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Journal, Day Four
Now for some comments about books that I’ve been reading and rereading, most of them by friends.
The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 by Charles Reznikoff. Edited by Seamus Cooney (Boston: Black Sparrow Books, David R. Godine, Publisher, 2005).
The majority of the titles issued by the Black Sparrow Press have now been acquired by David R. Godine, Publisher, and while I am very happy to see the reissue of The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975, I am a little annoyed at the treatment that Reznikoff has received—or failed to receive—in this volume. Like the original edition of this book from Black Sparrow, there is no critical introduction to Reznikoff’s work to present this still-ignored and still virtually unknown poet to a readership. Indeed, in the Godine reissue we learn more about its editor, Seamus Cooney, than we do from the all-too-brief biography of Reznikoff shoehorned onto the back of the book. Yes, Cooney has prepared a Reznikoff chronology, but we want to know why this work is important.
David Godine should have found a reputable scholar—why not Seamus Cooney himself?—or a poet who could have written a first-rate essay about Reznikoff. (My money would have been on Harvey Shapiro, who is quoted on the back jacket.) As it stands we have 445 pages of poetry and have only outline-knowledge of its author, who in my opinion will come to be ranked as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Yes, we also learn about Reznikoff from his poems, but that’s not my point. Reznikoff shares the fate that Williams still suffers—that his are not what I call “degree of difficulty” poems, and that it is precisely this “degree of difficulty” that scholars want in order to exercise their brains and obtain tenure. But Reznikoff hands poetry right back to the people that he focuses on in his work, not to the professors.
A few changes and additions to the original volume that this publisher has made, though, I do applaud. First of all, this reissue unifies the pagination of the two original Black Sparrow volumes, which continued to be split into two sets of page numbers even after they were collected in one volume. This will make it a lot easier for scholars to refer to Reznikoff’s shorter poems, all of which are included here. Second, the 12-page chronology is useful enough (as least for academics) without being particularly illuminating. Finally, the book reprints an important little pamphlet of Reznikoff’s thoughts about poetry that Black Sparrow originally published as First there Is the Need (Sparrow 52, January 1977), jottings that were evidently used as notes when the poet was interviewed by L.S. Dembo.
Reznikoff’s first two slim volumes contain some wonderful Imagist-influenced poems:
My work done, I lean on the window-sill,
watching the dripping trees.
The rain is over, the wet pavement shines.
From the bare twigs
rows of drops like shining buds are hanging.
By 1920, in his third book, Reznikoff picks up steam, beginning to write longer narratives that will eventually, in later books, form the bedrock of what he did best—tell stories in free verse:
She sat by the window opening into the airshaft,
and looked across the parapet
at the new moon.
She would have taken the hairpins out of her carefully coiled hair,
and thrown herself on the bed in tears;
but he was coming and her mouth had to be pinned into a smile.
If he would have her, she would marry whatever he was.
A knock. She lit the gas and opened her door.
Her aunt and the man—skin loose under his eyes, the face slashed with
“Come in,” she said as gently as she could and smiled.
There’s a novel packed into these 10 lines: the not-so-young bride-to-be contemplating her future as a woman (the symbolic moon); the telling connection between her “pinned-on” smile and her hairpins; the pathos of “If he would have her, she would marry whatever he was.” With one word—“slashed” (not “marked” or “lined”) Reznikoff shows us that the old man groom-to-be has been treated cruelly by life; he is a wounded creature.
Here is another little masterpiece:
Their boarder had come to America before his wife and children.
He sat at the table working at a beginner’s book in English.
In a moment of pity she began to teach him.
Once, when her mother was out marketing, he took hold of her hand and
She snatched it away. She tried to go on with the lesson as if nothing had
but for some time she could feel her heart pounding.
She decided to tell her mother nothing because it might worry her.
Maybe it was just a way to show his thanks. Besides, she was ashamed.
The next night he sat down to his lesson as if nothing had happened;
the lessons went on smoothly even with her mother away.
One evening she almost danced about the kitchen at her work: they had taken
their last examination that morning,
school would soon close, and the summer vacation begin.
In the afternoon she had gone to Central Park. The girls raced over the
meadow, noisy as birds at dawn.
After supper she and the boarder sat down to their lesson.
The color in her face and eyes had deepened. She smiled and held her face
close to his in her eagerness to teach.
Her mother was going out to get a mouthful of fresh air after her day in the
“It’s so nice in the street, why don’t you come?” “I’ll be soon through, Mamma.”
His hand was resting on the back of her chair. He pressed her to him. She tried
to free herself
and drew her head back. He kept kissing her throat, his hands trying to pin
down her arms.
Suddenly she was limp. He let go. She was looking at him, her mouth open,
She had pushed back her chair and was running out of the door.
She wondered that she was not falling she went down the stairs so fast.
The long line derives both from Whitman (though Reznikoff seems to have thought Whitman too effusive) and from prose writing (Reznikoff also wrote novels and histories.) In any case, there are dozens of poems of such clarity and power in this big book. Not all of us are masters of metaphor, upon which Reznikoff does not unduly depend. What he has mastered is the story, the poetic anecdote that wraps a life (and life itself) into it, taking us back to the first poems and to the reasons why they were written—to communicate human experience. That virtually all of these stories come directly from the streets and tenements of New York City also makes Reznikoff one of the great poets of New York City. This man walked miles throughout the boroughs every day until late in his long life, and no doubt he had his notebook in his pocket.
I am not such a devotee of Reznikoff’s Bible-derived stories, which I find wooden and better in the original. But his Jewish street wisdom, his keen eye for the New York City detail, his appetite for the telling narrative arc, all of these gifts are to be treasured. I mentioned that Reznikoff in his work gives poetry back to ordinary people. He also gives poets an opportunity to write clearly and deeply about what they have seen and experienced by providing models for how to do it in poem after poem.
Godine has announced that it will bring out, in January 2007, Reznikoff’s Holocaust, the long poem which, using stories from the Nuremberg War Trials and the Adolf Eichmann trial, documents that catastrophe. Its reappearance will be another event worth celebrating, so let me lift my hat to this publisher for soon bringing to us one of the most important long poems of our time. Maybe it will have an introduction by Seamus Cooney.
The Sights Along the Harbor: New and Collected Poems by Harvey Shapiro (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2006).
Another poet at the top of my list is my first poetry workshop teacher and longtime friend, Harvey Shapiro, who has just published his Sights Along the Harbor: New and Selected Poems. Harvey has published 12 books of poetry (I brought out Lauds and then Lauds and Nightsounds with SUN) and is one of the premier poets of New York City, the heir of his poet-friends Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen. (Harvey also knew another of the famous “Objectivist” group, Louis Zukofsky.) At 82 years of age, he is still in top form, as one of the new poems in this collection testifies:
After my death, my desk,
which is now so cluttered,
will be bare wood, simple and shining,
as I wanted it to be in my life,
as I wanted my life to be.
It takes a lifetime of work to achieve such a luminous clarity, and to see one’s life in the desk, cluttered or cleared, that one used for reading and for the making of poems every day.
New York is an endless object of observation and speculation for Shapiro, who served career-long as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and who for several years edited the Book Review at the Times as well:
Through the Boroughs
I hear the music from the street
Every night. Sequestered at my desk,
My luminous hand finding the dark words.
Hard, very hard. And the music
From car radios is so effortless.
And so I strive to join my music
To that music. So that
The air will carry my voice down
The block, across the bridge,
Through the boroughs where people I love
Can hear my voice, saying to them
Through the music that their lives
Are speaking to them now, as mine to me.
Here, too, is a wonderful taste for and sensitivity to nature in a gorgeous poem that invokes Whitman:
Night, expositor of love.
Seeing the sky for the first time
That year, I watched the summer constellations
Hang in air: Scorpio with
Half of heaven in his tail.
Breath, tissue of air, cat’s cradle.
I walked the shore
Where cold rocks mourned in water
Like the planets lost in air.
Ocean was a low sound.
The gatekeeper suddenly gone,
Whatever the heart cried
Voice tied to dark sound.
The shuttle went way back then,
Hooking me up to the first song
That ever chimed in my head.
Under a sky gone slick with stars,
The aria tumbling forth:
Bird and star.
However those cadences
Rocked me in the learning years,
However that soft death sang—
Of star become a bird’s pulse,
Of the spanned distances
Where the bird’s breath eddied forth—
I recovered the lost ground.
The bird’s throat
Bare as the sand on which I walked.
Love in his season
Had moved me with that song.
Shapiro likewise is one of the most important poets to experience and write about World War Two. Many readers know the superb anthology that he edited for the Library of America a couple of years ago called Poets of World War Two. There you can see him in his flight clothes standing next to the blister of the B-25 where he did business as a radio-gunner. Harvey’s war poems are threaded through his books, in most concentrated form in Battle Report (1966). In the title poem of that collection he draws on the more formal rhetoric that he worked in his first two books, but here without the rhyme and meter. The poem ends:
I turn my rubber face to the blue square
Given me to trace the fighters
As they weave their frost, and see
Within this sky the traffic
Fierce and heavy for the day:
All those who stumbling home at dark
Found their names fixed
Beside a numbered Fort, and heard
At dawn the sirens rattling the night away,
And rose to that cold resurrection
And are now gathered over Italy.
In this slow dream’s rehearsal,
Again I am the death-instructed kid,
Gun in its cradle, sun at my back,
Cities below me without sound.
That tensed, corrugated hose
Feeding to my face the air of substance,
I face the mirroring past.
We swarm the skies, determined armies,
To see the war’s end, the silence stealing,
The mind grown hesitant as breath.
There is a poet of eros here, too, in charged sexual poems notable for their candor. From “Cynthia”:
When I take off your red sweatpants,
sliding them over the ass I love,
the fat thighs, and now my hands
are trembling, my tongue is muzzy,
a fire runs under my skin.
And there is a very funny stand-up New York (Borscht Belt?) comedian in Shapiro, too. Here’s the first section of “New York Notes”:
Caught on a side street
in heavy traffic, I said
to the cabbie, I should
have walked. He replied,
I should have been a doctor.
I haven’t touched on Shapiro’s many Jewish-inspired poems—laments, historical probings, comic takes, ruminations on the Holocaust and on his family. So be it. Harvey Shapiro is a poet of great breadth and depth whose new book deserves to be picked up and read thoroughly, whether you live in Brooklyn or in Boise, Idaho.
Somebody Stand Up and Sing by Hugh Seidman (Kalamazoo, Michigan: New Issues/Western Michigan University, 2005). Winner of the 2004 Green Rose Prize.
Hugh Seidman is another longtime friend. We first met at Columbia University. He had studied with Louis Zukofsky at Brooklyn Polytechnic High School. After undergraduate studies in science, Seidman had taken Harvey Shapiro’s poetry workshop the semester before I did, and was a year ahead of me at the School of the Arts Writing Program at Columbia. Hugh’s first book, Collecting Evidence, won the Yale Series of Young Poets Prize, the first manuscript picked by Stanley Kunitz when he took over the series from W.H. Auden. Collecting Evidence is one of the best books of postwar American poetry, distinguished by Seidman’s powerful long poem of unrequited love called “The Modes of Vallejo Street.” Excerpts from it can be found in his Selected Poems: 1965-1995 (Miami University Press, 1995). (Someone ought to republish Collecting Evidence so that we could reencounter the complete text of that poem, and all the other wonderful poems in the book.)
This is a challenging poetry that repays close and frequent reading. Seidman is not out to entertain us, but to make us feel as deeply as he does. His writing can be intensely political
Flesh gorging on oxygen.
Apes of smoke and debris writhing and struggling in air.
Wails of the infidels and assassins.
Mutilations from the centuries of bronze.
I wanted to exonerate the infants.
The event horizon was white hot.
The infernos were igniting the armor between myself and the infants.
The projectiles were piercing the armor between myself and the infants.
(from “Thinking of Baghdad”)
“True Tunes” offers portraits of women done in telegraphic style. This is from the part of the poem called “Venus: 1 Train” (the West Side subway local):
Gold tiny heart locket.
Gold nostril ring.
Mauve toes, nails.
Red, cat-eye shades.
Platinum’s black roots.
Fuchsia, glossed lips.
Arm: butterfly tattoo.
what annoys her?
This is the power of the list in the eye of a poet who spares neither himself nor the world around him in order to bring us the truth. There is eros and tenderness here, too, and plenty of anthropological information—Williams’ idea of getting “the news from poems.”
In “200 in Hell” we get another kind of vision:
Sometimes the devil
Guns his convertible
He looks like a hunk from Gentleman’s Quarterly
With the pageboy black curls
And the six-pack abdominals
But at times he must say
What the hell!
And drop the charade
With the hooves and the horns
And the big red boner
And the tail and the smoke
Blowing out of his nose
“He’s not a bad guy / Once you know him,” is the poet’s parting irony in this poem about deals that we all make with the devil.
Some of the poems burrow into themselves, and we find Seidman writing formal haikus and even tankas. These too are dense and telegraphic, but well worth unpacking. I am reminded of one of Pound’s pronouncements (or one he borrowed from another poet, who found it in a German-Italian dictionary) “dichtung = condensare.” “Poetry = to condense.” We are (to borrow Lorine Niedecker’s word) in the “condensery” here, where the wine of poetry is pressed.
The poem that I take the most delight in, of the many delights that illuminate this big and lavishly produced book, is the very first in the collection:
I am sixteen you are my first love.
Your breasts are small under yellow cashmere.
The plastic surgeon has smoothed your cheerleader nose.
It is Sunday at your uncle’s in Borough Park in Brooklyn.
The light of the heavens whitens the floor.
I am kissing you in the taste of cigarette, the odor of perfume.
I am sixteen and do not know
that I will never not remember this afternoon.
I am sixteen and do not contemplate
how envy corrodes friendship
how rage scars love
how failure tortures arrogance.
I am sixteen and do not recall
each interred under the blanched floor.
I am sixteen and do not imagine
how you are each who turns away
how you are each from whom I will turn.
I am sixteen and can think of nothing
but the pungency of cigarette, the reek of perfume.
As you lean back in the smoke that swirls about your face.
Ah, criticism! I am only scratching the surface of this wonderful book, one the strongest of Seidman’s six volumes. Find the long poem called “12 Views of Freetown, 1 View of Bumbuna,” about African warfare. Read the tender and deeply moving poems that this poet has written about his parents in their failing old age, and about his wife. This is a big world of poetry, compressed, made cunningly by a master poet.
A Hurricane Is by Angelo Verga (New York: Jane Street Press, 2003; second edition, 2005. www.janestreet.com/press ).
33 New York City Poems by Angelo Verga (Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Artists Alliance, 2005. The Brooklyn Artists Alliance, 37 Greenpoint Ave., 4th Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11222. www.Booklyn.org, under “Buy Booklyn.”).
It’s difficult to think of Angelo Verga without being reminded of the tremendous energy and intelligence that he puts at the service of poetry in New York City. He curates over 200 readings and literary events a year at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, one of the prime poetry hubs—and jazz clubs—of the Big Apple (www.corneliastreetcafe.com.) Verga’s new collection, 33 New York City Poems is gorgeous to look at as well as to read: a cut-out cover through which one can view a color map of Brooklyn. In addition, his first big collection, A Hurricane Is, has been reissued (with an introductory note by yours truly).
Here is another topflight singer of the “music of the streets,” to hark back to Harvey Shapiro’s phrase, who notes the “fire-dark rubble, rich with wildflowers” on “Brook Avenue, The Bronx.” There is plenty of darkness in Verga’s poetry, but a lot of humor as well. He works with found material, sometimes taking it apart and talking back to what he has come upon, be it an airplane that’s crashed into a Florida bath and tennis club or an advertisement for “Fatal Thatch Buildup” on one’s lawn. “Body in New Jersey Not Missing Woman’s” is neither of two missing women because, as the police relate, “the head/ Don’t fit the neck.” “Ways to Fuck Up Your Dad” relates the slashing of a cabby by young girls, “2 kids, lipstick, slim, tank tops / . . . / The girls didn’t have tits yet worth speaking of.” The devastating portrait in “Junkie” turns out to be “this / sad, this girl, very thin, who / is my daughter.” The son in “Saying Goodbye to the Vampire” is transported
From the group home in Grimace Park
To a project, piss dark, no elevator that ran
Above the second floor
In Far Rockaway, so he could stay
Out of the cold with his new Goth family.
Spirit Flame. Pain. Dread. Poet.
. . .
The person on the other end is waiting
At the train station in a round black Buddha hat
And full length cape.
My boy has to pick her up at the left turret right away.
Driving back home through Vinnie’s Clam Shack of Brooklyn
I stop to chew a sharp garlic mashed potato.
The best way I can,
Without looking back.
These poems are permeated by political concerns and a focus on working-class people. (Verga worked for many years for the U. S. Postal Service.). He notices bits of news that most poets miss: “The bombs have writing on them, / Like Christmas cards:/ TO Saddam / FROM the Bronx, / with Love,” in “Desert Storm.” The title poem of Hurricane features a long nightmarish surrealist tour of pre-Katrina New Orleans. Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here!
The 33 New York City Poems opens with a 360-degree panorama of “The Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, Sunday Afternoon”:
There’s a toothless gnome
Who plays a miniature harmonica just for me.
He’s like a personal geek musician
For people rich enough to have Sunday afternoons free.
He tactfully suggests I put money
In his corrugated baby blue dentist spit out cup.
“A Short History of New York City” ends by telling us that the Big Apple is “A great town: great to be good-looking and rich in / A tough place: tough to be broke, homeless, or alone / Easy to catch a cab here, or no worse than Babylon or Rome.”
Lately Verga has been writing wonderful “Muse” poems to a new woman in his life. I think the first of them appears in this book, and here it is, entire:
Muse and I Are in One of those Trendy New
Restaurants that serve soy and root vegetable salads
We’ve ordered six platters, and over
French coffee pressed
Into cut glass she’s crooning Jesus Christ Superstar
into my ear
She says she has the vinyl album somewhere,
and informs me
There are three types of female orgasm,
And one only I am long and hard enough to
In a good mood, she’s ebullient, she points out
the X-Files guy
At the next table, but most of the waitstaff is
swarming around her
She’s glowing; she’s lustrous as she leans
into my shoulder
And throats “I never knew the man” into my cheek
She’s come to a decision: she wants to have a
baby right away
And who is the lucky father to be? me? me?
You’ll see, she smiles sliding my hand
up her smooth leg
One of the Olsen twins walks by and stares at my girl
The maitre d’ sends over a bottle of
superb Argentine red
A malbec, Muse giggles, her pleased nostrils flared
Three types of female orgasm, she repeats,
into her drink
And I’m impressed with her analysis
as well as her lips