The line of American poetry that runs from Emily Dickinson to H.D. to Lorine Niedecker to Rae Armantrout is a vein of intensity and concentration that now must be seen to include an Oregon poet named Laura Winter. (I’ve named all women here, but the line I mean does include men, among them: George Oppen, Cid Corman, Robert Creeley, Ronald Johnson, and Carl Philips.) I received Winter’s latest collection Coming Here to Be Alone from the publisher, Ce Rosenow, who co-edited a recent selection of Cid Corman’s poetry with poet Bob Arnold. Ce is a distant cousin of mine who I’ve met only two or three times, but I’ve admired her work at Mountains and Rivers Press and so expected a strong book when I launched into this one.
Right off the bat I was surprised by the fact that Winter’s collection is a bilingual edition. I wasn’t clear about why (neither the introduction nor the author’s note explains it), but subsequently learned that the project began with a small group of her poems that were translated into German for a bilingual reading the 2007 SilentArt Festival in Bochum, Germany. I don’t know how her poems were received in German, but I imagine they traveled well—though the translators (Ute Kaiser and Heiko Schmidt, with additional help from Jan Demuth) probably found their task quite a challenge. Winter’s focus is resolutely outward, on particular moments occurring in the world around her; her feelings about these moments are poured into the exactness of her observations and almost never emerge in the language itself. This creates a distance between speaker and subject that the reader must traverse on his or her own. As in Zen meditation, things arise and pass away in Winter’s poetry; only her attention abides—and ours, so far as we can share in it.
Here’s an example:
The Moth Brushes Breast Bared to the Heavens
and lifts off
not to move a muscle
on goose bumps
We can’t tell to whom the breast and nipple belong—the speaker or some other person—and it doesn’t matter: the other may be the speaker, after all, and both that other and the observing consciousness voiced in this poem are absorbed in the moment. It is a sensuous absorption, sexual, but not “poetic”: the creature alighting and lifting off is not a butterfly, but a common moth, and yet he “lights” like the sun, which “flutters” on those goosebumps that arise in micro-imitation of the brushed nipple.
I don’t mean to imply that Winter exiles the “I” from her poems; but it almost always appears in lowercase and in moments of in-betweenness, when reality itself is uncertain, as in this untitled poem:
who is embracing me
in my sleep
i do not recognize
a solitary face
then the wet dream
and a mocking bird
in the acacia tree
When Winter’s “I” is uppercase, it generally indicates an uncomfortable, even anxious state of exile:
Visions Mixed Up by Juniper & Gin
and bad water
litters the ground
grab at dust
grasshoppers and hornets
louder than my thoughts
how can I crawl under a rock?
my head is bigger than this desert.
When I first read Coming Here to Be Alone, I thought that Winter was writing in German, and so was especially amazed at how wonderfully her poems came across in translation. Now, knowing that these English poems—each of which lifts so beautifully off the page, with mothlike delicacy—are the originals, I can only puzzle over the German, which I can scarcely read. I sound it out, though, listening for bits of Winter’s music in that foreign dimension, where I hope they live as vividly for others as they do for me.