Saturday, May 31, 2014

Between paradise and fear

...and further on.

I posted this a while ago on In and Out, but it's about poetry--other people's poetry, by and large--and ought to be here on Outdoor Poetry Season.

I noticed it got a fair number of views recently and in trying unsuccessfully to puzzle out why, I found out that Kim-An Lieberman, who wrote one of the poems featured in this piece, died last year. She was only 37.

Kim-An was a mother of three, a wife and an already accomplished poet. My heart sinks at the thought of her death, but I know she will continue to live in the vivid memory of others. I believe that is no small thing and recently wrote about how life and memory sometimes seem to be nearly the same thing.

I don't love all of "The Creation Story" by Joy Harjo, but I really do love these three stanzas:

"It's not easy to say this
or anything when my entrails
dangle between paradise
and fear.

"I am ashamed
I never had the words
to carry a friend from her death
to the stars

"Or the words to keep
my people safe
from drought
or gunshot."

Like Harjo, I've discovered I didn't (and don't and won't) "have the words" countless times, including the words to carry a friend to the stars, but here Harjo finds the words to name the shortfall. And when she rues her inability to keep her "people safe from drought or gunshot," she has named both herself and her people. Good words.

In his poem "Three Women," Donald Hall has come into possession of a few words that do get the job done. They will not carry him or anyone else to the stars, but they work for capturing the richness of some experiences and the loss that sometimes follows. In fact, they work so well that Hall uses the same words exactly in three consecutive stanzas, making up the whole of his poem:

"When you like a woman,
you talk and talk.
One night you kiss.
Another night you fuck.
You're both content,
maybe more than content.
Then she goes away."

The poem is included in Hall's last book of poetry, The Back Chamber, described on the book jacket as "full of the life-affirming energy" of the poet. But I see it full of a rich, inescapable melancholy.

Kim-An Lieberman won a poetry prize from the Dayton Voice in 1995 or '96 (I suppose I could look it up, sort through the bound copies of the paper we have in our possession, but one thing at a time here). A decade later, her book, Breaking the Map, was published and she sent an autographed copy to Marrianne and I. Her book ended up being part of the motivation for publishing Wild, Once and Captured, a book of my own poetry. Sampling Kim-An's poetry I come to "Grandmother Song," and am struck by the fact that she has found a way to lift her grandmother to the stars.

"...Underneath is a ruby of blood.
The needles and tubes are webbed like milliner's lace.
Last the jade necklace, leaking the milk of her heart."

Perhaps, the words come to Lieberman because she so clearly hears and sees and feels her grandmother at the end of her life.

"...She gestures
faintly upward from the bed; I bring my ear
to the rasp of her laboring breath. I watch her draw
pin by pin from the loose chignon
...I roll the soiled gown..."

Hunting more details, I found an interview with Kim-An where she observes that "journalism and poetry, in particular, both share a language of ear-catching 'sound bites' as well as an urge to make a permanent record of fleeting events and observations." This seems an apt description of how Ernesto Cardenal goes about writing a poetry that finds the words to make permanent a record of "fleeting events." His book, Zero Hour, is a collection of what Cardenal calls "documentary poems."

"In Mr. Spencer's gold mines they X-ray
each miner twice a year
to see if he shows symptoms of TB.
If there's a shadow, he's paid off
at once. In due course he spits blood, and tries
to claim: ...
... and so he dies on a Managua sidewalk."

Cardenal, is a poet and a Catholic priest and the Nicaraguan Minister of Culture after the overthrow of Somoza. His poetry is the work of a man who hears music in his head, but feels the urgent need to change the acoustics of the world around him so that others may hear their own music. Cardenal makes poetry relevant as Lawrence Ferlinghetti insisted it should be when he wrote:

“I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs. Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?”

And Cardenal is one of the poets I was thinking about when I wrote "Wild Dogs of Poets:" 

The wild dogs of poets
speak sharps and blunts,
wish the streets
to the back alleys

of emerald cities;
some singing separately
and, alive for now,
glow in the dusky, dreaming sky.

Some scratch for pennies
wherever there are no such
generosities. Some kill time
as though they are flush,

And some few,
the chosen,
die on the barricades,
hopeful and ready.

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