Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Snapshots (I)"

Troopers dead in a trench and a river of rats

Topers dead in a bar and a flood of reflections

Lovers dead in a bed and a shift of maggots

Snipers dead in the trees and a cowl of crows

Travellers dead on the bridge and a gaggle of gawpers

Oldsters dead on a porch and downpour of flies

Deserters dead in a pitch and a raft of chiggers

Foragers dead in a field and a jostle of foxes

Children dead at their desks and a month of Sundays

By David Harsent
(from his 2005 Forward prize-winning collection, Legion)

David Harsent, the British poet who’d won last year’s Forward award for the best poetry collection, based his collection Legion on some unspecified war zone. But as he’s translated Goran Simic, a Bosnian poet, and he was one of the editors of an anthology of British and Irish poems commissioned by the Sarajevo Writers' Union, one can conjecture, even if he never admits this outright, he probably would have had the Bosnian conflict in mind when he wrote those poems.

Snapshots (I) is made up, deceptively simply, of just phrases, each its own line and its own stanza. Basically the lines are a listing of images, or snapshots, as the title tells you. The numeral in the brackets also indicates this poem is the first of a series, actually a pair, the second one being II.

The overall composition is very tight, with no loose ends; every thing and every word is accounted for. The syntactical construction is constant: noun group with adjectival modifier and prepositional modifier; a conjunction; and a noun phrase with a similar prepositional modifier. There is not a single punctuation to set the phrases apart. This is done by line spacings instead. There is not a single run-on or enjambment, just very strong end-stops. There is also not a single verb; rightly so, as the words in each line are a linguistic translation of a captured – stilled - instance in a photograph.

Of images the poem is, no doubt, about, and because of the graphic quality of each image, it can lean some ways towards imagist poetry. Another image evoked from the line arrangements is rows of headstones or graves, and the consistency of construction is so very precise and regular, it has an almost, dare I say, a military precision. Interesting that Harsent named this piece Snapshots, as if the images have been shot by casual photographers or amateurs – does this tell you anything?

Another constant here is the word “dead”. It is repeated at every line, and as it is read with a stress or a beat, it almost seems like someone reading out from a list of people who’d been killed – which it is, here. Also, the heavy beat upon the repetitions gives a sensation of some death knell. And a slow and resounding one at that. The separating of the lines into one-line stanzas make you pause at their endings for a space longer, the strong end-stops helping in this, as well.

The division of the two noun groups in a line by a conjunction is important here. The objects – the troopers, lovers, snipers, children – on the left of “and” are all dead – nothing moving. On the right of “and”, though, you have movement. But the actual objects moving are not at the head of the noun group: river of rats; shift of maggots; downpour of flies; jostle of foxes. The movements themselves are taking precedence over the objects which are moving.

This is significant when you read up to end of the last line, the last stanza. In “the month of Sundays”, Harsent means for us to feel that with the death of the children, everything is stilled – nothing is moving. For some people Sunday is a day of rest, a day in which you don’t do any work, or anything for that matter. God created the world and rested on one day, Sunday.

What would anybody’s life be like if he is living day to day as if “everyday is like Sunday.” I’m actually quoting this phrase from the lyrics of Morrissey’s Everyday is like Sunday. He says “Everyday is like Sunday/ Everyday is silent and grey”. And, like Harsent writing about war, destruction and death here, Morrissey, later in the song, sings about grey ash falling on one’s hands and face after a nuclear bomb explosion.

Can you imagine every day of the month a “silent and grey” Sunday, with no sound, no activity, at least, not from living beings?

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"nobody loses all the time"

i had an uncle named
Sol who was a born failure and
nearly everybody said he should have gone
into vaudeville perhaps because my Uncle Sol could
sing McCann He Was A Diver on Xmas Eve like Hell Itself which
may or may not account for the fact that my Uncle

Sol indulged in that possibly most inexcusable
of all to use a highfalootin phrase
luxuries that is or to
wit farming and be
it needlessly

my Uncle Sol's farm
failed because the chickens
ate the vegetables so
my Uncle Sol had a
chicken farm till the
skunks ate the chickens when

my Uncle Sol
had a skunk farm but
the skunks caught cold and
died and so
my Uncle Sol imitated the
skunks in a subtle manner

or by drowning himself in the watertank
but somebody who'd given my Uncle Sol a Victor
Victrola and records while he lived presented to
him upon the auspicious occasion of his decease a
scrumptious not to mention splendiferous funeral with
tall boys in black gloves and flowers and everything and

i remember we all cried like the Missouri
when my Uncle Sol's coffin lurched because
somebody pressed a button
(and down went
my uncle

and started a worm farm)

by e.e.cummings

Try reading this aloud so that you can appreciate it properly, and just see how it sounds when you try it in a southern American accent! (Which I do, badly!)

How often do you get a poem that works like a joke complete with a punchline? What fun! Yet really - isn't this a tragic story about despair and suicide?

The story is about poor old Uncle Sol, who failed in every venture he tried, but the speaker emerges just as clearly as her subject. (I said "her" - why do I see a woman?)

The almost total lack of punctuation gives the impression of a speaker who is just not pausing for breath. Where you'd expect a full stop or a pause the speaker uses expressions like "which / may or may not account for the fact that", "be/ it needlessly/ added" - no-one else is given the room to elbow in on this discussion!

It's a tremendous, almost childish enthusiam that keeps this speaker going. I love the throwing in of little asides that have nothing to do with the main drift of the story (about the song, the record player) as the speaker gets diverted by particular memories, or apologises for a "high falootin phrase".

The line "the auspicious occasion of his decease" is amusing - when do we ever call a death an auspicious occasion? And the words "scrumptious" and "splendiferous" aren't exactly the ones we'd expect to describe a funeral.

I love poems that tell a story, and poems where you can hear the speaker's voice - I guess that comes from being a great fan of short fiction - so I find this poem very satisfying. I tried using a similar voice for a short story.

Picture is Cumming's Self-Portrait with Sketch Pad.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

"Channel Firing"

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds,
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe-cow drooled. Till God called, “No,
It's gunnery practice out at sea.
Just as before you went below,
The world is as it used to be:

All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters,
They do no more for Christes sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

That this is not the judgment-hour,
For some of them's a blessed thing,
For if it were, they'd have to scour
Hell's floor for so much threatening ...

Ha, ha! It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do — for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

(By Thomas Hardy, April 1914)
This poem, written on the cusp of the First World War, has gained new attention since 9-11 for its anti-war message.

I chose this poem not only for its relevance to our times, but also because of how skilfully and effectively Thomas Hardy uses poetry to tell this story. How would one capture the comical spirit of these verses as effectively as this in prose?

The poem's form follows a regular structure of alternately end-rhymed quatrains in iambic tetrameter. It gives a jovial, conversational tone to the narrator's voice, although he had just had his sleep disturbed by the great guns shaking his and his companions' coffins and breaking the church windows.

The first delightful thing about this poem are Hardy's use of enjambment for comic effect e.g. 'We thought it was the Judgment-day/And sat upright.' Then comes the next part of the line, another enjambed line, 'while drearisome/Arose the howl of wakened hounds,'.

And that's when I started to enjoy the poem purely for its wit and stopped picking at it.

'[...] while drearisome/Arose the howl of wakened hounds,'

It's not just a dreary picture when one hears of dogs howling in the middle of the night, but also one gets the feeling that the narrator is empathic of the cliché that dogs will howl when something spooky happens. Then he also tells us about the startled mouse, the cowardly worms and the drooling cow!

(A glebe cow is a cow kept on church grounds to keep the grass short. It's funny enough image that until I learned that it meant that the cow went starking mad, and then it became quite hilarious — helped by yet another use of a line break for effect.)

Then God calls down, and says “No, it isn't Judgment Day yet, it's just a firing exercise in the English Channel — though obviously how 'English', is still under dispute – the world is the same as it used to be when you all died.”

“They're still at it, madly posturing for war, 'They do no more for Christes [sic. — some versions of this poem give Christ's instead of Christes, an archaic form, but using Christes as the poem was originally written would preserve the rhyme structure.] sake' than you can!”

Some should count themselves lucky that it's not Judgement Day yet; God has a chore ready for them to do!

“Besides, it's going to be a lot warmer than this when I call for Judgement,” chuckles God. And then God says that men need all the rest they can get, so he might just let us be.

As the skeletons settle down to go back to sleep, one skeleton wonders aloud if the world would ever be a saner place, and many shook their heads, wearily contemplating the state of the world. Parson Thirdly, the narrator's 'neighbour' — in more ways than one: in the physical sense; literarily, in Thomas Hardy's oeuvre (Parson Thirdly is a character in Far from the Madding Crowd); as a neighbour in faith (irreverent fact: Parson Thirdly's name is an allusion to the third member of the Holy Trinity) – wishes that he had spent all those forty years smoking pipes and smoking beer instead of preaching.

The poem ends with the narrator describing the sounds of the the roaring guns going on, and can be heard as far inland as Stourton Tower, Camelot, and Stonehenge – three places geographically far apart. They also symbolize, in my opinion, the different ages that war has taken place: in the poem's time-frame; back to the 9th Century, the time of King Alfred the Great; to the legendary times of King Arthur of Camelot; and even further back, to the Neolithic times of the druids.

Thomas Hardy is the novelist of classics such as Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and The Mayor of Casterbridge. He published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, in 1898 and, giving up writing prose entirely, he published poetry until his death in 1928. Channel Firing appears in Satires of Circumstance: The Complete Poetical Works Of Thomas Hardy, first published in 1914.

— Reza

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"eating a $5 plate of string hoppers, I think of my father"

snoozing in front of Seinfeld on the beige on beige recliner
his belly folds after years
of american chop suey, hamburgers and Michelob
he really wanted to eat
was ever on the shelves
of Iandolli's or the Big D
I think of that man
who cried three times in my life
once when appamma died
once when our dog died
& once when I sent him
a 99-cent package of tamarind candy
& he called me long distance after Ma went to bed
weeping from tasting tamarind
for the first time in thirty years

By Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Leah Lakshmi Piepza-Samarasinha is a queer Toronto-based performance poet of Sri Lankan and Irish-Ukranian ancestry. She has just released her first book, Consensual Genocide.

I was thrilled to discover her primarily for one reason: her work is in the same biting, revolutionary vein as Gloria Anzaldua's and Cherrie Moraga's, not the weak, Western-pandering vein of many other women of South Asian heritage writing in English.

This poem captures the immigrant experience without having to resort to cheap tricks of exoticisation. Memory and dislocation are addressed here by comparing food -- string hoppers and tamarind juxtaposed beside everything available on North American supermarket shelves. What is especially admirable is that this poem could easily have veered into the whole Orientalist terrain (you know, "spices"). Instead, the poet accomplishes in just one mention of a 99cent pack of tamarind candy what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tried to convey via a whole novel.

It is often said that it is food, even more than language, that keeps us rooted to our origins -- and this poem demonstrates this in a raw, honest way. In remembering her father, the poet pays homage to his own memories. Eating string hoppers, a dish from his native Sri Lanka (at $5 a plate! So exorbitant is the price of home, so far away from it), she is taken back to a visual of him watching TV, the way his belly folds from years of eating things foreign to his tongue and his heart, presumably with little relish.

She then follows the trajectory of the food motif into memory. She details the only three incidents during which she herself witnessed her father's tears -- when his mother died, when their dog died, and when he called her long distance after she sent him that packet of tamarind sweets. In each of these three memories of hers lies a link to a memory of her father's.

The poet's website is here. I wrote to her, when I first heard about her a few weeks ago, but she hasn't replied. I am so excited that a Sri Lankan woman is coming out with work like this, and I intend to keep an eye open for more from her.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006



The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.


The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.


You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.


His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

By T.S.Eliot

I have been struggling with a couple of T.S.Eliot’s poems over the recent months, and this poem came to mind after reading Leon’s post last week, as it builds upon the sense of solitude conveyed in Muriel Spark’s “Standing in the field”.

This poem is a series of little portraits or scenes, if you will, of the speaker’s observations at different moments of the day (during the 1910s). The first section depicts a rainy, windswept evening that seems to have that dreary feel of the day’s end, especially with the imagery of strewn newspapers as leftover, unwanted rubbish. The monotonous rain beating down works together with the rhymes ‘passageways – days’, ‘wraps – scraps’ ‘lots –pots’, ‘stamps – lamps’ where the repetitive ‘s’ endings adds a sense of dullness and weariness.

The second section carries with it some of the ‘mood’ of the first. Instead of celebrating a beautiful morning as a start of new day, the morning opens up to the remains of yesterday. “Of faint, stale, smell of beer”. The stresses in this line lend a heaviness to the day’s beginning, just as use of synecdoche in “muddy feet” suggest a kind of unwilling trudging off to work (hence, needing coffee). The raising of shades then is not look forward to, but something done almost mechanically, as if the morning were a promise of not something wonderful, but the start of the day’s burden.

Tossing and turning in bed from the dark early hours of the morning to sunrise, the speaker in the third section looks out the window, litted dimly by the street lamps. What he sees are “sordid images” of the places and things his life is ‘constituted’ by during the day. In this respect, this section is perhaps a kind of extension of the earlier section (II) about the start of the day, except that it is directly more personal here. The ‘you’ that the speaker addresses is not the reader, rather it is his very own self, as he sits in a huddled figure, pensively letting his thoughts wonder/wander.

The forth section turns to the period between late afternoon to evening, when the sun’s rays is “stretched tightly across the skies” and gradually grows dimmer, leaving “[t]he conscience of a blackened street”. At this close of the day (as well as the poem), the speaker is probably left by himself, and he is captured by a sense of the tedium/ tediousness of life, of the day’s beginning and end that seem to signify little – life that is a prelude (irony of the title) only to emptiness. The deeply melancholic and yet profoundly moving phrase “infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing”, though a fancy of the speaker, seems to express a belief and desire for something more meaningful than the alienation and futility that he feels. But, the speaker then sharply turns away from this thought and gives a bitter, cynical laugh, declaring that life and the world around him is nothing more than like old women gathering broken pieces of driftwood for fire.

What strikes you about speaker of this poem?
What is suggested by the final image of the old women collecting firewood?
If the final two stanzas were not part of this poem, would you have read it differently? (less melancholic, perhaps?)

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Standing in the Field"

By Muriel Spark

That scarecrow standing in the field
is dress-designed as if to move
all passers-by to tears
of sorrow for his turnip face,
his battered hat, his open arms
flapping in someone else’s shirt,
his rigid, orthopedic sticks
astride someone else’s jeans,
one leg of which is short, one long.
He stands alone, he stands alone.

Two weeks ago, on April 13, at the age of 88, in Florence, Italy, Dame Muriel Spark, whom I consider one of the greatest modern English/Scottish writers, passed away. She is more well-known for her novels, such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, than for her poems. Standing in the Field is taken from All the Poems of Muriel Spark, out in May 1 in the UK on Carcanet paperback.

In this poem someone is a distance away, observing a scarecrow in a field. “dress-designed” would have one anticipate the clothes on the scarecrow to be fashionable. But later along in the poem we find he does have on something somewhat fashionable, like a pair of jeans. But they have unequal lengths. We then see why that is so.

The second line also has us tricked initially into interpreting move as physical movement, (such as a dance or a jig, perhaps?). The cutting of the line at move foregrounds this word into a powerful run-on to “all passers-by”. So move here can have undercurrents of emotion and motion, to contrast against stationary stance.

For birds the scarecrow is meant to be scary, to frighten them away from the crops in the field, but for us we should cry with tears of laughter for the funny “turnip face”. But the cutting of the third line at tears, another powerful run-on, has the extension to it as “of sorrow”.

“battered hat” might not be as innocuous as they sound, as are “his open arms”. They can connote defenselessness against violence. “flapping”, in the line after, has this movement contrast sheer with the stiffness in “rigid, orthopedic sticks”, and this compounds the sadness of someone with no legs. His “dress-designed” clothes – shirt and jeans - are not even his own possessions but “someone else’s”, the repetition of which drives home the wretchedness of such poverty or dispossession.

All the lines have been written in a strict regular 4-beat rhythm. There are a few beat or stress promotions of unstressed words, in the first couple of lines. Line 3 has only 3 beats, but you could place a silent or virtual beat at the end, to effect a pause, like a gulping. And this would make the run-on here even more prominent or effecting.

The only slight variations in the rising tone – or iambic metre, for old-school stylists - are in the two lines describing “someone else’s shirt” and “someone else’s jeans”. They have tone or beat/stress inversions. In “flapping in someone else’s shirt” , the first pair of syllables are inverted, from fall-rise to rise-fall. When you quicken the reading of the non-stresses in “flapping in”, the effect here is one of sharp and quick movements. “astride someone else’s jeans” has the second pair of syllables inverted. The length of time to read the stresses in “astride someone” makes for a stretching effect (of legs widening apart?).

The last line has the narrator seeing, finally, that the fashionable but crippled object afar, stock-still in the field, is all so profoundly by himself. The echoing of “He stands alone” brings home to us poignantly how small and alone he is within the wide stretch of the field.

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