Mark Doty reading

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’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

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,
unduplicatable, doomed
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.

“A Golden Age for Poetry”

Bad news from California:

One of the country’s most prominent poetry series, New California Poetry, from the University of California Press, is to be suspended. The pause in publishing, after next year’s three spring titles, likely will become long-term or permanent unless an angel steps forward to provide substantial assistance.

The series, founded in 2000, has published 33 titles by 25 poets, with three more in the pipeline. (…) Alison Mudditt, who took over as UC Press director early this year, said today, via e-mail: “Like all university presses, we are currently facing increasing financial pressures, partly as we continue to feel the impact of the global economic recession and partly as we reshape our publishing program and our organizational structure to ensure our continued success in the digital age.”

She acknowledged what the editors of the series and many poets say of the series, that it “has included many extraordinary and memorable collections” and “is both prestigious and award-winning.” In 2009, for example, Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy won the National Book Award, while Fanny Howe’s Selected Poems received an Academy of American Poets prize for the most outstanding book of poetry published in 2000.

But the press’s action does not signal a crisis in the publication of American poetry, [Brenda Hillman, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of California, said by e-mail]: “I feel hopeful about poetry publishing in general.” Many other university presses are “doing amazing things,” she said. “It is really a golden age for poetry, I believe; we need it more than ever.”

“If it’s all about money, there’s just better things to sell”

Two weeks ago, I mailed a book of poetry to a friend; it was a book I had owned for many years, but I wasn’t sure how long exactly, which is why I looked inside, and saw the notation of a book shop in Heidelberg, which used to be a fantastic place to buy English books. They sold new books and used ones, it was a tiny bookshop with a huge collection of poetry, and its owner cared deeply about literature (rather than revenue); I owe much of my early reading in English to the owner and sales clerks in that bookshop, who always somehow managed to suggest the right kind of book for me. Like many smaller bookshops in Heidelberg, this one closed down many years ago. When I saw that a Facebook friend had posted the video below, about a man selling books out of his apartment, on his page, I was reminded of the small Heidelberg bookshops that introduced me to literature. Bookshops are not regular businesses, are they? In my case, they were places where you learned about a vast literary world, which could well change your life. It was from bookshops that I learned to love poetry, and I can still go to my shelves and pull out books of poetry that were important for my understanding of art and life, and see, in the front or the back, a small sticker, a stamp or the carefully scribbled numbers that evoke to me, to this day, the smells, sounds and words from each of these book shops. Another dear (French) friend of mine wants to open, against all odds, a bookshop within the next year or two, and I have no words to express how much I admire her attempt to do it.

A visit behind the eyes

I’ve got notes on Mona van Duyn in my notebook somewhere but so far, nothing substantial. Here’s one of my favorite poems of hers. It’s complex both in terms of form and content. A great poem.

Mona Van Duyn: Into Mexico

Past the angular maguey fields, a ride on the optic nerve,
we come to the first rest stop, and the visit begins.
It is what I have always wanted; to follow the first signs
in another language makes me weak with joy. I am brave
out back in a courtyard, by a shack that might be the toilet,
when bulging senoras bump me on the back and shoulder me.
If they look at me I do not know what they see,
since even metaphors are changed. Overhead in the heat
the skinned, outrageous body of some animal hangs from a line.
Is it rotting, or drying? I’ve never smelled its rawness before.
Yes, there is a stool in the shack, and soiled toilet paper
in a waist-high pile beside it. Water is in a can.

I touch the paper on the roll, it is rough, it is like . . . nothing else.
I am behind the eyes at last. It is as if one could by-pass
love, when the other eyes parry with a picture of one’s own face,
and never arrive at marriage, either true or false,
when eyes glaze and minds are more private than ever,
but could stop in between at a point where no one
can stop. To be in one’s first foreign country, in approximation,
is to be in you–or to feel what it must be like to be there.

Now it is one long agony of taking-in. From the bus
I can see inside the palings, or tin, or straw of a shelter,
and all pots, braziers and pallets are unfamiliar.
At the first market, walking in through the restless
yellow of bananas, I will go to such furnishings and handle them.
Country dogs here are yellow also, with a long body.
And all the time I have lived as if you were like me.
Now, here, I am released from that stratagem.

In the city I would never have expected a glassy hotel
to rise between little sheds of pink and orange cement,
nor men to pull down their pants and squat in the vacant
lot downtown. Sweet rolls–I am trying to taste them all,
but it will take weeks–are named for creatures and the parts
of creatures, Snails, Cheeks, Noses, Ears, Dogs.
What is that snarled bouquet of herbs a little boy drags
toward home, making a green sweep of the streets?
A woman kneels on the pavement all day to sell
six pyramids of seven cracked walnuts each.
I tongue a clay cup that tastes of dark and starch,
and buy eggs singly, since the price of one is marked on its shell.
Each noise, each name, is enchanted and necessary.
I drift in bed, astonished by faintness and nausea and chills.
I would never have felt this way–is this the way it feels?
Thousands of black beans shine near sweet potato candy.

One starves for this journey, I think, a simple sensing of what is
not thou, not it, but you–a visit behind the eyes
where the map bulges into belief, relief, presents sea,
mountains, macadam, presents a strange and willful country.

“I hear the enchantment of the work”

I believe poets read poetry differently than non-poets do. When some readers talk, I am amazed by the appetite for paraphrase. When critics talk, I am just as amazed by how completely they hear poetry as a function of culture (another sort of paraphrase). But when I hear poets, I hear the enchantment of the work. Their ideas about a poem are always borne by some conception of intimacy or distance of voice, rigor or looseness of attitude, delicacy or directness of treatment. Above all, poets always seem to listen, even as they compose, to the voice of that something that decides the rightness of their designs.

from the introduction of Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry