We Are Magic Talking to Itself

by Rachel DeWoskin

Frank Bidart once said about “confessional” poems, that “art, not candor, makes a poem.” He was arguing (rightly) that Robert Lowell’s seeming candor was artful, and poems should be read for their art, rather than the value of what may be shocking in them. This seems an important distinction when reading Sexton and Plath, women considered groundbreaking for their “confessing.” My poem “Without” (in AGNI 87) is an homage to Sexton and Plath, whose work is shaped by brilliant artifice and technical care. They employ confessional voices and fictionalized I’s, in order to address a you at once personal and public. In my favorite poems, “You, Doctor Martin,” and “Morning Song,” Sexton and Plath (ostensibly) address a therapist and a newborn baby, yet those variable and elastic you’s also imply, invite, and implicate readers. Their poetry translates material potentially too taboo to be discussed in any way less lyrical: sex, suicide, illness, madness, and motherhood.

In the acts of Sexton’s and Plath’s poems, each poet is both the I and the you, doctor, patient, baby, writer and reader. This synthesis permits a more powerful POV and position than any possible without the trick of first and second pronoun work. Confessional poetry gives women a way to align our lives, full of the particular difficulties of any individual life, and also the shared contradictions and complexities that are the substance of all human endeavors.

As readers and addressees of second person poems, we are at once confided in and made vulnerable in a way that mimics that in which the poets are simultaneously confessing and obfuscating with their poetic uses of “I.” We must hide and own up, too. The real Dr. Martin, Sexton’s therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, distinguished fiercely between Sexton as a poet and Sexton as a person, favoring “the real Anne Sexton,” whose work he considered distinct from her person. He described writing as what she did, in opposition to what or who she was. She, on the other hand, considered her poetry collaborative work (with Orne) and part of her identity.

Orne argued against blurring the boundaries between Sexton’s poetic and real selves, but fusion may in fact be the purpose and transcendent magic of confessional poetry. Both the content and form are subversive, and it is precisely the studied, intentional intimacy that forces readers to look directly at the subject matter and subjects of confessional poems. And, importantly, to consider ourselves as possibly among those subjects. Confessional poems, maybe counterintuitively, enforce literary empathy.

Sexton opens her asylum poem with the line, “You, Dr. Martin, walk from breakfast to madness,” and we are voyeurs, eavesdropping on their conversation. But by the time she adds, “There are no knives for cutting your throat,” we are still you, no longer Dr. Martin, but patients with our own throats protected by the absence of tools with which we might slice them. This threatens our tenancy in the land of the unscathed and reliably sane, connecting us to Sexton even as it reveals her multiple faces: you, I, we, and us. She is confessing not just what sets her apart from either Doctor Martin or her reader, but what – more disturbingly and profoundly – connects us all.

Poems shoot doubt and contradiction through our identities, as we resist the possibility of narrowing ourselves to any single identity. Confessional poems liberate explicitly, letting us reveal and hide, hold contradictions in our minds and lines, inhabit and align multiple versions of ourselves. They issue powerful invitations to readers to do such work, too. “Without” let me be both I and you, vulnerable boss of my own poem, yet also fearful subject and object. I am the I and not the I, the you and not the you, multiple versions of myself connected by the magic of writing and reading—to you, whoever you may in fact be.

AGNI Monkey

Author Photo BeijingRachel DeWoskin is the author of the novels Second Circus (Penguin, 2019); Blind (Penguin, 2014); Big Girl Small (FSG, 2011); and Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009); as well as the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005). She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago, and is an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies. Her work has been published in magazines including Vanity Fair, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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North

by William Archila

…los que nunca sabe nadie de donde son/…/
los que fueron cocidos a balazos al cruzar la frontera/…/
los eternos indocumentados/…/

…the ones no one ever knows where they’re from/… /
The ones burned by bullets when they crossed the border/… /
the eternally undocumented/…/

Roque Dalton, Poema de Amor
May 14, 1935 – May 10, 1975

Back in the fall of 2010, while strolling around Echo Park Lake in Southern California, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter for KPCC, an affiliate of NPR, asked me after the interview, “Do you know of any other published Salvadoran poets writing in English?” I was stunned. I quickly scrabbled the bottom of my brain for a face, an image, some sort of anecdote that could lead me to a name, but I had none. My lack of response said more about my knowledge and isolation than the presence of Salvadoran poets in this country. I mean I’m not on FACEBOOK. I don’t even have a Twitter account. I knew they were out there teaching, getting their MFAs, taking care of their families, but I just didn’t have the contacts.

This changed in 2014 when Kalina produced the anthology Theatre Under My Skin which collects not only the work of poets that reside in El Salvador and write in Spanish, but also the work of poets that have emigrated to the United States and write in the language of their adopted country. After receiving my contributor’s copy, I immediately sent Adolfo a copy and began not only to guttle the anthology but also to read the debut collections of some of these poets: José B. González, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Javier Zamora, and others not included in the anthology like Harold Terezon and Cynthia Guardado. I could go on, but there’s no point because the list will always exclude someone.

I found tremendous strength in these poems. They crossed the borders of diaspora; religious, political, war and migration stories that sometimes braid the dual language or the performative aesthetic. They underscore the experiences of Salvadoran identities caught between cultures and languages.

Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Javier Zamora, a poet whose experiences as a Salvadoran immigrant living in the U.S. is central to his poems. His first full-length poetry collection, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017), describes his experiences with border crossing.

El Salvador

Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb
will clean your beard of  salt, and if  I touch your volcanic face,

kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.
Don’t let gangsters say: he’s wrong barrio. Your barrios

stain you with pollen. Every day cops and gangsters pick at you
with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty.

Dad swears he’ll never return, Mom wants to see her mom,
and in the news: black bags, more and more of us leave.

The poem personifies the country and begins a conversation that addresses the intricacies of the speaker’s relationship to his native land. It reminds me of the conversations we all have with our own countries; our countries as death, God, or our lover—a possible, pocketsize Canto General for El Salvador.

Here’s another excerpt, this one a quasi-sonnet, by Alexandra Lytton Regalado, a poet whose debut collection Matria, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), is a poetic sequence based on the Salvadoran Lotería.

La Cachiporrista

…the man’s hooded eyes, as he watches from behind the wire
diamonds of chain-link, the whirling wrists of a teenage girl
in a majorette skirt fashioned out of half-inch-thick strips
of cut newsprint, the fringe swaying with her hips
as she twirls a baton of broken broomstick
in circles, wrist over wrist, and tosses it high as she
turns to catch it fanning behind her back…

Regalado’s poem is a snapshot of everyday El Salvador. It’s one long sentence and in its form the piece comes across almost like a postcard poem; concise, imagistic and direct in the way it engages all our senses. It captures a measure of humanity, displaying the beauty and violence that resides in such a small country.

So why the sudden rush of Salvadoran poets? Back in the nineties finding another Salvadoran poet was like hitting the lottery. You couldn’t believe your eyes that there was such a thing as a Salvadoran poet standing in front of you. It was a rare thing. Unfortunately it takes the current Central American immigrant issue and the unaccompanied minors narrative that brings these poets to the surface. Now it seems it’s all about timing and accessibility. As the new administration in the White House threaten to end TPS, a humanitarian program that has allowed nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., the work of these poets seems more relevant than ever. After all, if you want to understand a culture and its people, you go to the poets. You don’t go to their politicians or generals, or businessmen. You read their poets.

Although the foundation of Salvadoran poetry is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the country, the poets who emigrated and write in English have contributed their own experiences and styles to the art form as well. This contribution is a new branch to the Salvadoran tree of poetry. At the same time, but most important of all, these poets are producing quality work with a fresh look on our current political climate. They are establishing a presence in contemporary American poetry, especially at the local and state literary cultures and movements. They are also complicating the definition of a Latino poet. When I started reading Latino poetry back in the early nineties I fell in love with their words. When I started writing, for a long time, I felt I had to write the type of poems that I could not find in journals or magazines. There was no such a thing as a poem about the complexities of the Salvadoran experience. And now I get to sit down with their work and read of and about my experience. I love the fact that these poems are the firsts of their kind. They are the first of the Mohicans. These Salvi poets are perhaps the first known Salvadoran poets of the United States.

Now I know there are more Salvadoran poets whose fine work has appeared in various literary journals, chapbooks and anthologies, such as The Wandering Song; Central American Writing in the United States, the first-ever comprehensive literary survey of the Central American diaspora. However, it’s a fact I should have known back in Echo Park Lake when Adolfo posed the question. After all, it is a common saying or knowledge that El Salvador is a land of poets and volcanoes. These poets have not only spread that knowledge, but have kept it burning.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Ars Longa: A Complaint

by Richard Hoffman

This is a short essay that is probably mostly whining. It seems as if it is at least a third of what we writers do: writers who haven’t yet published complain that they are shut out. Writers who have published complain about their publishers not adequately marketing their books. Writers who get bad reviews complain. Writers whose books don’t get reviewed at all complain. Even writers who get good reviews find something in them to whine about.

Recently a colleague whose latest book met a fate similar to mine, whose disappointment seems even greater, told me he had spent time in the emergency room the previous weekend. “For my head,” he said, “I was having a breakdown.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate because I know how crushing post-publication silence can be, like throwing a party to which nobody comes: you stand there looking at the food, the drinks, the cake, the balloons and twisted crepe paper, and decide you will never write again, never throw another party, never put your trust in human beings again, ever.

Much of this whining over a book’s reception exceeds disappointment, which is understandable, and becomes a sickness of the ego, “vanity, and a chasing after wind.” Or is it a symptom of an already existing sickness of the ego? In any case, we all have egos, and a sickness is nothing to laugh at or stigmatize. In his 1936 essay “The Crack-up” F. Scott Fitzgerald, even as he complained of far more grievous matters, bemoaned his fate as a novelist in the age of cinema:

“I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.”

This complaint arrives from a time before television! The visual culture that has been steadily gaining on print culture ever since has now crossed back over into the print culture in the form of graphic novels and most recently, memoirs.

Full disclosure (see re: writerly whining, above): my recent memoir Love & Fury was a finalist for the new England Booksellers’ Association’s New England Book Award in nonfiction, and it lost to Roz Chast’s Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? a “graphic memoir” that has gone on to great success. So, I cannot plead any but the most forced and deliberate objectivity. But it still seems important to ask what this latest development means.

Will we learn a new language midway between the pictorial and alphabetical? Will books become Classics Illustrated versions of themselves? Will emoticons eventually evolve into a complex system of signs like Mandarin? Or is this simply another demonstration of film and video’s hegemony, publishers desperately trying to stay alive? So many novels now seem “treatments” for films or TV/web series; is this the case with these graphic books as well? After all, they are already “storyboarded” for the shooting script.

Again, this may just be me complaining, but it does seem to me that there are simply fewer readers who are able to appreciate good prose or artful sentences. Recently a graduate student in an MFA program asked me why James Baldwin “always writes such long ass sentences? Why doesn’t he just say what he means?” I was speechless. After a few moments I asked the student if he thought James Baldwin wasn’t saying what he means. The student took his turn being speechless. Now I think that the student was responding to the fact that Baldwin’s style is such that nearly every paragraph is an argument within his longer argument, an inquiry within his larger inquiry, and as such it often ends in an epigram. While I see these epigrams as the pitons that allow Baldwin’s ascent up the sheer cliffs of his subject (or up the walls of the racist pit or oubliette of sexual shaming into which he’d been cast), I think my student recognized these quotable sentences, subtotals in Baldwin’s figuring, as “what Baldwin was trying to say.” And yet it is, always, that “trying” that is the essence of the essay, not the epigrams, many of them suitable for tweeting.

You can learn to think from James Baldwin, can learn how to think about the things that are most difficult to think about. Baldwin can teach you how to think while feeling; i.e. how to keep on feeling while you are thinking. And that prose! Those long ass sentences.

Baldwin knows where the seams are in the rock of our denial, where the dynamite is most effectively placed. He can bring down the walls, blow up the battlements. But he can also wield a verbal scalpel with the skill of a neurosurgeon. Sometimes he does both these things within a single paragraph. In other words, “what he is trying to say” is inseparable from the thinking—done in language, in the modern American English prose he helped define—that is its vehicle. This is the kind of prose, in fact the kind of thinking, we will lose if readers continue to migrate to visual storytelling and nonfiction as a series of pictograms.

Can we have both? Yes. But the larger share of readers’ attention will always go to the less demanding medium. We’re a fast food nation, an on-demand society, a culture sustained by imagery. My writing this is an act of resistance—by that I don’t mean it is especially virtuous or even important, only that I want to retain the ability to think in a way I believe more likely to help me understand experience than merely react to it, or “capture” it, or document it in a tweet or photo.

Not long ago I was teaching at a conference devoted to the short form—flash fiction/nonfiction; prose poems, etc. I was doing it first of all for the money (and maybe I would sell a few books) but also because I wanted to press the participants to move beyond what often feels to me like settling for less, or imaginative laziness. Too often these short forms seem to me like the first paragraphs of stories the writer was too lazy or inexperienced to develop.

Of course, I have learned, via Robert Gibbons’ work and the work of my colleague Gian Lombardo and others, that the prose poem can be an illumination (as Rimbaud called his) and flash fiction—as practiced by artists like Steve Almond, Lydia Davis, Pam Painter—can be deeply satisfying. Still, so many of these short-form pieces seem to me to be just that, pieces, as if the writer has refused to confront the resistance that real writing moves against, that real essays seem to break through, that real stories contend with.

I am not, I hope, merely being a curmudgeon. (Pushing 70, I need to guard against that easy-chair misanthropy.) I’m interested in the flash of insight, yes, but I’m also interested in sustained reflection that yields perhaps important tracings of consequence, writing that exercises a kind of peripheral vision that, while gazing in the direction of the present, is aware of the past and future as well. I want to keep faith with a way of knowing the world and the self deeply, through language, in prose, and figuring out what’s right: the right word, the right tone, the right sentence structure, the right rhythm, pace, recursiveness—the right response to yesterday’s disappointment, to tomorrow’s promise, to life.

AGNI Monkey

RHbySvenRichard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, and the 2014 memoir Love & Fury. In addition to the volume Interference and Other Stories, he has published four collections of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Everything Is Writing

by Laura Childs Gill

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Fifteen years ago, I walked El Camino de Santiago, and I did not bring a camera. Instead, I brought a journal I rarely used because I considered myself a fledgling writer, and I didn’t think photographs held the same weight as language. I thought I had to “write every day,” and I believed having a camera would influence my experience too much, not just as I walked, but as I remembered the walking. I didn’t want to remember the man walking the long, dirt road, carrying more than he needed from a photograph I may have taken, but by what I felt as I watched him: I am so much smarter than him—he really shouldn’t have brought so much. I can’t know how taking photographs would have impacted the experience itself or my memories, but what I do know it’s been fifteen years, and I’ve never written about the walk, except in bits and pieces. Sometimes, I wish I had both the photographs and the feelings. I want to know the contours of that same man’s face, and remember the embarrassment I felt when he handed me his extra towel in the hostel as I wept, having just realized I’d left my tiny, quick-dry one, the size of a hand towel, at the previous stop. I want to know the exact color of the towel he gave me; I want to capture the texture. I’m not sure if having a visual of either would help me describe the comfort he brought to me, or the confrontation I had with my own hubris, but I’m no longer convinced it would hinder my ability to get it on the page, that it would in any way take away from getting the words down themselves.

Reading Maguerite Duras’ Writing this year was a physical experience for me, in the way that books are a physical experience when they demand you hold the pen in your hand and keep it there because on every page, there’s a place to comment, underline, and place exclamation points. I’ve read many books about writing, and I was wary to read another, worried I’d see in it what I often see—“get your butt on the chair,” “create a routine,” “write every day”—but I had a feeling Duras would deliver something new, and she did. For her, writing doesn’t simply mean putting words on a page; for her, “everything is writing:” a fly on a wall: a conversation with a friend: a walk across a frozen pond: solitude.

deaddeer.jpg

I’ve never had a regimented or consistent writing routine, or, at least I believed I didn’t have one, until recently. The journal I rarely used on El Camino became just like every other journal I rarely used. I’m not good at journaling. I’m not good at writing “what comes to me” daily, and I’ve never been able to create a routine for either. Even when I was teaching full-time and working on my MFA—a time where a structure would have helped me a great deal—I still couldn’t stick to one. Some weeks I woke up early, some weeks I worked late at night. There were days I read, and days I wrote, and many days where I did neither. But every day, I took photographs. I took photographs of the light creating concentric circles around the mug on my desk; I took photographs of water droplets holding onto a railing and the moss in the crack of the building. And every day, I walked, but never without a camera. Walk and pause, walk and pause. For the blossoms covering cars, concrete, and asphalt; for the discarded shoes in the trunk of the tree.

After reading Duras, I started to realize that walking, and taking photographs as I walked was not simply a part of my writing practice, but it was writing, in the same way that Virginia Woolf’s walk through London in her essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” is the writing itself.  The essay is about a trip to buy a pencil, and she tells us she’s made up the excuse of buying a pencil just to walk the streets, to “ramble” and observe. She desperately wants to describe her surroundings, and her surroundings only, even though, as she writes it down, she can’t help but analyze, intuit, and reflect. And so she stops herself, or tries, writing, “let us dally a little longer, be content still with surfaces only — the glossy brilliance of the motor omnibuses; the carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

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Let us dally. Let us dally a little longer.

Woolf goes onto write: “the eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks,” and I’m starting to realize that photography is how I’ve been able to capture this resting. It is a way to chart the surface of my various paths, and to see what shows up on the other side. Photography is the journal I use daily, and it is how I draft, using, as Woolf says, the “eye,” to notice what is on the stream—I have to see the stream before I can figure out just why I came to it in the first place. I have to notice the color of the water before I can recognize my particular thirst. When I take photographs, my brain “sleeps” as I pull the camera out of whatever pocket I placed it in seconds before, and take shot after shot of a vine grabbing onto a fence.

wrapped.jpg

And yet, this is not the ultimate goal. I also want to explain what I’ve seen. Like Woolf, my goal is the pencil, even if my writing practice doesn’t always require one. I need language to tell you that the vine is not just a vine wrapped around a fence but a lover grabbing her partner’s waist from behind. Woolf’s essay is an essay because she was unable to simply observe—she had to write her walk to fully explore it. Even Duras was not satisfied to simply see the fly on the wall. She, too, had to communicate the ways in which the fly was writing, and she needed language to do so. And so: let us dally, but let us also reflect on our dalliances. Who knows who we might inspire with both.

AGNI Monkey

BioPic (1)Laura Childs Gill is a writer and photographer living in Washington, D.C. Her essays are forthcoming in Agni and The Carolina Quarterly and have been published in Electric Literature, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Swamp Ape Review, Windmill, Solidago, and The Blue Mesa Review. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

To Purify the Language of the Tribe

by Sydney Lea

The French poet Stephane Mallarmé once opined (and T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s objective was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately—less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm (1949), a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.

Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:

“One of the greater mischiefs which confront us today is the growing debasement of the language. Our speech is a mere shadow of its incomparable richness, having on the one hand become vulgarized and on the other corrupted with a particularly odious academic jargon. Now this is dangerous. A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.”

Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions…a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think the world nowadays is going to hell. But.

But think of automobile ads, just for one indicator. What is meant, say, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? Or “Love– it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback? Or, astoundingly annoying, “Guts. Glory. Ram,” as though to own a pickup truck were an exaltation. There are myriad other examples in other domains, of course, but you see where I’m headed.

This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, painstakingly and agonizingly constructed by a professor—Lord, help us—of English at a prestigious university; some years back, it justly won a Bad Writing Contest originated by Professor Denis Dutton:

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely. Harumph. I was raised and educated to believe that lucidity in expression was a virtue, not a sign of simplism.

In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me—hardly for the first time—that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.

We can turn to—well, blather, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not an overly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly—and all but exclusively to one another—that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.

Here’s Henry Beston again:

“When I am here by myself…, I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives…Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.”

But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, blather. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?

“A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.”

Yet there are greater dangers than mere inanity, and I fear they grow ever more acute in a technologized age. Blather can offend, and even wound, to be sure, but not so much as certain modes of cool calculation. The drift into disembodiment allows us to imagine the victims of military attack, for example, as statistics, not as living and breathing organisms, to look at citizens as parts of this or that voting bloc, not as individuals with their own idiosyncratic virtues and flaws.

Blather, that vicious cool, or—what? I guess the word that comes to mind is creepiness. On a recent trip to our Maine cabin, my wife and I picked up a Bangor paper at the village store. In its so-called family section, a young woman who had just borne her first child described how she was going to chronicle the little girl’s early years. The first thing she did was to open a Facebook account for her daughter, which would be waiting for her when the time came. She likewise established an email for the child, to whom she had been writing e-notes every two weeks. There were other cybernetic measures she meant to take, but I have mercifully forgotten them by now.

I am no Luddite, mind you. I have become more dependent on the Internet than I’d have dreamed even a decade ago. At the same time, just as we did our children, my wife and I have lately been savoring our little grandchildren, six of them now. This involves not only the (wearying) fun of frolicking, at a playground, in the woods, on the living room floor or wherever, more than snuggling close to them as we read bedtime stories and entertain their wonderful comments and questions. It also involves giving baths, wiping chins and bottoms, feeding and cleaning up after them– all those physical gestures, pleasant and otherwise, that go into close human interrelationships.

Emailing the kid before she can read a word? That is creepy, right?

Or am I just a superannuated, sentimental old fool?

The truth lies doubtless somewhere in between. Wherever it may lie, out my window just now, I see a small grebe diving under the surface of our pond and re-emerging, making small ripples that clash mildly with the wind-driven wavelets. The duck’s behavior seems enough, when I get right down to it, to make a day.

AGNI Monkey

author photo Big Falls_PHOTO Sydney Lea, a former Pulitzer finalist, founded and for thirteen years edited the New England Review. His thirteenth collection of poems, Here, is due from Four Way Books this year. Likewise, in fall of 2018, Vermont’s Green Writers Press will publish The Music of What Happens: Lyric and Everyday Life, his collected newspaper columns from his years (2011-15) as Vermont Poet Laureate. In spring of ‘18, GWP has just re-issued his collaborative book of essays with former Delaware laureate Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Recycling Neruda

by Stephen Kessler

The cardboard slipcases of the three-volume Obras completas and the four-in-one Libro de las odas have been through a lot since I bought them in Madrid in 1976 at one of those dilapidated bookstalls across from Atocha, had them wrapped in layers of brown paper by the ladies in the basement of Correos who expertly, with just string and hot wax, would prepare your package, not even a box, for the voyage to California, and unwrapped them intact at home in the Soquel hills a few weeks later.

Since then they have survived several moves and have not been left behind for the next residents or sold or donated like so many others, and up on the coast the carpenter ants found the uncoated cardboard just the tasty texture for their paper hunger, and the old glue in the cases’ corners was coming loose in places, and if you picked one up it would start to come apart in your hands.

Today, when I was moving some books around, their decrepitude was evident, so despite what should have been a sentimental attachment to such seminal items in my library, and despite the faded photos on the cases’ backs of the great poet I once admired so much and loved so much that I learned to translate on the training wheels of his odes—despite or perhaps because of his iconic stature, the only Hispanic poet anyone knows besides García Lorca, the brand name everyone recognizes and adores no matter how much of the poetry reeks of self-congratulation and communist bromides and pride in his prodigious gift and gloating about his great sex with Matilde—I decided I’d had enough reverence for the old man and my small way of smashing his icon was to throw those cardboard slipcases, photos and all, into the blue recycling bin alongside the driveway.

The red leather Obras and green leather Odas look better, less dust-encased, less artifacty, less iconic, more accessible, more readable. But I have read quite enough Neruda, much as he meant to me in my twenties, and amazing as the Residencia en la tierra poems remain, so much stronger and more imaginative and more authentic in their alienation than the political speechifying of the later years and his voice-of-the-people persona. Those commitments to justice and revolution may have been for him historically necessary but they didn’t do his poetry much good and have set a bad example for the kind of finger-pointing agitprop and feel-good righteousness widely practiced today across a land politically contaminated by the most grotesque presidency this country has ever suffered. Poetry may be one way to address this crisis, but who is listening?

Neruda’s most lasting work will be the early love poems, the existentially angst-soaked surrealism, a few of the odes, and Canto general, greater than Pound’s Cantos as “a poem containing history,” when Pablo’s political vision was fresh and embodied in narratives and had not congealed into slogans. I keep him on my shelf as a marker along the way and an occasional point of reference, a poet worth revisiting from time to time, but mostly a father figure, as Whitman was to Pound, whose authority it is time to question—just as I have long since rejected Pound. As Whitman wrote, “Who learns my lesson best learns to destroy the teacher.”

That’s why I’ve recycled the rotting slipcases of the Obras and the Odas, and why those books look better now on the shelf beside the equally important Borges and Aleixandre and Vallejo and Paz and Cernuda, not to get into the poets in other languages. I’m sick of old Pablo being the only name out of the mouth of anyone who learns I’m a translator—I’ve translated him, but so what, so has everyone else. He was promiscuous with his permissions, permissive with conflicting translations, and posthumously Carmen Balcells, his Barcelona agent (and practically everyone else’s in Hispanic literature), bargained hard for every new lucrative edition of even his most marginal work, which even he, who published prodigiously, didn’t choose to publish when he was alive.

But the Neruda brand has legs, and even though he was bald and built like Alfred Hitchcock, so he doesn’t have the glamour of García Lorca or Frida Kahlo, nor their tragic stories, he sells like Coca-Cola on a hot day in the tropics, and all his various publishers hear the cash registers ringing in his verses like perfect rhymes.

Down in the blue bins the cardboard slipcases are mingling already with the cereal boxes and office paper and empty bottles and plastic containers, Pablo’s picture mashed indifferently against the rest of the remnants the truck will come to pick up later this week, crashing us awake before dawn as it dumps the plastic barrels into its maw.

Why does it feel so good to recycle Neruda?

AGNI Monkey

SK photo by Christina WatersStephen Kessler’s most recent book is Garage Elegies, to be published this spring by Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Translation Award. His version of Neruda’s “Heights of Machu Picchu” appears in Machu Picchu, a book of photographs by Barry Brukoff. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Card, deNiord, and Lavers: New Work up at AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Maisy Card, and poems by Chard deNiord and Michael Lavers. Check it all out!

 

AGNI MC“Let’s say that you are a 69-year-old Jamaican man called Stanford, or Stan for short, who once faked your own death. You have never used those words to describe what you did before. At the time you’d thought of it as seizing an opportunity placed before you by God, but today you have gathered all of your female descendants in one house, even the daughter who has thought you dead all these years, and decided that today is the day that you will tell them the truth: You have spent the last twenty years of your second life living in a brownstone in Harlem, running a West-Indian grocery store.”

from the story “The True Death of Abel Paisley” by Maisy Card

 

 

AGNI cd“He was already flying with invisible wings
in his chair, staring ahead as I wheeled him
into the hall.”

from the poem “The Lake” by Chard deNiord

 

 

 

 

AGNI ML“One hardware warehouse, one mink farm
gagging the clouds, one curling rink, one park,
its kept swan floating like a plastic bag.
What could be simpler?”

from the poem “Field Work” by Michael Lavers

 

 

 

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