Friday, August 19, 2016

An apology to David Blair, with a preliminary announcement for The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading presented by the Hastings Room

Seamus Heaney


An apology to David Blair, with a preliminary announcement for
The Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading presented by the Hastings Room
Wednesday 14 September 2016
At First Church Congregationalist
11 Garden Street near Harvard Square at 7pm

Back on the 30th of March, the day before David Blair read at the Cervena Barva Press studio at the Somerville Armory with Lloyd Schwartz and Joseph Torra, David Blair and his then just- released book Friends With Dogs were the subject of an article published in this blog. A few days later, with much gratitude for the write-up, David emailed me and pointed out a few “goofs” I had made. I promised him I would correct the goofs in due time and get them to Doug so that the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene would have the record straight.

I’m taking the occasion of re-presenting my article here (below) to make a preliminary announcement of this year’s Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading, the third of our annual readings in tribute to the great Nobel Prize Irish poet. Along with Meg Tyler and George Kalogeris, David Blair, we feel lucky and proud to say, will be among the evening’s readers.
And only since March, David’s third book Arsonville has been released with dazzling praise. Of it, Stephen Burt, one of our best poetry critics, writes:
There's simply-- and also not so simply-- more life in this poetry than in almost all the other poetry that isn't this poetry; more life, and more kinds of life…the kind whose savor and importance poetry helps you recognize, whether it's a sensory impression, wrought with all seven senses alert, or good wry advice: 'Parents are running a three-legged race,' for example, or 'you always pay as we go,' or 'the longer you drive,/ the more you have to get back home.' Here are real towns, real families, real jokes, real fears, real 'bicycles/ with training wheels,' 'a zone of green yards' with 'a spit-shine of black granite,' and (coming indoors, with bears, so not quite domestic) 'a sudden slight dip in the bathtub temperature.' Here are bad cookies, good apologies, and a really supple language that can helix its way around and above whatever life can throw at the singular poet involved. Let the poems come to you at home. They'll stay.

Tony Hoagland writes, “David Blair is a wholly original American poet-- his poems yammer and jam, they aria and catalogue and whine, combining kaleidoscopic perceptual and social detail with a sensibility that is smart, canny, but affectionate.”
If you’ve read any of David’s own reviews, seen him introduce other readers or perhaps attended one of his courses, you will already know how insightful and articulate David is about poetry. When I mentioned the Heaney reading, he was positively in for it. He loves Heaney. In a recent email to me, David gave me this as a teaser to his segment of the reading:
I am planning on saying some things about the influence of deep image poetry which Heaney encountered during his first stay in America, and how we may see the influence of "leaping poetry" in poems like "Viking Trial Pieces: Dublin," "Hercules and Antaeus,"  and "The Harvest Bow." I will also say a few things about how making large associate leaps is not something limited to the deep image poets, but is also there in Lowell and other American poets as well. I will be going back to Stepping Stones & re-reading the stuff he says about his initial encounters with American poetry there.

If you’ve been to one of the Heaney Memorial readings at the Hastings Room before, you may remember them being on the last Wednesday of August. We’re moving back to mid-September this year in hopes of having a cooler room for the audience. In the following weeks, I will attempt to tease folk to come to the reading, with pieces on George Kalogeris and Meg Tyler.
In his description above, Blair mentions the poem “Hercules and Antaeus” by Heaney. This morning I was reading another of Heaney’s meditations simply on one of the characters and titled “Antaeus,” which I will leave with the reader for this week’s Seamus Heaney poem:

     When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
     To rub myself with sand

     That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins.
     Down here in my cave

     Girdered with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
     Like a small hillock.

     Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
     Into that realm of fame

     Among sky-born and royal.
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
     My elevation, my fall.

David Blair Sounding the Whistle in his third book FRIENDS WITH DOGS

article by Michael T Steffen (revised, August 2016)

Reading David Blair’s poems is like lying in bed awake listening to the one who lies beside you talking in their sleep.

                There is a network
                of veins, nerves, and straw
                where there was potted nasturtium.

                Dental hygienists who misbehave
                come back as the numbers crunchers
                who remove salaried plaque,

                the 86ers going deep
                to scorch or freeze.                               [“Vulcanists & Neptunists,” FWD, pp 38-9]

All of the terms are a little odd, which is difficult but also amusing. Blair himself commented on this poem:

86 is restaurant lingo for removing something from a menu. I call the corporate flaks who fire people 86-ers. The line "to scorch or freeze" comes from the title of a decidedly irony-free Donald Davie book, and I guess I find the procedures of corporate America hellish, to say the least. This is the most hermetic poem in the book.

Back in April of this year, I gave my interpretation of the poem, trying to use educated guesses going on what I deemed “objective correlatives.” This was the result: We leap, as Robert Bly would say, from potted plants, to the dentist and accounting, to sports and weather. What does “the 86ers” refer to? There is a European American Football team in Sweden called the Uppsala 86ers, which would make sense of “going deep” (throwing a long pass deep down field). General American readers will recognize the term “going deep” and have the research engines in their memories looking for an associate NFL team, say the 49ers. In this line of thought, on to Blair’s next line, you can “freeze” a linebacker by faking a run then throwing a long pass which, if successful, could be said to burn (“scorch”) a defensive back. Amid all of this talk of athletic dynamics, tactics and maneuvers, keep in mind the extremities of weather which climate change is causing our winters and summers. Poetry is at work when so much more is evoked than is actually stated. Great bargains take place between word count and reader.

FRIENDS WITH DOGS [ISBN 9781937679606/Sheep Meadow Press/P.O. Box 84/Rhinebeck, NY 12514], Blair’s third book of poems, lives up to the promise of his previous collections, in which the poet established his signature method in madness of evasive speech. “His music, his diction,” wrote Thomas Lux, “his refusal to use (ever) clichés, his syntax all drive his poems and their hearts forward.”

David Rivard writes,

I have been reading Blair’s poems for about ten years now—struck always by his unique pitch and tone, the tensile muscularity of his syntax and vibrational accents. His diction is totally unboxed.

From this deliberate dismissal of clichés and coins and cousinages, mere gestures are made toward a grander scale, a finger on one’s cheek pointing at the sky, to refute determinism and fate, while acknowledging these mechanisms dangerously at play in our world. The poem “Festivals for Saints Lucy and Anthony” strike a plangent irony that reminds one (listen closely) of Ophelia singing over the virtues of herbs and flowers in her craze after Polonius’s death.

                The Book of Common Prayer
                gives such lovely presentation
                to the psalms, and the weird rites
                that developed for so many events
                All through the North End,
                Jimmy Roselli kept singing Torah
                and ending in Koran verses
                across the neck of water
                between here and Charlestown
                When people pin the ribbon pole
                with dollar bills with the trumpets
                annoying people until they pin more,
                bringing back indulgences is okay with me.

There is a pill (are pills) under Blair’s sugar of meanderings. To an aggressive, accusative and hypocritical world of solicitation, denying us so much in the way of authentic contact and purpose, there is adequacy in a response of denial, refusing sense made by the powers that be, returning everything originally to depict the oddness of how this feels rather than how it should seem okay. Satire, the theatre of the absurd, deigning to no obvious purpose or sense, happens upon a critical “usefulness” in its powerful disrespect and will to shock the censors and oppression crouching even in a free society.

The festivals evoked in the poem’s title are feast days or celebrations in honor of saints. Saint Lucy is petitioned for restoration of sight or vision. Saint Anthony is prayed to for help in recovering losses. The title of Blair’s second book, Ascension Days, with vocabulary in his earlier poems, have raised the notion of religion, an old world religion, in his poetry. His language can behave hermetically. Like Haley Joel Osment, the child in The Sixth Sense, Blair sees dead people: he sees Rabelais’ ghost in the erudite contemporary poet Tom Yuill—

                the poet from Old Dominion.
                “Yoo hoo,” he says, “Read more Wyatt. Read
                Sir Philip Sidney.”
                “Yoo hoo,” he says, “Buttermilk biscuits.
                Gravy. Monday Night Football.”
                [FWD, p. 60].

The fragmentary presentation of his poetry allows for vast silences and omissions. Whether Blair is devoted to religion we may not know by his poetry. That atrocities are being committed throughout the world in the name of Religion should weigh on every informed human being. This is a fact that reflects howsoever in the mirror of Blair’s presented discourse.

The conclusion of “Festivals for Saint Lucy & Saint Anthony” startlingly compresses the world confused in these gestures to the naïve sweet tooth of a child at such a festival, bound for the biochemical disaster of a blackout caused by a sugar rush:

                A kid won a box of Lemon Heads
                and a box of Alexander the Grape,
                and all the flavors of taffy,
                a watermelon Now & Later candy,
                a coconut oil smooth banana flavor
                that never leaves my mouth,
                that takes the wooden floor out
                from underneath our feet,
                that brings me to another level
                of unpeopled Wampanoag hill
                sadness first state park north of the city,
                where there is one chipmunk
                and about four pigeons left
                and a lot of woods,
                a sugar rush, then crash,
                graceful deficit
                in the distant Fells.

In the “rational world,” radical fundamentalism motivating violence is seen as the choice that justifies intervention. It is not Saint Lucy or Saint Anthony, any more than the 86ers going deep. It is a butterfly somewhere causing a hurricane elsewhere. The, say, Venus de Milo as an objective is not mentioned. Nor the fact that the world is consuming sources of energy on a daily basis like a kid loading himself with candy to the point of having a seizure at a religious festival.  As elsewhere in Blair’s poetry, just enough is said in this poem to make so much come tumbling out.

To a great extent, the day-to-day world we live in “makes sense” because it is what we have learned to live with, ways accumulated and assimilated with progress in time. It is the world we frequent daily. One necessary step for the artist and poet, in order to get a good look at things around, in order to begin to speak relevantly about it, is somehow to get outside of that world, get somehow to a vantage point, on a hill, for a good while, to be able to see it for himself or herself. To varying degrees, poets bring this cultivated alienation to readers, with their purpose of showing us something we cannot normally see yet that is true, so probable to how we imagine life, that we say “this really speaks to me.”
Defying logic and expected sequences, Blair, while “restless,” often achieves an a-temporal or out-of-ordinary-time feel, the around-going-nowhere motion of a river mill wheel, a simultaneity of collages, a moving stillness.
David Rivard in Boston Review isolated a line of Blair’s, “Nothing can remain horizontal or vertical for long,” calling this the poet’s “mini ars poetica.” The riverhead of the statement may be Heraclitus’ The only constant is change. It comes by way of one of Blair’s tamer or more focused meditations, from Ascension Days, on inspiration, in the figure and under the title of “AMELIA EARHART”, who like the Virgin Mary did not suffer a witnessed death. The famous American “aviatrix,” as David designates her (with a wink that is both bawdry and submissive to the suffix, evoking the Dominatrix of erotica) serves stunningly as a displacement of the Virgin Mother who according to certain traditions is said not to have suffered death but to have been assumed into heaven, lost up in the air in flight, off the radar and our maps, entering into the needful and copious domains of our speculation and wonder.
A little beyond midstream in the poem, Blair embellishes Earhart with suggestions of another great woman from American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, with a marvelous double entendre on the word “dam”, in one sense for the construction with a reservoir that harnesses energy from a river (recalling the era of the New Deal), and “dam” in the sense of a grand lady, the diminutive of “Madam” or “Madame”.
     The lines go,
                It’s possible that she was always bundled
                muscle, nerve and horse sense.
                Standing rigidly against rivers like a dam
                named after a president is a dubious way to be,
                but I can imagine Amelia fascinated by toasters
                and Christmas lights, the large blue bulbs,
                and the terrifying orange coils
                and the way the toaster cord feels like the root
                of a plant when attracted to earthen recesses,
                and I can imagine a blue bathrobe for her
                in the endless morning before anything.

There is merely a suggestive allusion to Mary in the poem. We might remember that blue is Mary’s color, blue of the serene sky. And that Amelia’s bathrobe imagined in David’s poem is blue. A verbal association is possible with the Day of the Assumption, which is commonly confused with Christ’s Ascension, offering an explanation as to the plural in the title of this wonderful book, Ascension Days, published in 2007 by Del Sol Press.
The poetry of David Blair, for all of its oddity and difficulty, strikes us as something we cannot put down or turn away from. It’s likely we are not terribly sure about what it is he is saying to us on a first or maybe not even a second reading, yet we get a keen sense that it is undeniable and essential.

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