Molly’s Idea Garden

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

It’s quite nice to be out here in one of Molly’s innovative “cottages,” listening to the sound of the wind, shrubberies brushing the outside walls, branches doing arabesques; feeling a bit like Dorothy just before she’s transported to Oz. There are some garden tools within sight—rakes, a shovel, hoes, crowded into a Wilson golf bag beside one of the tall open windows where a rose climbs and the greens of several trees I can’t name cascade into view.

An old road sign stuck in the lawn says: SEE CLEARLY – DRIVE SAFELY.

I’ve brought my computer along for company; it’s running on battery power alone (like me?)—no internet here today, but Molly says the little room with the green wicker chair I’m snuggled in will have wireless soon. I’ve come to try out the space she has created as a prototype for an artist’s retreat in her half acre back yard, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll also try out a few new ideas of my own.

I might take time to write an overdue letter to an eighty-five year old poet friend who moved to the desert a couple of years ago to be nearer to her children and grandchildren, leaving behind the rich artistic life she had forged here in Sacramento, starting over again in her eighties. Her last letter to me was full of ebullience, detailing her life of poetry and art and projects and people.

She invited me to spend a week or two as her guest in the South of France! in a house that had, as if by magic, been offered to her for an entire year. Her letter also included her new business card, in red with a floral design and her soon-to-be French address and phone number.

I’ve delayed answering because I haven’t had the kind of concentrated time a response to her letter deserves; but I have it now, right here, today, on this windy morning in April, in Molly’s garden, which she was thinking at first of naming Sly Fox Farm but then opted for the cheer of Good Golly Farm instead.

I’ve shifted from the wicker chair to inhabit the modest writing desk tucked in one corner of the “cottage,” so my view of the garden has changed. I can see trumpet vines from here, and the flowers look like clusters of big orange grapes. There’s also a windmill spinning this way and that, like confused thoughts, and what looks like a tomato patch just beginning to sprout.

Nothing to disturb me now—no chores, phone calls, demands; the sounds of branches scraping the roof only energize. For two hours I can be the hermit in her hut on the mountain while life streams by.

Yes. Inside the stillness inside, the wind my heart is is quieting. The white sheers billow slightly and the sound of a jet passes over.

I love Molly’s new idea, to use her wildly creative garden as a retreat, a kind of artist’s day camp—to map out a space for writers and artists to engage for a few hours with group solitude. (I can’t help thinking of Merton in his hermit’s cabin: “The wind comes through the trees, and you breathe it.”)

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Book Review: Simic and Gaspar Twenty Years Apart

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

1.
I recently read two books, published twenty years apart, and both are works of genius. My first question to myself: How did I miss the one published in 1992, by an author whose work I have loved since the beginning? Somehow I did miss it— and then, after buying it, even lost track of it on my own shelf, among the stacks.

Dime-Store Alchemy by former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic is a collection of prose poems (some call them short essays but I disagree) about the life and work of the surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell (who also influenced Elizabeth Bishop.) Beginning with a preface that details Simic’s own fascination with Cornell and a short “chronology” of Cornell and his evolution as an artist, the
poems that follow, while exploring Cornell’s life and work, also serve as a memoir of Simic’s own travels through time and space. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970.” (p. ix)

As we read we understand that Cornell’s obsessive and inspired use of collage, his reliance on “chance operations” (p. 30) also grounds Simic’s poetic approach.

…A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks
leaning against each other make a house. In that world
one plays the game of being someone else.
This is what Cornell was after too. How to construct a
vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination
of the viewer and keep him company forever.

(“The Truth of Poetry”)

This book is so wise, so rich, so surprising that I often find myself thinking I could spend an entire year on one sentence alone. And there are so many sentences like that! —far more than the number of years left to contemplate them. “All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image,” Simic tells us in the poem, “A Force Illegible. “

Below is a poem in its entirety that speaks to the quote above:

Our Angelic Ancestor

Rimbaud should have gone to America instead of Lake Chad. He’d be a hundred years old and rummaging through a discount store. Didn’t he say he liked stupid paintings, signs, popular engravings, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers?

Arthur, poor boy, you would have walked the length of Fourteenth Street and written many more “Illuminations.”

Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a
dark alley.

2.
“Since the beginning” almost describes my following of Frank Gaspar’s poetry. His first book, The Holyoke, won the Morse Poetry Prize (selected and introduced by Mary Oliver) in 1988. I came across the book a few years later and began using it for my poetry workshops (Gaspar has published four more books of poetry and two novels since then); I have used his poetry collections in my classes ever since, and always the students are blown away by his work.

But: Back to the twenty years apart: His most recent poetry collection Late Rapturous (published by Autumn House Press) came out in 2012. It is a widely and wildly visionary collection. Like Simic, Gaspar has become a master of the prose poem form, though the poems in Gaspar’s book are generally much longer and more densely packed. Cornell would have loved them, for, like Simic’s poems, they are masterful and ingenious constructions—poetic collages “in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives” (Simic, “The Truth of Poetry,” p.46).

In fact, the poems here seem like a culmination of all Gaspar’s previous work. And if you look at Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, his second collection, you will find a poem a little past midway into the book, called “Love is the Power Which Impels One to Seek the Beautiful”—a poem which seems to foreshadow, to predict where his poetry will go in the future (beginning as he did in The Holyoke, with poems using stanza breaks, free verse lineation, a more open narrative, before he developed/discovered an ever richer, ever denser, prose poem form.)

Here are the prophetic last lines of “Love is the Power…”:

…Now, after all these years of reading
poems, I may finally understand certain questions
of form. There is the line with its heartbeat, and
there is language with its catalog of figures, and
there is symmetry and breath. Every beginning
demands an end, every curve a consummation, and
the world and our lives must locate themselves in
image or cease to exist. This could be a kind of
Longing or a kind of Will. In seeking beauty it is
sometimes necessary to reject a familiar or even
an attractive form. If a symmetry is broken, we
begin again. In some things failure is impossible
.

Yes, Gaspar’s new poems radiate wildly. They encompass. They refer. Like Simic’s book, they’re not afraid to exist in several dimensions or in several layers of existence at once—each poem a kind of “Cornell box”— “finite infinity,” as Dickinson said.

Now, to set something down in
the midst of folly, one true word, one simple cry out of the black arroyos
and dangerous washes, the canyons, the granite redoubts, but the lone sob
of the desert hen is not enough, the television’s mangled voices creeping
through the drywall and stucco are not enough…

(“June/July—Eleven Black Notebooks at the Desert Queen Motel”)

If the roof of the world is a wheel, if the heart of the world is a heart.
then you have another poem about truth, and if that’s the case
you had better not trust it, not trust its voice or its knowing vowels
or its perfumed arrogance. We’ve all been down that road, and it
leads to the edge of a town with one broken-down gasoline station
and its pile of yellowed ledgers, and one sad ghost wondering where
the glory days have slipped off to.

(“Sycamore”)

Now I am reading a book that tells me every raindrop falls to earth
exactly as it’s supposed to. That there are no errors. Therefore,
there is no therefore. Nothing to do then except go out to
the porch and listen to birdsong, listen to the prevailing
wind up in the leafless branches. Do no harm, I told myself.
Look for the small miracles. Already the moon was crisp in the east.
Already the moon was faultless behind the naked limbs, following
the black notes of the huddled birds, shining, and it wasn’t even dark yet.
(“Do No Harm”)

The moment one begins to read Late Rapturous, one feels Dickinson’s “top of one’s head flying off,” the test, for her, of a true poem, a work of true genius.

_____

Writing A Haibun

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I belong to a Poet’s Club (as we have chosen to call ourselves, and which I have written about here before.) Each time we meet, the host-poet hands out a writing assignment for the next time; our most recent assignment was a haibun.

Haibun is traditionally a prose/haiku set having to do with travel. American haibuns have stretched that tradition. As Kimiko Hahn explains in a column for poems out LOUD: “Present tense, brevity in prose, objective detachment and implication are common characteristics of modern haibun in English but no characteristic is an inviolable rule.” (http://poemsoutloud.net/columns/archive/haibun_hybrid/

My reentry blog after several months of silence is an attempt to combine several different layers into the form.

Night Travels and the Desert Poet

Yes, I’m sleepwalking while awake so I’ll remember what I see. I undo the lock, lift up the clear pane, and hoist myself in through the open window. I’m not a prowler or a thief, so I simply stand there in the dark while my eyes adjust. I can already make out a book by the desert poet, open on a bedside table. A man is asleep in the bed beside it; his left arm is extended, the hand relaxed and open so his index finger just grazes the page (the poem) where a truck hauling used generators pulls into a motel parking lot, causing the windowpanes in that stanza to vibrate. The sleeper doesn’t hear this of course, and it’s hard to know if his finger can translate words on the page into messages his dreaming brain will understand. A tall brass lamp beside his bed has a blue-green shade that must, when it’s switched on, cast a light that shimmers like the water in an unpolluted mountain lake. I imagine it now, lapping the sleeper as he sits in bed reading: It’s midnight. He props himself up with an extra pillow and opens the desert poet’s book; the rumpled green quilt on the bed is drawn around him as he stops to savor words like “dharma” and “hamstrung” and “multitudinous”; he lingers over many passages in the surrounding poetic code. As I said, I’m not a thief, so I won’t pry open the sleeper’s thoughts—won’t ask how it feels to travel through a desert washed in light like blue-green water—if the desert poet’s heat has set fire to some ideas—if they’re boiling inside!—if his cup runneth over and his heartbeat measures out equal parts of sorrow and jubilation. Instead I gaze slowly around again, trying to take it all in—I’m aiming here for a generosity of looking. This time I see a pair of glasses, a lace cloth on the dresser—reticella—a tear in one corner, as if something sharp had caught in a loop and ripped it there. I notice the tiny bottle of perfume, and a hand mirror beside a black and white photo in a silver frame—the not-so surprising fact that the woman pictured there looks strangely like the daytime me. I touch nothing, except with memory’s thumb. I climb silently back through the still-open window to the other side. I leave the sleeper inside to lock things up, to pull the pane shut again, if he must.

travel weary night
sleeps—cloud bed, open window
someone’s eye climbs in

(Have I written a haibun? Only the Poet’s Club–and maybe the Night Traveler– knows….)

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Celebration as Protest

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

In California the state fiscal crisis has resulted in the scheduled closure of seventy state parks (25% of the total number) by July of 2012. The majority of the parks scheduled for closure are in Northern California where the poet Katherine Hastings lives.

Hastings, who runs a well-respected reading series in Santa Rosa, CA, called WordTemple, and hosts a public radio program by the same name on NPR affiliate KRCB FM, is an avid hiker and park-goer, so when she heard the news about the impending park closures, her immediate response was to find some way to draw attention to the closures as a means of protest.

The result was an anthology of poems, What Redwoods KnowPoems from California’s State Parks, which protests the closures through a celebration by fourteen poets of state parks as the vital, historic and—still all-too rare for many urban dwellers—restorative presence of wildness in our lives.

To quote a now often-quoted passage from Hastings’ eloquent introduction:

“The idea of this book didn’t come about as a way to save our parks; I’m not unrealistic,” said Katherine in the introduction of her book. “But some action had to be taken so I put out a call to poets in Sonoma County to join me in hikes through several state parks and asked them and other poets up-and-down the state to submit poems inspired by the parks in their areas, whether they are scheduled for closure now or not.”

So far Hastings has scheduled readings from the anthology up and down the coast and heartland of California, including one in the capital (and my home city), Sacramento.

A while ago I wrote about Martha Ann Blackman’s decade long protest against the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. (It started for Blackman with the writing of a poem and ended with the plant’s closure.) Hastings is another poet who is doing her best to harness the power of the word for the common good.

To read more about the anthology and the thirteen poets in it (of which I am one), to hear the poets read from the collection, to order a copy, or to read more about the specific park closures, click on the links below.

Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from “Breathing,” one of Hastings’ poems included in the collection, about (scheduled for closure) Jack London State Park:

Where braided shadows of redwoods drape

Nests of mice, voles. Breath comes more softly

Standing at the picket fence of graves—

London under the red rock, fresh ashes

Poured in a mound nearby. (We wondered if

That’s desecration or a human right.)…

(Hastings’ full-length collection, Cloud-Fire, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvill Press in the fall.)

_____

Links:

http://www.calparks.org/stories/poems-from-california-state.html

http://www.calparks.org/takeaction/park-closures/

http://krcb.org/featured-radio-shows/wordtemple (Scroll down to What Redwoods Know)

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Schizo-writerac

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I just finished reading a review of mine, published only recently though I wrote it quite some time ago. It surprised me. Why? Because it’s a pretty decent piece of writing, and I have absolutely no sense of being the person who wrote it.

Okay, I know I wrote it—I remember working on it–and it’s in my computer review files. But: If you threatened me with the gallows right now—if you said: Write that review again here “or else,” I’d have to take the knotted noose from your hands, place it around my own neck, and jump.

This feeling of complete alienation doesn’t happen as much when I read my published poems again (though there are occasions), but it always occurs when I revisit essays or critical prose (yes, even blog entries though they feel more casual.) I simply cannot connect to the self who conjured those words. (You may have experienced a similar disconnect when looking at papers from your college days—your thesis perhaps!)

After all these years I am still baffled to realize there are at least two distinctly separate selves living inside this writer. And they don’t really know each other all that well.

Getting them to sit down to a cup of coffee together doesn’t help. Huh, my quotidian self mutters when I see some obscure verb I somehow used in an especially clever way. How did “she” come up with that? (Quotidian-self never has the answer.)

“She” is the self who lives in “the zone” (or she can at least access it from time to time.) Zone-self also has a full-time secretary who looks things up—a diligent worker, confined to a small chamber in my own left frontal lobe, who lives for revision alone; her favorite reads are any and all forms of reference materials. She also happens to be a bigamist—married at present to Webster’s unabridged, as well as to both Roget’s and Rodale’s Synonym Finder. (Fortunately this worker-bee never needs to eat or sleep—she’s on call whenever the zone-self beckons, 24/7. (I know—now I’ve identified three selves—so far. Is there a doctor in the house?!)

But: Back to the review: Will somebody give it a gold star?—my mother, perhaps? my lanky high school English teacher, Mr. Dudley Igo? (Where I go they go…where they have gone I shall go…) Even if they did, even if they could, the writer who receives it will never be the starry-eyed one who is nervously sipping a cup of green tea on this pleasant autumnal morning, 2011—the one currently poring over this short blog entry (delaying a long string of errands that must begin with the arrow pointing to “empty” and thus a visit to the Arco for gas)—the same one scratching her head while trying to figure out how to coin a new word: “schizo-writerac.”

_____

Notes on 9/11

by Susan Kelly-Dewitt

Visiting My Daughter
In Manhattan, October, 2001

A child’s laugh shatters

the glass we call rue

while a ruckus of sirens jams

the neighborhoods.

Everywhere we walk

the wind frisks us,

the brisk autumn air

pats us down.

-=-

In a cramped noodle shop

a whole roast pig blurs by,

burnt velvet.

The harried waiter wedges past

with plates of boiled fish

and goodwill floats on a broth

of noise — dish clatter, chopstick

clicks, friendly banter.

We nibble each minute

like a rationed sweet.

________________

On 9/11, I board a 6:00 AM flight to San Francisco, where I plan to change planes and fly on to JFK to visit my daughter in Brooklyn.

Not long after liftoff our plane begins to take some serious swoops and dips. Since it’s a small commuter jet, we hang on, breathing hard, assuming the pilot is simply riding out some tenacious gusts. As we land he announces the news: all flights are cancelled indefinitely. Whether en route to Honolulu, Tokyo, L.A. or, like me, NYC, we have all reached the end of our air travel line for that day. We file off the plane in silence, though I’m pretty sure I can hear other hearts pounding as unsteadily as my own.

Inside the terminal we join a tense crowd already gathered around the TV news: the second plane hits. A few people gasp out what seems too logical: World War III. I run to get in a long line at the nearest payphone (still extant back then) hoping I can get through to my daughter before the lines jam, praying she hasn’t already left for her office on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

As it happens I do get through. She’s home; she’s safe; she’s okay. (She had planned to go in to work later than usual that day; they have been watching the burning Towers from the roof of their apartment, along with a deadly plume blowing Brooklyn’s way.) I also manage to reach the rest of my family in Sacramento before the lines go haywire.

In the airport now: chaos — bomb squads, bomb-sniffing dogs, people in long but unusually quiet lines at ticket counters, or in nervous coils at the phones — people trying to figure out how to get back home, whether that means into the City, across to the East Bay, or someplace far away like Jakarta or Minnesota. Rumors are everywhere — no buses, no trains — no anything except for taxis and shuttles already there for the usual workday. They vanish of course, all overflowing with passengers.

I too get lucky though. I find a space on a Super Shuttle and make it to Berkeley before they close the Bay Bridge. The journey (about twenty-five minutes on an ordinary non-rush-hour day) takes 5 1/2 hours. They drop me off at Heyday Books, where I’ll wait for my husband to drive down from Sacramento to pick me up. (The last passenger, a woman next to me, has offered the driver $500 to take her to Modesto, so off they go.)

________________

A month later I try again. I make it this time. My daughter meets me at a changed La Guardia.

In the City, things have quieted down but not that much. Streets and some subway routes are still blocked off. There are bomb threats somewhere every day. (One evening I meet her in midtown Manhattan; we’re strolling a few blocks toward the Empire State Building when dozens of people begin running pell-mell toward us: There’s a bomb in the Empire State Building! We look up and yes it looks like smoke is billowing from the top floor. Sirens scream past. A convoy screeches to a halt down the block. That’s enough — we turn and run with the others. Later we hear the “smoke” was a fast-moving cloudbank).

Everywhere we go, we are stopped, redirected, scanned, searched. At the Met: The Islamic wing is closed. A woman guard pats me down, shines a flashlight into my purse, then waves me into the galleries: a preview of The Ordinary in the years to come. The process repeats at the Public Library.

__________________

We all have our memories of 9/11; those of us lucky enough not to have lost anyone haven’t forgotten how close to the bone it felt as we witnessed so vividly the terrible losses of others. We found out that day what it is like to be born, through no fault of one’s own, into a war-torn country where every day could be some version of 9/11 — a place like Afghanistan is today.

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Russell Thorburn

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I can’t remember how many years ago I first “met” Russ Thorburn (ten maybe?) but it was after I saw his ad for manuscript editing in Poets & Writers.

At that time I had a collection I had loosely titled “Eden Street” and, after some emails back and forth, I decided to send him a stack of poems, which he sifted and sorted into the draft of an early full-length collection. (I’ve written here before about how many of those aborted attempts I made over the years…) Anyway, Russ and I have stayed in contact (though erratically) ever since, and it turned out that my book, The Fortunate Islands, was published by Marick Press, which had also published his Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged, a year or so before—it was in fact Russ who first suggested I try Marick Press; that suggestion resulted in a string of coincidences and in Ilya Kaminsky’s decision months later to go to bat for my book with Marick’s publisher.

But: back to Russ. I have kept track of his publications over the years since we first corresponded, beginning with Approximate Desire, published by New Issues in 1999. Since the book with Marick, he has published two others (both in 2009), which I want to write briefly about here. (Russ has also written and produced several plays, which you can read about on his website:

http://russthorburn.com/russell.htm

The Whole Tree as Told to the Backyard is an eccentric and ingenious little collection of poems—a big gift in a small package—a 5 x 6 paperback (reminiscent of the City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series) with a charming cover drawing by Bernie Park, who also appears in two poems between its covers. The blurb on the back, by Peter Markus, mentions the poems’ “wild sense of invention”; Marcus also notes that “it’s difficult to say if Thorburn is inventing a personal past or drawing from it.” That mystery is part of what makes reading these poems so engaging and surprising. Think of a Georges Braque painting in poetry—at least that’s my take—Braque bordering on surrealism. (From Wikipedia: “Braque described ‘objects shattered into fragments… [as] a way of getting closest to the object…’” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Braque)

To illustrate how Thorburn shatters his images into wholeness, here is a snippet from “The Snow Was Articulate” on page 46:

A snow with a nervous condition

reaching for upper registers or talking

about Varykino. Six o’clock

the moon said in its ghostly timepiece.

The snow implored you to use science

to explore why you hit the guardrail

to the abyss. You recalled the vertigo

and were overcome by the Russian poet

whose voice turned your head.

You have to love “snow with a nervous condition”!

The allusion in this excerpt is to Pasternak and his 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, and to the subsequent 1965 film by David Lean—references that also reflect Thorburn’s lifelong interest in cinema. That said, I’ll let this be the segue to The Drunken Piano, his other 2009 collection, published by March Street Press.

Here from that book is the last poem in the first section, which takes its title from Bergman’s 1968 Swedish film:

Hour of the Wolf

The late hour of a man looking at himself

in the reflection of a bus window at three A.M.,

as he travels through the heart back

to her in spite of returning terror. Snow pounds

the bus as he recalls the mouth of Liv Ullman

watching her husband, Max von Sydow,

drive crazily around a canvas with a knife.

Snow scrapes the windshield faster

than the wipers can clear madness away,

and Lake Michigan lies frozen and smiling

between trees at the travelers, as the bus driver

sings a blues song. The young traveler

pictures a pregnant Liv Ullman with her

dramatic cheekbones. He sees his own wife

alone with their child, the man but twenty-five

feeling tightened by his wire-rims and anxious,

hoping he won’t lose everything.

A middle-aged woman asks for his destination.

He closes his eyes afraid to sleep because

of the weathered barns and veins, motels

peeled down to vacancy signs, all the yellow

lines we cross over in our sleep.


Drunken Piano, like so much of Thorburn’s work, is a crazy and invigorating drive through language and story (through history). It’s improvisational in the best way—it’s jazzy, and it also sings the blues.

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The News

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Two days ago I was at a local coffee house replenishing our supply of dark roast. I placed the order and handed my empty bag to the young woman behind the counter. She handed it back to me a few minutes later; as she tapped the bag, then folded and smoothed the worn paper, we exchanged pleasantries about the afternoon’s sunny weather which was at that very moment shifting to storm.

Flood warning, I said. She hadn’t heard or read any news that day and, by way of explanation, fixed me with a worn look as she shrugged: ‘There’s just too much bad news out there right now,’ she said.

Like so many of us I had spent much of the day reading the changing headlines and the stories attached: the crises in the Middle East, more Afghanistan, and the devastation in Japan. Mostly I had focused on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, on the reactors’ failure, the possible plume of radiation that sent so many folks in my hometown of Sacramento on a search for iodine pills that they exhausted the city’s supply.

Japan is close to home for us; we have a large Japanese community in our city and we too live in earthquake country. We also have three defunct nuclear reactors nearby, which, when operative, developed a series of problems now considered to be the third-most significant nuclear safety occurrence in the U.S. [Wikipedia] The plant, which opened in 1977, was shut down after a decisive vote in a 1989 special referendum. A poet here, Martha Ann Blackman, had a lot to do with Rancho Seco’s closure. (She has a poem about the process called ‘It Only Took Ten Years’ in her recent chapbook from Rattlesnake Press, The Leaves on the Caring Tree.) Here is an excerpt from her bio on Medusa’s Kitchen http://medusaskitchen.blogspot:

[Blackman] was a spokesperson for Sacramentans for SAFE Energy (SAFE), the local grass-roots group that qualified the initiative for a public vote on shutting down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant — the only nuclear power plant in the world that’s been shut down in this way. Martha says, ‘This is especially relevant because it was a poem I wrote that caused me to get involved in the ten years I spent trying to get the nuke shut down.’

Here is a case for how both a poet and a poem can and did change the world.
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Art and Soul

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

As soon as I came up with that title I realized I just can’t help myself—I am an ad man’s daughter after all; I come by the glib and the slick naturally. That said (and perhaps as a counter to the genetic link!), I also put my heart and soul into most of the works I attempt (the blessing and curse I was reviewing inside myself, which prompted me to write this short essay.)

I throw myself from the cliffs, I hurl myself into the wild surf of language, or, if I’m painting, into the swift currents of color, line and shape. If that sounds like it could be painful—well, it sometimes is. It is also exhilarating.

An idea glimmers. A scene or a subject arrives. That usually means a lot of preliminary background work—pushing myself into the darkest crannies, the narrowest passageways—arriving at all the dead ends and also the occasional airy rooms where some apparition shimmers into being at the edges of consciousness. The excitement of the original idea has given way to the dig and the delve of it.

Recently I conducted an author interview onstage before an audience. When, a few weeks before, I had committed to the job, I began reading everything I could find by and about this writer—novels, short stories, reviews, essays and interviews. I listened to whatever I could find on the internet. I researched the landscapes in her books; I looked up places and people I suspected might have inspired some of the stories and writing. My research took me all over the virtual globe, and across the virtual centuries. As I researched I jotted notes, then wrote pages and pages of thoughts and questions for the author.

Nearly all of which I discarded in the end, preferring instead to write a bare-bones outline with a few key prompts to remind me of those subjects I wanted to be sure to touch upon—a few guideposts to keep me from going astray, from leading the author into the wilderness while the spotlights glared.

It was a lot like writing a poem. The pages and pages of notes, the revisions, the futile “final drafts” that morph into longer/shorter/completely different shapes on the page; that suddenly jettison what seemed most important, only to end up on some rocky little peak sticking up out of the oceans of printer paper and thought: the poem! at last! (I won’t even mention those paintings with seven layers of paint, seven versions of “cushion” under the final image…)

The author I interviewed wrote her first short story while she was in graduate school. She put it through seventy-five drafts—she revised it seventy-five times. Then it won a Pushcart Prize. She put her heart and soul into it, as we all do when we’re serious about making art.

Art and soul: There is, I remind the relentless self-critic inside, nothing glib or slick about that.

The Attic of the Mind

I climbed the ladder
to that place

where bare nails plunged
through the tarry skull

of the house;
where light filed

in through slits
in slivers

between raw
timbers.

_____

The Rootless Tree of Imagination

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

It’s a bright sunny January day and I’m cold—freezing actually—even though the frost on the lawn melted hours ago, wafting up in ghostly drifts—even though I’m wearing several layers of clothes, like Heidi when she arrived at her grandfather’s house in the Alps.

The poet in me paces, turns the heat to 68 (a rare event since we usually keep the thermostat at 64-66). She makes a cup of Zen tea, worrying, worrying the entire time—is it spiritual cold? Is it some signal from the atmosphere, personal, or maybe even global?

Am I coming down with something again? (I just got over a bout of flu.) Or am I simply experiencing the chill that goes along with certain mornings, that sluggish iciness in the veins that occasionally strikes on even the most clement of spring days?

Whatever it is I pile on the blankets then listen to Susan Stewart’s Cambridge Forum talk on poetry and perception. I reread the Bill Moyers interview with Paul Muldoon in Fooling With Words—I have a bit more leisure to do this now, old as I am, young as I was.

I get up to do the dishes, feeling the ice in my knees but I’m preoccupied. Something is beginning to write itself in my head. The shine on the wet tumblers I set to drain by the sink beams into me; I sense a thaw, a trickling at the base of my brain.

Six paragraphs in and a tangible warming. The brain and heart blood circulating. The oxygen flowing again. (This is exactly what I mean when I tell students: Write or die!) I hear the garbage trucks swinging by outside, saving us from epidemic and plague. I feel our brothers the ants tunneling beneath me in their subterranean caves—

I am losing myself in and to the Word—dressed in my layers I begin toiling toward it like that “small and shapeless person” up the mountain to some Alm-Uncle—like an ant, laboring in the communal villages of language.

“You just become absorbed in how words work, making them work for you. If you’re very lucky, those words will occasionally make some music. And that takes over your life.”*

Under a Yellow Leaf

I was trying to learn what it is to be nearly
invisible, the size of a pink pea

blossom’s sticky anther, a single grain
of pollen. I shrank down then stretched

out on my back under the leaf’s
crisp spine. I shook myself loose

the way an adventurer shakes the dust
from his boots, having just returned home

by ship from a perilous voyage
during which he starved and almost

drowned. What did I see down there?
Everything! The rootless tree

of imagination.

*Paul Muldoon, Fooling With Words, page 162.
_____

The World of Ten Thousand Poems

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

If you walked into my kitchen right now you’d see the cartoon I snipped from a December 2006 New Yorker posted on a cupboard door beside one of Snoopy typing away on the roof of his doghouse, and a photograph of our now not-so-new new president signing something into law.

In the New Yorker cartoon a “suit” with a briefcase stands with his shoulders somewhat slumped and a puzzled, slightly grouchy look on his face. He’s staring at the gabby snail addressing him from the sidewalk below. The caption reads: “I’m your spirit animal.”

This cartoon (along with some knowing laughter) seems like a good place to begin a short saga of writing life which Snail has guided, occasionally stepping aside for Raven or Butterfly.

-==-

Indeed I have, in the world of ten thousand poems, put together many manuscripts—both chapbooks and full-length collections—beginning with my Master’s thesis Fireweed, an early effort with a few good poems in it and many earnest but flawed attempts at poems. (I confess: Some years ago I did sneak into the college library and remove Fireweed from the shelf permanently—the kind of heist I’ve heard other poets admit to as well, especially after a glass of wine.) My next manuscript was called Confronting the Angel, a title I soon jettisoned when I was advised that angels were “out” (this was the early eighties) then reclaimed—but jettisoned again when angels were suddenly “in” once more, materializing (or so it seemed) on poetry book covers everywhere.

The new decade brought a reworked sequence of sixty plus pages called Words in Earthquake Country. I felt especially sympathetic to this title and its inherent metaphor—it felt kindred too because in real-time I live within sixty miles of several major California faults. Words was also abandoned then reclaimed again (briefly) after my experience of the Loma Prieta earthquake and my inability for a few hours to check on the welfare of my children a hundred miles away. (For weeks afterward I felt like I was seasick, walking on liquid earth. Twenty-one years later I still remember vividly the sound the quake made—the roar of a train bearing down on us.)

Loma Prieta, 1989

upwind upriver glass
shook my son into the arms

of his sister and news
telephoned their feet

they stood fast there
bold as headlines

cracked bloodlines in plaster
incisions in concrete

some true things collapsed
a bridge in our minds

snapped and fear
furrowed like headlights

in the belly of the bay
hands and knees crawled

but the way was
flashlit the way was after

shock pilgrims
everything tumbledown

and shrines of dead
batteries

Fast forward a few more years: to Water Signs, another collection and title that hung on, making a few publisher rounds even as it outlived itself, until the poems in it morphed drastically and thus cried out for more change. The transformation occurred; the new version was called Eden Street; like all Edenic stories, this one too was short-lived.

So many false starts in this world of ten thousand poems!—Many tries at chapbooks too, titles like Glassworks, Attar, Face in the Glass, Archipelagos of Old Age, among the few I can remember. Most went the way of all those others I filed in the bright blue twenty-gallon recycling cans beneath the pink crepe myrtle in my yard.

Each time I unloosed and tossed yet another stack of poetic history in, I bowed to the loquacious snail at my feet.

_____

Book Review: Riding the Capitol Corridor Line

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’m on the train to my home city, traveling east rather unsteadily through the flooded marshlands. I’m reading a strange little book I found on my daughter’s shelf a few hours ago—Soulstorm, a collection of short stories by Clarice Lispector (1925-1977), translated from the Portuguese by Alexis Levitin, and first published in 1974. I’ve never read her work before, and this collection of shorts (most only a few pages long) is surprising and energizing.

For one thing, her stories don’t feel the need to explain, justify or probe. They are what they are, and so are their characters. In “The Body” for instance, Beatrice and Carmen (“the hotheaded one”)—part of a ménage a trois—stab to death their lover and partner, Xavier, and bury him in the garden with a rose cutting that magically roots and blooms there. The police find them out, but allow them to go free; “…otherwise there will be lots of noise, lots of paperwork, lots of gossip.” One by one each character, each story announces: What is is. It’s all mystery.

Earlier this morning, on this same train but headed west, I also read a new book of poems called Writing the Silences by the ninety-year old poet Richard O. Moore. It is (despite his long life in poetry initiated by a class with Josephine Miles at Berkeley and, soon after, by his hanging out with Kenneth Rexroth’s gang in San Francisco in the late thirties and forties) only Moore’s second full-length collection.

The book includes a wonderful foreword by Brenda Hillman (Moore took a workshop from her some years ago and eventually they became friends), as well as several pages of photographs at the end: Moore with Jarrell, with Zukovsky, with Ginsberg and Orlovsky, along with photos taken by Moore—of Creeley, Levertov, and Sexton, among others.

Already a pacifist, he was classified as “4F” in WW II, with a diagnosis of “psychotic neurotic” (because he answered several questions honestly, among them: “What do you do for a living?” Answer: “I’m a poet.”) Moore subsequently became an adviser to war resisters and one of the founders of the first non-profit public radio stations in the U.S.

After the war, Hillman says, ”Moore’s poetry came to be dominated by images of barren landscapes and resistance to violence.” She describes how he began as something of an imagist (though always an eclectic), and how philosophical enquiry, his concern from early on, became more and more of a focus in his work: “His poetry has continued to reflect the values and eclectic free-verse styles of the San Francisco Renaissance writers: a growing interest in experimental lyric; a blend of traditional rhymes with very relaxed, unfettered prose poetry…fresh forms of personal address; and a growing interest in the philosophy of language as subject matter and in method.”

As I rocked side to side in my seat, as the marshlands flashed past with their mirror-shards, and we rattled and swayed westward toward the bay, I felt “the hot and onrushing blood” [“The Winter Garden”] of Moore’s words rushing along inside me.

You could say that Lispector was (that we all are), in a different way, also “writing the silences” and, that just as the characters in Lispector’s collection feel no need to explain, Moore’s poems also seem to insist: What is is—and yes, my friends, it’s all mystery. (Even at ninety. No doubt, especially at ninety.)

I’ll close with brief excerpts from two of Moore’s poems. I want him to have the last word:

dismantle history’s theoretic spine
with life the issue guess what hinders and what serves

turn inside out and outside in
abandon the cellular palace of the skin
blown to bits or spotted with old age

force together peace and humankind
in an exploded classroom of the mind

speak of resurrection and of ruin
in a battlefield with shot down angels strewn

and wild flattened scarecrows words on a page
of desolations patronage

***

madness crept into my pocket
like a hairy bug

I cannot say I saw it
but I believe it
to be there waiting

_____

Art-Poetica

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I painted my first Emily Dickinson in 1992, probably as a kind of totem. I had spent my early childhood living in a cottage my parents rented on the property of a defunct artist’s colony in the hills outside Honolulu. Founded by artists Lillie Gay and George Burroughs Torrey after they eloped (with some scandal attached), the colony was called “Wailele”—“Leaping Waters”—in homage to Kalihi Stream, which cut through the artists’ estate, and the Falls which was so central to the atmosphere there.

Our cottage was isolated from the world outside—from “civilization”—but the Torrey mansion and thatched “teahouse” gallery, where art salons had lit up so many tropical nights, were only a short walk down a lava stone path. I spent \my playtime in the shadows of that world, beside huge paintings that still occupied the teahouse walls.

But I didn’t pursue art myself (though I did play around with it) until a Drawing 1 class in college, where I rendered passionately and the instructor decided very publicly that my drawings “had no imagination.” I put aside the earnest pencils and charcoals, the Conte crayons, in favor of another perilous pursuit: poetry.

Several years later a friend reeled me back into the world of art with some exercises in Betty Edwards’ Drawing with the Right Brain, which then led to a few years of study with artists Jimmy Suzuki and Anne Gregory (http://www.annegregoryart.com/), which resulted a few years after that in my first solo show. Since by this time I was also deeply involved in the life of poetry, I began to wonder how I might incorporate the poetry with the art, fuse the two somehow.

In the mid-eighties I went to the Degas show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I learned his method of working chalk pastels into wet watercolors. I came home immediately and tried Degas’ technique—painting three nudes colors I intensified with the melted pastels; then I inked in a poem (“Shadow Woman,” which appeared in Hawaii Review) in unbroken lines, as a frame around the three figures, adding fragments of lines here and there like little free-floating webs of word-dust. (The poem was in part a meditation on how our cells replace themselves every seven to ten years.) The piece hangs in my dining room twenty-five years later. It is certainly more successful than other pieces I attempted, but it never accomplished what I hoped for: the fusion of visual image and word into something entirely other.

But: Back to Emily: In the early nineties, I was working in an arts program for homeless and low income women—teaching both art and poetry—and came up with an idea a group project. The women painted self-portraits in acrylic on blank, unglazed 5 x 5 ceramic tiles; when finished we assembled a splendid mural—a mosaic of painted selves. The project set me off on a tile-painting mission of my own that included (along with portraits of several women artists in the program, including “Judy,” of A Camellia for Judy, and icons like Kahlo and O’Keeffe) my first painting of Dickinson—just her face this time, with that bit of famous ribbon at her neck, on a red background, with leaves, a crescent moon and those familiar lines, that wishful mantra: “I dwell in Possibility/ A fairer House than Prose.”

____

Wake and Wake

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt 

Once, while searching for an old photo, my mother unearthed an envelope that contained:

• My father’s obituary, dated 11/5/69
• A holy card (Saint Francis) from his funeral
• A dried four-leaf clover in clear plastic wrap
• A card with emergency air raid instructions
• Another card with a list of emergency alerts
o Air raid
o Ground attack
o Tidal wave
• A card explaining blood types, circa 1943: “Everyone’s blood is the best!”

“Madwomen weave gossamer around themselves that nobody can get through.” [Stephanie Golden, The Women Outside]

Mr. Y, carrying two crossed 2 x 4’s down his driveway, like Christ with the crucifix. (His stooped shoulders add to the image but his cropped white hair and plaid shirt detract.) And why shouldn’t he be a Christ? Though no crowds gather, only shadows of acanthus and sycamore, the sky is as blue as the Madonna’s robes.

The letter from the War Dept, postmarked 10/31/1944—an officer writing to tell my mother that her dearest love Oscar Sorensen (PFC) had been killed instantly by shrapnel from a grenade on Saipan. “He was an excellent soldier in every respect and died bravely.” Signed, Andrew B Campbell, 1st Lt. Chief Commanding Officer, 23 Oct 1944.

Maybe we volunteered for apocalypse,
lined up at the soul-bank, ready to donate.

Tranströmer: “We are at a party that doesn’t love us.”

How does a poet wake into some new part of the writing
life? Sometimes we hold a wake. We arrange the lighted
candles in a circle around our notebooks, invite the mourners,
recite the ancient texts. We step into the poems’ wake.
We keep watch and pray.

_____

Poet’s Club

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Our first “Poet’s Club” was held at Kathleen Lynch’s house. Our group included Catherine French (Side Show), Carol Frith, (her latest, two for a journey just came out from David Robert Books), Victoria Dalkey (twenty-nine poems and In the Absence of Silver) Lisa Dominguez Abraham (Low Notes), Mary Zeppa (Little Ship of Blessing and The Battered Bride Overture) Kathleen, of course, (whose book Hinge won the Black Zinnia prize a few years ago, and who I’ve written about in a previous blog), and me—seven women—that was our plan.

Until someone brought up the idea of including Quinton Duval, poet and publisher of Red Wing Press, and a longtime pal to most of us. 

Quinton’s poetry is full of duende; it has a great, big heart—and, not surprisingly, so does he. He studied with Dennis Schmitz here in Sacramento, and with Dick Hugo in Montana; his first full-length book, Dinner Music, came out from Lost Roads in 1984 and, after a long hiatus, Cedar House Press brought out another full-length collection, Joe’s Rain, in 2005. Among Summer Pines, his latest chapbook, came out two years ago. 

We took a vote: Q, as we call him, was in

And so we’ve had a great time these past few years, meeting roughly every month or two—celebrating and sometimes pummeling (or both) the books we read and discuss—writing lots of new poems—sipping more than a few glasses of the good grape, and savoring quite a few tasty dishes (like Q’s famous-among-us Savory Bread Pudding). 

“Poetry withers without fellowship,” Stanley Kunitz once said. 

We have been in the fellowship thick of it. We love each other, nothing romantic—we’re joined at the poem’s hip. 

Things changed a few weeks back. 

The last time I saw him Q was battling allergies; he was scheduled to be the host for our upcoming meeting but had to postpone it when his doc subsequently diagnosed him with bacterial pneumonia. Shortly after that, we got word that Q was being taken to ER. They put him on oxygen and checked him into ICU.  We were asked to hold off visiting until he was stronger. 

Then the tests began, and a few days later we were told it was cancer—one of the most aggressive kinds, and it had spread almost everywhere. We felt like our hearts were being ripped from our chests. 

Q died on Monday, May 10th. They had sent him home a few days earlier, in an attempt to make him more comfortable. We know his death was peaceful, without pain, and within view of the garden he loved. That helps some, of course. 

And Q’s poems are still so alive on the page! —so full of living and breathing and singing. It’s hard not to ache for him, and for ourselves when we read them now (so many of them in his last collection like a long goodbye to life) even as we also take heart from his words. 

That word heart keeps coming up when we think of Q. Here is the link to his  book Joe’s Rain. You can read a bit about Q here, and sample a few of his big-hearted poems for yourself. 

http://www.cedarhousebooks.org/jr_author.html 

And here is my own tribute to Q, which I was asked to write for our local publication, Poetry Now. The next issue will be dedicated to Q. The poem appears here with their permission. http://www.sacramentopoetrycenter.org/pn.htm)

 

Letter to Q, May 17, 2010

 

…a piece of the continent/ A part of the main…

                                    –John Donne 

 

Dear Q,

 

This morning our feisty little dazzler of a hummingbird

dropped by, with the thrum and whirr of  those posh

 

jade wings, and that off-kilter

boutonniere of shy ruby.

 

Then the local host, aerialist and stickler for tunes,

Mr. Mockingbird, started in a cappella; so of course

 

I thought of you, and that virtuoso

gang of old choristers, who

 

by now you must have found. I picture the lot of you

crowded around some infinite campfire’s galactic blaze,

 

hoisting a few glasses of otherworld wine,

as you cook up that dreamy asparagus

 

and potato number you nonchalantly served us a few months back.

Even a body without a body as we know it will zero in on

 

certain basic constellations—

to eat and drink whatever is

 

offered, of fellowship, good wine, asparagus, and stars. (As you would

say, it’s all nectar.) So I know you’ll stab anything and everything you can

 

with that strange new beak

of invisible heart. You’ll stir it up,

 

heat it to boiling, and write a few more great recipes for song. 

                                    (Quinton Duval, November 6, 2008-May 10, 2010)

_____

Aunt Emily

Aunt Emily

Imagining Emily Dickinson in 1852

 

 She’s thinking of song—

dividing the day into eight

juicy bits,

 

into sixty little books

of six folded sheets,

“always in ink,”

 

the worm of oblivion

tucked neatly into one

gnawed corner—

 

polishing some lapidary

idea of a frayed eternity.

 

Her hair is red

feathers—a robin’s

breast (wary little bird

binding us to her

paint.) Her

 

wandering pupil stares

sideways to infinity;

it is morning where she is—

 

the sun passing

like a swollen eye

across the crowded

graveyard.

 

Sewing Box

 

Half-hidden, her thimble,

     little dimpled well.

                 What residue

                 of her salt

     does it contain?

 

(The chary bird in me

       loves to sip from it.)

                  Measuring tape, scissors…

                  Enough equipment here

     for the tedious Fates.

 

Yes, here is her favorite

       pincushion, the sharps

                     and darners stuck in it

                     like small, heroic

swords.

 

Sacred Love

 

The trees practice it

all winter—the honey

 

locusts, with their spiritual

thorns, their dry pods

 

of sweetness,

the death pale birches

 

like bony priestesses

and the deflowered flower

 

girl plums, naked

and wind-thrashed,

 

in bruise colors.

But, what ascetic hermit

 

can resist disporting

when April unbosoms!

 

one of Vermeer’s women,

dressed up in such lush

 

tapestries, lavish embroideries,

brazen perfumes—

 _____

Thinking About Irina Ratushinskaya

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’m not quite sure what got me thinking about Irina Ratushinskaya recently but something did, and brought back how closely I followed her work during the eighties; Poets all over the world took her case very personally. Many of us wrote letters protesting her imprisonment and asking for her release. (Here is a link to an appeal in the New York Review of Books on June 30, 1983: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6168 )

Arrested in 1982 for her involvement with the human rights movement and for writing poems that were considered anti-Soviet propaganda, she was tried and sentenced to seven years hard labor and five years of internal exile; almost immediately she was sent to a labor camp where she lived as a “zek” and continued secretly to write poems by carving them into bars of soap, memorizing them, and then destroying the evidence by washing them away. (She also copied poems in minuscule script onto strips of paper which she managed to smuggle out; a number of these were published in the 1984 collection Poems and later in Pencil Letter.) Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated her release in October, 1986, an agreement timed to warm things for the summit in Reykjavik. Ratushinskaya’s Soviet citizenship was revoked; physically frail after years of harsh camp conditions, she emigrated to the U.S., where she lived for two years (as the poet-in-residence at Northwestern University) before moving to London, and then finally back home to Russia in the late nineties. A book of her poems, Beyond the Limit, came out in 1987, shortly after her release; Gray is the Color of Hope, a memoir, appeared in 1988. If you haven’t read these, you should.

Since then Ratushinskaya has published a number of volumes, including Wind of the Journey, poems in Russian and English from Cornerstone Press (2000), translated by Lydia Razran Stone. Here is poem 35 from that collection:

    The cock has sung
    But angel horns are still.
    We live on a narrow ledge above
    The precipice of time.
    We sense the end is near.
    But, heedless, children run.
    There are no dreams that will
    Assuage their urge to fly.
    What power then is this?
    Drawing them to the abyss?

    (1991)

I also located a number of new poems in the May 2008 issue of The International Literary Quarterly: http://www.interlitq.org/issue3/irina_ratushinskaya/bio.php

Why do I think of her now? Perhaps because we still have so much to learn from the Russian poets—not just Ratushinskaya but also Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. In this time of inflammatory talk radio hosts and shows, and of senators who shout “You lie!” to the president in the middle of a congressional address, I say to myself, let us look to the Russian poets and be both heartened and instructed.

The Carp by Yun Wang

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Sometimes chance conspires and the laws of randomness cast good things in our direction at a time that seems exactly right. This is what happened to me this week, when I extracted from two giant reading piles—columns over four feet high, weaving even now a little precariously behind my desk—a thin chapbook by a poet I hadn’t heard of, The Carp, by Yun Wang. I took a break from guilt, put my feet up, and started reading.

But let me back up for a moment and tell you how I got the little chapbook, and why I’ve had it stashed away for two or three years.

My daughter studied bookbinding and letterpress techniques at Booklyn, in Brooklyn, New York (http://www.booklyn.org/) around the time of 9/11. (It’s an aside I won’t go into here, but I was in the air, on my way to JFK, to visit her that morning.)  A few years later she started her own press called Spruce Street, named after her then-street-address in Berkeley; she also went to work for a press called Whereabouts. (She’s a teacher now in a high school for English language learners; collectively the students speak a total of 29 languages. Last year she taught Romeo and Juliet; this year they’re doing The Odyssey.)

Whereabouts (http://www.whereaboutspress.com/) publishes prize-winning travel books that are unusual because they are not guides in the usual way—they are, rather, story collections—the country’s literature is what guides the traveler. The owner, David Peattie, is the nephew of the California poet Noel Peattie, who died a few years ago at the age of 72. Noel was the retired Special Collections Librarian for UC Davis, and a prolific poet, writer, editor and supporter of other poets’ work; he was also the son of naturalist writers Louise Redfield and Donald Culross Peattie. (His own poetry collections include Western Skyline, In the Dome of St. Laurence Meteor, King Humble’s Grave, Sweetwater Ranch, and The Testimony of Doves.) Over the years his imprint, Konocti, published poetry books by several of my friends. Noel and I knew each other for a couple of decades; he was a true bibliophile, with a vast collection, many of them rare editions.

A year or so before he died, Noel had obtained a book of my poems (published by my daughter’s press) called The Book of Insects, and he wrote me the kind of encouraging and appreciative note that we poets always hope to receive. After Noel’s unexpected death, David gifted me with a number of books from Noel’s collection, knowing that I would love reading them, and would also treasure them as a link to Noel. Since then I’ve read most of them a number of times, but somehow overlooked Yun Wang’s The Carp—until now.

I was so arrested by the poems in this little cinnamon-colored book that I began investigating Wang on the web. Born in China in 1964, she grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Her father was tortured and imprisoned, and sent away to the countryside to be “reformed.” The Carp is dedicated to Wang’s father, and many of the poems in her little book tell stories from that period. The stories are stark, terrifying, mysteriously beautiful and sad; they fuse into something intangible and true.

As I used what our idiotic and thankfully now former president called “the Google” to read more about Wang, I discovered that she has a more recent collection, the 2002 Nicholas Roerich Prize winner from Storyline Press, called The Book of Jade. I was also amazed to learn that she is a world-renowned scientist and cosmologist, known especially for her work on dark energy, and that she is currently Associate Professor of Cosmology at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. (You can read about her cosmological research, and also several  recent poems at her website: http://www.nhn.ou.edu/~wang/)

After reading The Carp I immediately ordered Wang’s full-length collection on Amazon. Then I emailed her. I found her email address at the U of OK, and sent a short note not unlike the one that Noel Peattie once sent me. Later that day, Wang acknowledged my note, thanking me graciously. Then she sent me a postscript: She had looked at my website and read some of my poems, and was writing to tell me that she too had enjoyed them.

And so, here we are, breathing in words, in conversation over poems that a few days ago we knew nothing about. There are poems in The Carp that would have brought Yun Wang imprisonment and torture like her father’s had she been old enough to publish them when the Cultural Revolution reigned. Perhaps the book would have been destroyed—though no doubt some devoted reader or fellow author would have tried to find a way to preserve its pages.

_____

Whitman in Sacramento

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Last night I joined several other poets and an audience that crammed into an independent bookstore in my city. We were there to celebrate Uncle Walt—Whitman, that is.

The host and organizer, a young poet who writes under the name of SliC (Stuart Livingston Canton), had assembled a range of readers from the poetry community, each of us assigned a particular passage from Leaves of Grass; through fortuitous chance, the Nepalese poet Yuyutsu R.D. Sharma, currently on a U.S. tour, showed up to read Walt too. The poems were chanted, shouted, hurled. Our bodies became electric. We were a cosmos. 

That is to say, there we were in a tiny bookstore in Sacramento, California (as, at one point in “I Sing the Body Electric,” sirens outside wailed past) but we were large—we contained multitudes.

Many in the audience were there to celebrate Whitman’s poetry though their own lives had taken some difficult turns; one with liver cancer; a stroke survivor who walks (and writes) with difficulty now; another cancer survivor who nursed her husband through several difficult years of ALS before he died.

Most of us read from pre-printed scripts, but one young poet—who began by railing against Whitman and his poems before reading three poems he seemed to have made peace with—held a small clothbound “Selected” sans dust jacket. Bob Stanley, Sacramento’s current poet laureate (who closed the reading with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”) read from a battered, coffee-table-sized clothbound his grandfather had presented to him many years ago.

 Yuyutsu (Yuyu) (who was made a shaman at the age of seven) read passionately while the bright turquoise muffler around his neck swayed against his black suit and his right arm swept the air for emphasis.

 We looked for Walt under our boot soles. Am I wrong to imagine that I felt Walt’s impassioned and egalitarian dust mingle with the motes of dead soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them together welling up as we heard again: “Tenderly will I use you curling grass./ It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men./ It may be if I had known them I would have loved them…”

______

The Splendor of Letters

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’ve been reading The Splendor of Letters by Nicholas Basbane, absorbed by his stories of poets and writers connecting through time—of literature saved from obscurity or rescued from oblivion by translators, by booklovers, by fellow writers.

I’ve also been inhabiting all those terrible times he details, when an entire culture’s writings have been obliterated—deliberate attempts like the Romans’ against the Carthaginians, the Conquistadors’ against the Mayans, the Nazis’ against the Jews; campaigns of destruction by individuals like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot; natural disasters like Pompeii and Herculaneum.

As I was planning this blog, the earthquake in Haiti struck, the decimation unfolded and hopes ran out. The Chilean quake followed so soon after it seemed like the world was coming unglued. In fact, the earth’s axis did shift as a result of the Chilean quake, shortening our day by 1.26 microseconds.

Here I look around the rooms of my house, at the books, the people, the art. I walk through the streets and imagine it all collapsed, broken, crumbled. Things blur and reel. For I too live in earthquake country—in fact, Words in Earthquake Country was the title of an early manuscript I discarded along the way. I’d written it after the 8.1 Mexico City earthquake in 1985. The title poem (published in Nimrod as “In the Tradition of the Drinking Song,” and since revised) begins:

 

In Mexico City, Danillo Cabrera

clings to a lintel as the doorframe falls

four floors down, “like an elevator.”

 

He says the Our Father wedged

among the dead.

 

In the earthquake country of my living room

none of the old prayers work

though whenever I write “God”

I still use a capital letter.

 

A few weeks ago we had a 6.9 temblor three hundred miles north of here, along the California coast. We didn’t feel it much in Sacramento, though several people reported seeing the water in their backyard swimming pools spiking. This connected for me because during the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, (shortly after I started a Stegner fellowship at Stanford ) I was having dinner with my new Stegner clan in an apartment shared by two fellows in Palo Alto. We heard what sounded like the roaring of a locomotive bearing down on us and the world came unglued; as we ran single-file outside we saw exactly what the Sacramento folks described—the water in the apartment complex pool leaping up in wild spikes, sloshing out over the edges. I drove home the next day, trying to avoid every bridge, every overpass, and holding my breath each time I couldn’t. I veered south around the bay before heading north to where my children—who I managed to speak with before the phones went dead—had clung to each other in a doorway as the floors shook and windowpanes clattered.

But, back to Basbane:  Even though so much of his book recounts destruction, it’s finally about preservation, about the friendships forged between authors and readers. It’s both humbling and restoring to learn how hard so many have worked to save a single poem, a few lines of a psalm or a treatise on gothic architecture, a few words from a guide for decorating Etruscan pots.

 _____

Vinings

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I guess like most writers I’d like to defeat time. I’d like the dead to live on forever, along with some trees, flowers, birds and insects I’ve known.

 At some point a seed was planted, and it continues to sprout through my eyes, my ears, my mouth—even my nose (that bloodhound for the troubles of others), which sniffs out jasmine fragrance in late April or early May and then wants to memorialize it, make it live forever on the white page.

 Tendrils shoot wildly from every experience—for instance, this afternoon, a ride on the bus—a short journey from 28th and I to 9th and J. At the bus stop a small dark woman with twins in the stroller parked beside her coughs up a cloud of frosty breathings.

On the bus headed south, an elderly man in a flannel shirt claps his wrinkled hands together, shivering; the skin shines a little, the veins crinkle.

 Two seats behind him a teenager with Praying Hands tattoos and a gold ring through his left eyebrow winks at the girl across from him, then exhales curses at no one in particular.

 Their stories sprout everywhere inside me: vinings.

Thinking About Irina Ratushinskaya

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’m not quite sure what got me thinking about Irina Ratushinskaya recently but something did, and brought back how closely I followed her work during the Eighties; poets all over the world took her case very personally. Many of us wrote letters protesting her imprisonment and asking for her release. (Here is a link to an appeal in the New York Review of Books on June 30, 1983: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6168 )

Arrested in 1982 for her involvement with the human rights movement and for writing poems that were considered anti-Soviet propaganda, she was tried and sentenced to seven years hard labor and five years of internal exile; almost immediately she was sent to a labor camp where she lived as a “zek” and continued secretly to write poems by carving them into bars of soap, memorizing them, and then destroying the evidence by washing them away. (She also copied poems in minuscule script onto strips of paper which she managed to smuggle out; a number of these were published in the 1984 collection Poems and later in Pencil Letter.) Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated her release in October, 1986, an agreement timed to warm things for the summit in Reykjavik. Ratushinskaya’s Soviet citizenship was revoked; physically frail after years of harsh camp conditions, she emigrated to the U.S., where she lived for two years (as the poet-in-residence at Northwestern University) before moving to London, and then finally back home to Russia in the late nineties. A book of her poems, Beyond the Limit, came out in 1987, shortly after her release; Gray is the Color of Hope, a memoir, appeared in 1988. If you haven’t read these, you should.

Since then Ratushinskaya has published a number of volumes, including Wind of the Journey, poems in Russian and English from Cornerstone Press (2000), translated by Lydia Razran Stone. Here is poem 35 from that collection:

    The cock has sung
    But angel horns are still.
    We live on a narrow ledge above
    The precipice of time.
    We sense the end is near.
    But, heedless, children run.
    There are no dreams that will
    Assuage their urge to fly.
    What power then is this?
    Drawing them to the abyss?

I also located a number of new poems in the May 2008 issue of The International Literary Quarterly: http://www.interlitq.org/issue3/irina_ratushinskaya/bio.php

Why do I think of her now? Perhaps because we still have so much to learn from the Russian poets—not just Ratushinskaya but also Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. In this time of inflammatory talk radio hosts and shows, and of senators who shout “You lie!” to the president in the middle of a congressional address, I say to myself, let us look to the Russian poets and be both heartened and instructed.

_____

Merton

Merton

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

    Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
    My eyes are flowers for your tomb

So Merton wrote in “For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943.” Merton’s brother John Paul was killed after his plane crashed in the North Sea during a bombing mission. He was pulled from the water into a rubber dinghy but died there three hours later. His body was buried at sea.

I thought of Merton as a result of a previous blog piece I wrote, about the poetry of Episcopal priest Louie Skipper. By the time I sat down to write here, we’d had the news about Afghanistan. I thought of Merton’s poem for his brother as a subtext for Obama’s decision to send in 30,000 additional troops.

The sleepless eyes becoming flowers on a beloved brother’s tomb is an image that is strange, utterly moving and unfortunately completely timely once again.

________

I’ve always called up those first two lines of Merton’s poem faithfully, as a kind of mantra, or so I thought. However when I went back to look the poem over again in preparation for this blog entry, I was surprised to find my memory had altered them.

Though I recollected the first line accurately, Merton’s second line had morphed into:

    Sweet brother, if I do not sleep,
    Let my eyes be flowers for your grave.

The rhythms, the feeling, the idea, the untranslatable grief embedded in the language had taken up residence inside me, but as an adopted child with different genes.

Who knows why this happens. We respond to something so strongly we want to commit it to memory. So: We do but (without intending to) we may change its tune. (I’ve found this with so many poems I’ve memorized; each time I think I have remembered/recited exactly, only to find later I’ve changed a word or left one out.) Perhaps some peculiar inborn rhythm of our own insists on its own way in the world, even when we’re paying homage to someone else’s poetry? Or it might be simple inattentiveness, faulty recall.

Merton’s mother wrote that, even as a tiny child he would run out into the garden waving his arms at the vivid scene, singing and crying “O sun!” and “O color!” She had him pegged as a poet early on.

Even if we didn’t exhibit the lingual joy in the world Merton seems to have, perhaps we poets are all born with a similar idiosyncratic cadence of utterance inside us.

_______

Why did I change “tomb” to “grave”?  I don’t really know.

“Tomb” is more monumental, stately, “permanent” than a simple grave in the earth, but it’s also—to my ear—emotionally colder and (despite names, dates, dedications) somehow more impersonal. Perhaps that is exactly why Merton chose that word over the other.

John Paul’s tomb was an icy nightmare sea between warring countries. You can’t get more impersonal—or more personal—than that.

“For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943” can be found in The Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. New Directions Publishing, 2005.

Wide and Deep

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt
One of the great things about being a blogger is that you can shine a little light on work you admire. Today I’m going to direct a fat beam on two very different poets, John Rybicki and Louie Skipper.

Rybicki’s poetry is new to me but I have followed Skipper’s work for a number of years. (We both had books in a series published by Sandra McPherson’s Swan Scythe Press.) Rybicki is Associate Professor and Writer-in-Residence at Alma College, teaches poetry writing to children through the “Wings of Hope” hospice program and lives in Denton, Michigan. Skipper is an Episcopal priest and college chaplain who lives in Montgomery, Alabama.

I heard about Rybicki’s work from a young poet-friend named Kate. Kate told me about his latest book We Bed Down Into Water (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2008). She was very enthusiastic about the poems, and so the next time we saw each other she brought the book along and left it on loan.

But let me start at the beginning with some history. Kate had a young friend who died very recently of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Rybicki’s book is about his wife’s sixteen-year battle with cancer, and so Kate had ordered a copy as a gift for her friend’s wife, hoping it would help. It did. (Rybicki’s book also helped Kate, whose husband spent ten months being tested for advanced metastatic melanoma before his doctors concluded the suspicious growths “probably” weren’t cancerous.)

Cancer seems to be all around us these days—our own, a spouse or partner’s, a relative’s or a friend’s. (Just this weekend we had a couple over for dinner. She spent the last eighteen months fighting breast cancer; during that period he was diagnosed with a resistant form of prostate cancer; they in turn told us about someone they had given a party for last summer—dying now from a brain tumor.)

We Bed Down into Water is about Rybicki’s marriage to the poet Julie Moulds Rybicki, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and their sixteen-year travels through the medical underworld of hospitalizations, chemotherapies and bone marrow transplants. But Rybicki’s book is not gloom-filled. It’s feisty, tough, and full of love. It is wildly passionate.

“Beauty is the beginning of terror,” Rilke said. The poems in Rybicki’s book live on the precipice between ecstatic love and mortal fear. They are lyrical, eccentric and so suffused with what Dylan Thomas called “the green fuse” that they rocket straight to our own hearts and shake us to the core.

Here is “Me and My Lass, We Are a Poem,” which is the third poem in the book. (Throughout the book Rybicki calls his wife by the exuberant pet names “Dame” and “Lass”; she calls him “Dude.”)

    Me and My Lass, We Are a Poem
    We tangle our hair in the moon,
    then she coughs and I have no net
    to catch the cough so I make her hot tea
    with honey. I call her my coughing alarm clock,
    but she’s warmer and smoother than our oven
    for waltzing with.
    When we travel in our covered wagon,
    she’s in the bathtub splashing her way

across the prairie, singing Bo Diddley songs.

    Any drop she spills
    the prairie dogs lick them up.
    That’s the kind of poem she is.
    When we lie down in the earth,
    we’ll need coffins with holes bored
    through their sides: we’ll each have
    ne arm hanging out
    so I can take hold of her
    hand, even while we’re in the dirt.
    Some nights our bed floats through
    the bedroom wall. We’re on our bellies
    laughing and rowing with one arm.
    When we get tired, the stars
    make nice pillow for our heads.
    The wind is what wakes me,
    blowing so hard I watch my love’s skin
    flake off: a whole storm of her
    flutters away from me until all that’s left
    inside her is a tired old woman

holding her spine like a candle.

[You can find Rybicki’s book on the Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press website: http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/Title/tabid/68/ISBN/0-8101-5186-3/Default.aspx You can also hear Rybiciki talking about and reading from We Bed Down into Water on the Library of Congress audio webcast at: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/poetpoem2.html ]

Louie Skipper also lost his wife to cancer several years ago. His Swan Scythe Press book The Fourth Watch of the Night, is about the long vigil that began when she found a lump in her breast. (“ …Stephanie places my fingertip/ against the world that appears/ firm and round under her left breast.”) Like Rybicki’s book, The Fourth Watch chronicles and confronts what follows.

But I want to focus here on Skipper’s more recent (fourth) book The Work Ethic of the Common Fly (Settlement House Press, 2007). Equal parts Donne and Neruda (many of the poems seem patterned after Neruda’s Book of Questions) they are, as Carolyn Kizer said of the earlier collection, the work of a “true metaphysical poet.”

I’ve read the poems in this collection several times now, and I find them, like Rybicki’s, exuberant, quirky, full of passion and also erudition. In the tradition of Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, they are a poet-man-of-the-cloth’s intense (and sometimes darkly funny) grappling. They remind me  a lot of Thomas Merton’s poems too (in fact, Skipper’s book got me thinking about Merton, so that will be the subject of my next blog entry.)

Here is the first (untitled) poem in the second section of The Wok Ethic of the Common Fly:

    In the lore of plagues
    Camus describes victims
    thrown into graveyards in anticipation of their deaths.
    They are remembered copulating.
    I understand the fear required
    to no longer think them living,
    as well as the hopelessness
    with which they turned to one another.
    At the end every sense is left alone to suffer.
    These words I write
    are the last testament of the child
    who still lives within me,
    the one who asks only
    that you remember him as he was,
    not as I am.
    We are all in this together,
    the way a woman weeping to herself
    pulls the rest of us in after her.

There’s an authentic taproot in the work of both these poets—each so different in style—that spreads wide and goes deep.

You can find Louie Skipper’s book and more about it on the Settlement House Press website: http://www.settlementhouse.us/books/common_fly/

He also has another brand new (2009) book there, It Was the Orange Persimmon of the Sun. Check it out.

And if you’re interested in the work of Julie Moulds Rybicki, whose poems are very much alive on the page, you can read about her and find her book at New Issues Press: http://newissuespress.blogspot.com/2008/04/in-memory-julie-moulds-rybicki.html

Levertov

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I keep returning to that moment, that first Tuesday afternoon, the door with its frosted pane. It swings open suddenly, pulled back into the dusky hallway, and Denise sails in, salt and pepper curls wind-tossed. It reminds me of the course my life is about to take, a change from the routine academia I had set as my goal; it brings back those conversations that pointed me in a different direction.

For it is Denise who suggests that I put my life where my poems are. It is she who travels to my city for a benefit reading a year later, which raises seed money for the arts program for homeless women I’ll join when I leave Stanford.

Denise will lead me to Dorothy the security guard (evicted from her apartment, forced to sleep in her car, then eventually out on the streets), who kept a pair of handcuffs clipped to her belt and painted the fierce self-portrait I have hanging now on my study wall: an “inner warrior” in black and red. Dorothy leads me to Sheila, who heard voices and translated them brilliantly into poems that held us all spellbound when she read them aloud at our weekly workshops; written in a phonetic, ungrammatical code, they defied any typewritten page. Sheila leads me to Joyce, to paintings as full of genius in their way as any van Gogh—canvases filled with strange forests, sleeping goddesses, wide awake third eyes. I see again the bread bags Joyce tucked into the stoma of her colostomy when the benefits ran out, and I see myself linking hands with family and friends around her coffin a few years later, singing “Amazing Grace,” and feeling it—feeling her grace fill up the room.

I commute to Stanford, the Stegner program where I am a fellow. I usually drive down and back twice a week, but tonight I stay overnight with Denise in her tiny apartment on campus. I sleep on the couch but drowse with difficulty. After all, Denise has just read me the riot act about sending poems to magazines too soon, before I know what they’re really about. (I might argue with her now, older more confident in my belief that we rarely ever know what our own poems mean, even to ourselves.) There’s a draft sticking up from the roller of her old black typewriter. It’s 1990 and computers are marching around the continent and the world, but not here. Here the typewriter keys sound more like tap dancers. Denise isn’t ready to send the poem anywhere, though it reads marvelously to me. “No aha! yet,” she says.

I try to remember the look and feel of Denise’s apartment. There’s a dumbcane plant on the windowsill above a radiator, some yellow throw pillows. And the table with the typewriter? Cherrywood, with claw feet. A few books piled in one corner, a telephone. It rings only once that night.

I hope Denise won’t mind that I’m making some of these details up. If she is peering in at me through some chink in the universe (able now to be everywhere at once, free of time and its Newtonian chains), I hope she understands my need to invent, the urgency of even this small claim upon the past.

Did we talk about ahimsa that night? About the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist philosophy of revering all life and refraining from harm to any living thing? I’m going to say yes, because if a life in poetry is anything at all, it is about reverence, about the harms of harm, personal, political, and in nature.

In the end I’m “crystal” (as Jack Nicholson says in A Few Good Men) on two things: Denise scared me. She made me realize I needed to do more to earn my own words—that I had veered toward security in some ways, rather than risk. She scared me because, there I was with my revered poet—wrapped in a borrowed blanket full of her atoms and oils—

camped out with the famous author of books I’d read by lamplight when the idea of writing my own poetry had seemed very far away and quite beyond me.

I gave her a thank-you gift that night—a ceramic creamer in the shape of a little dog with a curly tail. I remember how cream spilled through his doggy smile into our cups. I bought two that day in March at Cost Plus, one for Denise, one for myself. Hers has gone the way of all things, no doubt, but its twin is wearing an eager open-mouthed smile on my kitchen counter. It wears the memory of her touch-marks too, from that shared night when I set them out together on her table and we laughed.

How to Build a Poem and the Ars Poetica

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’ve just been talking on the phone to my good friend Kathleen Lynch about her poem, “How To Build an Owl.” Recently Kathleen told me a great story about how she happened to write this poem, a fascinating tale which I won’t go into here because Kathleen is at this very moment writing a piece about it herself. (The story involves Kathleen’s best friend, a wonderful artist, who died of cancer two years ago. That same friend’s marvelous painting is the cover art for Kathleen’s book Hinge.) So instead I’ll talk about why I love to use this particular poem whenever I teach a beginning poetry workshop.

Here’s the poem, reprinted from Hinge, which won the Black Zinnia Prize for poetry three years back.

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