Friday, October 24, 2008

Because it is painful to so many, because it is driven by unwarranted fear, because it is a festering sore at the psychic root of patriarchy, homophobia must not be allowed to hold sway unopposed. In response to California's Proposition 8, I offer this poem. While I am certain it is not, in generally understood literary terms, the best poem I've written, I'm also certain that I had to write it. I hope it articulates my outrage in a way that may be useful to others.


The bigots are building a ghetto again,
this time for the lovers they hate.
They want to change the constitution,
invoke the power of the state

to wall off anybody they find odd
with ready-made bricks of words
left over from invoking law and God
last time to keep out “the coloreds.”

Their hatred is what I’m afraid of,
not my gay sisters and brothers.
True and false are the two kinds of love
and there aren’t any others.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In my first book of poems, Without Paradise, there is a suite, "Six Paintings by Matisse" dedicated to the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda, a friend who passed away last year in London. An experiment in ekphrasis, the poems are not so much about the paintings as they are about what the paintings called forth from me at the time; each invited my participation in a different way.

I've been able to find each of the images somewhere or another on the web, so I gather the images and poems together here for the first time — I hope you enjoy them.

La Desserte Rouge, 1908

Who is this figure, busy, always, with
preparations, amid blood-red illusions,
guardian of the bold or boring heart?
Lub-dub. Big deal. Sit down. The tongue!
Now there’s an organ fleshly, necessary
and orchestral as an artist’s eye. Look,
there, through the window in the thick wall:
the wobbling world like a liquid’s surface.
Now look at her: her look, meant to hide her,
gives her away — Mnemosyne, wise mother,
arranging the season’s fruits and flowers.

La Fenetre, 1916

Even as we have arranged it,
the world goes on without us,
lives, breathes, moves, and changes,

not only because it is green (a word
that, much like “light,” means more
than is ever intended) but because

what summons each new topography
from time’s fatigue, cruel as it is,
(no, not to show us, but we notice)

leaves beauty in its wake, light
through a green that froths and vanishes
over and over and over.

La Danse II, 1909-1910

So much illusion in even a single moment:
from childhood’s bedtime tigers in the curtains
to dead friends’ faces in the crowded street.
I wonder if we ever know what’s real.

What shall we do? Survivors, more and more
of what we call the world the world calls
memory. Each morning brings a simple story
that becomes incomprehensible by evening.

Is the danger real? Is death? Who wants to know?
Who wants to know if things are as they seem?
If the unmistakable angel came and offered you
lucidity, eternally, what would you do?

We dance! We choose, who know the cost of fact,
the grip of others’ hands and the abandon
only possible when we are held like this,
our links explicit, simple choreography

from childhood all we want or need although
we each, alone, know otherwise. It’s hard
to tell from here, from this one moment, if
the changing sky is growing bright or dimming,

so we dance to forget then turn and wheel
the other way toward remembering until
we know, together, it is time to turn again,
and someone stumbles, falls, becomes a story.

La Famille Du Peintre, 1913

No still life: he must live
with this arrangement of
the family furniture, and paint it.
The dead chose the fabric.

Did le Pere our painter pose them?
We stare through the proscenium.
Daughter, stage left, moves to foot:
feigning displeasure, “Papa, stop it!”
Madame, up right, with kerchief,
mutters, wishing to vanish, angered
by this trespass that, because she wed
Matisse, will go on forever,

while Masters Cain and Able,
in their prepubescence, slow
as red fish in a glass bowl,
contend, center, throughout.

The dead are in the pit, below
the angle of our vision, tuning.
Half our lives we wait and then
they’re awful anyway, off-key,

each in a different time.
But never mind. Before us the living
make believe and we believe in them.
Vague sounds of war and weeping, off.

La Conversation, 1909-1911

This is “intercourse” the way the word is
used in older texts we giggled at in school.
He is phallos, a fluted column, a pillar,
composed in blue and white pajamas, serious,

while, folded and dark, she holds herself
a little stiffly, as if she’s been interrupted
in her enjoyment of the morning’s solitude,
but listening nonetheless. If it isn’t obvious

from the sheer intensity of their locked gaze
in the electric blue interior, the iron restraint
on the sill of the warming world spells NOX,
and in its center familiar sleeping lovers lie,

turned from each other, curled, while outside,
day is already begun. They are discussing what to do,
where to go, how to get there, needs and wants,
love’s fierce and difficult engagement.

L'Atelier Rouge, 1911

Only a dead man,
only a dead man here,

an absence limned
by what can be said

to exist, a familiar
array of records and effects,

life death the way all
shadows are the sun: a


Of course, it occurs to me that the poems may suffer from this proximity to their inspirations, but so be it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I want to write here about my participation in the 2nd Simmons International Chinese Poetry Festival, October 3-5, 2008 here in Boston. I was part of a panel on the process of translation with Michelle Yeh of UC Davis, perhaps the foremost translator of contemporary Chinese poetry, and Chinese poet Leung Ping Kwan. In attempting a translation of my poem, “Refugee” from Gold Star Road, a poem I chose for its supposed linguistic simplicity, the challenges of poetic translation soon became clear. Here’s the poem in its entirety for reference (it also appears here on Verse Daily):


A man carries his door,
the door of his house,
because when the war is over
he is going home

where he will hang it
on its hinges
and lock it, tight,
while he tries to remember
the word for welcome.

If his house is gone
when he returns,
he will raise it from rubble
around this door.

If he cannot return,
the door will remember
the rest of the house
so he can build it
again, elsewhere.

And if he cannot go on,
his door can be a pallet
for his rest, a stretcher
to carry him, his shade
from sun, his shield.

In the very first line we encountered difficulty: it seems there is no single word for “carry” in Chinese, where the choice of verb depends upon how an item is carried --- on one’s back, over one’s head, with another person, under one’s arm, etc. and an equivalent for “transport” wouldn’t do it either since that verb suggests both a starting point and a destination, and of course the man carrying “the door of his house” has no destination, a state of affairs that I hope gathers heartbreaking force as the poem proceeds. After much delightful contention, and many questions put to me again and again, Michelle and Ping Kwan both seemed satisfied with their solution so we moved on – all this work of course was only to establish a first draft.

Another problem that emerged early on stems from the cultural differences that inhere in the word “door” as it is used in the poem. In much of China, the word for door does not have the same resonance it does in English, since many Chinese homes, especially outside the cities, have gated walls around them so that the door is not the barrier to outsiders, but the gate. Several lines “where he will hang it/on its hinges/and lock it, tight,/while he tries to remember/the word for welcome” presented us with a cross-cultural conundrum. Once again Michelle and Ping Kwan were able to resolve things to their satisfaction.

We proceeded like this --- the Chinese poets asking me questions and explaining the particular difficulty they were encountering, while I tried to shed light by paraphrasing, comparing, and, in my excitement, almost shouting out synonyms --- for a good hour and a half before there was a first draft. As I recall, the verb “raise” in line 12 was a problem. Jim Kates, president of the American Literary Translators Association, was walking around, sitting in from time to time at one or another of the tables where poems were struggling to cross from English to Chinese or from Chinese to English. He asked what verb Chinese Christians use when they speak of the Resurrection. Yes, I thought, yes, that is the felt sense of the verb “raise” at that point in the poem. Unfortunately, both Michelle and Ping Kwan shook their heads --- in Chinese that word would be far too weighty, with not a hint but instead a large dollop of Christian theology attached to it. Michele explained that it would upset the delicate balance between hope, denial, and futility that is part of both the refugee’s predicament and the poem’s coherence.

Looking back, I think it was at this point that I fully realized what an intimate exchange was going on. When you write a poem that seeks to be at once a complex act of witness, a capture and focusing of a complex situation, a set of related ideas about the situation, a sonic structure, and an emotional echo chamber, you work alone, things very gradually coming clear to you so that you go back to stanzas and replace a word with a better one, change the syntax to work against the constraint of the line, say the becoming poem out loud, listen to it, find something “off” and change it to something that at least at that moment seems better. In so doing you create a psychic space in which all those impulses, decisions, adjustments are the intricate features of something like a spider web in a dark corner of yourself. Now, while Michelle and Ping Kwan, refusing gists and approximations, labored with the same urgent, circumspect, and playful poetic intentions, I felt joined in that space which had been so private, and even without a knowledge of Chinese, I saw that the web they were spinning was as delicate and intricate as my own, with different but analogous considerations at every moment. I experienced this as intimacy.

The next morning, at the opening panel, we talked about the process of translation. Judging from the response of the gathered Chinese poets when Michelle read the translation, she and Ping Kwan had made a very compelling Chinese poem from mine.

In subsequent conference sessions, a number of Chinese poets including Wang Ao and Bei Ta, made reference to the poem and applied it to the situation in China today, especially to post-quake Szechuan province.

Several of the American writers spoke about gentrification and the displacement of the poor, especially in minority communities. What was most remarkable to me was the agreement and solidarity that emerged, the identification of an arrogant and insensible power that in the name of “progress” assumes the prerogative to destroy communities and replace them with a profit-seeking monoculture while preaching the benefits of a globalization that amounts to cultural genocide and the erasure of history. I felt called upon to read an earlier poem, from Without Paradise, written about 15 years ago. I include it here:


There is the city of glass and money,
over there, but here it comes,
closer with every newspaper.
Unidentified lying spokesmen
interpret the same old photos:
the bloody feet of refugees,
the bloody hands of soldiers.
Here comes someone, not a neighbor,
with a clipboard and a calculator.
Where will we grow children and roses?
Where will we grow older?

Because mothers still tell children
making ugly faces to be careful
or they will harden into one of them,
I am a little less afraid.

When fathers wipe their children’s dirty faces
with handkerchiefs that smell of sweat,
their children do not forget them
easily. I am a gladdened father
learning that, and a calmer son.

And lovers’ bodies make a clumsy knot
just good enough to mend the net.

The theme of the conference, “Translation is a way for us to listen to each other” was realized in any number of ways beyond the act of translation itself, and those ways included a deep exchange of ideas about fairness and justice, an understanding of shared histories, the role of poets in the necessary dispraise of dehumanization and disrespect for life itself, and the need to restore our debased languages as a first step to extricate our communities from the sticky web of half-truths and fictional histories that cloak the designs of merciless predation across boundaries.

I want to thank Simmons College for the opportunity to “listen to each other” this conference provided, especially poet and Simmons professor Afaa Michael Weaver (who, I believe, is in China as I write this) and co-chair of the conference Michelle Yeh. I’m happy to hear that plans are already underway for the next conference, which I’ve pledged to help organize.

Resistance to further dehumanization depends upon such listening to each other.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Many people, fortunately or not, know Philip Larkin (1922-1985) from this single poem:


They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Far fewer have had the pleasure of this crisp rejoinder from Charles Martin, from his STARTING FROM SLEEP, Overlook Press, Woodstock & New York, 2002. ISBN 1-58567-272-6


You brushed your teeth, you washed your face,
They tucked you in, your mum and dad;
They really weren’t all that bad,
They weren't always on your case;

They were as good as parents got,
Back then, and did the best they knew
With such a whining shit as you;
Were they appreciated? Not!

And you, who will not take a wife
Nor raise up kiddies of your own
Can do no more than bitch and moan!
Get over it, Phil—get a life!