Lorna Shaughnessy on translating Rafael Alberti:
I have been reading Alberti’s poetry since I was an undergraduate, and included it in many poetry modules I have taught over the years. Concerning the angels is a collection that has always fascinated me: what takes me back to it again and again are the ways that Alberti expresses alienation from himself and his profound sense of spiritual crisis in the late 1920s, by combining surrealist techniques with sonic lyricism. The self may fragment, but music remains. The two ‘good angels’ that appear here are in some ways atypical of the collection in that they represent fleeting moments of hope, when light is allowed to penetrate. However, the ways that Alberti manipulates language in order to create ambiguity is very representative of the collection as a whole. More than any other Spanish poet exploring surrealist techniques at this time, Alberti exploits syntactic and other grammatical features of the language that make it very challenging for the translator. Never before have I pondered so long over so few words on the page! For example, Spanish allows for the omission of subject pronouns, and where verb endings are the same in conjugations for you, he, she and they, this results in poems where the subject cannot be clearly established, but is fundamentally unstable, reflecting the poet’s state of mind when writing. As he states in his autobiography, La arboleda perdida, ‘And angels appeared to me, not the corporeal, Christian ones in beautiful paintings, but irresistible forces of the spirit, molded in the shapes of my most secret and troubled states of mind’. My priorities in translating these poems have been to carry over their conscious strangeness and ambiguities, but also the lyricism that Alberti never abandoned.
Maxine Scates on “November”:
When I came to live in our house on a wooded hillside in Eugene, Oregon almost fifty years ago, I was entranced by the trees surrounding us, just as I’d been earlier on the stormy morning I began this poem, for a moment simply among them again, part of them as they dipped and swayed over hidden cars and houses. But more recently drought and storms, including ice storms, have either brought trees down or caused us to have them cut down because they were dying or damaged, potentially fodder for drought related fire in the Fall. I think part of why we felt so badly about cutting this beautiful, still healthy looking tree down was because what we still love we also have come to fear. This tree, in particular, had seemed so much a part of the house, a house built in a clearing caused by the Columbus Day Storm, meaning no trees had been felled to build it, and we’d tried to accommodate the tree’s growth as best we could. Hence, the last half of the poem seems both defense and apology. Yet when we saw that the tree was rotting from within, it was a relief to find that it wasn’t our decision that killed it, but that it was coming to the end of its life which was why it had started to lean against the house. Of course, I hope the question lingers as to how much of its life was shortened by being around humans in the first place.
Patrick Donnelly on the haibun form:
Recently I’ve turned to the Japanese haibun form, a hybrid of prose and poetry—partly to take a vacation from the tyranny of the line. I mean by that that the line is everything to poetry in English, the relationship between the sentence and the line, the miraculous ability to expose certain words at the beginning and ends of the line, the choices about length, enjambment, regularity or lack of, etc. But as with everything that’s essential to any art, eventually the question arises, what if I just didn’t do the line, just temporarily? One might learn something about obligation by ignoring it.
Furthermore, the prose of the haibun is supposed to be of a particular kind: zuihitsu, or “following the brush.” Unplanned, fragmentary, casual, random, digressive, characterized by associative leaps. This kind of writing represents a different kind of rebellion for me. My early teachers strongly urged me toward lyric focus, concision, and compression, after months and years of my handing them three-page messes. One of them ordered me to write nothing longer than eight lines for two years, because I had tried to outsource my editing responsibility to her. I couldn’t do it, but the order hung over me, so I finally started asking myself what was essential and what could go. Now I’m capable of being quite ruthless in paring down to “live wood” for the health of any poem. I even became dedicated to the very short poem, exploring what even just one line can achieve.
But I maybe I’m old enough now to occasionally work with my digressive, inclusive, and associative temperament, rather than always against it, and the zuihitsu part of the haibun offers not just permission but the explicit requirement to do so.
Finally, though, the haibun ends with a radically brief poem, a haiku, about which one has choices to make—17 syllables or not, three lines or one line (“American sentence”), etc. In that moment one can refocus and intensify the whole, narrowing it down to “a hard, gemlike flame,” to repurpose something Walter Pater said—rebellion and rigor in one assignment.
Debora Lidov on “Mourning and Melancholia”:
Sigmund Freud’s seminal Mourning and Melancholia (1917) distinguishes mourning, a resolvable grief response to a straightforward if significant loss, from melancholia, a perpetual depressive response to an unmanageable or more complicated loss. The sad occasion that inspired the first lines of my “Mourning and Melancholia” was the death of my own therapist’s real-life dog. In the earliest full draft, the poem turns, as the final version does, to address someone in a shared apocalyptic future. In subsequent drafts, I found the speaker repeatedly appealing to this addressee, some drafts more percussive and contentious than others; but the addressee’s identity was especially unstable in my mind—sometimes a lover, sometimes a therapist, sometimes a known object of catastrophic personal loss. The happy counter-occasion that inspired my finishing the poem was an invitation to attend a birthday-party salon for my good friend Lee Zimmerman, author of Trauma and the Discourse of Climate Change: Literature, Psychoanalysis and Denial (Routledge 2020). Lee dawned on me as my poem-in-progress’s inevitable addressee. With this clearer internal orientation (plus an external birthday deadline), it was possible to reenter the text structurally to find its rhetorical anchors and ethereal tercets; to nail down timing and tenses; to settle its diction and even to sweeten the argument, reimagined in accordance with a long friendship’s everlasting banter.
Frank Paino on “Sarah Bernhardt’s Coffin”:
I’ve long been fascinated by stories of the unusual, particularly if the topic earning that moniker falls into a category one might call “gothic,” “creepy,” “funereal,” etc.. Thus, when I first learned about legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt’s habit of traveling the world with a custom-made coffin, I was immediately intrigued. Surely I could find a poem inside that velvet-lined box!
As I commenced doing research about the topic, I was initially disappointed by Ms. Bernhardt’s admission the coffin was more a prop than, as she liked to tell reporters and fans, an item she employed to put herself in the proper frame of mind for certain “terminal” roles, or something she slept in on a regular basis. But then I stumbled upon an excerpt from Sarah Berndhardt: My Erotic Life by San Cassimally, which changed everything.
Indeed, I could not have asked for a more intriguing, inspiring, and how shall I put this… stimulating… tidbit than what I discovered about a certain night the actress passed inside that coffin, in the company of a famous matador. A night she later wrote about in such steamy detail I practically needed to take a cold shower after reading it. I refer the curious to the aforementioned book, or, for those who incline towards immediate gratification, a quick google search, which will easily get you to the right place!
Having read that account, I found my way quite easily to the rabbit hole which opens into that timeless and magical place where poems seem to rest like great seams of marble, waiting for someone to attend to them, to release the waiting form within—for that is what writing always feels like to me, a kind of fugue state where the raw material I’ve discovered is quarried and, later, through the process of many revisions, chiseled and polished to reveal the poem within.
Molly Peacock on “The Next World Is One of Ideas” and “Where Does It Live?”:
“The Next World Is One of Ideas” is the first poem I wrote after my late husband, the James Joyce scholar Michael Groden, chose to die in the remarkable Canadian Medical Assistance In Dying program (MAID). It was doubly magnificent. First, he survived with stage four melanoma for 40 years. Second, at the very last phase of his illness, he was able to choose the date of his death, giving him a control that the dying so rarely have. But MAID is not an easy process to qualify for. There are three permission tiers, likely designed by healthy legislators who didn’t realize that a dying man can barely hold a pen in his hand. These unfold in the poem.
In the week after Mike died, I was so distressed – and so relieved – as the bouquets arrived, and the food deliveries began, that I picked up a pen. That’s the only way I know how to process such vast emotions (or little feelings, either). I cried for twenty-eight straight days. The poem formed line by short line, unrhymed— I couldn’t write my usual longer line. I couldn’t even punctuate.
What is that suitcase doing there in the tenth stanza? Hospital stays require suitcases! I had packed a rollaboard with the last of his things. On the day of his death, in that hospice room painted air-terminal blue, a wall clock ticked at the foot of the bed, reminding us of Time. (Periodically that day Mike asked me what time it was. It was going to happen at 2pm.) Waiting for the administering physician, I sat by his bed next to the carry-on, as if we were waiting for a flight.
In a way, the poem does end with a flight: where do thoughts fly, especially those of brilliant people? Is this why we sometimes feel we receive thoughts, rather than have them?
“Where Does It Live?” I wrote a month or two later, thinking about my husband’s last collapse, the one that caused him to ask to start the MAID process. Mike was incredibly orderly. When he unpacked the dishwasher every morning and sometimes found a rarely used utensil, he’d pick it up and ask, “Where does it live?”
He applied this phrase to all inanimate objects, and those words resounded after his death.
Our condo apartment had no space for tools. But Mike Groden had a specific tool for every fixit occasion. So, he stacked our hall closet with plastic containers, each labeled in detail, from graduated wrenches to eight colors of duct tape to thirteen sizes of screwdrivers.
His entire bathroom cabinet was divided and labeled. Everything, even a band aid, seemed alive to my husband.
If I threw something out that he still considered useful, I’d find it later, nestled, newly labeled, in one of the numerous plastic boxes and cardboard containers between the closet dividers that he had rigged up, proof that it still lived.
Postscript: I’m grateful to have discussed earlier versions of these poems with my friend Phillis Levin. I describe our back-and-forth process in a small book from Palimpsest Press called A Friend Sails in on a Poem. In that book I mention two other splendid poets from this issue, Tom Sleigh and Rachel Hadas.
Tom Sleigh on “Portrait of My Father As a Snake”:
When I saw the Greek funerary relief of a man feeding a snake, who is none other than the spirit of the man’s deceased father, I immediately felt the pathos of the scene. Both father and son are dead, though the son is represented as being alive, standing naked next to his horse and armor, an olive tree growing up beside him, his father-snake caught in mid-motion by the sculptor, his writhing through the branches to feed at his son’s hand far more vibrantly alive than the monumental stillness of the deceased son staring straight at me.
There is a kind of benign gentleness in the snake-father that reminds of my own father. He was certainly the more maternal of my two parents, gentler, milder, a little remote in his lifelong shyness. My mother, an immensely gifted, excitingly flamboyant woman who loved teaching her high school students much more than being a mother—she once told me that motherhood left her at a loss—both commanded and disrupted the household, while he in his quiet way tried to keep things steady.
And the relief, in how it depicts death as a never-ending series of loving obligations between parents and children, even after the children are dead, demonstrates something essential about what you might call my father’s “ethical” sweetness—his ability to recognize in my mother and his three boys, in his friends and even relative strangers, our need for care; his courteous, abiding care that when he gave it, he seemed hardly aware of his own giving. Being with him, to quote Seamus Heaney, “Was intimate and helpful, like a cure/You didn’t notice happening.”
Five weeks after his seventieth birthday, in great pain and mental anguish, he decided to take his own life. But when an old friend came by to take leave of him for the last time, he took her hand, smiled and pressed her palm to his cheek.
He was almost beyond speech by then; and as I knelt beside him, I couldn’t help but ask him over and over if there was anything I could do, anything at all. And true to form, sensing my need as a need not to face what he would shortly do, he did indeed come up with a small task for me; a task, I realize now, that would allow me to show my care for him, but which was really just another instance of his never-ending care for me. He stared fixedly at a seascape in the condo a friend had lent him to die in, and noticing that it hung askew, said his final words: “That painting—straighten it.”