Monday, March 30, 2009

TED Talks - C.K. Williams: Poetry for all seasons of life

A great talk from a few years back at the TED Conference.
Poet C.K. Williams reads his work at TED 2001. As he colors scenes of childhood resentments, college loves, odd neighbors and the literal death of youth, he reminds us of the unique challenges of living.

Williams started writing poetry at 19, after taking only his required English classes at University of Pennsylvania. In the 1960s, he began gearing his poems toward social issues, such as the brutality that civil rights activists often faced and his anti-war stance with respect to Vietnam. Over time, although he continued to write about society, his work became more personal. His focus shifted to the intersection of profoundly different lives in crowded urban spaces, using these instances to examine sensitive issues such as race and class.

The subject matter of his work is not its only controversy, and Williams is often compared to Whitman and Ginsberg because of his unusually long lines of verse. Despite his unconventional poetic form, he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors. He has also published five works of translation and a psychologically introspective memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New Spring Poetry Books

The Academy of American Poets has assembled a list of the new poetry books this spring, with info and a sample poem for most if not all of them. Damned awesome of them, especially as National Poetry Month is right around the corner.

Below is a list of new poetry titles that will be published in spring 2008 by the sponsors of National Poetry Month. Browse the list by poet, title, or press. Click on a title to get more information and a sample poem. Support your local bookseller by searching for poetry-friendly bookstores by State at the National Poetry Map, or buy the book online at

Here are a few favorite poets of mine with new books:
Hanging Loose Press
by Sherman Alexie

Wesleyan University Press
by Rae Armantrout

See Jack
University of Pittsburgh Press
by Russell Edson

The Dance Most of All
Alfred K. Knopf
by Jack Gilbert

The Winter Sun
Graywolf Press
by Fanny Howe

Or to Begin Again
by Ann Lauterbach

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
by Charles Wright
There are dozens more at the site.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fanny Howe - Buddhists Like School and I Don’t

Poet Fanny Howe meditates on on the intersections of language, writing, and God in this excellent article from The Poetry Foundation. This is one of my favorite forms of non-fiction - the essay as art.

“Buddhists Like School and I Don’t.”

by Fanny Howe

God is unevolved and therefore cannot be apprehended by the senses, and as such exists as the witness of what is and also as light and energy, neither of which can be touched except by touching itself.

You put your hand to your cheek and touch your own light and your own energy.

You can call light and energy by the name of God if you want.

If you don’t want to say God, you must expect this choice to help make you lose your bearings until you understand how it moves around, shifting its position from being in you and of you, to being far from you.

Divinity—Trinity—What’s the difference?

No difference? No difference, no words. No word for difference, no identity. The genealogical and psychological search for an identity hitherto unnoticed, unknown, leads nowhere. The world is the unconscious but nature is not symbolic.

The quest for a condition that exists in two separate states is what confuses people. The person looking for “me” (a fixed identity) is also the same person looking for (a vapory word) “God.” This split search can only be folded into one in the process of working on something—whether it is writing, digging, planting, painting, teaching—with a wholeheartedness that qualifies as complete attention. In such a state, you find yourself depending on chance or grace to supply you with the focus to complete what you are doing. Your work is practical, but your relationship to it is illogical in the range of its possible errors and failures. You align yourself with something behind and ahead and above you that is geometric in nature; you lean on its assistance, realizing the inadequacy of your words.

Simone Weil said in “Human Personality”:
At the very best, a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it; and remains in ignorance of thoughts which involve the combination of a greater number. . . . The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.
Yes, the problem of vocabulary in these matters is obvious, because a solution to the problem is made of the words. Who doesn’t know that? If a bird has a problem with its whistle, it has to whistle to fix it.

All voices tend toward song, and the vibrations of music in the vocal cords deeply influence the way spoken words are heard.

Franz Rosenzweig noted:
In actual conversation, something happens. I do not know in advance what the other will say to me because I myself do not even know what I am going to say; perhaps not even whether I am going to say anything at all. . . . To need time means being able to anticipate nothing, having to wait for everything, being dependent on the other for one’s own.
I understand that what is heard is what is already in the past and the proof for that is measurable. Sound has to travel a little way; it has to overcome space in order to reach a pair of ears. In this space of time, a few distortions can occur. Anxiety, misunderstanding can intervene, even heartbreak. Indeed, words themselves can, if allowed, seem to lose their original intention on their way out of the mouth.

Socrates believed that the soul is eternal and contains knowledge of all things. In the trauma of birth, the soul loses its memory and has to start all over again. But in the experience of living and learning, it finds its way back to the truths that it lost.

* * *

Revision is the path taken by an autodidact like me. In revising you teach yourself. You find your own information buried in your body. It is still alive until you are not.

Right until he committed suicide in the end, Socrates had the high spirits of someone who knew (as in recognized) himself (his own condition).

One way to understand your own condition is to write something and spend a long time revising it. The errors, the hits and misses, the excess—erase them all.

Now read what you have rewritten out loud in front of some other people. They will hear something that you didn’t say aloud. They will hear what was there before you began revising and even before the words were written down. You won’t hear anything but the humming of your own vocal cords.

It’s the same as what Remy de Gourmont in his “Dust for Sparrows” wrote from the point of view of the listener:
Never have literary works seemed so beautiful to me as when at a theatre or in reading, because of lack of habit or lacking a complete knowledge of the language, I lost the meaning of many phrases. This threw about them a light veil of somewhat silvery shadow, making the poetry more purely musical, more ethereal.
Even while I have gone back over the words, I have never been sure of the need for it, the use of writing at all, the value of any completed poem, or the idea that writing might lead somewhere. I haven’t really known what I was doing, only that I would keep on doing it. It is a form of promiscuity and wanderlust. I could just as well have been a barmaid or a mailman. I could just as well throw all these papers in a river before sniffing some helium and letting go, because it was in the end only a part of the natural world.
Go read the rest of the article, which originally appeared in Poetry, March 2009.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Allen Ginsberg - Mind Writng Slogans

These are great writing slogans from Allen Ginsberg, based on the Buddhist Lojong slogans that seek to focus the mind outside of its normal conceptions.
They contain both Absolute Bodhicitta suggestions to expand one's viewpoint, such as Find the consciousness you had before you were born and Treat everything you perceive as a dream, and Relative Bodhicitta suggestions for relating to the world in a more constructive way, such as Be grateful to everyone or When everything goes wrong, treat disaster as a way to wake up.
A lot of the quotes come from Buddhist teachers, both well-known (Chogyam Trungpa) and lesser known (Gelek Rinpoche), as well as fellow poets and artists.

I found these at Moonchild.


"First Thought is Best in Art, Second in Other Matters."
— William Blake

I Background (Situation, Or Primary Perception)

  1. "First Thought, Best Thought" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  2. "Take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  3. "The Mind must be loose." — John Adams
  4. "One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception." — Charles Olson, "Projective Verse"
  5. "My writing is a picture of the mind moving." — Philip Whalen
  6. Surprise Mind — Allen Ginsberg
  7. "The old pond, a frog jumps in, Kerplunk!" — Basho
  8. "Magic is the total delight (appreciation) of chance." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  9. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." –– Walt Whitman
  10. "...What quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature? ... Negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." — John Keats
  11. "Form is never more than an extension ofcontent. — Robert Creeley to Charles Olson
  12. "Form follows function." — Frank Lloyd Wright*
  13. Ordinary Mind includes eternal perceptions. — A. G.
  14. "Nothing is better for being Eternal

  15. Nor so white as the white that dies of a day." — Louis Zukofsky
  16. Notice what you notice. — A. G.
  17. Catch yourself thinking. — A. G.
  18. Observe what’s vivid. — A. G.
  19. Vividness is self-selecting. — A. G.
  20. "Spots of Time" — William Wordsworth
  21. If we don’t show anyone we’re free to write anything. –– A. G.
  22. "My mind is open to itself." — Gelek Rinpoche
  23. "Each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound." — Charles Reznikoff

II Path (Method, Or Recognition)

  1. "No ideas but in things." "... No ideas but in the Facts." — William Carlos Williams
  2. "Close to the nose." — W. C. Williams
  3. "Sight is where the eye hits." — Louis Zukofsky
  4. "Clamp the mind down on objects." — W C. Williams
  5. "Direct treatment of the thing ... (or object)." — Ezra Pound, 1912
  6. "Presentation, not reference." — Ezra Pound
  7. "Give me a for instance." — Vernacular
  8. "Show not tell." — Vernacular
  9. "The natural object is always the adequate symbol." — Ezra Pound
  10. "Things are symbols of themselves." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  11. "Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.

  12. He who would do good for another must do it in minute particulars.
    General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel Hypocrite and Flatterer
    For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars." — William Blake
  13. "And being old she put a skin / on everything she said." — W. B. Yeats
  14. "Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better." — Jack Kerouac
  15. "Details are the Life of Prose." — Jack Kerouac
  16. Intense fragments of spoken idiom best. — A. G.
  17. "Economy of Words" — Ezra Pound
  18. "Tailoring" — Gregory Corso
  19. Maximum information, minimum number of syllables. –– A. G.
  20. Syntax condensed, sound is solid. — A. G.
  21. Savor vowels, appreciate consonants. — A. G.
  22. "Compose in the sequence of musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." — Ezra Pound
  23. "... awareness ... of the tone leading of the vowels." — Ezra Pound
  24. "... an attempt to approximate classical quantitative meters . . . — Ezra Pound
  25. "Lower limit speech, upper limit song" — Louis Zukofsky
  26. "Phanopoeia, Melopoeia, Logopoeia." — Ezra Pound
  27. "Sight. Sound & Intellect." — Louis Zukofsky
  28. "Only emotion objectified endures." — Louis Zukofsky

III Fruition (Result, Or Appreciation)

  1. Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath
  2. "Alone with the Alone" — Plotinus
  3. Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Ku (Japanese) = Emptiness
  4. "What’s the sound of one hand clapping?" — Zen Koan
  5. "What’s the face you had before you were born?" — Zen Koan
  6. Vipassana (Pali) = Clear Seeing
  7. "Stop the world" — Carlos Castafleda
  8. "The purpose of art is to stop time." — Bob Dylan
  9. "the unspeakable visions of the individual — J. K.
  10. "I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly." — Chuang Tzu (Tr. Burton Watson)
  11. "Candor" —Whitman
  12. "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." — W. Shakespeare
  13. "Contact" — A Magazine, Nathaniel West & W. C. Williams, Eds.
  14. "God appears & God is Light

  15. To those poor souls who dwell in Night.
    But does a Human Form Display
    To those who Dwell in Realms of Day." — W. Blake
  16. "Subject is known by what she sees." -A. G.
  17. Others can measure their visions by what we see. –– A. G.
  18. Candor ends paranoia. — A. G.
  19. "Willingness to be Fool." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  20. "Day & Night / you’re all right." — Gregory Corso
  21. Tyger: "Humility is Beatness." — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche & A. G.
  22. Lion: "Surprise Mind" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche &A.G.
  23. Garuda: "Crazy Wisdom Outrageousness" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  24. Dragon: "Unborn Inscrutability" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  25. "To be men not destroyers" — Ezra Pound
  26. Speech synchronizes mind & body — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  27. "The Emperor unites Heaven & Earth" — Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
  28. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" — Shelley
  29. "Make it new" — Ezra Pound
  30. "When the music changes, the walls of the city shake" — Plato
  31. "Every third thought shall be my grave — W Shakespeare, The Tempest
  32. "That in black ink my love may still shine bright." –– W. Shakespeare, Sonnets
  33. "Only emotion endures" — Ezra Pound
  34. "Well while I’m here I’ll

  35. do the work —
    and what’s the Work?
    To ease the pain of living.
    Everything else, drunken
    dumbshow." — A. G.
  36. "... Kindness, sweetest of the small notes in the world’s ache, most modest & gentle of the elements entered man before history and became his daily connection, let no man tell you otherwise." — Carl Rakosi
  37. "To diminish the mass of human and sentient sufferings." — Gelek Rinpoche
Naropa Institute, July 1992
New York, March 5, 1993
New York, June 27, 1993

* Quoting his mentor; Louis Sullivan.

Allen Ginsberg "Mind Writing Slogans" copyright © 1992, 1993 by Allen Ginsberg, in What Book: Buddha Poems From Beat To Hiphop, Gary Gach, ed., copyright © 1998 by Gary Gach. Parallax Press.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Jack Gilbert - Waiting and Finding

Periodically, I will be posting great poems by great poets that have been published in the BIG magazines, such as The New Yorker. Enjoy.

Waiting and Finding

by Jack Gilbert March 2, 2009

While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tomtoms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review - Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry, Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

The New Republic reviews a translation of three centuries of Russian poetry by the renowned author Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin. Bad title, but interesting review.
Vlad the Impaler

Post Date Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry

Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin

(Harcourt, 441 pp., $40)


Vladimir Nabokov, who throughout his career cultivated his reputation as the most famous literary exile since Ovid, was recognized in his lifetime not only for his novels but also for his authority on Russian cultural and aesthetic matters. He gave packed lectures extolling Tolstoy and annihilating Dostoevsky, and published dozens of translations of Russian verse. This new collection contains translations of lyric and narrative poetry from just after his arrival in America in 1940, when he was most in need of money, through his years of teaching Russian and European literature at Wellesley and Cornell, to his last years in Montreux, where he settled with his family in 1961 after the unexpectedly great success of Lolita. Nearly twenty poets are represented, including all the major poets who made up the first great period of Russian verse in the nineteenth century--Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Fet--reaching back to the mid-eighteenth century polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, the "godfather of the iambic tetrameter," and forward to the Soviet-era Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava, who died in Paris in 1997.

In an essay on translating Russian poetry, a famous scholar of Slavic literature once deplored the fashion for translations that retain the meter and the rhyme of the original at the expense of complete semantic fidelity. "As a result," he wrote, "the canned music of rhymed versions is enthusiastically advertised, and accepted, and the sacrifice of textual precision applauded as something rather heroic, whereas only suspicion and bloodhounds await the gaunt, graceless literalist groping around in despair for the obscure word that would satisfy impassioned fidelity and accumulating in the process a wealth of information which only makes the advocates of pretty camouflage tremble or sneer." The scholar's comments present a remarkable indictment of many of Nabokov's translations in Verses and Versions, which is full of limply rhymed quatrains and baffling torsions of sense. But the scholar who wrote that article, in 1965, was Vladimir Nabokov.

At a certain point during his career as a translator, Nabokov underwent a violent shift in sensibility--from formal translations in which the meter and the rhyme of the original are preserved but not the exact sense, to literal translations based on word-for-word fidelity. Verses and Versions is in part the story of that shift. Owing to the editorial choices, however, the book fails to illustrate vividly what was for Nabokov a momentous renunciation, which put him at odds with much of the literary establishment, and pegged him as an eccentric in the grip of a nostalgic obsession, and set off a bitter and remarkably enduring literary feud between himself and the man who was arguably his closest literary companion.

Nabokov's translations can be divided roughly into two groups: formal translations up to about 1950, and literal translations after 1950. The shift took place while Nabokov was in the process of translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the novel in verse considered to be the greatest poetic accomplishment in the Russian language. Nabokov, fed up with the misleading and inelegant versions of the book he saw all around him, began translating Onegin as early as 1945. At first he intended to adhere to the trademark "Onegin Stanza" form (fourteen lines of iambic tetrameter with a specific order of masculine and feminine rhymes) that Pushkin invented, and in which he composed the entire work. But having rendered several stanzas in accordance with the original form, but with multiple additions and flourishes not in the original (the way he had been translating poetry for years before), Nabokov concluded that only a truly literal version would not "traduce the author."

Over the course of the next two decades, during which he published, among other works, Lolita and Pnin, Nabokov worked intermittently on a scrupulously word-for-word version. He finally published it in 1964, accompanied by a second volume containing five hundred pages of extensive and fastidious notes on everything from the dishes consumed by Pushkin's characters to the dance steps to the exact locations of their strolls (which, Nabokov is careful to note, were some of his own favorite spots as a child). And it was Nabokov's genius to recognize in his own obsessive project the structure for his funniest and most tragic book, Pale Fire, told in the form of a long poem by the invented poet John Shade, followed by hundreds of pages of deranged footnotes to the poem by the scholar Charles Kinbote, who believes himself to be the exiled king of a tiny Eastern European state called Zembla.

About half of Verses and Versions, a piecemeal chimera of a book, is composed of translations of lyrics by Pushkin and his contemporaries that can be found among the five hundred pages of commentary to Nabokov's translation of Onegin. Then there are the slim volumes of nineteenth-century verse that he prepared for New Directions and Lindsay Drummond; and the excerpts from Strong Opinions, his collection of interviews and articles; and the liner notes to an album of arias sung by his son Dmitri. What is new here is a handful of unpublished iambic scraps salvaged from the far-flung Nabokov archives, many of them only a few lines long. Certainly an argument can be made for thoroughness, but must we include everything found in the archives? When the boxes of Isaac Bashevis Singer's archives were opened, half a pastrami sandwich fell out.

Here are few sample stanzas from the book, the first from a humorous poem by Pushkin, translated literally:

Of the four-foot iambus I've grown
In it writes everyone. To boys this
'Tis high time to abandon ...

The next example, translated similarly according to the original form, is from Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), who lived his life in a frenzy, wrote some of the most purely melodic lines in Russian poetry, and died in the Caucasus at the age of twenty-seven in a needless duel which, in accordance with the uncanny ability of Russian poets to predict their own deaths, he had already anticipated in his novel A Hero of Our Time:

Farewell! And be wise, do not grieve:
our love was too short for regret,
and hard as we found it to part
harder still would it be if we met.

And finally, in literal translation, a stanza from a poem addressed to Russia by Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921), the prophetic and hypnotic lyric poet who harbored mystical dreams of the Revolution and died in poverty and disillusionment:

I know not how to pity you
but tenderly I carry my cross;
you may abandon your brigandish
to any wizard you choose.

I can imagine three sets of readers for Verses and Versions: people interested in Nabokov, people interested in Russian literature, and--these may be hit the hardest--people interested in poetry. The first group, presumably coming to the book because of their admiration for Nabokov's prose, will be dismayed to encounter pages and pages of dull constructions and lackluster diction. Nabokov's novels, enjoyed for their linguistic virtuosity, induce at their best the sensation of being taken in by the work of a rare illusionist. Verses and Versions, by contrast, produces the discomfiting feeling of watching a Houdini promise to escape from an iron safe wrapped in chains and submerged in a tank of water, and then get tangled in his own chains until he barely makes it to the surface before he drowns. So this group of readers will have to make due with a few signature lines from Nabokov's brief introductions to each poet (Baron Anton Antonovich Delvig "curiously combined the classical strain and the folksy one, the amphora and the samovar ..."). For those concerned with Nabokov as a translator, this volume is a bonanza of yesterday's mashed potatoes. The best antidote for them would be to go and re-read Pale Fire.

For the second set of readers, the ones interested in Russian literature hoping for a representative selection of Russian poetry, the book is also disappointing. Nabokov's choice of what to translate was guided by the demands of specific projects or incidental concerns, and as a result the full constellation of themes and voices, so bright and unique in Russian poetry, is lost. Instead the reader is presented with a cache of bizarre, monotonous, and tepid lyrics whose relation to each other is obscure at best. This is too bad, because the tiny group of plaintive men who single-handedly created Russian poetry in the nineteenth century were remarkably linked in their themes of friendship, tears, auguries, desolation, the figure of death as a woman, visiting familiar and long-forgotten places, ghosts, hatred of the mob, hoping to be understood by the next generation, prophecy, mental illness, and everyone dying in a duel or in Baden-Baden.

If this second group of readers has not yet lost hope in Russian verse, there are alternatives: for the nineteenth century there is the collection of translations by Alan Myers called An Age Ago. (The book includes a foreword by Joseph Brodsky, one of the poet's most acute and economical essays, on the acceleration of time and the twentieth century's suspicion that everything had already been expressed by the nineteenth.) Myers's versions rhyme and scan, but they relate their sorrows and joys accompanied by at least a few chords on the piano, and sometimes by a violin. An Age Ago is also organized so that the themes echo very clearly.

Read the rest of this review.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Celeste Thompson: Dreams of Fishing

Dreams of Fishing

Finally, evidence for God in a mosquito’s buzz.
Male D plus female G creates a perfect fifth,
overtone begets mating.

Do you know Al Jolson? Of course.
Like I know Django Reinhardt.
Esteemed. Finesse. Scone crumb on your saucer,
creamed dill on your spoon. I want.

There’s poetry everywhere, my boss texts from Minneapolis.
Which hat to take fishing? Suddenly I’m tall.

* * *

~ Celeste Thompson lives in Hillsboro, OR, where she blogs Ardent Shanty and plays the banjo. I have been trying to get her work here for over a year, so this is a treat. You can buy rabbit fur purse, her first collection, through Amazon.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Judith Skillman: Four Poems

The Death of Pan

We were only playing in the pasture,
wearing a patchwork of sun and sky,
ragged with the coming autumn.
That is to say we didn’t mean
to drown out the sound of his flute—
our piper, nor meddle with the conch shell
that caused our fathers to panic.

And his Arcadia—
how we adored her. We made wreaths
of wildflowers, twined tendrils of her hair
around our stubby hands as we brought
her one more gift: a leaf bloodied with color,
a spare sapling, an agate choked in quartz.

Until the river-god,
happy as ever to be plunged in cold,
took him from our arms and flung
his instrument against the rocky shore.
The syrinx shattered into seven reeds or nine,
and we, still infatuated with the echoes
our voices made in that valley, called out
to one another, not so much from loneliness
as the excitement of recitation.

Light breezes
dog us as we go forward in reconnaissance,
teaching one another how to suffer
being schooled by lechers. Our appetite
for the one called Pitys—another nymph
loved by him, who turned into a pine tree
to escape his overtures,
runs nil to none.

* * *

Lemon Balm

The first stem topples
as if in slow motion.
The rest go quickly,
followed by the familiar—
her mother’s dust motes

rising into September air
heady with wax.
Where did it come from,
this need to cut back
and down, to insinuate

orange-handled clippers
gloved with the casual
obstinacy of the guillotine.
And now there is no place
left to look for letters,

for the secret whispers
and shared blood
of women as good as sisters
pledging fidelity
to one another.

She makes her way
through the thicket,
wearing the queasy face
of grand motherhood.
This notion that she

would remain the same person
all her life: snip snip—
even that tractable fact
replaced by the memory
of a memory of a dream.

* * *

A Selfish Death
for Kurt

What you said
about an airplane crash—
I wouldn’t want
to share my death
with hundreds of other
screaming humans….
made me think of death
as something private,
perhaps a gift given
in plain brown wrapping.

The same gift, regifted.
I liked that train
of thought so I followed
it here, to my room
where morning comes
always too soon
and too late,
bringing the headache
that’s won’t quit my temples
even given caffeine
and Tramadol.

Another Pacific front
comes in waves, fat raindrops
blown against south-facing
windows, a carnage
of twigs and green leaves.
I like that so much
is hidden: three s’s
in your name. Scandinavia,
you said. Your signature—
another mystery:
two o’s—large spirals
with space for some kind
of treacherous treble clef
in between.

You’ll take death quietly,
away from traffic,
a cat carrying the bloodied
mouse by the nape, holing up
to test the tortured animal
once more with its claws.

* * *

The Travails

They welcome you in, scarred, scuffed brown as leaves
piling at curb and porch. They have no reason
for being what they are except perhaps in memory
where one looks back and sees the self dressed in a hospital gown,
legs dangling off the flat cot of a bed where the tortures happen
in a deep sleep. They hound you like the seasons, one on the heels of the other…

* * *

~ Judith Skillman’s most recent book is “Heat Lightning, New and Selected Poems 1986 – 2006,” Silverfish Review Press. “The Carnival of All or Nothing” is forthcoming from Cervéna Barva Press in March, 2009. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, JAMA, The Iowa Review, The Midwest Quarterly, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She has been a frequent Writer in Residence at Centrum.

Lilya Oliferuk: Two Poems

Hitch-Hiking with Mushrooms

I am hitching a ride to Kiev
with a friendly furniture delivery
man who speaks the funny dialect
of the village folk. The roads are
rough and my new friend jovial, telling
me about his wife and his garden when
we stop for a woman who got
old too soon and two buckets of
fresh wild mushrooms. She sits
between us and her rubber boots
squeak gently. A happy old man,
a sullen woman nearing middle age
and a world weary young girl -- we look
each other over carefully, we have the luxury of time!
The old man laughs.
Look at you, so young, so bleak!
The world is bright and
fresh faced on mornings like this, the
herons rejoice on telephone poles!
We part ways on the outskirts
of Kiev, a happy old man two
joyful young women and two
buckets of fresh wild mushrooms.

* * *

Abandoning Christ

Half of this country
is empty, the Dniepr dotted
with vacant villages,
overgrown and forgotten
the young ones move to cities
and the old ones die and
are forgotten
I venture into their
homes, push through
the sweet smelling grass
still wet with dew and
find remnants of
their abandoned faith
Christ propped
up against the wall,
neglected and worm
eaten but he calls
out still, I forgive
I forgive

* * *

~ Lilya Oliferuk, a student of my former teacher, Bill Hotchkiss, sent me these poems.I have no other information.

Michelle Kern: On Awakening


We see the two of us

In the field like oxen.

The mourning doves

Bear the tortured war

In the field like oxen,

We see the two of us.

* * *

~ Michelle Kern is currently working to put together the Sixth Annual Sarah Lawrence College Poetry Festival, the largest free poetry festival in New York State. It will feature eighteen nationally known poets, such as Rita Dove, CK Williams, Jorie Graham, Tom Sleigh, and Linda Gregg. For more information about the festival's events and readings taking place April 24-26, 2009, go to link:

Jason Arbegast: Calvary


A demon-being waits
beneath a moist stairwell
in a musty, mothball basement,
with machete fangs
and crude, oiled fur,
its jade eyes
and brigand teeth
like a rapist
in a minatory midnight moon,
rejecting our Will,
turning us against us,
to guard a second stairway
descending to the Being
that which we might become.

* * *


The forgotten stone
was once chiseled,
but like a talcum tale
age whittled
at the inscriptions
on its ivory face
in tattered grass
despite the keeper’s efforts.

A neighboring statue,
sculpted and finished
to a linoleum sheen,
eclipses the sun
while the keeper,
with hair cycling
through a white-scale rainbow,
fends the foliage,
ignoring yesterday’s
never noticing
time’s slight smoothing
of refined cuts.

* * *

~ Jason Arbegast a graduate of the creative writing program at SUNY Oswego, with no prior publications. This is his first appearance in Elegant Thorn Review.

Donovan White: A Poem

Deaf first

We’re left without connecting strings -
A painting without solid lines
Whose clash of color thins to wine.

A fog enshrouds a blue Monet
Where waterlilies leave wet feet
And all else fades in gray retreat.

It did not all, does not all go
At once, or even bunched or paired.
It goes in chunks, mad cow despair.

The rest will not work just quite right
A synapse fails into a gap
Where meaning has no shape, runs flat.

But not just deaf, the rest go fast -
The sight, the taste, the touch, the smell -
And leave behind a fractured hell.

The hidden sense that lies in clouds
Where scented arm and tremored hand
Stretch out to clasp a frenzied strand,

We only lose the ones we love,
The rest slip off unheard, unseen.
What’s left is jangly space between.

* * *

~ Donovan White lives in West Townsend, Massachusetts. This is his first time in Elegant Thorn Review.

Carand Burnet: A Poem

a litany

Tonight, it pours as if God has casually scattered sequins
upon the ground
Tonight, I can't count how many times
I have been knitted and tucked away while the world seems to be ignited,
flaming, oh tonight, not now,
Does the wind howl here only for itself, or helm its way
tossing through the chevroned trees? for they never intend
on dying out
Tonight, all I can do is be the child who soaks for hours
after her grandmother has passed
and years after
that stench of hotel water reminds the face of it while you wash at home
home only resembles her more
Tonight, to think of all those people who die in cars
pilgrims on the Brookshire piled into ravines
this tunnel vision will do no good.

* * *

Carand Burnet is a painting student at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire and is originally from South Carolina. This is her first appearance in Elegant Thorn Review.

C. K. Williams - All Around the World the Same Song

A great article from one of my favorite poets, C.K. Williams, posted at the Poetry Foundation site. He muses here on the solitary work of the artist, which is not loneliness, but rather, a communion with other artists from the past, as exemplified by the poets whose work lives on in the books on his desk.

All Around the World the Same Song

How globe-trotting poetries may not beat scrawls in a cave.

by C. K. Williams

A few years ago, when I gave a reading at one of a series of conferences an old friend of mine organizes for people from various fields—scientists, inventors, architects, designers, show-biz folk, and even one poet, me—my friend said to the audience, after I was finished, something about how moved he was to think of all the years I’d spent, had to spend, working by myself, all alone and, he implied, lonely. I was startled: I’m quite a gregarious person, and sometimes I do become lonely, but it’s something that never happens to me during the hours I’m at work. When I’m at my desk, my room is filled, overflowing with the presence of a vast number of poets I love, and some others I don’t know at all, whose books or poems have recently arrived but who are there waiting for me to become acquainted with and possibly love, too.

Here are some of the poets that are with me on my desk or the table next to it as I write this: two different translations of Osip Mandelstam’s poems; a book of translations of Giacomo Leopardi; a collection of Thomas Wyatt; another of Gerard Manley Hopkins; an anthology entitled New European Poets, which includes poems from every possible nook and cranny of Europe; a book of essays of Eugenio Montale, as well as his last book of poetry, It Depends, the astonishing singularity of which I only recently came to appreciate; Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies; a collection of Blake; Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire, in French; a book of translations of early Celtic poetry, with those magical strings of modifiers; a translation by Marilyn Hacker of a contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette, whose work I’m not familiar with, but which I plan to read soon; and several anthologies of English and American poetry.

What I find striking about this list is how many different languages, cultures, and moments of history are represented in it. When I first began to write poems at university, we were offered in our courses no poetry whatsoever in languages other than English, except very rarely as exercises in language classes. Still, somehow the first two poets to whom I found myself intimately attached were the French poet Charles Baudelaire and the German, Rainer Maria Rilke. Furthermore, when I was released from university (or perhaps I should say paroled, since I’ve ended back in academe for my livelihood), I found myself during the first years of my apprenticeship, which seems never to have really ended, spending almost all my time with poets from languages and cultures other than English and American. To mention just a few, there were Pablo Neruda; César Vallejo; Federico García Lorca; Miguel Hernández, in Spanish; Baudelaire, again, still, French; and Rilke, German, still as well. Then a little later Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Follain, Francis Ponge; the Polish poets Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Rosewicz, and Zbigniew Herbert; Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Pier Paolo Pasolini from Italy; the Alexandrian Greek Constantine P. Cavafy; Tomas Tranströmer, from Sweden; the Russians Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mandelstam; the classical Chinese, Du Fu and Li Po particularly; as well as the centuries of Japanese haiku masters; even quite a lot of poetry from cultures without a written tradition which were being collected and published or republished around then. And this, as I say, is a very partial accounting.

The question that comes to me now is: why? English certainly has a great poetic tradition, it might actually be the very greatest, so why was I driven so fervently to other languages and cultures? And I should add that I certainly wasn’t alone in this: there was a terrific amount of translating and reading of translations of poetry going on at that time. Many literary journals in the early sixties were crowded with translations from every place in the world, and for a while I think there were as many books of translations being published as poetry in English. Again: why?

I’ve thought sometimes that there were extra-literary reasons for it. Much of this turning outward, this searching for new poetic resources, came during the years of the cold war when America took on, or had imposed on it by circumstances, an imperial sense of itself, an identity of power from which we have suffered and caused much suffering since. There might be something to this, and something also to the fact that there were such profound social changes underway in race and gender relations in America at that time, but I’m not really sure about how much either of these were the reasons for what was happening in poetry. Perhaps because so much of my attention has been devoted to poetry—learning to write it, and learning about it—I’d feel disingenuous if I didn’t limit my reflections to the areas in which I can be less speculative.

It’s one of the miracles of art that no matter how many times we experience a poem, painting, or piece of music, no matter how much time we spend reveling in it, analyzing it, each time we return to it, it feels utterly spontaneous, seeming to be improvised anew as we experience it. Furthermore, if a work even on a tenth reading or viewing or listening, or a hundredth, doesn’t convey that quality of freshness, of renewal, it will seem moribund, perishing before our eyes like a fish on a beach.

The truth is that the creation of art is laborious, or if that’s not quite the word, it certainly is the case that all art is generated out of the necessities of an aesthetic system, its demands and restrictions, as well as its opportunities, its propulsive energy. Such systems are dauntingly intricate, though fortunately many of the variables of an art form will have been absorbed into what might be called the unconscious of the artist before a creative act is undertaken.
Read the rest of this fine article.