Lynn Powers © 2006 All Rights Reserved
Of course a person can read too many poems of beauty, Eros, and angels. After a while, one might feel almost Dido-esque. Then it’s time to stop reading, push aside the books and simply listen. Be alone with the mind. Stare out the window or watch the air growing lighter or darker. There is a kind of intimacy in that almost silence. I think it is then, in that moment, that all poetry begins, in a moment like the one described in David Lehman’s poem “Dutch Interior” from his book Valentine Place:But the poet who overwhelms me entirely with angst and longing is Nina Cassian, whose poems bear titles such as “Romance,” “Longing,” “Greed,” and “Kisses.” In her poem, “Licentiousness,” Cassian writes of: “the clitoris in my throat / vibrating, sensitive, pulsating / exploding in the orgasm of Romanian.” I wonder if anyone could survive a desire this strong:
The Other Woman
I watch her. Of course I watch her. I see just how she glances behind her, as if she feels my stare, as if she knows I’m there. Why is she wearing my clothes, my smile, my sunglasses, I want to ask you. Then she tosses her hair, as if to shake me off, as if to say who cares and fuck you. She’s artsy, too. Well-dressed, smart. Shockingly blonde. Sometimes I want to scream, stop! Make her turn and look. Gaze into my eyes. See this? I will ask her. This one is green. This one, darker green. Runs in my family, two shades of green. Every night I stare at the mirror to see if it’s still true. To see if she’s still here. Sweetheart? I ask her. Have you stopped sleeping? Yes? Well, me too. I feel sorry for her. I do. I who used to think a woman has choices. Love is one. But it’s not. The first time you meet someone you love, you’re already in love. You’re already undressing him. And you aren’t the only one. It’s the damnedest thing.
* * *
1. The Cat
When I was a girl, I lived on a farm where bears wandered in the woods. They’re just berry-eating bears, my mother said. Nothing to be afraid of. But there were bobcats, too, who slunk in the leafy shadows of tree limbs. Once, when I was four years old, I looked up and saw one. I saw a bobcat, as huge as a tiger, looking down at me with yellow eyes. That night I dreamt I was eaten by a tiger. How did he eat you, a therapist asked years later. Slowly. That’s how. He kept me alive night after night, licking the salt from my hair, my tears, and the nape of my neck until gradually he became my mind. He became my fears and the song of my thoughts like the soft padding of slippered feet as I walked the hallways on sleepless nights. He became the absence inside me long after he was gone, a faint sensation, like a thousand tiny teeth in my gut and groin. It’s that feeling I came to define as being alive.
2. First Love
When I was fourteen, I felt like prey. When I walked the city streets, men whistled and asked my name. On subways, men pressed too close and leaned close, inhaling, as if I were perfume. My first love was old. Maybe twenty five. I made love to him at least once a day. Of course no one saw or knew what I did to him or how I could twist myself around him into a thousand and one shapes. I was supple then, so supple, every joint in my body was at least double. Sometimes I touched him only with my tongue. Other times I bit him hard. Afterwards I could never sleep. I couldn’t even pray. If he asked for anything, I gave him nothing. I didn’t want to disappoint him.
3. The Married Woman
After the wedding, I couldn’t stand him. I needed him to leave. I needed him to leave again and again, and each time he left, he was more in my life than ever before. Until at last, when he was truly gone, I saw him everywhere. He was in the sheets I slept in, the water I washed with, the shirts and pants I slid into. Until there was no part of me he didn’t touch, no breath or pulse he didn’t feel, no place he would not kiss, no bliss he called enough. Until he was in the silence too, when the words were no longer visible, when they no longer held what meaning means. Until he was no more than a memory. Even then he was touching him. Even then. And after. And after that, too.
4. The Divorcée
After the papers were signed, after I knew I was a single woman at last, I felt what it means to be alone for the first time. I felt as if everything were many sizes too big. Even the view of the sky overhead, divided by pine trees. It could go on and on forever. That’s when I kept to myself. I stayed inside. I needed to feel how the air slipped around me, and the sheets, too. And my own skin, how it wrapped around each finger and hip bone and traveled down my spine. I liked it, the perfect fit of myself. And how I could place it, just so, in any hour and room like a single stalk in a glass vase.
* * *
As with every dream, you can only watch. You stand outside the locked door, staring through a one-way mirror. You watch as ballerinas perform day after day, month after month. Everyone dreams of flying. Everyone wants to ascend. You watch them try, all those leaping boys and girls, men and woman, always a few unable to leap. Unable even to hop. Their feet stick to the ground. Sometimes you see them fall, hear their bones breaking, the sound of twigs snapping when you walk through the woods on a fall afternoon. Sometimes they grow old, and sometimes they are as tall and thin as corn stalks. Bellies sucked in, concave. Each pelvis, clearly outlined. Still other times you can see their bleached sunlit bones, and behind them, infinite blue horizons. What happened to their soft belly flesh? Why did they age so quickly? Nobody notices what they have lost. Everyone pretends it’s just a dance. Above them an instructor hovers like a dark star. A few of his favorite pupils rise and hover too. One night even you will rise. You know this even though you pretend you aren’t really there. But slowly you will glide upward as one ascending an invisible staircase, as if being sucked up by a gust of wind. The world will be gone as quickly as it came.
All Poems Copyright © 2006
Nin Andrews is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Why They Grow Wings, and Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. Her book, Sleeping with Houdini is forthcoming from BOA Editions.
from Poet’s Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets On Books That Shaped Their Art
poet Nin Andrews
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Stephen Mitchell
Federico García Lorca, The Selected Poems, ed. Francisco García Lorca and David Allen
Yannis Ritsos, Gestures, trans. Nikos Stangos
Henri Michaux, Selected Writings, trans. Richard Ellman
Nina Cassian, Life Sentences
Every day for the past two weeks, I have tried to pick five or ten books that are essential to me. Usually the choices would be simple. Witty and acerbic poets are my favorites: Charles Bukowski, Henri Michaux, Mark Halliday, Amy Gerstler, Tim Seibles. The Adams and Eves of the avant garde, Houdinis of the heart, hymn singers of the humdrum. I like to quote poems such as “Strawberry Milkshake” by Halliday or “Dear Boy George” by Gerstler. Or this one from Henri Michaux:
What has been particularly lacking in my life up to now is simplicity. Little by little I am beginning to change.
For example, I always go out with my bed now and when a woman pleases me, I take her and go to bed with her immediately.
If her ears are ugly and large, or her nose, I remove them along with her clothes and put them under the bed, for her to take back when she leaves; I keep only what I like.
If her underthings would improve by being changed, I change them immediately. That is my gift. But, if I see a better-looking woman go by, I apologize to the first and make her disappear at once.
People who know me claim that I am incapable of doing what I just described, that I haven’t enough spunk. I once thought so myself, but that was because I wasn’t doing everything just as I pleased.
Now, I always have excellent afternoons. (Mornings I work.)
Ordinarily I’d want to discuss the appeal of the comic poet and try to explicate the logic of humor. On my wall I have posted this quote from the philosopher Henry Bergson: “You will find that the art of the comic poet consists in making us well acquainted with the particular vice, in introducing us, the spectators, to such a degree of intimacy with it, that in the end we get hold of some of the strings of the marionette with which he is playing, and actually work them ourselves; this explains some of the pleasure we feel.”
But these days I’m not sure how anything works, and nothing seems particularly funny. I think of Camus, his belief that men are forever trying to convince themselves that they aren’t absurd. Or Eugene O’Neill’s statement: “Life is best regarded as a bad dream between two awakenings.” Maybe it’s the weather, gray skies day after day, an Ohio winter setting on so fast. Or the news, President Bush on the radio, sounding like a cross between a football coach and an evangelical Christian, the rumble of patriotism and war-fever, everyone driving by with red, white, and blue waving in the wind. I find myself humming “Onward Christian Soldiers” and wondering what country or century I am living in. Maybe as a result, I’ve been rereading poetry books I haven’t touched for years. Is this because these poets are more “essential”? I’m not sure.
Joseph Joubert writes, “Everything has its poetry.” Joubert also writes, “In every piece of music, not everything is music, and in every poem not everything is poetry.” But what is the music of music, the poetry in a poem? What is the essential within the essential? I change my mind constantly. Maybe everything depends on the hour and its whims. The landscape inside out, or outside in. Like an Ashbery epiphany.
Poetry speaks so many languages. I sometimes think of them as the languages of heaven, purgatory, and hell. These days I am in any or all of these places. My father used to tell a story, how once he was driving down the highway in one state, staring out at the ocean, when suddenly he found himself in another state, the cornfields outside his window, the hot wind in his face. No time had passed, he had just moved, seamlessly, to his destination. No, he wasn’t on drugs. Sometimes, he explained, what can’t be is. I believed him then, and I believe him now. One day I am reading Rimbaud, “At dawn, / armed with burning patience / we shall enter / the splendid cities,” and the next, I hear James Tate: “At dawn I would nudge you / with anxious fingers and say / Already we are in Idaho.”
Lately, I’ve been wishing to escape from planet earth altogether. I’ve been overindulging in Rilke’s angels, Rimbaud’s splendid cities, Lorca’s moons … poems such as Rilke’s “Lament,” and Lorca’s “The Moon Rising.” I am in the mood for romantic excess, the play of moonlight against the shadows of suffering, solemn trains of thought that follow me down the aisles of K-Mart or Staples and out into the wet streets. Like Baroque music or recipes for summer or some divine or ethereal tryst…Like a drug, a single drop of which transforms all the white spaces inside and changes everything: the curve and length of an hour, how it rests on the skin as a warm glow or vanishes without a trace or leaves a mark I can’t erase…Or like the old model or maps of the world, back when people could drop off its edges and sail clear out of here…These poems make me feel as if I am sailing clear out of here.
I still remember the first time I was swept away by a poem. I was thirteen, working in a bookstore after school, still wearing my kilt and knee socks, when I flipped open Yannis Ritsos’ book, Gestures, to the mystical little poem, “The Third One”:
I felt then as I feel now when I read Ritsos, as if I were holding my breath, listening and looking through a keyhole at another world, which is in fact this one, only suddenly lit, more beautiful, and terrifying…which reminds me of Rilke’s lines: “For beauty is only the beginning of Terror, which we are still just able to endure.” Often it’s the simplest images of Ritsos that amaze and delight, images of a seamstress with a mouth full of pins, a woman gathering oranges while “I” gather the sun, and of “a stiff brown overcoat had taken on the shape of someone sleeping, pretending to be the one that had left.”
The three of them sat before the window looking at the sea.
One talked about the sea. The second listened. The third
neither spoke nor listened; he was deep in the sea; he floated.
Behind the windowpanes, his movements were slow, clear
in the thin pale blue. He was exploring a sunken ship.
He rang the dead bell for the watch; fine bubbles
rose bursting with a soft sound—suddenly,
“Did he drown?” asked one; the other said, “He drowned.” The third one
looked back at them helpless from the bottom of the sea, the way one looks at drowned people.
I love the magical yet simple language and imagery, the fairy tale logic, the mystical visions and peculiar proclamations…“Did he drown?” Yes, of course he drowned. What else could he do if he were too deep in the world or sea? Yet there is something reassuring in the poet’s ability to make despair and absurdity beautiful. In Lorca’s poem, “The Moon Rising,” he even prescribes a proper diet for one whose “heart feels like an island in infinity.”
The Moon Rising
When the moon rises,
the bells hang silent,
and impenetrable footpaths
When the moon rises,
the sea covers the land,
and the heart feels
like an island in infinity.
Nobody eats oranges
under the full moon.
One must eat fruit
that is green and cold.
Call yourself alive? Look, I promise you
that for the first time you’ll feel your pores opening
like fish mouths, and you’ll actually be able to hear
your blood surging through all those lanes,
and you’ll feel light gliding across the cornea
like the train of a dress. For the first time
you’ll be aware of gravity
like a thorn in your heel,
and your shoulder blades will ache for want of wings.
Call yourself alive? I promise you
you’ll be deafened by the sound of dust falling on furniture,
you’ll feel your eyebrows turning to two gashes,
and every memory you have—will begin
He liked the late afternoon light as it dimmed
In the living room, and wouldn’t switch on
The electric lights until past eight o’clock.
His wife complained, called him cheerless, but
It wasn’t a case of melancholy; he just liked
The way things looked in the air growing darker
So gradually and imperceptibly that it seemed
The very element in which we live. Every man
And woman deserves one true moment of greatness
And this was his, this Dutch interior, entered
And possessed, so tranquil and yet so busy
With details: the couple’s shed clothes scattered
On the backs of armchairs, the dog chasing a shoe,
The wide open window, the late afternoon light.
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