You probably ought to read the first post “#thestack” before this one.
Poems are hard to read one after another. I already kind of knew that, but reading these issues of American Poetry Review is reinforcing it. It’s one thing to read page after page of a sustained narrative, but page after page containing multiple works by multiple authors on multiple subjects is another matter, and this self-made challenge of reading a whole stack of APRs is getting more daunting . . .
The fifth issue in the stack is from January/February 2006. The cover on this one is sky-blue and neon orange, and features an Iranian poet named Forough Farokhzad, whose expression lingers somewhere between a playful “Come and get me” and a more serious “I know something you don’t.” As I went to read this issue, I was cognizant of the fact that I’ve spent more time, in earlier posts, discussing the essays than the poems. So, I was resolved to give more attention to the poems.
Good thing, since this issue had fewer essays. Donald Hall had another “Knock Knock” column, and John Yau had a long piece about artist Jasper Johns. (I picked through Yau’s essay, and like the Charles Dickens prison essay, I couldn’t figure out what it was doing in this magazine.) Hall’s column bounced around a little bit, from setting up poems in print to “literary friendship” to creating textbooks. Not much there that grabbed me, except this:
But then I discovered from my publishers and the teachers they hired to read my manuscript, that if my book were to sell any copies at all I had to include a section on Rhetorical Patterns in Exposition: Example, Comparison and Contrast, Process Analysis, Classification and Division, Cause and Effect, Definition, et cetera. I loathed this way of thinking about language. No writer ever wrote a decent essay considering that he was accomplishing a Process Analysis.
Agreed, once again, Mr. Hall.
Now, the poems.
I liked Landis Everson particularly. Without an author picture, I first thought he might be writing currently, but found in his bio that he was part of the Berkeley Renaissance of the 1960s . . . and that made me wonder if he was any kin to old bearded William Everson. (When I looked it up, I didn’t find whether they were related.) Everson’s poems mixed cultural allusions with a wry sense of humor that reminded why I like West Coast poets from mid-century, Lawrence Ferlinghetti especially. The opening poem “Lemon Tree” ends by remarking, “It hides the smell / of new babies,” and in “Hollyhocks,” we have “the king [who] acted in a kingly way.”
I wish I could say that I enjoyed the poems by Susan McCabe, who came next, but Teresa Leo, with her Pre-Raphaelite author photo, reeled me back in. Leo’s sense of the nuances of sex and relationships is really strong in both of her poems: “Narcissists Anonymous” and “To the Next in Line,” which contains this gem of a stanza:
Just once, during sex, look over your shoulder to see
the not-quite-there of the not-quite-thereness behind you.
And this one, too:
Talk is a saltlick and some smoke. Touch is grounds
for what’s he’s doing when he’s doing you.
Then I got a surprise— Jim Harrison! I love Jim Harrison! I discovered his work in the ’90s after seeing the film adaptation of Legends of the Fall then reading it, then I read Wolf and The Beast that God Forgot and Sundog . . . I hadn’t realized he was in this issue of APR, since on the cover his full name isn’t featured, just a simple “Harrison” at the bottom, which could have been anybody.
Harrison’s poems contained some of his usual subjects: the outdoors and individualism, both laced with biting indictments of lifestyles that disconnect us from nature and each other. I don’t want to gush about passage after passage, but I could – I underlined a bunch – but in the interest of brevity, here are two, both from the longer poem “Modern Times,” from sections III and IX:
We worked for food and shelter
and then bought the arts and better cars,
bigger houses, smarter children,
who couldn’t really learn to read and write.
It was too hard. The arts escaped
to a different heaven to get rid of us.
Our lives are novels we don’t want to read
and we so gracelessly translate their world
for our own purposes.
There he is. Jim Harrison, everybody.
Like I said, it’s tiring to read poem after poem, and that task is even more cumbersome after reading something that I really liked: Gerald Stern’s long poem in the first issue, or Donald Hall’s essay in the most recent one. I’m incited to stay there, mull it over, take time with it, and I don’t necessarily want to continue reading other things. Now that I’m considering it, that might be a weakness of the literary magazines format.
However, I did keep reading. The ancient Greek poet Kallimachos’ name-dropping allusions reminded me of the Roman poet Catullus, whose vulgarities make me laugh. I was glad to learn about Forough Farokhzad, even though translator Meetra Sofia’s self-hugging, spacey-eyed author photo was creepy and awkward. (I had never heard of Farokhzad’s “My Heart Aches for the Garden” before.) One thing I will say for Clayton Eshleman: he has one hell of a vocabulary: subjectility, amnion, gutta percha, bolgia, lambent, crottin, analphabetic Lascaux. I wondered if subjectility was even a word at all, but apparently it came from Jacques Derrida and Antonin Artaud, so there you go. After that wordy experience, Peter Jay Shippy’s playfulness in his single half-page poem was welcome, and that’s about all I had the energy for.
As a person who regularly reads print magazines and who enjoys poetry, the fact that I’ve gotten burned out this soon — five issues into the stack — is fascinating to me. I’ve also wondered if I actually like poems as much as I think I do, since I’m tending naturally toward the essays. Or it’s also possible that I do like poems, I just don’t like all of the ones I’m reading in these magazines. Nobody likes everything, do they?