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Archive for October, 2020

 

Miguel

by César Vallejo

 

I’m sitting here on the old patio

beside your absence. It is a black well.

We’d be playing, now. . . I can hear Mama yell

“Boys! Calm down!” We’d laugh, and off I’d go

to hide where you’d never look. . . under the stairs,

in the hall, the attic. . . Then you’d do the same.

Miguel, we were too good at that game.

Everything would always end in tears.

 

No one was laughing on that August night

you went to hide away again, so late

it was almost dawn. But now your brother’s through

with this hunting and hunting and never finding you.

The shadows crowd him. Miguel, will you hurry

and show yourself? Mama will only worry.

 

 

I regret posting this poem on a seesaw at an empty lakeside park.

 

I mean this poem, the words you see above, not César Vallejo’s actual poem, which unless you read Spanish, is inaccessible to you.

 

What I regret is that I used the translation above. I got it from the Poetry Foundation website, so it’s legitimate, but it seems to have sacrificed meaning for rhyme. The translation from Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets is completely different. I think it’s better. I say “better” cautiously. I think it’s better because it’s more complicated and layered:

 

To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam

by César Vallejo

 

 

Brother, today I sit on the brick bench outside the house,

where you make a bottomless emptiness.

I remember we used to play at this hour of the day, and mama

would calm us: “There now, boys…”

Now I go hide

as before, from all these evening

prayers, and I hope that you will not find me.

In the parlor, the entrance hall, the corridors.

Later, you hide, and I do not find you.

I remember we made each other cry,

brother, in that game.

 

Miguel, you hid yourself

one night in August, nearly at daybreak,

but instead of laughing when you hid, you were sad.

And your other heart of those dead afternoons

is tired of looking and not finding you.  And now

shadows fall on the soul.

 

Listen, brother, don’t be too late

coming out. All right? Mama might worry.

 

 

Given how distinct the two translations are, I can’t begin to examine this poem on a line-by-line basis. I can only feel it. It’s tender, it’s loving, it’s haunting. It breaks my heart. Like Vallejo, I have ten siblings. That’s as far as I’ll go with the comparison, it’s too painful to contemplate.

 

Death in “Miguel” is not abstract and it’s not in the past. Death is an absence that’s never filled, a game of hide-and-go-seek that’s never finished. The tears of frustration that ended the childhood game become exhaustion in the present. Miguel’s brother can look and look, but Miguel hides forever.

 

Here’s a musical version of the poem by the amazing Mercedes Sosas. No matter that I can’t understand the words, the intense emotion comes through.

 

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How is it I’ve never heard of César Vallejo, poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, a man Thomas Merton called “the greatest universal poet since Dante”?

 

Vallejo (1892-1938) was born in a remote area of the Andes in Peru, the youngest of eleven children. His grandfathers were Spanish Catholic priests, his grandmothers Chimu Indians. Make of that what you will. (I read somewhere that his grandmothers were brought into the rectory as housekeepers. There’s a story in there and I’m not sure it’s romantic.) Regardless, Vallejo was deeply attached to both his indigenous and his Spanish identities.

 

The family was very religious. His father encouraged him to become a priest, but Vallejo didn’t want to be celibate. He went to university but had to drop out several times because he couldn’t afford tuition. In between enrollments he worked as a tutor and in an office at a sugar plantation, where he was appalled by the exploitation of the workers.

 

After graduating and getting his master’s degree, he became a principal at a prestigious school. At night went to opium dens. Then his life took a Job-like turn. He got fired after he refused to marry a woman with whom he was having an affair, he tried to commit suicide, he returned home, and his mother died. While he was home, or on his way home (the story confused me), a general store was looted and burned, a man was shot, and Vallejo was accused of instigating the crime and sent to jail for months. Released on parole, he moved back to Lima, and from there, on to Europe. He knew when he left he would never be able to return home because of his criminal status.

 

In Paris he lived in dire poverty and nearly starved to death. There he befriend an also-impoverished Pablo Picasso and met Jean Cocteau, among other artists. He studied Marxism, and decided to give up poetry altogether to write a book about Marxist theory. He became a Communist, took three trips to the Soviet Union, and was expelled from France for his politics in 1930.

 

In Spain he worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. He was horrified at the conditions on the front. Somehow he was able to go back to Paris (I’m telling you, his life story has so many twists and turns I had a hard time following it), where he contracted an illness and could not recover. His death was dramatic. Not to make light of it, but I collect deathbed scenes and they usually have some element of humor. This one is no exception:

 

From poets.org:

 

No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” and he died. It was Good Friday.

 

He was only 46 when he died.

 

 

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Stick Elegy

by Terrance Hayes

 

The dead were still singing Turn the lights down low

Beneath Yellow Bridge where years before, clowning

And ass out, Stick jumped with nothing but the State

Championship trophy in his righteous clutch. The water

Was supposed to be deepest there, and for three seasons

Straight MVPs: Charlie “Fly” Kennison, Long Timmy Long,

And Rocket Jefferson, those are the names I knew, jumped

 

Free. But Stick’s ankle broke. I fished him out, crumpled

And bawling like the day he was born, like an object of

Baptism, and a life of bad luck followed in the shape of

Floods and fractured lightning, and then, numb, tooth-

Less, and changed, the dead refused burial, striking out, 2

By 2, 4 by 4, from the morgue house to raise trouble at

The bridge. I started hearing birds everywhere after that.

 

 

The lyrics in the first line of the Terrance Hayes’ poem—Turn the lights down low—seem familiar, but the song title escapes me. Which is exactly how I feel about the poem as a whole. Even after reading “Stick Elegy” over and over and over again, it escapes me even as I feel like I should know it well.

 

Let’s start with that lyric. It sounds like a slow-dance song, the type you’d hear at a high school prom of yore. But it’s not romantic and it’s not nostalgic. Dead people sing it—an image to make you shudder and avoid walking under bridges.

 

The boys mentioned in the poem seem familiar too. Kings of the basketball court, with their superhero nicknames, Fly, Rocket, Long, and the unfortunate Stick, whose very name, brittle and thin, suggest his destiny. Most of us knew such boys. Most of us knew or heard of that one boy, so full of promise and jokes and life, the boy we think of every time we jump in a pool, the boy who dove in the shallow end and broke his neck.

 

Then there’s the biblical references:  Noah’s flood and the two-by-two procession into the ark; Job’s lifetime of bad luck; baptisms in the river Jordan. I recognize the allusions but the applications are unsettling.

 

The poem’s conversational tone adds to my sense of familiarity. Listing the past jumpers, the speaker says, “those are the names I knew,” at once establishing a whole history of bridge jumpers before his time and his reliability as a storyteller. Like all good storytellers, the speaker knows when to pause for effect. The break between stanzas leaves the word “free” exposed, a tragic commentary on Stick’s fate. Behind the casual tone is a familiar form, the sonnet, with rhymes seemingly offhand but crafted most carefully: low/clowning, jumped/crumpled, tooth/2trouble at/after that.

 

Here’s where I start to lose the thread. A story is being told, but what is happening? Events happen over time. A story implies a timeline. In “Stick Elegy” certain words make timelines meaningless. The dead were “still singing” (emphasis mine) and a few words later we’re into “years before” territory. The poem ends with a past event that leans towards the present and future:  I started hearing birds everywhere after that. Does after that happen after Stick’s fall or Stick’s death or the dead singing under the bridge?

 

And who is this all happening to? Was the trouble at the bridge the speaker’s, Stick’s or does it belong to the dead people coming out of the morgue? Was it Stick who is changed or the dead? Look at the syntax around those lines. It’s purposefully confusing. We think we’re reading about Stick but all the sudden we’re not—

 

and then, numb, tooth-

Less, and changed, the dead refused burial

 

Look, as long as we’re in the land of the fanciful with these dead folks processing out of the morgue two-by-two and four-by-four, let me mention that Billy Collins is standing over my shoulder, accusing me of trying to

 

tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

So I’ll step back and think about what I do understand. It’s enough.

 

I see that the speaker is haunted by Stick’s life and death. The dead refused burial is a succinct and startling way to talk about grief.

 

I see that there’s a horrible reverse baptism at work here. Instead of baptism as a ritual marking the beginning of a new life in a community, Stick’s participation in the bridge-jumping tradition makes him an outcast and marks the end of the life he expected to have.

 

I see that the poem closes with birds, just as the story of Noah’s flood ends with a dove carrying an olive branch. But the birds at the end of “Stick Elegy” bring no peace and no promise. They sing to haunt.

 

There’s a big black boulder at a boy’s high school near my house. It sits outside the gym where boys exit to head to their playing fields. Every year new names are spray-painted on the rock, names of boys from the school who died, by suicide, by drowning. Whenever I walk past the rock, I touch it, sometimes tracing the wobbly-painted names with my finger. It’s my blessing to the boys lost and the boys left behind. Who knows how many boys do the same? At the very least, they see it daily, this rock that gives voice to their grief, this rock that says, We haven’t forgotten you, we will never forget you.

 

That, unfortunately, is what is most familiar of all about this poem.

 

I posted the poem on a bridge of course.

 

*

 

Terrance Hayes was born in 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina. His mother was a corrections officer, his father a barber for the military. He studied music and English at Coker College on a basketball scholarship. He got his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and taught at Carnegie Mellon, University of Alabama, University of Pittsburgh. He now teaches at New York University. Among the many awards he’s won are the National Book Award, several Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s published six books of poetry and one short story collection.

 

He has two children by his ex-wife, poet Yona Harvey.

 

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Today begins a death series. If you are of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness tribe, the timing might feel off to you. It’s true, poems about death would be better suited to November, somber November with its All Souls Day, bare trees and sunless skies. But I’ve always been a Margaret are you grieving over goldengrove unleaving kind of gal. Fall, even on the most beautiful of days, is death. “Winter is coming,” as they say

 

 

Or as Hopkins puts it,

 

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

*

poem is on right-side picnic table post

 

Death Again

by Jim Harrison

 

Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death.

Indeed it’s our most unique act along with birth.

We must think of it as cooking breakfast,

it’s that ordinary. Break two eggs into a bowl

or break a bowl into two eggs. Slip into a coffin

after the fluids have been drained, or better yet,

slide into the fire. Of course it’s a little hard

to accept your last kiss, your last drink,

your last meal about which the condemned

can be quite particular as if there could be

a cheeseburger sent by God. A few lovers

sweep by the inner eye, but it’s mostly a placid

lake at dawn, mist rising, a solitary loon

call, and staring into the still, opaque water.

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

 

 

We begin the series with “Death Again” by the morbidly funny Jim Harrison. Has there ever been a funnier poem title? Think about it. Say it out loud with different accents and intonations. It’s really funny. But also not funny at all.

 

Harrison sets the tone right from the start— Let’s not get romantic or dismal about death, he says, and he jokes to downplay the import of the dreaded subject. At the end of the poem he drops the clown act to reveal a vision stark and bleak—

 

We’ll know as children again all that we are

destined to know, that the water is cold

and deep, and the sun penetrates only so far.

 

Does anyone read those lines differently, that is, can anyone find any hope there?

 

I left “Death Again” at a picnic site on a placid lake. In the background you can see a swimmer braving the cold water for a last dip on her silly float.

 

*

 

I left another Harrison death poem at a cemetery in the northern Michigan town of Bliss. Harrison probably would have appreciated being situated in The Bliss Cemetery.

 

I don’t like “Sister” as well as “Death Again,” so I’ll post the pictures without comment.

poem is on skinny tree trunk

 

 

*

 

Two relevant Harrison quotes I came across:

 

“Everything living ends up as a turd of sorts.” (from his collection of food essays, A Really Big Lunch.)

 

And second, less funny, more raw, his reflections on the untimely deaths of his sister and father, from his memoir:

 

“Death leaves you speechless, or at least verbless. You simply become a howling primate, audibly or not, with your bloody heart in your hand wondering how it continues to pump. The word love becomes mortally imprecise when the objects of love are torn from us. . . . During the many raw moments that followed I even wondered if it would have been more bearable if we hadn’t been such a vitally close family. We never missed kissing each other goodnight and now two of us were forever missing.”

 

Re-posting his biography from a previous post:

 

 

Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, about an hour south of where I taped his poem to a country road. He was second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.

 

 

Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.

 

He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.

 

His appetite for food, alcohol, drugs during his Hollywood days, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a characteristic bit from his obituary in the New York Times:

“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”

 

He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.

 

Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.

 

Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.

 

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