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Daniel Westover
East Tennessee
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Thanks for this post, Amy. I love this book, too. It is certainly Hughes's masterwork, though it came at a great cost, birthed by the tragic deaths of Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill, and the 4 year-old Shura. In my eyes, it is the defining collection of the 1970s, not just for what it is, but also for how influential it was on British poetry in that decade. I always share this quote from Rand Brandes with my students when I teach Hughes: “If our deepest grief could speak, it would speak Crow…No one who truly engages Crow can forget it; it becomes a terrible touchstone in one’s memory field…[It] is clearly Hughes’s ‘dark night of the soul’, and it is disturbingly prophetic…a black hole where neither light nor language can escape. In Crow’s world the heaviness of History, with its perpetual genocides and wrong turns, crushes hope; mass graves litter the landscape. DNA, with its Darwinian determinism, intertwines with the self-fulfilling prophecies of Christianity in an Apocalyptic danse macabre.” You may well have heard of this already, but one of the things that emerged from the widespread British arts initiative that coincided with the 2012 London Olympics was an amazing puppet show based on Crow. It was one of the most unique, strange, and moving shows I've seen. A line from Shakespeare kept running through my head as I watched: “Humanity must perforce prey upon itself/Like monsters of the deep.” Here is a "behind the scenes" video: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-18101705
That's a great one, Stacey! I love the way Byron ends the list, too! Once you hit "feel rapture," time stops. Byron slams on the brakes with those initial stresses and then shuts off the car with that semicolon. And then, in the pause of that caesura, we have to go back and retroactively adjust everything in the list, seeing it afresh through that rapturous lens. Love it!
Thank so much for your thoughtful comments, Anna. That's very well-said!
One artist who comes to mind is Louis Wain, not a poet but an English artist who drew these wonderful pictures of cats. Wain was mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, and the more ill he became, the more wonderful his drawings became. The poet Ezra Pound may have also had schizophrenia. He was certainly diagnosed as schizophrenic. Whether he was institutionalized because of his illness or his extreme political views is unclear, but he increasingly found himself unable (to use your phrase) to function in the mundane world. There is a history of poets being 'put away' when they say things that are socially unacceptable or uncomfortable. Siegfried Sassoon comes to mind. He spoke out against the mismanagement of WWI and was sent to a war hospital in Scotland as a result. I realize I'm not quite answering your question, and others may be able to think of specific examples, but my guess would be yes, absolutely, and I would add that I think it is a valuable thing for anyone to write poems even when s/he is the only one who understands, or perhaps even when s/he doesn't understand them.
On Wednesday I quoted Elizabeth Bishop who, in a letter to Marianne Moore, describes her awareness of insistent, disparate objects. Unhappy with nearly everything she has written, Bishop despairs, but she finds reason to go on in these disconnected things, which might, she intuits, be brought into one: ‘I hardly know why I persist at all…but I have this continuous uncomfortable feeling of “things” in the head…awkwardly shaped pieces of furniture…And I can’t help having the theory that if they are joggled around hard enough and long enough some kind of electricity will occur, just by friction, that will arrange everything.’ Thinking of Bishop’s letter today, I hear an echo of Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway also had a theory; hers was ‘to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known.’ And she, too, felt compelled to bring together the disparate, in her case by throwing a party. In my mind Bishop’s frictional gathering resembles Clarissa Dalloway’s fictional one: Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? It is interesting to me that Clarissa can’t initially articulate what or whom her offering is for. She only knows it is important. She eventually concludes that her parties are offerings to life itself. But it is what she is gathering—otherwise disconnected things—that strikes me as the most important element of her offering. William Carlos Williams once said that poetry is powerful when it ‘draws perhaps many broken things into a dance by giving them thus a full being.’ This is true at the level of the individual as well. We are in search of that full being, our own Byzantium, a place that will allow us to bring into one ‘All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.’ 20th-century postwar poetry reflects the broken world, and the broken self, through a broken mirror. It leaves gaps; it breaks the flow of time with broken lineation, syntax and spatiality. We know this. But we also know that Modernism tries to build with what is broken, to draw meaning out of discontinuity. Geoffrey Hill argues that language carries in it the marks of original sin, so the poet-maker is always composing with broken material. But he also writes that ‘the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense – an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony.’ Along these same lines, in his ‘Art Recentered’ manifesto, philosopher Frederick Turner argues that ‘even when it deals, as it often should and must, with the terrifying, tragic, and grotesque,... Continue reading
Posted Jan 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday I mentioned Gerard Manley Hopkins’s habit of making word lists, and this has got me thinking about poems that list and poems that are lists. There are, of course, those sweeping, anaphoric, Whitmanic lists (‘And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird, / And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf…’) and, at the spectrum’s other end, imagistic lists (‘petals on a wet, black bough’) and the still, small lists of haiku (‘The ancient pond / a frog jump / the sound of water’). Lists can give poems an espresso shot of concrete detail, and they can be used to astonishing rhetorical effect. I am often moved to tears when I reach the part of ‘Easter, 1916’ where Yeats chants the names of the fallen (‘MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse’) or Blake’s magnificent list of demands in ‘Jerusalem’(‘Bring me my bow of burning gold! / Bring me my arrows of desire! / Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! / Bring me my chariot of fire!’). Even the most mundane things, the kind my mom used to write on her ‘laundry list,’ can take on symbolic power when brought together within the strange alchemy of a poem. A poet I respect very much once told me that too much detail can smother a poem, and I don’t doubt this is so, but these days I’m drawn to poems that go the other way. To misquote Richard Wilbur, ‘Oh let there be nothing on earth but laundry lists!’ Now this is probably one of those discoveries that’s painfully obvious to everyone else. (I’m not so good at ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d’, but I’m a master of ‘What oft was known and I just figured out.’) It is a truism that sometimes what is not said in a poem is more powerful than what is said, but what we often forget is that what is not said is still in the poem somewhere, even in absence. The speaker of James Wright’s ‘Lying in a Hammock…’ says, in the poem’s last line, ‘I have wasted my life,’ but what is not said is why or how he has wasted it; those answers are not present, but neither are they wholly absent. I may just be repackaging the old ‘show don’t tell’ / ‘No ideas but in things’ argument, but for me the discovery is that it is the accumulation of showing, a list of things, that gives the poem its power. Many poems contain some kind of list, but there are also poems that are nothing but lists. (I don’t mean for that ‘nothing but’ to sound pejorative.) We might think of these as ‘strict list’ poems. One of the first assignments I had in a creative writing class was to write this kind of poem, and it’s an exercise I’ve started doing again. I... Continue reading
Posted Jan 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
P.S. I did love that Denise Nestor illustration of Dylan, though! I recently had a conversation with colleague about the Romantic poets. I know this is an obvious observation, but the poems seem to change as I do. I was telling him how in high school I was enraptured by Wordsworth and as an undergraduate I fell in love with Keats. Now I find it's Blake I'm most drawn to. Of course, this says much more about me than it does about the quality of those poets. The baby Wordsworth poems I wrote in high school are gloopy for sure, and it probably says a lot about the ways I have changed that I am a Modernist by profession, but I'm not going to throw out 'Tintern Abbey'!
Thanks so much for your comments, David, and for taking the time to read my post. It really is a shame that more people don't read Dylan Thomas. (And, for what it's worth, I still teach DH Lawrence in both undergraduate surveys and graduate seminars. No narrative of British fiction is complete without him.) Thank you for pointing me to the Atlantic piece, which I had somehow missed. There were some interesting arguments there, but it was hard for me to take Parker seriously after he dismissed 'Fern Hill' as 'gloop' and 'Do Not Go Gentle' as 'inferior Yeats.' The first is one of the great poems about childhood, and the second is one of the finest examples of the villanelle in English (and sounds nothing like Yeats!). I think your conjecture must be right. The piece reveals much more about its author than it does about DT. I was intrigued by this description of the poems: "They are intricate, musical ways...of saying I’m alive, right now, and this is a poem, and soon I’ll be dead." Yes, and so are many, many of the greatest poems in the language. Take care, and thanks again.
You probably remember Mallarme’s response when Degas told him he had a great idea for a poem: ‘Alas, my dear, poems are made of words, not ideas.’ Of course there are ideas in poems, but I much prefer it when ideas come after poems. That is, I don’t want my first encounter with a poem to stimulate my intellect. I want that first encounter to be musical and physical and always verbal. R. S. Thomas writes that ‘Poetry / is a spell woven / by consonants and vowels // in the absence of logic’ … ‘Poetry is that / which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart.’ With all due respect to R. S., I might modify this a little, at least for myself. For me, poetry arrives at the intellect by way of words, as the product of their chemical reaction. For me, a poem’s meaning is its aftermath. The poets I most admire are more than in command of language. They are also in awe of it, treating words like strange and wondrous pebbles just turned over on a beach. They combine words in unexpected ways. In an essay on Paul Muldoon’s poetry, Seamus Heaney refers to Muldoon’s ‘sleights of word.’ I’m co-opting the term because I think it well describes how words can jostle and shift according to linear placement, syntax, and verbal juxtaposition. They can speak to each other and to the reader not merely as signifiers but as material, sonic objects. The wordsmith I most admire is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poets, by nature, are obsessed with language, but Hopkins was possessed by it. One of his chief virtues is that he doesn’t view words, even in his own poems, as extensions of himself. He reveres each word’s inscape—its distinctive, exercised identity. And yet, paradoxically, he saw all language as linked. His journals contain lists of words connected by etymology, by sound, or by idiosyncratic association: ‘Crook, crank, kranke, crick, cranky…’ Sometimes these read like wonderful tongue-twisters: ‘slip, slipper, slop, slabby (muddy), slide, perhaps slope, but if slope is thus connected what are we to say of slant?’ He also comments on individual words: ‘Altogether peak is a good word. For sunlight through shutter, locks of hair, rays in brass knobs…Meadows peaked with flowers.’ Word lists are everywhere in the poems, too: ‘Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, vaulty, voluminous…’; ‘swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim…’ Hopkins was a great inventor of words, but he was, more fundamentally, a great re-inventor and re-purposer of words. In the introduction to his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), W. B. Yeats (who knew a thing or two about words) calls Hopkins’s work ‘a last development of poetic diction,’ and he describes the meaning of a Hopkins poem as something that ‘comes out of words, passes to and fro between them, and goes back into words.’ I know of no better definition of poetry than this. Elizabeth Bishop, herself a great admirer of Hopkins, once wrote, in a... Continue reading
Posted Jan 7, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Father, since always now the death to come Looks naked out from your eyes into mine, Almost it seems the death to come is mine And that I also shall be overcome. - Donald Justice, “Sonnet to My Father” In 11th grade English, Mrs. Lake assigned us to memorize a soliloquy from Hamlet. I chose the ‘inky cloak’ soliloquy, where Hamlet compares his inner sorrow to outward trappings of grief. You know the story. His father has died, and his mother and stepfather, having taken less than a month to shed their show of mourning, are telling our prince, in a variety of ways, to get over it. Death is common. His father lost a father who lost a father, etc. Hamlet, of course, rejects and rebuts their pretended logic with brilliant poetry. (Say “windy suspiration of forced breath” aloud and you can feel it pull the air out of your body.) But I wasn’t a great reader of poetry, or Shakespeare, in 11th grade. I was drawn to Hamlet’s words not by sound but by sorrow. I have that within which passeth show. Hamlet’s words described my own unhappiness. As it turned out, I had botched the assignment. These lines weren’t a soliloquy at all. A soliloquy, Mrs. Lake reminded us, requires solitude. It is an aside. By the time Mike P. got up and started talking about his rank offense (which earned him some giggles from the back of the room), I was afraid Mrs. Lake was going to give me a zero. But she didn’t, and even though I’m no thespian, I imagine that had something to do with the way I said my lines. They weren’t a soliloquy, but they came from a place aside. The difficult voice was my own. At this point you might suspect that I, like Hamlet, was dealing with a death, perhaps the death of my father. I wasn’t. My father was alive. And let me just get this out of the way: he is still alive, and he is quite well. But you wouldn’t know that to read my poems, which often deal with the loss of a father. It’s hard to explain why this is. For me, poems come rarely, but when they do, they begin with an image or a sound or a single word that breaks open something inside me. When it happens, I drop everything and write, and I hope I have enough craft to shape what is rising. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t usually enjoy this. When I say break open, I don’t have in mind a seedpod gently cracking into flower. I’m prone to melancholy, and writing poems hurts me. But poems are my only way of giving shape to ineffable emotions. I don’t want to open up a can of Jacques Lacan here, but for some reason this otherwise nameless sorrow often enters my poems through the name of the father. Sometimes that father is dying. Sometimes he is already gone.... Continue reading
Posted Jan 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you, Dan, for your thoughtful comments. Some of my favorite poets question whether it is right to make art out of tragedy, and they do so for the very reasons you describe. The English poet Geoffrey Hill, for example, writes elegies that memorialize the dead even as they question whether it is appropriate to do so since elegy is always, in part, a selfish act. In ‘September Song’, for example, Hill remembers a child gassed by the Nazis, but he is also aware that the elegy is for him as much as for the child, who was born the day after Hill. The poem contains the lines ‘I have made / an elegy for myself it / is true.’ But the alternative, saying nothing, is unacceptable. In the Dylan Thomas poem I mention, he is stating his refusal to mourn, but the poem is clearly elegy. It honors the girl by refusing to appropriate her, to shroud her in artifice.
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In the mustardseed sun, By full tilt river and switchback sea Where the cormorants scud, In his house on stilts high among beaks And palavers of birds This sandgrain day in the bent bay's grave He celebrates and spurns His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age; Herons spire and spear. - Dylan Thomas, ‘Poem on His Birthday’ My 40th birthday, like Dylan Thomas’s 35th, begins with the weather. Every few seconds rain rattles the window, shaking loose the papery remains of a wasp nest that has clung between the two panes of glass since summer. It’s a whipping rain that sounds too solid to be water, like maybe my daughters are outside throwing fistfuls of gravel. But the girls are in our bed with Mary, and there is nothing out back but their swing-set swaying and dripping. Most mornings and evenings there are deer in the yard, a doe and two yearlings that come down from Buffalo Mountain. This morning, wisely, they are elsewhere. Why don’t I know where deer go when it rains? The power was out for most of last night. It happens fairly often in our neighborhood, and almost always at night. I was awake and reading when the lights went, and the shutdown shocked me. Without the ceiling fan’s rhythmic clicking, the computer’s constant hum, the white noise of the child monitor or the refrigerator’s low drone, the house—with its hardwood floors and linoleum—instantly became a hollow drum, the roof a snare-skin for every rap and rim-shot of rain. A few hours later, when our daughters wound up in our bed (as they inevitably do), the room seemed too quiet. Their breathing was loud, almost brassy and, strangely, all the more fragile for its intensity. Or was I, I now wonder, projecting that fragility? I’ve shrugged off turning 40, denied its significance. But the voices are here anyway, offering their litany of failure: You have poems sitting in a drawer and two unfinished manuscripts. You spend your time grading papers when you should be writing poems. Your MFA classmate is the writer for True Detective. And, today, for good measure: Dylan Thomas died at 39. This is all rather self-indulgent, I know. When I agreed to begin 2015 as the guest writer at the Best American Poetry, it didn’t dawn on me that I’d be starting on my birthday, and I certainly didn’t have it in mind to write about Dylan Thomas. But it’s partly the self-indulgence of birthdays that has me thinking about Dylan, who wrote several birthday poems and who, within the cult of literary personality, has become the poster boy for self-indulgence. And partly it's my office wall clock, an insistent metronome broken only by keyboard clicks and the rain’s syncopation. Write, write, write, 60 times every minute. If our street loses power again, I won’t get this posted by the deadline. It is possible that I am going to run out of time. Somehow this all fits together, but I’m finding it hard... Continue reading
Posted Jan 4, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Robert, you certainly did that for me. It was very rewarding to revisit my graduate student days and reengage with this material. Doing so helped me realize just how influential it really was. Warmest, DW.
Thank you, David. It was really rewarding to revisit these essays, and I'm grateful for the forum that provided me the opportunity.
Mark, thank you for taking the time to read this. I appreciate it very much. What you and Robert did was bold, and I always admire boldness. If I ever write something that is still being talked about 30 years later, I'll be very satisfied indeed.
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When I applied to the MFA program at McNeese State, the application process was straightforward: you sent some poetry or some fiction, and you either got a phone call or you didn’t. Test scores, previous publications, and GPA didn’t factor in. I sent the only six poems I had written. They were dreadful imitations of what little I had read, something like a mash-up of Robert Frost and William Stafford, but any grain of potential within them can be attributed to a gifted teacher, Peter Makuck, who taught my undergraduate poetry workshop with remarkable dignity and discernment. When I speak to poets about how they came to be writers, there are as many different stories as there are poets, but it is worth noting, especially in a climate where educators are increasingly devalued, that most of their stories feature an inspired teacher. I arrived in Louisiana hungry for direction. I spent every spare minute in the Frazar Memorial Library consuming collections, quarterlies, and criticism. I read every poem in A. Poulin Jr.’s Contemporary American Poetry anthology and then started it again. On my third time through, the binding broke, and I was afraid to tell the librarian (I had no money to buy it, and there was no way I was letting them pull it), so I bound it together with rubber bands and, when I wasn’t reading it, hid it on the Government Documents floor. (There was never anyone on the Government Documents floor). One night while looking through old magazines, I discovered one called The Reaper, which Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell had edited in the 1980s. I liked it immediately. The eponymous Reaper was an imaginary personality who wrote criticism, conducted interviews, and issued manifestos. He (She? It?) condemned the obfuscating nature of contemporary poetry and argued for a return to narrative. Narrative was the genre I found easiest to understand, so I was seduced by excerpts like these: Navel gazers and mannerists, their time is running out. Their poems, too long even when they are short, full of embarrassing lines that “context” is supposed to justify, confirm the suspicion that our poets just aren’t listening to their language anymore. Editors and critics aren’t listening much, either. Despite their best, red-faced efforts, their favorite gods—inaccuracy, bathos, sentimentality, posturing, evasion—wither at the sound of The Reaper’s whetstone singing. The Reaper maintains that both the accurate image and the narrative line, two determining factors of the poem’s shapeliness, have been keenly honed and kept sharp by the poets included here, whereas many of their counterparts, forgetting these necessities, have wandered into a formless swamp where only the skunk cabbage of solipsistic meditation breeds, with its cloying flowers. Reading this again, I see why it appealed to me so much. The unabashed confidence was attractive to a writer who had no confidence, and the sardonic tone made me feel better about the fact that I didn’t understand a great deal of what I was reading. It gave me permission to... Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Last month while scrolling through my Twitter feed I came across a link to an article by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic titled “The Greatest English Poet you Haven’t Heard of.” This kind of title never fails to bring me running (or clicking) in the hope of discovering a writer I’ve been missing out on, someone I will fall in love with. It reminds me of the time I discovered a dusty copy of Patrick Kavanagh’s Selected Poems in Dauphine Street Books or, to go back a little further, the time my cool Aunt Jill, seeing my twelve year-old self tapping his foot to the latest twee pop album, slipped me a copy of Peter Gabriel’s Security and said, “You need to listen to this.” Every bibliophile has an inbox of books that keeps growing, and I’m no different. Just knowing that there are words out there to hunt down, unearth, or stumble upon randomly, and that at any moment someone can add genuine value to my life, maybe even completely change its course, by offering the unexpected—well, that’s one of the things that gets me out of bed. So I was a little disappointed when Kirsch’s piece turned out to be an introduction to the poetry of Edward Thomas and, in part, a review of Matthew Hollis’s (partial) biography of Thomas. To be clear, the piece itself is not disappointing. Kirsch is a fine writer. I enjoy his thoughtful essays on Modern poetry, and this one is absolutely worth your time, especially if Thomas is a poet you haven’t heard of. But I found Kirsch’s title puzzling. Thomas is represented in every major anthology of twentieth-century British literature that I own. He was one of Robert Frost’s dearest friends. Anne Stevenson, Andrew Motion, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill all admire him as an important predecessor. R. S. Thomas cut his poetic teeth on Edward Thomas. Ted Hughes called him “the father of us all.” In short, his was, and remains, a known voice. Kirsch says as much in the article, pointing out that Thomas, once he had found that voice, “became one of the most beloved poets of the twentieth century.” So I was scratching my head a little. I also have quibbles with calling Thomas an “English Poet” since he was Welsh by blood and much of his work is motivated not chiefly by a love for the English countryside, as is commonly assumed, but by hiraeth, as Andrew Webb demonstrates in his brilliant new book on Thomas. But never mind. For the sake of this post, let’s say that an English poet is any poet who writes poetry in English. I don’t happen to believe this, but I will pretend to for a moment because even though I was disappointed by Kirsch’s teasing title, it did lead me to consider just who is, in my view, the greatest English poet (of the twentieth century, at least—I didn’t stray into earlier territory) that most people have never... Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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I am one of the (relatively) few American academics specializing in the English-language literature of Wales, sometimes referred to as Anglo-Welsh literature. The term that most of us working in the field use is Welsh writing in English, to distinguish the writing from the much older yet still thriving tradition of Welsh-language literature and to avoid being limited by the colonial connotations of anything following “Anglo” and a hyphen. As I travel to conduct and present research, the most frequent questions I am asked are not about the research itself, but about how I came to be interested in Wales at all. These questions move beyond the kind of friendly interest one takes in other people’s careers and often approach something closer to bewilderment. Both in the US and UK—and especially, as it turns out, within Wales itself—I am asked questions like “How on earth did you wind up in Wales?” and “What is an American doing studying Welsh literature?” These are put to me by academics and non-academics alike, and they are often immediately followed by, “What’s the connection?” The implication, of course, is that there must be some family association or unusual circumstance that led me to Welsh studies. But as much as I’d like to claim that I’ve traced my genealogy to the small Welsh village of a distant ancestor or that my great-grandfather left the Welsh valleys and came to America to find work, there is no such romantic connection. Westover is a very English name, and the only family connection I have to Wales is my second cousin Brian, also an American of English descent, who owns and operates a hostel in the Snowdonia National Park. The easy rejoinder to these questions, and the one I’m sometimes tempted to offer, is Why not Wales? Really, why should it seem weird? No one would blink if I went to London to study the Bloomsbury Group. It’s okay to like Virginia Woolf just because, you know, she’s awesome and stuff. But not Welsh literature, it seems. Having answered the question so many times, I admit to having tried out a few tall tales to see how reactions would differ. I once told an archivist at the National Library in Aberystwyth that my ancestors were from Merthyr and were converted to Mormonism by Captain Dan Jones—a famous missionary who translated the Book of Mormon into Welsh—and that they immigrated to Utah and founded the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She was completely satisfied and even pulled a first edition of the Welsh Book of Mormon from the archives, for which I still feel guilty (but not too guilty since it was a beautiful book). The real answer to the question of Why Wales? (and the one I usually give, I promise) is much simpler than people expect it to be: I was exposed to the writing of several writers from Wales, and I felt a pull. I didn’t know what Welsh writing in English was or how it did and... Continue reading
Posted May 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Although I didn’t know it as a kid, my grandfather, Eugene (Eugenio) James Martinis—“Jimmy” to his siblings, “Marty” to me—was a Screaming Eagle, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. Technically Marty was my step-grandfather, but I didn’t know that, either, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. When I was six, I visited a petrol station in the Mojave Desert, and the owner, a man that I later learned was my biological grandfather, gave me a mesh baseball cap with “Esso” stitched across the front. It was a cool hat with really loud plastic snaps, and I liked that it smelled like gasoline, but I lost it soon after. There was no relationship behind the gift to make it valuable. Marty, for his part, was aloof and even cold at times, but he was there, and, as it turned out, he gave me one of the most enduring lessons of my childhood. It would be a stretch to say that I loved Marty. He was too quiet, and he preferred the company of his dogs to my own. But I did like him. He smelled like menthols and coffee beans, and sometimes he would wake up—that’s how I thought of it—and tell a really great joke, like the one about what the Dalmatian said after dinner (“That hit the spots!”). He could do a perfect Foghorn Leghorn impersonation, his Italian spare ribs didn’t fall apart as you were picking them up (but they fell apart perfectly in your mouth), and he always kept the candy jars stocked. He bought us our first VCR, and when “Old Blue,” my dad’s Datsun 510, finally got to the point where he couldn’t resurrect it (Dad had been hotwiring it with paperclips during its final years), Marty gave him his Ford Pinto, a bright orange car we named “Julius,” which Dad kept until 2002, long after Marty was gone—he died of lung cancer in 1991. I never knew Marty well, even as a teenager. By the time I was old enough to value what he gave me and want to know him better, he was sick, and then he was dead. One day in the summer of 1985, my cousins and I were “playing war”—an awful phrase, but it’s the one we used—in Marty’s front yard, trying to avoid the dandelion flares and dog poop land mines. I had just stormed the beach of the flowerbed when I realized Marty was on the front porch. There was a lit cigarette in his hand, but he wasn’t smoking it. He wasn’t moving at all. To say he was watching me doesn’t quite get it right. He was looking in my direction, but he wasn’t seeing me. I didn’t understand the look on his face. How could I? I was a ten-year-old Mormon kid who’d been raised in a bubble. I hadn’t even seen an R-rated movie. I had no reference for genuine horror. I stepped backwards into the yard, but I was unable to turn... Continue reading
Posted May 27, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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May 23, 2013