Friday, February 09, 2024

Red Letter Poem #194


The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.









Red Letter Poem #194






At Mt. Auburn Cemetery



Walking among the graves for exercise

Where do you get your ideas how do I stop them

Looking for Mike Mazur’s marker I looked

Down at the grass and saw Stanislaw Baranczak

Our Solidarity poetry reading in Poznan

Years later in Newton Now he said I’m a U.S.

Liberal with a car like everybody else

When I held Bobo dying in my arms

His green eyes told me I am not done yet

Then he was gone when he was young he enjoyed

Leaping up onto the copy machine to press

A button and hear it hum to life and rustle

A blank page then another out onto its tray

Sometimes he batted the pages down to the floor

I used to call it his hobby here’s a marble

Wicker bassinet marking a baby’s grave

To sever the good fellowship of dust the vet’s

Needle first a sedative then death now Willie

Paces the house mowling his elegy for Bobo

They never meow to one another just to people

Or to their nursing mother when they’re small I

Marvel at this massive labeled American elm

Spreading above a cluster of newer names

Chang, Ohanessian, Kondakis joining Howells,

Emerson, Shaw and here’s a six-foot sphere

Of polished granite perfect and inscribed WALKER

Should I have let him die his own cat way

The cemetery official confided Bruce Lee

Spends less on a stone than Schwarzenegger what

Will mark the markers when like mourners they bow

And kneel and fall down flat to kiss the heaps

They have in trust under the splendid elm

Also marked with its tag a noble survivor

Civilization lifted my cat from the street

Gave him a name his shots and managed his death

Now Willie howls the loss from room to room

When people say I’m ashamed of being German

Said Arendt I want to say I’m ashamed of being

Human sometimes when Bobo made his copies

Of nothing I’d crumple one for him to chase

And combat in the game of being himself.



                         ––Robert Pinsky



The power of naming, and the necessity of remembrance: these ideas help form the spine of Proverbs of Limbo, Robert Pinsky’s eleventh volume of poetry, set to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this June.  Here, Robert is focusing on the responsibility central to all poets––one whose roots extend to the Garden of Eden, where God commanded Adam to create names for all that surrounded him.  (This is a God who, not incidentally, is called by seventy different appellations in Jewish spiritual literature, because His one ‘unknowable name’ contains such overwhelming power.)  Poetry involves the sort of mnemonic potency where names and lived experiences can become indelibly enshrined––think: Homer’s bardic recitations; or the 305 Confucian Odes which every Chinese scholar was traditionally required to memorize.  Astonishing, though, that such a creative act might bestow upon our loved ones the sort of enduring ‘fame’ usually reserved for a more rarefied pantheon of heroes.  Many believe that speaking the names of the lost, remembering their ordinary exploits, ensures their enduring presence.  And as was said by that 18th century Jewish mystic, the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name): “In memory lies the secret of redemption.”


Proverbs of Limbo (a name intended to bring to mind William Blake’s long poem “The Proverbs of Hell”) begins with “Poem of Names”; it introduces us to the theme of unearthing characters and events from the poet’s memory––the familial and historical; the famous, infamous, and ordinary.  I first encountered today’s poem, “At Mt. Auburn Cemetery”, when it appeared in the New Yorker in 2021, and I remember that feeling of blissful disorientation it provoked.  The situation of the piece was not unfamiliar––Mt. Auburn is, after all, America’s first rural or garden cemetery, a lovely 170-acre site where many people stroll among the handsome groves on a spring day––but the speaker’s state of mind might be less so.  Doing without most of the expected punctuation, the poem seems, at first, as amorphous as the drifting clouds.  The protagonist is hunting for the grave marker of a dear friend, Mike Mazur––the vibrant painter and printmaker with whom Robert collaborated on a handsome new version of Dante’s Inferno.  (Dante is, of course, another acclaimed recorder of names; and Mike Mazur, I should add, was the husband of Gail, last week’s Red Letter poet.  You see how infectious this can be, detailing names and connections!)  But as the poet’s mind wanders, invoking both artist-friends and random strangers––enter Bobo, the dying cat of the Pinsky household.  And suddenly we find ourselves wondering: just what drives any life to endure the slings and arrows we face each day?  “When I held Bobo dying in my arms/ His green eyes told me I am not done yet”––even as life was slipping through those soft paws.  And then he recalls Bobo’s old pastime, churning out blank copies from the poet’s printer, so he might chase and pounce on this (what else should I call it but) emptiness.  This cannot help but seem a rueful commentary on all we living creatures pursue within our meager allotment of days.


During a poetry residency with fourth graders in Concord, MA, one student asked me if I was a famous poet.  I replied that I could claim, in all modesty, to be the most famous poet currently residing on Bellington Street.  (I said currently – no need to be cocky.)  It’s an exceedingly rare condition for a contemporary in this profession, but Robert Pinsky is undoubtedly famous, throughout America and far beyond.  I’m heartened that his renown is not only due to that trove of fine poetry collections (and of course his anthologies, literary criticism, and memoirs––such as the recent Jersey Breaks), but to a lifetime as a public poet, affirming the place the artform maintains in the civic life of a nation.  He did this through three terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate, during which he created his immensely popular Favorite Poem Project.  But this extends into his advocacy for verse as a whole––epitomized, perhaps, by his excellent Dante translation, but manifested as well in his continued collaborations with jazz and folk musicians, inviting the sisterhood of muses to join forces in performance.   He has spent a lifetime being a diligent steward of our literary estate, bolstering its place in the temples of academia but also in the kitchens of quiet apartments; in barrooms and gymnasiums; on shop floors and hospital wards; and in the mouths of the so-called ordinary people making their way through this life.  Let me invoke the name of another literary giant, Seamus Heaney, who wrote: “Poetry is what we do to break bread with the dead.”  And this process is not about plunging ourselves to the depths of Hades, but reclaiming the lost through our faith in language and the power of remembrance.  Such poetry ushers the departed back into daylight, at least for the moment.  So I’ll gladly sing this joyful litany of names––Mazur and Baranczak; Confucius and Blake; Pinsky and, yes, sweet Bobo––to help intensify that light.





Red Letters 3.0


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Thursday, February 08, 2024

The Book of Shores by Mary Buchinger


The Book of Shores by Mary Buchinger 

Lily Poetry Review Press, 2024, 102 pp.

reviewed by Thomas DeFreitas

The late American poet Donald Justice once offered his opinion that American poets fall into one of two “camps”: the Walt Whitman camp and the Emily Dickinson camp. Whitman-poets are marked by their rambunctious, capacious inclusivity, their embracing acceptance of everything from stamen to stevedore, from wisteria to winebibber. Dickinson-poets are marked by cadence and deliberation, by a discriminating selectivity, by the understated emphasis on one or two painstakingly chosen things. (Justice himself professed a preference for Dickinson's “closed room.”)

In The Book of Shores, and elsewhere, it is Mary Buchinger's good fortune to have united these two opposite tendencies in one glorious aesthetic: yes, there is thoughtful, measured pacing; there are words carefully chosen, a luminous attention to the “minute particulars” (as Blake called them); but there is also expansion and invitation, there is acceptance of all material as poetically valid and vivid, there is the conscious capacity to admit and welcome the domestic vignette, the surreal and dream-like moment, and the globally pertinent “statement.”

The form of The Book of Shores will be familiar to those who have read Buchinger’s Virology, her long poem alert to pandemic realities. Shores falls into seven “chapters”: Seaway, Island, Peninsula, Archipelago, Strait, [INLAND], and Continent. Each section is a chain of much smaller poems, exquisite and intricate lyrics, connected and separated by an asterisk or some other form of punctuation, as we find in Robert Creeley’s seminal book Pieces.

Careful observation marks each turn and twist of the word-flow, where “cumulus snags / the upper branches / of an invisible tree”; where “the smallest pieces of meaning” are not neglected; where Buchinger’s eye takes in “nets and knots of cloud / figment and fragment.” There is alertness to the animal world, be it a tawny spider in the sleeve of a bathrobe, a surprise for the narrator at her morning tea, or the cat whose “compact coil” in the speaker’s lap “thrums with warmth.”

In “Peninsula” Buchinger alludes to the semicolon as a symbol of mental-health awareness. “It demonstrates," she tells us in her Notes, “continuation with a new beginning as opposed to the finality of a period.” Or as the poem phrases it, “it signifies a decision / to not end.” One sees kinship with Buchinger’s method: after each asterisk or semicolon, a fresh start, a new “independent clause” of poetry, shining and graspable, luminous and within reach.

“Sometimes,” the narrator concedes, “I feel ready to excise and renew” (in sympathy with a friend who had “cancelled” her own past), but memory is tenacious, perhaps especially in “Archipelago,” where the imagery ranges from a child of some decades ago watching Sears catalogs incinerate in a barrel, to a poet of this moment as she is nagged by the small dings of her mobile phone. We feel as if we are reading “remnants of a great lecture” where the parts are of vital importance, as in dreams, but the larger themes are left implicit (as in dreams!). We have hymnody educed from drooping flower-petals; we have the archipelago as “crowd-funded geography.” In a sentence that Whitman could have written, “I wake to the history / of my body, each day / another jotting.” 

In “Strait,” the narrator admits that the “mother tongue” she speaks can sound “foreign”; she speaks further of “translation / from one language to another / feeling into word.” But Buchinger’s alertness and unswerving purpose makes these translations as palpable and handy as the weight of a necklace “lodged / in the linty corner / of my winter jacket.” Walking through this section, we have the poet in sandals that are pretty but which draw blood; the poet’s aging mother walking “like a penguin”; and a concert attendee leaving a performance of Buxtehude in a rush: “the stranger’s sudden departure / changes what I hear.”

The section called “INLAND” finds Buchinger as anthologist of startlements and surprises, even of shocks. We have “stakes of herons / stately in ebbtide”; “an ankle-deep sea / of economy”; “a shiny miry / mirror / of sun.” We have the beauty of the Self “who carried the sea wherever she went”; INLAND as “a skiffless interior” with “a stillborn moon … incubator / of storm & misdirection.” Rhymes are discovered: “aghast” with “a guest”; “nest algae” with “nostalgia.” The narrator dusts a moose’s skull, its “white machinery / of ovals and holes”; “to look into this moose’s eyes / I’d have to enter the earth.” The poet gives us nature red in tooth and claw, as an Eagle (she capitalizes its name, as one might the Grim Reaper’s!) swoops and assaults a fawn.

In the coda called “Continent,” Buchinger ponders “the green … fields” of her manuscript, “its hungry regions and mossy passages” and expresses the belief that “possibility dwells within its rifts.” There is much in The Book of Shores that this reviewer finds to be challenging, moments and occasions that linger on the outskirts of comprehension. But there is far more that invites, that spurs us to plunge in. There are surprises waiting in the reeds and the bulrushes. Buchinger urges us always to seek, as we will surely find.