Sunday, October 27, 2013

Amy Gerstler / In Perpetual Spring

In Perpetual Spring

by Amy Gerstler

Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they   
plop into water.

Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion   

and the lamb cuddling up.
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.

Amy Gerstler
Bitter Angel 
New York: North Point Press, 1990

Read also
Biography of Amy Gerstler

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Reb Livingston Reveals Her Poetry Crush / Amy Gerstler

Amy Gerstler

Reb Livingston Reveals Her Poetry Crush

“Poets on Poets” is another new essay series, parallel to the recently launched “Selling Shorts,” only this time, as you’ve probably guessed, I’ve invited poets to talk about their favorite poets. I decided to start with Reb Livingston because she’s a good friend; we’ve done several panels together in the Virginia-Maryland area, and she’s currently celebrating the publication of The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, a selection of poetry from No Tell Motel, the online poetry journal she co-edits with Molly Arden (and where, as it happens, she’s had the opportunity to publish the poet she’s chosen to write about).
Amy Gerstler is my first poet crush. I don’t say “was” because it’s been almost a decade since I first fell for her and I still go all googly for her poems just like I did the first time. It was 1997, I recently discovered a website called Amazon and suddenly had access to an amazing selection of poetry books that I could browse from my office desk as my boss believed I was hard at work. I ordered with wild abandon, anything that sounded interesting. One of those books was a reprint from Carnegie Mellon’s Classic Contemporary series called Bitter Angel. Gerstler had me at the first line of the first poem, “Siren”:

I have a fish’s tail, so I’m not qualified to love you.
And then she had me again and again and again. A quick glance at the poems, they seemed harmless enough, but no, they were entrancing, haunting and daring. They never left my mind. Devotion to Gerstler’s work ensued. Her books are challenging to describe, especially in such a brief essay, because doing so rings a string of contradictions, her poems are funny, but not jokey, smart, but not showy, hopeful, yet cynical, knowing and full of doubt, bold and tender, strong and vulnerable. She is a master at many things, such as taking the point of view of an unconventional character and not only making the reader feel like she’s really in that character’s mind, but with great empathy. Or how Gerstler skillfully invokes a mystery, painstakingly examines and meditates on it, but humbly defers to solve it.
She points out the questions, lays out the facts and scenes, examines possibilities, directions, but never cheapens the moment with a neatly packaged conclusion. I’ve always thought that poets offering up the “great answer to life”—oh if only, dear reader, you were clever enough to figure it out from the clues in the lines—were actually presenting an age-old parlor trick. My contention is that the greatest gift a poet has to offer is leading readers to new ways of perceiving something, asking the questions we never even thought to ask, reminding us there are other ways, so many other ways, let us not be so sure what we think we know and how we see it—we can never be sure, situations and people are always complicated and yes, there are hidden meanings in everything, but let’s not confuse those with pat and dry answers. If you demand answers, try a crossword puzzle.
Gerstler’s themes and images (birds, dolls, incestuous kissing siblings, ghosts, mediums, brides) stretch throughout her eight-book career. It’s not this book was about “that” and the next book focused on “this”—each book builds on the previous ones, ruminating on ways the dead and living co-exist, steeped in literary and biblical history while addressing contemporary culture. Difficult topics to grasp and write about, yet she does so with fierce focus and dedication.
It’s not that Gerstler has been completely overlooked, while still mid-career, she received a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 as well as a number of other prizes and her last four books, from Nerve Storm(1993) to Ghost Girl (2004), have been published by Penguin. But for a poet who has already created such an important body of work and will no doubt do so for decades to come, there’s no good reason why her poetry is not better known, read and discussed more thoroughly. If you’re looking for fascinating, multi-faceted and exquisite poems, look no farther. Sure, I won’t lie, I’ve had other poet crushes and will no doubt indulge in more down the road, but never have I felt one for so long and so deeply.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Victoria Chang / Edward Hopper Study: Hotel Room

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper Study: Hotel Room

by Victoria chang
While the man is away   
telling his wife   
about the red-corseted woman,   
the woman waits   
on the queen-sized bed.   
You'd expect her quiet   
in the fist of a copper   
statue. Half her face,   
a shade of golden meringue,   
the other half, the dark   
of cattails. Her mouth even—   
too straight, as if she doubted   
her made decision, the way   
women do. In her hands,   
a yellow letter creased,   
like her hunched back.   
Her dress limp on a green chair.   
In front, a man's satchel   
and briefcase. On a dresser,   
a hat with a ceylon   
feather. That is all   
the artist left us with,   
knowing we would turn   
the woman's stone into ours,   
a thirst for the self   
in everything—even   
in the sweet chinks   
of mandarin.

Source: Poetry (September 2004).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Langston Hughes / Harlem

Setting Sun
by Fran Rodriguez


by Langston Hughes 

        What happens to a dream deferred?

        Does it dry up
        like a raisin in the sun?
        Or fester like a sore—

       And then run?
        Does it stink like rotten meat?
        Or crust and sugar over—
        like a syrupy sweet?

        Maybe it just sags
        like a heavy load.

        Or does it explode?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Carl Sandburg / Doors

by Carl Sandburg
An open door says, “Come in.”
A shut door says, “Who are you?”
Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors.
If   a door is shut and you want it shut,
     why open it?
If   a door is open and you want it open,
     why shut it?
Doors forget but only doors know what it is
     doors forget.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pablo Neruda / Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market

Pablo Neruda
Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market
by Pablo Neruda
Translated by Robin Robertson
among the market vegetables,
this torpedo
from the ocean   
a missile   
that swam,
lying in front of me

by the earth's green froth   
—these lettuces,
bunches of carrots—
only you   
lived through
the sea's truth, survived
the unknown, the
darkness, the depths   
of the sea,
the great   
le grand abîme,
only you:   
to that deepest night.

Only you:
dark bullet
from the depths,
one wound,
but resurgent,
always renewed,
locked into the current,
fins fletched
like wings
in the torrent,
in the coursing
like a grieving arrow,
sea-javelin, a nerveless   
oiled harpoon.

in front of me,
catafalqued king
of my own ocean;
sappy as a sprung fir
in the green turmoil,
once seed
to sea-quake,
tidal wave, now
dead remains;
in the whole market
was the only shape left
with purpose or direction
in this   
jumbled ruin
of nature;
you are   
a solitary man of war
among these frail vegetables,
your flanks and prow
and slippery
as if you were still
a well-oiled ship of the wind,
the only
of the sea: unflawed,
navigating now
the waters of death.

Translator's Note: Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market


This is a place of skirmishes. A recent collection I made of some free versions of poems by Tomas Transtrmer has attracted spluttering fire from certain quarters. The accusations are either that the English renderings are not accurate literal translations (which they never set out to be) or that they are too similar to some existing translations (which is hard to avoid). The anxiety seems to center, repeatedly, on the term "version" and its conventional rubric "after Transtrmer," "after Neruda," etc., and it is baffling that a process that has been going on for over half a century seems to have been overlooked so comprehensively. If those critics had read Christopher Logue's magisterial "accounts" of various books of the Iliad, begun in the fifties, they would have been reaching for their flintlocks years ago. Robert Lowell's Imitations(1961) was surely harder to miss, particularly as it released a flood of free translation that continues unabated. After Ovid (1994; edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun) actively encouraged modern reworkings of the Latin, and contains important interpretations by Heaney, Hughes, and Longley. The classics demand to be made new, to be dusted off and polished to reveal their currency. In the same way, in this Anglocentric literary world, we must attend to modern poetry in other languages and encourage new readers—not through slavish, mechanical transcriptions into English (which Lowell described as "taxidermy"), but through English versions that are true to the tone of the original and which are also viable as poems in their own right. Hofmann's versions of Durs Grnbein, Ashes for Breakfast (2005), or Don Paterson's new approach to Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, published late last year, are good examples of this continuing process.

I might as well be specific about how this operates, at least in my case. In the preparatory work for my version of Neruda's glorious "Oda a un gran atn en el mercado," I studied the original, with a good Spanish dictionary, and produced a number of drafts, before turning to the valuable English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. I found that we differed over interpretation, syntax, and delivery, which is interesting given the relative simplicity of the original. There is a telling moment halfway through when Neruda describes the living tuna as being "como enlutada flecha,/dardo del mar,/intrpida aceituna." He is enjoying the chime of "aceituna" (an olive) and "atn" (tuna), but it seems unrewarding for the English to try and follow his Chilean wordplay; as Peden has it: "a mourning arrow,/dart of the sea,/olive, oily fish." Equally, a few lines later, still describing the tuna, "mpetu/verde, abeto/submarino" isn't clarified by "green/assault, silver/submarine fir," only complicated. In rendering this Neruda ode into English I have taken minor liberties of addition and deletion and attempted to steer a middle ground between Lowell's rangy, risk-taking rewritings and the traditional, strictly literal approach. Effective translation is not accurate transliteration; it is a matter of losses and gains, and it requires a certain boldness (some might say irreverence) in attempting to reach the feel of the original. Nothing can replace the reading of the poem in its true language, of course, but—in my view—a loose version by a writer attentive to, and familiar with, the dynamics of poetry is always better than a straight literal verse translation that defers too dutifully to all the words in the order in which they first appeared.

I should also say, in further defense, that the brief odic line that gives the poem such impressive length is adopted not just because I'm Scottish and we're being paid by the line, but because I've followed Neruda's original: its sinuous, vertical shape is surely the shape of Chile itself.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pablo Neruda / If You Forget Me

Nu zébré,New York, USA, 1997©Lucien Clergue
Nu zébré
New York, USA, 1997
Lucien Clergue
by Pablo Neruda

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pablo Neruda / Nothing But Death

Nothing But Death
by Pablo Neruda
Translated by Robert Bly

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain. 

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail, 
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death,
filled by the sound of death which is silence.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
 finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom,
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.