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Wherefore Art Thou, Poet?

By Rigoberto González

Some poets establish a rhythm in generating new material and subsequently publishing it. We expect to see a collection every 3 to 5 years, which is a lucky thing for their loyal readers. Others remain relatively quiet between collections, putting out a book every 10 years or more, and fans of those poets have to stalk the literary journals (or the Internet) for “sightings” of single poem offerings. And then there are those poets who simply disappear for one reason or another, who dropped a jewel of a book (or books), and then dropped out of sight. Maybe it’s a choice, maybe it isn’t. But the silence is intolerable. To come across poems piecemeal is temporarily satisfying, but to hold an entire book is a relationship commitment.

For me, one such poet is Laura Jensen. An eccentric figure in the world of letters, she has been ensconced it seems somewhere in the Northwest. She published her debut collection, Bad Boats, with Ecco back in 1977. The book opens with the fabulous poem “The Red Dog,” which I once committed to memory to fulfill an extra credit assignment in an undergraduate poetry class. I recited the piece, only to be met with disgust by a few young women in the room who said the poem was morbid and depressing. They had clung to the repeating line: “You know that he is going to die.” That stunned me because I had latched on to the gorgeous language at the end: “the geese are moving off/ to be their hard sounds/ as their bodies leave the water.”
Jensen published two more collections with Dragon Gate Press back in the 80s (one of them, Memory, was reissued with Carnegie Mellon University Press last year—thank you!). But no new collection has surfaced since then.
A second voice is that of Robert Vasquez, a poet whose only book, At the Rainbow, I consider one of the most brilliant first collections I’ve ever read. I ran across this title at the University of New Mexico bookstore, when I was a graduate student there for one year in 1997. The book had been published two years before by UNM Press, hence its prominence in the shelves. I opened it, and I have not been able to close it since.
His language is subtle, but not quiet, as in the opening of the poem “Night-Song in Verano”:
A strange song blooms
in the dark. It’s my neighbor,
born in toolshed
during the war, and she sings
a song the widows of Italy sang
to old men and the children
of dead fathers.
And from the poem “Pismo, 1959”:
I’ll sleep the whole drive back
beside you, leaning close and small
like a shadow reeled in, your face
precise with fine sand and shining.
I mention this second poet in preparation for the good news: a chapbook of his work, Braille to the Heart, has just been released by Momotombo Press. I await my copy anxiously, and hope that this is but a promise for a full-length collection yet to come.
What other poets who are still living can you name who have somehow stepped aside from the limelight and that you wish would return to grace us with more poetry?

Comments (7)

  • On September 2, 2007 at 4:54 pm Francisco Aragon wrote:

    In 1987, Kearny Street Workshop Press published a beautiful book that included black and white photographs called OCTOBER LIGHT. The author was Jeff Tagami, who I had the pleasure of hearing read in Berkeley when I was a college student there. It was around the time I was reading a lot of Gary Soto and and I think Tagami’s work, which also focused on the California’s Central Valley, I believe, shared a kinship with Soto’s. I liked Tagami’s work so much that I asked him to contribute work to the Berkeley Poetry Review, which he generously did. We published it and little did I know–to the best of my knowledge–that he wouldn’t publish another book. In my conversations with various Filipino/a poets over the years, including Barbara Jane Reyes more recently, the sense I get is that OCTOBER LIGHT is a revered book—not unlike, I would venture to say, that AT THE RAINBOW is by a younger generation of Chicano/Latino poets.
    Does anyone have any idea what became of Jeff Tagami?

  • On September 3, 2007 at 1:47 pm Barbara Jane wrote:

    I recently saw Jeff Tagami read in San Francisco, for an International Hotel event. He read from OCTOBER LIGHT, and I don’t know that he’s written much more poetry recently. As far as I know, he’s been an educator in Watsonville, CA for many years in the community college system. Watsonville is one of the central locales along the Pajaro River in OCTOBER LIGHT.

  • On September 3, 2007 at 10:59 pm Oliver.delapaz@wwu.edu wrote:

    I’m glad you mentioned Laura Jensen. I love BAD BOATS, but I’m also fond of MEMORY. She’s been seen at a few Pacific Northwest poetry events here and there, but I don’t think she’s written a book since MEMORY in 1982.
    I’m also wondering about Christopher Gilbert who wrote ACROSS THE MUTUAL LANDSCAPE, winner of the 1983 Walt Whitman Award. Has he written another book since?

  • On September 4, 2007 at 11:25 pm Pete Miller wrote:

    While he’s remained in the limelight as a novelist, Denis Johnson hasn’t published any new poems for a very long time (as far as I know), much to my disappointment.

  • On September 5, 2007 at 12:41 am NKOTB wrote:

    I believe Denis Johnson has a new poem in the latest issue of McSweeney’s; one new, one old. Can’t be sure, but I think so. A good one.

  • On September 7, 2007 at 12:15 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    And what happened to the once-prolific Jon Davis? His prose poems are some of the finest I’ve ever read…no book in a long time.

  • On October 20, 2007 at 8:39 pm Barbara Morin wrote:

    Chris Gilbert, who won the Walt Whitman Award for ACROSS THE MUTUAL LANDSCAPE, died on July 5, 2007. Although many of his poems appeared in anthologies and journals subsequent to his 1983 book, his second manuscript was not published prior to his death.

Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, September 1st, 2007 by Rigoberto González.