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Wherefore Art Thou, Poet?
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?