but A) I
on the stair
& though my
a girl playing
webs & the
Even if I’m
I did too
like to be
up and around
& dusk ex-
else in nature
but a changing
sky & a
room & before
a child can
too. C) The
was a moment
got in the
It is the
D) And now
I will drive
I’ve walked past your childhood several
and friends of mine babysat
your friends. The enormous calm
this morning kernals
flowing through my clenched
an old fashioned milk bot-
tle exactly I’ve
constructed that time, I thought
waves, wooden ones
no flames. As
a good middle
I climb on top
and then politely
move over. I was sexually
abused by an
every shake of the building
was my lover
me abandoning you from not noticing
me. Eating alone
in my family
not putting my foot
down but not picking it
up either. Suddenly strong
in the new presumed
position. Wider than
no more private
than yes. Everyone’s with
men all of
a sudden men made
like my time
in the morning didn’t
choke the limits
of the bottle
can leave me
to me going all horny. Play
I told my
about the fire
I guess in New York
they told the landlord
five of them
all of them
of one woman
where the fray
on the grass
if the power’s
off for a second
better is the
second it all
we landed ourselves
on a grassy
a view of the
the rushing sound
with the shaved
a hot spot
her white muzzle
guiding her away
on the telephone
the family watch
their baby tiny
her to another
surely it’s layered
the skin of day
well I have
they told me to
talk to Jesus
which I thank
for my interiority
they told me
to guard Jesus
I began to
the bird is like
give us facts
and I’m one
would be minor
how big would
I get as
I turn the
size of the
her shaking head
to teach them
quarter I taught
grow up in a mess
the year is
were never here
I don’t remember them
and you could
put your hand in the water
& hit a fish or two
now you gotta
She was the first one from
India to outer space.
I don’t remember
and I don’t remember
it being so hot
but winter used to be
You remember that.
I know to hold back
tends to keep the thing
going but I don’t
I like it kind of square
We played the reading
at Gallery 6
maybe it was his
description of it.
We read it
some things get saved.
I like to return.
I like the farmer
who studied science
and made it work
He was Japanese.
He stabbed himself right
in the chest. Like
Elliot, not Kurt.
The two kinds
of death are different.
Of all the songs
you ever wrote
you wrote some
guy in the airport
read about farming
he had big thick thighs
and he looked like a businessman
and that’s what farmers
look like today.
He was trying to get better. To improve
this immense restlessness on the
thought the birds had changed
and something else
and Peter said the fish
were practically everywhere
and now they’re not.
I don’t know myself
and that’s a sin.
It’s very hard
I’ll say that for
of many desires
not just map.
to the grandpa
bunny bunny school
I mean genesis
is a form
in the sunny
time. A horny
bet. Or else
lolling around the fire
what did you
get. How can
I avoid it.
a speech.” Long limbed
in July. Aren’t
we lucky to have
other in this
hideous neon light.
from INFERNO (a poet’s novel)
by Eileen Myles
My house was about seventy acres. There was a maze of bushes with blackberries on them that squirreled around the pond. Me and Rose would play Minotaur and hero – I was always the hero, she was always the Minotaur and invariably we wound up in the woods. It was truly easy to get lost in these winding trails, but having nothing else to do I developed a knack for their twists and turns and for a very long time well a couple of months I was content to push daily through these itchy furrows, craning my head from time to time to spot the white bird house, a bird mansion, on a tall stick that indicated the direction I had come from. Someone had given the birds a house as least as good as the people’s. It was a very in-joke.
If all went well I arrived in the woods — plowed through a ring of them, not so wide, then arriving in the upper meadow which was an occasion to rejoice with Rosie who would throw herself down in the bright green grass and roll and I would then turn around in all directions to grin and admire it all and think look where I am. Sometimes we’d break out from the woods into the grass to find a couple of bright young deer leaping along the opposite edges of the forest. She’d go leaping afterwards. The whole Pennsylvania adventure was a disorienting one for me vis-à-vis my dog since she was like an old friend you go traveling with only to realize she is fluent in several languages she never mentioned to you before. With the deers she also began to perform these kind of sprung leaps through the deep grass, a kind of swimming, it seemed. When she stood in the woods for the first time and heard something and stopped abruptly and stood still. She then bent her right paw in an animal salute to the hunt, to attention. C’mon Rose you’re from New York, where d’you learn that. Instead she was deaf and dumb to all that she had known before. She was another dog. I gave her a native name: Pasquati. And when I changed her I changed myself. I took my shirt off and I simply became no one, no name, no sex, just alive moving across the land with a dog. Art brought me this.
The period during which I had unlimited access to the house and the land was about two years but felt much longer. I had friends come to stay once in a while but to maintain the illusion of timelessness and infinite space I was mostly alone writing pages and pages of novels and poems making a fire talking on the phone, watching every movie Pasolini ever made, and the Dali Lama – just a hair each night (he spoke of “refuge”) while I was lying in the grand bed, also reading Deleuze’s great book, Masochism.
He said the masochist habitually lays out a story, a fetischized chain of objects or events, which the seeker must thoroughly immerse herself in in order to reach the unexposed but desired conclusion. Which was . . .
A myth got built in my time at the house. That there was a perfect way to be and a perfect way to write. I woke every morning, kind of early, eight and began to drink coffee and read. In those mornings I read Manuel De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, which explained through a careful analysis of the history of explosives how an engine (and a general, like Napoleon) capitalizes on inherent differences in order to build a story chaotically. I read the thick emphatic sentences of Lucia Berlin. I read swift little Neuromancer. I read every day till I was full – and anxious, which took a little less than an hour. Alone a person begins to know herself like a clock. I was a 43-year old calendar of shifting desire that summer. Do other women notate their cycle, imagining themselves not an open plain exactly but a pond, not enclosed so much as focused in a way so that the shifting density of my itch, my urge, like a radio station of sex or fertility was now on this setting or that. In some quiet completely absorbing way I read me every day, especially when I was reading. I read my tone which altered along the slope of the month and it would inform me when the reading must end and I couldn’t bear my body anymore in its fake agreement with my mind, the body then vaulting over the mind’s walls. I got up from my lounge chair in the front yard and swiftly tugged on my running clothes.
Rosie was young, 2-years old, so she came along for the forty-minute gallop two laps around our estate. Up the dirt road, down the paved hill, Round Hill Road, along the shady tree-lined street where other houses peaked out behind the leaves, people to have sex with I wondered, and finally up a back road onto our land again. And birds watched us, a few dogs and always the hen and her chicks. I’d do it once, then again. One morning when I started out I saw up in the sky something that resembled an old set-in fan that had removed cooking odors and smoke from the kitchen I grew up in. Now that fan was turning in the sky. I felt dizzy watching the tiny spiral of blades flickering and I thought I am going to die — not today — but exactly like this. My insides will cast a whirling image for me to concentrate on — my heart or something even older, failing. My light. I named it all – the trees, the road, the frightening fan — the undiscovered country – which yielded a tiny poem I could never get right — the tenses always at odds, but it really happened. I saw my death in the sky.
Running was followed by sitting. I wasn’t a buddhist or anything. I just created a pile of pillows, set the clock and meditated on everything as little as possible for half an hour. It felt good after the run, though usually I was starving and sat there on my pillow thinking about food. Shredded wheat and bananas, a huge portion, which I quickly devoured after the alarm rang and with a tiny prayer I sat down to write. The whole process took two or three hours and if any element of it were protracted or removed, I not so much couldn’t write, but didn’t trust my day’s work which just had a lousy feeling. Cause on top of everything, I wanted my writing to feel good and for that one summer it mostly always did. It’s an impossible standard, but I was actually there once.
My joke about the room I wrote in was that it looked like Goethe’s studio. In college I wanted to study Spanish but the line was long so I wound up studying German. By the second year we were already reading entire books. Werther was our first. To read The Sorrows of the Young Werther in the original German when you’re young — if you were young like I was young. Well, I was just fucked. My incessant longing was now validated by the genius of the past. Even later when Frank O’Hara took pot shots at yearning in his famous essay Personism I felt like well he’s just being old-fashioned.
The summer I lived in the house I was actually part of a reading tour organized by Semiotext(e) that brought us to Goethe’s home, in Weimar.
Our host, Sasha Anderson, was a small dirty guy in leather jeans and sandals with an illustrious girlfriend — Rheinheld — long flowing blonde hair and her family had a barbecue for us in their vineyard. Millions of sausages were smoking away on a vast outdoor grille. Sylvere, who was Jewish — I think everyone was on the tour except me, but Sylvere had barely escaped the Holocaust as a child and at the barbecue he was having fits. On the whole tour, really. Some Jews can go to Germany but not Sylvere. And one by one, during the barbecue, we were led away alone into a small library and told by the cameraman and his friends to sit on a stool in front of a wall of decrepit gilded books. A light shone right in my eyes. The moment had come. I was being interviewed by German teevee.
How do you like Goethe? Do people in America think much about Goethe. I was actually very excited to answer the questions of the cameraman and his friends but it was my discomfort and ignorance that they wanted. My American stupidity. My knowledge was not of great interest to them. People don’t care I told them. They nodded knowingly.
Goethe’s studio was one of the rooms we got to peek into — across a rope. I remember his big black carriage filling the garage, his serene private garden out back and the great classical busts of his men friends that punctuated the house’s furnishings but I actually don’t remember the study. Who’s asking these questions anyhow. I think a poet’s study is just an idea. Wherever I’m writing, it is.
In Bellfast my studio had extremely high ceilings with wooden beams and stark white stucco walls and large windows onto the front. The room was in fact the summer kitchen. It’s a landmark German farmhouse, a little gem Eden said. It cost us a million bucks. It was sort of cool that she told me.
Faye and Laurie visited once most of the writing was done. I had been alone for a couple of months and they broke the ice. I remember walking to greet them as they got out of their car. How can I explain that the house was situated on grass and you walked up the slope from the house still on the ubiquitous greenness and now the two of them were standing outside of their car, which they had parked on grass and I felt like a Martian floating out of my ship. I guess cause they were seeing me. To write you get really alone. Now I had the sensation of having just landed or was dwelling in the softest space. It was this insane country living. Rarely does a lesbian, not this lesbian — rarely had I ever felt this cool. I was wearing this green shirt and my hair had grown into some condition of excess. Kind of Wildean, I thought. I was part of this place, and now was even the host of my friends’ enjoyment. We all wanted female artists to look and feel this well. It was that rare narcissistic moment — a rousing pleasure for all of us. Coming up from my estate I greeted my guests. I showed them my pile of manuscript and later I think Faye cooked – oh she brought food and Laurie was just kind of wild and generous, everyone was.
My dog’s snoring. And it’s pouring outside right now. I enjoy thinking back. It wasall so perfect.
Until recently – maybe this summer or the last one — I have been trying to return to that perfection of feeling, setting and — because the only virginity I am really familiar with is the past. And, happily, the one unambivalent fact of getting older is I don’t still want that place, or any place anymore. It’s a realization I can trace like the growth of an idea.
Take the time that him and I had sex. It was a poet friend, many years ago. He didn’t fuck me but he had his hand way up inside and acknowledging that I was a lesbian he proclaimed what a waste. I thought what is so special about this cunt but I also I thought how great that it’s special. He wanted to fuck me and I knew for sure in that moment that I would become pregnant. It was why he was admiring my cunt. He felt it was his. If it was mine his feeling was wasted. Without thinking too much about it I enjoyed being wasted for him.
Like a spilt glass of milk, my life. A white pool shimmering on the floor. My corrupt womanhood: A waste. I feel the same way about being a writer. Staying up all night burning my brain cells, for years, swallowing tons of cheap speed, also for years, eating poorly, pretty much drinking myself to death. And then not. Contracting whatever std came to me in the seventies, eighties, nineties, smoking cigarettes, a couple a packs a day for at least twenty years, being poor and not ever really going to the doctor (only the dentist: flash teeth), wasting my time doing so little work, being truly dysfunctional, and on top of that, especially my point, being a dyke, in terms of the whole giant society, just a fogged human glass turned on its side. Yak yak yak a lesbian talking. And being rewarded for it. Not only wasted, but useless, rancid, a wreck. It has come to me slow. Ten years ago Jane De Lynn said let’s face it, Eileen, we are ruined. She didn’t mean by some romantic sadness. She meant in fact. Jane’s a little older. I wasn’t ruined yet.
Jane had a good education, Iowa, Barnard. She may’ve fucked up, but she’s basically rich. I mean she may’ve been ruined earlier for some of these same reasons – and privilege of course will make a person rot . . . look at men. Nothing good there. But probably she was just being contrary or ironic. Or wanted to tell me that I was ruined and didn’t think I could handle it alone. I was actually pretty hard working and nervous in my forties and still thought it was possible to be good, to get it right, to win.
Nope, I am destroyed. A shattered boat of a person. A broken window here, a lousy bell there. An old crappy dyke with half a brain leaking a book. A drippy excrescence. A schmear.
I read a long time ago about a man who seemed normal but when he died they performed an autopsy (why do they always perform an autopsy if he was so normal?) they discovered his brain was just this little piece – the part that connects the left to right — he had only that. Like a headband. The doctors couldn’t imagine how the guy lived and functioned, never mind thought. It made me shiver. I felt that could be me. Not only wasted but partial. A blur on the handle. I wrote the first chapter of this book, my fucking inferno, and New York blew up. If I died tomorrow I could really care less. I’d be relieved. Look at me: My face is an old catcher’s mitt. Blam. Thunk. Reactions and dents. A cold bent lighthouse. Brrr. A melancholy lava lamp. A woman. A man. A butch. A bitch. Rots of ruck. Watching the fragments float by for years. I’m done. . . H’wo.
Eileen Myles: Loving This World
By Edwin Torres
What an ear on Eileen Myles— to not only uncover, but to capture the underlying truth out of the simplest phrase. The hardest thing to do for a poet, to mine and unearth the gems that move us. And if that’s the definition of what it means to be a poet, then she is a poet’s poet. Before identity interferes with the words we have the voice, the singular infinite whose job it is to reveal. Eileen’s singular voice cuts through clutter with a profound sense of place. I always get a sense of honor from her work, as if she understands her being as a vessel is to get out of her own way. That she’s able to dissappear like that while presenting such a powerful focal point, is why she resonates across such a wide spectrum. Through the writing of course…but also the form, the line break, we get to the underlying truth, the world revealed.
I want to leave my introduction at this point, let the work speak for itself. It was a great experience to collect the pieces for Rattapallax…revisiting her work is a humbling reminder for clarity. Stacy Szymasek’s interview uses the interwoven engine of Leslie Scalapino to bring us current, from Eileen’s time as director of the Poetry Project to the ‘real’ America back to breath again. And CA Conrad’s essay summarizes beautifully the Myles arc: a never-starting geometric that passes through staccato id from the perspective of another brilliant poet who happens to be a lifelong fan, and whose life was indeed saved by Eileen’s poetry. Thank you Stacy and CA…and Eileen, for your work and for participating in Rattapallax’s online debut.
I’m not even a boat
I’m where a boat
I put my impossible
body in your hands
is this a pen
To My Class
kind of fucked
in a bowl
just the color
of the gym
the tile is that
is not quite
it and it’s
feeling is not
on the mat
sitting up there’s
a bending plant
not the tiny
like sitting in a
and the cow
I’m trying to
in my life
than a category
a day isn’t
and hours or
putting it back
some other reason
I don’t really
but I squint
Eileen Myles: Clothed In Nature With An Open Ear
to hit god
it hit his mother
I speak for
–from Sorry, Tree (Wave Books, 2007)
My friends and I waited in the theater to see Eileen Myles appear in the Harry Dodge film. “THERE SHE IS!” It was great! It was weird too seeing her walking but not in person, not at one of her famous poetry readings, meaning any of her poetry readings because she never gives less than a 100 percent. But there she was walking up flights of steps. Dirty, sweaty, carrying containers of water. She had crossed over into film, and we could see her walking in another city, in the past. Of course film is in the past the moment it’s made, like everything else. This is a conversation which often becomes an argument with my New Age friends who lecture on the virtues of living in the Now. “The” “Now”.
She was walking up the many steps, and was tired, finally at the top. She was carrying all this water. More than a hundred trillion cells make this poet, 75 percent of which are water, and she carries more water in containers up flights of steps. What’s she up to? Ernst Chladni’s research proves that sound has form. He got to this by covering a metal plate with sand, then ran a violin bow on the edge of the plate, and all of the sand vibrated into a perfect geometric shape which looked much like the body of a violin. Poets are bows, the plate, the sand, poet, the poet Myles, and water TAKES that sound and carries form. Water displaces in song. She had all this extra water for her new songs which when sung would turn the leaning towers inside the readers into upright violins.
I find it hard to believe that my essay will be read by someone who has NEVER heard of Eileen Myles. But just in case, she’s queer. In all the ways the word works, queer. Anton Webern once said, “To live is to defend a form.” Being a queer myself I know how growing up THIS DIFFERENT from the respectable and acceptable world can allow one the ability to see and hear outside the norm. One doesn’t HAVE TO BE a homosexual, there are plenty of other kinds of queers around, people not easily inside the norm. Being and staying creative is much easier though, when you already don’t fit the job, the automatic job some don’t mind for belonging in the accepted ways. One of the things that changed my life reading the poetry of Myles as a young queer was her access to herself, her amazing lens that came in on the world however she wanted the poem to be. And her confidence too, yeah, that changed me, permanently changed me. Nothing helps the day run smoother than having confidence. If you’re not queer, don’t ever think it’s easy. I mean if you don’t kill yourself after a number of years you kind of HAVE TO build confidence. It’s a beautiful world when the bullies have no entrance.
Frank Furness is my favorite architect in Philadelphia is what I used to say. Frank Furness is one of the best architects in Philadelphia is how I later started saying, when saying with confidence. Confidence can be an excruciating lesson, provided you’ve been permitted to learn. There are so many vicious assholes to overcome. Frank Furness is a willing and willful Earthling, and there’s evidence in his First Unitarian Church at 22nd and Chestnut Streets. I never stop smiling at what he did. If you take people there for the first time they often remark, “I love the angel wings.” And you would think there would be angel wings because it’s a church. But no, they’re actually stone-carved tree branches and fronds, their delicate leaves poised for flight. Furness sees this Earth, this place, as holy. Heaven? What’s heaven? A living, gorgeous, spiritual Earth, and translucent are our greatest faults which always hearken back in some way to forgetting how marvelous Earth is.
“I admit I love tulips
die so beautifully.
I see salvation in
their hanging heads.
A beautiful exit. How do
they get to
feel so free?”
—from NOT ME (Semiotext(e) Press, 1991)
Myles puts this in the middle of our reading, reading from the world as we see it, and it is then changed. This is a holy moment, today, on Earth, she has been telling us this. When you read her poems, the natural world is a constant thread, casting a spell for recalling and reaffirming life. If you haven’t noticed how many trees come up in her poems read them again –– there they are, her arms too, she’s trees through her arms, and trees come back around just enough you note her forest of them. “The trees are / my friends. / Hello tree. / Can I come / out to a / tree. I know / you’d hardly / know it / to look at / me, but / would you / believe I’m / a Lesbian.” (from NOT ME). In her recognition of the quiet giants who hold the paper in their guts she provides as many visits with trees as there are with her lovers. She is a willing and willful Earthling. “Once traveling / across America / I watched / my plane’s / shadow / fall over / trees. I / felt evil. / Who wants / to watch / themselves / travel, / darkening / the land.” (from NOT ME)
Rescued drowning victims often claim that after the struggle they go under the water and fall asleep. We go to sleep when suffocating. It’s just too much. It’s hard to breathe writing this, do you feel your breath reading it? Too much. Eileen Myles woke me when I went to sleep while suffocating. This is not a metaphor, there are many ways to drown without water. The best poets have the best wake-up poems: WAKE UP! WAKE UP! It was her book SAPPHO’S BOAT (Little Caesar, 1982). I woke from a terrible night on the floor next to friends after mixing too many intoxicants. Everyone else was still asleep, and we were in someone’s sister’s apartment and the sister was away. Poetry had already saved me before, but this time in my life, this time was particularly dark, you know, you’ve already been there yourself. But then I woke and my beautiful friends were still asleep on chairs, curled in corners, and this book poked from a pile of magazines. From the first poem WAKE UP! WAKE UP! the Eileen Myles alarm clock:
Big library where read Sappho.
Holes and all. Feel the wind
Shifting through. Aeolics.
Shiver when Sappho speaks of her
Heart Beat. It
Pounding down through the ages.
Old adrenaline, gives me a rush.
And morning sex was nice. In
morning light. Day blast-off.
Rusharound. Through the lightness.
That book that morning pulled me into my shoes, young and nauseous, not wanting to die. A couple of years later NOT ME came out and it took me a little while to realize that it was by the same author as the book from the party. WHO WAS THIS writing these poems? The state of queer, Queer, to be Queer came through the filter of her lines, her incredible insistence I AM HERE I AM GOING TO FUCKING PIN YOU TO A PASSING CLOUD IF YOU TRY TO REMOVE ME. To keep from suffocating, it really is too much to not go to sleep otherwise. Her queer ear, and woman’s perspective changes the reader who cares to hear, “I abhorred Dr. Williams’ / self-proclaimed com- / passion for the / woman giving birth. / O sensitive man / getting lyrical about / her labor pains.” (from NOT ME)
I LOVE that line! How many years did the world wait for Eileen Myles to write it for the quietly angry? WHO KNOWS! Centuries of men setting fire to women. “I visited Carryl / at all sorts of / loony bins & hideaways / The Church of the / American Witch / she says.” (from NOT ME) You’re allowed to be irritated. It’s GREAT to find that out! It’s fine if you want the world a certain way and it’s not and you feel like saying something about it. Robert Duncan said “Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.” YES! And Eileen Myles said “I pick up a book and / another book and memory / and separation seem to / be all anyone writes / about.” (from NOT ME)
In Jane Brox’s book Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, there were always plenty of reasons to fear the dark, no matter what continent you were on: hyenas, tigers, wolves, other people. For centuries they used animal and vegetable fat for torches, but Brox never mentions the use of poems. Then there were candles and lanterns, still no mention of the poets. And yes it’s a terrific waste of energy having ALL the lights on in an empty building at night, but I understand it. And all the lights on an acre-wide empty parking lot ON all night, but I understand it as much as I understand Myles writing:
has one missing piece
and all the beauty’s
–from on my way, (Faux Press, 2001)
We’re looking for that piece. What’s artificial about light anyway? How can it ever be artificial? Poets and the little creatures glowing in deep sea. All we’re wanting to do is see one another. Poets. Even poets who – at one time – railed against the personal “I” write their memoir, to see, just as their poems were to see. Nothing artificial going on. It’s okay to think you were the first, you were the best, the light, the great source, it’s okay. There’s enough love for it. There are plenty of poems in this lantern to get us to the next morning.
A few days ago I went with my friend Frank Sherlock to see the documentaryCOUNTDOWN TO ZERO. It’s about impending nuclear war, which is a very bright light, unless of course we manage sanity soon! I had a nightmare last night where all the oxygen burned away like they said it will. And I fell on the floor of my apartment in agony, hoping to die quickly. It was beautiful to wake and take a deep breath, HAAAAAH, for now. And I wondered about all I’ve done this week, not wanting to squander time. Well, I’m rereading ALL of Eileen Myles’ poetry, falling in love all over again! I don’t even know how to thank her, but I’m grateful for not suffocating so often. For instance this morning I was getting back into SKIES(Black Sparrow, 2001), and her infectious insistence of loving this world took hold:
Since the light is so perfect now
please take this picture
of hoover chewing the torn soccer ball
or the sound of chief anthony’s
how about you with your legs
crossed taking a picture
or you, not even
on the porch but packing
in this perfect
An Interview With Eileen Myles
by Stacy Szymaszek
Stacy Szymaszek: We recently had a brief conversation in the Poetry Project’s office about Leslie Scalapino, where I learned you were friends. In honor of Leslie, I thought we could begin with her in our interview. As a response to the Gulf War, she sent her writing to newspapers she thought would publish her, but none of them would – this grew into her book Front Matter, Dead Souls. At around the same time (1991) you declared your candidacy for president, and wrote your brilliant “Dear Citizen” letters. Through both of these actions you and Leslie refuse poetry as an outside category, and demonstrate that poetry is public discourse or “speaking what is real” (LS). Were you and Leslie corresponding about what you were each working on during this time?
What I want to get at is, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reception of poets in the United States and in my experience when I am asked what I do by people other than poets it can often put a damper on the conversation. A couple of times people have misheard and thought I worked at the Poultry Project, you know, a project for chickens makes more sense! One of the great things I, and so many others, got from you is that I needed to be the hero of my own life, and it takes a healthy ego to sustain that – but then we come up against a deficit in the culture’s education or understanding of poetry – what is your experience of those moments of potential disconnect. Is this where teaching comes in? Formally, but also informally, as in, just taking the opportunity to speak up?
Eileen Myles: That’s funny. My response to the Poetry Project was more that it was the pottery project, which also smeared to potty. I like the pottery project – I did think we should focus more on making things, spinning stuff, getting our hands dirty with poetry. I interviewed Leslie for a piece I wrote about her for the village voice at the same time I was running for President. It was a problem while I was running – whether to do other kinds of work. Does a presidential candidate do journalism. Even shopping for groceries felt strange. It was like Sabbath. Every activity became under the regime of being candidate rather than poet. I feel like that was the territory Leslie and I shared and I think some of it sprouted from Buddhism. If the world at center is empty, without meaning how do we proceed in the activities of our lives and how does the way we view our lives or view ourselves in it alter our perception of poetry and what the poet’s job might be. I think Leslie was open to outlandish proposals in that regard though part of the miracle of her was the lack of distinction between the outlandish and the conventional. I think she attacked the conventional by being quietly outlandish whether she knew it or not. I always wondered what she knew. As a poet I am interested in distributing myself differently as a worker. When I was young it was simply wanting to be only a poet – after all I had chosen what I wanted to do with my life – write poetry, so why should I bother with anything else. Which lead to the poverty project. I remember being asked when I was younger why I wasn’t aspiring to more middle class jobs – you know climbing up the rungs of art magazines or getting an mfa. Anything not to be a poor poet bum on the lower east side, doing any job, tossing newspapers off a truck to newsstands with a bunch of dykes (which was fun) but the point being that for years I did any job – because any job didn’t interfere with my idea of myself as a poet, whereas a middle class job would have engaged a part of my mind in a disturbing way. Squatted therein and proceeding to take more and more. When I got a little older I started understanding the concept of doing something else as a poet – being a journalist, a performance artist and probably the hardest – being the director of the polity project – having to work all those other people, those poets. I started to conceive of being a poet as an action that could infuse and inform other activities. Increasingly being maybe not “moral” in the world but as a responsible adult letting how I conducted myself in public spheres, whether I “spoke up” or not be a kind of radical question. Leslie thought her own thinking belonged in broader social spheres than just the sphere of poetry. If I critique the poetry world in any persistent way it’s asking it – and myself why I’m not being generous. If how I frame language, how I distribute consciousness is “poetic” ie informed by the history of poetry why do I want to incarcerate that thinking labor in the poetry world. Why am I obedient to the increasingly loud silent cultural command that we all stay in our zones and not think anyone else would be interested in hearing, reading, engaging these same thoughts too. Are poets really doing thinking just for themselves. Our labor, our critique of language is enormously valuable to the world. I sincerely believe it. The most exhilarating thing I heard about lately is a journal called The Lamp which critiques the media, which is about media literacy and it conducts workshops in the city teaching kids media literacy. So they can understand the messages of the culture. The elitism that informs the poetry world is enraging to me. That no one cares about poetry except us chickens is another was of saying us chickens are in a rareified librarian specialist world. Something without tone. I mean I can imagine this thought being interpreted as advocating for a kind of simplicity in poetry – like let’s have a big slam of some kind. I’m not. See that’s where I admired Leslie’s project infinitely. She really thought newspapers should print her pieces. She believed. I’m for escalating belief as a factor in our work. To move to the side a bit I’m so frustrated to have not seen the kids are all right – the movie in which Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian parents. I picked up a copy of the daily news at the airport and there was an immensely homophobic piece by Andrea Peyser about how the kids are so not alright with gay parents. To simply act as if we belong, as poets, as queers is to invite an enormous response. But if you stayed in the comfy confines of queer culture, academic, social or otherwise you’d never know how, well, for instance, unsafe you are. But you know Andrea Peyser is more unsafe than me because she thinks I want to hurt her children. I don’t. Poetry is to some extent about testing the world, palping it. It’s not so much am I here, as are you. What are you. What am I. It’s a Buddhist question and it comes out of interaction and breathing and acting as if you are here.
SS: “Acting as if you are here” is a great mantra, and deeply important to maintain the belief that our critique of language or the status quo, is valuable to the world. I’m reading Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, which is just out with OR Books. You write a lot about jobs you’ve had and describe coming upon St. Mark’s Church because of an assignment you had “to go to each building on the map that was still standing… and get into their files.” I love that your first encounter with the place was as a researcher of a historical site, and while you were there you saw publicity for the potency project. As kind of a side note, I’m assuming as Director, you heard the criticism that the Project is elitist, but it seems to me that people who say that are responding to something other than class – what do you think? But then you talk about a community of artists in “economic drag”. Are poets supposed to be poor even if some of us are not? Does this mean that the poor have access to some types of beauty that the upper class doesn’t?
EM: Well I think everything is class especially in poetry. The first criticisms of the p. project I heard was that it was a place – like “our scene” had a place and the poets who made this comment I think were assuming their poetry was more egalitarian because it instead made its own home in “the world”, or was studied in college so it was an early version of the mainstream critiquing something that seems coterie as separatist whereas everything else is theirs, hence unmarked, normal, ie classless. What seemed like the dominant poetry world in the 70s weirdly professed to feel rejected by this smaller “elitist” world that was not striving to get into the Norton anthology or whatever. Later it was feminists referring to that white boys scene at the church. And it was that, for sure. Only many of the feminists themselves wrote a more middle class egalitarian bourgeoise verse. Elitism is a blurry charge since it seems to be used to describe categories that don’t include me, whoever I am. I remember when Allen died and I was at some event at NYU and I mentioned the event beforehand to an extremely well known poet of the other, mainstream caste. He in his presentation generously referred to the event, though making the time frame of it be “all day” and kind of eye rolling instead of the specific time I gave him. I realized that a different sense of time was key in what was different or other to him. I suppose I would describe his conventional sense of time and his charge that ours was endless and all over the map as elitist. The planes have a schedule after all. When did you agree to leave, begin, whatever? How can I control. I think having left wing politics is supposed to be elitist now, in relation to “the real america,” something we hear get thrown around all the time. “Poor” is poetry’s real America, it’s this conceit for many poets that defines their authenticity. Being a little bit unable, ungluttonous, unambitious holds the spot for a lot of poets of all classes. Maybe booze and books are the only things it’s cool to admit to wanting a lot of. There are things that poets like to get like awards and big publishing deals but it’s supposed to come to you sort of accidentally or naturally, because aspiring or angling is a mark of not being really of the poet’s class. I think it’s this rift in America between commerce and art, the thing that famously tore Hart Crane apart – or that’s the story. Being an artist in America is not an adult profession. Right up there with being queer in terms of never growing up. But somehow those adult things are supposed to come your way and I think class ultimately becomes a set of manners that enables you to be a worthy recipient of these accidental gifts. The work you did mustn’t show. You did it for the team somehow, not for yourself. It sounds like a system that would work best for a man. Probably is. Should we talk about poetry?
SS: We should. I saw you riding your bike down 2nd Ave. once and you were smiling, which caused me to smile too. I feel on the verge of coming across very dorky but your work gives the reader your presence, and just as importantly opens up the door for one’s own presence. I most often get a sense of elation when I read your poems and I think part of this is because you reorder things into a “healthy chaos” – a Joseph Beuys phrase. There is not a denial of pain, death, hard times, in your work, that’s for sure. Do you think you are doing something formally that defines pleasure as presence?
EM: That’s such a good question. And one I’m honored to answer. Because I’d like it to be true. Joseph Beuys is such a good person to be thinking about – always. When I landed in the poetry world in the 70s there was a sense that a person could become an institution and Beuys was an example of that and so was Andy Warhol. Gertrude Stein was I suppose. Susan Sontag was definitely some kind of institution. So was Allen. I mean it was a men’s idea and so I’m not exactly sure how it truly works for women (we don’t generally see women getting crucified either – something’s always wrong for women in terms of “big” ideas…) but I was excited by it for sure. It was cooler than famous. I think there was this idea that if your work was anchored firmly in a specific art practice and also was sort of a medium to begin to do other things with – make peace and question institutionality in the case of Beuys then you became a free individual and free of being an individual across the board. And one could free others. Get off the hook. One became a star or a citizen, just something other than being the thing you initially set to do. I suppose it was on the cusp of realizing that there could be a corporate self. A self that was more of a franchise than a person. Joy Division for instance. Later Martha Stewart. If I think of a couple of people from my generation say Charles Bernstein and Bob Holman you don’t think of them specifically as poet poets but guys with a mission of some sort. So in answer to your question yes I think I’m doing that too and you could read my work and my efforts as endlessly branding Eileen Myles but I’m thinking my brand is fairly transparent rather than thick. I think my “I” which I felt much pressure to dump over the years is a generalist “I,” no one in particular in a way almost the more specific I get and I think I write a poem every time I find a new way into that space where the specific me sees something else or is anyone. I like it when there’s less of me and something’s still looking. I think human pain is more complex than just being just a bad performance. It happens in an actual room and you’re building that room when you’re building the poem – a place to have the feeling in and ideally when you’re done someone else could enter it too. Sharing your pain – the how of it – I mean pleasure’s pain too right. People clench their teeth on the roller coaster because how can this be happening to me. And what if they are the last – if the thing falls apart. For experience to feel true it’s got to feel a little final. It has to have that feeling at the end, that something’s been accomplished and we never do that work alone. You leave it for someone else to read it, right. Though sometimes that someone else is you.
SS: To pick up a bit from something you said in response to the first question, would you describe your engagement with Buddhism, and how/if it alters your perception of poetry.
EM: Well I sure got excited at Naropa when I realized this was what they were all about. Of course so much of the practice we know as poets is just co-terminus w Buddhism. The impact of John Cage is a Buddhist impact. But Gertrude Stein is looking at a world in which everything is moving too. That’s not a western thought. But it’s such a piece of America, always has been, right? Once a catholic lets the water out of the tub there’s a Buddhist sitting there. I think. I don’t know how everyone isn’t a Buddhist except that everyone doesn’t have such a drive to believe and Buddhism perfectly refuses that desire so it’s this endless cartoon. I mean there’s Leslie again. Buddhism was such a joint of her work. Everything hinged on it if it hinged on anything at all. When poetry failed me as a commodity there was Buddhism to tell us that everything failed right away and if one liked writing poems you could write about that failure. Again that sounds like Stein cause poetry does. But so does Buddhism.
Fables, Travels, Fascination
by Idra Novey
I first met Christopher Merrill in India. We’d both come to Calcutta as part of a U.S. Delegation of Writers to take part in one of the largest book festivals in Asia but which was cancelled at the last minute after we’d all arrived. Our delegation took part in a number of readings and discussions around Calcutta anyway and I had the pleasure of hearing Merrill’s work aloud in English and then translated into Bengali. It was a fitting introduction to a writer of such a worldly perspective. Whether he’s working in nonfiction, free verse poetry, or in longer lyrical prose poems such as the ones included in the feature below, Merrill’s writing exhibits a sophisticated understanding of the many ways people experience the world depending on where they are born and into what language and culture. Even when Merrill writes in a mode that reads more like fable, his travels through—and fascination with—the world beyond the United States is marvelously present and forms part of what makes his work so rewarding to read.
It is a pleasure to introduce these stunning prose poems by Christopher Merrill and the accompanying interview with poet and translator Becka Mara McKay.
Poems by Christopher Merrill
Fall and Recovery
for Jill Staggs
For example, the crack widening in the window of the plane flying over Greenland: crazing is the word used by the safety inspector to describe the mesh of lines spreading from the bullet-sized hole in the plastic through which shine glaciers melting in the sea below—ridge upon white ridge gleaming in the sunlight of an autumn morning, which goes on and on as the plane heads westward. The inspector contracts and releases the muscles in his legs, curling his toes under the seat in front of him, raising and lowering his feet, listening, again, to a partita by Bach. Soon it will be time for another meal, another film, and the blue expanse of the sea. The flight seems endless, suspended like a breath above the earth, a line inscribed in the sky subject to the same forces of gravity and velocity that mark the rising tides. The passenger closes his eyes, and as he falls asleep he thinks, I must be crazy to keep doing this. The crack opens into light.
They keep the contestants in cold storage. Nothing worse than spoiled goods, they say.
Yet the contestants hold a privileged position in our society. Less than one percent of the applicants, who number in the millions, survive the initial screening at birth. And those who do face constant scrutiny before the final selection is made, their features sketched by a battery of artists, their measurements recorded, their moods described and annotated. There is almost nothing that we do not know about them.
What ingenious devices have been invented to promote their well-being. The automatic sprinkling system installed in the nursery to protect them during the fragile period of their first growth is triggered when the temperature drops below freezing, spraying mist over their cribs to insulate them with a sheet of ice. In spring they are coated with a fine white powder, which according to unverifiable reports may leave them giddy; in summer, basking in the sun, they joke about the health department officials who monitor the fields for maggots; and as they come into autumn, fit, ruddy-cheeked, and buoyant, they place bets on the arrival date of the migrant workers journeying north for the harvest.
Alas, the hopes of some are soon dashed. Bruised by longing, twisted by an inexplicable rage at the divine order, or exhausted by the preliminary rounds of competition, they are weeded out and set on boxcars headed in the opposite direction of those fortunate few bound for the host’s estate—a compound encircled by a wall topped with barbed wire and guarded over by a militia recruited from the fringes of the empire. Of course the losers complain, although no one hears their grievances. Indeed they are warned to keep silent, which never stops them from talking to the media, sealing their fate; needless to say, their speeches from the gallows only feed the public’s appetite for spectacles.
Meanwhile the shivering contestants huddle in a locker the size of a stadium, their bodies waxed and shining, waiting to be called. We listen to them praying day and night, asking one another the same question over and over: Are you happy?
for Michael New (1942-2006)
You would have liked it here: in a small city along a river, with the spires of a Gothic cathedral looming above a castle and the burgher descendants of the margraves who raised the fortifications maintaining a decent respect for order, you can build things to last—cobblestone lanes, town houses, traditions. And you would have appreciated the court decree, in Latin, French, German, and Dutch, directing alchemists to turn their attention to clay, not to create men blessed with eternal life but to make porcelain for a prince who had traded a regiment of soldiers for chinaware. Thus the rise of an industry, lodged in the castle until the walls cracked, which still governs daily life—the prices in the souvenir stalls, the dates of festivals, the plans shelved by the chocolatier, the prints removed from the window of the antique shop, the twitching of the sleeping tour guide, the repertoire of the one-man band, the complicated love life of the ticket-seller at the museum of torture: in short, the full range of human affairs.
Not to mention the fact that to preserve the secret of making porcelain the prince kept its inventor in prison (he had poisoned his master), and set up his factory outside Dresden, in Meissen, where his craftsmen could develop their ideas free from the inquisitive regard of foreign emissaries. Goethe visited, Richter taught drawing to the artisans, and as political orders succeeded one another the porcelain bells rang in the Church of Our Lady and the patterns of dishes, tiles, and medallions furnished to royal families all over Europe were archived in the castle. Courtiers acquired a taste for Chinese screens, for coffee served in cups decorated with flowers, for figurines inspired by the lower orders—harlequins and criers, miners and vintners. Generations of potters, casters, embossers, glazers, painters, clerks, and guards—all lived and died under the sign of the crossed swords.
We try hard not to despair, Victor Klemperer wrote in 1940, after burning his letters and manuscripts. Stripped of his professorship, typewriter, and telephone; barred from the library and cinema; forbidden to buy tobacco—the scholar recorded in his diaries the destruction of a way of life. Nothing could save him, not his Aryan wife, his conversion, or his service on the Western front. But the order to deliver deportation notices to his neighbors, on Shrove Tuesday 1945, coincided with Allied planes taking off from airfields in England to firebomb Dresden: an act of Providence, he concluded in the ashfall. Spared the journey to Auschwitz, he removed his yellow star. And what his witnessing reveals is that what holds a civilization together may be as fragile as the small dish my daughter bought in Meissen to mark our visit to the Old World—a bibelot hand-painted with a swirl of blue flowers, golden stems, and ochre leaves.
Dusk in early spring. From a terrace overlooking the Elbe, which after the rain was approaching flood stage, I watched my daughter stir her hot chocolate, and wondered how to decipher the decision taken to turn a city into a kiln. A historian analyzes the minutes of the meetings of the civilian and military leaders; a political scientist draws out the implications of total war; a theologian considers the limits of just war theory; an urban planner studies maps; a philosopher constructs a system of thought to account for what was once unimaginable; a former prisoner of war who watched a column of flame rise into the air opens his notebook; an architect traces a finger along the scorched cornerstone of the church he will rebuild… Drink up, I said.
Among the icons on my shelf is a glass vial of volcanic ash collected from a coulee in eastern Washington. Mount St. Helens had erupted just before I bicycled through the canyons and shrub steppe on the road to Spokane, and one night, in a farmhouse, an elderly couple served me dinner on Meissen ware, which had come into their possession after the war—a gift to a soldier from the occupying army for reopening the kaolin mine. White earth, said the veteran, whose land had turned the same color as the plate he lifted up to show me the crossed swords—a memory that I have carried all these years without knowing that it was what I would want to give to you.
On the first day the goat climbed to the top branch of the acacia tree and said, The ship sailing to the new world will sink before it leaves the harbor. He stayed there all night, counting the stars in three constellations that he had never seen before, and in the morning he cleaned himself up and said, The fishermen mending their nets will never take to the sea again. Leaves fell from the tree, the herder called from the ridge, and the goat, frisky in the heat, bounced on the bare branch until late afternoon, when he drifted off to sleep, unafraid of what the waxing moon might bring. That night he dreamed of a hyena chasing a lion up a valley into which the sea rushed, dividing the continent between the ones with gold and the ones without. And when he woke at sunrise on the third day, believing that the whitecaps in his dream were the pages of an unwritten book left on the ridge from which the herder called to him, he said, Here I am.
A Good Time for Prose: An Interview with Christopher Merrill
by Rebecca McKay
I loved reading your new poems for the issue. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the prose poem as a form?
In the fall of 1989, which seems like a lifetime ago, I began to experiment with the prose poem, writing, sometimes automatically, the first draft of what by fits and starts became Necessities, a book-length improvisation due out next year. These pages, which combine surrealist imagery, elements of fable, and meditations on the language, opened a new vein in my work, which I have been exploring ever since. From the beginning I was influenced by various French masters of the form, including Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Breton and Saint-John Perse, as well as by writers like Kafka and Calvino, Merwin and Simic. And I continue to be inspired by the inventiveness and energy on display in the prose poems of many contemporary American poets. This is a good time to see what can be done in lines that go all the way to the right-hand margin.
On a similar note: You’ve written both poetry and prose. What do you find yourself getting out of each form? Are you always working on poems, even as you take on your next big prose piece?
There was a long period of time, when I was covering the war in the Balkans and then writing a pair of books about it, that I lost hope of ever finishing another poem. This persisted into the last draft of my next prose book, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, when out of nowhere, so it seemed, I found myself composing verses and prose poems. Now I find myself increasingly writing both poetry and prose, drawn to the first by music, by cadence and sound and song, and to the second by a love of stories and an allegiance to facts. I save my inventions for poetry, though, whether in verse of prose.
These recent poems seem to take on the political in a number of ways, but most noticeably through allegory. Do you consider these poems of witness?
Not necessarily. I am deeply interested in politics, and indeed I often address political matters in my nonfiction. But in my poems, even those that seem to be political in nature, it is the structure of political life, the way it shapes our thoughts and emotions, that most interests me. Generally speaking, it is difficult to make the substance of politics endure in literature; hence the allegories of power that I write examine movements of the heart, which I take to be timeless.
I was on a panel at AWP in which Doug Unger bemoaned the lack of world literature being taught at American universities. Through your work with the International Writing Program at Iowa, you’ve taught world literature in a unique way. Can you talk about that experience?
International Literature Today is an undergraduate class, offered during the fall residency, which features presentations by the visiting writers on their work, homelands, and literary traditions. I teach with Natasa Durovicova, editor of our online journal, 91st Meridian, and on the first day we tell the students that we cannot predict what the writers will talk about—that in fact we will be learning alongside them: one of the pleasures of the class. Indeed many of the writers attend the class to hear what their colleagues have to say, which makes for a rich learning experience.
Similarly, you’ve been instrumental in getting the participants in the IWP matched up with translators. Some of these matches have been incredibly fruitful. Can you describe the process of pairing writers with potential translators? I believe you once compared it to an instant blind date, or something like that.
In this interactive translation workshop, we pair off IWP writers with graduate students from our MFA programs in Literary Translation, Nonfiction Writing, and the Writers’ Workshop, and over the course of the semester they bring into English poems, fictions, and excerpts of plays, many of which are eventually published. It is a fascinating process. Some students know the language of the original, some must rely on an English crib, and all have the chance to ask the writers questions about what they intended to do, where their work stands in relation to their literary tradition, and what effects might be preserved in translation. There is an element of chance in the match-making between the students and the writers, which sometimes leads to marvelous connections.
Does your own work as a translator affect your voice as a writer, and/or vice versa? Do you find your voice creeping into your translations, or the voice of the authors you work with inhabiting your own?
Translation must influence my writing, and vice versa, though I cannot say precisely how. I do know that I try to keep my voice out of my translations—invisibility is what I seek in my effort to serve the poet’s vision—and that in my poetry and prose I hope to incorporate some of what I have learned from the work of the poets that I have tried to bring into English.
Becka Mara McKay is Assistant Professor of Translation and Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010. She has published three translations of fiction from the Hebrew: Laundry (Autumn Hill Books, 2008), Blue Has No South (Clockroot, 2010), and Lunar Savings Time (Clockroot, 2011). She has received awards and grants from the Seattle Arts Commission and the American Literary Translators Association, and a Witter Byner Poetry Translation Residency. In 2006 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poems and translations have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, ACM, Third Coast, The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Rhino, Natural Bridge, Rattapallax , and elsewhere.
excerpt from Seven Stars in Sevilla
1. Rafael Alberti
¿Adónde el Paraíso, sombra, tú que has estado? Pregunta con sílencio?
You rest your voice on the white roofs.
I rest my eyes on the ports where I saw
my grandmother once. She thought
it was Tripoli. We are in Cádiz.
You stand at the bottom of the night
with the rain. I stand under the lightning
not too far away. You dismantle summer
to find your feet. I take the day apart
to find a compass. You tell me
we must accept the sun now.
So I stay behind. I keep the heat.
You pass the streets, the cars, the women,
you even pass your heart.
The sailors prepare to float away,
and you ask them to describe water,
look at the roofs,
and the time you touched
the tears on your face
and kept them from falling —
the ground wants everything.
That was then. Now, there is only
one sentence in your head —
where is that place?
6. José Bergamín
No tengo más realidad que la irrealidad del tiempo.
This last drum. This last train.
This last hour. Last warning.
This is history.
A thousand feet pacing a country,
voices ripping up the winter sky,
an obsession at the edge of a world
and there, a decision —
you either believe in it or you don’t.
That’s the trouble with time —
the only way out of it is in.
*In December 1927, a tribute was held in the Ateneo de Sevilla to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of the Baroque poet Luis de Góngora y Argote. Rafael Alberti, Gerardo Diego, Juan Chabas, Dámaso Alonso, Jorge Guillén, Jose Bergamin, and Federico García Lorca traveled together by train to Sevilla. They became known as el siete de la fama, otherwise known at the generation of ‘27. There were two poets missing on the trip: Pedro Salinas and Vicente Aleixandre. The other poets who joined the seven poets in the Ateneo and also considered part of the generation of ‘27 were Luis Cernuda, Fernando Villalón, Rafael Laffón, Adriano del Valle, and Joaquín Romero Murube. The patron of the trip and of this celebration of Góngora was the famous bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (elegized by Lorca in “Llanto por la muerte de Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” / “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”). These poets were not the only ones considered as the generation of ’27; among many others were Manuel Altolaguirre and Emilio Prados.
Can the sky recover after a bombing,
can a house break into two cities,
and secrets hold the wall
between two bodies?
Tell me, what are borders?
acitara: wall, from the Arabic sitarah, which means curtain.
History is nothing more
than the smell of dew in our bones
but even dew hurts
when it enters the heart,
even dragonflies know
even a child scatters his hurt
to keep what’s dead
alive in the mirror —
another crime is being committed.
alfanje: backsword with curved blade, from Arabic, al-khinjar, which means dagger.
We hesitated to
see the bent,
maybe we divided
to have a clearer view,
we gave birth
in languages not our own,
we wanted to hang
ajimez: mullioned window, from Arabic samis. One of the distinctive features of Islamic buildings in Spain, especially noticeable on minarets.
Every loop a memory:
a field of lavender mist,
an ebony door,
an attic of white marbles,
wearing identical shoes,
suddenly, a house comes back.
ajaraca: ornamental loop in Andalusian and Arabic architecture, from Andalusi Arabic Ash-sharakah.
Don’t be distracted
by the young boy
you once were—
something is moving
in the opposite direction.
zaga: rear, from Arabic saqah.
If shadows crowd
only one side of the road,
they say, the street is broken
a broken street.
aduar: Bedouin or gypsy settlement, from Bedouin Arabic duwwar.
A heart that contains ash
contains only ash.
adafina: stew which the Spanish Jews used to place on glowing embers on Friday evening to eat on the Sabbath, from Arabic dafina, which means buried or covered.
When we hesitate
salt rises from the water
ahorría: barrenness or freedom, from Arabic al-hurriya.
It’s better to drown
than to miss water—
confessions can’t handle thirst.
noria: water wheel or ferris wheel, from Arabic na’urah.
The doors are shut now—
the ghosts sit upright.
alafia: pardon or mercy, from Andalusi Arabic al afya, from Classical Arabic afiyah, health.
*Qit’a means fragment. It is a short poem in the Arabic tradition, up to ten or twenty lines in English, which tends to concentrate on a single subject or theme. It is thought to have “broken off” from a longer poetic form, the qasida.
Statistics vary concerning the percentage of Spanish words that derive from the Arabic—anywhere between 5 to 20 percent.
Two Ghazals Two Tzvis
Sometimes music presses its ache against the mirrors
so that a thousand windows can find a heart.
On the terrace of wild jasmines, we see a sky cut into pieces,
and we bow to keep the small clouds in the heart.
The fog hides one hundred violins in the groves of our childhood,
but under the palm tree, our breath continues to grow the heart.
In the withering garden of daybreak, we starve to translate grief,
at the end of a well, ghosts sculpt water into hearts.
Night comes so that you can come so that the wet jasmines can stay wet
and the voice can bend to listen to the soft wave at the bottom of the cup.
The light covers the stairs
she sees her reflection
on the wet floor
she sees his
they stare at each other
and their shadows tell them
get out fast, leave, forget
this is forbidden
and then a bucket of water
washes their faces from the tiles
he sees her nipples under her shirt
and she the ripples of water
moving over his feet —
a country never ends.
Under the secret part of desire, an albérchigo—
It’s there I see the opening of a scarf of concerto
He starts with cero
and ends with solo
I saw his face once, he stood inside, outside an algarazo,
now diwans are piled up in front of the window to keep his last echo
On the balcony, one forgotten azulejo —
when I look closer, I see our faces trapped, yes, it’s that photo
At the dark corner of the zoco
we hide letters in the back of a radio
Tzvi / 2
Eight hundred years of love —
we can’t be strangers now.
We are here to allow
the other to be here.
There is a sea beyond the sea.
But who is watching us when we make love?
If your heart is not mine,
the kiss you placed on my neck is mine,
the word you drew on the palm of my hand is mine,
your touch, that afternoon on the banks, is mine,
the continents you placed by the chariot is mine,
but what about this paradise, who is it for?
We knew we were both in it. We also knew,
we can’t lose a paradise we’ve seen.
*Convivencia in Spanish means coexistence. The Spanish convivencia describes the time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Islamic Spain. There are numerous debates surrounding notions of tolerance in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. However, one cannot deny the rich and prosperous cultural and artistic life that existed during that period—a life that these communities created together. As I was writing this section, Mahmoud Darwish’s words kept echoing: “Andalus… might be here or there, or anywhere… a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture… It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar… Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.”
In Arabic, ghazal refers to a poem dealing with the theme of love, whether long, medium, short, verse, prose, etc. The Hebrew equivalent of the ghazal is the tzvi / tzviyah, ya’ala or ofer, also means a roe/gazelle (Song of Songs 4:5 – Thy two breasts [are] like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies). The proper Hebrew term would be shirei heshek (which literally means poems of desire).
Ghazal 2: This ghazal is inspired by Lorca’s “Ghazal VII—Ghazal of the Memory of Love,” were all lines end with o. Additionally, I wanted to alternate between a Spanish and an English word that ends with o.
Albérchigo means a clingstone apricot or peach, from the Andalusi Arabic albershiq; Cero or zero, from sifr of the same meaning; Algarazo means a short rainstorm, from the Arabic algazeer or heavy rain; Diwan is a collection of poetry (Arabic, Persian or Urdu); Azulejo means bluish, from the Arabic word zullayj; is a form of Portuguese or Spanish painted, glazed, tilework; Zoco or azogue means market, from the Arabic souk with the same meaning.
Tell me what I should do
so when I awake
I see only the strands of your hair.
Tell me what I should do
so the songs don’t break
the cellar in the room.
Tell me what I should do
to keep silence out of our way.
Tell me what I should do
to keep the sun out of your coat,
to find a way to obey the wind
to find the pomegranate on
the other side of the revolution
There is a moth, there is a flame too —
desire is just another illusion.
Tell me, below —
is there a cathedral in the sea?
I turn on the only straight street
in my body and discover,
when we depart, a confession
rises in the bottom drawer.
*Abásho means what’s below or the departed in Ladino. Ladino, also called Judeo-Spanish, is a Romance language derived from late medieval Spanish with elements of Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, Aramaic, French, Italian, and Greek (written using the Hebrew alphabet). It was spoken by Sephardic Jews in the former Ottoman Empire. Today, Ladino is nearly extinct and those who speak it are mostly in Israel. Only one high school in Jerusalem has a Ladino language program, and there is little new literature being produced in the language. It is similar to modern Spanish in the same way that Yiddish is similar to modern German.
Dream of the Apples: Nathalie Handal’s Andalusian Interior
by Catherine Fletcher
From her first collection, Nathalie Handal’s poetic language has been a personal patois of English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Her poetry has explored and fused images and sounds, moments real and imagined from her many lives in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Palestine. As both critics and fellow poets including Tom Paulin and Lisa Suhair Majaj have noted, Handal’s work reflects a life in motion, of permanent transience in the Dominican Republic, France, the United Kingdom, or her own memory—“C’est comme cela, tout change habibti”. As she has moved, she has depicted her encounters with “betrayed souls”, fortune tellers, soldiers, immigrants, gods and prophets, named and unnamed lovers. She has travelled between the past and the present, living with ghosts in many forms, exploring the borders and spaces which separate people and the forces which draw us to one another but, as Carolyn Forché has noted, “It is a poetry of never arriving.”
While alternating stylistically between the narrative—tinged by the Romantic tradition—and the slightly surreal, much of Handal’s work is also marked by various forms of fragmentation. She writes primarily in free verse, tending toward short lines rather than long, and frequently employs enjambment. In The Neverfield (1999), short interior ruminations stretch over some fifty pages and three sections with lines sometimes just a single word: “I,” “echo,” “lost”. Words and phrases resound: “come… come”; “give… give”; “the field never even sighed… in the neverfield”. In “Lives of Rain,” “In Search of Midnight,” and, below, “I Never Made It to Café Beirut; Nor, I Heard, Did You” from The Lives of Rain (2005) she takes seemingly straightforward narrative poems and fractures lines, fractures stanzas:
You told me that I should wait
at the Lebanese border. You told me not
to fear the Hezbollah, the gunshots,
the missiles or grenades, told me
that I would not see the shadows of corpses
in the stained grey clouds, would not see
the refugees and the UN trucks waiting for God…
Her 2010 collection, Love and Strange Horses, contains poetic collages like “Portraits and Truths” and “Love and Strange Horses—Elegía Erótica” (“A horse. A stranger. An Anthem. An impossible thereafter. / A lonely rift. A grove of trees. A touch. A cry. A murmur.”). Other more recent titles—“Black Butterflies, A Lost Tango”, “Here and There”—suggest the poet’s simultaneous presence and absence. Within poems from all three collections, she often deconstructs the bodies of her subjects into their parts and houses into their elements: doors, walls, and windows.
In Poet in Andalucía, Handal places her poetic self in a single geographic area—southern Spain and northern Morocco—for the first time. A resident of New York, she in her own Preface writes that she had “consciously set to recreate Lorca’s journey in reverse”, spending nine months in the home region of the author of Poeta en Nueva York and writing a ten-part collection that mirrored his work. Many of the threads Handal has followed, juxtaposed and interweaved in previous works meet again here.
Her opening poem “Ojalá” (“Hope”) marries history and the present, Islam and church bells in its first two stanzas:
He holds on to the force
that stretches the narrow light
and finds himself somewhere behind history.
All we have left
is to invent God,
to find an infinite number to hope in,
to touch the grounds of La Manquita,
and wait for the church bells
to remind us of who we have become.
She continues, “There are different varieties of loss…” However, constrained by the Lorcan framework she has chosen for herself, the poet’s perspective shifts subtly, and several of her aforementioned motifs manifest themselves in new ways in this collection.
Handal delves into fragmentation and wholeness in “10 Qit’as” (Arabic for “fragment”). These short forms were originally occasional poems with a single theme and less formal than ghazals (love poems) or qasidas (panegyric odes). A sort of decaptych in which the elements of individual poems dissolve into one another, this suite of poems often feels like pieces of Andalusian tile configured to create a pattern. In “Acitara” she questions the rupture of a whole into parts. In “Ajaraca” memories conjured by ornamental loops cause a house to reappear. “Ajimez”, named for a pair of windows which share a central column, juxtaposes the unexpected division of windows with the unexpected absence of a wall:
We hesitated to
see the bent,
maybe we divided
to have a clearer view,
we gave birth
in languages not our own,
we wanted to hang
ajimez: mullioned window, from Arabic samis. One of the distinctive features of Islamic buildings in Spain, especially noticeable on minarets.
Each qit’a is accompanied by an etymological note, revealing additional layers of meaning. While the bodies of the poems often focus on what can be destroyed or what has been lost, the notes focus on what remains, what is hiding in plain view.
Handal’s Constelación en el Ateneo de Sevilla section operates similarly, with seven poems named for members of the Generation of ’27—an influential group of writers in post-war Spain—such as Rafael Alberti, José Bergamín, and Lorca himself. Each piece is complemented by a quotation by the titular writer, offering additional meaning to Handal’s lines; her Bergamín poem, for example, meditates on the nature of time and is accompanied by Bergamín’s statement: “No tengo más realidad que la irrealidad del tiempo.” (“The only reality I have is the unreality of time.”) And in “The Book of Toledo”, at the end of Convivencia, a series of poetic epigrams concerning war, home, loss, and prayer are illuminated by knowledge of their speakers, information which Handal includes as parentheticals.
Also in Convivencia, “Two Ghazals Two Tzvis” brings together homages to the Andalusian Arabic ghazal and its cousin, the short, erotic Iberian Hebrew gazelle or tzvi, under a title which means, in Spanish, “living together”. Each poem, a series of couplets, has a distinctive flavor— “Ghazal/1” is more abstract like the independent couplets of classical versions, riffing on music and the heart, while “Tzvi /1” is more narrative (like its Hebrew counterpart), describing a charged moment in which two potential lovers meet as a bucket spills water onto wet tiles. “Ghazal/2” continues with the musical theme but with greater narrativity, while “Tzvi/2” is the reverse of “Tzvi/1”, and more abstract. The quartet refracts different aspects of the same theme: how to hold onto moments of beauty, how—after even the briefest encounter—we belong to one another. And how we don’t.
If your heart is not mine,
the kiss you placed on my neck is mine,
the word you drew on the palm of my hand is mine,
your touch, that afternoon on the banks, is mine,
the continent you placed by the chariot is mine,
but what about this paradise, who is it for?
We knew we were both in it. We also knew,
we can’t lose a paradise we’ve seen.
Derived from other Semitic languages—Aramaic and Ladino respectively—additional poems in this section examine who and what is inseparable—“Awón/Sin”—and what happens when departure occurs—“Abásho” (“below” or “departed”, also with the connotation of the dead).
Elsewhere in Poet in Andalucía, the second section, Maktoûb, the Moor Said (named for the Arabic word for both destiny and letter), examines the failings of memory and different versions of home. Alleys and Reveries, particularly “On the Way to Jerez de la Frontera”, explores those things which we need to invent about ourselves—countries, flags—in order to have identities. By the Door, or Is It Death focuses on fate of a different sort, and The Poet Arrives in Tangier offers the mingling of cultures from yet another perspective, just across the Straits of Gibraltar. Non-English words appear throughout, but Handal’s use of them is tied to geography (French, for instance, does not appear until the reader arrives in Morocco), and this more formalistic use gives the work a greater sense of place than in previous collections.
Perhaps the collection’s most intriguing poem is “Alhandal y las Murallas de Córdoba.” A meditation both on the etymology of the poet’s name and the source of identity, it is one of the few pieces in which Handal, a frequent visitor to the past, uses the future tense:
I will be
the well where water meets water.
I will invent my own languages,
streets and sins,
my own walls and my own cities.
I will be
the two doors in the fading light,
the echo that burns his lips,
and the canvas that keeps the cry wet.
With a sense of possibility, she continues to mine in greater depth today’s ever-present questions: “Who am I?” Where do I come from? than when she first noted in The Neverfield, “the name I carry,/the murmuring of my blood/that/is/my only claim/the only one that really matters…”.
I find myself elsewhere
especially everywhere here,
but mostly in the ruins.
I see myself in the stranger’s face,
I hear my voice in hers—
what language am I speaking,
what am I wishing for,
am I entering or exiting
prayer or the alphabet?
I dream what I must.
The day you
Here is a bitter apple—
that’s the meaning of your name—
it will help you find the days
that taught you who you are.
She sifts through the Andalusian landscape, sifts through her memory, ponders her own future disappearance, investigates the appearance of her name on a Spanish announcement spelled in a way she had seen previously only in her native Bethlehem. In her journey she finds “things no one can take away”: “the taste of date on our tongue”, “the poems of the Sufis”, Córdoba’s legacy of tolerance, the Spanish language, orange trees, and her own name and its origins—the colocynth, a bitter medicinal plant used by Arab apothecaries.
Handal’s work, so beautifully protean, has questioned and examined what can be lost: a country, languages, a missed rendezvous between lovers, the music of the earth. The transitory nature of life is common to the human experience—the bitter apple we all taste: so much of what we live and who we love just disappears…
While Handal intended Poet in Andalucía to parallel Lorca’s Poeta in Nueva York, her work also shares common ground with his last collection, El Dívan del Tamarit, whose gacelas and casidas were a vehicle for him to reimagine Andalucía and the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus. Lorca’s poems had the veil of death over them; love and sensuality ripple through Handal’s. Poet in Andalucía recasts southern Spain through Handal’s eyes, exploring impermanence but also possessing a sense of ojalá. Some things can and do endure.
Everything we hear
is the echo of a voice we can’t hear,
everything we see
the reflection of something we can’t see.
The heart like a star
gives light to the color blue,
to the ruins of Córdoba.
And by la Mezquita,
by the walls
I give you alhandal—
to save you—
and you say my name for me.