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Circling (by Karen Steinmetz)
Mountains and Lake by Georgia O'Keefe On a visit to Shelter Island last summer, I discovered Black Cat Books, a treasure-trove of used books and a great place to get out of the midday sun. I’m looking forward to having to get out of the midday sun again! Browsing the shop, I found a Georgia O’Keefe catalogue from a show called Circling Around Abstraction. So satisfying: all those circles. But the real prize for me was the humbly bound 20 Poems by Tomas Tranströmer. Robert Bly translated the poems for The Seventies Press. The cover is rough brown paper, and I particularly love the only image, a man holding a lantern as he stands on a reindeer’s back. The blackness of the reindeer, the light of the lantern, and the human figure divided between light and dark seem perfect. It is Tranströmer’s first book published in English. Kyrie At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark. A feeling of masses of people pushing blindly through the streets, excitedly, towards some miracle, while I remain here and no one sees me. It is like the child who falls asleep in terror listening to the heavy thumps of his heart. For a long, long time till morning puts its light in the locks and the doors of darkness open. Tomas Tranströmer I am also taken with Bly’s commentary on the flyleaf. Bly writes, “It’s clear that in the head at any moment all sorts of consciousness are struggling to get to the head of the line, and so to the lips…Tranströmer in his poems always arranges things so that the spiritual consciousness slips through the gate the moment it is opened, and so gets in the poem first.” In “Kyrie” the description of a child’s night-fright is simple and vivid and circles back to the adult's existential fright in the first stanza. In her book For Opening the Mouth of the Dead to be published by Lone Goose Press this year, Catherine Woodard often writes in the voice of a child studying Egypt in school and resorting to her fascination with the Book of the Dead to cope with her mummy-like father. The speaker finds a spirit guide in Ba, a winged creature with a child’s head that stays with an individual from birth on into the afterlife. She refers to Ba as Soul-Bird. Soul-Bird is sometimes a vehicle for reaching the speaker’s father. SOUL WITH FACE AND FEATHERS Egyptian God Ba at a bookstore I stay in at recess To take notes from The Dead Book With the same hairdos And in dresses, men And women look alike. Stiff – hands out As if to catch a ball Or bat it away. But not the little bird With big wings And a child’s head called Human-Headed Soul. When it flies before The mummy, Soul-Bird Spreads a kite of feathers. If Soul-Bird stands still, Wings drape In a royal cape. In my second favorite Picture, Soul-Bird hovers Over the...
Posted Jan 15, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Burden of Dreams (by Karen Steinmetz)
I took the title “Burden of Dreams” from Les Blank’s film about the astounding lengths Werner Herzog and his crew went to in the filming of “Fitzcarraldo.” In order to make his documentary, Blank had to go to similar lengths. No surprise that the story that inspired Herzog’s odyssey, as in many Herzog films, is about a tragicomic attempt to fund a dream, in this case by dragging a boat over a mountain to reach a remote Amazon rubber plantation. The dream: to build a baroque opera house on the Peruvian coast to attract Enrico Caruso. This was the second of Herzog’s films shot in the Amazon basin. In the first, “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” one of the most memorable, among many wild, hallucinatory scenes, is a horse being thrown off a raft into a raging river. The scene is so cruel that one of my friends remembers it as many horses thrown into the river. It was one horse, and the horse managed to swim to shore and survive. Still, the scene always reminds me of the terrorized horse at the center of Picasso’s Guernica. No matter what laws we pass on the humane treatment of animals, our treatment of them continues to reflect our hubris and our treatment of other human beings. When I began teaching writing to college freshmen, I used to assign a very short Langston Hughes essay from 1945, “The Animals Must Wonder.” The essay begins with a scene from a marriage: "Once I saw a man and woman, who loved each other, quarrel. There were bitter words and the threat of blows. Bursts of anger punctuated minutes of silent defiance. It was sad for an outsider to see. But equally sad to observe was the hurt fright of their dog, his wonder, dumb fear, and terror at the strange, loud violence of the two human beings he loved." Hughes moves from the domestic scene that so frightened the family dog to World War II, imagining “the lost and homeless dogs wandering cold and hungry through wrecked villages” and the farm animals terrorized by tanks, planes, and explosions. Our recent wars have continued to inspire reports on the suffering of animals. We sometimes find it easier to empathize with the dumb suffering of other creatures than with the suffering of displaced people no more responsible for their condition than the animals. We see complicity in the capacity of human beings to comprehend what is happening to them. The suffering of animals caught up in human dreams is often silent. Emily Fragos’s spare, heart-breaking poem “Ponies at the South Pole,” inspired by photos from the failed Scott expedition of 1912, is an instance. Fragos writes of her process in an e-mail: "I had originally written a very long poem with all kinds of historical facts based on the tragic expedition… I began to cross everything out in an attempt to get to the grief. I wanted to honor those poor animals. I wanted to say something,...
Posted Jan 14, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Bright Horse (by Karen Steinmetz)
Perhaps because I am a Sagittarius, the word “horsewoman” has always appealed to me. It embodies the unity between rider and horse when all is going well and sometimes even when the rider loses control, as in Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” I remember feeling exhilaration as well as fear, clinging to the neck of my favorite horse when she ran away with me during a spur-of-the-moment race through a meadow. My daughter was also an avid horsewoman from an early age. The world of the stable already seemed a natural part of life to my six-year-old. So I was surprised when one of her friends who had come to watch a lesson, asked in wonder as Kate swung herself into the saddle, “Doesn’t the horse mind?” I’m sure it had never occurred to me, to my daughter, or to any of our riding friends that the horse might mind, except when a fearful rider was hauling on the bit, “ruining the horse’s mouth.” Does the horse mind when we seem to be working in harmony? I don’t know. But I have known horses that balked at unfamiliar or unskilled riders, which suggests to me that the sense of oneness can be mutual. In her poem “Appaloosa,” Jo Sarzotti captures the mythic aspects of riding. Anticipation and danger are signaled by a series of dark images as the rider approaches the barn for a night ride on the beach. The glow of the spotted roan the rider has chosen is the image of desire. The edge of danger in the roan’s excitement carries us into a controlled but violent tumult of light and dark images, white surf breaking, the sickle moon as weapon, the cathedral of the night sky, and the transit between worlds: Appaloosa The dark drift of horses in stall, black Windows on the still blacker shapes, The Barn is quiet and heavy — I stop at the spotted roan’s pale glow. He’s the one I take out to ride, Ears pointed like an Egyptian guard dog, Excited tear towards the beach, white surf Tattered by wind, sickle moon a gash In the sky god’s thigh, pinpricks of starlight, The crab nebula, rare gift of August, Stained glass from a cosmic cathedral Exploded—the horse shies sideways, neighing. For the Nez Perce, the spotted horse was Totem & transport to the next home, Battle, world—I stick to these sweaty sides Lashed by leather and mane, an exhalation Of time on an eastern shore, racing. Jo Sarzotti The gorgeous, romantic imagery in “Appaloosa” includes acknowledgement of the many uses we put horses to and the sheer will it takes to stay with a creature that cooperates but is not subdued. The record of our fascination with horses is ancient. In the Chauvet caves, documented in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” the first image in the entryway, after a distinctive red polka dotted handprint, is a group of running horses, mouths open, depicted by a single artist. As Herzog observes, not only...
Posted Jan 13, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
A Silver Scruple and a Famous Dog (by Karen Steinmetz)
Emily Dickinson’s beloved Newfoundland Carlo does not appear often in her poems, but it is Carlo Dickinson refers to most often as her great companion in her letters from 1861-1864. The Carlo letters are clustered during the Civil War years, stressful, passionate years that include the horror of war, the Master Letters, and the intense activity of copying and sewing the fascicles. As has been well-documented, Carlo appears in the letters as companion, as surrogate, as Dickinson’s heart, and as a necessary chaperone in a Master Letter from 1861, when Dickinson proposes a reckless rendezvous, made safe by Carlo’s presence: “Could’nt [sic] Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour – and nobody care but the Bobolink — and his — a silver scruple?” The bird as witness and the silver of its scruple make me think of # 861: Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled — Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old. Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent — Gush after Gush, reserved for you — Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas! Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true? The poem, copied by Dickinson into an 1864 fascicle, has a triumphal tone that almost seems a precursor to her more famous #1072 that begins, “Title Divine—is mine!/ The Wife—without the Sign” copied into an 1862 fascicle. The fascicles are dated by changes in Dickinson’s handwriting, and Dickinson copied the poems into the fascicles, seemingly not in the order in which she wrote them. What does any of this have to do with Carlo? Mainly that Carlo figures large as a steadying force through the “White Heat” of these years. Carlo isn’t listed in the subject index of Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Under “dog,” there is only a late poem beginning, “A Little Dog that wags its tail/And knows no other joy,” not a poem about Carlo. Aside from an early valentine, written when Carlo was just a puppy, Richard B. Sewall identifies Carlo only with #186 that begins, What shall I do—it whimpers so — This little Hound within the Heart All day and night with bark and start — Though Carlo might stand in for Dickinson’s heart, the Hound is little, and Carlo appears at the end of the poem as a staunch messenger: Tell Carlo — He’ll tell me! I don’t think Carlo is ever little or ever a hound in Dickinson’s poems. To my mind, the poem where Carlo is stated as himself most truly in his role as companion is #520, in an 1862 fascicle. It begins: I started Early — took my Dog — And visited the Sea — The Mermaids in the Basement Came out to look at me — After the first line of the poem, the dog doesn’t appear again, and Carlo is not named. Much has been written about the dog’s absence...
Posted Jan 12, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
Dog Dreams (by Karen Steinmetz)
Since it is mid-January, pouring rain, and I find myself writing about dogs as familiars and about their inevitable loss, I begin with a refrain from “Dog Dreams,” a sardonic song by Jonatha Brooke for her album Grace in Gravity with the Story. I tend not to command, scold, or restrain my dogs, but my dogs have been generally well-behaved, if sometimes a pain. The refrain: Dog Dreams, Dog Dreams Please don’t wake us up! No bad dog, No stay, No basement, No way, No choke chain, No dry food, No fetch game, No, No, No No bad dog, No stay, No basement, No way, No choke chain, No dry food, No sit, lie down, roll over, SHAME As we headed towards the solstice this year, the days were especially dark. It was hard to find peace of mind, and I wanted more than usual just to get away. The just-finished semester of teaching had left me feeling word-bled. What I wanted most was to be absorbed into unmediated experience, the way I am on a long walk with a dog. Our family dog is now eighteen years old and so sustained by our daily rituals that I am uneasy leaving her. The smallish white terrier I am caring for is lighthearted, the only dog I’ve ever seen noticing stars, calculating the unbridgeable distance, accepting that they cannot be caught or cornered. It seems incongruous that Tally has grown old, can no longer run with me, can no longer even see the stars. For those of us who engage with our pets as familiars, our connection loosens the bindings that words impose on perception. Our familiars are spirit guides and seem sent intentionally to us. Poet/painter Desiree Alvarez’s enormous, exotic rescue was such a dog. Soon after Bingo died, Desiree, Catherine Woodard, and I took a dog-less hike to a rocky plateau on Hook Mountain that Catherine had christened the Bingo Bowl, since we could pour water for the dogs into a stone hollow there, and read Desiree’s poem “Familiar” as a farewell. Familiar All day digging the hole, then later lowering your body, still warm with sun and heart, wanting to join you down deep in the earth’s brown pelt. I dug you the most beautiful hole filled with forsythia. When grandpa’s old wood shovel broke I got down to scoop the field dirt, rocks, tear out the roots while you watched. You, the long walk up the slate mountain, the swim across the high March river. We lived large, every day of sautéed butter and salt. You ran away so many times in your wildness. Always I got you back. I swear that was you I saw when I drove back to the city, coyote shimmering by the roadside staring straight at me. It rained as I made a ring of stones on top of your grave, and the wind blew a hole right through me in the shape of a dog running on my first night without...
Posted Jan 11, 2016 at
The Best American Poetry
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