Poetry is Paranoia

December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

On the way to the poetry reading Monday, under the arch in Washington Square, we passed a slim, freckled young woman with hair the color of November leaves who’d just received a down-on-one-knee marriage proposal. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she was saying, her hands covering her face, truly startled, excited, happy and everything she should be. Charles wanted to snap a picture but I said no. The man had chosen to do this in public; the woman hadn’t. I wanted to give her privacy.

“I’ve been married twice but I never went down on my knee,” he said, as we walked on.
“If I’d waited for that I’d still be waiting.”
“I get down on my knees to clean the kitty litter. Not to mention the cat vomit. I think that’s enough.”
“You make an excellent point.”

KGB was crowded and warm, and the air felt thick; it was a smoky bar without the smoke. I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t really in the mood for poetry, either, but as always the lengthy and beguiling introduction set the tone for pleasure. Matthew went off on a tangent, “How many of you would call yourselves Yeats fans?” Most of us raised our hands. “Well, I have a problem with his poem—you’ll see this relates to David [Lehman]—The Wild Swans at Coole. “ He then quoted a line in a Yeatsian manner, but I’ll give you a few more lines, since I can’t resist them

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Matthew’s issue was how Yeats could tell there were exactly 59 swans and he went on a long, excited riff about dozens of birds packed close, in motion, behind each other, overlapping, squabbling, heads dipping, all that feathery white, how could you count them?

He had a point to make about precise description, about David’s poetry, but I kept thinking of Yeats seeing those swans year after year, and though I don’t doubt he chose “nine-and-fifty” for its potency and rhythm, I wouldn’t argue his authority in the number of swans. They returned, year after year, like the poet.

David Lehman (b. 1948), read his slangy, romantic, spontaneous-sounding, very American poems, poems with the looseness and swing of the New York School poets and a kind of pop, 1970’s sweetness—investigations of love and family without the deep irony and multi-faceted perception of the next generation, who somehow learned young what took us half a lifetime.

Lehman’s nonfiction book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs had been mentioned in the introduction and after David read, during the break, Charles leaned over (we were at the next table) said a couple of words, then starting singing the title song. David joined in. Could I do that?

A rhetorical question.

I nibbled at my wine. Mark Doty (b. 1953), National Book Award winner, read next and last. His poems were precise, generous, always clever (I liked one line especially, from The Beautiful and The Sublime “Paranoia is poetry/insomnia is prose”–better in context, part of a list building power), but he clipped his words and I missed a lot. I remember what he called his dog in the last line of a new poem about the animal stealing the stake marking a burial plot, running off into the woods, tail high. “Darling, you run…”

I left the reading just after it ended, while Charles was up at the bar waiting for the bill, chatting up some intelligent-looking young person. I was feeling a heavy press of wallflower melancholia, harsh whispers that all my recent rejections, personal and professional, were entirely deserved. My soul, for all its steel and shine in certain island neighborhoods, was on the whole tattered and rotting. It might not be entirely my fault, but I was part of the garbage of history, said my doleful inner voice. Writer’s envy sparked through this, not the story but the fuel for it. I needed the smack of cold night air.

Charles lingered and David Lehman pulled him aside at the bottom of the stairs to introduce him to his wife and to Mark Doty. “The three of us talked for a long time about everything,” said my dear husband when he returned to me and the cats and the sizzling pork chops. “David Lehman insisted on giving me his card…”

In my defense, he had had two gin and tonics while I had only a few sips of white wine. Trying not to drink in situations where I feel shy always makes me twitchy and hostile. But I was afraid he’d be angry at me for leaving—I hadn’t bothered to inform him—and he wasn’t. He came in happy, full of love, assuming I ran home to get a poem on the page (which I in fact did, a beginning anyway), and he chopped the parsnips and apples while I nipped the green beans.

We ate and talked poetry and he called Rebecca, his daughter who is now 42…which means I’ve known her 40 years…and it feels like a hundred.

I’m glad I didn’t drink. Yesterday was very productive. I have half a dozen poems in various states of construction and though I keep dreaming about the man who got away (to put it nicely), I’m willing to accept the dreams as my relationship, and let the waking connection melt like the Arctic ice. I have other things to do.

The English poet George Herbert said, “Living well is the best revenge.” I first heard this aphorism in my early 20’s, reading the book of that title by Calvin Tompkins, about the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy, friends of Scott Fitzgerald who had a slightly better time of it. It was a seductive idea then, full of the promise of summers on the Riviera, delicious food, wine, brilliant friends, plenty of money…

Now the meaning is knottier. There’s not as much life left and “living well” is deeper and harder. But it IS the best revenge, though I take the idea of revenge with a quart of salt. If, for example, years from now, that person ends up lonely, broken-hearted and penniless, knocking on my door (a fantasy I entertain): “I can’t seem to get a nickel or a dime for a cup of coffee—I need a hamburg—in fact a hot dog wouldn’t be too bad,” I won’t enjoy it at all. Life’s a bitch that way. Time focuses the lens and revenge turns to ash like a vampire in the sun. But the idea of it can be helpful.

(If you don’t recognize the lyrics in the previous paragraph, go look them up.)

I need a vein of newness not sexual, not likely to drive me insane. And not just more reading, writing and attending cultural events, or making friends: something else. I can feel it out there. It’s more important than money, though the wind is blowing in through the torn paper windows, and the rats are biting my toes.

A little embellishment there. It’s cats, not rats. And they don’t bite but leave long claw tracks where they used my right thigh as a ladder or launching pad.

The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke

Can’t swim; uses credit cards and pills to combat
intolerable feelings of inadequacy;
Won’t admit his dread of boredom, chief impulse behind
numerous marital infidelities;
Looks fat in jeans, mouths clichés with confidence,
breaks mother’s plates in fights;
Buys when the market is too high, and panics during
the inevitable descent;
Still, Pop can always tell the subtle difference
between Pepsi and Coke,
Has defined the darkness of red at dawn, memorized
the splash of poppies along
Deserted railway tracks, and opposed the war in Vietnam
months before the students,
Years before the politicians and press; give him
a minute with a road map
And he will solve the mystery of bloodshot eyes;
transport him to mountaintop
And watch him calculate the heaviness and height
of the local heavens;
Needs no prompting to give money to his kids; speaks
French fluently, and tourist German;
Sings Schubert in the shower; plays pinball in Paris;
knows the new maid steals, and forgives her.

David Lehman

The Embrace

You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out–at work maybe?–
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you–warm brown tea–we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

Mark Doty

KGB: Three Women

November 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

photo from zouchmagazine.com

photo from zouchmagazine.com

We went the KGB bar the other night to hear three poets: Fanny Howe, Ana Božičević and Star Black. The small, very dark, old -fashioned barroom, up a flight of stairs, is red and black with Communist posters, pictures and flags of the hammer & sickle on the wall. There are wooden tables and you get your own drinks. After we’d been sitting in the dark awhile—the reading started late—a young man who looked one of the actors on Entourage sat down to talk to us about the bar. “I guess there are still a lot of Communists,” he said.

“The name is meant to be ironic,” I replied. “It was opened in the ‘90’s, after the wall came down.”

“Really? Well, yeah, but maybe not. Maybe there are still some serious ones and this is their place.”

What can you say to that? That idealistic American Communists would not open a bar and call it KGB? It’s strange to be the old ones, to whom this history isn’t history. I find myself feeling possessive—the 2nd half of the 20th century is mine, mine and my peers and our parents: if you want to know it, you have to pay very close attention; I won’t say anything twice. And I didn’t. I leaned back and let Charles talk to him.

Fanny Howe didn’t make it, sadly; her place was taken by Leopoldine Core, a poet who appears to be in her 20’s. She was suggested by Ana, and it’s easy to see why. They both hail from the left side of reality (which doesn’t make them Communists). Her poems are funny, sexy, digressive, alluring; she pulls you into her mind so fast, you have no chance to decide whether you want to be there are not. She sounds like the weird girl in the class talking to herself, the kind that in 1970 would have been fragile, no matter how smart, but in this era is self-possessed and unafraid.

Lots of sexual rumination and ruminating rumination, just chewing on those words, having fun; I, I, I, more little curls and nips of sex, wandering thoughts let wander, then closed with a buttonhook. It’s a bravura performance of how consciousness moves and her consciousness is of course like no other. Nobody’s is, but it’s very hard to capture that depth of difference. Listening, you remember the privilege the best writing gives: that glimpse into another mind, that shiver as your own mind bends down to taste.

Ana is an old favorite of mine. Her poems are also digressive, with startling leaps of imagery, words circling around around the clot of self in the brain, the cunt, the throat, all her provinces collaborating to figure out (or not) the sprawling world. It’s the world of an expatriate–she was born in Zagreb; moved here at 20–and she has that double vision that’s so powerful in poetry and comedy. Her poems are denser than Leopoldine’s, harder to follow, and the tensions are greater. One hand thrusts a sword into her stomach as the other tosses jags of lightning and zoo animals into the night; then you notice the sword has fallen out and the blood is flowing back in, red as a smile…was she in control of it all the time? I’m never sure.

Sometimes her poems remind me of riding in a limousine, very drunk and stoned but hyper alert to the world flashing outside, the stranger/lover beside me putting his/her hand under my skirt…an experience I’ve never actually had, in that detail, but I’ve done something similar in a taxi and I’ve ridden in limos at funerals when I was young enough to find it all acutely weird as well as sad. (Not my immediate family deaths; we had no limos). In Ana’s poems the memories fuse.

I also liked seeing her in the flesh; her tall sturdy body, her blond hair, her Slavic face, the way she rocks and sort of dances as she reads, dislodging the words from their homes in her hips and spine and pelvic girdle. (Strictly speaking, the pelvic girdle includes the hips, but I’m taking all the words I want.) It was hard to take my eyes off her body-her presence is very sexual in an diffident, slightly disjunct way. It’s hard to describe except to say she’s obviously not American.

Star Black I’ve heard before: she’s one of those poets, one of those people, whom you immediately put into the pile of the good ones who should never be taken, who should be restored after death in another body to grace the world. Her poems were less wild than the other two, her intelligence more orderly, but her imagination is full to the top and overflowing, like wave after wave of white birds in service to a Wiccan priestess.

She read the following poem, which is probably where I got the bird idea. I listened and thought: not me, grade school has disappeared utterly. But I’m with her all the same.


Moving away from rattled towns,
gaining, as a bird in a dishwasher,
an altered view, the owlish lakefronts
with their punch-clock crews

seem less luckless, the lunch-pail
chatter less dim; even recess seems pleasant.
Schoolmates from the third grade call
and nothing since matters,

you leap into kerosene waters
and swim, leaving the nervous talons
on a perch. The past doesn’t hurt,
the past is divine, everyone

the same age at the same time.
Moving is a white lie, a soft arrow.

–Star Black

I’ve already had a poem by Ana on this site, but here’s one by Leopoldine from The Paris Review that I’m probably not allowed to use, so it might not be up long.


I’m a freak

in a nightgown

and outside

a cool garden drips.

All this wasted time

could be full of something

but I’m always on the rug.
I’ve had good ideas

and placed them decorously

around the room,

all the little fish still

wriggling on their hooks.

I’ve had more good ideas

and kept them in the liquid

of my mind until they all

started to rot.

I’ve made a snack and

I’ve called a dead friend.

I don’t like everything I do.

I’ve let all the ghosts

feel me up

and it reminds me

of being on the subway

the things people will do

if you give them the green light

and then you do.

Well I do.

And then they touch me

and I pretend not to notice.

That is my joy.

It’s underwater all the time.

But it has not been a total waste

all this silence.

I think it’s more of a steak

than a hole.

And anyway


since now there’s no room

in the world unmarked

by human noise.

I’ve thought hard about this.

I’ve dug a dirt hole in my own

bedroom and lived there

rubbing my clit with a penny

under my blanket

there’s an old sandwich

and a jewel.

–Leopoldine Core

I’ve already published one of Ana’s poems, but here’s a link

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