Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bitter Oleander v. 17, n. 1

I just read The Bitter Oleander v. 17, n. 1. Great stuff. I liked the side-by-side translations of poems in Chinese, French, Spanish and Estonian. I also liked the inclusion of short fiction. Here’s my favorite poem:

“Fragmentation” – Philip Todd

     For a long while now it’s only been a man and his garden rock.
     The garden’s not much—just a patch of yard with scattered thistle, clover, dandelions, crabgrass.
     Before this the man had his one wife. When she left there was no wife. Only the rock in the garden was left.
     Years ago the rock was almost buried. The man dug it out when he built the house. He built the house when he had the one wife.
     The rock was large, really too large to roll, and colorless, caked with grime and grit. Rain washed the exposed rock. Soon streaks of color surfaced, baked by the bright sun, highlighted by the moon.
     So, long after the one wife had left, they sat in a scruffy garden—a man, his one rock. No words exchanged, just the sound of wind between them, ruffling the man’s beard, passing smoothly over the rock’s surface.
     The man was prone to smile at his rock, its colors now bleached. He would raise it with both hands, fingering its grainy texture, probing its crevices.
     Rock solid, he whispered to himself on more than one occasion.
     One day the sight of the rock in the middle of the garden stopped him cold. The rock, weathered by the elements, had split apart along a deep crevice.
     The man fell to his knees before the fragmented rock and stared. One rock plus one rock equals… two… Again, two precious things belonged in his life.
     Oh, but which one should he touch first? His outstretched, trembling hands paused before each rock fragment as tears moistened the sides of his beard.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poems Seven -- Alan Dugan

Here is Robert Pinsky's review of Alan Dugan's Poems Seven.  A good review, though I found it curious that the poem (Dugan's "best known" poem, apparently) was edited for length in the radio broadcast, though that was never mentioned.  I understand the need for brevity with radio broadcasts, but leaving out select "non-essential" parts of a poem (as opposed to using only an otherwise unaltered excerpt) and never mentioning it seems like dangerous ground.  I wonder if Dugan was consulted.  If not, Pinsky was taking quite an editorial liberty.  I think of poems of my own and shudder to think what a self-appointed editor might do with them to cut them down to a desired length.

Click here for the review on NPR.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Farang – Peter Blair

I thoroughly enjoyed this new collection—it was a delight to read, though in saying that I don’t mean that most of the poems were meant to be amusing. It is simply that they worked, and they worked together as a collection, too. In style, subject and attitude, Farang reminds me of Patrick Hicks's This London.

“Farang” is the Thai word for “foreigner”, and the focus of the collection is Blair’s experiences in Thailand. The sense of foreignness is woven throughout the collection, and applies not only to Americans in Thailand. An ex-monk just out of the monastery feels foreign; a Chinese son fled to Thailand sends letters home, to the amusement of the government censors; Blair feels foreign among his friends back in the states. The effect is a sense of unreality even within the activities of everyday life:

He’s naked except for flip-flops
and frayed jeans cut-off
above mid-thigh and tight
around his bulging belly.

Look at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy-chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.

I’m about to cross the street
to warn him that we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.
One thing I liked about Farang was the way that the poems connected and supported each other. Since Blair writes essentially in prose, unconcerned with any syntactic devices, the collection reads like snippets from a travel diary. As you continue to read, you get to know the personalities of recurring characters: Blair, his Thai girlfriend, his American associates, Thai friends and students. They interact in various situations and small threads of narrative develop. Other poems are not connected to this, but all are somehow concerned with exploring a strange new country that the poet clearly loves. 
Making Sticky Rice on Edgerton Place

I pour the dry white grains into water.
Golden chaff rises to the surface.
Remembering the rice’s bready smell,
the roots of my teeth stir, anticipating
its sticky sweetness. I ate it plain,
or wrapped in banana leaves and roasted
over coals, crunchy outside, a raisin hidden
in the center. I ate it with Sirpan,
at Professor Kwaam’s party.
In the cool season wind, I drove her home
on my bicycle. He came running
with a basket of sticky rice:
For later tonight. Now I stir the pan.
In the water, a curled brown thing wakes,
moves tiny antennae, legs hugging
a swelling rice grain. After 12,000 miles,
years in dry sacks, months on a shelf
at Kim Do Store, this creature revives
in the ricey water like a seed
opening, a memory: Sirpan’s smile
as she lifted her dress around her thighs
wading in the Mekong’s moonlight waves.