We appreciate Southern Living for recognizing Faulkner House as one of the South’s best bookstores! We’re in great company. Thanks also to local writer & photographer Ashley Rouen for the photos! Happy reading to all.
We appreciate Southern Living for recognizing Faulkner House as one of the South’s best bookstores! We’re in great company. Thanks also to local writer & photographer Ashley Rouen for the photos! Happy reading to all.
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.
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.
Frank Stanford has long been a kind of enigma in the poetry world: an underground legend, with a cult following, whose work has always been notoriously difficult to find. Though he died in 1978, at only 29 years old, this is the first time that his collected works have been available for purchase. What About This will hopefully usher in an era when Stanford’s work is rightfully regarded as seminal American poetry for generations to come.
Stanford is a writer unlike any other American poet of his time. His work is reminiscent in its scope and dialect of Whitman, but he was also heavily influenced by French and Latin American Surrealism. This collection includes not only all of Stanford’s published work (except for the epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, which is excerpted throughout the collection), but also his many unpublished manuscripts, one of which, titled Automatic Copilot, is composed entirely of poems written after the work of other artists. This manuscript is one of the great gifts of this book, as Stanford shows us the work that was most important to the creation of his own art. His poem “Cave of the Heart,” after Lorca, exemplifies that surreal, almost Romantic influence:
Drenched in the lost blood of the moon, yawning
In the furrows turned after dark, your thick legs long as feathers,
Stout as brooms, the earth you sleep on
Too young to call a grave.
Stanford was constantly in conversation with the work of other poets, while at the same time forging his own unique place in American poetics. He used local diction from his ancestral homes of Mississippi and Arkansas, illuminating a world often unseen by the majority of America. Throughout his collections Stanford writes “Blue Yodel” poems; for example, “Blue Yodel of Her Feet” in the collection You:
Your chest gives ground
Like an island on a river
And as they yodel in the song of songs
Your nipples taut as raisins
Killdeers try to fly from your eyes
I wish I could nail your shoes to the floor
And lose your socks
Stanford combines, in poems like this, the surreal, the local, the beautiful, and the mundane, building it all up to create a narrative of love that seems something out of a dream. The poem is a “yodel,” a mountain song echoing, yet it is about a woman’s feet, literally her lowliest part. Stanford does not differentiate between the high and the low; rather, he sees the poetry in everything, and reveals it to the reader through inventive language and free-flowing form.
In Constant Stranger, perhaps the strongest of his published manuscripts, Stanford writes of love and death as equally strange and familiar, the two most inevitable aspects of life, which haunt his poetics in equal measure. This collection begins with “Death and the Arkansas River,” a long poem in which death is portrayed as a sort of local legend, who is simultaneously powerful and quotidian:
Some say you can keep an eye
Out for Death,
But Death is one for fooling around.
He might turn up working odd jobs
At your favorite diner.
He might be peeling spuds.
These poems are truly, in the words of the New York Times’ Dwight Garner, “death-haunted.” It is impossible to wholly separate the work from the life of the artist, whose death at 29 of three self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the heart, as well as his precocity and style, make him comparable to a sort of American Rimbaud. In the poem “Time Forks Perpetually toward Innumerable Futures in One of Them I Am Your Enemy,” Stanford begins with the line, “I am going to die.” He goes on,
Death is an isthmus, you can get there on foot.
But love had made its island.
There is a fear without age or Christ
That goes through us
Like moonshine in a coil.
Stanford consistently takes those two most ancient poetic themes–love and death, that which is most feared and most desired–and infuses them with the freshness of his language and imagery. These poems are suffused with images of the Ozarks: the moon shining on water, boats, catfish and alligator gar, trucks and small-town bars. To read his figuration regarding the moon, in particular, is an almost transcendent experience. For example, in “Women Singing When Their Husbands Are Gone,” from Ladies From Hell:
Flies wanting a warm place to stay
And the threequarter moon
Quieter than a child slicing a melon
Like dirt smeared over with seeds
And in the titular “What About This,”
Things are dying down, the moon spills its water.
Dewhurst says he smells rain.
In these poems, the moon, like love and death, becomes more than a symbol; it is almost a character in itself. The poet constantly doubles back over and around the same themes and images, creating a kind of dreamscape of Southern mountain surreality. There is something undeniably sublime about the best of Stanford’s work. This is the kind of book to read before bed, so that his images may permeate your dreams.
-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books
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.
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.
The Collected Poems of Ai. W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 35.00. Call us or visit to purchase.
Nominated in 2014 for a Lambda Award, The Collected Poems of Ai is an essential book for just about anyone who takes poetry seriously. Ai, who died of breast cancer in 2010, was a poet who stood alone in the contemporary literary landscape. She wrote primarily in the form of the dramatic monologue, creating fully formed characters and narratives in her work and bringing back to life a form that had been mostly overlooked since the 19th century. Her poetry is complicated, impossible to pin to one aesthetic. Though much of her work deals with race and gender, she has repeatedly refused to label her work as feminist or African American poetry. She is a poet wholly unto herself. After learning that her biological father was violent toward her mother, Ai dropped his last name, and took the name “Ai,” Japanese for “love” and polyphonous with the English pronoun “I,” a name that reminds her readers that she is an individual containing multitudes, who slips effortlessly and empathically into the characters of her poems.
In his introduction to the book, Yousef Komunyaka writes of his first encounter with the poems of Ai, “her poems seemed like scenes from nightmarish movies imprinted on the eyeballs, yet the images were revealed so matter-of-factly, so damn casually.” This is the power of Ai: to horrify her reader without horror in her tone. These are not poems for the faint of heart, but neither are they bereft of beauty. Quite the opposite: Ai’s images are wholly original, almost mythic, and they elevate the violence and sorrow of her work to a place of universal importance. An example of this is the beginning of the poem “Prostitute,” in her first book, Cruelty:
Husband, for a while, after I shoot you,
I don’t touch your body,
I just cool it with my paper fan,
the way I used to on hot nights,
as the moon rises, chip of avocado…
Death, violence, the chilling ethereality of the moon: Ai captures it all in just a few perfect lines. The horror lived and enacted by Ai’s characters is elevated to the status of myth, of sacrifice, of ritual. In her early work, she uses her own experiences of violence and poverty to give aching voice to characters from America’s underbelly: the rural poor, women in violent marriages, midwives carrying out abortions, murderers. But she goes a step further, too, turning these characters from mere humans into demigods of cruelty.
In an interview, Ai once said, surprisingly, that the poems in Cruelty were about love: “The distinction between my ‘sex-and-violence’ poems and others you might read is that in mine the characters love each other. The poems are not hate poems.” In her early work, Ai approached love through a lens of sorrow and violence, refusing to sentimentalize the often-brutal complexities of human emotion. It is jarring to see these as love poems, as love is juxtaposed so violently with images of cruelty. For example, in “The Hitchhiker,” Ai writes from the perspective of a male murderer:
We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,
but somehow I get the blade into her chest.
I think a song: “Everybody needs somebody,
everybody needs somebody to love.
The murder itself is, in a way, an act of love, with the speaker literally claiming the woman’s heart as he thinks of a love song. In The Killing Floor’s “The Kid,” one of Ai’s most famous poems, she inhabits the voice of a child who murders his family. In the midst of the poem, a conventional love lyric is twisted into a line on murder:
Roses are red, violets are blue,
One bullet for the black horse, two for the brown.
The child who kills his family is perhaps one of her most representative characters, embodying the paradox of love and cruelty and the absurd evil that humans, even children, are capable of in Ai’s dark poetic vision.
To echo again Komunyaka’s sentiments, in her best work, Ai presents gruesome occurrences without commenting on them, allowing the reader to be shocked by what is presented in such sparse language. In “The Cockfighter’s Daughter,” from her third book, Sin, death is both horrific and ordinary:
I found my father,
face down, in his homemade chili
and had to hit the bowl
with a hammer to get it off,
then scrape the pinto beans
and chunks of ground beef
off his face with a knife.
The meal is literally fused with death, food rotting into the flesh of a deceased body. The speaker is unphased, breaking the bowl from her father’s face before calling the police. Death is made extraordinary through its extreme ordinariness, its ability, like the poet herself, to turn everyday circumstances horrific.
Throughout her life, Ai was ever evolving as a poet, and this collection is invaluable for its scope of her prolific career. In her fifth book, Greed, Ai focuses on the intersection of American capitalism and violence, and approaches political figures with humor in a departure from her solemn earlier work. In “Hoover Trismegistus,” for example, she writes,
When they called Joe McCarthy’s bluff,
he grabbed his nuts and ran
and the others banned together
to save their asses
any way they could.
There are multiple poems about Hoover in this book, in which Ai shows that she is capable of writing poems that use humor and American vernacular, departing from the mythic quality of her earlier work.
In her final two collections, Dread and No Surrender, Ai mostly abandons her political characters, turning to a more personal poetics. No Surrender, which was released after her sudden death in 2010, was written while Ai was working on a memoir, and is particularly personal. Ai inhabits a woman’s voice more often here than in earlier collections, in particular in poems titled “Motherhood,” “Sisterhood,” and “Widowhood.”
The final poem in No Surrender and in this collection, 2010’s “The Cancer Chronicles,” is particularly striking. It is written in the rare third person, though the “she” refers to Ai herself, who died that year of cancer. It is as if to get to such a personal place in her poetry, Ai needed to take the rare step of distancing herself from the speaker. The poem chronicles Ai’s relationship with cancer, from the first discovery of the lump to death. She speaks of the tumor as “a relative who’d fallen on hard times,” and says of it,
I’ll feed, clothe and house you,
But I will not allow you to destroy me.
Ai watches her own death with fear and fascination: “She never knew what to expect of her furtive trysts with death.” Death in this poem, like everything in Ai’s poetry, is deceptively complicated, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. The poem and the book end with the poet’s death, a fitting and tragic conclusion for a posthumous collection.
We are lucky to have the unique poetics of Ai collected for the first time. The poet Vijay Seshadri writes in the New York Times of Ai, “Here is an imagination that has consistently fought its way into the most terrible places of human experience.” And yet she does not exploit those places, but rather forces her reader to face the horrors that humans visit upon one another. Ai is an uncompromising poet, a prophet of both love and violence.
In 2010’s Thrall, the follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey interweaves family and history in a stunning and moving way. The former US Poet Laureate, who was born to a white father and a black mother, takes on the racism that is inextricable from art and history, and explores the complicated relationship between herself and her late father.
Many of these poems are about colonialist Spanish art, addressing the pain that is rendered by a tradition meant to be aesthetically affecting. This is one of the hardest things for many a contemporary artist to get over: the pain that comes from art of the past, so often made to express hatred and intolerance. In the series “Taxonomy,” Trethewey writes ekphrastic poems based on a series of paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez, an 18th century Spanish painter. In these paintings, known as casta paintings, Juarez depicts children born to “the various mixed unions of colonial Mexico.” The title of the poem series is telling: these paintings depict real children as no more than objects of taxonomical study, their humanity erased. In poem 2 of the series, “De Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato,” Trethewey describes the child depicted:
If there is light inside him, it does not shine
through the paint that holds his face
in profile–his domed forehead, eyes
nearly closed beneath a heavy brow.
The poet here attempts to restore the humanity that the child has been robbed of by the painter, who has depicted him as no more than an object of aesthetic study, quelling the “light inside him.” In her notes, Trethewey also tells us that these paintings were meant to depict the so-called “‘taint’ of black blood,” the colonial belief, which was often written into law, that a person’s status decreased the more non-white blood they possessed. The poem ends with the line, “a last brush stroke fixed him in place,” lamenting the child’s static immortality in the painting, where he is unable to break out of his own taxonomic labeling.
In the title poem, “Thrall,” Trethewey writes in the voice of Juan de Pareja, who was the slave of the painter Diego Velazquez. Pareja himself was also a painter, known especially for his painting The Calling of St. Matthew. An excerpt reads,
Because he said
painting was not
the province of free men
I could only
watch such beauty
in the work of his hands
a divine language I learned
over his shoulder…
This poem crystallizes one of the most salient questions asked by Trethewey: how do we reconcile our cultural heroes with their virulent racism? Can we? How can such people be responsible for “such beauty?” Pareja admires his master’s work, and ultimately learns his craft from Velazquez, but nothing can erase the horror of his own slavery. At the end of the day, sometimes, the human cost of art is too great. Trethewey works to redeem the memories of those who were the victims and voiceless subjects of colonialist art.
This is also a deeply personal book, about the relationship between a white father and his biracial daughter. In “Enlightenment,” about the painting of Jefferson at Monticello, Trethewey captures precisely the place where the political seeps into the personal:
The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:
how Jefferson hated slavery, though–out
of necessity, my father said–had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant
he could not have fathered those children:
would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between
word and deed.
The tragedy of America is that even the bonds of family can be interrupted by the country’s racial history, that a white father can justify a cultural hero’s ownership of slaves to his nonwhite daughter. Much of this book is an exploration of Trethewey’s relationship with her father, her attempt to reconcile his memory with the complexities of their relationship. In the poem “Elegy,” Trethewey recalls fishing with her father, who was also a poet:
…I can tell you now
that I tried to take it all in
for an elegy I’d write–one day–
when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter
if I tell you I learned to be?
In Thrall, Natasha Trethewey is ruthless, but her intensity is understated. In clear, flowing verse, she takes on colonialism, American racism, and the complexities of her relationship with her father. This is a book about America, about a world in which no relationship is safe from the terrible weight of history.
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
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:
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.
This Valentine’s Day, one of America’s greatest poets passed away. Rest in peace, Philip Levine. You will be missed.
The Way Down
On the way down
blue lupine at the roadside,
red bud scattered
down the mountain, tiny
white jump-ups hiding
under foot, the first push
of wild oats like froth
at the field’s edge. The wind blows
through everything, the crowned
peaks above us, the soft floor
of the valley below,
the humps of rock
walking down the world.
On the way down
from the trackless snow fields
where a blackbird
eyed me from
a solitary pine, knowing
I would go back the way
I came, shaking my head,
and the blue glitter of ice
was like the darkness
of winter nights, deepening
before it would change,
and the only voice
my own saying
Can you hear?
the air now says. I hold
my breath and listen
and a finger of dirt thaws,
a river drains
from a snow drop
and rages down
my cheeks, our father
the wind hums
a prayer through my mouth
and answers in the oat,
and now the tight rows of seed
bow to the earth
and hold on and hold on.
-Philip Levine, 1971
Andy Young. All Night It Is Morning. Diálogos Books, 2014. Call (504) 524-2940 or visit us to purchase a copy!
Faulkner House Books wishes you all a happy and healthy 2015. We are beginning the New Year with a review of local poet Andy Young’s new collection from Diálogos Books, All Night It Is Morning. If you haven’t yet committed to a new year’s resolution, reading more local writers and supporting your local literary community is a great way to kick off 2015. And Young’s book is a fantastic place to start.
All Night It Is Morning is a book rich with beauty and disaster. Young, who was born in West Virginia, has spent most of her adult life in New Orleans, and lived for two years in Cairo after marrying into an Egyptian family, weaves together narratives of Katrina, the Egyptian revolution, the BP oil spill, and mining disasters in a way that feels surprisingly seamless. The poems are organized not by topic or time period, but organically, so that poems from different places and times are juxtaposed throughout the book. The reader is immersed in what becomes a single narrative of the human experience. Young’s language is precise and careful, creating a kind of restrained lushness of landscape, in which no word is superfluous.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is a three-part poem titled Cleopatra. In it, Young details Cleopatra’s pregnancy, creating a stunning narrative of a woman whose womb holds, literally, the future of Egypt. It is an apt conceit for a modern Egypt transformed by a revolutionary younger generation. Young writes, in the voice of Cleopatra,
His empire is my body now.
Sovereign, he proclaims
me ill or well.
I bow to the triumvirate
of his metu,
to the advancing armies
of his blood.
And yet, as the reader knows, Ptolemy Philadephus will not fulfill this destiny. Cleopatra and Marc Antony will commit suicide and Octavian will conquer the empire, torturing the orphaned royal children by forcing them to walk through the streets in heavy chains. Even children are not spared the horrors of war. In As You Sleep, the Dead Multiply, Young juxtaposes the casualties of war with the innocence of a new baby:
Your infant face is still
like glass as the children
of Qana are wiped of their dust.
Young does not shy away from the brutality of revolution, but neither does she deny that it is essential. In Warning, she lists the inconveniences of revolution:
the revolution is not
good for personal hygiene
not good for sleep not good
for business the revolution is not
good for bill paying…
And so on. The poem ends, “Though poetry is fine,” reminding the reader that poetry is more than a quotidian pleasure; it is essential, and becomes even more essential in times of upheaval.
Her poems about Katrina illustrate this truth as well, that poetry is sometimes the only coherent way to respond to tragedy. Her poem Lower Nine is a dirge for the Lower Ninth Ward, for the lives and homes lost in the flooding. She writes,
the moon a smudge above the wreckage
here is the peace of the grave
oh lady of ruins, your head crushed to dust
where are the ones you have no eyes to see
where did they go, dragging their bags
across the bridge to find ground
where do they rest if they rest if they rest
and where would they be if they returned
the canal and its ships drift on, drift on
the canal and its ships drift on
Young looks to tragedy with a panoramic vision, seeing both the egrets, “white as bone,” and the “store lifted onto a truck.” The commerce of the canal goes on even in the face of horror, of death, of loss, but poetry immortalizes that which has been washed away.
In this book, Young gives beautiful insight into what it means to love and be a part of places that are beset by environmental and human tragedy. And for her, inevitably, tragedy is bound up with a kind of triumph: the poet’s voice rises from the ashes, the community rebuilds, the lives of the dead are celebrated, the people fight for freedom, the landscape, once broken, heals. But our responsibility to work for a better world always remains. The stakes are unavoidably high: as she writes in Deepwater Horizon, the second of her Oil Sonnets series,
The earth will not die, though it
might shrug off a continent,
convert and re-form us: fossil and dross.
In this beautiful collection, Young reminds us that we do not deserve the world if we are not willing to fight for it.
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:
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,
to all the unsaid
all the lost living untranslated
in any sense,
and the dead
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
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.