My cyber-friend, the indefatigable poet/fictioneer/raconteur/dream-journalist William Michaelian, occasionally posts news of books discovered at various used-book haunts. As an addict of used—no, not “pre-owned”—books and the stores that stock them (my wife and I owned such a store for a few years), I always enjoy these posts. And so I’ve decided to post my own “reading journal,” most of which will deal with used books. I rarely buy new books, in part because my reading appetite is bigger than my budget, and in part because used book stores thrive on a level of serendipity I happen to love. Anyway, herewith my first post in this vein.
The first book I read by Sharon Olds was her first book, Satan Says, back during the cold dawn of the Reagan era. It didn’t inspire me to read any more of her work, although her poems cropped up in the magazines I read and were often pretty impressive. I picked up Strike Sparks in part because Olds has become a favorite whipping girl of both the avante-garde and what Charles Bernstein calls “official verse culture.” (See this conversation between Marjorie Perloff and David Wojahn to see just how snottily superior both camps can be.) I figured that if Olds was so widely despised, she must have something to recommend her. And she does: an absolutely un-self-sparing honesty and directness, an equality of respect for both high and low impulses, and an overall generosity of spirit. She can write badly—but every poet can write badly. When she writes well (goodly?), she’s simply amazing.
Let me give two examples of what I mean by amazing. The first is this book’s most uncharacteristic poem:
BIBLE STUDY: 71 B.C.E.One does wonder, looking back through history, if the Crassus types ever wake. It would be like George W. Bush flying to Iraq, and leaving the Green Zone without protection, and picking up a bleeding Iraqi child, and carrying that child to a fly-blown Iraqi hospital, and standing by the bedside as the Iraqi doctors tried to decide if her shattered leg needs to be cut away to save her life. But George W. Bush will die peacefully, somewhere in Texas no doubt, having never touched the shrieking fruits of his decisions (decision, “the act of deciding”; decide, from Latin decidere, de- “off” + caedere, “cut”).
After Marcus Licinius Crassus
defeated the army of Spartacus,
he crucified 6,000 men.
That is what the records say,
as if he drove in the 18,000
nails himself. I wonder how
he felt, that day, if he went outside
among them, if he stayed in his tent
and drank, and maybe copulated,
hearing the singing being done for him,
the woodwind-tuning he was doing at one
remove, to the six-thousandth power.
And maybe he looked out, sometimes,
to see the rows of instruments,
his orchard, the earth bristling with it
as if a patch in his brain had itched
and this was his way of scratching it
directly. Maybe it gave him pleasure,
and a sense of balance, as if he had suffered,
and now had found redress for it,
and voice for it. I speak as a monster,
someone who today has thought at length
about Crassus, his ecstasy of feeling
nothing while so much is being
felt, his hot lightness of spirit
in being free to walk around
while others are nailed above the earth.
It may have been the happiest day
of his life. If he had suddenly cut
his hand on a wineglass, I doubt he would
have woken up to what he was doing.
It is frightening to think of him suddenly
seeing what he was, to think of him running
outside, to try to take them down,
one man to save 6,000.
If he could have lowered one,
and seen the eyes when the level of pain
dropped like a sudden soaring into pleasure,
wouldn’t that have opened in him
the wild terror understanding
the other? But then he would have had
to go. Probably it almost never
happens, that a Marcus Crassus
wakes. I think he dozed, and was roused
to his living dream, lifted the flap
and stood and looked out, at the rustling, creaking
living field—his, like an external
organ, a heart.
Here is another, more characteristic poem:
THE PROMISEMy wife, who favors a chain of drive-in Kevorkian clinics where one simply signs over one’s car and gets the necessary service, has made the same promise to me, as have I to her. But who save Sharon Olds would have the courage to speak of it in detail and in public?
With the second drink, at the restaurant,
holding hands on the bare table,
we are at it again, renewing our promise
to kill each other. You are drinking gin,
night-blue juniper berry
dissolving in your body, I am drinking Fumé,
chewing its fragrant dirt and smoke, we are
taking on earth, we are part soil already,
and wherever we are, we are also in our
bed, fitted, naked, closely
along each other, half passed out,
after love, drifting back
and forth across the border of consciousness,
our bodies buoyant, clasped. Your hand
tightens on the table. You’re a little afraid
I’ll chicken out. What you do not want
is to lie in a hospital bed for a year
after a stroke, without being able
to think or die, you do not want
to be tied to a chair like your prim grandmother,
cursing. The room is dim around us,
ivory globes, pink curtains
bound at the waist—and outside,
a weightless, luminous, lifted-up
summer twilight. I tell you you do not
know me if you think I will not
kill you. Think how we have floated together
eye to eye, nipple to nipple,
sex to sex, the halves of a creature
drifting up to the lip of matter
and over it—you know me from the bright, blood-
flecked delivery room, if a lion
had you in its jaws I would attack it, if the ropes
binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them.
Ivan Drach, Orchard Lamps (ed. Stanley Kunitz, with woodcuts by Jacques Hnizdovsky): Sheep Meadow Press, 1978
This long-out-of-print volume is one of those translated-by-many-hands collections that are almost always unsatisfying. There is good work here, but overall there are as many Drachs here as there are translators.
That said, there are some wonderful things here, like this sweet little poem translated by Daniel Halpern:
SUNFLOWERKunitz in his introduction notes that Drach was born on October 17, 1936, “on a collective farm in the village of Telizhenci, about a hundred miles from Kiev. His father worked in a beet sugar refiner […]; his mother labored on the farm. Ivan, who was a precocious child, attended the local school. His most vivid early recollections, he says, are of “green, sun, soil, screams, and the madness of war.”
The sunflower had arms and legs,
had a rough, green body.
He raced the wind,
he climbed a pear tree
and stuffed ripe pears into his shirt
and swam near the mill
and lay in the sand
and shot sparrows with his sling-shot.
He hopped on one foot
to shake the water out of his ear—
and suddenly saw the sun
with its golden spindrift of curls,
the beautiful tanned sun
in a red shirt that reached to its knees.
It rode on a bicycle
weaving through banks of clouds.
For years, for centuries the sunflower froze,
silent in a golden trance:
—Let me have a ride, Uncle!
At least let me sit on the cross-bar!
Uncle, be a sport!
Poetry, my orange sun!
Every minute some boy
finds you for himself
and changes to a sunflower forever.
Ole Sarvig, Late Day (tr. Ole Sarvig & Alex Taylor): Curbstone Press, 1976
A translation with no introduction and no notes to the poems is always worrying. One reads without context, senses references to events or patterns of thinking one is unfamiliar with, and so the poems drift by like sprays of milkweed; they don’t land and take root. The late Sarvig was born in 1921—making him ten years older (than Tomas Tranströmer, who resembles him (poetic influence? or is it just the Northern Lights?)—and he may simply need a more copious selection in a more considered edition, along the lines of the new translation of Umberto Saba’s verse. In any case, here’s a taste of Sarvig:
YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROWAcross the page from the poem is this linocut by Palle Nielsen:
They stand up there in the dark under the falling shower.
They imagine a cathedral with spires and towers
still reaching down to the world
where ships voyage in all the reliefs,
speed into harbors and hoot among the columns.
But when morning arrives with the fog,
it is like a tent collapsing upon them.
The stairs creak.
The swine have forgotten they are swine,
and the frogs that they are frogs.
Only in the hidden places,
in small airpockets, some hide
deep within . . .
Or in the bars by the highways, at the airports,
where no one has moved from the place he travelled from,
and hardly any of the arrivals
come from anywhere.
United once again, while the hedges
grow thousands upon thousands of leaves
around an unknown city,
whose shrill sound we no longer hear.