Thursday, August 15, 2019

Eliot Cardinaux, Dreadsummer

Eliot Cardinaux 

First, the title: Dreadsummer. Before I’d read a single poem, the title bespoke (to me) some call of the wild, a terrible loss, a subject matter emotionally wrenching, like Heathcliff and Catherine tragic love. And I was wrong, but I was close. This chapbook of poems by Eliot Cardinaux turns out to be much subtler and more musical than my cheap dramatic expectations, but I would not be exaggerating to call the poems odd, like dreams, and arresting, invasive, suggestive, and large in their life upon the page. They live.

To go straight to a poem that clasps you in its arms and then—wonderfully—lets you go, “To Osip Mandelstam,” the young poet speaks directly to the great Russian. He “lays these things down for the first time,” he says, “in a grave,” and ends up “saying these things out loud.” That is how the poem ends, with a spoken voice, a bare, respectful, and dedicated voice that hints of Whitman’s wide embrace or Louise Gl├╝ck’s lucid garden secrecy or the strange (yet common) unforgettable imagery of Elizabeth Bishop.

But Cardinaux is no imitator; he is not afraid to lay down his own word or phrase, seemingly detached, and let it fend or float for itself. In the book’s first poem “Sigil” he writes, “I grieve my splinter out”; in “Procession” it’s “Your breathing broke across the bow,” and then “I walk with my nostrils down.” Splinter! Nostrils! Breathing an ocean wave! The man has perfect pitch, and produces heartbreaking and thrilling images. He is thoughtful. He fulfills his subjects. His poems are intimate, evocative, assertive, exquisitely sensitive to all that’s alive, and he does it with a few words. He reveals the catastrophe of existence, the completeness of loss, and the phantom mind of a rose that, in the final poem, “A present history of air,”
grows deep
in the azure, keeping
one thought to itself,
that the present is history.

If you care to slow down, you can hear the internal rhymes and personal rhythms.

There is something new about Eliot Cardinaux’s voice, too, or perhaps reborn. He can conjure little sparks of Akhmatova, cries of the innocent in Blake, touches of Frost. And he has a sense of humor. “A snake was charmed / on the eve of possession” begins the poem “Allegory”; but it takes a serious turn soon enough, as one image consumes another in a “lover’s last poem / whose head witnessed everything at once.” Everything at once? Whose head? Whose everything? We are not instructed. Cardinaux continues:

Their escape is the smoke
from a flame that erases

everything but absence
for your rage to fill:

black water
under the light of migraines
a bullet
brought weak death two scales.

We’re talking notches on belts and musical events. These poems play with words seriously but wittily; they require one’s full attention. They are for quiet readers who have some literary familiarity, can catch a hint, can see a line go into a cartwheel, and are attentive to spoken sounds and imagined images.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic.

Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic. HarperCollins, 75 pages. $24.99.

Book Review by Ed Meek

Charles Simic is now 81 years old. He’s been a force in the world of poetry for many years. He has penned forty books of poetry. He writes articles about poetry for The New York Review of Books. He was a Poetry Editor for The Paris Review, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, and was the recipient of a MacArthur Grant. His poetry is somewhat enigmatic. His poems are generally short, combining colloquial language, observed details and surrealism. Here’s an early poem that has stuck with me. 

It’s called “Fear”:

Fear passes from man to man
As one leaf passes its shudder
To another.
All at once the whole tree is trembling, 
And there is no sign of the wind.
Despite being so short, it’s a poem that resonates. The imagery perfectly captures the idea and it makes a big statement about the way that fear can take over even when people forget what caused it in the first place. Sometimes lately it feels like we’re living in The Republic of Fear these days.
In his current book, Simic employs the same elements though he seldom achieves the intensity he once did. “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” is a two-line poem: “Time—that murderer/ No one has caught yet.” That’s the right idea but feels as if it could keep going.

 Simic is in the group of poets who are accessible. He uses simple language and a casual off-hand tone. “Some birds Chirp”

Others have nothing to say.
You see them pace back and forth,
Nodding their heads as they do.

It must be something huge
That’s driving them nuts—
Life in general, being a bird.

Too much for one little brain
To figure out on its own.
Still, no harm in trying, I guess.

Even with all the racket
Made by its neighbors,
Darting and bickering nonstop.

So, the question is: Is it enough to be an economical, amusing observer?

Many of the poems in this collection are about death—not surprising given the writer’s age. This one is called “The Last Lesson”

It will be about nothing.
Not about love or God,
But about nothing.
You’ll be like the new kid in school
Afraid to look at the teacher
While struggling to understand
What they are saying
About this here nothing.

There’s a big argument going on these days about pronouns. When Simic says “What they are saying” is the pronoun singular? Does it refer to the teacher? In addition, although poetry should be about the ineffable, Simic doesn’t have much to offer here beyond the ambiguity of the word nothing.

The best poem in the book is called “Ghost Ship.”

Those blessed moments
That pretend
They’ll stay with us forever—
Soon gone,
Without a fare-the-well.
What’s the rush?
I heard myself say.

You have the right
To remain silent,
The night told me
As I sat in bed
Hatching plans
On how to hold the next
Captive in my head.

I recall a window thrown open
One summer day
On a grand view of the bay
And a cloud in all that blue
As pale as the horse
Death likes to ride

Always happy to shoot the breeze,
That lone cloud
Was telling me
As it drifted out to sea,
Toward some
Ship on the horizon,

That had already
Set sail
And was about to vanish
Out of sight,
On the way to some port
And country
Without name.

A ghost ship,
Most surely,
But mine all the same.

In this poem, we have simple language paired with imagery and each line takes the poem a little further, yet each is surprising. There is some subtle rhyming and the usual economy. At first the subject seems to be memory but soon it becomes clear Simic is talking about death and here he gives us something we can take away. The fact that he is still writing good poetry is inspiring.