Readers, as you will note, once more I have this month vacated my space in this note so that we might continue to offer a new element, instead: the authors of the poems (or translations, or both) speaking of their works’ origins, their raisons d’être. I think you’ll find the results fascinating, and enlightening, enriching your reading of the poems, as I did. And given the positive feedback on this change, I have altered the name for this issue; we’ll see if it sticks — a work in progress.
Adam Tavel on “Thanksgiving Chorus”
“Thanksgiving Chorus” was inspired by an actual kindergarten concert my eldest son’s class presented a few years back. While I was struck by the beautiful absurdity of the occasion, what ultimately led to the poem’s composition was the image of a hand-drawn rainbow owl on my son’s costume. Then and now, the image strikes me as innocent, earnest, and freed from the oppressiveness of the Thanksgiving myth, which continues to obfuscate basic historical truths and taint what has always been my favorite holiday. Though that image appears late in the poem, it inspired me to write about this event and juxtapose it with a far less savory recollection from my own childhood. One never knows how successful any poem is, but my hope is that “Thanksgiving Chorus” explores the curious nature of American pageantry and the degree to which the childhoods we provide for our children are a conscious response to our own upbringings.
Benno Barnard on “Fisherman, 50 B.C.”
In the last decade of the 20th century my American wife and I lived in Antwerp, a major European port situated on the estuary of the river Scheldt (or Escaut) in Belgium.
A lively and lovely town, boasting a superior Gothic cathedral, medieval architecture, art nouveau suburbs, a thriving Hasidic community, and a history of incredible early wealth, which in the 16th century became drenched in the blood of the Counterreformation. Half the population fled to the North, where Amsterdam became Antwerp’s successor as the world’s main port. New York wouldn’t have been what it is nowadays without that shift of maritime power. Meanwhile, back in Antwerp, Peter Paul Rubens painted his baroque images of buxom women and dying Saviours.
Possibly even more attractive than its rich history was the mother lode of artistic cafés in Antwerp, the ambience of which an English friend of mine once described as ‘a permanent near sex experience’.
In 1999, a year after our son was born, the local newspaper asked me to write a poem about Antwerp, and I was happy to oblige. But something strange happened. The moment I sat down behind my typewriter (an antediluvian machine on which I kept dashing off poetry and articles until newspapers wouldn’t accept paper contributions anymore) modern Antwerp became invisible. Instead a dozen pile dwellings arose, rickety looking constructions on the muddy bank of the mighty Scheldt. And on the river, in a primitive boat, a man was showing a boy how to mend a net and catch supper with it.
The picture, silvery grey, shrouded in early morning mist, which was gradually being pierced by the morning sun, moved me in an inexplicable way. Everything I loved about Antwerp had disappeared, but the future – or a different past – was approaching fast: somehow I realised that Caesar’s troops, busy conquering Gaul, were just a few miles away. In his De bello Gallico the emperor would describe the Belgians as ‘the bravest of all Gauls’, and that quotation resonated ominously.
The vision dissolved abruptly, as if a film reel had snapped.
In contemporary Antwerp my son was demanding attention at the top of his voice. My wife picked him up and unbuttoned her blouse. He suckled. We smiled at each other.
I then wrote the poem in about twenty minutes.
Wayne Miller on “Every Map Is an Island”
I wrote “Every Map Is an Island” in partial response to the poem “Maps,” by Mexican poet Alberto Blanco, and the title is a quote from section VIII of that poem (in Mark Schafer’s translation). I’m interested in the relationship between abstraction and concretion, theory and actuality—how each leans toward the other, yet usually fails to touch it. I’m also suspicious of a particular kind of travel poem, in which the speaker experiences deep, transformative contact with a place (s)he’s briefly visited. (The “Hey! I went to Paris!” poem.) In fact, I suspect we rarely make meaningful contact with the places we visit—though the time might indeed be meaningful. (The contact isn’t really with the place, in other words; it’s with ourselves.)
In the first section I was remembering a trip to Malaga, Spain, and how my necessary reliance on a map—an abstraction!—to open up that city was also what prevented it from opening more fully or in greater detail. The second section is an improvisatory exploration of various instances of abstraction and concretion—and of how time can eventually render abstractions concrete and concretions abstract.
Rosanna Warren on “Shore”
Hard to write about in prose. Which is why I wrote the poem. A large photograph in the New York Times of January 31, 2016, shows a rocky Turkish beach. Only gradually, in the chiaroscuro scattering of rock shapes, does one discern the three small stiff bodies. How do we see what we do not want to see? And if it’s safely stuck on the page of a newspaper, does that keep us safe? Does photography teach us not to care?
Susan Rich on “Calendars Do Not Hold Fortunes”
As someone who carries worry in her purse and unease in her jacket pocket, this poem was written during a very bad episode with anxiety in 2013. If I were to make a general statement about my writing, it’s that I tend to write poems during the tougher times in my life and especially during what I call “my melancholy months,” which are October through February. Looking back at this poem, I remember I was struggling. I remember feeling disconnected from the world and that there was some sort of health issue happening that required more tests. I remember feeling a shortness of days and making deals with the gods. Maybe this poem was “poetry as therapy,” maybe it was a reminder to stay in the moment and try not to imagine every tragedy, or maybe it was a way to take what was knocking me down and try to turn it into art.
Jessica Greenbaum on “As So Often Happens” and “22 Years Later”
“As So Often Happens”
The memory of being rained out of a summer concert (which we had amazingly actually managed to attend, contrary to 99% of them) popped up one day as an ambassador for the recurring realization that we are not all kicking the ball on the same emotional playing field. I guess it was one of those days where I was trying to make sense of life, ha ha! Sometimes whole experiences fill in as metaphor, and that’s the right downpour for me if I can catch some rain between the letters of the alphabet.
“22 Years Later”
When my lifelong friend Danny died flying an Alaskan bush plane, our childhood friend Robert, also a pilot, went to the crash site and spoke to everyone involved. For twenty two years I distinctly remembered Robert saying that no one understood what happened, that Danny, the most skilled and safest of pilots, must have lost track of the horizon. But when I spoke to Robert recently, venturing to ask again, he insisted it was always thought that Danny flew straight into a mountain, not ascending quickly enough. How strange to be relieved by that news! Some undiminished sadnessness change shape, even so.
Dana Golin on Helga Landauer-Olshvang
While I tend to be a formalist in my own writing, I relish the opportunity for play – both wordplay and roleplay – that translation affords. Embodying Helga Landauer-Olshvang’s voice, trying to give it an English cadence, allows me the pleasure of experimentation with form and meter, tone and register, in someone else’s guise, while the common denominator – the depth and complexity of feeling – makes this poetic text not only relatable, but intensely personal to me. This author, writing in free verse, employing an extended syntactic arc and disjointed, loosely connected grammatical fragments rather than formal sentences, seems to proceed by intuitive, associative leaps, like a creeping vine that must find an immediate foothold before it can choose the vector for its movement, and footing for its subsequent segment. As a result, Landauer-Olshvang’s poems have a grasping quality, as if in the process of her allusive, stream-of-consciousness language making, she is trying to grasp emotional truths at the speed of writing. That ”live,” real time, breath-measured development of her poems draws the reader (and the translator!) into an almost voyeuristic intimacy, that seems more conspiratorial then confessional in nature.
It is ironic that Helga Landauer-Olshvang’s Russian text is likely influenced more by American Language Poetry than by anything in the Russophone tradition; I hope that my translations have, at least in part, succeeded in bringing it back home, into the fold of the English language.
Elena Karina Byrne on ” Deliberate As Thinking Is the Rain”
“Deliberate as Thinking is the Rain” is one of my rare prose poems, yet one of many poems written about the death of my half-sister Lynne. It has been a difficult task I have set upon myself: to write a narrative poem about “real-life experiences” that become psychological thresholds. Artist Paul Klee, who seriously considered being a poet, targets what becomes of the incongruous-cognitive speculation I found in this childhood moment… one, abstracted from time, place and body (the carrier or maker of memory). The autonomous/abstract always inevitably seems to retrieve the artist’s endeavoring survival of what it means to be human, to be alive: the feeling-thinking realm of being, conscious or not. The rain’s personification “kicking itself back” in its “carnal ambition” mirrors Lynne’s dissolving into the phenomenal world of landscape, water and tree gully where she died and was found, tiny branches in the lungs. The terrible happening was “far removed,” yet this time not from nature, but rather thrown into it, establishing a new consciousness of nature. These precarious, vertiginous moments that change who we are, make time the chameleon stranger at our door.
The epigraph came from this article:
Paul Klee speaking of an exhibition by Delaunay remarked that he “has created the type of autonomous picture, which leads, without motifs from nature, to a completely abstract life form. A structure of plastic life, nota bene, almost as far removed as a Bach fugue is from a carpet.” (ibid., p. 9)
Lisa Rose Bradford on “In Search of Grace”
Florida, the Great Hereafter—after winter, after retirement. It was the ecstasy of an Ohioan childhood and the high school status of blisters and peeling. Church was a place to sing; Florida a place to die. Dos Passos, Susan Orlean, Peter Matthiessen filled in the reality of the peninsula for me in later years, but the aura remains, even in the wake of hurricane Irma.