Sunday, July 19, 2009

Two Books Down, One that Had Its Moments

Having finished another book for my Southern Lit class (it was no Faulkner, that's for sure), I was able to also read Tryfon Tolides's An Almost Pure Empty Walking. I was not blown away by it, but there were several poems I liked a great deal. When he's on, he has that mysterious, knowing European style that stays with me, like a Zagajewski or Milosz or Cavafy (to take the Greek thing too far). When he's off, there's a too-Jack-Gilbert-for-my-liking quality. Not that the poems are bad, but they just don't speak to me as much as I would like. I'll need to read it again to verify my first impressions, but those five, six, or seven poems that grabbed me are still hanging around. (As Bill said during my thesis meetings and other times: "A good first book needs five or six very good poems to be successful." I'm not entirely sure about that math, not these days with the glut of manuscripts coming from all these MFAs and PhDs, but so it goes.) And here's one poem I've come back to several times the past couple days.
Not for a Reason
Tonight at the train station
with the red metal seats
in Syracuse. We walked up the ramp,
then beyond the few people
on the platform. I wasn't looking
at her legs, though I've taken the shape
of her knees into my palms before,
followed from heel to calf, up and up,
she being my future wife, maybe,
though we keep saying yes,
and I should say yes here, not maybe,
because she and I both believe
strongly, but people have believed before
and still it has stopped being.
The train came, left.
I walked from beyond the few
people on the platform (who had gone
by then) where we had been,
holding. Legs can't look off into a distance
somewhere, as eyes can,
filled with thinking something unthought.
Legs can do that, too, walking
in cemeteries, back to the car, through fog,
even when there is no distance.
- Tryfon Tolides, An Almost Pure Empty Walking

Monday, July 13, 2009

Reading, or What I Do to Avoid It as Much as Possible

Knowing how much life was going to change this summer, I had every intention of doing as much prep work for my fall semester classes and for next year's Comps. This has been a largely fruitless endeavor. I've yet to start the longest novel I have to read for my Southern Lit course, but that's coming after getting through Absalom! Absalom! I think it shot my attention span, though, because I can't sit down and do the reading I need to get done or what to get done. Maybe I just needed a summer break more than I realized, but I also don't want to feel like I'm cheating myself, my degrees, and the seriousness with which I'm supposed to meet my art.

After the 100+ chapbooks for the spring's chapbook manuscript workshop (poems from that forthcoming, hopefully, maybe?), I'm more frustrated with poetry collections than should be possible. There are a lot of terrible ones being published, and it certainly made me "on-ree" about reading more than a few pages from a book unless it was truly remarkable. Either that, or I can't find what I need to be reading right now.

I haven't gotten out of this reading funk yet, but thanks to Keith, I bought Herbert Morris's What Was Lost from the terrible used bookstore Knoxvillians claim to be the best around. (Sorry, but Denton spoiled me. I miss you, Recycled Books.) It took much longer than it should have (re: poor attention span; thanks Faulkner), but after reading these expansive, relentless, finely tuned poems I'm starting to get excited about poetry books again.

I had to have encountered Morris's work somewhere, sometime, but getting involved in eight-, ten-, thirteen-page poems was taxing and educational and, ultimately, rewarding to see someone find home in the long poem, especially since I dabble in the "form." (Do I need the quotation marks? I don't know. I suppose I can/should make the argument it is its own entity.) His book is the combination of so many ideas about poetry that I hold close. The more elevated, later Levis-esque style. The voice and tone in the monologues. The ability to hold a sentence grammatical for an entire page. So many strategies to steal, if only I could sit still and write something.


"It is now I must write this, Mr. Hopper,
now I need to begin, before it fades,
dissipates, vanishes, drifts off to smoke
(a fitting image, as becomes apparent),
before whatever sense one shall have made
lies too scattered, too late, at least, to make
what Mrs. Carmody suggests I put down
even if nly for that sense of self
unique to each of us, no more, just that,
on behalf of what clarity, what light,
it may lend to one's own—her word—"perspective,"
though, of course, it shall not enlarge your own,
you whom these words shall leave just as you were,
unchanged, unmoved, perhaps not moved enough,
at a time you were unaware a student,
changed by your painting, moved more than he knew,
would write to you from ignorance, from need,
from that unholy ground where the two meet."

- Herbert Morris, "Approaching a City," What Was Lost

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Compared to last year, this summer has been un-hectic. No wedding planning this year. No wedding classes to drive 45 minutes to and be lectured at for another two hours. No moving from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids for ten days before heading 700 miles three days after the wedding. No getting used to a new program, new people, and a new city. I should be grateful that life is less complicated of late, though big change is two or so weeks away. But I feel as prepared as I can be for the little person and, with M. in control of much of the day-to-day preparations, have the luxury of the stability of knowing we have a home together. There will be adjustments, sure, but a swirl of other matters aren't getting in the way of my peace of mind.

But I do wish I didn't have to wait for so much else on the professional end. I hate that feeling where something good is maybe in the works, though I have no control over it or have the slightest idea of when it may arrive in my inbox or mailbox. It's a game I'm tired of playing right now. I want to be proud of some accomplishment that feels like a, you know, real accomplishment. Yes, I've made it through the first year of the Ph.D. Yes, I've written a fair amount this year that I'm proud of. Yes, I have a good idea of what my last year of coursework ever will look like. These are all good things, but considering I'm in a six-month acceptance slump, I'd like some validation. I don't search it out very often, and I hate to be that guy who complains about not receiving any, but some sign I'm on the right track would be helpful and keep me from whining instead of being properly patient with the workings of the literary journal world.


On a more positive note, I was skimming Poetry Daily tonight and saw that as part of his "American Life in Poetry" series Ted Kooser introduced a poem by Alexandra Teague, who we published at Third Coast when I was poetry editor. After clicking on the link, I was happy to see that Mr. Kooser had actually referred to "Language Lessons," the poem Shannon and I took for the Fall '08 issue. There's something to be said for the pride an editor has in seeing a poem he/she accepted going on to be noticed on an even grander scale. Wherever you are, Alexandra, congrats on having your work put up in such a grand forum. And even more good tidings for getting your manuscript picked up. Great news, indeed.


A poem excerpt for the day:

Call us childish, call us to our teachers:
a cop with a clipboard calls me over, to ask me what of blood I heard.
He knows in his blood better than to say it that way.
He puts it neutrally, may his heart feel adjudged by restraint,
may the differently abled be restrained for their own good,
and when I say his "heart" may I mean mine and may my mouth feel antique—
what he asks me is if I heard any cries—no, not even that, just... "anything."
Let's get this right.
Does a dying self make up a face as it goes, will any face do?
Right there on the concrete a bloodstain the children will pass, to touch it:
what's to touch once blood stops doing its cartwheels?
Someons has stepped out from under our thumbs and heels?
Can anyone ever make blood do anything? Can clouds be pushed around?
On and on till the questions are all open coffins.

- Bill Olsen, "Blood," from Avenue of Vanishing