but settle, each mote joins arms,
a community of silence --

and all the time in the world
waits along with all the dead,
those of the future intersecting
with those of the past as the bomber lifts:

and who will ascend the sky
upon a cross of dead dreams
to put out the stars while below
wells of oil like lanterns blaze?
In his poems Jacobson has found a way to connect with a voice evocative of ancient places, a world of fires in the night, smoldering ashes along riverbanks, the slow sibilant movement of water, the communal rising of people intent on preserving life in the world. He grew up and continues to live in western Minnesota, a landscape of prairie and scattered forest and lakes and rivers and variable weather, which often forms an essential ground underlying his poems.
I saw the burned-out leaves set sail
down the rivers--yes, no news here:
how nothing quite worked out
as it should, how none seemed to know
themselves, how the war came and some
never returned, and how the young
high noon summer sun like a splendid
plaza voyaged long since into a dimming
those red vaults of glorious
sunsets where worn-out armies
murdered by armies disappear while
our footsteps walked out of play
with no place to go but work.

No news
in these arguments with our fate
except that the waste of time was
no accident or chance--this destiny
for the many, a cold war when
the bloody one was done, the sky
a horizon of fear--and endurance
a way of life for the poor, casualties
a nation could ignore of the other war.

The country roads fade into exhausted
nostalgias though the ditches remain
wild, and rabbits run in sleek long
darkness with eyes crazed by lunar light.
(From the poem "Beneath This Government...")

The poems in Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast are grouped in four sections: the first section, made up of the most obviously political poems (though again conscious political content is an undercurrent through most of his work); the section section, poems about or addressed to specific people, poets and writers and artists and others who have touched Jacobson's life and thought in some way; the third section, of poems broadly of love and the celebration of nature; and the final section, loosely made up of poems of mystery and (in some sense) philosophical exploration. From the poem "For Hunter Gray," in the second section of the book:
Jay Gould, who wanted Fridays black,
said "labor is a commodity,"
no news to Marx. But another kind
of work that shapes the world round
made the banker shudder!--
and though the nation still rushes
toward those nuggets of '49
one minute to the intersection
of dream and despair, blissfully
oblivious how late it is
into the senile century just born--who,
asks the miner deep among mineral,
mines the sky not for gold but its light?

America is a myth but something is older.
In those wild lands west where space
is ancient and terrain is free though
land be owned, shale rings with time
when rock talks to rock, and a long
catechism of echoes ricochets through
ravines indifferent if anyone hears
and no mountain will move for word or will.
When I read Dale Jacobson's poetry, among the poets of whom I sometimes hear echoes are, first of all, Thomas McGrath (with whom Jacobson studied and enjoyed a long close friendship); Pablo Neruda certainly; also William Blake's longer poems of ecstatic vision; and, sometimes, some of the poems of W. B. Yeats. I'm not intending here to speak of "influence," which is an elusive thing and manifests as much in a poet's intentions and instinctive impulses as in the actual poems. I'm talking here just of moments of resonance I pick up in reading Jacobson's poems, how they come to my ear.
Blue horses shift in the misty horizon...
Wisps of cloud escape from their manes.
Then they leap!--and no one sees
those hooves strike the edge of earth
and spark the burning fuel of dawn, all
the long-lived dreams of night on fire! [...]

[...] Into that dawn you step, into the world
that leaves its communal sleep behind.
I hear your secret name--in a bird's song
just beyond the open door--two musical
notes: calling the colors of the world from
their hiding places, and the butterflies
that trace the variations of the breeze.
(From the poem "Aubade.")

Here and there the voice in Jacobson's poems grows soft, quiet, almost delicate in its touch. The poem "Song of the Rose" incants a gentle lyricism, a gift offered to a passing stranger, or to a visiting friend, for the journey on the long road ahead:
I will sing to you this rose
when the moon blackens dew
in the solitary night theater
dark as the voice is quiet,

this rose I sing to you dark
reposed against the shadow its own,
which has no name for thunder,
filled with nothing but itself,

this rose of the moon I sing,
rose of dew that is part shadow,
shadowy rose circling its shadow,
a hummingbird fallen from moon,

i will sing and sing and sing
this rose holy as the dusty spaces,
song of the shadow only shadow,
song of the rose only moon.
For a full and true sense of the range and powers of Dale Jacobson's poetry, I also recommend his longer works. Three of his book-length poems that are currently available are A Walk by the River (Red Dragonfly Press, 2004), Factories and Cities (AuthorHouse, 2003, print-on-demand), and Exile in My Homeland (AuthorTree, 2006, print-on-demand). I recommend any and all of them.
Days collapse like shelters and the furniture
of the world changes and its renters who pay
with their labor are evicted and leave mysteriously.
Even so, everyone sings within themselves
as atoms sing, communal vibration inside
the great net of time and space that reaches
to the end of each day shifting its shapes
and though trees like tortured weather-dancers
flail, silence is a still lake suspended on itself.

Tonight a punctual eternity glistens in the dew.
The moonlight sleeps upon a leaf skating the tar
road, its slight grating edges sliding toward
no destination as I walk. And I fall within myself
like a torn leaf into a well and I hear each root
drinking dark waters. I hear the hollowness
spun from the wings of chaff over the prairie.
(From the poem "Fundamental.")

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Ritsos: Alpha Beta Gamma

For a while now poet Scott King has been posting, in his blog HINTS, his translations of the 20th century Greek poet Yannis Ritsos.

A particularly powerful one Scott posted recently is "Alpha Beta Gamma" (the title in Greek is actually the three Greek letters, the first three letters of the Greek alphabet).

A few lines from Scott's translation:

(When we arrived by ship,
twisted-in among our bundles and suspicions,
we read them from on deck,
under the curses of the police, we read them
that quiet morning in July,
in the salty air with its odor of rigani and thyme
there was no way of knowing what those three white letters would
come to mean.)

The full translated poem is at the link in the second paragraph above.

The main page of Scott's blog, with many other translations of poems by Yannis Ritsos, is a the link in the first paragraph above.

Scott King is a fine poet in his own right as well, and is also the publisher of Red Dragonfly Press. A list of some of his own books of poems and other published works is here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Veterans for Peace; Kurt Vonnegut article

In observance of Veterans' Day (originally designated Armistice Day, the date fighting ended in 1918 at the end of the First World War), here's a link to the website of Veterans for Peace.

And, a link to an article by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from May 2003, titled "Strange Weather Lately," adapted from a talk he gave in April of that year for the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Kurt Vonnegut was born on this date, November 11, in 1922.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


Pollen of endless pines

I first read, and read about, poet Takamura Kōtarō (1883-1956) in Sam Hamill's book Bashō's Ghost, Hamill's account of living and traveling in Japan in 1988, shortly after the book came out in 1989. Hamill quotes just one of Kōtarō's poems, and a few lines from a couple of others, but even that brief sample was like nothing I'd read anywhere before. In the bibilography at the end of Bashō's Ghost Hamill lists a couple of books of translations of Kōtarō's poems, which I've never tracked down; the only other work I've seen by Kōtarō since then has been a few poems in a couple of anthologies. Until now.

The Chieko Poems by Takamura Kōtarō, translated by John G. Peters (Green Integer Press, 2007), brings together in a single collection the poems that form the heart of Kōtarō's work: the many poems he wrote over the course of his life to Nagamuna Chieko, the artist and feminist who was his wife. Kōtarō and Chieko had strong ideas about marriage based on love (rather than traditional arranged marriages), and the equality of men and women (sharing housework, and Chieko kept her own art studio), in the fairly conservative time and place they lived when they were married in 1914. They appear to have made a happy life together, if often in relative poverty.

Look, a July night moon
sick with fever in a poplar forest.
The faint floating fragrance of cyclamen
sobs on your silent lips.
Woods, roads, grasses, distant streets
writhe in senseless sorrow,
heaving faint white sighs.
A young couple holding hands and walking side by side
tread on black earth.
An invisible demon drains sweet sake.
The echo of the last train rumbling on earth
resembles the mocking of human fate.
(From the poem "Heart of a Night," in The Chieko Poems, from which all the quoted passages here are taken. Most of the poems in the collection have dates noted for them; this one is from 1912.)

Kōtarō started out writing traditional Japanese haiku and tanka, though he became dissatisfied, feeling that he wanted to write poems that were closer to direct speech in their diction and flow. Kotaro was a sculptor as well as a poet, and in 1906 he traveled to study sculpture in New York, London and Paris, and the experience strongly influenced the direction of his life. He often made a living (or a little bit of a living) selling translations of European literary works. He began writing free verse poetry, one of the first Japanese poets of major reputation to do so.

Chieko provided consummate help to Kōtarō in his work; he apparently showed his poems to her constantly, and found her attention to them invaluable. "In Chieko," Sam Hamill writes of Kōtarō in Bashō's Ghost, "he found Nature, he found, he believed, his oracle."

You will open your black eyes, my love,
stretch out your arms like a child,
rejoice in the morning light,
and smile at the small birds' voices.
Thinking like this,
an unbearable force moves me.
I beat my white blanket
and sing a hymn to love.
When it's winter morning
my heart stirs joyfully,
shouts aloud
and thinks of a clean strong life.
Invisible gold dust drifts
in a blue-amber sky.
(From the poem "A Winter Morning Awakens," from 1912.)

I love how in his poems Kōtarō pulls every kind of element in, whatever image or observation holds his attention, one line to the next, so that many of his poems build into constellations of astonishing moments of elevated life. His poems work the way thought and the senses do. From the poem "Same Life Same Kind" (from 1928):

--A praying mantis sharpens its sickles on the clothes line.
--A fly-catching spider does a triple jump.
--A hanging towel plays on its own.
--A parcel falls with a crash.
--A clock naps.
--An iron kettle also naps.
--A rose mallow lolls like a tongue.
--A small earthquake shakes.
Accompanied by cicadas,
above this group of same life same kind,
a great orb of fire shines down
brilliant and headlong over the meridian.
In the early 1930's, Chieko began to develop signs of schizophrenia. She attempted suicide in 1932, and her condition continued to worsen over the next several years; she often became violent toward Kōtarō and their neighbors. Kōtarō tried to care for Chieko as best he could, but ultimately was unable to adequately, and he had her committed to a hospital, where she remained until she died, of tuberculosis, in 1938. The poems of the later half of Kōtarō's life are filled with the sorrow and heartbreak, and occasional transcendence, he experienced following Chieko's long illness and death.

Chieko, mad, no longer speaks,
only exchanges signs with plovers and blue-winged magpies.
Along the range of hilly windbreaks
the pollen of endless pines flows yellow,
and Kujūkuri Beach grows hazy in the clear windy sky.
Chieko's yukata appears and disappears among the pines.
Truffles grow in the white sand.
Gathering them
I follow in Chieko's wake.
(From the poem "Chieko Riding the Wind," from 1935. And from the poem "Chieko Playing Among the Plovers," from 1937):
On abandoned Kujūkuri Beach
Chieko plays in the sand.
Countless friends call her name
chii, chii, chii, chii, chii--
Leaving little footprints in the sand
the plovers draw near her.
Chieko, who always talks to herself,
raises both hands and talks back
chii chii chii--
The plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Gathering in flight, the plovers call to her
chii, chii, chii, chii, chii--
She has given up the business of being human
and already gone beyond the natural world.
Chieko herself seems to have had lucid moments, during her illness, when she understood something of what was happening to her. Kōtarō's poems to her, about her, are acts of an unrelenting search for sense and humanity in a world, small and large, slipping toward the brink of losing itself. From the poem "Two of the Foothills" (1938):

My half-mad wife smooths then sits on the grass,
leaning heavily on my arm,
and weeping like a little girl who can't stop:
--"Soon I'll fall apart."
Demonic fate assaults sanity and steals her away,
an inescapable parting of her soul.
That irresistible premonition:
--"Soon I'll fall apart."
The mountain wind cools my hands bathed in tears.
I say nothing and gaze at the figure of my wife
as she clings to me
looking back for the last time from the brink of sanity.
In the years following Chieko's death, Kōtarō's views on culture and politics became narrower and more reactionary. During the Second World War he wrote terrible nationalistic poetry in support of the war effort; after the war ended he was strongly condemed in Japan for having so fervently supported it. He lived the last years of his life in a small house in the countryside; the house has been preserved as a historical site in Japan, and there is a small museum nearby devoted to Takamura Kōtarō and his work.

You longed so for a lemon
on your sad, white, bright deathbed.
Your pretty teeth crunched
the lemon you took from my hands.
An aroma the color of topaz arose.
Those few drops from heaven
suddenly brought back your mind.
Your blue-bright eyes smiled dimly. [...]
[...]All of life's love
leaned into an instant,
and then once

as you did long ago on a mountaintop,
you drew a deep breath,
and your engine stopped.
Today in the shadow of cherry blossoms
before your photograph
I place a cool, bright lemon.
(From the poem "Lemon Dirge," from 1939, not long after Chieko's death. In a footnote, translator Peters notes that Chieko's eyes were brown, not blue, but that Kōtarō says blue here as a metaphor for their clarity at that moment.)

Translator John G. Peters includes an informative introduction, sketching Kōtarō's life and overall work, and gives footnotes to a few of the poems. The book includes the original Japanese side by side with the English translations.

Sam Hamill's book Bashō's Ghost was published in 1989 by Broken Moon Press, and appears to be out of print, though if I'm mistaken about this please feel free to correct me.

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