Skipping around poetry blogs last night, I came across this poem by Paula Tatarunis, whose posts at Paula’s House of Toast often consist primarily of arresting photographs. And there is something photographic about this poem, startling & unnerving.
LAST ACT FIRST ACT
And, finally, an apocalypse.
Blood sky, bone wood,
unstrung harps, lights burnt out,
green a memory no mind can hold
amidst its general fear and the purple onslaught
of what comes next —
— the Sunday matinee
of thorn-filled crib and hopeful relics dredged
from a red muck of want
O come, O come,
O child who seems to sleep,
but, when we stand from our prostrations,
who also stands,
stands upright and clings to a strafed wall,
eyes shut against the blast.
“[W]hat do we think of as the world? Americans have been prone to think of ourselves as the world,” notes Adrienne Rich in this interview from the (London) Times. No American poet, over the last thirty years, has done more to disabuse Americans of that notion–that we are the world–than Adrienne Rich. Her poems are often awkward–fragments cemented together by passion–but they are unstinting in their generous intellectual power. [Interview via Wood s Lot.]
One of the things that has almost stopped me writing poems the last few years was the problem of the political in poetry. “Poetry is not a billboard,” says Rich in the interview, “It is not linguistic aromatherapy.” I imagine a slightly ironic, humorous tone in her statement, given that Rich has often been accused of being a billboard poet by critics who cannot hear her voice or who dismiss the idea that poetry can be or ought to be political. What we mean by “political” is the key to understanding what Rich means. “I, for many, many years have felt not just that the personal becomes political, but that the political becomes personal.” Speaking only for myself, the problem has been how to make the political personal without being overwhelmed by the white noise of the political discourse.” It takes a very robust poetry, like that of Adrienne Rich, to make that work.
When Wittgenstein famously wrote, “The world is all that is the case,” did he mean The world is only that which is the case? If you put the accent on all the sentence can be read that way. This would mean that the world is only that which can be formulated, put into propositions. Or did he mean something more capacious, that the world is everything that comes to consciousness? Rich, when she asks the question, “What do we think of as the world?” is mostly talking about geopolitics; but her work as a whole demands that we understand the world in the broadest possible sense. Poetry is one of the basic ways in which we are able to bring experience to consciousness. Rich’s poetry, these thirty years, has kept insisting that we refuse to accept that which (merely) can be said & that we find out, as writers, that which must be said.
Last night at my department’s holiday dinner, Carole & I sat across the table from my colleague Chris Robinson, who is also a reader of this blog. Chris imagined, when I wrote the other day about Carole splitting wood, that we use the wood for aesthetic purposes. That we had the occasional bourgeois conflagration as part of our gracious country lifestyle. Let me correct this misapprehension without further delay. We heat our house with wood. Carole splits the bigger chunks, most quarter & half rounds of birch & maple, into smaller pieces that burn hotter. She does this every day in winter. And in the summer she stacks ten cords after the Toomey brothers dump it under the pine trees out front. We do have a furnace in the cellar & a tank of fuel oil so that the house won’t get too cold if we’re away for the whole day, but we make it a point of pride to keep the furnace turned off while we’re at home.
One degree this morning. We woke earlier than usual this morning. I’m getting over a cold & couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went downstairs & made coffee. Now, though the sun isn’t up yet, I can hear Carole out beside the house splitting wood for the stove. The maul clunks into the wood. Once. Twice. Three times if it’s a big log. Then The two pieces fall apart making a dull clanking sound in the cold air. Carole likes splitting wood–it’s a chore she actually took away from me shortly after we moved to the country & I showed her how to swing a maul. When it comes to heating the place, my job is to clean out the woodstove & maintain the fire. As I was making the coffee, I bult up the fire from last night’s damped-down bed of coals & now, forty minutes later, the house is warm. Still dark at six-thirty. I have the prospect of an open day before me. Classes ended yesterday, but the papers haven’t come in for grading yet. Since I’ve been under the weather, I’m going to stay home, read, & fiddle with the syllabus for a course I’m teaching next semester. When Carole gets home from work, we’ll drive into Potsdam for my department’s Holiday Dinner. Don’t envy me too much, though–the grading starts Monday.
Reading about this study of songbirds in European cities, a tune began niggling at my memory. Apparently, male great tits sing higher, quicker & louder in an urban setting than do their country cousins. Then I got it. I was thinking of Mose Allison’s lyric, “If You’re Goin’ Up to the City.” Mose sings from the point of view of a jaded, hip older cousin: “If you’re goin’ up to the city you better have some cash / ‘Cause people in the city don’t mess around with trash.” But I had to play the song–it’s on my hard drive–to get the exact verse I was looking for: “If you go up to the city you got to learn to shout / If you don’t stand up and holler you gonna get left out.”
This is the new blog, not the same as the old blog(s). At least I hope not. As I wrote in the last post on Reading & Writing, I had grown weary of the political echo chamber & the tone of voice it requires to be heard there. Not that I ever thought of myself as a political blogger. And not that anyone paid attention. I feel best when I write about poetry or about the river, or about what I happen to be reading other than the NY Times. It’s just that it is terribly easy to link to a story in the Times, or on one of the political blogs & fire off a squib full of sulfurous outrage. There are just over a thousand entries on the old blog & (I just looked) two hundred-forty-four of them carried the “politics” category label. At best, those entries might take a piece of political language & turn it sideways to get a different perspective, but at worst they didn’t amount to much more than name calling. I have created a Politics category here, too, but I’m going to be very careful about how I use it.
I also wrote previously about some of the technical issues I was having with the old site. I’m not going to rehash them here. I will be messing around with the look & feel of this place probably well into the new year, but one thing I realized taking a couple of weeks off was that I like blogging. I have the habit.
In Theodore Roethke’s poem “Meditations of an Old Woman,” the title character describes herself as a “perpetual beginner.” Not a bad aspiration. It’s true that a weblog starts fresh every day, but I have felt the necessity to make a larger break than merely starting a new post with a new date at the top. This post represents the beginning of that new beginning, and attempt to refresh myself & my relation to my online writing.