Friday, March 31, 2017

In Praise of Defeat - Abdellatif Laâbi (Archipelago Books)

Today's book of poetry:
In Praise of Defeat.  Abellatif Laâbi.  Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith.  Archipelago Books.  Brooklyn, New York.  2016.


There are many joys associated with doing Today's book of poetry but there is also a little pain, we are constantly rediscovering and confirming our vast ignorance.  Until Abdellatif Laâbi's In Praise of Defeat landed on our desk we had never heard of the major francophone voice of Moroccan poetry.

In Praise of Defeat brings together work from fifteen or more of Abdellatif Laâbi's books of poetry. Was it T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound who wrote about "perfecting the language of the tribe?"  I think it was Pound.  Well he wasn't alone.  Moroccan exile Laâbi has perfected a certain sort of precision in bringing us from his childhood in Fez to his forced exile in modern Paris.

Talisman's Eye

everything dies
patched-up brain down in crypts
         logos of cities
reason dies
                       crushed by wrinkles
with no help from hands
brain with its gray cells
night approaches with so much telling
                                                          of rosaries
for the break of a new day
as the sphinxes say
                                when none is possible
they themselves having grown old
wearing of their alliance
                                        with the wind

I seek a language
                                  for my tribe
that is not a hybrid
let cyclones of argan trees
                                      come join my fingers

collar of wasps
                             around my throat of clay
my awful lucidity
like a mirror
                              rusty with memories
that are the butt of History

now I know what power inhabits me
peoples run through my language
while flaming night
                                  constructs silence
with hammer blows
                                 I compose lullabies

my awful lucidity
that ruffles my voice
                                 to the caravans' cadence
my awful lucidity
that carves me out an ear
                                    as wide as the desert

                    I need to vomit up
                                                       layers of narcotics
and steaming manure
                                      words of reason pale as herb tea
and throw away books that taught me pride

here I am
                       bristling with wasps
with that perfume of the muscles
that camel's boniness
ready to bound down the road

look and see if my breasts
                                            are not bursting with maledictions
but leave me a few blood vessels
just a few nerves
                              nothing but a finger
and I shall outline on my parchment
a new cosmogony
                               its elements in perfect harmony

hear the clash of languages
                                               in my mouth
the thirst for new births
hear the swish of sweat
                                         at my underarms
the ripple of my biceps
driven by my inner fauna
                                             springing from caves
pen bloodied
                           my head against every wall
my breath at the gallop
spewing planets
                                in its eruptions

here I am
                 torrential in full flood
working my crannies
craters overlooked in my incandescence
I Atlas
              striped by the sun
                                            of diurnal tribes
gathering up in my descents and ravines
the impatient foam of a future
ask the vultures what my venom tastes like
ruggedness of my grip
                                       iron grid of my maledictions
accuser I am
                            building a kingdom
                                                             of insubordination

do not seek me in your archives
fearful of my censure
                                       writing is not in my nature
look for me rather in your innards
when a host of worms
                                          distorts your gut
look for me in the urine of fever
in the malaria of the backstreets
and there
               in the mud of cataracts
erase my forbidden names
                                           stamp out the spells that I cast
but at my call
break jars of honey
slit the throats of black bulls at mosque doors
feed beggars by the thousands
then I shall come
                              to spit in your mouth
destroy your tumors
                                rid you of your ancient ills
I still prefer you
                                in the straightness of your plowshares
my brothers with your rough hands
my brothers who sleep like roots

               tossed down
stranger to the course of planets
between sky and void
sprung forth
                         in the blink of an eye
                                                           at the birth of speech
I know nothing of weightiness
                                                   or the mathematics of revolutions

                  above all human
but with this indestructible voice
                                                      this mark

come from your tomorrows
                                              gravediggers of ruins
not to take upon myself
                                               the errors of the night
but unrestrainedly
                               to hammer with doorknockers
until every doorway
                                   offers up its logarithms

      I slumber
in mountain salt mines
an ear hearkening to the wheel of time
I let new arms grow
                                  to enhance an awakening
I laugh yes I laugh in my dream
look at my eyelids
seeded by caravaneers
and my terrifying eye
                                                   as a sandglass


In Praise of Defeat includes poems that encompass the period from 1965 right up to 2014 and it is an enormous tome coming in at over 800 pages plus.  Laâbi gives us his mandate coming right out of the gate in his long poem "Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile" where he tells us to "Write, write, never stop."  "Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile" is a true monster list poem and you all know how much we love those here, but at a whopping thirteen pages we just couldn't reproduce it.

Most contemporary poets have never had to face the challenges like those that have faced Abdellatif Laâbi.  None of my contemporaries have ever gone to prison for the political action of being a poet. Although a few of them have been behind bars.  Laâbi spent several years in prison and then was exiled.  Through it his poetry has remained distinctly humane, reachable, direct and impassioned. Somehow Laâbi has been able to find light in a world determined to regale the force of darkness.

To My Son Yacine

My darling son
I have received your letter
You already talk to me like a grown-up
you say how hard you try at school
and I feel your passion to understand
to chase away the shadows, the ugliness
to pierce the secrets of the great book of life
You are sure of yourself
And though not deliberately
you list your riches for me
you reassure me on your strengths
as if you were saying "don't worry about me
see me walk
see where my steps lead
the horizon, the vast horizon over there
has no secrets for me"
And I picture you
your fine brow
so high and straight
I picture your great pride

My darling son
I have received your letter
You say
"I think of you
and I give my life to you?"
without an inkling
of what you do to me in saying that
my crazy heart
my eyes on the stars
and through this word from you
it is no longer hard for me to believe
that the great Feast will come
when children like you
now men
will walk with giant steps
far from the poverty of the shantytowns
far from hunger, ignorance and sadness

My darling son
I have received your letter
You wrote the address yourself
wrote it with confidence
you thought to yourself, if I put this
Papa will get my letter
and perhaps I'll have a reply
and you started to imagine the prison
a big house where people are locked up
how many and why?
but they they can't see the sea
the forest
they can't work
to get their children enough to eat
You imagine something mean
something ugly
something that makes no sense
and makes you feel sad
or very angry
You think too
that those who made prisons
are certainly mad
and so very many other things
Yes my darling son
that is how one begins to think
to understand humans
to love life
to detest tyrants
and that is how
I love you
how I love to think of you
from the depths of my prison


Today's book of poetry is thrilled to share another Archipelago Books treasure, this Brooklyn publisher consistently pumps out classics from around the world of poetry and exposes them to North American readers.  In Praise of Defeat was translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and the translation is seamless, invisible mending so to speak.  Laâbi's poems read and sound like they were written in English, all these uncompromising and tender love letters to his readers sound as natural as daybreak.


The moment they open
the eyes
create light
So many eyes
so much light

The moment it blooms
creates the world
then the universe
So much consciousness
so many worlds
then so many universes

If the eyes close
if consciousness is extinguished
the Whole disappears

is just a sensation
Nothing that deserves
to be graven in stone
or "written in a book"
But it is my sensation

I am here
eyes half-open
clinging to the thread
that sews day to night
the veils within
to those without
and swaddling clothes to shrouds

I am no longer here
The cavalcade of words
paws the ground
fails to get moving
between fingers and page

so dear stranger!


Abdellatif Laâbi's long poems are giant quilts of both comfort and instruction, bitter blankets of bitter defeats and regret.  Laâbi is a narrative monster and we were happy to hang on for the ride.

Today's book of poetry might have mentioned this before, perhaps not, but many years ago I had the honour of meeting George Faludy and hearing him read.  Well I haven't met Abdellatif Laâbi but I get the same gracious, intelligent and humble vibe from In Praise of Defeat as I did all those years ago sitting at Faludy's feet.  Prince's of peace, gentle scribes, fierce poets.

In Praise of Defeat is going to improve every poetry collection it joins.

Abdellatif Laâbi

Poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and political activist, Abdellatif Laâbi was born in Fez, Morocco in 1942. He was also the founder of Souffles, an important literary review that was banned in Morocco in 1972. Laâbi received the Prix Robert Ganzo de Poésie in 2008, the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie for his Oeuvres complètes in 2009, and the Académie Française's Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 2011. Also available in English are his debut collection of poetry The Rule of Barbarism, the memoir Rue de Retour, and The World's Embrace: Selected Poems.

Keeping pace with the long poems that are Abdellatif Laâbi's distinctive achievement – the poems of torture and imprisonment in Morocco, or 'People of Madrid, Pardon' written in response to the train bombings of 2004 – an English-speaking reader like me inevitably keeps waiting for the public voice, the high style of anger and compassion, to falter or overreach. But Laâbi's voice does neither. Donald Nicholson-Smith's translations hold fast to this poetry's unnerving eloquence and simplicity, and its hell-for-leather speed.
     — T.J. Clark

As the new collection In Praise of Defeat, deftly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness...In Praise of Defeat presents a poet-activist who was born in the direst possible circumstances, survived them, and has continued on a trajectory of art and activism. He shows any poet how the artistic space created by “poet, activist, former prisoner, exile” is the space where the most crucial acts of art happen.
     — Emily Wolahan, The Quarterly Conversation



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Earth Gods Are Coming - Gabe Foreman (Baseline Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Earth Gods Are Coming.  Gabe Foreman.  Baseline Press.  London, Ontario.  2016.

"Grace is electricity, science has found,
it is not like electricity, it is electricity...."
                                                                                - Donald Barthelme, 
                                                                                  "At the End of the Mechanical Age"

Today's book of poetry was terribly fond of Gabe Foreman's A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House Press, 2011), so when we saw The Earth Gods Are Coming come through our poetry door we knew what we were getting into.  

Foreman continues to write with one foot firmly planted on terra firma and the other in a variety of parallel and non-parallel worlds.  The Earth Gods Are Coming has an entirely disproportionate serving of intelligent whimsy.  Gabe Foreman is all about the "what if" universe.

The poems in this volume don't have titles.


You called music
the nicotine-patch
of the masses.

Some songs were in the key of Lord Byron.

As though we found an orange on the floor
and held it to our faces.

Poke rivals with those keen little stars.
Now kick that charging security guard
in half, with your naked foot.
A cough, spread-eagling through the cove at low tide.

Charlotte, various breeds of unicorn prance in predawn meadows,
preying on incantations of your face expelled by the tiny lungs of songbirds.

You were not real.
At least not mentally real.
You were a gymnast, and I,
a musician hired by NASA
to sing about the moon.

"The moon beams are rafters branching over," etc.

"The moon's iambic diameter is at its maximum
when you come over," etc.

A ghost tugs a panel of ocean fear
across a dumpster's busted radio.
It pelts your grubby backpack with caddis flies,
and pelts as well the faded jackets
of the men who stoop after cigarettes
while another Saturday fills with cars
who crash into motels already on fire.


According to Foreman we might find some light in the Dead Sea scrolls, Ninja campers and corn-dogs.  Talking oxen will relax our minds and ancient Mayans await pilgrims arriving in taxi cabs.

His random and encyclopedic flashes of brain lightning all point in the same direction, to grace, to electricity.


At the lamp store shopping for a lamp,
do you have any lamps
that don't work?
I need to replace a light which never worked
that I smashed when I was dying.

I have but one lamp
that doesn't work
but it comes with a curse.
Are you willing to purchase it
before I ramble on about the curse,
a hex both banal and morose?

Of course.
I paid an exorbitant price
for when I took my new lamp home
and set it in the old light's nook,
before I stooped to plug it in,
it worked.


Our morning read was big fun.  Even though no one has seen the sun for a couple of days there is an unmistakable optimism that only arrives with the smell of spring.

Hard to know for sure if Gabe Foreman is an optimist but when my staff had finished reading The Earth Gods Are Coming aloud to each other they were all smiling.


What thoughts I have of you tonight, transformers, as the power fails in
a swelter, and the subway falters between stations. The charm of the
failing transformers is that they deliver peace to neighbourhoods that
might deserve a meal by candlelight.  I remember a week of statewide
black out. This was years ago, decades past, in a similar heat wave. On
the second night, my wife (1) and I invited an old timer we spotted on the
street for supper. I placed a candle on the table.  The man was bearded,
sweaty and grubby.  Over cold soup and raspberry wine, he spoke of
desperate nautical voyages he had experienced, of near starvation at sea,
often in superb detail.  I felt his story contained alien circuitry, but my
wife absorbed the hardship of the man's cannibalistic past and wept
openly.  We never told him, but she and I had dabbled at people-eating
in college.  In those days, our dorm had been a slow-cooker of untenable
grief.  Those who grabbed hold of the burning filament and climbed
inside our fading bulb had made no promises, just as we had made no
plans.  We had been different people.  Over barbequed steak, our guest
half-forgot a joke whose punch-line was: you are what you eat.  My wife
laughed.  we were like one person then, the flickering meat, the dark
hallway behind where my wife was sitting, and the parts of the joke that
the old man had forgotten.  When respectable Americans bid goodnight
to old timers, they seldom make chivalrous vows in Latin, or promise
never to forget, but my wife and I did both, first over fortified sherry
and blueberry pie, and a second time, on the porch, before the old man
finally staggered off into the darkness and was consumed.  Before he had
left, our guest asked if he could borrow a flashlight.  He asked again, as if
we had not heard his words.  When he was finally gone, my wife and I
knew that we had done the right thing.  We sat on the porch swing, and 
counted all the flashlights in the house.  There were six.  One for each of
the babies that we had planned to have once the power came back on.
Look, a shooting star, I said.  Amanda turned to me then, smiled, and
became an older man for the rest of her life.

(1) My wife's unusual superpower was that she would spontaneously change age
and sex, on average every few months or so.  These transformations occurred
randomly, and were beyond her control.  They presented a terrific challenge to our
marriage.  More a curse than a gift really.


Gabe Foreman's considerable charms are almost too grand for a chapbook but Saint Karen of Schindler seems to be able to carry any weight with her marvelous Baseline Press.  Schindler continues to produce chapbooks of subtle and exacting beauty and fills them with poetry worthy of the splendor.

Today's book of poetry is a sucker for certain things and the Japanese Uzumaki tissue used to make the flyleaves for The Earth Gods Are Coming is beautiful enough to make you cry.

Gabe Foreman's The Earth Gods Are Coming reads like a much larger book, good poems do that.

Gabe Foreman

Gabe Foreman's first collection, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House, 2011), was awarded the A.M. Klein Prize for poetry and was shortlisted for the Concordia First Book Prize. Gabe lives in Montreal where he works at a soup kitchen.

TPV Spring 2012: Gabe Foreman "Should I listen to this ox?"


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Star Journal - Selected Poems - Christopher Buckley (Pitt Poetry Series/University of Pittsburgh Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Star Journal - Selected Poems.  Christopher Buckley.  Pitt Poetry Series.  University of Pittsburgh Press.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  2016.

Star Journal - Selected Poems  by Christopher Buckley is as straightforward as a yardstick, measuring by star-light, the weight of a butterfly heart.  In fact Star Journal is a book of poet magic, a proverbial pot of gold.  Today's book of poetry defies you to open any page of this book and not be entertained and enlightened.

I don't hear 'em but I certainly feel the ghosts of Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers in the elusive space in the English language where intellect and emotion get to tango it out in an invisible swirl of yin and yang.  Here is a poet with a giant poet clock time machine, metronomes of logic, tiny unseen hammers of reason, all of ticking away in balance inside the Buckley noggin'.

Today's book of poetry couldn't help but think cinematic when reading these expansive certainties. There were moments of complete satisfaction, just like watching a Francis Ford Coppola movie where all the details are exact, all the details make it true.  Buckley does the same thing, makes sure you are hearing the right sound, fills the mirror in the corner with the proper reflection, colours in the edges of the image until you are there breathing it in.

Why I'm in Favor of a Nuclear Freeze

Because we were 18 and still wonderful in our bodies,
because Harry's father owned a ranch and we had
nothing better to do one Saturday, we went hunting
doves among the high oaks and almost wholly quiet air....
Traipsing the hills and deer paths for an hour,
we were ready when the first ones swooped
and we took them down in smoke much like the planes
in the war films of our regimented youth.
                                                                  Some were dead
and some knocked cold, and because he knew how
and I just couldn't, Harry went to each of them and,
with thumb and forefinger, almost tenderly, squeezed
the last air out of their slight necks.
                                                         Our jackets grew
heavy with birds and for a while we sat in the shade
thinking we were someone, talking a bit of girls--
who would "go," who wouldn't, how love would probably
always be beyond our reach...We even talked of the nuns
who terrified us with God and damnation. We both recalled
that first prize in art, the one pinned to the cork board
in front of class, was a sweet blond girl's drawing
of the fires and coals, the tortured souls of Purgatory.
Harry said he feared eternity until he was 17, and,
if he ever had kids, the last place they would go would be a
parochial school.
                            On our way to the car, having forgotten
which way the safety was off or on, I accidentally discharged
my borrowed 12 gauge, twice actually -- one would have been Harry's
head if he were behind me, the other my foot, inches to the right.
We were almost back when something moved in the raw, dry grass,
and without thinking, and on the first twitch of two tall ears,
we together blew the ever-loving-Jesus out of a jack rabbit
until we couldn't tell fur from dust from blood....
                                                                               Harry has
a family, two children as lovely as any will ever be--
he hasn't hunted in years... and that once was enough for me.
Anymore, a good day offers a moment's praise for the lizards
daring the road I run along, or it offers a dusk in which
yellow meadowlarks scrounge fields in the grey autumn light.
Harry and I are friends now almost 30 years, and the last time
we had dinner, I thought about that rabbit, not the doves
which we swore we would cook and eat, but that rabbit--
why the hell had we killed it so cold-heartedly? And I saw
that it was simply because we had the guns, because we could.


Christopher Buckley's poems are small stories that spin out so large you can't help but get caught up in the vortex, they becomes proclamations without ever proselytizing.  We can almost believe that Christopher Buckley has our planet sussed out, or at least our meagre scrabbling over its surface.

But in truth Buckley is asking as many questions as your average skeptic.

Range.  Good poets have range and Buckley covers it.  We are subject to musings on Mao Tse-Tung, a beautiful blue evening in Santorini, Bertrand Russell's musings on astronomy, reading/not reading Einstein, dancing "the Stroll," and so on.  These poems swell with the lovely interconnectivity of a man full of ideas, Buckley encompasses a big universe and he does it in big, big poems of staggering beauty and subtle intellect.  When you're reading these poems you are taking in a lot of new information but it is coming through the Buckley filter.

Watchful--Es Castell, Menorca

     But the truth is what we are always
      watchful, lying in wait for ourselves.

I remember the idiot in the town square
of Es Castell, trying each day to entice
the resident pigeons to eat the orange peels
he threw blissfully, and with hope,
on to the grass and walks.
                                                         But, after so much time,
they were on to him, and the worthless peels,
and waddled away in a mumbling cloud
of feathers....And each day he'd finally tire
of their truculence and unzip the jacket
of his purple warm-up suit, spread it wide
as a red kite's wings, and run
into their grey midst, scattering them
a few feet beyond the fountains, but never out
above the sky-colored water,
or into the water-colored sky....

Like the old men already sitting there
in the wet shadows on the benches,
we soon tolerated him--like the pigeons
who came back in a minute or two
and who seemed to forget,
as he did, such purposeless and 
momentary confrontations--days
like lost clouds.
                          I soon realized
that I was blessed simply
to walk out each morning
around the square and hear
the clock tower above the post office
strike the hour two times,
a few minutes apart, and not care
which could be correct; blessed
to sit next to the public phones,
which occasionally rang for no one,
and watch the bees dissolve into the sun,
knowing someone else had done the math of light--
the stars never showing any sign
of distress.
                  Yet, if there is some truth
about us, it's not in the stars,
or in the cluster of orange peels
almost as brilliant on the mid-morning walk--
but perhaps in the fact that we can tolerate
one among us to whom they are of equal
                      I no longer need to look
to stars, the poorly punctuated dark,
for no matter what I tap out on the Olivetti,
the earth still looks inescapable from here.
But if some innocence remains,
a little of it might be here
on this small island
deserted in winter by tourists,
foreign commerce, and even the attention
of the more fashionable birds.
The green finch and the swifts are
content and have their say.
The boats are in each afternoon,
gulls climbing the air after them,
praising the fruits of the sea.

And if now we are not sure
what is of value--looking out
at the fig trees thin as refugees
along the cliff--we at least understand
what is worthless before our eyes
morning after morning, as the steam
and fog of industry lift off
beyond the port and to the west
without us.
                   I sit above the harbor,
happily on the benches provided
by the ayuntamiento for just this purpose,
beneath the orderly palms,
freighters and cruise ships slipping
in and out, going somewhere...
and make do with the intuition of wind,
the pines with their impromptu rhythms,
my hands and feet free
to defeat the intricate purposes of air,
to do nothing more than claim
the prosperity of light.
                                    Late afternoon,
I like the white tables fronting
the bars in the square, relaxing
with a small Estrella--a beer
named for a star--knowing that,
soon enough, around the corner,
I'll be on my way back
from the market and bakery
with a heart as full as the summer
5:00 sun, with a yellow grocery bag
in each hand as I ascend the steps
to our flat over the cove, where
I'll look out, and see in the reflection
of the glass doors, a happy man
arranging oranges in a bowl.


Buckley's Star Journal made for a great morning read in the office today.  His poems read like tidy little novels so the reader has time to sink their teeth in.

Christopher Buckley keeps a narrative line strong enough to climb up the side of a mountain with, or pull shipwrecked survivors from the sea.  He keeps it taut.  Buckley's narrative line is strong enough to be a lifeline, you could hang your hat on it.


           for Phil

    la colera de pobre
     tiene dos rios contra muchos mares.

                                          --Cesar Vallejo

Vallejo wrote that with God we are all orphans.
I send $22 a month to a kid in Ecuador
so starvation keeps moving on its bony burro
past his door--no cars, computers,
basketball shoes--not a bottle cap
of hope for the life ahead...just enough
to keep hunger shuffling by in a low cloud
of flies. It's the least I can do,
and so I do it.
                      I have followed the dry length
of Mission Creek to the sea and forgotten to pray
for the creosote, the blue saliva, let alone
for pork bellies, soy bean futures.
There are 900 thousand Avon Ladies in Brazil.
Billions are spent each year on beauty products
world-wide--28 billion on hair care, 14 on skin
conditioners, despite children digging on the dumps,
selling their kidneys, anything that is briefly theirs.
9 billion a month for war in Iraq, a chicken bone
for foreign aid.
                        I am the prince of small potatoes,
I deny them nothing who come to me beseeching
the crusts I have to give. I have no ground for complaint,
though deep down, where it's anyone's guess,
I covet everything that goes along with the illustrious--
creased pants as I stroll down the glittering boulevard,
a little aperitif beneath Italian pines. But who cares
what I wear, or drink? The rain? No, the rain is something
we share--it devours the beginning and the end.

The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice--
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On...
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers
of the working class--Pharaoh Oil, Congress,
or The Commissioner of Baseball--all who will eventually
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap
on the outskirts of Cleveland.
                                                I have an ATM card,
AAA Plus card. I can get cash from machines, be towed
20 miles to a service station. Where do I get off penciling in
disillusionment? My bones are as worthless as the next guy's
against the stars, against the time it takes light to expend
its currency across the cosmic vault. I have what everyone has--
the over-drawn statement of the air, my blood newly rich
with oxygen before the inescapable proscenium of the dark,
my breath going out equally with any atom of weariness
or joy, each one of which is closer to God than I.


Star Journal - Selected Poems is a big book full of big ideas and Today's book of poetry loved it.  The personal and political merge as Buckley storms over the horizon.  Today's book of poetry will be down for anything Christopher Buckley wants to cook from now till the end.  Buckley burns with the best.

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley has published twenty books of poetry, several chapbooks and limited editions, and three memoirs. He is the editor of six poetry anthologies as well as critical books on the poets Philip Levine, Larry Levis, and Luis Omar Salinas. Buckley is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two National Endowment for the Arts Grants, a Fulbright Award, four Pushcart prizes, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America, among other awards. Buckley has taught writing and creative writing at several universities, and is emeritus professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

“The poems are modest, straight forward, intensely lyrical and totally accessible. . . . This is a humble poetry of great truths and profound emotions that never overstates its concerns for the events both in and above the world. It rewards countless readings and never betrays itself.”
  —Philip Levine on Sky in Ploughshares

“Time and the shifts of time are the burden: not simply time as recollection or loss, but also and everywhere the persistent loneliness of star time, mastodon time, so that finally these are poems in which reflection takes on uncommon amplitude and presence. And all this would be nothing, of course, without the language, which is the glory of these poems.”
     —Peter Everwine on Dark Matter

“Christopher Buckley’s gift for wide-ranging thinking meshes so gracefully with lovingly tender details, he feels like a companion voice for all time—a Hikmet, a Neruda, yes.”
      —Naomi Shihab Nye on Back Room at the Philosopher’s Club

“There is a deep nostalgia here, but also wisdom and common sense, and beautiful writing. I welcome him at his maturist, poet of stardust.”
    —Gerald Stern on And the Sea

“The poems are verbally so rich, generous, out-loud (I can't not intone the rhetorical flourishes), inclusive, wry. I like especially the orientation to the large-picture physics/cosmology at the same time that (Buckley) relates his own past. . . . I like the tone—how else to address one's mortality & mixed luck except with irony & affection stirred with gratitude?”
     —Dennis Schmitz

“Some poets like only celestial music, other the grit of the streets, but Buckley engages winningly with both.”
      —David Kirby in San Francisco Chronicle

“Prize-winning poet Buckley has a unique poetic voice, a sort of breathless, long-sentenced style that is gripping and captivating . . . . These are poems of immortality and extinction that can still make you smile. He has an exquisite ear for language and a gutsy way of blending bravado with humility.”
     —Judy Clarence in Library Journal

"There is a quietness to these poems and breakouts of lyrical intensity that define Buckley as a master of the art."
     —North of Oxford


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Art of the Lathe - B.H. Fairchild (Alice James Books)

Today's book of poetry:
The Art of the Lathe.  B.H. Fairchild.  Alice James Books.  University of Maine at Farmington.  Farmington, Maine.  1998.

1999 Pen Center USA West Poetry Award
1999 William Carlos Williams Award
1999 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award
1998 National Book Award Finalist
1997 Beatrice Hawley Award

For many knowledgeable poetry fans it will be old news that B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe is a contemporary classic.  Today's book of poetry got Fairchild's gem in the mail yesterday and as a result we are sailing slightly off course today.

With our vast resources Today's book of poetry has started to gather foreign correspondents.  We currently have Otis wandering through the poetry cellars of Sicily searching for treasure, he will be returning soon.  Our latest addition to the staff is a trumpet playing be-bop artist from St. Louis, Mark Twang.

Mark grew up in reasonably normal environs but somewhere early on someone dropped a Pork Pie hat on his noggin' and he hasn't been quite right since.  Twang has been raiding his own vast library to send pieces of gold north.  Twang sent David Lee to our door and you will be hearing much more about Mr. Lee in the near future because he is a monster.  We had a thing, instantly, for David Lee. So we put him in the system.

The system wouldn't wait for B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe.  Today's book of poetry apologizes for not having read it before but you simply can't read everything, or find it.  Twang had sent us individual poems by B.H. Fairchild in his letters, along with quotes from Sonny Rollins and a couple of Crying Charlies.  Today's book of poetry was instantly convinced by those poems.  When The Art of the Lathe arrived we knew no one would object if Fairchild skipped his place in line.

The Art of the Lathe is an eye-opening deal breaker of extraordinary beauty.  Fairchild uses some deep sonar of the human spirit to get inside of the reader and then sets off bombs of reason.  The Art of the Lathe is the real deal.  When Twang sent it to us he included a note where he suggested that The Art of the Lathe may be the best, pound for pound, book of poetry he has ever read.  I happen to know for a fact that Mark Twang has read, and understood, more poetry than I have so I take his opinion to heart. That and he's been right about everything else he has told us.

So when The Art of the Lathe arrived I dug in.

Dear reader please believe me when I tell you that Mark Twang was right as rain.  The Art of the Lathe may be the finest book of poetry I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Body and Soul

Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend's father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men's teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ear, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub stroking their husband's wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.

They say, we're one man short, but can we use this boy,
he's only fifteen years old, and at least he'll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy's face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let's play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher's sex life, it's so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.
They're pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kids knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let's play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chambers,
high and big and sweet. The left fielder just stands there, frozen.
As if this isn't enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can't believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn't give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid's elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed,
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.

But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy's name is
Mickey Mantle. And that's the story, and those are the facts.
But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
I think I know what the truth of this story is, and I imagine
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn't they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for who winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could
  go home
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not.
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and noticed the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and the mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that
  had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact. When I see my friend's father staring hard into the
well of home plate as Mantle's fifth homer heads towards Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge has also encountered for his first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgiven.


Today's book of poetry isn't much of a baseball fan and suspect that many of you aren't big ball fans either but we do know how difficult it is to dream the real thoughts of men and women and make them more than real on the page.  When Fairchild gets through with you it is almost possible to believe that the stories in his poems are your own experience.

As a recent convert to the House of Fairchild I have assigned Milo, our head tech, the task of filling all the missing Fairchild spaces on our racks.  He was able to find a copy of Fairchild's Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (W.W. Norton Books, 2003) on the shelves but that won't ever be enough.


I knew him. He ran the lathe next to mine.
Perfectionist, a madman, even on overtime
Saturday night. Hum of the crowd floating
from the ball park, shouts, slamming doors
from the bar down the street, he would lean
into the lathe and make a little song
with the honing cloth, rubbing the edges,
smiling like a man asleep, dreaming.
A short guy, but fearless. At Margie's
he would take no lip, put the mechanic big
as a Buick through a stack of crates out back
and walked away with a broken thumb
but never said a word. Marge was a loud
dirty girl with booze breath and bad manners.
He loved her. One night late I saw them in
the kitchen dancing something like a rhumba
to the radio, dishtowels wrapped around
their heads like swamis. Their laughter chimed
rich as brass rivets rolling down a tin roof.
But it was the work that kept him out of fights,
and I remember the red hair flaming
beneath the lamp, calipers measuring out
the last cut, his hands flicking iron burrs
like shooting stars through the shadows.
It was the iron, cut to a perfect fit, smooth
as bone chine and gleaming under lamplight
that made him stand back, take out a smoke,
and sing. It was the dust that got him, his lungs
collapsed from breathing in a life of work.
Lying there, his hands are what I can't forget.


B.H. Fairchild had some very rapt ears on his work this morning.  It is bitterly cold here in Ottawa today but our reading helped to heat up the office.  Milo, our head tech, was very dignified, Kathleen, our Jr. Editor, gushed.  Max, our Sr. Editor, harrumphed as he marched out into the cold but he was smiling when he marched back in.  Max gave us a world-class reading of "Body and Soul", Odin grinned from the corner.

Our foreign correspondent Otis is still in Sicily checking out wine cellars but he's scheduled to return later this week.   Otis also sent a note making sure I included him when the staff here at Today's book of poetry welcomed our newest member, Mark Twang.

After reading B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe I am now considering making all of our future staff take an oath of office by swearing on Fairchild.

The Art of the Lathe

Leonardo imagined the first one.
The next was a pole lathe with a drive cord,
illustrated in Plumier's L'art de tourner en perfection.
Then Ramsden, Vauconson, the great Maudslay,
his students Roberts, Fox, Clement, Whitworth.

The long line of machinists to my left
lean into their work, ungloved hands adjusting the calipers,
tapping the big lightly with their fingertips.
Each man withdraws into his house of work:
the rough cut, shearing of iron by tempered steel,
blue-black threads lifting like locks of hair,
then breaking over bevel and ridge.
Oil and water splash over the whitening bit, hissing.
The lathe on night-shift, moonlight silvering the bed-ways.

The old man I apprenticed with, Roy Garcia,
in silk shirt, khakis, and Florsheims. Cautious,
almost delicate explanations and slow,
shapely hand movements. Craft by repetition.
Haig and Haig behind the tool chest.

In Diderot's Encyclopaedia, an engraving
of a small machine shop: forge and bellows in back,
in the foreground a mandrel lathe turned by a boy.
It is late afternoon, and the copper light leaking in
from the street side of the shop just catches
his elbow, calf, shoe. Taverns begin to crowd
with workmen curling over their tankards,
still hearing in the rattle of carriages over cobblestone
the steady tap of the treadle,
the gasp and heave of the bellows.

The boy leaves the shop, cringing into the light,
and digs the grime from his fingernails, blue
from bruises. Walking home, he hears a clavier--
Couperin, maybe, a Bach toccata--from a window overhead.
Music, he thinks, the beautiful.
Tavern doors open. Voices. Grab and hustle of the street.
Cart wheels. The small room of his life. The darkening sky.

I listen to the clunk-and-slide of the milling machine,
Maudsley's art of clarity and precision: sculpture of poppet,
saddle, jack screw, pawl, cone-pulley,
the fit and mesh of gears, tooth in groove like interlaced fingers.
I think of Mozart folding and unfolding his napkin
as the notes sound in his head. The new machinist sings
  Patsy Cline,
I Fall To Pieces. Sparrows bicker overhead.
Screed of the grinder, the bandsaw's groan and wail.

In his boredom the boy in Diderot
studies again through the shop's open door
the buttresses of Suger's cathedral
and imagines the young Leonardo in his apprenticeship
staring through the window at Brunelleschi's dome,
solid yet miraculous, a resurrected body, floating above the city.

Outside, a cowbird cries, flapping up from the pipe rack,
the ruffling of wings like a quilt flung over a bed.
Snow settles on the tops of cans, black rings in a white field.
The stock, cut clean, gleams under lamplight.
After work, I wade back through the silence of the shop:
the lathes shut down, inert, like enormous animals in hibernation,
red oil rags lying limp on the shoulders
of machines, dust motes still climbing shafts
of dawn light, hook and hoist chains lying desultory
as an old drunk collapsed outside a bar,
barn swallows pecking on the shores of oil puddles--
emptiness, wholeness; a cave, a cathedral.

As morning light washes the walls of Florence,
the boy Leonardo mixes paints in Verrocchio's shop
and watches the new apprentice muddle
the simple task of the Madonna's shawl.
Leonardo whistles a canzone and imagines
a lathe: the spindle, bit, and treadle, the gleam of brass.


Today's book of poetry is thrilled to travel back to 1998 to bring you this masterwork.  Make no mistake, B.H. Fairchild's The Art of the Lathe is as good as it gets.

Image result for b.h. fairchild photo
B.H. Fairchild

B. H. Fairchild, the author of several acclaimed poetry collections and a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, has been a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the William Carlos Williams Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bobbitt National Prize. He teaches in the creative writing PhD program at the University of North Texas.

“The Art of the Lathe by B.H. Fairchild has become a contemporary classic—a passionate example of the plain style, so finely crafted and perfectly pitched. . . . Workhorse narratives suffused with tenderness and elegiac music. . .”
     — Los Angeles Times

“With elegance and restrained subtlety, Mr. Fairchild interweaves topics that become something like musical themes, including the central theme of machine work. . . . Anyone who can lay claim to the authorship of this much excellent poetry wins my unqualified and grateful admiration.”
     — Anthony Hecht

B. H. Fairchild 
at VCP Poetry Series
video: Wayne Linberg



Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

We here at TBOP are technically deficient and rely on our bashful Milo to fix everything.  We received notice from Google that we were using "cookies"
and that for our readers in Europe there had to be notification of the use of those "cookies.  Please be aware that TBOP may employ the use of some "cookies" (whatever they are) and you should take that into consideration.