Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Write It: Galway Kinnell and "When the Towers Fell"

Late last summer, before his new collection STRONG IS YOUR HOLD came off the press, Galway Kinnell gave a reading locally, for the northern Vermonters who claim him as one of their own. (Some of them came from New York City, too...) That is, he tried to read -- and to his consternation, he lost most of his voice, and between that and the heat and the crowd, it was a tough event.

So this evening, he graciously offered a second chance, in the high-ceilinged glory of Athenaeum Hall in St. Johnsbury, where many a poet, novelist, biographer, politican, even the traveling speakers of the 19th century like Russell Conwell ("Acres of Diamonds") have spilled forth rich language. In the audience were other authors, a book designer, a magazine editor, professors, high school teachers, an innkeeper, a contractor, a marketing pro, retirees -- and a handful of high school students. And whether it was the comfort of reading "at home" or the sight of the neighbors or their enthusiastic questions, the grand poet responded amply.

He told a bit about Rilke before reading his popular new poem "Dinner Party," said that Rilke believed the moment of the poem could easily be missed, and hence one shouldn't go out to be with others, but should simply wait at the desk for the muse. "Are you like that?" one listener asked him.

"I don't actually agree with Rilke," Kinnell replied. "Although I've translated a large bulk of his poems -- I don't like him." He continued, "Rilke's work is greatly marred by his inability to love."

"Strong is your hold O mortal flesh / Strong is your hold O love," wrote Whitman in "Last Invocation," from which Kinnell drew the title for the new collection. Much of the work in it recounts incidents that only love brings about: moments with his children, and with his wife, some stunningly intimate.

Another neighbor (and up here, a neighbor is someone who lives within visiting distance) asked Kinnell why he'd written so much about the Vietnam war, but not yet about the current one in Iraq.

"When that war started, I felt like I was the only person in the country that knew what was happening," Kinnell mourned. Invited to a dinner party of doctors in the neighboring town then, he spilled his passion about the war and against it -- and felt the silence of the room and the gradual withdrawal, one by one, of the fellow guests.

He admitted to writing poetry as a teenager, but without seriousness. Then, "I realized that poetry was central to my life. I was writing, but I wasn't writing well." He thought perhaps he'd become editor of POETRY magazine or something like that. Gradually his writing changed, and he now says his habit, good or bad, is to strive for perfection. So when a teen asked him whether that ever pushed him toward maybe revising something that he felt he didn't have quite right, he exclaimed to her with a tender smile, "Oh, my dear!" Then he held out his copy of the "new" book -- already marked in ink with a rewritten final line to the poem "Field Notes."

Although he regularly reads aloud many of the poems from STRONG IS YOUR HOLD at his author events, the central poem,"When the Towers Fell," the one that focuses the book, is one he doesn't often provide to audiences. It's too long, for one thing. Six pages. This evening he took "author's privilege" and condensed it, reading about half the stanzas, and carefully delivering the Middle French and German sections in translation.

Prompted by more questions, he explained that he had started writing the poem because of the classes he taught at New York University at the time. His students were breathing the disaster, walking through it, crying; they came to him and said, "How do we cope? What do we do?" He told them, "Write about it," and set an example by penning three lines -- lines that he now calls "quite bad." He enriched them with observation, sitting for a morning in a food stand erected by McDonald's for the firefighters and rescue crews. The first publication of the poem took place in THE NEW YORKER at the one year anniversary of the attack of September 11, 2001. An audience member asked him whether he'd mixed narrative and lyric in it, and he said yes, calling the work (as it now stands) a series of moments rather than a narrative. "And I think it's better in poetry to get as much narrative as possible out of it. Maybe better for all writing."

Gently, he confirmed that more revisions would take place. He added, "Sometimes one doesn't get everything right the first time, but then when it's published in a book, it has an objective reality that allows you to see what needs to be changed."

And then, steering the conversation back from theory and poetics to love, he read aloud his "Shelley," which turns away from both the early poet's ways and some of his own youth, and wrapped the evening and the audience in the delicious love poem "Field Notes":

.., in the taxi on the way home we kissed
a mint from the maitre d's desk
from my mouth to hers,
like cedar waxwings.


I slid around the foot
of the bed and climbed in
and slid toward the side lined
with the warmth and softness
of herself, and we clasped each other
like no birds I know of.

Our cries that night were wild,
unhinged, not from here,
like the common loon's.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

On the Tip of the Tongue: Arguing With A Collection of Poetry

I've never met the poet Lesle Lewis (that's right, her first name has an unusual spelling), but the photo on the back of her 2006 poetry collection LANDSCAPES I & II looks like a nice person, relaxed, dressed in sweatshirt and corduroys if I see the detail right, with a tousle of short fair hair, a wide grin. Still, if she tried talking to me the way these poems read, I'd explode: "Why can't you stick with one topic for longer than a sentence? What do you mean by talking about an alligator, Milwaukee, love, and summer, all at once (in the poem "Bumblebee Love")? How am I supposed to understand that prose poem called Story?"
In fact, "Story" begins, "You, my girl, I don't dislike. Faith is a male. This is a love story."
Honestly, I thought I'd go crazy. But I kept reading. Lines like "You've had some accidents and some illnesses and some lovers" grabbed me. or "There was a singing by the river, and no one but me was thinking of me." (That's from a two-paragraph prose poem called "Wrapping Paper.") And it began to feel like being immersed in a new language, where at first the only phrases you're sure of are the ones that borrow from the English you've always spoken, and then you begin to recognize the words that mean "please" or "too bad" or "awesome." One night you wake in the darkness and realize the voices in your dream were speaking in that other language, too.
So Lewis's carefully chosen sequences build to inner recognition of how conversations happen, inside the mind as well as spoken; of love and its absurdities ("For me it's always you, you, you"); of what a creator might really be if our minds were that stretched, that elastic.
By the time I reached the book's finale, a ten-section poem, "The Moon Is Over Alstead," I knew that Lewis inhabits the same rock-and-water-and-weather New England that holds my own heels and heart. I even had a sense that it might make sense to put heels and heart into the same stretch of poem, and not to worry too much about which bones or blood vessels linked them. This collection is fresh language for me, and although I struggle for footing among its unexpected twists and bumps, I like the energy and the challenge.
And that's what leads to my recommendation: Pick up this book and set it aside for an afternoon of cabin fever or depression. That's when the line "You keep your soul in your dog" will bless your day with laughter, and a couple of poems later, you'll hit "Abstraction puts on her cowboy boots. Who else would walk the boundaries with you and photograph your pears?" Ah. The world is more free than it seemed before, while Lewis spills its phrases and images into her poems.

'Tis the Season for Poetry

I get serious seasonal confusion disorder in December. Our household celebrates the Festival of Lights, better known as Hanukkah. My individual path takes me toward Christmas -- but I struggle for a clearer vision, stripped of the images of white people of the Middle Ages, more a sense of Jesus the Jew coming out of his wilderness experiences with fresh leadership. Yet the hill-walker that's my everyday self is most attuned to weather just now: snowstorms, wind, plunging numbers on the thermometer, glimpses of blue sky or bright moon or the wide shoulders of the constellation Orion. I count the days until the Solstice, need to notice the changes in daylight and darkness.

Hence it's a huge relief to be able to recommend the following, as poetry to seize for oneself, one's friends, one's dreams:

From the moment the first snow clouds hover over the landscape, Vermont winter is a season of longing: for tender snowfalls, for sparkling beauty, for the exhilaration of the cold, and also for comfort, warmth, protection, assurance. So it's a good season to read Kevin Goodan's first published collection of poetry, IN THE GHOST-HOUSE ACQUAINTED, which came out through Alice James in 2004. Goodan's second collection is on a publisher's desk; catch up now and be ready for the new book when it arrives.
The title poem opens, "I close the simple flowers / and bid the moon now rise / for Death is not my harbor." Walking through a quiet nighttime pasture, Goodan evokes the haunting and threat of the evening: "as frost presses down / with equal weight and terror." Shadows, moonlight, a sense of the earth at its beginning: "I remember that world / pouring into this."
Those well acquainted with West Coast Native American legends may recognize the ghost-house as an anchor of the Tsimshian world, though it's also a thread in Sioux explanations, and in another form in Cherokee language about the worlds of life and death. I find in Robert Frost a New England sense of ghost house, in the barren foundation of a house long uninhabited. It's fair to let all these threads braid while reading Goodan's work, for he draws from them in turn. Raised on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana as white stepchild in a strong family of Native American leaders, his spiritual vision mingles animism, the Lord, the land. Into the cradle of his childhood he pours his adult labors with animals, in the cruel winters of Montana and the damp chill ones of western Massachusetts, where he lives now.
This mingling of hauntings erupts in language like the close of his "Almanac of Caliber and Distance": "I want to build my house / in you, phantom in the song-light. // Starlings unsilence, / jay-crows gloss a bone-stack // and I will not close my eyes / to the flame held before me, // O fire -- of human / And not."
After this, the poems trek from llama raising (including the sorrowful weight of them when they die) to birds ("O, my soul is a hermit thrush"), to horses that crowd up against a fence and the ghostly vision of a white mare, summoned: ""In field, in bone / You white mare / In rain that peens a curved world flat -- ... Through every weather between us / Come O come you white mare," Goodan cries out.
Here are calls to a Lord, as well as sobs of frost and lambs and owls. By the time the collection wraps up, winter itself peals forth meaning and sustenance, even as the land groans under the ice.