Sunday, September 28, 2008

Poetic tribute to Paul Newman

(In memory of Paul Newman, who died in 2008, at 83)

This Is Not an Elegy
by Catherine Pierce

At sixteen, I was illegal and brilliant,
my fingernails chewed to half-moons.
I took off my clothes in a late March
field. I had secret car wrecks,
secret hysteria. I opened my mouth
to swallow stars. In backseats
I learned the alchemy of guilt, lust,
and distance. I was unformed and total.
I swore like a sailor. But slowly the cops
stopped coming around. The heat lifted
its palms. The radio lost some teeth.

Now I see the landscape behind me
as through a Claude glass—
tinted deeper, framed just so, bits
of gilt edging the best parts.
I see my unlined face, a thousand
film stars behind the eyes. I was
every murderess, every whip-
thin alcoholic, every heroine
with the silver tongue. Always young
Paul Newman’s best girl. Always
a lightning sky behind each kiss.

Some days I watch myself
in the third person, speak to her
in the second. I say: I will
meet you in sleep. I will know you
by your stillness and your shaking.
By your second-hand gown.
By your bruises left by mouths
since forgotten. This is not
an elegy because I cannot bear
for it to be. It is only a tree branch
against the window. It is only a cherry
tomato slowly reddening in the garden.
I will put it in my mouth. It will
be sweet, and you will swallow.

from Blackbird 5.1 (Spring 2006).

This poem, written in 2006, is not really an elegy for Paul Newman.  It mentions his name, and with his recent demise from cancer this year, we at Puisi-Poesy feel it is so apropos to remembering him; because it is about being young, about growing old, and not regretting life lived.

This elegy – or not – starts off as about being young (“at sixteen”), at a period in life when the poet had gone past pubescence and was reaching adulthood. That’s when she rebelled against authority (“the cops”). Then she’d act recklessly (“took off my clothes in a late March/field”). She’d wish she could wreck cars and have hysterics. But the extent is having sex – or near sex – at the back of cars. She’d act with bravado and “swore like a sailor” till the adults saw fit to leave her alone. She’d get jaded easily, by music (“The radio lost some teeth.”)

For all this, the poet realises she is not sixteen anymore. She only sees the world though tinted glass, paying attention only to the view she prefers (“framed just so, bits/of gilt edging the best parts.”). In this mirror she only sees her “unlined face”. The wrinkles are just “a thousand/film stars behind the eyes.” She’s an adult now, so she wants to become “every murderess, every whip-/thin alcoholic, every heroine/with the silver tongue. Always young/Paul Newman’s best girl.”

She now stands back and takes stock of herself, as a much older person, with lots of real, not imagined experiences, which leave behind scars, emotional or otherwise (“By your bruises left by mouths/since forgotten”).

Despite any pain, from experiences and ageing (“your stillness and your shaking”), she is not beaten yet nor fazed; because her life lived is not a lament, “not/an elegy because I cannot bear/for it to be.”

In the end she celebrates life, as the last five lines of the poem attest. In the end, too, life is like “cherry/tomato”, “which “will/be sweet”, and which “you will swallow”, just like she will open her “mouth/to swallow stars.”, as when she was young.

Catherine Pierce’s poetry collection Famous Last Words came out earlier this year in January. It won the 2007 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Back in 2004 her chapbook Animals of Habit (Kent State 2004) won the Wick Chapbook competition.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Michael Dirda: "Five Propositions About Poetry"

  1. In a very general sense, poets tend to use language in two ways: the artful or the natural. Either they transmute their thoughts through metaphor, striking imagery, or unusual syntax into something rich and strange; or they pack their meaning into what Wordsworth famously called the language really used by men (and women). On the one hand, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Jorie Graham; on the other, William Carlos Williams, Archilochos, and Billy Collins. Most poets opt for flash and filigree—after all, "O, for a beaker full of the warm South, / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene" (Keats) sounds like poetry. It takes real confidence, and sure judgment, to set down words as simple and deeply moving as "Pray, undo this button" (Shakespeare).

  2. Where a "Complete Poems" is a monument, a "Selected Poems" is an invitation, a sometimes needed icebreaker for shy new readers. In other words, most of us. Just as expository prose generally aims to ingratiate, emphasizing clarity and communication, so a lot of poetry blithely ignores the ordinary courtesies: It is simply there, true to itself. Let me be fanciful: If you picture good prose as a smooth politician deftly reaching out to the crowd and welcoming everyone into the party, then poetry is Clint Eastwood, serape flapping in the wind, standing quietly alone on a dusty street, pure coiled energy. He's not glad-handling anybody.

  3. To read a volume of poetry is to enter the world of the mesmerist. In a serious artist's collected poems, the single constant is usually his or her distinctive, increasingly hypnotic voice. Without relying on plot, dramatic action, or a cast of characters, lyric poets, especially, must entrance us with their words until we cannot choose by hear. Eager for more, we turn page after page because we find ourselves in thrall to a particular diction.

  4. Nearly everyone can come up with a good explanation for why they don't keep up with contemporary poetry, but the main one is simply that reading strange and unfamiliar poems sounds a lot like schoolwork. The language often seems so... high-pitched and bizarre or just plain hard to understand. In fact, the best way to enjoy contemporary verse is simply to read it as though you were dipping into a magazine, listening to a news report, overhearing a conversation. Don't make it a big deal, simply thrill to the words or story. As the critic Marvin Mudrick once proclaimed: "You don't read for understanding, you read for excitement. Understanding is a product of excitement." Later on, you can return to the poems that speak most strongly to you and make them a part of your life.

  5. Memorize the poems you love most. As Anthony Burgess wrote: "The dragging out from memory of lines from Volpone or The Vanity of Human Wishes with the twelfth glass is the true literary experience. I mean that. Verse is for learning by heart, and that is what a literary education should mostly consist of." When I was a teenager, I used to walk to high school. To pass those tedious twenty or thirty minutes I decided to memorize favourite lines and stanzas from Oscar Williams' anthology, Immortal Poems of the English Language. "With rue my heart is laden... I met a traveller from an antique land... We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship...The waste remains, the waste remains and kills...That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea...Our revels now are ended." In all my life no time has ever been better spent.
From Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

"What do Women Want?"

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their cafe, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

by Kim Addonizio

Disclaimer 1: So, what do women want? It escapes me. I’m totally clueless with regards to women, partly because I’ve never had a girlfriend before, so please, please, ladies out there, don’t denounce me, crucify me or give me all manner of male chauvinistic names imaginable in whatever language that you can think of, if I do, misread this poem, and indirectly, women in general.

On the surface, this poem appears to be about women’s relationship to clothes, to have that one little sexy dress they see at a shop. The first three lines of the poem, with the phrase “I want” repeated four times, three of which begins those lines of the poem, emphasizes primacy to the speaker of the poem “I” and what she “want[s]”. The strong, confident and insistent voice of ths speaker declares her own desire in a celebratory and empowering language.

She wants the dress to be “strapless” and “backless” in a way that flatters her. She is proud of her body and wants to flaunt it, as she saunters sexily down the street. There is a combination of both feminist and feminine sensuality here. Indeed, the dress should be “too tight”, molding the curves of her body, leaving nothing to the imagination – a dress to kill, one that reduces men to slobbering fools.

She wants to celebrate her power over men, as if she were the last woman on earth, choosing whomever she so desires. The “you” in the poem here may thus be taken to be men in general. She wants to show the men that she cares little for them, and their worst fears of her (fearless, independently desiring etc) are true. The enjambment between the lines “…anything except what/ I want” and the resulting pause emphasizes again that her desires are solely for her self only.

At the same time, because the emancipation of her desire seems to be tied to that red dress, and what it signifies not just to her, but her in relation to men who presumably desire her in it (which makes her sexy), there almost appears to be a turning back to the whole issue of women not being free to desire on their own, but are re-circumscribed within men’s desires. The confidence that she exude inhere through that red dress. So, is she being reduced down to that sexy red dress, and as such, her female power defined only through her body?

I think that there is a kind of dialectical relationship with the dress. That this is also the dress she wants to be buried in marks perhaps a change and shift in what the dress means. It suggests that the dress is now not so much the dress per se, but the dress as both her body and her self together. Above all else, she wants to be herself in whichever ways she chooses, in her own skin, as it were; and also, possibly, to be wanted as her very own self, and not as her body alone. She wants to want for her own self, her own desire and pleasure on her own terms.

There are also other possibilities of reading this poem. Note that the dress is not “cheap” as she wishes it were, as well as the street where she wishes to walk down with the dress. There’s economics here. Another consideration for another reading is who one reads the “you” to be. And yet another reading comes from the lines “…I’ll pull that garment /from its hanger like I’m choosing a body/ to carry me into this world, through/the birth-cries and the love-cries too”. Think body and beauty. The complexity of this poem, other than the reading I’ve discussed, is what makes this poem very powerful.

Disclaimer 2: I do think that women also enjoy beautiful and sexy dresses irrespective and independent of the desires of men.

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