“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.

 

 

 

“Wind, Water, Stone”

A Poem for a Very Windy Day

As the lights are going out in parts of Los Angeles because of high winds, I am reminded of a poem by the Mexican Nobel-prize-winning poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) entitled “Wind, Water, Stone.”

Wind, Water, Stone
By Octavio Paz
Translated by Eliot Weinberger

for Roger Caillois

Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,
stone’s a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.

The poem makes me think of the game of Paper, Stone, and Scissors. I love the final stanza which brings the three elements together into a satisfying whole.

Calaveras

One of Posada’s Calaveras: Street Cleaners

John Webster was a Jacobean dramatist known for the grimness of his plays. According to the first stanzas of a poem by T. S. Eliot called “Whispers of Immortality”:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

I cannot think of these lines without think of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), who is famous for his depictions of cavorting skeletons.

Posada’s “The Day of the Dead”

As I am thinking once again of going to Mexico this next winter, I am thinking of the country’s great artists, including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, to name just a few. And Posada belongs on that list, though perhaps in a more minor key.

Unlike most Americans, the people of Mexico do not sweep the idea of death under a carpet. In fact, November 2, called All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, is the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, throughout Mexico. Families visit their dead in the cemeteries with a picnic lunch and with all their children in tow. I remember a long intercity bus ride back in the 1980s on this day on which most of the passengers were joyfully looking forward to their Day of the Dead festivities. The children had white sugar calaveras, or skulls, which are a special treat available throughout the country.

This feeling about death goes back to the Maya and the Aztecs, who fought wars just to get prisoners to serve as sacrificial victims, whose hearts were cut out still steaming from their bodies with an obsidian knife and dedicated to the gods.

The Centenary of a Hungarian Poet’s Death

Hungarian Poet Endre Ady (1877-1919)

It was a hundred years ago that Endre Ady died of syphilis in Budapest. Like most Hungarian poets, he is virtually unknown in the West. I present here two of his shorter works.

Who Come from Far Away

We are the men who are always late,
we are the men who come from far away.
Our walk is always weary and sad,
we are the men who are always late.
We do not even know how to die in peace.
When the face of distant death appears,
our souls splash into a tam tam of flame.
We do not even know how to die in peace.
We are the men who are always late.
We are never on time with our success,
our dreams, our heaven, or our embrace.
We are the men who are always late.

Also very Hungarian in its bitterness is “The Magyar Messiah.” Hungary was on one of the two invasion paths into Europe from the East. (The other is Poland.) Likewise, it was convenient for invasion from the West, say, from Germany.

The Magyar Messiah

More bitter is our weeping,
different the griefs that try us.
A thousand times Messiahs
are the Magyar Messiahs.
A thousand times they perish,
unblest their crucifixion,
for vain was their affliction,
oh, vain was their affliction.

 

“Calm in Their Diminishing”?

A Scene from the Series “Life After People”

This poem from the late Tony Hoagland (1953-2018) presupposes the earth in transition from human domination. It appeared in the November 5, 2018 issue of The New Yorker. I wonder how much this kind of thinking is related to a feeling that our noble experiment has failed under a storm of red MAGA hats.

Peaceful Transition

The wind comes down from the northwest, cold in September,
and flips over the neighbor’s trash receptacles.

The Halifax newspaper says that mansions are falling into the sea.
Storms are rising in the dark Pacific.

Pollution has infiltrated the food chain down to the jellyfish level.
The book I am reading is called “The End of the Ascent of Man.”

It says the time of human dominion is done,
but I am hoping it will be a peaceful transition.

It is one thing to think of buffalo on Divisadero Street,
of the Golden gate Bridge overgrown in a tangle of vine.

It is another to open the door of your own house to the waves.
I am hoping the humans will be calm in their diminishing.

That the forests grow back with patience, not rage;
I am hoping the flocks of geese increase their number only gradually.

Let it be like an amnesia we don’t even notice;
the hills forgetting the name of our kind. Then the sky.

Let the fish rearrange their green governments
as the rain spatters slant on their roof.

It is important that we expire.
It is a kind of work we have begun in order to complete.

Today out of he north the cold wind comes down,
and I go out to see

the neighbor’s trash bins have toppled in the drive
I see the unpicked grapes have turned to small sweet raisins on their vine.

I see the wren has found a way to make its little nest
inside the cactus thorn.

 

“Too Blue”

This Poem Is the Essence of the Blues

I have been paging through Kevin Young’s Everyman collection of Blues Poems and came across this one by Landston Hughes. Mind you: It’s not the way I’m feeling right now, but it is a beautiful statement of what the blues can feel like when it lurches into your life. It’s called “Too Blue”:

I got those sad old weary blues.
I don’t know where to turn.
I don’t know where to go.
Nobody cares about you
When you sink so low.

What shall I do?
What shall I say?
Shall I take a gun
And put myself away?

I wonder if
One bullet would do?
As hard as my head is,
It would probably take two.

But I ain’t got
Neither bullet nor gun—
And I’m too blue
To look for one.

 

Future Pastoral

Poet and Fantasy Writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)

He was a strange sort of writer. One of the triumvirate of writers for which Weird Tales was known, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard, he is best known for his dark tales of fantasy. Of him, L. Sprague de Camp wrote, “nobody since Poe had so loved a well-rotted corpse.” Though his short stories may be a bit murky, they are great fun. If you should find copies of Zothique (1970), Hyperborea (1971), Xiccarph (1972), or Poseidonis (1973) in the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, I recommend you pick up a copy and read it. At his best, Smith is as least as good as Lovecraft at his best.

Smith was also an interesting poet in the same vein. Here is a sample:

Future Pastoral

Dearest, today I found
A lonely spot, such as we two have loved,
Where two might lie upon Favonian ground
Peering to faint horizons far-removed:

A green and gentle fell
That steepens to a rugged canyon’s rim,
Where voices of vague waters fall and swell
And pines far down in sky-blue dimness swim.

Toward the sunset lands,
A leafless tree, from tender slopes of spring,
Holds out its empty boughs like empty hands
That vainly seek some distance-hidden thing.

Strange, that my wandering feet,
In all the years, had never known this place,
Where beauty, with a glamor wild and sweet,
Awaits the final witchcraft of your face.

Upon this secret hill
I gave my dark bereavement to the sun,
My sorrow to the flowing air . . . until
Your tresses and the grass were somehow one,

And in my prescient dream I seemed to find
An unborn joy, a future memory
Of you, and love, and sunlight and the wind
On the same grass, beneath the selfsame tree.

Of his writing style, Smith has said, “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation.” I think the above poem certainly qualifies.