“Your children wander aimlessly poisoned by cocaine, / Choosing to indulge their lusts, when God has said abstain.”

Senate candidate Roy Moore’s poem warns us that the end is nigh because of our indulged lusts and aimlessly wandering children.

He knows whereof he speaks.

Poem.

THE NARCOTIC FAMINE


‘The American opioid-overdose epidemic must be addressed in the same stroke as the [global] narcotic famine.’

Hard to imagine
Narcotic famine

The stark hills the plain
Wide face of pain’s

End-of-life. Our morphine-feed.
Their tumbleweed.

Or the black unmitigated tea
Of uninfused misery.

Against our continuous bolus
The subcutaneous solace

That tranquils labored breath,
Sedates us up to death …

Their bitter unassistive pill.
Unpalliated kill.

Richard Wilbur, a Great American Poet, has Died.

At 96. Here’s one of his best poems. It’s nice and seasonal.

In the Elegy Season

Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls’:
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.

Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air. And now the envious mind

Which could not hold the summer in my head
While bounded by that blazing circumstance
Parades these barrens in a golden trance,
Remembering the wealthy season dead,

And by an autumn inspiration makes
A summer all its own. Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.

Less proud than this, my body leans an ear
Past cold and colder weather after wings’
Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,
The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,

Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells
Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight
Of green leaves building into the light
And azure water hoisting out of wells.

******************

UD‘s Wilbur posts. (Scroll down.)

The Ball Turret Gunner, today.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into State U.
And I drank in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Miles from home, loosed from my parents’ love,
I woke to black vodka and the nightmare brothers.
When I died I was .495 booze.

The Death of John Ashbery is a Bump in the Day, A Flooding of the Council.

America’s greatest postmodern poet has died. And just like he was saying, one is – on hearing of his death – bumped from one’s dog-perch.

DAY BUMP

Whether the harborline or the east shoreline
consummated it was nobody’s biz until you got there,
eyelids ashimmer, content with one more dispensation
from blue above. And just like we were saying,
the people began to show some interest
in the mud-choked harbor. It could be summer again
for all anyone in our class knew.
Yeah, that’s right. Bumped from our dog-perch,
we’d had to roil with the last of them.

It’s taken a while since I’ve been here,
but I’m resolved. What, didn’t I print,
little piles of notes, slopes almost Sicilian?
Here is my friend:
Socks for comfort (now boys) will see later. Did they come?
The inner grocery had to take three sets of clips away.
Speaking to him of intricate family affairs.
I’m not what you think. Stay preconscious.
It’s just the “flooding of the council.” No need to feel afraid.

*********************

Whatayawhataya. Hold on and we’ll try to make some sense of it. All the while remembering first this from Ashbery:

What [my poems] are is about the privacy of all of us, and the difficulty of our own thinking. And in that way, they are, I think, accessible if anyone cares to access them.

IOW: The soul of man is a far country (Heraclitus).

And second, this from John Koethe:

The tone [of an Ashbery poem is] likely to be nostalgic and its motions those of reverie. Its predominant feelings are passive ones, like resignation and loss; its language is resonant and suggestive; the use of narrative past tense invests it with a mythological quality; and its overall effect is one of tenderness. It dissociates itself, especially in its transitions and patterns of inference, from everyday ideas of rationality and control; its awareness of language is informed by a sense of its limitations…

So here we go.

****************

DAY BUMP

[The poem will narrate a break in a day – something bumping into the normal flow of event. But as in the phrase bumping up, there is something clarifying about this disturbance, this – to use a word we’ll find in the poem – sudden roiling.]

Whether the harborline or the east shoreline
consummated it was nobody’s biz until you got there,

[Coastal holiday setting, it seems, harbors and shores; and if you look at the next stanza and note the word resolved, you’ll see that a conflict between, or confluence of, stability and instability appears in the poem. The speaker awaits a friend who will join him at the shore/harbor, and nothing will clarify itself until he gets there. Consummation has a sexual connotation as well, and I’m going to suggest that this poem may be about Ashbery remembering himself as a closeted young man among straight friends. Finally, on the assumption that many of Ashbery’s autobiographical poems are about writing poetry, there’s maybe a suggestion here that nothing in the world “consummates” or “resolves” into existence until the poet puts it into words. Until then, it’s all roiling and flooding and bumps.]

eyelids ashimmer, content with one more dispensation
from blue above.

[His friend is not a writer; he is merely content that nature has gifted him with another beautiful blue day, sunlight in which his eyelids shimmer. Actually, our writer isn’t a writer yet either; both of them continue to live in that blessed condition of unselfconscious youth in which you take the world, eagerly, just as it comes to you. You are one with it.].

And just like we were saying,
the people began to show some interest
in the mud-choked harbor.

[Hm. Maybe there’s a threat of flooding there – maybe it’s not a “harbor” at all, but, looked at more carefully, a mud-soaked about-to-be-flood.].

It could be summer again
for all anyone in our class knew.
Yeah, that’s right.

[Language drawn from the poet’s youth here, when he was still in “class,” and when he and his friends said to one another would-be cool phrases like Yeah, that’s right.].

Bumped from our dog-perch,
we’d had to roil with the last of them.

[Locals, these boys were above it all, watching the summer visitors with cool disregard; the oncoming flood has however knocked them from their dog-days perch, and they’ve got to join the rest of humanity as it tries to stay afloat in life. Which is to say, we have a Wordsworthian poem on our hands, lamenting the loss of childhood and the onset of adulthood.]

It’s taken a while since I’ve been here,
but I’m resolved.

[The poet has returned to his early home, and he is now a “resolved” adult – he has resolved into something – a personality, a poet, a citizen…].

What, didn’t I print,
little piles of notes, slopes almost Sicilian?

[Here is his reference to his career as a poet, his “fall” into writing and out of a world of soundless joyous unity with nature, his infinite strenuous burning efforts – Sicilian, with volcanic elements – to know the world as opposed merely to be in the world.]

Here is my friend:
Socks for comfort (now boys) will see later. Did they come?

[Ja, very obscure lines. Part of this I think is simply the “privacy” of Ashbery’s particular life – Ashbery was famously painted with argyle socks – but I think the larger idea super-compressed here is again the Wordsworthian one of youth regarded from the perspective of age. We’re boys now, with whatever – sports socks – but we will eventually be old men wearing comfort socks. As for Did they come? I’m thinking about sex – I’m thinking about how the word socks is not far from sex and sucks, and that the poet is recalling not comfort sex but athletic sex and asking a specific question about their youthful sexual experimentation. In this regard, and keeping the idea of whether something was “consummated” or not in mind, that “day bump” could also be read as someone’s erection.]

The inner grocery had to take three sets of clips away.

[Socks, clips, youth – I’m thinking bicycles here, with the poet’s mind full of the memory of objects which he takes off the brain-shelves and puts in his poems – his inner stocked grocery. Memory clips. Perhaps he’s talking about the poet taking “clips” of his past out of his mind and using them poetically; perhaps he’s alluding to the death of friends from home.]

[And now the way-enigmatic final lines of the poem:]

Speaking to him of intricate family affairs.
I’m not what you think. Stay preconscious.
It’s just the “flooding of the council.” No need to feel afraid.

************

Okay, so people are starting to take an interest in the mud-choked harbor — the boys’ eyes are beginning to “shimmer” with a sense of the congested psychic mess that the mature human mind happens to be. Or the boys are beginning to sense the power of their “pent-up aching rivers” – their libidos. They don’t quite feel threatened with all of that yet; but they sense the possibility of the oncoming flood of mortal pain and complication that awaits them.

In this particular remembered conversation between the poet and his friend, the poet recalls both deep candor and confidences between them (intricate family affairs) and his own actual disturbing, “roiling” secrets. I’m not what you think, he now says to his friend. I’m gay. Maybe you, my friend, begin to sense that disturbing fact, but from this vantage point I prefer that you stay preconscious, so that we can draw out this blissful pre-flood life as long as possible. What you’re seeing – what you’re disturbed by – is a sudden “flooding” of your precocious grown-up rational faculties – the “council” that sits in your head – as it begins to identity certain difficult truths. But stay young! Hold off fear and confusion as long as you possibly can.

Curious, how very differently two people can read the same poem.

For John Ashbery’s ninetieth birthday, the Guardian’s poetry critic reproduces and discusses this late-career poem of his:

Life is a Dream

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard, where they have rollcall.
My name begins with an A,
so is one of the first to be read off.
I am wondering where to stand – could that group of three
or four others be the beginning of the line?

Before I have the chance to find out, a rodent-like
man pushes at my shoulders. “It’s that way,” he hisses. “Didn’t they teach you anything at school? That a photograph
of anything can be real, or maybe not? The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.”

I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.

******************

In her telling, it’s bristling with homophobia, Auschwitz, coming of age, and love; UD on the other hand reads it as a mildly anxious gloss on Yeats’s similar late-career poem, Circus Animal’s Desertion.

Both poems, IMHO, feature old poets reflecting on the process of aesthetic creation, on the way some people – people like them – are sort of both blessed and cursed with the ability to take the random broken stuff of the world and transform it into art. In Yeats, the poet mucks around in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Ashbery’s in the same trash- and lumber-yard:

A talent for self-realization
will get you only as far as the vacant lot
next to the lumber yard

Same point, no? A capacity for transforming the vague fallen dross of the world into meaningful formal beauty is only a capacity – all your poetic life you must try to get farther than the vacant lot (note the nice internal contradiction of that phrase, the word “lot” meaning not only enclosed place, but many – so again the rag and bone shop, the lumber yard, is full of things; there’s a lot in or near that lot; but since nothing has been done to transform any of its objects and make it meaningful, it is vacant, expressionless). The vacant lot is the abundant object-nothingness, the object-silence, of the world that confronts the poet again and again as he attempts to write a poem and give the world words. At this late stage in their poetic lives, both Yeats and Ashbery are feeling some degree of panic, let’s say, as their imaginative powers wane (What can I but enumerate old themes) and their profoundest images begin to look old.

Letters, being “read off,” the beginning of the line: The rest of Ashbery’s first stanza expresses – in his typical oblique vague dreamy way – the difficulty of beginning a poem — beginning an Ashbery poem, with a capital A. This poem self-reflexively elaborates upon the perennial gnawing anxiety of the poetic vocation, the creative imperative; and the surrealistic introduction of the nasty urging rodent-like man in the next stanza would, in this account of the poem, be the poet’s own anxious impatient self-punishing insistence on a life of continued artistic productivity: Don’t just muck around inside this dream, you fool – you’ve learned how to make anything “real” – that is, you’ve learned how to give anything persuasive aesthetic shape and life – and your vocation is to continue to do so. Take whatever you like from the lumber yard/rag and bone shop. Take

The corner of the stove,
a cloud of midges at dusk-time.

And fashion it into poetic form.

Or maybe Ashbery’s poem/poetic dream is the temporal inverse of Yeats’s – maybe this is the old Ashbery remembering himself as a young poet, a poet just beginning to be “schooled” in poetry. If so, his last stanza is the old poet reflecting on his subsequent decades of education in world-transformation:

I know I’ll have a chance to learn more
later on. Waiting is what’s called for, meanwhile.
It’s true that life can be anything, but certain things
definitely aren’t it. This gloved hand,
for instance, that glides
so securely into mine, as though it intends to stay.

What is life, and what is a dream? Both dream and life are dream, and if you are a poet “It was the dream itself enchanted me.” Dream is anything, but sly life slips in things that boast of solid empirical real life, like the sudden feeling in your hand of a gentle, guiding, and loving gloved hand that slips so easily into yours and seems destined to stay by you permanently — that’s a certain thing that definitely is not life. That is the poet’s writing hand gloved into a false comfort and ease which amounts to an evasion of the artistic imperative. Think of the complex invitations and evasions of the painterly hand that dominates Ashbery’s most famous poem; “Life is a Dream” is yet another enumeration of the theme of poetic consciousness and poetic procedure:


Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed […]
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

Spencer’s Fair Queen

Spencer’s Fair Queen

More than most, Fair’s full of the living fire,
Kindled within to make the nazi feare:
No feare of noise to make while he perspires,
Not loath to spit upon his training gear.
Through your disdain blindsided guest
Denies his name and utters not a sound.
But you will not allow mad minds to rest
In fascist hopes on race war futures bound.
You stop his thoughts and pinion him within,
You stop his tongue, and teach his gym to freake,
You quick’n the storme his passion did begin,
Strong through your cause as you your vengeance wreake.
Dark is the world, where your rage shined never;
Sad is he borne, that may behold you ever.

************************

“In 1932, some German people were probably saying between bites of wiener-schnitzel, ‘this is some fucked up shit,’ and then didn’t do anything.”

Christine Fair

To An Athlete Dying Young

There is always a required and bittersweet rhetoric of death in moments like these, especially when it involves a once-star athlete dying young.

The time you won the champions’ game
Gainesville sang and cheered your name
Prof and prez let out a cry
And home they brought you shoulder-high.

That school so hard recruited you!
Yet now it’s silent. (Aaron who?)
Hero of a college town
Now a god without a crown.

Smart lad, who slips away
From fields where glory does not stay;
Or fields that never glory knew —
For all who saw the truth of you.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than jeers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now round that early-laurelled head
Gather fans who sometime said
He’s made us proud to be UF!
… Why don’t we feel too much bereft?

A Reclaimed Poem Reclaims Westminster Bridge.

Colin Bancroft is the author.

The original.

When to the sweet silent thought of Sessions (Sonnet 30)

When to the sweet silent thought of Sessions
He summons up remembrance of things past,
He finds himself caught up in indiscretions
In answer to the questions Franken asked.
Now does he drown an eye, unused to flow,
For Russian friends with whom he used to play,
And weep afresh what he pretended not to know,
And moan the absence of his vieux Sergey.
Now can he grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which he new pays as if not paid before.
But all of this might be excused
If he be granted his recuse.

An excerpt from a poem that puts today’s exciting astronomical news …

… in perspective.

********************

Sawyer was drunk when he delivered his opening remarks
onstage at Stardome Planetarium. He
stood below a slide show of “The Emptiness of Outer Space”
— stars and planets, scattered like the scantest
motes of dust in unimaginable void — and was about
to make the leap to what percent of us,
our dearly thumping bodies, is a corresponding emptiness . . .
when one foot met a wire that had strayed
outside the curtain, and a wild arc of hand undid
the podium, which canted off its casters sidelong
into the 3-D galaxy props, and you could say whatever
thimble or pustule or hackle of grief was his,
it had toppled the whole damn universe.


……………………………..

Tonight, though, after show time,
he’s just soused enough to wander through the mock-up
stage-set milky ways agog with child-wonder:
all those luminescent islands! all that vacuum!
Look: a planet floats, there’s that much cosmos
all around it. A planet! While we . . . we couldn’t
squint and levitate a half inch, not the guru-most
among us. Well, we could: if the laws of the universe changed.
It’s only the Earth that makes us so heavy.
It’s only our lives that keep our lives
from floating off into the nothing.

Dam Good Poem

With everyone thinking about Oroville, UD shares Harriet Monroe’s little meditation on the ambiguity of progress.

During construction of the Aswan Dam, some antiquities were salvaged by moving them to the new lake’s banks; others were allowed to go under. Monroe notes the obvious goods of the dam (“starving mouths are fed”), and considers “the old gods of the desert” left to “sleep in the river’s bed.”

******************

The Assouan Dam

There is a lake at Philae
Where once a temple rose.
Steel walls confront the river,
The great gates open and close;
And through parched wastes the wilful Nile
Obediently flows.

There is a lake at Philae
And starving mouths are fed.
The old gods of the desert
Sleep in the river’s bed.
So still in wave-locked halls they lie —
It may be they are dead.

1929

A Magazine Poem.

[A poem drawn from words and phrases in this essay, in the New Yorker.]

**********************

Survival Condo Project

I will arise and go now, and go to Wichita.
I keep a copter ready, gassed up all the time.
For to think ad infinitum is to think dystopia:
Quake on the fault, pandemic, dirty bomb.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from silo walls to where the bitcoin rings;
There the prairie’s all aglimmer on the live video
And evening full of taped birds’ wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear disaster slapping with loud sounds on the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

A Poem for January…

…whose last few lines echo – uncannily – Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.

Go here for the poem unaccosted; what follows is the poem plus UD‘s commentary in brackets.

********

JANUARY

[By Alfred Corn.
Written in 1977.]


[January can be a month of renewal — or a cold dark drag, a calendrical crystallization of every warm and vital thing frozen within you. Corn’s poem is like that. The frozen thing.]

Night swallows up everything but doesn’t
Alone cast the shadow inside, this sense
Of incompleteness, lack
Of echo…

[No, not night alone. My own despair helps cast the shadow.]

I expect
Too much? Too little?

[The poet grapples with his poetic ambition. At the moment he is, like Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind,” writing a lyric about being unable to write a lyric.]

My undetailed season
Only appears in the bright particulars
Of paired headlights flooding an avenue,
It seems, at cross-purposes with Number.

[I’m like an aimless car at night, turning on the floodlights but illuminating no meaningful location – no detail; no Number.]

If the worst certainties were skill – but now
The mind goes begging, words crumble, refuse
To render anything at all, except
The barrenness their failure parallels.

[Maybe I could at least – being a skilled wordsmith – write a kind of empty but stylish tour de force… Just to get something verbal out there… But my wintry despair is such that even words now fail me, revealing only my existential barrenness.]

People, like a people, do have slumps, when
Nothing wants to be said, and what is,
Hardly worth anyone’s staying awake for –
A satire for unaccommodated men.

[The world fails to accommodate my mind, my heart, my soul, the enormity of my desire for completeness, my desire that the world outside reverberate with – echo – my inner world.]

Best, they claim, to remount the horse that threw
You (in the present case, a horse with wings)

[That’s Pegasus – poetry – there. That’s the particular horse the demoralized poet must get back on. Did it throw him, indeed, because he tried to fly too high for his mundane times? Wanted too much, that is?]

So as to demonstrate –
To show that you are … what?
I’ve forgotten. Given that I can do
Only as well as my times, just how much
Will they sustain?

[Another statement of the same idea: How high can I fly, given where and when I live?]

Or the doubtful subject
Of a self in neither sense exemplary?

[There is moral as well as aesthetic judgment here. The problem is not perhaps in our unpoetic stars as in ourselves.]

[Corn will close – as so many lyricists do – by shifting his focus from himself to his setting, his city.]

In those doorways several will freeze tonight,
Disappointment’s victims, failures at love,
Dazed benumbed – but this is self-description.
Pure perversity, I guess, leads me to search
The mirror of my self-imposed city for
What, if anything here, holds a promise,
The gift of speech that comes to those who hear
A word sounded through the white noise of the world.

[Very DeLilloesque, that. The novel White Noise is about the very same thing – listening so intently to the empty background noise of the world (“white” here has a nice extra symbolic resonance, since we’re January and that’s about benumbing and even killing white snow) that you begin to discern something other than white noise. A word sounded through the white noise of the world. Only the poet’s ear can catch that hidden resonance, which inevitably has to do with suffering (here, the homeless in the doorways) outside of you which somehow “accommodates” the suffering within you. The writer at the center of DeLillo’s novel Mao II has always made a point of listening very closely to the things ordinary people say – because if you listen closely enough, they are saying something extraordinary:

[I]t made his heart shake to hear these things … the uninventable poetry, inside the pain, of what people say.

It’s cold out there. In there. Gotta get the old ticker shaking again.]

So here’s a companion poem to the one I just talked about. Notice that they both conclude with the word “trick.”

This one, Lullaby, is by a Canadian poet, Amanda Jernigan. It shares with Aleksandr Kushner’s poem (see the post just below this one) an attempt to comfort the cold mortal self as it suffers the briefest and darkest and deadest days of the year, which inevitably means that it suffers a reckoning with its own deadly fate.

These are late December, everything winding down, poems. Winter solstice poems.

From its title (Lullaby) on, Jernigan’s poem makes explicit its aim to console. It’s a curious little poem, a tightly rhymed, iambic pentameter, song addressed either to one’s self or to one’s child, and most of its lines are very bleak indeed (even bleaker than Kushners’), very morbid, as the poet describes a life of darkness visible.

My little lack-of-light, my swaddled soul,
December baby. Hush, for it is dark,
and will grow darker still.

Born in darkness, then right away swaddled into more darkness (William Blake: ‘Struggling in my fathers hands: /Striving against my swaddling bands: / Bound and weary I thought best / To sulk upon my mothers breast.’), we shut up our souls and our children (Hush) because life is dangerously dark and will only get darker, and we are afraid. The event of the winter solstice expresses the truth of life as it slows and narrows and darkens over time.

We must embark
directly. Bring an orange as the toll
for Charon: he will be our gondolier.

Bring a brilliant sunny emblem of the lost world of light to the underworld’s ferryman who sits just across the river (both poems feature ritual gathering at a river) waiting to escort us to the end of life. Many of the world’s winter solstice celebrations involve offerings of fruit.

Upon the shore, the season pans for light,
and solstice fish, their eyes gone milky white,
come bearing riches for the dying year:
solstitial kingdom.

Pans is beautiful – a delicate, frail, one-syllable word painting the weak sun as searching for gold in the shallow water. “Solstice” fish, their pale eyes dead from weak sunlight, are tokens of the kingdom of unmoving darkness.

It is yours, the mime
of branches and the drift of snow. With shaking
hands, Persephone, the winter’s wife,
will tender you a gift.

The poet again directly addresses her child, or her own soul, and with rueful irony bestows on her/it the gift of a dead world (the mere “mime” of branches).

On her way back to the underworld, its queen pauses with freezing hands to offer a different gift to the poet, the poet’s soul, the poet’s child. What has she bestowed upon the artist?

Born in a time
of darkness, you will learn the trick of making.
You shall make your consolation all your life.

In Kushner’s poem, he’s standing outside freezing, but

I cannot live until
I’ve learnt how this trick is done.

He’s going to keep standing out there until he can figure out a way – poetically – to thaw, reanimate, and ultimately comfort the world. He’s going to learn the poet’s art – the magic trick of bringing the dead back to life. He’s going to learn how to keep us, as Ursula Le Guin says, from dissolving into our surroundings. And Jernigan has the same trick in mind: The poet learns the trick of making. She learns how the imagination can transform, enliven, and console.

Indeed that word – consolation – though it has nothing etymologically to do with the sun, has sol in it — for that matter, has soul in it… Which suggests that the poet’s gift, trick, art, is to pan for, to gather, to consolidate, what little sunlight remains, and transmute it to real gold.

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