As promised: my gratitude post for Sheila E. Murphy, whose poetry has been a constant in my life as a poet, starting in the 1990s. Murphy’s multi-disciplinary work in both poetry and visual art, and her many collaborations with other poets, speak to her open and generous approach to creation.
I recently received Golden Milk, Murphy’s latest book, and soon lost myself in this quiet, self-aware, and inviting work. I admire the way she subtly interweaves realms of knowing and perceiving, and of self and other, with the greatest of ease. In some of the poems of this book, Murphy explores with a sure yet fluid hand various traditional forms such as sestina and pantoum, as well as her signature haibun. Murphy is also a flutist, and the musicality of her poetry shows a transfer between the two fields. The writing in Golden Milk possesses both a porousness and clarity that comes with a mature vision. This is a book to savour slowly and to treasure.
It was difficult to make a brief selection of poems from Golden Milk – I wanted to include many more than this space would allow. Besides, I want to encourage any who read this to buy the book and see for yourselves. So much here to be grateful for!
As a prelude to my gratitude post for poet Sheila E. Murphy, I wanted to share a memory of the time she honoured New Orleans with her reading for the Lit City series in the mid-90s. One of Sheila’s favourite novels (and mine) was John Kennedy Toole’s carnivalesque A Confederacy of Dunces, which recounts the raucously comical misadventures of Ignatius Reilly, an unlikely medievalist and one-time hotdog vendor living with his mother in New Orleans. We set about touring some Ignatius landmarks, including the ubiquitous hotdog carts in the French Quarter. I treasure my photo of Sheila standing next to one.
To continue my poetry gratitude series: Ken Babstock. When I returned to poetry this past summer after a long hiatus, I picked up Babstock’s book Swivelmount (2020) and headed for the rooftop of my building. Opening the book at random, I began reading a sonnet, “Beached Squid and Ideas of Order” and knew that this is what I wanted once again: to lose myself in unruly and expanding realms, and to get my hands inky, one poem at a time.
Yesterday, I picked up “Beached Squid and Ideas of Order” again and decided to do a deep dive into that poem as well as the source of its parody, Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.
”Stevens’ poem is in the form of an argument hinging on the relationship between art and nature. The speaker concludes that the singer’s voice heard along the beach is transcendent and transformative, and he asserts that “song and water were not medleyed sound.” Instead, the solitary heroine/muse has become a shamanistic creator, a changer of perception, even a colonizer of nature.
And while the influence of the singer’s “rage to order words” becomes more powerful, meanwhile the water, sea, and sky recede into the darkness after sunset. The song casts a spell on the lights of the anchored fishing boats, which seem to shine more brightly. These lights, thus intensified, have “mastered the night, portioned out the sea.” Musical language subsumes and transforms the world of the sea and of humans through the power to assert order by means of the song’s “keener sounds.” And even as those worlds are born into impermanence, the singer’s voice, her imagination, makes “the sky acutest at its vanishing.”
There’s something sacerdotal about the role assigned to the singer-poet, who effects a transubstantiation (or sleight of hand, if you prefer): keen sounds assume the power to invoke bright lights, even as the world vanishes into darkness. Song and singer order words in “ghostlier demarcations,” as if the “blessed order” of the words takes on a magical power.
I’ve never felt quite comfortable with Stevens’ idea of order, or with a priestly role for poets. So I found it refreshing that Babstock’s “Beached Squid and Ideas of Order” dissects Stevens’ shamanistic “rage for order.” He also dissects with his scalpel of words the carcass of a beached squid, which itself assumes the agency of creating music, if one gets close enough and plays it like an instrument, for “earth’s percussion” is “always lonely for an instrument / as abraded, contingent, orphaned, intermingled / as itself.”
As to the singer, she may have been “born with a sound in her head” that she lives to release. However, “a singer could live to her own end and never get it out, / the sound, itself a late addition and not, in fact, innate.” Whereas Stevens elevates the singer’s “keener sounds” to a sublime urgency to order the world, thus making her in turn his own instrument-muse, Babstock’s singer is an earthly instrument – and a very recent addition to the world at that. And her art is, like that world, “abraded, contingent, orphaned, intermingled.” Lovely.
It’s an imperative to remind myself of the brilliance of the poetry of Elaine Equi, an early poetic love. Oh, those knowing eyes and smile, and clear states of consciousness! Below are two poems: “Approaching Orgasm” and “A Bouquet of Objects,” both from Surface Tension (Coffeehouse Press, 1989).
These poems I remember from early influences, which still send me, and I’m moved to delve further into her later writings. The future is lucid!
For the 25th installment of my “poetry gratitude” series, I pay tribute to Anselm Hollo (1934-2013), a great poet and a mensch with a huge heart. I’ve been thinking about posting a couple of poems by him for some time. Every time I start, I’m filled with sadness that he’s no longer among us. I was lucky to have spent a short span of time with him. I have always loved and admired Anselm’s poetry for his voice (self-styled as “avuncular”) and for his sense of wonder and of being in the moment.
Below are poems by Hollo from one of my most treasured poetry collections, published in letterpress by Toothpaste Press: Heavy Jars (1977). A beautiful book in every way.
Robert Zend (1929-1985) was a Canadian poet, fiction writer, and artist who made his way to Canada with his wife, Ibi, and baby daughter in 1956 as political refugees following the failed Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule.
Zend and his wife were both survivors of the Holocaust. Ibi suffered and lived through three concentration camps, and Robert was sent to a forced labour camp in the forests of Hungary. Near the end of the war, the prisoners of that camp were compelled to embark on what was effectively a death march. Zend and two other prisoners escaped during the night and survived by hiding in a monastery until they were liberated by Soviet soldiers. The story of Robert’s and Ibi’s lives is remarkable and moving.
As a writer, poet, and multimedia artist, Zend was cosmopolitan, like his native Budapest: his influences were broad and international. I encourage anyone interested in exploring his life and work to have a look at my thirteen-part series Robert Zend: Poet without Borders, which I wrote after extensive research into the Zend fonds at the University of Toronto as well as interviews with family members. The URL for the table of contents: https://rogueembryo.com/robert-zend/
Below are two shorter poems by Zend, both in his book From Zero to One.
It occurs to me that as part of my poetry gratitude series, I shouldn’t neglect the gift of music that I’ve received during my life. From early childhood, I was immersed in classical music. My mother was a piano teacher, and when I was five, she discovered that I was endowed with absolute pitch, a kind of tonal memory. From that time, she decided to develop my musical talent.
My mother was my first piano teacher; a few years later, she sent me for lessons to a wonderful woman in town named Mrs. Brown, whom I came to think of as a second mother. My piano studies continued at Louisiana State University and later, the Eastman School of Music.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother took me to concerts – we were fortunate that so many top-tier pianists, cellists, and violinists toured through my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, which was also blessed with an orchestra. And now, I’m ecstatic to live in a large city with so many opportunities to hear great music and performers.
For me as a poet, music and poetic language are intertwined, and although there are perhaps not exact equivalents between the two, my music background affects the way I experience sound, timbre, and rhythm in poetry. Although ultimately I didn’t make music a career, I’m grateful to have been given the gift of music by my mother and by so many wonderful teachers along the way.
At some point in the future, I might share links to recordings of some of my musical loves. For now, here’s a link to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola (first two movements). I never tire of hearing this work. What a gift!
I’ve heard Peter Gizzi read his poetry on several occasions, and I’ve always been affected by the musicality and lyricism of his words that are often steeped in melancholy but that also open up possibilities. I’ve heard him give talks at conferences too, and I remember thinking that everything he spoke seemed poetic.
When I read his work, I’m sometimes reminded of the poets of French modernism, especially Pierre Reverdy, whose translations by Ashbery I’m now reading alongside Gizzi. Both weave tapestries of images, merging and separating threads in a texture that suggests meanings yet remains loose enough to invite readers to envision their own patterns. Gizzi’s poetry balances his gift (the given words on the page) and the elusiveness of the essence of that gift. It is writerly poetry that welcomes the interlacings of others. And to me, that is part of its beauty.
I have owed Peter Gizzi a debt of poetic gratitude for many years. Below are two of his poems. The first is from Some Values of Landscape and Weather, and the second is from Artificial Heart.
I’ve been immersing myself in the poetry of John Ashbery, which I had started reading in the mid-70s, beginning with The Double Dream of Spring and Houseboat Days. In 1981, I heard him read in Rochester, New York, where he was born. His voice was low-key – not much drama – but mesmerizing. After the reading, a guy in the audience asked what he drank when he was writing. Ashbery: “Tea.” Guy: “What kind?” Ashbery, deadpan: “Lipton.”
Ashbery’s poetry inspired my first poem, at the age of twenty. His words breathed into me the abandon to explore the mirage of captured meaning, the illusion of time organically leading to epiphany.
Ashbery wrote to the accompaniment of music, and I’ll always associate him with Sibelius, as he wrote about returning to the Finnish composer with renewed appreciation after a hiatus. His poetry is among the most musical that I’ve ever read.
Respect and gratitude to Ashbery. Below, with a nod to nostalgia, short poems from the two early works mentioned above.
Next in my poetry gratitude series is Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006), who is better known as a fiction writer but whom I first came to know as a poet.
The Orangery, Sorrentino’s book of sonnets, came to me at an opportune time as I was writing my own collection of fourteen-liners. I was surprised and delighted by the quirky playfulness of these poems, each of which contains the word “orange” in various guises, including “orange” as a verb and the “orange sombrero” of Rimbaud. A master of language games, Sorrentino continues the centuries-old dialogue of the sonnet with its own history.
Without further orange, here is “Sappho in Paris,” a set of four sonnets by Gilbert Sorrentino.
A major theme in the poetry of Hilda Morley is grief—not only in poems that directly address the death of her husband, composer Stefan Wolpe, to Parkinson’s, but also in those where urban and natural images are a lens through which she explores feelings of sorrow and loss.
My appreciation of her oeuvre has grown over the years—the musical, halt-and-flow rhythm of her staggered lines and phrases; her incisive and subtle language; and at the heart of her writing, an immense absence carved out by Wolpe’s death.
Hilda Morley (1916-1998) taught at Black Mountain College, where she was friends with Olson and Creeley, as well as many artists and musicians. Her work deserves to be more widely known.
Below is a sample of two poems from To Hold in My Hand.
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 pithy 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.