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Posts Tagged ‘poems’

Mermaid Convention: An Interview with Matthea Harvey

September 2, 2014 | by

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Matthea Harvey. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

Matthea Harvey’s whimsy almost defies the scope of the English language. She seems to sculpt out of molten glass the topics and the treatments in her poems, optimistic fairy tales for a universe where everything’s deformed, or maybe deformed fairies in a universe where everything’s optimistic. It’s easy to feel almost at home among her poems, which are sometimes uncanny in the way that scary truths are uncanny, sometimes uncanny like the Uncanny X-Men, and sometimes uncanny in that their delightful artifice should, but can’t, be preserved and canned.

Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn; she grew up in England and Wisconsin. You may have read her beautifully titled first volume, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000); or Modern Life (2007), where alliterative, associative, alphabetical poems jostle against prose parables that science-fiction readers would call “slipstream”; or Of Lamb (2011), Harvey’s collaboration with the visual artist Amy Jean Porter, in which an erased biography of Charles and Mary Lamb sends Mary and Her Lamb through—a lost garden? A forest of previous children’s books? A dreamland? Or you might have seen one of her other collaborations—with composers, with animators—or one of her own photographs. Still, you won’t be ready for If The Tabloids Are True Then What Are You?, her new collection of poems and fables, in verse and prose, about mermaids, ice cubes, erasures, talking animals, and early telephones, with a set of images—including photographs of Harvey’s sculptures—inseparable from them. As NPR put it earlier this year, “Harvey is a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable.”

You can read more about her here and especially here.

Some of the poems have obvious sources in fables—“No-Hands has hands,” or “the animals did begin to glow.” Is there a particular fable or fairy-tale compilation that served as your best source? Aesop, the Grimms, La Fontaine, Kafka, Andrew Lang?

I wrote both of those poems without knowing that there were fables about either one. Myths and fairy tales are mysterious that way—we’re all shoots sprouting from one underground narrative fungus. Still, I know that stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter are all tumbling around in the pebble polisher of my unconscious. I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, in which I found a new favorite, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.” This insanity happens in it: “The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring. If it needed seasoning, he’d swim more slowly.” Imagine flavoring a soup with yourself!

This collection is full of mermaids. Why mermaids?

Primarily because the phrase “straightforward mermaid” appeared in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. But why mermaids in general? Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough. Read More »

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How to Win Friends and Influence People

July 31, 2014 | by

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Daniel Defoe, beloved in the pillory. Line engraving by James Charles Armytage, 1862.

Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.

Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.

Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.

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On the Slaughter

July 31, 2014 | by

A political poem’s ironic new life.

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Bialik at around age thirty.

ON THE SLAUGHTER

Heaven—have mercy.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?

Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.

If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”

But sometimes they do. Quite violently.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling. Read More »

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The Vale of Soul-Making

July 25, 2014 | by

How Keats coped with fever.

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Tuberculosis seemed to pursue Keats his whole life.

In 1821, three months after he learned of Keats’s death, Percy Shelley wrote Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which he described the poet as a delicate, fragile young flower of a man:

Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?

That dragon was a cruel critic who had mocked Keats’s literary ambitions—John Gibson Lockhart, who, writing under the pseudonym Z, had scolded Keats as if he were a child, insisting in a review of Endymion that “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” Lockhart had classed Keats among the Cockney School of politics, versification, and morality, known—at least by readers of Blackwood’s Magazine—for its “exquisitely bad taste” and “vulgar modes of thinking.” In Shelley’s formulation, it was this bad review that sent Keats to an early grave, and gazing back through history, one begins to accept this two-part narrative of Keats’s legacy. The fallen poet had lived a life of abstractions—he was not only an aesthete, but the aesthete—and he had been, as Byron quipped, “snuffed out by an article,” too beautiful and frail for this harsh world.

But Keats was immersed in the realities of life; his poetry and letters reveal an allegiance to radical politics as well as a concern with economic and scientific issues. Far from childlike and apolitical, he’s now thought of as having been “dangerous … a poet who embodied and gave voice to the anxieties and insecurities of his times … a poet whom the establishment would be obliged to silence,” as the scholar Nicholas Roe puts it. We often overlook, for instance, that Keats spent six years studying medicine, successfully earning a license to practice in London from the Society of Apothecaries—hence Lockhart’s insult about the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.” To think that he was “snuffed out by an article” trivializes the intense pain he experienced as his lungs were slowly consumed by tuberculosis, robbing him of his work, his love, and his life at the age of twenty-five.

The myth of the frail genius is attractive, even to contemporary readers, because of its quintessential Romanticism. But the truth is that Keats’s writings—especially when they seem fanciful or escapist—are grounded in real-world concerns. And nowhere is this more evident than in the letters and poems of his that deal with feverish suffering. Read More »

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Rita Dove’s “Canary”

July 17, 2014 | by

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Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, New York, ca. June 1946. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Billie Holiday died fifty-five years ago today. Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.

These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.

Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

Read More »

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Blue True Dream of Sky

July 15, 2014 | by

The schooner Isaac Evans, under full sail on Penobscot Bay in Maine. Photo: Joe Berkall

“You’ve certainly had good weather,” people keep telling us. They say this almost resentfully, as if we do not appreciate the honor being conferred, could never understand the rarity of a full eight days of cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the midseventies, in coastal Maine, in early July.

The weather forecasts have been equally dour. Don’t get your hopes up, they seem to say. Each morning, the icon on my phone will show a sun cautiously peeping out from behind a cloud. If the forecast must admit to the possibility of sunshine, it does so reluctantly: Yes, it is fair now (say the icons) but at three P.M., there will be a cloud. Not three? Four. Five, then. Certainly by six. Well, anyway, sunset is at seven, so then your fun’s over. Never once has that cloud departed from the screen, even as the skies have stayed stubbornly blue.

I don’t care; nothing can dim my excitement. I have not gone on “vacation” in many years. I am not sure how to do it, although I have notions. I read E. B. White and The Lobster Gangs of Maine in preparation. Streamed Stephen King adaptations. Isn’t that what you do? Thus warned, I came braced for a range of weathers. I packed slickers and boots and ghost stories. (Puzzles, I was told, the house already had.) I privately harbored gingerbread-related plans.

Instead, the aggressive, unflagging beauty began to feel vaguely tyrannical: it seemed an act of gods-tempting hubris to miss a single moment of potential hiking or swimming or general beauty-celebrating. We did not take our luck for granted; to the contrary, each day, when I set out for a walk or a ride on the bicycle I was borrowing, I tried to give a little ecumenical prayer of thanks. Read More »

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