Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

October 16, 2006

The Gifts of Donald Hall: "Retriever"

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by Donald Hall
   

Retriever
   

            Two days after Jane died
            I walked with our dog Gus
            on New Canada Road
            under birchy green
            April shadows, talking
            urgently, trying
            to make him understand.
            A quick mink scooted past
            into fern, and Gus
            disappeared in pursuit.
            The damp air grew chill
            as I whistled and called
            until twilight. I thought
            he tried to follow her
            into the dark. After an hour
            I gave up and walked home
            to find him on the porch,
            alert, pleased to see me,
            curious over my absence.
            But Gus hadn’t found her
            deep in the woods; he hadn’t
            brought her back
            as a branch in his teeth.
   

   

   

   

His poem brought to you through the poet laureate’s gracious consent

   

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Donald Hall, our United States Poet Laureate, read from his book White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006 for an hour this afternoon at the First Congregational Church in Pelham New Hampshire. He sat at a table as he does now, and read his poems of love, death, New Hampshire, and more, without great animation in body language, but with his kind and aging New England voice. The focus in listening, then, goes onto his words, being sure to make them out, but also on his intonations.

Eric Clapton noted that when Aretha Franklin sings, never is a note simply sung and held for its time. The soul of her singing comes through in how she bends and gives character and feeling to each note, such import to each. In this sense too, Donald Hall is a soul poet. Never is a stressed syllable simply read as a stressed syllable. Each is spoken to hold the accentuated note and meaning out into the room as a gift to the listener, presented with such suspense imparting the emotion and character of his words in their contexts.

With the first poems Hall read, the chant of the song within the poem could be heard, the soul of each stressed syllable revealing the meter of his freest verse poems. It was during these first minutes that he read the poem “White Apple” which contains the line, “white apples and the taste of stone”, the title of his latest book. That line came to him years after he first had the dream of the poem, and brought the poem together and to completion. In this and other senses, he is also a mystic poet, and thus the chant of his song-poems. But then, shouldn’t a poet who writes at once in a word about love, death, and his home, be naturally rooted in the mystic?

For the next minutes, it was as if he warmed to the occasion, and he read poems to make the audience laugh and feel at home with him. His delivery became more animated in his facial expression and tone of voice. The chant receded to the yarn of conversation, and yet the soul still alive within each stressed syllable. It was during this time, that he read his poem “Mount Kearsage” that begins:

            Great blue mountain! Ghost.
            I look at you
            from the front porch of the farmhouse
            where I watched you all summer
            as a boy.

and the poem “Great Day on the Cows’ House” with the first-stanza lines

            Now she stretches her wrinkly neck, her turnip eye
            rolls in her skull, she sucks up breath,
            and stretching her long mouth mid-chew she expels:

            mm-mmm-mmmmm-mmmmmmmm-ugghwanchhh.

Mid-poem there he interjected that friends tell him that last line is his best line of poetry.

The soulful singing of his poetry, the down home mysticism, the friendship with the audience well-established, all came to bear as he directed his audience’s hearts to his Jane Kenyon poems, of which “Retriever” above is one. The moments were naturally riveting, a great time in literature. Donald Hall’s Jane poems are as important to the poetry canon as Chopin’s Nocturnes are to piano music. There is a wholesome life, yet very mortal captivation to them.

After the reading, came the questions from the audience, and in response to one, he mentioned Thomas Hardy. In Claire Tomalin’s biography of Hardy, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, to be published by Viking on October 19, she writes of his wife Emma dying:

She did not complain or ask for the doctor to be sent for, but she did ask Dolly to fetch her husband. Dolly ran down to the master in his study, where he was making an early start on his day’s work. He told her to straighten her collar–she wore a blue dress with a white collar when she was working–then he climbed the narrow stairs to his wife’s room and went up to the bed. He spoke her name: “Em, Em–don’t you know me?” But she was already unconscious, and within minutes she had stopped breathing. Emma Hardy was dead.

This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet.

And then:

Filled with sorrow and remorse for their estrangement, he had her body brought down and placed in the coffin at the foot of his bed, where it remained for three days and nights until the funeral. The gesture would have been remarkable in a lover who could not bear to be parted from the body of his mistress, but for an elderly husband who had for years been on bad terms with his wife it seems almost monstrously unconventional, until you realise that he was thinking of his situation quite differently. He had become a lover in mourning.

The parallel between Hall and Hardy is unmistakable in the great poetry that followed their wives’ deaths. Furthermore, Hall noted that he was born following the winds the same year Hardy died in January (and here I note almost nine months later on September 20, 1928). Indeed, he looked to Hardy’s Emma poems in writing his own Jane poems.

The differences are striking, however. Whereas Thomas Hardy was estranged from Emma Hardy while in the same house, Donald Hall was in a loving and close relationship with Jane Kenyon. Jane had great love poetry written about her by a soulful poet, who loved her as she lived, and gave tribute to this love after her death.

Hall’s and Kenyon’s separation was in that their offices were as far apart as they could physically be in that same house: poetic solitude, distance for the sake of the creativity they had in their separate rooms–a creativity they could then share when not writing. Hall noted that where there were two in solitude, now there is one, and that being one in solitude is the worse. He spends his days writing letters, trying to write poetry, and taking walks and naps from time to time.

   

   


   

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Donald Hall: Deciding to become a poet

(Duration 5:03)

   

Using your RealPlayer, here is Donald Hall at the 2005 National Book Festival:

Donald Hall: Book Fest 05 Web Cast

(Duration 36:35)

   

Also at The Library of Congress site, is an excellent webography of Hall, with links to readings and interviews:

Donald Hall: Online Resources

   

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Click on the picture of the book, to see a list of Donald Hall’s works at the Houghtin Mifflin Books site:


   

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The history of one’s poetry is the history of gifts.

–Donald Hall, October 15, 2006

   

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October 14, 2006

David Kirby: his poetry, Kirbyisms, & video

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by David Kirby
   

The Search for Baby Combover
   

            In Paris one night the doorbell rings,
            and there’s this little guy, shaking like a leaf
            and going “uh-uh-uh-UNH-ah!” and his eyes get big
            and he raises his hands like a gospel singer
            and goes “UNH-ah-uh-uh-uh-UNH-uh-ah!”

            and for just a fraction of a second I think
            he’s doing the first part of Wilson Pickett’s
            “Land of a Thousand Dances” and he wants me
            to join him in some kind of weird welcome
            to the neighborhood, so I raise my hands a little

            and begin to sort of hum along, though
            not very loudly in case I’m wrong about this,
            and I’m smiling the way old people smile
            when they can’t hear you but want you to know
            that everything’s okay as far as they’re concerned

            or a poet smiles in a roomful of scientists,
            as if to say, “Hey! I’m just a poet!
            But your data’s great, really! Even if
            I don’t understand it!” And by the time
            I start to half-wonder if this gentleman wants me

            to take the you-got-to-know-how-to-pony part
            or means to launch into it himself, he gives
            a little hop and slaps his hands down to his sides
            and says, “PLEASE! YOU MUST NOT MOVE
            THE FURNITURE AFTER ELEVEN O’CLOCK OF THE NIGHT!”

            so I lower my own hands and say, “Whaaaa…?”
            And he says, “ALWAYS YOU ARE MOVING IT WHEN
            THE BABY TRY TO SLEEP! YOU MUST NOT DO IT!”
            And now that he’s feeling a little bolder,
            he steps in closer, where the light’s better,

            and I see he’s got something on his head,
            like strands of oily seaweed, something
            you’d expect to find on a rock after one of
            those big tanker spills in the Channel,
            so I lean a little bit and realize it’s what

            stylists call a “combover,” not a bad idea
            on the tall fellows but definitely a grooming no-no
            for your vertically-challenged caballeros,
            of which Monsieur here is certainly one,
            especially if they are yelling at you.

            But I’d read an article about AA that said
            when your loved ones stage an intervention
            and go off on you for getting drunk
            and busting up the furniture and running out
            into traffic and threatening to kill the President,

            it’s better to just let them wind down
            and then say, “You’re probably right,”
            because if you’re combative, they will be, too,
            and then your problems will just start over again,
            so I wait till Mr. Combover–it’s not nice, I know,

            but it’s the first name that comes to mind–stops shaking,
            and I say, “You’re probably right,” and he raises
            a finger and opens his mouth as if to say something
            but then snaps his jaw shut and whirls around
            and marches downstairs, skidding a little

            and windmilling his arms and almost falling
            but catching himself, though not without
            that indignant backward glance we all give
            the stupid step that some stupid idiot would have
            attended to long ago if he hadn’t been so stupid.

            The next day, I ask Nadine the gardienne
            qu’est-ce que c’est the deal avec the monsieur
            qui lives under moi, and Nadine says his femme
            is toujours busting his chops, but il est afraid
            of her, so il takes out his rage on the rest of nous.

            There’s something else, though: a few days later,
            Barbara and I see Mr. and Mrs. Combover
            crossing the Pont Marie, and she is a virtual giantess
            compared to him! Now I remember once hearing Barbara
            give boyfriend advice to this niece of mine,

            and Barbara said (1) he’s got to have a job,
            (2) he’s got to tell you you’re beautiful all the time,
            and (3) he’s got to be taller than you are,
            so when I see Mrs. Combover looming over her hubby,
            I think, Well, that explains the busted chops.

            Not only that, Mrs. Combover looks cheap.
            She looks rich, sure–Nadine had told me Monsieur
            is some sorte de diplomat avec the Chilean delegation–
            but also like one of those professional ladies
            offering her services up around the Rue St. Denis.

            But who are they, really? “Combover” is one
            of those names from a fifties black-and-white movie;
            he’s the kind of guy neighborhood kids call “Mr. C.”
            and who has a boss who says things like, “Now see here,
            Combover, this sort of thing just won’t do!”

            He’s like one of Dagwood’s unnamed colleagues–
            he’s not even Dagwood, who at least excites
            Mr. Dithers enough to be fired a couple
            of times a week, not to mention severely beaten.
            Only Dagwood is really in charge. Everything goes his way!

            Despite cronic incompetence, ol’ Dag keeps
            the job that allows him his fabulous home life:
            long naps, towering sandwiches, affectionate
            and well-behaved teenaged children, a loyal dog,
            and, best of all, the love of Blondie.

            Blondie! The name says it all: glamorous but fun.
            Big Trashy Mrs. Combover is not glamorous,
            although she thinks she is, and no fun at all.
            She is the anti-Blondie. Her job seems to be
            to stay home and smoke, since we’re always smelling

            the cigarette fumes that seep up though the floor
            into our apartment day and night. And he says
            we’re keeping Baby Combover awake when we move
            the furniture, which we’ve never done, but then
            we’ve never seen Baby Combover, either. Or heard him.

            Baby Combover: the world’s first silent baby.
            Barbara has this theory that, after a life
            of prostitution, Mrs. Combover has not only repented but
            undergone a false pregnancy and imaginary birth.
            Therefore, the reason why Baby Combover is silent

            is that he is not a real baby who fusses and eats and
            wets and poops but is instead a pillowcase with knots
            for ears and a smiley-face drawn with a Magic Marker and
            a hole for its mouth so Mrs. Combover can teach it
            to smoke when it’s older, like eight, say.

            Now I know what they fight about: “You never spend
            any time with the babyl” hisses Mrs. Combover.
            “I will–when he’s older and can talk!” says Mr. Combover.
            “Here I am stuck with this baby all day long!
            And those horrible people upstairs!”

            And he says, “Oh, be silent, you… prostitute!”
            And she says, “Quiet, you horrible man–
            not in front of the child!” Maybe it’s time
            for a call to the police. Or the newspapers.
            I can see the headlines: OU EST LE PETIT ENFANT COMBOVER?

            I feel sorry for him. With parents like this,
            it would be better if someone were to kidnap him.
            Or I could take him back to America with me,
            I who have a wife who loves me and two grown sons.
            Why not? We’ve got all this extra room now.

            We’ll feed him a lot and tickle him;
            there’s nothing funnier than a fat, happy baby.
            And when the boys come home to visit,
            they’ll take him out with them in their sports cars:
            “It’s my little brother!” they’ll say. “He’s French!”

            The neighborhood kids, once a band of sullen mendicants,
            will beg us to let him play with them,
            even though he doesn’t speak their language.
            Look! There they go toward the baseball field,
            with Baby Combover under their arm!

            I love you, Baby Combover! You are Joseph Campbell’s
            classic mythical hero, i.e., “an agent of change
            who relinquishes self-interest and breaks down
            the established social order.” But you’re so pale!
            You’ve stayed out too long and caught cold.

            Barbara and the boys gather around his bed;
            they hug each other, and we try not to cry.
            Baby Combover is smiling–he always smiled, that kid.
            His little mouth begins to move, and we lean in
            and think we hear him say, “Be bwave fo’ me.”

            Back in Paris, Mr. Combover grows a full head of hair.
            Mrs. Combover reaches up to touch it.
            He puts down his attaché case and caresses her cheek.
            “How beautiful you are!” he says. It’s so quiet now.
            Then they hear it: in the next room, a child is crying.

            brought to you with the poet’s gracious consent
   

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David Kirby, who grew up in Baton Rouge, is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. The latest news on his work is that, for the third time a poem by him, “Seventeen Ways from Tuesday”, has made the pages of Best American Poetry. He is also currently judging for the InterBoard Poetry Community.

For more profile on him, see this page of The Chelsea Forum:

            David Kirby;

where Andy Brumer is quoted in a New York Times item, saying:

The stream-of-consciousness and jazz-based rhythms of Kerouac and Ginsberg meet the surreal, philosophical musings of Wallace Stevens, with an occasional dose of cathartic confessionalism à la Robert Lowell.

A current profile, with a webography that includes links to his poetry, is at About Poetry:

            David Kirby;

where we find:

He has two books forthcoming in 2007, The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems (also by LSU Press) and an essay collection entitled Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, The Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa Of Avila, And 17 Other Colossal Topics Of Conversation (University of Georgia Press).

To visit his web site, click his logo:


   

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Kirbyisms
   

He is also a writer for the New York Times. You can find his articles here:

            NYT Archive: “By David Kirby”

In those articles, we find what may be called Kirbyisms, sayings about poetry and life, said at just the right time, in only the way David Kirby can, or would as the good professor in him comes to the fore. Here are some:
   

            ~~~~~
   

In poetry, the first-person pronoun is simply more reader-friendly. It’s like a knock on an office door that’s already open. You didn’t have to knock, but if you had just started talking, it might have been awkward, and your listener might not have responded.

from Dreams, Trees, Grief, August 20, 2006

   
            ~~~~~
   

There is a brash, exuberant poetry being written in America these days, a long-lined, many-paged, pyrotechnic verse that would have its daddy, Walt Whitman, slapping his slouch hat against his leg and chortling with unbridled glee.

from The Biggest Little Poems, December 18, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

But of course there is no real competition between the Whitman who boasted “I am large, I contain multitudes” and the Dickinson whose niece Martha reported that her aunt once pretended to lock the door to her bedroom and pocket an imaginary key, saying, “Mattie, here’s freedom.”

from The Biggest Little Poems, December 18, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

You’re having a cup of coffee, and bang! It’s your neighbor, putting his car in the garage. Unfortunately, it’s your garage and the door was down. This could be the beginning of a lawsuit–or a poem.

from ‘Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos’ and ‘Into It’: The Double, September 25, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

Undergraduate writing programs probably send as many students to law schools as they do to M.F.A. programs. Makes sense: whether you’re writing a brief or a sonnet, you’re gathering material, thinking about the order you’re putting it in, adjusting tone to make the right impact.

from ‘Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos’ and ‘Into It’: The Double, September 25, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

“Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet,” Clarence Darrow said, but in recent times there have been efforts to encourage the two professions to coexist peacefully.

from ‘Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos’ and ‘Into It’: The Double, September 25, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

The lawyers can’t stop the doomsday machine, even if they want to. And the poets can only write about it.

from ‘Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos’ and ‘Into It’: The Double, September 25, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

Yes, the world is one big banana peel, and if we don’t know that we’ve got one foot on it, it’s because we’re not looking down: the goat (actually, it’s a heifer) on Keats’s immortal urn is being led to slaughter, wildflowers nourish killer bees, the South’s sylvan meadows were once battlefields soaked in blood.

from ‘Luck Is Luck’: Intimations of Mortality, April 10, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

Our parents go through all this before we do; the man who used to take us on his back is bent and gray now, and the woman our friends thought sexy spends her days in a chair. We’re following a curriculum that, if we’re lucky, leads us to accept our lives, and that consists in part of observing our parents as they learn to accept theirs.

from ‘Luck Is Luck’: Intimations of Mortality, April 10, 2005
   

            ~~~~~
   

If poetry is as much a state of mind as it is an assortment of black marks on white pages, then it resides in that intimate space between the world and those who observe it.

from ‘Danger on Peaks’: Ars Longa, Vita Longa, November 21, 2004
   

            ~~~~~
   

Yesterday’s hippies are now gray-haired and prosperous and probably not reading much poetry.

from ‘Danger on Peaks’: Ars Longa, Vita Longa, November 21, 2004
   

            ~~~~~
   

The adage “when in Rome” has always been good advice for foreign travelers. But finding out what, exactly, the Romans do–let alone how to emulate them without making a fool of yourself–is not always easy.

from For Social Slips, Anti-Skid Books, October 3, 2004
   

            ~~~~~
   

If you want to make friends, a smile will always be understood.

from For Social Slips, Anti-Skid Books, October 3, 2004
   

            ~~~~~
   

Poetry can’t fix everything, and maybe it can’t even fix anything. Yet it lets us see and sometimes even understand.

from Moe, Larry and Bertolucci, May 2, 2004
   

            ~~~~~
   

Pound and Monroe were the Lennon and McCartney of their shared enterprise, the one skirting the shoreline of art as the other steered toward the stream’s middle; the impresario and the editor were bound to part, and not happily.

from Poets Behaving Badly, December 1, 2002
   

            ~~~~~
   

All writers think of themselves as superior to the competition, and so it is with a certain amount of malicious glee that one encounters the thunderings of poets who today are more or less nobodies, the John G. Neihardts and John Gould Fletchers who howl with fury at having to appear alongside those they consider their inferiors.

from Poets Behaving Badly, December 1, 2002
   

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Kirby Audio/Video
   

Listen to David Kirby read his poetry, and his love of travel becomes evident. In fact, as I write, this Southern American is on sabbatical leave in France.

Through the sounds of his poetry, he gives us the world to travel, with its accents and lingo, but also the vocalizations from–for a different example–young hip hop artists. In this sense, his is an audio world for poetry.

Below are two poetry readings by him available on the web that will use your RealPlayer. The first is close to a half hour in length, and is from from the Library of Congress’s web pages of the 2005 National Book Festival.

The fourth of the four poems he read there, “The Search for Baby Combover” featured above, from his book The Ha-Ha, is a favorite among the young men of high schools, to read for, and win, Poetry Out Loud competitions across America. Click on his picture to view this webcast:
   

Duration 28:25

   

And click the picture of his Big-Leg Music book, to get a RealAudio presentation from his web site, with graphics, of David reading his poem “Your Momma Says Omnia Vincit Amor“, wherein music overlays the world of language, this world travelled through poetry.
   

Duration 2:15

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David Kirby Books
   

Books by him are available here:

BestPrices.Com: David Kirby Books


   

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