James has come to stay and has introduced me to Anne Carson. After reading the first few pages of Autobiography in Red I felt completely inadequate and in awe. How much imagination can a book —; the world —; contain? In this novel in verse Carson reimagines an encounter between Hercules (Herakles in the poem) and Geryon as a destructive love affair; in her replay of Stesichorus, Hercules does not kill Geryon, he breaks his heart.
It is a hybrid work of poetry and prose. Much of the long-lined poems contain intense cinematic detail and always an interesting word or word arrangement.
Her cool voice floated
over a pile of tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood at the screen door.
Ruth Padel describes her work as sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender, brilliantly lighted.
He burned in the presence of his mother. I hardly know you anymore, she said leaning against the doorway of his room. It had rained suddenly at suppertime, now sunset was startling drops at the window. Stale peace of old bedtimes filled the room. Love does not make me gentle or kind, thought Geryon as he and his mother eyed each other from opposite shores of the light.
I particularly like her startling similes and descriptions. They are arresting. Some examples:
Saturday went whitely on.
…stinging sea fog hung in clots…
Facts are bigger in the dark.
New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky.
Black mantle of silence stretches between them like geothermal pressure.
He saw himself in the mirror cruel as a slash of lipstick
So I progress to a second work of hers. The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in Twenty-nine Tangoes which is the story of the narrator’s obsessive love and desire for her husband, a man whose salient feature is his ‘beauty’. The book tells the story of their relationship, from their meeting as teenagers, through their marriage, defined by the husband’s numerous infidelities, to the couple’s eventual divorce. The focus is on the internal world. Desire is explored in relationship to beauty.
Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.
I like her variation in line length and the presentation of the work on the page but particularly her control of language that is fresh and startling. Another excerpt from ‘Tango XII‘:
If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you.
To tell it to.
Perfection rested on them for a moment like calm on a lake.
Beauty does not rest.
The husband touched his wife’s temple
Carson is both readable and obscure. While exploring complex themes the reader is challenged to make connections within the collages she creates.
Another response is to acknowledge my almost complete ignorance of the classics. I must read some Homer. The Odyssey appeals as I believe it involves both journeying and islands.
Yesterday I began Homer’s The Odyssey. How ignorant I feel of this world and in particular of Homer’s work which seems like the genesis of so much Western writing.
Wikipedia says of it:
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to The Iliad, the other work traditionally ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. Indeed it is the second — The Iliadbeing the first — extant work of Western literature. It was probably composed near the end of the eighth century BC, somewhere in Ionia, the then Greek-controlled coastal region of what is now Turkey.
The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage.
The non-chronological structure appeals, as the reader is able to remain current with the action in several different theatres.
It seems that each story is an instructive episode, a parable, being framed within the cultural context of the day.
I like the idea of a personal voyage or journey in a real as well as metaphorical sense. I am struggling to track of all the gods and mythical beings. It is a translation from Greek as well. The version I am reading is not presented as verse as I gather it was originally. Despite the above I will finish it today and perhaps seek out a copy of The Iliad. I guess I am attempting to fill some significant gaps.
The Odyssey is about a return not a departure, cunning not brute strength.
Then along came Meadowlands by Louise Glück.
If The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ homecoming, Meadowlands details its negative: the same ten year journey, but away from Ithaca, toward uncharted waters. As with Homer, Glück’s husband and wife suffer separately and without benefit of communication. But in this version, they have to visit treacherous islands together: Bicker, Nostalgia, Regret. Instead of Penelope’s nightly unweaving to deceive her suitors, here it is the marriage that is being undone; when all is said and done there is nothing but memory, a poor foundation to hold them up.
Separation can speak for itself. From this point on, Glück says in ‘Quiet Evening,’
the silence through which you move
is my voice pursuing you.
She has arranged Meadowlands, full of ocean refe
rences, in wave patterns: poems describing hints of reconciliation alternate with accounts of the triggering of minefields both (Odysseus and Penelope) have been planting for a decade. The knock of waves against pilings is an answer to the perpetual question, do you love me? Yes and no and yes and no. And if silence can be speech, absence contrives to be presence as well.
She employs the voice of Telemachus, their son, as realistic observer and commentator on his parent’s relationship. In Telemachus’ Dilemma he comments
I see them together
sometimes inclining to
husband and wife, other times
to opposing forces.
I feel more appreciative of Glück’s writing this second time around. Her combination of Homeric storyline with domestic imagery resonates with me. Or perhaps it is a familiar tale in which I am one of the protagonists. Ouch.
Meanwhile indecision reigns. I am having a mild crisis of confidence and intent. My folio I am not happy with. My Auckland Island material feels dead and overloaded with narrative. I have quantity but I would rather produce less and believe that the work had some quality, uniqueness and energy. During the long break, tired of being trapped on the islands, I embarked on a series of small syllogistic surreal prose poems which permitted a freer lyrical expression. It was poetically liberating to write things like,
It is dawn and the moon is on its back.
On the street anger is running up and down on four legs.
The air thickens with brassy music. The pavement drums with black boots.
It is too cold for yeast to rise.
The deaf baker closes his door, looks up the street. His face is the colour of flour.
I am tempted to reduce all the early work into a smaller series about the coast-watchers and work on the prose poems with some longer semi-autobiographical piece bridging the two. I have a supervision session soon from which I hope to discuss the limitations of my work and the overall structure of my final submission.
Christopher Reid demonstrated a model for appreciating a poem which I am beginning to utilise. He started with the title and formed a set of ideas evoked by it. Then approaching the poem line by line he would form a picture in much the same way that a photograph being developed evolves to a complete picture. If lines were working against the development he tended to suspect the quality of the writing. If the image remained indistinct he did likewise. A kind of structured deconstruction. It is difficult to apply to your own work.
Bill Manhire writes in Breaking the Line, a chapter of Doubtful Sounds, I do not believe that American poetry made the poets of my generation into American clones — ….What it did do was make diversity and possibility available, and, in so doing it freed New Zealand poetry from the single line represented by the English tradition.
Which is fine but it also seems to have made obscurity part of our post-modern inheritance. I would rather be a poor man stealing from Christopher Reid’s bowl than a rich one smelling the gruel of John Ashbery.
The notes provided to us on revising our poetry suggest our red pen should home in on waffle, stale language, clichés, vagueness, abstractions and generalizations, obvious spelling out rather than suggesting, pomposity, archaisms, derivative/imitative writing, syntactical clumsiness, obscurity, rhythmical bumpiness and clanging rhyme.Furthermore we are advised to be suspicious of adverbs and adjectives. I hope that there will be some words left to submit for my portfolio once I have edited my work to these guidelines. I suspect red ink will flow like blood and the wounded poems will limp off the page.
Frederick Seidel’sOoga-Booga celebrates hedonism and luxury while dripping with candor. The subject of his ‘Climbing Everest’ poem is timeless; that of the romantic fascination that older men have for younger women. It begins:
The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger.
But this young woman is young. We kiss.
It’s almost incest when it gets to this.
This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger.
His take on such couplings — It’s almost incest when it gets to this — is as novel as it is harsh. I am not repelled by this forthrightness. And incest isn’t even the half of it, only the base camp from which Climbing Everest begins its ascent to an even more perilous view. For the title is a metaphor for the sexual act the poem goes on to detail, in which an old man makes the deliriously pleasurable but nonetheless arduous and by all rights deadly trip into seductively thin, late-life sexual air. When the poet reaches that summit, he pays the price, reduced to being constantly out of breath . . . reporting to the world from an oxygen tent. The poet’s mind makes its weary march to the exit music of the poem’s final lines:
A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare,
But right now one is coming through the door
With a mop, to mop up the cow flops on the floor.
She kisses the train wreck in the tent and combs his white hair.
In an interview when asked about why he lapsed into a significant period of not writing Seidel replied, Cowardice.
What was there to be afraid of?
‘The expression of aspects of the self that you understand or, rather, that you fancy may not be attractively expressed or attractive once expressed.’ He added: ‘Another way of talking about this is to talk about your becoming yourself: your finding who you are as a poet, finding what you sound like, finding your subjects that bring you out of you that are your subjects. It’s almost as if there’s a moment when you decide, Well, whatever the problem of writing this way, of writing these things, whatever the difficulty with presenting yourself this way . . . well, that’s it.’
I admire his courage to write what is ugly but rings true.
I am approaching the ugly truth with small rings of courage.
The final entry.
How fortunate I am being able to read. How fortunate also that I am able to converse with writers through the published word in some intelligent and engaging way. It seems that for me illiteracy would be poisonous. To be unable to read would be like living a half-life in a desert. May my eyes keep feeding me. May my head keep digesting. May voices keep their tides drumming along this rocky coast.