Tag Archives: American Poetry

Survival Is A Style: Poems by Christian Wiman

In the June issue of Poetry Magazine Christian Wiman writes a lovely, thoughtful essay on the poems of William Bronk. Included is a poignant reflection on these lines from Bronk’s collection entitled Life Supports:

I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the word. Oh no.
I though you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.
The World

This may be the saddest poem I know. As with other Bronk poems it sent me reeling through my own life grasping after my own anchors: my wife and my work, my God. Oh no.

And yet this minor poem brings me major peace. Why? Because it is beautiful, and beauty triggers an instinct for an order beyond the one it enacts.

I’ve spend the week reading Wiman’s latest collection of poems, Survival is a Style, and I shared on Twitter that it is the best one I have read so far this year. Throughout these pieces Wiman contemplates those very anchors that keep him sane and whole. Wiman grew up in a rural part of Texas under the influence of a strict, Christian family. His father died recently of a drug overdose, he has dealt with a crisis of faith, and he is always battling a form of blood cancer that, while not curable, at least is dormant for the moment. One of the most touching poems in the collection is entitled “All You Shining Stars” and describes a simple, spontanous day out with his family—his wife and three children, who are clearly his most important “anchors:

Three kinds of hair in the brush one love
has left on the kitchen counter.
Four kinds of cries when it occurs as one
to blow off school and go to the mountains.
And later, over the river, when the upturned duck
never turns over, five kinds of silence.

Always our elsewheres are also here,
like tributaries so intuitive they seem
almost incidentally literal, tiny trickles
in wildernesses too immense to enter,
the cold clefts and the drastic drops,
cliffs of unthinkable ice.

Three kinds of sleep in the hum home
down the dark valley back to New Haven.
Four kinds of dreams behind the headlights,
the world springing into being ten feet at a time.
Five kinds of time when one love wakes up
and wonders where we are, and one wonder
wakes up another, and another, and another.

A lot has been said about Wiman’s use of alliteration, and in this particular poem lines like “the cold clefts and the drastic drops,” as well as his use of numbers lends to the musicality of his verse. There is a sadness mixed with a type of gratitude for moments like these with his family. Similarly in the poem entitled “Baloney” a simple moment at a summer party with friends is captured eloquently:

Poolside, Belgian beer, the lightly ironized light
and splashy laughter of our perfect suburban summer
when from the water, from a child, comes something like
“Look alive, butt crack!”
“It was either that,” Matt says, “or a whippoorwill.”

Over shrimp and coconut rice that Annie made
I recall my dear donnish friend John
who asked that I please not “entertain company” in his bed.
And Samir, who also survived those years on beans, vagabondage,
and long letters that glittered with hopes and Helens,
wondered if I replied, “Will self-pleasure be ok?”

These verses are also an excellent example of Wiman’s charming and sharp sense of humor. The underlying sadness, in the form of nostalgia, still lingers in these lines but friends and his wife are his anchors here.

The longest poem in the collection entitled “The Parable of Perfect Silence” which is featured in Part III, brings together all of Wiman’s thoughts on family, faith, illness, sadness and hope. This poem reminds me of Robert Hass who also likes to tell personal stories in his longer form poems.

Today I woke and believed in nothing.
A grief at once intimate and unfelt,
like the death of a good friend’s dog.

Tired of the mind tracing back in the past for rescue
I praise the day.
I don’t mean merely some mythical, isolate instant
like the mindless mindfulness specialist
who at the terminal cancer convention
(not that it was called that)
exhorted the new year’s crop of slaughters
(ditto)
to “taste” the day, this one unreplicable instant of being alive.
(The chicken glistened.)
Nor do I mean a day devoid of past and future
as craved that great craze of minds and times Fernando Pessoa,
who wanted not “the present” but reality itself,
things in their thingness rather than the time that measures them.
Time is the table at which I sit and the words I type.
In the red-checked shirt my father’s mother used to wear
when she was gardening and which I kept
because it held her smell (though it does no longer)
there is still plenty of time.

And with Wiman and Hass we are never quite sure where the poet is going—there is always a twist, a surprise, something very unexpected thrown at us: words like “unreplicable” and phrases like “The chicken glistened.” And finally, the plot, if one can call it that in a poem, as Wiman moves in between topics or stories involving his grandmother, his father trying to catch a rat, his diagnosis of cancer and a myriad of other snapshots of memory.

As I was lingering over his collection all week, it occurred to me why it struck such a cord and Alex Caldiero’s poem came to mind: “Poetry is wanted here.” I began to think about my own anchors that have gotten me through the past few months and, just when we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, the last week. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life—physically, mentally,emotionally. But I have wonderful anchors—my family, friends, fellow readers, students, colleagues, my cats, and poetry, lots and lots of poetry—whose love and support and wisdom and kindness keep me going for another day.

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Filed under Poetry, American Literature

Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?

 

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Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

Odi et Amo: Half-Light, The collected poems of Frank Bidart

I have been voraciously reading an incredible amount of excellent poetry lately.  I’ve been sharing some of my favorite passages on Twitter, but I thought I would do a short series on the blog of my favorite collections.  Frank Bidart’s Half-Light, Collected Poems, which includes work spanning the years 1965-2016 was recommended to me by two of my favorite literary Twitter accounts.  It is one of those few collections of poetry that one can read from cover to cover in a few sittings.  I devoured it over the course of this past week.  My favorite parts of this volume are his series of poems based on Catullus 85 as well as his longer, Hour of the Night, series of poems.

It is always difficult for me to teacher Catullus Carmen 85 because, as his shortest poem—a mere two lines—the temptation is for students to translate it quickly and move on.  But there are so many layers to this deceptively simple poem (translation is my own):

I hate you and I love you.

You may be wondering why I feel this way.

I have no idea.

But that’s how I feel.

And I. am. tortured.

 

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Bidart’s brilliant strategy for interpreting this poem is to compose a series of his own two line verses that each focus on a different aspect of the original.

The first version, Catullus: Odi et Amo is:

I hate and love. Ignorant fish, who even

wants the fly while writhing.

The et in italics is subtle yet striking.  And the image of a fish writhing on the fly—why would the creature still want the very thing that is killing him?

Bidart’s second version is Catullus: Excrucior which shifts focus to the end of Catullus’s Carmen-–that all powerful Latin word, excrucior,  which literally means to be crucified:

I hate and—love.  The sleepless body hammering a nail nails

itself, hanging crucified.

The entire first phrase is italicized in this iteration, and the addition of pause with the em dash adds additional emphasis to these different emotions.. Finally, the images of the nails emphasize the “crucifixion.”

Bidart’s trilogy of poems ends with Catullus: Id Faciam, which brings us back to the middle of Catullus poem.  He has no idea why he feels such conflicting emotions:

What I hate I love. Ask the crucified hand that holds

the nail that now is driven into itself, why.

The addition of the relative pronoun is unique in the final poem; the person who is causing such conflicting emotions lingers in the background.  But there is also the hint of self-inflicted torment, the hand that nails its own nail.  All three versions are slightly different, but bring to our attention various pieces of the original. At the same time they all fit perfectly into Bidart’s work as a whole through the theme of desire.

There is a bonus interview with Bidart at the end of this edition in which he describes his series of The Hours of the Night poems:

The myth behind the series of poems is the Egyptian “Book of Gates,” which is inscribed on the sarcophagus of Seti I.  Each night during the twelve hours of the night the sun must pass through twelve territories of the underworld before it can rise again at dawn. Each hour is marked by a new gate, the threshold to a new territory.

Each poem in the series is an hour we must pass through before the sun can rise again.

The collection contains four Hours of the Night stories and a fifth was published this past summer in The Paris Review.  My favorite is the Second Hour of the Night for which Bidart uses as inspiration Ovid’s story of Myrrha from the Metamorphoses.  Once again, Bidart’s focus is on desire and how much control we have or don’t have over this powerful emotion.

Ganymede; Apollo and

Hyacinthus; Pygmalion; Adonis avenged upon

Venus; the apples that Atalanta found irresistible, —

fate embedded in the lineaments of desire

(desire itself helplessly surrounded by what cannot be

eluded, what

even the gods call GIVEN,—)

In addition to italics, words and phrases in all caps are typical of Bidart’s entire collection.  As he continues the story of Myrrha, Bidart emphasizes the pity and helplessness of this young girl who falls in love with her own father.  Like Ovid, Sade and Yourcenar who also write very delicately about matters of incest, Bidart’s character is young and sheltered; she loves what she knows and what is familiar and she wants nothing else:

four steps forward then

one back, then three

back, then four forward—

…but you have lied about your

solace, for hidden, threaded

within repetition is the moment when each step

backward is a step

downward, when what you move toward moves toward

you lifting painfully his cloak to reveal his

wound, saying, “love answers need...”

The gods—well, all those except the Furies—abandon Myrrha.  She prays in the end not to be alive and not to be dead—she can’t even face others in the afterlife.  As a result she is turned into the Myrrh tree:

Aphrodisiac. Embalmers’ oil. “insistence of

sex, faint insistent sweetness of the dead undead.)

Sacred anointment oil: with wine an

anodyne. Precious earth-

fruit, gift fit for the birth and death of

prophets:—no sweet thing without

the trace of what is bitter

within its opposite:—

…MYRRH, sweet-smelling

bitter resin.

These last lines are a chilling echo of the contrasting emotions we feel from the Odi et Amo poems.

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Filed under American Literature, Poetry