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Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End

Charles Simic’s Pulitzer prize winning collection The World Doesn’t End is largely composed of prose poems that often end almost as quickly as they begin, though you would be hardpressed to say how they got there. Simic’s musings, such as his comparison of Time to a lizard in sunlight, are thoughtful, highly imaginative, and sometimes as humorous as others are serious. His succinct sentences provide both concrete and abstract images, often intertwining the two to form some sort of middle ground in which the reader’s own imagination has to pull the trigger. Below are a few of my favorite poems from Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End:

Comedy of errors at an elegant downtown

restaurant.

The chair is really a table making fun  of itself.

The coat tree has just learned to tip waiters. A shoe

is served a plate of black caviar.

“My dear and most esteemed sir, ” says a pot-

ted palm to a mirror, “it is absolutely useless to

excite yourself.”

——————————

We were poor so I had to take the place of the

bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I

could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turn-

ing in their beds. “These are dark and evil days,”

the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years

passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which

she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.

————————————————-

O the great God of Theory, he’s just a pencil

stub, a chewed stub  with a worn eraser at the end

of a huge scribble.

Philip Scultz’s Failure

The latest and Pulitzer Prize winning work of Philip Scultz deserves every accolade it has thus far garnered. Schultz explores his home life, his faith, and his relationship with other writers and works of art, among other things with a gift for making the simplistic poignant. Throughout the collection, the central theme remains the inevitability and positive and negative connotations of failure. In “My Wife,” Schultz juxtaposes the loving devotion of his wife to their children with the premature loss of her brother due to heroin. In “My Dog,” he describes the deep bond he shares with his dog who “knew it was time to die/but wanted to wait two weeks for me to come home.” Throughout Failure, Scultz illustrates not only the bond everyone experiences to some extent with failure, but also the beauty to be found in things as simple as sitting by the window and watching the leaves and as life-affirming as taking his children to the beach, the memories only he and his wife can share. Below are a few of my favorite poems from Philip Schultz’s Failure:

“It’s Sunday Morning in Early November”

and there are a lot of leaves already.

I could rake and get a head start.

The boys’ summer toys need to be put

in the basement. I could clean it out

or fix the broken storm window.

When Eli gets home from Sunday School,

I could take him fishing. I don’t fish

but I could learn to. I could show him

how much fun it is. We don’t do as much

as we used to do. And my wife, there’s

so much I haven’t told her lately,

about how quickly my soul is aging,

how it feels like a basement I keep filling

with everything I’m tired of surviving.

I could take a walk with my wife and try

to explain the ghosts I can’t stop speaking to.

Or I could read all those books piling up

about the beginning of the end of understanding…

Meanwhile, it’s such a beautiful morning,

the changing colors, the hypnotic light.

I could sit by the window watching the leaves,

which seem to know exactly how to fall

from one moment to the next. Or I could lose

everything and have to begin over again.

“Grief”

My wife is happier this morning.

Valentine’s Day, the kids and I went all out,

candy, cards, heart-shaped cookies.

Gus, our smooth Fox Terrier,

mopes around, tail down, grieving

for our black Lab mix, Benya,

who still sleeps in our boys’ room.

Gary, my wife’s younger brother,

no longer lives in his photos on her dresser.

He prefers to stand behind our maple,

hands in pockets, trying not to interfere.

My friend Yehuda still drops by without calling.

Right now, he’s marching backwards

around my study, making the sound

of every instrument in the Israeli Philharmonic,

hoping to cheer me up. I used to think

the dead preferred their own company.

They don’t. They prefer ours.

Raymond Carver

Though primarily known for his works of short fiction, Raymond Carver also wrote and published a number of poems during his lifetime. In fact, he published five collections of poetry compared to three short story collections while living. Though there are exceptions, many of the trademark aspects of Carver’s prose have been preserved in his poetry: descriptions of ordinary events, conciseness in favor of flowery language, and a masterful regard for ambiguity. Below are a few of my favorite poems by Raymond Carver.

“Your Dog Dies”

it gets run over by a van.
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally,
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet,
and she loved it so.
she used to croon to it
and let it sleep in her bed.
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it,
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep,
and that poem turns out so good
you’re almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you’d never
have written that good poem.
then you sit down to write
a poem about writing a poem
about the death of that dog,
but while you’re writing you
hear a woman scream
your name, your first name,
both syllables,
and your heart stops.
after a minute, you continue writing.
she screams again.
you wonder how long this can go on.

“Drinking While Driving”

It’s August and I have not
Read a book in six months
except something called The Retreat from Moscow
by Caulaincourt
Nevertheless, I am happy
Riding in a car with my brother
and drinking from a pint of Old Crow.
We do not have any place in mind to go,
we are just driving.
If I closed my eyes for a minute
I would be lost, yet
I could gladly lie down and sleep forever
beside this road
My brother nudges me.
Any minute now, something will happen.

“Stupid”

It’s what the kids nowadays call weed. And it drifts
like clouds from his lips. He hopes no one
comes along tonight, or calls to ask for help.
Help is what he’s most short on tonight.
A storm thrashes outside. Heavy seas
with gale winds from the west. The table he sits at
is, say, two cubits long and one wide.
The darkness in the room teems with insight.
Could be he’ll write an adventure novel. Or else
a children’s story. A play for two female characters,
one of whom is blind. Cutthroat should be coming
into the river. One thing he’ll do is learn
to tie his own flies. Maybe he should give
more money to each of his surviving
family members. The ones who already expect a little
something in the mail first of each month.
Every time they write they tell him
they’re coming up short. He counts heads on his fingers
and finds they’re all survivng. So what
if he’d rather be remembered in the dreams of strangers?
He raises his eyes to the skylights where rain
hammers on. After a while —
who knows how long? — his eyes ask
that they be closed. And he closes them.
But the rain keeps hammering. Is this a cloudburst?
Should he do something? Secure the house
in some way? Uncle Bo stayed married to Aunt Ruby for 47 years. Then hanged himself.
He opens his eyes again. Nothing adds up.
It all adds up. How long will this storm go on?

Kim Addonizio

What Is This Thing Called Love, aptly titled after one of Cole Porter’s jazz compositions, is a deeply personal collection of poems that are at times witty and lighthearted, at times brutally honest and self-deprecating, and always full of interesting observations concerning life’s most enduring subjects: love and death. Divided into five sections, Addonizio’s poems traverse the physical landscapes of famous parks, tiny hotel rooms, dimly lit bars as well as the spiritual arenas of human existence. Often, she mines the depths of romance, as quick to point out the melancholic nostalgia produced by memories of a past lover as she is to cradle the frenetic energy found in a new relationship.

The first section of Addonizio’s collection certainly varies in setting but each poem resolutely concerns love. She moves quickly over the course of thirteen poems, covering half a lifetime with vivid detail of her first kiss “in front of a burned-out church,” sensual observations during her quest to soak up the youth of her thirty-one year-old lover and finally biting sarcasm when, as the possibility of a woman cloning herself in order to provide an opportunity for every man she has ever been involved with is acerbically considered, she remarks “won’t you be happy then.” This first section also stresses the range of Addonizio’s skill  as it includes a paradelle, a sonnenizio, and two of the collection’s five blues-inspired poems.

The second section deals in large part with death. The section opens with the line “[d]o I have to bring it up again, isn’t there another subject?” Instantly, the sense of a beleaguered, world-weary life is apparent and Addonizio again makes her way over a remarkable and unforgettable amount of territory. As she recounts her experiences, be it with “a scrap of flattened squirrel fur,” “[her] father left in some town behind [her]/in his blue suit, with his folded hands,” or “[a] dog dragging its crippled hips,” Addonizio ponders “I can lighten up, can’t I, Christ, can’t I?” She implores the reader to “[r]emind me why I’m here,” illustrating just how immersed in death her own life as well as the lives around her are by taking her sights off her surroundings and surrendering her plea to the written word.

The third section is the first of three successive sections in which Addonizio addresses death and love jointly and, at times, simultaneously. Whereas the previous two sections had a focal point and swore by vivid, concrete details, this section finds Addonizio moving from the raw power of child birth into a more philosophical realm combating issues surrounding human nature, knowledge, God, and the repercussions felt by Americans as well as everyone around the globe. Unlike the sections to follow, the lack of thematic cohesion in this section results in Addonizio coming off more scatterbrained than diverse, opinionated than concerned, and ambitious than successful.

Section four is without a doubt the highlight of this collection. Opening with “Lush Life,” one of four poems in the section sharing their titles with that of a jazz composition, Addonizio’s sultry, cut-the-shit disposition comes roaring through. Her sharp, original wordplay is also on display, producing a variety of rich, often harrowing images such as “listening to the jazz of ice,” “a car wreck in a silk dress,” and “that guy with the knife convinced we were insects from outer space.” These type of colorful characters and bizarre interactions not only play to the brute strength of Addonizio’s matter of fact, streetwise diction but also come across as completely natural and commonplace rather than merely one woman’s observations nearing the middle of her life.

The fifth and final section of What Is This Thing Called Love finds Addonizio at her most tranquil and reflective. The first poem, “Dear Reader,” is a direct ode to her audience as she considers all that is occurring outside her quiet isolation. Later on there is an ode appropriately titled “Fuck,” within which Addonizio makes a convincing argument for the academic use of the word. Ending where she began some fifty poems earlier, Addonizio adheres to her wistful, romantic and melancholic muse. In “Kisses,” she remembers with awe all the men who “lower[ed] their beautiful heads like horses drinking from a river [to] taste [her].” She recalls the various types of kisses she has received, from the “fatherly ones on [her] forehead” to the “ravishing ones.” She concludes by stating the poem itself needs to be kissed because “it needs you to know it goes on.” After recapping so many events, people and places, Addonizio brings her readers back to where they’ve physically been all along: in front of her book, with knowledge of an ample amount of experiences that feel more shared than separate.

Below is one of my favorite poems from What Is This Thing Called Love:

“Lush Life”

In this bottle a searing headache,
in that one a car angling off the road
to meet a tree in your neighbor’s yard,

in the next one a man who removes
your clothes while you spin
down into the whirlpool of the bed’s black sheets.

At the bottom of another: locked metal box
you can’t pry open, though you can hear
someone in there, muttering and crying

and saying how sorry she is.
And don’t forget the worm of shame
that uncurls in your throat sometimes,

and the bathrooms where you crouched
shaking before a toilet, your hair limp,
the sour evening rising up inside you.

So what are you doing, sitting there
holding a half-full highball glass,
listening to the jazz of ice, the slow blues

of a just-lit cigarette? Some low voice
is crooning your name, and in the double
being poured behind the bar

the tenor sax is starting its solo, taking you
out over the changes, sounding
just like love, just like it won’t ever stop.

A Few Thoughts On The Latest Collection From Louis E. Bourgeois

The Animal, subtitled Prose Poetics, was published in 2007 by BlazeVOX. I was taking a class under Mr. Bourgeois at the time, and remember the sort of incomprehensible response my brain conjured up when I first skimmed through the collection. Prose poetry was unnervingly new to me and the references to Artaud and Heidegger sent me scrambling to Wikipedia and then some. I remember liking the succinctness of his work but finding it hard to overlook what seemed like cynicism and pure unadulterated morbidity.

I came back to this collection several months ago, and ended up finishing the entire collection in an hour or two. The brief amount of words Mr. Bourgeois uses is indeed well-chosen, as the reader is immediately drawn in by unique phrases and circumstances, and if nothing else, the juxtaposition of his beautiful wordplay on such depressing subjects. His affinity for the work of Wallace Stevens is evident in the sheer craftsmanship of this collection, as well as in the way he takes a look from many angles at his most consistent subjects: deformity, the minds of men, death and philosophy, in particular the existential school of thought. It seems like the most common thread to the collection is Bourgeois’ examination of the behavior, existence and importance of human life in relation to the unknown. Below are a few of my favorite poems from The Animal:

“If All Our Yesterdays Were Tomorrows”

He’d spent two days in a row leaving behind $6,232 dollars worth of dental work performed within the boundaries of the tallest city in the world.

His teeth were exquisite and none compared to them that he knew of.

On the way home, he was hit in two different directions by two mid-size economy cars.

When it was all said and done, his teeth were not teeth anymore, just a mass of gruel where his anus used to be.

How stupid of anyone to talk about tomorrow, or to spend so much time and money on one’s teeth.

“The Animal”

A man without arms was eating lettuce in a diner. We all stood around him and watched. He didn’t seem to mind very much. He looked up from the plate with innocent eyes. Someone in the back of the crowd exclaimed, We should kill him for not having any arms. In turn, another said, We should kill him for having such innocent eyes. And yet another said, We should kill him for eating alone. The armless man ordered seconds and the crowd gradually dispersed.

“A Voice from the City”

And why, Nephew, does this engine make you sad?

The night before the Communists invaded the city my uncle sat at the stone table and was transfixed by a dozen ripe bananas lying there. “Aren’t they wonderful, Nephew? Isn’t it wonderful that we should have such fruit in our house? We are luckier than all the kings who ruled Cambodia–they could have all the bananas they wanted but as sated as they were, they could never eat them.” My uncle was not an optimist; he had simply grown unclear in the head. He didn’t sleep, he sat up all  night at the stone table staring at the bananas–two days later they dragged him to the outskirts of town and shot him in the face for wearing eyeglasses.

1975

“Verse must be at least as well written as prose if it is to be poetry”

Although Ford Madox Ford’s quote regarding the quality of prose and poetry might seem a bit of a slight towards prose, I’d argue that Mr. Ford was complimenting the fiction writers of his time with statements such as the above. If anything is to be gained from Ford’s quote, it is the fact that poetry was not merely in search of new voices; rather, Ford is bluntly stating that in order for poetry to retain its status as the highest form of linguistic art, it needs artists who are painstakingly attentive to their craft. It seems unlikely that one (prose or poetry) will ever completely overshadow the other, and I for one am happy about that. Many of my favorite writers (contemporary and otherwise) compose(d) a variety of works, usually including both poetry and prose. It seems only fitting to begin my blog with one of Georgia’s most celebrated authors. In the paragraphs below, I’ll touch on the life of Carson McCullers and why I enjoy her fiction and poetry.

Among the most talented Southern fiction writers of her generation, McCullers grew up envisioning herself as an accomplished pianist. She left her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, in 1934 to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. However, fate intervened and by her twenty-second year she had produced a critically acclaimed first novel, entitled The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. Although her life came to a premature end some seven months after her fiftieth birthday, McCullers left behind four novels, a novella and short story collection, a play and a collection of poems. One of my favorite passages in all of literature is her examination of the lover versus the beloved in her novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. But that is for another discussion; below are two of my favorite poems by Carson McCullers.

The Mortgaged Heart

The dead demand a double vision. A furthered zone,
Ghostly decision of apportionment. For the dead can claim
The lover’s senses, the mortgaged heart.

Watch twice the orchard blossoms in gray rain
And to the cold rose skies bring twin surprise.
Endure each summons once, and once again;
Experience multiplied by two–the duty recognized.
Instruct the quivering spirit, instant nerve
To schizophrenic master serve,
Or like a homeless Doppelgänger
Blind love might wander.

The mortgage of the dead is known.
Prepare the cherished wreath, the garland door.
But the secluded ash, the humble bone–
Do the dead know?

When We Are Lost

When we are lost what image tells?
Nothing resembles nothing. Yet nothing
Is not blank. It is configured Hell:
Of noticed clocks on winter afternoons, malignant stars,
Demanding furniture. All unrelated
And with air between.

The terror. Is it of Space, of Time?
Or the joined trickery of both conceptions?
To the lost, transfixed among the self-inflicted ruins,
All that is non-air (if this indeed is not deception)
Is agony immobilized. While Time,
The endless idiot, runs screaming round the world.

****************************************************************************************************************

If you are the least bit familiar with McCullers’ fiction, it is easy to notice several characteristics of her prose in her poetry. On a very basic level, there is the melancholic, yet thoughtful (I’d also say conversational) tone of the poems. McCullers was herself a very shy, reserved person but even at the darkest depths of her work, there is a strength of expression that belies the extremeties of hopelessness. Secondly, she explores feelings of isolation, loss, and the fickleness (or at least the pros and cons) of emotions such as love. Lastly, there is a disconnect between the speaker and his/her environment that is awfully hard to ignore. Although these particular poems might not be indicative of it, I’d like to end this post by saying that Carson McCullers’ work is not simply grim for the sake of being so. Perhaps what makes her work stand out to me the most is the unusual spunk she works into her language, the way she unabashedly and repeatedly presents grief and redemption side by side, as they are often known to travel.