Showing posts from 2013

The Slow Animal of Silence: Reading Emily Dickinson on the Winter Solstice

While it isn't exactly about the winter solstice, this poem by Emily Dickinson locks down the wintry silence that comes after a storm, a stillness that contains only the slightest shifts. It's this felt but not seen movement of heat, of life, that links me to the solstice moment, as the solar year turns toward longer, warmer days. At the beginning of this short poem, we are outside a house after a storm, on a street that has been scoured by wind and snow. The house is battened down, but not quite perfectly; birds have gone into hiding; silence has moved in and occupied the whole place. By the poem's end, we are -- at least in our imaginations -- in the snug shelter of the cellar, where apples and presumably other foods are stored. The rhythmic pattern is very balanced in this little 11-liner: a tense, regular beat of two-two-three, two-two-three, two-two-three, four-three, the tight rhyme on the end of each three-beat line making the final slant rhyme strang

Emily Dickinson: A Poem

Because Solstice, because light and more light as we move into the hardest parts of winter, because Emily, a poem: Like Brooms of Steel The Snow and Wind Had swept the Winter Street - The House was hooked The Sun sent out Faint Deputies of Heat - Where rode the Bird The Silence tied His ample - plodding Steed The Apple in the Cellar snug Was all the one that played. courtesy of Red Edge Images (Poem 1241, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin; also listed as poem 1252 in Thomas H. Johnson's edition of 1955) And I don't normally do this on my blog, but here's a link to " Solstice Night, " first published at Encore , later in The Rapids ( Brick 2012) and Best Canadian Poetry 2012 (Tightrope Books).              

In Conversation with Joe Rosenblatt

Joe Rosenblatt was one of my first poetry teachers, and the only one whose personal electrical force field was so powerful it once made the borrowed digital watch he was wearing go haywire. I recall him ripping the watch from his arm and placing it on the table; we all stared as the hours and minutes and seconds turned over at dizzying speed. I don't remember what happened next. Somehow we went on. Now Joe is about to celebrate his 80th birthday. He has generously shared some musings on poetry, painting and the spill between the two. Happy birthday, Joe! Susan Gillis: What brought you to poetry -- or what brought poetry to you? Joe Rosenblatt:  I was always the dreamer from Day One. In public school Mr. Scott my English teacher believed in Rudyard Kipling and I digested his poetry and of course the then British Empire and its virtues. If that's the right word. I guess the glory of the Empire. Canadian history wasn't in the curriculum back in the days when I was in

Joe Rosenblatt: A Poem

Joe Rosenblatt OLD AGE IS A TREE WITH DECAYING BARK Shadows are lurking in the daylight. Tentacles of my being stir and touch mottled spirits congealed in a wound. Old age is a tree with decaying bark where voices trapped in cellulose rage at sprouting rootlets in the earth.   Among unseen spores adrift in mildewed air I’d be reborn, nourished by the forest floor: I could become a child to some spongy mother   A hawk-eyed Horus awaits us in these woods. This bird of the Highest Order is in his roost. He’s there to snatch my soul and skyward bolt.   Shadows are lurking in the daylight. Elfin spirits stir under decaying leaves. We serve as food for famished fungi.   Or I could be mould on a crooked branch where woodpeckers drumming for grubs lay frantic claim to the same living tree. . Yellow tailed warblers gossip by a brook where spores of drifting memory desire Oyster mushrooms on a soggy tree trunk. Read my conversation with Joe Rosenblatt h

When the City Goes Dark: Xi Chuan's "Power Outage"

Morning, pearly-skied. A light snow marks branches, rooflines, overhead wires and hydro poles. Bright lights are twinkling in the distance over the elevated highway where it approaches the crumbling Turcotte Interchange. Traffic is gathering. I missed the famous ice storm that paralyzed Montreal in 1998, but still hear stories about how it brought people together in communities of friends, neighbours and strangers. I hear other stories too, about rivalry and greed, exploitation, isolation, but these aren't the ones that make it into the conventional accounts of the hushed beauty that lasted weeks and acts of generosity large and small. One thing that does come up, though, in any telling, is the sobering insight into just how dependent we are on the electrical power grid.   Living in the city, I depend on all the public services: snow clearing, garbage collection, clean water, heat and electricity. Paradoxically, the shared enterprise that provides them, the


_____________________________  Xi Chuan translated by Lucas Klein POWER OUTAGE A sudden power outage, and I’m convinced I live in a developing nation a nation where people read by moonlight a nation that abolished imperial exams a sudden power outage, and I hear wind chimes and a cat’s footbeats upstairs in the distance an engine stops with a thud the battery-powered radio beside me still singing once the power’s out, time turns back quickly: candles light up the little eateries the fat kid munching on crow meat notices crows gathering on trees and the pitch blackness before me like a seaswell womb a mother hangs herself from rafters each room its own special odor Power outage. I touch a slipper but mutter: “Quit hiding, matches!” in the candlelight, I see my own great big wordless shadow cast upon the wall from Xi, Chuan. Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems , translated by Lucas Klein. (NY: New Directions, 2012 ) By permiss

Sadiqa de Meijer: YES

Sadiqa de Meijer Yes, I said. The wind lifted the word and blew it through the birches into smaller yeses that dispersed. Hitched bicycle ride, my hands on your waist, soles skimming the road in the bends. What we wore will be one of those tellings that even a latent, erasing disease never steals. In tune like a robin and robin, a doorbell and creak of the stairs. Say love is the ship coming in. Say the grave eyes of the birch trees watched us go. How long had we stood on the pier? Gulls squalled. We’d outgrown what we packed. Read my interview with Sadiqa de Meijer here

In Conversation with Sadiqa de Meijer

Sadiqa de Meijer's having a busy year. She took a break to talk with me about goosebumps and awe as the sky got darker, earlier. SUSAN GILLIS: How did you come to poetry in the first place? SADIQA DE MEIJER: It’s been with me from the near-beginning – in children’s books, and also in the occasional verses that my grandfather wrote for birthdays and other celebrations. He encouraged me to contribute: it didn’t have the feeling of an art so much as a game, like chess or something – you had to try for consistent meter, clever rhymes, puns. It gave me a start in exercising those kinds of skills. Poems really got to me – they seemed to hold such concentrated power. When they were read out loud in high school, I always had a weird suspicion that they affected me far beyond what was typical – goosebumps and awe. Writing-wise, there was the predictable next stage: poems of adolescent melodrama. And when that resolved, I continued writing, and reading. It’s probably the lat

In Conversation with Phil Hall

 Phil Hall. Portrait by geffo I would love to be a fly on Phil Hall's desk. A fly with ears.  I think Phil's desk is a swatter-free zone. A deeply generous zone. Here he is, on raw decorum and other songs.   SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry in the first place? PHIL HALL: I was desperate for order. Shelter. I built hidden forts everywhere. I needed—and still do—a musical place to keep my only and tiny authority.   A musical need —the jarring, discordant, random ugliness of childhood would not let up. Only— powerlessness can be underwear the dead wore first. But— only screwed-up me made this / using the little I know. Tiny— inside the making of poems, the authority I find has to be easy to hide—it has to eat its flourishes, or risk the crime of showing-off— I wasn’t doing anything, just humming to myself, plotting transformation… Outsider artists know something that is glaringly obvious—something that we educated types deny in favour of crit

Phil Hall: A New Poem

Phil Hall from Lake’s End   Early      can still catch      out      writing at its oldest posture to set down care alone      & quiet matters      personal defiant fleet   to dare from self-loathing      the eternal      & then erase it I want little more      have always wanted       the littles      more        now than      another morning to say      what’s been said      already another morning      to waste      figuring out       uselessly      how to   stick in somewhere here      screws for dragon-fly lights      (a note I found)      I want this in my poem      is all      & ruin at bay      for my loved ones Read my interview with Phil Hall here

In Conversation with Katia Grubisic

photo by J. Parr A few weeks ago I caught up with Katia Grubisic over a beverage at one of our favorite drinkeries. We talked between bites of extravagantly delicious cheese and bread. SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry? KATIA GRUBISIC: I only heard this story a few years ago, long after my apparent début. Apparently, when I was about three, I marched into the living room, planted myself there and declaimed “La nuit est noire. La nuit / est noire.” The line break is my father’s recollection, or addition. Observed detail with figurative implications, the undermining and expanding of repetition…. Ta-dah! I could very well have become a Duke of Hazzard, and now be recounting the family lore in which Katia refused to get in or out of the car except through the window. But I’ve had that little, inexplicable poetry elf whispering in my ear for as long as I can remember: lines, ways of looking at the world. I also recall that first awareness that there exist


Katia Grubisic PARADISE , DAM, NORTH SHORE It prods with its beak the heaving flanks, lets the fish wait for death. The heron too waits. Its feet wrap the rock like gnarled lichen and its breath rises and ends someplace deep and slow. Desire is a vertiginous warmth spread slowly; has it really to do with hunger? I trace circles on the shale, my scratch in this ordinary riparian melodrama: the dammed river, the rapids’ patient frenzy, the black-capped night herons lined up on the shore, poised, eager and pathetic but the one who gets it is the great grey-blue, who dips in and spears the carp, forces the skin apart, slits it like a mouth before swallowing it whole. There is no forethought to concupiscence. We are thinking of paradise, which is not thinking at all. We like the enfolding conflagration, we like swallowing it whole. Later I will barely recall that moment’s mindless hunt as I push against my lover, not telling of t

So Many Someones: Wislawa Szymborska's The End and the Beginning

The Last Post, the moment of silence (smell of Dustbane in the school auditorium, soft breathing nearby, a throat cleared, stiff rustle of wool sleeves, the gym floor creaking lightly), the act of remembrance. "In Flanders Fields" again instead of Wilfred Owen . A felt poppy on a collar. The rows of shining medals, the poppy as badge,  ceremonies that celebrate it all, glorification of war as itself, as enterprise. I can’t decide if this poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska makes me want to wear a poppy (“But already there are those nearby/starting to mill about/ who will find it dull”) or not wear a poppy (“Those who knew /what was going on here /must make way for/ those who know little”).  It's recognizable Szymborska: the typical direct-seeming understatement underpinned by sharp images, at moments brutal in their straightforwardness. I find it heavier-handed than many of her poems. The wagons, the scum, the unsevered head; the dr


Wisława Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak  After every war someone has to clean up. Things won’t straighten themselves up, after all. Someone has to push the rubble to the side of the road, so the corpse-filled wagons can pass. Someone has to get mired in scum and ashes, sofa springs, splintered glass, and bloody rags. Someone has to drag in a girder to prop up a wall. Someone has to glaze a window, rehang a door. Photogenic it’s not, and takes years. All the cameras have left for another war. We’ll need the bridges back, and new railway stations. Sleeves will go ragged from rolling them up. Someone, broom in hand, still recalls the way it was. Someone else listens and nods with unsevered head. But already there are those nearby starting to mill about who will find it dull.


Franz Wright DEPICTION OF CHILDHOOD after Picasso It is the little girl guiding the minotaur with her free hand-- that devourer and all the terror he's accustomed to effortlessly emanating, his ability to paralyze merely by becoming present, entranced somehow, and transformed into a bewildered and who knows, grateful gentleness... and with the other hand lifting her lamp.


Courtesy of RGBStock Images Did it just start raining, or did I just start seeing it? Morning, early, and I'm at my study window, thinking about the way parts of a poem come forward as I read or listen, while other parts recede. When I was very young my father took me to an exhibition of giant images projected on a screen that broke into huge moving blocks, sliding forward and back silently, a precursor of 3D pixelation, of holography, that terrified me. The world was breaking up before my eyes! It was a terror that fascinated me. I have little memory of the images themselves. Was there a story? I don't recall; it was a pastiche, full of unpredictable life and movement. Diapolyecran, Czechoslovakia Pavilion, Expo 67 In poems, the advance-and-recede effect creates a quality I want to handle. Not texture, but pliability. Pattern that isn't decoration. Pattern that is its own structure. In "Depiction of Childhood, " Franz Wright guides u


A little Emily Dickinson for this Hallowe'en, from Bartleby . I've seen it punctuated differently -- dashes mid-line, dashes at line ends, and so on -- but the creepy mood remains. Has moss ever seemed more sinister? I DIED for beauty, but was scarce Adjusted in the tomb, When one who died for truth was lain In an adjoining room.    He questioned softly why I failed?         5 “For beauty,” I replied. “And I for truth,—the two are one; We brethren are,” he said.    And so, as kinsmen met a night, We talked between the rooms,         10 Until the moss had reached our lips, And covered up our names.

In Conversation with Stephanie Bolster

I've enjoyed Stephanie Bolster’s poetry and conversation for a long time. She spoke with me in Montreal about about-ness and other matters while the leaves were still on the trees . SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry? STEPHANIE BOLSTER: First, an immediacy. A means of talking to myself that got to the heart of things, and that I imagined I could share with others. Like many children, I was brought to poetry very early on, as a reader and in grade two I had my first vivid experience of making, through haiku. That I remember my little poem shows that it was important, as I don't remember much else about that year, or most years of elementary school, for that matter. But the image of the garden in my poem (“My mini garden / of crocuses and snowdrops. / Tiny though lovely”) was real, compelling in the way a dream image is. And it was mine. As a shy child who spoke a lot at home but not much in public, I appreciated the intimacy of poetry (and, I see now, th