Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When All Else Fails

In an earlier post (01-12-10, "Breathe In, Breathe Out: Read, Write"), I wrote that there was no such thing as a writer's block--only a reader's block--to emphasize the primacy of reading to writing. Here I will share the poets who never fail to inspire me, and some of the poems that have kicked in the muse as I have, in the words of Larry Levis, "stare[d] at the whorled grain of wood in this desk/I'm bent over until it's infinite," trying to "make it make it/Confess everything."

I read the following books at least once every couple of months, memorizing a new poem each time, and keep them on my desk for reference. Then whenever I need a particular attribute in a line or a poem, I consult these poets, whose work in that area I consider to be nonpareil. Here they are in the order that they happen to be stacked on my desk right now.

1. The Selected Levis, selected poems by Larry Levis.

Indispensable for learning how to write a long lyrical line. Read aloud these opening lines from "Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand":

One was a bay cowhorse from Piedra & the other was a washed-out palomino
And both stood at the rail of the corral & both went on aging
In each effortless tail swish, the flies rising, then congregating again

Around their eyes & muzzles & withers.

Their front teeth were by now yellow as antique piano keys & slanted to the angle
Of shingles on the maze of sheds & barn around them, their puckered

Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked from the limbs
Of trees all through winter like a comment of winter itself on everything
That led to it & found gradually the way out again.

In the slowness of time. Black time to white, & rind to blossom.
Deity is in the details & we are details among other details & we long to be

Teased out of ourselves. And become all of them.

2. Between Angels by Stephen Dunn

I often turn to Stephen Dunn, the master of shining the searchlight of extraordinary mindfulness onto the ordinary details and happenings of life, when I want to find pleasure in a turn or twist of thought as a kind of modern-day wisdom literature.

From Between Angels found in his volume of the same name (1989):

I shop in the cold
neon aisles
thinking of pleasure,
I kiss my paycheck

a mournful kiss goodbye
thinking of pleasure,
in the evening replenish

my drink, make a choice
to read or love or watch,
and increasingly I watch
I do not mind living

like this. I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything's true
at different times

in the capacious day,
just as I don't forget
and always forget

half the people in the world
are dispossessed.
Here chestnut oaks
and tenements

make their unequal claims.

Now hear these opening lines from "The Reverse Side," a poem that blooms from this one, a decade later in Different Hours, which won the Pulitzer Prize:

The Reverse Side
The reverse side also has a reverse side.--Japanese proverb

It's why when we speak a truth
some of us instantly feel foolish
as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
and there it is--the opposite
of what we said.

3. Astoria, by Malena Morling

Morling achieves astonishing connections between the dots of daily existence with a minimalist diction. Her worlds attract me like dark (as in invisible) matter that turns into brilliant light when you allow yourself to be pulled towards it. Here are the opening and closing lines to "If There Is Another World":

If there is another world,
I think you can take a cab there--
or ride your old bicycle
down Junction Blvd.
past the Paris Suites Hotel
with the Eiffel Tower on the roof
and past the blooming Magnolia and on--


And if you're inclined to, you can continue
in the weightless seesaw of the light
through a few more intersections
where people inside their cars
ass you by in space
and where you pass by them,
each car another thought--only heavier.

All is heavier than it seems in Morling's worlds. But you can only get there if you let go of everything and allow yourself to be pulled in by that "weightless seesaw of light."

4. Rose, The City in Which I Love You, and Book of my Nights, by Li-Young Lee.

For sheer musicality, Li-Young Lee is hard to beat. I turn to him whenever I want to hear major work in a minor key:

(From "Epistle"):

I know nothing,
but what I sang of once with others,
all of us standing in the vaulted room.

But there is wisdom
in the hour in which a boy
sits in his room listening

to the sound of weeping
coming from some other room
of his father's house...

...Who was weeping? Why?
Did the boy fall asleep?
Did he flee that house? Is he there now?

Before it all gets wiped away, let me say,
there is wisdom in the slender hour
which arrives between two shadows.

It is not heavenly and it is not sweet.
It is acompanied by steady human weeping,
and twin furrows between the brows,

but is is what I know,
and so am able to tell.

5. Barter, by Ira Sadoff

Almost the opposite of Morling and Lee, Sadoff's poems are high in thread-count and are, therefore, quite dense, but drape, oh, so beautifully. They are complex, jacquarded weaves that never completely give up all their colors and sheens.

Hear the opening lines to "An Uplifting Story":

It's so muggy out the person next door is clamming up
inside us. I say we because of cheap linguistic theory.
But I want to insert something personal, to get over
the rough spots, to get closer, to pan in, to take the long view,
to acquire professional assistance--these are other options.

--To Be Continued

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