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Arthur Sze, Sight Lines

SIGHT LINES, Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2019, 70 pages, $16 paper, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Today I started a couple different poetry books and for some reason—I don’t blame the poets—couldn’t get any traction. Then I stumbled across this one, sat down, and read it all the way through. Arthur Sze has long been one of my favorite poets, and Sight Lines is a book I already knew well. I’ve studied the poems and shared them with my writing group. But reading the whole book, all in one go, was a very different experience. (I recommend both approaches.)

Sight Lines is Sze’s 10th book of poetry and it won the National Book Award. The Copper Canyon editors call it “prismatic,” and “stunning.” They’re not wrong. I love the way Sze both eulogizes our crippled planet and celebrates its images. The nest of a spotted towhee, Norway maples, cedar trees, deer, lichen, wild irises. Nothing escapes notice: “a fern rises out // of the crotch of an ‘õhi’a tree and droplets have collected  / on a mule’s foot fern” (“In the Bronx”). Everywhere nature’s fragility is both itself and a reminder—singing to us—of our own fragility: “…only look yes look at me now because you are blink  / about to leave” (“Lichen Song”).

Here’s a poem from a dog-eared page:

Xeriscape

When she hands you a whale vertabra,
you marvel at its heft, at a black

pebble lodged in a lateral nook;
the hollyhocks out the window

stretch into sunshine; a dictionary
in the room is open to xeriscape;

the sidewalk and gravel heat all day
and release warmth into the night;

the woman who sits and writes
sees pressed aspen board, framers

setting window headers and door-
jambs—here no polar bears rummage

at the city dump, no seal-oil lamps
flicker in the tide of darkness—

you know the influx of afternoon
clouds, thunder, ball lightning,

wavering lines of rain that evaporate
before they strike the ground,

as you carefully set the whale bone
on the glass table next to the television.

—Arthur Sze

To read more about Arthur Sze and Sight Lines, visit his page at Copper Canyon. At Poetry Foundation I learned that he has a new book,  The Glass Constellation: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) which I will need to get my hands on.

Ursula K. Le Guin, So Far So Good

SO FAR SO GOOD: FINAL POEMS: 2014-2018, Ursula K. Le Guin. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2018, 89 pages, $23 hardback, https://www.coppercanyonpress.org

I was standing in front of the poetry shelf in Edmonds Bookshop, planning to pick up a book by Jericho Brown or Ada Limón, when this little treasure caught my eye. Hardback, brand new. Not too long after Le Guin’s death in 2018.

How It Seems to Me

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

The poems here are elegiac, but also playful (“Judging beauty, which is keenest, / Eye or heart or mind or penis?”). They draw from Le Guin’s childhood, and lean into science and natural history. A sequence of 12 poems are built on the final voyage of Lt. William Bligh—or, not “the subject,” but “the metaphor” (“this little boat my body / its ragged sail my soul”).

As a wannabe novelist, this poem especially appealed to me:

The Old Novelist’s Lament

I miss the many that I was,
my lovers, my adventurers,
the women I went with to the Pole.
What was mine and what was theirs?
We were all rich. Now that I share
the cowardice of poverty,
I miss that courage of companionship.
I wish they might come back to me
and free me from this cell of self,
this stale sink of age and ills,
and take me on the ways they knew,
under the sky, across the hills.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Did Le Guin know this would be her last book? Maybe my knowing was enough. But Le Guin does seem to be letting go, or taking hold of something else, something larger: “I am such a long way from my ancestors now / in my extreme old age that I feel more one of them / than their descendent” (from “Ancestry”).

I bought the other books, too, by the way. But this one is such a lovely artifact. There’s no end of praise—and awards—that I could list here. You can read more at https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/authors/ursula-k-le-guin/ and https://www.ursulakleguin.com/home/.

By the way—should you miss it on the home page, I am reading with four other Northwest poets on April 21, 6-7 p..m, on Zoom, hosted by Edmonds Bookshop and Rose Alley Press. Navigate to https://edmondsbookshop.indielite.org/event/annual-poetry-night-virtual-again-year to find out more.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)

THEN COME BACK: THE LOST NERUDA POEMS, Pablo Neruda, trans. Forrest Gander. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2016, 163 pages, $23 ($17 paper), www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Well. What does one say about Pablo Neruda? Lauded as the greatest poet of the Americas, the greatest poet of the 20th century, influencer of all subsequent generations of … Nobelist … etc. I can’t imagine what I might add.

All I will say is that I attended the Seattle Arts and Lectures presentation of this book — back in those lovely old pre-Pandemic days, and heard a number of the poems, first in Spanish (which was like listening to music), then read by Forrest Gander (a remarkable poet in his own right), the translator. The book is part poetry collection, part artifact, with color plates. It’s funny, and loving, and generally just worth the trip.

I’m compelled to share a scrap from poem #20. Although Neruda died well before our current age of iPhones, it so anticipates our enslavement: “raising my arms as though before / a pointed gun, I gave in / to the degradations of the telephone.” “I came to be a telefiend, a telephony, / a sacred elephant, / I prostrated myself whenever the ringing / of that horrid despot demanded” — and so on (pp. 60-61).

The Prologue, by Gander, is worth reading (and rereading). He tells about how these poems overcame his reluctance to do the translation (“The last thing we need is another Neruda translation.”) And he shares the process with us — not only his encounter with the locked vault of the Neruda archives, but with his own journey through the poems, often hand-written on menus and placemats.

Once I moved through the introductory material and into the poems, it was all over….When the glowing screen revealed the lost poems, hours suddenly clipped by in minutes. I neglected to come in for dinner. The windows opaqued with night. The world hushed as I translated the first three poems. The truth is that I disappeared from myself. I was concentrated entirely into the durable moment of translation — which begins in humility, a sublimation of the self so extreme that the music of someone else’s mind might be heard. And for a while, no remnant of me existed outside of that moment.

Forrest Gander, “The Prologue”

“For a while, no remnant of me existed outside of that moment.” I can think of no better reason to come to poetry.

17.

I bid the sky good day.
There is no land. It slipped away
from the boat yesterday and last night.
Chile’s been left behind, just
a few wild birds
follow us drifting and raising up
the dark cold name of my homeland.
Accustomed as I am to goodbyes
I didn’t strain my eyes: where
are my tears bottled up?
Blood rises from my feet
and roves the galleries
of my body painting its flame.
But how do you stanch the moaning?
When it comes, heartache tags along.
But I was talking about something else.
I stood up and beyond the boat
saw nothing but sky and more sky,
blue ensured in
a web of tranquil clouds
innocent as oblivion.
The boat is a cloud on the sea
and I’ve lost track of my destination,
I’ve forgotten prow and moon,
I don’t remember where the waves go
or where the boat carries me.
There’s no room in the day for earth or sea.

— Pablo Neruda

Click on the links above to read more about Neruda and Gander. Also, you can find a description of the project and links to the paperback edition at Copper Canyon: https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/then-come-back-the-lost-neruda-by-pablo-neruda-forrest-gander/.

Forrest Gander

Ruth Stone (1915-2011)

I have to admit that this morning I felt utterly exhausted. I seemed to be suffering from a complete lack of forward momentum and was just about to commit to taking a day off from my #nationalpoetrymonth blog marathon, when I opened my email and found this:

I was thinking about how I think of my life as stories, which tripped me to think about short stories, which caused me to wonder about how a poem is like a short story….I went to your blog and right off the bat, found two great examples of poems that are short stories. Gary Copeland Lilley and Jeanne Lohmann gave me a knock on the side of the head.

It made me want to join the conversation again.

I have been reading—sometimes memorizing—Ruth Stone’s poems ever since I came across her early poem, “Orchard” in a small Modern Library anthology with a blue cover: Twentieth Century American Poetry. Published by Random House in 1944, and again in 1963, that “Twentieth-Century” seems poorly chosen, or at least arbitrary. I mean, why did the editors decide to include Emily Dickinson? Perhaps because she was published in the 20th century? But in 1944, we still had half a century to survive and write about!

Since that time I have picked up numerous copies of Ruth Stone’s books (she had 12, during her life). And now, thanks to Copper Canyon Press, we have a new, Essential Ruth Stone. I paid for a ticket so I could attend their Zoom book launch last fall, and bought a copy of the book.

Please, please follow the link (in paragraph above) to Copper Canyon and listen to Ruth’s granddaughter, Bianca, read aloud “Pokeberries.” Worth the price of admission. (And is it too much to hope that one day I’ll have a granddaughter who writes poems?)

Speaking of reading poetry aloud, I once heard Dorianne Laux recite this poem aloud—this was during her keynote talk at Litfuse, in maybe 2015. I had read the poem before, probably more than once. Frankly, it had never really come alive for me. But when Dorianne Laux recited it! Years later, I can still hear Dorianne’s voice—and Ruth Stone’s words. It also strikes me as being a perfectly condensed short story. Addressed to her late husband (who committed suicide when their daughters were young), the poem pours a whole life into its lines:

Curtains

Putting up new curtains
other windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.

What does it mean if I say this years later?

Listen, last night I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams, “No pets! No pets!”
I become my aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.

I want to dig you up and say, look,
it’s like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.

See what you miss by being dead?

—Ruth Stone