Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid

“There are the killed.//(By me)” begins Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Then a list:

Morton, Baker, early friends of mine.
Joe Bernstein. 3 Indians.
A blacksmith when I was twelve, with a knife.

13 more dead men listed by name or situation, plus “A rabid cat/birds during practice.” The 2nd half of the poem:

These are the killed.

(By them) —
Charlie, Tom O’Folliard
Angela D’s split arm,
,                                       and Pat Garrett

sliced off my head.
Blood a necklace on me all my life.

I love this collection, published in 1974 (Ondaatje’s third book of poems, before he began publishing prose), and that amplifies my frustration at the limitations of his later poems, which just don’t seem to have as much there there.

But in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid — a composite work in the voice of and about the legendary western outlaw, including (untitled) poetry, short prose sections, a few eyewitness accounts, and photos — Billy’s voice is (among other things including captivating, violent, lyrical, startling, loving, simple, rough, and insightful) authentic. Continue reading “Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid”

Vanitas Motel with a bad cold

Had a bad cold this week, so I reread Jon Loomis’ 1998 collection Vanitas Motel since it contains “Watching Wings of Desire With a Bad Cold,” one of those awesome you’ll-always-remember (and wish you wrote!) titles. And poem, for that matter. (Quick definition of vanitas painting, as I know not everyone’s parents were art history majors.)

Loomis’ poetry is tough, its situations blunt.

From “Divorce”:

Half-moon. Squidlight. Fog hung like a bedsheet
20 yards out. It’s a long walk across the breakwater—
gulls doze on the flats, hoping you’ll die. […]

From “Illness”:

Late December, dawn spreads like a rash
above the parking lot. Venus smokes itself down,
stubs itself out. The house is a whistle only I can hear—

From “Aubade at Your Hospital Window,” “Tuesday’s snow still with us, old pair/of underpants.”

Not tough-guy tough or down-and-out tough. Sure, there’s swearing, Continue reading “Vanitas Motel with a bad cold”

Dog is my co-pilot

Dogs are hard to write about well. In no small part because of the tendency of dog owners (I am one) to either anthropomorphize or Lassie-ize. But a good dog poem is not impossible. Here are four that I think not only cover most of the emotional ground of being a dog owner, but also succeed as poems.

Let’s start with taking the dog out to poop. A large part of a dog-owning life. Howard Nemerov‘s “Walking the Dog” has a pragmatic, cynical-but-bemused tone about dog ownership. It begins

Two universes mosey down the street
Connected by love and a leash and nothing else.
Mostly I look at lamplight through the leaves
While he mooches along with tail up and snout down
Getting a secret knowledge through the nose
Almost entirely hidden from my sight

And later he also calls himself and the dog “a pair of symbionts/Contented not to think each other’s thoughts.” This is dog as dog. Pet, sure, loved, sure, but I don’t expect to hear any extra vowels added to the dog’s name in cooing tones. Continue reading “Dog is my co-pilot”

Mirror, Mirror

Self-reflection. Common topic for writers, of course. We like worrying about the nature of, the meaning of, the various -nesses and -isms of ourselves. “Self, comma, the” is prevalent in the index of every poet’s autobiography.

The ability to see yourself reflected, physically, is what makes us human, as opposed to just human-shaped, according to our own lore. By which, of course, I mean vampires, and their inability to cast a reflection (though the self-recognition ‘mirror test‘ is a whole other fascinating topic).

And so, a mirror poem. “The Gentleman of Shallot” by Elizabeth Bishop, which has a charming tone in its logical exploration of an absurd idea. (But how absurd, really, is any metaphor for construction of the self?)

The Gentleman in question, having noted that neither of his eyes “is clearer/nor a different color/than the other” decides he must be half looking-glass:

He felt in modesty
his person was
half looking-glass,
for why should he
be doubled?
The glass must stretch
down his middle,
or rather down the edge.
But he’s in doubt
as to which side’s in or out
of the mirror.
There’s little margin for error,
but there’s no proof, either.
And if half his head’s reflected,
thought, he thinks, might be affected.

One of the delightful things in this poem is his curiosity. Although he realizes that “If the glass slips/he’s in a fix—/only one leg, etc.” this danger doesn’t bother him. In fact he loves the uncertainty. Continue reading “Mirror, Mirror”

A really good 9/11 Poem

A successful last line is as necessary for a poem to work as a successful any other line, but some poems have one of those fabulously unexpected and (often) devastating/uplifting last lines. The kind of line that kind of ka-pows you even as it lands softly.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright and Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” are the two classic examples.

Photograph from September 11” by Wislawa Szymborska is another one of those poems with a perfect, an unexpected and exactly right, last line.  And it’s one of the few really excellent 9/11 poems I’ve come across.


Sampler: Levine likes ’em

A recent and quite nice “Here & Now” interview with Philip Levine  (our new Poet Laureate, a post whose honor and worth admittedly don’t always prove to be quite the same thing) – a “working class poet” interview for Labor day. (The interview starts 1:10 in).

I particularly like his defense of stories in poetry (why should fiction get to hog all the narrative fun?) and his response to “Is Eminem a poet?”

Levine mentions several poets writing today who thrill him (well, Larry Levis isn’t writing today, he died in 1996, but the others are alive and active.) Did the googling for you — links to a poem by each:

Larry Levis “Anastasia and Sandman”
“I refuse to explain.”

Joseph Stroud “Night and Day”
“So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.”

Tom Sleigh “On the Platform”
“cello cutting through garble, Bach’s repetitions
hard-edged as a scalpel probing an open wound.”

Adrienne Rich “The Art of Translation”  (audio)
“neither as genius nor terrorist would they detain you”

Dorianne Laux “Facts About the Moon”
“Forget us. We don’t deserve the moon.”

Daisy Freed “Econo Motel, Ocean City”
“the promiscuously cheerful guilty American scientist dies horribly.”

And here’s one of Levine’s, titled “Gospel.”

Aside: Craft

Self-expression is one of the least interesting aspects of writing to me. Craft is the thing. Putting words together that take your reader somewhere, using the tools at hand to make something, make something happen, not just express something— that takes real work and real revision.

I feel that “poetry takes work and revision” should be a duh statement, but it seems to need saying. Just writing something down doesn’t make it poetry. It can be useful and good for your personal self, but that’s not the same thing.

But, of course, if the poet has done the work, s/he is in the poem anyhoo. Mark Doty in The Art of Description: “The more accurate and sensory the apparent evocation of things, the more we have the sense of someone there doing the looking, a sensibility at work.”

Bruce Beasley’s “Me Meaneth”

Bruce Beasley’s “Me Meaneth” (Kenyon Review, Summer 2011 issue — the one with the wonderful photo of a lizard-hatted woman on the cover) made me say to myself, after reading the last stanza the first time, “This is why I read contemporary poetry.” (You’ll find the poem in its entirety after the jump, with kind permission from the author.)

It’s a long poem (but it doesn’t feel long) that brought me, at the end, to a place I absolutely did not expect, but was completely prepared, by the poem, to come to. Such a fantastic feeling, as a reader, to simultaneously have a completely surprising moment and realize just how thoroughly the poem’s been setting you up for it all along.

“Me Meaneth” is seven sections mulling over the idea of meaning sparked by 2 lines from an old Scottish poem — “The speaned lambs mene their mithers/As they wimple ower the bent” — the meaning of the individual words, and the meaning of meaning too, among other things (a summary of a poem is a necessary evil, though how much is inherently left out is kind of like nails on a chalkboard to me).

Continue reading “Bruce Beasley’s “Me Meaneth””

Currently Reading

Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan by Scott Simon

I don’t care about sports, and this is a sports fan memoir, and I am loving this book.

Sure, partly it might be a little because (as the actor Tom Conti is the British “thinking women’s crumpet”) Scott Simon is the American thinking woman’s Voodoo Donut. But this book is reminding me, as Story Corps always does, that it’s always the people (well, sometimes the dogs), that are the most interesting part of any story, and that good writing — about anything — is always a joy to come across.

Especially in a box of “FREE” books on the sidewalk.