October: splendor, yes, but in truth, paradoxically, an invisible month in many ways, reduced to its metaphors: “the leaves falling like our years, the flowers fading like our hours, the clouds fleeting like our illusions, the light diminishing like our intelligence, the sun growing colder like our affections, the rivers becoming frozen like our lives…” as Chateaubriand has it in Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe. Though not merely metaphorical tropes, but the orthodoxy of October’s Hallmark-worthy presentation conspiring to enforce another version of invisibility: One thinks of those omnipresent troupes of commedia dell’arte performers in Venice with their gaudy threadbare costumes and relentless gaiety; their sniveling pedants and strutting generals legible to the least gifted child; “theatrical” gestures encased in amber, the whole cannonade of belly-laughs and spilled bosoms; plots drawn in outline, in the heaviest crayon — accosting whatever wandering souls happen upon their “impromptu” assemblages: their triteness like two hands over the spectator’s eyes, blinding him to the (difficult, challenging) transfigurative potential of art, now reduced to (or exchanged for?) the…oh, let’s say it, the bourgeois comforts of ceremony, the reassurance of the expected. Yet, both of these — agreed-upon symbology (see Chateaubriand) and sanctioned iconography (see: Vermont lanes, pumpkin spice lattes) — if we are honest with ourselves, aren’t they also one of the calling cards of delight? The tourists don’t seem to mind! Nor do we. Ask any number of people to identify their favorite month, and October – if not the actual month, its season – will be the answer more times than not. Why? Perhaps precisely because it seems to demand so little of us: its emotional resonances ready-made, sure, its phenomena (those blazing trees, smell of wood smoke, sky blue and weightless as an aerogram, etc.), sentimental, stupid, of course, of course –
And still: knowing all of this, we find ourselves – despite ourselves – feeling the old truths, participating in the ritual (if only by proxy, as audience) even if the original thing-itself has been obscured by time and repetition, diminished by interpretation and retreated into fairy tale. After all, who can resist, and feel all the more alive because of it, the erotic shiver of winter in the air, effervescence of iron and raspberry in the limbs, scratch of wool sweaters on our bared napes? (Month, too, when “…the sister’s of our friends appear more beautiful” – Follain. )
So: it is just this mysterious month (from Greek mysterion “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes “one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut” and, tellingly, the Greek word used in Septuagint for “secret counsel of God”), whose name itself, however, serves no god or emperor, that leads me now to this issue’s – yes – “secret poem”, again from Larkin, wherein some of these qualities are registered – far more elegantly, and surely more powerfully, than the above ramblings might suggest, with an empty — though not yet and one imagines never completely useless — church standing in for this month we revere, too, awkwardly:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
from, The Less Deceived, The Marvell press, 1954
October, then: and stop we do…wondering [but somehow understanding] what to look for; a serious month, always surprising in us a hunger…
The fall reading in Los Angeles was by all accounts a success: many thanks to Mark Irwin, Arthur Vogelsang, Ralph Angel, Mark Svenvold and Marci Vogel at Beyond Baroque, LA, 19 September, 8:00 p.m., expertly emceed by Richard Modianao.
Likewise the Brooklyn Book Festival – where a fair number of copies of the Plume Anthology of Poetry 2013 found buyers. Thanks to Jonathan Penton and Marc Vincenz.
And once again, Paris: Marilyn Hacker Molly Lou Freeman, Emmanuel Moses, Jeffrey Greene and – now assured — Claire Malroux. The American University of Paris. Grand Salon, Oct 30 at 6:30 p.m. I will be speaking with university students at AUP on the 29th, and reading with the group on the 30th. Again, copies of the Plume Anthology of Poetry 2013 will be available for purchase.
Many thanks to all of these PLUME contributors!
Look for my interview with Mary Mackey regarding the trials and rewards of putting together an anthology at marymackey.com .
The print Plume Anthology of Poetry 2014 is just now taking shape – nearly, oh, 4/5 full. Any poets who would like their work considered for inclusion, please write me at plumepoetry.com Seeking, too, a writer for the Preface…
(Again: on the off chance that you, poets, are interested in reading for PLUME or might want to organize a reading in your own neighborhood, please, again, email me at email@example.com – we’ll make every effort to accommodate you, I promise.)
Our cover art this month is from Plume contributor Dzvinia Orlowsky. Its title is “Famine: A Crop of People.” Dzvinia’s fifth poetry collection, Silvertone, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2013. Her and Jeff Friedman’s co-translation of Memorials by Polish Poet Mieczyslaw Jastrun was published by Dialogos in August, 2014.
Next up, after this issue’s Featured Selection from Glenn Mott, with an introduction by Jonathan Stalling, look for extended work from Nin Andrews ; Daniel Bourne and Tadeusz Dziewanowski in collaboration; Gennady Aygi and the great Russian Tatar painter Igor Vulokh, also in collaboration; Linda Pastan; Chris Kennedy; Tess Gallagher and Lawrence Matsuda; with others just appearing on the horizon. (Here, too, again, let me add as always: those with projects that might be suitable for the Featured Selection please do contact us with your proposal at firstname.lastname@example.org ).
Finally, New Work Received this month includes pieces from Anatoly Kudryavitsky; Brian Swann; Luigi Fontanella, José Manuel Cardona, translated by Hélène Cardona, who also has a poem forthcoming in Plume – our first father-daughter team ; Daniel Tobin; Keith Althaus; Monica Youn; and Salgado Maranhão, translated by Alexis Levitin; Nin Andrews; and Tara Skurtu.
As always, I do hope you enjoy the issue!