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Thursday, June 1, 2017

"Earth, You Have Returned to Me" by Elaine Equi

Can you imagine waking up
every morning on a different planet,
each with its own gravity?

Slogging, wobbling,
wavering. Atilt
and out-of-sync
with all that moves
and doesn’t.

Through years of trial
and mostly error
did I study this unsteady way -

changing pills, adjusting the dosage,
never settling.

A long time we were separate,
O Earth,
but now you have returned to me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Emily Dickinson overcoming time and space

There is one poem in which a thoroughly inebriated speaker enjoys her lack of control and is not overcome by it: a rare portrait that develops a fantasy of achieved delight.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun –

     The element of fantasy in this poem is pronounced; so is the presence of the ingénue persona who appears so persistently in Dickinson’s love poems. The two combine to give the poem its childish air. Yet it is precisely that quality of make-believe which permits the speaker, and the poem, to maintain the happiness of which she boasts.
     The poem begins with a riddle. What kind of liquor is never brewed, comes from tankards made of pearl, is far superior to any ordinary, earthly beverage? The answer: air, or dew. Even as the opening stanza clearly contrasts “real” liquor (from “Vats upon the Rhine”) to another sort – not of this earth, imaginary, or symbolic, so as the poem develops its conceit of being drunk upon air, it steadily compares literal and figurative experience, experience in nature and in the mind.
     Surely, air was never brewed; thus it answers the requirements of the riddle. But neither is it literally a liquor. We can interpret the metaphor: to be “Inebriate of Air” is to be exhilarated, excited, overwhelmingly delighted by summer skies. Yet as the poem elaborates this conceit, it is not its symbolism but its drama that engages the reader. When the “Debauchee of Dew” begins her drunken progress from airy inn to airy inn, her activity takes on its own reality, one that overpowers its literal counterpart. This is fantasy, and it is a delightful image. It is, in fact, an image of delight embodied.
     If the extravagance of her emotion is essential to this situation, so is its lasting power. These summer days are “endless.” We recall how important the idea of permanence is to Dickinson’s ideal of delight.
     But summer in nature’s world is never endless, no matter how it may seem in mid-July. In stanza three, time surfaces, only to be triumphantly repudiated by this poem’s speaker. The inebriate of air has her real-life counterparts: bees and butterflies who likewise reel through the sky, with flowers as pubs; like her, drunken on the summery nectar. Yet bees and butterflies are subject to seasonal time; drinking hours are up when autumn comes.
     “I shall but drink the more!” How she gets to overcome time, she doesn’t say. But the final stanza shows her drinking on into eternity. “Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats – / And Saints to windows run – .” The original riddle provides a clue, since the liquor that she drinks from opulent goblets (does “scooped in Pearl” mean that they are decorated with pearl or that the liquid that they hold is like pearl?) never was of this earth. Not “real” alcohol in the first place, its inebriation is likewise not “real”; neither are the actions to which it incites the drinker. Since her activity has always been fantasy, taking place in a mental sky, she has no difficulty perpetuating the fun. Yet her intoxication is more than fun; it is also a sign of power. In this poem, lack of control, diminutive stature, are coyly representative of their opposites, as the final audacious image, of the “little Tippler / Leaning against the – Sun – “ indicates. (In another version of the line Dickinson has the little tippler “From Manzanilla come!” That makes her a world traveler; this more exciting image makes her a space traveler.) She has overcome both space and time by the poem’s conclusion, such is the strength, the power of her emotion.
     This poem is another form of the celebration of delight. It perpetuates and praises the feeling, not through incantation, as in “Mine – by the Right of the White Election!” but through outright fantasy. Both poems, however, achieve their prolongment of the emotional experience with a rhetoric that places the action of the poem in the realm of the imagination and explicitly, almost challengingly, opposes ordinary reality in the process. Here, in the space of the mind, delight can be maintained, delight can be controlled, delight can be praised. A contrast with nature and its kind of time is an essential aspect of the poems which describe delight achieved. – Suzanne Juhasz

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Rusty Morrison rewrites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 52

Sonic fig juice

somatic bitch-boy in the under-words, hissing bestialities –
can’t beat it, cheesy sock-puppet leisure –
witch me, heathen, knock me loud into surgery –
forethoughts buried, dime-joint mind in cellular seizure –
wherefore, sore of fealty to feasibility, stupor-swollen, sucking air –
wince! The poem’s not even nearly half done yet –
yikes! My groaning words, thought-hearses, waste escape valves –
oh capacious germs, can’t sterilize my shtick or sex it –
sewed into quick lime, that old rhymer that shaking-spear gent –
I’ve an oar behind my earlobe, for beating back the talktide –
tumored with orneriness, I am spurious, I am hesitation-blasted –
buy it new here, infatuation is the poem’s best incendiary lie –
howl-beautified in the 50s, come to surrounded by ad-marketing & lyric-dopers –
getting had, tho, is my fav trumpet, singing lag-time, blindly I grope –

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

And fantasy it was

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word. - Toni Morrison

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A poem by Hanshan

In the house east of here lives an old woman.
Three or four years ago, she got rich.
In the old days she was poorer than me;
Now she laughs at me for not having a penny.
She laughs at me for falling behind;
and I laugh at her for getting ahead.
We laugh as though we'd never stop;
she from the east and I from the west.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

On Humanism

Humanism was the particular glory of the Renaissance. The recovery, translation, and dissemination of the literatures of antiquity created a new excitement, displaying so vividly the accomplishments and therefore the capacities of humankind, with consequences for civilization that are great beyond reckoning. The disciplines that came with this awakening, the mastery of classical languages, the reverent attention to pagan poets and philosophers, the study of ancient history, and the adaptation of ancient forms to modern purposes, all bore the mark of their origins yet served as the robust foundation of education and culture for centuries, until the fairly recent past. In muted, expanded, and adapted forms these Renaissance passions live on among us still in the study of the humanities, which, we are told, are now diminished and threatened. Their utility is in question, it seems, despite their having been at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization. Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being – for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. This spirit is not the consequence but the cause of our present state of affairs. We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.

. . .

There are so many works of the mind, so much humanity, that to disburden ourselves of ourselves is an understandable temptation. Open a book and a voice speaks. A world, more or less alien or welcoming, emerges to enrich a reader’s store of hypotheses about how life is to be understood. As with scientific hypotheses, even failure is meaningful, a test of the boundaries of credibility. So many voices, so many worlds, we can weary of them. If there were only one human query to be heard in the universe, and it was only the sort of thing we were always inclined to wonder about – Where did all this come from? or, Why could we never refrain from war? – we would hear in it a beauty that would overwhelm us. So frail a sound, so brave, so deeply inflected by the burden of thought, that we would ask, Whose voice is this? We would feel a barely tolerable loneliness, hers and ours. And if there were another hearer, not one of us, how starkly that hearer would apprehend what we are and were.

- Marilynne Robinson