Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Robert Storey on Adam and Cain

Dear Michael,

Two weeks is hardly enough time to begin to appreciate poetry like this, but if I wait for a complete grasp and enjoyment of it I’ll be waiting forever.

It’s a painful book to read. Not because it fails to do what you’re attempting, but because it succeeds with such stark and shocking force. You inhabit the cosmos of the poems with such utter existential fullness that it’s impossible (at least for me) to separate M.G. from Adam and from Cain or both from humanity as a whole. It baffles me that anyone should regard these poems as “blasphemous” or forays into outmoded myth. They’re no more “about” the family of Eden than Ghosts is about syphilis or M. Butterfly is about repressed homosexuality. The Garden (as I hope I don’t have to tell you!) is their occasion, not their subject. That subject, as I understand it, is the sum of those questions that agonize—and have always agonized—all thoughtful human beings: How have we arrived at such an impossible conception of divinity (--of that One “who walk[s] in cool evening/To eat of the fruit/Forbidden to us”)? How can life, so measured by that concept, ever be lived without shame (“When my manhood lifts,/ I wish I had never been born”)? Why has the human family been naturally (supernaturally?) plagued by so much strife and self-ignorance and ambiguous desire (“That was the riddle/That puzzled your love,/Especially naked”)? And these questions are only the obvious ones.

I read these poems, and I feel as if a gentle but imperious hand is pushing my head into the waters of the deepest well of being. Maybe that’s pretentious (and the poems themselves are anything but), and yet I can’t express myself without linguistic excess. Odd, when the poems have such a linguistically pared-down purity. Merely the physical experience of moving from word to word here is inexpressibly wonderful. Proper words in proper places: Swift’s dry formulation I’ve always thought a kind of modest recoil from alluding to that special form of worship in which all true poets engage. You’re one of the true ones.

My ecstasy as a reader is at its most intense when these poems (like the majority of “Cain to Eve”) achieve a density and splendor like compacted precious metals under fissionable force. These lines from the second poem of that last section—
I’ve come to find
Where the corpse of Abel has been buried
Because I plan to dig him up and take
His grimy, fractured skull up to the gate
And thrust it like an apple up into the cherub’s sight,
A gift to the God who made us all
And offer it for hanging on
The tree He has forbidden us.
--these lines remind me of some of the finest verse of early Robert Lowell, sweetly heavy with allusiveness, puns, and ambiguity. Surely Eliot’s determinedly exhuming dog in The Waste Land is referenced in the first three lines? And that skull: it’s “fractured” because it’s crushed but also because it contains a myriad of independent pockets of mentation? Which “gate” is being referred to? Heaven’s gate?—or the gate of Eden guarded by cherubs with flaming swords?—or both? (And does it swing open to the cherub’s “sight” or to its “site”—or both?) And O! that ubiquitous apple!—which keeps us “hanging on” (to life) and forever hanged upon the forbidden tree. Finally: happy to catch the smirk of Blake (inflected by Coleridge) behind that “God who made us all.” (And these are only the obvious treasures.)

I have only one complaint. And that’s that this is your first book, not your seventh or eighth. You are highly gifted, Michael. Would that you were prolific as well. Your readers (moi) want more; we thirst in a desert. (I say this after recently finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Road, a book as richly instinct with verbal beauty as your poems—but a book that is violated, like McCarthy’s other novels, with a sentimentality that he just can’t seem to escape, something that Adam and Cain shows no traces of.) But life is short and art is long.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 73

I'm indebted to Herb Miller for this post. The insight is his, but since he says he'll never write it up, I guess I can use it without cheating him. He argues that the critics who believe "That time of year thou mayst in me behold" is not the praise of a devoted lover of the poet's old age, but rather the poet's dismissal of the Dark Lady of the sonnets. I suppose Herb's reading is based on Shakepeare's persona's not suddenly having aged and is further supported by the tropes of approaching ends, which signal not the end of the poet's life, but rather the end of the relationship. One might perhaps also find a reference to the end of physical passion in the death bed and dwindling fire imagery in the third quatrain in that the passion might be read as having exhausted itself upon its bed, the bed of the fire being the literal bed of the love making. The concluding words of the concluding couplet then might be seen as an ominous reference to a parting of ways and expression of the poet's will.

Two Recommendations & A Forthcoming Publication

Richard Hugo's The Right Madness on Skye (1980), contains a remarkable fantasy of escape from oedipal conflicts, time and death, 'Druid Stones at Kensaleyre,' that a discerning reader might feel evokes resonances of Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' and less obviously, and perhaps less convincingly, Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium.' Its movement has some of the magic of dream, and may have grown out of Hugo's work in that subject (it might not be accurate to call the dreams in his 31 Letters and 13 Dreams a form or genre, though perhaps the movement of the content would qualify as one or the other, especially if we keep Stanley Kunitz's observation that a poem can be a representation of the poet's psyche in mind). The speaker, a tourist, plays on the meanings of stone as he establishes a contrast with the nearby and juxtaposed church, deafness of sinners, and his own deafness to religion. And then he moves inevitably to the attraction the figures, a young man and woman have for him, and imagines his approach to them and presents the paradox of their speaking to him in stone. The poem ends:

If you pass
in your car and see three of us solid
forever above and one with the sea...
... know one
came late, is happy and won't be back.

One reading of this is a rejection of flesh for the permanence of art, with a charge of latent sorrow.

Those of you interested in Twelve Step programs and psychology, either for yourselves or friends or loved ones might find much to admire in Victor Schermer's SPIRIT & PSYCHE: A NEW PARADIGM FOR PSYCHOLOGY, PSYCHOANALYSIS AND PSYCHOTHERAPY (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Ltd. 2003). In a readable and far from jargon-ridden style,Schermer takes a rigorous, but sympathetic approach to finding points where psychology and spirituality can comfortably co-exist and even identify with each other, The parallels are many.

Here's my news: Shabdagucha has accepted Blatnoy on Bush for publication. It will be translated into Bengali and published in that language and English, which is really nice since the audience for poetry in that language is huge.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Roethke & Wright

Reading Roethke's magnificant Journey to the Interior in his North American Sequence, I think I have spotted an affinity between Roethke and his student at the University of Seattle, Washington, James Wright, a great ability to convey ecstatic or perhaps more precisely, mystical experience convincingly. The presentation of the irrational in both defies, so far as my reading can penetrate, explication. In fact, Roethke, might be one of the unacknowledged models behind Bly's call for Leaping Poetry in his magazine The Sixties.  "Journey to the Interior,"  begins, 'In the long journey out of the self,'-- what does the ecstatic do, but leap out of the self or as Wright has it in  one of his most famous poems "A Blessing,"  'Suddenly, I realize that if I stepped out of my body/I would break into blossom"? Both poems use the literal vehicle of a car ride to arrive at transcendent experience. Roethke's ride is a dangerous one that risks death to reach the blessing bestowed by his dead:

I rehearse myself for this: 
The stand at the stretch in the face of death,
Beyond my own echo,
On one side of silence there is no smile;
But when I breathe with the birds,
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing,
And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.

Compare this two passages  in Wright (There are others). The end of the despairing 'Inscription for the Tank:'

Let the dead bury their own dead.
What is their pity to me?

And to lines from "Names in Monterchi: To Rachel," which includes another dangerous ride:

We mounted the true frightening
Mountains, and there
The slim us driver, the messenger
Set us down and said,
Go find her.
In the little graveyard there,
We are buried, Rachel, Anie, Leopoldo, Marxhall,
The spider, the dust, the brilliant, the wind.

In both, there is adrive to meet the dead and a meeting with them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

This week: George Spencer

Join us this week for spotlight poet George Spencer and an open reading.

George Spencer graduated from a famous college when it was easy to get in, hard to get thrown out. He was a very bad student; mostly drank, played billards, examined his sexuality and went to poetry readings. He has always painted and made collages. A couple of years ago he started
writing poetry. He lives in Ecuador 6 months each year. Among the dead (this refers to the writers not him) he is a great fan of all the Elizabethans, ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Baudelaire, Celine, some of the Language Poets, etc. He has or will have poems in Poetry Midwest, Nomad's Choir, Caveat Lector, Rain Tiger, Asinine Poetry, clwdwr, and Phoenix. He has read his work at Cafe Libro in Quito as well as at various venues in NYC. He has an Eiffel Tower of rejections. He is working on a chapbook to be called The Obscene Richness of Our Times.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Phoenix maganie reviewed by Hugh Fox

Phoenix magazine received this lovely review recently:

Phoenix #2.
Edited by Michael Graves
2-4/yr; 28pp; PO Box 84,
Dyker Heights Station,
Brooklyn, NY 11228.
Reviewer: Hugh Fox

Phoenix is a relatively new magazine, but it has a feeling of great depth and breadth about it. Like a well-done translation of a poem by Polish poet Boleslaw Lesmian (1878-1937), who introduced French Modernism into Polish literature: “ Imperceptibly in the deep it builds...//Looming silent over all its lifeless sisters,/Till it breaks...in ringlets, tresses/Then, smelling the death beneath it, roars,/And strikes the shore in a last throe.” (“The Wave,” p.15, trans.by Michael Kandel. It wouldn’t hurt to number the pages, though, and perhaps give a bit of bio about Lesmian himself.Most of the poetry very accessible, an excellent Haiku by Herbert Miller: “My shield when lifted,/blocking swords that may split me,/slashes my own throat.” (Herbert Miller, “Haiku for Michael,” p.23). Not names you see everywhere, but perhaps they should be: Charles Pierre, Hugh Hennedy,Rose Bernal.And this issue begins with an extremely demanding poem by editor Graves all about Adam and Eve, also masterfully written, and after three or four readings (like reading Wordsworth or Shelley) you begin to fathom what it’s all about: the horrifying world that mankind met after leaving Eden.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

This week: Pat Duffy, Michael Morical, and Ellen Peckham

This week at Phoenix we're thrilled to have three very exciting spotlight readers. Their bios appear below.

As always, there will be an open mic following the spotlight readers, and copies of the new annual Phoenix review will be available.

Pat Duffy is the author of the book Blue Cats, which is about synesthesia--the phenomenon where people can experience words as having color or music as having shapes. Pat has been interivewed about her research in this area by media including NPR, Newsweek, and the Discovery Channel. Pat's special interest is in what she terms "personal coding": the unique way in which each person codes information and makes a one-of-a-kind "inner map" of the world around them.

Michael Morical has been writing since he was eight years old. He has made a living as an English teacher, tester of hay fever medication and assistant mis-translator of B movie scripts for Chinese subtitles. He lives in Taipei. His work has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Rattapallax, The Antigonish Review, and other publications. His chapbook, Sharing Solitaire, will be published in September, 2008.

Ellen Peckham is a painter and poet whose work is being collected and archived at the Harry Ransome Center for the Humanities at the University of Texas--Austin. With her husband Anson she opened AEAtelier the first gallery in Chelsea, NY.