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Jeffrey Levine
Pownal, Vermont
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So beautifully said, and so pleased to have been able to provide some needed words. JL
Thanks so much, David. A real pleasure! JL
Thanks so much, Pat!
How much of what we tell ourselves, let alone what we write, is collaged from bits and pieces of so-called real life? Richard Hugo says, In a poem you make something up, say for example a town, but an imagined town is at least as real as an actual town. If it isn’t, you may be in the wrong business. Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse 40 years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn’t. This is my final day of blogging for Best American, and I’m deeply grateful for having been granted the opportunity to enter this space every workday for a week. To think about things, and to feel about things--to take that time and space--is such a pleasure. And it’s a good day to finish up, as tomorrow, there will be a joint 70th birthday party for me and for my friend David, a retired South African actor, director, and educator. If it doesn’t rain, we’ll have assembled 120 friends out on the lawn and copses and underneath the stands of pines and birches, here at the house I share with my wife and two shepherds, at the southern edge of the Vermont National Forest. If we’re lucky, we might even have a couple of foxes and possibly even a brown bear in attendance, along with several families of grosbeaks, cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, chipmunks, and all manner of finches. Having entered my 70s, I’ve been thinking about May Sarton’s journals. Many years ago, I read At Seventy: A Journal, which Sarton published in 1982 (she died in 1995), and I found it both comforting and deeply mysterious (70 years old, good Lord!). I was all of 46, which seemed, you know, young. By 1982, May Sarton had published 42 novels, journals, memoirs and books of poetry. Her novels and poetry didn’t do much for me, but I felt that my day-to-day was pretty much out of control, and so I took to Sarton’s journals. About being in her seventies she said, “Partly, you are more in control of your life . . . There is much less anguish and self-doubt. You are . . . able to function freely and spontaneously, as yourself." Free and spontaneous functioning seemed a worthy ambition, if only one didn’t have to be 70 to achieve it. It was my mom who collected everything Sarton wrote, and where I found Sarton’s books on side tables in the living room, in the bookcases, on the kitchen counter, beside the bed I slept in when, later, I visited. I even found Journal of a Solitude on my dad’s bedside table, underneath the Zane Greys (The Trail Driver; West of the Pecos; Riders of the Purple Sage) although, whether he put it there or, more likely, she, I’d have no way of knowing, having failed to ask him while he was... Continue reading
Posted Jun 21, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Ira. It's the many ways that of "saint" that work for me, with implications of innocence, blessedness, getting away with it, and the feint of death. Yes, it's Ellen Watson. We (Tupelo) published her translation of Ex-Voto (really, a collection of poems from various sources), and Adelia Prado came to Williamstown for a launch and dinner party. Extraordinary woman. Extraordinary women. Adelia read everything in Brazilian Portuguese, and Ellen, her English translations. Two embodied spirits. Anyway, not a day goes by when I don't think fondly and gratefully about what you've meant to me, Ira, as mentor and friend. Treat yourself to some Mozart today. No. 22 isn't heard enough, the adagio utterly transcendent.
If it begins in the quotidian, it ends in a place as peculiar and mystical as any Emily Dickinson, where, much like the dead, the speaker of the poem has its own business to do. And the poet owes it to the speaker to dissolve into the speaker, where the wild, peculiar, unexpected leaping takes place. And so, that astonishing Brazilian poet Adelia Prado. Her first book in English, The Alphabet in the Park, stunned the world 29 years ago with its utter freshness and originality. (Both it and the new one, Ex-Voto, are translated from the Brazilian by Ellen Doré Watson.) CHAMBERPOT At midnight, José dos Reis —my secret boyfriend— comes to serenade me. Papa coughs and rattles the chamberpot. Lord, how embarrassing— his little waterfall, collards in the garden icy with dew and fear. I make like a dead saint. My heaven is gothic and on fire. Here’s a synthesizing and transformative imagination that is attuned to the details of the physical world while seeking realms beyond the visible, beyond what can be said but is well worth trying to say, 'spreading/ a strange, unutterable music' onto the page. What you want from every poem is some kind of miracle. But of course you can't will the miracle to happen; you can't make a miracle happen by hard work or good works. But you want to be in the presence of the miracle when it happens, like that time at the Bay of Fundy when I hadn’t heard about it, no news or radio, and there was an eclipse of the sun happening right there, over the water, and like the Neanderthals without a weather report, there’s nothing to do but to recognize it for what it is, and accept it and leave it alone. Or establish a religion. Or paint it out of manganese and rust, and thus preserve that moment as a first entry in “The Book” to which we all aspire. The Shaft Scene in the Lascaux Caves in France. It’s one of the world’s most famous examples of ancient cave art, featuring a dying man and several animals. Researchers now say artwork might commemorate a comet strike around 15,200 BC. Animal symbols represent star constellations in the night sky. It is the attempt to contextualize that which cannot be contextualized that makes things happen in Prado’s poem. It is in the way the poem fails to accomplish this contextualization—with what trusting relaxation of the reins—that it releases something, and that something is revealed, and there—whatever it is—is. Something discovered. This is where the poem’s power lies, where the pen longs to find itself, searching for what Wallace Stegner calls the angle of repose. [Where, at this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding, but doesn’t quite.] Poetry is show business, within italicized show. The showing exists in an unsteady balance, where energy is released in the incident of collapse\no collapse, and both the poet and the reader may... Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
As promised yesterday, I’ve been thinking about this Emily Dickinson poem, about how it handles the unsayable, implies the unsaid: Emily Dickinson - 978 (1864) It bloomed and dropt, a Single Noon- The Flower-distinct and Red- I, passing, thought another Noon Another in its stead Will equal glow, and thought no More But came another Day To find the Species disappeared- The Same Locality- The Sun in place-no other fraud On Nature's perfect Sum- Had I but lingered Yesterday- Was my retrieveless blame- Much Flowers of this and further Zones Have perished in my Hands For seeking its Resemblance- But unapproached it stands- The single Flower of the Earth That I, in passing by Unconscious was-Great Nature's Face Passed infinite by Me- After posting the poem on my Facebook page, Ira Sadoff (the brilliant Ira Sadoff) and I have had a bit of an exchange about it: Ira. I hadn't remembered this, but I know she has written so many beautiful and secret poems waiting to be discovered. All that ambiguity in the syntax here, and sadness of course, in the temporal and loneliness: Much Flowers of this and further Zones Have perished in my Hands For seeking its Resemblance- .... and so much to make of that last line. JL. Thanks, Ira. It's dazzling, this poem. There is such a beautiful, and such a gradual, increase of degree in intensity in the poem. It begins in such human depths and dimensions, and line by line, stanza by stanza, as if the voice has infused itself with the manifold intensity of the storm, reaches heights of some spiritual nature, all of which crescendo into whatever it is that last line almost but not quite reveals, the only thing that can envelope the whole vision—one in which the voice refuses the notion that some things are beyond or above the human. Ira. Agree. The syntax of the last line makes that happen. So often when you hear people talk about Dickinson as a nature poet, I think Dickinson uses nature as a metaphor for some human angst. Here she tries to clear out a missed opportunity of grand proportions in the flower as an image that signals "further zones...." So moving! Some, I’ve noticed, look to nail down what the flower “means,” noting especially the force and effect of that dramatic “perished in my hands.” Flowers as emblems of her passions and thoughts, some say. The poem itself as a playing out of “the invisibility and fragility of women in the partriarchal society.” Surely that, too. But for my reading, it seems to me truest that those extraordinary discoveries expressing themselves in startling verbs and nouns signal the best a poet can do in working out – in approaching – what’s not only unsayable, but largely unknowable. The passing infinite by of great nature’s face. That nearly mystical moment curates it’s own components by means of the fragment “Much Flowers of this and Further Zones.” Further Zones, indeed. Those fragments descend... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks so very much, Patty!
Reading to her satisfies and keeps us from the dull ache of not knowing how otherwise to talk, how to fill in the silences, how to understand what’s said in them, the spaces between words, between thoughts. Being with her is like writing a poem, or in some ways, better, like those essential silences inside any piece of music. Tomorrow, I propose a poem by Emily Dickinson whose silence is about everything I have to say here, though rather more enigmatically. That silence, as you’ll see, is embedded, not so much within the words, but by way of syntax, and this time, by syntax, I mean the order of what’s unsaid. What’s essentially unsayable. But that’s tomorrow. For now, back to her. Her hearing all but gone now, we play and replay this set piece on the lee shore shore of Long Island Sound. A lakeless, oceanless, summer, through the windows the late peonies larded with pinks and reds, red, so fulsome you’d think them edible. Finches sing the trees to calmness, their heads tilted toward the sun. She can’t hear them. I ask her to say if she can hear me read, if not, we’ll do something else. But she can hear me fine, she says. By which she means, she can’t hear me at all. Papery skin, deep blue, like a body-covering bruise. Perhaps she wants this time together, hearing someone gentle and loving, possibly this is her son, possibly, making low murmurs of an article she’s well past needing, and cannot hear anyway, and she knows I know, that thought would please her, and what pleases her, even if she can’t hear it, even if she doesn’t need to hear it, is as I said, the low hum of (whose?) voice, and the fact of this caring from somebody probably important to her, likely related, one of her sons? (“He calls me Mom,” she must be thinking. Then forgets.) But she doesn’t want to trouble me with her doubt, any more than she wants to trouble me with the multiple insults of her failing body. When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. Across the scarred table her hands flutter. The pain she describes in all of its parts to her nurses, but when with me, denies even the smallest discomfort. No, nothing hurts. Why do you ask? I’m doing pretty well, considering I’m 88. She’s always with the 88. Mom, I say, you’re 95. No, that’s impossible! 95. Really? I’m not 88? You were. Now you’re 95. I was 7 when my best friend died. She lived downstairs. She caught something and died. Her mother told me. She gave me the doll, but I didn’t like dolls. I put it in a box. Thank you for coming. Have I already said that? No, I tell her. And anyway, it’s nice to hear, I say, arranging in a red vase the shell pink roses I’ve brought for her, and setting the vase down on... Continue reading
Posted Jun 18, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
[Poetry is] a means of seeing invisible things and saying unspeakable things about them. – Howard Nemerov I want to write this week about the flesh, about loss, and about my father’s passing at 4 am on October 3, 2010, about Freud and about the coming, vast celebratory party for my 70th birthday, to be thrown next Saturday of this very week by my sweet wife, with my own child in attendance, about my mother, now 95, who has lived a full and heroic life and cannot recognize me but smiles broadly when I read Mary Oliver to her. About having a catch with my dad when I was a teenager and he in his early forties, about a book he gave me after my reading at a Madison, Wisconsin bookstore on February 29th 2009—the very day Canterbury Books went out of business (coincidence?). He’d asked me what book I wanted. Was it a biography of Velásquez, or possibly Goya, I can’t remember, which he had the clerk wrap, and that lies atop my desk, still in its wrapping paper, these 10 years later, that paper the sacristan of this mortal relic, a too, too solid metaphor. From the ubiquitous floating epigraph to the ibids and op cits of scholarly writing, I am tempted, as always, to quote the famous, even though doing so feels self-indulgent, ingratiating, self-glorifying, pompous, pedantic, egoistic, boastful, and ultimately, too far to the side of original thinking and feeling to be worthy of full credit. But there’s also salve, if not salvation, in that quoting, and so I want both to poke fun at the practice of leveraging the words of others, and then to practice it. I would like, for example, to invite Oedipus and Kreon to repeat their ironic exchange in the Prologue to Oedipus Rex, an exchange that prompts any self-respecting psychoanalyst to reach for pad and pencil: Oedipus. Tell me: Was Laios murdered in his house, Or in the fields, or in some foreign country? Kreon. He said he planned to make a pilgrimage. He did not come home again. Oedipus. And was there no one, No witness, no companion, to tell what happened? Kreon. They were all killed but one, and he got away So frightened that he could remember one thing only. Which one of us lives without the sense of a guilty secret? Although, what the secret is about we do not know. (Cf. Jung on dreams, the dream world, a world of permissible psychosis, which we enter and re-enter, night after night.) Silence and the unsaid: the unsayable, really. That’s what I want to get at as this week goes on. All in good time. For now, as an unnamed New Yorker staff writer (unnamed by Roger Angell in his memoir, This Old Man, All in Pieces) (Penguin Random House, NY 2016) says about Donald Barthelme: “When he was writing a lot, you had this sense that there was someone else sort of like you, living in... Continue reading
Posted Jun 16, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Jun 16, 2019