Category Archives: poetry

Reality Check Haiku

Tatsumi Shimura

Image: Tatsumi Shimura, Portrait of a Lady (detail), 1930
Haiku: Reality Check Haiku, Nicky Kaa Walker

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Changelings

Fox Mask

Fox masks, wolf masks, I try them on
as if I were a savage.
Long ago I realized
from scratchings traced
on cave walls
or from dim ethnologies,
from collections hidden
in musty storerooms or museum basements,
from phrenological attempts to see
the beast in man,
how much of beast persisted.
Here was I
cursed by these foxes and their kin the wolves
to see them everywhere.

If my one-time friend the artist showed me a picture painted
of a closed garden
there was sure to be a fox who peered
from among the flowers,
a fox even the artist had not seen.
I have been cursed
for that as well, the artist crying he had not
seen the fox, he had not painted it,
but there it was
among the innocent flowers hiding
or among trees
or hidden
in a wheat field’s tawny light.

Once seen, the artist
could not unsee it
though his brush was clean
of all intent;
the creature grew
just from my trembling fingertip until
by no subterfuge of the imagination could we
ignore it and forget.
For reasons plain my friend
chose to go elsewhere with his canvases.
Why blame him?
The faces sprang
from some
uncanny pleasurable perception.

I saw them in the boles of ancient trees,
in shadows dancing upon walls
I am at last aware
that there exists
changelings
born from a fourth dimension lurking
somewhere about
and I am one of these.

I see our blighted
formalized
pollution-filled
landscape of old cans,
bottles, and oil drums,
as if it held
ghostly potentials:
that the smiling fox
who was
lives in the shrubbery,
that the buffalo wolf still howls
upon the snowy hilltop
summoning
a nonexistent pack
for hunting lost
among old skulls
the prairie grasses cover.

My childhood was preoccupied with dreams
of how to free all animals immured
in shabby local zoos,
in boxes foul,
in crates from which
the heaven sweeping hawks
still scanned their wide dominions
helplessly.
So is it now. The fox, the wolf, the coyote
the last
contenders against traps and poison
hold with grim teeth
slowly retreating
into waste lands where only coyotes run.
I am born of these,

their changeling.
Who first rocked
my cradle
or what wild thing left me
upon my parents’ doorstep
is a mystery
although
through this means I can see
faces where faces are not
and I know
a nature still
as time is still
beyond the reach of man.

You may search scarp and butte,
read Indian pictographs
on up-reared mesas,
but you will not find
or trace
more of me than is found
in two poised ears
behind my mother’s picture
or
on some rain-lashed night
a voice that barks
brief syllables
may be
at last my own.

from Notes of an Alchemist by Loren Eiseley

The Star Thrower

Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war. . . Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong. . . Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings. . .

starfishIn a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

“It’s still alive,” I ventured.

“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

…”There are not many who come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.”

He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”

The Star Thrower is part of a sixteen page essay of the same name by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977). It was published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The Star Thrower is also the title of a 1978 anthology of Eiseley’s works (including the essay) which he completed shortly before his death.

Loren Eiseley has been described as the 20th century’s answer to Henry David Thoreau. He writes in a thought-provoking, almost mystical style. He is a naturalist, poet, realist, existentialist, haunted mystic, evolutionary anthropologist, environmental advocate, historian, and human being.

This book is an anthology of his best work, selected from several past publications including some of his poetry. His reflections on humankind, time, evolution, the Earth, the natural world, the unknown, and even the very nature of existence itself are more powerful than the most dense scientific formulae or the most sacred tomes of Scripture. He looks at our mysterious universe with the eyes of a human being, and he looks at his own soul in the process… This is not the work of a theologian or a secularist; these are the stories of a complex human being who admits that there is far more in heaven and earth than we dream.

Review excerpted from Amazon.

Praise Song for the Day

Elizabeth AlexanderPraise Song for the Day
written and recited
by Elizabeth Alexander
at Obama’s inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Washington DC Mall

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama will be published as a commemorative book by Graywolf Press on Feb. 6. Alexander, who teaches at Yale University, read the poem immediately after Obama’s inaugural address Tuesday. The book will be titled “Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration.” Alexander is the fourth poet to compose a special poem for an inauguration, following Robert Frost, for John F. Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams, for Bill Clinton.

Scottish Rap

No Rabbie BurnsRap music originated in the medieval taverns of Scotland rather than the mean streets of the Bronx and Brooklyn, an American academic has claimed.

Professor Ferenc Szasz argued that so-called rap battles, where two or more performers trade elaborate insults, derive from the ancient Caledonian art of “flyting”.

According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States, where it was adopted and developed by slaves, emerging many years later as rap.

“The Scots have a lengthy tradition of flyting – intense verbal jousting, often laced with vulgarity, that is similar to the dozens that one finds among contemporary inner-city African-American youth.

“Both cultures accord high marks to satire. The skilled use of satire takes this verbal jousting to its ultimate level – one step short of a fist fight.”

Flyting is a contest of insults, often conducted in verse. The word has been adopted by social historians from Scots usage of the fifteenth and sixteenth century in which bards would engage in public verbal contests of high-flying, extravagant abuse structured in the form of a poetic joust; the classic written example is The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie, which records a gloriously scurrilous contest between the poets Walter Kennedy and William Dunbar.

Echoes of the genre continue into modern poetry. Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, for example, has many passages of flyting in which the poet’s opponent is, in effect, the rest of humanity.

The academic, who specializes in American and Scottish culture at the University of New Mexico, made the link in a new study examining the historical context of Robert Burn’s work.

Comparing flyting and rap battles, he said: “Two people engage in ritual verbal duelling and the winner has the last word in the argument, with the loser falling conspicuously silent.”

Source: The Telegraph.

Image: From the book cover for No’ Rabbie Burns, by Stuart Macfarlane under the pen name, Stuart McLean.

The Impossibility of Translating Poetry

notebook of roses and civilizationWhen work took Erin Moure to Montreal for the first time in 1984, she admits that she could “barely cope” with the language.

Early last year, with poet/novelist/playwright Robert Majzels, she embarked on a French-to-English translation of Cahier de roses et de civilisation, a 2003 book by Nicole Brossard, one of Quebec’s most important poets. It took her and Majzels almost three months to complete the project, published last fall by Toronto’s Coach House Books as Notebook of Roses and Civilization.

The 88-page volume has gone on to be short-listed for the 2007 Governor-General’s Award for translation. And in April, it was one of three texts nominated for the Canadian side of the Griffin Prize.

Moure is hardly a stranger to Brossard’s work. Notebook of Roses and Civilization is the third Brossard translation she and Majzels have completed. Nor is Moure a stranger to writing poetry. She has been nominated for seemingly every Canadian poetry prize, including two nods, in 2002 and 2006, for the Griffin, and five for the Governor-General’s award, in a writing career spanning more than 30 years.

Translation is a fraught exercise, of course. As Moure notes, “Languages aren’t equivalent. The register even of the word ‘I’ and ‘je’ is so different. You think of these things as equivalent on a practical basis, from day to day … but day-to-day language is not as precise as the use of language in poetry.”

And in the case of Brossard’s work, there are “challenges because she has a kind of tone and register, on what we call the macro and micro level, that we have to maintain.” Plus, Brossard does things in French that are “syntactically strange that we have to find a way of doing in English as well.”

While Notebook of Roses and Civilization “is necessarily different from the book in French,” Moure stressed that she and her collaborator tried “to stick very, very closely to providing the same experience to a reader in English as a reader in French – inasmuch as that is possible because readers bring to texts their culture.”

Brossard, 65 this year, has won at least two Governor-General’s awards in French-language poetry. Yet her fierce rejection of conventions of grammar, punctuation, narrative and logic, of what’s been called “the natural speech lyric,” have made her a sort of “poet’s poet.”

For Moure, the fact that today’s so-called common reader often doesn’t “understand a lot of contemporary poetry at the get-go” is a quibble. “We don’t demand this of life itself. Find me someone who understands life. I’m 53, and I don’t understand it. I understand certain things; I have certain reference points. I get through the day and I love it – but something always happens to throw me for a loop.

Excerpted from James Adams, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2008

All Our Wonder Unavenged

All Our Wonder UnavengedDon Domanski was born and raised on Cape Breton Island and now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His latest work, All Our Wonder Unavenged (Brick Books) recently won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

He is a poet of the holiness of subtleties, a master of mindfulness and being. His writing is a form of osmosis, spirit seeping through the details of each poem, creating a marvel of metaphysics and language distilled to purest energy. Living in the moment here is synonymous with being the moment, a transformation that is stunning to inhabit.

The nature imagery is interlaced with references to Buddhism, Greek mythology, ancient civilizations and even witches. The poems don’t transcend the material world so much as find the spirit in what we can see, touch, and hear. Domanski asserts that the deity is in all things.

my mother believed God moved the sparrows around day after day
as a teenager I believed the sparrows moved God around
all the inexhaustible crutches He leaned upon
all the underweights of silence to find His way

now the only god I believe in are the sparrows themselves

Don Domanski was recently interviewed by CBC. Here are some excerpts.

CBC: Your work brings the inanimate to life. What draws you to blur the line between the animate and inanimate world?

It probably comes from childhood originally, children blur that line all the time, giving life to inanimate objects, to toys and dolls, because they can’t imagine it otherwise. What I’m doing is making my way to presence, and blurring that line helps to draw out the inherent presence in things. My definition of life is isness, its elementary stance and grace, therefore everything is alive, simply put being equals life. Now I know this isn’t the usual definition, but still it is an ancient one, not just among children, but among people from all cultures.

I’m an animist when it comes to how I interact with the physical world. Animism is the oldest religious/spiritual practice, the base experience out of which all the other ways of the sacred have grown. So I guess you could say I’m a traditionalist of a sort, a basic believer in first experiences, whether it’s cultural or ones from childhood. There’s a very deep truth there that strikes well below the thinking level, a connection richer than language, which can give words a more inclusive depth and reach.

CBC: What draws you to geology and palaeontology as subjects for your writing?

I’ve always been interested in the natural sciences, so it seems almost instinctive that geology and palaeontology should find their way into my work. I collected fossils for fourteen years, to try and get some sense of time, some understanding of the permutations of time on life. Of course in the end it’s time out of mind, it’s impossible to grasp what two hundred million years actually means. But there were moments in this hunt for time that shone forth with a particular light I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For instance, finding the impressions of raindrops that were three hundred and fifty million years old. The rain falling on a completely different planet then we live on today. That gives a new perspective, a new appreciation of being.

I see no difference between poetry and spiritual practice

CBC Interview with Don Domanski

Brick Books

Prairie Fire Review of Books