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Archive for May, 2014

I recently reread Robert Bolaño’s novel “The Savage Detectives.”

I first read it in 2008. I had just moved to Oregon after completing my MFA, two years in NYC that were a combination of awe and awful. To be a young poet anywhere is to be confused and enchanted – and able to use words like “confused” and “enchanted” in regards to oneself without the slightest blush (blogging allows me to hide any possible blushing).

I was elated to find in Bolaño’s world a gang of poets that were as breathlessly falling apart as I felt. Six years later, and the book hasn’t lost its charm. Bolaño’s writing is overwhelming: he goes from inundating you with insider literary namedropping with the air of gossip and conspiracy to creating astounding metaphors that drive home the depths of human despair.

Or something like that.

The aligned below is a secondhand account about the reading habits of Ulises, one of the main characters of the novel whose adventures throughout the book prove him worthy of his namesake.

* some books may have been damaged during the making of this novel *

* some books may have been damaged during the making of this novel *

Making the Ink Run

aligned from Roberto Bolaño’s novel “The Savage Detectives”

He was a strange person. He wrote in the margins
of books. I’m glad I never lent him any
of mine. Why? Because I don’t like people
to write in my books. You won’t believe this but he
used to shower with a book. I swear.
He read in the shower. How do I know? Easy.
Almost all his books were wet. At first I thought
it was the rain. Ulises was a big walker.
He hardly ever took the metro. He walked
back and forth across Paris and when it rained
he got soaked because he never stopped to wait
for it to clear up. So his books, at least
the ones he read most often, were always a little
warped, sort of stiff, and I thought it was
from the rain. But one day I noticed that he went
into the bathroom with a dry book and when
he came out the book was wet. That day my curiosity
got the better of me. I went up to him
and pulled the book away from him. Not only
was the cover wet, some of the pages were too,
and so were the notes in the margins, some maybe
even written under the spray, the water
making the ink run, and then I said,
for God’s sake, I can’t believe it, you read
in the shower! have you gone crazy? and he said he
couldn’t help it but at least he only read
poetry (and I didn’t understand
why he said he only read poetry,
not at the time, but now I do: he meant
that he only read two or three pages, not
a whole book), and then I started to laugh,
I threw myself on the sofa, writhing in laughter,
and he started to laugh too, both of us laughed
for I don’t know how long.

****

Happy laughing!

Jose

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The more time you spend around words, the more they keep moving around.

When I first read this week’s poem, “Epilogue” by Robert Lowell, I focused on the line: Yet why not say what happened? This line gave me permission and nerve at a time when I needed it.

Reading the poem again years later, a shorter sentence strikes me: All’s misalliance. I’m moved by the way the word “all” is in there twice, once mostly solitary, and then immediately crowded in, the letters playing out the concept of the line.

As I’m sure is clear by now, I’m awfully in my head this week.

I come back to this poem every time I do a long stretch of revisions, a stretch that usually involves some sort of paradigm shift, a change in outlook in my approach to the line.

There’s so much in here that is good. The poem throughout has the feel of advice given between conspirators. The conspiracy is the finding out and articulating of “living names.” Which is why we revise, to say it better.

You must revise your life, Rilke says in a poem, at least in one translation. In another translation, the same line reads: You must change your life. See what I mean? Words keep moving, and you must keep moving words.

I’ll try and be a little more grounded next week 🙂

* Vermeer's veneer *

* Vermeer’s veneer *

Epilogue – Robert Lowell

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

***

Happy moving!

Jose

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I remember reading that the semicolon is the most poetic of punctuation marks because of the way it holds two or more disparate things together, things that, under scrutiny, would not be thought of as usually being connected.

Which is what poems do: just replace “it” in the sentence above with “a poem” and finish the sentence: you’ll have a pretty succinct definition of the art.

This week’s poem “Selfish,” by friend and fellow poet Kenneth P. Gurney, charmed me in its ability to bring together so many disparate things – cookies (yum), tea (yum), Civil War figures (hmm), a clock (yum?), etc. – all within the context of a casual moment in a relationship.

What seals the charm for me is how the narrative leads us through various moments of knowing and not knowing, and ends with the speaker at a loss themselves for what the person they’re with finds “so funny.” We are left to wonder alongside the poet, which is how some of my favorite poems end.

* yum *

* yum *

Selfish – Kenneth P. Gurney

We bought Italian wedding cookies,
even though no one we knew
was getting married,
and some fragrant tea
the shop owner admitted he didn’t know
because the container
arrived without a label
and he couldn’t place the flavor.
You, out of politeness I think, asked,
Who was Patrick Cleburne?
And I told stories of the Irishman who served
in the Forty-First Regiment of Foot in the British army,
who emigrated to the United States
to settle in Helena, Arkansas,
then became one of the Confederacy’s
best fighting generals.
And the whole time I spoke,
I watched your eyes shift focus
from my lips, to my eyes,
to the divots on my right ear,
to the napkin that removed
white wedding cookie powder
from your fingers, to the tea,
to a hangnail on your right ring finger,
to the shop owner’s bird clock
that sounded sand hill cranes at eleven.
Before I got to Cleburne’s demise at Franklin
you laughed about something
that resided only in your head
and would not share what was so funny.

 

***

Happy not sharing!

Jose

* published in Decanto

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I had so much fun with last week’s lyrical alignment (quiet, proper, inner fun, of course) that I’ve gone ahead and cooked up a new one!

This week, I’m taking a passage from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, a thriller about a wife gone missing. The excerpt below is from the perspective of the husband as he meditates on the rocky stage he was at spiritually before the disappearance. Of course, he is the prime suspect.

My saying of course above is exactly the kind of sense of expectation the excerpt below riffs on. Given that it is a thriller, I knew I could expect one of a number of plots. There were expectations.

So much of writing is playing in and out of (and through) expectations. Writing is an art whose medium, words, belongs to everyone. Each word carries an expectation, that plays off the next, and so on. What makes a piece of writing more than the words on the page is how well the writer draws the world – your world as well as the world around you – into orbit with what’s happening at the level of language.

What drew me about the novel is how great a sense Flynn has about relationships. I read quickly, at turns rooting for the couple, at times worried.

In an effort to avoid any spoilers, I’ll stop there. Flynn does a solid job.

* you ain't seen nothing already *

* you ain’t seen nothing already *

The Same Dog-eared Script

aligned from Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl”

For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining,
restless child’s boredom (although I was
not above that) but a dense, blanketing
malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing
new to be discovered ever again.
Our society was utterly, ruinously
derivative (although the word “derivative”
as a criticism is itself derivative).
We were the first human beings who
would never see anything for the first time.
We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed,
underwhelmed. “Mona Lisa,” the Pyramids,
the Empire State Building. Jungle animals
on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing,
volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single
amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I
didn’t immediately reference to a movie
or a TV show. A fucking commercial. You know
the awful singsong of the blase’: “Seeeen it.”
I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing
that makes me want to blow my brains out, is:
the secondhand experience is always better.
The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera
angle and the soundtrack manipulate
my emotions in a way reality can’t
anymore. I don’t know that we are
actually human at this point, those of us
who are like most of us, who grew up with
TV and movies and now the Internet.
If we are betrayed, we know the words to say;
when a loved one dies, we know the words to say.
If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass
or the fool, we know the words to say.
We are all working from the same dog-eared script.

***

Happy scripting!

Jose

p.s. Please check out the latest (and first!) issue of The Merrimack Review, including my poems “Icarus” & “La Esquina,” here.

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This past week, I found myself reading the essay “Verbiage for Poems” by Jorge Luis Borges (found in On Writing, Penguin Classics), and coming across a marvelous paragraph – emphasis on the ‘marvel,’ something of strange weather patterns moving across the sky in the middle of an ordinary afternoon about this paragraph.

In my enthusiasm, I found myself reading the words aloud to myself as I would a poem, which naturally led to my writing them out in my notebook. I pushed my fascination further by rewriting the prose into lines (loose iambics).

I present the fruits of my efforts below, calling it a lyrical alignment, something of what chiropractors do to backs – but hopefully less painful 🙂

There is a tradition of this kind of thing, a branch of ‘found’ poetry (Jose Garcia Villa immediately comes to mind as an early ‘aligner’). I enjoy reworking prose in this manner both for the way it keeps my ear sharp as well as for how it allows me to sink into the diction and phrasing of a writer.

I hope to share more of these as they come up in my reading and note-taking. For now, enjoy how Borges redefines the way you look at nouns.

* a rainbowhurricanehailstorm of a writer *

* a rainbowhurricanehailstorm of a writer *

“The world of appearances…” – Jorge Luis Borges

The world of appearances is a jumble
of shifting perceptions. The vision of a rustic
sky, that persistent aroma sweeping the fields,
the bitter taste of tobacco burning one’s
throat, the long wind lashing the road,
the submissive rectitude of the cane
around which we wrap our fingers, all fit together
in our consciousness, almost all at once.
Language is an efficient ordering of the world’s
enigmatic abundance. Or, in other words,
we invent nouns to fit reality.
We touch a sphere, see a small heap
of dawn-colored light, our mouths enjoy
a tingling sensation, and we lie to ourselves
that those three disparate things are only
one thing called an orange. The moon itself
is a fiction. Outside of astronomical
conventions, which should not concern us here,
there is no similarity whatsoever
between the yellow sphere now rising clearly
over the wall of the Recoleta cemetery
and the pink slice I saw in the sky above
the Plaza de Mayo many nights ago.
All nouns are abbreviations. Instead of saying
cold, sharp, burning, unbreakable,
shining, pointy, we utter “dagger”; for
the receding of the sun and oncoming darkness,
we say “twilight.”

***

Happy twilighting!

Jose

p.s. Please check out my poem “De Soto National Memorial Park” in the latest issue of the Rappahannock Review here.

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