Friday, November 13, 2009

Reading John Ashbery's Poetry

Usually I include excerpts here with links to the site that has the full article, essay, etc. This time I'm including the whole thing because none of this is online, and the book it's from is not so easy to find. The book was written by David Shapiro and published in 1979 by Columbia University Press. Shapiro's idea was to provide readers with something like a Reader's Guide to the poetry of John Ashbery. He titled his book John Ashbery: an introduction to the poetry. I only learned of this recently from Gina Myers, who I recently met. Gina writes, teaches and edits; you can see what she is up to online mainly at but also at and even at In Shapiro's book, John Unterecker (1923 - 1989) wrote the Foreward. That's what I'm including here, Unterecker's Foreward to Shapiro's John Ashbery. If any copyright issues ensue, you mustn't blame Ms. Myers. She will learn of this after it's been blogged, not before. Mr. Unterecker begins and ends his Foreward with general remarks about Ashbery's poetry, and in between the beginning and the ending of his Foreward Mr. Unterecker (pictured) looks pretty closely at a poem from Ashbery's most-awarded book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, called "The One Thing That Can Save America."

---------------------------------------------------------------------------Begin Foreward

The poetry of John Ashbery seems “difficult,” I think, only because we normally ask of literature vast simplifications. “Don't,” we are always saying to literature, “don't, whatever you are, be as complex as life, as liberty, or as the pursuit of happiness!”

We want literature to be a little difficult, of course, but only a little. A “fruitful ambiguity” flatters us because we have no problem distinguishing paired pears from pared apples, even in a tureen of strawberry jello. And though allegory seems heavy-handed, we enjoy a sophisticated chase through any symbolist jungle. We like always to outsmart the detective, recognizing far sooner than he does that the man in the aquamarine beret is not only not the axe murderer who wore two left shoes but almost certainly the missing husband of the disturbingly uncommunicative but beautiful Tasmanian heiress with whom each and every one of us has fallen desperately in love.

Literature normally flatters and reassures us. It shows us what we all want to see: a pattern, no matter how faint, superimposed on chaos. But when the pattern wavers, vanishes, reemerges briefly in the form of a nervous mirage, and then once and for all dissolves into universal jumble, we are likely to become uneasy and possibly cantankerous. “This is difficult stuff,” we find ourselves remarking, meaning by difficult either outrageous or representational or both.

The writer who presents normal human experience in something like its everyday complexity really is outrageous. He offends us by not making rational the incomprehensible or, at best, confusing overlaps of routine existence. Instead, he diagrams such stuff as shifting personality, “I” trying to adjust constantly to all the personalities that are busy adjusting to “me.” Or he notices how easily anyone projects – frequently with disastrous consequences – his “I” into every “you” in sight, and sometimes fatally fails to do so.

Such a writer, representing the real world of the mind, finds meandering thought his true vocation. What goes on in, say, the assembled heads of an audience during a poetry reading – even one by John Ashbery – would look, if mapped, something like neighboring three-dimensional termite nests. Not just dreamers, daydreamers, and the senile find listening difficult; all of us, most of the time, play peek-a-boo with the stuff that comes in at the ear. We respond to what we hear, all right, but as well to the secondary stimuli that bombard us through eye, nose, mouth, and rubbing skin. For literally everything starts us thinking. We listen to the world most obliquely, tuning in and tuning out, dancing a sort of intellectual buck-and-wing as “private” thoughts commingle quite irrationally with the flow of public phrases that endlessly spill from a jabbering world.

What I am arguing, of course, is that Ashbery's “difficulty” is more imaginary than real. Ashbery presents, often in meticulously representational detail, a normal man's way of apprehending – though not of voicing – reality. In doing so, he is drastically unconventional, since the normal man devotes a great deal of time and energy to disguising the way his mind works. What comes out of the normal man's mouth or typewriter barely resembles the wanderings of his hit-or-miss mind: the ill-heard sentences, the details of his own observation that he can't help notice (the flick of an eyelid, the shadow of a smile), all of the colors, smells, and textures that intrude on him and that, perhaps heroically, he pummels into submission whenever he attempts to “communicate.” We are all hard-working citizens of this kind, much of the time either oblivious to the ways in which our heads work or so disturbed by those ways as to pretend we have no heads at all.

Like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and others who have attempted to ensnare the psychic processes we so carefully suppress, Ashbery focuses hard on the way the mind deals with the random stuff that drifts into it. But much more recklessly than Stein or Joyce, he offers us not the thoughts of a “persona” – an Alice B. Toklas, for instance, or a Stephen Dedalus – but the abruptly bare phrases that float through his own mind. Or at least he does his best to give us the illusion that those phrases are what he presents, phrases not just obscure but for almost everybody else in the world totally baffling. By drawing on private materials, he forces us to have the strange experience of roaming through someone else's head. “The landscape looks familiar,” we are likely to think as we read through a non-sequeturing Ashbery poem, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.”

Once in a while, he lets us glimpse the process at work:
I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.

Later on in “The One Thing That Can Save America,” the poem I am quoting from, these private matters surface again as “the quirky things that happen to me.”

Such things, central to the private energy that fuels the public poem, are its root force, but they clutter up the surface, effectively entangling us in Ashbery's own business of living. Nevertheless, because purely private material can in no conventional way be simplified by literary analysis, we are much better off experiencing it directly rather than trying to “understand” it. “Understanding,” which most readers of poetry have been trained by generations of text-analyzers to believe is the object of reading, can be extracted from an Ashbery poem only at the price of distortion. What Ashbery offers instead is a chance for us vicariously to engage in something that might be called experiential process; he immerses us in a shifting context of unpredictable “meanings” and tones that constantly qualify everything that has gone before them yet that also are constantly qualified by everything that has been established.

Consider, for example, what happens to the phrases from “The One Thing That Can Save America” when they are reinserted back into the poem. Because paraphrase in Ashbery is not just unnecessary but almost impossible, I'd like to quote the whole poem, pausing now and then to watch shifting tones operate rather than trying to make translations of phrases that are perfectly transparent once they are extracted from the amalgam of the poem. What I hope to reveal is nothing more than technique: Ashbery's method of confining meaning to the page, his system of preventing us from discovering a “solution” to something that is in fact not a riddle but an unsolvable work of art.

This poem that I have arbitrarily made central to my discussion is also almost literally central (pages 44 and 45 of an 83 page book) to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and centrality seems initially to be its central concern. The tone at the beginning is neutral, though phrases like “flung out” and “knee-high” force the reader into momentary minor adjustments of physical point of view:
Is anything central?
Orchards flung out on the land,
Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills?
Are place-names central?
Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Brook Farm?
As they concur with a rush at eye level
Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough
Thank you, no more thank you.

Punning transformations of Stony Brook Farm and Alcott into Story Book Farm and Adcock seem to put us either somewhere in the nineteenth century, on a thruway or possibly on railroad tracks, or in contemporary childhood; but the tone skids away from neutrality and toward a very clear petulance (“enough/Thank you, no more thank you”) as abruptly aggressive (and concurring) places threaten to gang up on the speaker:
And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness
The damp plains, overgrown suburbs,
Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity.

Again point of view has shifted, for we discover that the scenery we had accepted as “real” scenery is in fact only something that is “like scenery” in a commingling community of jumbled “civic pride” and “civil obscurity.”
The second stanza brings us to the first flat assertion of the poem:
These are connected to my version of America
But the juice is elsewhere.

“The juice,” of course, is private – most likely private energy – and though the tone is again close to neutral flatness (with perhaps an ironic pun on breakfast orange juice), it soon shifts into a rhapsodic lyricism:
This morning as I walked out of your room
After breakfast crosshatched with
Backward and forward glances, backward into light,
Forward into unfamiliar light,
Was it our doing, and was it
The material, the lumber of life, or of lives
We were measuring, counting?
A mood soon to be forgotten
In crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow
In this morning that has seized us again?

Both time and perspective tangle in this complex scene that is like a painting but not one, a structure built of crosshatching glances in which the observing “I” is both active participant (and consequently invisible) and yet made visible to his own “downtown” memory as he thinks back on the significant moment. Able to be both in and out of the scene, he has no difficulty in translating the streaks of intersecting glances into an invisible pattern superimposed on light and then considering whether this might indeed be how “the lumber of life” is made significant (measured, counted). “Lumber” achieves a lovely suspension, forcing us to recollect the woods of the first stanza – orchards, forests, plantations, Elm Groves, overgrown suburbs – while at the same time anticipating the “crossed girders of . . . shadow” that will threaten to obliterate the morning that “has seized us again.”

Crosshatched by glances, by planes of light, by simultaneously interior and exterior points of view, and by triple time (the opening statement's “objective” time, the “morning,” and the “downtown” memory of morning that soon will be forgotten), the stanza's multiple perspectives present an “it” impossible to define and also impossible not to respond to.

It is at this stage of the poem's development that another neutral statement returns us to the passages I have already quoted.
I know that I braid too much my own
Snapped-off perceptions of things as they come to me.
They are private and always will be.
Where then are the private turns of event
Destined to boom later like golden chimes
Released over a city from a highest tower?
The quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you,
And you instantly know what I mean?
What remote orchard reached by winding roads
Hides them? Where are these roots?

By now something of the pattern of the poem should be apparent. Stanzas begin in something like a neutral tone, the speaker addressing what at least seems to be a general audience. But that audience, as in this third stanza, soon breaks up into quite private components – as well as the obvious “public” one. Here, for example, the generalized you becomes both Ashbery talking to himself and, by the seventh line, Ashbery addressing the “you” of the breakfast scene. His subject, however, is privacy and its relationship to something as public as music, painting, and poetry. And the abrupt shift in tone of the “golden chimes” question lets him move from a neutral tone to something very different that might capriciously be called oracular. It also lets him distance his material by shifting his statement into a totally different rhetoric – in this instance, a rhetoric that sounds suspiciously like that of Wallace Stevens. Critics – and, for that matter, uncritical readers – have a hard time with allusive echoes of this sort. That is, they can never be quite certain if the shifted “voice” is parodistic, referential, or perhaps even deferential. And there is always, of course, the possibility that the passage may not be deliberately allusive at all – simply a matter of Ashbery unintentionally sounding like another writer. (The last lines of the second stanza, the passage about the “crossed girders of light, cool downtown shadow/In this morning that has seized us again,” sound to my ear a good deal like passages in Hart Crane's poetry; and I am reasonably certain that the final stanza's “All the rest is waiting/For a letter that never arrives” is supposed to trigger us into an “Ah, T.S. Eliot!” response. But what seems to me a Crane allusion may very well not be one; and my conviction that the last stanza's Eliot-like passage is a deliberate allusion tempts me – irrationally – to see the “roots” line of the third stanza as a faint echo of “The Waste Land.”) Such “problems” seem to me ultimately unimportant. That is, the echo or even the possibility of echo is enough to distance the tone. Similarly distancing, the questions at the end of the third stanza force the opening stanza's “real” orchards into a metaphoric role. And distancing through language alone, language that is both serious and a little funny, “quirky things” have some kind of relationship to historical, geographical, and literary landscapes. Yet in spite of all these distances, “I” – both as person and as writer – exist and exist in a present definable America.

The last stanza seems to me to reassemble the scattered tones of the first three. But precise meaning is carefully evaded. The poem is not a sermon:
It is the lumps and trials
That tell us whether we shall be known
And whether our fate can be exemplary, like a star.
All the rest is waiting
For a letter that never arrives,
Day after day, the exasperation
Until finally you have ripped it open not knowing what it is,
The two envelope halves lying on a plate.
The message was wise, and seemingly
Dictated a long time ago.
Its truth is timeless, but its time has still
Not arrived, telling of danger, and the mostly limited
Steps that can be taken against danger
Now and in the future, in cool yards,
In quiet small houses in the country,
Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.
“We” has by this time become an amalgam of Ashbery, the “you and I” of the second stanza, and the reader that the poem is addressed to; it will become explicitly in the last stanza America. But each “we” also exists separately.

Like the “quirky things” of the third stanza, the “star” that our fate might lead us to in the final one strikes me as rather funny – a cross between the theatrical and heavenly kind. And indeed the ominous Eliotic letter that “never arrives” also takes on faintly qualities when it is ripped open, its contents discovered to be “wise,” its message warning of danger and of the steps that might be taken against that danger now and in the future both known and unknown.

Like much in Ashbery, funny and serious material coexist in one context. The tone of the last stanza grows, however, increasingly “concerned”; and if we never find out what the mysterious undelivered message is that we manage symbolically not to receive, to tear up, and yet to assimilate, we do have some sense of its urgency. It has something, of course, to do with the need for fences and for the walls of small houses, for places that are “cool”; but its “meaning” - like the “meaning” of the poem – is available only to the person who apprehends it without “knowing what it is.”

I offer this non-reading of a poem as a demonstration of technique, but I hope it is also a warning against false readings. Happily, David Shapiro, whose own sense of the integrity of poetry is very strong, approaches Ashbery neither as New Critic nor as historian, but as fellow poet who himself works in modes similar to those used by Ashbery.

He asks us to recall what most of us have casually assimilated: the literatures of America and Europe, an awareness of the history of music and painting, a little knowledge of classical and contemporary physics. Using these tools, he helps us explore not the “meaning” of Ashbery's poetry but the sensibility that gives rise to it and the cultural context of which it is a most vital part.

His approach is unorthodox. His insights into the ways a major contemporary poet organizes his art give us a sense not just of the techniques used by John Ashbery but of a structural aesthetic drawn on by a whole generation of poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------- end Foreward
I like this Foreward's claims regarding Ashbery's poetry. For instance, that "Ashbery's 'difficulty' is more imaginary than real." With one reservation, I also like the notion that "Ashbery presents, often in meticulously representational detail, a normal man's way of apprehending – though not of voicing – reality." And "Ashbery focuses hard on the way the mind deals with the random stuff that drifts into it." That's helpful.
But I don't agree with all of Mr. Unterecker's assertions. For instance, that Ashbery "offers us not the thoughts of a 'persona' – an Alice B. Toklas, for instance, or a Stephen Dedalus – but the abruptly bare phrases that float through his own mind." It could be that, in his day, Mr. Unterecker was better than I am at reading minds, but I doubt it. Also, the poem Mr. Unterecker chose to peruse has such a level of complexity that it becomes a bold claim, one which Mr. Unterecker shows no interest in establishing, to say that this is "a normal man's way of apprehending - though not of voicing - reality." And finally, Mr. Unterecker claims that the meaning of "The One Thing That Can Save America" is available only to the person who apprehends it without knowing what it is. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't, but from what Mr. Unterecker has written in his Foreward, I'm not willing to accept this as a conclusion. To me, such a conclusion mystifies rather than clarifies Ashbery's work. To be fair, Mr. Unterecker offers this Foreward as an example of a "non-reading of a poem as a demonstration of technique" with the hope that "it is also a warning against false readings." But it seems to me an opportunity to talk about technique more if one begins by crediting Ashbery with having invented a persona with which to implement the various techniques. I was hoping for more from one who wrote a reader's guide for the poems of W.B. Yeats.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

something new

As most of you folk know, it's hard to drag ass and do things when it means you got to go away from de big screen- my computer's like a tv it's so big- so mostly we do a lot of indoor activities. And yes DubbleX is even worse than me about isolating and staying in. You know he gets into his garageband and chess and it's hard to move him anywhere. I do make it out about 2 times a month though and am trying to stick to that and it's easier since I am trying hard to support neighborhood events in Washington Heights. The last time I went someplace else and was supposed to read I forgot my papers and even when i know something real good, I still need my papers.

I read this morning on Wikipedia that now my Washington Heights, where I was born and have lived my entire life is now called Hudson Heights - this is what they're trying to call my neighborhood folks!-

Hudson Heights is some creation from realtors trying to boost up the monied connection in Washington Heights where now you can also spend a million for a co-op or a condo. Washington Heights is my hood...

I digress Sherlock... read on

Well some months ago some dude wrote me a note asking me to go to his blog - and I did because I usually try to do that when someone writes me and asks me too. You know, it's really hard too when only a handful reciprocate. See I'm not talking about the people who come to see the crazy white lady, and I admit I'm crazy. I come by it naturally. They locked my Dad up in Bellevue's psyche ward. My mom was totally drained and bereft; sick on a daily basis and all she did was try to raise her four children. Actually neither one was ever well during my lifetime.

What does this have to do with the bigger picture? Well nothing except that some dude wrote me some time ago and asked me to look and read his stuff about his travel ails - and continued to send me updates. Now this same dude sent me this fantastic musical he wrote and directed. Damo Bullen didn't pay me to say this but I think if you want to be entertained - harmonica hip hop and standard sounds mix in an updated musical for a new generation, just check this.

I guess what this has to do with the rant above is that sometimes we all need distraction and entertainment. It's a radical evolution.

It's called Alibi - The Musical

Be entertained and get happy.

There are several different versions or parts and it's not clear what that is either, nor is the cast clear which it should be. My only complaint except for needing subtitles in part 8 because I couldn't understand hear the dialogue because I can't understand english spoken in some parts of england. An englishman told me it's because english is spoken properly there. That's a joke - a joke. We got some heavily accented folk here too and if you heard me speak before you know I'm all new york jewish style all in your face and funny.

Good show folks! Thanks for looking out...

Monday, September 07, 2009

"A Trek with the Buddha Bard" -- A Review in Danse Macabre

Nabina Das

"A Trek with the Buddha Bard"

A review of ANNAPURNA POEMS: Poems New & Collected, 2008


Yuyutsu RD Sharma

Yuyutsu RD Sharma’s face is like a mountain terrain, when the earth emerges in the gods’ peaks after a flash flood or when a river has receded after the monsoon’s regal fury. I noticed this as soon as I sat down opposite to him in the surprisingly sparsely populated Barista coffee shop in New Delhi’s fashionable Khan Market shopping area. Poet of the Himalayas, Yuyutsu’s greeting resounded almost true in what he wrote in “In the Mountains”:

Fragile my eyeglasses

fragile and foreign

I take them off;

There’s a speck of a scar in them.

On the mule path

I take them off

to face the green

stretch of mountains

beneath the saddle of Annapurnas.

Well, almost true, because he didn’t wear eyeglasses at our meeting! His dark irises reflected the green he writes about and the twining paths he sees better without his educated eyeglasses. And since we met to chat – we didn’t waste time to get on first-name terms – the discussion rightfully turned quickly to his meditative collection Annapurna Poems, a Nirala Series book published in 2008.

On that sweltering summer evening, leafing through the Annapurna poems brought in a sudden whiff of cool mountain air. Musical and reflective. Indeed, Yuyutsu’s poetic tenor is pretty much that of a bard, his voice that treks higher and higher into the wild beautiful upper Himalaya bringing alive the smile of the Buddha and the semiotics of the region’s everlasting gods and goddesses, the Yeti and other resident animals, the soulful rivers, and the ice-kissed rain. True, Yuyutsu laments the loss of a familiar landscape he witnessed prior to political trouble fanning out across Nepal. But his enthusiasm is very much rooted to the peoples’ grasp of their own surrounding, the Nepal that is home to communities and creeds, whether he sees them in the backdrop of the Maoist insurgency or that of a defunct monarchy.

On the level of language, this poetry takes us straight into the heart of the mountain country, Nepal’s unique ethos and the nature that entertains both snowy seasons and hidden eternal gardens. The mule paths, the ‘leech-greasy’ forests, the spells under which the mountain people live and tell fantastic tales, the ‘magnificent daggers of snow’, all build up a world where nature is more than just a phenomenon. It is a companion to the poet and his perception. The cognitive faculty of the poet and the reader works in tandem in recognizing the many layers of meanings unfolded in each aspect of “Annapurna Poems”, exactly like the different layers of the snow. The permafrost is made of the century-old legends and tales on which have grown new fables and events.

Yuyutsu is a poet of expressions as he traverses a train of simplicity. He does not twist language in any show of wizardry. He believes in words and sentences, as they are known and heard in the Himalayan reality, to take him along the mountain journey to rediscover the known nomenclature and trusted actions. All he does is re-paint the scenes of Annapurna in unique details and from surprising angles. Like little Tibetan thangkas. In these scenes, he tells us about those place names that ring out the jeweled eco-system of a mountain town or village as familiar as our recurrent dreams. With him we walk the salt tracks, the gorge trails and visit Birethanti. Ghorepani, Gandrung, Tadapani, Lake Fewa, and many such tongue-trilling spots. For him,

Hillside roosters

Punctual, announcing the dawn

are known elements. If sometimes they might appear delightfully alien to our practiced eyes:

Possessing floral

Faces of riverside birds

They still draw us into the world of Annapurna like ice drops in the cracks (Yuyutsu himself says in the foreword of the book that his poems exist in each crack of this magnanimous mountain world).

Even in this pristine surrounding something troubles the poet who watches the spray of the white surf:

on greasy crotches

of huge mossy rocks

started singing

coughing out

the cacophony of cruel cities

In Yuyutsu’s poetry one might like to find the Blake-ian dilemma of having to divide the human soul between Nature and its sufferance, mingle her own fate and existences with that of gods, the Yeti and shamans, and the myriad mysterious of Shangri-La, where imageries take fantastic shapes and have their own sensual and sensuous existence (River: Morning)

each time I come

to her deafening banks

to gleam my dreams

over the plump flanks of her warm body

and a wrinkle appears

across the shriveled leaf of my life.

However, he is not merely a romantic poet. What comes across is his deep admiration for the Annapurna region as a system tied to the rest of the world – those parts of the world where he is a traveler of a different kind, giving talks and workshops, reading his published work and attending literary events. In the context of these ‘worldly’ acts where he attributes his own poetry having the “otherworldly” and “archival” quality, he is very much a realist. The book’s first section, “Little Paradise Lodge”, is an account of Nepal and Annapurna’s past and present. Interestingly, ‘lodge’ appears to be a pun on ‘lost’ as if he was talking about a ‘little paradise lost’. To me the poems in this section are very much a ‘lost and found’ affair.

On the other hand, quite prominently, his Eliotesque sarcasm for the modern city life and the external influences on his much loved landscape of rains and snows adorn the images he paints in “Rains”:

This summer they held me up

In the deserts of their skyscrapers.

my face in the dark

feeling tips of snow sacred fishtails of Machapuchchare.

In “Mules” too, their ringing bells are but ‘beating notes of a slavery modernism brings’. While mapping the ‘bloodthirsty mule paths around the glacial of Annapurna’, Yuyutsu watches:

cartons of Iceberg, mineral water bottles,

solar heaters, Chinese tiles, tin cans, carom boards

sacks of rice

and iodized salt from the plains of Nepal Terai.

human and mule lives meet

Rain, river, snow, singing gorges and brooks rule the landscape of Annapurna Poems. The romance is palpable between the poet and his subject, almost Sufi in character, ‘madness’ being one of its virtues. Yuyutsu is in complete enchantment of his terrain as a lover is and this love’s longing is realized in a woman’s physical quest (A Lonely Brook):

a lonely woman

waits for a stranger to come

and burst

the ice frozen between her thighs

to make a flame

of her cold sleep

Conversation with the river (River) is a personal history, a sequel to the secret rendezvous with the beloved and is artistically lusty.

Between your decisions

and my flickering lamps

the river mad

you, you poet, you bastard, go away!

With Yuyutsu we travel to Ghandrung where a ‘young girl of the scarlet shawl waits/for the colorful procession/of mules carrying cartons of Tuberg beer to pass’ or to Ghorepani, all the while delightfully apprehensive or even curious if a Yeti was following ‘your trail in the desolate mountains’.

Among these portraits resembling eternity’s passing of time in the mountain world, we empathize with the pain in the poets voice (Fish):

Wives wait the final winter

of my rot, opening up

the greed

of their slithering fish

I return to a poem

I postponed decades ago

to touch the mating serpents

slithering on the tip of illicit door

called death.

The book’s second section “Glacier” takes this sentiment to a crescendo as one feels literally like climbing heights with titles like Kala Patthar, Gauri Shankar, Summit and The Buddhist Flag Flutters and looking below with a rooster’s eye view at the fields, the forests and the (once) playful courtyards with their brass bells. The overture continues with the third part “Sister Everest”, a pithy and less descriptive section. In that, the latter is highly evocative. If the first sections read like an ethereal ‘inward’ trek through the upper Himalayan terrain, this section readies us for the fourth one – “The Annapurna Man” – rooted more in the poet’s ‘outward’ experiences. A very brief section, it spews more pain than pleasure. To some extent, I came out of the book through this section with a sense of abrupt termination, as if Yuyutsu’s pain had to invite a quick clinical surgery. For this, the poetry in this section seems disjointed from the book’s original spirit.

Especially, I felt “Silence” is too much of rumination, too personal and reads more like purgation than poetry. The best piece in this section is “Space Cake, Amsterdam”, a witty poem combining introspection and observation by ‘this man from Kathmandu’ (one may well imagine, the rest of our chat that evening centered around that one fantastic experience Yuyutsu recounted to me). The air-conditioned air at that Barista throbbed at my mirth on reading and re-reading the line – ‘whatever happens, you can always make a comeback’!

Yuyutsu R D Sharma’s website is where one can find recent updates about his work and readings. And he has made a comeback, for he has just released “Space Cake, Amsterdam” from Howling Dog Press (I am yet to have a copy) and is currently working on Pratik, a collection of contemporary Indian poetry, with the renowned Indian-English poet Jayanta Mahapatra.

A 'response poem' THE QUATAQUATANTANKUA also accompanies the review in Danse Macabre's new TOTENTANZE issue.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Kay Ryan Birthday Reading

Hi All - Please join us on Thursday 17 September 2009 as we meet on the occasion of Kay Ryan's birthday. We will meet at Belle Epoque (map attached), 809 Adams St, Bay City (989) 894-2589. Beginning at 7 pm, we will read the following poems and answer the related questions. Any contributions of your own for discussion, sharing, etc. will certainly be welcomed. NOTE: Kay Ryan (pictured, right) will not be there. See you then! ~Andy

Sharks' Teeth

by Kay Ryan

Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth-
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks.

From accessed 22 August 2009.

Question for discussion:

As we get to know the silence(s) of this poem, do we understand the poem better?

Are the words of this poem full of zest?

The Niagara River

by Kay Ryan

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

From accessed 22 August 2009.

Question for discussion:

What do you suppose the people at the dinner table are talking about?


by Kay Ryan

Patience is
wider than one
once envisioned,
with ribbons
of rivers
and distant
ranges and
tasks undertaken
and finished
with modest
relish by
natives in their
native dress.
Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
time's fullness
the diamonds
of patience
couldn't be
from the genuine
in brilliance
or hardness.

From accessed 22 August 2009.

Question for discussion:

Is it a kindness that this poem is as short as it is?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Recommended Reading: The Burden of the Past

Lately I've been reading a book well-known to students of Western literature. The full title is The Burden of the Past and the English Poet ; it was compiled from lectures given by W. Jackson Bate (1918 - 1999) at the University of Toronto and published in 1970 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here is a passage I particularly like (page 70):

And most of us are far guiltier in stretching the chronological limits of what from the past we sift and coalesce into ideal. As Wordsworth was to say, in an article he wrote for Coleridge's The Friend (1809): "There are two errors into which we may easily slip when thinking of past times." One error lies in overlooking "the large overbalance of worthlessness that has been swept away," and selecting only the very best as "typical." In our imaginative voyaging through the past, we are like those travelers through the jungle who are told where the grave mounds of giants from earlier days may be found. When we find the grave, with the remains of what may indeed prove to have been a giant, we then assume that he was typical ("There were giants in those days") rather than that he had been given such a mound in the first place and then remembered simply because he happened to have been a giant. The second error is that we so quickly, in our habitual feelings, divide time merely into two parts, past and present, and then "place these in the balance . . . not considering that the present is in our estimation not more than a period of thirty years, or half a century at most, and that the past is a mighty accumulation of many such periods." It is precisely for these reasons that, as Ortega y Gasset was to say in our own century, every age will inevitably feel itself "empty" in comparison with the past.

I always find it fascinating when someone generalizes as to what we all do mentally. Bate addresses other profound issues in this book as well, including taste, influence and recognized achievement in (Western) poetry.

As for writers, Bate makes it seem that the search for an original phrase or expression is not unique to modern times: Bate quotes (page 3) Khakheperresenb, an Egyptian scribe who lived sometime around 2000 B.C., who wrote, "Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken."

Here is another passage I especially like. In it, Bate considers the achievements of the English Romantic poets and what directions may afford opportunities for writers today (pages 115 - 116):

And yet, with all the strikes against them, the greater Romantics still succeeded (astonishingly, when we remember that in England we are dealing with only some twenty-five or thirty years, in a nation with about a twenty-fifth of the population of the English-speaking world now). To try to touch on what each of them did would demand not only another lecture but a series of lectures, and ideally a step-by-step biography of the drama of each writer's life. I use this moment to plead for a more sympathetic - a more psychologically and a more literarily informed - use of biography: a recognition of what the artist confronted in what were for him the most important things with which to struggle (his craft and his whole relation with tradition, with what has been done and with what he hopes can still be done). In comparison, so much to which we confine ourselves in literary biography is far less relevant - no more relevant than it would be for any number of other people who had devoted their years to doing nothing. (It is like assuming, as Coleridge said, that every "deer-stealer" had it in him to become a Shakespeare.) Strangely, biographies of statesmen or scientists (or artists in other fields) are less guilty of this reductionism to the "deer-stealer" approach, and will focus primarily on what the man really did, why and how he was great: the situation he inherited and his struggle with that inheritance. Why are we alone so shy of the essential? As with biography, so with the reconsideration of literary history itself that we now seem about to make: here too these concerns could profitably be nearer the center of our thinking.

If we are forced to try to answer our question in a few sentences, we have only to repeat the cliches about Romanticism - but with a special imaginative sympathy for the particular question we have been discussing here - and we can get a tolerable notion of what at least permitted, if it did not create, this remarkable end-product of the eighteenth century, which provided the creative capital off which the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth (though in the latter case uneasily) has continued to live. For example, one answer is surely to be found in the opening up of new subject matters where the challenge of the past was less oppressive: simple life (of which there were to be twentieth-century urban as well as romantically rural varieties), children, the poor and socially slighted; landscape and scenery; such inward experiences as revery, dream, and mysticism; the whole concept of the "strange" either to awaken attention through difference in mode or phrase, to explore something really new, or to provide setting and focus for familiar nostalgia; the past itself in periods or ways not previously exploited by the traditional genres; the geographically remote or unusual, or conversely its apparent opposite (for example, Wordsworth; or the young Emerson on the central challenge of the age: "I ask not for the great, the remote . . . I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low"). Every attempt to "define" Romanticism in the light of a subject is doomed to failure except as it applies to a limited part. For the opening of new subject matters, as of approach, proceeds in almost every direction, like spokes pointing outward from the hub of a wheel but with no rim to encase them. The one thing they all have in common is an interest or hope in the hitherto unexploited. And despite the strong attraction of twentieth-century post-romantic formalism to ideals of retrenchment and self-limitation, that still remains with us as a premise with which we are disinclined to quarrel.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kate Evan interviews Joy Leftow

I like Joy Leftow's iconoclastic ways and writing so much that I wanted to feature an interview with her on this blog. Enjoy!

Please tell us about the genesis of your book.
Spot of Bleach is an organic mix of sensibility and growth up until the time book was printed in 2006, dating back to poetry first written in 1980 when I wrote the sestina “Twisted, A Sestina of Love” at a writing class at Columbia University. As I put the book together, it seemed to choose its own subjects from which I named chapters.

The placement of the chapters took some time to figure out. I took the book apart and put it together several times before being sure the fit was right. Finally it made sense that the very risqué love story should go at the end. I wrote that story in 2001 when I attended the creative writing program at CCNY, where I earned my second masters.

From the very beginning, my creative writings caused a riff in every writing class. Other members became angry about my style and very often argued about my characters complaining that the characters didn’t make them feel empathy. Most professors pointed out that the very thing that the other students didn’t like about my characters, are the things that make the characters alive and real.

What's the one thing you most want people to know about your book?
The book evolved out life experience, creativity, and my powers of observation. There are many stories to tell and within this volume I tell many. You may hate what I write about or how I write, but I promise this book won’t bore you.

I need writing like air and this book is what I breathed out. I call my poems “my offspring” because I have given them life. In that regard, the book is a parallel expression of the years from which the works are collected, an assortment of articles, stories, philosophical meanderings or what may now be called flash fiction along with narrative poetry.

Please tell us a little about the photographs that are included in your collection and how you see them as complementing the poems.

Years ago after I purchased my first digital, people said I had a good eye for showing things in a different perspective. Since the book is very personal, the photos add to this view by showing more about how I see things. For example, the cover section Philosophy has a photo I took while in Thailand visiting the Golden Buddha. The cover for the chapter forms is a famous rock form in Los Cabos. The cover pic came to me in a dream, and although the pic was ten years old, it was an urban pic of me in Central Park with my favorite statue, the Lewis Carroll Statue of Alice in Wonderland.

A Barbara Walters question: If you were a poem by any writer, which poem would you be and why?
I would be “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Since childhood, I have loved that poem and trees have always appealed to me. I watch the moon and stars through stark branches. I watch the trees change season-to-season and sometimes fall into ill health or get blown over in a storm. Living in a big city as I do, trees are my opportunity to commune with nature. I’m lucky my building is in the northern tip of Manhattan Island where there are many parks. My apartment overlooks an extended spot of nature near the highway. I have several poems inspired by nature and trees.

Why do you write poetry?
I write because I have to; I don’t have a choice. Writing is my first love. I need writing to survive. My poetry has evolved along with me to do more than only share stories. Sometimes there’s a story within, but it will only be one facet of the entire poem which has taken on existential and surreal elements, especially in my newer bluetry series and other writing which can be seen on my blog.

Do you think the Internet is a good complement to writing—or does it just get in the way?
The internet is made for networking and research or maybe just made for me. I can surf all day and network endlessly and it seems to fit my style. It works for me. Look at all the things I’ve done on Facebook alone; first I made a fan club for someone else then for myself, then for a magazine which published my work. Then I promoted several other groups and people. Afterwards I became an editor for The Cartier Street Review and another editor took note of all this activity and asked me to edit an anthology with her. The internet helps move things along.

The only problem I see with this is for a solitary person like me, it encourages me to stay in the house and remain solitary. Why go out when I can accomplish so much sitting in front of a computer?

Do you believe all poetry is political—or just some poems?
I think all poetry is political to the extent that life is political. Every time we make a statement or write a sentence it has wider implications, unless all you say is pass the butter, and even something like that can be made political. Why not get up and get the butter yourself? So much is a mechanism of social behavior we learn. And why must we follow norms? Who is it who decides what norms to follow?

I have always rebelled against norms. For example, I love to eat with my hands instead of a fork, I love to bring up subjects that could be embarrassing. I often write about relationships based on power structures. Work relationships and the structure of work are also political so if you write about work then, in essence, it’s political. Some poetry is blatantly political, concerning the presidency or human rights. More subtle poetry is about relationships or written from a woman’s or man’s view. Sometimes people don’t consider my work political in spite of the fact that I often address social issues in my writing.

Please share with us one poem from the collection, and then riff a little about the journey the poem takes the reader on.

I’m close with this nurse who works at Presbyterian Hospital. One day she told me this story about this baby who’d been born at the hospital and was so tiny because he’d been born addicted to crack. This woman could not have her own children and had considered adoption but finally gave up on the idea. You know how couples are sometimes, they have so much for each other and there’s no more to go around, and her husband thrived under all her attention. This newborn called out to her in a way that made her move like she’d never moved before. As if suddenly without learning she’d gotten up and could tango. She told me a story and we both had tears in our eyes because I felt her pain and the pain of this infant.

Professional caregivers often suffer and burn out because of our pain. It’s a difficult job to keep giving with no payback in sight except to know you’ve done right by someone, so I related. That night, I said I’m going to write a poem about this baby and JoAnne said, Please do, it would help me to deal with it.
I wrote this poem back in 1994 and it’s as apt today as it was then because the problem still exists. I have friends on the scene who tell me each time they hear the poem they hear different things. People cry when I read this poem. They get it! Sometimes people get angry and tell me my poetry isn’t real poetry. There’s been a lot of controversy around that. I actually have a piece on my blog about this which got a great many responses.

Others who have heard me read this before will request it at readings. I'm actually quite bad at attending readings which is kind of strange because there's this dichotomy; I'm very friendly and outgoing while simultaneously reclusive and shy. The other thing to remember is that when blues first emerged, they said it wasn’t “real” music and the same with jazz. Dare to be different, I’ve lived my life by that code.

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a series of bluetry poems. I labeled them bluetry (yes I made it up) because this series concerns the common themes of blues. This year has been a year for the blues for me. I was compelled to write these. The first bluetry I wrote invokes Billie Holiday—one of my all-time favorites—and is called “I sing the blues for you today.” This poem took me three months before I knew where I was.

I threw Billie’s lines in the bluetry and they took off. I also have a bluetry poem about a dog rescue and canned hunts, another passion of mine. What I see happening in my poetry and writing is that I mix more elements together and take risks. I take a pinch of surreal, mix with equal parts enthusiasm and passion, add existentialism and observations, throw in some reality and voilà!

Anything else you'd like to add?
The most frequent comment about my work usually concerns its honesty and openness or something about my passion. Absolutely, I write with passion, the way I live. People often write me about my poetry and comment on my life being so sad. I don’t know what to do about that really but passion is evoked from intensity. That is the way I am and the way I was born. Perhaps artists become artists because they do feel things more intensely.

From way back I always have a pen in my hand. Now I mostly sit in front of the computer but if I'm forced to go out, I've always got pen and paper at hand and most often use it. Now, I have very little time, being totally involved with two current projects, editor at The Cartier Street Review, and also for The Smoking Book, an anthology concerning smoke, fire, fog, or anything that concerns smoke. I also write interviews for Street Literature Review, the paper mag. It’s also time to return to that unfinished 186 page novel and just spit it out! I love writing and love reading. Being busy with passion is what I live for.


Andrew Christ said...

Yay Joy!

Lisa Allender said...

Thanks, Kate Evans, for letting us all in on the "secrets" of joy/(Joy) so few authors possess. Even when the material is dark, there can be beauty in the "reveal" of it.

Being and Writing: Joy Leftow: Dare to be Different

Being and Writing: Joy Leftow: Dare to be Different

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Precious, a novel by Sandra Novack, book review by Joy Leftow

Ms. Novack advertised her full-length debut novel on Facebook , Precious, from Random House. Curious to read it I promptly wrote her a letter explaining I wanted to review her novel and she sent me one. Thus began my journey through her smooth agile verse. Precise and elegantly elegiac, like the movements they describe, Ms. Novack’s tale begs the question of what possibly could go wrong in a pleasant nuclear middle class family in a burb of Pennsylvania not far from New Jersey. Ah, my - my, what could not go wrong in Novack’s scenario?
Novack jumps in and out of each of her characters magically, like Sissy jumps in and out of the pool in the back yard and Eva jumps into wayward trouble without her mother around to set her straight. As easily as an able person can enter and leave a shower, she follows their watery moody depths from one situation to the next. Like the stick of a pinprick, punctiliously moving from one character to the next, she reveals the most hidden thoughts of each character.
Natalia wants more than what she has with her introverted reserved husband, Frank, who spends all has spare time beneath his car. Nostalgic for her gypsy roots, and romance, Natalia decides to leave. When her teenage daughter, Eva, tries to convince Natalia to stay, her mom replies, “A person’s heart doesn’t shed itself like a tree in winter, it doesn’t bare itself just because you want it to.” Natalia, bored with her life, her husband, and her children, idealizing her freedom and seeking new experiences, leaves on a trip to Europe with the doctor she works for. Natalia’s fantasies don’t play out how she imagined. Once in Europe and alone with the doctor, Natalia discovers she’s more bored with him than she ever was with her husband. Since her early childhood, Natalia had yearned to return to her gypsy family, a desire nourished by faint distant memories mixed with tales she heard from her adopted family.
Surprised, Natalia finds herself desperately pining away for her children and Frank, reminiscing longingly. This, combined with her sadness about her feelings of loss is what drives Natalia back home. Novack is inside her character’s heads, she knows them intimately.
“Didn’t he suddenly want to give Eva what a girl like her so desperately wants – to see herself through another’s eyes and to find that she is precisely as she wishes but never quite believes – beautiful and full of possibility.” Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others is what we all think we want - until we do it and are often caught off guard in what we see. We often wish to see the world through the other’s eyes. Novack has hit the nail direct.
Eva is filled with anger and wanting more, yet stuck with her kid sister, Sissy and her Dad when Mom abandons them. Eva searches for love and finds separation and sorrow in the middle of nowhere as do all teenage girls in trouble. Eva keeps herself alive and vibrant through her interactions with Sissy, her pivot. Eva is guilty for being a young girl who goes out to hang out with boys and have an affair with an older married man while she is responsible for taking care of her younger sibling. Eva sustains herself by feeding stories to Sissy. Eva’s stories are fed on exasperation mixed with myth and her anguished insights into adult behavior. Disillusioned by love, her family, her mom’s return home instead of righting things in the family, sends Eva over the edge into a place she cannot come back from.
The title of the book, Precious, and the placing of the title in the story raised a childhood memory for me. As a youngster from a poverty stricken Jewish family in New York City, filled with illness and sorrow, I watched my sister pamper her dolls. I was not permitted to touch my sister’s dolls because although she was eleven and I was six, she held on to her dolls for dear life. She had very little too and was miserable. I respected her belongings because I feared her temper. She’d hit me before. I only got my first new doll (not hand me downs or throwaways) the Christmas after this ensuing event. I had another sister eight years older than me too. One day after we’d all arrived home from school almost simultaneously at about three-ten; my sister discovered her beloved porcelain doll with its head broken off.
Because my sister could see no other possible culprit, she accused me of breaking the doll and proceeded to beat living daylights out of me with no interference from anyone in my family. Later, I was surprised to learn my mother had kept silent and let me take a beating for something she knew I hadn’t done. That made no sense. Several days later, mom divulged she’d had a guest that day who had brought her small child with her when she visited and mom had not paid attention to the child. I surmise my mom was afraid of my sister’s temper too and that was why she let me take that beating. I had no clue back then. I was six years old.
The doll in Novack’s tale is also ruined when Sissy and her best friend Vicki fight about who can play with the doll at a sleepover. During their struggle when the doll is literally ripped in two, Vicki becomes Sissy’s ex best friend. I wondered why a half page description about a doll named Precious becomes the title. Maybe because relationships and people mean more than we imagine and when we give them up we discover their preciosity and maybe because of the evocative tone of Novack’s descriptions. After all, Novack’s words brought my memory back to me from my six-year old self.
It is Vicki, Sissy’s ex best friend, who broke Sissy’s favorite doll Precious, who goes missing, never to be seen alive again. Vicki’s disappearance drives the story forth, revolving around every character’s angles. The townspeople come together to try to help Ginny deal with the loss of her child. Natalia is conflicted with survivor guilt and grateful her children are safe even if she had nothing to do with keeping them safe. She cannot confront Eva’s behavior and accusations. Eva and Frank are unforgiving and relentless in their judgments. Natalia rehearses speeches she cannot say while struggling to regain her footing in a lost life.
After reading Precious, I ask, what possibly couldn’t and won’t go wrong? Isn’t that the way of the world, after all? Everything in the world goes amiss, changes in lives occur in a finger snap. Novack’s lyrical and haunting prose maintains a rhythm; she doesn’t skip a beat.
It reminds me of a Woody Allen character who announces, dead-pan, earnestness exuding from his pores, “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: sooner or later everything turns to shit.” And in this small town turned topsy-turvy through a whirlwind of unconnected events, that is exactly what occurs inside Novack’s elegant poetic prose.
When we read others writings and feel inspired by what we read, plus the author provokes memories, this is where we explore the connections. It is in this vein I write, to reach the person who reads and responds with their guts, with passion.
Novack reminds us that every day we make choices in our losses. Each moment begins with new choices. Each choice provides new possibilities. We live with daily decision-making processes that influence us as we plunder through our lives. Novack exposes our most primal fears concerning approval and loss. She makes us wonder if anything new will ever take the place of what we lose or if there’s even the slightest chance to begin to fill all the empty spaces from all our losses put together. Wounds hurt. At funerals divorces and such, people always try to assuage sadness by saying things like, “Oh, it gets better as time goes on,” but that’s absolutely untrue. Some hurts last a lifetime. Trust me, I’ve had a few.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Marvin Bell Birthday Reading

Hi All - Please join us on Thursday, 13 August as we meet on the occasion of Marvin Bell's birthday. Meet us at the Barnes & Noble on Tittabawassee Road at 7pm. We will begin by reading the following poems and answering the related questions. Please feel free to bring questions and other contributions of your own for discussion, sharing, etc. NOTE: Marvin Bell (pictured, right) will not be there. See you then! ~Andy

“A Man May Change”
by Marvin Bell

As simply as a self-effacing bar of soap

escaping by indiscernible degrees in the wash water

is how a man may change

and still hour by hour continue in his job.

There in the mirror he appears to be on fire

but here at the office he is dust.

So long as
there remains a little moisture in the stains,
he stands easily on the pavement

and moves fluidly through the corridors. If only one

cloud can be seen, it is enough to know of others,

and life stands on the brink. It rains

or it doesn’t, or it rains and it rains again.

But let it go on raining for forty days and nights

or let the sun bake the ground for as long,

and it isn’t life, just life, anymore, it’s living.

In the meantime, in the regular weather of ordinary days,
it sometimes happens that a man has changed
so slowly that he slips away

before anyone notices

and lives and dies before anyone can find out.

From accessed 20 July 2009.

Question for discussion:

* What do you think is “the regular weather of ordinary days”?

“An Introduction to My Anthology”
by Marvin Bell

Such a book must contain—

it always does!—a disclaimer.

I make no such. For here

I have collected all the best—
the lily from the field among them,
forget-me-nots and mint weed,
a rose for whoever expected it,

and a buttercup for the children

to make their noses yellow.

Here is clover for the lucky
to roll in, and milkweed to clatter,

a daisy for one judgment,

and a violet for when he loves you

or if he loves you not and why not.

Those who sniff and say no,

These are the wrong ones (and
there always are such people!)—
let them go elsewhere, and quickly!

For you and I, who have made it this far,
are made happy by occasions

requiring orchids, or queenly arrangements

and even a bird-of-paradise,

but happier still by the
flowers of
circumstance, cattails of our youth,

field grass and bulrush. I have included
the devil’s paintbrush

but only as a peacock among barn fowl.

From accessed 20 July 2009

Question for discussion:

* What could be “the flowers of circumstance”?

“Your Shakespeare”
by Marvin Bell

If I am sentenced not to talk to you,

and you are sentenced not to talk to me,

then we wear the clothes of the desert

serving that sentence, we are the leaves

trampled underfoot, not even fit to be

ground in for food, then we are the snow.

If you are not what I take you to be,

and I am not what you take me to be,

then we are the glass the bridegroom smashes,

the lost tribes underfoot, no one sees,

no one can speak to us, in such seas we

drift in we cannot be saved, we are the rain.

If I am unable to help myself,
and you are unable to help yourself,

then anything will happen but nothing follows,

we eat constantly but nothing satisfies.

We live, finally, on the simplest notions:

bits of glass in the head’s reticent weather.

From accessed 20 July 2009

Question for discussion:

* What is the value of

Friday, August 07, 2009

Teaching Poetry

Lit Instructorby William Stafford

Day after day up there beating my wings
with all the softness truth requires
I feel them shrug whenever I pause:
they class my voice among tentative things,
And they credit fact, force, battering. I dance my way toward the family of knowing,embracing stray error as a long-lost boyand bringing him home with my fluttering.
Every quick feather asserts a just claim;it bites like a saw into white pine.I communicate right; but explain to the dean—well, Right has a long and intricate name.
And the saying of it is a lonely thing.


"I've always believed in the Keirkegaardian notion that education, real education, begins when the teacher learns from the students, when there's a reciprocity." ~Theodore Roethke 


Recommended Reading:

In this updated version of her landmark book Learning to Listen, Learning to
Teach , celebrated adult educator Jane Vella revisits her twelve principles of dialogue education with a new theoretical perspective gleaned from the discipline of quantum physics. Vella sees the path to learning as a holistic, integrated, spiritual, and energetic process. She uses engaging, personal stories of her work in a variety of adult learning settings, in different countries and with different educational purposes, to show readers how to utilize the twelve principles in their own practice with any type of adult learner, anywhere.
On Teaching and Learning takes the ideas explored in renowned educator Jane Vella’s best-selling book Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach to the next level and explores how dialogue education has been applied in educational settings around the world. Throughout the book, she shows how to put the principles and practices of dialogue education into action and uses illustrative stories and examples from her extensive travels. Dialogue education values inquiry, integrity, and commitment to equity—values that are also central to democracy. Learners are treated as beings worthy of respect, recognized for the knowledge and experience they bring to the learning experience. Dialogue education emphasizes the importance of safety and belonging. It is an approach that welcomes one’s certainties and one’s questions.


When a person encounters another person in total immediacy, he or she may also experience a glimpse of God. ~Martin Buber


September 1, 1939
by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
– W. H. Auden
from accessed 7 August 2009

Saturday, August 01, 2009

New Book Review

Amy George, editor of Bird's Eye Review, the online journal of contemporary narrative poetry, has generously reviewed my chapbook Philip & the Poet (2008, Mayapple Press). The review is online at 360 Main Street dot com. Here is an excerpt from the review:

Christ's poems are full of colorful snapshots of people, the poems themselves bearing the brightness of Polaroid moments. Along the journey, we meet monks in Tibet, Fyodor Dostoyevsky at a dinner party, and even God. In the title poem "Philip and the Poet," we are swept away with feelings of nostalgia as the speaker recalls watching a young boy dive into the water with a head full of imagination:
there goes Philip in my memory,
trotting toward the water, calling out
"To the Netherlands!" or maybe "To China!"
Read the full review here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE UNFOLD PINNACLE by Basanta Kumar Kar – A review by Nabina Das

The Turbulent Top: Marginalized Women’s Voices from India

THE UNFOLD PINNACLE by Basanta Kumar Kar
– A review by Nabina Das

Basanta Kumar Kar’s involvement in the Indian nonprofit sector for years has afforded him a close-up of tribal societies, backward classes and marginalized sections of India's developing and diverse society. He writes with flourish in first-person voices of personas as varied as an under-aged girl with a history of abuse to a Gond or Maria tribal woman struggling against the onslaught of modern civilization to a mother-cum-sex worker reflecting on her fate in the ruthless city. As a professional in his poetic role, Kar brings alive the disillusionment and haplessness of India’s marginalized women, especially those from Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). While involving himself in his subject’s plight he remains a keen observer. Kar shares the wealth of his experiences with his readers in the rather long unpublished 73-page collection.

Wikipedia defines the SC/ST as ‘Indian population groupings that are explicitly recognized by the Constitution of India, previously called the "depressed classes" by the British, and otherwise known as untouchables. SCs/STs together comprise over 24% of India's population, with SC at over 16% and ST over 8% as per the 2001 census… Some Scheduled Castes in India are also known as Dalits. Some Scheduled Tribe people are also referred to as Adivasis. Commenting on the crisis of faith people from these underprivileged communities experience, in the aptly titled “Faith First”,
Kar writes:

Smoke and cloud work in tandem
swings of snow peep
hills draw lines, mesmerize
they butcher;

The actions embodied by the elements smoke, cloud, snow, hills etc. are swift and brutal, akin to the experience of his subject. Nature provides no succor. It is a constant reminder of bad fortune. In “…mesmerize/they butcher” this is particularly amplified. The short staccato sentences metaphorically and literally “work in tandem”. The cosmogony of the women Kar writes about, socially denied and deprived, and often under a double yoke of social stigma within their own communities, is comprised of humanistic elements that surprise us with their animateness, the only source of comfort for the subjugated lot:

I understand my neighbours
tamarind tree, dates and nuts
pigs and chicken, ghosts and spirits
traditional healers.

The weltanschauung of the women is stark yet conveys the environment they thrive in:

We are together
no one more equal than others.

Kar’s writing style is abrupt and rhetorical for the most part, characteristic of his subject’s emotional graph:

The flower fades
the bird escapes the cage
I ponder over the lineage
but to yet another cruel destiny.

“Border I” – where Kar’s palette proffers a touch of hope for the voice of an ‘other backward caste’ widow from the state of Chhattisgarh in eastern India – is a delightful study in astuteness. The lilting tones of “The fading barks almost ochre” escalates the almost ochre-ness of the still life reflected in the river as if a frame of decay and degeneration. Kar repeats the water/river motif to encompass the broad expanse of the subject’s silence and depth of agony in “The silent river Tel”. For the widow, “festive is the air for all else” in her village bordering the eastern state of Orissa. And Kar’s prophetic yet passive observation that “the scheme unfolds at pinnacle” tells of a subtext of events and actions that this particular festive moment encapsulates. Rather than celebration, all that the subject takes recourse to is complete surrender to her destiny. In the festive scenario, the only activity she is entitled to is “to bring smoke before the sunset”.

Kar’s poetry is often marked by chopped rhymes and a frequent absence of article usage. In effect this highlights the speech pattern of his poetic subjects, most of whom we realize to be without any worldly pedigree. Although it may surprise and annoy a stickler for English grammar -- Kar follows the British spelling system followed in India – the parole brings alive the shared linguistic ethnography of the Chhattisgarh-Orissa-Andhra Pradesh state cluster, the rawness of forest and village life, and the customs of the people ensconced there. Kar’s style at times, however, becomes overbearing in his earnestness to communicate his subjects’ travails. Many expressions become repetitive. The elements of his environment, the ecology and ethnography of it, is often enmeshed in commonplace poetic metaphors. Also, trying to highlight only the pain and subjugation of single mothers, the abused, the widowed, and the institutionally sidelined among the backward caste and Adivasi women in this passionate collection Kar calls ‘verse for a cause’, his poetry rarely offers any tonal variation.

The world of “The Unfold Pinnacle” also has moments away from the oppressing villages and the tribal regions. Life has not heralded better times for a twenty-two year old Bedia girl even in the urban setting of the city of Mumbai in Maharashtra state. A bar girl now, a shade different from her ancestral profession, her plaintive tone in “Bosom” (Alluring Bombay bar seduces/in a panoramic green room/from a late night to dawn) unfolds the pinnacle where misfortune spews.

NABINA DAS is a poet and fiction writer dividing her existence between the US and India. She has been widely published in North America and India and freelances and blogs at