Monday, July 30, 2012

"The Bridge"

This post is the result of several intersections, some coincidental (between the birthday of Hart Crane--just a few days ago, July 21--and our current year, 2012, the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge), some juxtapositional (between The Brooklyn and Golden Gate Bridges), and some born of personal history and poetic heritage. With the direction of my poetic mentors, my particular reading path led me through Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot and Crane--argued by Harold Bloom to be (with the addition of Robert Frost), the major American poets.

The result was that after reading Crane's "The Bridge," I was compelled to write a tribute to our own bay area icon that shines its beacon of "International Vermillion" to the pleasure of all who approach or pass through The Gate.

By no means do I equate my work with Crane's masterpiece. I share it to add my grateful note to his symphony, to celebrate the art and life embodied in our own "harp and altar, fury fused," and to encourage readers to read (or reread) Crane, both for the pleasure of his rhapsodic lyricism and as inspiration to realize their own transcendental yearnings. First, the proem to Crane's "The Bridge," as call, and then my proem to "The Gate" as answer...

To Brooklyn Bridge

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty--

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
--Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,--
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,--

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path--condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City's fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Hart Crane
1930, Black Sun Press

The Gate

To The Golden Gate Bridge

How many sunsets have white hairs of fog
Fallen from the headlands, collected
In the gate’s throat like fleece beneath
A sigh of stars? How many torn

Moon-ears, up all night, listening
For the feverish cries of gulls
Sweeping vermilion waves
Through restless shadows?

I think of the sepia harvested for ink
From octopus, cuttlefish and squid.
How they glow with phosphorescence that reaches
Its greatest intensity a few days after they are dead.

And you, golden blade, surrogate stitch
In the continent’s deep wound,
Suppurating your stories out to sea,
Stories of limestone, ash and lava,

How many times have your waters parted, dissolving
Into nothing, then starting up again
In the life of this shorn planet? How many worlds
Have collided to flood this valley, slice

Its hills into islands, how many words strung together
Into sonnets beneath your harp strings,
Rising like incense, like a web of vines stretching
To the mountains to which we look for help,

Shrouded in burning clouds, smoking by day,
Glowing by night? How many foghorns
Pressed into the dark wall of sleep,
Like swollen seeds thumbed into humus,

Sprouting to the surface, waiting
For the sun, that one faithful fire-eye
Blinking through mist, searching for its twin—
The earth, and all its fullness, which turns

Art to life, life to art, the truest of all
Lovers? How many nights
Has your watery bed swayed
Beneath your broad back? How many days

Has the bay rolled open its scroll of ciphers,
The moon squinting to read the pages
Of the surf, all in one glance, before they fade
On a loom of soggy loam, weaving

A landscape that is more like itself than itself
At each power of magnification, each level
Of imagination, twisting like snowflakes
In an earthquake, ragged white corpuscles

Swimming up the bloodstream to the head
Waters of the brain, where fractals mediate
Between the amygdala and the Dalai Lama,
The pain of wisdom and the ecstasy of speech?

The last cigarette and the iron sea.

Terry Lucas
2009, Fifth Wednesday Journal

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Crack in Everything: Metaphor and Love in The Poetry of Alicia Ostriker

At first I was going to entitle this post Departure. It is a slight detour from my current series My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets. But only slight. For some time, Ostriker's poems have found a home at the University of Pittsburgh Press with more than half of her dozen collections of poetry being published in the Pitt Poetry Series. And since I met her in 2006, her work (Ostriker is also a world-class scholar, essayist, non-fiction writer, lecturer, literary critic, social reformer, feminist, wife, mother, daughter, friend), has found a place in my life, my writing life, my soul. I will attempt to limit my remarks to a small portion of her capacious body of work in poetry.

I decided to borrow the title of Ostriker's National Book Award nominated collection, The Crack in Everything, as she borrowed it from Leonard Cohen (There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in), because it seems to celebrate life and art in the same way that Ostriker does: by not stepping over the cracks on the sidewalk, but by working one's toe into them (even if it breaks your mother's back), testing to see if they crumble to reveal a pit to be avoided or a root system that connects at a deep level what appears on the surface to be isolated, individual organisms, but is rather one living tree of life. I also decided to use the title of her book because just last night I had the privilege of hearing her read from it once again. (Ostriker is a faculty member of the conference going on this week at Dominican University on The Healing Art of Writing.)

Section IV is entitled The Mastectomy Poems. The series is a master class in metaphor, which Ostriker defines as the "intuitive similarity in dissimilars." Their language is at once gorgeous, erotic, ambiguous, tragic and comedic. Below is a compilation of Ostriker's own explanation of the most salient passages of metaphor in the poem, "Mastectomy," and my own observations.


for Alison Estabrook

I shook your hand before I went.
Your nod was brief, your manner confident,
A ship's captain, and there I lay, a chart
Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals.
While I admired your boyish freckles,
Your soft green gown with the oval neck,
The drug sent me away, like the unemployed.
I swam and supped with the fish, while you
Cut carefully in, I mean
I assume you were careful,
They say it took you an hour or so.

The metaphors in this passage, as well as in others, serve both to unite the things compared and to provide a distance, a separation between them. This process is not a neat or tidy one--just as in the case of lovers, the goal is to lose identity and to further define it.

Comparing the surgeon to a ship's captain, and the body of her patient to "a chart/Of the bay, no reefs, no shoals," elucidates both the metaphrands (the patient/her body) and the metaphiers (the captain, the chart). This surgeon (like a ship's captain who has navigated the waters of numerous bays), is as experienced performing this surgery on the patient's body as the captain is charting her course through the bay. But notice how the unspoken images of the surgeon and the waiting body of the patient lend meaning to the work of the ship captain who surgically navigates through the open body of water lying before her. This unspoken gesture, this holding back is what adds to the eroticism of the passage that would be spoiled with simile. The further details of "no reef, no shoals" provides more interest as we approach the images: this body, this procedure, is uncomplicated, straightforward--an additional reason for the "manner confident." In addition the choice of "bay" rather than ocean or river or lake (which would all give different slants to the roles of captain, chart, physician, patient), as the body of water connotes a place one returns to: home, hearth, family, safety, the consummate place of nurturing.

A similar analysis could be made of lines 7-8, as well as in the first half of the ultimate stanza:

Was I succulent? Was I juicy?
Though flesh is grass, I dreamed you displayed me
In pleated paper like a candied fruit.
I dreamed you sliced me like green honeydew,
Like a pomegranate full of seeds,
Tart as Persephone's, those electric dots
That kept that girl in hell,
Those jelly pips that made her queen of death.
Doctor, you knifed, chopped and divided it
Like a watermelon's ruby flesh
Flushed a little, serious
About your line of work
Scooped up the risk in the ducts
Scooped up the ducts
Dug out the blubber
Spooned it off and away, nipple and all.
Eliminated the odds, nipped out
Those almost insignificant grains that might
Or might not have lain dormant forever.

This is poetry at its highest function: to express love of language and life by shining the light of metaphor on both to discover inherent connections--the chiefest among them in this volume residing in "the cracks." Not just in the The Mastectomy Poems, but in the entire work, Ostriker exposes these cracks, these seams, the hidden zippers in fabrics that cover us, and artfully (even with humor) undresses one reality in order to reveal another--and to be revealed by them both. This is the reason one must read in order to write. And I have found no one better to read than Alicia Ostriker to discover what one didn't know that one knew. I can think of no better place to start reading her than with The Crack in Everything--you'll find her love (metaphors) shining on all the cracks--even yours--and you just might find your own metaphors, as well.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Julia Kasdorf

Julia Mae Spicher Kasdorf grew up in the suburbs of southeast of Pittsburgh, daughter of Mennonites who chose to leave their rural community in central Pennsylvania for work in a city. Her Mennonite background shapes her work, as well as her life, with three poetry collections--Sleeping Preacher (1992), Eve's Striptease (1998), and Poetry in America (2011)--, a scholarly study of Pennsylvania writer Joseph W. Yoder (Fixing Tradition), and co-editor of two editions of Pennsylvania local color novels, Rosanna of the Amish by Joseph W. Yoder and The House of the Black Ring by Fred Lewis Pattee. Her essay collection, The Body and the Book: Writing a Mennonite Life, was awarded the Book of the Year award by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Her poetry and other writings have won numerous awards, as well. Kasdorf is Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at The Pennsylvania State University.

Kasdorf's accessible lyrical-narrative poetry resides in what she calls "the free space between places"--the place of the rural, provincial Mennonite community, and the world of the urban, traveled intellectual. The negotiation between these two worlds energizes her unique poems. "Uncle" is an example of a poem that speaks of these two worlds:


At nine I knew what Jesus would do
if he got C.O. just for being born
Mennonite. He'd go anyway, like you.

In the name of peace, he'd race
an ambulance through the screaming streets
of Saigon. He'd grow a moustache to show
he wasn't a soldier--a speck
on the camera lens, Grandpa insisted.

He'd take a generator to a village
in the hills where golden children
would run behind him yelling, "Mother Fucker."

He'd thrust brilliant green blades
of rice into the fields where men's legs
and the torsos of water buffaloes exploded
when plows struck bombs in the mud.

When the planes returned, he'd load
whomever he could into the only car,
drive to a refugee camp, and there give up
at last, as you gave up bearing that war
on your tall, blond body.

Lost across the continents for months,
you returned to us, the uncle of someone else,
gaunt as a corpse, pale and haunted.
And when you could barely finish
a child's portion at Howard Johnson's,
that was the only miracle I could grasp.

Kasdorf's simply gorgeous music is a bonus on top of her elucidating content. I've not read her widely, so I will end with a challenge to read her books as I will, and I'll report back at a later date on what I find. In the mean time, based upon what I've already read of her, Kasdorf is definitely one of my top ten favorite Pittsburgh poets!