Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ruth Stone (1915-2011)

Ruth Stone: photo by her granddaughter Bianca Stone

The American poet Ruth Stone, who only received wide recognition for her work in her late 80s, has died, aged 96. She was 87 when she received the National Book Award for her collection In the Next Galaxy, and was still writing extraordinary poetry well into her 90s. Her acclaimed retrospective, What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems, followed in 2008 from Copper Canyon Press. The UK edition published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009 won her many admirers in Britain and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1915, Ruth Stone lived in rural Vermont for much of her life. In 1959, after her husband committed suicide – during a stay in London – she had to raise three daughters alone, all the time writing what she called her ‘love poems, all written to a dead man’ who forced her to ‘reside in limbo’ with her daughters.

The young Ruth, photograph by John Lane Studio

For 20 years she travelled the US, teaching creative writing at many universities. A greatly loved teacher, she was still working into her 80s. She has won many awards and honours, including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Eric Mathieu King Award from the Academy of American Poets, a Whiting Award (with which she bought plumbing for her house), two Guggenheim Fellowships (one of which roofed the house), the Delmore Schwartz Award, the Cerf Lifetime Achievement Award from the state of Vermont, and the Shelley Memorial Award.

Ruth Stone pictured in 1965

Ruth Stone once said, ‘I decided very early on not to write like other people.’ What Love Comes To shows the fruits of this resolve in the lifetime’s work of a true American original. This comprehensive selection includes early formal lyrics, fierce feminist and political poems, and meditations on her husband’s suicide, on love, loss, blindness and ageing. What Love Comes To opens up her own particular world of serious laughter; of uncertainty and insight; of mystery and acceptance.

The book has a foreword by Sharon Olds, who ‘had the joy of meeting Ruth Stone’ as a teenager, a later encounter giving her ‘a vision of a genius at work’:
Ruth Stone’s poems are mysterious, hilarious, powerful. They are understandable, often with a very clear surface, but not simple – their intelligence is crackling and complex… She is a poet of great humor – mockery even – and a bold eye, not obedient. There is also disrespect in her poems, a taken freedom, that feels to me like a strength of the disenfranchised.

Ruth’s poems are direct and lissome, her plainness is elegant and shapely, her music is basic, classical: it feels as real as the movement of matter. When we hear a Stone first line, it is as if we have been hearing this voice in our head all day, and just now the words become audible. She is a seer, easily speaking clear truths somehow unmentioned until now… She has a tragic deadpan humor: love and destruction are right next to each other…

Ruth Stone’s poems, in their originality and radiance, their intelligence and music and intense personal politics, shine in their place within her generation, among the pioneering women (Bishop, Brooks, Rukeyser)… Ruth Stone’s poems are the food the spirit craves.
Photo by Paul O. Boisvert, 2002

Ruth Stone: Poems through a life

My mother read poetry aloud when she was nursing me. She loved Tennyson deeply. She taught me all those poems by heart, so by the time I was two I knew many poems. What I absorbed from her was both a cadence of language and a music of poetry and patterns. Later on, when I was able, I wrote all these patterns of English poetry.

I started reading when I was three, and I’ve read all kinds of books all my life: a lot on science, nature and the universe. Women who love to write poetry are the hagfish of the world. We eat everything. We eat the language. We eat experience. We eat other people’s poems.

I wrote my first poem without knowing I’d done it – and found that poems came with this mysterious feeling, a kind of peculiar ecstasy. I’d feel and hear a poem coming from a long way off, like a thunderous train of air. I’d feel it physically. I’d run like hell to the house, blindly groping for pencil and paper. And then the poem would write itself. I’d write it down from the inside out. The thing knew itself already. There were other times when I’d almost miss it, feeling it pass through me just as I was grabbing the pencil, but then I’d catch it by its tail and pull it backwards into my body. Then the poem came out backwards and I’d have to turn it round.

My father was a musician and played the drums all the time, so I learned a lot of rhythms just through my ear. Rhyme is automatic with me. I use a lot of internal rhyme. It’s all in my ear, my own music. People are always talking to me about my sense of form but I think it’s just built in. It’s fun and challenging to work with form. It’s a catalyst, it zips up your adrenaline. I don’t know at what point I became more in control over what was so spontaneous, an uncontrollable process.

When I was younger there was a kind of singing in all my poetry, but after Walter died, that younger singing was subdued, not harsh enough. Of course I still have a lot of inner rhyme. But I needed to find a different way to write. Life altered me. Experience and suffering altered me. Having to endure and be strong for my daughters altered me. I couldn’t cry, but I didn’t talk for a year either. I couldn’t even stand up straight, I shuffled: ‘I shuffled and snuffled and whined for you’ [‘The Tree’]. I couldn’t live anywhere except in some sort of dreamlike state in which it seemed as though he’d never left me. And also the past kept intervening, and then it was as though there was no present, but only the past. And that kept going for a long long time.

Collaged by Neil Astley from interviews by Ruth Stone with J.F. Battaglia, Robert Bradley, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sandra M. Gilbert and Mary Ann Wehler. A shorter version of this piece was published by the Poetry Book Society in the PBS Bulletin in 2009.

Ruth Stone: photo by her granddaughter Sahara Najat Croll

Writers on Ruth Stone

Galway Kinnell: 'Her poems startle us over and over with their shapeliness, their humor, their youthfulness, their wild aptness, their strangeness, their sudden familiarity, the authority of their insights, the moral gulps they prompt, their fierce exactness of language and memory.'

Philip Levine (recalling her reading): 'She read and spoke of betrayal, rage, suicide, loneliness, despair. There are some poets who, when they read, leave at the end of each poem a little silence to be filled by the sighs of the audience as it recoils from so much wisdom in such an exquisite package. Ruth was not one of them. I think we all felt her need to unburden herself of an enormous weight of language and imagery. She’d already waited too long... Ruth lived in the only world of poetry that matters, the one without publishers, awards, prestige, competition, jealousy, money — the one we might call “poetry eternal,” the same world the great poems live in. Now she is there forever.' (Read his beautiful tribute in full in the New York Times magazine.)

Michael Longley: 'In not one of my 20 or so anthologies of American poetry is Ruth Stone’s work represented.  This is a shocking state of affairs.  Her poetry is profound and beautiful.  It will alter the way you consider the art.  What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems is, for me, the most captivating discovery of the last few decades.' (Books of the Year, Scottish Sunday Herald)

Neil Astley: Ruth Stone is a true US original. Now aged 93 and almost blind, she is still writing poetry of extraordinary variety and radiance - fierce feminist and political poems and hilarious send-ups, meditations on ageing, love and loss. I had the privilege of meeting her in September, just after reading her What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon), by far the most spirited, mysterious, wise, funny, defiant and deeply moving book of poetry that I have read in ages. (Books of the Year, Morning Star)

Frances Leviston: Guardian review of What Love Comes To.

Carol Rumens: writing on the Guardian's Poem of the Week, Ruth Stone's 'Things I Say to Myself While Hanging Laundry', quoted with the article.

Obituaries & profiles
William Grimes, New York Times
Chard DeNiord, Guardian
Kandace Brill Lombart, Independent

Ruth Stone filmed in Vermont

Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed Ruth Stone in Vermont in September 2008. Ruth was almost blind by then but still knew many of her poems by heart, and recites (or sings) several poems in this short film (prompted occasionally by editor Neil Astley) from What Loves Comes To: 'In an Iridescent Time', 'Orchard', 'The Talking Fish', 'The Excuse', 'Advice', 'I Have Three Daughters' (which she sings), 'Metamorphosis', 'Bargain, 'Mantra' and 'The Season':

In an Iridescent Time

My mother, when young, scrubbed laundry in a tub,
She and her sisters on an old brick walk
Under the apple trees, sweet rub-a-dub.
The bees came round their heads, the wrens made talk.
Four young ladies each with a rainbow board
Honed their knuckles, wrung their wrists to red,
Tossed back their braids and wiped their aprons wet.
The Jersey calf beyond the back fence roared;
And all the soft day, swarms about their pet
Buzzed at his big brown eyes and bullish head.
Four times they rinsed, they said. Some things they starched,
Then shook them from the baskets two by two,
And pinned the fluttering intimacies of life
Between the lilac bushes and the yew:
Brown gingham, pink, and skirts of Alice blue.


The mare roamed soft about the slope,
Her rump was like a dancing girl’s.
Gentle beneath the apple trees
She pulled the grass and shook the flies.
Her forelocks hung in tawny curls;
She had a woman’s limpid eyes,
A woman’s patient stare that grieves.
And when she moved among the trees,
The dappled trees, her look was shy,
She hid her nakedness in leaves.
A delicate though weighted dance
She stepped while flocks of finches flew
From tree to tree and shot the leaves
With songs of golden twittering;
How admirable her tender stance.
And then the apple trees were new,
And she was new, and we were new,
And in the barns the stallions stamped
And shook the hills with trumpeting.

The Talking Fish

My love’s eyes are red as the sargasso
With lights behind the iris like a cephalopod’s.
The weeds move slowly, November’s diatoms
Stain the soft stagnant belly of the sea.
Mountains, atolls, coral reefs,
Do you desire me? Am I among the jellyfish of your griefs?
I comb my sorrows singing; any doomed sailor can hear
The rising and falling bell and begin to wish
For home. There is no choice among the voices
Of love. Even a carp sings.

The Excuse

Do they write poems when they have something to say,
Something to think about,
Rubbed from the world’s hard rubbing in the excess of every day?
The summer I was twenty-four in San Francisco. You and I.
The whole summer seemed like a cable-car ride over the gold bay.
But once in a bistro, angry at one another,
We quarreled about a taxi fare. I doubt
That it was the fare we quarreled about,
But one excuse is as good as another
In the excess of passion, in the need to be worn away.
Do they know it is cleanness of skin, firmness of flesh that matters?
It is so difficult to look at the deprived, or smell their decay.
But now I am among them. I, too, am a leper, a warning.
I hold out my crippled fingers; my voice flatters
Everyone who comes this way. In the weeds of mourning,
Groaning and gnashing, I display
Myself in malodorous comic wrappings and tatters,
In the excess of passion, in the need to be worn away.


My hazard wouldn’t be yours, not ever;
But every doom, like a hazelnut, comes down
To its own worm. So I am rocking here
Like any granny with her apron over her head
Saying, lordy me. It’s my trouble.
There’s nothing to be learned this way.
If I heard a girl crying help
I would go to save her;
But you hardly ever hear those words.
Dear children, you must try to say
Something when you are in need.
Don’t confuse hunger with greed;
And don’t wait until you are dead.

I Have Three Daughters

I have three daughters
Like greengage plums.
They sat all day
Sucking their thumbs.
And more’s the pity,
They cried all day,
Why doesn’t our mother’s brown hair
Turn gray?

I have three daughters
Like three cherries.
They sat at the window
The boys to please.
And they couldn’t wait
For their mother to grow old.
Why doesn’t our mother’s brown hair
Turn to snow?

I have three daughters
In the apple tree
Singing Mama send Daddy
With three young lovers
To take them away from me.
I have three daughters
Like greengage plums,
Sitting all day
And sighing all day
And sucking their thumbs;
Singing, Mama won’t you fetch and carry,
And Daddy, won’t you let us marry,
Singing, sprinkle snow down on Mama’s hair
And lordy, give us our share.


Now I am old, all I want to do is try;
But when I was young, if it wasn’t easy I let it lie,
Learning through my pores instead,
And it did neither of us any good.
For now she is gone who slept away my life,
And I am ignorant who inherited,
Though the head has grown so lively that I laugh,
“Come look, come stomp, come listen to the drum.”
I see more now than then; but she who had my eyes
Closed them in happiness, and wrapped the dark
In her arms and stole my life away,
Singing in dreams of what was sure to come.
I see it perfectly, except the beast
Fumbles and falters, until the others wince.
Everything shimmers and glitters and shakes with unbearable longing,
The dancers who cannot sleep, and the sleepers who cannot dance.


I was not ready for this world
Nor will I ever be.
But came an infant periled
By my mother sea,
And crying piteously.

Before my father’s sword,
His heavy voice of thunder,
His cloud hung fiery eyes,
I ran, a living blunder.

After the hawker’s cries,
Desiring to be shared
I hid among the flies.

Myself became the fruit and vendor.
I began to sing.
Mocking the caged birds
I made my offering.

“Sweet cream and curds…
Who will have me,
Who will have me?”
And close upon my words,
“I will,” said poverty.


When I am sad
I sing, remembering
the redwing blackbird’s clack.
Then I want no thing
except to turn time back
to what I had
before love made me sad.

When I forget to weep,
I hear the peeping tree toads
creeping up the bark.
Love lies asleep
and dreams that everything
is in its golden net;
and I am caught there, too,
when I forget.

The Season

I know what calls the Devil from the pits,
With a thief’s fingers there he slouches and sits;
I’ve seen him passing on a frenzied mare,
Bitter eyed on her haunches out to stare;
He rides her cruel and he rides her easy.
Come along spring, come along sun, come along field daisy.

Smell the foxy babies, smell the hunting dog;
The shes have whelped, the cocks and hens have lost their wits;
And cry, “Why,” cry the spring peepers, “Why,” each little frog.
He rides her cruel and he rides her easy;
Come along spring, come along sun, come along field daisy.

All poems from Ruth Stone's What Love Comes To: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, USA, 2008; Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2009).

Trailer from Nora Jacobson's film on Ruth Stone

Independent filmmaker Nora Jacobson has been working on a film about Ruth Stone over the past few years, assisted by Chard DeNiord. Her film production company Off the Grid Productions is based in Norwich, Vermont.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Ruth Stone's genius

An extract from Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk A different way to think about genius in which she describes meeting the poet Ruth Stone who described the way poems "came" to her. The full talk is on TED (here) and on YouTube (here). Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses – and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius. It's a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Peter Reading (1946-2011)

We are very sad to report the death of the poet Peter Reading (pictured above by Bernard Mitchell). He died on Thursday evening (17th November) and had been ill for several months.

Peter Reading was born in Liverpool in 1946. After studying painting at Liverpool College of Art, he worked as a schoolteacher in Liverpool (1967-68) and at Liverpool College of Art, where he taught Art History (1968-70). He then worked for 22 years as a weighbridge operator at an animal feedmill in Shropshire, a job which left him free to think, until he was sacked for refusing to wear a uniform introduced by new owners of the business. His only break was a two-year residency at Sunderland Polytechnic (1981-83). After leaving Liverpool, he lived for 40 years in various parts of Shropshire, in recent years in Ludlow.

The benevolence of America’s Lannan Foundation rescued him from poverty. He was the first writer to hold the one-year Lannan writing residency in Marfa, Texas (in 1999), and is the only British poet to have won the Lannan Award for Poetry twice, in 1990 and 2004, as well as the only poet to read an entire life’s work for the Lannan Foundation’s DVD archive – his filmed readings for Lannan (made in 2001 and 2010) of 26 poetry collections make up the only archive of its kind. His other honours included the Cholmondeley Award, the Dylan Thomas Award for Diplopic (1983), and the Whitbread Prize for Poetry for Stet (1986). Work in Regress was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1997.

Peter Reading was one of the most original and controversial British poets of the post-war period: angry, uncompromising, gruesomely ironic, hilarious and heartbreaking – as funny as he is disconcerting. He was a prodigiously skilful and technically inventive poet, mixing the matter and speech of the gutter with highly sophisticated metrical and syllabic patterns to produce scathing and grotesque accounts of lives blighted by greed, meanness, ignorance, phony media flimflam, political ineptness and cultural impoverishment.

All his poetry is published by Bloodaxe Books, along with Isabel Martin’s critical study Reading Peter Reading (2000). His first collection was Water and Waste (1970), published when he was 24, and his last, 26th collection, was Vendange Tardive, published forty years later in 2010. Each of his collections is self-contained, as carefully constructed and plotted as a novel, interweaving voices and narrative strands which can be seen to link the 24 books which make up his Collected Poems, published in three volumes: 1: Poems 1970-1984 (1995), 2: Poems 1985-1996 (1996) and 3: Poems 1997-2003 (2003). His later collections from Bloodaxe are -273-15 (2005) and Vendange Tardive (2010).

Peter Reading reading his work

Peter Reading reads extracts from two book-length sequences, Going On and Evagatory, from his Collected Poems: 2 [1985-1996] (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). This film is from the DVD-book In Person: 30 Poets filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, edited by Neil Astley.

Tim Dee, Guardian
Tim Dee, Caught by the River (longer more personal tribute)
Daily Telegraph
Alan Jenkins, TLS
Robert Potts, The Times, 25 November 2011 (not available online)
Anthony Thwaite, Independent

Critics on Peter Reading

'Peter Reading’s most characteristic work, always economical, is now concise to the point of terseness… leaving sparser textures and a sometimes painfully direct expression of personal sadness, anger and despair. Can we find a parallel here with other modern artists – Rothko, Shostakovich, Beckett – who found themselves, in extremis and in their later works, continuing to create less and less, moving inexorably towards the point where they would be left with nothing, the point (presumably) of artistic extinction?’ – Alan Jenkins.

'Reading has spent 25 years creating a body of work which vindicates Tom Paulin’s description of him as “the unofficial laureate of a decaying England”…Now that his entire corpus, astonishing in its range and integrity, is available, it is hard to see how Reading’s role has for so long been under-recognised…Reading has completed a quarter-century masterpiece which has successfully blended the personal, the national and the global. The result is an epic lament for a species given to cruelty and self-destruction, employing a vast array of traditional forms and genres' – Robert Potts, Guardian.

'Deliberately squalid, violent and apocalyptic contemporary contents are yoked to forms that for the best part of three millennia have been used for the beautiful and the heroic' – Michael Hofmann, The Times.

'Reading’s ambition, his commitment to confronting the darkest contemporary realities, his erudition, wit and dry magniloquence, mean that his work presents unique challenges and offers unique rewards. If these same qualities make him indigestible to many readers of contemporary poetry, the loss is theirs' – Paul Batchelor, TLS, on Peter Reading's last collection, Vendange Tardive (2010). Click here to read the whole review.

'Peter Reading, one of Britain's greatest living poets, is also one of its most passionate on the page, where a tenderness for the natural world goes hand in hand with an angry frustration with the human realm... Reading's ability to evoke a layered, nuanced portrait of his times is both rare and necessary. That he can do so with such concision, magisterial command of metre and structure, and a great range of emotion, makes his work as pleasurable in its poetry as it is agonising in its message. Vendange Tardive may indeed be a late harvest, but let us hope that it will be far from the last' – Carrie Etter, Guardian, on Peter Reading's last collection, Vendange Tardive (2010). Click here to read the whole review.

Peter Reading: Bibliography

Collected Poems 1: Poems 1970-1984 (1995):
Water and Waste (1970), For the Municipality’s Elderly (1974), The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery (1976), Nothing For Anyone (1977), Fiction (1979), Tom o' Bedlam’s Beauties (1981), Diplopic (1983), 5x5x5x5x5 (1983) and C (1984).
Collected Poems 2: Poems 1985-1996 (1996)
Ukulele Music (1985), Going On (1985), Stet (1986), Final Demands (1988), Perduta Gente (1989), Shitheads (1989), Evagatory (1992) and Last Poems (1994).
Collected Poems 3: Poems 1997-2003 (2003)
Work in Regress (1997), Ob. (1999), Marfan (2000), [untitled] (2001), Faunal (2002), Civil (2002) and d (2003).
-273-15 (2005)
Vendange Tardive (2010).

Friday, 18 November 2011

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poems explore various ambivalences – around human intimacy with its bottlenecks and surprises, life in a Third World megalopolis, myth, the politics of culture and gender, and the persistent trope of the existential journey. Neil Astley filmed her reading a selection of her work in Bombay in November 2011. Here she reads eight poems: 'Winter, Delhi, 1997', 'To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian', 'Prayer', 'Home', 'Madras', 'I Live on a Road', 'Recycled' and 'Confession', all from Where I Live: New & Selected Poems (2009).


Winter, Delhi, 1997

My grandparents in January
on a garden swing
discuss old friends from Rangoon,
the parliamentary session, chrysanthemums,
an electricity bill.

In the shadows, I eavesdrop,
eighth grandchild, peripheral, half-forgotten,
enveloped carelessly
by the great winter shawl of their affection.

Our dissensions are ceremonial.
I growl obligingly
when he speaks of a Hindu nation,
he waves a dismissive hand
when I threaten romance with a Pakistani cricketer.

But there is more that connects us
than speech flavoured with the tartness of old curd
that links me fleetingly to her,
and a blurry outline of nose
that links me to him,
and there is more that connects us
than their daughter who birthed me.

I ask for no more.
Irreplaceable, I belong here
like I never will again,
my credentials never in question,
my tertiary nook in a gnarled family tree

And we both know
they will never need me
as much as I, them.
The inequality is comforting.

To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian

You believe you know me,
wide-eyed Eng Lit type
from a sun-scalded colony,
reading my Keats – or is it yours –
while my country detonates
on your television screen.

You imagine you’ve cracked
my deepest fantasy –
oh, to be in an Edwardian vicarage,
living out my dharma
with every sip of dandelion tea
and dreams of the weekend jumble sale…

You may have a point.
I know nothing about silly mid-offs,
I stammer through my Tamil,
and I long for a nirvana
that is hermetic,
bottled in Switzerland,

This business about language,
how much of it is mine,
how much yours,
how much from the mind,
how much from the gut,
how much is too little,
how much too much,
how much from the salon,
how much from the slum,
how I say verisimilitude,
how I say Brihadaranyaka,
how I say vaazhapazham –
it’s all yours to measure,
the pathology of my breath,
the halitosis of gender,
my homogenised plosives
about as rustic
as a mouth-freshened global village.

Arbiter of identity,
remake me as you will.
Write me a new alphabet of danger,
a new patois to match
the Chola bronze of my skin.
Teach me how to come of age
in a literature you’ve bark-scratched
into scripture.
Smear my consonants
with cow-dung and turmeric and godhuli.
Pity me, sweating,
rancid, on the other side of the counter.
Stamp my papers,
lease me a new anxiety,
grant me a visa
to the country of my birth.
Teach me how to belong,
the way you do,
on every page of world history.


May things stay the way they are
in the simplest place you know.

May the shuttered windows
keep the air as cool as bottled jasmine.
May you never forget to listen
to the crumpled whisper of sheets
that mould themselves to your sleeping form.
May the pillows always be silvered
with cat-down and the muted percussion
of a lover’s breath.
May the murmur of the wall clock
continue to decree that your providence
run ten minutes slow.

May nothing be disturbed
in the simplest place you know
for it is here in the foetal hush
that blueprints dissolve
and poems begin,
and faith spreads like the hum of crickets,
faith in a time
when maps shall fade,
nostalgia cease
and the vigil end.


Give me a home
that isn’t mine,
where I can slip in and out of rooms
without a trace,
never worrying
about the plumbing,
the colour of the curtains,
the cacophony of books by the bedside.

A home that I can wear lightly,
where the rooms aren’t clogged
with yesterday’s conversations,
where the self doesn’t bloat
to fill in the crevices.

A home, like this body,
so alien when I try to belong,
so hospitable
when I decide I’m just visiting.


I was neither born nor bred here.

But I know this city

                of casuarina and tart mango slices,
                gritty with salt and chilli
                and the truant sands of the Marina,

the powdered grey jowls of film heroes,

                my mother’s sari, hectic with moonlight,
                still crackling with the voltage
                of an M.D. Ramanathan concert,

the flickering spice route of tamarind and onion
from Mylapore homes on summer evenings,

the vast opera of the Bay of Bengal,
flambéed with sun,

and a language as intimate as the taste
of sarsaparilla pickle, the recipe lost,
the sour cadences as comforting
as home.

It’s no use.
Cities ratify
their connections with you
when you’re looking the other way,

annexing you
through summer holidays,
through osmotic memories
of your father’s glib
lie to a kindergarten teacher
(‘My mother is the fair one’),
and the taste of coffee one day in Lucca
suddenly awakening an old prescription –
Peabury, Plantation A
and fifty grams of chicory
from the fragrant shop near the Kapaleeshwara temple.

City that creeps up on me
just when I’m about to affirm
world citizenship.

I Live on a Road

I live on a road,
a long magic road,
full of beautiful people.

The women cultivate long mocha legs
and the men sculpt their torsos
right down to the designer curlicue
of hair under each arm.
The lure is the same:
to confront self with self
in this ancient city of mirrors
that can bloat you
into a centrespread,
dismantle you
into eyes, hair, teeth, butt,
shrink you
into a commercial break,
explode you
into 70 mm immortality.

But life on this road is about waiting –
about austerities at the gym
and the beauty parlour,
about prayer outside the shrines
of red-eyed producers,
about PG digs waiting to balloon
into penthouses,
auto rickshaws into Ferraris,
mice into chauffeurs.

Blessed by an epidemic
of desperate hope,
at any moment,
my road
might beanstalk
to heaven.


Driving through the Trossachs I see
the picture I drew as a five-year-old
in Bombay – a rectangle
with two square windows,
isosceles roof, smoking chimney,
and girl with yellow hair
standing in the driveway,
flanked by two flower pots.

And there is comfort in knowing
what we are so often told,
that fancy has wings
and dreams come true,
even if it takes years
for them to take root
in some corner
of a foreign land
that is forever India.

To take a homeopathic approach to the soul is to deal with
the darkness in ways that are in tune with the dark.

Thomas Moore

It’s taken time
to realise
no one survives. 
Not even the ordinary.

Time to own up then
to blue throat
and gall bladder extraordinaire, 

to rages pristine,
guilt unsmeared
by mediocrity, 

separation traumas
and griefs that dare
to be primordial. 

Time to iron out
a face corrugated
by perennial hope, 

time to shrug off
the harlotry
and admit
there’s nothing hygienic
about this darkness –
no potted palms,
no elevator music.  

I erupt from pillars,
half-lion half-woman. 

The floor space index I demand
is nothing short
of epic.

I still wait sometimes
for a flicker of revelation 
but for the most part
I’m unbribable. 

When I open the coffee percolator
the roof flies off. 

Where I Live: New & Selected Poems

Where I Live combines Arundhathi Subramaniam's first two Indian collections of poetry, On Cleaning Bookshelves and Where I Live, with a selection of new work. Her poems explore various ambivalences – around human intimacy with its bottlenecks and surprises, life in a Third World megalopolis, myth, the politics of culture and gender, and the persistent trope of the existential journey. They probe contradictory impulses: the desire for adventure and anchorage; expansion and containment; vulnerability and strength; freedom and belonging; withdrawal and engagement; an approach to language as exciting resource and desperate refuge.

Her new poems are a meditation on desire – in which the sensual and sacred mingle inextricably. There is a fascination with the skins that separate self from other, self from self, thing from no-thing. These are poems of dark need, of urgency, of desire as derailment, and derailment as possibility.

‘This is writing that creeps up on the reader quietly, sometimes with just the whisper of a sari, or the taste of a lullaby, and yet spins suddenly on the edge of stark recognition. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s is a strong new voice’ – Imtiaz Dharker.

‘A marvellous collection, wonderfully varied and rich’ – John Burnside.

‘Subramaniam’s poetry is one of illumination. She flashes a pencil-torchlight on a subject, and suddenly you feel you are the richer for it… Even more than precision, what defines her verse is its subtlety and the angle of vision from which she sees life’ – Keki Daruwalla.

Where I Live is available now from by clicking on this link.

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM lives in Bombay (a city she is perennially on the verge of leaving) where she works as writer, editor and curator. She has published two books of poetry in India with Allied Publishers, On Cleaning Bookshelves and Where I Live, and in Britain, Where I Live (Bloodaxe Books, 2009), which combines selections of work from her two Indian collections with new poems. She has also written The Book of Buddha (Penguin, 2005) and Sadhguru: More Than a Life (Penguin, 2010), co-edited Confronting Love (Penguin, 2005), an anthology of Indian love poems in English, and edited Pilgrim's India: An Anthology (Penguin, 2011). In 2006 she appeared at London’s Poetry International festival and gave readings throughout Britain on a tour organised by the Poetry Society.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Nicholas Birns: Eulogy for Samuel Menashe

Photo: Samuel Menashe (1970) by Richard M. Gummere

Delivered by Nicholas Birns, Berg Collection, New York Public Library, October 26, 2011.

I first heard of Samuel Menashe in the mid-1980s through reading British poetry periodicals such as PN Review and Agenda. I was struck by the way articles in these periodicals referred to a living American poet I had not heard of as if he were already part of the firmament, already integrated into the fabric of universally assumed references. When the University of Maine Press released his Collected Poems in 1986, I bought them and became familiar with his work. As a consequence of this, in 1991, when I was asked to write for an anthology on poems more or less of my own choosing, I chose Samuel's poem "Curriculum Vitae"
Scribe out of work
At a loss for words
Not his to begin with
The man life passed by
Stands at the window
Biding his time.

Time and again.
And now, once more
I climb these stairs
Unlock this door—
No name where I live
alone in my lair
With one bone to pick
And no time to spare.
I knew that this poem referred to Menashe's fifth-floor walkup, where, the British poet and critic Donald Davie had put it, he lived "alone and frugally." Little did I know that, in the course of cleaning out Menashe's papers, I myself would mount those five flights of stairs hundreds and hundreds of times.

I later published two more essays on Samuel's work (four in total, but two more before I met him). Yet, as Samuel constantly reminded me, I made no attempt to contact him. Just as Samuel, when young in Paris after the Second World War, never even thought he would meet a poet, yet alone become one, at that point I did not see that any poet I wrote on would want to be contacted by me. We were finally introduced in 2002 through the agency of a senior American author (you can work out who she is from the context, since I have provided the gender) who suggested to Irving Malin, a retired literary critic who had taught at CUNY, that a new article be written on Menashe's work, that he was still underrated even though his recent omnibus volume The Niche Narrows had received very positive notice. I met Samuel in December 2002 and wrote a long piece about him for The Hollins Critic.

I never thought Samuel and I would become friends, he was forty years older than I was. Yet Samuel and I developed such a rapport that we would talk several times a week and would meet usually once a week or every two weeks to see a literary event. (Samuel set the record both for going to literary events in New York and for getting autographed books signed. He is the Cal Ripken Jr. or the Joe DiMaggio of these records; they will not be broken). I also became, along with his friends of far longer standing, a principal interlocutor of his new poetry, including some of the most exciting of his 'ultimate poems,' which I got to see in their meticulous working-out. Here is 'Rue':
For what I did   
And did not do   
And do without   
In my old age   
Rue, not rage   
Against that night   
We go into,   
Sets me straight   
On what to do   
Before I die—   
Sit in the shade,   
Look at the sky.
On the internet, there is a recording of Samuel reading this poem. It feels eerie to hear his voice, so strong and confident. This would have been in 2006 or so, before he became ill and frail. I am still used to the ill, frail Samuel, but tend to forget that until 2009 or so he was still at the height of his vigor, not, as goes the Dylan Thomas line alluded to in that poem, going gently at all into that good night.

But my friendship with Samuel was not one-sided or confined to his own poetry. We talked about poetry, the Bible, literature in general, politics. He was often a crucial backchannel reasder or editor of my own work, at first the subsequent essays I wrote on his poetry, then, as I became increasingly aware of his intellectual breadth—Samuel loved the word 'breadth'—and learning, on virtually every aspect of my work. As I will come back to later, the man was not just a great poet but also an intellectual.

I was very privileged to know Samuel in the years he finally got his due recognition; the Neglected Master award from the Poetry Foundation in 2004; regular publication in the premier literary magazines of our day; increasing awe and respect from younger writers such as the award-winning novelist Colum McCann, who inscribed a short story of his to Samuel with these words: "We have taken our voice from yours." As much as Samuel was wont to rue his earlier lack of recognition, he understood what a gift and a miracle his being loved and respected in his own lifetime was; after all, none of his great idols among the poets of the past two centuries—William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins—had received anything like this.

I think that God, or whatever agency you prefer to impute these things to, placed me in Samuel’s life when he needed me; both when his career was finally becoming as spectacular as it should always have been, and when he needed logistical help of the sort I, being relatively young and geographically proximate was able to provide. It was wonderful for me to be able to give help and care in a way that I think mattered.

Samuel was a world of paradox. Concentrated intensely on his own career and inner life in the way any truly creative person needs to be, he was nonetheless incredibly concerned about the lives of others, always asking after the health of my parents, scrupulously sympathetic to what was going on with the people he knew. He also brought people in touch with each other: to know Samuel was also to know John Thornton, his fellow soldier and lifelong, cherished friend, and also Frank Ceglia, Margaret Mills, Neil McDonnell, and the many others who are here as well as those who wished they could be here. Among the latter, Herb Weisberg, whose selfless management of Samuel’s last years was truly heroic, must stand paramount. Though he never married or had children, was a lifelong, solitary bachelor, Samuel was really a family man, and made all his friends and relatives feel they were part of an invisible, extended family.

Notwithstanding the brilliance and intensity of his imagination, Samuel was accessible, approachable, in the way that few writers are. He loved young people, and the people I had to most truly comfort in the aftermath of his passing were students of mine who had heard readings he gave to my classes. He was always young at heart. Samuel loved to see movies, and was always pressing me to go to the movies with him. I did so only once, along with Ilya Bernstein, in January 2009, when we saw Defiance, whose themes of Jewish resistance to genocidal oppression inspired Samuel. But mostly he would go on his own and report back to me. One time he said, “I saw this terrible movie!” “What was it?” I asked. “Pirates of the Caribbean 2!” he thundered. “Oh, that’s just for young kids,” I said. “It was totally not as good as the first one,” said Samuel, in an impeccable Valley Girl accent. Life had given him more than its share of blows, yet he was still at home in the world, still affirming the essential gifts of each day, still immersed in the possibilities of a life which many of those with whom he had fought in the war had been denied. He hated the downbeat and the depressing. He always looked for, to use the title of one of his late poems, “More to Come.”

Samuel seemed to many the quintessential New Yorker, and indeed he had a relation to almost every nook and cranny of Manhattan, knowing the history and the physical and social layout of institutions, able with his knowledge of the bus and subway system to swing huge distances at short notice, even when his legendary spryness had finally faded in his early eighties. He was a neighborhood fixture in Soho and Greenwich Village, at his various 'clubs.” Including the legendary “Homer’s,” subject of his poem, “Diner”:
Where can we eat
With a garden view
And a bell tower
Across the street
No place like Homer's
—and later the Washington Square Diner, where Drucilla Cornell and I shared many a meal with him. Samuel was irrepressible. During one diner meal, he noticed that the man at the next booth was listening to us talk about poetry. He tapped the man on the shoulder and gave him a flyer for the new Library of America book. “Do you always promote your work to total strangers in Greek diners?” asked the man. “YES,” roared Samuel.

Yet Samuel was not a local color figure. Indeed, he had the same sort of easy relationship to many cities where had spent significant time. These included Paris, where he studied after the war, where he made some of his closest friendships, and where he cultivated a true love of the French language, especially the poetry of Baudelaire. In his last months at the Esplanade, he acquired a copy of Andrei Makine’s Le testament français, and read it slowly and deeply. “This will be the French book for the rest of my life” he said. At the Sorbonne, he had studied under the theorists Jean Wahl and Étienne Souriau, and wrote his doctoral thesis, several copies of which are possessed by the Berg. The thesis, which Samuel termed an ´étude introspective,’ sheds crucial light on issues ranging from the role of the Jews in the history of Europe to the sources of his own poetic awareness. A French obituary for Samuel put it perfectly: Il était connu pour ses poèmes brefs et puissants.

Samuel also loved London, where he went in 1960 to finally secure publication of his first book of poetry. This was the turning point in Samuel’s life, the time when his dreams became possible, due both to the generous backing of Kathleen Raine and his own indomitable persistence. “I had to wrestle for that blessing,” he said. Britain gave Samuel his reputation, enabled his work to be heard, and also offered another arena for Samuel’s incredibly wide social coverage, including aristocrats, poets, newspaper editors, and statesmen. I wish I had been able to see Samuel in London: capering around, enthralling audiences large and small, above all intoning his poetry, as he did most recently at the Ledbury Festival in 2008. He was proud that, to many British readers, it was not necessarily evident in his work that he was an American.

But perhaps the most special place for Samuel was Ireland. He became very nearly an honorary Irish poet, applauded by generations of writers from Austin Clarke to Brian Lynch, from Derek Mahon to Joseph Woods. One of his last foreign trips was to Dublin in 2007, invited by a prominent businessman, Oliver Caffrey. Samuel went to town, being feted by dignitaries (including several ambassadors.) Years earlier, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Samuel wrote one of his greatest poems, ‘A Bronze Head’:
We are not statues yet
Nor about to become
At the starting post
Programmed to run
A race against ghosts
One of Samuel’s last readings was, appropriately enough, on St Patrick’s Day.

As his cousin Herb recently told me, Samuel also lived in Los Angeles for three years, trying to make it in the movie business, where even his good looks, talent, and charisma could not avail him. Another place important to him was Ibiza, where he honed his incredibly good Spanish—which he employed to translate Antonio Machado and to heckle Latino waiters in the aforementioned Greek diners—and, in 1955, wrote his sole and incredibly intense short story on his wartime battle experience. He also went to Morocco. Samuel wrote a poem set in Tangier, beginning, “As the tall, turbaned black incense man…” He cared about many other places: Congleton, in Cheshire, England, where he had been stationed after crossing the Atlantic, Dieblich on the Rhine, where Samuel, as young American soldier, was welcomed by a gemütlich German woman, who upon learning Samuel was Jewish, said “I knew God would curse us for how we treated the Jews.” These scenes from over sixty years before were recalled effortlessly, expansively, in a tone of someone who knew he was a witness to history.

In other words, Samuel was a kind of patchwork cosmopolitan. Despite his fifty-six years on Thompson Street, he cannot be confined to one context or circumstance. Nor was he a naïf. Those who peruse the Berg’s collection of his work will see how many books and authors he truly valued: not just the obvious ones—the Bible, Blake, Dickinson, Hopkins, Shakespeare—-but Gide, Yeats, Trollope, Verlaine, Eça de Queiros. He was not just a poet but what the French would call an homme de lettres. He was a searcher after truth, with too much integrity to ever think he found it, but always, as he said in “Enlightenment,” questing “to see, to know.”

Until his miraculous late years, Samuel was underappreciated in the literary world. Being a forthright man, he made his resentments known. One time at the New School, Paul Muldoon was reading as part of the Best American Poetry annual event; Muldoon had chosen the poems for that year. Samuel went up to Muldoon at the end, saying “You edited the Best American Poetry this year! I had four poems in Poetry magazine, and you did not choose any of them!” Muldoon, staggered, could only mumble, in his decent, honorable way, “oh dear.” Samuel’s record of encounters, encouragements, rejections went back decades; he was taunted by T.S. Eliot’s friend, John Hayward, warmly cheered by an elderly Marianne Moore, whose groceries he helped carry across Sixth Avenue. I had a private joke that Samuel had thought himself a contestant for the Roman Forum prize in 110 AD, only to lose to Juvenal. In that case, he would have been justified to claim anti-Semitism as the reason.

Yet, I came to understand, much of this complaining was for show, and, more complexly, much of the way Samuel lived, eschewing every conventionality, exulting, complaining, celebrating, raging, was itself part of a long poem, as boundless as his actual poems were concise: a poem of his life, a strand, a thread, uniquely his. As great as his enmities in the literary world were—he boasted to a prestigious Washington, DC audience assembled by his friend, and crucial backer, Dana Gioia, that he had a “hit list”—he seized upon reconciliation when it occurred. One of the last readings he attended was an evening of jazz and poetry led by Robert Pinsky, against whom Samuel formerly had some sort of grudge. Samuel went up to Pinsky after the reading to congratulate him and Pinsky, truly moved, embraced Samuel. During his final months of hospitalization and stays at the Hebrew Home and the Esplanade, Samuel returned to that moment of reconciliation, almost Biblical in its color and amplitude, again and again. In the future, accounts of Samuel’s era will reconcile his work and its worth to the history of poetry.

When one took the step from knowing Samuel as a poet to Samuel as a person, he made sure you knew about two aspects of him: his Jewish identity and his service as a foot soldier in the Second World War. The mythology we have of “the greatest generation” is of heroes who gave their all for their country, then returned home to wives and children, suburban split-levels, success, achievement. This is even true among the poets who served in the war, for whom it was subject matter or background, but often only an early phase of lives that took other trajectories, most often the university teaching jobs that Samuel considered and rejected. For Samuel, the war never fully ended. I often saw the very provisionality in which he lived as that of an infantryman, hastily burrowing down in the nearest trench, waiting for his chance to go over the top and give fire. I came to see Samuel’s various contretemps and kerfuffles at literary events as firefights, skirmishes, engagements at the service of his life’s great operative truth, as he put it in “At A Standstill,“ “I did not advance/I cannot retreat.”

Samuel wrote of his wartime experiences in poems such as “Winter” and “Warrior Wisdom”, and in this memorable lyric, which we just heard in the wonderful presentation:
All my friends are homeless
They do not even have tents

Were I to seek a safe place
I would run nights lost
Ice pelting my face

Sent the wrong way
Whenever I ask —

Afraid to run back,

Each escape the last
And also in his lone short story, “Today is December 11th and We Are All Going to Die,” recounting his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge. This is a very intense story, which Samuel showed to few people, although he let it be republished in Irish Pages and read it aloud in one of his last public appearances. I indeed have heard the story twice, once when Samuel read it on that occasion, once when I read it to Samuel, the last time I saw him, three days before his death. It was so intense, so unremitting, laying the heart so bare, that the only text I could think of to equal these qualities was the last act of King Lear, Which I proceeded to read aloud to Samuel. As a very young man, Samuel had been in as intense conditions as it is possible for a human being to dwell in and still live.

Samuel once said, “If you take away the thread ‘Jew’ from me, the whole fabric collapses.” Although abhorring stereotypes of the American Jewish experience, Samuel wrote frequently about Jewish themes in the poems. He was steeped in the Bible, and he loved it when, at the Esplanade, I would read aloud from the Bible to him while he lay in his bed and rested his eyes, or while he sat on a bench in the beloved Riverside Park of his last months. I read Ruth, Esther, the first part of Exodus, and 1 Samuel. We had just gotten to the death of Saul two visits before his death. Many poems touch on the Bible, as in “Adam Means Earth”
I am the man
Whose name is mud
But what’s in a name
To shame one who knows
Mud does not stain
Clay he’s made of
Dust Adam became—
The dust he was—
Was he his name
The poem reaffirms the identity of matter and spirit that Samuel saw as one of the core values of Judaism. But Samuel's Jewish identity was also expressed in yearning, as in “Premised Land”.
At the edge/
Of a world/
Beyond my eyes
/ Beautiful/

I know
Exile Is always
Green with hoe
The river
We cannot cross
Flows forever
Deferral is part of the sacred; in turn, promise can show itself unwittingly, as “every derelict stem/engenders Jerusalem.” His longest poem, “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am,” is an epic in fifteen lines, bringing to mind Samuel’s colloquy with his mother:
“I am revising my poem”

“Oh, how much shorter have you made it?”
In “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am” Samuel showed both ecstasy, “I believe the Prophets and Blake. and like David I bless myself with all my might” as well as an awareness of bodily mortality and the suffering of his century: “Zion ground down must become marrow.” In his lucid yet gnomic utterance, Samuel is as close to the great poet of the Holocaust, Paul Celan (whom he met once in Paris), as any other poet. But Samuel could also have fun with his Jewishness. He submitted this poem to Midstream, a well-known Jewish-American magazine:
Night Music

Why am I so fond
Of the double bass
Of bull frogs
(Or do I hear the prongs
Of a tuning fork,
Not a bull fiddle)
In perfect accord—
To one another
Across this pond
How does each frog know
He is not his brother
Which frog to follow
Who was his mother
(Or is it a jew’s harp
I hear in the dark?)
The late editor of Midstream, Joel Carmichael, said, “Putting in a jew's harp at the end does not make it a Jewish poem.” Never one not to have the last word in a conversation, Samuel said “Oh yes it does.” And he got his way: the poem was published.

Returning to Samuel’s mother, Brantzia Barak, she was a great inspiration to Samuel, and the subject of some of his most fervent poetry of love and loss.
Old as I am
This candle I light
For you today
May be the last one
Of your afterlife
With me, your son—
With me you die twice.
Samuel’s father, Berish Weisberg, is also celebrated in the poems, as seen in “The Friends of My Father”
The friends of my father
Stand like gnarled trees
Yet in their eyes I see
Spring's crinkled leaf

And thus, although one dies

With nothing to bequeath
We are left enough
Love to make us grieve
and “Captain, Captive,” which begins
Trim your sails
My father said….
Samuel’s father had advised him that, due to a financial reversal, Samuel could not count on the full scope of the inheritance he expected; he would have to ‘trim his sails.” Samuel said loftily, “My estate is not one of money, I am a poet, art is my realm.” Samuel’s father, simply and straightforwardly said, “I am glad of that.” Though he very much charted his own course, Samuel in life and art was, in reality, never one to trim his sails. We are privileged that, in such a long and valorous life, he sailed so abundantly among us.

Nicholas Birns is Associate Teaching Professor at Eugene Lang College, the New School, New York. He is the author of Understanding Anthony Powell (University of South Carolina Press, 2004) and Theory After Theory: An Intellectual History of Literary Theory From 1950 to the Early 21st Century (Broadview 2010) and the co-editor of A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (Camden House, 2007), which was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book of the year for 2008 and of Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics (Palgrave. 2010).

More on Samuel Menashe on Bloodaxe Blogs:
Samuel Menashe (1925-2011)
Tributes to Samuel Menashe
Samuel Menashe: Giving the Day Its Due

Samuel Menashe's New and Selected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks, was published by the Library of America in 2005. An expanded edition, published with Life Is Immense: Visiting Samuel Menashe, a film on DVD by Pamela Robertson-Pearce, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2009.