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Kenneth Rexroth: The Bad Old Days
The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it,
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.
The great poet Mark Doty reads his poem, “A Display of Mackerel.” Click here for the video. I strongly recommend you get Doty’s ‘new and selected poems’ volume Fire to Fire. Here is the poem read in the video just linked.
Mark Doty: A Display of Mackerel
They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way
distinguished from the other
—nothing about them
of individuality. Instead
they’re all exact expressions
of the one soul,
each a perfect fulfilment
of heaven’s template,
mackerel essence. As if,
after a lifetime arriving
at this enameling, the jeweler’s
made uncountable examples,
each as intricate
in its oily fabulation
as the one before
Suppose we could iridesce,
like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer—would you want
to be yourself only,
to be lost? They’d prefer,
plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting
forward, heedless of stasis.
They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,
just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living:
all, all for all,
the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,
or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.
Sam Hamill writes a wonderful piece on Kenneth Rexroth here
I didn’t get a lot of Rexroth and needed a dictionary and sometimes an encyclopedia or a library, but he drew me in like no one had before. I knew there was a world in those poems, a vitally expansive world that invited me into it. I loved his anger and his tenderness and weary longing. Some poems reflected on what seemed to me to be an almost eternal life. Who was the “Marthe” for whom he sorrowed so deeply? Lost love? I’d had no love to lose, but I felt, however naively, that I felt his sorrow, his longing. I had never felt loved by anyone and I would live and die in my orphan’s loneliness, I was certain. Rexroth’s poetry often expressed for me what I could not say myself.
I understood then (or I would have understood later) what I should have understood years before, even before I first tried to write fiction: the simple fact that people speaking to one another or looking towards one another are thinking how they might sound or appear in a work of fiction. I could never claim that any freckled woman had spoken truthfully to me about a real world. There was only one situation in which such a woman could be taken as speaking truthfully. If I were to write a work of fiction with a freckled woman as a character in it, then I, in the person of the narrator, might insert in the fiction, such words as ‘she answered truthfully, at last, …’
from the first story in Gerald Murnane’s collection Landscape with Landscape, a stupendously amazing book which I started reading earlier today
Not owning the Collected Poems edited by Michael Davidson, I rely on bits and pieces scrounged online for my fix of Oppen, such as this here.
George Oppen: The Forms of Love
Parked in the fields
So many years ago,
A lake beside us
When the moon rose.
Leaving that ancient car
Together. I remember
Standing in the white grass
Beside it. We groped
Our way together
Downhill in the bright
Beginning to wonder
Whether it could be lake
We saw, our heads
Ringing under the stars we walked
To where it would have wet our feet
Had it been water
In a dark time, I reach sometimes into my shelves for Wright and poems like this
James Wright: A Blessing
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break