Tag Archives: remembering

Nostalgia, Now and Then

Once, many years ago, on introducing myself to the Irish poet, John Montague, I mentioned that I was from Kentucky. Immediately, he asked for my favorite poems by Robert Penn Warren. I had to admit that I had not paid much attention to Warren’s poetry. Montague was visibly dismayed. I had probably read a few Warren poems and I know that I had read All the King’s Men, but I was more fond of Kentucky prose (Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport) at the time.

I am trying to remember why I had passed over Warren so quickly. Perhaps it was the association with “New Criticism” (which was politically incorrect in my graduate school), but I also recall a frustration with both the subjects and the pace of Warren’s verse. For example, on re-reading a few of the anthologized poems today, I am struck by his penchant for hyphenated nouns and the use of the spondee. On this account, see a few samples from his Coleridgean poem “Gold Glade“: wet-black, gorge-depth, leaf-lacing, leaf-fall, heart-hurt, grief-fall, Gold-massy, light-fall, gold-falling, tooth-stitch, gray-shagged. And these are merely the hyphenated words, add the spondees and one has a recipe for some slow chewing. But this is a recent revelation. I’m certain that I relied on my less self-conscious ear in the 90s. As for the subjects, I was (and perhaps I still am) afraid of the nostalgia of self-identifying Southerners. I could (or have been) one of these, a nostalgic “son of the South” … particularly when I tire of the well-intentioned contextual emptiness of the Midwest. (Southern nostalgia may be made from equal parts of molasses and rat poison.) To this day, I am wary of it.

On the other hand, I am reaching an age in which nostalgia fuels memory. Thus, I have been fascinated lately with Warren’s “American Portrait: Old Style” from the volume Now and then: poems 1976-1978. This very nostalgic poem relies on Warren’s narrative skills. The poem keeps some of the internal rhyming, alliteration and spondees which sometimes clot his verse, but these are masked (a bit) by the story line. I think of Coleridge, again (in so far as it recalls childhood as a privileged place for the imagination), but Warren’s Coleridgean bent is tempered by the focus on the relationship between the poet and his childhood friend. The ageing ex-pitcher and bird dog trainer, tends to humanize Warren in a way that his own thoughts (out of context) do not. While the poetry strives for a false immortality, the body does not. K, as he is named in the poem, ages Warren by giving us a reference point that is a bit more approachable and less authorial. And so, when the poet lies down in the ditch he once played in as a child, and watches the sky pass over, it’s easier to join him; it’s easier to love this life and this world that we share.

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren stretches to an overwhelming 830 pages. I think I will begin, instead, with Now and then.



Memory might be cultivated with care or it might be left to wither or spread as the seasons and circumstances permit. Most tend to it with some of the former and much of the latter. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the recent force of those weedy incidents from the first decade or so of my life. Many are of no real consequence, but seem to have a lasting force–a fig tree behind a garage in Arkansas, the odor of boxwood at Keeneland, asparagus in the fence rows in Versailles, and chicory in the front pasture of the family farm.

Rooted in my memory, the ephemeral morning blue of the chicory marks a season in which the lettuce beds have also gone to seed. The baby blue with hints of powder and lace open above improbable soil and jangly stems. Until noon they bloom a cool fog in the worst places–exit ramps, new construction, vacant lots. And now, though they flower thirty Junes on in the margins of my urban life, I can turn in the pasture of my childhood and feel the grade of the field, see the locust trees on the ridge, and wince at the mound of dirt where my father buried our favorite mare.

I must remember not to let summer pass without chicory or I would live as a stranger in exile from myself.


Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

First Affections: Ozymandias

This summer Robert Archambeau wrote a breezy (and yet smart) personal Biographia Literaria on his Samizdat Blog. He demonstrates a deep poetic education. Like Coleridge, he reads and writes quickly and astutely. He also consumes (or appears to comprehend) entire literary oeuvres. Therefore, he can write convincingly about his debts to Whitman, Pound, Matthias, Wordsworth, Byron, Johnson, Blake, and (now) Coleridge. (So many Romantics, why no Keats?) To be sure, these are a scholar’s debts (and undoubtedly, a reader’s and a writer’s debts too), but I wonder if there’s not also a smaller, more quotidian way to tell the history of one’s poetic affections.

Earlier this week I was rereading a few of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems. This is always a good time of the year to read the opening lines of “Ode to the West Wind“, but what caught my attention and reminded me of Archambeau’s ambitious literary biography, was my long (and yet infrequent) fondness for Shelley’s “Ozymandias“. I first read the poem at the age of 13. I remember exactly where I was sitting. Facing west, at a classroom desk one seat away from the windows. My useless middle school teacher was painting her nails or reading romance novels, anything but teaching. Flipping to the back of my textbook, I discovered poetry. In “Ozymandias” it rhymed, was packed with moral irony, and echoed the biblical sensibilities that meant (and mean) so much to me. In the next couple of years I read nearly every poetry book I could find in my tiny school library.

As it turns out, I am not a devotee of Shelley’s poetry. I tire of his lurid long-windedness. Likewise, “Ozymandias” seems a bit too easy–milk, not meat–but I owe it (or should blame it) for much.

The Narrative of Oppen’s “A Narrative”

Of the many kinds of poetry, there should be a name for those that resist paraphrase, gloss and interpretation. These poems are born of a Modern aesthetic, perhaps … or at least to an anxious aesthetic, one in which the poets or their readers worry about distinctions, about what separates poetry from prose or the poetic from the prosaic. Plenty of poems were written by design to resist; others are just too damn good to be subjected to exposition. Of these, I would include George Oppen’s “A Narrative”. I am tempted to re-type the entire poem here, all eleven sections, and end this note with the poem’s last lines. But that will not work. I write here to remember, not to conquer, the poems I admire … or, in other words, and (conveniently) to quote from the poem: “we / Dwindle, but that I have forgotten / Tortures me.”

Here I will attempt to answer a simple question: What is the narrative of “A Narrative”?

The poem is not, I believe, itself a narrative. Nor is it truly about any particular “narrative”; that is, the poem does not expound on (for example) a creation narrative. Instead, the poem addresses the search for and the makings of narratives. We need them, or we feel that we do, but they are unreliable. At worst, our narratives are lies, at best (and not much better) they are built on “the fallacy / Of words”. A narrative self-told detaches us from the substantial, from a place, and launches the person into a self-referential hell. We may not like our place, our substantial existence, but to reject it (even for something apparently more permanent), is to reject Love and life itself.

What breath there is
In the rib cage we must draw
From the dimensions

Surrounding, whether or not we are lost
And choke on words.

Finding a place or reconciling oneself to a life lived in a river of substance, a river in which we are but as silt “flowing / To no imaginable sea”, allows us to reclaim our language. It gives us a foundation on which to be honest. It is from “the open / Miracle / … / Of place” that we can speak and live with “clarity” and “respect”.

And so, this is the narrative of “A Narrative”: the poet wishes to tell the truth, but while the truth is hard, the telling is harder; where does one begin, if not with this river, this body of dust passing us by?

George Oppen’s “A Narrative” (from his book This in Which) can be found in:

George Oppen. The Collected Poems of George Oppen. New York: New Directions, 1976. 132-140. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/123096380

A recording of Oppen reading “A Narrative” followed by other poems is available from PennSound at:  PennSound: George Oppen | MP3

Public Grief is a Rare Beast

Frank Kermode, the author of one my first critical readings of Shakespeare, died on Tuesday, the 17th.

A theologian I’ve never read, but should have, Clark Pinnock, died this week too, the 15th.

Abbey Lincoln died on the 14th. In only the last couple of years, I have begun to listen to her music. Really only a couple of songs. “Throw it Away” is nice; although, honestly, I’ve never bothered to more than hum along. Ask me “throw what away?” and I’m stumped. The truth is: I have found more in Abbey Lincoln’s death than I have lost.

I discovered, a year late, that Michael Mazur had died (August 18, 2009). Reading about it, I thought: “Hey, I met that guy … and now he’s gone”. He was a kind and patient teacher (for an afternoon) as he made the Inferno tour rounds with his collaborator, Robert Pinsky.

When Czeslaw Milosz died (August 14, 2004), I had been waiting for it. I went to my shelves, looked at his books and thought, forlornly: “Well, there will be no more of these”.

I remember feeling disappointed when Denise Levertov died (December 20, 1997). I had assumed we would meet, first. We did not. As it turns out, as with most people I meet, we would have had little to say. She would have been one more boyhood favorite for me to find (at no fault of her own) less gracious than I had imagined. Having read only a handful of her poems, what place would I have had in her life?

When Donald Davie left (September 18, 1995), I figured he was glad enough to go. I turned to his “The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted” and reread, as I do many times a year, this poem … which I have absorbed, if not wholly memorized.

Public grief is a strange phenomenon. To call it “grief” is to err. “Mourning” is a better word. Grief hollows out, ties up the gut and unmarrows the bones. For most of us, Frank Kermode’s death is nothing more than a tick on the clock, a passing interest. But mourning, great or small, is a spectacle. The greater known the person, the closer it ranks to public execution. James Brown, Ted Kennedy, Michael Jackson.

Spectacle too, these eulogies of the writers and artists I did and did not meet. Mourning is a public performance in any size. I suppose (although, for the most part, I lack experience) family funerals are also spectacles. They serve a communal function. They’re roll calls; not merely a visual check of who’s still alive or who was recently born or married or divorced, but an indicator of clan cohesiveness.

When my uncle died, I hardly knew him. I can remember maybe five visits. My mother made no effort to insist I attend the funeral. Perhaps she said I didn’t need to go, but I can’t remember. Encumbered and fourteen hours away, I did not it make to the spectacle. This was a mistake. It confirmed family suspicions that I am the son who doesn’t care. I missed the roll call. Mourning serves a function with or without grief.

When is it that the public grieves? Are we not, even in calamities (I’ve lamented the BP oil spill) merely expressing our anger and fear? I’m no good at mourning; I blame this sole self, this distant watching, ever a half step outside the common body?

Oppen’s “Return”

As I promised many months ago, I am remembering the poetry of George Oppen again. This week I am returning to his poem “Return“. I marked the poem as one I would want to read (now and then) for many years. I was pleased to discover, therefore, a comment by George’s wife (an artist and writer) in which she speaks for a poetry that will sustain re-readings:

So you see that if there’s a lot in it of course it’s hard to understand on first reading. But what kind of poetry do you understand with one reading that you go on using and remembering all your life? I mean the poetry that’s most important to me is poetry that’s been important to me for most of my life. I want to go back to it, and I find new things in it. So it’s kind of inconsequential, the criticism that it’s difficult. (Oppen, Mary, and Dennis Young. 1988. Conversation with Mary Oppen. The Iowa Review 18, no. 3 (Fall): 18-47. http://www.jstor.org/pss/20152767)

So, with Mary’s implicit support (she died in 1990), I’ll confess I do not understand (as is often the case) this poem. In fact, writing about poetry is a constant reminder of how little I understand of the poems I read. With this poem, I struggle to identify the pronouns (Who cannot be “reconciled” to whom? What is the “it” of “how imagine it”?), to piece together the syntax, to locate the particulars (Who is Petra? And in what place and time? In what context does she beat the sound of relief on her washpan?)

All the same, I marked “Return” for future readings. What was it, in the face of such limited knowledge of what I was reading, that earned my attention?

The familiar.

For the poetry reader (if not always for the poet too) the familiar leads, gives the reader an entry or a safe place, a seeming firm cognition on which to build a reading. In this poem, I found my own familiars, those simple moments of recognition that are in themselves worth remembering, worth returning.

First, the opening scene. In opposition to “the earth” (an allusion to Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1, but also the clay of all creation), the poem opens with the image of asphalt from a moving vehicle, the landscape blurred, the drone of commerce. Although this might have been the return trip from the Oppens’ exile in Mexico (communists in the McCarthy era, the Oppens had left town), my own mental stock of particulars recalls long childhood car trips to Arkansas, the hypnotic and absolute boredom of the passing rows and rows of soybeans and rice.

And next, the sequoia. What child or adult has not looked on the trunk of a great tree in wonder? How is it that the massive, rooted wood rises? And when a great tree descends, does the compost equal the soil it borrowed to ascend so wide and high?

Also, the poet’s daughter’s encounter with the horse. Although Linda’s “welcome” is central to the poem, perhaps the center focus of the poem, I am more drawn to the contrast, the empty blocks, remote mechanics, razed buildings, the “city gone”. The concluding heaviness of human architecture devoid of the living haunts the page:

Of streets boarded and vacant where no time will hatch
Now chairs and walls,
Floors, roofs, the joists and beams,
The woodwork, window sills
In sun in a great weight of brick.

Here the familiar is one of opposites (mostly), the stark sadness of vacancy. Empty buildings memorialize failed expectations, mark lost life. Although not everyone knows whole blocks of a ghost town, we all live with (or walk into and out of) vacancies.

After the familiar, which is to say: after four days in which I read nothing else other than “Return”, I have begun to appreciate (not “comprehend”) the pacing, the transitions. The second sentence, the blurred Sunday drive, is itself a remarkable transition. As the landscape passing by the car window blurs, so do subject and predicate. I have never written a sentence that is at once so awkward and so skillfully exact:

But we drive
A Sunday paradise
Of parkway, trees flow into trees and the grass
Like water by the very asphalt crown
And summit of things
In the flow of traffic
The family cars, in the dim
Sound of the living
The noise of increase to which we owe
What we possess.

Where do we focus our attention in this sentence? “[W]e drive”? “[O]we”? “”[F]low”? The asphalt crown? “[W]e possess”? I have read this sentence so many times and each time I think I have it under my thumb, but it slips away … like “the dim / Sound of the living”.

Finally, I also admire Oppen’s interruptions and overlapping parenthetical phrases, marked in the poem by dashes. “Return” includes these with seeming abandon, but they do not (as they would in a lesser poet’s work) indicate mere sudden changes, or a lost train of thought. Rather, what Oppen drops, he picks up again and drops and picks up again. In fact, at times, the “pick ups” are interwoven. Similar to a book with alternate beginnings and alternate endings, interchangeable and inseparable.

The first parenthetical begins after the line “From the ground together—” with “And we saw the seed,” but where does the initial thought complete itself? I think it resumes with the first line of the last stanza: “Whatever—whatever—remote”. If so, this is the only true interruption, the only true abrupt shift of the mind in the poem. The other, nested and overlapping, parenthetical phrases are shorter. The second phrase, ending with “Stood in the room without soil—” is interrupted by sixteen lines; lines which are in turn interrupted by (beginning with “A sap in the limbs”) the five concluding lines of the first parenthetical. This resumed expression is likewise severed by the second parenthetical rekindled. Therefore, one might read (coherently): “Beyond the streets of the living— …  / … —we had camped in scrub”. Similarly, “A sap in the limbs” resumes from “Stood in the room without soil—” and (now that I write about it) also the first thought. One might read, therefore: “No one is reconciled, tho we spring / From the ground together— / … / A sap in the limbs”.

“Return” is a very slippery and, yet, elegant poem. Although I may never hold it in one coherent piece in the mind, I will be reading it.