Reading: The Ghost In The Martini by Antony Evan Hecht

Anthony Evan Hecht (1923-2004) was born in New York. His parents hated his ambition to become a poet. He fought in WW II and was traumatized by te horrific accounts of the French prisoners of Flossenburg, the concentration camp his division liberated, leading to a nervous breakdown in 1959. I read soemthing light today, it’s an ode to Martini:

The ghost in the martini
Over the rim of the glass
Containing a good martini with a twist
I eye her bosom and consider a pass,
Certain we’d not be missed

In the general hubbub.
Her lips, which I forgot to say, are superb,
Never stop babbling once (Aye, there’s the rub
But who would want to curb

Such delicious, artful flattery?
It seems she adores my work, the distinguished grey
Of my hair. I muse on the salt and battery
Of the sexual clinch, and say

Something terse and gruff
About the marked disparity in our ages.
She looks like twenty-three, though eager enough.
As for the famous wages

Of sin, she can’t have attained
Even to union scale, though you never can tell.
Her waist is slender and suggestively chained,
And things are going well.

The martini does its job,
God bless it, seeping down to the dark old id.
(“Is there no cradle, Sir, you would not rob?”
Says ego, but the lid

Is off. The word is Strike
While the iron’s hot.) And now, ingenuous and gay,
She is asking me about what I was like
At twenty. (Twenty, eh?)

You wouldn’t have liked me then,
I answer, looking carefully into her eyes.
I was shy, withdrawn, awkward, one of those men
That girls seemed to despise,

Moody and self-obsessed,
Unhappy, defiant, with guilty dreams galore,
Full of ill-natured pride, an unconfessed
Snob and a thorough bore.

Her smile is meant to convey
How changed or modest I am, I can’t tell which,
When I suddenly hear someone close to me say,
“You lousy son-of-a-bitch!”

A young man’s voice, by the sound,
Coming, it seems, from the twist in the martini.
“You arrogant, elderly letch, you broken-down
Brother of Apeneck Sweeney!

Thought I was buried for good
Under six thick feet of mindless self-regard?
Dance on my grave, would you, you galliard stud,
Silenus in leotard?

Well, summon me you did,
And I come unwillingly, like Samuel’s ghost.
‘All things shall be revealed that have been hid.’
There’s something for you to toast!

You only got where you are
By standing upon my ectoplasmic shoulders,
And wherever that is may not be so high or far
In the eyes of some beholders.

Take, for example, me.
I have sat alone in the dark, accomplishing little,
And worth no more to myself, in pride and fee,
Than a cup of luke-warm spittle.

But honest about it, withal . . .”
(“Withal,” forsooth!) “Please not to interrupt.
And the lovelies went by, ‘the long and the short and the tall,’
Hankered for, but untupped.

Bloody monastic it was.
A neurotic mixture of self-denial and fear;
The verse halting, the cataleptic pause,
No sensible pain, no tear,

But an interior drip
As from an ulcer, where, in the humid deep
Center of myself, I would scratch and grip
The wet walls of the keep,

Or lie on my back and smell
From the corners the sharp, ammoniac, urine stink.
‘No light, but rather darkness visible.’
And plenty of time to think.

In that thick, fetid air
I talked to myself in giddy recitative:
‘I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live

Unto the world . . .’ I learned
Little, and was awarded no degrees.
Yet all that sunken hideousness earned
Your negligence and ease.

Nor was it wholly sick,
Having procured you a certain modest fame;
A devotion, rather, a grim device to stick
To something I could not name.”

Meanwhile, she babbles on
About men, or whatever, and the juniper juice
Shuts up at last, having sung, I trust, like a swan.
Still given to self-abuse!

Better get out of here;
If he opens his trap again it could get much worse.
I touch her elbow, and, leaning toward her ear,
Tell her to find her purse.

Shaken, not stirred. The scene of the old man flirting with the young girl is pretty obvious. When it’s interrupted by the young man ‘from the twist in the martini’, his tirade made me laugh. Silenus in leotard is a great find, Samuel’s ghost, ectoplasmic shoulders, untupped (to tup: to copulate with an ewe). The ghost from the martini, the ‘id’ of the author, keeps talking about his imprisonment and how he was neglected. He goes on and on but the odd couple ignores him, until he finally shuts up his swan-song. The alcohol abused itself: the chagrin and guilt it generates are his problem – the poet is already drunk enough to ignore the ghost that emerged from his glass. He simply proposes the girl to leave before he ‘opens his trap again’. Now he can leave that dark spirit of his past behind and go make love in a hotel room.

An entertaining poem, not too pretentious. Nothing revolutionary, just a powerful description of a bar scene that is not uncommon, involving two people differing half a life in age.

Reading: The Ghost In The Martini by Antony Evan Hecht was originally published on Meandering home

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Reading: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

The poetry of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) never fails to impress. Lazarus and Daddy are household names in poetics, and the entire book Ariel counts as a masterpiece. Here I read ‘Morning song’ and, as usual, give an interpretation that is deliberately not informed, or impaired by too much theoretical study.

Morning song
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

We compare the infant to a chubby gold watch that is slapped on the foodsoles to run smoothly on the love it is fed. For the parents, the baby becomes an element, a statue. Bald and naked, vulnerable it shadows their safety (they provide safety to the infant). The parents are blank walls on which the arrival of the newborn throws its shadows.
The next lines are a little bit too cryptic to my taste, and am turned off by overuse of mirrors in poetry. Effacement: shortening of the uterine cervix as well as withdrawing into the background. Sylvia is a cloud that dissolves into tin air, raining some pretty words down before she goes (gasses herself).
Okay, flickering moth-breath and flat pink roses, that’s good stuff. Now the mother hears the breath of her baby as the sound of a far sea, did the child set her free? When she gets up at night to breastfeed her child, however, the dull stars in the window are swallowed. The baby’s mouth is clean and the sound of his morning soung is clear. Does Plath feel the atmosphere sterile? Or is motherhood precisely her liberation and nursing her child following the call of the far sea?

Reading: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Mother by L.E. Sissman

L.E. Sissman (1928-1976) was a child prodigy who won the National Spelling Bee. He had a typical American middle class career in a time when that was still possible, but he also had the calling of a poet. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins’ disease in the late sixties, which inspired him to write prolifically:

I. Mother (1892-1973)
My mother, with a skin of crêpe de Chine,
Predominantly yellow-colored, sheer
Enough to let the venous blue show through
The secondarily bluish carapace,
Coughs, rasps, and rattles in her terminal
Dream, interrupted by lucidities,
When, suctioned out and listening with hard
Ears almost waned to stone, she hears me say,
“Mother, we’re here. The two of us are here.
Anne’s here with me,” and she says, “Anne is so—
So pretty,” as if abdicating all
Her principalities of prettiness—
So noted in her teens, when she smote all
Who saw her shake a leg upon the stage
Of vaudeville—and sinking into deeps
Where ancience lurks, and barebone toothlessness,
And bareback exits from the centre ring
Of cynosure. Of little, less is left
When we leave: a stick figure of a once
Quite formidable personage. It is,
Therefore, no shock, when next day the call comes
From my worn father, followed by the spade
Engaged upon hard January earth
In Bellevue Cemetery, where he sways
And cries for fifty years of joint returns
Unjointed, and plucks one carnation from
The grave bouquet of springing flowers upon
The medium-priced coffin of veneer,
To press and keep as a venereal
Greenness brought forward from the greying past.

A relentlessly observing and heart-breaking account of a mother’s death. Deathbed poetry is never really pleasant to read (I selected this one perhaps because my own mother died in a car accident and I have never experienced someone’s death bed).

Here is the imagery that I like best: ears that almost waned to stone, a stick figure of a once quite formidable personage, the venereal greenness brought forward from the greying past. Such is the sound of a poet’s calling. This is the kind of language that makes death a little bit more bearable. Also note the humor: the barebone toothlessness juxtaposed sith the bareback exists of cynosure (what a word!) and the mentioning of the coffin’s price.

The grave scene is gripping but intensely beautiful. I think these lines deserve more fame. What do you think?

Reading: Mother by L.E. Sissman was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Evening Of The Mind by Donald Justice

Donald Justice (1925-2004) was a quietly influential poet from Iowa with a sharp and versatile mind. He wrote free form poetry as well as sonnets, sestinas and villanelles. His Selected Poems won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize. Here is The evening of the mind:

The evening of the mind

Now comes the evening of the mind.
Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood;
Here is the shadow moving down the page
Where you sit reading by the garden wall.
Now the dwarf peach trees, nailed to their trellises,
Shudder and droop. Your know their voices now,
Faintly the martyred peaches crying out
Your name, the name nobody knows but you.
It is the aura and the coming on.
It is the thing descending, circling, here.
And now it puts a claw out and you take it.
Thankfully in your lap you take it, so.

You said you would not go away again,
You did not want to go away — and yet,
It is as if you stood out on the dock
Watching a little boat drift out
Beyond the sawgrass shallows, the dead fish …
And you were in it, skimming past old snags,
Beyond, beyond, under a brazen sky
As soundless as a gong before it’s struck —
Suspended how? — and now they strike it, now
The ether dream of five-years-old repeats, repeats,
And you must wake again to your own blood
And empty spaces in the throat.

How to read the first stanza? Justice is known as a ‘poets’ poet’, the first stanza is a self-reflection of an old poet sitting in his garden with a good book on his lap. The shadow of the evening slowly descends on the scene. The peach tree is shouting my name that only I know: nature is becoming identical with the innermost self, I see some kind of gnostic move here. The thing, what else could it be than the harsh reality of mortality? The claw that it puts out and you take thankfully in your lap – death?

The scene with you watching the little boat passing dead fish and dead trees ‘with you in it’ is chilling. You see yourself drifting off on the river of death. In Greek mythology, Lethe is a river in Hades and when you drink from it, you forget everything. In the poem, you did not want to go away and you are damned to repeat, repeat after the gong is struck (death?) Is this a reference to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same? Waking up to your own blood (you can hear your own blood flow, in an environment with very low noise levels) and empty spaces in the throat. In the evening of the mind, awareness is slowly suffocating itself; I don’t see a sign of redemption or reconciliation here, do you?

Reading: The Evening Of The Mind by Donald Justice was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: To You by Kenneth Koch

New York School poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was called “the funniest serious poet we have”. His engaged poetry is often funny, but Koch is serious about his craft. He also wrote short satirical plays and worked very successfully with children. I read a love poem, “To You”.

To You

I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut
That will solve a murder case unsolved for years
Because the murderer left it in the snow beside a window
Through which he saw her head, connecting with
Her shoulders by a neck, and laid a red
Roof in her heart. For this we live a thousand years;
For this we love, and we live because we love, we are not
Inside a bottle, thank goodness! I love you as a
Kid searches for a goat; I am crazier than shirttails
In the wind, when you’re near, a wind that blows from
The big blue sea, so shiny so deep and so unlike us;
I think I am bicycling across an Africa of green and white fields
Always, to be near you, even in my heart
When I’m awake, which swims, and also I believe that you
Are trustworthy as the sidewalk which leads me to
The place where I again think of you, a new
Harmony of thoughts! I love you as the sunlight leads the prow
Of a ship which sails
From Hartford to Miami, and I love you
Best at dawn, when even before I am awake the sun
Receives me in the questions which you always pose.
It is remarkable how this lyrical evocation of the beloved You is nowhere leading to kitsch. The metaphors are well chosen. The cold murder case in the beginning (will the walnut ever be found?) is a chilling image. It looks like the murderer slit her throat (“laid a red roof in her heart” after the neck was connecting head and shoulders). But I get the idea of a detective that is not giving up, like the boy searching for his goat. I have searched feverishly for things (gifts, condoms) once when I was youthful and in love, to please my lover. It is called obsession. But love is more than obsession – that we learn after the semicolon;
When she is near, he is crazier than shirttails in the wind, like bicycling through an Africa of green and white fields. Nearness and farness lead to a harmony of thoughts when he learns to trust the path that leads him to her. Trust. There you get the image of the sunlight leading the prow. And there, finally, he is always with her because of her questions, that are always present to him.

Reading: To You by Kenneth Koch was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Herons by Robert Bly

Robert Bly (b. 1926) was the child of Norwegian immigrants to the US. He is considered a nonacademic and very American poet (the plains of Minnesota…) He is also an important translator of Norwegian and Spanish poetry. One of his projects was writing a poem every morning and these Morning poems are considered to be among the best of his work. I read a short poem called ‘Herons’:

Herons

After trailing their bony legs the herons dance
in their crystal house far up near the clouds.
In need you in sand, touching your hand I weep.
In another world I am clear and transparant.

I like such short poems that say a lot in just a few lines. The herons’ world appears transparant, the birds have no secrets. What does “I need you in sand” mean? You should lie next to me in the sand while we are watching the birds, or you should turn into sand? And why do I weep, because I am not transparant enough? Do I want to dance with you like the herons, in a crystal world where we don’t have secrets for each other?

 

Reading: Herons by Robert Bly was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Feast by Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell (1927-2004) was an engaged, versitale and prolific American poet who won many awards (Pulitzer, National Book Award. I read a classing sounding poem, called the Feast:

The Feast

Juniper and cedar in the sand.
The lake beyond, here deer-meat smoking
On a driftwood fire. And we two
Reaching each other by the wash of blue
On the warm sand together lying
As careless as water on the land.

The feast is sweet. Birds wheel round
The remnants of the food. Let us be dumb
This afternoon, not a gull’s loud Speech
Wakes these bodies from the drowsing beach;
But wake when waves hush and we have become
As two cliffs that are laboured to sand.

The water stills. In the west the gold bars
Melt. We catch our breath to see the sunset
Renew the day on the reflecting lake.
And we who gave the sand a form now take
Its substance; and, between the day and night,
Awaken in the last light like evening stars.

As the light is denied a creature speaks.
I think it is the stones that wear each other
To cold sand who put a voice in our silence,
Or else under the cliff a surf begins.
It tells of another evening, and another,
Beside lapping waters and the small lapped rocks.

The sand grows colder, the ancient body warms.
If love had not smiled we would never grieve.
But on every landscape this turning crown
Flashes and fades. We will feast on love again
In the flaming light, and rise again and leave
Our two shapes dying in each other’s arms.

Over-the-top romanticism in the closing line? Observes Robert Langbaum: “like the romantic poets to whose tradition he belongs, Kinnell tries to pull an immortality out of our mortality.”

It begins with a nice peaceful scene at a lake, you can smell the deer-meat smoking. We are gonna play dumb, we become sand shapes, gained shape, lost substance. The water will come and destroy us but for the moment we enjoy.

Next: sunset. The gold bars melting in the West refers to the Gold Rush and the vacuity of men’s ambitions. The reflecting lake is a still, a moment that exists as a substance we have taken in the crepuscular intermezzo. When night falls, time flows again. The rubbing stones, the lapping water erodes the substance, but it gives us a voice at the same time. There is a transfer of substance from the sand to the ‘ancient body’, the substance that we have experienced during a passing moment, must exist somewhere. Our grievance is the flipside of a smiling love, somewhere, sometime, “But on every landscape this turning crown / Flashes and fades.” Somehow, the poet imagines how we will feast on love again lit by these ephemeral flashes. We will have become the substance that we glimpsed earlier, and can safely leave behind form. We have been forged to free form stones that accummulate their substance from our fickle experience. We leave to poet’s heaven, a dubdivision of Plato’s heaven that stubbornly demands the idea is substance, not form.

 

Reading: The Feast by Galway Kinnell was originally published on Meandering home