Groom, Simms, Kellogg, et. al.

Groom, Simms, Kellogg, et. al.
August 26, 2023 Plume
Kelle Groom on “TURN IT UP” and “MORE NIGHTS THAN DAYS”:


 I wrote this poem after reading Tony Hoagland’s beautiful last book of poems, Turn Up the Ocean (Graywolf, 2022). Tony and his wife Kathleen once took me to swim at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I was carless, staying in a stiflingly hot room while taking a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center. On the beach, Tony said that being in the ocean righted him. I knew how the ocean brought me back to myself. Away from the ocean, things got out of place in my body. As if the furniture inside me shifted. I’m so grateful for the poems in Turn Up the Ocean, and to have the joy of hearing Tony’s voice again. Hearing his voice even though Tony’s gone now, and I’m back in Florida where we first met.

From the title poem, “Turn Up the Ocean”: “It soothes me in the night to hear the waves/sweeping over the beach again and again/and the blue-gray background screech of the gulls./ It turns out this sound is all the comfort I ever wanted/

I love the idea of turning up the ocean, of Tony playing it at full volume.

When I returned to a little beach town in Florida after over a decade away, most of it in Provincetown, a little beach town at the end of the world, many things had changed. I had changed. But Tony’s poems always feel like an encouragement to live: (“so I shove joy like a knife/into my own heart over and over,” “Reasons to Survive November”). So, in gratitude to Tony, in “Turn it Up,” I turned up the volume on this new life.


When I had left Florida over ten years prior, I’d left in a hurry. I had a year-long fellowship. I put all my things in storage, and left for a year that turned into a decade. In my storage unit were hundreds of poems, each in a named folder. But I’d been through more than one computer in those years of traveling, and no corresponding computer files for those poems.

When I came back to Florida, and entered the time capsule of my storage unit, I unearthed all those poems. I was curious to read them, hear this younger voice. Could I work with any of these? Around the time of those poems, I’d been working on my MFA. I’d designed an independent study class for myself, in which I’d read the work of several poets: Strand, Szymborska, Tranströmer, Oliver, and Simic, writing critical essays and also writing imitations of their poems. Writing an imitation of Simic’s “Kitchen Helper” (mine was “Mammogram Helper,” now in Five Kingdoms) was especially a delight.

“More Nights Than Days” is a poem from my time capsule. The only thing I changed was the title. It’s a phrase near the end of my poem: “The night came down around me, and I remembered/Charles Simic said it seemed there had been more/nights than days.”

My library, which had also been in storage, is still unalphabetized, but shelved and stacked to teetering heights in a tiny cottage. I wanted to read all of my Simic poetry collections, now that I had them. I was surprised to open Walking the Black Cat, and see “To Kelle” an inscription from Charles Simic. I had attended his reading with Michael Ondaatje at the Miami Book Fair many years before, but had forgotten about his signature. I remember standing at his table after the reading. I’m grateful for that reading, that moment, and for this one remembering him.



Michael Simms on “The World As Sound”:

Because of repeated traumas when I was a small child, I didn’t learn to speak until I was five. Until then, the world was a blur of undifferentiated sensations. Synesthesia can be a gift, such as Richard Feynman’s experience of Bessel functions as chromatic sequences, or it can be an ideal, such as Baudelaire’s desire to transcend fixed notions of the world, but in trauma-induced muteness as I was experiencing, the basic understanding of the world is in flux. In my case, the world became music. A shoe was a song and the song was a color. Eventually, with the help of a speech therapist, I learned to speak, but I’ve never lost the tendency to experience everything I feel and see and think as tone and rhythm.



Jennifer Kellogg on translating George Seferis:

George Seferis composed much of his poetry while living abroad, working as a diplomat for the government of Greece. His poetry often expresses a longing for a lost homeland or the divine transcendence that comes with being fully immersed in a particular landscape. Seferis left his native homeland on the Aegean coast of Turkey at age 14 during World War I; when he was 22 it was completely destroyed in the Greco-Turkish War. As a reader, I have been beguiled by the haunting traces of loss in his poetry—dead companions, empty houses, the sea as the great nullifier—and I have dedicated myself to 20 years of reading and translating his work. The two poems presented here come from Book of Exercises II, a collection of drafts and unpublished poems that has not yet appeared in English. “Holy Saturday” bitterly points to the transformational potential of Orthodox Easter. But instead of the holy flame symbolizing the return of light and life, it takes on a sinister cast. “The snow sang with a glassy radiance, in silence” also opens with a brilliant light. But it too contains the muteness of the dying and the absence of the dead. Both poems ask whom the transfiguring light is really for—the living or the dead?



Olga Maslova on “You Don’t Travel Light, Life”:

I joked casually: “You don’t travel light, do you?” looking at her giant suitcase packed for a two-day trip. Within an hour, I found myself on the periphery of that sentence, simply documenting in my notebook all that it was catching on its blades, like a motorboat propeller in shallow water:  the room, its prints and photos, the recent trip to the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto’s angels on the walls. I did not know where it would take me, I was just a scribe for a message trying to find a shape to exist in.  The ending took me by surprise.  I could not have guessed when I started writing that the poem would go there, to the Mortality Bay. I typed it right away and saved. The next morning, I swapped two words and removed two stanzas, one – about my own futon which I usually fold with everything inside (compared to the sky rolled by angels with stars, constellations, and planets inside), and another stanza about the Japanese suicide forest of Aokigahara, as silent as the wrong side of the sky. The first stanza was cluttering already dense fabric of the poem, the second one was too jarring, and “stole the thunder” from the ending. I also removed the phrase “we both were happy”. Half a year later, I put it back in. Without those four words the poem lost its emotional pull. You Don’t Travel Light, Life lent the title and the main theme to my manuscript, Light Travels, I have just finished.



Julia Thacker on “Little Black Dress” and “Julia”:

In the long reach of memory I often find emotional resonance in the trappings of experience, as though I were a set designer mining the past. Clothes hold a particular power for me. “Little Black Dress” is an ode to the raven-colored frocks I’ve worn since girlhood, a dramatic palette, elegant, slimming and cool. When I was in my twenties, my mother visited me in Cambridge and remarked, “You and your friends are always dressed for a funeral.”

Last year, I began experimenting with hard right margins. I liked the uneven, jagged pattern of the left-hand margin on the page, as though each line were floating on water. “Julia” is a response to an assignment I’ve given my own students: “Interrogate your name.”  The research behind roots, etymology, meaning and the historical and religious figures who shared my name was fun. But revising meant leaving much of that research out and using only the information that ignited the lyric. Then I turned to the personal and psychological and the various ways our names are evoked as endearments and weapons.




Hoyt Rogers on Bonnefoy the Voyager:

Yves Bonnefoy was an ardent voyager throughout his life. His constant journeys and sojourns abroad left an obvious imprint on his oeuvre. We need only think of the enormous role of Italy—from his essays on the tombs of Ravenna, on Quattrocento painting, or on the Roman Baroque, to the manifold traces of Italian art and architecture in his poetry. The “land of Shakespeare,” as he fondly called England, also springs to mind, especially through his many translations of Shakespeare and other English-language authors. Among them was Yeats: in recognition of his superb French versions, Bonnefoy was welcomed to Sligo in 1987 as poet in residence. His extensive periods at universities in the United States, above all in Massachusetts and New York, influenced his writings in demonstrable ways. Within Europe, he taught in Switzerland, visited Sweden and Austria, and often spent time in Germany. Much farther afield, he joined the Mexican poet Octavio Paz in India, perhaps his most ambitious voyage. Nor should we forget that for Bonnefoy, raised in the Lot Valley and the Touraine, Paris was not a native ground at all, though he lectured there for many years. Along with his early haunts, other regions in France—such as the divergent landscapes of Normandy and Provence—recur insistently in his poems.

Given Bonnefoy’s continual displacements, it seems fitting that he entitled one of his major works La Vie errante (1993). To celebrate the centenary of his birth, The Wandering Life now appears in translation at Seagull Books, along with its shorter companion piece, Une autre époque de l’écriture (Another Era of Writing). Often overlooked in the past, both are paramount to the author’s development. The longer book not only crystallizes the voyager theme, but also founds a new aesthetic: that symphonic interweaving of verse and prose which marks the final twenty-five years of his creation. Another Era of Writing employs the travel motif to stage a gripping debate on the nature of language, a central issue in Bonnefoy’s lifework.

The present portfolio is drawn from The Wandering Life, and it affords an introduction to some of the work’s principal topoi. While the verse poems in the book concentrate on ancient Greece, these prose poems expand our horizons beyond the Mediterranean to hinterlands as mysterious—for a Frenchman, at least—as the esoteric depths of Iowa. Distant lands beckon in the lines about Ossendowski’s trek through the snow-covered forests of Siberia, where only the “northern fire” keeps him alive. Western Europe and America also receive their due. On one occasion, in “Huge Red Rocks,” we amble with the poet past what seem to be the reddish cliffs of the Var in southern France; meanwhile, his thoughts foreshadow the linguistic meditations of Another Era of Writing. We can almost look over his shoulder in “Landscape…” as he trundles through the American Midwest in a long-range bus, reminiscing about a trancelike Indian film, a de Kooning exhibition in New York, or details from canvases of the Flight into Egypt. In a cheery though undetermined spot, he attends a house party with some friends in “Sugarfoot,” only to be overwhelmed by the keen specificity of time and place.

Unlike the poems above, ostensibly anchored in everyday experience, many of the prose pieces in The Wandering Life adhere to a genre invented by Bonnefoy: he christened such stories “récits en rêve,” or “tales within dreams.” Even if they begin in a down-to-earth mode, they soon take on an oneiric flair, not unlike the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. Beyond real-life travel or wayfaring reveries, they often signal another trend in Bonnefoy’s work. The artists of every stripe who people The Wandering Life attest that its essential journey is an aesthetic quest. This is underlined by the advent of the “three angels” in “Huge Red Rocks”: they double as the Theological Virtues, and the “essential terms” that might resolve an enigma posed by the poem. Their wings in vibrant hues evoke the seraphs of Piero della Francesca—as well as Bonnefoy’s pilgrimages to admire his paintings, not only at the Brera or Sansepulcro Museums, but at less obvious venues such as the Clark Institute. As the poet sums up in “All the Gold in the World,” our consciousness hovers between a drifting illusionism and the plain “thereness” before our eyes.

Art in the larger sense—not only painting and sculpture, but also architecture, music, film, fiction, or poetry—should mediate between those two dimensions, conflating them into a fundamental unity. But does art truly accomplish that, or does its “alchemy” betray simple reality with its insidious Midas-touch? This is the quandary Bonnefoy explores from myriad angles in The Wandering Life, firmly disavowing any facile conclusions.



Chantal Bizzini on 4 poems from Behind the Soundwall. Walks in Île-de-France, 2021, translated from the French by J. Bradford Anderson:

Each of these 4 poems goes along with a photograph taken when I was wandering around the wide Parisian suburb: l’Île-de-France, in June and July 2021. They are effusions of a moment into dream, shreds of a bygone life and traces of contemporary life. To lend a rhythm to these reveries, I gave them lines of 7 syllables within unequal stanzas.



Katie Hartsock on “Head of a Woman with the Horns of a Ram”:

This poem began the day I returned to my office on the Oakland University (MI) campus after being away from it for close to a year because of the pandemic. It was uncanny and emotional; the campus and parking lots were still as empty as the daytime downtown of Omega Man (1971), while the neighboring river valley and marshlands gleamed the way I had noticed other green spaces gleam in the brief era of decreased air pollution. It was moving to meet a couple students who stopped by that day, whom I’d only met online. One particularly brilliant student and I started laughing as soon as we said hello: something about the in-person meeting was so surprising it was funny, along with a sudden relief of being in the same space, though she stood in the hallway—it was the kind of unexpected laughter where I cried a little as it subsided. The full force of this encounter with absence and closed distance fuels the poem, which found its way through memory and Ovid when I saw the two identical copies of the Metamorphoses described in the poem, identical no more.

The first office I had at Oakland was windowless, so I made my own window. I printed and hung a poster of a fresco wall from a bedroom of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, buried by Vesuvius in 79 CE. I love this fresco—the built domestic space blurs with wild outdoor spaces through grottos, fountains, rock walls, porticos, pillars, trees, birds of paradise. And it’s the wall that had a window, with its bars keeping out intruders but also keeping in whoever slept there. So I didn’t have a window but I had that window. The poster hangs in the office I have now, where to the east I can look outside through a real pane of glass, and through the wall painting to an ancient Roman west. The fresco, and its lush limits of appearance and reality, as well as its window bars of safety that recall imprisonment, appeared in the first drafts of this pandemic poem, but eventually it had to go.