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Timothy O'Keefe
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There is too much for this title, I understand. It presumes giving, having been given, and the nerve to identify the extent & result of that reception. This is folly; this is precisely the false humility I spoke of earlier in the blogging week. There you are, Tim, caught in your own abstract web. Ha, ha. Carry on as you would, having said nothing at all. Or next to nothing, since you cannot not carry on. Sometimes, it is this simple: "And we didn't die in childhood!" When I was young, I was a pitcher. The last game I ever pitched, I threw a one-hitter and we lost: 3-2, state semi-finals. The one hit was a home run to a player who would go on to division one ball. It was a full-count fastball, just off the outside corner. It was an exquisite pitch. He saw it perfectly, swung—hands out in front of the barrel—and drove it opposite field, over the left field wall. How to describe the grace of that moment—my action and his response. A perfected dialogue—purity that transcends its consequence. Which city holds your ghosts, your non-mentionables? I have walked there without you. I have felt the warmth of that sidewalk, the distant chattering that someone calls home. The mirror contains its ocean. Jorie Graham: "The way things work is that we finally believe they are there, common and able to illustrate themselves." One cannot pretend to keep accounts on the world. It goes, we take, it goes. How else? Not as indifferent or callous, but a view on what is and will be without our looking. Look on—feeling takes the view. Charles Olson: "these things which don’t carry their end any further than their reality in themselves" Carry me there, this exquisite. See what you believe before you believe what you see. Then, tell me about it. Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
from Hamlet: Gertrude: To whom do you speak this? Hamlet: Do you see nothing there? Gertrude: Nothing at all, yet all that is I see. Nothing is a noun, as in, “The world was created out of nothing.” Nothing is an adjective, as in, “I work nothing jobs to pay the rent.” Nothing is an adverb, as in, “You look nothing like your father.” Nothing is also a pronoun, as in, “What are you laughing at?” “Oh, nothing.” Can we distinguish between seeing nothing and not seeing anything? If I’m outside on a sunny day and I close my eyes, I don’t see nothing. I see orange and red if my eyes are lightly closed. Close them harder and I see brownish-blue. If I am shut in a lightless room and I open my eyes, what do I see? Can the eye actually perceive total blackness, or is total blackness a product of complete not-seeing? Consider these: a seeing person stuck in a lightless room, a blind person, and a person whose eyes have been plucked out. Or, the following scenarios: 1. A man goes to the doctor and explains that he felt a strange lump in his neck. After a brief exam, the doctor says, “I feel nothing.” 2. A woman wakes to a popping sound in the middle of the night. She nudges her husband and whispers, “Did you hear that? What was that?” He listens for a moment, then rolls over and says, “’s nothing.” 3. Months after a bitter breakup, a couple agrees to meet at a café. After a few minutes of pleasantries and banalities, one says, “You seem quiet.” The other replies, “You too,” and then, “I guess there’s nothing to talk about.” 4. After eight years of the Bush administration, Bill Clinton thinks back on his presidency and says, “I accomplished nothing.” Sidney: "Now, for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth." [Continue doing nothing...] Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
The earth has many keys. Where melody is not Is the unknown peninsula. Beauty is nature's fact. But witness for the land, And witness for the sea, The cricket is her utmost Of elegy to me. -Emily Dickinson Yesterday I wrote about humility in poetry, a process by which one recognizes the moment of awestruck language (in mind and speech) and one's inability to say anything definitive for that moment. One responds without "speaking to"—there is no authority, because there is no seeking after consequence. Instead, consequence finds the moment of articulation, the sphere of its purity. Can't the same be said for humility in action? We have all witnessed false humility—an expression whose aim is to highlight the selflessness of the person that expresses it. In short, vanity in its most egregious form. And yet, if all humble acts originate in some one or group of individuals, can they ever truly avoid the vanity trap? I used to doubt that they could. And there's Emily Dickinson, the humble action of this poem, the untroubled smallness of its voice. We do not see the beacon. We see its light. Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
“Poetry is the impossibility of plainness, in plainest form.” —Susan Howe I come back to Howe’s definition often and eagerly. For reassurance, for solidarity, for hope. It seems to me a singular, aphoristic feat: concision without reductivism, prescription without presumption. It says that we cannot circumscribe this world of experience, nor should we attempt to. Instead, we attempt to speak in that humility—and what is impossiblity if not the acknowledgement of humility? We speak, it says, for the awe of that moment. The moment itself is not meant for us, nor is it meaningful as such. After all, what I see clearly is not my knowledge—it is the world as it is, bound to the varieties of our human understanding, that which surrounds but does not enclose. It says that plainness is never simple (it’s not even plain), and impossiblity, no stalemate. Let the forms fall as they may, it says, near or far (still in view), still there for our discovery. Our recovery. “Woe to us! Hail to us! The thaw wind is blowing!” —Nietzsche Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
In his essay "Language/Mind/Writing," Alan Davies writes, "The mind is the actions in thought of a life." In The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector writes: “When living is realized, the question will be asked: but was that all there was to it? And the answer: that isn’t all there is, it is exactly what there is to it.” T.S. Eliot, from the “Little Gidding” section of Four Quartets: We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. In her poem "The Creation," Rae Armantrout writes: "To come true, / a thing must come second." In Adagia, a group of aphorisms on philosophy and poetics, Wallace Stevens writes, "In the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of the imagination." In a letter to Max Brod, Kafka writes: “We are nihilistic figments, all of us; suicidal notions forming in God’s mind.” Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” Lacan: “I think of what I am where I do not think to think.” Finally—and special thanks to Donald Revell for reminding me—A.A. Milne: “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?” “What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?” “I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said. Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
The sun is never more or less bright. It is more or less obstructed. A parable. The urge to feed nostalgia. Is this different from nostalgia itself? Impulse versus aftermath. A temptation, but devoid of ecstasy. The impulse tells us we might live again—an uncanny resemblance—and if we live again, will it really be us there, or will we skulk along the periphery with half-clenched fists? Like a voyeur in the mirror. A narcissist, but no one looks back. They look continually past—past doubt, past what-if, past the day you left, left them bereft, on the brink, slightly bemused. We can see us there—we know what we’d like to think. But from where to think it? The arc of nostalgia never begins in an emotional present. We catch it en route, already worn down to the metal and glistening. Therein lies a brute navigation. Lean and mean, our fathers said, without a referent. Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes. —Sebald In the smallest of intervals, one discovers the indefinite change. I love the dizzying blur of time in Sebald’s quote, but more than that, I love to imagine that second. To populate its momentary world. See: the second after a hand stops waving. See: the seconds between rain leaving the clouds and, “Hey, it’s raining.” See: not the seconds that measure lightning from its thunder, but the precise waving of those treetops. In Euripides’ The Bacchae, Dionysus places the young king Pentheus at the top of an enormous tree overlooking the field in which he will die. It is a story of divine wrath. Dionysus destroys the family of Cadmus for denying his worship, and the details of suffering are explicit in the extreme. No one has a more shocking fate than Pentheus: Dionysus clouds his mind, dresses him as a woman, and leads him to a group of female worshippers (the Bacchae, led by Pentheus’ own mother) who dismember and decapitate him with their bare hands. And yet, somehow, Dionysus remains unblemished—in purity, in consequence—by this act. It is an atrocity transcended in the simplest of gestures: after Pentheus is put out of mind and sense, before Dionysus leads him to the hillside of his death, there, in the waiting—just before—Dionysus watches Pentheus primping his hair. When one of the curls falls loose, Pentheus says Arrange it. I am in your hands. [This, too, is an awful second.] Dionysus reaches for Pentheus’ face, tucks the curl back under its ribbon. Gesture: an action that surpasses its acknowledgments. In Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” there’s a moment that astonishes me every time: Just after an anecdotal backstory of the song’s “you” (And you treated my woman to a flake of your life…), just before the lyricism reaches its crescendo of address (And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer…), and, when it’s all over, when we’ve realized that the song is also a letter, we find a window on the letter’s creation, the moment of its reality: Well I see Jane’s awake—she sends her regards. I can almost see Jane’s lithe coming-to, her awareness of the letter-writer’s presence, that first talk of nothing much at all, and the final “Tell him I said hi,” or perhaps, a casual wave of the hand. Poets are often asked what kind of poems they write, and it seems so natural, so humble in its curiosity, so clear in its hope for a window on the poet’s imaginative landscape. I’ve been asked this question many times, and it’s always an unexpected strain. The truest answer I can give is also, I’ve been told, the least helpful: “Short. I write short poems.” Or, even worse: “Well, I write my experience of experience.” The reason, I think, that these answers can come off as lazy or evasive or smug is because what is really being asked for is a... Continue reading
Posted Apr 29, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 27, 2012