Wednesday, April 12, 2017

poems for April 5/6

Business by Naomi Shihab Nye
First Light by Chen Chen
Canary by Rita Dove
He said I wrote about death, by Kim Dower
Landscape with Tractor by Henry Taylor

I was reminded by Bill Heyen at his reading on Sunday, that Richard Wilbur said, "Poetry is a necessary art, for a small minority". Reading a well-written poem, based on an article in the news,
for me, is indeed proof that I am part of that minority.

"What business do you have here" as an idiom, is a critical, unfriendly statement to make sure the "other" understands s/he does not belong. Although this is not part of the poem, the very word "business", or conducting affairs comes up in the newspaper article referring to refugees who "go about their business" which is equally distancing and as one person said, "damning". Indeed,
"urgencies of doing disappear" in a refugee camp. Perhaps there is a sense of whatever they do, we don't. Perhaps we too should example what we call our "business".
The second line of the poem introduces "He", and the poem proceeds in the 3rd person limited-- a narrative which has authority,albeit not omniscient. There is an immediacy when we have the pronoun again, about the neighbor child "whose crying kept him awake". We can imagine he did something with books; we can imagine that which might keep a child crying through the night-- is it bombing, has the child lost family? illness? hunger?
It feels that the poet takes up the final, haunting line : "Where do you file this unknowing?"

First Light is also a poem of dislocation-- how the title repeats over and over, each time a possible frame for the story of fleeing "at first light" and the difficulty of memory. I was excited to find this book in the library, "Come watch the sun go home" (1998) also by Chen Chen which is a memoire of leaving China. A different author, but same subject. I love the term, "teaspoon-taste/of history"--
which is not just the pinch on which the narrator can ground his story... but the way, in general, we only receive a hint of whatever "really happened". Whether 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, Rashomon, this is not a new way to look at "truth" in a story.
The pain of leaving, being separated from sisters, the mother who had a stroke:
Not only is "what stays, is leaving" but the guilt -- the pain being "here" when the other is "there".
I feel awful, my mother says,
not going back at once to see her.
But too much is happening here.*

Note the gap before "here". Stanza break. Just in case you need stage directions:

"Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
least forgivable English word."

This is a timely poem, which counteracts the myth of immigration and romantic spin associated with the "new life and opportunity". Here, the sorrow is palpable. As Emerson says about experience,
the poet is the one who integrates. Or to quote I believe Robert Penn Warren, by composition,
we compose ourselves. Indeed, with all the turns and possibilities as Chen-Chen struggles to remember, as reader, we are convinced of the truth of his telling.

Emily, who wanted to discuss this poem puts it this way: "I like the way he adds history to his memory of leaving China, and later how having to leave his home links to the first leaving, as does his leaving his mother at the airport. The immigrant experience, and the shifting memories all draw me and I like his style".

Rita Dove's tribute to Billy Holiday, "Canary" draws a picture of the gardenia --saying it is "under her face" -- the way we might place a signature -- although the flower is in her hair. Why not
"around" her face...? Ambiguity is the name of this poem -- the public vs. private Billy... and the killer last line: "If you can’t be free, be a mystery." More on the poem here:

The next poem by Kim Dower is an elegy for Tom Lux-- the title being something he said to her.
Her note on the poem:
“My mentor and favorite poet, Thomas Lux, noted after reading my latest collection, ‘there’s a little more mortality creeping in, more darkness.’ I was surprised by this, and then that night I dreamed about running over a bird. When I awoke I thought, ‘he said I wrote about death,’ which became a prompt and title for this poem. I now dedicate this poem to him, the most generous and beloved teacher and friend the world has ever known.”

There are only three sentences in her poem. The title spills into the first two lines:
He said I wrote about death,

and I didn’t mean to, this was not
my intent.

The second sentence:
I meant to say how I loved
the birds, how watching them lift off
the branches, hearing their song
helps me get through the gray morning.

13 lines later, the 3rd sentence is still going on about the birds, and not meaning to write about death to conclude what she meant to say:
" rather how when something dies
we remember who we love, and we
die a little too, we who are still breathing,
we who still have the energy to survive."
The subject takes hold of her -- and we discussed how the lengthy "unpacking" works for each reader.

I looked up the author of The last poem "Landscape with Tractor by Henry Taylor" and believe this is the same man.

This poem too "unpacks" but in stanzas, and the slow unraveling of the narrative, mowing along,
revealing more and more until by the sixth stanza we have discovered a corpse.
What kind of "landscape" is this and how does the tractor work as metaphor? The speaker starts with a question, vague, "how would it be..." and you wonder what he is talking about. By the 3rd stanza before the end, the reader is thinking about the "someone" and how it would be, not like the first stanza, with the setting of the house, 3 acres of grass, offset from the road... but suddenly discovering a someone was murdered, tossed like a no-one...
Masterful story telling, visceral, capturing the tone of the man mowing, how he didn't need
any crap tossed in his yard... and then, to have this discovery, and to be so horrified by it, you know you will remember it until you die. Will you remember this poem also?

The final selection was a gift to memorize with a context:

Day comes and goes, night comes and goes . . .
Sinking your head in hands clasped tight,
You wonder why there still comes no
Apostle of wisdom, truth and right.
-- Taras Shevchenko

Metro users in Ukraine's capital city are being allowed to ride free of charge at some stations if they can recite a poem by Taras Shevchenko, the country's national poet -- Statue on P street in Washington, D.C. contemporary with Pushkin... (and people can recite Eugene Onegin by heart... )

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