Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Literary Theory, and a New Poem

 I came across the following by way of the excellent online journal Numéro Cinq (full disclosure: I am an adviser to the magazine, which is edited by my good friend Douglas Glover, a superb Canadian fictionist and essayist –see, most recently, his remarkable story collection, Savage Love). Here is a comment by one Paul Bowes, of whom I know nothing save that he echoes many of my own sentiments. Mr. Bowes is responding to an article in The Guardian (U.K.) called "In theory: the death of literature," by Andrew Gallix.

In critical circles, ... (an argument) seems to depend increasingly on placing excessive weight on the 'symptomatic' significance of essentially minor writers such as Blanchot, whose reputation in the anglophone world as an important fictionist I find to be simply undeserved. (His non-fiction may be another matter.)

The recent literary-theoretical attention to Blanchot seems to me to have a lot more to do with the academy's perennial need to find new fodder for theorising - and to make careers for young entrants to a well-worked-over field - than any inherent merit in the writer. Theory will always be more fascinated by notions like 'belatedness' and 'exhaustion', because by implication they magnify the status of theory in relation to creative work. In readings of 'thin', 'exhausted' literature, the theorist is usually doing - and can be seen to be doing - more creative work than the original writer.

I also find arguments of this type curiously olde-fashioned, even Whiggish. They all seem to assume that 'literature' has a guiding spirit, and that its history is always moving towards the realisation of some final predestined form. But curiously, no matter which book or writer or era one chooses as the 'last book' or 'final author' or 'terminal epoch', actual literature has the bad manners to pay no attention, and persists in appearing in new forms.

The worst thing about these ideas is the authoritarian way in which they seek to take control of, and foreclose on the future. Where is literature going? These people don't know, any more than the rest of us, and their notions are essentially polemical rather than diagnostic.

Amen and amen.

The following new poem takes its impetus from the coldest Vermont winter I can recall in years and years. The temperature dipped to 30 below two nights ago, and has gone below zero every night for weeks. When the weather is thus frigid, however, the beauty of the woods and mountains is, as the poem implies, indescribable:

          Keeping At It at 20 Below

It’s too cold for me to stay out long at my age,

So I trek the half-mile road below our shed,

Its earth deep-hidden beneath the white.

Far east, Black Mountain shows up, razor-edged

On a sky full of crystals. My boots on frigid ground

Cheep so loudly that with my old guy’s ears

I can’t right off discern another sound:

Pine siskins in their scores. They wheeze from every

Evergreen in sight. I used to plow

On snowshoes through powder, hour on hour.

It shames me to say the notion scares me now.

Still it’s hard to keep with wistfulness when air

Keeps glittering so, and creatures no bigger than thumbs

Keep at it, cheerful, determined. Each bird tears

At bough-tips, feeding and chanting. I focus on one

That doggedly worries the tip of a spruce-cone, eats,

Then flits away.

                                                               Beyond the bird,

Beyond the emerald tree in which it sat,

Beyond the outlying mountain– well, what passes

Even beyond bright air, and who might sense it?

Not I.  It’s birdsong that prompts such opening phrases.

Beyond all this, let time complete my sentence.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

More geezer poetry

A few months back, I reconsidered an old book of mine, The Floating Candles (1982).  I did not think all that badly of what I read in it, yet I had this odd impulse to take some of the poems and revise them as filtered through the three-decades plus of experience I've had since then. As a matter of fact, I have done just that, though I doubt anyone interested would be able to discern the original lurking behind the newer work.

The following poem was motivated in part by reflection on my vague curiosity as to what such "translations" would look like. 

A matter perhaps related: I so love being a grandparent that I'm beginning to wonder whether I can ever write another poem without at least some oblique mention of those beloved children. At all events, here we go:

                     Waking Late

My wife of three decades is at work
already.  Retired, I have time to consider
the smell of her cheek when she came indoors
from this morning’s chill. Can there be a heaven?
If so, it will hang in the air, that odor.
I’m not alone.

I have dear friends of a certain age
who scan the notices of death
like me, first thing, in the local paper,
comparing the age of the vanished with theirs.
We reckon the years we likely have left.
“A good, full life”–

that’s the cliché for those gone at 80.
I’m 72. I guess I’d expect
in heaven to hear babblings from our youngest of five
grandchildren, the constantly smiling Ruthie,
seven months old, and the wise-guy remarks
of her big sister Ivy,

the insouciant ones of her twin brother Creston.
Who’s afraid of Big Bad Death?
Not I. It’s what I’ll leave that hurts me,
including just now the best two dogs
we’ve owned, however we loved the rest.
It’s 20 below,

male pointer and female retriever nestle
by the reddened woodstove, tight together.
Outside, pine siskins jostle the feeder
and juncos peck their spills on snow.
We can see, in such clear and brilliant weather,
all the way to the mountains,

the rugged Whites beyond the river.
My wife and I love walking along
that totem flow on this side from New Hampshire.
Yesterday, after thaw and freeze,
the streambed’s ice chunks slapped back the sun
like gigantic gems.

I’ve had this late urge to go back and revise
my poems from an earlier time. Who failed
to be a little naïve when young?
There was so much I couldn’t imagine back then.
I had scarcely dreamed the oldest grandchild,
Cora, raspy

of voice, sharp of humor, her four-year-old brother
Arthur, who loves to tie me to chairs.
I tell myself now: Look up, out the window.
It’s a Monday, blunt cold, in February,
8 a.m. in the Year of Our Lord

when beleaguered deer are forced to keep moving
for fear of freezing if they pause too long,
when a sleek doe tiptoes down our drive,
her ten-month-old twin offspring behind her–
three silhouettes against whited lawn.
It’s been a hard winter,

with more to come, but they look so alive.

Monday, February 2, 2015


I was recently going through some old folders of mine, and I came on a (very different) version of this poem– or rather the start of it. I clearly gave up back then, perhaps 20 years ago. All I had was the inscription from Freud, though I can't even remember why it should have caught my attention, nor where I stumbled on it, having not read Civilization and Its Discontents since my college days, which have receded into a fantastical era of fifty years and more back. I had the inscription and about 20 lines.

In any case, I elected to finish the poem, as I have here, though in all honesty I am not sure what this composition "means." That's all right. I may figure that out in due course. Meanwhile, as follows:

     On My Love of Country Life

                                    The question may be raised why we chose precisely the past of a                                                       city to compare with the past of a mind.
                                                                                          –Civilization and Its Discontents

He ruminated, cigar in crippled jaw.
Cocaine pulsed like the strobe on that cop’s cruiser.
There’s oceanic distance from where Freud sat
To where I stand just now as I visit Manhattan,
Which back in the doctor’s day was no Big Apple.
The Sheep Meadow still held sheep. But in time they’d vanish,

The park be thronged, and we’d raise his question–
Or I would, comparing his moment to our own,
When even that rim of posies by the reservoir’s
South end at 87th seems a threat.
Imagination, mine at least, would crave
A village, clean, essential, if maybe not

The one I’ve lived in so long. Are you like me?
Can you conjure some antique European village,
Complete with organ grinder, playful monkey,
Coins chink-chinking softly in a cup,
Air soft as bedclothes too? Here in the city,
That bus’s diesel chokes me. Jackhammers rattle.

The very pigeons move from there to there,
Cosmopolites, while the park affects a show
Of green among the cans and candy wrappers,
Rinds and condoms, jugs of Sneaky Pete
In shards. The traffic seems deployed for battle.
Its headlamps will sweep across the stoops come dark,

Across the benches, where mad folks rage against
The day gone by, or politicians, sports teams.
Just so we heard our elders, late at night,
In our anxious puberty. They madly shrieked
Their calumnies downstairs, and slammed their doors.
Are you like me? Did you long for more precision?

Did you crave an explanation? Why do I keep
Including you? You may not be like me,
Who craved it –how I craved it– for years and years,
Some way to make some sense of my inward city,
Though I didn’t think in those terms, and even then,
My mind ached likewise for another place,

The one in which things blurred: soft nap of meadow,
The spring blooms’ brightness muted, peasant wagons
Full of hay gone evening-fragrant, glow
Of a setting sun on the houses’ brick, and beasts,
Both wild and tame, intent upon their grazing–
Their placid grazing, narcotic, every moment

Much like the one before, their mild jaws rolling.