Author: Robert Reeves

Matthew Arnold (big surprise) is represented by “Dover Beach,” famously lampooned by Anthony Hecht in “The Dover Bitch” and less famously set to music by the Fugs.  Its sorrowful, loving, stiff upper lip is perfect for this vicious world, and the language is like a slap of sea air.

Dover Beach

 

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits;  on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone;  the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

 

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery;  we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

I also like Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse” but won’t copy it here.  It’s a bit deliberately antique, rambling and even more despairing in the face of cheery-dreary 19th-century optimism than “Dover Beach.”

After Arnold’s hard-bought Stoicism, the living poet John Ashbery seems like a gently sarcastic stand-up comic with mild autism.  I acquired a taste for him from my late friend Lee Wilson, who at least once made a Mad Lib of one of Ashbery’s poems and substituted his own words, claiming that what he cared about was the syntax.  I like everything by Ashbery in certain moods, but the poem included in Otros is the more than usually coherent “My Philosophy of Life,” which I first encountered on the CD anthology Poetry Speaks.  I’ll let you track it down and read or listen.

I love Margaret Atwood’s novels but hadn’t been impressed with her poetry till I came across her 1995 collection Morning in the Burned House.  Otros contains the poems from Part IV, a sweet but harrowing account of her father’s death.

Of all the poems I’ve written in my life, I currently retain a little fewer than 1100.  I grade them.  I was a teacher for half my life:  what do you expect?  Fifty-seven poems got an A.  I plan to post them here, in between other things, with some information about where and when each poem comes from and some (hopefully painless and infrequent) flights of amplification.

 

James

Written in Albuquerque, New Mexico, living on St. Cyr SE with Mike Wesley and working as a dishwasher at Bataan Hospital, in August 1972.  The first in a projected series of poems about the apostle James the Less:  I only wrote one other, which didn’t survive.  “Nothing is more lifeless than a fish’s eyes,” Father Tom Steele told me—but this fits my purposes:  ironic that such a change could come from something that reminds James of his unchanging life.  I’m sure the almost Anglo-Saxon cadences in this poem owe something to an immersion in Pound’s early verse (as well as Hopkins, who was a staple).  The “free maidens” are non-Jewish prostitutes.  If the other proper names don’t ring a bell, read your Bible.  The only A poem from my Christian days.  Published in my books Too Little to Kill and Wings of the Gray Moon.

 

James

 

To the side of my boat reared wings,

wings of the gray moon, rattled in the water;

a year’s drudge, a year’s braggery

rotted by moontides, like the tawny hill washed down,

troubled like the scribes’ robes, jasper-colored

where they walk the shalestones, the flown-cornered cloaks.

 

I kept station, our father’s frail moorings:

not to Nineveh, not such a choice,

but to and fro with the tiny sea.

On hinter-harbors, shrunken and glazed

under fire of dark spray, some who capsized

unanchored and shouting:  past the nets’ reach

trenching the waves, full with the mute prey.

Our crafts quaked in their course;  we wrote (we tried)

our names on the depth-darks.  Stooped with day

I dipped out weeds from ships built on sand,

pine-sap, pine-pitch, the planks for the trim keels;

thanks to the free maidens, undercover of Law fatted

for corpse-meal, coves of lewd pennies and rocks:  whore and sacrifice

fitted to the fix of suns and moons.  Cold

the Phoenician, passing shallow like surface-fish, gave

us rubies, clay dye-pots, change for Zebedee our father.

Saturday smoothed the old books.  Then

our Jephthah’s daughter reveled the grim woods:

then Jonah’s transport lay off the bows of our country

and we had never been to see such a fish, never hooked that catch.

 

Jonah’s fish stuck us at the font of Tiberias;

we flapped lungless.  We had been twining the poor nets;

pearls of weftsilver light washed in our toil,

sandwhite shimmered, the boatwales late-cleaned indicated

one braced on the shores, his voice unmasking silence,

hands unswerving like the fins of fish,

eyes immutable as fishes’ eyes.

I have a file in my Dropbox called Otros, containing most of my favorite poems by other people than me.  It’s currently 750 pages long.  That doesn’t mean there are 750 poems:  some really long things are included, like Eliot’s Four Quartets and Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”  I typed the whole document.  I like how copying poems helps me see new facets of them and is a way of meditative digestion compatible with an incorrigibly fidgety personality.  I also like rendering the orthography according to my own visual aesthetics, usually trying to improve typesetters’ misreadings of the authors’ intentions, but sometimes also correcting typos and grammatical errors by the authors.  How should I presume?  Well, it’s my private document.  I am not—for other than copyright reasons—going to make it available here.

During our five-year run of the local poetry zine Central Avenue, Dale Harris the editrix kindly referred to me as “production editor.”  I always thought “typist” was the accurate label.  I did attempt, once or twice in sixty issues, to cut-and-paste from people’s email submissions, but Microsoft Word (even pre-2007 when it introduced the ghastly Ribbon) was unfriendly to multiple formats in one document and would often do strange and irreparable things to the spacing.  Faster to type the whole thing myself.  I believe I committed less than five typos in the entire span.  I’m constantly amazed at the horrid mistakes that appear in professional poetry journals, including some attached to universities, including some that insist on email submissions and could’ve simply cut-and-pasted the poems.  It’s one of the reasons I quit submitting to publishers and went the self-publish route, and I still despair of anything getting better.  The frequency of “lay” for “lie” and “between you and I,” for instance, on otherwise intelligent t.v. shows convinces me that these badnesses are being routinely taught to literate adults and will soon become ordinary and correct English, so I shouldn’t get upset.  But I do.

Is it perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?

Most people know that poem;  some can recite it in whole or part.  Learning poetry by heart used to be part of an average good education.  I haven’t memorized even a small percentage of the poems in Otros, but I used to have some of the medium-length ones down—Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Swinburne’s “Anactoria,” Thomas’ “A Winter’s Tale,” Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”—and would say them under my breath on the hour’s walk to and from my job, or most memorably, during my daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer in 2009.  I think all the poems in my file are worth, if not memorizing, at least being studied, dwelt on, pored over and savored.  Notice I didn’t say “analyzed.”  I enjoy poetry criticism, close-reading in particular (when it doesn’t become inappropriately polemic), but it isn’t a talent I possess or want to possess.  I’ve reported earlier in this blog that it’s historically been hard for me even to discuss my own poems on that level, let alone anyone else’s.  It’s why I never became an English major.  (I did marry one.)  The kind of things I plan to say about the poems in Otros won’t really cross the line from appreciation into critique.  They won’t even be informed by my own experience, practice or standards as a poet all that much.  I’ll be a reader.  I want to get you reading more poetry, knowing more, if I can.  To that end, I’ll be raiding my little anthology, since I also want to influence your choice of which things to learn and know—although I’m quite open to being ignored and/or combatted.

Otros is alphabetical, so the first poet it contains happens to be my friend Tani Arness.  I’ve loved her ruminative, vivid and often subtly weird poetry for sixteen years, since I first heard it.  On a good day she can effortlessly write a better poem than I’ll ever be capable of.  Her voice is so strong and so hers, she doesn’t need to demand attention—the poems clear everything else out of the way.  She was one of the featured poets in the Tzimtzum anthology edited by Stewart Warren, a good place to see a selection of her better things.  The poem I want to share with you here is an older one which appeared in her MA thesis.  (Burqueños, you can check the book out of Zimmerman Library.)  It’s a dazzling example of how her thoughts become poems.

 

Summer

 

Danger should not be what compels you.

Peace sometimes comes from very near places.

Many hands have been placed on me, in prayer.

 

Blessings on the house with very little in it.

On the tree with few leaves and much sun.

My mother would never have given up such things.

 

White leaves fall in summer and it’s an omen

to stay put, don’t go anywhere.  (You won’t miss out. 

You won’t miss out.)  Send for reinforcement troops if you must. 

 

A bullfrog welcomes you by the stream.

There are folds upon folds of embroidered cloth.

Do not let untimely scare you.

 

There will be other tiny yellow flower buttons across the earth’s breasts.

This never was a song of traveling in or out.

The mountains, crushed and mixed with words.

 

I think I’ve found the words which are mine:

water folds, water folds,

midnight opens to days embroidered in white rain, staying.

 

My school decided to shut down my old personal Website–actually to shut down the entire category of Web addresses it belonged to. I’ll be moving a few things over here; the first is a memorial page to my friend Lee Wilson, with some of his art and writing. Whether or not you’ve ever been exposed to this odd and lovely soul, take a look:  Lee Wilson

I thought I’d list poets I’ve read this past year and what I thought about them.

First of all, people I take care to read every week:  T.S. Eliot (always, always, always), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne (those two probably can’t stand being next to each other, but oh well), James Wright (my favorite poet), Louise Gluck (my other favorite), James McMichael (you haven’t heard of him, but now you have: satisfaction guaranteed), Kay Ryan, and Robert Hass (my third favorite: I’ve been reading everything by him I can get my hands on, even – shudder – prose).

Second, poets I read and liked, either for the first time or otherwise:  Linda Hogan (not for the first time – or the last!), Rita Dove, Renee Gregorio, Norman Dubie, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toi Derricotte, C.K. Williams, Barbara Rockman, Hal Sirowitz (a sheer pleasure), Joan Logghe, Tess Gallagher, Philip Levine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Wilfred Owen, Richard Wright (who wrote some very fun haiku toward the end of his life), Peter Dale Scott (author of a trilogy of incredible book-length poems), Michael Ondaatje (Handwriting), and Gary Snyder.

Third, poets I wasn’t particularly impressed with, one way or the other.  You might like them:  Anna Moschovakis, Carol Muske-Dukes, W.D. Snodgrass, Muriel Rukeyser, Elana Bell, Forrest Gander.

Fourth, poets I’ll never read again.  I discourage you from reading them too: Delmore Schwartz (I know, I’m bucking a long bohemian tradition, but his poems are self-indulgent crap) and Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry (he’s one of the best poets ever, but these are simply abominable).

Last, I read some books by people I know personally:  Joe Bottone, Nate Maxson (whose over-the-top surrealist word-sperm makes me feel less fretted about the future of poetry), and of course my partner Sari’s delightful first book god-chaser.

Today I’m thankful that Barack Obama is still president.  He ain’t perfect, but he’s the first president I’ve both liked and trusted since the man who died this day 49 years ago.  Here’s a poem I wrote in 2003, to mark the 40th anniversary of his assassination:

 

for jack

 

dead young man

what’ve you meant to us

for the last 40 years

your death as old now

as you were then

 

a motorcade creeping

at the pace of nightmare

or handheld super8

a natty modellegged

woman in pink flailing

onto a convertible trunk

a wave interrupted by

a splattered skull

technicolors of struck crowd

incongruous smokepuffs

from a high fence

the single scowler in his

dingy zip jacket &

backcuffed hands who

didn’t test out as having

pulled a trigger that day

his own look of crumpling

with ferocious gaspains

when a form sweeps past him

in an underground garage

 

or we think of what we

think we know

men with cigars at distances

around shagcarpeted rooms

precision squads

whispering to walkietalkies

surgery canceled by

the authoritative stranger

no one can find afterward

the planted papertrail

leading to a planted gun

anyone who might’ve

known anything killed- or

paid-silent or in

highest office

 

or at most we remember back

before that to your horny

reputation & the poor whitemaned

goddess your blackcoats snuck in

to your white house or else

the short days around one of the

cuba things the

pathetic one the

triumphant one

 

but we don’t or don’t want to

remember dead young

man the way you

swelled us with your hope &

not just us & how big you just

grinned at those comedy records

that mimicked your posh accent

(an accent i could also do

so that when i went back to

my juniorhigh that afternoon to

get some textbooks i’d forgot

& heard these girls say your

name i assumed they were

talking about me) & we don’t

want to remember the

rockingchair you had to sit in

because you went thru

your days in a frozen crust

of pain or how you were

the first to need a poet to

stand next to you while

you took the oath & really

impossibly did believe we were

all in this together

 

& with you gone

we’re in it together all right

40 years later we’re in

an america poisoned

by your death & all its

legacies of death

an america the rest of the

world sees as a cheap gun

aimed by a befuddled

little guy in a zip jacket

but whose hands aren’t cuffed

& who keeps claiming

to fewer & fewer believers

he’s a patsy

 

Those blog ruminations helped me write a long poem called “Boris Godunov,” which has not much to do with the opera.  I guess I was toying with composing some new version of the story, but as usual, the poem I actually wrote was about me.  Inspiration, whatever else it is, can be detected again & again by how it causes plans to fail, be suspended, or change course.  After reading Carrie Cutler’s devastatingly personal master’s thesis, I wanted to write something about how necessary it is that a reader keep his or her own experience & opinions away from a narrative like this:  to be able to look & listen purely, receptively, without applying anything to one’s own life, without looking for lessons.  Those will come;  the point for us is just to take in.  I had no idea how to say this in a poem.  Then I awoke, the day after finishing the book, with the word “viscosity” in my head, & these lines came to me:

 

When handling this glass

sheathe the fingers.

 

Their oils’ viscosity

thickens your seeing

 

to their own planned tracks.

Mirrors are failed windows.

 

That’s about half the poem.  I kept fiddling with it over the next few weeks, vaguely thinking something was wrong but not being able to decide what.  At last I realized that the word “viscosity,” which had unlocked the poem to me in the first place, was the wrong word.  I replaced it with “film” & the poem was finished.  In Southern Buddhist scripture there’s the idea that Buddhism is a thorn you use to remove another thorn—once the thorn of attachment is out, there’s no more use for Buddhism.  Throw it away, they say.  (I’m surprised it took me so long to see what I needed to change, given that I’d been on a campaign against Latinate words in my poetry for almost ten years.)

 

Of course the sudden discovery of the happy word or phrase is often final too—& may be final despite any conscious judgement or decision.  Toward the end of my poem “Stinger” the line occurs:

 

I live in the same light my legs walk through.

 

I think it’s one of my best lines.  I have no idea what it means.  None at all.

 

Sometimes the right thing to say is a false thing.  In “Palette 25” I describe the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where I spent some time in the ’70s, & say that there was a

 

real chance of a rattler under your cot—

 

One or two guests had indeed experienced rattlesnakes getting into their cells, but the mattresses in the guest building were on shelves of shaped stucco protruding from the walls, there were no “cots.”  I put the cot in because the poem’s pace didn’t warrant slowing down here to help the reader visualize the actual beds.

 

People assume that autobiographical poetry is nonfiction.  It rarely is, or rarely completely.  A good example (& an example of several points I’ve made above) is my poem “Stampede,” written in early 2010.  I’d been seeing stories in supermarket tabloids of an elephant stampede in Africa that had become popular on YouTube.  I thought I’d start with that & then suddenly shift gears, just out of perversity:

 

So I see the elephants got it together

for one last try to run us off the planet

and then we weren’t anywhere they thought we’d be.

What do they do?  Stop charging

in some random place, and when the dust boils off

stare around at each other, still snuffing

and tossing heads?

It was the same thing,

the same, the morning she said she was leaving.

 

I wanted people to puzzle over how these two events could be “the same thing.”  I’m not sure what the answer is, or what I thought it was at the time!  Anyway, the poem switches to a morning in 1980.

 

I got the baby and sat on the couch

and sat the baby on my lap and stared at the t.v.

as she barged around collecting stuff to take.

He’d suck his right thumb and twine his hair

around the other hand.  He’d suck the skin off that thumb.

I asked him later why he didn’t switch to the other

and he said “No!  That’s my hair one.”

 

This much is accurate, though emotionally obscure.  I was saying goodbye to my son, deeply anguished, but it sounds like I went ahead with my day & ignored what was happening with my wife.  Already there’s a link with the beginning of the poem which I didn’t notice as I was writing:  “What do [the elephants] do?”—as if the extraordinary occurrence of a stampede were a common thing, certain ritual behavior appropriate.  The morning my wife left me had had the same orderly, silent, inevitable quality.  Then, I make another sharp turn from the mild comedy of the most recent line to sudden violence:

 

My wife wanted to know where the iron was

and I only thought about slamming it into her head.

 

… But violence that never takes place (another echo of the stampede!).  Actually it didn’t even take place in my head:  I was writing a novel in 1983 about a character prone to violence, & I lifted this scene from my own life & added the purely fictional image of the iron.  (My divorce did ultimately lead to violent fantasies, but not this first morning:  everything was drowned in numbness.)  The next lines return to autobiography:

 

Once they were gone the house was too still

even with the t.v. on.  I went out and took a long walk

and walked past all the places we’d lived together.

 

Then suddenly, to my utter surprise, the poem did what I’d explicitly planned for it not to do, & reverted to the elephants:

 

It was a small enough territory,

ringed in by more and more humans.

 

I shouldn’t have been surprised:  even at this writing I’m discovering more & more parallels between the beginning & the central part of the poem:  but good poems (this one’s about a “B”) tend to have this quality of knowing what they want to say even when their author doesn’t.  “It wrote itself.”  Some other will than the poet’s seems to be involved—the Muse’s (though we hardly talk about her anymore) or the poem’s own.  What actual sense does that make?

 

I do plan to expolore that question further, but maybe not for awhile … need to concentrate on writing poetry again.

 

[“To the Reader of Carrie’s Book” appears in The Dead Have Children & Wings of the Gray Moon:  New and Selected Poems.  “Stinger” is in Wings.  “Palette 25” is in Ladder & Palette.  “Stampede” is in The Burning & Wings.]

That synopsis was rather a dreary piece of writing.  Occasionally I’ll do that to myself—embark on a project that requires me to write something I’m not particularly interested in when I get to it.  I just wanted to be able to refer to the opera’s scenes & characters without having to pause & explain.  I didn’t expect anyone to acquire the whole thing & listen to it just to follow these ramblings.  So I locked myself into a chore.

 

There’s a difference, isn’t there, writers, between words you force out of yourself & words that come to you, all slippery like a newborn, just sliding out into the light?  The ancients talked about the Muse, a power that overtakes:  your own words seem to be someone else’s, seem something you have scant control over, not only the words but their arrangement, their relationship.  Nowadays we scoff at the idea of an outside divinity prompting “inspired” writing:  we want it to issue from ourselves, but from the subconscious, a part of us deeper & darker than the ego—with the result that we still can’t take credit for it.  “It wrote itself,” we say.  This, I insist, is the musical side of writing:  much more than the loveliness of the sound (which is mainly reserved for poetry anyway) or the attempt to elevate audible beauty above meaning.  Music means rhythm, melody, harmony, yes:  but these aren’t qualities of sound so much as they are of feeling.  Sound is only a common vehicle.

 

Three examples:  the coronation bells, Dmitri’s triumphal entrance, Boris’ leavetaking aria.  The joyful day when Boris appears for the first time as Tsar is musically announced by possibly the most anxious & violent theme in the opera, delivered by the entire orchestra, a tolling of deep bells (more like a death knell than a celebration) interwoven with staccato beats like a ticking clock, everything racing to a climax like an explosion, then slowly beginning again … despite the happy mood of the main scene, its overture signals disaster.  To drive that lesson home, the panicked time-bomb bells are repeated under the song of praise the people sing to Boris.  There’s nothing in the words to indicate that anything is amiss, but we, used to movie music (well, bad movie music that cables us how we should feel in a scene), hear the threat beneath the rejoicing.  Here is division between surface & depth, but both are presented to us.

 

The accompaniment to Dmitri’s ride, as I’ve said already (& as you heard if you clicked on it), has no division in it, is pure hope & light.  A Russian acquainted with her country’s history, however, knows the light is illusion & the hope will be disappointed.  Boris may have been a monster (in this story at least), but the horrors this pretender will usher in are far worse.  The effect fails any spectator who isn’t aware of this.  It’s imperfect because it depends for full realization on something inside of itself, historical knowledge.  In a way the entire last act of the opera questions the emotions of the viewer/listener who only roots for Dmitri & against Boris … but the questioning is unappreciated without the help of external information that really shouldn’t have anything to do with aesthetic experience.

 

This reevaluation of heroes & villains is strengthened no little bit by Boris’ farewell speech to his son.  Again, no dichotomy between overtone & undertone, sweet pathos, confidence, wisdom throughout … but the singer is someone the opera regards as an evil tyrant … or does it?  Or does Boris’ humanity cancel out his crimes somehow?  The refusal to acknowledge defeat that comes immediately after this speech casts doubt on that.  Whatever the author’s attitude (Pushkin’s or Mussorgsky’s or both), we’re being asked to see into someone’s goodness.  What do we think about the fact that this goodness belongs to a man we’ve been taught, & seen, is evil?  Here is the accomplishment of a feeling so pure it can’t be described in words, & yet it has been put into words:  Boris’ words.  In the first example, inspiration is blocked by a tension so blatant it seems trite:  in the second, by the music’s failure to carry all it means by itself:  in the third, we’re able to see it naked.

 

What is this springing forth of rightness, this self-sufficient thing?  Who is this Muse?  We’re now in a position to think about that.