Probably no writer ever finishes a book without wishing he could keep it to himself. For one thing, a book is company, during the writing of it; it’s hard to accept its departure. For another, a book is never free of flaws, its author being human. Poets have long been able to console themselves for the loss and the exposure by revising and republishing. Thus Whitman expanded, aggrandized, and eventually bloated Leaves of Grass; thus Wordsworth enlarged upon and finally diluted The Prelude. Some writers of fiction, too, have indulged themselves. Henry James returned to his early prose to render it more ineffable. Raymond Carver restored some of the fullness that a charismatic editor had cut from his early stories. Read More
“A poem is never finished, it is abandoned,” said the sculptor Jaume Plensa, quoting Paul Valéry on a sunny September morning in New York City, as he watched Echo, his forty-four-foot sculpture of a female head, being dismantled piece by piece.
My husband Jonathan Wells and I are Flatiron residents. We had lived alongside Echo since she arrived in May and, for Jonathan, she had become an object of fascination and reverence. He had been working on a poem about her for months but found himself unable to conclude it. He had refamiliarized himself with the myth of Narcissus and Echo; he had learned all he could about Plensa and the nine-year-old neighbor in Barcelona who had inspired the piece, a child who had taken shape in the statue with the timelessness and serenity of a Buddha. On this, the statue’s last morning, Jonathan recognized the Catalan sculptor standing between the cranes and the crew.
“I always hoped my work would inspire other artists,” Plensa told my husband, as they discussed myth, marble dust, art collectors, and teaching schedules. “Please send me your poem.” After watching Echo come apart, Jonathan knew he had an ending. Here is what he sent to Plensa:
White as x ray bone she rises through
The trees in stone as if she were sublime,
As if she knew what this grace was
And she was only nine, framed
Between her errands and her games.
Her nymph’s body surges underground
Not knowing what this buried love
Beneath her neighbors play Frisbee
On the grass and strangers take her
Photograph. The final sun pours
Into her sealed eyes and mouth as though
She were the saint of radiant stillness
Who says this marble flesh is a prison
Stone yet the mind flies with
The confetti of birds, soars into
The beliefs of summer.
Silence succumbs to air and the blossoms
Sail down, the clocktower’s fretted hands
Notched against her ribs.
Questions flood her blood
And darkness, flee and then she’s gone,
Taken from our vanquished arms but
She still speaks in the autumn leaves,
In the furrowed bark, in the singsong
Of the childrens’ swings.
Jonathan Wells’s collection, Train Dance, will be published by Four Way Books in October.
Lucy Tunstall’s poems leaped out at us from the slush pile for their fresh, unfussy takes on the vagaries of contemporary life; she is one of those poets whose voice already seems familiar. “Remembering the Children of First Marriages” invokes the structured repetition and close observation that make Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” (“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey”) so extraordinary; here, Tunstall, a British poet, turns her gaze not to a winsome cat, but to children of divorce, as if they, too, could be held up to the light and anatomized. An irony, of course, is that there is nothing singular about children of divorce. —Meghan O’Rourke
It’s Thursday, as good a day as any for an incisive and surprising poem by Jennifer Michael Hecht about a hangover. We liked it because of the way it evokes the light mantle of head-clouded shame that follows too much bourbon or rum; its wrapping, self-analyzing lines convey the cloudiness and the strange clarity that come the day after drinking too much. Who hasn’t vowed that “nothing that ever happened/ will happen again?” —Meghan O’Rourke
These poems by Don Share bring surprising music and thrilling turns of mind to the matter of everyday life. We especially liked the eerie litany of woebegone objects in “Rice in the Spoon”: “Sea glass beached / on a porch bench” or, better yet, “A brown bust / of a sad man.” Whether Jethro Tull’s Aqualung is or is not a classic is a question Share’s readers are left to settle for themselves. —Dan Chiasson
“Locality,” said Frost, “gives art.” It’s an aphorism that directs us toward, well, directions. But when we’re talking about space, we’re also usually talking about time—which means it’s important to think about when, not just where, an artist finds the locality that’s going to be doing the giving.
These questions have particular relevance to the Summer 1996 issue of The Paris Review because the subject of “The Art of Poetry” interview is A. R. Ammons. Ammons has been slightly out of fashion since his death in 2001—fame, as Emily Dickinson observed, is fickle food—but he was a bracingly intelligent writer, and his relationship to the idea of place is intriguing. In part, it’s intriguing because he can’t seem to determine whether he is actually Southern after having lived for three decades in the north. Consider:
INTERVIEWER: You’ve spent more time in the north [at Cornell].
AMMONS: Much more. I lived the first twenty-four years in the South. I’ve been in Ithaca more than thirty years.
INTERVIEWER: Are you conscious of being a Southerner here?
AMMONS: I don’t hear my own voice, but of course everyone else does, and I’m sure they’re all conscious of the fact that I’m Southern, but I am mostly not conscious of it. In the first years, I was tremendously nostalgic, constantly longing for the South: for one’s life, for one’s origin, for one’s kindred. Now I feel more at home here than I would in the South. But I don’t feel at home—I’ll never feel at home—anywhere.
On one hand, this is the kind of thing poets like to say because it recalls the expatriate glamour of the early twentieth century (“I have beaten out my exile,” announced Pound, in the most self-satisfied formulation of this maneuver). On the other hand, Ammons wasn’t just a poet. Read More