Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
Begin again with this: the people at PBS NewsHour have produced a beautiful bit of video for the holiday. I went down to DC and read my poem "Messiah (Christmas Portions)," with a terrific film crew in attendance, at an Episcopal Church in Tenleytown. I have a longstanding distrust of "illustrating" poems in practically any fashion; usually I'd prefer to let the words do the work they were made for. But what producer Anne Davenport and her fellow PBS staffers made here delights me; the poem seems opened out to a wider audience, and the editing's so intelligently done that I don't even notice the cuts in the text made for time's sake. Four minutes on the evening news? What more could a poet ask for -- at least when it comes to speaking in the social space.
Watching this the first time, on television here in the Springs on Wednesday night, I was taken back to the Provincetown church where I heard the town Choral Society give the performance the poem describes. I went, in truth, because there was a guy in the chorus I liked who'd invited me, and I had the impression that he was asking me on a date; in fact, I think he was just beefing up the audience. But in truth my pleasure was not dented by the fact that he wasn't interested. All these years later, the poem has another life, removed from its occasion, which is exactly what ought to happen: the originating scene erodes, vanishes in time, and the poem becomes, if one's lucky, free to belong to anyone.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
I've been reading a fine new book of poems by Heather Christle called WHAT IS AMAZING; it will be out from Wesleyan 'ere long. Heather's collection is making me think about poetry as a vessel of subjectivity. Maybe one of the art's functions is to record something of what it feels like to be alive in any particular moment; it's almost accidental, for the poet, that this inscription becomes historical, preserving an aspect of the spirit of the age. Think of Frank O'Hara, and the way those remarkable present-tense poems, dedicating to transcribing the motions of eye, mind and heart in the moment, seem timeless. They're happening right now, as you read them, but they also a moment of consciousness in New York in the 1950s in a crystalline form.
Christle's book feels very particular to the 21st century, but I haven't been able to articulate to myself just how this is so. Because they're notations of awareness, both private and public at once? Because they're tentative, like pages from a secret notebook, and also oddly bold, artfully earning the reader's allegiance and bringing us into alignment with the writer's way of seeing? Because the speaker feels like a kind of psychic seismograph, recording the major and minor tremors that ripple through her awareness?
Well, what you see above is me thinking my way towards a blurb, trying to find my way to some kind of reasonably intelligent formulation about challenging work that I love. Challenging to describe, I mean, which is what a good blurbs does. Praise is easy, but the work of actually articulating what a poet seems to be up to is a whole other task.
Anyway, here's a poem from the book, one I think is just extraordinary.
The spider he is confused
b/c I am not killing him
only moving him outdoors
When I die I do not want
to feel confused
Please I would rather feel clarity
like I am a pool
and death a chlorine tablet
I want it to feel
not like I am dying
but am being transferred
to the outside
And I hope I do not drown
as I have seen happen
to hundreds of spiders
b/c I love to swim
and to drown would
for a long time
But death is like none of this
I know that death is a tower
standing in the middle of the town
And the tower receives
And there's no one
but spiders inside
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
Saturday in Sag Harbor Paul and I saw Werner Herzog's new film about the ancient paintings in the Chauvet Cave, in the south of France. The paintings themselves are riveting and fresh; somehow they seem both haunting and surprisingly stylish-- as if they were sophisticated mid-twentieth century representations of animals instead of 30,000 year old paintings on the walls of a deep, long-sealed cavern. They are the oldest paintings in the world, and they represent only animals -- horses, bison, mammoths, antelope -- with the exception of one partial human female body.
It's too bad the movie isn't better. It feels like Herzog never figured out quite what to do with these images, besides point the camera at them and let us marvel along with him. That's sufficient for a while, but the nature of film is motion, and the nature of ekphrasis is transformation. It's never enough for one work of art to simply present another; what we require from poetry or lyric prose or film based in a work of art is a kind of active engagement which places that work in a new context, gets inside it, turns it inside out, somehow involves us in the process of knowing. We want to be involved with someone else's coming to terms; we want the work of art about the work of art to do something we couldn't do by ourselves.
And that's the trouble, finally, with the movie --you could have just as rich an experience looking at slides of the paintings in a darkened room, and there are a great many questions about the work that Herzog doesn't ask. Why are there only animals here ? What were the paintings for? Were they made to be seen, as a communal experience, or were they made by a solitary artist going down into the dark and working alone? Were they acts of art or acts of magic or of both? Do the grace and wit and power of these paintings have something to say about the notion of progress or development? And should we say that "we" made these, in our earliest history, or are the makers of this art so far from us as not to be part of a "we" at all; are they entirely other?
Of course these questions aren't answerable; it doesn't seem there's very much we can know about these pictures. But they seem endlessly provocative, and they trouble the mind like some lost part of our own memory.
Now that it's been a couple of days, I've mostly forgotten my frustration with the film, and what lingers is the memory of those images, especially the four horses lined up one behind the other, with their open mouths and wide eyes. Paul thinks that some art is made to be satsifying in the moment, and some made to resonate in memory, and that these different modes of making represent different styles and values. I didn't like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but I won't forget it. You can look up Goggle images of "Chauvet Cave," and you'll see why.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
I said, "How did you know that?" and she replied, "I'm a huge fan, it's an honor," and waved me on. Now I've had readers say hello in restaurants and on the street, and occasionally I discover that someone who seems to be cruising me is actually an excited poetry reader. But the TSA? I dislike the entire system of surveillance, and I worry about how easily we've said yes to whatever we're told needs to be done for our protection. Sometimes it seems like the TSA exists simply in order to keep us alarmed, so we'll cede power to the state. But I have to say this did put the whole thing in a brighter light.
Before you think I'm just basking in the light of readership, here's part two of the story. That evening I was welcomed to Little Rock by my warm and lively hosts at the library, who brought me to the nicely-appointed room where i'd be reading. There were a few early audience members already there, and one or two looked up eagerly when we came in. A man asked me to sign a book; as I was walking past the front row to go fetch a pen, a woman greeted me and said she'd seen my face on the current issue of APR. "There was your mug, right on the cover," she said. And then, "I like some of those new poems, and some, of course, I do not."
I didn't question her about this, though I might have if I'd really wanted to have the conversation. It was the "of course" that did it. A couple of the new poems have to do with substance abuse and recovery. There is no explicit reason to assume that the first person speaker in the poems is me; after all one of the poems in this same group of new pieces is spoken by a baby mammoth who's been dead for forty thousand years. But people assume that "I" means "I", and there's a certain degree of truth to it. Whether an experience is literally ours or not, we make it so, finding in it a way for something in ourselves to be spoken that might not otherwise be articulated. There's a poem in Anne Sexton's second book, an elegy for her brother who died in the Korean War. It's not her best poem, but it's a moving one, and the reader who's interested enough to dig for biographical information will discover that Sexton never had a brother. The poem's a fiction, but one that was clearly necessary for getting at some emotional truth.
What difference does it make, the relationship between the poem and the biography of the poet? I'll be the first to say that I'm terrifically interested in poets' lives, but a poem is not a report on an experience. A poem can't really be "about" drug use or recovery; it has to create an experience in language, and then to reach inside that language in the direction of making meaning. If a poem merely tells us a story -- well, is it a poem at all?
In truth I don't care what the reader in Little Rock thinks about my life or what she assumes about me. Are those poems autobiographical? I don't believe in the question. I'm not trying to be coy, it's just that I think that making such assumptions about anyone's work is not a helpful way of reading. What keeps bothering me is that "of course." Is it an automatic response, to dislike a poem that talks about what it's like to experience the unsustainable ecstatic produced by getting high? Or a poem that names the commonality of the pain of people in rehab? That "of course" posits a stable set of middle-class values, shared by readers, that the poet had better be aware of. And is that what we want poetry to do, reinforce our agreed upon standards, shore up the moral principles of enlightened readers? Ugh. If that's the project, I'm not playing.
And so, fame in Newark is balanced by being notorious in Little Rock. I'm okay with it.
Monday, April 4, 2011
In Shakespeare a lover turns into an ass
as you would expect. People confuse
their consciences with ghosts and witches.
Old men throw everything away
because they panic and can’t feel their lives.
They pinch themselves, pierce themselves with twigs,
cliffs, lightning, and die—yes, finally—in glad pain.
You marry a woman you’ve never talked to,
a woman you thought was a boy.
Sixteen years go by as a curtain billows
once, twice. Your children are lost,
they come back, you don’t remember how.
A love turns to a statue in a dress, the statue
comes back to life. Oh God, it’s all so realistic
I can’t stand it. Whereat I weep and sing.
Such a relief, to burst from the theatre
into our cool, imaginary streets
where we know who’s who and what’s what,
and command with Metrocards our destinations.
Where no one with a story struggling in him
convulses as it eats its way out,
and no one in an antiseptic corridor,
or in deserts or in downtown darkling plains,
staggers through an Act that just will not end,
eyes burning with the burning of the dead.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Just as I registered that a deer I could hear but not see was just a few feet away, grazing on the leaves, Ned did too, and the deer noticed us; it must have leapt and turned -- I heard the strike of hooves on gravel once and then the faintest sound of hurry, gone almost before it was there. Ned has been in the vicinity of any number of deer and never really paid attention. Until recently he's been absorbed in his puppyish ways, playing with a stick or chasing a leaf while a doe ambled twenty feet away on the path. Not long ago we slowed down in the car, and together watched a mule-ish looking younger one walk across the asphalt. Ned observed but did not comment.
But that changed tonight; he went flying at the gate, barking, and I told him he'd have to stay in -- he has ways of besting the fence, when he really wants to -- and he went wandering off into the garden.
A week ago I bought a bronze bell which is probably about the size of my own heart at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Chelsea. Well, probably not bronze, but some cheaper amalgam of metals cooked up in Tibet, where it was cast or hammered into its pleasingly rough shape. It has a wooden tongue, and makes a startlingly clear tone when it's struck. Wake up, it seems to say, every time it's rung just once. I'd planned to hang it on the doorknob so Ned could use it to tell me when he needs to go out; Arden had a string of bells from Pier One, back in the day, and he'd jingle them with his nose when necessary.
When I brought the bell back to the apartment, Ned was clearly enchanted. He heard that tone, raised his head and drew up his spine in that way dogs have of physically demonstrating their complete attention. Then he came bounding to the bell: he wanted it. So I wasn't sure my plan would work. it would work. But the afternoon I went to hang the bell on the door, Ned was already outside. a dozen feet away. I rang the bell accidentally, as I was trying to figure out how to suspend it, and Ned turned and came trotting in.
So now the bell, instead of meaning go out, signals that it's time to come in, and to my astonishment it has worked every single time. He can be off in the far reaches of the garden, but when that cool metallic chime vibrates through the air (and it has a way of cutting through all other sound, of which there's not much out here anyway) he's right there at the door.
I didn't think this could possibly work with a doe in the driveway and serious moonlight drenching the garden, and the spring peepers going like engines across the road. But sure enough, after a few minutes, I rang the bell once and Ned came trotting into the house.
I wanted to write this tonight, just as it's happened, because I was struck by this sudden moment so full of things taking place,
all at once, and how the the moonlight and the deer and the dog trotting happily into the house all seemed to fuse with the sound of that bell. But look, it's taken me eight paragraphs to clumsily narrate something so effortless and brief It wants to be a poem, maybe, the moonlight ringing through the garden and the happy dog attending. Or it already was.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
I am certain, though, that "bubble" is a mildly comic word, of little gravity, and that it suggests occasions of pleasure (champagne, soap bubbles, parties, play). Whitman makes "bubble" awful in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," and certainly the stock and real estate markets don't use the word lightly. Still, both sound and connotation make the word seem inadequate, for me, for the two spheres of gas that have occupied space in my right eye since early December. The first one was pale blue, wide at first, shivery, and its transparency and color made me think of a contact lens. That one diminished in size until Christmas, when it slipped through a tear in my retina and lodged there for a bit. It looked as if a bluish sun were descending behind the horizon, and had just a third or so of the way still to go... except that this setting sun simply lodged itself in the center of my right eye, and stayed there. Though every now and then the disc would move some more, and take a little more retina with it.
Bubble number two has been with me since early January. At first I couldn't see anything, and then when I could make out light again I seemed to be looking a viscous gray field, translucent and rippling. If I moved much it made me feel disoriented and a little sick. This bubble was of a sturdier stuff than the first, so it took until early February for it to become a circle that almost filled my field of vision, and now in early March it's become surprisingly pleasing: it's the size of a perfectly round pea, near the bottom of the right-hand side of the world. It is dark at the rim, a Rothko-ish black-purple, and and then it pales to a light sky color and then in the center is a blotch of a darker gray roughly the shape of Australia. Somehow this conspires to make it look three dimensional, as if beautiful and oddly colored pearl is floating near the base of everything. It has, today, a tiny satellite. Yesterday there were three.
The two bubbles have given me a cataract (unavoidable side effect) so that may be contributing to the pearly aspect of the little sphere. Two oddities: at night, light bounces off the bubble into the upper reaches of my eye, so that I can see up high the double of a candle flame, a dashboard, a computer screen. And, if I tilt my head down and look at the floor, the bubble turns a magenta red, as if I'm looking at it through the screen of my own blood.
I realize that all this is probably more interesting to me than to anyone else; don't we find fascination in the very close examination of our own transformations? There's a more-or-less unavoidable self-absorption entailed in being sick. What else would you be paying attention to? But i realized this morning that the bubble has become an odd sort of companion. It's like the way, when you're working on a computer, there's always a little sidebar somewhere, something is monitoring some function or other. Perception isn't like that, but for the past few months it has been; I've had something to refer to, to notice what was happening inside my sight.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
So it was a gift to find Jean Valentine's new book, BREAK THE GLASS (Copper Canyon, 2010). And especially this poem, something no one else could have written, and which seems a pure distillation of comfort, of being cared for.
EVEN ALL NIGHT LONG
Even all night long while
the night train
pulls me on in my dream
like a needle
Even then, down in my bed
my hand across the sheet
my face anyone's face
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Not being allowed to lie down for two weeks sounds like the sort of simple but nightmarish torture inflicted on those held at Guantanamo, but in fact it's not been so bad, thanks to a comfortable chair to sleep in, even though the sleep's been on the restless side. But I have been a little surprised at the intensity of the longing; as with any prohibition, suddenly the proscribed thing seems intensely alluring, as if it's just calling to you from across the divide between the permissible and the disallowed.
On Thursday, January 20, I was allowed to lie down again, and it seemed ridiculously luxurious. I took two naps that day; i paid attention to how it felt to lower my body onto the bed, turned to my left side (lying on my back is still verboten, as it would contribute to cataract formation. I watched myself drifting into sleep, that feeling of descending further. Just now I don't think I can get enough of that.
Also on January 20, and an equal pleasure: I'm allowed out once a day, for one errand. I left the apartment at seven on Thursday morning. It had snowed in the night, and was still snowing, but by the time I walked around the block and stopped to talk to Sam's 'father' - Sam is a gorgeous Weimarner pup, and I regret I don't know his human companion's name -- the sky was clearing, and sun beginning to break out across the white sidewalk and the white cars. One eye enough to be dazzled.
I am not yet, however, allowed to read, and that seems, if it goes on much longer, far more dire than the other prohibitions.
January 22: Wally died today seventeen years ago. How can that be, seventeen years? I have a terrible time remembering dates and numbers of any sort; I need a visual or sonic mnemonic to make them stick. For the date of Wally's departure, it's two swans with their necks bent.
Sweet generosities: the kindness of Susan, Angelo, Zach, Adam, Jaime, Guy, John, Alex, Algis, Koshin, Chodo, Paul M, Carolyn, Alison, Terry, and more Facebook well-wishers than I could shake the proverbial stick at. (That's one of my parents' southern regionalisms, as far as know, and where on earth did it come from? "More than you could shake a stick at" was used to describe any uncountable number. Why would you be shaking a stick at things?)
And of course Paul, walking Ned many times a day, shopping, getting the mail, reading Jane Eyre aloud, and only very occasionaly looking like I am driving him crazy. In my own estimation I am a calm and grateful invalid, as far as the species go, but you'd have to ask him.
For two weeks I wore, at home, my perforated metal eye patch with its blue plastic rim, held onto my face with an x of white adhesive tape. Then, when I'd set it on the coffee table while I put in eye drops, Ned got ahold of it and made short work of the thing. Paul was appalled, while I was relieved; I didn't like that thing one bit, and it gave me an excuse to wear instead the classic black piratical kind I got at the drugstore. Well, almost classic: it has a stiff armature that holds it away from the eye in a flattened cone, rather like one of those bustier cups Jean Paul Gaultier made for Madonna, but not quite so pointy. Two different men have asked me if I really need it or it's just a look; they both thought it was hot. Chodo took a careful look at it and said, You like that, don't you? And I do.
So here's the prognosis. On Thursday I go back to the hospital so Dr Reddy can see how I'm healing, Late in February, the grayish bubble of gas in my eye will have been absorbed into my system, and he'll be able to see what kind of shape my retina is in. Maybe a second surgery, maybe not. Vision will be compromised to some degree by the scars on my retina, but I don't know how much. In early summer, I'll have surgery to remove the cataract caused by my treatment. Cataract surgery is remarkable: the clouded lens of my right eye will be dissolve by a laser, and then a tiny plastic lens will be inserted, unfolded, and slipped into place. It will be a prescription lens, of course, and thus to some degree will compensate for my loss of vision. And maybe, who can say, that will be the end of the saga of the eye. Though Dr. Reddy says we are going to be togther for a long time, and I don't want to press too much to learn what he means by that. Enough for the future to unfold, as it does, enough for the eye to open onto the sun on the snowy sidewalk. Or this morning, the marvel of going to the GLBT Center on 13th Street, and walking down the curving stair, holding onto the handrail while the distorted but nonetheless apprehensible stairs flow downward beneath me. Provisionally functional man descending a staircase.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
A week since surgery, and this morning was the first time I've been allowed out of the apartment. Dizzying, the cold air and the piles of fresh snow by the cars on the curb, taxi and school bus horns and engine noises filling the air till it seems almost crystalline, as if you could see the fractured layers of sound. My right eye is dilated all the time now, to reduce pain, so outside is a sharp vague brightness, the snow almost an ache, even though I have a cup taped inelegantly over the eye in question. "Cup" isn't accurate, and in fact Paul (who is kindly taking dictation and typing this, putting up with my corrections and revisions along the way) has given me a writing exercise: write a six line poem about the cup without naming it. i've gotten nowhere with thi. It's a perforated oval of aluminum set in a bezel of blue plastic that holds it half an inch away from the eye, taped on with an x of white medical adhesive. I immediately creates the look of having been slugged in the eye. When we walk through the hospital lobby, or step onto the elevator, I have a juvenile urge to whisper to someone, "Look what he did to me."
Anyway, it's fantastic to be outside, though the cab seems inordinately fast and the air too sharp and the glare of the snow too pressing; all that and I still feel like a child let out into the city to see what he's been missing. What have I been doing inside? The character of my days has been determined by restriction: no lying down, not even to sleep; no exercise; no reading. And in fact at first I truly didn't want to do anything. After all, they'd sucked the vitreous jelly out of my eye, scraped my cornea so they could see in to operate, lasered up the retina in back to re-attach it to the wall of my eye, injected a bubble of opaque gas, and filled the empty space remaining in my eyeball with fluid. I became a little obsessed about this "fluid." What was it? Basic fluid, said Dr Reddy. Do you mean like saline, or water, I said? BSS, I think he answered, and that was that.
I don't need to say that all this hurt. I would like to be able to be precise about hurt but I don't know that anyone can, and I'm sure that Elaine Scarry is right when she asserts that the power of the torturer is in part the ability to make language meaningless. The NYU hospital was welcoming, efficient, and marked by genuine kindness. When I arrived I put my clothes in a locker, and wore the key around my wrist along with my plastic ID band. Once in the area where you get ready for surgery I was greeted by a wonderful nurse -- my age maybe, big red hair, funny and entirely compassionate. She wrapped me up in two blankets straight out of a warmer, a gesture which makes you feel you've gone somewhere between a spa and your grandmother's house. We talked, various anaesthesiologists visited, my doctor visited, and then I'm wheeled into the OR.
The OR was marvelous; it looked like an elaborately conceived set for a movie set on a space station, not a huge space but every bit of it alive with preparatory activity, people in scrubs and gauzy caps engaging with machines. I walked to a table in the middle, shed one of my surgical gowns, and in only moments a tube was introduced into my right arm, and I disappeared. Or everything did, until I began to be sensate again, two or three hours later, in a sort of armchair, with a sweetly concerned guy nurse who readily established that we belonged to a common community. I could not open either of eyes. I don't have any temporal sense for what happened next: the appearance of Paul, of Dr Reddy, or the comic turns of the nurse appearing with percosets; all seemed to move in a swelling and subsiding rhythm, and then each swell would crescendo in a moan coming out of my mouth, and the distinct sensation that a broad, curved knife was being pushed deeply into the socket beneath my right eye. Well, not distinct; I can't quite name it. The oddest thing is that the pain doesn't exactly seem located; I'm in the waiting room, and is that cry coming from my mouth or Aunt Consuelo's in the dentist's chair....? Only in the poem the young Elizabeth Bishop must hold onto her chair for vertigo's sake, whereas I am entirely all right with being in the swing of things, unanchored. Only that swing comes back, each time, to the crescendo point. Now think of a literal swing, the kind on a playground, how in a while the thing has a momentum of its own, you are drawn back, the world receding, and then you're going forward, something exciting about that, but as you go up that awful pressure begins again, pushing harder till the sharpness slips again beneath the socket...
After three percosets, I'm sent home with Tylenol. The first of my restrictions is the strangest: to sleep sitting up. We do have indeed the perfect chair for this purpose, an Eames lounge chair, arguably the classic midcentury form, certainly the most immediately recognizable, with its curved plywood shell and tufted leather, its elegant and vaguely office-y ottoman. I have always liked looking at it, but I have never spent all that much time sitting in it. When do I "lounge"? It's a little slouchy for my taste; I'm more likely to perch and then spring up soon, to my dog's endless signs.
Now I'm in the chair, my boat all night. In the morning, i can open my left eye a little without the right one screaming, I go back to the hospital to be checked out. It all looks good, says Dr Reddy, and my teenage Frankenstein -style bandage is exchanged for the blue plastic cup with its white X of tape. Eye drops four times a day, and each time I'm to put the cup back on. The first time I look in the mirror, I'm shocked at the sight of my naked eye. It looks dead. I have taken the notion of the eyes as the place where one sees the quickness within for granted; it never occurred to me that I would look at one of my own eyes and it would not be me. I thought of that terrifyingly abject moment in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," the Whitman poem where he's walking on the shore and comes upon his own drowned corpse, and the horror and fascination with which the speaker watches a bubble exude from his own dead lips.
On day three, I don't hurt. On the third or fourth day, I look at the eye again and it's me. The pupil is big, since I'm dilated all the time, and the iris is ringed in a slight corona of blood which widens, at the base, the way the sun sometimes seems to do when it's rising or setting over water. I think the iris is pointed a little more toward the ground than usual, since the whole eye seems a bit swollen, But I can see in it what I couldn't before: the evidence of my own character, the thinking me behind -- inside? -- the unreliable orb.