Reading the aphorisms and short essays of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, I feel as if I’m entering a vortex in which every kind of cherished belief perpetually collapses under its own weight and vanishes, having revealed itself to be an illusion. Cioran’s cognitive and poetic mise en abyme knocks every dogma—even the dogma of not holding to any dogma—off its pedestal.
Cioran has earned the label of a pessimist and a nihilist. Even so, I find an odd comfort in his writings, such as this pity meditation—with a hiss of regret—on the inherently impermanent nature of thought:
“To conceive the act of thought as a poison bath, the pastime of an elegiac viper.” (Anathemas and Admirations)
Here are a few of Cioran’s aphorisms that I had copied into a daybook some years ago:
If I could choose just three words of poetry to survive for future generations, I’d be hard pressed to think of better ones than those forever associated with Praxilla, Ancient Greek poet of the 5th century BCE: apples, pears, and cucumbers. Those words occur in one of only five extant fragments attributed to her. In that brief passage, Adonis, having travelled to the underworld, tells what he misses most:
The most beautiful thing I leave is the light of the sun, second are the shining stars and the face of the moon, and cucumbers, and apples, and pears too.
The context of Praxilla’s hymn, like the rest of its words, is perhaps forever lost, eliciting a lament of a different kind: regret for the absence of that which can never be known. Adonis’ memory of sensual foods simultaneously invokes and resists their absence, and the survival of Praxilla’s words leaves a trace of gratitude for their startling imagery while also reminding us of the loss of so many of her works.
But like the homely objects that Anne Bradstreet lovingly remembers as she roams her burned home—a table, a chest, a trunk— Praxilla’s sensuous harvest, recalled from the depths of wintry loss, has a presence as solid as a Cezanne still life.
For today’s installment of my “gratitude” series, I’m making a radical U-turn back to ancient literature. A few years ago, I subscribed to the Loeb Classical Library, a set of volumes offering the most significant Greek and Latin writings in the original, with English translations and commentary. At the time, I was especially interested in some of the earliest documented Greek poets of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.
It’s distressing to see the fragmentary nature of the extant writing, with the realization of all that has been lost. Still, the words that remain offer a glimpse into often mysterious rituals and myths. Their contexts may seem far removed from us, yet the poems are imbued with timeless human emotions.
Below are brief selections — some of my favourites — from two very different ancient Greek poets: Alcman and Archilochus.
Today I’d like to pay tribute to Mississippi poet Besmilr Brigham (1913-2000). I first read the poetry of Brigham in New Orleans at a time when Bill Lavender was editing Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (2002). Noting the paucity of women poets of innovative persuasion in the preliminary list for the anthology, I searched for them – and of course they were there all along. Their submissions arrived in time for several to be accepted.
Although Brigham wasn’t included in the anthology, which was intended only for writers “currently living in the South,” my search introduced me to her work, for which I’m grateful.
Below, I’m reproducing one of her poems from Run Through Rock: Selected Short Poems of Besmilr Brigham, edited by C. D. Wright (Lost Roads Publishers, 2000). I hope that doing so will encourage others to seek out and appreciate her poetry.
Today I pay homage to Lyn Hejinian, whose work has been a constant in my development as a poet. There’s a kind of review that was practiced by Tristan Tzara (on the art of Hans Arp, for example), that reflects on the work by writing a performance of it. I read Hejinian to think, or rather to swerve thought off its accustomed course: thought splaying light, scalpel applied to scalpel and its tunes. Cognition as prism, tinfoil held upside down. How to begin? How to continue? Without conformity.
Below are three poems from “Punctual,” in The Cold of Poetry.
There comes a moment in a poem by Rae Armantrout – usually early on – where a fault in the earth shifts, and one foot is suddenly in a different time zone. Should you reset your watch? Or just allow the doubleness to creep into your consciousness until you recognize, with a start, that your consciousness is already doubled, itself part of a shifting attention observing the shifting world?
Here are two poems by Armantrout, both from Made to Seem (1995).
Today, I turn my spotlight to Alberta Turner (1919-2003). Thematically, Turner is a poet of the quotidian: she observes the minute moments of ordinary life and turns them inside-out to bring to light the contents of their pockets. She also knocks the icon of the domestic goddess off her pedestal.Her work is also edgy and often disjunctive, qualities that threw off some critics such as Margaret Gibson, who reviewed Lids and Spoons. Gibson disparages Turner’s “astigmatic” vision in her “surreal collages” and “oracular riddles.” On the other hand, she praises Turner’s poems that form “organic wholes anchored in a world we can recognize for ourselves.”Here is Turner’s “Mean, MEAN,” where Turner turns to her critics who would have her write more “meaningful” poetry: “I heard you, / MEAN!” She then asks why she should mean, but her very questions belie her tendency to disjunction rather than “organic wholes.”
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Charles Henri Ford’s Silver Flower Coo inspired me to create my own “ransom note” collages about 25 years ago. I reproduce the first one below – in all humility – but oh were they fun to make.
It occurs to me that my posts on other poets often begin with the story of finding the poets’ books – on my parents’ bookshelves, in a library, in a bookstore, or as a gift from a friend. These memories of finding and reading the works of poets for the first time are lucid as a spotlight and tinged with the frisson of discovery.
So it was with Charles Henri Ford’s 1968 collection of word collages, Silver Flower Coo, which I found in the poetry section of the New Orleans Public Library in the mid-90 when I was working at the reference desk. Since the book was long out of print, I photocopied it.
Unfortunately, a few weeks later the book vanished from the shelves without being checked out. I put a trace on it, but it seemed to have been lost or stolen.
I’m grateful that I was able to photocopy the book before it disappeared, as it was Ford’s collection that first inspired me to create my own collages—first using mainly words cut out from magazines, and later, images alone.
Below is the title page of Ford’s book, followed by one of his collages. Tomorrow, I’ll post one of my own “ransom note” collages inspired by Silver Flower Coo.
A postscript to yesterday’s post on Mina Loy: In 1994, I was browsing the poetry shelves of the Tulane University Library in New Orleans when I found, to my surprise, a copy of Loy’s Lunar Baedecker [sic], published in 1923. The title was misspelled, a major clue that, yes, this was the real thing. I photocopied the slim volume and sent it with a letter to the circulation librarian urging her to relocate it to the Rare Books room.
I just pulled that photocopy from my bookshelves, and out fell a copy of my letter, which I reproduce here, along with the title page of the book.
I wonder if others remember their first encounter with the poetry of Mina Loy (1882-1966). I first heard her name in Baton Rouge in 1990 as I was hanging out with friends who urged me to look up her work, suspecting that I’d find in her a kindred poet.
I bought a copy of The Last Lunar Baedeker (a posthumous collection), and from the moment I read the opening lines of the title poem – “A silver Lucifer / serves / cocaine in cornucopia . . .” – I felt “stellectrified” (to use a Loy neologism). I still do. And those thermometer earrings of hers? I was a goner. I still am.
But which of Loy’s shorter poems to feature here – “Apology of Genius”? “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots”? “Der Blinde Junge”? I feel close to so many of them, but I keep returning to “Lunar Baedeker,” Loy’s satirical take, to the point of delirious, alliterative excess, on the timeworn poetic trope of the moon: “pocked with personification / the fossil virgin of the skies / waxes and wanes.”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, during the days leading up to the publication of Blueshift Road, I’m highlighting other poets’ poems that I feel particularly close to, whether I first read them forty years ago or yesterday. I think of these offerings as an exercise in gratitude.
Scanning my bookshelves today, I reached for Tremor: Selected Poems by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I was recalling “Fire,” a poem that has echoed in my mind for many years as an astute portrait of noxious nationalism.
I found Tremor at the Houston bookstore that I mentioned in yesterday’s post—not surprising, as Zagajewski taught for a time at the University of Houston.
Sadly, Zagajewski passed away in March 2021 in Krakow, Poland, at the age of 75.
In 1989, I travelled from my hometown of Lafayette to Houston, Texas, to visit the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel. And of course, to hit the bookstores—one of which had the distinction of having purchased the inventory of New York’s legendary Phoenix Bookshop after it went out of business the previous year.
I spent upwards of $400 at that Houston bookstore on treasures that included issues of “C” Pressand Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, Alan Bernheimer’s Café Isotope, Bill Knott’s The Naomi Poems (under the pseudonym “St. Geraud”), and perhaps most significantly for me at the time, Space, an early book by Clark Coolidge whose dust cover was designed by Jasper Johns. After returning to my hotel room, I spread the books out on the bed so I could see them all.
In a poetry workshop that I was taking at the time, I was most intrigued by the work of Clark Coolidge. Inscrutable and formidable, Coolidge’s poems hinted at an unmooring of words from any kind of poetry I had ever read—narrative, lyric—and even from conventional syntax. I felt irresistibly drawn to his work. I wanted to dive into it, to immerse myself in this unfamiliar realm of new possibilities for poetic language.
I raided the room’s complimentary tiny liquor bottles, selected Space from the bedspread, lay on the carpet, and read the entire book aloud. I think my brain got re-wired that night. It’s not as if I suddenly began writing poems like Coolidge. But I felt a tremendous sense of liberation in this exploration of words jangling against other words. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I knew that I wanted more.
I’ve since collected many of Coolidge’s books. Below, I’m reproducing “Siren” from Space (Harper & Row, 1970) and “The Bounds” from a later book, Own Face (Sun & Moon Press, 1993).
When I was in my mid-thirties rummaging in a used bookstore in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, I stumbled across Clouded Sky by Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944). Radnóti was blossoming as a young poet in Hungary at a time when Nazi forces threatened to overcome the last European country that had not yet exported its Jewish population en masse. His poems have remained close to me ever since I discovered them, and every time I read them, my heart is crushed under the weight of unbearable questions.
Radnóti lived and suffered as a Jewish poet during the immense historical upheaval of World War II and its unleashing of the worst ideology—that of one tribe’s certitude of its own superiority over other tribes, and of the necessity to persecute and exterminate in order to prevail. Against a chorus of clear-eyed Fates with whom Radnóti cannot argue, he explores with immediacy moments infused with the darkness of the future. And that dark future was racing to meet and devour the now.
After 1939, Radnóti’s poems are filled with ominous premonitions and with the inevitability of his imminent death. In 1944, Radnóti was murdered by Hungarian Nazi collaborators during a three-month death march and buried in a mass grave. A year and a half later, when his wife located and exhumed his body, a notebook of his last poems was found in his coat pocket. Radnóti had continued to write during his internment in various work camps, his slave labour in a copper mine, and his death march across his native Hungary, bearing poetic witness to the horrors to which he ultimately succumbed.
The five poems that I reproduce here – “Forced March” and four short “Postcards” – are the last that Radnóti composed before his execution. Soon after writing his fourth “Postcard,” Radnóti was badly beaten by a soldier annoyed by his scribbling in a notebook. Soon thereafter, the weakened Radnóti and twenty-one of his fellow Hungarian Jews were shot to death and buried.
These last poems, written under pressure of the most desperate circumstances imaginable, unfurl visions of delicate pastoral beauty next to images of extreme degradation and wild, filthy despair. They give voice to the last vestiges of hope as Radnóti fantasizes being home once more with his beloved wife, Fanny, while grimly visualizing his fate. This impossibly stark contrast flowers into paradox: Radnóti’s poetry embraces humanity and inhumanity with an urgent desire to document both. Yet even when he is most certain of imminent death, he never abandons the condensed and intricate language of his poetry. And pushed to the limits of human endurance and sanity, he never loses his capacity for empathy.
–Poems translated from the Hungarian by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S. J. Marks
As a child, I used to spend hours perusing my parents’ bookshelves. Among the countless National Geographics that my mother had lined up in a solid yellow block, and post-war novels like The Amboy Dukes and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, I came across a slim volume of poems, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: quatrains attributed to the Persian poet and astronomer.
I read the poems over and over, and my adolescent mind became aware of its hunger for their existential consciousness and their apprehension of the illusory nature of reality. The poems unlocked a place far from wearisome purpose and invited me to wander through unfamiliar gardens of pleasure and skepticism. Reading the quatrains, I didn’t feel as though I had graduated to some branch of adult literature, which I found sometimes had a musty smell about their pages. I felt a fresh, kindred spirit in this medieval poet.
I memorized my favourite quatrains, which I relished reciting as I wandered along the path through the blackberry brambles of the overgrown cow pasture next to my home. That pasture dipped down at a certain place, which my father had explained was an ancient branch of the Mississippi River, which had changed its course over the eons, always seeking the path of least resistance. It was a place where I could be alone, away from family dysfunction, losing myself on an ancient riverbed, dizzy in the company of Khayyam’s four-line universes.
On the eve of the publication of Blueshift Road, my latest collection of poetry, I’ve decided to post a series of poems by others, poems that I feel close to. I’m always influenced by poems that emerge and vanish and breathe again, always startling, never the same.
It occurs to me to start at the beginning (c. 2300 BCE) with the first poet in history whose name has come down to us: the high priestess Enheduanna – daughter of the Akkadian emperor Sargon, who conquered Sumer and ensconced Enheduanna as head priestess of the main temple in the city of Ur. One of her most important roles as priestess was the writing of temple hymns, in which she celebrated each town’s temple and resident god or goddess within the Sumerian pantheon.
In addition to writing temple hymns, Enheduanna records her own story in an autobiographical poem bemoaning a rebel’s banishing her from the Temple and her subsequent exile. It’s a gripping narrative, not least due to the urgency and presence of the thinking and feeling self.
And it is Enheduanna’s practice of writing herself into some of her poetry that characterizes, in a startling way, the last lines of her last (42nd) Temple Hymn. In those lines, Enheduanna announces consciousness of herself as creator, and creator as being who gives birth to things that have never before existed. Here are the lines ending her 42nd hymn:
“the person who bound this tablet together is Enheduanna my king something never before created did not this one give birth to it”
It’s as if a light bulb has snapped on. Here is poetry as something to make (poiein), and as a space where the maker becomes engaged in the drama of the poem.
–Translation from Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna by Betty de Shong Meador