My first book of poetry is still in print—thank God for university presses and small presses and for all those who care more for art than for Bookscan numbers—and I’ve been reminded by an energetic young sales manager that it might be good to add a link here. Should you want a copy of Claire, you might think about buying directly from Louisiana State University Press so that the press and the book will receive that vote of confidence. It’s no secret that almost every volume of poetry is now hard-won. Should you desire any book of poetry by any writer, the same logic for purchase applies.
A TINY ANTHOLOGY OF TWO: QUOTES RELATING TO THE TOPIC
“Dollars damn me.”—Melville
“People who say they love poetry but don’t buy any are cheap sons-of-bitches.”—Kenneth Patchen
I’ve mentioned that rather rude quote before. It always sticks in my brain--used to be taped on a bookcase in the Bull’s Head Bookshop at UNC, perhaps by Erica Eisdorfer, the manager. She was a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and now has a book forthcoming, The Wet Nurse’s Tale. More about that another time.
Here are a couple of poems from the book. I think they were first published in The Carolina Quarterly. They were written a long time ago...
“Snow House Stories” came from an anecdote recounted by my husband, although he was not my husband yet: a young woman and young man crossed Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, announcing their engagment to the family of each. The woman plunged through the ice mid-way; after a long search in the icy water, the man caught hold of a slip of hair and pulled.
The “orphic” voice refers to Orpheus, who could make even the rocks respond to his music and who journeyed down to hell to retrieve his beloved, Eurydice. In the end, he was not quite so lucky as this young man.
I tried to write this poem many times, once typing my long hair around the patten of my typewriter—writers are quite nuts in funny ways. One day the poem appeared, fully formed, like good old Minerva out of the brain of Zeus. That's called a heroic simile.
SNOW HOUSE STORIES
Our district's bedtime tales of snow are cruel.
The steps of toddlers, moving back and forth
Between two doors, the sled runs to a pond.
At Mirror Lake a woman slipped through ice
And drank the cold. In blue twilight she saw
Lucent souls of lost unlucky children
Suspended in the ice, or floating past
In sodden hoods and gowns, unharmed by smiles
Of pike. Claire spoke; then she forgot all words.
The man detected nothing. Logged, his sleeve
Now strained in silence that the blackbirds fled.
He felt the world attending as he fished.
Next he could feel the stars kneel at his back.
And he could feel the planets stare to think.
Then particles were getting in his eyes.
And afterward he proved the orphic voice
To be a kind of choking, stop and start.
The leastmost tendril crept across his wrist.
She didn't want to come. She didn't want
That birth. Claire wanted nothing. Still, she was
Upraised by hair from water's placid womb.
It seemed there was no link with nature's dark.
And after all, she lived. The neighbors sprang
From shining homes to help him lift her forth.
The snow kept on, tireless, wide spaced as stars.
“The Arabic Lesson” was written during an unhappy time in my life—the sort of thing we have all experienced and would prefer to skip next time around. One of my pleasures in that time was knowing Amal, a girl growing up, the daughter of my friend Anne. And now she is grown and married and living still, I believe, in North Carolina.
THE ARABIC LESSON
For Leila Amal
Clear green flies mating in the bamboo leaves,
Everything as in a Japanese
Poem, the lees
In a glass, curtain trailing
Its far perfume…
The children from next door
Were leaning in the leafiest places,
Straight bodies growing curved—their longings streamed
Past sliding doors.
The children taught:
Say riha, say amar, hilal, the words
As useless as the spinning sands, but Claire
Said them to hold
The feckless flies that bred
In air, d’ow
That languished on the leaves,
The great, greeny dustjacket of a world
Where somewhere rockets pistoled and ash clouds
Staring at sift
Of light on leaf, Claire thought of turning thirty
—an end!—some promises in writing made
By a fortune
Cookie, grief of being
No more, no
Better than she should be.
And dreamed a tale of ancient single self,
Toy queen of glass who broke to babel all
These casts of mind,
This sex, this race.
And then Claire looked—the children were leaning,
Who owned more names than she did for the world,
Who taught her love
And really going crazy
On the same day—
And saw that they would know
No better how to grow than she, who knew
Not the pure, incantatory names
Of light and leaf
So many ways.
WHAT I'M READING
Samuel Menashe, New and Selected Poems. Here’s a Dana Gioia essay about Menashe. I became interested in him because he was championed by that marvelous poet, Kathleen Raine. William Logan, Reputations of the Tongue. It’s important to know the critics that make people angry. James Fenton, Children in Exile and Partingtime Hall. And I’m rereading James Matthew Wilson’s ongoing series, “Our Steps Amid a Ruined Colonnade” at Contemporary Poetry Review.