December 19, 2019


A family of wild turkeys roosts in the trees around Willow Pond. Mornings, they swoop down and  muster in the field, milling around till all seven (in August there were nine) are present. Then they parade, each in its own quirky style, up to and around the house, through the gate, across the hill and into the woods, pecking for seed as they go. They cover this territory many times a day, calling out in high reedy notes and odd bark-like chirps. Their tracks quilt the snow-covered yard in a chaotic map, an image of their foraging.

"Language trespasses on a white page which, like snow, creates a space of pure potentiality," writes Clive Scott in his introduction to Belgian poet François Jacqmin's The Book of the Snow (translated by Philip Mosley). Both page and snow, he writes, are spaces of "origins yet to be realized, where all is still intact."

Tracks on a white field.

     Who will make sense of
     the enigmatic walk you take when
     all is whitened out?
A lot is happening in these opening lines. An ordinary walk becomes enigmatic when its tracks have filled in with snow. A walk that is enigmatic may nevertheless be made sense of, until it snows. And maybe the walk isn't even taken until all is covered in snow. This multiplicity opens the way to the poem's eventual arrival in a "there" that is beyond place, "an essence that is no longer a fuss of places."

Rhythmically, these lines in their English version establish an excited start that is both interrupted and propelled onward by the unstressed syllables that close the first two lines. This rhythmic flurry of uncertainty is carried throughout the poem.

Most of Jacqmin's poems in this collection enact similar uncertainties. "If Jacqmin writes one hundred and twelve dizains," Scott tells us, "it is because the experiment of utterance must be tried again and again, and must be repeatedly allowed to fail." Here's another beginning:

     Hounded by the night, the snow pushed the door
     and advanced to the heart of the abode.
     It penetrated
     like those gentle convictions you have 
     in dreams.

Like a folk tale, this poem confers agency and intention on snow. It enters the speaker's world, installs itself at the hearth. There, tired of itself, it awaits the speaker's "compassionate shadow." Whether the shadow, or the speaker, will join it is not known; the poem ends with the waiting. In this construction the inner self is experienced as an equivalent to snow: a space of potentiality.

As in a dream, anything could happen.

Philip Mosley's translation of François Jacqmin's The Book of the Snow (Arc Visible Poets) was a finalist for the 2011 Griffin Award. Read and listen to an excerpt here.

November 28, 2019


Image: Mirja Pljakka/by kind permission

I woke before dawn to distant low rumbling and a whistle, faint and attenuated: the early freight train moving through the valley. Snow had fallen overnight, enough to insulate the house a little and to reveal the tracks of creatures that move around outside it: squirrels, wild turkeys, propane delivery truck, us.

"One must have a mind of winter," goes Wallace Stevens' poem "The Snow Man", to meet its beauty -- "junipers shagged with ice," "distant glitter," the sound of wind in dry leaves -- and not to "think / Of any misery" there.

I could say the passing train sounded lonely, or cold, or plangent. It did stir those feelings. I could note that the snow over the chrysanthemums struck some grief-chord that chrysanthemums without a snow cover don't.

What would it mean to have a mind of winter? Out there things are cold, still, dormant. Would it be a mind like that? Or would it be a mind like a hibernating creature, one that steers its actions toward preservation, conservation, efficiency?

Cultivating a mind of winter in our era, the sixth great species extinction, might be useful. Every day we learn of more loss. Many of us are experiencing solastalgia, distress caused by environmental change, a boundless grief for past and future, and seeking ways to cope with it, feeling helpless.

To "behold / Nothing that is not there," Stevens writes, one must quiet the imagination and allow oneself to become "nothing," part of "the nothing that is." That's one mind of winter.

Then from there, from the other mind of winter, to act.

I watched the sun appear through thin trees. In a few minutes it was strong. The white field sparkled in its light. Already the house was becoming warm.

Here's a trailer for the short film Solastalgia directed by Millefiore Clarkes, written by Tanya Davis and another short film, same title, directed by Pascal Tremblay and Sean Stiller, written by Craig Santos Perez.

November 12, 2019


This haiku by Buson appeared in my social media feeds recently, posted by American poet Sean Singer.

                           I go,
                    you stay;
                           two autumns.

How well I know it!

Its simple arithmetic of movement and stasis neatly sums up the late Augusts of my last twenty or so years: summer comes to a close; I leave my partner and rural home and writing life for the city and my teaching job.

Now, though, I've left that job, and for the first time in a long time I experience autumn in increments instead of decisive dates. Small pockets of shadow in a warm garden, a pinkish hue in the woods, fruit fallen from trees. Bear scat close to the fence. Look, a dragonfly! We'd thought they were gone. Writing no longer happens in the off-season, in a second home. It happens, or doesn't, period. What will that be like?

Buson's poem speaks directly, and deftly, of parting: friends, perhaps, or lovers. The separation itself becomes a form of autumn -- or rather two forms, for the person who goes has a different experience of separation from the one who stays. And couldn't the I and the you be the same person, youth falling back, age moving in?

I haven't read a lot of Buson. Generally among the classical haiku masters I've been more drawn to the sharp turns of Issa and resonant depths of Basho. (Robert Hass's The Essential Haiku, where this Buson poem is from, has been a favorite source.)

Here's another Buson autumn haiku, also posted by Singer:

                    Crossing the autumn moor --
               I keep hearing
                    someone behind me!

and from Basho:
                    Seeing people off,
               being seen off --
                    autumn in Kiso.

Loss, diminishment, drawing in: the genre of autumn poems isn't confined to haiku. To catalogue a very few others: Jean Valentine's "October Premonition," the same author's "October morning", both also recently shared by Singer (whose regular posting of poems and excerpts from poets' letters, diaries, etc, is one of the best things in my social media); whole families of Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness; the autumn leaf-burning that pervades the pages of Louise Glück's A Village Life: 
               The fire burns up into the clear sky,
               eager and furious, like an animal trying to get free,
               to run wild as nature intended --

And the shiver (I see it in yellow aspen leaves across the pond) that is Alice Oswald's luminous poem, "Almost as Transparent." Listen as she observes the birches: "And all those half-finished half-beginnings of forms, being made of both the clarity and ambiguity of autumn, could not have been more tree-like. No human could grow like that: the more upright, the less certain."

From this stance of wonder, the poem moves to a transformation in which the human, herself made of clarity and ambiguity, "vitrified," could not be more tree-like.

I go and I stay, two autumns.

November 5, 2019


In today's post, poet-musician Anne Archer considers Patrick Kavanagh's "On Raglan Road."

A few months ago, on a whim or perhaps a nudge from the cosmos, I spent a morning listening to various versions of On Raglan Road, a poem by the 20th-century Irish writer Patrick Kavanagh, set to The Dawning of the Day, a 17th-century tune attributed to Thomas Connelan.

At first hearing, the narrative seemed familiar—a ballad of unrequited love in which the lover knows from the start that the love is doomed. He predicts that the beloved's 'dark hair will weave a snare,' and hopes that his impending grief will be ephemeral and passing, 'a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.' Shades of Down by the Salley Gardens, I thought. Though we never hear directly from the object of the speaker's affection, I assumed that, like the beloved in Yeats's ballad, Kavanagh's dark-haired girl bids him 'take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree.' Whether 'young and foolish,' as in Yeats's case, or reputedly old and jaded, as in Kavanagh's ballad, both speakers love 'too much,' and hence forfeit happiness. Same old story, case closed.

Well, not quite. There's a quirk in Kavanagh's poem that continues to puzzle and haunt and intrigue me. On Raglan Road veers from -- or rather, off -- that 'old high way of love' (pace WB). Unlike Yeats's lover, who is 'full of tears' at the end of the poem, Kavanagh's speaker is ostensibly more relieved than rueful. In fact, he had almost made a fatal mistake, and acknowledges: 'That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay--/When the angel woos the clay he'd lose his wings at the dawn of the day.' Hmmmm.

The lyrics seem to suggest that the beloved, who is made of clay, is earthbound, and, well, common. The lover, on the other hand, is not only an 'artist' who has 'known the true gods of sound and clay,' but an 'angel,' apparently godlike. The lover’s lack of humility here is matched by his petulance in the penultimate stanza: 'I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign.' Oh, you silly girl, the speaker seems to crow, for who indeed could resist, not just poems, but 'the secret sign,' an unfortunate phrase which is akin in my mind to a misplaced masonic handshake? How very Henry Higgins!

And yet, the tone in the various sung versions is anything but arrogant or spiteful or malicious. In fact, it’s hard to pin down, possibly because there is a general clumsiness to the poem that endearingly undercuts the denouement. Not only is the syntax convoluted in places—try singing the lyrics, and you don’t know where to put the emphasis—but some of the rhymes are obsessive and throwaway. 'Too much' is paired with 'such and such,' and the line, 'The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay' is both arresting and silly. Here is the heart of the poem, so to speak, according to my band mate, Shane Dunne, and I see his point: I am moved by these images even as I cringe.

Not long ago, my group, The Kingston Ceili Band recorded On Raglan Road. We had just received some bad news about one of our fiddlers, and as a way of coping and of honouring our mate, we made music. Perhaps it was the sense of impending loss that made me hear the song differently.  I was struck, not by the poem’s flaws and inconsistencies, but by its beauty. The specificity of place -- 'On Raglan Road on an autumn day' and 'Grafton Street in November' -- acts to ground and transform the poem’s raw, complicated emotions. And Kavanagh meant the poem to be sung: the exquisite tune that he had in mind during the writing of the ballad lifts and shapes and releases his creation.  Have a listen…

(Click here for mobile version)

This essay is dedicated to Maggie McIver, fiddler extraordinaire.
          --- Anne Archer 

November 1, 2019


Klaus Pfeiffer, by permission

November, and here in the northern hemisphere, days are getting shorter. Light is thin and clear, or thin and grey; all but the most tenacious of leaves are down. Storms are predicted. It's the time of year some say the walls between living and dead are at their most fragile.

I dig out my painted La Catrina tile, build a little shrine with my love, light candles early. Time itself feels fragile -- a moment ago, wasn't it yesterday, wasn't I just stepping across the threshold of school on my first day? Wasn't I sitting beside my father, saying goodbye, saying hello?

Almost by accident I found three poems by Mexican poet Carmen Boullosa, whose work is new to me, in the journal Latin American Literature Today. I fell in love with those poems. Here is one.


     Everything rushes
                                   (the fish, the ant)
     and I toward the tomb,
                                   my final crinoline.

     I run, from the basting and the grammar of my dresses
                                  (great crinoline),
     toward the laughter drawn on the dead man's skull.

     "Goodbye," her final words. "Death to the power of the crinoline!"

     I travel aboard my tomb,
                                                     in a crinoline my entire life.

     said the fish,
     "I'm out of here in a crinoline."

     It journeyed and journeyed,
     the whale;
     the sea was its crinoline.

     Everything rushes,
     and I to my tomb
     to take off my crinoline.

     From the governance of the crinoline,
     they take from me an oar
                                                          and a chocolate.

                    -- Carmen Boullosa, translated by Lawrence Schimel

And this, which lives inside me, though I'm completely incapable of memorizing poems, by the great Wisława Szymborska. 


     Against a grayish sky
     a grayer cloud
     rimmed black by the sun.

     On the left, that is, the right,
     a white cherry branch with black blossoms.

     Light shadows on your dark face.
     You'd just taken a seat at the table
     and put your hands, gone gray, upon it.

     You look like a ghost
     who's trying to summon up the living.

     (And since I still number among them,
     I should appear to him and tap:
     good night, that is, good morning,
     farewell, that is, hello.
     And not grudge questions to any of his answers
     concerning life,
     that storm before the calm.)
                -- Wisława Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Images of "Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids" by Klaus Pfeiffer/by permission