Aida Schneider © 2011 All Rights Reserved
I am not a woman
I am a force of nature
I am not a thundercloud or a cloudwall
I am a burst of incoming fire
I am not a fire base
I am a tangle of Himalayan blackberries covering the headland
I am not a dark plot to disentangle in the novel’s final chapter
I am the last task crossed off the list on your night stand
I am not the constellation of Cygnus or the Cruz del Sur
I am the cry of geese migrating by the wintry glow of cell towers
I am not the light of your life
I am the echo of generations painted on cave walls
I am not the mirror or the lamp
I am the first gleam along the continent’s serrated blade
I am not the exile’s transcontinental flight
I am a crystal chip swirling for years into the blue-green torment of glacial melt
I am not the natural child of silence and slow time
I am the lost offspring of a tilting shelf, a miscellany of obstreperous bells
I am not a whim of weather or the vicissitudes of birth
I am a woman straight and strong
I am not a force of nature
I am a woman
for Eugenia Toledo
* * *
1. Eulene’s Reply to the Dead Man
“The dead man is the only one who will live forever.”
I’m the one who is not yet dead.
I’m the one who has yet to be born.
I’m the one who buys a one-way ticket for the ferry,
who buys a round-trip ticket on the other side
because I can’t make up my mind.
I’m the one who hangs over the rail to catch the under-splash
of the ferry’s wake.
The one who hears the engines’ thrum give back the music of the waves.
I’m the one who sits on one shore, then the other,
gazing at her own after-image on the opposite bank
like two forts that face each other, guarding either side
of the same choppy channel—forts whose rusted cannon
have long since been hauled away.
I am the White Taj, gazing across the muddy river toward the Black Taj
never built, its ghostly domes and minarets shimmering
on a broken outline of foundations.
I am a djinn of the inland seas, carrying messages in bottles back
and forth between shores, entertaining unawares
the angels of return addresses.
I’m the one whose life’s thread is a Möbius strip twisted
out of the Three Fates’ grip,
who wrestles her angel to a standstill on the ferry deck.
When I step off the ferry on the other shore, the Dead Man rises to meet me
and we stroll through plumes of steam billowing
from grates along the waterfront
like two people with their whole lives before them.
2. More About Eulene’s Reply to the Dead Man
“She who writes a dead woman poem must understand that perception is kaleidoscopic.”
Eulene has her whole life before her.
Eulene has her whole life behind her.
Her life stretches out like her shadow at sundown
her shadow at dawn.
Eulene hovers between her shadows like Janus in a fit of indecision.
She teeters on a promontory above the Sound, watching ferries
cut their wide swathes across the channel
and vanish behind the risers of islands.
She peers at the two-way traffic through dollar-store binoculars: angels
strolling like vacationers on deck, leaning over the rails
to watch waves unbraid themselves in the ferries’ wake.
She wishes she could see their faces, expressions of angels
flying red kites from the sundeck, orcas spy-hopping
from the swells like up-periscopes.
Eulene needs better technology if she’s going to figure out what’s next.
Eulene squints into each end of the binoculars and wonders
which of her faces stares back at her.
She wonders if there’s a two-faced lens for her double-headed god.
Eulene twists the binoculars for a sharper view, but the image fractures,
kaleidoscopes into a million shards of light,
Eulene’s own eyes a million pinwheels cascading in a tile of Janus-headed
consequence, images of the Dead Man multiplied a million times
as if trapped in amber in the eyes of million-year-old flies.
Eulene kicks herself—why didn’t she score such psychedelic fireworks
in the Sixties?
She clambers down from her perch to wait her turn in the ferry line,
casino tokens in her mouth, waiting for the MV Charon
to carry her over yonder.
She’ll meet herself coming and going.
Her Janus-faced angel and the million-man
Dead Man in the fly-eyed binoculars tell her
she’s got to cross them lonesome waters by herself.
* * *
How To Finish a Martini (Eulene’s Instructions to Her Double)
“The flavors of olive and Pernod commingle
so deliciously that at least one of the olives
should be consumed after the drink is finished.”
—from the directions for the Tin House Martini,
developed by Greg Connolly
Consume at least one of the olives after the drink is finished.
Or was it “after the dark is finished”?
The dark at the bottom of the martini glass needs to be finished.
The Pernod swirled in the cocktail shaker needs to be finished.
What about the Cinzano dry vermouth?
The tang of Cinzano-marinated olives in your mouth?
The soft pow-pow of Pernod perking up the gin?
Is that why you keep writing dark in your directions?
Why you can’t stop stirring dark into my drink?
You need to make use of the excess, to mix the Pernod
and Cinzano in one shaker, while I sip my Tin
House martini in its well-chilled glass.
I will roll my cocktail olives in their long-stemmed glass
and use my tongue and toothpick if I must.
Forget the rule against toothpicks.
The long-handled mixing spoon tastes of silver and Tanqueray.
I will tap spoon against shaker and keep the devil
at a distance, the devil we sup with in these details.
Smack your lips on the rim, stir the dark
into olives at the bottom of your glass.
On the bar beside you, Cinzano and Pernod twinkle in one glass.
Your dark drink gleams in the other.
All Poems Copyright © 2011
Carolyne Wright’s most recent collections are A Change of Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2006), Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire (Carnegie Mellon UP/EWU Books, 2005), which won the Blue Lynx Prize and American Book Award; forthcoming is Mania Klepto: the Book of Eulene. Wright teaches for the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program and lives in Seattle.
from Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art
poet Carolyne Wright
Robin Skelton, Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest (Kenneth Hanson, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, William Stafford, David Wagoner)
William Stafford, West of Your City; Traveling Through the Dark; The Way It Is
Richard Hugo, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir; What Thou Lovest Well Becomes American; Making Certain It Goes On; The Triggering Town
Madeline DeFrees, When Sky Lets Go; Magpie on the Gallows; Blue Dusk
Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems
Pablo Neruda, Residencia en la tierra I & II; Tercera Residencia; Canto General; Los versos del capitán; Confieso que he vivido (Memoir, tr. Magda Bogin)
César Vallejo, Trilce; The Complete Posthumous Poetry (bilingual edition, tr. Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia)
W. B. Yeats, The Complete Poems
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Yusef Komunyakaa, Copacetic; I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head; Neon Vernacular
Carolyn Forché , The Country Between Us
Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living
In the list above, where I name a few individual collections and then a selected or collected volume, it’s a signal that I find most or all of that poet’s work essential, inspiring, enriching to my own poetic processes from years past up to the present. With poetry by Neruda, Vallejo, et al., I list only a few of the translations because I usually read the work in the original except when Spanish editions are not available or there is a good bilingual edition. Northrop Frye’s seminal book, The Educated Imagination, names most of the key books and writers a poet does well to read—The King James Bible, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Blake, the Romantic poets (Wordsworth and Keats in particular), Browning, Yeats, Eliot, and so on. I devoured this book in graduate school and felt vindicated that my relatively classical education had made reading many of these works wonderfully compulsory. When a poet or writer is essential to me, I return to her or his work again and again, learning and experiencing more with each reading. And yet a work is not essential so much because I return to its pages over and over, but because it has started a fire in my head—a continual rhythm, a compelling under-voice—and the only way to fight that poetic fire is to start my own. This list is in no way definitive—it shifts and expands as the seasons pass; and for reasons of space I have passed over another entire list of novels, short story collections, memoirs, and plays.
My mother, a major bookworm in her own younger days, encouraged my reading. She noticed my interest in poetry, and for my 16th birthday, I think it was, gave me a copy of the first contemporary anthology to influence me, Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest, edited by Robin Skelton. This anthology featured work by Kenneth Hanson, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, William Stafford, and David Wagoner. During the summer between high school graduation and college, I took a poetry course at the Port Townsend Summer School of the Arts, a precursor to Centrum and the Port Townsend Writers Conference. The instructor was William Stafford, a poet I knew of from the Skelton anthology! We read selections of post-WW II American poets from one of the first anthologies of this work, edited by Donald Hall. I was mystified by some of the cultural references in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”—what was an L. L. Bean catalogue? I remember Stafford's repeating the line, “a red fox stain covers Blue Hill,” savoring its sound and imagery, as he read the poem aloud.
Bill Stafford was very kind to me when I showed him a few very early poetic efforts, and he became one of my enduring mentors, mainly through his work, which I have continued to read over the years. Inspired by that course, I began to check out from the library some of the book-length collections by poets featured in the Hall anthology—James Dickey, Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov, W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Stafford of course, and James Wright. Their early books—often their first books. I remember going through the poetry shelves and looking for those slim volumes, in new condition since they were recently published and infrequently checked out, and the excitement of discovery I felt.
A seminal experience in the fall of my freshman year was to hear a diminutive nun in a contemporary habit, Sister Mary Gilbert, give a reading of her precise and witty poetry in the Seattle University library auditorium. I thought, “she’s a woman and a nun to boot, and if She can write poetry, so can I!” The sister turned out to be Madeline DeFrees, one of my enduring influences and now (in her mid-80s) a friend. At Seattle U, I took literature courses focusing on poetry, and the only Creative Writing workshop (then occasionally offered) of my undergraduate career, from another charismatic and dedicated professor, William Taylor, who encouraged my writing and my sense of myself as an aspiring poet. He helped make the life of a poet more accessible and more realistic—involving craft and revision, discipline and time management.
The anecdotes that Bill Taylor told about Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath, and other poets we read in his classes, enabled me not just to revere these major figures as remote, semi-divine icons, Corinthian columns holding up the Parnassian institution of Great Literature, but to empathize with them as living, struggling, imperfect, human beings—not unlike myself. To learn that Keats, for example, was writing some of his best work when he was my age, 20 or so, made me feel that I had better get cracking! The stories about his struggles to support himself, working as a physician’s apprentice and tending a brother dying of tuberculosis, while reading and writing some of his greatest poems; and then the dramatic discovery of his own TB, the blood he coughed into a handkerchief and recognized as his death warrant—these stories were heart-wrenching, and they made Keats very real to me. The complete manuscript of “The Wasteland,” the one with Ezra Pound’s marginal comments and recommended cuts, had recently been made public. Bill Taylor told us about that manuscript with a sense of excitement and discovery. For me, to learn that the formidable T. S. Eliot had had his great poem workshopped, criticized and changed by another poet—that turned him from a literary icon into a fellow human being.
While in Chile after my undergraduate days, during the presidency of Salvador Allende, I was greatly affected by the poetry of Pablo Neruda—his protean output and powers of image-making. Particularly important for me are his Residencia en la tierra volumes and his monumental masterpiece, Canto General, the “Song of Myself” for and about Latin America—as well as other poets, artists, and musicians of the Chilean “New Song” movement, including Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. Neruda won the Nobel Prize in Literature while I was there, but I never had the opportunity to hear him read in person because he was in France during my year in Chile, and he returned home only after my departure. By then he was mortally ill with cancer, and he died in September of 1973. His work continues to be an enduring source and poetic touchstone, as does that of César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, and more recently, Nicanor Parra and his Antipoemas.
As a woman, I have found myself drawn to the work and sensibilities of women poets. Among those important to me are those who address issues of social concern and engage in a dialogue with history in their work—Silvia Curbelo, Carolyn Forché, Rita Dove, Linda Hull, Thylias Moss, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds. Those who write dramatic monologues employing personae, with a wide range of concerns and effects—Kim Addonizio, Ai, Linda Bierds, Allison Joseph. Those who use wonderfully lively and energetic language, and embrace humor and wit in incisive observations and allusions—Denise Duhamel, Barbara Hamby, Lucia Perillo. Those who write in form while addressing issues of social concern—Alice Fulton, Marilyn Hacker, Maxine Kumin, A. E. Stallings. These are only a few; I could name any number of others. And several of the Bengali women poets whose work I have read very closely, by virtue of translating it—Anuradha Mahapatra, Gita Chattopadhyay, Sufia Kamal, Vijaya Mukhopadhyay, Taslima Nasrin, Ruby Rahman, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Mallika Sengupta.
Contemporary poets of widely varying sensibilities who happen to be male, and to whom I turn frequently because their work is consistently powerful, compelling, insightful, or quirky—the late Agha Shahid Ali (master of the ghazal in English), Marvin Bell, Robert Bly, Christopher Bursk, Norman Dubie, Robert Hass, Christopher Howell, Donald Justice, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Dionisio D. Martinez, W. S. Merwin, Gary Soto, Arthur Sze, James Tate, David Wagoner, Richard Wilbur, David Wojahn. To name a few!
Table of Contents Guidelines