65 Years of California Dreaming

Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005

Volumes I and II By Jack Foley (Oakland: Pantograph Press, 2011)

Review By Zara Raab                                             

            Jack Kerouac coined the phrased “Beat Generation” in 1948, the year Jack Foley opens his chronology of West Coast poetry, his rich syllabus of literary, political, and sociological texts that define a bygone era and continue to shape the culture of literary life in and around the San Francisco Bay. Nineteen-forty-eight was seminal in other ways, as well, announcing the publication of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos (New Directions). T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize, Denise Levertov emigrated to the U.S., and William Everson, whose The Residual Years was newly published, became Brother Antoninus after speaking with God. The following year, Marcel Duchamp lectured at the SF Museum of Art and the Hungary i opened. A new radio station, KPFA, began broadcasting Jarmie de Angulo’s Indian Tales. DH Lawrence came out with his Selected Poems (New Directions), with an introduction by Kenneth Rexroth, who took the metrics of Hopkins and Bridges to task, and dismissed the idealized, stilted ways of writing of old masters like Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold. “Sermonizing,” he called it.

            A new kind of sermon altogether was in the air in 1949. That same year saw Robinson Jeffers’ Medea and Walter Lippman’s Cold War. It is also the year, Foley tells us, when literary giants moved West—Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky. It was an era of Beats and Counter-Beats, with more poets heading West: McGrath, Weldon Kees, Lawrence Ferling (who later changed his name to Ferlingetti). Howl instigated an obscenity trial and “McCarthyism” was coined. Here in the early Fifties were the seeds of much of the today’s literary scene. Charles Olson was the rector of Black Mountain College, Weldon Kees had a one-man show, Henry Miller’s books, ubiquitous in bookstores now, were pronounced obscene, and the Rosenberg’s were sentenced to death. But these years also tell of an era passed, as when Dylan Thomas makes a final appearance in San Francisco. Thus Foley’s chronology points sometimes backward and other times forward in time, like historic and new buildings side by side along an old city street.

            Foley introduces each decade by placing literary events in a broader political and national context, noting important elections, wars, and assassination, events often mirrored in poetry of that time, and in the early decades especially he continues to document the steady migration of talent West: Bob Kaufman; David Meltzer; Thom Gunn, arriving before the face of San Francisco changed utterly with the gay rights movement of the 1960s; John Wieners; Robert Creeley; Richard Brautigan; Joanne Kyger, who later marries Gary Synder; Lew Welch; Detroit-born Philip Levine, who begins a long career at Fresno State College. Another wave follows in the 1960’s: Diana di Prima, Jim Brodey, Tom Clark, Sotere Torregian, Jack Marshall, Adam Cornford, Bill Berkson, Stuart Perkoff, Jack Hirschman, Vikram Seth, Marjorie Perloff, Czeslaw Milosz, Al Young, Julia Vinograd, Lucha Corpi. Some are still with us, while others have written their last lines.

            Foley deftly documents the classics especially those written in the early decades.[1] His bibliography of poetry of the era includes the numerous books by literary household names like Denise Levertov, Thom Gunn, Weldon Kees, Michel McClure, W.S. Di Piero, Josephine Miles, Ed Dorn, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Haas, David Meltzer, Nina Serrano, Janet Lewis, Susan Griffin, Sharon Dubiago, Richard Silberg, Jane Hirshfield, , Sharon Dubiago, as well as books by other lively talents.[2] Anthologies were important: Jamake Highwater’s Words in the Blood: Contemporary Indian Writers of North and South America, Luis Valdez and Stan Steiner’s Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, and (later) Women Poets of the World, but above all Donald M. Allen’s early The New American Poetry, an influential anthology that set the tone and poetics for poets for a generation or two to come.

            New institutions started in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, their influence still profound––the San Francisco Zen Center, the California Poets in the Schools program, the San Francisco Poetry Center, City Lights Bookstore, and New College of California. Others played a role, then passed on.[3] Even before the 1960s are half over, the Free Speech Movement has begun at U.C. Berkeley; later the Matachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitus and The Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club offered havens to the members of the gay community. Feminist poet Karen Brodine helped found the Women Writers Union in San Francisco. Many book stores were founded in addition to City Lights in North Beach: Books 55 on Le Cienega, the Golden Bough in Fillmore, Moe’s Books in Berkeley, and later, Wolf River Books in Larkspur, to name a few. New presses appeared.[4] Sometimes associated with a press, sometimes independent, a whole field of new reviews sprang up, include Poetry Flash (edited by Barrett Watten and Robert Grenier, and later by Joyce Jenkins who soldiered on through the so-called language ways, on-going articles in Flash about the merits of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, to the present day).[5] Foley is meticulous in including even some of the “many, many 8 ½ X 11 stapled magazines,” like Red Weather from which he quotes this “Kurt Schwitters-like effusion” from Edmund Chibeau in a 1987 edition of the “magazine”:

 

uz af reet

uz af reet

uz af reet room   jaap reeder

                            jaap reeder

uz af reet             jaap reeder     tweet loon

uz af reet                                     tweet loon

 

 

            Of these reviews and presses, only a handful survives and thrives today.

            Poetry festivals and readings flourished in these decades: Seminal was the 1955 reading at 6 Gallery with Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen; Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth held readings at the Cellar. Joanna Griffin and Sande Fini opened a reading series at The Bacchanall bar in Berkeley. Foley himself ran a poetry series at the Café Milano. All along, various observers documented the scene: Rexroth in “San Francisco’s Bohemians,” Jack Spicer in “Poetry s Magic Workshop,” Norma Mailer on the East Coast in “The White Negro Hipster.” Foley also includes extensive excerpts from later assessments of the era, for example, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century and, later, Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from the beginnings to the Present Day.  In Volume II, we find Herman Berlandt’s Poetry San Francisco, guest edited at least once by Foley.

            Foley’’s expansive excerpts of characteristic poems and other writings add considerable charm to a necessarily plainspoken, dry litany of dates, books and people.

Of one beat poem–

it begins

like this

 

and ends

like this

 

and continues [343, Vol. I]

 

––as the poem does, scrolling down six large format pages. (The poem, called “Flower Star,” is by Richard Denner.) Four whole pages are given to an excerpt from Clarence Major’s Dictionary of Afro-American Slang.

            Equally important, Foley introduces certain books that might drop completely out of our literary consciousness: John Wiener’s The Hotel Wentley Poems, for example. Another delightful discovery for me was poetry of Helen Adam, who has also recently been re-discovered by scholars like Annie Finch at the University of Michigan and whose ballad opera, San Francisco Burning, premiered in 1961. Another wonderful find, to my mind, is Henri Coulette, whose verses of cadenced meters and dry, sophisticated wit, typified by his book The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems, couldn’t have made their debut at a more inauspicious time. Yet another find is the little known work of Robert Nathan (1894- 1985), who worked as a screenwriter and composer for Hollywood, and who published Selected Poems (1941), lines of which are excerpted by Foley (who refers to them somewhat condescendingly as “Shelleyan”).

            Foley heads his chapter on the 1970’s with a short list: “Feminism, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”, Gay Pride, Multiculturalism / The Before Columbus Foundation,” and he is sensitive to the literary achievements of women and minorities in both volumes. He also writes sensitively about issues like gay rights. As the momentum of the West Coast Renaissance gathers and spreads, especially to the Northeast, Foley expands his time line to include new presses, anthologies, poets and publications, especially those in keeping with the aesthetic and ethos of the time. Foley’s stated perimeters for Visions is California literary life in the second half of the 20th Century, going into the 21st Century as far as 2005, but his actual perimeters are more fluid. As the timeline unfolds, he steps more frequently outside California. Confusion might have been avoided if in a given listing, Foley included not only the publisher, but also the place of publication, as well as indices for publishers and presses as well authors. Lack of clarity begins, perhaps, on the book’s cover, which has an epigraph at the top: “the twentieth century in all its confused and troubled eloquence” above the title, which suggestions a different purpose: Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets & Poetry 1940-2005.

            Elsewhere Foley does succeed in articulating unifying principles beyond geography for his massive work. He mentions, for example, in regard to Clark Ashton Smith’s Selected Poems (Arkham Press), that the volume included translations of work by Baudelaire and Verlaine, whose influence on poets of the time was strong. Foley also discusses the roots and aesthetic of  L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or black power poetry. Only occasionally does Foley include a Midwestern or East Coast writer and publisher without noting explicitly the lineage that gives them entry into this remarkable club of Renaissance writers. (An example is his listing of Hernandez Cruz’s Red Beans published by Coffee House Press.) 

In time, the Renaissance itself became in time diffused. Chana Bloch, whom Foley rightly includes for her substantial contribution in translation and original poetry, was not a part of the movement that began the Renaissance and was only influenced by it, perhaps, to the extent that she is a feminist. But Foley neglects to mention when Bloch arrived from Cornell to teach at Mills College in Oakland, where she had a long and distinguished career, influencing many future poets. For the most part, especially in Volume I, he takes elaborate care to note when every future laureate arrives in town. Important figures like Sandra Gilbert are handled a bit casually as well. Not only does he not tell us when Gilbert arrived from New York and Cornell to the West Coast with her literary scholar husband Elliot Gilbert, he does not give the extraordinary details of Elliot Gilbert’s sudden death after routine surgery, chronicled by Robert Pinsky in his long poem “Impossible to Tell” (The Figured Wheel, 1996). Given Foley’s penchant for highly entertaining deathbed soliloquies by Robert Duncan and others, one would expect, and even hope for this kind of detail. But figures like Gilbert and Bloch, are not part of the group of “Founding Fathers,” on the pedestal Foley has erected: Robert Duncan, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg.

            These are quibbles, of course, in Foley’s important and vast panorama of literary life in California in mid-century and beyond. Gilbert and Boch are both academics, lacking some of the high color of a Snyder or a Dubiago. Another poet in this low profile mode is the poet George Keithley whose long career at Chico State  included several important books about the western landscape. The Founders of the California Renaissance famously lived outside the Ivory Tower of academia, preferring to perform in bookstores, bars, and cafes. Foley himself, to this day, is a major part of this still lively culture. Foley’s Visions are a gala celebration, and he is not to be blamed for neglecting one or two of the fairy godmothers and fathers to the event, but for the next edition I submit my recommendations for including novelist and aphorist Thomas Farber, whose El Leon Literary Arts has published several West Coast writers, and the poet-translator Stephen Kessler, once anointed by Denise Levertov and included in several anthologies of California writing. (Kessler is also the editor of the Redwood Coast Review, which often publishes California poets.) In contrast, Foley gives the more overtly political Adrienne Rich lots of attention, including her books in his time line before she actually arrives in California to teach at San Jose State and the at Stanford.

Foley’s text comes alive when he draws a portrait, as he does with another feminist poet on the scene long before Rich—Karen Bodine, who died in 1987. He includes a powerful excerpt from her poem “Bones”:

 

There is a march

up from the sodden grassy banks

of the Green River

. . .

One by one, after another, the women

return. The ones who are known

by name, the anonymous too.

The women who are missing, feared

dead. . .

The sisters who left in the morning

And never returned. . .

The women who by force of circumstance

or force of a gun, climbed into a stranger’s car

at midnight or at noon. . .

 

            Volume II, as hefty as volume I, represents a different cultural scene with remnants of the Renaissance overlaid by new stirrings in art and literature. The young poets of the 60’s and 70’s mature and take center stage, poets like Robert Hass, Dana Gioia, Jack Hirschman, Leslie Scalapino, Richard Silberg, James Schevill. Foley notes each new work as it appears, as he does each re-issue, critical text, commentary or posthumous letters on or from “founding fathers” like Duncan or Olson. New names appear or become more prominent. The sheer number of cultural figures[6] in the 1980’s onward must have at times daunted even the energetic Jack Foley in his massive task. In the end, who’s “in” and who’s not pales before the colorful and detailed panorama Foley creates of impassioned writers and artists in California during the past half a century, and a palpable sense of their enduring legacy.

 

Zara Raab’s book is Swimming the Eel (2011). Two new books will appear this fall. Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, The Dark Horse, River Styx, Redwood Coast Review, Poet Lore, Colorado Review and elsewhere. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

 

 


[1] Nabokov’s Lolita; Ginsberg’s Howl; Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues and in a few years, On the Road and Dharma Bums; James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause; Ferlinghetti’s  A Coney Island of the Mind; Alan Watt’s Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen; Robert Duncan’s Selected Poems and later Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949-1950; Kenneth Patchen’s Because It Is; Landis Everson’s Postcard from Eden and other books; Philip Walen’s Memoirs of an Interglacial Age; Bukowski’s Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail and The Last Night of the Earth Poems; Rexroth’s American Poetry in the Twentieth Century; Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters; Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Game of Silence: 1960-1970 and later New Selected Poems; Lawson Fuso Inada’s Before the War; Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone: Collected Poems, 1950-1971.

[2] Stuart Perkoff (The Suicide Room), Carla Kandinsky, Floyd Sala (Pussy Pussy Everywhere: A Voyeurs Delight), David Bromige, Luisah Teish, Steve Benson, Judy Wells, Eve Triem, Barrett Watten, Thomas Burnett Swarm (Wombats and Moondust), and dozens of others.

[3] Venice West Café Expresso (started by Stuart Perkoff) and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and later Cafe Milano.

[4] White Rabbit Press, Hawk’s Well Press, Women’s Press Collective (Judy Grahn, 1969), Red Hill Press, Heyday Books, Mother’s Hen Press (Louis Cuneo), Tree Books (David Meltzer), Tuumba Press (Lyn Hejinian), Straight Arrow Press, Ediciones Pocho Che,  Kitchen: Table: Women of Color Press, Fresh Hot Bread (Waverley Writers), Syzygy Press, and later Pennywhistle Press, Bombshelter Press, Lapis Press (Venice, California), and Sixteen Rivers Press. Have I left something out? Check Foley’s massive, two-volume, 1,300 page text and see for yourself.

 

[5] Evergreen Review, kayak (George Hitchcock), The Berkeley Poets’ Cooperative (Ted Fleischman, Lucy Lang Day and others), Lean Frog (Mother’s Hen Press), Invisible City (Paul Vangelisti and John McBride), Big Sky magazine (Bill Berkson), Poetry Flash, Second Coming (also a press), California Quarterly; beginning in the 1980’s, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Threepenny Review (Wendy Lesser), Yellow Silk: A Journal of the Erotic Arts, and Caveat Lector (Christopher Bernard).

[6] Ishmael Reed, D.A. Powell, Luis Rodriguez, June Jordan, Peter Dale Scott, devorah major, Opal Palmer Adisa, Rebecca Solnit, Janice Gould, Alan Kaufman, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Clark Ashton Smith, John Campion, Kay Boyle, Maxine Chernoff–-the list is long. 

Traveling Light: Poems by Elaine Starkman

Hearing Beyond Sound: New and Collected Poems y Elaine M. Starkman

Fog is universal, but nowhere does it have quite the presence it has in the San Francisco Bay area, where Elaine Starkman, who grew up in Chicago, has lived most of her adult life. Starkman’s new book opens with the characteristically unpretentious language of “Alive, Winter, 2008,” whose imagery of pear juice, goblets, and fog establishes a tone and mood that pervades many of her poems:

          My view

          illumined by

 

          fog-drenched

          phantom orchards.

“Sandy’s Gone, January 2011” captures in title alone her simple, understated language, evoking the temperament of a diarist who keeps a journal, or a faithful correspondent, each letter dated, sent from ports in her travels through life. Reflections on death and solitude intermingle in “Sooner or Later, 2000”: “All this will end//[. . .] Loving and not loving knowing/sooner than later we’ll part//Then what we think/ will not matter//Then we’ll wonder/what silences we’ll take//with us/ to our graves”.

          Remove the slash marks indicating line breaks and add punctuation, and this poem reads like a letter to a spouse of many years. Many of Starkman’s poems have much the simplicity and intimacy of personal correspondence. This isn’t to say Starkman’s descriptions aren’t lovely, as in “June, 1999,” where the line breaks have the purposeful presence of suggesting a necklace of the pearls featured as an image in the poem:

          Night—

          chips of pearl

          fading toward

          dawn

“Stillness, February, 2006,” set in Green Gulch at Muir Beach distills this poet’s reflective cast of mind:

           I didn’t think

           this calmness

          could happen,

 

          this sweet

          immeasurable stillness

 

         By following the contours and normative turns of her syntax, and breaking predictably, Starkman’s lines mirror her zen approach to life, one of whose tenets might be paraphrased as “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Starkman rarely offers rhythmic surprise, or breaks the poetic line to amplify or qualify meaning–-to strive for more than is natural. Although Starkman has chosen to keep her poems free from the strictures of meter and rhyme, she has not then taken on the difficulties inherent in rhythmic surprise, enjambment or complex meaning. Starkman is never overly ambitious in her use of the freedom of free verse. This has a calming effect, I suppose, slowing down the progress of the poem, and perhaps facilitating connection with the reader. It is rather like some of William Carlos Williams early poems, before he mastered his brilliant rhythmic patterns in what James Longenbach has called the annotating line.

          One of my favorite poems, “Peaches, Netanya, Near the Sea,” in the section of “History Lessons” drawn from Jewish and her own history, is an homage to Avram, an “old immigrant/from Eastern Europe” who sells peaches from a cart with his helper young Yosef, “the singing Yemenite;/ his dark sandaled feet” dangling “over the cart pulled by a donkey,” while their dog Cush runs alongside. The poet recalls Yosef teaching her how to say the Hebrew word for peach, “Ahfarsek” and giving her a taste; she concludes:

          Oh, fruit of the land

          Oh, milk and honey.

          Where are you now,

          Singing Yosef,

          Silent Avram,

          Lost Cush

“Every Single Day, a Ray of Light” evokes the Jewish Kabbalah, and “Kaddish for the Columbia” discusses “the sketch/ by a boy in Auschwitz” carried into outer space by the space shuttle Columbia, without echoing any of the rich, wrought cadences of the Hebrew bible. Ancient Jewish traditions pervade these poems, while the sparse style remains firmly planted in the 21st Century. “In the Kibbutz Laundry, 1969,” one of a series of poems set in Israel, is dedicated to Rivka Cooper whose arm is tattooed with a concentration camp number:

          In the kibbutz laundry

          Her hands move in an act of love.

“[E]ngraved on her arm/ Lives a page of history/ That all the soap/ And all the rubbing/Can never wash away.”

          Family bonds are a rich source of reflection. In “Apricots for Isaac,” the poet savors an afternoon walking with her grandson in an abandoned orchard; he climbs an apricot tree whose fruit is beginning to ripen. In “Patterns,” she reflects on the links between the generation, the patterns tying her to her mother, and from her mother, through her, to her children:

          How is it that I’ve become my mother

          Stand at the sink    wash her hair

         

          The way she once washed mine

          How is it that I carry everything

 

          Unnamed between us

          Onto my own children

 

          And call it love

 

          “Re-reading Poems of Anne Sexton, 1984” makes evident Sexton’s influence: “The fearless courage of your writing/ nourished my own”. Preoccupation with childhood motivates poems like “Three A.M., November 2011,” recording a dream of a “blue eyed/dark haired brother and sister//I knew long ago,” or the poem “Chicago: Garfield Park Conservatory, September, 2004,” conjuring a neighborhood where the poet “trudged with [her] father through winter snow, spring rains, and summer swelter more than /half a century ago”:

          My memory weeps from room to room

Although Starkman begins her poems with a personal perspective, she is by no means a Confessional poet, and she writes of male literary influences, capturing in brief stanzas the essence of Hemingway, Einstein, and of Gandhi, who “lets me know that my life/ is in my own hands” (“Traveling Among Men, June, 2012”).

          Never inflated, didactic, or politically correct, Starkman isn’t generally interested in news headlines, but in the slow news of family life, as in the charming, “In Praise of Old Man’s Pee,” dedicated to her father, whom she visits in the hospital near the end of his life. Starkman celebrates the “men we don’t hear or/read about who give/us their manly gifts//who love us gently/with compassion.” An overarching theme of Hearing Beyond Sound is the need for an inner voice.

          No, I don’t want

          To know who’s

          Making money

          Losing it

          Who’s having affairs

          Who’s winning

          [. . .]

          More news more websites

          More blogs more spam

          More more more—

 

          There’s lively detail in Starkman portrait of a well-dressed man on the street corner in the wheelchair selling soap in “Lost Words, 2009,” and humor in the poet’s recognition that, caught up in the petty trials of her own life, she does not really see him. Starkman is most exuberant in her friendships with women: the years. “Cabana Carioca, New York City,” dedicated to the poet Florence Miller, describes a New York City outing:

          We abandon ourselves

          To every pan-handler

          [. . .]

          We swoon at the stocky waiters

          In Cabana Carioca on 45th Street.

          [. . .]

          we samba up the line in step

          to the last of the Portuguese buffets

          where we pay the counter price

          for paella and flan at this lunch of love.

 

          At times, Hearing Beyond Words reads like a travel letter from Israel, Europe, and Asia, and as occasionally in other pieces, the line between poetry and good prose is sustained only by the thin thread of the line break. Yet without straining for heightened literary effect, the poet connects with both the people in her stories and her readers beyond the page. Even in sleep, she is traveling, with the notion of some ultimate journey beyond life hovering like a shadow. In “Traveling Toward Dawn, September, 2005,” she writes, “Soon I’ll lie down to sleep/wrap myself in night/ fold its coverlet above me”. Travel is evoked even by this tender collection’s elusive title, referring to the “celestial sound” of the highway, the “angelic humming//from the car tires/ as we pass sandy dunes” on their way somewhere. As reader, I welcome these missives from other lands. I travel with her.

Longfellow’s “The Fire of Drift-Wood” and “The Cross of Snow”

Longfellow and Kasischke

 

By Zara Raab

We want to read and write poems that speak to us in this time and place. That’s how they come alive. But there may be value in the very strangeness, the otherness of poems from other times and places. I recently began rereading poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when I came across a reference to the poem, “The Fire of Drift-Wood,” in a footnote by the excellent poet and translator David Ferry. Ferry called the poem “great.” Written at Devereau Farm, near Marblehea in Maine, Longfellow reminisces with old friends; a kind of reunion around a bonfire seems to be taking place on the beach. The poet recalls the friends who spoke there of “all that fills the hearts of friends,”

When first they feel, with secret pain,

Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,

 

What person alive does not remember the first grown-up moment she knew she was a separate person, knew that each person is separate and fully capable of being lost? Who does not remember the pain or the joy of that moment? And yet, I for one, cannot think of another poet who has put it so well.

 

When first they feel, with secret pain,

Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,

And never can be one again;


The first slight swerving of the heart,

That words are powerless to express,

 

Longfellow’s poem (see below for the full text) goes on to describe the fire around which friends have gathered, a fire “built of the wreck of stranded ships,” and thinks back on wrecks and “ships dismasted, that were hailed/ And sent no answer back again,” just as a lost friendship, a “long-lost venture of the heart,” sends no answer back. 

At his death in 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular poet in America, yet 20th century poet Lewis Putnam Turco in his book Visions and Revisions of American Poetry (Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 1986), quoted in Wikipedia, dismissed Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way throughout his career… nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.” Which assessment is correct? What makes “The Fire of Drift-Wood” so powerful is the very modern sentiment it expresses, the very fact of our mortality, a fact sentimental Victorians would sweeten with talk of heavenly reunions. Is it relevant that Turco’s judgment was made 25 years ago, and Ferry’s only recently? Is it relevant that David Ferry is the winner of a recent National Book Award and an excellent practicing poet himself, as well as (in this instance) critic?

This poem and Ferry’s direction lead to further reading, and I discovered Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Cross of Snow,” written in memory of his beloved wife. It may be instructive to look at this poem alongside one by the contemporary American poet, Laura Kasischke. Both poems regard an aspect of mourning and grief. Let’s switch to our own 21st Century before returning to the 19th C for comparison. Here is Kasischke’s poem (which I found quite by chance, in the American Poetry Review [this poem also appeared on Poetry Daily]):

 

Things That Have Changed Since You Died

 

We can talk to one another on telephones 


in banks, in cars, in line. No more 


sitting on the floor 
attached to a cord 


while everybody listens. 


No more 


standing outside the booth 


in the cold, fingering 


an adulterous dime. We

 

send each other mail without stamps. 


Watch television without antennas. 


Wear seatbelts, smoke less, and never 
on a bus, never 


in the lobby while we’re waiting 


for the lawyer to call on us.

Nowhere now, a typewriter ribbon. 


Quaintly the record album’s scratch and spin. 


Our groceries, scanned. 


Pump our own gas. 


Take off our shoes 


before boarding our plane. 


Those towers: Gone. And Pluto’s 


no longer a planet: 


Forget it. 


I could go on

 

and on, but you’re still dead 


and nothing’s any different.

 

 

LAURA KASISCHKE

American Poetry Review 
March / April 2013

 

Now before commenting on this poem, let’s read Longfellow’s “The Cross of Snow”:

 

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,


A gentle face — the face of one long dead —

Looks at me from the wall, where round its head

The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.

Here in this room she died; and soul more white

Never through martyrdom of fire was led


To its repose; nor can in books be read


The legend of a life more benedight.

There is a mountain in the distant West

That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines

Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

Such is the cross I wear upon my breast


These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes

And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

 

“through all the changing scenes /And seasons, changeless since the day she died,” Longfellow writes. And Kasischke: ”Our groceries, scanned./ Pump our own gas. / Take off our shoes / before boarding our plane. / Those towers: gone. And Pluto’s / no longer a planet: Forget it. / I could go on // and on, but you’re still dead/ and nothing’s any different.” The themes in the two poems are the same, but no two poem could be more different.

 “The Cross of Snow” seems ponderous in comparison to Kasischke’s light, delft lines moving quickly down the page. Longfellow’s poem uses what to our ears is antiquated language: “Benedight” evidently means “blessed,” but sounds like benighted. The reference to a martyrdom of fire is genuine, however, as Longfellow’s wife died a horrible, slow death after her dress caught fire. It is a slow-moving poem, certainly, the only action being the gaze of the portrait on the poet, and the strange invocation of “a mountain in the distant West/ That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines / Display a cross of snow upon its side.”  To my own mind Longfellow’s lines reverberated oddly with those of  Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” which comments on the mutability of all things. For Longfellow, his grief for his wife is immutable and cold as snow that deep in the mountain shadows does not melt. The emotion of the poet is clear.

            Ask which poem speaks to you and you’ll say the Kasischke’s, because we know and recognize its referents: they are events and changes of our—or our parents’–– lives. In fact, Kasischke is jaunty in enumerating the changes, a jauntiness that gives added power and pathos to her ending. Kasischke’s poem is emblematic of a bustling, post-modern world of rapid technological change. But how will Kasischke’s poem be read in 100 years by people who may not recognize all the changes, or if they do will not respond to them as we do? The scholarly annotator of Kasischke’s work will have to explain telephone cords, perhaps, and long-playing records. The single most stirring reference in Kasischke’s poem is to “Those towers,” just as in Longfellow’s poem, the most stirring external reference is to “a mountain in the distant West,” in a time—the 19th Century—when Manifest Destiny and the westward migration of families was changing America as radically as the fall of the Twin Towers.

 Longfellow’s poem is much more introspective, more interior than Kasischke’s. This quality in itself dates the poem and may render it old-fashioned. But the central image of a grief frozen and unchanging amidst all the change of seasons and scenes around him, is powerful—perhaps as powerful as Kasischke’s. And who knows? Perhaps there is a place for a more introspective approach in our own work. The work of poets like David Ferry—who first pointed me in Longfellow’s direction—is introspective and measured.

 

The Fire of Drift-Wood

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We spake of many a vanished scene,

Of what we once had thought and said,

Of what had been, and might have been,

And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,

When first they feel, with secret pain,

Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,

And never can be one again;


The first slight swerving of the heart,

That words are powerless to express,

And leave it still unsaid in part,

Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake

Had something strange, I could but mark;

The leaves of memory seemed to make

A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,

As suddenly, from out the fire

Built of the wreck of stranded ships,

The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,

We thought of wrecks upon the main,

Of ships dismasted, that were hailed

And sent no answer back again.


The windows, rattling in their frames,

The ocean, roaring up the beach,

The gusty blast, the bickering flames,

All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part

Of fancies floating through the brain,

The long-lost ventures of the heart,

That send no answers back again.


O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!

They were indeed too much akin,


The drift-wood fire without that burned,

The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

 

Provided by the Maine Historical Society
(207) 774-1822 • | 489 Congress Street • Portland, ME 04101

 

 

 

David Ferry’s poem “Dives”

[“Dives” is reprinted below and is available on line in Google archives.]

Among poems about the homeless and insane, “Dives” is not perhaps as powerful, dramatic, or moving as Donald Justice’s “In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn,” or even Ferry’s own poem “The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People,” also fromDwelling Places. But “Dives” is a remarkable poem nonetheless, and illustrates well how formal and musical elements shape and inspire poetry, and how metaphor can leads from and to insight. 

 
In three stanzas of 11 lines each, the poet evokes, first, a corner garden of a back alley where “the dogheaded wildman sleeps,” the nearby old movie theater where “great dead stars” vied “in rich complaint,” and finally the subtle, vibrant hues of the trash spilling from neighbors’ bins. The wildman sleeps throughout these evocations, yet he is playfully brought to life in each, beginning with the viburnum whose leaves are “homely, crudely rough-cut”. They are as plainspoken as Kent in Lear, a play about another wild man.
 
Loosely iambic lines, pentameters and hexameters, are generously cut with anapests to lighten the tone, and difficult spondees aptly introduced for the difficult “wildman”, the phrase itself a spondee. But the textures and colors themselves in this poem become a formal element as they do for painters. The delicacy and minute observations of color in stanza three seem to evoke the richly chaotic inner life of the man who “sleeps/ in the freedom of his distress among abandoned/ containers of paint, eggshell and offwhite tints,/ umbers both raw and burnt […]” Ferry is as patient and studious as a 19th century landscape painter in getting the hues here just right to express and convey his scene. 
 
Yet the poem is rigorously thoughtful, as well. In stanza two, the evocation of the Orson Welles Movie Theater and its past scenes of woe, exultation and ecstasy is a suitable neighborhood for Ferry’s “wild man.” Most powerfully, though, to my mind, is the introduction of Kent, who in Shakespeare’s play Lear, as Ferry reminds us, is “plainspoken, a truth-teller, /Impatient with comparison as with deceit”–itself another form, unlike the king’s own more poetic ravings, of madness. Ferry’s wildman, too, is “homely, crudely rough-cut, with/ A texture like sandpaper, an unluscious green”. In short, a man not able to maneuver in society, where white lies and deceit are necessary and apt.

 

Dives

 

By David Ferry

 

 

The dogheaded wildman sleeps in the back alley,

Behind the fence with bittersweet adorned,

In the corner of the garden over near

Where the viburnum flowers or fails to flower,

Depending on whether or not we water it.

Many times over again it has survived.

The leaves are homely, crudely rough-cut, with

A texture like sandpaper; an unluscious green,

Virtuous in look, not really attractive;

Like Kent in Lear plainspoken, a truth-teller,

Impatient with comparison as with deceit.

 

The wildman sleeps in the maple-shaded alley

Hidden behind the garden fence behind

The wooden garden seat weathering gray

In the corner of the garden over near

Where the Orson Welles Movie Theater used to be,

From which in former days you faintly heard

The voices of the great dead stars still vying

In rich complaint, or else in exaltation

Of meeting or farewell, in rituals

Of wit o’ermastered, or in ecstasy

Of woe beyond the experience of saints.

 

In the alley between the yard and the old theater

The wildman is, covered with leaves or clad

In the bark of our indigenous flourishing trees,

Elaborately enscrolled and decorated

With the names of heavenly pity; there he sleeps

In the freedom of his distress among abandoned

Containers of paint, eggshell and offwhite tincts,

Umbers both raw and burnt, vermilion, rose,

Purples, and blues, and other hues and shades,

Close by the tangled roll of wire screening,

Under a scribbled hieroglyphic sign.

From Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations (1993)

Ian Duhig’s “Unmaking”

Ian Duhig’s poem “Unmaking” powerfully brings the boar and his slaughter, his unmaking, into being. I love the details even Wikipedia won’t give you about the boar’s bristles, about boar-hunting spears. I love the language, as well, thurifers and mast. Here’s the poem, which appeared in Poetry London 2010:

Unmaking

Boar-hunting spears have a cross-piece to stop
a spitted beast driving up its shaft to the lord,
but in the Ritual of Unmaking it holds his cuts;
heart, liver, sweetmeats steaming like thurifers.

The inside of the boar’s skin serves as tablecloth
to feast the lord’s hounds on humbles and lights,
while a retained poet, silken in words and livery,
furnishes all his lord’s kills lavishly with meanings.

When rubbed the wrong way, their living bristles
stab back. Gorged on mast and fruit in ferment,
they brawl among themselves, can gut a horse. Tusky tusky, they whisper, which means nothing.

by Ian Duhig

Edward Byrne’s Seeded Light

Seeded Light by Edward Byrne

Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point, 2010

102 pages, $18.00

Unceded

The short, spare lines Edward Byrne wrote as a young poet selected by John Ashbery for his first book, Along the Dark Shore, have eased open into the long, iambic couplets of his latest, sixth collection. Turning from the heartaches and joys of fatherhood in Tidal Air (2002), Byrne, in Seeded Light, now addresses themes from nature––moonrise on water, a storm at sea or in a mountain meadow, a wild canyon tributary, night skies in Colorado, where the poet is engaged, and at times beset:

. . .this entire peninsula sky
blossomed with a white blur of birds

in flight as if someone somehow had
suddenly shaken loose and tossed aloft

those new blooms of early spring already
flourishing in fields flowing around us.
[36]

[“Triptych: Fly-by over
the Wildlife Refuge”]

Rich, shaded, and subtle in texture, with second lines often bleeding into the next couplet, these open couplets expand meaning, encouraging the reader to follow. Spurning end rhymes in favor of inventive rhymes and off-rhymes within the lines–– “a stark road//wound round the edge of town, coiling toward/some distant hint of massing light just beginning/to glint up ahead. . .” [29: “Thanksgiving’]––Byrne makes expressive use of alliteration, assonance, consonantal rhyme, and repetition of vowel sounds.

“Revision by Lamplight,” describes his creative process:”late at night/. . . when reading aloud//what lines I have written, I listen for their/lessons I still seem incapable of learning—//. . . another language present[s] its sentence//with something as simple as the rhythm/of rainfall or a whisper of wind…”[49]. This “other language” is voiced––almost without exception in the first four sections––by the “we” of poet and wife, a couple enclosed and protected by Byrne’s unhurried and rolling couplets. The rhythm and movement of the lines, the stately, loose-limbedn rhythms of the pentameter, mime a strolling gait.

Byrne’s couplets celebrate coupling. In one poem, the couple, pretending to be years younger, revisit an inn [“Anniversary Visit”], in another, his wife’s childhood home [“Returning to Your Father’s Farm”], a locale explored in an earlier volume, in others they seek sanctuary in a church, following “the slow toll/of cathedral bells calling parishioners” [25: “After the Miscarriage”], cottage or motel room.

All the more poignant, then, to come near the book’s end to “After Leaving the Hotel,” recalling an uncoupling, echoing poems from his early collection East of Omaha: “I now know our odd absence of pain . . .//followed by the feelings of loss//And regret we still appear to share are no/More than normal emotional costs a couple// Might expect after reflection upon leaving/The site where their love’s come undone.” [77]

This poem’s dissonance echoes elsewhere in the sense of unease and the heightened awareness of nature’s deceptions. After visiting a wild canyon gorge, “each day we return to the safety/at home—in any weather, no matter what changes//occur. Falsely, we arrive; like deceptive images/of distant fixed stars; we seem to stay the same” [68: “Canyon Tributary,”]. In “Waiting at a Bus Station” [17], stranded by a winter storm, the poet notes the “false warmth” of the neon window displays in the closed shops—meaningless displays, like old photographs that once meant something.

In Seeded Light, elegy and illness balance the pleasures of memory, without trauma, war, or 9/11, unlike much poetry of the past half-century. Though his aesthetic shares more akin with Wallace Stevens than Mary Oliver, Byrne has Oliver’s sensitivity to nature, without her need to draw obvious lessons from it.

As the day retracts its light, invites
still colder weather, from the warmth

of our bedroom . . .
. . . .
. . . as the escaping sap
of fresh-cut wood sighs in our fireplace.

[43, “Winter Nightfall
in a Seaside Village”]

Such sap-filled sighs are likely to escape the reader of these wonderful poems, just warm and heartening enough for one well attuned to winter.

This review originally appeared in Poemeleon: a journal of poetry, winter/spring 2010 issue.