Peter Davis © 2005 All Rights Reserved
I think we’re all missing something:
Salt from shakers
Kept all day on the cafeteria tables,
A party at the beginning of the world.
A harbor so full of boats no one can float away.
The beautiful women of Venezuela, rolling their spacious hair
On red rollers.
A man unlocking a drawer
Full of cherished cufflinks.
The spoonful that dissolves hunger.
A change of weather, clouds like swan feathers
The moment when you start to look old and heartbroken.
For Larry Rivers
“Perhaps that isn’t the highest form of love, but it was all
I could manage” – Larry Rivers
I always think that I can manage the highest form of love.
In daydreams I rehabilitate the desperate, salve
The weary, convert the wanderer. In last night’s dream
My G.P. unexpectedly appeared to whisk me off for a ride
On the cog railway. I kept thinking of his unserved
Patients, their sanity and hopes of restored health
Evaporating among ancient magazines, but I still looked forward
Earnestly to a kiss. What a burden for our wellness
Personnel, the legend of “playing doctor”! But just now
My adulterate love goes to a coaxing
Clarinet, a booming dishwasher, my own breaths—
We cry our cry with no special audience but ourselves
And there is paradox in every song.
“Angels ride along with their little xylophones.” David Shapiro
Satan chugs through the fields playing sticks, bureaucrats change the tissue
On their narrow combs, car horns play boat horns, collages
Blow into pop bottles, widows and orphans play plastic violins,
Saints shake bags of dragons’ teeth, a Coke machine thumps
And thinks better of it. Magellan plays harp; Cortez, oboe.
The Grand Canyon plays guitar; the Great Wall, cello.
Longhorns play accordion. Dogs go
Knick-knack paddy whack. Weasels aren’t popping, currently—
The plains are glottal and burnished; their poignant wires
Hum below ground, where digging
Angels ride, as ever, the lone atmosphere, their xylophones proud
At their sides.
All Poems Copyright © 2005
Angela Ball was born on July 6, 1952 and is a professor in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Partisan Review, Ploughshares, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. She is the author of four full-length collections of poetry, the most recent of which is The Museum of the Revolution (1999). Her work is widely anthologized, including in The Best American Poetry 2001. She’s an associate editor for Mississippi Review, and lives in Hattiesburg with her dog, Maggie, and cat, Frank O’Hara.
from Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art
poet Angela Ball
Charles Simic, Dismantling the Silence
James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break
Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer
How does a book become—and remain—essential? By virtue, I believe, of the richness of its worldview, a response to experience that makes nothing impossible. We may start by loving the work, but end by loving the author: the Simic-ness of Simic, the Wright-ness of Wright, the Bishop-ness of Bishop, the Rhys-ness of Rhys, the Akhmatova-ness of Akhmatova. Authors transform themselves from names to constant presences, wholenesses.
It’s no accident that the titles of Charles Simic’s first collections (small press editions, the precursors of Dismantling the Silence) of poetry, What the Grass Says and Somewhere Among Us a Stone is Taking Notes, both suggest a preternatural attentiveness. This world holds another one inside it: “Go inside a stone,” Simic says, “That would be my way.” His imagination renders the mythic and the down-to-earth one and the same. On first reading Simic’s work in 1972, I was star-struck. The next year, he visited Ohio University and I heard him read and talked to him afterward for a long time (which seemed—still seems—incredible good luck). From his poems I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as being alone, because even the inanimate has its history.
Going to college, I lived at home with my parents and an older sister. We were a shy family. I became convinced that I would never know the life I imagined others were living: excitements, pleasures, dramas involving other people. What a mystery! And no way into it. One night, awake in my room, I read James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break. Growing up in Southeastern Ohio, I had shared a landscape with Wright—the sad, scarred, lovely hills. I had seen the river, the smoke stacks and furnaces beside it—satanic energies that built the little towns and ruined them, too. In “Stages on a Journey Westward” Wright remembers,
I began in Ohio.
I still dream of home.
Near Mansfield, enormous dobbins enter dark barns in autumn,
Where they can be lazy, where they can munch little apples,
Or sleep long.
But by night now, in the bread lines my father
Prowls, I cannot find him: So far off,
1500 miles or so away, and yet
I can hardly sleep.
In a blue rag the old man limps to my bed,
Leading a blind horse,
In 1932, grimy with machinery, he sang me
A lullaby of a goosegirl.
Outside the house, the slag heaps waited.
Here was someone who understood loneliness, who had lived despair. His response to it—his faith in nature and in words—came home to me all at once in the second of “Two Hangovers”:
I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again
In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my windowsill,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down,
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.
A life of being alive to nature, of recording it in words, in poetry that knows what a bird knows, could be possible for me because of Wright’s example. More and more now, I think of Wright as a poet who praises his vocation and delights in passing it along. The beautiful “Prayer to the Good Poet” (from Two Citizens) links Horace, Wright himself, and Wright’s young son as part of the same long and generous conversation. Reading him, I knew that the loneliness which had seemed so final could be redeemed in words.
Elizabeth Bishop’s final book, the great Geography III, testifies to the power of language over loss. We’re all misplaced, displaced—our poor, struggling sense of self dependent on context, constantly disrupted by change. Bishop shows us that the kind of noticing done through language may not restore the things themselves, but does restore the memory of them. Memory makes art necessary, and art makes memory real. As Bishop’s “One Art” tells us, poetry is “the art of losing.” It’s all one. For poetry, to record loss is to defeat it, to change it to celebration: an assertion of what matters, what abides.
There’s something else about Bishop—something I can’t fully elaborate. The close observation of known facts leads always to mystery, a mystery that is as nourishing in its own strange way as the details we can cradle in our hands. It’s in “a dim / smell of moose, an acrid / smell of gasoline” at the close of Bishop’s “The Moose.” It’s what we spy when, tying our shoes, we “look into the earth” in Charles Simic’s “Poem.” It’s the chill at the close of Wright’s “Prayer to the Good Poet.” The more I think about it, the more I know: books for me (and not just poetry, of course—novels and stories and plays) have been a way to loosen my construction of experience, to let me respond with something other than plain, bred-in-the-bone bewilderment and despair.
This brings me to Jean Rhys and her novel, Good Morning Midnight. Rhys found her vocation through a back door. After being discarded by her wealthy lover, Rhys the actress/chorus girl/masseuse bought a notebook and colored pens and sat down to record her story, becoming a writer in the process. My poem-bio of her in my book Quartet (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1995) imagines her saying:
Only the books matter.
If I stop writing my life
It will have been a failure.
I will not have earned death.
Only writing is important, only books
take you out of yourself.
Writing isn’t only a way to escape the self, it’s a way of exposing socially accepted hypocrisy. To do her experience justice, she enlisted the objectivity of craft. Far from a complaint or lament, Rhys’ work is an indictment and a vindication. As my colleague Steven Barthelme says, “Next to Jean Rhys, everyone else is just kidding.” In her introduction to Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels, Diana Athill declares:
…the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with a self-purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words. Jean Rhys could stand back, and her concentration on the process was as intense as that of a tightrope walker. As a result her novels do not say ‘This is what happened to me,’ but ‘This is how things happen.’
In Good Morning Midnight, the book I think of as quintessential Rhys, we hear the world through the voice of Sasha, a woman who has been abandoned. We see what it’s like to live beyond the pale and beneath contempt, a world where women have two universally recognized identities: wife or prostitute. Rhys’ stories and novels have the gall, the ever-lasting nerve, to see and record things as themselves rather than frosting them with some sort of doily.
Anna Akhmatova, the last of my essential authors, is the ultimate truth teller. She lived under the tyrant Stalin, in a time when truth too often meant death. In Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation, Requiem begins:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
‘Can you describe this?’
And I answered: ‘Yes, I can.’
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
From Akhmatova, true saint of poetry, I learned that memory is a moral imperative: the last and best defense against evil. That whatever else happens, we have language, with truth’s power embedded in it like a tornado in a thunderstorm.
So this is my testament, my recommendation. If you haven’t had the happiness of these writers yet, I wish it for you. It’s our fine luck that they exist and have given us these books to remember ourselves by.
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