“Eating Poetry”

Canadian-American Poet Mark Strand (1934-2014)

I had not heard of Mark Strand until I read an interview between him and Wallace Shawn that is reprinted in Shawn’s Essays. The following is one of his most famous poems. It is also a hoot.

Eating Poetry
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth
There is no happiness like mine
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
Their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

 

Reading Russian Poetry in Translation

I Love Russian Poetry, But I Don’t Know Russian

I get a real feeling of inadequacy every time I read Russian poetry in translation. How can one really appreciate a country’s poetry unless one speaks the language? What Russian I know relates only to, of all things, chess. I used to play international correspondence chess in competition, so I had to understand certain terms such as “position drawn” or “resigns” or the names of the pieces in several languages. That doesn’t help me understand what Marina Tsvetaeva meant in the above illustration. I’ve read Tsvetaeva and several of her countrymen in translation. Most recently, I read Arseny Tarkovsky’s collection I Burned at the Feast.

Again and again, I would run into stanzas that seemed to open vistas for me—only to wonder how the poem read in the original language. Here are a few examples:

A word is only a skin,
a thin film of human lots,
and any line in your poem
can sharpen the knife of your fate.

Or this:

Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land…

while behind us, fate followed
like a madman with a razor in his hand.

Russians love the poetry of Pushkin, but I have no idea of what he sounds like in the original Russian. Sometime in the next year, I will read Babette Deutsch’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But is it really any good? Some people say it is, but I am at the mercy of whatever translation I select.

 

In Ignatievo Forest

Russian Forest Scene

Today I have made the acquaintance of a major Russian poet named Arseny Tarkovsky. If that last name is more than a little familiar to you, it is because his son Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the greatest postwar Russian filmmakers. Curiously, Arseny’s first published collection came out in 1962, when the poet was 55 years old; and his son Andrei made him famous by quoting his poems in his films Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979). (And Stalker is one of my favorite films—ever!)

The following poem, “Ignatievo Forest” was written in 1935. According to the notes in the collection I am reading, it deals with the difficult relationship with the poet’s first wife, Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova (1907-1979), mother of Andrei, whom he divorced in 1937.

Ignatievo Forest

The last leaves in self-immolation
burn and rise to sky. The whole forest here
lives and breathes the same irritation
we lived and breathed in our last year.

In your tear-blurred eyes the path’s a mirror
as the gloomy flood-plain mirrors the shrubs.
Don’t fuss, do not disturb, don’t touch
or threaten the wood’s wet quiet. Here,

the old life breathes. Just listen:
in damp grass, slimy mushrooms appear.
Slugs gnaw their way to the core,
though a damp itch still tingles the skin.

You’ve known how love is like a threat:
when I come back, you’ll wish you were dead.
The sky shivers in reply, holds a maple like a rose.
Let it burn hotter—till it almost reaches our eyes.

The collection I am reading is called I Burned at the Feast. The book is overdue at the L.A. Central Library, and I cannot endure the thought of returning it until I am finished with it, even though it will cost me a few bucks.

A Poem About Travel

Edna St. Vincent Millay in 1917

As my mind is increasingly turning toward the trip I plan to take to Yucatán and Belize this next winter, I came across this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). It is called, simply enough, “Travel”:

Travel

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

 

Sparta Falls and Rises at Thermopylae

Spartan Warrior at Thermopylae

Ever since I first read Lawrence Durrell’s Justine many years ago, I have been in love with the poems of Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), a Greek poet resident in Alexandria, Egypt. Here is one of his most famous early poems:

Thermopylae

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

And who is Ephialtes? According to the History of Herodotus, he is a Greek who betrayed his homeland to the Persians by showing them a trail by which they could surprise Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. He expected to be rewarded by his new masters, but that fell apart when they lost the Battle of Salamis.

“The Land of Counterpane”

I Remember This Illustration from My Childhood

The first poem I remember was “The Land of Counterpane” from Robert Louis Stevenson’ A Child’s Garden of Verses. I was in grade school and sick with some childhood disease. While Mom and Dad were off at work, and I was being cared for by my great-grandmother Lidia Toth, I was allowed to lie in their bed. Mom had gotten be a library book with this poem in it—and with the above illustration. I don’t know which impressed me more, the words of the poem or the illustration. In any case, the memory has stuck with me through the years. Here’s the words of the poem:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Now, many years later, I am rediscovering RLS, especially his last years in the South Pacific. I wonder if, somehow, my memory over the great gulf of years, has anything to do with my wanting to go back to Stevenson and reacquaint myself with his work. In any case, that’s what I’m doing … and I am enjoying every moment of it.

 

“Tell It Slant”

Poet Marsha de la O

It was my day at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Yesterday, I went with Martine and two friends: All my time was spent in coordinating when and where we should meet, eat, and greet. At such a large, centrifugal event, people tend to separate going to different locations based on their various interests. So today I returned—but this time all by my lonesome. It was an altogether different experience. I bought several books, and for sheer enjoyment attended two poetry readings at the Festival’s Poetry Stage, sponsored by Small World Books on Venice Beach.

My favorite of he two readings I attended was by a Ventura County poet named Marsha de la O. With her husband Phil Taggart, she published a poetry journal called Askew. Under the masthead, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson, “Tell the Truth But Tell It Slant,” based on the title of the following poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Marsha de la O read from her latest collection, Every Ravening Thing, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. In the cool of the morning, it was nice hearing powerful verse in the dappled light of the Poetry Stage. The audience wasn’t as big as some of the sessions of more “general interest”: The people who were there were there because they wanted to be, and because they loved feeling those frissons caused by the magic of poetry.

Marsha de la O’s Latest Collection of Poems

Following is one of the four poems de la O read this morning:

Space-time Tsunami

If most of the universe is dark energy,
why should we be any different?

Pick a wave, any wave—it’s just energy in motion,
shock, or plasma, or the wide ocean shrugging
its shoulders when space becomes time
and ‘time is not the root of our problem’.

The good ship Charon’s anchored offshore, laden
with otter pelts—soft gold they call it.
Our tsunami strikes during the Napoleonic wars,
but what’s California to Napoleon
that he should weep for her otters?   Nothing.

I had a friend who raked her fingers through my hair, gathered
a hank in a great knot, Hey, Strange Attractor, she used to say,

my binary star, my pristine, my flammable—how we orbited,
each to each.
I had a friend who convened the dead. When we spoke,
water seemed to leave the beach—the sea scrolling backwards and her,
strolling right out onto newborn land—that reckless.

Hey ferryman, come on over here, ferry, ferry, ferryman …

We now exist as thirteen egrets in the canopy of a tree
so far from water that at first they look like
paper lanterns
to the observer who has no place to stand

and still I walk through the great hall of swallows swirling
like Valkyries, like volute, like alley oop,

we do not speak, I’ll trail after for a hundred years.