Reading: Lost Love by Gregory Djanikian

Gregory Djanikian (b. 1949) is an Egyptian born American poet with Armenian roots. He writes about the emigration experience, in particular about the way the English language is enriched by immigrants. I read a love poem today:

Lost Love
Someone is walking up and down the street
crying “My lost love, my lost love!”
without shame or consolation.

On a day for columbine and lilac,
for hearing leaves sigh in the wind,
so many spring groves are in the making,
so many different orchestras tuning up.

My lost love: a refrain which scatters like bird shot.
How many of us have gone to the window
feeling the words pierce our morning.

In my room, gardenias once:
your body floating over me, my skin
rearranging like water under your touch
and your urgent heart, that loveliest extravagance.

Poor man outside, whose sadness
idles like a hearse in front of all our doors.
And some of us climbing in without meaning to!

In the way you held your neck,
Kiss me you would say: then the world releasing
its perfumes from the garden of gardens,
and the body speaking in tongues again

wildly without reason,
without any hope for reason.

The phrase ‘my lost love’ sounds haunting in Armenian, I am sure. I see the street and the crazy person running up and down yelling her mantra. The world is preparing to blossom but something is not right. The poor man outside is maybe death, as he ‘idles like a hearse in front of all our doors’ and lure some people in.

The description of the lovemaking that takes place in the room is subtle. An urgent heart, the garden of gardens, skin rearranging like water, they are all poignant erotic metaphors. The body is speaking in tongues, like a thick foreign accent. Maybe Djanikian likens the situation the body is in while making love with the immigrant who falls back on a way of speaking that comes more naturally. The hope (or promise) of reason is wildly ignored. Reason would assess the risk of losing the love and weigh it against the potential benefit, and of course destroys the possibility of ‘falling’ in love. Here it is not only reason but the very hope for reason that must be abandoned in a real erotic encounter.

Reading: Lost Love by Gregory Djanikian was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: Between the Sultan and His Statue by Yusuf al-Saigh

Yusuf al-Saigh (1933-2006) was an Iraqi poet who has published poetry since the 1950s. He also worked as an illustrator and painter. I read a short verse that nicely renders the working of symbolic authority:

Between the Sultan and His Statue
A wily sculptor
Cut several pounds off the sultan’s figure
And added several pounds to the statue’s.
When day broke,
The people said:
We’ve been taken in!
Of the two bodies on the veranda,
We no longer can tell
Which one is the Statue
And Which is the sultan

Image by Wikipedia

The image of the torn down statue of Saddam Hussein is part of our collective memory and surely makes his poem’s metaphor more effective. What did the wily sculptor actually do? Make the sultan’s statue look more realistic by adding several pounds of belly, thereby illustrating the idea that the sultan himself is a mere mortal, running the risk of obesity like most of us. So the sultan loses his face, or figure (here I concede my free interpretation, I am not aware of the connotations in the original).

Statue and sultan get confused at daybreak, so the people feel fooled. Sultanhood requires that absolute authority is associated with the one figure of the sultan himself. The statue cast in his honor can fulfill every symbolic function of sultanhood: subjects can worship the statue like they would the real person – except for the function of absolute authority that can’t be distributed. As soon as the people doubt the individuality of the sultan, that authority vanishes, because the collective imagination, or hallucination, is robbed of the focal point that made it possible.

It seems self-evident to me that in our intellectual pursuit of a better life, we should all aspire to be wily sculptors.

Reading: Between the Sultan and His Statue by Yusuf al-Saigh was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Eating Together by Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee (b. 1957) is a American poet born to Chinese exiles. His father, who plays an important role in his poetry, was the personal physician to Mao Zedong. His poetry has been compared to John Keats, Rilke and Roethke and he was influenced by old Chinese poems like Tu Fu, which shows in his economic use of language. I read a short but very powerful poem about:

Eating Together
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

The precise description of the trout the family will have for lunch so I can almost smell it is a great (and common) poetic device. We see the mother taking the sweetest meat of the head, thereby replacing the role of the father who has been gone for weeks. At this point, the reader realizes his passing and the beautiful ‘Chinese’ last sentence of the poem confirms this.

I picked this poem because I think the image of the snow-covered winding road through an old forest, that is lonely for no one is magical. I like the simplicity of such poetic diction, realizing that it is always at risk of turning into kitsch. But I also know that kitsch requires travelers and interpreters who repeat a phrase until it wears out. In the absence of travelers, in the domain of this poem, it is not only tolerable, but extremely powerful.

Reading: Eating Together by Li-Young Lee was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse by Lucie Brock-Broido

Lucie Brock-Broido (1956-2018) was an American poet who said that a poem is a ‘thing that wounds’. Her poetry looks and sounds original, but she was influenced by Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens.

Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse
And to the curious I say, Don’t be naïve.
The soul, like a trinket, is a she.
I lay down in the tweed of one man that first frost night.
I did not like the wool of  him.
You have one mitochondrial speck of evidence on your cleat.
They can take you down for that.
Did I forget to mention that when you’re dead
You’re dead a long time.
My uncle, dying, told me this when asked,
Why stay here for such suffering.
A chimney swift flits through the fumatorium.
I long for one last Blue democracy,
Which has broke my heart a while.
How many minutes have I left, the lover asked,
To still be beautiful?
I took his blond face in my hands and kissed him blondly
________________________________On his mouth.

In the end, there seems to be understanding (blond and blond) and the pains of the world will be forgiven. The lover is addressed in the third person singular. What is the Blue democracy? Cool, rational majority decisions that signal how little importance the individuals have? Is it the grand scheme of things, organized in a beautiful way, but not for us? And what does it have to do with the man in his tweed jacket with dna evidence on his cleat? And how does that relate to the trinket-like femininity of the soul?

I have no idea. It could be anything. Maybe the man/lover is the fallow-colored horse and he is dying when the poet kisses him blondly. Maybe she is just currying a horse and daydreaming about her dying uncle, and that she wants to stay around a little bit more to experience the ‘blue democracy’ and bury a lover in a blond embrace?

Reading: Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse by Lucie Brock-Broido was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Dusk by Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout (b. 1947) is one of the founding members of the West Coast group of Language poets (language poetry: started in the 1970s; language dictates meaning; reader participates in constructing meaning) . Her poetry is characterized by the clashes of the elements they are composed of. She has said that she is seeking to balance assertion and doubt in her poetics. I read a short poem that is indicative of her style. If you like it, continue with a longer poem like ‘Natural History‘.

spider on the cold expanse
of glass, three stories high
rests intently
and so purely alone.

I’m not like that!

I am looking at the spider from the inside of a building. At least, that is what the context of three stories high suggests (and according to language poetry, meaning is a flow of contexts). Resting intently (with eager attention) would not be resting for us mammals and predators. We are never ‘purely alone’. We live in expectation of each other’s actions.

Reading: Dusk by Rae Armantrout was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Lines on my face by J.D. McClatchy

J.D. McClatchy (1945 – 2018) was a prolific poet, editor, critic and librettist from Pennsylvania. He was praised for his polished and erudite verse.

Lines on my face
Decades now of looking back at it—
in some old satellite’s rearview mirror, say—
has something to show beyond the folds and feeders,
the volumes of magma risen into native rock
or the buried flow of old fires cooling
in ocean beds. The damage has been memorized.
Tool marks left by loose doubts dragged
across a certainty. Tongues of river
sediment slumped but still flickering
in the eye. And how pale the surfaces are!

From miles above what even to others is familiar,
the erosion—tears that freeze and crack
the heart, small habits a wind blasts
against whatever’s exposed—seems apparent:
all’s worn down, weathered, notched, seeping,
yet eerily polished, as if at last defined.
Your map of me? Let your pencil trace
the old quarries and splintered outcrops,
let it analyze the faults, describe their throes,
let it reveal how the light is laid over them all.

This is what poetry can do: Take a simple idea and exhibit it in very precise steps. The idea of the lines on one’s face as ‘your map of me’ is brilliant and English language poetry readers will think of Auden’s face.

In the beginning of the poem the face is shaped by violent natural events like magma rising into native rock and old fires cooling in ocean beds. Erosion and gentler forces like wind blasts give it the final appearance: The author’s face is ‘at last defined’. An artist is drawing the face, tracing it with a pencil. What does he see? The faults and the throes of his life, but ‘the light is laid over them all’. How are we to understand that? Every aspect of his face, and the story of hardships (faults, throes) that lead to it, has its justification.

Reading: Lines on my face by J.D. McClatchy was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Wedding by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald (b. 1966) is an Oxford-educated classicist and award-winning poet. She has written poetically about ecology and wrote her own take on the Iliad. Her 2016 book is called “Falling Awake”. I read the 1996 poem “Wedding”:

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions…
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

A very nice example of using a classical style in modern poetry. The imperfect end rhyme, the iambic pentameter, try reading this aloud it sounds like a stormy love poem. The theme of transformation, speeding up with the toe tip-toeing on a rope, like luck, and then the wedding, and then everything.

A tack is a line (rope or chain) that regulates the angle at which a sail is set in relation to the wind, to tack is to turn the boat into the wind. This indicates the beginning of strain and struggle in the relationship in the first half of the sonnet. The swallowtail becomes a coat, the coat tears, the tear is a mouth (they talk about it). Is this about ordinary arguments in a relationship? When they ‘draw wind’ they become part of the culture of the lovers. Just like anyone else’s, just like millions…

I find the second half mysteriously beautiful. From the many and the millions (the universal) we return to this particular love (or maybe not?) and the luck it experiences. The trick is that millions have the same experience and talk about it in the same way, yet it is still our individual experience. We can think this conceptually only if we accept our loving bond as luck we commit to (wedding), because only this particular commitment makes love universal.

Perhaps this interpretation is too mystical or dialectical, what do you think? I can’t help but hear the echo of Meister Eckhard, Hegel, and Baudrillard.

Reading: Wedding by Alice Oswald was originally published on Meandering home