Audio

The Poets We Lost in 2016

December 20, 2016

Curtis Fox: C.D. Wright, Jeffrey Hill, Max Ritvo, Stephen Sandy… This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The Poets We Lost in 2016. Of all the arts, it’s probably fair to say that poetry is the most death obsessed. Death is the subject of many, many poems, or if it’s not the subject, it’s often the emptiness the words come out of, the white space around the poem. Poets, of course, are mortal, though if they are good poets and lucky, their words can survive them. This week on the podcast, we’re going to listen to poems and excerpts of poems from a few of the poets who died in 2016. It’s a long list, as you just heard. This is only an arbitrary and overly brief selection. Let’s start with Francisco X. Alarcón. He was born in California, and grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico. He wrote in both Spanish and English for adults and children. Here’s a short poem from his collection for young readers, “Angels Ride Books”. It’s about the poet’s first day of school.

 

Francisco X. Alarcón:

Standing before the teacher

I squeezed my grandma's hand even harder

The teacher smiled, said something in English, but I did not understand

My grandma then gave me her blessing and left

I felt like a chair left behind in a very strange world.

 

Curtis Fox: Francisco Alarcón died on January 15th, 2016. He was 61. That recording comes from Colorín Colorado, a bilingual site for language learners. C.D. Wright’s poems have been described as experimental, Southern and elliptical. Here’s a poem we recorded her reading in 2007. It is experimental and elliptical, and I guess it’s Southern with her Arkansas accent. There are no verbs in this poem, it’s all nouns in three spare columns. You could read it vertically, column by column. C.D. Wright chose to read it horizontally. There seems to be a story that this poem tells, although she leaves it up to the reader to guess what that story is. I hear an approach to some sort of erotic encounter. It’s called “Flame”.

 

C.D. Wright:

the breath               the trees               the bridge

 

the road                  the rain                the sheen

 

the breath               the line                  the skin

 

the vineyard            the fences             the leg

 

the water                the breath             the shift

 

the hair                  the wheels             the shoulder

 

the breath               the lane                the streak

 

the lining                the hour                the reasons

 

the name                the distance          the breath

 

the scent                the dogs                the blear

 

the lungs                the breath             the glove

 

the signal               the turn                  the need

 

the steps                the lights               the door

 

the mouth               the tongue             the eyes

 

the burn                  the burned            the burning

 

Curtis Fox: That was C.D. Wright reading “Flame”, from her book Steal Away, Selected and New Poems. C.D. Wright died on January 12th, 2016. She was 67. Michael Harper was known for poetry that was interested, if not obsessed, with jazz, blues, history and African American folk traditions. In his very first book from 1970, he used the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane as a character. Here’s a bit from the title poem of that collection, “Dear John, Dear Coltrane”. He’s addressing the aging Coltrane himself.

 

Michael Harper:

what does it all mean?

Loss, so great each black

woman expects your failure

in mute change, the seed gone.

You plod up into the electric city—

your song now crystal and

the blues. You pick up the horn

with some will and blow

into the freezing night:

a love supreme, a love supreme—

 

Dawn comes and you cook

up the thick sin 'tween

impotence and death, fuel

the tenor sax cannibal

heart, genitals, and sweat

that makes you clean—

a love supreme, a love supreme—

 

Why you so black?

cause I am

why you so funky?

cause I am

why you so black?

cause I am

why you so sweet?

cause I am

why you so black?

cause I am

a love supreme, a love supreme:

 

Curtis Fox: That was Michael Harper. He died on May 7th, 2016. He was 78. Lucia Perillo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her 30s. She wrote about her life as a person with disabilities and about a lot of other things. Her poems are often funny, but not this one, which she wrote after she read the Iliad for the first time. She was also thinking about the first Gulf War. It’s called “The Second Slaughter” and it appeared in the September 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine. We recorded her reading it for The Poetry Magazine Podcast. 

 

Lucia Perillo: The Second Slaughter

 

Achilles slays the man who slayed his friend, pierces the corpse

behind the heels and drags it

behind his chariot like the cans that trail

a bride and groom. Then he lays out

a banquet for his men, oxen and goats

and pigs and sheep; the soldiers eat

until a greasy moonbeam lights their beards.

 

The first slaughter is for victory, but the second slaughter is for grief—

in the morning more animals must be killed

for burning with the body of the friend. But Achilles finds

no consolation in the hiss and crackle of their fat;

not even heaving four stallions on the pyre

can lift the ballast of his sorrow.

 

And here I turn my back on the epic hero—the one who slits

the throats of his friend’s dogs,

killing what the loved one loved

to reverse the polarity of grief. Let him repent

by vanishing from my concern

after he throws the dogs onto the fire.

The singed fur makes the air too difficult to breathe.

 

When the oil wells of Persia burned I did not weep

until I heard about the birds, the long-legged ones especially

which I imagined to be scarlet, with crests like egrets

and tails like peacocks, covered in tar

weighting the feathers they dragged through black shallows

at the rim of the marsh. But once

 

I told this to a man who said I was inhuman, for giving animals

my first lament. So now I guard

my inhumanity like the jackal

who appears behind the army base at dusk,

come there for scraps with his head lowered

in a posture that looks like appeasement,

though it is not.

 

Curtis Fox: Lucia Perillo died on October 16th, 2016. She was 58.

 

Max Ritvo: I obviously want you guys to make a bigger deal of the poems than the sad cancer man.

 

Curtis Fox: Max Ritvo was just in the September issue of the Poetry Magazine. We recorded him for the Poetry Magazine Podcast about a month or so before he died. He didn’t want us to focus too much on his failing health.

 

Max Ritvo: But the poems only make sense in part because they were written by a dying 25 year old. And to deny the audience that context makes the poems less fun. And I want people to have fun with my poems.

 

Curtis Fox: One of the poems Max Ritvo recorded that day is called “Dawn of Man”.

 

Max Ritvo: I wanted to do a kind of creation myth for humans, and I thought it would be funny if we were like a failed draft of butterfly, like a caterpillar, that then ended up going a little hay wire and became a human. The idea that certain elements of butterfly-hood could be in the human register, like sleep being failed wings and stuff like that, could be a lot of fun to play around with.

 

Curtis Fox: Here’s Max Ritvo reading “Dawn of Man”.

 

Max Ritvo:

After the cocoon I was in a human body

instead of a butterfly’s. All along my back

 

there was great pain — I groped to my feet

where I felt wings behind me, trying

 

to tilt me back. They succeeded in doing so

after a day of exertion. I called that time,

 

overwhelmed with the ghosts of my wings, sleep.

My thoughts remained those of a caterpillar — 

 

I took pleasure in climbing trees. I snuck food

into all my pains. My mouth produced language

 

which I attempted to spin over myself

and rip through happier and healthier.

 

I’d do this every few minutes. I’d think to myself

What made me such a failure?

 

It’s all a little touchingly pathetic. To live like this,

a grown creature telling ghost stories,

 

staring at pictures, paralyzed for hours.

And even over dinner or in bed — 

 

still hearing the stories, seeing the pictures — 

an undertow sucking me back into myself.

 

I’m told to set myself goals. But my mind

doesn’t work that way. I, instead, have wishes

 

for myself. Wishes aren’t afraid

to take on their own color and life — 

 

like a boy who takes a razor from a high cabinet

puffs out his cheeks and strips them bloody.

 

Curtis Fox: Max Ritvo died on August 23rd, 2016. He was 25 years old, and he was just one of the poets who passed away in 2016, including Leonard Cohen.

 

(You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen playing)

 

Curtis Fox: You can find out more about all these poets on our website. Let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

 

Max Ritvo: After the cocoon I was in a human body / instead of a butterfly’s

 

 

 

 

 

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