Sunday, April 5, 2015

Poet Phil Levine and Degas Give Us an Art Lesson

We are overdue for a tribute to poet Philip Levine, who died February 14.  He grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression and worked factory jobs for Cadillac and Chevrolet. Levine didn’t publish his first volume of verse until his mid-30s, but over time he became one of the country’s most honored poets. 

He won the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards before serving as poet laureate in 2011 and 2012. Levine never really left the world of blue-collar workers, writing about a world of sweat and muscle seldom seen in American poetry since Carl Sandburg. “I believed,” he said in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.”

After teaching for many years at California State University at Fresno, he became a visiting professor at Princeton, Brown, Columbia, New York University, and other prestigious schools. His worst students, he said, were Ivy Leaguers who were shocked to learn that their poems were no good. He preferred the working-class students of Fresno State, who seemed more receptive to the notion that a poem, like a car’s transmission, sometimes needed to be rebuilt.

About the following “imaginary art lesson” Levine explained that he placed it in 1942 because that was when, as a student at Detroit’s Durfee High School, he discovered poetry. To hear him read the poem aloud, click here

Messieur Degas Teaches Art and Science 
at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit, 1942
Cafe Concert at Les Ambassadeurs
1876-77

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "what have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "you've broken a piece
of chalk." Messieur Degas did not smile.
"what have I done" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "Messieur Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
After the Bath, 1898
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this could go on for another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. Messieur Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I

knew this could go on forever.
Sunrise, 1896




Friday, March 20, 2015

Warren Meredith Harris Meets Marc Chagall in "The Soul of the City"

Warren Meredith Harris’ collection, The Night Ballerina: A Poem Sequence in Seven Parts, was published by BrickHouse Books in 2012. His poems appear in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Pembroke Magazine, The Main Street Rag, Ekphrasis, The Penwood Review (UK), The Anglican Theological Review, The Jewish Literary Journal, The Howl, Edgz, Poem, Big River Poetry Review, freefall, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Flaming Arrows  (Ireland), and others. He has held three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, served as editor of a literary magazine, and written verse plays and adaptations, some of which have been performed in Chicago, Virginia, and New York City, including a broadcast on New York City public radio.

Night Life
Marc Chagall, The Cowshed, 1917

A steer's head, 
gigantic, crescent-eyed,
projects through the roof
of a slaughter shed
into the black and heavy blues
of the star-speckled night.

Red spatters an injured horn,
flecks a corner of the eye,
stains the window lintels.

A deep bovine bellow
softens into words:

"I see the butchers
wiping their knives on the grass,
the boy with curly hair who whispers
he will not taste of me—
though I know he will!
I see thousands of the Tsar's boys
beneath the soil,
the Tsar's troops, Russians and Jews,
in shallow pits.
 
"The butchers are praying
for an end of it there,
by the banks of the Stypa,
that our village be spared. 
They have smeared my blood
on the window frames,
and already the death angel
has passed by!

"The night is alive. 
I see through the darkness
swimmers in the starry river
and drifters on rafts
between the banks
of deep turquoise hedgerows.

"I see hidden
beneath the distant roofs
some who are whispering
over the remnants of their supper
as the little ones sleep,
some laughing
between swills of vodka,
or studying Torah,
or weeping over the Passion,
some praying,
or washing, or sleeping,
or making music or love.

"All is well.  Enjoy this night
and savor the thought of tomorrow,
when I will be for you
the aromatic feast
from the roasting pot."
Marc Chagall, The Soul of the City, 1945

Two Women

White spirit, swirl down
as trailing gown, breasts,
and hair-dark inward eyes.
Disembodied face, breathe on me
breath of the faded synagogue,
the dark, snowy street,
and a dream blue horse and driver.

Umber-haired lover,
press to your warmth
a willing cockerel, so that I,
a lost Janus, can again take brush
and make a Jew crossed,
forsaken until he gazes
on the temple's fiery curtain.


Birth

Celebration?  Too soon and hard in the large room with dull orange walls.  At a corner stand bearded men, and one of them signing to skeletal faces outside a window with his index finger up—it's a boy!
 
Marc Chagall, Birth, 1910
At an inside doorway other men's heads line up like scrolls on temple shelves.  Crimson curtains, deep, dark folds, hide from their male eyes the blotchy-faced,  exhausted mother, still naked and bloody.  An erect midwife displays the son, while a figure — the father — peeks from darkness at the foot of the bed, pulls himself off the floor, and speaks:

"Ah!  What sounds!  What sights!  Maybe a soldier gets used to such things, not ordinary men.  I don't expect Eden.  But this!  Why, Lord?  Birth as scary as death?

"I'd like to have a word or two with Adam.  Such a schmuck!  To throw away the Garden for a woman!  Except for him, I could be right now in the synagogue by golden lamplight studying Torah in peace, making my point to Ezra and Moyshe (the blockheads), while back at home, my new son would be arriving as easy as a loaf of bread from out of the oven — no need for all this sweating and screaming and bleeding — and maybe dying.
 
"Did I cause this?  I only followed your words, Lord.  I found the joints of her thighs—jewels indeed.  And I got me to the mountain of myrrh.... 

"Ah!  So I'm a schmuck, too!  Now I know what the old men mean when they say, 'A man studies until he is seventy, and dies a fool.'  So be it.  But if I could, I would spend the rest of my days only swimming in the sea of Talmud!" 




Thursday, March 5, 2015

Steve Klepetar Plants "Four Trees" with Egon Schiele



Steve Klepetar's work has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, including three in 2014. His most recent collection is an e-chapbook, Return of the Bride of Frankenstein, from Kind of a Hurricane Press. Klepetar teaches English literature at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota. Read more on his website here.



Mahana No Atua
(Day of the Gods)
by Paul Gauguin, 1894
Mahana No Atua by Paul Gauguin, 1894

On
the day of the god, she
lowers her feet into terrible

waters, bleeds her
wide
stream, red silk over sand

pink as melon flesh, war
as her sun-stained
skin,

head tilted, hair disappearing
in black swoops beyond

her shoulders
and back
to broken rainbow

haunting water's surface,
playing deep
tunnels

of her eyes, mysterious
as dreams of sleeping children

curled up
into themselves,
naked at her naked side.

The Artist Marcella, 1910
by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner    

The Artist Marcella

broods on
a blue chaise longue
in yellow and blue striped dress
ignoring the fat white
cat curled

on her pale knees. And now she's
angles in blue with tea things
clashing
on a silver tray, shaft of cigarette plugged

in scarlet lips. See

Erna with Cigarette, 1915
by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner  
her hands, so strangely
bent, one stroking the other, to soothe
or perhaps
keep time with a drumbeat

that syncopates her mind as she glances
away from
her worried guest. Flocks
of starlings float before her eyes, little
ghosts

of some nostalgia she has flung
into the street where a naked woman
tumbles
across a horse gouging circles with its bright red mane.


Four Trees
After the painting by Egon Schiele, 1917

Four oaks on a mountain plain,
three with
crowns of orange gold
Four Trees by Egon Schiele, 1917
as sun sinks toward a jagged peak.
One is nearly bare,
its few leaves
clinging, rags on emaciated limbs.
Striations of sky appear
through
gaps, thick bands of white, gray,
and brown, with few traces
of
blazing red, a hectic color in this
slowly fading light. No grass,
just
these great, deep rooted things
which grip this hard, high
place,
waiting in windless air for night
to rise just beyond the dying
sun.