Thursday, September 10, 2020

A Poem from Plantain by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Jane Kenyon. The Twenty-first.

Anna Akhmatova

First I want to say that the poem is a perfect expression of the literature I discovered with a thrill as a young woman. It speaks in a clear, clean  voice. Its theme is passion and disappointed love. This voice still speaks to me, though I am decades past "young." It's a poem of the heart.

I love the first line, which reads like a diary in which date, day, and time are paramount. What's missing is the month. "Silhouette of the capitol in darkness." I imagine a young woman peering out a window and finding a familiar landmark to focus on, the darkness of a city before electricity. She is alone, either physically or emotionally, or else her attention would not be focused out like that. The tone is wistful, nostalgic.

Surprise. "Some good-for-nothing...made up the tale that love exists on earth." The existence of love is a hoax, a falsehood perpetuated for no reason. The reader can wonder--who would do this? In truth, where did this promise of love come from? From myth and wonder tales, perhaps. From Bible stories, romantic novels, from women, observing behaviors in the neighborhood. We call it love, but it is not real, though people shape their lives around it, caught up in the hope of it ("wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting"). 

But "the secret reveals itself" to some. To the disillusioned, like the woman in the room, looking out. "...and on them silence settles down." Without hope, they cannot participate in the fantasy and are left out of everything that once held pleasure and interest.

...and now it seems I'm sick all the time." Could this just be the suffering one feels when love is lost? A sickness of the heart, a loss of appetite, a loss of energy? Or does the year noted suggest a different interpretation? After all, most people who lose in love do not then assume that there has never been love in the world, ever. On the other hand, it's unusual for a love poem not to address the lover at all. The poem is absent of anger and the regret is directed toward "some good-for-nothing," some vague mythical source, not a specific individual

In 1917, Russia was engaged in World War I, with heavy loss of life. It was also the year of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps the "capitol in darkness" refers to the national government's move to Moscow in November. I don't know enough about where and when the poem was written to write with any authority about this or about Akhmatova's political sensibilities at the time of the revolution. I am aware that many young members of the intelligentsia supported change at the time, though sooner or later each realized the tragic consequences of dictatorship.  

This poem speaks as clearly today as it did when it was written, but the closer one looks at it the more mystery it reveals. I can imagine the writer being sickened by the knowledge of war's mass death and violence. I can imagine Akhmatova sickened by the fierce enmities that led to the Russian Civil War in 1918. I can also imagine her reveling in the illusions of love for a last exquisite moment, sensing the brutality of her country's uncertain future. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

I Must Hold These Strangers by Sandra Lynn, Book Review

 I puzzle over Sandra Lynn. Her poetry is marvelous. Since 1976, when I first discovered her work, I have been in awe of her skill, her command of imagery and metaphor, her themes. Yet all we have of her body of work today are the poems found in two books: I Must Hold These Strangers, published in 1980 by Dave Oliphant's Prickly Pear Press in Fort Worth, and Where Rainbows Wait for Rain, published in 1989 by Jerry Reddan's Tangram Press in Berkeley. 

I Must Hold These Strangers was published after Lynn had established herself as one of Austin's most refined and polished poets of the 1970s. She taught creative writing classes at the O. Henry Museum, where I was her student. Her poems were critically acclaimed in Texas Monthly magazine. She conducted a poetry workshop at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum with the greats: Besmilr Brigham and Joanie Whitebird. She was highly thought of, yet, after an auspicious career start, her life's output is small. She moved to New Mexico in 1988 where she taught and pursued other interests, those of native plants and history. She may have expected to live longer, to return to poetry in old age with an even stronger command of language and musicality. But that didn't happen. What we have of hers is impressive in its quality. She continues to teach me how to write a poem.

"The Glass Eye," featured in Texas Monthly in November 1976, was my introduction to Sandra Lynn, poet. It was taken from a dream and was one of those poems, she told a group of us sitting in O. Henry's dining room, that wrote itself. Its movement from realism to surrealism as well as its emotional content stunned me. The poem tells the story of a country funeral in which the daughter notices signs of life and literally raises her dead father with a song. The poem ends with the daughter's mortification about her father's woundedness, also resurrected. 

Another poem I remember well is, "Answer to the Often-Pondered Question of Why Bring a Child Into This Cruel World." I attended a lecture by Dave Oliphant at the O.Henry on the use of cliches in poetry. He surprised Lynn by using this poem as an example. The poem is full of beautiful, figurative language, such as a child "like an asteroid / in the space between the planets." She advises him to "stay where you are...on the air-conditioned megajewel catwalks." After a push-pull between them, it ends with "Come on in / the water's fine." Lynn contrasts rich descriptions of "that cinematic world beatific" with her own vernacular, "You oughta stay where you are," "I wanta get in."  The poem's emotional content almost broke my heart at the time. In order to ease my own longing for a child, I could have patterned a free-write after this poem and tried to communicate with the unknown child waiting for conception. 

Tonight, my favorite poem in this volume is, "Hymn of the Bordello Novices." Written as a chant, it relies on anaphora to pull us through the exultant voices that brag, "Let our lovers be as numerous as sand...Let them shout in the streets to come to us." Their exuberance reminds me of the whores in Garcia Marquez' Macondo, the lovers in the Bible's Song of Solomon. These novices revel in their power. All they know is "a boat rocking...a train clacking...the clustering grapes...the dry slope"  And then the turn, so kindly done. There is no disillusionment here, just truth. 

I'd like to add that the design of this book has special significance for me. The cream cover, the thick pages, the use of both black ink and red ink on the title page, all these remind me of Harry and Caresse Crosby's Black Sun Press (Paris), which I studied at the University of Texas at the Harry Ransom Center. I also find the name of the press, Prickly Pear, and its colophon to be humorous, rooted in place, and beautiful, everything that a small press can hope to be. It's a fitting vehicle for Lynn's carefully wrought, captivating poems.   

I just ordered Lynn's second book of poetry, Where Rainbows Wait for Rain, which, thankfully, I was able to find at an affordable price. Another quality of small press books is how their value increases after poets and editors die. The last time I looked, Rainbows cost $450. Tonight I found a copy for $30. It won't be the first edition, but it will be readable at least, I hope. 


Saturday, July 25, 2020

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Yellow Season: Yellow Wood Sorrel

 I remember Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) as a plant mentioned in children's books. I loved to read historical novels about girls growing up in America in the 18th or 19th century. These children walked in the woods with a parent or grandparent and learned the names of plants. I envied them for their ready access to the forest. Because I never learned the names of plants, I assumed that these and all the other flora mentioned had disappeared with "progress."

I notice them mostly growing at the edge of sidewalks. My husband calls them "lemon flower" and occasionally ate them as a boy growing up in eastern Michigan. The shade of green is spectacular. I love its dull, flat finish. 

Many homeowners in the neighborhood north of ours use lawn services that eliminate the clovers and the miniature blooms such as these. I'm always happy when I see yards that let their weeds and wildflowers grow freely.                                                                                                                                                                                 

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I began writing and publishing poetry after retiring from my career as an academic librarian.