I’ve been reading Larkin this week. He’s just so good. Here’s “Church Going,” where he wonders what will happen when we stop using churches as churches.
I wrote this poem about a student of mine and a story he told me one afternoon about the demon in his eye. I found out a few months after I wrote the poem that Thomas is in fact a “colorist,” or one who creates new colors for a living.
Father Yu told Thomas’s mother
that a demon was living
behind her son’s left eye.
He would perform an exorcism,
he said, for half the usual price
because it was only, after all, one eye.
Thomas’s mother thanked the priest
and politely turned him down.
Not all demons are bad
Whether that devil still abides
Between Thomas’s brain and Thomas’s eye
even on the freshest of
pink spring days.
Sometimes he feels
like his retinas are being pulled back
like rubber bands,
only he is still waiting
for the eventual
In that case,
maybe the creature has made his way
down into Thomas’s nose,
monkey arms reaching
to swing on Thomas’s retinas,
hoping to suck on the
vitreous humor within.
Some cherry blossom evenings
Thomas does hear music
that may or may not be played by anyone
and some dying afternoons
his brow furrows and he doesn’t know the world
as his mother home,
but more a vacation abroad
he has taken before.
I have been in this place
as long as Daegu City
long enough to exorcise my mother,
Japan, all of the colors.
So tell me why to this day
I cannot stand
of Holy Water.
So it’s been a while, but my excuse is hibernation. I’d like to think winter is an acceptable time for us to be hermits, hiding in dark caves and letting things settle in our minds. Perhaps it’s part of the process.
In my last post, I wrote that my goal was to join a creative writing group, and today I can finally check that off my list! My friend and brilliant poet/artist, Michelle Seaman, brought me along to her poetry group, the Federal Poets. They’ve been meeting forever in DC, and right now the group boasts some of the most amazing and accomplished poets in the area. I was hoping to come and sit and listen, but they always make newcomers read, and read first. Blerg. I hadn’t been that nervous about anything in a while; my hands were actually shaking as I passed out copies of my poem. But they went easy on me, and I got some great advice. Plus I got to hear a lot of really, really good poems.
The meeting reminded me how generative critique sessions can be. I think it would be cool if people want to workshop things here–you can email me a poem and I’ll post it and we can make comments. Anyone down?
Here’s the poem I read at the meeting. I cheated a little and went with an older poem my professor liked in college. I figured if he liked it, they couldn’t think it was too awful. Next month I’ll try to bring something under construction, so I can find some direction.
We bought them at the start of September,
glittering drops of moving candy we named
Persephone, Convict, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Poor Lizzie didn’t last long; she died, we assumed,
of despair over a flushed and exotic lover.
A week later Persephone wilted and, while her struggle
was commendable, we soon came home to her speckled belly
flashing like a razor behind the glass, a mischievous wink.
So began Convict’s companionless life, which flourished
as he darted between plant and treasure chest,
bobbing to the surface then sinking to the stones,
robust romps that lasted through December.
We found him, after the new year, torpedoed
into the rocks, nose down, perfectly at peace.
We’d never seen a fish die that way.
2011 was pretty fine, and I have high hopes for 2012. I generally don’t participate in resolution-making, and I certainly won’t use this space to speculate on how swell it would be to meet a cute boy, or drop a pants size, or whatever. I do that enough with my lady friends. That being said, I realized today (or have been realizing for a while) that I need to stop focusing on the things I don’t have yet and start spending time on the things that make me come alive.
Thus, in this the year of our Lord two thousand and twelve, I will (can, should, must):
1. Join a book or poetry club. Reading and discussing, perhaps even writing and being critiqued.
2. Write 40,000 words of something–anything. Start a novel, just to feel the process of it.
“I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence.” –Allen Ginsberg, 1953
I’m excited to see Lars Van Trier’s Melancholia this week, the title just feels so apt for the moment. The melancholy settling in as we linger in this not-quite-summer-not-quite-autumn-should-be-winter period is odd. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men and feeling a bit Betty Draper as I mope around recovering from stress at work and some personal life oddities. It’s not a bad thing, just interesting. I dyed my hair reddish-brown a few weeks ago. The reddest tones have all but completely faded away, but I’m still using this fancy color enhancing shampoo that looks exactly like blood. Maybe that’s what this poem is about.
Hands befitting the mood of this odd, Indian summer:
sticky warm, skin,
fingers weathering about like wraiths,
stuck clams in sand.
We wait, brace,
listen at the door for her voice
telling us she’s innocent,
she never did it,
bleeding just a little on our behalf.
Winter would clear her,
would it come.
No one would care and we could move on,
tuck in, settle down behind folds of white snow,
her hair flashing in the firelight like a comfort
instead of now, at the end of the driveway,
screaming with dead leaves like a stop sign.
I’ve been working on this poem for years, since my first creative writing class sophomore year of college. I never liked it much, but I felt like the experience was something I absolutely had to put in words. The summer between high school and college, a group of us snuck out onto this river beach in Bivalve where this magical glowing algae covers everything–it lights up when you kick the sand and washes in on the little waves. I remember lying down in the sand at the narrow point where two parts of the river came together and speculating about the somewhat terrifying future ahead. Anyway, reading Rilke this week brought me back to this experience–the almost palpable images of that night–the fear and comfort of the darkness. I think that mood (and a few borrowed images) helped me get the experience down a bit better.
Fixed moments in the space-time continuum,
six black silhouettes define the mirror line
between starred universe and starred beach,
sand laden with phosphorescence written up in Friday’s Daily Times.
Six shapes jump and kick and skitter little green lives.
Ten hands clasp,
six wriggling sea creatures display themselves to
screaming, vibrating heavens,
promising that by this time next year they will not have deviated from this point.
Two sighs, three quick tears,
an inaudible resonance holds,
Four wheels speed past fence, gate,
six trailers where people live.
This week I’ve been spending time in Ranier Maria Rilke’s The Book of Images. When I picked this book up at the Borders going-out-of-business sale, I really only had two motivations in mind:
1. The cover. I mean, look at it.
2. I love that Rilke quote you see on greeting cards: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
That quote came to me at a critical moment in my intellectual development as I was learning to accept ambiguity and take things for what they were, not what they should be. It still informs my tendency not to trust anyone who claims to have life pretty much figured out.
That being said, this was about the extent of my relationship with Rilke. Sure, I’d read a few poems of his during school, I’d flipped through some of his prose in libraries, but I hadn’t really spent any time on him to see if his poetry held the same magic as that quote. So when I finally sat down to read The Book of Images, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The translator of my edition, Edward Snow, writes about the scattered, quite heterogeneous nature of this book. Unlike the famous Book of Hours, The Book of Images was written over the course of eight years (1898-1906). Rilke was my age, 26, when he published the first edition. Snow tells us that The Book of Images tracks many phases in the young writer’s development as an artist. There are sections full of sprawling poem cycles about medieval kings and princesses, a series of laments from society’s castoffs, pleasant poems that carry on for pages and pages. Then there are the poems of five or ten lines that hit home like nothing else. For example, we see the same idea from my greeting card quote pop up again in “Initial” (Second Book Part 1):
Let your beauty manifest itself
without talking and calculation
The most immediately captivating verses, for me, are the ones in the book’s first section, part two. Here Rilke is short, sweet, and to the point. He writes boldly and bleakly and beautifully. Images, surely, are important to him, as are things or objects, tangibility. The overall thesis is the loveliness we find in sadness, in change, in watching the days slip away.
As it is Autumn, and I have been reading Rilke on crisp, sunny afternoons in the green and gold and black of dying afternoons (photo above taken on my parents’ back porch this afternoon). I think his series of fall poems are therefore the most apt to share. There’s “Autumn,” which begins:
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far off,
as if in the heavens distant gardens withered;
they fall with gestures that say “no.”
We also have “End of Autumn,” in which we have more withering gardens and he tells us that “something rises and acts/and kills and causes grief.” Like the leaves in the above lines, “the solemn ponderous relentlessly denying sky” haunts Rilke in this poem. Fall, it is clear, puts a stop to things.
My favorite of the three Autumn poems, “Autumn Day” similarly marches us away from the warmth of summer toward the frozen winter.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go free.
Command the last fruits to be full;
give them just two more southern days,
urge them on to completion and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, will never build one.
Who is alone now, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lines streets, when the leaves are drifting.
For some reason this poem sums up perfectly my feelings as we turn our clocks back and settle in for the dark winter. “The summer was immense,” and that is comfort enough for a while. Aloneness, restlessness don’t seem as much a punishment as an inevitability. Darkness isn’t something to shrink from as much as wonder at, a home to deep reserves of meaning. Rilke writes in “On the Edge of Night” a few poems later:
…I am a string,
stretched tightly over wide
Things are violin-bodies
full of murmuring darkness
“Murmuring darkness” intrigues me. I am sitting in my room this evening with only a small light to stave off the early night. I hate this time of year—leaving for work in the dark, leaving the office in the dark, driving packed roads full of harsh headlights and coming home to a cold, dark house. It’s hard not to feel sad sometimes. It is with this anxiety I have approached Rilke this week, and it is here where I see The Book of Images speaking to me. Just as the greeting card tells us to “live the questions,” I read from Rilke’s poems that we are to live the darkness, the fall and winter, and tune into the possibilities therein.
“Sometimes I think it would be lovely to lead the sort of life with you that I have led alone for the last ten years – no possessions, no home, sometimes extravagant and luxurious, sometimes lying low and working hard. At other times I picture a settled patriarchal life with a large household, rather ceremonious and rather frugal, and sometimes a minute house, and few friends, and little work and leisure and love. But what I do know is that I can’t picture any sort of life without you.”
“I have something stupid and ridiculous to tell you. I am foolishly writing to you instead of having told you this, I do not know why, when returning from that walk. Tonight I shall be annoyed at having done so. You will laugh in my face, will take me for a maker of phrases in all my relations with you hitherto. You will show me the door and think I am lying. I am in love with you. I have been thus since the first day I called on you.”
Alfred de Musset
“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.”