Roger Ebert once said that no great film is depressing; only bad films are depressing. I agree with him, or thought I did until I saw Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. This challenging, despairing, thoroughly bleak film is undeniably depressing, undeniably brilliant, undeniably great. It is depressing and exhilarating at one and the same time. Quite an accomplishment! I’ve seen it twice, and someday, when I am ready, and feeling strong enough to endure that much raw truth about the human condition, I will watch it again.
Something I learned about the film recently is that it began as a horror film. But Kaufman, in his typical Charlie Kaufman way, seems to realize that the truly frightening things in life are not the stereotypes and clichés of horror films—the zombies, the serial killers, the man-eating sharks, blah blah—all of which have, if anything, become such obvious and known tropes that they are somehow consoling and reassuring. The truly frightening things appear in every life, and in everyday life: loss, disease, isolation, alienation, failure. And unlike sharks and zombies, we all have to actually face these horrors.
At any rate, I can’t possibly provide an encapsulation of this profound and complex film here, and there is no substitute for watching it. So let’s just say that this poem is part of my ongoing project of trying to understand, and perhaps say something semi-articulate about, the relation between art and life. It’s about why, in My Dinner with Andre, Andre Gregory breaks down and flees the theater when, during a screening of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, Ingrid Bergman utters the line “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” It’s about what the Buddhist sage Dogen Zenji meant when he said There is no way to satisfy hunger except with a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger, you will never become a true person. It’s about putting on a play, about performing a character who has your face and name, about trying to bring moonlight into a chamber. Because, you know, Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight.
Peter Cooley on ‘Interrogations Update’ and ‘Mythos’:
“Interrogations Update” and “Mythos” represent two vastly different approaches to writing about my wife’s sudden death March 15, 2018 after fifty-two years of marriage.
“Interrogations” is replete with autobiographical details, though Father Dave and Father Ted are entirely imaginary. My obsession with light, especially magnificent New Orleans light, makes its appearance as darkness-light.
“Mythos” is a multi-voiced persona poem in part, embodying the Romantic device of “Speaking Nature.” The sun–light again! — has the last word here, placing death in the cycle of transformation eons can enact.
Everything I have put down here is a postmortem. I write my poems in a trance state as morning brightens my East window.
Amanda Newell on ‘Quotidian’ and ‘Carry’:
I think both “Quotidian” and “Carry” contemplate the ways in which domestic space becomes complicated, or simply unsafe. I’ve always been intrigued by the figure of the “madwoman in the attic,” and I imagined the speaker in “Quotidian” as someone who finds herself enraged by the sound of other people eating at what should be the principal point of a peaceful family gathering: the dinner table. “Carry” I envisioned as an exploration of the insidious nature of violence, and on some level, a refutation of the idea that the best way to meet the threat of violence is with violence.
Paul Nemser on ‘The Dead, At Home’:
A few places seem to be an entrance to the land of the dead. Souls of the dead seem close, conversations seem imminent, you feel that if anyone looked, they might see through you to the landscape beyond.
A couple of years ago, in Israel for the only time, I went to the Dead Sea. We stopped briefly at En Gedi, mountains and cataracts in the desert. Someone told of hiking there on a cold winter day, coming down to the parking lot and finding a leopard lolled on the hood of his car. It must have eaten enough mountain goat, needed a rest, warmed itself on residual heat of the engine.
I began to grasp that this place was our world, but not our world. There was a heaviness—more layers of history and light, buildings and collapses, destructions and cruelties than I had dreamt of. The past was deep and present in that low land, and the present disappeared fast into that buoyant, stinging water. One tiny drop in one eye brought falls of tears.
So many souls drifted above, so many swam and brushed by below. Wildness and hardship climbed in the mountains. I wrote this poem so I might not forget.
Jennifer Maier on ‘The Occupant Imagines the House as a Great Fish,’ and ‘Eight Things the Occupant Thinks About While Making a Cake and One That Does Not Occur to Her,’:
These poems are taken from my just-finished book manuscript, These Bodies Are Not Our Own, a collection of lyric and prose poems that explore the “inner lives” of common household objects, along with that of “The Occupant” of the house, their human keeper. It all started, I guess, with an assignment I like to give my students: an exercise in negative capability, in which I ask them to write from the perspective of an object addressing a person, reverse –“Grecian Urn” style. I wrote a few of these myself and found it hard to stop. Before long it was a book, but the book seemed to want another voice or point of view—something distinct from either the things themselves or that of their owner. I see the Occupant poems as a bridge between these two “consciousnesses”; my mother sees it as further proof I’ve lived too long alone.
Alexis Levitin on his Ruy Belo Translation:
The physical and metaphysical Portuguese poet Ruy Belo favors rather long, meandering poems. I normally do not. But at times it is a pleasure to find myself immersed in the associative recollections and reconnections of a man who humorously says of himself: “I who never knew how to bring all that endless gabble to an end.” In this particular poem, “Poet in a Streetcar,” one can enjoy the witty frame for this discursive indulgence, as the poet, seated in a Lisbon streetcar, comes to the end of his ride and, per force, the end his poem. Having begun with reflections on the dying day (and our own implied dying), and remarking on the twin realities of the self as part of a collective (we are all in the same streetcar, so to speak) and the self as an individual, the poet drifts back and forth between the quotidian (his recent purchase of an antihistamine at a drugstore) and recollections, both personal and literary, that accompany him through this fragment of daily life (from his own asthma to the asthma of a dog in a poem by his contemporary Alexandre O’Neill). And there it is, a modest testimony to the fragility, simplicity, and richness of ordinary human experience. I hope to complete a Selected Poems of Ruy Belo within the year.
For example, if we compare the notebook entries which gave rise to “Le voyage” of 1956 with the poem itself, first printed in Botteghe oscure, we can observe how the original metaphors were progressively fractured, overlaid, and recombined. But another stage still awaited them. By the time they reach their later avatar as “Sur le pas,” the bare, aerated version of Dans la chaleur vacante (1961), they have become both more streamlined and more multivalent. Like Giacometti in his sculptures, du Bouchet has refined his initial images to a level where they almost seem effaced; but paradoxically, by the same token, they have attained an intense “thereness,” a concentrated presence.
Despite its seeming abstraction, du Bouchet always grounds his work in primal sensation; but the interplay between reality and trope is far from simplistic. As he often demonstrates, even such a straightforward motif as the mountain that recurs in his poetry can never be fully grasped. We cannot encompass a whole mountain from any vantage point. From high above, we cannot observe the core of the rock below its many surfaces. In a horizontal view, we only register one of the mountain’s many faces. All of these vary as well, according to the vagaries of lighting and weather, or the play of shadows made by clouds…
Dara Elerath on ‘Testimony of an Armless Man’:
I have a distinct memory of washing dishes one day and seeing my hands and arms reflected in the glass of the kitchen window while the rest of my body (hidden by clothing that was not as clearly reflected) seemed to have vanished. The hands looked vulnerable and small, like creatures with their own lives. After this incident I spent a while writing various poems about hands and other body parts. I thought about the tasks they might perform independent of their owners’ bodies or the ways they might either serve or undermine their owners. I also have a fondness, generally, for things that are familiar enough to seem unremarkable—common objects like pencils, erasers, root vegetables or dolls, for example. Our bodies, I think, fall into this same class of unremarkable object, because, unless something specific happens to warrant our attention, we tend to overlook them and not think about them objectively. I feel most comfortable when I’m able to address these familiar, tangible things in poems, whereas ideas and subjects that are larger or more abstract can feel intimidating. Often, when I’m trying to access my poetic imagination, I go by way of what is small and seemingly ordinary. This can allow me to discover, sometimes, (as it did with this poem) that the objects under consideration are not so ordinary, after all.
David Baker on ‘Masque’:
Two years ago—two summers—I held a little dinner party for six or eight good friends in my village. I’d recently added an outdoor sitting area to my back yard—a pea-gravel patio edged with limestones beside my old barn. A local fellow who sometimes does work that I can’t do at my place—his name is Mao (“It’s like mayo,” he told me)—built a beautiful single-board table with repurposed iron legs. The table’s eight feet long and its surface is two inches thick, untrimmed hickory that an Amish friend of my friend milled on his farm. Mao also cut three granite blocks to set against the barn side to serve as seats to go with some other old wrought-iron seats I had. It’s gorgeous. I hung some big lamps on the side of the barn and set up a bar and food on a side table. Candles, great talk, dusk-into-evening.
That’s when we saw the raccoon. No telling how long he (she?) had been there—just at the edge of the glow of the lamps, in semi-dark, about a third of the way up one of the border trees that was, as the poem says, dying. The emerald ash borer is devastating around here. And how eerie to have been caught. Who had been caught?
The poem is part of a group I’ve been writing that uses a sort of tectonic line, along with caesurae, and that lets the syntax and phrasing, even the scene, dissolve a bit. It was dark out there, and we got a little tippy or tipsy or oblivious.
I have written more words here than the poem itself contains. In fact, six or seven times more words. I wanted a very spare, elliptical, suggestive poem. Essentialist. But what does it matter what one might say about one’s poem, really? You can read.
So how about this? When you come through Granville, let me know, and we can sit at my table in the lamplight and talk a while. I’ll see if Mao’s around.
J.T. Barbarese on ‘Dieu Qui La Fait”:
Robert Hilles on ‘The Maker’:
This poem is from my newest poetry book, Shimmer, which will be published in the fall of 2019. Over the years I have written a number of metaphysical poems like this one. In such poems I explore both the nature of being and the possibilities of a spiritual being. Two of my better poems of this type are: God is the Smallest Object and A Long Row of Days. I wrote the first draft of this particular poem several years ago and the left it untouched until decided it belonged in Shimmer and then revised it many times. I tend to do many drafts of a poem before it is published in a journal or book. This poem inhabits the perspective of a divine being as he/she conjures various parts of a working reality. I have purposefully equipped this being with very human characteristics, actions, and purposes. It is all pure speculations as are most of the poems of this type that I write. I also write poems driven by memory and emotion, but this is not one of those.