Newsletter #102 February 2020

Newsletter #102 February 2020
April 17, 2020 Plume
Charalampos Kydonakis
from the series oNCe

February, 2020

Welcome to Plume Issue # 102 —

February: and I want to confess a habit, a practice per one of Joseph Campana’s usages below, and hope one or two of you might share it: I am a constant reviser. Not only of my own work – as almost all poets are — but of the work of others. A habit at once playful and arrogant, sometimes heretical when it takes on the most hallowed, long-concretized poems, the ones that seem…inevitable. For example, as I read and reread Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy”, I found myself wanting the poem to stop at the stanza

I thought about the past — working
the hooks loose, the fish writhing

in my hands, each one slipping away
before I could let go.

I know, I know, how much I would miss all that follows, how the poem far-from-naturally concludes here, most assuredly is not structured to end here, nor would I suggest the poem be reconfigured so as to effect this alteration. And yet – for me, this is the most memorable analogy/image, the one that will stick with me. It’s a game I play, all but involuntarily. And not one confined to poetry, far from it. Most often, I find myself rearranging, truncating, or otherwise altering  the lyrics of pop songs, or news or podcasts, articles in magazines (and, yes, the Times – about which, by the way, one wonders how much a proofreader would set them back). Do you, as well, reader, indulge your inner editor? (On the other hand, sometimes the artist very much knows best – Stevie Nicks’ “white-winged dove” is probably not improved by “one-winged dove” as my wife thought was the original lytic for, oh, thirty years.) A passing thought, anyway.

But enough. Onward, now, to the great pleasures that await you with Mr. Campana’s insights into, and sprung from, Trethewey’s “Elegy [I think by now the river must be thick.”].

On Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy [I think by now the river must be thick.”]

I’ve been thinking about the elasticity of words. In this case “practice.” Practice is that which is an abstract ideal (as in the phrase theory vs. praxis). Some professions, like medicine and law, use it to describe both a way of conducting business or even their place of business. Practice is a way of doing things that may solidify in custom or habit (a practice, or that which we practice). Practice is also preparatory, the exercise of some set of rituals or procedures over and over with the intention of improving performance. We may not be doctors or lawyers (although some, of course, are) but poets too practice a craft, the executing of the making of poems, over and over again placing one word next (or nearish) another in the hope some string of significance develops. We try, again and again, over weeks, days, months, and years to get it right. Whatever “it” is. Sometimes there is nothing but practice. Mastery eludes us because it is likely impossible. All there is, then, is repetition: aspire, execute, consider, repeat. This goes on for whole lifetimes. And as soon as you have enough people participating in a practice over enough time and space, you have a tradition or, if that word strikes you as too restrictive or loaded, a conversation.
In my mind this month, alongside the word practice is the word “elegy” thanks to Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Elegy [I think by now the river must be thick.”] Certainly, there is a tradition of elegy stretching back millennia. Ancient Greek elegiac poets, like Mimnermus practiced elegy which was a form as yet without a content. It was a way of fashioning lines usually in couplets—hexameter then pentameter, 6 then 5. And yet how quickly elegy acquires a familiar subject matter as well: “We are like leaves which the flowery season of spring brings forth, when they quickly grow beneath the rays of the sun; like them we delight in the flowers of youth for an arm’s length of time…Youth’s fruit is short-lived, lasting as long as the sunlight spreads over the earth.” Even before elegy was more consistently about death or in response to a singular death, it seems elegy was about death. Or at least the one fundamental truth: all things change, all things die. That, of course, includes us, explaining why there’s so much elegy, so much writing about it.
I suppose what I wonder, especially as I read Trethewey’s elegy, is what kind of practice elegy is. As a tradition stretching back millennia, was it a practice aiming at the perfection of a task: mastering, through words, the persistence of loss as a facet of mortality? Is it a practice in which an individual poet attempts to master a particular loss? Or is it something we practice in preparation for the losses that will come, whether we anticipate them or not?
Trethewey’s poem begins other kinds of practice in mind. A woman calls to mind the memory of a day fishing with her father. But we’re not solidly placed in time. She imagines, first, what the river might look like now, extrapolating from that memory. Remembering is a practice, which is why there flourished in medieval Europe a series of practice often referred to as the arts of memory. We have to work to remember, we practice to solidify some sense of the past. The practice of the poem takes place at a lush river in the world and in the mind. It is “thick with salmon” with “drizzle needling / the surface, mist at the banks like a net / settling around us – everything damp and shining.” The poem practices at memory just as the woman and her father practice an activity, fishing, with a guide in a river. It seems as if this is not habitual activity, not a tradition, although the conversation that passes between them happens entirely in that practice: “how you tried – again and again – to find / that perfect arc.” The father doesn’t find the perfect arc. Instead, he struggles: “You must remember how / the river seeped in over your boots / and you grew heavier with that defeat.” Although recollection saturates the poem, like the water filling the father’s boots, it is the daughter’s success, catching “two small trout we could not keep” that leads to her most explicit reflection on what has passed into the river of time. “I can tell you now,” she says,

that I tried to take it all in, record it
for an elegy I’d write — one day —

when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless.

The loss has not yet happened, although it would soon after the publication of the poem. And yet the practice of memory, the practice of fishing, the practice of silent observation, and the habit of the unspoken all haunt the poem with the force of elegy. Maybe elegy is a way of trying to master the moment, the “one day” when the loss does come. We have to practice, imagining losses we often will describe, after they happen, as unimaginable. Fortunately or unfortunately, the imagination is not so restricted.
Every time we write, especially about those we love, aren’t we not also trying “to take it all in, record it” for the elegies we will write (whether we do or not) for all that will and all those who will pass from our lives? The more I write the more I wonder about what has already slipped into the swift rivers of time and speeds away from me. And I wonder how long those things near to me will last. Trethewey’s elegy makes explicit the practice that is elegy, that is not just a way of marking what and who we’ve lost but is, rather, a way of bringing to mind future loss and trying to habituate ourselves. That’s why the most interesting word in this patient and elegant poem is neither its title, elegy, nor my word, practice, but “ruthless.” And I think the poem makes us wonder if it’s such a bad thing to be ruthless, if it is not, in fact, an unrepentant practice of love.

[“I think by now the river must be thick”]
For my father

I think by now the river must be thick
with salmon. Late August, I imagine it

as it was that morning: drizzle needling
the surface, mist at the banks like a net

settling around us — everything damp
and shining. That morning, awkward

and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked
into the current and found our places —

you upstream a few yards and out
far deeper. You must remember how

the river seeped in over your boots
and you grew heavier with that defeat.

All day I kept turning to watch you, how
first you mimed our guide’s casting

then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
between us; and later, rod in hand, how

you tried — again and again — to find
that perfect arc, flight of an insect

skimming the river’s surface. Perhaps
you recall I cast my line and reeled in

two small trout we could not keep.
Because I had to release them, I confess,

I thought about the past — working
the hooks loose, the fish writhing

in my hands, each one slipping away
before I could let go. I can tell you now

that I tried to take it all in, record it
for an elegy I’d write — one day —

when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter

if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting
your line, and when it did not come back

empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,
dreaming, I step again into the small boat

that carried us out and watch the bank receding —
my back to where I know we are headed.

For biographical information on Natasha Trethewey, you might begin here. 
For Joseph Campana’s biographical notes, please consult the Plume Staff page.

Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not?  — all of the Plume newsletters are  now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.

What else?

Well, it seems useful to repeat last month’s news that Plume will not be attending AWP this year, and my rationale for this decision:

Last month, I noted that Plume Poetry 8 has wrapped, as indeed it has. But, now, a change from our usual schedule. For a number of reasons –logistical, personal, professional — Plume will not attend nor, consequently, have its annual debut reading at AWP.  San Antonio is a city I don’t know, and making venue connections has proved to be all but impossible despite our best efforts – and those of others. There have been family issues, too, which have kept me away from the journal, and for that I apologize.  But, more than these matters, I confess, worthy as parts of it surely are, over the years I have grown less enamored of the enterprise in general, with its hordes and especially as it relates to – book sales. Or, lack thereof. The return on time and trouble finally has reached a tipping point. I think we’ll do better by scheduling reginal readings in the months that follow AWP – which is where you, dear Plume contributors, come in. Before too long, you will receive an email from our publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek, asking for your help in setting up these smaller events in your area. We have done these readings in the past and have found them much more productive, in sales, than our AWP blowout, though I admit I’ll miss those readings, and particularly the after-get togethers. More on this later. (And it’s quite possible we’ll be at AWP/ Kansas City in 2022, as we have close friends there).

Our cover art this month comes from Charalampos Kydonakis’s series oNCe.  You can explore his work here.

And finally, per usual, a few new or shortly forthcoming releases from Plume contributors:

Alice Friman                        Blood Weather

Robert Pinsky                      The Mind Has Cliffs of Fall

Wendy Barker                      Gloss

Nomi Stone                          Kill Class

Carolyn Forché’                   In the Lateness of the World: Poems 

Jane Hirshfield                     Ledger

Lisa Russ Spaar                   More Truly and More Strange

Laure-Anne Bosselaar         These Many Rooms 

That’s it for now – short but I hope sweet — I do hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume