On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
I’ve begun re-reading the work of David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and artist and champion of the sacred and the crafted (what he called the extra-utile). Jones was a proponent of sacramental poetics, among the few really able to behold art as efficacious sign—the symbol that is also what it symbolizes, or a window upon that other world that art allows to show forth.
In a year when overdue attention has at last fallen on the dark legacy of Canadian residential schools for indigenous children and, to a lesser extent, the equally disturbing history of off-reservation boarding schools in the United States, there’s another, far happier moment for Native nations that should not pass unnoticed: 2021 has been a good year for Native writers.
The four parts of my book echo the progression of Virgil’s The Georgics: Book I—agrarian labor like tilling the soil, weather signs and war omens; Book II on olive groves vs. vineyards (“The Vituperation of the Vines”), birth of trees; Book III on animal husbandry (veterinary care, procreation), cycles of life in nature; and finally, Book IV, a “bio-mythography” of bees. I also explore Virgil’s questions in The Georgics: What is the ultimate path to happiness? What is pleasure? What is a good life?
I read Gitanjali again in a Mount Desert Island cottage on a chilly June day, nursing a summer cold but keeping the window open to the sea air and the sound of the water. I am a mother to another woman’s orphans now, I am a wife to their father. I can hear the children on the lawn and discern their voices one-by-one, unseen but mapped on the green as they play.
I’m sixty-seven. I was twenty-eight when I heard Stephen Dunn read “Men at 40” by Donald Justice in a gymnasium at New Jersey’s Artist Teachers Institute. A year later I would be Justice’s student. But for now I was Stephen’s, all Stephen’s.
For this post, I want to hang out with “Song of the Open Road.” I wonder why. I think because I’m moved by its all-embracing spirit, and I like where the poem takes me. Or maybe because, with COVID keeping me cooped up at home for so long, I need some expansiveness. And I need a celebration of the fresh air that I can finally breathe.
It confuses me that nature writing should be considered as some sort of specialized niche. The earth is really our grand subject. But, like Wordsworth, I seem to be as interested in the quirky people I run across as I am in the natural places in which I find them.
The triadic relationship between poet, poem, and muse comes without guarantee. A passing observation or merest whisper of a phrase can lead to a successful end, while an idea that seems to emerge like Athena from Zeus’s forehead may soon wither and die. Most poets take each inspiration as it comes, following the scent of what’s given in search of a surprising and fitting wholeness.
I have no idea what poetry means to my father. In their modest apartment, he and my mother have a little shelf where they keep copies of my books. Along with my books, they have copies of Stephen Dunn’s Local Time and Donald Justice’s Selected Poems. Stephen and Don were my teachers. I don’t know if either of my parents have read any of their poems.
That is the connection between Stevens and Nguyen. Nothing. Both writers are geniuses at revealing the revolutionary power of Nothing, Stevens for the literary, Nguyen for the political imagination. Nothing like nothing releases both imaginations from the dead end of habit and convention.
George and I met in English lit. grad school over a half-century ago. Those were (literally) heady days: our laughing conversation was a back-and-forth ping pong with each other’s metaphors; our first argument was over symbolism in Moby Dick. So when we married about a year later, it truly was (to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase) a “marriage of true minds.”
In my part of the country, spring is trying to spring forth. The fresh young greens outside move me to go (inside) to my computer, where I have a folder chock-full of favorite poems. I scroll through for poems that speak in some way or other about springtime: especially the blossoming of flowers or the emergence of green shoots or the headiness of spring scents.
Worthwhile poems and heartfelt prayers share family resemblances. Both, for instance, run up against the very limits of what language can do, halting there as they must, but pointing (we hope) beyond themselves toward those deepest longings, fears, and sorrows we’re unable to articulate.
I’m not dreaming. I’m reading. I don’t expect to touch the sky with my two hands. What a relief to read this now, this fragment of Sappho, translated by Jim Powell. A human body can only do what a human body can do. I don’t expect: how about working with that as a practice when I lie down at night and in the morning when—if—I rise again?
Rereading Zagajewski’s poems now, I’m struck by a particular vision often running through them. Of course, any poet who published fifteen collections over forty-seven years will have engaged a variety of themes, moods, moments. But in my current reading of Zagajewski, what’s standing out for me is what I’ll call his “poems of possibility.”
“Start with a woman watching a man / catching his daughter.” But find you see with the eyes of the child: yourself, small as a gangly loaf of bread, gripped and flung and caught at the ribs by your father, whose boyish face pumps up and down in the summer yard where he, years ago, once played.
I’ve long enjoyed what are referred to as “meta” art forms: works that take their very medium as their subject. So, for instance, there’s fiction about fiction (say, Borges’s stories) painting about painting (like Jackson Pollack’s drip-action canvasses), film about film (Fellini’s 8 1/2 comes first to mind).
Are there other ways of responding to what’s unknown? Might we even train ourselves to recognize the human mind’s habit of perceiving as threats those things, human and more than human, that do not conform to the world as we know it?
I’ve never really understood why Georg Trakl talks about foreheads so much. I mean, you can imagine the word coming up once in a poem for some reason or other. I can even see that there is something fascinating about foreheads in that they are both of and not of the face. That’s to say, you don’t generally get a face without a forehead.