Friday, January 30, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Rafael Alberti


I've been thinking about ancestry and roots, and how we get to the places we find ourselves. Rafael Alberti had Italian and Irish ancestry but his home was Spain. He was a painter, a playwright, and a one-time Communist, but he is best known as one of the major Spanish poets of the 20th century. Here is a poem he wrote, translated, and then in its original, beautiful language. Look here for more biographical information.

by Rafael Alberti (1902-1999)
For you I left my woods, my lost
Grove, my sleepless dogs,
My important years, those banished
Almost to my life’s winter.
I left a tremor, a shock
A brilliance of un-extinguished fire,
I left my shadow on the desperate
Blood-stained eyes of farewell.
I left sad doves beside a river,
Horses in the sand of the arena,
I left the scent of the sea, I left to see you.
For you, I left everything that was mine.
Give me, Rome, in exchange for my pains,
All I have left in order to attain you.
Dejé por ti mis bosques, mi perdida
arboleda, mis perros desvelados,
mis capitales años desterrados
hasta casi el invierno de la vida.

Dejé un temblor, dejé una sacudida,
un resplandor de fuegos no apagados,
dejé mi sombra en los desesperados
ojos sangrantes de la despedida.

Dejé palomas tristes junto a un río,
caballos sobre el sol de las arenas,
dejé de oler la mar, dejé de verte.

Dejé por ti todo lo que era mío.
Dame tú, Roma, a cambio de mis penas,
tanto como dejé para tenerte.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Focus and Layers

I saw a painting a couple of weeks ago in New York, at the MOMA. I didn’t note the artist’s name; I didn’t take a snapshot with my phone. If I’d known how much it would linger in my consciousness, I probably would have, but I did not and so, I did not. I have spent too much time the past couple of days googling and perusing MOMA’s online directory of exhibits for the image. After contemplation, I think maybe it’s best I don’t see it again. But I’ll describe it for you (or at least, my sketchy memory of it).
It is a realistic painting, like a still life or a portrait. The subject is a single sheath of paper, an advertisement for a bird feeder (or something related to gardening?!?). So there is the newsprint, top to bottom, different fonts for the heading and the text, inserted blurbs with exclamatory selling points. There are some pictures—drawn or graphic, not photographic (I think). Basically, it’s an ad like you’d see in a magazine. Lots of detail, countless painstaking brushstrokes.
And yet. There are also some sections the artist has chosen NOT to show in focus. There are circular sections that give the impression of a drop of water—whatever is beneath is blurred—and sections that are sharply focused, so that the exercise of “reading” the painting requires that you mentally fill in pieces, here and there. My eyes traveled from section to section, here picking up a fragment of print, there ingesting a dark-smudged image, my mind piecing it all together as I went along. It was like a symphony of visual input, all building to a complete message.
I’ve been contemplating the layers of this painting, from its start as (perhaps) a single page ripped from a magazine to the impression it made on me, a visitor to MOMA. The artist translated her impressions of the initial image into the painting. She made certain choices as to which parts she’d put in sharp focus and which ones she’d blur. I took away my impressions, further complicated by weeks of distance, the frivolity of memory (and forgetting), supplemented by my occasional musings on the painting, and the topic of artistic layers and focus.
So. Isn’t it a frustration and yet, an ecstatic joy, that each visitor to the MOMA will see this painting, brand new and with their own lens, that they will choose, as the artist chose, what to focus on and what to pass over, that they will leave with their own version of the piece (also: the story, the song, the poem, etc.)? And these layers are a communication we can share, and the focus is our individual light in this sometimes dark world. All because of an advertisement for a bird feeder, in the pages (perhaps) of a magazine.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Charles Wright


I realized this morning that I haven't featured a male poet for a while (oops!). So here's a good one: Charles Wright, named the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2014. Biographical information on this esteemed writer here.
Clear Night
by Charles Wright
Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky.
Moon-fingers lay down their same routine
On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys.
Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.

I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.   
I want to be entered and picked clean.

And the wind says “What?” to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say “What?” to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.   
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Claudia Emerson


Claudia Emerson is best known for collection, Late Wife, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. These poems were inspired by the dissolution of her first marriage, the solitude that followed, and her second marriage. "Artifact" is from this collection. She was a professor of English and the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and a contributing editor of the literary magazine Shenandoah. Emerson's birthday was this week; she would have been 58. Her obituary is here.

by Claudia Emerson (1957-2014)

For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping only the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same

box, those photographs you still avoid,
and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed–
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Flannery O'Connor on "The Nature and Aim of Fiction"


Recently, I read a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s essays called Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Aside from the fact that I really love that term—“occasional prose”—I also have been known to love me some Flannery O’Connor fiction, so I was very interested to read her opinions on writing and writers. The articles and essays reproduced in this volume were most often presented by Miss O’Connor to writing classes or groups at universities or churches, and they’ve been condensed where duplicity occurred. (She’d speak from time to time, often on the same themes.) Sometimes her focus is somewhat narrow: “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” or “Catholic Writers;” occasionally, her concerns seemed dated to this modern reader. But the cornerstone of the collection, at least to me, is the essay titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” O’Connor’s insights about the creative process, her strong opinions about the teaching of creative writing, her commiseration with anyone sharing the “terrible experience” of writing a novel—this essay alone is worth the price of admission.

O’Connor manages to demystify and mystify the art of writing, all at once. “In the first place,” she says, “there is no such thing as THE writer.” She insists that there is no one way to write, and no one type of writer. She eschews writers who are interested in money or prestige. She throws out the term “art,” and immediately clarifies with a down-to-earth definition of it. “The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.”

Yet, when she gets into the brass tacks of the process and what it’s like for her, she teeters between concrete advice and idealistic intangibles (which is exactly what writing is like). In a story, she says, “specific characters and events influence each other to form a meaningful narrative.” Some writers, she says, aim to write stories but what they end up writing is something else altogether. So then they try to learn something about technique, which, “in the minds of many is something rigid, something like a formula.” This is wrong thinking, she says. “In the best stories (technique) is something organic, something that grows out of the material.”

And then it’s back to the practical. She discusses the necessity for fiction to be rooted in the senses. Avoid abstractions, she says. Good advice. Only don’t go too far with a naturalistic approach, she warns, because “in a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement.” Here is where, for me, her ideas break out and grow wings. O’Connor talks about the sort of vision required by writers, that they should be “able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation. “In a good novel,” she says, “more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye.” (There is an inked-in exclamation mark here in my book.) Symbols are a way into this sort of vision, having a complex personal view is another. Fiction should feel like it is unfolding around the reader, as though the moment of creation is ongoing. And it’s this intangible, magical kind of thing that will have many writers nodding their head enthusiastically while reading this essay. It must have been very amusing for the writing classes who heard her speak. She’s very critical of creative writing classes in general and if you must have a writing teacher, she says, his job should be mostly to tell you what isn’t working. True writers have a gift, she believes, and a teacher “can’t put the gift into you, but if he finds it there, he can try to keep it from going in an obviously wrong direction.”

Although O’Connor kindly gives practical guidance at every point of this essay (“The novelist makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason.”), I didn’t believe for one moment that this would be a skill someone could cultivate, this seeing with a “complex personal view,” the sort of 3D vision a writer has to have “if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature.”

O’Connor’s worldview and her theories about the craft of writing fiction were certainly formed, as everyone’s are, by her unique life experience. She believed everything a writer needs to know is picked up surviving childhood. “If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.” What you can make out of this short essay is a lot, however, and I’d strongly recommend you have a read. “One thing that is always with the writer—no matter how long he has written or how good he is—is the continuing process of learning how to write.”

You can find O'Connor's essay in its entirety here.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Anna Hempstead Branch

New York City has inspired countless writers and because I'm spending a few days here this week, I thought I'd share one of these inspirations. Anna Hempstead Branch wrote much about her beloved city, including this poem, which is also a sonnet, in case you didn't notice. Miss Branch was also known for her abundant charity work and you can read a bit about her here.

New York at Sunrise
by Anna Hempstead Branch (1875-1937)

When with her clouds the early dawn illumes
Our doubtful streets, wistful they grow and mild
As if a sleeping soul grew happy and smiled,
The whole dark city radiantly blooms.
Pale spires lift their hands above the glooms
Like a resurrection, delicately wild,
And flushed with slumber like a little child,
Under a mist, shines forth the innocent Tombs.
Thus have I seen it from a casement high.
As unsubstantial as a dream it grows.
Is this Manhattan, virginal and shy,
That in a cloud so rapturously glows?
Ethereal, frail, and like an opening rose,
I see my city with an enlightened eye.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Poem for the Weekend: Judy Halebsky


Judy Halebsky is the author of two poetry collections, Sky=Empty, which won the New Issues prize and was a finalist for the California Book Award, and Tree Line, which is new and discussed here.

On the Coast

by Judy Halebsky

I forget how to measure with my hands
the length between the root cellar, the room at the back of the house, the
clothesline and the shore
I forget the dream fish, the tooth fairies, the angel's wings on me in the night
I forget how to nestle the worry
up into my lungs
tuck my memories into dark crevasses
with the tobacco and stale smoke
how I moved so far away, why I didn't study biology, where were the babies
when these weary bones could stay up all night
I try to remember
the dry texture of breadfruit in my mouth
the sand shifting into the shape of my body
our shadows in the night while I push you to push me
out into the water
that lasts forever
and then disappears
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka