Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tonight at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum: Ellen Dudley & F. D. Reeve, Poets of Global Adventure

Fasten something -- a shoe, a pierced disk, a large bead -- to the end of a piece of string or light rope. Raise your arm above your head and start to swing the string in a circle. The weighted end flies outward, pulling against you. And you are the center.

Ellen Dudley and F. D. Reeve, reading tonight at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum at 7:30 p.m., craft narrative poetry that yearns outward in just this way. Dudley's THE GEOGRAPHIC CURE, a lusty and exulting collection reviewed here in March, stretches to Sarajevo, to the American West, to Hawai'i. She braids "wild woman" notions like driving bare-breasted through the dark summer night and seducing foreign strangers with an equally strong sense of commitment to herself and the people she loves. And that's the pull of the string back toward the center. Her homes are in Vermont in the summer, Hawai'i in the winter. She's the founding editor of The Marlboro Review.

Reeve has been likewise a founding editor -- of Poetry Review -- and learned while young to extend his reach globally. After early experiences in drama, farm labor, and work on the docks of the Hudson River, he applied himself to the Russian language and literature and spent a year in Moscow and Leningrad as an exchange professor. This key experience would later inform his trip with Robert Frost to Russia; his translations of Russian poetry; his exploration of cultures and imagery; and his own poems, short stories, and novels. Some thirty years ago he chose Vermont as his home, first building a house, then settling into an old farmhouse in Wilmington.

His first book of poems was IN THE SILENT STONES; he's whimsically used voices in and around cats in three books of poems, starting with THE BLUE CAT; amd his lyrical collection THE TOY SOLDIER should be available soon. His novels show varied influences from Russian literature as well as fully engaged "American life" -- the most recent one, MY SISTER LIFE, draws its title from Pasternak's poem;

My sister life still pouring down today
is everywhere battered like a spring rain,
but people with watch chains and bracelets complain
and civilly sting like snakes in the hay.

In addition, his translations and editorial work have brought much Russian work into closer touch with those who read only English, starting with a volume of Turgenev's short novels, later an anthology of plays, at least two volumes of Russian poetry, and most recently an unabridged version of "Leonid Andreyev's heartbreaking study of terrorist idealistm. A STORY ABOUT SEVEN WHO WERE HANGED" (Reeve's words).

Here's one of his poems from THE RETURN OF THE BLUE CAT:


He was urged to prepare for success: "You never can tell,

he was told over and over; "others have made it;

one dare not presume to predict. You never can tell.

Who’s Who in America lists the order of cats

in hunting, fishing, bird-watching, farming,

domestic service--the dictionary order of cats

who have made it. Those not in the book are beyond the pale.

Not to succeed in you chosen profession is unthinkable.

Either you make it or--you’re beyond the pale.

Do you understand?"

"No," he shakes his head.

"Are you ready to forage for freedom?"

"No," he adds,

"I mean, why is a cat always shaking his head?

Because he’s thinking: who am I? I am not

only one-ninth of myself. I always am

all of the selves I have been and will be but am not."

"The normal cat," I tell him, "soon adjusts

to others and to changing circumstances;

he makes his way the way he soon adjusts."

"I can’t," he says, "perhaps because I’m blue,

big-footed, lop-eared, socially awkward, impotent,

and I drink too much, whether because I’m blue

or because I like it, who knows. I want to escape

at five o’clock into an untouchable world

where the top is the bottom and everyone wants to escape

from the middle, everyone, every day. I mean,

I have visions of two green eyes rising

out of the ocean, blinking, knowing what I mean."

"Never mind the picture, repeat after me

the self’s creed. What he tells you you

tells me and I repeats. Now, after me:

I love myself, I wish I would live well.

Your gift of love breaks through my self-defeat.

All prizes are blue. No cat admits defeat.

The next time that he lives he will live well."

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum (802-748-8291; is on Main Street in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, at the top of Eastern Avenue, and is a fully accessible (and gorgeous) historic landmark. Come early for the 7:30 poetry event; the gallery space is compact and sometimes all the seats are filled. Dress in layers, as the room can get quite warm. And plan to purchase the poetry of these two adventurers after the reading.

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