There's no more left at the deep of our smiles

Aujourd'hui aura lieu. La surface invisible
Délimitant dans l'air nos êtres de souffrance
Se forme et se durcit à une vitesse terrible ;
Le corps, le corps pourtant, est une appartenance.

—from "Le jour monte et grandit, retombe sur la ville" by Michel Houellebecq in Unsplendid 3.2

Translation of the above poem from the volume "Le sens du combat" ("The art of combat") is also featured in Unsplendid, written by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, a team that's put forth translation of several Houellebecq poems lately, in at least Unsplendid and Salt that I've noticed.

Today will happen. Invisible surfaces
Separate our suffering selves in the air
Then form and harden at a terrible pace;
But the body, still our pact with the body.


I'm glad to see they had the courage to tackle Houellebecq.  He is of course subject of almost constant controversy.  I've always felt that his methods convey mischief rather than malice.  He's more a clever provocateur than a vulgar, racist chauvanist, in my impression, though I'll admit I've never really studied him closely.  I'm not sure I'd actually read any poems from "Le sens du combat," and the Grass & Mathews selections in Unsplendid ("Quand elle m'apercevait, elle tendait son bassin" and "So Long") are just lovely little poems.  I can't say I'm completely enamored of the translation, which strips away much lyrical power from the original.  Just to grab one example from what I've already quoted: "But the body, still our pact with the body" doesn't do justice to "Le corps, le corps pourtant, est une appartenance."  Here is a case where the most literal is much better.  Something more like "The body, yet the body, is but a member," or: "The body, the body yet, is but a member."  Or maybe use "an accessory" in place of "a member."

There are other places where I'd have made much different choices.  But the translators did accomplish their most important work, which is to bring broader attention to fine poems.  I'm now very interested in reading more from that volume myself, and probably offering some of my own translations.  In the title of this post you'll find my own translation of "Il n'y a plus grand-chose au fond de nos sourires".  For now, though, a bit more from Unsplendid:

Il y a toujours une ville, des traces de poètes
Qui ont croisé leur destinée entre ses murs
L’eau coule un peu partout, la mémoire murmure
Des noms de villes, des noms de gens, trous dans la tête.

Grass & Mathews translation:

There’s always a city, and traces of poets
Who have met their destiny within its walls,
Water is leaking, and memory whispers
Names of cities, people, holes in your head.


(Picture credit: "Without a Face, a portrait of the Soul" by Sergeant Pablo Piedra)

Jedna dva tři čtyři / fancy-flung fremdsprachen sie

One two three four
Is OK, but you need more:

Un deux trois quat’
If you want a welcome mat

En to tre fire
With the krone getting dearer,

Bir iki uç dirt
Selling off your jeans or shirt

—from "Roughing It in Europe" by Robin Helweg-Larsen in Unsplendid 3.2

A delightful song, especially for a language geek.  I'm brushing up on Czech for a trip to Prague later this month, so I did think to myself "boo! where's the "Česky?"—I'm guessing the "Jeden dwa trzy cztery" line is Polish.  A glance at Mr. Helweg-Larsen's bio complements the spirit of his poem.  In his words: "My flag is the blue-and-white of the UN, all other flags are historically interesting at best, despicable at worst."  Amen! Amen! Amen!


We need some lines for Nigeria, though.

Otu abuo ato ano
Eat your fill of sweet paw-paw

Ení èjí ẹta ẹrin
Serious go-slow for Mushin

Daya biyu uku hudu
Let's go dude ranching at Obudu

Mother's burning breast

This is the bark which used to be
A functioning face. You see the stream?
A nymphet breathing. Things who seem
Alive are, mostly, differently.
What if your hand were once a rock,
Your friends narcissi, your heart a clock?

Thus Epstein launches what starts off seeming like a neat philosophical exercise, the personal and impersonal randomly intertransformed, and then winds through a sudden volta to a contemplation of the death of a loved one, as I hint in the title of this note.  It's a good specimen of what I look for most keenly in poetry.  Skill in the service of emotion.  Epstein's craft drew forth my interest, taking me to the acrid yet ambiguous conclusion.


What pleases me almost as much as the technique is that Richard Epstein appears to be a near-neighbor of mine.  I discovered another fellow Coloradan poet with rare craft just this week as well, Wendy Videlock.  Here is a fragment from a poem of hers.

Big Jack and his walking stick
live on the ridge. Navajo
orphan kids dance for him,
bobcat urine’s in the weeds,
the shotgun barrel's up his sleeve,   
a Persian coin is on the wind.

Trochaic tetrameter, mostly, tending towards anacrusis with the last couple of lines.  Not far off from Epstein's iambic tetrameter (mostly).  Wendy's poem is of a very different tone, and features a different sort of volta, but what a pleasure to discover two neighbor poets with such gifts on offer.

By the way, I've dropped the "Quotīdiē" tag from the title of this piece, and will probably do so for future posts, but I'll keep it in the metadata.

Shell to hell to spinning wheel

He cleaved unto his “Hera,” she her “Zeus.”
No mortal couple ever loved as well.
The real Zeus took offense and rained abuse.
Shore birds now, they scrounge from shell to shell.

—from "On the Mercy of the Gods" by Kate Bernadette Benedict in The Flea #13

Lovely little sonnet, and a neat enigma. The voice is claimed for Ixion, but the poem is a para-universe where Ixion's Tartarus, his hell, is turned rough seaside with bleakness set "from shell to shell."  And yet later we do catch a glimpse of him on that orthodox burning wheel, from where Ixion relates, in Benedict's gorgeous phrasing,

I look down on that godforbearing bluff
and watch the pale eggs hatch.

I can't help being reminded, though, given the "Zeus"/"abuse" line that I'm a bit of an alien these days with my own pronunciation using the proper Greek diphthong (i.e. Zay-oos, but much shorter).  Now I'll just have to write a bagatelle exploring my own style of rhymes.

Quotīdiē ❧ Whose Country? Is it Each One's?

walking by the waters,
down where an honest river
shakes hands with the sea,
a woman passed round me
in a slow, watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition;

—from "In My Country" by Jackie Kay

Poetry is as much a mirror that reflects the reader as a window to the writer.  It's very interesting to read a poem that captures so well some facet of my own existence, but then reflects a reaction thereto that's a complete opposite of mine.  I've always reveled in my otherness, whether I was in the US, the UK or in Nigeria at the time.  I'm hardly above little venal flourishes, an over-emphasized accent here and there; and my favorite technique for getting to know others is to focus on serious questions of their own heritage and identities.  But Jackie Kay does take me to the riverside in her poem, and opens into my own sense the cold tap of her own feelings as she finds herself probed by a stranger.
I have no idea why (it's certainly not toward from immediate logic) Kay's poem should bring me so to mind of a bit of Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort".

...whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one?...

What great force of hap flings us, dashed like broken china, to half-borrow a trope from John Pepper Clark's "Ibadan," among the continents, those seven great hills rearing out of the oceans?  And what gathers assorted locals around, fascinated by the shattered pieces of our identities?  By the way, as heavily anthologized as it is, Clark's iconic poem is always worth another look.

Running splash of rust
and gold-flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun. 
—"Ibadan" by John Pepper Clark

I'm a sucker for a volume of poetry that features a glossary of Scots and another of Igbo, especially when there might be but one in the species, Kay's Fiere, a lyric counterpart to her memoir, "Red Dust Road."  She wrote these books throwing a light upon her quest to understand her Scottish birth mother and Igbo birth father.

Many poems in Fiere (Scots for friend, mate, companion) grow out of the experience Jackie Kay had tracing her birth-parents, as chronicled in her memoir Red Dust Road. But this collection of 44 poems has a stronger focus, one which draws on Kay's unusual personal story but grows into a celebration of what it means to be close to someone.

I've just ordered the book, so I can't comment in-depth, and Kay is new to me just today, but already she gives me an impression of a poet I'm likely to appreciate through shared understanding, like an Okigbo or even Catherine Tufariello, rather than for its distant brilliance, like say the work of Eliot.

In Nigeria, she sees a road "stretching/ perhaps into infinity/ to a foreseeable future/ and back to/ lost time".

Which reminds me of a work of my own, "Nchefu Road," which has loomed large in my notebook for 2 decades, but which has struggled to work its way to a finish.  Igbo, journeyings and the inchoate.  With such common threads clear upon the fringe, I look forward to pulling at the warp of Kay's work.

Quotīdiē ❧ Such delytefull poeticall discouerie

Sing the year in, bravely sing
Underneath the dark woods now,
For the winter sun’s returning,
Shining through the greenwood bough.
Rime and hoar are brightly gleaming
Where the furrow met the plow,
—from "Turning Time" by Wesli Court

I followed a mention by Lewis Turco to my first sighting of The Flea, an online journal of poetry (quite properly commissioned "By Favor of the Sovereign Muse"), offered in the style of a traditional broadsheet, and with much of the streetwise wit of that genre.  I first read the two Wesli Court pieces, including the neat pastoral of this post's head quote.  I was hooked by the time I read a third piece from the issue, "Carnal Beauty" by Kate Bernadette Benedict, a tasty parody of G.M. Hopkins's Pied Beauty.  

Glory be to God for fleshly things—
        For thighs like pliant earthloam under working plow
                For “those”-moles pushing upward out of secret rim.

I've read half the volume and it's just delight after delight.  Many of the poems touch on winter as a theme, to some extent, but the tone varies quite a bit, the sass of "Carnal Beauty" contrasting the somber evocation of "Child of 9-11," by Michael R. Burch.
Child of 9-11, beloved,
I bring this lily, lay it down
here at your feet, and eiderdown,
and all soft things, for your gentle spirit.
I bring this psalm — I hope you hear it.

But regardless of the tone of each piece, one thing that strikes me is the consistency of craft.  This is a collection of skillful poets selected by a discerning editor, a rare discovery for me.  It is poetry that to steal a phrase from Maryann Corbett's "A Trenta-Sei of Mixed Feelings at the Early Onset of Winter", "Sucks the marrowbone / of song."  And that is a stimulus to distract from the bite of any winter.


Quotīdiē ❧ "Last Letter"

                                                My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing.  Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

Last Letter manuscript

—from "Last Letter" by Ted Hughes

When I consider Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath I am not interested in drama, nor in the US versus the UK in arts, nor in feminism.  I am interested in poetry.  I said as much a couple of weeks ago when I discussed hearing about the newly discovered Hughes poem "Last Letter."  I have always been infuriated at how feminism and silly cultural rivalries have overshadowed the work of two great poets who happened to share a sort of archetypal tragedy.  As I said in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand" I am not connected to the Hughes or Plath families, and it seems only proper to leave their private lives alone.  That said, it has always seemed to me that the conjunction of those two poets enhanced both their work.  Plath's best work by far came after her marriage, and much of my favorite work from Hughes is in Wodwo and Lupercal, and as I gather dating from around the years of their tumultuous romance.  I don't know when Hughes picked up a tendency towards slack passages, but he certainly did at some point, and it has for me definitely affected much of his later work.  "Last Letter" is no exception.

According to my intention stated in the previous piece, I headed to the CU Boulder Library which according to WorldCat carries a subscription to  the New Statesman magazine, the exclusive publisher of "Last Letter."  I'd hoped to own the issue, so prior to my trip to the library I checked several newsstands, including the one at Barnes and Nobles, and the famous Eads of Boulder, but no one seemed to carry the British journal.  I was quite excited to find the issue in the CU shelves, and sat down to read it.

"Last Letter" is a decent poem, or if I am to be frank in characterizing it, a brilliant poem cut into bits which are sprinkled among passages of prosaic exposition.  You very quickly see in the poem what is carved in marble and what is knuckled into butter.  The head quote, above, is one of the larger bits of sculptured marble, and the thirteen lines that follow it.  So is the part that was quoted in one of the teasers for the new poem, and which I quoted in the last piece.

What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen
As if it was not happening.

It was a canny edit, that, in the middle of a line, as I found reading the whole poem, with the end of that same line losing the energy of what preceded it, continuing into a sighting of Plath's ghost, which slips between marble and butter, but ends solidly enough, concluding with the two lines:

Before midnight.  After midnight.  Again.
Again.  Again.  And, near dawn, again.

The stretch after that is the final bit of the poem, and is again a marble/butter hybrid.  Going back to the beginning of the poem (I count 154 lines in all), the first 40 lines are uneven, and then it explodes into the head quote, which begins at line 41.  That strong passage continues to line 62, but I only quoted a part of it out of respect for the publisher.  Lines 61 and 62 are:

Their obsessed in and out.  Two women
Each with her needle.

This immediately brought me to mind the "Prufrock" refrain:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

I already mentioned how the passage starting with line 112 ("What happened that night, inside your hours,") reminded me of The Four Quartets, and this is striking because most of my favorite Hughes is nothing like Eliot.  Am I dipping into the soap opera nonsense when I ponder that Hughes might be mouthing echoes from Eliot's tortured relationship with Vivienne?

Line 63 begins the longest slack passage, which lasts until the hard shore of line 112.

I'm very glad I sought out the poem.  Even the prosaic parts are written by a master writer, and I can appreciate them for the connective exposition they are.  I don't know that the soap opera fans will find a lot of new dramatic ground here that was not covered in Birthday Letters, though I don't doubt that they'll pick out some juicy nuggets of gossip.  From a poetical perspective, "Last Letter" is a narrative that picks its moment to seize upon finely crafted poetry to share a keen sense of how time seems a wretched tapestry when considered around a moment of accident and loss.  The discovery is not just more hype in the Hughes/Plath line, but a genuine gain for poetry.

Quotīdiē ❧ The Lost Hughes

The fear that cripples me,
Is how my bride will be
Upon our wedding night;
That I will have chosen
A Phaedra-monster of my own,
Who will betray me
As my father is betrayed.
Better be alone
And take what comes.'
—from "Hippolytus" by Frieda Hughes

A few months ago I came across Frieda Hughes's 2003 collection Waxworks at Trident Booksellers of Boulder.  I browsed it not expecting much, because I hadn't been overly impressed by anything I'd read from Frieda previously.  I did like several of the poems I selected at random, and bought the volume.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I started reading it properly, and that same week I came across news of a lost Ted Hughes poem.  I've certainly mused a lot about the Plath/Hughes family, and written about them, including here, and on TNB, in "Slender Mitochondrial Strand".  I've never been much for soap operas, but in the lives of poets and their companions, whether it's the fate of Vivienne Eliot née Haigh-Wood or the sexuality of Sappho, it's really the manifestation in poetry that fixes my interest.  The Plath/Hughes drama is clearly aforefront when the journalist writes:

The poem, a final coda to one of 20th-century literature's most fraught and tragic romances, was hailed as the "missing link" in Hughes' writing about his American first wife, who gassed herself at the age of 30 in February 1963. It is the first time that Hughes has directly addressed the events of Plath's death.

But the drama also carries all presage of a great poem, which is published in a special edition of the New Statesman magazine.  As the journal's Weblog crows, "Exclusive: Ted Hughes’s poem on the night Sylvia Plath died:"

In tomorrow's New Statesman, which has been guest-edited by Melvyn Bragg, we publish a previously unseen poem by Ted Hughes. "Last letter" is a poem that describes what happened during the three days leading up to the suicide of his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath. Its first line is: "What happened that night? Your final night." -- and the poem ends with the moment Hughes is informed of his wife's death.

Hughes's best-known work is 1998's Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that detail his relationship with Plath. Though the published poems make reference to Plath's suicide, which occurred in February 1963, when she and Hughes were separated but still married, none of them addresses directly the circumstances of her death. This, then, would appear to be the "missing link" in the sequence.

The entry includes several images of various hand-written drafts of the poem, none of which are very legible to the casual eye.  In order to read the entire poem I'll have to get my hands on a copy of the current New Statesman, the subscription for which is not cheap.  I did check on WorldCat and it looks as if the University of Colorado at Boulder Library carries a subscription, so I'm planning to go look tomorrow.  I'm hoping it's not a wild goose chase like when WorldCat suggested the Denver Public Library had The collected poems of H. Phelps Putnam, and I drove over only to learn they'd lost it years ago.  If I find the poem, I'll post my thoughts on it here.

Meanwhile, for a teaser, Channel 4 UK had an actor recite an excerpt of the poem on air ("Newly discovered Ted Hughes poem"), and on their page I found a text excerpt:

What happened that night, inside your hours
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen
As if it was not happening.

Very intriguing.  A faint whiff of Four Quartets but with Hughes's accustomed blood and guts, sharpened by the life experience itself.  I'm looking forward very much to getting my hands on a copy.

Quotīdiē ❧ Ndugu's proper chocolate jam,

Shed a tear of delight; don't you worry about a fall tonight
Birds flying free; What about you and me

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

—from "Take Some Time" by Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Company

I remember hearing this slow jam a couple of times at dances in Nigeria in the early 80s.  When Erykah Badu flipped it for "Ummm Hmmm" off her latest masterpiece New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), she put a weeks-long itch in my skull, and I bet a lot of others who had grown up on a soul diet.  I finally twigged it last week, and went to hunt down the Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Company original, but it seems to have faded into the mists of the past a bit, which is a true shame.  I did find the following audio version on YouTube, though.

Here is Badu's "Ummm Hmmm," accompanied by some lovely stills of Fat Belly Bella herself.

Of course Badu wasn't the first to discover the great sample possibilities of the Leon Chancler (AKA "Ndugu") jam.  DJ Premier used it back in '07 for the NYG'z project song "Welcome To G-Dom."

Of course, I love me some Primo, but Erykah pwned this bitch.  It's over.  I hope no other DJs think they should dare follow her.

Then again I'm thinking of using the Primo loop to back a poem recital one day.  And maybe I have just the poem.  Having learned about the terzanelle form from Heather Fowler a few weeks ago, I fell in love with the form, and I've been writing a sequence of terzanelles, one for each song on New Amerykah Part Two.  I'm on "Ummm Hmmm" and the first few stanzas of my poem are as follows:

Take some time to let your feelings run free
Heart's desire—thump! thump! I've been here before—
You can't hide away from what you'll be.

You can't hide; don't cheat I've been keeping score.
Place your bet, love; scared money don't make none.
Heart's desire—thump! thump! I've been here before.

Truth and Icarus dare, the money sun,
Angel bird, let's jump off into your world.
Place your bet, love; scared money don't make none.

Naturally it includes elements from Ndugu's song, as well as Badu's.  I can't find the lyrics to "Take Some Time" anywhere on the Net so I, ah, took some time to transcribe them myself.  As you can see from the square brackets and the ellipses, there are some parts I can't figure out right now, but I think I got most of it.

"Take Some Time" by Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Company

Do you always conceal what you feel inside
Man does not ever drift with the flow of the tide
Makes it hard to see when [it attracts you and me]
And there comes a time when your feelings should run free

And understand that you're over me when you're ...
It'll lend you a helping hand when your [crimes] cross the tide
Takes you high in the sky of your heart's desire
Float through the valley of love; you'll start to fly
Like a bird in the sky who's just learned to fly
Makes you feel so proud you might want to cry

Shed a tear of delight; don't you worry about a fall tonight
Birds flying free; What about you and meNdugu Chancler

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

Well you're pride by your side when we're looking on
Keep your head to the sky through the weather of the storm

Take the compliment as if it came heaven-sent
From someone up above [with music] with love

What's the nature of your mind when the trouble starts to [grind]
Do you leave yourself behind, not to be caught up on the line
Signs of life is a lot to see that you hold in your [belief]

Free your time; what about your mind

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

You will find further on down the line
Is what you've got to do, to see you through

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

Take some time to let your feelings flow free
You can't hide away from what you'll be
Search the sky for new horizons to unfold
Set yourself on the oceans of dreams to behold

Quotīdiē ❧ A gratifying week in poetry

Corium Magazine

Got people swaying like
Brown Grass. Mud sucking up
against our toes, horns blowing salt
Through our noses.
There’s a flower now.
Red like liquor in a brother’s heart,
Pushing through the joint
Like it’s about to break free.
But that can’t be your lipstick
Cause you wear no lipstick:
You’re a soul flame.

—from "Demoiselle," by Uche Ogbuji

I've had some pleasant rewards in the past week, wielding both purple pen, and red.  I learned this afternoon that my poem, "Demoiselle" was published in the latest edition of Corium Magazine.  A few notes later about some of the other work that appeared in the issue.

I wrote the poem on 31 March 1996 in Dallas, briefly possessed at the time by the spirit of the Deep Ellum district.  I always tell people visiting Dallas that they can go to The West End and Dealey Plaza during the day, to get their tourist camera allocation, but that they need to go to Deep Ellum at night for their dose of unadulterated soul.

It was also just over a week ago that I featured seven of my poems here on Copia.

The red pen event is hardly worthy of the name, considering the excellence and pedigree of its headliner.  I was thrilled to present to the world "John," a new poem by Lewis Turco, and an interview of Mr. Turco by his altar ego (read the piece to ravel that pun) Wesli Court.  In "John" Mr. Turco contemplates through the glasses (telescope and microscope) of a nephew the utterly grand and the utterly small. It includes a brilliant, poetic take on the standard model of physics.  It also includes a meditation of the universe, rising to the following.

The paltry gods of Earth

were never meant to handle such immense
   phantasmagoria as these, were
never meant to represent these Powers,
Thrones, Dominions, eidolons of the mind

   of man, these firefly mysteries.

The self-interview is a splendid mini-memoir tracing through the history of a too-often neglected branch of modern poetry, and it includes so much that inspires me as a poet and a student of poetry.  In one telling passage he describes how, sending poems out to periodicals in the middle-to-late 1970’s, he was amazed that magazines began accepting rhyming and metered poems more readily than syllabic poems.


What was going on? I thought I knew. The worm was beginning to turn again, and there was a big pile of younger poets who had been using The Book of Forms for almost a decade, writing in the old forms, experimenting with the Bardic forms, publishing in the little magazines, and even beginning new periodicals that published what they were interested in.


I've read Mr. Turco's poetry and criticism since I've been a teenager, and it has been an honor to work with such a creative, perceptive and hard-working gentleman.  I should also mention his Weblog, which is one of the best maintained and most interesting you'll find by a major contemporary poet.