Smartish Pace - Issue 15
- by Smartish Pace
Issue 15 of Smartish Pace contains three of my translations from the French of poems by Jacques
Réda: "The Jay," "The Milk of Dawn" (a favorite of mine), and "The Dead House." (Note that, as of this writing, the issue is not on-line; I'm referring to the print edition.)
Of the other poems in the issue, I especially enjoyed quite a few:
Gary J. Whitehead's "The Mouse in the House" juxtaposes the sound of a mouse in the house with the memory of the speaker's mother tearing up her late husband's unsent letters to his estranged sister. How's that for a unique approach to the "late-parent" poem?
Mark Yakich has two poems from a sequence called "Green Zone New Orleans," the second of which I put an asterisk by. "You'll never / See your own // Corpse and nobody / Will ever know // Your mind."
Brooks Haxton's "Consort at Bay Window" begins with the beautiful line "Pine ribs in the body of a lute" (I'm a sucker for poems with lutes and mandolins in them).
Christopher Cunningham's contribution, "The Absinthe Drinker," is an ekphrastic poem based on Degas's painting "L'Absinthe."
Jacqueline Berger's "Cigarettes" is a very unusual poem—a "my parents died" poem apparently
written before the fact (or at least "before" for the speaker), with the additional twist of its being the smoking fantasies of a non-smoker:
I'm not a smoker,
but I always imagine myself with a cigarette
when my brother and I visit our parents' graves.
There are two of David Kirby's long, chatty poems; for me, the contrast between the two shows how
tricky it is to make his style work: the first, "The Only Good Question" (which turns out to be "What the fuck?"), weaves its various threads together so that they disappear and return with a good sense of timing and a final sense of closure. The second, "Sigourney Weaver, Certified Public Accountant," may be as funny as its title promises, but all the riffing ends up feeling like unmotivated free association without the strong sense of timing and closure of "The Only Good Question." Or rather, "Sigourney Weaver" may provide an intellectual sense of closure, but it does not (at least for this reader) provide an emotional closure.
I read Bradley Paul's "How to Stop Your Doppelgänger from Plagiarizing You" as an excellent variation on "Borges and I," which opens up the dual scene of Borges's test into a triangle: speaker, Doppelgänger, and a "you" that the poem introduces at just the right time (the timing helps the poem be more than just a repetition of Borges).
Bob Hicok has four memorable poems in the issue: "Les fenêtres" juxtaposes a translation of Baudelaire (a translation that seems to be done by someone who does not quite understand the French) with the speaker's inadvertent assumption of a role as a midwife (!). The other three all have some great lines:
We are boring people who thrust our arms
out of cars in the belief that flying
will notice and come to wrap us in the lift-off.
("Hope is a Thing with Feathers That Smacks into a Window")
In a poem about Kenneth Koch:
... I feel free
when reading his "no rabbit stew" poems
to not read them or read bits of them or start one
and think, this is boring, because on the next page
there will be one about which I think, this is like being
a speed-boat painter while the speed boat's
on the lake and tearing my hair out.
("Why Would Your First Guess Be Cock?")
In "Reading to Jesus," which is also addressed to Jesus, the speaker wonders about apologizing to Jesus:
to apologize for ever saying "Jesus fucking Christ,"
for parsing breath into such a twisty
implication of divine self-love, though if anyone
could fuck himself it would be You
And the poem concludes with a dramatic shift of register:
... I bet
You never won at tag, and when the hammer struck
the first time, did You curse the old man or love
this last chance to feel human?
The Hicok poems are followed by Reginald Shepherd's "Miroirs." I have just finished reading his book Fata Morgana, and I am overwhelmed there and in this poem by how wonderfully Shepherd's poems fulfill an aim that he has talked about on his blog and in his essays: how the poem should be an emotional experience prior to understanding. Again and again, his poems produce an emotional
effect that can be overwhelming, one that draws me in and makes me want to decipher some of the more riddling passages (the ones that non-readers of poetry would reject as "difficult").
Joseph Harrison's "The Catch" is a ballad stanza that reads like a humorous companion piece to Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish"; part of the humor comes from the fish at the center of the poem: Asian big head carp, which, the epigraph tells us, "are known for jumping into fishermen's boats."
Gail Mazur's "Little Tempest" recalls the day after the last hurricane: "Everyone was out strolling, everyone seemed pleased / in the aftermath. That cold clear light." (But then, I am a sucker for the word "aftermath.")
Dawn McGuire's "I Sleep in My Clothes" depicts a stroke victim who can still write but cannot read. McGuire, a neurologist herself, boldly approaches her figure in his first-person voice.
Finally, Joanne Lowery's "Pleasing Others" describes how "unsuccessful so far" at doing so, the speaker buries herself, to be dug up after "centuries of solitude" as a major archaeological find, when she will finally "know that I do not disappoint."
The play between understanding and emotion also features in one of my Réda translations, "The Milk of Dawn," which is about hearing Woody Herman as a youth:
In our initiation into poetry,
A major moment was the song beginning: "Milkman,
Keep those bottles quiet" — we never really fully
Understood all of what followed that command.