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Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stevens’

A World Beyond the Glass: An Interview with Mary Szybist

April 8, 2014 | by

Image: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Photo: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.

The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.

Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.

Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.

I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that. Read More »

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Crusoe in California

March 6, 2013 | by

1977anniehall3The September after I finished college, I moved to Orange County with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had decided to become a famous writer, though I had no idea how to go about it. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be the kind of writer who gets shipwrecked on a South Sea island, and not the kind of writer who gets an M.F.A. in the Midwest. I belonged to the Melville school, I told myself. I was going to have a lot of adventures. Southern California didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it was closer to the South Sea than New York. At least, I thought so. I had a poor grasp of geography.

Unfortunately for me, I also belonged to the Alvy Singer school. (Would Melville and Alvy Singer get along?) I was a native Manhattanite who had rarely ventured west, and I soon found that Southern California didn’t suit me one bit. With no seasons, no job, and no driver’s license, I felt that I was going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. Time seemed not to pass, and books were my only friends. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Bourbon, Poetry, and Mead

October 12, 2012 | by

This week, Lorin and I made a whirlwind trip to Houston, where we had the chance to visit the wonderful Brazos Bookstore. While browsing their well-curated cookbook selection, my eye was caught by a volume called 101 Classic Cookbooks, curated by the Fales Library. Published by Rizzoli, it is as much an art book as a recipe primer (although there are plenty of those too, from such luminaries as Julia Child and Alice Waters). Images of antique receipt books and mid-century food art make for great cultural history. —Sadie Stein

Charles Portis is that rare literary legend too few have read—me included. When I spotted a copy of his 1979 novel, The Dog of the South, on a friend’s shelf, I knew it was time to find out if the rumors are true. They are. There’s a hopped-up futility to this tale of a man in pursuit of his wife and her lover south of the border, and when Ray’s surrender is set off against small moments of truculence, it’s comic gold. One passage in particular, of Ray trying to outrace another car in a total clunker, reminds me a bit of the pie-fight scene in Gravity’s Rainbow, which was published only six years before; though the setup is far less surreal, it’s rife with absurdity:

I’ve had enough of this, I said to myself, and I was just about ready to quit when the exhaust system or the drive shaft dropped to the highway beneath the Chrysler and began to kick up sparks. Jack was down for the day. I shot over a rise and left him with a couple honks. Harvest yellow Imperial. Like new. Loaded. One owner. See to appreciate. Extra sharp. Good rubber. A real nice car. Needs some work. Call Cherokee Bail Bonds and ask for Jack. Work odd hours. Keep calling.

—Nicole Rudick

Walker Percy, the National Book Award winner and Paris Review interview subject, has a delightful and underappreciated piece called “Bourbon, Neat” on a topic near and dear to my heart. Percy claims that bourbon does for him what a bite of cake did for Proust and goes on to expound an aesthetic approach to bourbon in which the chief pleasure comes from, “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bit of Tennessee summertime,” words that make this Kentuckian’s breast swell with pride. More importantly, this piece provides a ready-made, literary-minded rebuttal to accusations of alcoholism. A defense, I imagine, that might prove useful to more than a few of our readers. —Graham Rogers

I recently picked up The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine, which was released in celebration of Poetry Magazine’s centennial (thanks to Sam Fox for lending it to me!). If you need to be reminded of the incomparable poems that the magazine published first in its pages (including those of Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath), read excellent poetry by an author you might not have discovered yet, or simply remember why poetry is worth loving, this is the book to turn to. I recommend getting together with a few friends, taking turns opening to a poem at random, and reading out loud—knowing that you (and they) won’t be disappointed. —Emma Goldhammer

According to Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Secret of the Heather Ale,” the last Pictish king chose to have his son put to death and be killed himself rather than reveal the secrets of his favorite beverage to an invading Scottish army. You could try and re-create the ale that “Was sweeter far then honey, / Was stronger far than wine,” yourself this weekend by boiling five ounces of flowering heather tops (any color, although white is allegedly the luckiest) and boil in a gallon and a half of water. After an hour add seventeen pounds of honey and boil for a further half hour, before leaving the mixture to rest for another thirty minutes. Strain into a seven gallon wine fermenting bin and fill the bin to the top with cold water. Stir through one sachet of champagne yeast, skim off any foam that forms on the surface and decant into clean wine bottles. It should be ready after a week or two. —Charlotte Goldney

This week the loveable geeks over at A.V. Club published a tripartite list of the 1990s’ best films. It’s a neat little nostalgia trip on its own, populated by Tarantinos and Jarmuschs and Scorseses and such. But web-surfers were quick to point out that the skinny white dude aesthetic of the Club list-makers resulted in the absolute omission of black and female directors from this particular record of the nineties canon. Weirdly, this didn’t yield a firestorm: it produced a thoughtful discussion of the nature of institutional bias (think Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have Their Been No Great Women Artists” in 140-character tidbits), and the chance to reflect upon the contingency of our cultural consumption. Start at Slate if you’re interested. —Samuel Fox

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Spring Poems

February 24, 2012 | by

Spring is upon us! Or almost. What poems will get my mind off wintertime?

More than the other seasons, spring is a state of mind. As you know, it can strike in the dead of winter or go AWOL all April and May. It is the season of initiation, of mysteries, when the evening lengthens and spreads out before us and we are filled with irrational hope. Or not, and we feel its absence: spring is no longer for us. “I am a man of fortune greeting heirs; / For it has come that thus I greet the spring.” We all know about April being the cruelest month; Rodgers and Hart put it more succinctly: “Spring is here, / I hear.”

We all have our favorite greatest hits (you can’t call a spring poem a chestnut): Deirdre likes William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All,” e.e. cummings’s poem beginning “in / Just spring,” and Emily Dickinson’s “A Light exists in Spring.” Sadie loves Elizabeth Bishop’s “In Early Spring” and the Dickinson poem that starts “A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King” (though she admits it gets “a little odd” as it goes along). Stephen plumps for “Fern Hill,” on the sensible grounds that it concerns “the spring of life.”

The poem that occurs to me is “Les Chercheuses de Poux,” by Arthur Rimbaud. Here it is in Wyatt Mason’s translation, which magically preserves some of the strangeness and sensuality of the original:

Lice Hunters

When the child's forehead full of red torments
Begs the white swarm of vague dreams
To take him, two charming sisters loom
Above his bed, with fragile fingers and silver nails.

They sit him before a window opened wide
Where a jumble of flowers bathes in blue air,
And then, bewitching and terrible, the delicate fingers
Walk through his heavy, dew-matted hair.

He listens to the song of their uneasy breath,
Long earthy blossoms of rose-rich honey
Interrupted now and then by a salivary sucking,
Tongues licking lips, hungry for a kiss.

He hears their black lids bat beneath
The scented silence, their gentle pulsing fingers
Kill little lice beneath royal nails crackling
Sounds resounding through his gray stupor.

But the wine of Sloth is rising in him,
A harmonica's sigh that sets you reeling;
Beneath the slowness of their caresses, the child
Feels an urge to cry, welling and dying, endlessly.

We also polled a few friends from outside the office: the aforementioned Wyatt Mason; Molly Murray, who is lecturing on Shakespeare at Columbia; Jeff Dolven, who happens to be doing the very same thing at Princeton (and has two poems in our last issue); and Kira von Eichel, whose child was falsely accused this week of having lice—and who recruited her mother, Linden von Eichel, in the cause.

Wyatt chose a poem by Frederick Seidel, from issue 194. He writes: “I hope you won’t argue that it isn’t a spring poem. Spring is coupling, so a spring poem must be in couplets. Spring is song, so a spring poem must rhyme. Spring is light, so a spring poem is lit from within. Spring is nice weather, so ‘Nice Weather’ is spring. And don't tell me I’m being tautological. I don’t know what that means.” Read More »

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The Epigraph

February 1, 2012 | by

Milton wasn’t working.

The aspiring novelist had already written the perfect dedication (“For my friends”), and he’d long had a list of possible titles, yet he still had no epigraph, the mysterious but meaningful quotation he’d seen at the beginning of every great book. He’d been holding John Milton in reserve for this very situation.

When contemplating the epigraph for his debut novel, the writer had always been confident that if all else failed, he could find inspiration in Shakespeare or Milton. For his part, the Bard hadn’t cooperated.

A line like “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” might work for a paperback legal thriller, but nothing Shakespeare wrote seemed appropriate for the “Borges meets Zola, if Zola had somehow been influenced by Nabokov” collection of loosely related vignettes set in a fictional megalopolis in an indeterminate near-future the writer hoped to get published by next fall. Read More »

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Wallace Stevens’s “Long and Sluggish Lines”

January 19, 2012 | by

Reading these long and sluggish lines, I can see Wallace Stevens at work in his quiet office, looking out of the window at a cold, sunny winter day much like today. He sees smoke leaving the neighbor’s chimney. Someone has made a fire. But I find the most indelible phrase of this poem to be the “babyishness of forsythia”—as Stevens writes, it’s “a snatch of belief.” It’s the line that helps get me through winter, as I suspect it did Stevens. I’ve never been able to see the wooden branches of a forsythia bush again, bursting into yellow, without thinking of his words.

It makes so little difference, at so much more
Than seventy, where one looks, one has been there before. Read More »

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