Not So Wild

So, a few weeks ago I found out my poem ‘Not So Wild’ was awarded runner-up place in the prestigious Judith Wright Poetry Prize, as hosted by Overland Journal. I thought I’d mentioned it here already, but it turns out I haven’t. Happily, it’s just come online, so I can link you to it now.

From the judges’ report, Toby Fitch has this to say about it:

Easily the best narrative realist poem in the competition (a category that dominated the prize entries), Omar Sakr’sNot So Wild’ is a nostalgic narrative ‘crackling with storming boyhood’. When the narrator and his wilder childhood friend become ‘lost’, it conjures pictures of lichen-etched sandstone boulders, of gums and brambles clogging a slope, young boys flitting between dappled shadows, jumping from rock to rock. But the poem offers deeper observations still, and, in breathtaking fashion, on families and small-town/suburban relations.

My heartfelt thanks go to the judges, Toby Fitch and Peter Minter, for their consideration, and to the Malcolm Robertson Foundation for funding this initiative which so generously supports emerging poets.

You can read my poem here.

TP: Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even The Calls of Certain Birds, by John Murillo

I know it’s not Thursday, but the wonderful thing about shortening ‘Thursday Poem’ to TP is that I can get away with posting this on Tuesday. Also, this is my blog. Also, time is meaningless and so are the days of the week. So let’s get straight into this week’s extraordinary poem, with its extra-long title, ‘Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Bird‘ by John Murillo.

Take a few minutes now to check it out, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. Go on, I’ll wait. I read it myself a couple weeks ago and I’ve been reading it every other day since, not just because I love it, but because to read poetry of this quality is to dowse yourself in the sweet rushing of a spring river. Is to feel the accumulated muck of the day slough off, and god, how I’ve needed that recently.

It begins:

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this — the one

Hardly the most auspicious opening lines ever, but I love the tone of it, the way it sets up this casual, meandering reminiscence – an informality which does nothing to diminish the eloquence of the lines, and everything to elevate it.

If these past few months editing a poetry journal have taught me anything, it’s that people too often place emphasis on lone extravagant words and not enough on the feel, the voice, the rhythm of the thing. All of you need to read Murillo’s poem, study it, truly, to understand that anything woven seamlessly of the same cloth will always outshine and outlast a weave studded erratically with diamond words, as if in the hope their supposed value would somehow rub off on the rest of it.

It’s more than just rhythm and voice here, though Murillo has enough music in this poem to set a barroom to dancing, it’s the efficiency of the lines. Not a word wasted, the pacing impeccable, the sounds building & bouncing off one another–for a poem so melancholic, the effect is positively ecstatic. Or at least, it is in me.

So, we have a set up with sparrows, one bird attacking/alerting the narrator as its mate is trapped nearby in a car door:

They called to me — something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer — to do something,

anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,

Forgive me for only making broad notes, but if I linger over every single magnificent line, I’ll be here forever. I love the narrative flow of the piece, the easy collapse into another time, another scene; it unfolds as a natural thought would, with all the corrections and interjections and digressions that comes with that, and yet despite this, somehow isn’t irritating and isn’t confusing. It’s just that smoothly done.

his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.

Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night —
did I mention it was night? — why I didn’t even try

to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,

‘to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow’ – pack it up and go home, folks, that’s fucking perfection right there. It straight up dances on the tongue. I bring up this passage not to highlight that line, but because the digressions so frequently mentioned aren’t in fact digressions. This poem endlessly folds in upon itself – some might argue too much, but it’s so well executed I can’t complain – calling back again and again to earlier moments, earlier phrases, sometimes in the same breath, and in so doing, recasting the scene in a different light, recasting the meaning of the line.

As we come to a “random” scene where two shirtless men, lovers or enemies or both, are fighting on the floor–the meaning fluctuating in situ–we learn their tangential relevance to the original moment.

I left/the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.
And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,

please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break
stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.

From here, we drift still further back in time to the original trauma, the moment the poem was waiting for, where the narrator watches his father beat his mother in the street. And here, even without the direct reference to sparrows, you cannot help but think of the scene the poem started with, cannot help but think of trapped wings fluttering against a car door, the desperate futility of it, and his own refusal to help. Such is the power of that moment, it exists in every ripple it casts back in his timeline, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this?
My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow.

There are two callbacks here I want to highlight. One is the obvious sparrow metaphor which I mentioned earlier, and the lovely repetition which, to my mind, removed any gendered reading of its first instance. We are all so fragile, it seems to say, just breakable bones. The second callback is to the line I quoted earlier ‘I didn’t break my stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.’

Sonny did the right thing, see. Sonny got beat for it, just like the narrator’s mother. One of the things I admire so much about this poem, as I’ve said before, is its efficacy – it doesn’t linger, preferring instead to echo as it goes. If this is a dance, it’s a fast-stepping one, short sharp words busting the meaning out. From bloodied wrangling in the street, the scene collapses again into an idyllic picnic:

And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.
Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket

and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.
Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.

Sunglasses and long sleeves. Remember when I said not a word was wasted in the poem? He’s not commenting on her fashion choices here, but the wounds she’s learned to cover. Read that goddamn line again. Eight words is all it took to brutally echo the domestic violence mentioned earlier, how the participants learn to live with it, and just one word ‘summertime’ is all that’s needed to disguise it, so that at first glance, you might just think he’s describing what she’s wearing simply to paint a picture.

but did you know the collective noun
for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not

its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk
in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man

was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine
the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,

nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air.

Remember when I said the digressions in this poem are not digressions? ‘His widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.’ Moments presented as meaningless, or if not that, then irrelevant certainly, keep winding their way back into the poem, into the narrative, just as with life.

And so the poem folds back in on itself, again and again, the whole of it a lamentation, yes, but not for the widow, not for the dead man, not even for his mother and not for Sonny and not for Eric Dolphy, but for the city itself–for the place he left behind, and of course for himself. That he has learned not to break his stride to save himself, that he – no, we – do not let anything intrude on our path, no matter the desperation of it, no matter the pain, the screaming. And we shrug and convince ourselves it was for other reasons. We’re ‘not indifferent, exactly.’ We just have things to do.

Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife
running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.
And a city busy saving itself.

Something else I want to talk about for a moment is metaphor. Too many poets think of and use metaphors the same way they do unusual words, like a clown determined to show how many different strips of coloured cloth he can pull out of his sleeve. It’s not about how many you use, or how unusual they are, but how right they are for the poem, and much meaning you can wring from them. Murillo shifted from sparrows to swans mid-poem, and he doubles down on that imagery and its associated meanings to exquisite, heartbreaking affect. In the hands of a lesser poet, it would be suffocating and stilted, but in the hands of a master, a river can be wrung from a single stone.

So we come to the last beautiful stanzas, packed again with callbacks, much like, you might even say, the liquid language of birds:

When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left

the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.

While I didn’t exactly sing the praises of the first line of the poem, allow me to do so now. You see how the ending recasts the beginning? He lives in another city already, which is not unlike the city he writes about here. The one he knows he’ll leave, and lament all the while.

Thursday Poems: Brown’s Odd Jobs & Carver’s Happiness

I’ve spent the last little while reading two poems over and over again, and ultimately, I couldn’t decide which to share–or rather, which I had the most to say about, so I’m going to talk about both of them. Let’s begin with Raymond Carver’s poem Happiness, in full:

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They have on caps and sweaters,
and the one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs palely over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

#

It’s such a simple, lovely poem. Just two kids out delivering the paper, and in that moment–not thinking about anything beyond it, purely ensconced in the endless present of childhood–they are as happy as they’ll ever be, even if they don’t know it. It is the deep nostalgia of the narrator, of the man by his window, that makes this poem so deeply affecting. I’m typically against the overt naming of an emotion in poetry, I don’t want to be told so cheaply what is being felt, I want only to feel it, but Carver does it twice in this poem and I don’t care. For this poem, I could forgive just about anything–though I’ll admit I’d love to remove ‘palely’ from its line. It’s the one ugly mark on an otherwise gorgeous work, one which, as he says, goes beyond any talk about it really. It’s all there in the moment, the scene, the poem.

Now to Jericho Brown’s brilliant poem, Odd Jobs, which given its brevity, and how much I want to quote all of it, I’ll just put here too:

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

#

I love that first line so fucking much, y’all. Why? Because fuck commas, that’s why, it does all the work it needs to do just by placement alone. The muscular economy of it, the way it resists you on first reading, is so damn good. You should study that opening line and look again at your own to see whether you accomplish even half so much with just seven words. The second line is equally good, and the rhythm is so damn tight, especially running off the alliteration-heavy ending of the first line, ‘cuss cutting grass’ is just ace. After that, Brown moves briskly to the heart of it: ‘the loneliest people have the earth to love/ and not one friend their own age.’

But here’s the thing, even with those excellent three lines I just mentioned, this might just have been an okay poem if not for the ending. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: poems are grenades and by the time they end, there ought to be an explosion. You ought to feel the blast. That doesn’t mean it has to be dramatic or violent, far from it–in fact, I’d say most often it involves an unexpected turn inward, which bursts open the poem and in so doing, sets off a similar impact within us. Brown absolutely nails it, again with breathtaking economy, undoing the earlier bitterness he evoked with his ugly sweating hard work, by adding a quiet touch of longing: I once had something to do with my hands.

In this, actually, there is a commonality between the two poems. Both Brown and Carver look to their childhoods, and both are talking about odd jobs, albeit one from a distance, with the other in the present before shifting forward. Both, I think, are also getting at the same point: our inability to enjoy our present circumstances. We bitch and we moan and we’re hateful and we’re struggling, as if there’s ever going to be a point where we’re not struggling–which simply isn’t true. The nature of the struggle simple changes, it adapts as you adapt, so it may be money now but if it ain’t that later, it’ll be something else. And something else. Until you might wind up one day thinking about something you used to hate, and say damn, I once had something to do with my hands. Then realise hell, happiness, it comes on unexpectedly.

Thursday Poem: Robert Frost at Eighty by Peter Boyle

Tonight, I had the very special pleasure of having the great Australian poet Peter Boyle attend an informal poetry workshop group I take part in, and as such I thought it fitting that I take a look at one of his poems. He read from his current work-in-progress, and though I’d heard of him and read some few poems of his before, I realised I knew far too little of it. I bought his book, and was reading it on the train home as rain spat against the metal and glass. Already, I sense a burgeoning love: you know that feeling of kinship and wonder when you instantly connect with another poet’s work? I’ve had it with Philip Levine, Langston Hughes, and Tracy K. Smith, and it is occurring again.

I may not entirely stick with ‘Robert Frost at Eighty‘ because I also love ‘Paralysis‘, another poem of his I found online. But let’s see how we go, and start with the titular work. It begins:

I think there are poems greater and stranger than any I have known.
I would like to find them.

There are multiple things I admire about this opening: the acknowledgment that great and strange poetry beyond his ken exist in the world, even though it comes with the doubtful qualifier ‘I think’, and the fact that it is swiftly followed up by his desire to find them, doubt be damned. This is, after all, what I do on this blog, what I search for every week, the great and strange poems I know to be out there. Finding them, of course, is the issue:

They are not on the greying paper of old books
or chanted on obscure lips.
They are not in the language of mermaids
or the sharp-tongued adjectives of vanishing.

Right here lies the source of kinship I mentioned earlier. In my recent interview with poetry journal Meanjin, I talk about my early fiction influences and how they skewed toward the fantastic – the Roald Dahls, Ray Bradburys and Gabriel Garcia Marquezes of the world. With my poems, however, it has been fairly straightforward to date. Imaginative and whimsical at times, to be sure, but really, nothing like the fiction I love to read and to write; only now am I beginning to stretch those muscles in poetry.

A key element to practicing that effectively, though, will be reading excellent poems that manage the fantastic at the level of craft I hope to achieve, and this is why I feel so ecstatic about coming to Boyle’s work at this point in time. I simply haven’t been reading enough of it, which makes this a beautiful and necessary confluence of events. Look how easily and readily he slips in the languages of mermaids without remark! Without irony or self-consciousness. It is what it is, that hallmark of the strange made ordinary that lives in the worlds of Kafka and Murakami.

Though I bury all I own or hold close
though my skin outlives the trees
though the lines fall shattering the stone
I cannot catch them.
They have the lilting accent
of a house I saw but never entered.
They are the sounds a child hears –
the water, the afternoon, the sky.

It would not be polite for me to tell you the lengths I would go to, the depths to which I would sink, to have written this line: ‘they have the lilting accent / of a house I saw but never entered.’ Fuck! Superb. Just fucking superb, damn his hide. And those next two lines, a kind of spectacular synaesthesia, merging the aural with the physical and ephemeral all at once. I’m straight up falling over myself at this point, I love this passage so much, so I better shut up before I embarrass myself further. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, so I’ll just say that you should read the last lines, and then return to the opening, to that statement of desire. Therein, as with so many poems, lies the key to the thing.

With all that said, I’m just really stoked that I have his entire back catalogue to go through–truly, there are so many great and strange poems out there for me to read! And since I’m reading Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes and Talking Dirty to the Gods by Yosef Komunyakaa at the same time, I am simply awash with it at the moment. Though I doubt I will ever come close to any of these luminaries, and I feel ashamed to even include this link in the same paragraph, one of my own poems did go up online this week, and I would be remiss not to include it. You can read that here, if you like.

Three Poems To Tide You Over

Dear friends in poetry,

I am too tired and too adrift today for my usual ramble. Here instead are three poems I read this week, presented in their natural state.

1.‘Epithalamion’ by Rickey Laurentiis
2. From “Home, Again” by John McAuliffe
3. Some Say by Maureen N. McLane

These are, one and all, stunning in their own unique ways.

Thursday Poem: 38 by Layli Long Soldier

I do not know how to introduce this poem. In fact, I’m not even sure how to talk about it at all, to provide my usual preamble. I’ve decided, then, to take my tack from the work itself and state things simply and plainly. This is called “38” and it is by Layli Long Soldier. It is a poem about the Dakota 38, men who were executed by hanging on the order of President Lincoln for their part in the Sioux Uprising. It is as much non-fiction as it is poetic, no matter the lengths Layli disavows the latter element, the creative license she has taken.

In my last Thursday Poem entry, I spoke about Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’, and poetry of witness, the expression she coined. How it was an example of the power of reportage, of the basic bleached language of journalism employed with brutal impact. Even her form, the prose poem, the block of text, was a way of disavowing the very act of poeticising a moment of significance, a moment of horror – political, social, domestic. In 38, Layli takes a different approach. Her sentences are spare and clean and separate, divided by plenty of white space, so it could easily be mistaken for a poem at first glance. It may look the part, she is saying, but it is altogether different to what you are expecting. The form is a lie.

It begins:

Here, the sentence will be respected.

I will compose each sentence with care by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.

That’s an ambiguous enough opening, which we’ll get back to in a little bit, but immediately the poet is telling us to pay attention to the language being employed – her focus is clinical to an almost comical degree. Language matters. This looks like a poem but it is not.

You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”

More than that, the poet is actively commenting on her process as she goes. She is taking you along for the ride, so to speak, almost as a reflexive act to preempt guilt — look, I am not doing this for art, she seems to say, look, see my thoughts as I go. See the lie, if lie there is. Many artists feel this way, wary of turning pain into art, be it historical or personal or a mesh of both. Generally, I’d say it’s always a good idea to interrogate your motivations for tackling a certain subject, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with that – incorporating it into the work. However, I do think this act of meta-writing is taken a little too far at times, but the moments when it is pulled off to great affect make it all worthwhile. Consider:

The hanging took place on December 26th, 1862—the day after Christmas.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

(I had to bold it, since block quotes italicise everything, but you get the point). Here, that meta-commentary provided by the last sentence is seemingly pointless. Later in the poem, however, we get the pay-off to this set-up:

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

You know, it is somewhat ironic, given the self-analysis employed within the poem, that I am couching it within my own examination. Nonetheless, I think both our points come across. Hers, with the unexpected twist that commentary can provide, giving added depth to a line, forcing you to return to it and read it again. Mine, that although some elements of it can seem unnecessary, Layli is supremely aware of what she’s doing.

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as The Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.

Everything is in the language we use.

So, let me return to the opening line, and the meaning of this poem, the intersection of form and function. Remember, the poem opens: “Here, the sentence will be respected.” In direct contrast to the many broken treaties referenced in the poem, and indeed in history – here, her language matters. In direct contrast to the legalese and the deliberately convoluted nonsense employed in contracts, here, her words are simple. Her meaning plain. She will tell you what she is doing and why, as she does so.

It reminds me, in fact, of an Indigenous author I interviewed recently. She was talking about governments and said that – in response to their fickleness and the seeming whimsy that saw laws change constantly and old agreements get thrown out – Indigenous elders always had the same response: ‘Our law is strong.’ Meaning, unchanged. Meaning, what we say matters. This poem, every word and every line, shouts this aloud.

If that’s all it did, it would still be an excellent poem. If all it did were teach us about a moment in history too often overlooked, it would still be an excellent poem. That it does this, and is emotionally evocative as well, unfolding at last in those truly spectacular last lines, makes it a remarkable poem and well worth your time.

Go. Read it.

Thursday Poem: The Colonel by Carolyn Forché

This week’s entry is a famous poem, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. I actually think I’ve read it before, a year or two ago perhaps, as one of the striking images toward the end had the resonance of familiarity, a kind of echo that said you know this already. 

Forché’s opening gambit addresses this idea of prior knowledge in the opening line:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house.

There is so very much to love about this sensational poem, this model of efficiency, but all of it comes back to this opening. The assumption that you already know the story sets the tone – one of confession and anticipation – then follows it with the physical scene, which immediately layers it with an ominous foreshadowing. Five little words: I was in his house. And you shudder, because we as a culture and a society know that spells worry, that spells violence – we know that story too well. In a sense, even though you likely come to the poem not actually knowing what the first line refers to, you find out as I did, that really you do, and this idea of what we’re conscious of hearing and what we choose not to remember plays out throughout the poem.

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house.

Earlier, I used the word ‘confession’, but although that is implied by the first line, the more accurate term which is borne out by the style of the poem is reportage. This is a report, a statement, almost as if given in court, and this is very deliberate, coming from the poet who coined the term ‘poetry of witness.’ It helps that the story itself is a true one, this is non-fiction, but the journalistic element is only one of many skilfully employed here.

Note the short declarative lines, fleshing out innocuous domestic details to relieve the tension built in that first sentence, which then returns three lines later: ‘a pistol on the cushion beside him.’ It is a delicate dance, the weaving of tension, and Forché executes the steps perfectly. She never quite lets you forget it, though the reel of short precise details propels you so quickly along that it slides easily into the background. Then, of course, there is that gorgeous little line, and possibly my favourite of the lot: ‘the moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.’ The immediacy with which that brings to mind an image of a dinky black and white film, one we have all seen, is stunning. Just because she has adopted a plain reporting aesthetic does not mean she is incapable of peppering the scene with adroit descriptions, with beautiful imagery.

…The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves.

After several more excellent lines bringing the scene to life, we come to it here, the tension slowly ratcheting upward with as simple a moment as the colonel telling the parrot to shut up – it comes not just from the act itself as the revelation of his military status. Then, the grocery sack, another layer of domesticity and in it, the horror. It is the absence of horror, however, which is so striking in the scene, the ordinariness of the moment to him, and in the description. ‘They were like dried peach halves.’ That’s the line that rung bells in my head, that said you know this, and I did. There’s a lot to love, to admire about this exquisite poem but like all great poems, it is exemplified in the ending:

He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

Here, we come back to the idea of what we’ve heard prior to reading the poem, to what we know, consciously and subconsciously. To how we turn away, how we engage in a collective forgetting. Some of us, even disembodied and on the floor, still hear it, still witness it, and some of us have our ears pressed to the floor. Crucially, there is no judgment, just as there was no tangible horror, no emotive words, and it makes all the difference.

There is a lot of circuity in poetry, and it is a very popular belief that the ending should mirror the beginning, but I wouldn’t recommend it, personally — there is a risk of it being too neat, too contrived, and if you aim for it, that is often how it will turn out. I prefer a little ugliness, a rough cut, but then too there are times when it all comes together with a synergy as complete as this, and you just have to bow your head and say bravo (if the poem isn’t yours) and thank fuck, if it is.

Thursday Poem: Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”

So, I think by virtue of the fact that I often come across poems on social media and the web, I have (broadly speaking) managed to cover predominantly modern poems by living poets. The dead don’t get much play here, except for the recently departed. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that tends to be my focus anyway: what’s happening now, not so much what happened before. That doesn’t mean I pay no attention to the classics or the past, of course I do – without historical context, you will only be seeing part of the picture – it’s just that with very little time on my hands and a modern aesthetic of my own, framed by the times, I don’t go out of my way to seek out those older works.

This week, Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” was suggested to me, and though it has the feel of a flowery ballad, not at all what I seek out in poetry, it nonetheless grabbed me with its beauty, its effortless language. If you’re not familiar with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, here’s a quick primer: Orpheus was a legendary musician whose lament at his wife’s death (Eurydice) was so moving that Zeus granted him permission to go to Hades to see her again. There, his music once again was so great that it moved a god, and Hades said he would relinquish his claim on Eurydice soul and allow her to return to life. The catch? As she followed Orpheus back to the land of the living, he could not turn back, not even once to see her. If he did, she would be gone forever.

The poem begins (as translated by Stephen Mitchell):

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

Aside from its immediate sombre atmosphere, there is a lilting scale to the language, a soft near rhyme which propels you along. In the first two stanzas, Rilke effortlessly establishes the underworld as a tangible landscape before even introducing his characters:

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.

“In large, greedy, unchewed bites/ his walk devoured the path.” Fuck that’s good. It says everything you need to know about Orpheus’ state of mind, his desperation to get out of there so he can turn and see his wife, know for sure she’s even there and that this isn’t some cruel trick played by the gods (which, being notorious dicks, they were known to do).

They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

I love this little passage, especially the parenthesis – I like to think it’s a little meta note on his part, a reminder to himself that he couldn’t stop now when he was midway through the poem, couldn’t go back to edit or rearrange, he had to push on lest it all be for nought. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. And then came the introduction to Eurydice, a shift to her perspective which is where the heart of the poem lies, the depth of the romanticism as well as the meaning, the exploration of death.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

“a sun revolved/and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-/heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –“. Now there’s a line worth repeating endlessly. The alliteration, carrying the ‘s’ sound without leaning on it too hard; the stunning image of disfigured stars. This is the kind of Poetry with a capital P that people often think of when the subject is brought up, and with good reason, given how much of it was written over the course of hundreds of years. The grandeur of emotion; the discovery anew of the world and nature through grief. With any kind of mass saturation, what follows the initially successful work which captured the imagination of readers is inevitably weaker.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death

I love this idea of being deep within yourself, and I think many people, but especially writers, will be familiar with this sense of falling away from the world. Of being rooted in Self, in the inner world whence your feelings and thoughts come, and not wanting to or not being able to leave it. I also love the idea that with death comes fulfillment, its certainty is so great, there is no room for anything else. Too often afterlives are painted in pictures of endless torment or endless pleasure and neither of those things seems to me to be particularly appealing; as human beings, we abhor sameness, and thanks to the gift of consciousness are always aware that everything is changing around us.

The other option tends to be purgatory, which is another kind of punishment. But here, the afterlife begins and ends in death, such is the totality of it – nothing else is needed. Nonetheless a consciousness remains, an awareness and understanding of the state you exist in. It is, in short, like life: when you occupy it, the fullness of it is bursting within you. Things change around you, and you struggle to retain a grasp on the big picture, constantly assaulted not just by the world itself and the advance of time, but also your memories, everything flitting between your grasping fingers. Here, Eurydice is consumed by the state of her existence, unable to grasp what once was but content also in the now. There is a peace in now for all of us, the living and the dead, if only we could learn to live without greedily wrapping it between before and after.

That was my takeaway, anyway – it’s midnight now, and I’m not sure if I’ve conveyed my meaning well enough, but either way I hope I will have convinced you to read this moving poem about life and love and loss, memory and mortality.

Thursday Poem: Alone by Tomaž Šalamun

Recently, I read an article by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called ‘On Poetry.’ In it, he talks about his father, a poet who was forbidden to write. “He was a true poet, viewing all subjects through an innocent and honest lens.” Honest, I understand, honesty is a necessity in poetry (although even now, a voice in the back of my head says is it? Is it really? I do so hate absolutes), or at least it is in mine, but innocence? I don’t know. I baulk at that word. We are none of us innocent, and there is something here in his words which speaks of a dated idealism, the kind I come across too often in people who think only of Shakespeare when you mention poetry, who think of their high school English class and their own shitty rhymes composed in the midst of teenage angst.

Just because your lens is not innocent, because you are a fallible and broken and dirty man or woman, does not mean you cannot perceive the world with the same piercing clarity, with the purity implied in the word ‘innocent’. Even filthy hands can be plunged into the sweetest waterfall, yes? You do not need to conflate the two. I guess I’m speaking about this now because poetry is work to me, it’s a hard thing, a means of arriving at truths which are not easy or soft or even common – it requires enormous and unflinching effort to see what needs to be seen, and to then commit it to mind or paper or screen. Weiwei comes closer to this in his article when he speaks about his father being made to clean toilets: “And yet, as a child 
I saw him making the greatest effort to keep each toilet as clean and as pleasant as possible, taking care of the waste with complete sincerity. To me, this is the best poetic act.”

Now, to Tomaž Šalamun’s poem, ‘Alone‘ (there is a link between these two things, never fear). It begins:

One finger is the tundra,
one finger is the Bodhisattva,
one finger is mother Slovenia.
Two fingers still remain, beckoning
and with awful force feeding me
seventeen hands with this arrangement.
Alone,
I’m alone on the roof of the world and drawing
so stars are created.

There is some similarity here to the last poem I talked about, ‘Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin’, in that both poems see the world in everything, the interconnectedness of this thing we call life. Šalamun takes that concept to its extreme, seeing everything in himself, in each finger and nail and hair and act, there is God and the universe. There is a grandeur to this poem which speaks to the natural arrogance of poets, to assume they are in everything and everything is in them, and I get the sense that Šalamun is very much skewering that even as he embodies it at the same time. There is a danger in that assumption, this being a translated poem, there could be something in the language of the original or the context which I am missing, but that is my reading of it.

Alone,
alone.
Glug glug glug I drink gulps of light
and I brush.
So I shower and put myself back, alone.
I alone am the center of the world’s light, the Lord’s lamb.
I alone am all animals: a tiger, an ant, a deer,

I love, as well, the repetition of the word ‘alone’, especially when it’s juxtaposed against this concept of all-inclusivity.  ‘I alone’ he begins his lines later, ‘I alone am all the people’, a contradiction suggestive of a narcissism so sweeping in nature it encompasses nature and everyone, and in so doing moves beyond that concept entirely. If we all saw ourselves as intimately entwined in everything as the narrator does in this poem, we would take better care of each other and the planet we live in.

That, of course, is looking at the poem with a sincerity that is perhaps not there, but is hoped for – the centrality and emphasis of ‘alone’ suggests such completeness is impossible, that you can never move beyond the ‘I’ into ‘all’. It remains a hope, a grand act of want, a ludicrous and whimsical desire, the kind that suffuses creative types especially into sweeping declarations of Godhood, of universality. Even as he indulges in its language, the way a satirist can take on the form of his target, Šalamun also crushes it emphatically with his last line. Then again, who is to say that there is not a universe in that one word, in alone?

The reason I mention this poem alongside Ai Weiwei’s commentary is because I think it makes a perfect rejoinder to that whimsy I spoke of earlier. There is a hardness to the relentless repetition of alone, even as it is centred in such gorgeous language, in unique imagery and a vernacular that ranges from colloquial to formal. “Glug glug glug I drink gulps of light” is my favourite line, and a good example of that. These pieces each have something to say, each have something to offer, and neither perfectly repudiates or compliments the other. To Šalamun’s loneliness, however, I will offer Weiwei’s last words:

To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical, to experience another life and another level of feeling. It is to wonder about the world, to understand the nature of people and, most importantly, to be shared with another, old or young, known or unknown.

You can never truly be alone with poetry.

Thursday Poem – Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin

It’s winter in Sydney. I’ve just come out of a cinema, it’s 11pm, the cold is constant and bracing, and my friend drops me off at the train station. The platform is empty. The occasional freight train roars by, a blur of green. The moon is shaved into a crescent by clouds. I am deeply alone, expanding with each shivering breath, and I love it. I love moments like these, moments in which I feel so in tune with the world around me that I am finally at peace in my own skin.

I get out my phone, and I begin to flick through some poems, knowing I’ll be late for this entry, but not minding so much. I had to spend the day writing a review I’ll actually be paid for, which is something I don’t talk about enough on this blog. I am a working writer, and I get paid to share my thoughts on subjects, or for poems or stories I’ve written – in fact, I’ve recently published a piece on this very subject in the new issue of Kill Your Darlings, which is a fantastic journal. A friend of mine, a published poet himself, asked me recently why I still maintained this weekly ramble. Why do it for free when I could likely get paid to do the same thing? It would be better for my career if I did it that way, he said.

In part, the reason is because if I were to do this professionally, I would have to put in a professional effort. As it is, I do that when and where I have the energy to spare, but by and large these posts are off-the-cuff. Beyond that, I was wary of this becoming work, a chore I’d try to avoid, and I love being able to publish it immediately as well. Not having to wait weeks or months for my work/thoughts to appear is incredibly satisfying – it’s also a sign that I am very much a product of my generation, of these times, in which we are wired to this network of immediacy and the rush provided by connection (supposed or real).

In any case, I guess I’m saying all this because my friend was likely right, and I may have to stop or at least scale back this routine in the near future. Hopefully, that will merely constitute a move to another publication, but that may not be the case. I’m currently operating purely on my freelancing income, and if that’s to be in any way viable, I simply won’t have the time or ability to continue as I have. With that said, I truly hope I’m wrong, because in the last eight months I’ve somehow managed to gain around 2,000 subscribers (that’s you!) to my dinky little blog about poetry. And even if 1,990 of you are bots, I’m still appreciative of it because, hey, even machines need poetry.

So, back to the scene from earlier, I’m flicking through poems on my phone and I find this simple little gem by Anne Waldman called Maelstrom: One Drop Makes The Whole World Kin. In reading it, I find my perfect aloneness is ruptured, splintered, and an even deeper connection, a deeper love wells within. This is the function of poetry, this rupturing. I will share with you the first line, no, merely the first clause, first few words. It’s all I needed honestly, and it’s not complicated or new or wildly original – it’s just what I needed to read at that particular moment in time:

All the world is one