Saturday, May 28, 2016

Remembering Poets C.K. Williams, Tomas Tranströmer, and C.D. Wright

The poetry world lost some of its giants in 2015-16. On this Memorial Weekend we want to remember them and their inestimable contributions to literature through teaching, writing, and mentoring younger poets.

Charles Kenneth (C. K.) Williams (1936—2015) won distinction as a poet, critic, and translator, garnering nearly every major poetry award. Flesh and Blood won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987. Repair won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a National Book Award finalist. The Singing won the National Book Award in 2003 and in 2005 Williams received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Williams' life and poetry are the subject of the 2012 film Tar. Of his Collected Poems (2007) Peter Campion wrote in The Boston Globe "Like Yeats and Lowell before him, he writes from the borderland between private and public life….[His poems] join skeptical intelligence and emotional sincerity, in a way that dignifies all of our attempts to make sense of the world and of ourselves. C. K. Williams has set a new standard for American poetry."


Another drought morning after a too brief dawn downpour, 
unaccountable silvery glitterings on the leaves of the withering maples— 

I think of a troop of the blissful blessed approaching Dante, 
“a hundred spheres shining,” he rhapsodizes, “the purest pearls…” 

then of the frightening brilliants myriad gleam in my lamp 
of the eyes of the vast swarm of bats I found once in a cave, 

a chamber whose walls seethed with a spaceless carpet of creatures, 
their cacophonous, keen, insistent, incessant squeakings and squealings 

churning the warm, rank, cloying air; of how one, 
perfectly still among all the fitfully twitching others, 

was looking straight at me, gazing solemnly, thoughtfully up 
from beneath the intricate furl of its leathery wings 

as though it couldn’t believe I was there, or were trying to place me, 
to situate me in the gnarl we’d evolved from, and now, 

the trees still heartrendingly asparkle, Dante again, 
this time the way he’ll refer to a figure he meets as “the life of…” 

not the soul, or person, the life, and once more the bat, and I, 
our lives in that moment together, our lives, our lives, 

his with no vision of celestial splendor, no poem, 
mine with no flight, no unblundering dash through the dark, 

his without realizing it would, so soon, no longer exist, 
mine having to know for us both that everything ends, 

world, after-world, even their memory, steamed away 
like the film of uncertain vapor of the last of the luscious rain.

Swedish poet, psychologist, and translator Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015) published 15 collections over an extensive career. He surprised the Swedish literary community by publishing his first book of poems, 17 Dikter (Seventeen Poems), in 1954 while a PhD student at Stockholm University. Tranströmer wrote of the dualities of the inner and outer worlds we each carry with us, the small moments in a life when a window of perception magically opens. Throughout his writing career he possessed an uncanny depth of perception, a wisdom and curiosity about the world due perhaps to his work as a psychologist. He first corresponded with the poet Robert Bly in 1964. They later met and Bly would become responsible for introducing his poetry to readers of English worldwide. Tranströmer received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. Read an interview with the poet here

National Insecurity
(Translated by Robin Fulton)

The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X
and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles.
As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground
so the demon merges with the opened newspaper.
A helmet worn by no one has taken power.
The mother-turtle flees flying under the water.

(Translated by Robert Bly)

2 A.M. moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.
As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember he was there
when he returns again to his view.
Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon
The train is entirely motionless.
2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars.

Carolyn (C.D.) Wright was born in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas in 1949, the daughter of a judge and a court reporter. She published over a dozen books, including ShallCross (2016); One With Others (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a National Book Award; Rising, Falling, Hovering (2008); Like Something Flying Backwards: New and Selected Poems (2007); and Tremble (1996). “Poetry is a necessity of life,” Wright once said. “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” She died unexpectedly at home in Barrington, RI, in January 2016.

Everything Good Between Men and Women

has been written in mud and butter 
and barbecue sauce. The walls and 
the floors used to be gorgeous. 
The socks off-white and a near match. 
The quince with fire blight 
but we get two pints of jelly 
in the end. Long walks strengthen 
the back. You with a fever blister 
and myself with a sty. Eyes 
have we and we are forever prey 
to each other’s teeth. The torrents 
go over us. Thunder has not harmed 
anyone we know. The river coursing 
through us is dirty and deep. The left 
hand protects the rhythm. Watch 
your head. No fires should be 
unattended. Especially when wind. Each 
receives a free swiss army knife. 
The first few tongues are clearly 
preparatory. The impression 
made by yours I carry to my grave. It is 
just so sad so creepy so beautiful. 
Bless it. We have so little time 
to learn, so much... The river 
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce. 
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.

Read poet Ben Lerner’s tribute to Wright here

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Thoughts on Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)"

Marcel Duchamp, 1912
Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)
Philadelphia Museum of Art 
A Rose is a Rose is a (No.2) Rose

She comes from nowhere,
gains speed dead center
with so much commotion
we worry about a crash
about cubes and cones
that might shatter and splinter
and we are relieved
when she arrives, five steps later
when a heel checks the body
causing her pelvis to lift, her
spine to jerk. Whiplash implied.
Her shoulders screech backwards
into the figure before, into
the self of but a split second prior.

That is the whole story.
Charge down the steps.
At the bottom, dig in heels.
Rush to stop to show
shadows and facets, the harsh angles
of id. Perpetual motion, she is
humanity stumbling, rushing
headlong into WWI. Or not.
Maybe her dissembling self
is mere metaphor, imploring
time itself to stop and us to smell
the roses down the street
in Gertrude’s drawing room.

Problems Posed by (No.2)

When is a pose is no longer a pose?
How much to or fro till it’s a pantomime?
Does imminent danger make a picture moving?
Does hard work make it lurid?

How many times did (No. 2) descend before Duchamp deemed the work complete?
Did (No.1) not make the cut?
Did she run the steps endlessly or stand each one separately?
What about those hard, swollen gams in the middle frame?
Do you feel sorry for the model?

Was communication between them politically correct?
Did she know she was being artistically abused?
Was (No. 2) hurrying to a different atelier, to a real artist, seeking respect?
Can she hear war in the offing, eardrum-shattering canons to come?
Was she the first person forced to run steps for a living?

Look Again (No.2)

Dulled yellows, flat browns
unexciting greys on beige
imbed (No.2) into
a splintered stairwell, an
impoverished pallet
of late afternoon when artists
view a canvas through
the nose of a glass
of beer or cognac
and the work bricks up.
The time of day when
honest painters rip pastels
from the sky like Band-Aids
from a wound, allowing
the human condition
to step outside for a good cry,
when even a Monet splash of
fragrant light is useless
against the onslaught
of the unknowable.

We move with her
because we too are in a rush
also painted in impoverished
colors and dissembling
for the world to see, racing our
expectations and apprehensive.
Having hardly succeeded in
descending five shallow steps,
we see how well expressed she is,
how historically normal it is
to jerk backwards,
dig in those heels,
to fear a hidden pit,
the trap door releasing
into loneliness
at the end of the day.

Originally from Philadelphia, Jacalyn Carley moved to Berlin shortly after graduating from university and spent 20 years as a modern dancer. She has published four books—two novels and two nonfiction books—in German translation only. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Silver Birch Press, Mississippi Review, NPR Berlin, and local Berlin expat journals. She is currently working on a collection of poems, The Drawing Room, that deal with the nude in the studio, in painting, and some who are stubbornly incognito. Carley directs Sarah Lawrence College's Summer Arts in Berlin program, and also donates time to help refugees in Berlin. Read more at