Joanna Lilley has lived north of the 60th parallel in Whitehorse, Yukon, since she emigrated from the UK in 2006. Her poems and stories have been published in numerous journals and anthologies and she is recipient of various prizes for her poems. Lilley helps coordinate the Whitehorse Poetry Festival and is on the advisory board of the Cascadia Poetry Festival. In addition to her playfully wry poetry collection The Fleece Era, she has a collection of short fiction forthcoming in 2015.
In a review for Quill & Quire, this is some of what Adebe D.A. had to say about The Fleece Era:
Winter weaves itself into the form and content of several poems in phrases that land on the reader’s consciousness like snow: lightly at first, then heavily in their accumulation. Several poems situation the reader in the midst of the protagonist’s own personal winter, a counterpoint to the book’s sketches of life in the Great White North.
In her poem “Neo-Colonialist”, Joanna Lilley brushes aside her sensitivities and concerns and adopts a comical tone that is (self-)critical of tropes associated with historical and economical privilege, bringing about a marvelous effect, and this crafty poetic approach amid our obsession with everything North is to be found throughout her collection.
The Fleece Era by Joanna Lilley (Brick Books, 2014, Page 97)
We’d never experienced grocery store
trauma before. We had to shop at Walmart
and save Canadian Tire money.
At last we listened to the rumour of the north.
Now, our government jobs keep Canis lupus
from the door and our coats lined,
the Subaru fuelled and the skis waxed.
We love the smell of spruce sap
in the morning.
Canada is the perfect place to come to
now that England is full up.
The towns are ugly, but
there’s space for everyone
in this megaland. We might go
country residential next year.
Clear some trees so we can see
the mountains but not the neighbours.
Geomantic Riposte: Hankies
Bloody well get on with it so I can see the Sunday Corrie recap
speaking as the only Bakwas in the room you end up listening
to loads of acknowledgements and hand-wringing when you’d
really like to hear more about Haydn’s piano sonatas Rot on
dangling shingles suspended over fetid sloughs in Faulknerian
glimpses of farming life with the First Nations used as imagistic
hankies for dabbing one tear as if echoing old Cree petroglyph
so let me first thank this government for keeping me in ethno-
graphers and the mewling babes of British Lords my ancestral
diet demands because in those days we were all a bit Ugolino
chowing down on cute kids and replacing their memory with
fresh brood as for the marginalized Swounds show me
what thou’lt do Woo’t weep? Woo’t fight? Woo’t fast? Woo’t
tear thyself? Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? I will out-
nightmare your Colonial nightmares with piping hot horrors
table talk that nearly upset the RCMP dinner talk of Mountie
Barbie WOOT! there’s a handbook for writing pre-Colonial
elegies for grant judge and prize jury it’s next to systemic
Neal McLeod defines himself as half Cree (having grown up on the James Smith reserve in Saskatchewan) and half Swedish, and has studied at the Swedish Art Academy at Umeå . He has exhibited his art work throughout Canada, including in the 2005 exhibition au fil de mes jours (in my lifetime) at Le Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, an exhibition remounted at the Museum of Civilization in 2007. McLeod’s first book of poetry, Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow, a book graced by colour plates featuring his dynamic artwork, was nominated for several Saskatchewan book awards and book of the year at the Anskohk McNally Aboriginal Literature Awards. His second book of poetry is entitled Gabriel’s Beach. A teacher of Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Ontario, McLeod is currently editing two highly topical works, a volume entitled Indigenous Poetics with Randy Lundy and Natasha Beeds, and also an anthology entitled Cîhcêwêsin: new writing from indigenous Saskatchewan.
In The Fieldstone Review, Tyler McCreary and Richard Milligan elaborated on McLeod’s metaphoric usage of common lore among the Cree in Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow:
This oppressive darkness enters McLeod's poetry most prominently in the titular figure of the wîhtikow. Wîhtikow is a cannibal. Antisocial in the extreme, the wîhtikow turns inward from society and consumes other beings for his own narrowly conceived benefit. Within his poetry and art, McLeod deploys the wîhtikow as a powerful metaphor for the greed and individualism consuming our society, which he describes as "the attempt to swallow the light from the sky of the world."
Songs to Kill a Wîhtikow by Neal McLeod (Hagios Press, 2005, Page 75)
I cast deep every time
like the old man in the sea
they might take our country
but dammit, they can’t take our love
I am like junkie needing my fix
my love, wrapping my vein
getting ready to score
the ghetto, the hood
the inner city
the place before the suburbs
and after the reservation
young men pass through the streets
in the place of headdresses
gold chains in the place
of breast plates
g-notes instead of Cree notes
they trade their tribal lore
for gangster hustle
Geomantic Riposte: Receipts
Must have been a lugubrious day on Coast Salish Territory when I suffered
lack of a Kwakwaka’wakw box  in TurboTax® packed up my cannibal
bird monster who bared it for airport screening and they did not like what
they saw nor did I after ten thousand years, startled by the smell of “the
earth” and roving around winking at buffalo, trying to convince them they
have little to live for unfolding history with a barbed tongue over a cow
bone at Montana’s Cookhouse with a bastardization of Vancouver’s name
that sounds like a Dutch cow-crossing my hand was forced, like Quadra
y Whatever to sign away my proud conquest via “sensuous genius” but at
Sâkêwêwak the little pups must put up with my West Coast “chicken talk”
just the kind of promotional buzz at Fan Expo to pitch to the guy with five
lines in Wolfcop the Movie this sweet Bakbakwalanooksiwae vs. Wîhtikow
franchise though I have this quirk of eating the wealth we are giving away
and I did settle on those pants at the Bay however demoralizing trading
posts can be they were for sale like everything in the big static picture, bro
For the Boston AWP in the Spring of 2013 (the only time I have attended the gathering), I presented an adaption of “Recantorium: A Bachelor Machine after Duchamp after Kafka,” the orignal of which was collected in Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essay and Inventions. David Caplan asked Adam Kirsch to join him in speak on “How Do We Know How Much is Too Much, Not Enough, or Too Little?”. We filled a hotel ballroom for the panel and there was a lively conversation after that delineated what I called the theological differences between Kirsch’s view on poetry and mine. AWP had contacted me in advance to get permission to record the event and, although a recording was made that day, AWP informed me a few months ago that the recording will not be made availalbe because they lost it. Here is the text of my AWP adaption of “Recantorium.”
I, Charles, son of the late Joseph Herman, later known as Herman Joseph, and Shirley K., later known as Sherry, New Yorker, aged sixty-two years, arraigned personally before this Esteemed Body, and kneeling before you, Most Eminent and Reverend listeners, conventioneers, wayward and waylaid poets, honored and dishonored, appreciated and ignored, praised and scorned, apprentice and young, middle age, old, fresh and putrid, open minded, unminded, and dysminded, peptic and dyspeptic, careerist and more about just-having-a-lot-to-drink-and-a-good-time, just-here-to-hang-out with-old-friends-don’t–bug-me-with agendas-or-partisan-grudges novelists, personal and impersonal essayists and authors of all manner of creative and uncreative writing, memoirists and fake memoirists. I, Charles, having before my eyes and touching with my hands, the books of the Accessible Poets, swear that I have always believed, do believe, and by your help will in the future believe, all that is held, preached, taught, and expressed by the Books of Accessible Poets.
I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that creative writing workshops that focus on craft and craft alone, honing poems down so that they use no wasted words, but direct their energies -- spiritual, material, immanent, exigent, single and collective -- toward fabricating a voice that gives strong, direct, and original expression to, for some, the deepest human feelings, and for others, if they have no deep human feelings, then superficial human feelings, a workshop that anaesthetizes itself from the corruption and aridness of intellectual concepts, metaphysical puzzles, fantasy and the imaginary, ideological conundrums, and political pretexts; that is a workshop that successfully avoids philosophical and ideological agitation and partisanship, that eliminates unwanted and distracting extremes of forms, an approach that is advocated with the dexterity and openness of liberal pluralism –that welcomes all voices except those of bitterness and dissent – in the Writer’s Chronicle of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the official organ of the sponsor of this vast convocation, conference & bookfair, The Association of Writers and Writing Program's largest conference to date, with over 11,000 attendees, 600 events, 1,900 presenters, and 700 bookfair exhibitor … almost none of whom, or which, have any connection, concern, engagement with or concern about the approaches to poetry and poetics articulated by the AWP leadership, especially when many, perhaps most, possibly all writing workshops have so radically changed in recent years, corrupted by just the sort of erroneous ideas I have hitherto espoused, and which I now renounce, even at the risk that my concerns here – to return the workshop to its core values as defined in the Books of the Accessible Poets – is totally at odds with the prevailing conviviality, good spirit, and give-me-a break-let’s-just-get-along focus of the convocation as it appears to the participants and those at the book fare: independent and noncommercial, small and micro, nano and underground, ephemeral and invisible, regional and subregional, local and loco, international and infranational, idiosyncratic, idiopathic, and idiotic publishers, presses, magazines, zines, mags, rags, periodicals, blogs, journals, newsletters, organizations, groups, factions, programs, websites, series, centers, and non-centers and writers of all stripes and of no stripe at all. Let me proclaim openly to you all, 11,000 attendees, 1900 presenters, 700 bookfair exhibitors, avow of my own will with no coercion and without motivation that this will ingratiate me to you all, counter any negative image I may have acquired over the years, and make my new book, on display in the book hall, a more attractive purchase (for those with hand-held devise, preorder now at deep discount on Amazon & Barnes & Noble): so without pretext, cunning, or guile, with an absolute disingenuousness, I recant the view, that I had hitherto advocated with the fervor of a boy released from his vows of mental chastity on the eve of Bar Mitzvah – that is to say, I reject and renounce the mocking of the approaches to teaching creative writing adumbrated here as a lesson in error, approaches that I have hithertofor mistakenly claimed foster an anemic poetry, a poetry that fails the test of wildness, of unpredictably, of resistance, of wild logos. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy. And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of the Associated Writing Program’s Enlightened Doctrine and Dogma, which is indeed not doctrine or dogma at all but represents the common human truth of all writers of poetry, regardless of their race, creed, origin, gender or absence of any of these, and regardless of their aesthetics or lack of aesthetics, as symbolized by this mighty convocation, which encompasses, like America itself, voices lesser and greater, louder and weaker, timeless and tired, indeed that incorporates and celebrates all poetry of every type, shape and form, manner and non-manner, style and non-style, and indeed that even includes with open arms and welcome cheer a miserable, divisive, grumpy reprobate such as myself, who answers Professor Caplan’s question -- How Do We Know How Much is Too Much, Not Enough, or Too Little? – with an inappropriate, self-serving inability to know when enough is enough or to even to know how anything could be too much.
I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether reject, abjure, and denounce the sarcasm that has ’til now undercut the sincerity of my confession. I abase and prostrate myself in humbly and sincerely asking your forgiveness and the forgiveness of all those who seek, above all, sincerity and authenticity in poetry.
I was wrong, I apologize and I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that the D.W. Fenza, the most revered, honorable, energetic, and entrepreneurial leader of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and editor of its official organ the Writer’s Chronicle, which promulgates the Right Way and Right Path for poetry in the 21st century and which has the courage to stand forthrightly against iniquitous and overly intellectual poetry practices such as mine – so I was saying, before my meandering digressions interrupted the contrary and error-filled flow of my thought, what I have come here to say at the Boston Sheraton Hotel, which is conveniently connected to two premier shopping malls and just steps away from the boutiques and fine restaurants on Newbury Street and close to the Museum of Fine Arts, a walk along the Charles River, or dining at the bistros in the South End … what I have come the Boston Sheraton to say, to proclaim -- me, poet chetif, a soul lost in the maelstrom of competing ideas, fantasies, hopes, despairs, and resentments, a poet who wishes to rid himself, or herself, of his – or are they not mine but thoughts planted in me by a demonic force? – my, or its, polarizing, arrogant outbursts and accept a true openness to all directions in poetry, yes, -- as I was trying to say, keep trying to say … I confess, aver and allow, rebuke myself and ask to be rebuked, for, this is the point, this is what I want to aver: I am out-of-line not to feel grateful when Executive Director and Writer’s Chronicle editor Fenza called me, in the Chronicle “morally repugnant” for not sharing his views about poetry. As one of the Blessed of the doctrine of Pluralism in poetry, he is entitled to his views and my mentioning his calling me “morally repugnant” is divisive and partisan and, precisely, morally repugnant and has no place in these meetings or in my recantation.
I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether and totally, completely and thoroughly, without reservation, quibble, or question, and with newly faithful heart, abandon the false doctrine that meandering, digressive, or paratactic prose, prose that fails to state clearly its meaning, sentences that get caught up in their own rhythms and sounds and cadences, nuances and nooks, rather than in getting to the point or meat or heart of the matter or meaning or substance, as I say, I abandon and renounce the false doctrine that crooked and bent prose can have any value for truthful discourse or accurate representation. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and aversion and the many related errors and aversions that flow inevitably as a consequence of the aforesaid error and aversion, as a baby inevitably flows from its mother or an ocean from its rivers or a false conclusion from a flawed premise or a disease from a virus or death from repeated blows with a blunt instrument or gorging from a starving child given food. Clearly written expository prose, with a delineated argument including a beginning, middle, and end, is the only guarantor of Rational Mind.
I was wrong, I apologize and recant. I altogether abandon the false doctrine that ambiguity, irony and aesthetic excess are anything more than sophistry. I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy, which I have lapsed into again and again, like a habitual drinker seeking his five o’clock martini, or an erotomaniac seeking non-procreative sexual experiences, or a worker idling on the job, or a habitual truant passing notes in class. I recant my cant. I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and apostasy and the many related errors and apostasies that flow inevitably as a consequence of the aforesaid error and apostasy, as a baby inevitably flows from its mother or an ocean from its rivers or a false conclusion from a flawed premise or a disease from a virus or death from repeated blows with a blunt instrument or gorging from a starving child given food.
I was wrong, I apologize most humbly before you, and with great contrition I recant. I altogether abandon, renounce and revile the use of found or appropriated texts in poems, whether attributed or unattributed, or the use of any external constraints, operations, procedures, algorithms, engines, or devices, whether machinic or manual, automated or calculated, digital or analogic, real or imaginary, virtual or actual. Such approaches to poetry soil, defame, and besmirch all traces of human expression, which is the necessary foundation for all poetry, and in pernicious and insidious ways foster depersonalization and inauthenticity by means of the substitution of the plagiarized and manufactured for the original and creative.
I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. Like the black sheep who strays too far from the adoring flock, or like the drunk with a pale green beret who, deep into the night, and desperate for one more absinthe before closing time, babbles uncontrollably to the deaf and crippled barkeep, I embraced an elitism that puts me out of touch with the sentiments, feelings, convictions, beliefs, preferences, perspectives, and dyspepsia of everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill people, the Johns and Joans and Janes and Jills, the Billys and Bobs, the Shirleys and Toms, the Frans and Fritzes, Millys and Moes, not only thinking I was better than John and Joe, Mary and Harry, but that their sentiments, feelings, convictions, beliefs, preferences, perspectives, and dyspepsia did not matter.
I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. Like a rat seeking a dark cavity to eat its hapless prey, I succumbed to what Emeritus Pope Benedict called the dictatorship of relativism, a state of profound confusion in which I could not recognize anything as definitive and based my judgments solely on my own ego and desires. In this graceless state, I falsely believed that the real tyranny was intolerance to those who do not adhere to the aesthetic values of honesty, coherence, clarity, and truth as revealed to all with a moral conviction and a commitment to the timeless human story. I repudiate this gutless indulgence toward benighted and fallen ideas and commit myself to the dictatorship of obedience.
I was in error, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false doctrine of midrashic antinomianism and bent studies, what I have later called the pataqu(e)rical, with its insistence on dialogic and situational values rather than fixed and immutable moral laws, a poetics of the odd, weird, curious, strange, funny, peculiar, oblique, obscured, eccentric, bizarre, dubious, perverse, affected, fey, swish, sissy, freak, warped, girly, effeminate, insincere -- not high bred but low bred – vulgar, bathetic, disgusting, illiterate, ignorant, awkward, clumsy, erroneous, ugly, mongrel, deformed, incoherent, nonsensical, aberrant, foolish, contradictory, awkward, frivolous, ungainly, self-indulgent, infantile, stubborn, the phony and fake, the prevaricating, disorderly, troubled and troubling, and indeed deviant and morally repugnant – a poetics in which, Professor Caplan: too much is still not enough. I loved language and metaphor, hyperbole and irony, sarcasm and performance and excess more than truth – discourse more than reality, sensation more than emotion – and so allowed to spread, in myself and in others, an intellectual virus that uproots what Pound called the “plain sense of the word.”
I, the said Charles Bernstein, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above; and in witness of the truth thereof I have with my own hand subscribed the present document of my abjuration and abjection, first in Tucson and then in Lyon and after that in New York, Buffalo, and Stockholm, and now, recited word for word at Back Bay, Boston, also pronounced Boston, named after the port town in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and evoking for this reason the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, son of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, communist turned laureate, who warned “laboring aloft you forget plain language / and your time totters like a tenement condemned” – I, sworn and bound to these vows today, here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, on the lands of the Massachusett, by the Blue Hills, on the Seventh Day of the Third Month, in the year Two Thousand and Thirteen of the current era.
Translation from Bhutanese by Keith Dowman and Sonam Paljor
[In the course of a recent conversation with George Quasha & Charles Stein, the idea of “crazy wisdom” came up, as it often does, & led to a consideration of how it might or might not relate to the construction of a book of outside/outsider poetry & its relation to the art brut discourse of an earlier modernism. The figure on whom we focused was the Tibetan/Buthanese lama & poet Drukpa Kunley (1455 - 1529), one of a number of such practitioners – “holy madmen” in the vocabulary of Steven Goodman, “divine madmen” in that of Keith Dowman & others, tricksters & traveling poets as evidenced by their works & words. Writes Quasha in a followup email: “These Tibetan poets fit the description that Chögyam Trungpa emphasizes under Crazy Wisdom, which for them is a high state of realization that complicates any attempt to define enlightenment in outer/external or behavioral terms.” And again: “I think this term could be one focus in your new work.”
The following, then, comes from Dowman’s translations (with Sonam Paljor) in Divine Madman: The Sublime Life & Songs of Drukpa Kunley, recently published in a revised edition by CreateSpace, & marks for me the beginning of a further probe into the life of poetry outside-of-literature: a kind of deliberate poésie brute, then, covering that region of the mind that Diderot, nearly three centuries before us, identified with poetry & dubbed “barbaric, vast & wild.” (J.R.)]
“Drukpa Kunley's Sutra of Sex”
... Then the consorts and patrons of Bhutan made a further request to the Lama Drukpa Kunley. 'Lama Rimpoche, we beseech you to bless us, the people of the Southern Ravines, with a discourse upon the Buddha’s Teaching. We ask that you give your discourse a name in Sanskrit, that it be serious in content, but with some touches of humour. Please deliver it in the language of the common people so that everyone can understand it, but give it a profound inner meaning. Teach us the simple message of the Buddha, so that merely by hearing it we are released from the troubles of transmigratory existence.'
The Lama delivered this discourse.
'In Sanskrit: Nga'i mje sha-ra-ra!
In Tibetan:Bu-mo'i stu-la shu-ru-ru!
This is the discourse on mundane pleasure.
'The virgin finds pleasure in her rising desire,
The young tiger finds pleasure in his consummation,
The old man finds pleasure in his fertile memory:
That is the teaching on the Three Pleasures.
The bed is the workshop of sex,
And should be wide and comfortable;
The knee is the messenger of sex,
And should be sent up in advance;
The arm is the handle of sex,
And it should clasp her tightly;
The vagina is a glutton for sex,
And should be sated again and again:
That is the teaching upon Necessity.
It is taboo to make love to a married woman,
It is taboo to make love to a girl under ten,
It is taboo to make love to a menstruating woman
Or a woman under a vow of celibacy:
That is the teaching on the Three Taboos.
Hunger is the mark of an empty stomach,
A large penis is the mark of an idiot,
Passionate lust is the mark of a woman:
That is the teaching on the Three Marks.
The impotent man has little imagination,
Bastards have little virtue,
The rich have little generosity:
That is the teaching on the Three Deficiencies.
A Lama's joy is a gift,
A politician's joy is flattery,
A woman's joy is her lover:
That is the teaching on the Three Joys.
Sinners hate the pious and devout,
The rich hate loose spendthrifts,
Wives hate their husbands' mistresses:
That is the teaching on the Three Hates.
For blessing worship the Lama,
For power worship the Deity,
For efficiency worship the Reality Protectors:
This is the teaching on the Three Objects of Worship.
Pay no respect to mean Lamas,
Pay no respect to immoral monks,
Pay no respect to dogs, crows or women:
That is the teaching on the Three Rejects.
The Discipline's purpose is to calm and pacify,
The Vow to serve others is to free from self-will,
The Tantra's purpose is to teach unity of polarity:
That is the teaching on the Three Vehicles.
The starving beggar has no happiness,
The irreligious have no divinity,
The wanderer has no bonds or commitment:
That is the teaching on the Three Lacks.
He who is without honesty has a dry mouth,
He who is without spirituality makes no offering,
He who is without courage does not make a general:
That is the teaching on the Three Zeros.
The sign of a rich man is a tight fist,
The sign of an old man is a tight mind,
The sign of a nun is a tight vagina:
That is the teaching on the Three Constrictions.
The fast talker inserts himself into the centre of a crowd,
Monastic wealth inserts itself into the monks' stomachs,
Thick penises insert themselves into young girls:
That is the teaching on the Three Insertions.
The mind of a Bodhisattva is smooth,
The talk of self-seekers is smoother,
But the thighs of a virgin are smoother than silk:
That is the teaching on the Three Smooth Things.
Immoral monks have thin skirts,
Widows and spinsters have thin stomachs and clothes,
Fields without manure bear thin crops:
That is the teaching on the Three Thin Things.
Kunley never tires of girls,
Monks never tire of wealth,
Girls never tire of sex:
That is the teaching on the Three Indefatigables.
Although mind is clear, one needs a Lama;
Although a lamp burns brightly, it still needs oil;
Although Mind is self-evident, it needs recognition:
That is the teaching on the Three Needs.'
And then the Lama continued:
'The Lama without a disciple, the student without persistence,
The pundit without an audience, the woman without a lover,
The master without a servant, the rich man without food,
The farmer without crops, the nomad without cattle,
The monk without discipline, the Gomchen without instruction,
The nun obsessed with sex, the man unable to reach erection,
Wealth sought with the bum, and shy girls panting for sex
How ridiculous they look! What laughter they raise!'
And again he went on:
'Although the clitoris is suitably triangular,
It is ineligible as devil-food for the local god's worship.
Although love-juice can never dry up in the sun,
It is unsuited for tea to quench thirst.
Although a scrotum can hang very low,
It is an unsuitable bag for the hermitage's victuals.
Although a penis has a sound shaft and a large head,
It is not a hammer to strike a nail.
Though endowed with a human body and shapely,
It is not proper to be mistress to the Lord of Death
Although your mind may be virtuous and pure,
The Buddhas' Teaching is not accomplished by staying at home.
The teaching of the Tantric Mysteries is most profound,
But liberation cannot be gained without profound experience.
Drukpa Kunley may show you the way,
But you must traverse the path by yourself.'
After he had finished this discourse, the people cried and laughed, and crying and laughing they left that place with great faith and devotion. Through his own buoyancy and benevolence his fame spread throughout the land of Bhutan, and all men and women, monks and laymen, recognized his power and revered him. By virtue of this faith and devotion they became ready vessels for the Buddhas' ambrosia.
[More of the preceding at http://www.keithdowman.net/books/dm.htm#Sutra of Sex.]
The man in the middle, in the book The Man in the Middle, published thirty years ago this year (1984—a year before I first met this man in the middle), is a guy who managed to find his way out of the tower of Babel, despite the Babel of languages, French, Arabic, Armenian, broken English, buzzing in his ears from his immigrant refugee-ish elders. And somehow this perfectly reasonable guy, yet beset with the curse and the gift of the poet’s fate of having to sort through Babel’s myriad mixed meanings in order to find the dream of a “whole earth [that] had one language and one will”—this man was already the generous, kind, and superbly accommodating language maker we have come to know and admire and love. The poem I’ve been referring to, “The Tower of Babel,” ends with vintage Djanikian:
We build what we must. Yet, that towers be great
enough to reach a god, we must refine
the difficult architecture of a word.
We build what we must. “Must” there seems an imperative; this man in the middle of langauges and cultures and sensibilities must build. He is what Wallace Stevens called “A Man Made out of Words.” That’s one reading of the line, but I prefer this: One loves the world enough to accommodate the polyphony and confusions and mortal setbacks it hurls at one, and if one must build from those parts, well, one will, because they are the parts one is given.
Years Later there came Years Later, a book already of retrospect. Also dedicated to Alysa, his beloved Lisa, and this time about her—her and him together and apart. The phone call from Arizona caused him to worry about her, but it turned out that he was the vulnerable one, the one scared of anything that might befall her. He took her out on the porch on a starry night and tried to get her to see the constellations his way, as if to constellate a whole story-bound mythic meaning for them both, but she—an artist too of course—makes her own meanings and at certain moments wants nothing of his. He discovers a kind of gravity in a life’s lifelong love—love of Lisa—and the physics of traveling away are not Einsteinian but Newtonian: punishment for being an aging body in contact with the ground, suffering the weight of the tedium of days without her, even though those days were days of poems about her absence, and these are what became Years Later, and made it (the book), and them (the years) beautiful. A handbook in verse for monogamy, loyalty, fidelity and crazy ongoing mystery & imagination.
Absence, it seemed, had to be plumbed further. But there was no bottom to the deprivations of the Armenian genocide. The traumatic events that gave rise to our man in the middle. In the middle of blood legacy. In the middle of an alphabet of names of the mortified dead: Azniv, whose infant’s mouth was slit in the straw; Antranig, shod like a horse and tethered in his own pasture. Given a familial origin in such losses, no wonder this disaporic American poet was “out in left field before the citizenship test.” And no wonder it fell to him to correct his elders in their use of the new language he desperately wanted to learn and wield as a way of repressing the past. But in “So I Will Till the Ground” all the old hard-to-say words came floating back, the return of the bloody repressed, reminding him that his dream of a common language was a dream dreamed by the man in the middle of his first published poems—already then. The genocide had always made them. In poems, given such annihilations of family and lineage, one builds what one must.
But now it’s time to come back to gravity—Dear Gravity (2014)—the actual weight of memory: of lessons in high school; or the 1972 Cutlass Supreme (still driven by the poet’s mother); swimming at Agami Beach in Egypt in 1955; that first winter in America; that scary pre-induction physical in Philly in 1971, when the draft was still very real and people—poets included—were dying in southeast Asia; and the sweet weight of memories: drinking beer on the summer porch. In the end there’s always “Something Else” that reminds you how little you need the world in order to organize it and save it in a poem such as “Something Else.” Like the “river you hear / without listening”; like the stars you know organize themselves into stories even without the consent of your loved one; like all the absences that by now you’ve learned to make into presences. Dear Gravity lets them befall you. If it’s finally not true that the whole earth would permit itself to speak in one language, you will keep making poems in which we can imagine just such a coherent dream.
Gregory Djanikian, Dear Gravity (Carnegie Mellon Press, 2014), 104 pages.