Poetry

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I’m trying to remember how Walter de la Mare’s 1912 poem “The Listeners” ended up in my to-read pile, and I suspect it was by way of Robert Aickman, whose cagey, elliptical, and exceedingly unsettling tales of the supernatural I’m just beginning to plumb. I haven’t read enough of either yet to make any interesting judgments about de la Mare’s influence on Aickman, so for now, here’s “The Listeners.” The poem conjures a creeping, velvety sense of estrangement, and of the sort of pressure that the unseen can begin to exert on the imagination at night, and in solitude.

 

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ’d the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean’d over and look’d into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex’d and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr’d and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starr’d and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
‘Tell them I came, and no one answer’d,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

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Groundbreaking poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has passed away at the age of 82. Rich wrote widely of her personal experience and on feminism, war, racism, and other issues of social and political concern; she lived and worked openly as a lesbian. Read an obituary here.

R.I.P.

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WHIRR WHIRR WHIRR‘s sold-out Mythology Anthology, reviewed here, is now available for purchase as a PDF. Check it out for five original takes on world myths of catabasis and anabasis, by up-and-coming illustrators.

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More reasons to look askance (at the least) at Amazon:

Workers complain of harsh conditions in Amazon warehouse:

“Working conditions at the Lehigh Valley warehouse got worse earlier this year, especially during heat waves when temperatures in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said. He got lightheaded, he said, and his legs cramped. One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.”

“Temporary employees said few people in their working groups actually made it to a permanent Amazon position. Instead, they said they were pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster until they were terminated, quit or were injured.”

And in a replay of 2010’s highly public e-book pricing dispute with publishing giant Macmillan, Amazon removes Kindle versions of over 5000 books distributed by Independent Publishers Group. This was breaking news back in February, but so far as I can tell, is still ongoing and drastically cutting into the sales of the affected titles, and hence many of their publishers. In short, Amazon is yet again attempting to a) expand its ability to aggressively discount wares and thereby cement its hold on both the physical and digital market, and b) eliminate any middlemen (distributors, publishers, physical bookstores) between them and the consumer.

 

– E

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Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska passed away last week, on Monday, February 1, at the age of 88. The Poetry Foundation has a brief obituary and one of her poems here. Rest in peace.

I spent several months last year reading a few of her poems in multiple translations (many of which I found through this aggregation assembled by the University of Buffalo), particularly “Brueghel’s Two Monkeys.” Her poems are carefully observed, ironic, sometimes cuttingly so, yet without the least trace of cruelty or bitterness: it is clear that she always wrote from a place of sorrow and love.

– E

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Check out the Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form (OEDILF) to learn some new words (offerings span Pre-A- through Em- thus far; estimated date of completion is currently March 5, 2039) and broaden your appreciation of the limerick.

e.g. (with unintentional ornithological theme)

emu

On our crest, with a roo, Aussies team you.
You taste best when we stew (it’s supreme!) you.
You can’t fly. You’re absurd.
You’re our fat old Big Bird,
Yet we love and esteem you, o emu.

(by rusty – who has also completed a series of wordplay-heavy entries on musical keys.)

doughbird

The Eskimo curlew, or doughbird,
Is a vanished-a-long-time-ago bird.
Had it kept on its toes,
As it froze in the snows,
It might still be a go-with-the-floe bird.

(by Stephen Gold)

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My favorite random language fact of the week, from a feature in The Believer magazine on pangrams, sentences including every commonly-used letter in a given alphabet (e.g. “the quick brown fox…”):

The Iroha, a perfect Japanese pangram (contains every kana once and only once) and typically Japanese meditation on life’s evanescence, became so famous that the order of its kana was used as alphabetical order up until the late 19th century. Cool. See its Wikipedia entry for the full poem, two translations, and lots of interesting history.

- E

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One of many books of which I’m really fond, despite it not being exceptionally attractive or at all rare. It’s a bargain hardcover edition (Peter Pauper Press) of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam from the 1950’s or ’60’s, and it’s really kind of cheesy-looking (rather like Edward Fitzgerald’s occasionally back-of-hand-pressed-to-brow maudlin*, very loose translations), yet utterly charming. It’s only about 4 inches by 6 inches, and it’s printed in three colors, with decorative motifs and some awesomely faux-riental illustrations by Jeff Hill. Unfortunately I neglected to get any photos of the latter, but you can probably get an idea just looking at the rest of the book…

Read the rest of this entry »

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Apologies from both of us for the long hiatus in posting – I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, but there’s always so much to do… I’m still toiling away on a huge review backlog, but in the meantime, here’s a seasonally appropriate poem that’s been my most re-read poem for the past few weeks:

Summers at Blue Creek, North Carolina

There was no water at my grandfather’s
when I was a kid and would go for it
with two zinc buckets. Down the path,
past the cow by the foundation where
the fine people’s house was before
they arranged to have it burned down.
To the neighbor’s cool well. Would
come back with pails too heavy,
so my mouth pulled out of shape.
I see myself, but from the outside.
I keep trying to feel who I was,
and cannot. Hear clearly the sound
the bucket made hitting the sides
of the stone well going down,
but never the sound of me.

- Jack Gilbert

The simplicity and precision of the language are so pleasing and effective. Like the narrator, we’re easily led into imagining the whole scene – dusty summer heat, the child’s methodical toiling – but can’t gain access to the interior of any of it, the inner life of the child who’s the kernel of the scene. And so at the end there’s this sudden, disorienting, frightening absence of even the outer signs of life (“the sound of me”). The empty shapes of the buckets, the burnt-out foundations, the well, all echo this absence. The adult narrator’s attempt to draw up or tap back into his earlier consciousness parallels the process of lowering the buckets into the well. Reading it this way, I can’t help but imagine “the sound/the bucket made hitting the sides/of the stone well going down” – a physical detail that confirms the reality of the scene while heightening the eeriness of the absence of consciousness – as a kind of plumbing, an attempted sounding of the depths.

I’ve been particularly fascinated with this poem because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about development of self-knowledge that comes with the formation of an adult personality, and the corresponding distance that it’s created between my earlier self and the self (I think) I know now. I can remember a lot of the things that I thought when I was younger, and why I arrived at those thoughts, but not really how I arrived at them – I’m so hyperconscious now of my thought processes that I have trouble imagining now how it would feel to not be constantly running over them and teasing the wires apart and trying to trace them back to their sources. Younger self was not a very self-analytical beast, for the record. It’s temptingly easy to imagine a semi-verbal, unreflective little animal still hunkering down somewhere in the middle of me.

Really, though, it’s quite probable that I haven’t changed as much as I think I have, and that I’m still running on almost all of the same basic processes and impulses, it’s just that I’ve learned to recognize and suppress or manipulate a significant-seeming subset of them, enough to fool myself into thinking I’m a lot more self-aware and self-civilized than I actually am.

I’m not sure that this train of thought ended up going anywhere, perhaps appropriately…

– E

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Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

- W. B. Yeats

No real commentary, just some Yeats love. I love the coolness and silvery-darkness of all of the images in the first and second stanzas contrasted with the “fire in [his] head,” and the way the meter and slant rhyme/consonance of “hollow lands and hilly lands” echo the rolling, repetitious feel of the image itself.

– E

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A snippet of a larger (but still very short) prose piece, “Nothing Began as It Is,” from Merwin’s The Book of Fables:

The story of the hinge is that it is learning to fly. “No hinge has ever flown,” the locks tell it again and again. “That is why were are learning,” it answers, “and then we will teach the doors.”

– E

Go to:
“Where Laughter Came From”

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“Undertow”

This has been my generally favorite thing since I found it last week. I’ve been reading it a couple times a day since, and it still hits me every time – it’s like being grabbed by the sternum and then having the rug pulled out from under my innards. whaaaaaat. But no, seriously, I love and am extremely envious of this poem.

Undertow

People looking at the sea,
makes them feel less terrible about themselves,
the sea’s behaving abominably,
seems never satisfied,
what it throws away it dashes down
then wants back, yanks back.
Comparatively, thinks one vice president,
what are my frauds but nudged along
misunderstandings already there?
I can’t believe I ever worried
about my betrayals, thinks the analyst
benefitting facially from the sea’s raged-up mist.
Obviously I’m not the only one suffering
an identity crisis knows the boy
who wants to be a lawyer no more.
Nothing can stay long, cogitates the dog,
so maybe a life of fetch is not a wasted life.
And the sea heaves and cleaves and seethes,
shoots snot out, goes to bed only to wake
shouting in the mansion of the night, pacing,
pacing, making tea then spilling it,
sudden outloud laughter snort, Oh what the
heck, I probably drove myself crazy,
thinks the sea, kissing all those strangers,
forgiving them no matter what, liars
in confession, vomitters of plastics
and fossil fuels but what a stricken
elixir I’ve become even to my becalmed depths,
while through its head swim a million
fishes seemingly made of light
eating each other.

- Dean Young

“raged-up mist,” “cogitates the dog”! I need to find and read more Dean Young, clearly. One or two of the more obviously sonically playful bits sound more decorative than meaningful (it’s mainly “stricken / elixir” that bothers me), but overall this poem is so on. The humor, the psychological understanding, the perfect fit and clarity of the final image…

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Maxine Kumin reads “Looking Back in My Eighty-first Year” (via Poems Out Loud)

I got to hear Maxine Kumin read this past autumn, and enjoyed the clarity and directness of her language – qualities particularly appreciated during a reading, I’m not gonna lie.

I’ve been zigzagging through her Selected Poems, 1960-1990 since then, and have enjoyed just about every one of her gardening poems and horse poems in particular, though her intensely meditative voice makes her personal poems generally excellent. Still underwhelmed on the political poems front.

To get back to the link at hand, “Looking Back in My Eighty-first Year” moves me to the point of being inarticulate about it, so I’m just posting the link and leaving it at that. Hope some of you will enjoy.

– E

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