Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 4

Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 4

For our latest feature, we’ve asked 50 poets to weigh in (briefly) on the long poems that interest them. To avoid spending too much time on the usual suspects, we suggested that most of our contributors focus on poems from the last 70 years.

This is the fourth of six installments. (You can see the others here, here, here, here and here.) Scroll down or click on the links to read:

Reginald Gibbons on Thomas McGrath
Darcie Dennigan on Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Carl Phillips on Jean Garrigue
Jane Hirshfield on Gilgamesh
Garrett Hongo on Charles Wright
Daisy Fried on Don Paterson
Debra Allbery on Larry Levis
Solmaz Sharif on June Jordan
Devin Johnston on Christopher Logue
Patrick Rosal on Thomas Lux
Karla Kelsey on Barbara Guest
Sebastian Agudelo on Derek Mahon
David Yezzi on Anthony Hecht
Peter Cooley on Louise Glück


Gladly Again: on Thomas McGrath (1916-1990)

What McGrath did in his handling of his medium—language and poetic craft—was to achieve a change in consciousness.  He gives the reader a different stance toward language, poetry itself, history, and the social imagination by creating an exhilarating variety in his way of organizing and articulating the materials of his poems.  To register this change one simply has to read a lot of the pages of both Letter to an Imaginary Friend and his short poems.  My own first encounter with his work, years ago, was in the single-volume Swallow Press edition of Parts 1 and 2 of Letter (1970—Michael Anania was then the tremendously acute poetry editor of that valiant little press) and then, a little later, the short poems that McGrath collected in Movie at the End of the World (also Swallow—“[1973, c. 1972]” the Library of Congress says).

I met Tom McGrath at a poetry reading in Chicago around 1981 in a little gallery, a little cultural efflorescence, that soon afterward went out of business.  A poet friend (whose own work was completely different from McGrath’s) had given me copy of that two-part Letter to an Imaginary Friend.  The lines and language had exhilarated me; the materials—McGrath’s autobiographical “representative moments”—of the poem had fascinated me; the way McGrath put the two together moved me; and off I went to the reading, where a small crowd listened to the somewhat gravelly McGrathian voicing.  He was living in Minneapolis, and several years later, after I had been in touch with him repeatedly and felt we were at least long-distance friends, I asked him if he would agree to be interviewed at length by me and by Terrence Des Pres, whom I had recently met, in the midst of his work on what would become his book Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the Twentieth Century.  (Des Pres was thinking about how some poetry can, without sacrificing the deftness of a great poetic craft, sweep in a whole culture in its praise or dispraise; the other subjects of that book are W. B. Yeats, Bertolt Brecht, Breyten Breytenbach, and Adrienne Rich).  On the telephone, McGrath laughed and expressed wariness about my proposition, but he agreed to it.

Terrence and I met in Minneapolis, checked ourselves into a drab downtown hotel, and on three afternoons in a row we walked to Tom’s apartment, sat down with him, and turned on a tape recorder for two hours.  It was one of the best conversations I ever had with anyone.  At one end of the old couch on which McGrath sat for much of the day was a dictionary that had been used hard.  A few years earlier, McGrath had had shoulder surgery at a Veteran’s Administration hospital; the surgery had been very badly done and for the rest of his life he remained in persistent pain, and also wore a black winter glove on one perpetually cold hand.  “I hate paper!,” he said, laughing, as he shuffled through some manuscript sheets and got a paper cut in the tired, papery skin of a finger.  Tom laughed a lot, in fact–at himself, often, with a kind of good-natured rue at his present physical weakness or when remembering something from the past, how this or that person or conflict or project—poetical, political, or personal—had turned out.

“Martin!” Tom called out suddenly to his younger brother, who had let himself into the apartment to join us for a few moments.  Martin was younger than Tom, hale and cheerful.  “Martin should have been the poet!  He’s got the great memory and the words for it!” Tom said.  A while before, another North Dakotan poet, Roland Flint, a great admirer of McGrath, had described to me what was called, out on the North Dakota farms, “the great strength”: the man who had lifted a big tractor off his son caught under it after it had flipped while he was working; the man who, standing in a trench at the corner of a barn, where he and two others were repairing the sill, suddenly had to stand and put his hands under the corner and hold up the barn itself when the sill work began collapsing and the other two frantically pitched and jammed stones under the corner for a few infinitely long instants till the man of great strength could let go and they could simply go back to work.  What Tom McGrath had was a great strength of poetic mind.  And Martin McGrath had the great memory and the great gift for making a story out of nearly anything that happened—as soon as he came in he began somehow to make hilarious his telling of how he had been working that morning at dredging for the first time in many years around the end of a little dock at his home on a Minnesota lake.  “Mud?”  I asked.  The dullest and most obvious possible question I could have asked.  “It’s six feet deep in loon-shit!” he laughed.  Both brothers had an ear that had learned when they were children to listen to others who said aloud stories, tales, poems, curses, prayers, jokes, seductions, the pleas and dreams of farm owners and farm workers, and every other kind of sheer verbal performance (when the only electronic sound in the world was the family radio).

Each idea led sideways to another, and at some point Tom asked Martin to sing some verses of an old campfire or far-field lunch-break song to amuse Terrence and me with the vernacular wit of the lines.  Martin sang about a dozen, amazingly, and stopped.  “But he knows all 27 verses!” Tom said.  “And I don’t!” he added.  He knew, though, how to bring together in Letter and in the full variety of his short poems the rustic and urban strengths of infinitely capacious American English.  The sheer size of McGrath’s vocabulary in his poems is remarkable, and the words come from everywhere.  In the capacious unruly Letter, especially, whether the passage is comic or sorrowful, McGrath built a brilliantly ramshackle structure for his episodes, reflections, linguistic games, and richly allusive texture.

In the North Dakota crop-fields and barns, at a remote Alaskan military post during World War II, in England and Greece, in California and Minnesota, McGrath lived a very long-view experience of men and women at work, in winter and summer talk, at worship of one failing god or another, and trying not to be at the mercy of their political, military and religious leaders. His poems, with their wry or lolloping or even grave exhilaration of language, with their dignity of regard for the human body and human labor, and with their fierce love and anger (poetry’s two great sources, Tom said), will persist, I do hope.  Even in our age of instantaneity, of RAM-replaced memory, of the meaningless free association, of the randomness of web searches, of electronic distractedness, “texts” rather than “texts,” computer-screen “friendship,” and the relentlessly “postmodern” performance of the ironies of brand-name allusion,  McGrath’s poems must persist, and we must persist in reading them, if we’re to hang on to the long view of what it is to be human.

6 June 2012


I Want to Know I’m Alive: on Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Three Cows and the Moon

There is a stick in this poem. It was, at one time, a branch on a poplar tree.

The poplar tree was felled by a hurricane some years—maybe three—before the poem takes place. But even after the tree is flat on the ground, its branches continue to bloom. The tree doesn’t know it is dead.

By the end of this poem, I am not sure whether or not I know I am dead.  I am not sure that my life is not a dream, and that the infrequent glimpses of what is not physically there are not what is real.

On the night that “Three Cows and the Moon” takes place, a mother, son and daughter are using the poplar branch as a bat in their baseball game. It is March. They are in a field at dusk. The son swings the branch in three ways: like a bat, like a sword, and like a scythe. That there are three humans and, later, three cows, and that the woman in the poem knows that the night will bring a full moon because this is her third night watching the sky, and even that this poem is written in tercets—all of these threes feel inevitable.  Something about the number three, its unevenness, the way it pushes you to straddle the line between one thing and another, or else to unify all three things within your sight, is important to the way this poem works.

The poem is made up of sticks, manure, blood, hair, dogs, flowers, zippers, septic tanks—its thinginess pastes the mind to its pages.  But the poem is also of another realm. The bull’s face is human. Reality bleeds into dreams, which then prophesize future realities. The three cows, noses touching, form a wheel and turn and turn in the field and the spirit, the poem says, is in the wheels.  So the poem is really in a third place, in the in-between.

Several times a year, for eight years now, I have read “Three Cows and the Moon,” and I’m always surprised at how frightening it is.

In between readings, what I remember is the joyful baseball game. I remember how the color yellow seems to act like an exclamation point in so many of the lines: the moon is eventually yellow, the baseball is yellow, and so is the son’s spring jacket. Yellow also is the daughter’s hair, the description of which gives way to such grave and lovely joy: “The color/ Also of my daughter’s hair, which was uncombed. / Uncombed or not, she is always beautiful. / It’s the funny laugh and those long legs.”

They throw the ball late into the evening: “Our skin was alive/And we were getting hot while the sky got colder….” The joy is in their vigor–and the joy is right out there in the open.  The fear is the thinking and observing and feeling. As they play, the darkness rises “like flood water gradually filling / the basement of a house.”  The darkness is “soft as the current of fear that almost always runs through me.” The moon when it first comes up is the color of a body pulled from icy water. The children’s skin smells of bleeding.

What do simultaneous joy and fear equal? Maybe a tilted field, like the field in this poem where the cows spin. Maybe some kind of opening.  The poem, in a strange italicized line, says, “Sometimes our hearts are stone, sometimes not.”

When I read this poem and especially when I’ve misremembered it, I think my heart must be of stone.  I am not, as Rimbaud says poets must, “examining the invisible and hearing the unheard of.” I think I must be asleep, or worse.

I have the kind of headache of spirit that Unamuno calls the God ache.  I believe we all may die utterly, or maybe worse— we’re all dead and don’t know it—but when I read this poem, there are flashes of something—of a larger way of seeing—of not immortality exactly, but of there being more in and under and behind the mortal world than I can see—if I don’t look directly at it.

On the night of the baseball game in the poem, the mother, son and daughter are chasing their cocker spaniel, who keeps stealing the ball. They have to tackle him, and they are getting dirt and grass on their faces. The poem doesn’t explicitly say this, but they are probably laughing.… And so they don’t notice the moment the moon first comes up, nor the moment the cows first touch their noses together and form a wheel and begin to move in circles.

I think they don’t notice these moments because they are moments of magic. And if you look straight at the magic in this poem it might, like many mysterious and therefore beautiful things, disintegrate.  You have to look everywhere but at the poem’s center—the spirit in the wheel— in order to lure the poem, like a shy rabbit out of its hole. There is herein, as the poem itself says in its last line, “Something / Completely understood. But unspeakable.”

You might look at Yeats. The phrase in the poem “spirit in the wheel” reminds me of his Great Wheel.  “Three Cows and the Moon” is a vision, and the wheels of joy and fear that turn in it might be born out of Yeat’s wheel of discord and concord. In fact, from his long series “Supernatural Songs,” from his book Full Moon in March, there are these lines, which remind me of the testament quality of the Kelly poem:

                                  “… That light
Lies in a circle on the grass; therein
I turn the pages of my holy book.”

You might look at geometry. There are everywhere in the poem triangles, squares, and circles. In 1632, in the Opere Il Saggiatore, Gallileo writes that “the universe cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.” Galileo uses geometry to look out, Brigit Pegeen Kelly to look in.

Or you might look at Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” which begins, “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.” It begins where “Three Cows and the Moon” ends, with the moon high up and small and the night all staked out, and the eyes blind but the mind illumined, like light flooding a room.

I want to see the universe in all its darkness, as this poem does. I do!  And I want also to be alive and play and have joy.

If I cannot have these things, this world of “Three Cows and the Moon,” then I want at least to be like the poplar tree and not know I am dead.


Four sentences: one a single line long, the second coming in at nine, third at half a line, and the fourth at 108 (and a half, technically) lines.  In that fourth, sprawling sentence, Garrigue manages not only to describe the Grand Canyon in terms of its geologic origins, but to begin thinking of these formations figuratively: now they resemble the elements of human civilization (“rostrums, pulpits and lecterns”), now things that in turn remind us of various lost civilizations (“the mad Tiberius arches,” “Aztec pyramidal temples,” “obelisks… from the sands of Egypt”). Without announcing itself, the result is a moving and as-if-stumbled-upon meditation on the relative insignificance of human achievement and history beside the much more immeasurable history of the earth itself–of the Grand Canyon specifically. Also, something to do with our human impulse to see the timeless in terms of what’s transient–is it impulse, though, or does the fact of our own transience prevent us from seeing the world without that particular lens?

By the time Garrigue begins, at line 90, to list and describe the various layers of the Grand Canyon (Bright Angel shale, Shinumo Quartzite, Hakatai shale, Coconino sandstone, Kaibab limestone), each layer containing fossils of a world come and gone, the names for each layer as yet another instance of the human dilemma, our instinct to name a thing and thereby possess it, when our transience means nothing, ultimately, can be possessed–by the time Garrigue has said as much, we realize that the poem itself has been an accretion of layers, layers of thought and image, a kind of monument made of language. Which is to say, there’s a defiance and/or courage to the poem: its having been made is the evidence of a gesture against mortality, on the part of its maker.  Even as Garrigue reminds us that language, like civilization, is transient, lasting only as long as there are people who know the language, she insists on–or cannot help–fashioning from what is transient something that, if only for now, will say this much: she lived, she saw this, she was here.

The gesture seems all the more hard won when we see how the poem started. “Where is the restaurant cat?” the poem begins, and the speaker announces her loneliness, as if the cat would have been remedy, more effective company than the people mentioned in the second sentence (a cook, a waitress, cowboys, and other “intimates, I would guess, of the Canyon”).  Something happens, though, in the shift from “Where is the restaurant cat?” to the variation of that question soon after: “Where is my cat?”  The cat that belonged more generally to the restaurant is now attached to the speaker alone.  Or that is how the speaker has come to think of the cat, which suggests something of her desperation, of how alone she feels–even surrounded by other people, but especially when faced with the Grand Canyon, which she goes on to detail until poem’s end. The smallness of self, compared to the vastness of history. The interior life that each of us lives, that can never be entirely known by others, no matter how many people we’re surrounded by, or how close we get to them. The way in which, as Howard Moss puts it in “Rules of Sleep,” a decidedly shorter poem, “even intimacy is only another form of separation.”  I may be lonely, I may seem invisible–and eventually will be, Garrigue suggests.  But I was here.  “The Grand Canyon” is the glittering proof.


Gilgamesh—“He who saw the deep.” We know  it as the world’s earliest epic, and we weep with its eponymous hero-king when his companion Enkidu dies. In this scene, death becomes for the first time conscious, recorded. That is the part I remembered most strongly, from having read the poem young. Reading it some good part of a lifetime later, the scene still unfastens innocence, rends love. But the epic reread raised also a different grief.

Let us consider this ur-tale, not for its poetry, but for its account of our human relationship to the other-than-human, within and outside the skin’s borders. At the start, Gilgamesh, King and oppressor of his city’s people, asserts his first night privilege over every marriage. The half-wild Enkidu–created by the gods to distract a hero whose power and lust have run amok–is lured into the realm of the human by a temple prostitute’s opened legs  When he and Gilgamesh meet, they battle, then become friends, and the distraction succeeds. Gilgamesh decides that the one test worthy of  their bond and their strength is to go into the primeval forest and slay its guardian, then cut down the sacred, tallest cedar. Thus begins a long and heedless destruction–of the wild, plant and creature equally, and of the sacred. But the ecos has its protective deity, whose curse strikes Enkidu dead.

Wild with grief and horror–it is a maggot’s emergence from a nostril that proves to Gilgamesh that his friend is not only motionless but emptied of self—Gilgamesh then sets off to find the secret knowledge that will undo all he’s seen, and make him immortal. Along the way, asking directions, he meets a barmaid. She counsels  him to accept death, return home, love his wife, raise his children, enjoy food and the warmth of sun and coolness of rain. Gilgamesh ignores her, finds and then loses the herb of immortality to a snake while he sleeps, as all humans must, and goes home to continue building an immense wall around his city.

The final image, to me, is no symbol of civilization’s beginning, nor even of a necessary individuation. This wall encircles the ur-choice toward ego-pride, separation, death-acceptance’s failure, life-acceptance’s failure. The wall  holds the self-protection that accompanies heroic distinction; its stones predict war, the natural’s wanton exploitation, and their own destruction. We call Gilgamesh the first epic. But how can  we know in what spirit its even-then ancient stories were carved into clay? To me, Gilgamesh seems the first taste of the tragic: a story of irremediable losses, born of hubris, pity, and terror, that enlarges our comprehension of the human.


When I have to talk about Charles Wright’s poems, what I feel first is reticence, as so much of what he does arises out of a kind of reticence—a decorum of avoidance, a forestalling of most interpretive certainties.  His writing is fuguelike, variations on a theme he barely introduces, yet works at throughout, quietly, with great attention, with an imagination expansive as any poet writing today.  He is our Beethoven, in a way, taking a theme from Haydn and re-working it through divagation after divagation, pirouettes and fantasias piling up into rondos and boureés.

His poem “The Southern Cross” is perhaps the first in which he consciously worked this approach over an extended theme, and it happened while I was his student in the MFA Program at UC Irvine, where he taught for fourteen years.  It wasn’t easy to get him to show us students what he was working on, but, after pestering him, I somehow got a copy and it took my breath away.

Before I talk about it, though, I want to introduce a few interpretive themes of my own.  For Wright never writes “occasionally”–his work derives from a project, lifelong, from a kind of skeptical metaphysics, from a carefully kept storehouse of literary references, and from autobiographical investigations consciously framed within these verbal and half-theological scaffolds.  He adopts the Medieval verticality of Ezra Pound’s imagination, seeing intense personal perceptions of scene as gateways to repeated mediations on the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of the afterlife, and deploying iconographies derived from the literature of the past (particularly Dante Alighieri) alongside fragmented chronicles that are details of his own temporal journey.  With this tradition of the vertical drama of the soul’s progress through incarnation, the sufferings of earthly hell and purgatory, and ascension to the angelic orders, Wright also embraces the Chinese poetic tradition of the T’ang Dynasty in which poets like Tu Fu and T’ao Ch’ien assert that the transcendental is within the earthly specificities of life, that the divine is within the details, that there is no verticality, but instead a simultaneity of spiritual and earthly being.  Seemingly contradictory, Wright’s consciousness nonetheless holds both spiritual traditions in his own brand of the Taoistic “all-in-one.”

“The Southern Cross” is written like an unfolding scroll painting, a version of “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” that legendary landscape from the Chinese tradition that depicts a world rising in sublime mountain scenes, crashing in cataracts, opening to fertile river valleys, then ascending again towards a blank heaven.  His sections, his verse paragraphs, are like panels in this way, each taking up a different scene, working variations on his theme that “Things that divine us we never touch….”   Yet no one section resolves the issue completely, but connects up with the next, with memories and scenes and provisional solecisms that spume like standing waves in a river rushing over its boulders.

In different scenes, the poem traverses over Wright’s childhood in Tennessee, “in a brown suit,” over Lake Garda and oblique references to a personal epiphany re-enacting moments in an early poem by Ezra Pound, occupying the same scenes as Dante and Can Grande, as Catullus before them.  Wright describes the garden around his old home in Laguna Beach, the Pacific Ocean below shuffling its deck of cards, the sugar chest in his living room haunted by the imagined ghosts of his parents.  He remembers his days in Venice, specific cafés and old friends, sighting Ezra Pound “at passeggiata, …his eyes on the long ago.”  And he pursues memories of scattered pieces of his life, complaining he cannot remember, and yet he does, with brilliantly rendered images phrased in a sweet and golden style reminiscent of la dolce stil novo from Cavalcanti and Dante himself.

But like all of his work, “The Southern Cross” is framed by the moral imperative behind so much of American poetry—the need to read the manifold world as a metaphysical message, to interpret from its phenomena a piece of moral wisdom.  He cannot refuse this impulse, inherited from the Puritans, from Bryant and Emerson, from Whitman and Stevens, from Pound himself in the Pisan Cantos. “There is an otherness inside us/we never touch/no matter how far down our hands reach,” he writes about midway into the poem, and he claims it is the past and our efforts to connect with it through the kind of effortful remembrance of his crepuscular and spiritual imagination.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate Wright’s fabulous handling of the English language–how he extends a phrase through meanderings and zigzags of imagistic description, how he builds an extended metaphor and then gently mocks it, how he moves from personal remembrance to invocations of the spiritual tradition of Italian painting or to The Book of Common Prayer. As he has claimed himself, his line has the extension and integrity of Whitman’s long line and the tight, spiritual images of Dickinson’s short ones.  He describes the Smokies in Tennessee and his folks asleep in one of its valleys in lines that, at one moment, can seem vaguely reminiscent of Eliot’s in the Four Quartets and yet, in another, ruefully echo Bob Dylan’s in “Desolation Row.”

But it’s only the beginning of his great literary frescoes—there is yet “The Other Side of the River,” Zone Journals, Appalachia, and A Short History of the Shadow.  There are so many poems of his to talk about, to wander in, to loll with, sucking on a straw stuck into a gin-soaked watermelon….

–Garrett Hongo, Greve-in-Chianti–


Don Paterson’s poem “Phantom,” from Rain (2009), is full of dark holes, black suns, pages of black slipped between pages of white, the “tiny batwing” of a painted saint’s open mouth, dark folds in white linen, white skulls, white mugs for drinking the waters of the Lethe. It’s an elegy for Paterson’s friend, the American poet Michael Donaghy, who lived in London and died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2004, at the age of 50. It’s not a very long long poem: seven blank verse sections range in length from 13 to 55 lines. It’s also an ekphrastic poem in the best sense, using works of visual art not to display the poet’s sensibility, but as compositional, emotional and philosophical devices for organizing, balancing and overbalancing the poem.

The paintings in “Phantom” are Francisco Zurbarán 17th Century St Francis in Meditation and contemporary painter Alison Watt’s “Breath.” The latter was part of Phantom, Watt’s 2008 exhibition of monumental paintings of fabric at London’s National Gallery–which she hung near Zurbarán’s St. Francis. Paterson, it would seem, borrowed this  association for his elegy–an act which in itself interests me. (An earlier version of the poem, which I haven’t seen, appears in Watt’s exhibition catalogue). I often wonder with poems–especially long, lyric ones that rely on the yoking of disparates rather than narrative chronology–how they came about. Was Paterson writing about Donaghy, and also writing about Zurbarán and Watt, and discovered that put together they made a vigorous–really, an astonishing–poem? Was there a plan for this from the beginning? I don’t know. But the best elegies often have a strong preoccupation with something other than the deceased and other than personal loss–a way of submerging and subverting too much feeling, an avoidance of mawkishness, a way to look at how life goes on. And of course, many elegies are ultimately poets’ confrontations with their own deaths and with the universal fact of death. A certain coldness, a certain playfulness, comes in handy–and often, as in “Phantom,” has the effect of making greater, not less, feeling.

“Phantom” is a complicated many-layered poem in its interactions of narrative and lyric, abstraction and representation, connections and loose ends. It’s also always clear in its particulars. Part of what makes it go–and makes it continue over nine pages–is its shifts, not so much of tone and diction–though that too–but of focus.

Part I: Paterson addresses Donaghy as “you” and writes, stagily, affectingly, his death, with night reaching

…into the room
switching off the mirrors in their frames
and undeveloping your photographs;
it gently drew a knife across the threads
that tied your keepsakes to the things they kept;
it slipped into a thousand murmuring books
and laid a black leaf next to every white….

One white cup is left illuminated, and Donaghy, Paterson implies, will use it to drink from the river Lethe. Parts of “Phantom” seem arranged like cinematic stills, or 17th century devotional paintings. In Part II, Paterson describes the Zurbarán, in which Saint Frances holds a skull and looks heavenward. Remember that white cup? Paterson, a master of the distribution of associated but not overdetermined imagery, suggests and rejects a series of like-but-not-like images:

…I would say the fetish-point, the punctum,
is not the skull, the white cup of his hands
or the frayed hole in the elbow of his robe,
but the tiny batwing of his open mouth
and its vowel, the ah of revelation, grief
or agony….

The concept of a picture’s “studium” and “punctum” comes from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, a short book about photography—and about the death of Barthes’ mother. The “studium” is the obvious symbolic content of the picture, while the punctum—the fetish-point—is the part that gets you in the gut. That batwing mouth in the Zurbarán gets a parallel in Part 3, in Paterson’s description of Watt’s painting, a “pinwheel of white linen, at its heart/ a hollow, in the hollow a small hole.” Part 3 is something of a reverse punctum: the part of the poem that does not get you in the gut but that, in its coolness, allows the rest of the poem get you in the gut.

Part IV, a sonnet, returns to Zurbarán. Reversing the traditional order of octet and sestet, the first six lines describe how Zurbarán would, for the unveiling of a painting, arrange the light in the room for maximum impact—“at least one fainting fit.” In the octet which follows, Paterson instructs the reader under what conditions of light and loneliness–“on a black moon, in a forest after midnight,/a thousand miles from anywhere your plea/ for hearth or water might be understood”–to read his poem for proper impact. Part V is a mystical/metaphysical set-piece made out of more dark and light and nothingness.

We come from nothing and return to it.
It lends us out to time, and when we lie
in silent contemplation of the void
they say we feel it contemplating us.
This is wrong, but who could bear the truth.

This is vatic, not quite satirically so, but not perfectly seriously either. Paterson’s tonal delicacy allow ideas, though important, to become somewhat less important here than mood. Part VI is spiritual and atheistic; part of something larger and transcendent, but not quite faithful:

One night when I was lying in meditation
the I-Am-That-I-Am-Not spoke to me
in silence from its black and ashless blaze
in the voice of Michael Donaghy the poet.
It had lost his lightness and his gentleness
and took on that plain cadence he would use
when he read out from the Iliad and the Táin.

What follows is 30-plus italicized lines of God/not-God/Donaghy intoning with self-serious grace, and lots of wounds and eyes and lower-case god and death and doom. But Part VII begins:

The voice paused; and when it resumed
it had softened, and I heard the smile in it.

Donno, I can’t keep this bullshit up.

Voice-of-Donaghy becomes more natural and guy-ish, talking about memories, regret, disgust—disgust, especially, with the work of poetry. Says Voice-of-Donaghy:

I knew the game was up for me the day
I stood before my father’s corpse and thought
If I can’t get a poem out of this…
Did you think any differently with mine?

“Phantom” can’t go on much longer after that rebuke from Paterson-as-Donaghy to Paterson-as-Poet-Speaker, about the strange relationship of artists to suffering (it’s a poet’s job to make art of suffering, but it’s a sick sort of job). The poem lasts but five more lines. Voice-of-Donaghy extinguishes itself, and Paterson extinguishes the “dark light” of his own mouth, becoming, in his own poem, a St. Francis:  “I put down Michael’s skull and held my own.”

That’s brutal, wrenching, self-mocking. And I think ultimately it asks us what we are going to do with the elaborate skull of the poem “Phantom.” Me, I’ll reread and reread it.


Memory is the Confederate of the Eye

In 1981, in my second year as an MFA student, I took a class with Larry Levis called “Memory and Imagination.”  My notebook from that class seems more his now than mine, a document of his reading and thoughts as he wrote the poems which would become Winter Stars. Quotes from Nietszche and Flaubert, Auden and Eliot and Stevens, Keats: “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth.”  And his own observations and asides:  The shape of the understanding is the form of the poem. Poetry depends on the way we can include things that are not poetry.  Memory is the confederate of the eye.  An arrow flying in both directions—he must have drawn it on the chalkboard—with Memory (Lowell tucked beneath it) at one end and Imagination (Ashbery inserted here) at the other.  Larry Levis, in art as in life, bringing those two points full circle. Not so much a distinction between the two, my notes say, but the method in which they are used.

“Sensationalism,” the poem which concludes Winter Stars, has been a classroom for me for decades now—not just as a brilliant example of ekphrasis or as a masterful braid of the political and personal; not only in the digressive and casually inclusive progression which ultimately, inexorably, reveals itself as purposeful in every detail—but in the serious questions it raises about the effort to render “into paper” a human life, whether our own or another’s.  What is ‘true’ or ‘a lie’ in what we create—how do we speak for another, and do justice to without presuming or imposing upon that life—defined (and limited) as our understanding is by our own experience?  How are we, to borrow Lowell’s lines from “Epilogue,” to “give each figure in the photograph his living name”?

A photograph sets this poem in motion, Josef Koudelka’s“Romania, 1968,” which Levis frees from context in the first line as untitled & with no date / Given to help us with history. He lingers in his slow circumference of description:  a man talking to a horse, in front of a wall— which, like most walls, has/ No ideas, and nothing to make us feel comfortable…– barrier and entryway, blank page.  The various narratives he imagines are set thirty years earlier, as if this is a photo from Koudelka’s early memory, not one he could have taken.  Of course, I have to admit I have made all of this up, & that / it could be wrong to make up anything.  Imagination yields to a meditation on artifice –perhaps this, or that, is the story, perhaps Koudelka arranged it, perhaps none of this is true.  (“I’m very interested in self-interrogation in the midst of one’s own poem,” Levis said in a 1983 interview, “because I feel such absolute ambivalence about things.”)

Though there’s no reference to it, the image itself calls forth Chekhov’s story, “Misery”:  Iona Potapov, talking to his white horse because his son has died and no one else will listen—and surely Levis, and perhaps Koudelka, count on us to sense that palimpsest.  The story’s epigraph courses beneath the poem, charges it, whether we recognize it or not:  To whom shall I tell my grief?

And yet: I do not wish to interfere, Reader, with your solitude—/ So different from my own.  That hinge comes at the poem’s exact midpoint.  It’s quietly galvanizing, the sleight of hand of this direct address, which looks out and inward both, assessing the reader’s assessment, inviting doubt, freighting the silence.  The passage becomes a hall of mirrors compounding, illustrating, the illusion.  I would take back everything

Unless even that retraction would amount to a milder way
Of interfering, & a way by which you might suspect me
Of some subtlety. Or mistake me for someone else, someone
Not disinterested enough in what you might think
Of this.  Of the photograph.  Of me.

That rallentando takes us to the place we’ve been headed toward all along—the memory which is the confederate of this poem’s eye.  Once, he begins (that offhand adverb his signature—or then, finally, later—those small, relative time-markers each a photograph of him, now, for me—a note that conjures the whole chord):

Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her
My face altered & took on the shape of her face,
Made thin by alcohol, sorrowing, brave.  And though
There was a kind of pain in her face, I felt no pain
When this happened to mine, when the bones
Of my own face seemed to change.  But even this
Did not do us any good …

Disinterestedness, that notion he touched upon so lightly a few lines back, returns to us here, in its reach and its limits.  (I think of Keats’s chameleon poet, with his ability to hold “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts…”  As Keats wrote Richard Woodhouse in 1818, “When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me….”)  Loss, the time-altered perception of and resignation to that loss, lead to lines that in their repetition deny their avowal:

And so began my long convalescence, and simple adulthood.
I never felt that way again, when I looked at anyone else,
I never felt my face change into any other face.
It is a difficult thing to do, & so maybe
It is just as well.

“Sensationalism,” in its empathy and honesty, in its demurrals and amplifications, its guilt and doubt, gives each figure his or her living names; they emerge through the slow circling of its subject, through the concurrences and convergences of thought which a long poem allows.  “Circling back on [themselves] in a larger musical pattern,” as he described in a 1989 interview about the long poems in The Widening Spell of the Leaves—but that structural blueprint is present here.

To whom can I tell my grief? The gesture of Koudelka’s photograph is the gesture of the poet to the page, to the reader.  The poem, at its close, returns to the man in the photograph, whose story the poet no longer treats as conjecture:

If he went mad beside that wall, I think his last question
Was whether they shot his wife & children before they threw them
Into the ditch, or after.  For some reason, it mattered once,
If only to him.  And before he turned into paper.

It has the “effect of a double imagination, an echo,” Levis said of this poem in 1983. “I talk about something real that happened to me, and then suddenly, with some kind of odd magic, the man I’m talking about seems to have had the life that I gave him at the very end of the poem.”

In a reading he gave late in his life, Robert Lowell introduced his poem “Epilogue,” by talking about a disparaging comment he’d overheard about Randall Jarrell–that Jarrell’s poems (I’m working here from memory, as my cassette has long since vanished) “were just things he remembered, not things he had invented.”  “I’m not sure of that distinction,” Lowell continues. “But Memory, we’re told, is the mother of the muses; memory is genius, really. But you have to do something with it.”

Not so much a distinction, but the method in which they are used.  “Memory distorts. Madness is forgetting. Experience is changed in the recording,” I’ve written and underscored in my notebook, from the first day of class. “To deny oblivion is to write a poem in which you do remember.”


“On a New Year’s Eve” is the closest thing I have to a letter from June Jordan. In late September of 2001, I saw June for the first time. She was delivering a speech on the steps of Sproul Plaza on UC Berkeley’s campus. She was demanding a halt to the impending US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but I had some place to be. I would catch her later because the rally—well, the rally did not seem particularly historic. Let’s call this her first lesson.

Given how fit and spry she looked on Sproul, and knowing nothing about her health, I was surprised to find Jordan on medical leave in following the Spring and her Poetry for the People course taught, instead, by her former student, the indefatigable Junichi Semitsu. Each week, it felt, she was slated to come in for a guest lecture. Each week, she couldn’t. At the very close of her students’ final reading, she asked Semitsu to read “On a New Year’s Eve” as her address to us. She died a few weeks later. And it turns out that this poem, like her first lesson to me, is an argument against postponement, against anything less than a meticulous minute-to-minute participation in the history we continuously make. “On a New Year’s Eve” is, for me, her final lesson to us on poetics and politics.

But what are these poetics and politics about really? She opens with: “Infinity doesn’t interest me.” And then we find her:

I crawl and kneel and grub about
I beg and listen for

what can go away
                                  (as easily as love)

Who wants that haughty “interest,” musically and intellectually required by a remote “infinity”? Who wants such a verb when superseded by the music of a woman wanting viscerally, a woman kneeling, for example, for what will vanish? This is a poem of lust and desire—a poem that obliterates the canonical requirements of beauty. The poem snorts at the “supposedly beautiful”—the “canyons,” the “evergreens,” the “diamond mines” and “whoring ore.” The poem rejects a profundity, a “wealth” where those that write the diamonds beautiful are those that reinforce the diamond mines and the violence those mines necessitate.

Instead, Jordan holds tender the “brown arm before it / moves” and then “brown arm / just / before it moves.” And it is the repeated admiration of that singular lover’s arm that brings profundity. And then this you slides into a we,

it is this time
that matters

it is this history
I care about

the one we make together

No he! No she! A you. Then this we. A we beginning from a beloved and shifting into all of us who are up for the risk, rises again and again in her work. Take, for example, a line of Jordan’s that Obama used on his 2008 campaign trail (did he ever cite her?): “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” This line is taken from “Poem for South African Women,” a poem that refers to “the 40,000 women and children who, in August 9, 1956, presented themselves in bodily protest against the ‘dompass’ in the capital of apartheid.” Beloved. There, Jordan begins with that singular resistance and leads to a call for all of us:  “who will join this standing up”. And what begins here in “On a New Year’s Eve” as two lovers laughing becomes a we that makes history. Two lovers laughing or sleeping becomes a we that, again, we better join. Just an inquiry into the smallest words, you and we and they, can shake our poetics and our nation to its core.

I imagine she knew this poem would be the last time she would address her students in a classroom. I imagine she wanted to give us a farewell to carry. Today, I think of her as she picked something from relatively early in her career, as if to say that her later works, too, are a refiguring, a reinvestigation into this very poem. And that she found herself greeting the last lines she wrote years earlier with a (what?) familiar or changed or pained or tender or laughing understanding—“all things are dear / that disappear // all things are dear / that disappear.” June, for me, for us, so very dear.


Like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Christopher Logue’s “account” of the Iliad is an imagist epic. It is surely less various and original than its modernist precursors, but it can’t be matched for sheer pleasure. With plot and character given, Logue attends to local intensities and rhythmic development, offering us animated sequences of unfolding action. Moreover, he understands the mechanism of the simile as well as any other modern poet: the electric jolt of defamiliarization, followed, in a flicker, by our recognition of accuracy. Take Achilles’ description of Agamemnon as “Slow as an arrow fired feathers first / To puff another’s worth, / But watchful as a cockroach of his own.” Take the leap (in Kings) from the competing voices of the Trojan council to modern Skopje, shortly before the disastrous earthquake of 1963:

As once, as tourists, my friends and I
Smoked as we watched
The people of the town of Skopje
Stroll back and forth across their fountained square,
Safe in their murmur on our balcony,
One dusk, not long before an earthquake tipped
Themselves and their society aside.

Later, the council’s tumult becomes “the cross talk of their dark, that grew / Slowly and slowly less, until / All were a quiet as children drawing.”

In particular, Logue makes sublime jump cuts between the world of humans and that of gods: “Patroclus—his face kept down. // Firelight against a painted box. // 10,000 miles away / A giant child rests her chin on the horizon / And blows a city down.” Always, the earnest dignity of human prayer—antiphonal passages of elaborate sacrifice—contrasts with the childish brutality of the deities. As Hera says, “I want Troy dead. / Its swimming pools and cellars filled with limbs, / Its race, rotten beneath the rubble, oozing pus, / Even at noon the Dardanelles lit up, / All that is left a bloodstain by the sea.” In such lines, Logue manages to be both gauche and exhilarating (here, it’s worth remembering that he collaborated with the filmmaker Ken Russell).

But in the long run, the poem proves less remarkable for its flash than for its sinuous movement. In Logue’s Paris Review interview, he comments, “None of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence.” For evidence, consider the following passage from “GBH”:

Not your day, king Merionez, not your day.
Dust in the air? or smoke? a shout–
Source out of sight, but near, but out of sight
Behind the crest, trough, crest, trough, crest,
Now soon, now soon to see
–Put down that armour, isolated lord–
Hector with Gray, Chylabborak, Anaxapart,
Outdistancing the wind that comes from Greece
–“If I leave you , Patroclus, what”–
And Hector’s blood-cry, Hector’s plume
–“If I do not, what will become of me?”–
Among the other, nodding plumes;
And all their banners rising one by one
–“Prince Hector’s one of them”–
Come between Leto’s Chair, the corniced horn,
Fast as a horned viper over tile,
Into the yellow bay.

Here we find the vivid perceptual unfolding for which Logue is justly famous. But we also find his varied, extended syntax, with a sort of bravura that can collect voices as it goes. And as in the loveliest passages of his poetry, the blank verse occasionally drops into tetrameter or trimeter, supple in its variations and patterned repetitions. These lines resonate with irregular rhymes and near rhymes, the rhyme of day and bay setting the passage off as a unit of thought (a technique that Logue makes use of with some frequency).

Logue’s Iliad is full of atmospherics, dust and cloud, specific qualities of sunlight, moonlight, starlight, firelight, and bronze reflections thereof. But even more, it’s full of sounds. When the Greeks draw their swords, “this dis-scabbarding was heard in Troy / Much like a shire-sized dust-sheet torn in half.” The Greeks move as silently as if on wool. And the Trojans “shout, shout, shout, smashed shouted shout” like autumn skeins of geese honking in their flight. One thinks of Pound’s “poor old Homer blind, blind as a bat, / Ear, ear for the sea-surge, murmur of old men’s voices.” As Logue explains to The Paris Review, “Homer is full of noises. So, although I know it sounds a bit daft, I collect noises, the sound of steel keys hitting concrete perhaps, or a letter dropping into a half-filled post box.”

Logue means “collect” literally: he kept file folders of clipping for “lighting effects” and “sound effects,” bits waiting to work their way into the epic.  For filmy light, he takes from the opening to Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. For Haephestus’ crippling plummet, he borrows from Milton’s description of Satan’s fall. It’s difficult to say how much of Logue’s Iliad is collage. The term “pastiche” could be applied everywhere, yet it hardly applies, with its implication of hodgepodge. In an interview with The Observer, Logue is cheeky (he often could be) about his method: “Almost everything I do is based on other texts anyway. Without plagiarism, there would be no literature. I’m a rewrite man, a complete rewrite man, like our Willy Shakespeare.”

Linear B, the Bronze Age Aegean script, was finally deciphered in the early 1950s, giving us the administrative workings of the Homeric age: flocks tended, crops harvested, goods manufactured, and so forth. Tablet after tablet of authentic stuff, in a rendering dry as dust. Meanwhile, Logue was embarking on his epic, at an impossibly slow pace, with no knowledge of Ancient Greek, distant from the Greek text and its context, distant from what we usually think of as actual experience. As Logue reminds us in his Paris Review interview, “These things occur in a nonexistent world, set in the middle of a nonexistent event: a ten-year war fought over a woman.” None of it should work, as poetry. But should has no bearing, happily, on this fiercely exuberant, vivid poetry.


He wants to own nothing
but his heartbone banging, born of anything.
                         — “Triptych: Middle Panel Burning,” Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux usually writes portable poems—no more than a page long, a page and a half on occasion. “Triptych: Middle Panel Burning” is a whopping ten pages, an epic if you compare it to the rest of his work. The poem (in scale/form/substance) depicts the better part of our cruelties for what they are—petty. At the same time, it chastises the powerful for their much nastier wrongs. Of the triptych: one panel is a look-you-in-the-eye, front-porch narrative: a puckish uncle zapping a kid with the charge from an electric fence, “a little rural humor.” The second panel detonates into oracular rage  (the middle panel burning), into a rhetoric not of CEOs or politicians, but a farmer’s kid, fed up—drawing on all affections, abundant and simple. The last panel, in third-person leaping narrative, reveals how one young American survived his own personal brand of stupidity (as well as a much more perverse and pervasive national ignorance).

Lux’s triptych draws on sacred tradition to honor the vulgarity and directness of American speech–its simplicity and fury. Yes, this is a narrative/rant/meditation on the arrogance of the 50s and the decade’s insistence on the uselessness of the imagination, but is also, among other things, a love poem for the way us Americans talk and gripe and sing. And reading it not just in one’s head but in the air (fully inhabited), one feels the language grow and recede in one’s very blood, muscle and bone.

I should say, if the poem is a celebration of an American voice, then it must be read in one—that is, aloud, in all its registers—the one I might use at the bodega, the one I curse with when I’m losing at eight-ball (often), the one I call to my niece with… or the one I shout at cathedrals with. As a poet, I want to acknowledge and affirm a living, human voice. Lux’s poem allows me, as a reader, to collaborate on his ode to the profane. As an oral document, it calls, as most good poems do, upon the very real tendons of the body, the very pleasures and variety of human speech put into the air. When it’s going good, language changes the body as the body, simultaneously, invents the poem. It becomes another poem then. And then I, for a time, become something else too.


In a 1995 interview for his radio show LINEbreak, Charles Bernstein asks Barbara Guest, given that she had just defined herself as an imagist, what imagism means. Guest replies: “It used to mean using an image to replace an idea. I think now I would like a few ideas to enter in also — sideways, next to the imagination.” A long poem in four movements, Guest’s Rocks on a Platter, published in 1999, launches from this desire. Part I of the work commences with a question of idea and image, “Ideas. As they find themselves. In trees?,” and proceeds to imagine an intellectual-physical landscape where this confluence flourishes.

At one and the same time a long poem and a collection of fragmented notes on literature, Rocks on a Platter, considered to be one of Guest’s more difficult works, constitutes a poetics of vertical and horizontal intercepts. A text with immaculate structure, the book begins with a quotation from the great German poet-thinker Hölderlin, (“To live is to defend a form…”) and ends with a quotation from Hölderlin (“In ancient times Heavenly Beings made sense of themselves and how they have made off with the strength of the Gods.”). These quotations, and the act of quotation—along with its attendant gesture, allusion—anchor the intellectual landscape of the book. For physical anchor, Rocks on a Platter begins in water (“Ship shoal rocks”) and ends in water (“The Dolphin God—does he swim on the page?”).

The experience of Rocks on a Platter draws on letterforms and whitespace: “dreams set by typography” crossed with sound and multivalence:


Tantamount to theory

                 of tender truckland

          near Trebizond.


                     A TREMENDOUS TUNE-UP.       ORTHODOXY.
           tremendous    tune-up

                                                                            tra- la-la.

As such, the physicality of Guest’s mental and typographic imagery constitutes a horizontal plane that intercepts idea and musicality, always intangible, but here made manifest in the poem’s verticality. And it is at these intercepts, these nodes, that imagination flourishes in several of its many forms: as question (“Is this what they mean by transfuse?/ the hum pouring into another,”); as pronoun and character (“He has written out a plan and glued it to the text. He told me// he is a king himself entering life on a whim”); as image and music (“‘trailing skirt’ blossom/ in mimetic hair”).

Experience unfolds as affordance, asking us to question what it is that can be made available when lingering within a specific site. If at the shore then sand and tide and wind and horizon and moon (if night) and sun (if day and if the sky is clear). If in a Barbara Guest poem, glimpses of fair realism, the mind showing up for the world, receiving, and giving back.


Derek Mahon’s two epistolary sequences from the 90’s, “The Hudson Letter” and “The Yellow Notebook,” read now, trimmed and renamed in the his New Collected, like a unified two-part Odyssey of sorts. “The Hudson Letter,” renamed “New York Time,” begins with the poet, displaced, in-transit, missing “the half-tones we’re accustomed to” while stranded in the “autistic slammer,” the “carnivalesque” “virtual realities” of an Ogygia for which Manhattan steads. “The Yellow Notebook,” renamed “Decadence,” enacts a homecoming, not unlike Odysseus’, to a homeland beleaguered by suitors, who’ve turned the island into “the ersatz, the pop, the phoney.” It resolves as the poet finds an alternative to this “pastiche paradise of the post-modern” in Kinsale, where “The harsh will dies… among snails and peonies,/its grave an iridescence in the sea breeze,/a bucket of water where the rainbow ends.” Mahon’s homecoming foreshadows his late style, the sort of discursive, secular, eco-devotional of his last three books. Separately, the two sequences explore somewhat different emotional registers. The first one is a series of rueful homages to people and poets. “London Time” includes a prayer for his daughter:

Today, across 3,000 miles of water
and five time zones, my own prayer for my daughter
would be, not innocence and ceremony
exactly, but a more complicated grace,
the sort of thing you play when you are alone,
Katie, something slow and meditative,
some rich myth of reconciliation
as if a statue moved and began to live–
for I like to think all this is a winter’s tale.

St. Mark’s recalls Auden’s New York surroundings just to bring his shadow for advice:

what would you make now of the cosmic pax
Americana, our world of internet and fax,
an even more complicated military-industrial complex,
situational ethics, exonerative 12-step programs,
health fascism, critical theory and ‘smart’ bombs?

As tutelary presences, neither Yeats nor Auden come as a surprise. The latter is a forerunner of the programme for the sequences. His and MacNeice’s work are obvious models. What’s surprising about “The Hudson Letter” is how many unexpected guests make it implicitly or explicitly. There is Stevens in Key West:

                                                     …till mauve and rose,
flecked with pistachio cloud, a new kind of day arose
and I saw why once to these shores came other cold
solitaries down from the north in search for love and poetry
to sing the crashing, galaxy-lit sea porches.

There are travesties of the confessional. Lowell’s “Only teaching on Tuesday, bookworming/ in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning” surfaces as:

Here I was, sitting quietly on my studio
and grading papers with the radio low.

Frank O’Hara’s short-hand notation is here also:

I go night-shopping like Frank O’Hara I go bopping
up Bleeker for Juice, croissants, Perrier, ice-cream
and Gitane filter, pick up the laundry….

and so is Crane–“foghorn echoes in deserted sheds/ known to Hart Crane”–and other echoes as well: Whitman and Ginsberg. “New York Time” is more than just a sampling of contemporary poetic modes, though the sampling is of essence. It marks a departure from the compression, obliqueness, and encoding of Mahon’s earlier work, and it signals the poet’s new concerns. Sometimes it reads as the mimetic gone berserk: “RX GOTHAM DRUG GAY CRUISES SONY LIQUORS MARLBORO.” More often, the pop-culture and the city intrude in more unsettling ways:

glued to a rerun of The Exterminator
on a portable TV in a corner of Battery Park
(some have park views, others sleep in the park)
and think how sensible the alternative polity
beneath the ostensible, pharaonic city
glimpsed through rain and dust from the expressway–

Largely introspective, personal, about family and friends, “New York Time” is a meditation on different kinds of homelessness, willed or fated, and dwells primarily on the possibility of reconciliation. Nonetheless, those disruptions from the city point to injustices that only “Decadence” seems to tackle directly. “New York Time” needed its sequel, not merely to have the wandering and return of the Odyssey, but to test contemporary poetic practices and their claim as critical stances toward the socio-political, cultural and economic realities of a deregulated, saturated, globalized world.

More than its predecessor, the sequence is a direct confrontation of “our post-modern world economy” and it is voracious in its absorption of it:

         the body art, snuff sculptures, trash aesthetics,
the video nasties and shock computer graphics;


Now closing time and the usual commotion,
crowds and cars as if to a revolution
geared up by Klein, Nike, Banana Republic, Gap


our climate now that of the world at large
in the post-Cold War, global-warming age
of corporate rule, McPeace and Mickey Mao.

If “New York Time” was, in part, about father’s reckoning with his offspring, “Decadence” inverts the dynamics and confronts a younger generation and the world they made:

Those were the days before tourism and economic growth,
before deconstruction and the death of the author
when pubs had as yet no pictures of Yeats and Joyce
since people could still recall their faces, their voices;

Mahon’s is not simply nostalgic. His is not an idealized past. The living presences of Yeats and Joyce also entail the living presences of

         crozier-wielding Bishops, vigilant censors,
pre-conciliar Latin,  smoke pouring from swung censers;
of sexual guilt, before French letter and Dutch cap,
fear muttered in the dark of dormitory and side chapel.

“The Yellow Notebook” returns again and again to the dissolution of social, political, familial bonds, which was so much the history of the 20th century. That had been Larkin’s territory. However, if “High Windows” is the compressed exploration of a world where “bonds and gestures” have been “pushed to the side” and Larkin’s conclusion leaves us unanchored, dizzy with “nothing,” “nowhere,” and “endlessness,” “The Yellow Notebook” takes the reader to a different sort of abysmal.

Nothing to lose but our chains, our chains gone
that bound with form the psycho-sexual turbulence,
together with those black hats and proper pubs
at home now with the ersatz, the pop, the phoney,

The “black hats and proper pubs” seem Larkinesque enough, the homecoming to “the ersatz, the pop, the phoney” do not.  Instead of Larkin’s existential vacuums, Mahon explores the way in which “our chains gone” has meant enthrallment to a free market, where “everything aspires to the condition of pop music,/the white noise of late-century consumerism—/even Whistler’s Thames,” and the muse is literally and figuratively in chains,

tough I’m in two minds about Tank Girl over there,
the muse in chains, a screw bolt in one ear,
the knickers worn over biking gear…

As it responds to a commoditized culture that co-opts, absorbs, appropriates and cheapens anything and everything, “Decadence” tests what has become too common a modality in the contemporary poem, namely, the omnium gatherum of cultural referents from all registers, the bricolage, the hodge-podge. However, Mahon’s perspective, as an “outcast from the continuum,” now seems, in hindsight, to question many of the assumptions behind the practice.  For if many a hyperactive poem explains its hops from Dickies to Dickinson as a short-circuiting of sorts, as a form of culture-jamming, a derivate of  détournenment, sees the practice as politicized or radical, Mahon makes clear that mash-up, cut-up and remix are tributary of the very culture they mean to challenge. Loyal to its Odyssean lineaments, Mahon’s second sequence is more derive than détournenment, a way to gauge the effects of what Debord called “various ambiences.” Of course, I’m using Situationist mumbo-jumbo to contextualize the sequence. Mahon’s lineage goes farther back. The hero that wanders his Ithaca is Baudelerian via Symonds and Yeats and Wilde, a flaneur who at each stop in the sequence maintains a distance, tests and embraces or rejects. In a society where the new chain is choice, the poet’s prerogative is rejection. At the Chelsea Arts Club, from the now where the Thames’ “embankments gleam with exhausted chrome,” he opts for Whistler’s “symphonies in white,/those nocturnes consecrating wharf and bridge.” He keeps “[a]loof from the disco ships and buzzing bikes” to “flirt” with “insects dithering on the rim.” The sequence ultimately seems to reintroduce the idea of sensibility as a way to anchor a critique of the culture. And if critical practices have dismissed and debased taste and sensibility as compromised or culturally bound, there is an uncanny way the poem gets the upper hand, at least for anyone who has followed the headlines in the last four years:

Not long from barbarism to decadence, not far
from liberal republic to defoliant empire
and thence to entropy, not long before
the great money scam begins its long decline
to pot-holed roads and unfinished construction sites.


Anthony Hecht’s haunting long poem “The Venetian Vespers” is dedicated to his longtime editor Harry Ford and Ford’s wife, Kathleen*. The first of two epigraphs is from Othello, where Iago says:

…where’s that palace whereinto foul things
Sometimes intrude not? Who has a breast so pure
But some uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and lawdays, and in session sit
With meditations lawful?

“The Ventian Vespers” is a dramatic monologue in six sections, and it portrays a soul bedeviled by uncleanly apprehensions. “Apprehensions” is the title of an earlier Hecht poem (from Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977), set during the poet’s childhood. The “apprehensions” experienced by the speaker of “Vespers” (critics typically refer to him simply as “X”), likewise attach themselves to childhood memories. Hecht has said that X is, in part, based on his younger brother, Roger, who was sickly as a child and required treatments such as these described in the poem:

…the glass jar, like a wet cell battery,
Full of electric coils and boiling resins,
It’s tin Pinocchio nose with one small nostril,
And both of us under a tent of towels
Like child conspirators, the tin nose breathing
Health at me steadily, like an insufflation from God?

Hecht likens the jasper slabs of light that fall around the legs of chairs at evening to “A tide of sadness, a failing, a dying fall,” and we think of Orsino’s request at the opening of Twelfth Night for one particular strain be played again for its exquisite melancholy.

The poem’s second epigraph is from Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice : “We cannot all have our gardens now, nor our pleasant fields to meditate in at eventide.” Ruskin, Venice, and the visual arts were all touchstones for Hecht. In an interview with Bruce Cole, from Humanities, Hecht speaks approvingly of Ruskin’s claim that “the task of seeing and seeing accurately is almost the most important act that a human being can perform in life.” “This,” Hecht continues, “is a task certainly, for good poets as well as for painters: to see with precision, with accuracy, without lying, without exaggeration. This is a very difficult task.”

“The Venetian Vespers” is a tapestry composed of many threads: personal history, world history, the history of art and architecture, the plays of Shakespeare, and the pressures of conscience and even of consciousness. One of the most striking aspects of the poem throughout is its visual acuity, every mysterious, megapixel image capturing a shaded emotion.

…the sight, on a gray morning,
Beneath the crossbar of an iron railing
Painted a glossy black, of six waterdrops
Slung in suspension, sucking into themselves,
As if it were some morbid nourishment,
The sagging blackness of the rail itself,
But edged with brilliant fingernails of chrome
In which the world was wonderfully disfigured
Like faces seen in spoons, like mirrorings
In the fine spawn, the roe of air bubbles,
That tiny silver wampum along the stems,
Yellowed and magnified, of aging flowers
Caught in the lens of stale water and glass
In the upstairs room when somebody has died.

That somebody, it turns out, was X’s mother, and there is a fair amount of backstory worked out in the poem. The poem’s glue, however, its guiding structural principle and emotional center, may be best found in the myriad details, so carefully and almost uncannily observed. The form of the poem, in other words is the quality of its seeing.

*I am reading the poem in a copy owned by Hecht, a third printing of the paperback edition of Collected Earlier Poems, which contains a note on Knopf stationary from Ford to Hecht heralding the appearance of the edition. Ford mentions that the new printing would be available in time for the announcement of Hecht’s receipt of the Tanning Prize in 1997. Ford, who began his career in publishing as a designer—and who later edited Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Richard Wilbur, Howard Moss, W. S. Merwin, James Merrill, Mark Strand, and, more recently, Mary Kinzie, George Bradley, Jill Bialosky, and Edgar Bowers–also designed the book.


I Stood Apart: Lyric Temporality in Glück’s “Dedication to Hunger”

For a lyric poet, “the long poem” may be as abbreviated as the five-part drama enacted in this lyric suite, each of whose separate poems was published as an autotelic work of art.

The burden of the lyric is the voicing of one character’s emotion. This accounts for its privileged intensity and authority: we are willing to accept an instant of emotion as unverified truth. While in earlier times the voice might have been seen as ancestral or tribal, it is too often interpreted nowadays as the direct personal feeling of the poet himself or herself, an affirmation of some personal experience in the author’s life. Such interpretation confirms our mania for those “true lives” we witness on the talk shows of afternoon TV.

Glück’s poems counter this paradigm. Her uniqueness is nowhere more apparent than in a poem where the speaker is both at one with and detached from subject matter; in addition, assuming multiple points of view, the speaker is further and further detached from “personal” involvement as each event, each frozen moment, is held up for inspection.

In “1. From the Suburbs,” the I-speaker assumes the mother’s point of view, then that of the “little girl purposefully/swinging her arms” and, finally, the view of the mature poet pronouncing upon the father, “She is a child; he could touch her/if he wanted to.” The sentences modulate between past and present tenses.

In “ 2. Grandmother,” the title character is quoted directly, then commented upon by the speaker who sees male sexuality silencing the female. In “ 3. “Eros,” a maxim on male genital sexuality, “To be male, always/to go to women/and be taken back/into the pierced flesh,” opens the poem, only to shift to the speaker’s pronouncement on the father-daughter relationship: “Because the bond cannot be proven.”

What we are encountering is a double or triple viewpoint in each brief section and, in these first three, a consideration of both male and female perspectives. Sections 4 and 5 proceed somewhat differently.

“4. The Deviation” starts once more with generalization: “It begins quietly/in certain female children” and then modulates into the “confessional” aspect of the poem as the speaker reveals her own anorexia, the need to control her body, relating it to poem-making, the immediacy of the “now” moment and the need to perfect.

“5. “Sacred Objects” contains the speaker reflecting on that moment of lyric immediacy “today.” She is the mature artist, wishing to capture the buds of the dogwood and “to make them eternal” yet with her recognized “premise of renunciation.”

At last, the necessarily tragic underpinning of the poetic enterprise in the entire suite is exposed: the speaker stands apart but only “like a god” since humans can never achieve “the deed [for which] there is no parallel in the natural world.” The poet necessarily suffers removal through her achievement, that detachment both process and product of the creative act. And art, in that suffering enacted in this poem itself, is based primarily on a continuous recognition of the distance between human beings, and human beings and the natural world, even as humans constantly attempt the impossible, to close those distances.

“Dedication to Hunger” foregrounds Glück’s ability to flex the temporality of lyric event: in her hands it is initiatory, interactive, conclusive, emblematic, iconic and heuristic. That range and depth of emotion one might identify with extended works of fiction or tragic drama is encapsulated here in this beautifully wrought poem from Descending Figure.


Recent writing

E Read More

PoetryMay 19, 2024

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In prose that’s erudite and accessible, former Editor-in-Chief of At Length, Jonathan Farmer, explores why “[s]o many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying.” Covering Bishop’s career from “The Map” (1946) to her late elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven” (1977), Farmer’s claim will send you back to Bishop’s poems with new eyes.

W Read More

PoetryFebruary 16, 2024


“[W]hat am I to do / about beauty, about / my fear that beauty // has made me arrange / every experience in a word / and image too neatly // for them to bear / much semblance to life,” Paisley Rekdal asks in this confessional, ekphrastic poem written in response to George Stubb’s famed painting of an Arabian thoroughbred, “Whistlejacket” (1762), on view at the National Gallery in London.

S Read More

PoetryFebruary 9, 2024


“[H]ow do they bear this heat Who / knows who can say what will change,” Joanna Klink writes of this poem’s eponymous plant, also known as trumpet pitchers, as she explores our climate crisis and her relationship with her father in language that is both colloquial and catastrophic, meditative and urgent.

T Read More

PoetryApril 11, 2023

Three Weeks

“I am going to try to write / A little. // I have nothing at stake but my life.” In Dawn Potter‘s sequence, a 19th century woman alternates between diary entries and poems, trying to make sense of her life, her obligations, her hunger for holiness, and a feeling of disaster or deliverance just out of view.

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.