Category Archives: Poem

Post-War

‘“ both eyes, (the loss of) and to find someone

     who talked his own dialect. We

     talked of every boy and girl in the valley

     but when he came back from leave

he was sad because he had been able to feel

     all the ribs of his cow ….”’

The Pisan Cantos, 76: 190-194

 

In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the final days when God shall judge the nations and people, and the worthy who remain “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks” (The Bible, Isiah 2.4). God is saying the righteous shall know peace, yet Pound paints a far more pessimistic picture for the wounded young men who are returning home from war. The man’s cow has been poorly treated, it can provide little sustenance, and may even be near death which could devastate a poor farmer who relies on his livestock not just to eat but also to produce an income. Yet beyond just this farmer’s situation, Pound reveals how the whole natural world has been mistreated during the war, that so much which requires care has been neglected, that what the young men were off fighting for was dying in their absence.

In the time of Isaiah, a cow might also provide the meat of the sacrifice needed to maintain the covenant with God, yet could such a starved beast be worthy enough for God? Perhaps this farmer is sad because he finds himself in a similar situation with Cain whose sacrifices were not respected by God. Perhaps the farmer senses the beast’s exposed ribs as evidence of the distance he and God have grown apart and he is reminded of how much killing he was involved with during the war. And, like Cain whose sacrifice was rejected by God because he assumed it was his works alone, not faith, which would grant him favor, the farmer may see his reprieve from war as merely a temporary situation – he is only on leave after all, which is ironic since he has lost both his eyes and yet the army still expects him back at some point.

As the farmer touches his starving cow he is reminded of the endless and fruitless toil of his lonely existence. While “We” have the luxury to gossip about “every boy and girl in the valley”, the farmer, alone, must sustain not only himself, but all of us who depend on him. Just as “We” depended on his service in the Army to protect our lives, “We” continue to depend on him to feed and nourish us. Yet how can he provide for so many when his cow has been starved? How much life can he wring out of the land and livestock? How much life is even left in the earth which has been bombed and blasted and turned into a moonscape of rubble? If the cow cannot eat, how can “We”? The entire fate of existence seems to rest upon a blind man and his starving cow.

Starved of faith, food, and friendship, the farmer and his cow resemble the most horrific terrors of war. The cow’s exposed ribs resemble the millions who were starved in concentration camps: men, women, and children who in broad daylight were rounded up while their fellow citizens did nothing. Where was God when endless trainloads of people were turned into ash in a perverted sacrifice to evil? Where was God when everyone else let it happen? Why did “We” not sustain our neighbors with the bravery required to stand up to injustice, to sacrifice ourselves in an act of pure faith in God that could have saved millions? Yet we willingly went blind and so God rejected our empty actions. “We” only “talked of every boy and girl in the valley”, not acted in their defense.

Yet while this poor farmer took up the call of his nation, would it not have been better had he stayed home? Was the cause he fought for righteous? Was the nation he killed for virtuous, or did he take part in an act of complete barbarity, blindly following the rallying cry of a corrupt state? Perhaps “We” who “talked of every boy and girl in the valley” are like the women in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” who, having also succumb to the state’s propaganda, gave a white feather to all the young men who believed

there

are

no

righteous

wars” (78: 224-228).

 

This blind farmer, who carries with him the memory of war, speaks with the unique “dialect” of wartime experience that the boys and girls of the valley are ignorant of. Yes, he is blind, and he may try to tell them that pursuing senseless violence against each other only leads to misery, but he might as well be speaking a dead language to deaf ears. In fact, he is speaking for the dead, a “dialect” that no one living wants to understand. And in this sense Pound and the farmer are deeply connected at the center beating heart of this Canto. The cow’s ribs resemble the bars on Pound’s cell, and Pound’s efforts to connect all of history, time, truth, and memory are only seen by the camp psychologists as curious scribbled poetry and not the cry of all human experience that begs to be heard by every boy and girl and even Presidents.

And now “We” reap what “We” have sown: a God who seems to have turned his back on all of humanity as he did with Cain, a starving cow, and a blind farmer who laments his fate because whom he placed his faith in turned out to be a false God, like the golden calf in the desert.

 

Yet perhaps there is hope here, too. Pound writes “he was sad because he had been able to feel”, and this line in isolation reveals that the farmer is still capable of feeling, even if it sadness and even if it does not follow sight. The farmer has not been totally deprived of his humanity, he is still capable of intense emotion even after suffering though the horrors of war. The farmer reaches out to his cow, starved as it is, and places his hand on the animal, comforts the beast with the simple gesture of a gentle, caring touch. He reconnects with what for so long he had been away from and begins the process of healing, of creating life rather than taking it. His first act home is not to pick up the hammer and beat his blood-soaked sword into a ploughshare, but to simply allow himself to be reminded of his connection with life.

Pound creates a humble scene of this blind farmer caressing his cow between the gentle sloping green-grassy hills below the snowy mountain peaks as if the entire weight of this single act of human kindness was enough to impress a sacred spot “in the valley” that could shelter and nurture all those with enough faith who chose to live there. He is like Moses descended from the surrounding mountains into the valley below to bring the true law – righteousness – to those who have been starved with false faith in the bombed-out desert wasteland they themselves created. This gift may seem meager and nearly incapable of sustaining life, but the farmer can offer his starving cow to provide the nourishment the soul requires.

Thus the farmer seems to be existing in two possible states: one in which he has been forsaken in a wilderness of death, and another where he is like the shepherd who, though blind, through kindness, can lead his starving flock out of the valley of the shadow of death because he has faith God is still with him, will restore his soul, and will prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies. The cow still lives and thus God has maintained the sacrament in kind. The farmer can now either choose to accept this offering or turn his back because it appears too meager.

This is a critical moment for the farmer and Pound uses the ellipses to denote the uncertainty of what the outcome shall be. Pound is requiring each of us to complete the image, to freely choose which direction we will walk. Do we listen to Pound’s and the farmer’s strange “dialect” and put down our swords to be beaten into ploughshares so that the life of the farm can increase? Or do we turn our backs and send Pound and the farmer back to war, their eyes missing though they see far better than any of us do?

Additional Works Cited

 

The Bible, King James Version. Bible Hub, 2018.  biblehub.com, https://biblehub.com/kjv/isaiah/2.htm.

page 15 of 96 of Duino Elegies

The Second Elegy

Tobit was one of the only righteous men who buried the dead according to rights. The journey to the next world matters as does our memory of the dead. Angels and birds are the heralds – augury – of infinite time, not future, not prophecy, but pure, terrifying infinite spaces. And who resides in those infinite spaces but the archangel Micheal himself, messenger of God who blesses Tobit’s daughter-in-law by ridding her of the curse of the demon that would not allow her to marry and create life from within her.

Yet the first creations were all the things of the world, the mountains, the rivers, all the things that are not us. We came last and we named them, though the word had already created them. We interpret only.

And as we live “we evaporate”, constantly giving off parts of ourselves as if life was an act of boiling away and “what is ours rises from us”, including our smiles. Perhaps we are giving ourselves back to the angles? Perhaps we are also mixing together with everyone else’s essence? And where do the smiles go? They have an effect long after they disappear – our emotions are so much larger than we are – where does that excess energy go? Yet we don’t notice any of this happening, we go about “like a rush of air” always onto some design of our making that really doesn’t, in the end, matter all that much. What matters is that we exist now, and now, and now. But we’re locked out of that eternity.

Born into angels and born from the mother – always being born into something.

page 9 of 96 of Duino Elegies

The First Elegy

What is within us is larger than us; we contain it and it contains us.

How can we look at an angel? How terrifying would that be to be confronted with an existence so much greater than ourselves but also one which can hardly detect if we are among the living or the dead? But even in the face of beauty, how do we really comprehend it? What is beauty? It’s not something we can point to as an object, in fact it almost has nothing to do with appearances at all – it’s a feeling, like the impression of the presence of an angel.

He writes, “how little at home we are / in the interpreted world” and I feel this line is very sad because it feels as if we will always fall short of experiencing the world as it truly is, as if we have to fall on words and impressions of things because if we were to be confronted with reality – angels (which is ironic, I suppose) – we would be consumed, overwhelmed, eradicated of all individuality. Perhaps this is what the Platonist’s mean by The Forms in that we cannot touch the One, true thing, we only live in shadows and interpretations of them. Yet perhaps beauty is the sort of energy or language the form of anything gives off and that allows us to we aware of it at all. Perhaps this is how something bigger than ourselves can be contained within ourselves.

The world feels so full of possibility (good and bad) in “the night, when the wind is full of worldspace”. We can imagine anything – infinity – within the confines of our mind, in the safety of darkness. Yet we don’t possess this infinity because we are not like the animals who live in infinity, we are forever qualifying the world. Better to “Cast the emptiness from your arms / into the spaces we breathe: perhaps the birds / will sense the increase of air with more passionate flying”. Infinity exists in the smallest possible spaces and moments, such in a wave or “a violin” playing from an “open window”. Those are the moments we remember, because those are the infinities of beauty, yet we are “always / distracted by expectation” of something more “real” which isn’t real at all, but fleeting and transitory.

Funny, too how in death is the eternal – the hero who “lives on. Even in his downfall”. We are almost closer to living in death than we are when we live, but we must rely on each other. Imagine how strange it is that we carry around everyone who has ever lived inside of us, and for those who we’ve loved take up an even larger portion of our souls, as if they too are larger than us, yet are within us. No wonder angels can’t tell if we are alive or dead, so slight is the difference to them.

“God’s voice” can be heard clearly “on the wind’s breathing” and it’s so simple to understand. Yet we cling so hard to the customs and traditions of living that we have to be literally ripped from this world in our “final birth”. We want to wish, to think of the future of our lives and it’s too strange  to “not go on wishing one’s wishes” and to prepare and plan for death with as little left undone as possible, but does the wind care if it is finished anything? Does the word of God ever stop? Does beauty? Why do we worry so much about the dead? Why do we need them so much more than they need us?

The Pisan Cantos: Read from September 10 to September 19, 2018

ATTN: Lieutenant Colonel John L. Steele
7103rd Disciplinary Training Company
United States Army, Metato, Italy

June 15, 1945

 

Re: Ezra Weston Loomis Pound

 

After a thorough examination of Ezra Weston Loomis Pound’s mental state, it is my professional opinion that while the patient displays “no paranoia, delusions nor hallucinations” and there is “no evidence of psychosis, neurosis or psychopathy,” his “prolonged exposure in present environment may precipitate a mental breakdown, of which premonitory symptoms are discernible” (XIV). It is my recommendation that the prisoner be moved immediately to more suitable quarters and a “transfer to the United States or to an institution in this theatre with more adequate facilities for care” (XIV) be considered. I am basing my conclusion of the patient’s current mental state on several complicated factors that I ask you to consider.

First, the patient is highly intelligent and imaginative. The patient has granted me access to his journal which, though at first I found to be nearly incomprehensible, has provided valuable insight into his mind after a close and careful reading. For example, the patient is fluent in numerous languages, including ancient Greek, has a strong grasp of Chinese ideograms, and is able to maintain coherence of thought while abruptly switching from one language to the next. In one section of his Cantos, as he calls this journal, he writes of “a sort of dwarf morning-glory / that knots in the grass,” which he follows with the medical term for psychological injury, “sequelae” (37-38). The patient believes he has suffered great psychological trauma and is thus using this passage to express his pain through the image of a small, beautiful flower, which may represent himself, being tangled in a field of grass, which may be significant as he has been detained in cramped, exposed conditions. He goes on to write, in French, “Le paradis n’est pas artificiel” (paradise is not artificial) (38) which in my opinion is his way of expressing that he still has a hope for the future and that his happiness is attainable. He also seems to recognize that he is suffering tremendous psychological stress when he writes “States of mind are inexplicable to us” (38) but then follows, in ancient Greek, with “dakruon” (tears, or weeping) repeated three times as if he is painfully aware how his present psychological state is affecting him emotionally.

Second, the patient is a highly empathetic individual as evidenced in these Cantos with astute observations of idiomatic speech, such as his mimicry of the black prisoners, one of which he transcribes as saying “Hey Snag, what’s in the bibl’ ? /  what are the books of the bibl’ ? / Name ‘em! Don’t bullshit me!” (51), but also of his more obscure observations of birds sitting on electrical wires which he interprets and transcribes as musical notation, “with 8 birds on a wire / or rather on 3 wires” (63). Far from turning inward and morose, the patient is keenly aware of every sensation and stimulation around him, but like a SCR-300 used by our Signal Corps which is somehow tuned to every open channel, the patient’s mind seems to be like a new Signal Corps Private who is frantically trying to transpose everything coming in over that SCR-300 receiver faithfully but due to the sheer volume of information is experiencing enormous stress in trying to keep up. If I may be as bold as to sound poetic, it is as if the patient were tuned into the radio broadcast of all human civilization across all time and space and wants to make sense of it all not only for himself, but for everyone alive.

Lastly, the patient retains a firm sense of self in that he expresses very strong opinions about Jews, the economy, and has even requested a meeting with President Truman concerning the state of the Japanese campaign. While this may sound alarming and does seem to reek of arrogance and the grandiose, his opinions remain consistent, strangely coherent, and while often reprehensible and perhaps even treasonous, do not seem to, so far, present an imminent threat to himself or others. Therefore, it is my professional opinion that Ezra Weston Loomis Pound is not insane, he is just an incredibly talented poet. These two conditions are easily confused.

page 1 of 96 of Duino Elegies

I wish I had an opportunity to have some royal family allow me unfettered access to a castle within which I can just live their and write poetry.

I wonder if this is why I more like poets like Heaney, W.C.W., and people closer to the average human experience?

I’ve never read Rilke before so I have no idea what I’m in for, but I doubt it will be like Pound’s prison poetry.

page 110 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“And now the ants seem to stagger / as the dawn sun has trapped their shadows, / this breath wholly covers the mountains / it shines and divides / it nourishes by its rectitude / does no injury / overstanding the earth it fills the nine fields / to heaven” Providence? God? Nature? The sun is for everyone, what we do with it is up to us.

“Brother Wasp is building a very neat house” Life toils endlessly.

page 108 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“Nothing affects these people / Except our conversation” Words are dangerous, news and rumor travels fast (Chaucer’s House of Fame). War can kill us, but it’s our language which really changes things – governments, law, literature, love letters.

“No man who has passed a month in the death cells believes in cages for beasts” Freedom, but is true freedom anarchy? We all freely serve, we’re all in some sort of cage.

page 105 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“CONversation” Language can be manipulated.

“The news was quicker in Troy’s time” The gods could react a lot quicker than we can.

“O troubled reflection / O Throat, O throbbing heart” See me, not just shadows, hear me, understand me. I sing and I hurt and I want to be understood.

“periplum” is as good a word as any, even if it’s not (formally) a word. Perhaps this is Pound’s “Yes” (from Joyce).

page 100 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“Pull down thy vanity” Reminds me of Satan who was cast down for vanity / pride.

The problem with the word modern is that it’s been in use for so long now that we can’t really use it now. Modern is old, time has moved on. This is and isn’t modern poetry. When, then ,does this exist?

“Here error is all in the not done” However, “When in doubt, do nothing” Tolstoy. Both are correct.

page 98 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“I rose through the aureate sky”

Tune the ancient lute to hear the sounds not heard in generations. Language, the old meanings of words “root” – the plant has roots hidden in the earth and words have meaning we aren’t always aware of, but words have meaning. Words are important. In the beginning was the word. I am words.

We are all “centaur[s]” We are half beastly nature, half language rationals. Liminal

page 94 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“Only shadows enter my tent / as men pass between me and the sunset” Like the dead walking around and their ghosts leave a trace. He is secluded from humanity, or maybe the other way around? Impersonal, lonely.

“and God knows what else is left of our London, my London, your London” civilization wrecked? London was Roman, then how many others took control of it, changed hands? What is a society anyway?

page 92 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

Line 705-726″ War is over, “Now that there’s room for doubt” we can see the wreckage left behind after fighting that war, see all the laws we trampled over to win, the rights lost, the history lost, the humanity lost.

“and still there if you climb over the attic rafter; to look at the fields; are they tilled?” Again, the farmer comes home to what? Dying cow? Barn destroyed? Fields full of rockets? Rebuild, rebirth.

page 92 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“if calm be after tempest / that the ants seem to wobble / as the morning sun catches their shadows” I love this minute detail.

“with a smoky torch thru the unending / labyrinth of the souterrain” Reminds me of the pre-historic people crawling through caves to paint the oxen and lions and horses. Mysterious, reflective.

“The wind is lighter than swansdown / the day moves not at all” Beautiful – like kids summer

page 87 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“but he climbed about 200 steps of the tower to see what he had seen thru the roof of a barn no longer standing … where he had fired that howitzer and the large eye that found him at its level was a giraffe’s eye at dawn, in his nest, hunting leopards” The killer / soldier has remorse? Haunted by his past? Whom did he kill? War is terrible because it never really ends.

page 83 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“anarchy was the true form of government” Which is funny since even heaven has a government, as does hell.

“The old trees near the Rue Jacob / were propped up to keep them from falling” reminds me of the poplars lining the Apian Way, like old soldiers who can’t stand anymore and need help from the younger generations. Every civilization is built on war.

page 81 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“It is said that Homer was a medic / who followed the greek armies to Troas” I never heard this before – interesting idea. Poetry following war, art following destruction. Greeks kill, Homer turns the wreckage into art. Homer as doctor for the men with PTSD – gotta keep their spirits up so they’ll keep fighting. Good thing Homer was blind to not see how terrible the war was for them men – his poems would be different

page 79 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“you can neither eat manuscript not Confucius” Philosophy won’t do you much good when you’re starving. How many good people will steal bread to stay alive then years later denounce a thief? Philosophy is only as good as you are comfortable.

“beyond the stockade there is chaos and nothingness” Funny how a prisoner who wants freedom is also scared of that freedom.

page 74 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“the warp / and the woof / with a sky wet as ocean / flowing with liquid slate” Beautiful image, if strange.

“they say she could draw down birds from the trees, / that indeed was imperial; but made hell in / the palace” Very funny, but also it’s a capturing of nature and nature’s revolt to be caged. Also, birds will shit on anyone, king or not.

“the problem after any revolution is what to do with / your gunmen”

page 71 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“but the gas cut off” is a great image of the wreck of nobility sitting around with no money to pay the bills or, at least, because the utilities / utility of the nation has been destroyed. What good is a king if you can’t stay warm in winter?

“grain of an era” & “the bread of that era” Hunger, history, the cow with exposed ribs, all eras are an era of bread – give us our daily bread, o lord (king) give us our gas.

page 70 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“the young horse whinnies against the sound of the bumm band;” an image of nature reacting terrified against the coming war, or the fear of a young man who is being called up to war, nature’s natural music vs man’s mechanical music.

That lynx watching him is a haunting image, like being able to feel him going madder and growing more paranoid as the cantos go on.

page 65 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“there / are / no / righteous / wars” No, there aren’t.

“and her hair gone white from the loss of him / and she not yet thirty” So much grief.

“The new Bechstein is electric” – all his birds sit on the electric wires making a new sort of electric music – the sound in the wires visualized by nature – hidden, unseen beauty to be discovered.

page 58 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“there are those who did not want / it to come to an end” as in the war. McCarthur and (I think Patton too) wanted to roll on to Moscow after the war.

He’s so concerned with money and economics.

“Nothing left here but women” because all the men have been killed in the war. Humanity split in two.

“one might do worse than open a pub on Lake Garda” hope for the future? Plans? But who will visit it?

page 53 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“It is true that the interest is now legally lower” As in the war? In killing? In life? In history? In empathy? This is such a great line.

“as witness the bombardment at Frascati after the armistice / had been signed” As fast as news / rumor travels, it isn’t faster than our ability to kill each other when we disagree. War travels faster than everything.

page 50 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“so kissed the earth after sleeping on concrete.” & “in limbo no victories, there, are no victories -” We can change our physical situation but we’re still trapped in the same mind.

“the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words” almost like those apes that can use some sign language – just trained well enough to amuse the zoo keepers, but emotional infants ready to kill.

page 46 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“Sochy-lism is a-comin’ ” We still hear this talk today, people who talk about something they don’t quite understand – one way or another.

“nothing counts save the quality of the affection” I wonder if this is what Jesus thought / felt as he took on everyone’s sin?

Love how he equates rumor/ news to what’s heard in a shit house.

“the earth belongs to the living” But we can’t seem to shake the ghosts, either.

page 41 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“from the wreckage of Europe”

“States of mind are inexplicable to us.” The problem of really knowing someone, of really empathizing with someone. These Cantos are an outpouring of Pound’s mind, but do we still know him any better? Is he trying to excuse his treason? Is he asking us to look deeper?

“woe to them that conquer with armies / and whose only right is their power.” Yet the farmer also starves.

page 36 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“he was sad because he had been able to feel / all the ribs of his cow …” this is a devastating line in the face of all the war that had been going on but it also recalls what happened to the Jews and other people who the Nazi’s terrorized. Also it reminds me of an old Roman soldier returning home after a war and though he’s put down his sword for a plow, he has very little to work with- almost as if war was better

page 29 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

Stalin has no sense of humor. No, no he did not.

Aram vult nemus = the grove waits an altar, meaning altars were usually found near groves. Eden allusion? Is that why he mentions Lucrezia Borgia, the old femme fatale as a sort of Eve?

tentflaps again, this time no mint. Circus? Reminds me of the whale from Werckmeister Harmonies – total show.

Old world, new world compared.

“We couldn’t sell anything modern”.

page 23 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

He goes on about the Jews then leads into economics. I guess this is his antisemitism rearing its ugly head.

He equates the Russian NEP with “the immolation of men to machinery” – excellent line and observation to equate man, machine, fire, life, death, rebirth all in one.

“philosophy is not for young men” reminds me of no country for old men.

Chaucer would not have liked Pound.

Beauty is difficult.

page 17 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“The wind is part of the process / The rain is part of the process” everything is a process, but towards what?

Aeneas = Dido?

Ugolino was the traitor politician in Dante’s frozen hell eating the brains of archbishop Ruggieri.

“I don’t know how humanity stands it” – amazing line

“filial, fraternal affection is the root of humaneness” – yes!

“Criminals have no intellectual interests?” Nod to Ugolino? Funny.

page 13 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

Lines 247-257 are fascinating, but I can’t make sense of the image.

Leviticus 19: Here’s all the rules, follow them because I am the Lord – until I come again and then you wan’t have to.

1 Thessalonians 4:11: “and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you,”

Corruption? Authority? Wasn’t Pound a fascist? He’s like rules.

page 10 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“sunt lumina” I am the light

“all things that are are lights” true, reflected light. We are not truths.

“Tempus tacendi, tempus loquendo” a time to speak, a time for silence.

Hagoromo: is he making a connection between Buddhist and Christian angels?

diamonds, then “the mind indestructible” .

hamadryas, then “the slaves learning slavery” – is this racist?

“the leopard sat by his water dish” in a zoo, captive.

page 7 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“created the names” – the names, the forms perhaps, existed before? “in principio verbum” in the beginning was the word.

“and with one day’s reading a man may have the key in his hands” – I like this. Could be church, gospel, mass, homily?

“the voiceless with brumm drum and banners” – fascism on the march.

Lines 120-125 are beautiful.

Linus = 2nd Pope. Cletus= 1138 schism? Clement = apocrypha.

page 3 of 192 of The Pisan Cantos

“a bang, not a whimper” – his friend Eliot. But the possum plays dead, yet isn’t dead. Trouble will always come back to life.

N. Carolina is where Camp Lejeune is, so maybe he means the draft?

“Odysseus / the name of my family” is the name of all our family, at least in the west.

“R.C. chaplain” – Roman Catholic. My dog tags still have the R.C. on them.

Wanjina = Australian rain god. Ouan Jin = educated man

Tender Buttons: Read from August 29 to September 3, 2018

An Apology to Gertrude Stein

Reading you made me nervous. My professor assigned your book, Tender Buttons, as an introduction to modernist poetry and though I knew your poetry can be challenging I was eager to read you for the first time. Yet immediately I realized I was in trouble. I kept turning the pages hoping I would find a poem that resembled something I was familiar with: a narrative thread, a story, anything to wrap my mind around. Failing that I turned to my journal and for each of the 58 poems in Objects I kept detailed notes hoping I would find something that made sense.

Then I began to panic. I wanted so much to contribute to a conversation about you that I found myself getting angry that my fellow classmates would be the ones who would share insight while I who had spent hours and hours with you would only be able to sit mute and perhaps receive a failing participation grade for the day’s class.

But I need to apologize to you for getting our relationship off on the wrong foot. As I was waiting for class to begin my friend and I were discussing our opinions of your poetry. I lied and said I enjoyed your work, but I was angry with you. My friend, however, told me how much he loved your poem Careless Water because he understood you were talking about the art of kintsugi. Once he realized what you meant by your reference to the Japanese the world of your poetry opened up to him. And it opened up for me as well.

As class went along and I listened to my classmates discuss your poems I realized how wrong I was to think that I alone had the ability or even the right to understand your poetry in isolation. I realized that to understand you it took all of us working as a group to piece you together. Each of us were like a jagged and broken piece of pottery that wanted to be fitted back into place. As each person offered their unique observations about your poems I also realized that what we were piecing back together might not exactly match the original, that the shape might be a little distorted and that the repair seams would be visible, but that we were making your poems anew and we were adding to your story.

And then I realized how incredibly brave each of us are when we read your poetry because we are bringing a piece of ourselves to your art. True, we might be a little jagged and sharp at the corners and we might not fit exactly, but you are allowing us to participate in your poetry by giving us the freedom to see your poems through our own eyes and with our own experiences. And as I revisited each of your poems I was liberated because I now had permission to work with you, and my classmates, and my professor to make a new meaning for your poems and to not be afraid that I might be “wrong” about what you meant.

Gertrude Stein, I apologize for being selfish and assuming you came in only one shape and with a set of instructions that would allow me to piece you back together again. You wanted to bring us together, to share your art with, and my first reaction was to hate you for it. I am sorry.

page 62 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Food

I don’t know much about Gertrude Stein, but I do know she spent a lot of time with Hemingway and the Lost Generation gang, especially around meal time. And since she’s devoted the middle section of Tender Buttons to food I would assume a good meal and good company meant a lot to her, as it does to most of us.

And so I decided to read this section differently than I did Objects, the first third of this book. I read objects very carefully, poem by poem and took notes on each individual poem and did my best to understand how each poem made me feel or my nest to imagine what she is writing about. I’m sure in most, if not every case, I was well of her intended mark, but I also feel like her poems are now as much mine as they are hers – not in the copyright sense, but in the way the artist must give up their art to whomever interacts with it. In this way I feel as if she’s still reaching out through her work to force her readers to come to terms with her and with themselves, to discover something about both parties that was previously unexplored.

However, with Food I decided to pretend I was an eavesdropper listening in to one of Stein’s feasts where I was only able to catch snippets of conversation. I read quickly and didn’t stop except to underline the word cheese a lot, frown at her use of a racial slur, enjoy the line “a neglected Tuesday”, an imagine what it must be like “to see in onion and surely very surely rhubarb and a tomatoe”. I felt this was important because I am not a genius like her or her friends, I am not part of the inner circle of literary giants who could make an artistic revolution around a breakfast table. I can only catch a few words here and there above the surrounding din because I am not part of her world, I do not know her, I can only interact with her across nearly a century of nearly incomprehensible ink.

And maybe this was her intention, to force a reader 100 years later to experience what she and her friends experienced as a Lost Generation, a generation of young people disillusioned by a world gone mad, a world that was quickly closing its borders and filling in the maps, a world that had little place for imagination over commerce. She represents, as Zweig wrote about, a World of Yesterday bounded by a terrible war that used the shattered wreckage of a thousand cities to build a barrier that we can never climb back over and return to “the old ways”. I might as well try to see as an onion sees with my eyes burning from the gas left over from the war that chocked and drowned countless  young innocents.

All that’s left are snippets of conversations about cheese. But at least now I have a slightly better idea how she felt, how her generation felt about the world. Fragmented, confused, but still trying to be understood.

page 31 of 134 of Tender Buttons

This is This Dress, Aider

An aider is a helper or assistant, and she uses the word “whow” which is odd since she hasn’t used language to represent a sound before (if that is in fact what she’s doing) so I think she might actually be laughing or surprised?

The “jack in kill her” line seems horrible violent, but I don’t think she’s writing about Jack the Ripper. And who “a meadowowed king” is or was I’d like to know, but perhaps he’s a buried loved one? Could this be a funeral?

page 30 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Book

I once tried to read Finnegans Wake, I even have a set of framed posters of one that has the first line of the book and the other contains the last line of the book, and I love how they loop back and form a complete circuit, but I don’t love the book, I couldn’t even get past the first page and the last line but I appreciate what it is and I’m glad it exists because it’s a mile marker that marks the limit of what I’m willing to put up with, like this poem. So Stein’s Book is like Joyce’s book in my mind.

page 29 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Suppose An Eyes

A trip to the country market on the train in summertime. The empty seats are darkened by the people taking their seats, one is a girl in a dress with her date who, like a soldier is fighting the war of love with a girl he cannot read. And maybe there is a barn cat who purrs when the lace girl pets him, and she is buying some beef from the farmer for dinner.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Dog

I like the cadence of saying “A little monkey goes like a donkey”, it’s fun to say and if you just repeat that over and over again it becomes a sort of whimsical mantra, a mantra that doesn’t really mean anything per se  but could be like a sort of funny thing we say to ourselves when we’re surrounded by so many serious people doing serious things.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons

Shoes

Could she be talking about the shoeshine kids? I remember seeing shoe shiners from time to time in the city and they pound away with the cloth back and forth until the shoe “shows shine”. They use their spit, “pus”, they work long hours to have just enough to have a place to pay the rent.

She’s playing on the word choose with “Shoes” and “choice”, but I’m not able to see what she’s driving at.

page 28 of 134 of Tender Buttons

A Table

I feel like she’s talking about stability, about having a place where things can be arranged any way she wants, where she can change that arrangement, a place where things that otherwise wouldn’t be able to stand on their own can have a place. A table is where we sit down to eat and share our lives together, it’s the center of domestic life, of conversation, of a center to our lives we return to over and over in an unsteady world.