Newsletter #142 June 2023

Newsletter #142 June 2023
November 6, 2023 Christina Mullin

Nadya Brown, “Parthenos”

June, 2023

Welcome to Plume #142–

June –and, for the second month in a row, some real news. As mentioned last newsletter, the print anthologies have, alas, reached their terminus. Financial reasons, primarily – layout and design, printing, materials and, especially overseas, postage. And ten years seems right. But, but – the spirit in which the final volumes were created lives on, in the form of an occasional new column in the online iteration of Plume. Entitled Station to Station, like its predecessors, it will comprise a poem from (for want of a better descriptor) a “well-known poet”, who will then introduce, yes, “a less well-known” poet, followed by his/her/their poem. Robert Pinsky and Heather Green kick things off rather splendidly in the June issue.

OK, then.

Let’s turn now to Brian Culhane, whose answer, below, to the question “When does one fall in love with poetry?” is one perhaps many of us would give, in one form or another, although almost certainly not so beautifully remembered and described.

When does one fall in love with poetry? For me, it began not with Poetry, with a capital P, but with a single poem, “Neutral Tones,” the very first poem in Thomas Hardy’s Selected, a used book I’d bought entirely on a whim—probably because I liked its cover or maybe its feel in my hand.


We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing….

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Now in my seventh decade, I try to summon the boy I was back then, before I’d discovered the wide world of poetry; or, put it this way, that boy who had yet to understand how such things as poems—memorialized in gilt-edged volumes, like the leather tome his mother had presented him with one Christmas—poems written by people far distant from himself in every way possible, how these could apply to his own particular situation, his own petty, frustrating, disorderly and bitter teenage life.
I see him standing in the snow of Central Park’s Great Lawn, a thin book in his pocket. He is facing, too serious to be shy about overt melodrama, a snow-covered pond. He has just read “Neutral Tones,” which happened to be the first poem in the collection, and he realized, with something of a shock, that this fellow Hardy, whoever he was, had written something of immediate worth. Hardy, albeit with some strange vocabulary and odd turns of phrase, had directly spoken to him, his plight, his heartache, his despair. The crusted snow he was now looking at held some dead branches, broken off by some winter wind. The sun above was white, very white. He had no idea what “chidden of God” meant, but that did not stop him from assuming it meant something ominous and appropriate to his desperate condition. Sod. Sod! Perfect, too. The rhyme rubbed the pain into his skin. (But did he really know what “sod” meant?) And ash! Ash was perfect too, for he was smoking at this very moment a cigarette and its ashes were symbolic of the end of a once burning passion. Everything was cold, grey, cursed. (This denizen of Manhattan was no student of trees, and only much later would he think of putting leaf and ash together.)
But if the utter bleakness of Hardy’s scene appealed to him in these first intensely self-dramatized moments, on repeated re-readings, his imagination became even more stirred by the lack of dramatic color in the stanzas that followed. “Some words played between us to and fro”—what banality! He thought: This is indeed how a love ends, with recriminations, “tedious riddles,” all those belabored etceteras that “lost the more by our love.”
The boy is pacing now, the pages flipping in the chill afternoon breeze. He finds he’s memorized the poem’s darkest nadir:

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;

It was not a cruel smile, then; just a “thing” with one more spasm of life left. Perfect.
Except that the memory of past tenderness pulls the mouth into a rictus of bitterness. Except that all he has left to relive is a new memory, of their last meeting together, a scene bereft of any color more vivid than ash.
Perhaps “neutral tones” refers to the neutrality of the two voices that no longer have the wish to prolong an argument; perhaps to the shade of neutral grey light thrown down by the “God curst sun.”
Either meaning fit. As did the whole tone of the poem itself, a tone of voice I would later come to associate with Hardy, the poet of “unhope,” the first poet who spoke to me, spoke to me directly. In its brooding astringency, “Neutral Tones” allowed me to get beyond my own grief. Snug in my coat pocket all that winter, his book would be my companion, to be pulled out to pass the time in dimly lit subway stations or all-night coffee shops along Broadway.
If I later became more knowledgeable of the artform, thereby deepening my appreciation for Hardy and the many other greats before and after him, perhaps it was because I’d put aside the need to parse the poem, pin down unclear references, open the dictionary (all of which would come in time). In not letting ignorance get in the way, I’d allowed Hardy’s strange music to become part of my inner landscape—without irritably reaching after fact, in Keats’ famous phrase. I fell in love with the poem the way one falls in love romantically: not knowing much at all about the person but rising to the occasion of beauty and mystery and passion. And at nineteen, I knew I’d found another love.

More on Brian Culhane’s work/biography/contacts can be found here

What else?

Ah, we – or rather some of our contributors–are on a roll: first, Vinod Kumar Shuklar’s 2023 Pen/Nabakov Award for Achievement in International Literature; then Cynthia Cruz’s National Book Critics Critics Circle Award; and, of course, news this month of Carl Phillips’ Pulitzer. Congratulations, all!

Our cover art this month is Nadya Brown’s “Parthenos”, For more on the artist, a good start might be made here

Finally, as usual, a few recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:

Marc Vincenz             The Pearl Diver of Irunmani
Peter Johnson           While the Undertaker Sleeps: Collected and New Prose Poems
(see also Cassandra Atherton’s essay on Johnson’s work, in Plume,  here)
Linda Gregerson       Canopy
Mary Jo Salter           Zoom Rooms
Simon Armitage         The Owl and the Nightingale
Peter Balakian           No Sign
Nguyen Ba Chung     Dreaming the Mountain
& Martha Collins

That’s it for now — I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume