rad Wallace Stevens

This week’s poem – “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm” by Wallace Stevens – takes me back to a conversation I had with a co-worker when I worked at a bookstore years ago. I had been arranging the poetry section for National Poetry Month and positioning a Wallace Stevens book to face out from a eye-level shelf. My co-worker happened to pass by and say: Stevens! Cool! I know one poem by him. “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm.” It’s rad!

I hadn’t read the poem but I was intrigued, as Stevens is often not the easiest person to follow line by line. Not that I didn’t think my co-worker incapable of following a Stevens poem, but rather that a conversation about Stevens, for me, usually brings in difficulty, his use of ambiguity and lyrical obfuscation, and the way you have to work at following what he has to say. At least that’s been my experience. I usually tell folks that I’ve picked up and put down Stevens’ Collected Poems three times in my life, each time getting a little farther into it, before moving on, not defeated just knotted with questions. And yet, getting through more and more poems of his continues to be a rich experience.

bookstore_eugene_oregonWhen I finally read the poem below, it was a double surprise. Not only is it a poem that feels like looking through a beam of light – the clarity of the language and meta-thought is such that I immediately doubted my ability to follow what was being said – but the subject of the poem at the end, the way it honors the reading act, makes it an apt poem to be shared between bookstore employees. I mean, our living was made around reading.

I suppose this post is less about the poem but more about reading acts and reading experiences shared. As this blog began as an effort to share my own reading experiences, it’s nice to come back to those roots as dwell a bit on how they’ve been inspiring me throughout my life. Whether you find the poem below “rad” or not, see what you catch of it. See what you “become” and what becomes of you in the process.

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm – Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

from Collected Poems (Vintage)

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* elsewhere with amy gerstler

 

I don’t remember when exactly I learned the word “engrossed” but it quickly became associated with the act of reading. When I worked at bookstores, engrossed is what people became when they found themselves not just leafing through but reading a book. All small talk and random gazing ceased; all thoughts of good posture thrown out the window. I know I myself have sat/stood/squatted/knelt in all sorts of manners, all because a page has taken all my attention. This is when literature becomes virtual reality, when it takes you as a reader to other places. It’s not escapism, more an activity of elsewhere.

bookstore_eugene_oregonThis elsewhere territory is exactly the terrain explored in this week’s poem “Dear Reader,” by Amy Gerstler. Through a series of questions, Gerstler undergoes a meditation on the space one enters when reading. The choice to form the narrative around questions compliments the imaginative work involved in reading. The questions also take the attention off the speaker, while simultaneously and indirectly giving us much of the speaker’s character. When the speaker does finally ground the narrative in themselves, it comes as a pleasant glimpse into another life.

*

Dear Reader, – Amy Gerstler

Through what precinct of life’s forest are you hiking at this moment?
Are you kicking up leaf litter or stabbed by brambles?
Of what stuff are you made? Gossamer or chain mail?
Are you, as reputed, marvelously empty? Or invisibly ever-present,
even as this missive is typed? Have you been to Easter Island? Yes?
Then I’m jealous. Do you use a tongue depressor as bookmark?
Are you reading this at an indecent hour by flashlight?
plenty of scholarly ink has been spilt praising readers like yourself,
who risk radical dismantling, or being unmasked, by rappelling
deep into sentences. Your trigger warnings could be triggered every
second, yet you forge on, mystic syllables detonating in your head,
the metal-edged smell of monsoon-downpour on hot asphalt
raising steam in your imagination. You hold out for the phrase
with which the soul resonates, am I right? Reading, you’re seized
by tingly feelings, a rustling in the brain, winds that tickle your scalp,
bubbles erupting from a blow hole at the back of your neck.
You forget the breathy woman talking softly on TV across the lobby
(via TiVo you’ve saved her for later.) Birds outside are cracking jokes
and cackling. Reader, smile to yourself, rock the cradle, kiss
everyone you wish to kiss, and please keep reading. It beats
fielding threatening phone calls for $15 an hour which is what
yours truly is meant to be doing right now, instead of speculating
on the strange and happy manifestations of, you, dear reader, you.

*

Happy reading!

José

p.s. For further “engrossment” here’s my poem “Engrossed” published at Qu Literary Magazine.

* containing with edward hirsch & some news

I remember reading this week’s poem – “Special Orders” by Edward Hirsch – in a Borders back in 2008 when his book (of the same name) came out. Reading through the book, I marveled at Hirsch’s ability to navigate rich emotional territory through an engaging line. His ability to stack various worlds (work, memory, the heart) so that they live side by side left an impression on me that didn’t fully manifest itself until years later when I found myself working on the poems of my first chapbook, The Wall.

What moves me most revisiting the poem now is how this short lyric is able to charge its core word, “contain,” so that it holds so much when it comes up at the end.

* boxing *
* boxing *

Special Orders – Edward Hirsch

Give me back my father walking the halls

of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company

with sawdust clinging to his shoes.

Give me back his tape measure and his keys,

his drafting pencil and his order forms;

give me his daydreams on lined paper.

I don’t understand this uncontainable grief.

Whatever you had that never fit,

whatever else you needed, believe me,

my father, who wanted your business,

would squat down at your side

and sketch you a container for it.

***

Some news: I have just started as Assistant Editor at The Cincinnati Review and, as part of my duties, am beginning a column of sorts entitled “What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?” on the CR blog. Check out my first entry here.

Happy sketching!

José

* key connections with James Merrill

* memory lane *
* memory lane *

The above is a photo taken at my former place of work, Smith Family Bookstore in Eugene, Oregon.

I found myself a little home(stacks)sick this past week as I took a stroll at a nearby bookstore. For me, there’s no real comparing bookstores with each other because, given enough time, things happen at one store that you carry with you no matter where you go.

The used bookstore here in Cincy has found a place in my reading memory for being the place where I ran across this week’s poem by James Merrill.

Merrill is a poet I’ve long been trying to get into. I’ve picked up books of his in NYC, Corpus Christi, & the above store in Eugene.

This week, however, I found the key into his work. It’s the kind of personal connection that is too bright to see clearly, you just say: Wow! I found the poem! I share it with you folks in that spirit.

I hope you marvel as I did at how he builds playfully and intriguingly into and out of a dream. The line: Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates, alone gets me going all over again.

I also was moved to find out what wisteria looks like because of this poem. Here you go:

* wisteria, yo *
* wisteria, yo *

The Mad Scene – James Merrill

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.

***

Happy bursting!

Jose

* on poetry readings

If poems are children, poetry readings are PTA meetings. 

— Vera Pavlova

PTA welcome

You don’t go to poetry readings for the poetry.

Mind you, this isn’t a remark from a cynic, far from it.

I am a believer in the poetry reading, both its flaws and magic.

From the rambling what should I read next talk to the front row while shuffling papers folks to the stand-up-comedy folks who make an open mic a little bit more bearable (when they’re funny).

From the rhyming love poems about a fickle ex that will charm a smile out of you if you let them to the angsty, blood-dripping love poems about a fickle ex that will make you go back to your angsty teenage self and give them a hug.

From the slam poets who do it right and fill the room up with duende ala Buddy Wakefield, Roger Bonair-Agard, and Patricia Smith (the latter of which I heard about word of mouth at poetry slams for years before the rest of the poetry world caught up with her!), to the would-be slam poets who rant, cuss, and flail to no avail.

(sidenote: if I hear another variation of the line “eyes have eyelids to close/but ears don’t have earlids/so they can always hear” I will consider the trope public domain).

From the poets who preface their poems with stories more compelling than the poems themselves to the mumblemumblemumblemumblemumblethankyou poets.

You don’t go to poetry readings for the poetry – you go to see people try.

FEBRUARY WINDFALL READING:

fiction writer Eliot Treichel, and poet José Angél Araguz. 

Tuesday, February 19, 5:30, Eugene Public Library–Free!

Eliot Treichel

    José Angél Araguz

 

I have read my poetry in front of people for thirteen years now – which means I’ve gotten up and tried for thirteen years.

As I have previously mentioned, I count age 17 as the first year of my taking writing seriously, seeing as it is the year where I first typed up poems of mine, submitted them, and got them published.  I realize now that I forget to factor in my first open mic readings and poetry slams into that year.

In the time since that first year, I have slammed, ranted, shuffled papers, told compelling stories, worn army fatigues and a sari (not on the same night!), and, occasionally, done a good job of reading a poem.  I have also hosted several open mics – from my days with the Student Writer’s Association (SWA!) at the College of Santa Fe to monthly open mics at Del Mar College where I taught.

The best thing about readings is afterwards, when people go up to the poet and recite a line they really liked, that caught on them like an electric burr on the air of the evening.

On those nights, the poet can say they tried, and did well.

Next Tuesday, come see me try!

Jose

p.s. Just confirmed that Eliot and I will be doing a radio interview Monday afternoon on the local station KLCC!  Mas details later!

* Eugene Gloria & the friday influence

This week on the Influence: Eugene Gloria!

I have only recently become acquainted with Gloria’s work through his second collection, Hoodlum Birds.  Through the collection, he displays an ease and elegance with the line that is both admirable and engaging.

In the poem below, I’d like to point out two dynamic parts (among others) to watch out for while reading.

First, there’s what the word hat does in the fourth stanza, how it embodies a sense of loss, its suddenness and its power to shake us from the day to day.

Second, these lines from the penultimate stanza:

Fugitive as watercolor, 
the short walk to my maple trees dials light.

These two lines could be a poem on their own.  I pored over them when I first read them, engaged with just what the words were doing, what they evoked inside me.  How light can change subtly in even the shortest of walks – having the eye to notice that and then to put it into words is a gift.

More info on Eugene Gloria’s work can be found here.

check out them maples...
check out them maples…

Suddenly October * – Eugene Gloria

His wife had died from cancer. 
There weren’t enough details, 
only this reason to wear a dark shirt.

In February, you would’ve found him, 
hunchbacked, finishing nothing, 
warming his hands over a meager fire.

Then in March, 
pruning the vineyards. By September, 
making wine.

In my dream, I see him as my autumnal
father with a gray fedora, doing his chores, 
and then a big wind comes and steals away his hat.

The world is vast, 
more boundless than all that birds inhabit. 
It is a graspable earth where larks imply the sky

entire cities of breaths and vistas. 
Fugitive as watercolor, 
the short walk to my maple trees dials light.

What is October but the smell of bonfire smoke, 
when fathers leave and carry with them 
their scent of mild decay.

***

Happy scenting!

Jose

* previously published in Prairie Schooner & Gloria’s second collection, Hoodlum Birds.

** photo found here.

* some words from Ram Dass & the friday influence

This week on the Influence: some words from world renown American spiritual teacher Ram Dass!

But first, a confession: there isn’t much that I read – be it novels, essays, cereal boxes, texts, etc. – that doesn’t get filtered through my how-does-can-this-relate-to-poetry filter.  I read everything with eyes looking for a symbol, a metaphor, or simply a set of words that captivates.  I end up thinking (and saying) some goofy things but ultimately I am kept engaged and interested.

I say this as preface to today’s post in order to make it clear that I am no expert on the works of Ram Dass or meditation – I have simply read through his book on mediation, Journey of Awakening, and found in it many things that relate to poetry.  Or at least my sense of it.

Dude, c'mon: there'll be chicken wings!
Dude, c’mon: there’ll be chicken wings!

In his book, Ram Dass exhibits a great gift for sampling works from various cultures and beliefs.  W.H. Auden once said that a sign of a writer’s strength as an essayist isn’t what he says but what he quotes.  In this spirit, Ram Dass rocks.  Case in point:

There is a story that as God and Satan were walking down the street one day, the Lord bent down and picked something up.  He gazed at it glowing radiantly in His hand.  Satan, curious, asked: “What’s that?”  “This,” answered the Lord, “is Truth.”  “Here,” replied Satan as he reached for it, “let me have that – I’ll organize it for you.”

I read the above as a parable on poetry workshops as I have experienced them at times.  There are at times two kinds of readers in a group: one willing to be astonished in their consideration of the words before them, and another who feels compelled to say something, to fix, to organize.

Ultimately, both kinds of readers, like the ideas of good and evil, help make the world go ’round.

Here are two more:

If you do not get it from yourself

Where will you go for it?

(Zenrin, The Gospel According to Zen)

*
It is all an open secret
(Ramana Maharshi)

*

I see the last two quotes as having to do with generating work: the first, an idea Philip Levine shared once: It won’t get written if you don’t write it.  The second, how inspiration is seemingly endless while at the same time being impossible at times to get at – but once you tap into it, that thrill, like learning a secret if only for a moment, a few lines.

*

Happy secrets!

Jose