Monday, September 01, 2008

On For All I Know
by Erik Muller
67 pages, privately printed
Eugene, Oregon, 2008

Consider "For all I know, ..." just as phrase.

Sometimes we use it to introduce an assertion we're unsure of, as in "For all I know, she'll win the lottery." As a phrase, it points to how unlikely something might be. It's also a phrasing that takes its speaker off the hook, a way of saying 'I don't really know what I'm talking about here, so don't take this too seriously.'

But there is at least one more way to hear this phrase, namely as a quite serious act of dedication, one that might be paraphrased as 'on behalf of all I know' or 'in praise of all I know.' This possible confusion of meanings arising out of just a four-word phrase demonstrates the challenge of any writer and most particularly the challenge of any poet: the aim is to make clear, to speak accurately, but the language at hand is often generic ('book' you say, which one?). The phrase 'for all I know' is open to multiple interpretations. Erik Muller titles his latest book For All I Know. Titles call attention to themselves; that's their job. Muller knows the multiple meanings in his title, and he wants them all.

The book's first set opens with poems addressing the ambiguous (or is it unambiguous) topic of two-by-two human company. One could say "marriage," regardless of the political usages which so heavily freighted that term, and Muller's poems do so. Their impulse is celebratory and evident first in dedications: "for Eve and Nigel, married 8-15-97," for example. While the impulse in such poems is clear, the speaker knows that finding the accurate (and adequate) descriptive words "for Naomi and Phil, married 20 years" is not immediately obvious. Here's the opening stanza of "What They Say":

Stone opposite stone.
Poplars intertwined
at root, crowns nodding
with each green shift of wind.
Swales of camas spires
sparking blue volts.
You can know what
they say (if they say).

Each of the sentences in this opening stanza represents an opening gambit, an effort to describe a marriage. They at once start over and build on each other. But it's those camas spires that come closest (so the poem suggests) to standing in for the relationships a marriage both establishes and requires:

Turned up high
jets of camas
say to you: Blue
replenishes, multiplies.
Mark the spare flame
kindling the jay's tail,
chicory, certain
rare eyes.

At its best, a marriage makes an ecology lively and in bloom, so this poem knows. (And it finds room for a rhyme: multiplies / eyes).

For All I Know is a book of loves, affections, observations arising out of a deeply felt connection to the landscape and history of the American West. Sometimes this connection finds expression in images like those camas spires. In such moments, the landscape and the personal conspire. They make their own sort of marriage.

Muller's poems consistently reflect an interest in this sense of place knowledge -- how to make a place for oneself and one's loved ones, but also of how to know, be, and act inside a knowledge of particular locales. All this intrigues Muller, and his poems often note it. "But the Wind" starts by referring to one of the West's great railroad empire builders, James Hill, whose rail tracks still stitch together wide expanses. In this poem, high winds have forced the trains to stop in sheltered areas rather than risk being literally blown off the tracks. As might be expected, passengers fret a little. However, one of them, clearly an Indian, simply pops one of the passenger car doors, jumps to the ground, and heads off overland. The poem's speaker watches this man as he walks, his figure ever smaller "as if / being dissolved in space." The rails will eventually deliver their passengers -- they show one way home. And this one passenger, more deeply native, clearly knows another.

For better or worse, contemporary poets are inheritors of a style and tradition and set of assumptions that tend to value the prosy rather than the poetic, the offhand rather than the studied or rhetorical, the modest rather than the ambitious, the authentic rather than the artifice. These are false binaries, yet they carry some power. At their worst, such default values make for a smaller poetry -- short in length and slight in content. Such poetry can too readily assume that the larger whole is evident in the smallest grain. But a book itself can counter such drift. In a book's length and ordering, larger relationships form and larger implications emerge. For All I Know features two lengthy sequences, and it is divided into four sections. But it succeeds as a book because over its 67 pages it makes and sustains a coherency of interests and style. This is most surely not the only way to make order in a book of poems, but it is one way, and Muller makes it work effectively. The poems make a larger whole. For All I Know betrays its title only in that the sound of sense so evident here could not possibly be finished with the impulse to inquire.

(Note: Author Erik Muller is also the editor of Traprock Books, dedicated to the publication of work by Oregon writers. Traprock Books, 1330 E. 25th Ave., Eugene, OR 97403.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Speak from within."
On Eternal Enemies
by Adam Zagajewski
translated by Clare Cavanagh
ISBN 0374216347
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008, $24

Reading always happens in the midst of other things: it's vacation time, or it's 8:30, dishes done, no concert to go to or listen to, no rented movie at hand, tomorrow's work can wait, and thus among many books one suggests itself. Because reading can so often work this way, it carries with it an element of travel: we leave one where and when -- we go into a book.

To enter Adam Zagajewski's collection of poems, Eternal Enemies, is to engage a traveler's voice, a voice mostly washed clean of foolishness, advertising, self promotion, deception, and idle chatter. This traveler has returned "years later" to a nameless "gray and lovely city," returned a changed person: "I am no longer the student / of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity, / I'm not the young poet who wrote / too many lines." This is self definition by negation: it describes what is no longer the case as a way to point towards what is. And these lines, coming in the collection's first poem ("Star") become the collection's introduction.

Negation depends on duality: not A but B. And the opposite of negation is comparison: A is like (and unlike) B. In both cases, the point is to bring two things into the same frame so that they may inform each other, as in the last lines of "Enroute," which bring these two things into juxtaposition: "The world's materiality at dawn -- / and the soul's fraility." Materiality and the soul -- these are, perhaps, the eternal enemies of this collection's title. And they are most certainly the twin foci of many of these poems, particularly when one factors in the workings of time. Here is the entirety of "Music in the Car":

Music heard with you

at home or in the car

or even while strolling

didn't always sound as pristine
as piano tuners might wish --
it was sometimes mixed with voices
full of fear and pain,
and then that music
was more than music,
it was our living
and our dying.

Any satisfying reading of Eternal Enemies depends on a reader's willingness to attend to this voice and allow its evident seriousness. But it's not all seriousness, for Zagajewski is also quite capable of a wry humor (as in "The Diction Teacher Retires from the Theater School"). Still, we have to be willing to go to this place. And American readers will recognize that it is not an essentially American place, but rather a Polish one. Zagajewski stands in the company of Milosz and Szymborska (to name but two). His place is Poland and exile from it and return to it. As a place at once literal, historical, and literary, it includes Auschwitz, Stolarska Street, Karmelica Street, Long Street (in a "proud Renaissance town"). It includes Urzednicza and Krzysztofory streets, and "what killing is, and smiling / and what wars are, seen or unseen, just or not, / and what it means to be a Jew, a German, or / a Pole, or maybe just human."

These poems speak often of a restlessness that seems at once physical and metaphysical:

Let me see, I ask.

Let me persist, I say.
A cold rain falls at night.
In the streets and avenues of my city
quiet darkness is hard at work.
Poetry searches for radiance.

In a famously lengthy and deeply fascinating work on the morality of fiction, Wayne Booth argues that good literature is a friend to us; good literature is in all ways good company. Odd as it might sound, Adam Zagajewski's Eternal Enemies celebrates friendships of various sorts. Zagajewski even celebrates friendships he recognizes are impossible: friendship with "A passerby with proud eyes / whom you'll never know," friendship with "The old man sipping coffee / in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone," even "friendship with yourself / --since after all you don't know who you are."

(A final note: poems in translation always raise the questions of translation. Here I can say only that Clare Cavanagh's English seems absolutely in sync with a Polish I do not know.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Stonehenge Redux

The Great Wall of China meanders up hill and down dale; composed of many sections, it reportedly runs nearly 4000 miles. The Great Pyramid at Giza covers thirteen acres at its base, rises roughly 450 feet, and is some 5000 years old. Stonehenge, parts of it, are as old as the Great Pyramid, older than the Great Wall. I have seen Egypt and China only in pictures and on television -- two media that by their nature reduce the large to manageable size: a 4 x 6 photograph, a 29 inch screen. But I have visited Stonehenge half a dozen times, and it still eludes me. The stones are books without text.

Stonehenge rises out of the Salisbury plain just past the intersection of two well-traveled roads, the A 303 and the A 360. In fact, the A 360, which is the road to the car park and the English Heritage shop at the entrance to the Stonehenge site, cuts across the Avenue, a lengthy, shallow, ancient excavation marking the line of the sun's light at sunrise in midsummer. Mercifully, the shop is set below ground (thus making it invisible from Stonehenge itself). You pass by the shop, through a tunnel under the A 360, and surface on the walk to the stone circle itself.

What one's first impression might be in the summer, with friendly winds, blue skies, and a car park choked with coaches, I don't know. I have visited only in the winter, the last time in a rain so wind-driven it was possible to turn one's back to it and keep your front entirely dry. I've seen Stonehenge without feeling crowded. Each time, the utter massive quiet of the place has asserted itself.

The stones are tall, wide, grey, heavy, at once natural and unnatural (the lintels are clearly squared). They are huge, but not so huge. Unlike a skyscraper or a cathedral, they retain just enough of human scale to make you seriously consider calories and energy. You think about how they got there, how long it must have taken to work them into the shapes you see, how they were positioned -- lintels on uprights -- and by whom. You wonder what idea could have unified so many individuals that they would go to such obvious trouble with no machinery, no electrical or gasoline power, possessed only of their brains and the combined strength of many arms, backs, and legs. The largest stones weigh 25 tons (ie 50,000 pounds -- think about that next time you get on a scale). They were transported, no one quite knows how, some twenty miles. Smaller bluestones, weighing in at only 4 tons, were maneuvered, somehow, over 200 miles from South Wales. Half of them are fallen down now, half of them aren't.

What you do at Stonehenge is walk around it, looking at it from every angle. Small ropes and beige gravel indicate the path you're to take, and you never get closer than perhaps 25 or 30 feet. Though you do not get to walk among the stones or touch them, you also see them without distraction. You walk, look, pause. Then you walk, look, pause. What you see is plain as stone can be. Yet it is not explained.

Stonehenge makes out of a wide and indiscriminate landscape a human place. It is as much an act as a thing. It asserts human presence on that plain, under that sky. This is an assertion of impossibly ancient origins, and it renders odd the commonplace sounds of cars on the road or fighter jets in training (a military base is nearby). Somehow, though, the sheep grazing seem perfectly at home. Then grey skies lower, rain starts falling, the wind freshens and your hands seek the warmth of pockets. But the enormity of Stonehenge, as act and as idea, remains deeply moving and profoundly elusive. It cannot be held except in brief inklings and partial understandings that feel more like wordless revelation than anything else. There's little frame of reference for this, and few words to explain it.

It's interesting to watch the reactions of others. Stonehenge slows the steps of those who approach it. Groups quiet and splinter off in ones and twos. You look, move on a bit, and stop again, all the while absorbed in an effort to take in such a place, to consider what implications it asserts, to recover your breath. The path circles the stones entirely, passing the Heel Stone, wich is oddly sandwiched between path, enclosing fence, and the A 360. From a distance, one stone in the circle seems to have a face on it, though this is likely just an oddity of lichen or rainwater. As for the stones themselves, they register nothing at all. A crow alights on one of them, then flies away with the wind. Stonehenge is question and answer together, but the text is mystery.

Eventually the January weather wins -- we are bodies, not stones, and it's cold. But the stones' hold works on you. They are solid and imposing remnants of time out of mind. It takes conscious effort to turn your back on this place. So you linger. You take many pictures even in bad light. Then, finally, you walk back through the tunnel and into the shop, where no mug or cap or postcard will do justice to whatever it is that has just happened to you.

A version of this essay first appeared in Detours, published by the International Programs Office, Linfield College.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Short Ramble on Books / Authors / Anthologies
Discussed below:
100 Favourite Scottish Poems
Edited by Stewart Conn
Published by Luath Press & The Scottish Poetry Library, 2006
ISBN 978-1-9-0522261-2

The books we hold in our hands, open, peruse, and read were (most of them) manufactured by machines. They arrived in our hands via bookstores or from on-line sellers. But whether purchased from AbeBooks online, or Powells (in Portland, Oregon) or The Poetry Bookstore, or, for that matter, from Murder and Mayhem (both the latter in that marvelous town of books, Hay-on-Wye, in Wales), we tend to forget that the actual contents were arranged, considered, revised, and at last determined for good or for ill by someone -- often someone called "the author." Criticism late in the last century quite interestingly called into question the degree to which authors ought to -- or might significantly make -- any difference to readers. Authors, even famous ones like Ms. Rowling, are generally remote from readers. Many authors we read are dead. In any case, authors tend not to want to make much comment ('read the book,' they say). And when they do make comment, can readers trust it? After all, whose relationship to a book is more complicated or fraught?

Yet in general, authors do (or did) exist, and most of the time they can be named. Shakespeare is one author often suspect. Despite the recent industry in speculative biographies, we know both very little and quite a lot about his life and character. He may not have been Shakespeare, so we hear from the Oxfordians who champion Edward de Vere as a liklier bet. And Mark Twain, who's smart on so many things, said famously that Shakespeare wasn't the author of his own plays, but someone else with his name was. We do know Shakespeare's plays were not published in his lifetime. When we read the First Folio (1623), are we reading what he wished us to read? Maybe.

So yes, authorship can be a vexed question. Yet we can agree that the great majority of books are assembled by single authors: Kate Walbert, Marie Howe, Peter Lovesey, Sylvia Plath, to name but four. Yet even here, murk exists. Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems (I can see it on my shelf) is not the assembly of her own deliberations; it was published after her death. But Lovesey's mystery novels are surely his own work, presented as he wishes them, as are Walbert's novels and Marie Howe's books of poems.

* * *

This long preamble suggests three observations.

The first is that whenever possible it is enlightening to read individual books rather than anthologies or compendiums or even collected poems. Individual books are, by definition, individual works. They represent and reflect one artistic effort an author has made. (A collected poems jumbles these efforts inside a single cover -- a convenience to publishers, but perhaps not to readers.) Better yet is to purchase an individual book printed in the author's lifetime. This way, you see what the author might well have held in her (or his) own actual hand. Thus, one of the books I own and most value is a late printing of Yeats's The Tower. It features the same artful green cover (by Sturge Moore) as the first American edition that surely Yeats knew. And this year I've purchased a copy of Dylan Thomas's Deaths and Entrances ("Fern Hill" is its last poem), Thomas's last book published in his lifetime. The publisher is J.M. Dent & Sons, London; it's a thin little book, bound in orange cloth in a plain, similarly colored dust jacket, Third Impression, 1949. It looks as though it's printed from scraps from other projects; few of the pages are exactly the same size. And the book itself is only four and a half inches wide, five and three quarters tall.

The second observation is this: anthologies tend to confound the question of authorship. Whether the anthology is a Palgrave Treasury, an onionskin tome by W.W. Norton, or Dog Tales: Classic Tales about Smart Dogs, the contents (however duly identified by author) were assembled into a book by an editor. Do these individual pieces reflect their author's interests, predilictions, talents, and overall voice? Perhaps. One would need familiarity with an author's entire oeuvre to know for sure. Do these individual pieces reflect an editor's expertise, bias, and purpose? One assumes the answer here is yes.

Observation number three: anthologies can also be wonderful introductions. The anthology in my hand at the moment is titled 100 Favourite Scottish Poems, edited by Stewart Conn (Edinburgh's first official Poet Laureate) and published jointly by Luath Press Limited and the Scottish Poetry Library. A pleasure of an anthology (one you're not assigned to read but merely wish to) can arise in the recognition of familiar names. Seeing authors you recognize can go some distance towards confirming an editor's critical tastes. Here, seeing Alistair Reid's name in the table of contents bodes well. (Reid's book, Weathering, remains delightful.) Other names are readily known: Robert Burns, of course, and Walter Scott, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, and the contemporary Kathleen Jamie. But who was Lady Nairne? Violet Jacob? Who was Alexander Gray?

Any way one considers it, a country is an invention of place and people -- and what those people value, claim, revile, and profess. Stewart Conn's editorial hand is a sure one here. If you would know the Scots, perhaps this anthology is as good a place as any to read (delightedly) and learn.

Friday, August 08, 2008

On The Outlander
a novel by Gil Adamson
Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2007
329 p., $25.95

It may be that point-of-view becomes the novelist's most important technical decision. That, and timing -- that is, at what point in fictional time to start the actual narrative. Gil Adamson starts her narrative, set in 1903, with a description of men and dogs tracking a girl who scrambles "through ditchwater and bulrushes, desperate to erase her scent." The men are described as "wordless, exhausted from running with the dogs." Briefly, the girl lets herself stop running: "In the moonlight, her beautiful face was hollow as a mask, eyes like holes above the smooth cheeks." About her, we learn this much: "Nineteen years old and already a widow. Mary Boulton. Widowed by her own hand."

So starts a story of pursuit: men and dogs chasing a nineteen year old girl-widow-killer. Readers do not learn the story of the death of her husband for a very long time. What we do experience is the shifting point-of-view of the pursued (Mary Boulton) and the pursuing (the brothers of her late husband). Of these perspectives, Mary's is the one we live in more. She has no money, has no idea where she is going except away from what she has done, nor can she anticipate who she might meet or how they might react to her. But in these early pages the novel consistently refers to her as "the widow." And most of the time, we see her situation as desperate flight.

Along the way, readers learn a few things about her past, usually in an aside. For example, we learn she "had never known a mother." We learn that she's more likely a city person than a rural one, for "there had always been something about her that disturbed animals." But mostly the novel keeps us in the immediacy of her flight, the minute-by-minute desperation of what to do next and how to stay ahead of those she knows pursue her. Even in this desperation, we learn that "she must not think of babies. She must not think at all." Clearly, something bad has happened: she flees not just the men who pursue her; she is running from memory she cannot or will not face.

For a very long time now, The West (including the Canadian West, for this is a Canadian book by a Canadian writer) has been a place to flee into, a place to disappear, and disappearing is precisely Mary Boulton's aim. She never articulates this, she simply continues west, away from law and order and towards the nonjudgmental and nonjudicial landscape without people. And as Gil Adamson clearly knows, therein lies a paradox. The farther Mary goes, the more vulnerable and alone she becomes. In fact, without being befriended providentially, twice, by complete strangers who know the countryside and how to survive in it, this novel's story would have reached a speedier conclusion -- one with Mary dying of exposure and malnutrition.

The Outlander works so compellingly because Gil Adamson's imagination puts readers into Mary Boulton's situation, mind and body. When she becomes soaked to the skin, shivering and delirious, Adamson makes readers experience precisely these conditions. It becomes impossible not to want this main character to survive. That, and we also know that her survival will be the only way we might ever learn what happened to initiate Mary's terrified effort to get away. The Outlander must sooner or later come to grips with that initiating action, and when it does, readers must decide their own judgment of Mary Boulton. That this becomes a difficult, complex decision attests to the depth of character Adamson gives Mary Boulton. And when, near the end of this book, Mary finally looks at herself in a mirror, readers gain a deeper understanding of how difficult it may be for us to know ourselves.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Peter Sears' Luge
a chapbook of poems, Cloudbank Books, 2008
P.O. Box 610, Corvallis, OR 97339

Short books like this one (14 pages) don't tax one's patience too much, even though yes, this is poetry, not prose, and yes, 14 pages = fourteen poems to hold in your head, if Google hasn't made us all too stupid to still be able to do this.

No, the difficult thing about Luge isn't that it's made of poems but rather that the speaker in these poems knows he's going to die. He knows this not abstractly, not in the surface way that we invoke in the old joke "well, no one gets out alive." This speaker knows it in a cellular way; his normal incredulity has mostly given way to a state of actually believing it, and this fact has engaged his imagination. Such knowledge -- call it deep knowledge -- may arrive anytime; there's no particular schedule here. But once it does arrive, it offers only two possible responses: run away fast, or change, take the ride. Hence, this small book's title: Luge.

Of course, it's the imagination's ride, as much as the body's, and this means that memory -- or imagination, for at this point they amount to the same thing -- ranges far and brings back the oddest intensities. Thus, in "You Weren't There," the poem's speaker invokes a moment in confrontation with his father, a moment when his father is so angered that "If I had taken one step into the room / I probably would have stepped on /an invisible downed power line / and electrocuted both of us." The excess of this is half funny, in a wry sort of way, and half terrifying. Which is the point. The very next poem presents this speaker at the age of 16, "his feet, his main feature, / are Smithsonian." It concludes by identifying this poor youth's "most trying habit," which is "to stand in front of you / and appear to be about to say something and not." This is also the same speaker whose third-grade imagination could get so caught up with the fantasy of being a World War II fighter pilot that "if I got shot down and crashed and burned up, // it wasn't clear if I could shift back to being just / a third grader -- or if I'd be gone..."

The poems in Luge do not suffer from the habit of promising but not delivering. Quite the contrary. But these poems do pose a consistent challenge: they juxtapose one persona with another (and sometimes with yet another). "The Guy Opposite Me in the Chemo Ward," a guy who's seeing purple trees because of the hallucinatory effects of treatment, this "guy" may be another patient. Or he may be the speaker himself hallucinating a new persona in order to keep insanity at bay.

These poems take us to the place from which they speak. As a reader, you pay attention here even if the experience seems so non-consumer oriented. What's beautiful can be so intense that the intensity becomes painful. Time goes by too fast.

What the poems make and assert most crucially is a pace at which experience -- the world's words -- arrive. At this pace, at the pace of a poem, aspects of experience are possible that may not be possible otherwise. What aspects of experience? Regret, nostalgia, fact-telling, surprises of memory, specificities of perception that amount to beauty. Even a nice long hot tub followed by a "Late Nap" and that sleep wherein "nobody comes after me, I don't / have to go anywhere, and I am immortal." Yes, it can feel like that sometimes too.