Saturday, December 13, 2014
This six inch square poetry book with a matte photo of high branches against a tan sky on the cover, a CD in a plastic envelope on the inside cover and half the book being upside down from the other half would be distractingly gimmicky if it weren’t for the inventiveness and musicality of the poems: The title, Tempo Maps, aptly captures the themes: music and the mapping of the heart. The “map” is takes form and focus from the house on Miner Street in Greenwood, Mass, although the title of many of the poems use the homonym, “Minor” and the play between the key and the digger resonates throughout the poems.
These are the poems of a composer, synesthetic and sensual, witty: the first poem,
“: minor symphony (snow)” imagines the snow just so, and the chunking and rasping and for that matter the exercise bring the poet and the lover into, well, symphony.
No one doubts snow’s musical ambitions
We begin at opposite ends of it
a raw rhythmic chunking
you be the broken garage door
me where our drive colludes with Miner Street
a metal on concrete rasping on
until the music left is us
pushing the last of it into
each other’s shovels.
In a later poem, “lightning,” “a squeaky chair” lets him “tint the evening sky.” He is a certain fragrance,” the kind a man has who sucks up ladybugs then opens the filter to see them cocooned in litter. . .” This is a guy who does the vacuuming and turns the collection of dirt balls into song. In “more thaw” Hales turns meditative and aphoristic:
The sky is one, another since the death. Between sex and those. The ice
melts and the river grunts so much. Love is air and electricity every day.
This is just.
I really love “This is just.” Of course you get the declarative quality as if the speaker is simply signing off on his judgment. On the other hand, despite the period, the reader is left with the question, just, what? In “minor symphony (keys)” the wit of “the keys on the left passenger side
tire,” is balanced by a “bassline below it all,”and a refusal to consider his mother’s worry for “our immortal souls. . . Many prickly weeds daring to pull whole special of radioactive bugs endeavor to bite the hero.”
Other delights: “you can tell I’m a goy because I like the way matzo tastes. . .You can tell I love you because it’s raining again and everything is brushstrokes.” in a poem titled “everything.” In a poem entitled ‘wicks” the lovers find an eyelash in their food. “Maybe the cook was crying about something out back, I say and begin looking for silvery drops.
In “winding,” a kind of elegy for his mother, wind “says it’s mapping the air, it’s making contours where sky starts finding which branches have decided they’re ready to fall.”
Tempo Map has many pleasures but I think the chief is the wit of its disjunction and flow of language and image the poet manages despite it.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
We live in a world that dismisses older people and is focused on the moment with Iphones, Ipods and more. But this wonderful book is all about time, honoring the years we accumulate with grace, and where memories rise up from his poems with all of their poignancy, love and humor. Stephen Kessler also finds wonder in our everyday lives and as we read through his book, we meet people with their charm and as well as with their flaws who become part of our own lives. To read this book is to awaken to all that surrounds us and to move beyond ourselves.
In the poem Thrift Shop the stories of the owners of what was left after their deaths come alive and envelope us.
It came and it went
and here’s the evidence,
endless shelves stretching deathlessly,
knitting cities with this network of used suitcases
and scratched furniture where families
ate and sat, travelers packed their stuff,
old women read books and lovers slept entangled.
Another poem that ponders time is The Spanish Tile Table where he reflects on his mother and her lover’s death, and on our impermanence, “Yet, I can touch the table/and feel the painterly light,/ its perfect warmth spilling/ into my lap this afternoon.”
We live in a society that is fearful of death and aging as if we all didn’t age and die. Yet Stephen Kessler writes about aging and what it feels like to lose friends, and become old. His poem Mal de Terre is a quip of the French word mal de mer or seasickness as he feels his world move beneath him and the passing years seem to drown him. However many of his poems herald the imponderable way that loss and eternity co-exist and how memories have their own lives and persist.
This amazing book shows us the many ways of considering time. In Skateboard Sonnet, he watches young people whiz by “as I can see them through my own quick past,/It was on days like this, under such a sky,/ my summer flowered without my knowing how/ fleeting it was…..”
In the section of Kessler’s book entitled Teachers, we learn that what we gain in our long years is understanding of our own life and that of so many others’, an appreciation of experiences that have several seemingly incompatible identities. The poem William Wilson, about a man who helped in so many ways in his home, was a soldier in World War II, and whom he revered, also had a long criminal record. In many of the poems in this section, Kessler ponders the multiples of our being, that our paths are not straight as we would like but meander in different directions. One of my favorite poems in this section is Jesus Chavarria who lectures his students on the many difficulties of life, to young Americans who are oblivious of the harsh lives in other countries, concluding “so, there will be no talking in this class.” Kessler has a wonderful sense of humor. I remember a similar lecture from a Spanish professor I had who talked to us as if we were ignorant of the problems in this world and indeed we were.
In the section called Wild Men the poem Mustafa reveals how a man who tried to befriend him was really a thief. A most touching poem, My Best Friend, celebrates all the miseries of his friend’s bout with cancer, troubles at work, lack of money and how instead of wanting pity, he reached out and helped everyone he could. This poem once again breaks a silence in our conversations and in our social media. The ill are not invisible, are not weak, pitiful, but emotionally strong. Their suffering has brought them to new heights of understanding and an ability to reach out to all those in need.
The last section of the book Scratch Pegasus presents us with the holiness and eternity of art. Poem I Can’t Decipher on a Stone brings us the calligraphy on that smooth stone quarried/ from an ancient mountain/….to speak in sweet ambiguities/ swirls of darkness moving/ through fields of daylight caught/ in landscapes concise enough/ to fill your palm and be/held in your ignorant fingers./ For a man who has written almost 20 books of poetry, prose and amazing translations of Latin American as well as Spanish poets, Kessler is more than humble. He writes about Van Gogh, compares that painter’s life with the dailiness around him including a baseball game, and concludes “That Vincent’s tears will outlast the winner’s fame.” He also reflects on the transient next to what remains, writing about the artist Edward Hopper:/ the artist’s truth transcending his success./ reminding us to honor the artists’ exceptional visions.
This wonderful book is not only joy to read with its unique images that touch our lives, but is a lesson on how to live not in pursuit of fame but rather with the joy of relating to others on their own terms and seeing the world with clear eyes.
By Marguerite Guzman Bouvard
Monday, December 08, 2014
The Poem as Song in Ernest Hilbert’s second book of sonnets
AOYOTGE (ALL OF YOU ON THE GOOD EARTH)
by Michael Todd Steffen
Ernest Hilbert displays craftiness in his signature rime scheme with the most rewritten form in all of English poetry, prompting categorization beside the Petrarchan and the English sonnets; the Hilbert sonnet: ABC ABC DEF DEF GG. Avoiding bracket or alternating rime schemes in the traditional octet of the sonnets prevents our easy detection of the scheme, persuading our allowance for the language’s unaffectedness. It is not obviously predicated by the echo-chamber. There is much in Hilbert’s specific word choice relating detail caught by a good eye for observation as well as literary and cultural reference in the poems to convince us that he writes both from experience and from an impressively educated memory, as is evident in the poem titled ‘Times Literary Supplement’:
We sifted through his room at the museum,
Opened it like a tomb; sorted, emptied,
Claimed its small treasures: coins, copper sculptures,
Maps of an Augustan mausoleum,
Tripods, stalled watches, stiff river reed,
Nicked reading glasses, vivid fishing lures.
Stubbornly, the TLS still came,
Week after week, as the excavation
Ended and boxes thumped into the trash,
Reports of books newly born, wild or tame,
Jacketed, crated, and shipped by the ton.
Reviewers plough on, as careers rise and crash—
Few are prized, most pulped, conveyed to landfills,
Compacted like coal, toppled timber, great fossils.
Page to page, however, some resistance by the poet to the worsening situations of the experiences giving rise to his poems, some notion of transformation, how the dilemma inspiring these lines might evolve, struck me as missing. It is as though Hilbert makes himself the object of a determined victimization—also betraying a good-natured virtue of acceptance, at moments to the point of resignation, a feeling conveyed by his willing access to a harsher vernacular:
The city is cat piss and dog shit. It stinks,
And the humid air smells like mold. I lie in bed,
Too hot to move, slick with sweat, wait for dark.
Blue flies eddy over the cluttered sink.
I’m broke. The change dish is exhausted.
A Western Union stub is my bookmark…
On one hand, in the midst of the persistence of memory, designating a love of bygone times as Odysseus’s nursing sorceress Kalypso, the past can only be the past, perhaps even consigned to myth, beyond our control or effort to change. The poem’s purpose then becomes the song of that loss, its melody on the heartstrings, imagined by Hilbert in the second half of the sonnet as a vaporous, elusive, perhaps even delusional memory:
You never knew me. You’re in a Victorian
Sea home, slicing, to taste, a sweet chilled peach,
As an ocean wind lifts your long light hair.
Your songs are old, your dresses empyrean.
The view is vast over the empty beach.
You pause, as long as you like on the stair.
Memories sink and compel me to bear
One last thought: that you were never there.
Form (we have all come across this definition) is the fulfillment of expectations proposed. Persevering with the sonnet, while evoking the hero-wanderer of epic, Hilbert reserves his promise to sing the songs of, as Seamus Heaney phrased it, “single things,” of the poet’s dilemma as it is, without agonizing much in the modal auxiliaries of ‘may’, ‘might’ or ‘should’, without elaborating a story or theme beyond focal situations. He is unbothered by the potential influence of his example—
…I’m struggling to play a record,
But my fingers quiver and the needle
Shrieks like scraped chalk through the speakers. I turn
It up, and up, and up. I’m lit like a war
With pills, lines, so many drinks I can’t feel.
I find two women shooting heroin
In my bed…
—without sparing us the consequences of this abandon:
I’m coming up so hard I puke.
O Christ the summer is stunned with lilacs!
Someone gets kicked in the nose…
By now anonymous readers or Puritans lingering in these pages may be just ready to close them and set Hilbert back on the shelf. Yet part of the punch of these poems relies on their innocent audacity, evocative of a prior generation that made its mark during Vietnam trapped in Cold War politics , that rebellion of youth fueled by social protest and ‘Drugs, Sex and Rock ’n’ Roll’. The movement came to its summit and tipping point in 1968, which Hilbert in the preface to this book calls “the annus horribilus, a year that saw tragedy and civil unrest around the globe.” This was also the year when
the Apollo 8 space mission successfully circumnavigated Earth’s moon…
On Christmas Eve, the crew observed the Earth rising for the first time over
the moon’s horizon. Commander Frank Borman later described the Earth-rise
as “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent
of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me.” He signed off:
“Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—
all of you on the good Earth.”
So with the title and the prefatory note on its origin, we might read the sonnets of AOYOTGE as a captain’s log of Hilbert’s personal moon-orbit voyage, and the poems make recognizable allusions to Homer’s hero of The Odyssey, whose correlative in the culture of the late 60s would be Kubrick’s
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The decadence of Hilbert’s content (the drugs and booze and women shooting heroin in his bed) though not astonishing to our culture, does run against a rather prominent Restoration current these days advocating recovery, medical and health awareness, moderation,
No Smoking signs and security cameras everywhere you turn. Awareness of or reference to this new sense of caution and prudence surface not in the least in the sonnets, which keeps the purpose of the poet’s rebellion tacit and subconsciously more poignant and convincing. Out and out, meanwhile, Hilbert echoing Larkin is going to argue the anti-heroic argument of the failure of ideals to satisfy us:
Why must we love? Perhaps as Plato thought,
Zeus hacked jealous man into two parts,
So we struggle, our whole lives, to reunite;
Or Shakespeare’s lovers—struck through with stars, caught
In a love that promises doom—who find their hearts
Seared like coals and drown them in endless night.
But this is too much for us! We are not
Useful myths, nor mere characters undone
On a stage; yet our two strengths are as great
As these and other stories we are taught.
A few weeks back (on Thursday, November 13) I had the good fortune of making it to a reading at the Cambridge Public Library featuring Ernest Hilbert and Daniel Tobin, another poet who is making his difference in our time by writing in recognizably poetic language (lines seasoned with symbolic amplitude, scansion, and deliberate prosody, even sometime rime) while maintaining a probable contemporary idiom. Hilbert especially grabbed my attention that evening, because this was my first encounter with him, yet also because he is an excellent live reader, mindful of delivery, projecting his voice in units of sense and breath, in the pauses of his lines, lines I could not help but think were written with their vocal presentation in mind. It was not surprising for me to discover, in the Biographical Note to his new book, that along with poetry, Hilbert “supplies libretti and song texts for contemporary composers Stella Sung, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Christopher LaRosa.”
Back on the page, Hilbert’s poems are good enough to choose virtues that run somewhat against the grain of present society. He portrays a remarkably witty and cool character on the downhill slide thrust upon our humanity by heartbreak and grief. At the same time, the presence of mind demonstrated by the composition of the poems and of Hilbert’s physical presence as a reader, affable and measured, reassure us of his survival, aplomb and fruition from that time of fire and rain.
ALL OF YOU ON THE GOOD EARTH
poems by Ernest Hilbert
is available for $16.95
from Red Hen Press
in Pasadena, California
Other books by Ernest Hilbert include
‘Sixty Sonnets’ and ‘Aim Your Arrows at the Sun’