A poem is a sacred attempt at communicating what is impossible to communicate

A review of Laura Solomon's 'The Hermit'

The Hermit

The Hermit

by Laura Solomon

Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 88 pages, $14, ISBN 9781933254784

“Begin with dreams,” writes Laura Solomon in “Dream Ear, Part III.” The things going on in our dreams are often crazy and impossible, but our dreams are not lies, they are true, physical events going on in our brains and they are entirely untethered to the scientific possibilities of truth in the physical universe. In other words, dreams are a lot like poems. The poems in The Hermit work by allowing us into the strange landscape of emotionally arresting instances of crisis and sadness — lost love, emotional and geographical displacement, fear and anxiety, the wild and absurd sense that time is flying by and staying still. They are gorgeous, daring poems. Reading this book I constantly have the sense that these are poems I would not, myself, have the courage to write because of their openness and generosity; they are uncharted but crystal clear — even as they allude to the world of our dreams, those dreams feel a lot like real life. In “Dream Ear III,” in a dream, on a train, a woman next to the speaker is “sleep-writing”:

a dream is a mirror
that doesn’t belong to you
anymore than words do
after you say them
you forget them but
not always but always
the mirror forgets you
after you leave it
do the words forget too
you after you after you
say them you leave them
with or without a trace

This passage is filled with traces, and traces are questions. What happens to the words after we say them? What truth is there in the illusion that our presence anywhere is indelible? Truth itself is tricky; “it is true, it is true, it is true,” writes Solomon in “French Sentences,” but “sentences are the neediest […] for example, it is true.” It’s a paradox that keeps coming up in The Hermit: words are both so meaningful and so meaningless. Later in “Dream Ear, Part III,” Solomon writes, “in the dream you are becoming / don‘t become just words.” When the words start to feel like they are just words, you run the risk of being full of shit, and to be full of shit is not good if you are trying to communicate. She writes,

you were speaking of a nest I’ve read
with use the nest becomes rimmed and filled with excrement
this serves as a reminder of the humble origins
of all architecture no it doesn’t why are you speaking
of architecture you are full of shit

but it is too late already
you are already forgetting the dream in this poem
you are becoming a dark sooty chimney
with a dark sooty agenda

To be full of shit is to forget that it is sacred to say anything. A poem is a sacred attempt at communicating what is impossible to communicate. The speaker in “Dream Ear, Part III” wants to trim the utterance of all metaphor the way dreams are free from the analyses we graft onto them once we wake up, the way our aspirations (dreams) are free from the problems of possibility.

Because we can’t possibly say how we feel, exactly, and in poems we say how we feel. To have an agenda is to predict rather than experience, to try to see what hasn’t happened yet in retrospect. We might want that privilege, but it doesn’t belong to us. Throughout The Hermit, Solomon gives us the gift of poetry-as-experience so that even though the circumstances are foreign to us, they might feel true. In “Philadelphia,” she writes,

at any rate the only
way it will work will be
if he decides to come to me
then I will know he knows
though I’m not sure
that he’s going to come
all along I guess
I’ve just been wrong
but no I haven’t Dottie

Here we have a poem that feels like a letter, but it unfolds line-by-line, broken and charged with Solomon’s knack for breaking lines so that they move out in all directions, without agendas, a step back once in a while for all the stepping forward. The lines leave traces of themselves that appear and vanish according to the whims of our own experience of reading them. In another poet’s hands, the specificity of “Dottie” might make me feel as though I am not included, but the revelatory quality of Solomon’s progression from line to line makes my experience of “Dottie” feel lived and present. As she writes elsewhere in “Philadelphia,” “protons had to collide in time / to make you you.” The chance encounter of life and time together is the center of the experience of being alive. It’s rare that I pay attention to the fact that I don’t actually know what will happen to me in the next moment of my life; it’s rare that a poem works that way.

Forget though, for a moment, the dreams and the physical laws and think about what you are willing to have revealed to you in a poem. Think about all the times you’ve thought about whether a poem was good or bad, trying to come to some sort of a judgment without ever considering what sort of mood you were in or what sort of experience you were willing to go through. In her essay “Voice” Alice Notley excerpts a short, untitled poem of her own and then explains something about truth and poetry:

Clouds, big ones oh it’s
blowing up wild outside.
Be something for me
this time. Change me,
wind. Change me, rain.

A specific feeling and occasion prompted [this poem], and it still embodies something I can feel; but I wrote it hoping it would be as if spoken by anyone — hoping anyone could “use” it. That is, I know it sounds like me, but while being read it might live inside anyone, being some voice of theirs almost, through sympathy and imagination. But when I wrote it there was a real storm outside.

Reading a poem can allow you to experience sympathy, but you have to be willing to do that. The poems in The Hermit ask a great deal of us. When you come to a line like, “how I’ve wanted to encounter you,” are you willing to take the passage wherever the pronoun takes you, and simultaneously are you touching the poem sympathetically? Who is the you you are thinking of? Where, I mean, are your thoughts? Isn’t this important? Isn’t it great?

Europe's shadows vs. America's dreams

A review of Andrew Ervin's 'Extraordinary Renditions'

Extraordinary Renditions

Extraordinary Renditions

by Andrew Ervin

Coffee House Press 2010, 192 pages, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-56689-246-9

What amazed me most about Hungary is that history is not history there. The events of the past are still present every single day, at every minute, in ways I couldn’t even imagine at first. — Andrew Ervin, Press Release

Europe. It’s impossible to underestimate its allure. And equally impossible to measure the influence of this continent’s history and power on countries like the United States of America. Andrew Ervin’s debut novel Extraordinary Renditions is set in contemporary Budapest, the capital of Hungary. A country that has experienced the glorious highs of classical Europe and the worst of late twentieth century savagery, political intrigue and Cold War disaffection. Extraordinary Renditions is both a homage to this very European country and a journey into history that ultimately sheds more light on contemporary America than on contemporary Europe.

This novel takes its place in the rich “American voyagers in Europe genre.” This genre is a product of America’s fascination with the culture and history of Europe and an attempt to wrest away the best qualities from the old world and revive the uniquely American dream. Ervin is a strong writer in awe of Europe. His novel is immeasurably bettered by the fact that he lived in Budapest for many years and knows its streets and architecture, its moods, and its history intimately.

In this challenging period in America’s history, when America must redefine itself and its position on the world stage, Ervin presents us with the stories of three original characters whose stories are linked by situational coincidences in the narrative: the émigré, the American soldier and the young musician.

In “14 Bagatelles,” (the title is taken from, arguably, Hungary’s greatest composer Béla Bartók’s piano piece “14 Bagatelles, Op. 6”) the first story in this trio of connected stories, a world renowned composer, Harkályi, returns to his birthplace for the first production of his opera The Golden Lotus.

Harkályi was a young Jewish music prodigy when World War II erupted into his personal world. He survived the war largely thanks to his musical ability and the love and insight of his mentor Zoltán Kodály. Harkályi left his family and fled Hungary for the relative safety of America: the safe harbour for many of Europe’s wounded, disposed and displaced after the war.

Portraying a Holocaust survivor is no easy task but Ervin does so sympathetically and concisely. Providing just enough insight into the day-to-day horrors of life lived in captivity and the rare moments when joy invaded the camp thanks to the musicians and their passion. As Harkályi walks the alternatively familiar and garishly foreign streets, we see the composer as a young man in a concentration camp and as an adult in self-imposed isolation within the inner world of music and notation and spaces between notes. He is estranged from the country of his birth and estranged from his religion. While in the camp he invented a novel system of musical notation. One that preserved the musical history of his culture and country and one that was sufficiently flexible and expansive to change and recreate itself as the composer grew, matured and reinvented himself in America.

 It is a smart piece of plotting to bring Harkályi back to Budapest for the first performance of his opera The Golden Lotus. The performance of this opera does indeed provide a stupendous climax to the novel. Ervin employs another structural device whereby all three stories are linked in time and space. The story is set during Independence Day celebrations in Budapest. This works as a structural device, but it’s rather labored and by the end, polemical in a distracting fashion. However, this device can be used subtly and unobtrusively. I think of two recent examples: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier and Nicole Krauss’s latest novel Great House.

The novel is open to criticism that it is three thematically linked novellas rather than a novel in the traditional sense but I don’t see any merit in this argument. Ervin’s novel is a further contribution to this genre whose formally strict structure is constantly evolving. However, for his future novels, I hope Ervin pays closer attention to the subtleties of plot and dramatic devices.

Ervin is profoundly sensitive to music and exceptionally talented in translating into words the sensations and mechanisms of musical notes. So it is no surprise that like a jazz musician doffing his cap to the progenitors of his religion, Ervin evokes the spirit of Kafka. Another beloved son of the region, Kafka was born in Prague, Bohemia, which was then part of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kafka’s prose style and philosophy is evidenced in the very strong chapter “Brooking the Devil.”

There is more than a touch of the desperate film noir thriller in the powerful and poignant story of Private First Class Jonathan “Brutus” Gibson of the United States Army: African American, accidental soldier, philosopher, poet, outsider, loner. Ervin analytically exposes a morally and criminally corrupt US Army culture that has been exported to Hungary and the world in the name of protecting freedom and fighting the “war on terror.”

Along with Levi’s, Marlboro cowboys, Coca Cola, and McDonald’s, to name a few, the American Army has been sold to the world as the pure and true deterrent to the opponents of democracy as it has evolved in Euro-influenced countries. America has always been a country of exceptional salesmen and women. A land where a ponderously named lad called Samuel Langhorne Clemens reinvented himself into the great and iconic Mark Twain. Ervin successfully juxtaposes images of savage bloodletting from WWII with the equally hideous modern devices from the so-called War on Terror.

Sergeant Brutus, with a nickname that evokes the classical elegance and wisdom of Shakespeare, and a patter that reads more Bronx gangster than Philadelphia brother to this non-American ear is marooned in Hungary. An intelligent young man seduced by Army recruiters spruiking freedom, solidarity, money, nobility and a pass to college. In eloquent passages, Brutus details the many ways in which Uncle Sam has proved to be another incarnation of “the Man”: the oppressive, dangerous and irrational racism that pervades American history, politics and culture.

The soldiers are outsiders but not resistance fighters, and cliques abound: whites only, officers only, and so on. Brutus’s experiences are graphic examples of the penalties for standing out in the “vanilla crowd.” Difference is celebrated in sound bites in most democratic and liberal countries but a black, articulate and intelligent man is doomed within the enormous machinery of the American military. The American military’s own mythology and its romanticism by Hollywood usually ignore the stark, brutal and vile abuses of power and desecration of personal dignity and humanity that are committed in the interests of “keeping the peace,” or in this epoch, “wining the war on terror.”

Brutus is the innocent young American abroad who is plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Brutus’s descent into a maelstrom brings out some of Ervin’s best prose: a combination of contemporary American gangster rap and descriptions of Budapest that powerfully evoke the Cold War.

In ‘The Empty Chairs” we meet the final character in Ervin’s triumvirate. Melanie Scholes: violinist, American, young, bisexual, white, outsider/loner, and the novel’s only genuine spark of hope that a fulfilling and generous future is possible.

Although this is probably the weakest of Ervin’s “renditions” (it is obvious that Ervin named his novel after the legal term for the systematic abduction and extrajudicial transfer of persons from one nation to another, but I prefer to think of his characters as renditions, powerful reimaginings of classic tales) it concludes the novel with a pièce de résistance of timing, evocation and prose mastery.

Melanie is one of the musicians tasked with performing Harkályi’s new opera, The Golden Lotus. In a quicksilver night/day of her life, we meet her lover and glimpse their claustrophobic and pointless affair. She is a vexed artist, drifting aimlessly in Budapest’s monochrome world of émigrés and disaffected affluent American youth.

In a masterful and controlled example of character exposition, Melanie evolves from an uninteresting and pathetic figure into the unlikely heroine of the novel. Freed from her inertia by the ecstasy of music and her hitherto dormant ability to reinterpret and transform musical nuance and notation, she explodes orthodoxy and convention in a powerful scene in which the past and future are welded together in the revolutionary power of music to be beautiful whilst uniting people irrespective of color, creed and nationality.

Ervin has written a powerful and sophisticated meditation on identity, nationalism and personal responsibility. Memorable characters and icons: composer, soldier, and musician they are a glimpse into the darkest of human capabilities and the possibility of redemption, however remote. Ervin is a very promising young writer — a uniquely, American writer.

"Say what you know"

A review of Eleanor Wilner's "A Tourist in Hell"

Tourist in Hell

Tourist in Hell

by Eleanor Wilner

The University of Chicago Press 2011, 103 pages, $18, ISBN 978-0-226-90032-2.

Eleanor Rand Wilner’s poems are adventures. These adventures include almost every subject imaginable: war, peace, nature, knitting, mountain climbing, insects and intellectuals. It is an adventure into the labyrinth of an amazing mind. Each poem starts off directly enough; soon you don’t know where the poem is going; then it leads from one surprise to another; until the whole evolves organically into one or more revelations that expand your understanding of what was broached at the beginning of the poem. She writes with the eyes of someone who just got there. But she arrives there with a depth of intelligence. For instance, the poem that begins The Girl with Bees in Her Hair prepares us as though “everything is starting up again.”

The snow is filthy now; it has been
drinking oil and soot and car exhaust
for days, and dogs have marked it
with their special blend of brilliant
yellow piss;

for a week after it fell,
the snow stood in frozen horror
at the icy chill, and hardened
on the top, and then, today, the thaw;
now everything is starting
up again —

The process of writing this review began with a reading of the several books by Wilner. Whoever has had the pleasure, indeed the privilege and emotional/intellectual satisfaction of reading  Wilner’s poems will not need to be told that her work is poetry or that her poems provide remarkable surprises and insights.

In Tourist in Hell, her seventh book, Wilner examines history, current events, literature, mythology, and religion. As with the best poets, she skillfully combines autobiographical details into a larger context. About Wilner’s work, the poet Tony Hoagland has remarked, “Wilner […] has a deep and heroic belief in the transformative power of language and myth. She paddles her surfboard outside the reef where most poets stop; she rides the big waves.” Indeed, to ride the “big waves” with her is an experience that is highly exhilarating. Her poetry and each of her poems is brilliant, erudite, passionate, and amazing. 

In reading through her several books, however, it is remarkable to note the consistency of her voice and the wide grasp of her subject matter throughout, from Maya to Tourist in Hell. Wilner speaks directly to the reader, whether from her own insight or through the insight of another’s voice. Or sometimes, she tells a poignant story in a way not thought of before, for example that of Iphigenia. Iphigenia, best known as the daughter Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces at Troy, had to be sacrificed in order to appease Artemis. According to the legend, when the sacrifice is about to be made, however, Iphigenia is miraculously transported to Taurus, a city on the Black Sea, and an animal is sent to replace her (lucky for her!).

In Wilner’s poem “Iphigenia, Setting the Record Straight” (Maya) Wilner tells Iphigenia’s story with unexpected poignancy; two snippets from the poem may make my point. The first sets the stage while the final stanza brings you face-to-face with the gist of Iphigenia’s story and her bitter observation:

The towers waiting, shimmering just
beyond the edge of vision.
It was only a question
of wind, of the command of trade routes,
a narrow isthmus between two seas, possession
of the gold that men called Helen.

Iphigenia then states at the end:

I have been living, quiet, in this little village
on goats I keep for cheese and sell for wine, unknown —
the praise of me on every lip, the me
my father made up in his mind
and sacrificed for the wind.

It’s a shame to truncate this poem; however, it also highlights another aspect of Wilner’s background and interest — her knowledge and love of the classics. She is equally able to speak to the reader about her commitment to speaking truth to truth; for example, her poem “Love Uncommanded” (again in Maya):

Extraordinary, our friends
the skeptics, who are
ourselves, such an extravagance
of feints, the perfectly spun
glass, exquisite complications, saying
they know that they know nothing,
the oldest ruse, let it go.
Say what you know.

For once, be rid of the urn
with beauty chased in half-relief, the urn
with the false bottom, the ancient goad
to thirst — the right word turned
exactly on itself. Say what you know.

What more cogent advice to writers, especially poets: “Say what you know!” In Tourist in Hell,” her most recent book, the poems are more concerned with war and several of them with the Bush/Cheney administration. “Establishment” is a good example, of which only the first half of the first stanza is quoted:

Death had established himself in the Red Room,
the White House having become his natural
abode: chalk-white façade, pillars lime the bones
of extinct empires, armed men crawling its halls
or looking down, with suspicion, from its roof;
its immense luxury, thick carpets, its plush velvet chairs —
all this made Death comfortable, bony as he is, a fact
you’d barely notice, his camouflage a veil of flesh
drawn over him, its tailor so adroit, and he so elegant

But the one I like best in the Tourist in Hell collection is “Saturday Night,” a chilling poem about war and our seeming distance from it. Again, only quoted are the first introductory lines and then the last, but all in between is full of drama and … nightmare:

Moonlit rocks, sand, and a web of shadows
thrown over the world from the cottonwoods,
the manzanita, the ocotillo; it is
the hour of the tarantula, a rising
as predictable as tide; irritable as
moon drag.  And if this were
an SF film, the spider would be
huge as a water tank, it would loom
red-eyed and horrible, its mandables […]

but now as the film
runs down, in a rush of stale air
the hydraulic spider deflates, the saline
leaks from the implants of the bed-
room blonde, the moon’s projection
clicks off, and the night is as it was,
a place where fear takes its many
forms, and the warships gather in
a distant gulf, where a small man
with more arms than a Hindu god,
has set a desert night alight, and grief booms;
while here, the theatres are full
of horror on the screen, and you can hear —
over the sinister canned music,
the chainsaws, and the screams —
the sound of Coke sucked up through straws,
your own jaws moving as you chew.

There is something riveting about Wilner’s poetry, and I believe it comes from her dictum to herself as to others, in the earlier cited poem “Love Uncommanded:” “Say what you know.”

Well, perhaps this review has quoted enough to give an idea of the range and depth of Wilner’s work. But I would be remiss if I left unmentioned the delightful poems in her book Otherwise that speak to issues such as “How to Get in the Best Magazines,” “Muse,” “Ambition,” and “Those who come After,” just to mention a few of what’s in store for the curious reader or for the devotee who is stirred to enjoy again Wilner’s humor as well as her experience and erudition.

One of my favorite books of hers, The Girl with the Bees in her Hair, is interesting for her playfulness with form as well as with images. Or, take for example the lines “He had made it through so many winters, / an optimist in the blizzard’s heart, staying on — “In this book she keeps introducing the reader to the next possibility, although the last poem in this book, the very fact of life’s limit comes into view:

A window
open on the sea, out there, blue wave on blue,
beyond — more blue, a chair scrapes, breaks
the spell. Words spill: So little time. So much to do.

For the reader who wants to start with an inclusive view of her work, Reserving the Spell is a compilation of her new and selected poems (over three hundred pages) taken from the several books mentioned. — That said, let the adventure begin! 

Hundred-spired muse

A review of 'From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology'

From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology

From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology

edited by Stephen Delbos

Literraria Pragensia 2011, 350 pages, €12.00, ISBN 978-80-7308-349-6

Prague has pervasive literary associations, a fact not overlooked by the hawkers of souvenirs and proprietors of restaurants. In the center you can buy a Kafka mug or t-shirt and have lunch in a pub emblazoned with images from Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk. If that’s not to your taste, there is also a restaurant named after Rilke. Stephan Delbos’s anthology attempts to go beyond this tourist veneer. Though the anthology is styled as a guide, the intentions are bolder. As Delbos, a poet, journalist and translator from New England, writes in his preface, “Walking through Prague with these poems in mind, one has an indelible awareness of the lineage of poetry written in and about these streets and buildings, many of which have remained virtually unchanged for centuries.” In short, he is rescuing the city’s literary heritage from bastardization.

However, the rescue mission comes with complications. The anthology cuts across many styles, languages, nationalities and periods. Poets included range from Jaroslav Seifert, who is intimately connected with the city, to Robert Lowell, who wrote of the city as a distant spectator of the 1968 Soviet invasion. The poets are not necessarily opposites, but they are handy poles in which the poetry represented in this anthology falls. The breadth of poems demonstrates how poets have engaged with their city’s symbols and atmosphere. The result is an anthology of many Pragues.

One constant of Prague’s poetic heritage is that it has acted more as a muse than wellspring of poetic movements. Apart from one exception, to talk about the city’s poetry does not imply a school in a formal sense. Generally, the city’s poetry reflects an interaction of diverse artists whose connection to the city is as singular as the work produced. The earliest poems included here certainly reveal an outwardness of inspiration transposed over an inwardness of subject matter. Symbolism was an especially important movement for the Czech poets at the end of nineteenth century. Echoes of Baudelaire’s urbanism melding with concrete images are found in Antonín Sova’s “Old and New Prague.” However, Sova shows traces of more social and historical preoccupations. Whereas Baudelaire likened Paris to “a hard-working old man,” Sova writes:

But Prague rumbles below so quietly in this idyll!
All the proud flourishings of culture are outside the Castle!
Progress and claims to glory breathe through Prague
And she is a healthy, hearty child!

Symbolism may have encouraged a focus on the city but this passage shows a mindset and a celebration that is local. Given that the poem was written in the nineteenth century, it is difficult not to identify the tone with a growing Czech national consciousness that saw itself outside the confines of the city’s main emblem long ruled by Austrian kings.

Paris continued to be an important source of stylistic innovation. Surrealism, especially that of Apollinaire, resonated strongly with poets of the early twentieth century. Importantly, his piece “Zone” makes reference to the city. Does this fact alone justify the poem’s inclusion? Yes, if we take the intentions at face value. However, the passage concerning Prague does more than check off landmarks.

Horrified you see yourself etched in the agates of Saint Vitus
You almost died of sadness the day that you lived
To see yourself like Lazarus bewildered by the day
the hands of the clock in the Jewish quarter run backwards
And you too crawl slowly back through your life
while climbing to Hradčany listening at night
To the Czech songs of the tavern

The key elements of the city; St. Vitus Cathedral, the Jewish Quarter, and Prague Castle, become fixed in Apollinaire’s voice. He is not representing the city in itself; rather the city is a means for him to realize his artistic vision. This approach makes the poem more about Prague than a poem dealing directly with the city because the poem makes claim to the inspiration he found there.

The one major Prague-based poetic movement, Poetism (Poetismus in Czech) took its cues from Apollinaire. The movement never spread beyond Czechoslovakia, despite the involvement of the country’s leading poets, such as Jaroslav Seifert, Vladimír Holan, Vítězslav Nezval and František Halas. The poems, which represent the movement included in the book, are by Nezval and Halas. As this very small sample shows, homogeneity is difficult to ascribe. Structurally, Nezval built both the poems in the anthology around repetition. For example, “City of Spires” starts:

Hundred-spired Prague
With the fingers of all saints
With the fingers of perjury
With the fingers of fire and hail
With the fingers of a musician 

The poem trumpets and blares, and like “Zone” the poem is not a picture of the city; rather the city is taken, pulled into pieces and reassembled. It is joyous in its openness, shepherding all aspects of the city into the lines. Halas in contrast was more subdued. His poem “Prague” ends thus:

Under blue sadness
the blue blood without oxygen
you are boiling over
Following that train of yours even your dumps are boiling
painfully boiling over
with beggar’s burdock and stinging nettle

may she catch stones

Whereas Nezval seems to be proclaiming his poem from the city’s Petřín Hill, Halas is floating across, suggesting disconnection. Therefore, as we can see Prague’s clearest moment of poetic fellowship revealed great variety.

The invasion by Nazi Germany was the end of the movement. The foundation of the communist regime continued to stifle any new local poetic affiliations that were not officially sanctioned. Nezval started to churn out party appeasing doggerel, whereas Holan and Seifert — who had both been fervent proletarian poets before the war — found their voices in opposition or noncommitment. Holan’s “Simply” with its myriad of voices, its almost novelist’s precision married to a melancholy resignation, shows how difficult it is to read the era into the poems.

We stood outside the tobacconist’s and some of us
had small change and some had none …
On the storefront was a notice:
This shop is for sale
. Someone has scrawled under it
in chalk: FOR BUGGER ALL!
We looked at it for a while and then
walked to the pub.

The lines are timeless — both in its expression of how fine divisions run and the evocation of frustration and boredom in a seemingly simple scene.

Poets who stood more obviously in opposition are of course represented. However, any attempt to unite them tends towards oversimplification. Egon Bondy, who was connected with the underground avant-rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, is in his poem acerbic toward the custom of young Prague lovers meeting to kiss on the first of May, a tradition linked to the nineteenth century Czech “romantic” poem Máj by Karel Hynek Mácha. Jáchym Topol’s “Moreover It’s Clear” evokes the latter years of the regime. The tone is not so much defiantly political as bitter and personal, especially when he writes:

haggard mugs
at the Moskevská stop
remind me of the existence of people
who don’t give a shit

Such despondency doesn’t always require a totalitarian regime. It’s important to remember that as much as Topol was reacting to the political conditions of his country, he was also like poets in the West striking out at more universal moral decrepitude. Having said that, the drab concrete of socialist architecture no doubt exacerbated those ills.

When we take into account the lives of Holan, Bondy and Topol along with all the other poets of the communist era, historical and political reductionism becomes problematic. These three poets were in opposition; however, their relationship was complicated. Holan as stated earlier was a former party member and Bondy, despite his strong association with the Prague underground, always identified as a Marxist. Only Topol showed no political affiliation. Other poets included, such as Miroslav Holub and Jiří Žáček, occupied a grayer area. Holub was a professional immunologist during this time and Žáček worked for the state publishing firm. Yet, the latter offers the best view of the city’s suburbs in his poem “South City”:

Battle zone for high rise brats,
for wolf packs. Whose orphans are you,
floaters from daycares, accustomed to dummies and cats?
If you take after your father too,

Subsuming all poetry under the banner of dissent would marginalize this particularly whimsical view of the city. Poetry does not always align itself with our neat ideological divides.

The more strident political voices came perhaps from the outside. Lowell’s “From Prague 1968” appears to be genuine in its protest even if the subject matter was second hand. The inclusion suggests that the Prague we are dealing with is also one of symbolism as much as cobblestone and churches. In fact, with a collection such as this one, it is important to remember that the urban landscape presented is in part figurative. Ginsberg on the other hand could claim to have felt the pressure of the regime when he was expelled in 1965 after being named Král Majáles, or the King of May, also the title of his famous poem included here. It is not so much the poem’s references to his short time in the city which makes it fitting as the way Ginsberg and the poem have become part of the city’s mythology. Ginsberg was an important figure for the Czech underground of the 1970s. He also serves as a symbolic figure for Prague’s current English language poetry scene — no wonder a recent anthology representing this international literary renaissance was called The Return of Král Majáles.

However, the anthology shows that the poetry of opposition didn’t only congregate in Ginsberg’s camp. Pablo Neruda, who famously adopted his sobriquet from the Czech writer Jan Neruda, visited the city while in exile. The El Salvadorian poet, Roque Dalton, was in Prague because he had escaped execution by a right wing dictatorship in his homeland by fleeing to Cuba. The Cubans later sent him to Prague. His poem, “Tavern” is a wild mix of voices in which Ginsberg is referenced. The inclusion of Dalton indicates more than ideological divergence. Placing the poem immediately after Ginsberg’s in the anthology also means there is one poem referencing another event in the anthology. Of course, it is selection, but history is selection, and an anthology is a way of doing history. It is history of demonstration, connection and juxtaposition. It is the history of giving as much voice to the actors as possible.

Other émigrés, exiles and expats enrich this history further. Ginsberg is only the most notable example of the English poetry which is increasingly becoming part this city. Australian Louis Armand, who is a prominent member of Prague’s international poetry community, offers in his poem, “Leden” (the Czech for Januaury), a poetic vision as much at home in Prague as the poems of an earlier era. Through Justin Quinn’s “Seminar” we get a humorous and sympathetic sense of what it is like to teach the language of this historically new community, which these two poets are only a small representation. One pity is the absence of Sylva Fischerová, whose “The Language of the Fountains” is a wonderful evocation of the city and seems to evoke the very themes of language and place on which this anthology turns.

Russian is another language which is in some way a part of the city. Many Russians came to Prague after the revolution and civil war. Nabokov’s mother was a resident, as was Marina Tsvetaeva, who lived in Prague from 1922 to 1925. There she composed “Mount Poem” and “Poem of the End.” The inclusion of Tsvetaeva forces us to address the idea of “poetry of place” as it applies to Prague. It is only that we know the poems were composed in Prague that seems to connect it. Unless we assume that the city inspired Tsvetaeva in a way no other city can. The notion is not in itself misguided, but it is a bold assumption and one that is hard to prove.

Tsvetaeva’s correspondent, Rilke, further suggests the complexity of poetry and place. That he was born in Prague as part of its German speaking community and wrote about his hometown makes him an obvious choice. However, his relationship with the place was tenuous. When childhood and memory appear in other works it is more internal and impressionistic. The two poems in the anthology, “Hradčany” and “Out of Smíchov,” are as pregnant with significance as his later work, but they are no more of the city than other of the Prague German writers who are absent. Rilke’s stature among English speaking poets is undeniably greater than those others. However, it is a shame that poets such as Franz Werfel and Max Brod are missing, when Germanophones Celan and Ingesborg are included. Given an already rich representation of poetry from and about the city their place is surely here too.

Prague’s place as a literary city is undeniably unique, but it is unique in that all cities are unique. The “Golden City,” “The City of a Hundred Spires,” is a culmination of a long history, a history which is constantly unfolding and of which poetry is a record and an agent. While it would be a mistake to ascribe to Prague some privileged place among urban muses, as this anthology shows, poetic currents are ever present in its streets and its spired skyline.

Permission to be a poet

A review of Eileen Myles's 'Inferno (A Poet's Novel)'

Inferno (A Poet's Novel)

Inferno (A Poet's Novel)

by Eileen Myles

O/R Books 2010, 256 pages, $16, ISBN 1935928031

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel begins as a retelling of Eileen Myles’s tough-girl antics in 1970s New York. She plays, at first, a stomping, horny girl-tornado, a lost Dante high-minded enough to keep yammering on about that likeness. In this story she is very broke but good at it. She sells fake subway token slugs, borrows dollars, works in bars, makes rich friends, steals food off trucks. She is our girl hero.

She writes like no one else, often tying the shape of talk to the page with dead accuracy. “Here we go: puking.” “I went to Queens College for a second.” She catches how ambition and attachment circulate through all of us, together:

Sometimes of course I’d walk both dogs. Alice was pretty busy and of course I had the time. And I had competition. There was a grim Marxist-looking woman, a greasy blonde who obviously had a crush on Alice and she took up the slack when I couldn’t help out. The woman was the religious editor at Majority Report, an embarrassing thing in itself. I’d bump into her on the street, with or without dogs, and we’d just glare at each other. Obviously we had the same boss, and the existence of each other simply lowered both of our positions.

Myles is lethal when she’s diagramming how people wish for things, how they use each other, how they operate in time. All these machinations are built of small gears: “What’s that.” “Um, no.” “Of course.” “Uhhh — no.” “Okay. “Okay.”

There’s a ton of good tall tales in this book, which I won’t go into because they are such perfect pleasures. There are brags and brags and brags. There are sex stories that transmit the whole roaring overwhelm, the anxiety of a lover you have to impress, how a lover is always also a guide out of the disaster they will always wreck.

The story of Inferno is that Dante needs direction. Virgil agrees to be his guide and learns him good. In her take, Myles commits to this arrangement totally, and she covers all sides: she shows herself as an innocent asking “Poet, I thee entreat,” she shows that turning to mentors is absolutely necessary (even conceding that mentors often disappoint) and she shows a little of the strangeness of becoming one.

In pursuit of an admired poet (Marge Piercy) at a reading:

        I wax professional. I stick my chest out. I know you’re just catching your breath, but can I talk to you for a second. I get a warm gleam. Sort of. But unfocused. Tired. Though she’s probably always like this. I went to U. Mass (Boston) and my professor Eva Nelson was a friend of yours. She’s shaking her head.
        Eva — I’m thinking the name sounds kind of wrong. Was that really her name. I forget.
        She went to Hunter. Maybe you knew her at Hunter.
        I don’t know this person Marge Piercy is telling me. No I don’t know her.
        You read —
        I have never heard —
        Eva Nelson.
        No, no she says and now she just wants me to go away.

Other idols she describes open new worlds, or prove haughty and useless, or convince her of her own worth, or take advantage, or literally feed her. In telling the story Myles also positions herself as a mentor and the guidance she offers is serious enough to stay complicated. She argues with anecdote after anecdote that apprenticeship is essential to becoming a poet, but that learning from someone shouldn’t be presumed to be a result of their being any good: “Bad scenes can be essential. The world was coughing up information in record time. I used all of it.”

That we finally reach the section “Heaven” — bragging on having finally got there— is important because Myles admits herself into the company of idols who can fall flat and be wrong. With that caveat implied, she does offer advice as an expert that left me grateful, not annoyed. It’s advice that stands out against a lot of the advised ways of being a poet in 2011. What worked for Myles was a balls-to-the-wall, all-in kind of hunger.

The character [in Hamsun’s Hunger] was going to starve, unless he made money on his art. Which was basically my ideal. Nobody ever told me how to live, they told me what not to do. In all these books about the lives of artists that I read I mean they weren’t guidebooks but they took the simple beliefs in art and freedom and carried them to outrageous lengths. I could do that.

This lesson is implicitly generous. As is her appreciation for how long apprenticeship continues — part of the book is written as a grant “Submitted by Eileen Myles to the Ferdinand Foundation,” a joke on how long you trudge along asking, “Am I there yet?” Myles seems to offer, with some tenderness, that the question “Am I there yet?” is a good companion. It keeps you honest.  

In Inferno, Eileen Myles lays out lots of gifts. Between the sharp humor and the impossibly clean lines she gets a little corny. Mainly she is giving permission: permission to be a poet, in a dated, romantic, full sense of the word. And permission to find new ways of doing that, whatever you need, and permission to be dissatisfied, to continually want to do it better.