Newsletter #121 September 2021

Newsletter #121 September 2021
March 23, 2022 Christina Mullin

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi): detail from The Lute Player, 1596

September, 2021

Welcome to Plume #121 –

September, and, having just read for a third time this issue’s essay from Associate Editor Chard DeNiord, “On the Sublime Irony Of Nothing And The Divine Imagination”, I was struck anew by his thoughts on  the inevitable association of silence and nothingness. Thoughts, given a recent trip to (again, again) visit the Chicago Institute of Art’s Throne Miniatures,  that seemed to find a natural corollary there – how suddenly these tiny, precisely crafted galleries and parlors and living rooms evoked, on reflection, the intersection of these two fundamental states.  Entirely unpeopled, each, as one viewer observes, is “a shoe box–sized stage”; a stage, it might be added, from which the absent actors/inhabitants seem to announce their ghostly presences both inside and outside the viewer – or as Heidegger has it, phenomenon showing itself by not showing itself. And what is poetry, but the art of this subtle prestidigitation? Think of Frost’s “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”, of Dickenson’s “Nothing is the force/ That renovates the World.” And so many others, from Gilgamesh to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Kafka, and Beckett and Woolfe, to Thomas Gunn and Mark Wunderlich. All to say, thank you, Chard, for setting “my” beloved miniatures in deeper, richer context. Readers, I feel sure you, too, will find such rewards here — this is one essay you won’t want to miss.


Time now to turn to Joseph Campana’s thoughts on Judith Schalansky’s essay An Inventory of Losses, “The Love Songs of Sappho”, a particularly timely subject, alas.

Last night I was teaching an essay from Judith Schalansky’s remarkable An Inventory of Losses, “The Love Songs of Sappho.” I’d like nothing more than to dive into that churning world of erotic contemplation and complication that feels so distinctively “Sappho.” Most of the scenarios are simple enough: a glance, an imagined touch, a distant love, and an apple, as we’ll see. The complication is what happens when we long for something we are not likely ever to get. I’ve never believed that time spent with the voices of the dead, refracted through centuries other hands and voices and material surfaces is wasted. I still don’t.

On the other hand, I’m mindful of Schalansky’s real topic, which is loss—Sappho, yes, but also Caspian tigers and an island named Tuanaki and a lost film by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and more. If there’s hope in the title—An Inventory of Losses—it’s that we might learn something not only about things lost but also about how to feel the many losses that will only ever accelerate and accumulate. Answers seem obvious, no? Sad, bereft, enraged, etc. But there’s so much more to loss—and you’d think those drowning in loss might have somehow learned what Elizabeth Bishop called the “One Art”: the “art of losing.” I’ve always loved and hated that poem—for being all too true and all too crude at the same time, for the maddening cycle of sing-song repetition that is the villanelle (which teases with comfort but cloys instead).

But what I’m really thinking about is that here we are again, in another storm season amdist a deadly pandemic that won’t quit anytime soon. That my home, Houston, was missed by Hurricane Ida brings me great relief. It’s the kind of guilty relief that has been echoing through the centuries, since at least Lucretius (who we hear in Ian Johnston’s translation of the proem to the second book of De Rerum Natura):

How pleasant it is, when windstorms lash
the mighty seas, to gaze out from the land
upon another man in great distress—
not because you feel delightful pleasure
when anyone is forced to suffer pain,
but because it brings you joy to witness
misfortunes you yourself do not live through.

The understandable relief, indeed pleasure, in safety can feel sickening when so many are suffering—again—in New Orleans. Even now, it is impossible to inventory this loss because it is not, yet, over. Weeks without power, weeks of deadening heat. Some friends have fled, another is rigging a generator for her house so her husband, a doctor, can tend those in tend. I’m humbled by what I know is happening (and all of what I don;’t). I’m struck by the efforts to remember Katrina (15th anniversary last year) and to find resources for survival in the wake of disaster in poetry. Here’s something from PBS which includes links to readings in commemoration. The Poetry Society of America hosted poems in the wake of Katrina, which you can find here. How many more disasters and anniversaries? Many more. And for all the sweetness of the seasonal hurricane prayers offered in churches around the Gulf Coast, hurricane elegies are the songs we keep needing to sing as we inventory losses accumulating annually.

So, in the end, I do turn to Sappho, not as a naïve escape from the rigors of the real world but to make contact with wisdom I hope persists in spite of increasingly frequent calamities. This one my husband loves, and here it is in Anita George’s translation of an exquisite fragment of that great poet of desire, which is also that great poet of loss:

You: an Achilles’ apple
Blushing sweet on a high branch
At the tip of the highest tree.
You escaped those who would pluck your fruit.
Not that they didn’t try.
They could not forget you
Poised beyond their reach.

I don’t read poems allegorically (unless asked to). So, I should say this apple is an apple, something deeply desired but not possessed. That makes it also a someone: desired but only desired. And yet it is also, as I read it today, safety. Who wouldn’t want to pluck that from the highest tree or the fiercest waters? This week is still feels poised beyond reach.

For more on Judith Schalansky and her work on Sappho, one might begin here.

Anything else?

Ah, worth one – I promise — more repeat:

First, as noted last month, Plume Poetry 9 is out! Available for purchase from SPDAmazonBarnes and  Noble, and, as they say, at better bookstores everywhere, from Vrorman’s (Southern California’s Oldest & Largest Bookstore) to Powell’s.

For those in need of a recap —
,,, this year’s offering differs from past formats in that it employs a “partner” system: for lack of better words, a “well-known” poet offers his/her/their poem, then introduces a “less-well-known” poet” and his/her/their poem.  The intention was to bring to our readers the best of both worlds: established and “new” poets (although the latter only in the sense only that their work might be unfamiliar to you, as many if not most have extensive publishing histories of their own). Also, we hope we have brought together a greater diversity of voices in its pages.  It’s my great wish that we have succeeded, or at least made some headway, in this endeavor.

As in the past, when bought in a group to be used as a class text, appropriate discounts will be available. Please email us at for details.

Second, a shoutout to Associate Editors Nancy Mitchell and John Ebert, as we continue our new addition, Seven Minutes With…  This month, we feature MacArthur Genius winner Mary Halverson — jazz guitarist and poet.  Also not to be missed.

Our cover art this month is from Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), a detail from The Lute Player, 1596.

(Oh, and this note: Sarah Arvio’s newest book Cry Back My Sea: 48 Poems in Six Waves was recently published by Knopf).

That’s it, for now.

I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume