February 25, 2020


Mirja Paljakka/by permission

A person steps outside, looks at the night sky, comes in transformed. That's what happens in Yves Bonnefoy's "Hopkins Forest." It's not all that happens, even though in many poems it would be plenty. The speaker dreams, remembers, compares, contemplates language, time, and mortality, and walks in the forest where those thoughts rise and rest.

Going outside at night in the country is a chance to feel the presence of mystery. It's almost inevitable. Filling a bucket of water and looking up at the sky, Bonnefoy's speaker finds it looks different than it had a moment before. The "deepest blackness" (I'm using Emily Grosholz's translation throughout) is marked only by the Milky Way, appearing as a "brazier from which a coil of smoke" rises, as remote as it is brilliant. I picture the small hibachi we used to cook on long after dark, or any bonfire, transferred to a vast realm.

February 22, 2020


Yves Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Grosholz)


I went outside
To draw some water from the well, beside the trees,
And I was in the presence of another sky.
Gone the constellations of a moment before,
Three quarters of the firmament were empty,
The deepest blackness alone held sway there,
Except that on the left, above the horizon,
Mixed in the crown of trees,
There was a mass of glowing stars
Like a brazier, from which a coil of smoke rose.

I went inside
And re-opened the book upon the table.
Page after page,
There were only indecipherable signs,
Aggregates of forms that made no sense
Despite their vague recurrence,
And underneath a whiteness, an abyss
As if what we call spirit were falling there,
Quietly, like snow.
Nonetheless, I turned the pages.

Many years before,
On a train at dawn
Between Princeton Junction and Newark,
That’s to say, for me two accidental places,
Where two arrows from nowhere happened to fall,
The travellers were reading, silent
In the snowfall that swept the gray train windows.
And suddenly,
In an open newspaper one seat over,
A big photograph of Baudelaire,
A whole page
As if the sky emptied at the end of the world
In order to consent to the disorder of words.

I compared this dream and this memory
As I walked, at first throughout an autumn
In woods where soon enough the snow
Triumphed, in many of those signs
That we receive, contradictory,
From a world devastated by language.
The conflict of two principles resolved,
It seemed to me, two lights commingled.
The edges of the wound were closed.
The white mass of the cold fell in great heaps
Over color, except for a distant roof, a painted
Plank, set up against a fence,
There was still color, as mysterious
As he who might have walked out of the tomb and,
Said “No, don’t touch me,” to the world.

Truly, I owe much to Hopkins Forest.
I keep it on my horizon, along the line
That abandons the visible for the invisible
Where the blue of distance shimmers.
I hear it, across other sounds, and even sometimes,
In summer, pushing my feet through dead leaves from
Other years, pale in the shadow
Of oak trees crowded together among the stones,
I stop, I think the ground has opened
Onto the infinite, that these leaves fall here
Unhurrying, or indeed mount, for high and low
No longer exist, nor sound, except for the soft
Whispering of snowflakes, that soon
Multiply, draw near together, knot.
- And I see then that other sky,
I enter for a moment into the great snow.

from Beginning and End of the Snow (Bucknell UP 2012). By permission.
Image, Mirja Paljakka. By permission.

February 13, 2020


Jami Macarty on birds, the colour yellow, and being and presence in poetry.
Photo by Vincent K. Wong
SUSAN GILLIS: What brought you to poetry -- or poetry to you?

JAMI MACARTY: Wow! From my point of view, this is a rather deep, philosophical question. Who knows? What brings us to anything? Are we brought to things or do we bring things to us? Buddhist teachings would say that though it seems like things are coming to us, we are giving our attention to things. Ultimately, it’s a mystery, is it not? To play along, I’ll riff on some instances of people who “brought” poetry to me. Mrs. (Betty) Towle, my third grade teacher, required students to memorize and then recite a poem in class. I chose Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Time to Rise” from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

           A birdie with a yellow bill
           Hopped upon the window sill.
           Cocked his shiny eye and said :
          ‘Ain’t you ’shamed, you sleepy-head ?’

The quatrain’s last line still reminds itself to me on occasion. The poem contains other elements that have remained with me: bird, yellow. I’ve always liked yellow. The yellow of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” and “Wheatfield with Crows,” both also introduced to me by Mrs. Towle. Robert Hass’s poem “The Yellow Bicycle” is a long-time favorite; it contains the elements of a perfect poem, as far as I’m concerned.

I wrote an entire poem (Mind of Spring, winner of the 2017 Vallum Chapbook Award) about yellow—the yellow blossoms of Arizona State Tree, the palo verde. Was it Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem that led me to collect poems in which color factors prominently, e.g. James Tate’s “The Blue Booby” and Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”? Maybe. Hass’s lines from “The Yellow Bicycle” --

           Her song to the yellow bicycle:
           The boats on the bay
           have nothing on you,
           my swan, my sleek one!

Tate’s and Stevens’ poems focus to some extent on birds. Practically every bird and everything about

February 6, 2020


Tomas Tranströmer 

Trött på alla som kommer med ord, ord men inget spark
for jag till den snötäckta ön.
Det vilda har inga ord.
De oskrivna sidorna breder ut sig åt alla håll!
Jag stöter på sparen av rådjursklövar i snön.
Språk men inga ord.


Tired of all who come with words, words but no language,
I headed for the snow-covered island. 
The wild has no words.
Unwritten pages spread out in every direction!
I come upon tracks of roe deer in the snow.
Language but no words. 

From Bright Scythe, translated by Patty Crane. By permission. 
Image by Mirja Paljakka. By permission.