Louisiana Live Oak Trees

Two remarkable poems celebrate Louisiana’s moss-laden live oak trees. The first, “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing,” Walt Whitman wrote. He and his younger brother, Jeff, came to New Orleans in February 1848 to work for a newspaper, the New Orleans Crescent, as a journalist and Jeff as a copy boy. They left before the end of the year because of their opposition to slavery.

The other poem, “Bearded Oaks,” Robert Penn Warren composed a century later. He too lived in Louisiana and taught for many years at Louisiana State University. Warren is the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry–Promises, in 1957–and for his classic novel–All The King’s Men, in 1946.

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books

 

I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
By Walt Whitman

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from
       the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering
       joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me
       think of myself,
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves
       standing alone there without its friend near,
       for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of
       leaves upon it, and twined around it a little
       moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight
       in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear
       friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of
       them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me
       think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens
       there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat
       space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend
       a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

 

Bearded Oaks
By Robert Penn Warren
The oaks, how subtle and marine!
Bearded, and all the layered light
Above them swims; and thus the scene,
Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous tread of light;
The grassed, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,
Unmurmuring, of polyp made,
We rest; we are, as light withdraws,
Twin atolls on a shelf of shade.

Ages to our construction went,
Dim architecture, hour by hour;
And violence, forgot now, lent
The present stillness all its power.

The storm of noon above us rolled,
Of light the fury, furious gold,
The long drag troubling us, the depth:
Unrocked is dark, unrippling, still.

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay
Descended, whispered grain by grain,
Silted down swaying streams, to lay
Foundation for our voicelessness.

All our debate is voiceless here,
As all our rage is rage of stone;
If hopeless hope, fearless is fear,
And history is thus undone.

(Our feet once wrought the hollow street
With echo when the lamps were dead
All windows; once our headlight glare
Disturbed the doe that, leaping fled.)

The caged hearts make iron stroke,
I do not love you now the less,
Or less that all that light once gave
The graduate dark should now revoke

So little time we live in Time,
And we learn all so painfully,
That we may spare this hour’s term
To practice for Eternity.

Hannah Sanghee-Park’s The Same-Different

thesamedifferent

The Same-Different. Hannah Sanghee Park. LSU Press, 2015. 16.00.

The first full length collection by poet Hannah Sanghee-Park, winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, is a book that forces the reader toward truth through language. Park pushes at linguistic boundaries in order to wring fresh meaning out of her words. In the first section, “The Same-Different,” the poems are built almost entirely on wordplay. For example, “And A Lie” begins,

I’ll take the untrue,

the tried and true, the ruing

and the ruining. And you?

Here we see Park’s ability to find truth in language based not only on meaning, but on sound, that most basic quality of speaking and writing. These are definitely poems to read aloud, to fully appreciate the use Park has made of rhyme, alliteration, and pun. These poems are almost Medieval in their dependence on aurality, but Park also manages to make the alliteration and rhyme distinctly modern.

These are poems about language and truth, but they are also poems about love and loss. The reliance on form belies a collection of work that is deeply sad, mourning the loss of a lover. In section II, “A Mutability,” the poems become more outright in their emotional content. In “The Deer Woman in December,” Park writes,

Your touch was all it took. Nothing to do

but now move on. No use aching over

something there that never did begin.

This second section, made up on sonnets based on myth, is my favorite in the book. This is the kind of thing poetry is for: timeless forms and themes made new, much like suffering is made new each time it is experienced. Park makes fairy tale of loss in poems like “The Fox-Bead in May,” which ends,

And every day they kissed to swap the bead

and for a month he waned and wans,

and when he learned the truth about her tongue,

he downed the bead: her true form a nine-tailed

fox who could have turned human, had he kissed on.

The final section of the book, “Fear,” is made up of one long poem titled “Preface to Fear/False Spring.” This is the most confessional section in the book. The wordplay is still prevalent, but here the speaker’s pain is not clouded by it, but rather brought into sharper relief. Park writes,

I amuse you for only so long.

So long–

To fear the past’s grasp on the future.

Everything must and will come to its end.

This is a book that is both linguistically stunning and emotionally wrenching. Park brings out the best in what poetry has to offer, delving into the mysterious truths of language while also reminding us of the painful truths of being human.

Maxine Kumin: And Short the Season

faulkner house books-maxine kuminMaxine Kumin. And Short the Season. WW Norton & Co, 2014. 24.95. Call or visit us to purchase.

Maxine Kumin’s death, a year ago this month, was a loss felt deeply by the poetry community. Her final book, And Short the Season, was published the year she died, and is a beautiful meditation on the close of a life.

In this final collection, Kumin explores nature, death, loss, and what it means to live as a poet. Her stunning formal abilities are on full display as well: the music of her meter and rhyme is subtle, yet almost perfect throughout. Kumin maintains her sensibilities as a New England poet, painting the outdoors with the eye of a naturalist. The first poem in the collection is one of my favorites, beginning

And short the season, first rubythroat

    in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,

    a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart

    on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm

    him underground.

Kumin’s choice of natural detail is powerful: she suggests creeping mortality even before we come to the gelding’s grave, using the rubythroat and the bleeding heart to call to mind the violence inherent even beneath the serenity of nature. The season is short, the lilacs dying already, the life of the horse long since ended. This is Kumin’s gift throughout the collection: the quiet, yet steady, focus on the ephemerality of our own world. We see it especially in the final section of the book, in poems like “Going Down” and “Just Deserts.” Here it is the violence not of nature alone, but which humans have inflicted on the natural world, that haunts her:

    Despite outcries of purest angst

    dikes won’t save the playing field

    so blow a kiss to this drowned world.

    The gods have spoken: yield.

These final poems are some of the starkest in the collection. Here is a poet who visualizes herself not only on the brink of her own death, but on the brink of the collapse of the earth as she knows it through climate change. Kumin puts into words the sneaking fear felt by all who have seen our fragile worlds come crashing down in wind or flood.

Woven into the natural world of the book is also, of course, a very human element. Kumin reminds us of her rightful place in the canon, writing about poets from Sexton to Ginsberg to Williams. I especially love the series “Sonnets Uncorseted,” in which she writes about what it was like to be a woman poet of her generation. She nods to forebears from Margaret Cavendish to Virginia Woolf to Emily Dickinson, and writes fondly of her friendship with Anne Sexton. Describing the male poets of her generation, Kumin says

…if a poem

    of ours seemed worthy they said, you write like a man.

When asked what woman poet they read, with one

    voice they declaimed, Emily Dickinson.

    Saintly Emily safely dead, modern

    women poets dismissed as immature,

    their poems pink with the glisten of female organs.

Much has changed since then: Kumin revels in the ambitious female writers of today, the MFA programs and small presses that give an alternative outlet to poets whose voices veer from the traditional. For woman poets today, Kumin’s blessing is something to hold onto.

And of course, And Short the Season is Kumin’s last book. Thus it is tinged with the sorrow of the dying, with the profound loss felt by the reader upon coming to the last page. There will be no more, the poet seems to say. Her short final poem is a sort of goodbye:

Allow Me

    Sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends

    –John Milton’s way–

    But who gets to choose this ordered end

    Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?

    –Allow me that day.

Kumin bids her reader adieu; she is off to join the ranks of the other historically great poets: Milton, Dickinson, her friend Anne Sexton. We are lucky to have had this last book. It is a masterfully realized goodbye from one of our most important poets.

Denise Levertov’s Uncompromising Moral Vision

denise levertov

Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov.  New Directions, 2013. $49.95. Call (504)-524-2940 to order or visit us in Pirate’s Alley!

Though she died in 1997, it wasn’t until last year that we were finally graced with Denise Levertov’s complete collected works. This is a beautiful volume, stunning even before it is opened to reveal the life’s work of one of 20th century America’s most important poets. The poems’ chronological arrangement allows us to observe the evolution of Levertov’s poetic voice over a period of more than 60 years.

If you are unfamiliar with Levertov’s less known works, this is the perfect opportunity to delve into her canon. She is a poet whose entire oeuvre demands reading and rereading. Poetry was her highest truth, as she writes in the poem A Cloak, from Relearning the Alphabet:

             breathing in

            my life

            breathing out

            poems.

Levertov’s poetry is characterized by her precision: reality sparkles under her guidance, coming into sharp focus to reveal beauty that we might otherwise have overlooked. Her early collections (The Double Image, Here and Now, Overland to the Islands) are pure lyric, concerned deeply with the perennial subjects of love and death, marriage and war. An early poem, 1940’s Listening to Distant Guns, foreshadows some of her major poetic concerns:

            That low pulsation in the east is war:

            No bell now breaks the evening’s silent dream.

            The bloodless clarity of evening’s sky

            Betrays no whisper of the battle scream.

Levertov approaches her topics with a realist’s eye for the background noise. She brings the war into focus here, for example, by dwelling on the places where war seems nonexistent, the negative spaces of the horror, and she brings into chilling relief the powerlessness of human suffering to touch every part of the world.

In Here and Now, Levertov brings her uncompromising vision to New Orleans’ own Jackson Square (home of Faulkner House Books!) She writes,

            Bravo! the brave sunshine.

            A triangle of green green contains

            the sleek and various pigeons

            the starving inventors and all

            who sit on benches in the morning,

            to sun tenacious hopes…

She focuses on the smaller details of the place: not the looming cathedral, but the hopes of the “starving” people who try to make a living in the square. And yet the sun is still bright, the pigeons still varied; though sorrow is an inextricable part of her poetic world, it does not color all it touches. And isn’t this the most unsettling thing of all, to know that though we suffer, the sun shines on?

In With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, we see a poetic shift in which Levertov becomes more concerned with the role of the poet in her society. The book begins with a translation of a Toltec codice entitled The Artist, in which the true creator is praised. And in the poem The Charge, she writes,

Returning

 

                        to all the unsaid

            all the lost living untranslated

            in any sense,

            and the dead

           unrecognized, celebrated

           only in dreams that die by morning

 

           is a mourning or ghostwalking only.

                    You must make, said music…

For Levertov, it becomes increasingly important that her poetic and political lives overlap and fuse. Art is a way for her to respond productively to the political upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.

In 1971’s To Stay Alive, Levertov writes wrenchingly of the death of her sister and the war in Vietnam. These poems are darker than her early work, and rightly so. Her “political” poems demonstrate perhaps most clearly her humanity as well as her poetic abilities. In Life at War, she writes,

          We are the humans, men who can make;

          whose language imagines mercy,

lovingkindness we have believed one another

          mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

         who do these acts, who convince ourselves

         it is necessary; these acts are done

        to our own flesh; burned human flesh

        is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

She resists always the dehumanization of war, forcing her reader to recognize that though the sun still shines, we cannot escape the legacy of the suffering we enact upon one another. Humans are great artists; we are also murderers, and this is the cold truth of which she reminds us.

Her later work shifts again, to what Eavan Boland calls in her introduction to the collection “a fully realized moral vision.” Many of her poems from the 80’s onward, informed by her late conversion to Christianity, survey the beauty of their world and seek its goodness. These lines from the poem Salvation, from Sands of the Well, strike me as particularly transcendent:

             this unhoped-for pardon will once more permit

                                                the stream to offer itself at last

            to the lake, the lake will accept it, take it

                                                into itself,

            the stream restored will become pure lake.

Levertov’s Collected Poems is a treasure chest waiting to be searched. Her poetic vision is always clear, striking, incisive. Whether she is writing about nature or war, marriage or death, she never wavers from her commitment to artistic excellence. She brings to mind the idea of the poet as prophet, as she was surely a voice of her time.

 

Louise Glück’s Collected Poems

louise gluck

Louise Glück, Poems 1962-2012. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013. $40.00. Call (504) 524-2940 to order or visit us!

If you have encountered Louise Glück’s work only through the odd anthology, or if you haven’t yet had the chance to discover her, this beautiful volume is the perfect way to delve deep into the canon of one of America’s most important contemporary poets. Robert Boyers writes in The Nation that Glück “has found ways to engage with the world as it is without capitulating to its felt demand that she renounce any alternative sense of what is real.” Glück does not create her own mythology, but rather infuses the stark reality of her lived experience with myth, paradoxically increasing the precision of the realism in these poems. In 1996’s Meadowlands, for example, Glück uses the story of the Odyssey as observed by Penelope and Telemachus to create heightened resonance in poems about her own unraveling marriage. In Penelope’s Song, she writes,

             He will be home soon;

            it behooves you to be

            generous. You have not been completely

            perfect either; with your troublesome body

            you have done things you shouldn’t

            discuss in poems.

 

Glück inhabits the anger of Penelope, who has been raped in the absence of Odysseus. She calls upon herself to “be generous,” though tragedy and unfaithfulness have driven a wedge between herself and her beloved.

For her there is no shortcut to the truth; truth itself is tangled, unclear, complicated. In “Moonless Night,” Glück writes, “Such a mistake to want / clarity above all things.” Truth is in the bleakness of Vita Nova’s Aubade, the “room with a chair, a window. / A small window, filled with the pattern the light makes.” Yet truth also reveals itself, in a later Aubade from The Seven Ages, through the “Smell of the mock orange tree / Corridors of jasmine and lilies.” Glück confronts the complexity of beauty and sorrow through a careful assortment of objects. The flowers in her poetry, like the chairs, are unadorned.

You may know her most famous poem, The Garden, from 1980’s Descending Figure, which includes the lines:

 

             The garden admires you.

            For your sake it smears itself with green pigment,

            the ecstatic reds of the roses,

            so that you will come to it with your lovers.

 

Here, as elsewhere, Glück subverts the traditionally “feminine” style of ornamentation. She is anti-Romantic: in the process of ornamentation, her garden “smears” itself. In Glück’s work, nature is no pastoral comfort. It is a set of objects, and like the chair, or the window, it is tinged with the darkness that inhabits all aspects of the human condition. As she writes in Sunrise, from 2009’s A Village Life, “maybe that’s what nothing tastes like, thyme and rosemary.” The natural world is equated with the void that seems always at the edge of these poems. Beauty is not enough for Glück. In her poetry, she seeks something deeper, something harsher. And in this collection, spanning 50 years of her career, we watch as she deftly paints a world of darkness, a world of beauty.