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Nights on Planet Earth

By Don Share

Night is more complicated than day, it is the home of dreams, sleep, shadowy eroticism.


Everybody knows that poetry is news that stays news, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Campbell McGrath’s new work has gotten attention in places like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Sun.
McGrath told the WSJ: “I tend to write poetry that is rich in data of various sorts. The lyric poem isn’t perfectly suited to accommodating such data, so I’ve had to find new ways to say everything that I want to say.” And indeed, one of the eye-catching things about Campbell’s McGrath’s poem, “Nights on Planet Earth” in the March issue of Poetry is its detailed epigraph from Susan Brind Morrow’s book, Wolves and Honey:
Heaven was originally precisely that: the starry sky, dating back to the earliest Egyptian texts, which include magic spells that enable the soul to be sewn in the body of the great mother, Nut, literally “night,” like the seed of a plant, which is also a jewel and a star. The Greek Elysian fields derive from the same celestial topography: the Egyptian “Field of Rushes,” the eastern stars at dawn where the soul goes to be purified. That there is another, mirror world, a world of light, and that this world is simply the sky—and a step further, the breath of the sky, the weather, the very air—is a formative belief of great antiquity that has continued to the present day with the godhead becoming brightness itself: dios/theos (Greek); deus/divine/diana (Latin); devas (Sanskrit); daha (Arabic); day (English).
Each time a poem crosses our piled-high desks, we naturally and eagerly ask ourselves things like, “Why does this poem look the way it does?” We decided to have the poets answer a few questions about the work featured in this month’s issue – and about that epigraph, McGrath explained:
I had been working on a poem about a recurring dream set in a dark and alluring city. It’s a real dream; the first draft was scrawled in a notebook and over time I had worked it into long, sinuous lines, which I felt matched its syntax and its motif of wandering and seeking. I liked it, but it didn’t feel complete. It felt like part of a larger poem—perhaps about dreams, or about cities—and I put it aside with the many other such writings I carry forward. Over the next summer, I happened to read Wolves and Honey, and came across the quotation that became the epigraph for the poem. That passage bowled me over with its combination of scholarly knowledge and deeply poetic writing, its mix of etymology, mythology, and lyrical imagery. The notion of “night” as an entity seemed fantastically intriguing, as well as night as a mirror world to day, and right away the phrase popped into my head: “how strange that they arrive at all, nights on planet earth.” So that’s where the first section of the poem came from, tracking down images of light and darkness, illumination and shadow.
It seemed to me, too, that the “mystery” of night deserved further exploration. I became aware that I was a poet of the daytime, that I write about work, landscape, society, and the world I see when I write is a sunlit world. Night is more complicated than day, it is the home of dreams, sleep, shadowy eroticism. If day is like reason then the night is like intuition. It is also the home of the soul, it occurred to me, a word and an idea that I would rarely dare to write about in the harsh light of day.

And when asked what the poem would be like without its lengthy epigraph, he said that it
… explains and introduces the other sections, as is traditional for an epigraph, but it also stands beside them on the page as an equal. Walter Benjamin offers a critical defense of writing as a “mosaic” incorporating large bodies of quoted or interpolated work (or “thought fragments”), which I have relied on in some previous poems—but this was a more nuts and bolts decision. The poem feels richer with the epigraph; it works better as a quartet than a trio. Normally, for me, the architecture of the poem comes first—the engineering and shaping of its movement from inception to closure—and the final stage is polishing and editing, line by line and word by word. So here again the poem confounded my normal procedures, much to my ultimate delight.
“Engineering and shaping” from “inception to closure” – we wake to the confusion and delight of day and work our way toward night, where quotidian data get processed in dream and shadow. All in a day’s work… So which poets are poets of the daytime (as McGrath says he is), writing about “work, landscape, society” and the world we see in sunlight, and which are poets of night, “mirror world to day … home of the soul?” Which poems delight us by confounding our “normal procedures?”
Sleep on it, and leave your thoughts below!

Comments (4)

  • On March 22, 2008 at 6:33 am Antoine Cassar wrote:

    Hello Don,
    I received the March issue of Poetry a couple of days ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed Campbell McGrath’s poem. There is yet room for the mystical and the primordial in modern poetry… this gives me hope as both reader and writer.
    Congratulations also to Alicia Stallings for her two poems, and to the translations from the Hungarian.
    I am searching for information on Walter Benjamin´s concept of writing as a mosaic, I haven’t found much on the internet as yet… If anyone could provide some bibliography, I would be most grateful.
    Kind regards
    Antoine Cassar.

  • On March 22, 2008 at 1:14 pm Don Share wrote:

    Antoine, thanks so much for the feedback, much appreciated!
    About your Benjamin question, I suppose the best place to start would be The Arcades Project, available in English translation in a lovely paperback edition from the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press.

  • On April 3, 2008 at 10:57 am Don Share wrote:

    Antoine, another book to look at is Walter Benjamin’s Archive, recently published by Verso. It gathers notebooks, fragments, and curios and wild scraps. Check it out!

  • On April 17, 2008 at 6:11 pm Antoine Cassar wrote:

    Dear Don,
    I hadn’t seen your second comment until today. Many thanks, I will indeed get a copy of Benjamin’s archive. He also had a lot to say about literary translation, which is one my major pastimes. Incidentally, I’ve very much enjoyed reading April’s translation issue of Poetry, most especially the renderings of poems by César Vallejo. Keep up the great work!


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, March 3rd, 2008 by Don Share.