Canadian Pennies, the Nation of Texas and a poem

April is National Poetry Month.  All sorts of organizations, schools, and institutions have all sorts of things planned to bring poetry into American life. But I heard a pretty cool one on March 30, a few days before it begins.

All Things Considered on NPR had done a story on the demise of the Canadian penny. (Canada is one of ten countries to jettison its lower denomination coins because they are just too expensive to make. The cost to make a U.S. penny is 2.41 cents–a losing proposition, but the U.S. has no immediate for its elimination, despite yearly pleas to do so. There must be a very strong “penny lobby.” ) All Things Considered had also done a faux “what-if” story on Texas seceding from the union and forming its own nation.  There were all kinds of speakers–serious and not–who took part in the piece.  My favorite was Kinky Friedman, the novelist, humorist, rockabilly guitarist who ran for governor a few years back. As foreign minister, Friedman felt that Texas should send a delegation to third world countries to teach the women how to have “big hair”!

So what has this to do with poetry?

Well, aside from its normal news day, All Things Considered also has taken on a poet in residence who follows the news team through a given day and then at the end must make up a poem on some aspect of that particular news day.

Yesterday there was Kevin Young  as the “news poet.” His task was to write a poem about anything he had witnessed, heard, learned throughout the day, and he chose the Texas story and the Canadian penny story. Here is the result, his poem “Anthem”:

ANTHEM

Kevin Young, NPR's Poet in Residence

Life is a near
death experience.

You can go
to hell, I’m goin

to Texas. It costs
more than a penny

to make a penny.
A dollar for your

thoughts, and a dream.
People have to breathe

where they live.
A town big

as her hair.
Aren’t there more

worlds than three?
Texas is finally

free, but not its lunch.
Cleave
can mean

to sunder
or to meet. The threat

must be imminent.
Look and see—

the daffodils, the rain sage
upright, the high

desert, fire warnings,
the scorched trees. Cloven,

clove, clave, cleavage,
cleft. Every day’s
a lottery. Hoods,
blood. The death

of the Canadian penny
means we all may need

to round up. Leaves,
left. Bereave,

bereft.

To understand many of the references you would have to have had heard the “TEXAS-AS-NATION” original story. (Click on link above). I was fortunate; I heard both the Texas story and then the poem.  (It seems he threw in a line about the Mega-Millions lottery madness that was happening that day, as well.) What a great way to end the week and to end the month.  To hear Kevin Young read the poem, click here. It’s pretty good for a poem that was made to order.

“It is always a matter, my darling, of life and death…”

Hans Christian Andersen's Window-sill Desk

“It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.”

I teach eighteen year old boys. They are very bright, quite talented, and well-situated so as to take advantage of the most amazing opportunities.  And yet they are still eighteen years old–filled with false bravado and insecurities, dreams and fears, uncertainties and confusion.

And this is the week!

In the States, April 1 is the arbitrary deadline that most colleges and universities set for informing applicants whether they have been accepted or rejected. The three or four days beforehand is a time period when these students believe that their lives sit in a balance.  I try to tell them–not flippantly–that it is not the end of the world, that perhaps rejection from one school and acceptance to a lesser-desired one might be the best thing to happen to them.  Who can tell?

But I have to remember as the poet says, at that age “it is always a matter of life and death.”

I don’t envy them their angst.  And I don’t downplay it. It is very real–and almost palpable in the school hallways. Instead I give them this poem, which I think is good for them to know.

The Writer by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

There are two important pieces in that last verse.  One, I realize that for them everything–a university rejection, a break-up with a girlfriend, a strike-out when a game is on the line–everything is “a matter of life or death.”  The second is that wish that the speaker “wished you before, but harder.”  Undoubtedly, they will be battered and smacked up against hard obstacles. Even the most fortunate among them–and they are mostly fortunate–will have moments where things seem hopeless.  And so, like the poet, I wish them well, I wish them smooth sailing, and I wish it even harder.

Book Review: Remainder by Tom McCarthy and You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis

My intention was to talk about one book a week, and originally I wanted that to happen on a Friday. But then, I realized that a large bulk of my outside reading–my non-class reading–is finished up over the weekend, so a posting on Monday makes much better sense. And since, this is the first venture out with a post about books, I figured I would start out with two.  Remainder by Tom McCarthy and You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake by Anna Moschovakis.

Tom McCarthy’s novel about a post-coma, post-trauma survivor who receives a “settlement” for eight-and-half million pounds is at times aggravating and at other times marvelous. The narrator has lost much of his memory after being hit by an untold object that placed him hospital and in a coma for an extended period. When he returns to “normal” life, he is given an enormous payout by the responsible parties. His only vivid memory, however, is one that involves an apartment house with a crack in the bathroom wall, a woman cooking liver in the flat below him, another tenant  playing piano in the room above, and a man working on his motorcycle in the courtyard. With an almost unlimited amount of money, he arranges to “re-enact” the entire memory, buying several buildings, re-doing them to the specifications that he remembers, and hiring actors around the clock to play the tenants that haunt his memory. From here, he begins to re-create other more recent occurrences.  McCarthy’s–and the narrator’s–attention to detail is precise and minute, a true feat of writing and observation, but Nicholas Baker did it much better in his earlier works.  The payoff for me, however, comes at the end of the novel. Early on, when the narrator first learns of his windfall, he is set in a circuitous route between a telephone booth and his home. He travels the distance back and forth three or four times within a short period, stymied by his forgetfulness and his demand for exactitude.  I enjoyed this scene; it verged on the slapstick; and I even related it to other people. At the end of the novel, the same type of scene is played out, though this time with more dire and impending consequences.  It brought the novel together. Remainder certainly contained moments of brilliance yet they were couched in much larger moments of cloudiness and frustration.

Anna Moschovakis’, award-winning book of poetry, You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake, is another work that has me of two minds.  The topics, the observations, the connections, all are intriguing, mind-jarring, fresh. Yet the poetry itself leaves me wanting. The book contains four long poems, plus a prologue and an epilogue.  They touch upon the contemporary and allude to the past. They are geographical and internal. They play with typography and they play with presumptions. They deal with our technological world and the examine our anthropological past.  Indeed, having read the collection at one sitting, my first reaction was to read it again, to try to wrap my head around the numerous ideas and permutations.

In the poem “The Human Machine” there is an extended conversation between “annabot” and “the human machine” which questions what we know about and how we love, questions the substance of spirit, dissects the more mechanical part of our being. In a letter to the Human Machine, Annabot writes:

Dear Human Machine,

Resolve, reason, ration, rational, rationale, rationalize

ratiocination, rationing, ratify, rather, rate,

ratios, ratio, rat

According to Peter Singer, a rat who is loved by a person

is more worthy of being pulled from a fire

than a person who is unloved by persons

This is taking into account Singer’s technical definition

of “person”

As I said, this is truly a marvelous book for thinking, for exploring, for discovering new ways of seeing the world.  It is a book that I have–and will again–return to.  However, I am not sure of the poetry of the pieces. I found them wanting.

“Modern Love”

The word “modern” is such a subjective term.  The 19th century poet, George Meredith, wrote a poetic sequence of 50 poems and entitled it Modern Love. The poems, each having 16 lines in 4 rhymed quatrains,  describe the relationship between a man and his wife.  It is “modern” for him because it is describing his current life in the 1860s.  Yet, it is extraordinarily modern to us, in that it is timeless.  It doesn’t seem filtered by the past, but emotionally contemporary. The distant couple, the repressed emotions, the sleepless night, these all seem to be taken from the late-20th-century, early -21st. I swear I have seen countless movies where a modern woman and modern man lie on their backs, thinking, wishing, wondering–the very emotions that Meredith attaches to his “modern lovers.”  All it needs is a plaintive soundtrack by  Bonnie “Prince” Billy.

Here is the first poem in the sequence.  Notice the dread, the sadness, the angst; it seems all so very real, very contemporary.

By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:
That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,
The strange low sobs that shook their common bed                                             
Were called into her with a sharp surprise,
And strangely mute, like little gasping snakes,
Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay
Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away
With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes
Her giant heart of Memory and Tears
Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat
Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet
Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,
By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.
Like sculptured effigies they might be seen
Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;
Each wishing for the sword that severs all.
——-
(For those who like the “biographical” strategy, check out George Meredith’s life. It makes the poem all the more poignant.)

Darwin’s Barnacles

This is a page from Darwin’s journals on which he illustrated some of the barnacles he was working on. Before coming out with his Origin of the Species, Darwin had spent the previous eight years studying barnacles, publishing two monographs on the subject in that period.

In the actual drawings, the colors pop with much more brilliance and clarity, each barnacle delicately and exquisitely drawn.  The petticoat-like, pastel-colored illustrations are so different from the connotations that the word “barnacle” brought to my mind.  I had always associated the word, “barnacle” with roughness, coarseness, ugliness, but apparently I was mistaken, for these drawings are nothing but beautiful.  I saw them at an exhibit on Darwin at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia.  The exhibit  was entitled “Dialogs with Darwin” and it included many of Darwin’s journals, scientific specimens, artifacts, personal effects and taxidermy.  Around the ceiling of the room was stenciled the words of a letter he wrote that began “There is a grandeur in this view of life … .”

The museum requested poetry to accompany the show, poetry inspired by one or more items in the show, poems that started a “dialog” with the items displayed and what they evoked.  I was drawn to the barnacles, to his life, to the death of his daughter, and to his discovery of emotion in animals.  The poem appears below:

There is grandeur in this view of life

There is grandeur in this view of life
where Victorian petticoats parachute along an ivory sheet,
barnacles floating on a women’s fashion page,
with precious pleats and twinkling color.

There is grandeur in this view of life
where elephants weep and moan and scream,
for the death of daughters, the loss of certainty,
where joy stretches true across a small chimp’s face.

There is grandeur in this view of life
where a captain’s gentleman unpacks
his crated books, his amateur’s tools
and sails to the bottom of a burgeoning world
beneath those stars from where these tracks begin.