Frost and Gilmore: Poets of Humanity

I’ve always liked Robert Frost as a poet of humanity but, until very recently, I didn’t understand how important his poems were to me. When I write poems I want to stand in that little horse’s shoes (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and feel an easy wind and downy flake and wonder why my owner has stopped in the woods. I want the surprise ending that emanates from “The Road Not Taken.” The one that made all the difference! Surely, if I can create these sensations, my reader will experience them, too?

This came to me as I made an early spring walk around The Point, a piece of land that juts out from my town into Long Island Sound. The pathway is edged by sea water on one side and forest growth on the other. Both absorb my attention. There are migratory birds checking in but, right now, the trees and shrubs on my right are bare. Where do the deer, usually hidden by summer foliage, go in winter? Why can’t I see them?

Robert Frost would be able to skilfully capture my questions and observations, but I must find another way, not a Frost way, but my own way. How could I pen something like these lines below, which bring my senses to a standstill? There is nothing complicated here, yet my heart almost stops in contemplation of their perfection.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The mind wanders when one walks, sometimes creatively. There are many contemporaries of Frost whom I admire but I tried to think of women poets who also captured an identical humanity. Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson certainly delve into a well-spring of emotion in their individual ways but, because I was born in Australia, I recalled an Australian poet of the twentieth century, Mary Gilmore (1865-1962). Her insightful poetry addresses down-under life, landscape and history.

Gilmore was born nine years before Frost and they died within a year of each other yet I doubt they ever met. Without going into their respective experiences, suffice it to say they were both a product of rural life, of travel (he to U.K, she to Paraguay), and of the two world wars that consumed the literary mind of the twentieth century. Each of these familiarities gave them plenty of writing material and became the poetry tangle and mesh of their lives. Both wrote hundreds of poems, some more brilliant than others. Many are truly memorable. I rushed home to see what I could find. Would I hear Frost in Gilmore or vice versa?

It is a lovely thing to hear a bird,
And hear it through the leafy shadow of
The night! To seek a wing that goes unheard,
And trace its flight through some dim place above!
“The Mopoke”

Here’s a similar stanza:

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.
“Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter”

Which poet wrote each stanza? The rhyme schemes for both are standard for poems of that era, and both poems describe the beauty of a particular landscape as a bird takes flight, using the senses to appreciate the act. In fact, there is very little to differentiate each writer. However, the Mopoke is an Australian bird, while Frost’s reference to snow in the third line of the second stanza gives away his northern location. One cannot distil the complete oeuvre of the two poets in these small examples but there is ample evidence in each body of work to show how similar they were in their writing styles and subjects.

In “The Soldier,” Robert Frost writes:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

The poem goes on to say that, despite the man falling too soon in battle, the forward trajectory of his spirit is a far greater accomplishment.

Gilmore’s patriotism is equally moving:

And we swear by the dead who bore us,
By the heroes who blazed the trail,
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail
“No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest”

Significantly, the two poets dovetail in their use of language itself—language that could be described as unsophisticated but which exhibits a superb mastery of technique. Both poets capture the core of human nature, while simultaneously exploring more obscure concerns. In “Devotion,” Robert Frost recognises the infinite relationship between shore and ocean, but also appears to question a life spent upholding a single idea

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean—
Holding the curve of one position
Counting and endless repetition

In her poem “Nationality,” Mary Gilmore recognises the value of the unity of mankind but, when it comes to sharing, her kin must come first.

All men at god’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

Both poets were members of literary groups: Frost of the Dymock group, which included Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound, and Gilmore of the Bulletin school, a radical literary group in Sydney. It is clear that the influence of other writers was a factor in their work. Frost’s mark was made early though his volume “North of Boston” published in 1914. He received four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Congressional Medal in 1960.

Gilmore’s rise to fame took longer although she published about the same amount of poetry as Frost. Her patriotic poems ensured her popular place in Australia’s history, and in 1937 she became the first Australian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to literature.

Did they read each other’s work? I tend to think that Gilmore would have been aware of Frost’s poetry, especially through his early volumes published in the U.K., which would have been available in Sydney bookshops. Still, I can’t be certain of this. Did Frost read Gilmore’s work? Perhaps. As she became more famous down under, her work would have reached the eyes and ears of Frost’s literary circle. Even so, she was, and still is, largely unknown in the United States.

While there are a number of parallels in their poems in terms of topics and technique, Frost is undeniably American, Gilmore as equally Australian. Frost speaks of northern seasons: of trees, of birds of the East coast, of farms and stone walls. Gilmore’s work is peppered with indigenous words, with Australian native birds, with outback life and the seasons of the southern hemisphere.

But it’s the merging of their resemblances that stirred me to return to these poets and inspires me to write in a way that is unpretentious yet distinct from them. A paradox of a goal, I must admit. But a writer must write in his or her own way. The language of Frost and Gilmore has moved on, even the many things they were concerned about have changed, but it is not difficult to find examples of their practical language with regard to issues of importance.

In “Mending Wall,” Frost takes us on a journey with his neighbour as they walk each side of their wall, replacing fallen stones as needed. Frost’s speaker speculates as to why they need to do this—

My apple tree will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says “Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the poem progresses, we learn that the neighbor inherited this phrase from his own father and the time spent rebuilding parts of the wall, while not truly necessary to the well-being of the farm, is what binds each man to the other and, consequentially, each following generation to his neighbor.

The desire to be a good friend is also the theme of Gilmore’s much shorter poem, “The Wish,” in which the poet asks not for “wealth, nor length of days, nor pride, nor power, nor worldly praise”—

But just a little quiet place
Where a friend may come
Laying his hand on the door
As though it were home.

Both poems demonstrate very simply how friendship is reinforced, Frost with his refrain of “Good fences make good neighbors” and Gilmore with her quiet welcome to a friend “as though it were home.”

Those deer in winter. I’ve been told they’re hidden in forest depths. They’re conserving their energy, waiting for Spring; waiting for me to reflect on how best to describe not theirs but any quandary. Putting the finger on the keyboard is only one step. Reading Gilmore and Frost can ensure that we don’t lose what we already have—a way of engaging with the world using language that is both unaffected and lasting.

AGNI Monkey

Rowley406612007-010Judy Rowley, who was born in Australia, began her writing life while living in South Korea as a “trailing spouse.” To deepen her commitment to poetry and literature she completed a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at Manhattanville, NY, and an MFA in Poetry at Bennington Writing Seminars, VT. She writes poetry and essays, which have been published in several journals, and has recently published a memoir called Expected Home, A Memoir and a Mystery. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude

by Melanie Rae Thon

Love is life ~ All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love ~ Everything is, everything exists, only because I love ~
~ Leo Tolstoy

Writing, like prayer, must be a daily practice. For almost thirty years I’ve kept what I once called a “Book of Wonders” and now, in my age of awe, refer to as “The Gospel of Grief & Grace & Gratitude.” I have no rules or purpose: my apocryphal gospel includes songs of loons and visions of owls, flowering saguaros, hungry grizzlies—the last words of my father’s last days—my sister Wendy playing Beethoven on our grandmother’s piano. A hurricane splits trees, opening a smell deep and dense as the earth’s consciousness cracked open. My brother kneels to wash and bandage the open sores on my father’s feet. At twilight, soft copper light holds my sister Laurie as if it has chosen her above all others. Yes, we are safe now. A grasshopper leaps in the lake, and my mother calls me down to the dock to save him.

New words and phrases—poiesis, indolent infection, fastidious microbe—bring bemusement and revelation: words themselves amplify what I am able to perceive in the world. Photographs illuminate the gospel; lines of half-remembered poetry enter: the tulips are too excitable. It is spring here, not winter; still, I am nobody. I have never been so pure. I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love for me. Long ago Sylvia Plath’s lines pierced me with intimate despair: in my age of gratitude & grace, tulips blaze gold and orange, immaculate white, deepest violet: there is no happiness like mine: two rogue red tulips bloom at the edge of the creek: they enclose and unclose me, open my most secret self, petal by petal. . . . Even now, opened by love, I know if it be their wish to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, as when the heart of these flowers imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending.

The gospel feeds my life as a writer, teacher, sister, friend, daughter—as a customer at the grocery store, a stunned patient walking the corridors of a hospital—I am all; I am nothing—just one more transient being trying to understand infinities of sorrow, learning to surrender, hoping to find peace in this unbidden surge of co-passion with the afflicted everywhere. We are vast and devastated by and by. A PICC line from arm to heart opens me petal by petal, cell by cell to the broken world. I know it is a mistake to call the light tender, but not wrong now to feel its indiscriminate love touching my mouth, the bones of my ears, my heart, my fingers.

In my age of grief, I am unknowing of everything.

One brutal Boston winter, I filled the pages with blizzards and birds, a sculpture of starved horses, my frigid attic room, a hundred homeless children. They entered my dreams, cold hands on bare skin, and I tried to tell their stories. I needed to imagine how they survived on the street while I struggled to stay warm in my apartment. Pigeons flapped at my tiny window. The snow melted and froze, and another storm roared in from the Atlantic.

The Kingdom is here, on Earth, waiting for us to step into it. Ansel Adams says: I believe in beauty—I believe in stones and water and air and soil—people and their future and their fate. If we believe in these things, then the love and contemplation required to evoke them for our readers becomes sacred. Art is an Affirmation of Life—not only our separate lives, but our lives within the endless body of all living things, our lives as they are connected to stones and clouds and wolves and spiders.

Write every day for the rest of your lives! Fill your pages with fiddlers swaying in the wind and white roses waving. Don’t forget the lizard with its crooked tail or the cactus wren nesting in your mother’s teapot. Eat poetry! Let Ink run from the corners of your mouth! Lift lines you love, photographs you’ve taken. Make a cento, an erasure, a collage. Draw what you’ve seen or not seen whether or not you think you are good at it.

Intoxicated joy teaches us to pay attention. All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.

I see an ant carrying a dead moth, and another one lifting the bleached leg of a crawdad. What is my strength compared with yours? I see a whole tribe of ants, each one holding a single pink petal. They move in a meandering line across the sidewalk. Some carry their blossoms straight above their heads, floral crowns of rose and purple. The petals are five times the size of the ants and seem to float around them. That’s what I notice first, floating petals—and then, those astonishing beings beneath them! I follow the ants down a slope to discover they are covering their little hill with torn flowers. I don’t know why—do the petals keep the anthill moist and cool, safe from the blazing sun of Arizona—are the ants drunk with sweet scent—enchanted by the silky texture?

Years later, a vision comes to me at the edge of sleep, an utter profusion of flowers—bed, floor, walls, ceiling—each petal glowing as if lit from inside, so luminous they cannot hold their shapes: they dissolve into particles of light until they are only fiery sparks surrounded by vast darkness.

Then bliss comes, and sleep takes me.

I realize I have had my own vision of Rabbi Luria’s description of the beginning of the universe: these sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our shattered world. It is our blessing and our joy to recognize and restore them.

Notes :

Taking many liberties in phrasing, ellipses, and punctuation, I have lifted and transformed lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” (the tulips are too excitable . . . ); Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry”; (there is no happiness . . . Eat poetry . . . Let ink run . . . ); “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” (they enclose and unclose . . . if it be their wish . . . i and my life . . . ) by e.e. cummings; and Michael Martone’s “4 Fe + 302 —› 2 Fe203” (we are vast and devastated . . . ). Paul Maclean’s words (All there is to thinking . . . ) are quoted by his brother Norman Maclean in A River Runs through It.

In The Anthropology of Turquoise, Ellen Meloy keeps what she calls a “Gospel of Wrath,” which has led me and my students to contemplate titles for our own apocryphal gospels.

AGNI Monkey

Melanie Rae by Andi editedMelanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are Silence & Song, The 7th Man, and The Good Samaritan Speaks. As a teacher and writer, she is devoted to the celebration of diversity from a multitude of human and nonhuman perspectives, shattering traditional limits of narrative consciousness as she interrogates the repercussions of exile, slavery, habitat loss, genocide, and extirpation in the context of mystery and miracle, the infinite wonder of cosmic abundance. Originally from Montana, Melanie now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Murderous Edge: Three Questions with Gail Mazur

Lauren Peat/AGNI: Your portrait of the German artist and designer Josef Albers (in “Josef Albers,” AGNI 87) is addressed to an enigmatic second-person subject; though I initially read the poem as being addressed to a student of Albers’ (in their “cold shared studio”), it could also be interpreted as a self-address. The more time I spend with the poem, the more I lean toward this second interpretation—particularly because its clipped lines and staccato rhythms (as well as its ultimate, breathless conclusion) is an ingenious performance of Albers’ “brutal…wisdom”:

becoming an artist
you need to know
would be a ruthless life
you need to take
what your art needs
theft and murder….

Considering how convincingly the poem enacts the classic writer’s workshop adage “kill your darlings,” how much of the poem’s artistic attitude is performative? To quote Oscar Wilde: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Do you consider the poem to be primarily a portrait of Albers, or is there something of your own philosophy within it?

Gail Mazur: Of course, although he was an abstract artist, Albers was speaking figuratively! He wasn’t homicidal.

When my husband, Michael, was an art student at Yale, Albers had retired from teaching, but he hired Michael to print a (beautiful) inkless intaglio print of his (Albers’) on the art department’s etching press. They worked together for a few days printing the full edition. Albers’ color course at Yale, his color theory, had a profound influence on a generation’s painting. He was a born teacher. When he said, “When you steal, kill,” he was talking about how ruthless you have to be in your standards for your work—and about how, when we are influenced—as we all have to be—by artists whose work we love, we must move beyond imitating their work. Of course, partly, maybe mostly, he meant it competitively—Do even better, beat them at their game!—but also, more importantly, make the work your own.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Temperamentally, Albers shows a similar bracing ruthlessness, with a murderous edge! When they “kill,” artists could change the Conversation. I can hear Albers, his Germanic accent, sounding absolutely—or needing to be—sure that his brilliant Homages to the Square were changing the narrative in his time.

We don’t necessarily want to erase the source! So much from (writers) we admire enters our own poems—when we look at a painting, read poetry, hear music, isn’t it a joy to experience the sources, the history of the art itself? Depends on how well the theft is incorporated!

(Yogi Berra said, “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.”)

LP/AGNI: Originally from Bottrop, Germany, Albers experienced the Nazis’ ascent to power firsthand, studying and later teaching at the famed Bauhaus art school until its closure in 1933, due to Nazi pressure. He subsequently fled to the United States, where he lived until his death in 1976. How do you understand Albers’ “brutal…wisdom” in the context of the mass atrocity of World Wars I and II?

GM: I didn’t mean to imply in “Josef Albers” that his personal history—his wife, Anni, the really revolutionary textile artist, was Jewish, and so to the Nazis, he himself might as well have been—influenced his “brutal wisdom.” But. But.

To a young artist like my husband, what Albers said was shocking and bracing, as it was to me. A kind of ferocious permission to be ruthless in your art. I think master artists, beside Picasso, must have always thought that way!

LP/AGNI: Albers taught at Yale University until 1958; your poem depicts a scene in New Haven, in 1959. As a teacher of poetry yourself, do you think Albers’ philosophy is incompatible with the art of teaching? How does a practicing artist mentor younger artists and advocate for their work if their professed business is “theft and murder”?

GM: No, I think implied in what he says is the need for students to steep themselves in the histories of art, to be in lifelong dialogue with art.

Well, the way to be ruthless with one’s own work is to be relentless with yourself. Not to be too easily satisfied. To be merciless. (That’s where the instruction to “kill your darlings” has come in. It’s not near what Albers was saying, but it’s a warning not be soft on yourself, to be as objective as you can be in the re-making.) A work of art might not be fierce, but sometimes, in the process of making, the maker must be cold-blooded, relentlessly dissatisfied. Until it’s the best one can do. Sometimes that’s torment, until it’s exultation.

A mentor will always be urging younger artists to look, look, look, listen, listen, read, read, read! Albers was a profoundly influential teacher, a great teacher. Difficult, maybe tyrannical, but great.

AGNI Monkey

MazurGail_S16-credit-Morgan-Lacasse 2Gail Mazur’s books of poetry include They Can’t Take That Away from Me (finalist for the National Book Award; Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems, winner of The Massachusetts Book Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Paterson Poetry Prize; Figures in a Landscape; and Forbidden City. She’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute . and the Radcliffe Institute and has been Distinguished Senior Writer in Residence in Emerson College’s graduate program and Visiting Faculty in Boston University’s MFA Program. She teaches a week-long summer workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown where she serves on the Writing Committee. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Peat PhotoNative to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI.

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.

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.

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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