May, and in lieu of the prescribed moment of silence, forgive me if write a few belated lines in memory of Richard Howard, who, as many of you know, passed away on March 31st – hours after the March issue of Plume had been completed. As is so often the case with one’s human gods and goddesses, I never met the man in person, yet he was an invaluable presence in my life from the moment of our initial encounter, in the stacks of the Louisville Public Library where, sometime in the early 70s, I had fallen hard for “Contemporary French Literature”. I think it may have been in his translation of Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers, or more likely Breton’s Nadja …that our paths crossed for the first time. Immediately, though I had only the rudiments of the language, I knew – or rather sensed – I was in the presence of royalty. A gracious, erudite royalty, too, a king who somehow took the time to introduce me to –and, miraculously, make me feel at ease with — his vast court: Daniel, please meet Roland Barthes, I could almost hear him says, as if – to slightly alter the image — my new acquaintance were an old friend who happened to sit on the board of some fabulous corporation where I might one day land a job in the mailroom. The same for Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Foucault, Breton, Cioran, so many others. Poets and novelists and essayists who it seemed swept me, as a reader, into their fold, on the word of Richard Howard, as I still see him in my mind’s eye. Nor was it long before it was that name alone, regardless of the authors’ I sought most avidly, an imprimatur that never failed me.
But, as I say, I was young: how little I knew! I blush to admit now it must’ve been the 80’s at least, before I discovered Richard Howard’s own remarkable poems and essays. About which I could go on and on. Yet this is a newsletter, after all, and Joseph Campana waits below, thrumming his fingers. So, like my biographical précis above, my farewell then, must be brief. And what better eulogy than one delivered by the departed – somewhat eerily — himself?
“Messieurs, l’huitre étoit bonne. Adieu. Vivez en paix.”
Secret they are, sealed, annealed, and brainless
And solitary as Dickens said, but
They have something to say: that there is more
Than one way to yield. The first—and the hardest.
The most nearly hindered—is when you pull
Them off the rocks, a stinking, sawing sedge
Sucking them back under the black mud, full
Of hermit crabs and their borrowed snailshells,
Minnows scattering like superstitions,
The surf dragging, and every power
Life permits them holding out, holding on
For dear life. Sometimes the stones give way first.
Before they will, but still we gather them,
Even if our hands are bloody as meat,
For a lunch Queen Victoria preferred:
“A barrel of Wellfleet oysters, points down”
Could last across the ocean, all the way
To Windsor, wakening a widow’s taste.
We ate them this afternoon, out of their
Armor that was formidably grooved, though
It proved our own reversal wiser still:
Keep the bones and stones inside, or never
Leave the sea. “He was a brave man,” Swift said,
“Who first eat one.” Even now, precedent
Of centuries is not always enough.
Driving the knife into muscles that mould
The valves so close to being impartial.
Surrender, when it comes—and it must come:
Lavish after that first grudging release
Back there in the sea, the giving over
Of despair, this time—makes me speculate.
Like Oscar and oysters, I feel “always
Slightly immortal when in the sea”: what
Happens now we are out? Is the risk worth
While for a potential pearl? No, what we’re
Really after is the moment of release,
The turn and tear of the blade that tightens,
Tortures, ultimately tells. When you spread
The shells, something always sticks to the wrong
One, and a few drops of liquor dribble
Into the sand. Scrape it off: in the full
Half, as well as a Fautrier, a Zen
Garden, and the smell of herring brine that
Ferenczi said we remember from the womb,
Lunch is served, in shiny stoneware sockets,
Blue milk in the sea’s filthiest cup. More
Easily an emblem for the inner man
Than dinner, sundered, for the stomach. We
Take them queasily, wonder as we gulp
When it is—then, now, tomorrow—they’re dead.
Richard Howard, from The Damages, 1967
Now, then. As promised last month, the return of the forementioned Joseph Campana, with his. thoughts on monuments physical and otherwise in Heid E. Erdrich’s “Desecrate”.
It’s May and at my university, as at so many others, graduation approaches. The air of celebration sharpens. Our university ceremonies used to take place primarily in the academic quad, near the main entrance to campus, which is now the most bucolic and least used gateway to this little academic haven amidst a sprawling city. Behind extraordinary stands of live oaks (Quercus virginiana) campus roads lined with the same oaks lead to this quad. (Are these trees a monument and if so to what?) All were planted at roughly the same time, just over one hundred years ago, which worries me. When will they all fall? Our university arborist (yes, we have so many trees we’re an arboretum) tells me these will last a couple hundred more years at least.
The quad is an austere stony affair between the first building constructed when Rice University was founded and the library. At the center stands a monument to William Marsh Rice, the university’s founder who was murdered by his own butler (and therefore whose bequest nearly didn’t found the university). It’s an odd and oft-told tale (“the butler did it!), one told more often, until recently at least, than the tale of William Marsh Rice’s financial ties to slavery. My colleagues on our Task Force for Slavery, Segregation, and Racial Injustice have uncovered this history and made extensive recommendations about the quad (which will be redesigned) and his statue, a monument that incorporates his ashes (which will be moved).
This is just our own little chapter in the complex history of monuments, a subject to which so many have turned with such intensity in recent years. And yet as I contemplate ceremonies at Rice no longer held in that quad in front of that statue, I’m reminded of Heid E. Erdrich’s “Desecrate” from her prescient collection National Monuments (2008), a collection that considers the long, strange, and painful histories of monuments we might call “American” including those destroyed or those native lands dispossessed, as well as global and historical.
What drew me to this poem, “Desecrate” is the way the poem solicits participation. Sure, it can seem like a list, a set of commands, really. What kind of participation is that—receiving orders? Really, the poem invites us to an act of collaborative imagination. What’s on the page that we attend to—concerns two questions: What desecration would hurt me? What might I want to add to the list to desecrate? Perhaps it’s the Dalai Lama, the Sistine Chapel, or the Library of Congress that excites revulsion—how could anyone desecrate those? Or perhaps the quirky details elicit an odd humor (“Shave Santa Claus” or “Render Chocolate Jesus down to kisses.”) Is ridicule a form of desecration or a way of undermining a monument? Other details feel more haunting— “Rake the olive trees of Gethsemane” for example. Or the near quote from Hamlet (“melt, thaw and absolve into a dew…”) from a soliloquy in which the speaker cannot yet make up his mind whether to live or not (or whether to kill his uncle or not). And “Flood New Orleans”: well, that already happened in 2005 and again in the years since. So, I find myself wondering—are all floods, all storms, all human-enhanced climate impacts desecration?
I think this is a poem, however, that is also as powerful for what is not on the page. One could imagine, easily, in a creative writing workshop using the frame of the poem to elicit other lines. That’s because the poem tempts us to create our own list. To do that is to be forced to deal with the fact that the shock of desecration and the desire to desecrate are like twins, sides of a coin, if such an exhausted metaphor can still stand. And perhaps this is one of the most fascinating implications of this poem. Poets, like so many others, make monuments. Poets also tear them down. Sometimes “Wreck it all for everyone” is a terrifying and familiar sentiment—an urgency to destroy for the sake of destruction. How often I feel I hear the ghost of that phrase in the air right now, even though no one is saying it. Monuments may be history that should not be forgotten, or they may seem like things best relegated to the dustbin of history, in the hopes no further damage will be done by dangerous myths codified so often in stone.
The fascination of the season, as spring slides into summer and as so many students emerge from the chrysalis of their education, is the paradox of the monument in “Desecration.” Making can be a form of breaking, but breaking is, at times, the only prelude to making.
Entry word: desecrate. Function: verb. Text: to treat (a sacred place or object) shamefully or with great disrespect <vandals desecrated the cemetery last night with graffiti>. Near antonyms: bless, consecrate, dedicate, hallow, sanctify; honor, respect; cleanse, purify.
— Merriam Webster Online
Shave Santa Clause
Tear roots from the pale hands of saints.
Render Chocolate Jesus down to kisses.
Melt, thaw and absolve into a dew…
Bulldoze the Sistine Chapel
Rubble-pile the pyramids
Rake the olive trees of Gethsemane
Fire the Dalai Lama
Burn the Library of Congress
Salt the Peace Gardens
Flood New Orleans
Blow out the Eternal Flame
Wreck it all for everyone.
Anything else? Ah, of course: Plume Poetry 10 is coming in late July. We are in the final editing stages now, and will resume partnered readings from the book before long. Watch this space, as they say – and FB, Insta, Twitter, etc.
Oh, and I’m delighted to share with you the news that Birnam Wood (Salmon Poetry), former Plume staff member Hélène Cardona’s translation of El Bosque de Birnam (Consell Insular d’Eivissa, Ibiza, Spain) by her father, José Manuel Cardona, won the 2022 Independent Press Award in Poetry. Congratulations, Hélène!
Our cover art – which seems especially resonant given the times — this month is Ephrem Solomon’s “Folk Memory 3.” For more information on the artist, a good start might be made here and here.
Finally, as usual, some recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors: