Random morning thoughts

What is a world? Jean-Luc Nancy proposes it is a “totality of meaning.” Sliced worlds be. Mountain world. As far as eye can see world? As far as I can mean world. Can find meaning? Glacial till world? Moraine world? World out my window which is pine, steel, lumin, wind, fringe of curtain. How does time fold into world? Worlds as bumper cars. Worlds bashing. Worlds and with them land mines and long, wicks. Wish for a benign world. World of quilts. Wish for a world of good intentions. “We watched the pieces go to pieces,” Mary Burger writes near the end of Sonny. Is pieces all we have? Are pieces all we can expect?

Daljit Nagra

Daljit Nagra, pictured here with Priscilla Uppal in Calgary for WordFest last month. Hear the charming Nagra discuss and read from the title poem Look we have coming to Dover!, which won the Forward Prize:

Swarms of us, grafting
in the black within shot of the moon’s spotlight,
banking on the miracle of sun to span
its rainbow, passport us to life. Only then
can it be human to bare-faced, hoick ourselves for the clear.

I’m thinking of Daljit Nagra’s world. Bringing Punjabi-English to the poetry world. A linguistics reminiscent of Dennis Lee:

To Aeroflot the savage miles
in a moment, tucking under

From the poem “For the Wealth of India,” which describes a world of “pongy tailors” that “run like flies,” “knobbly-kneed” “bent-neck man who trays us with milky sweets.” Ah, a man entering the world of the English, with “cans of Fanta…twisting away with a snarl.” The glory of languages, cultural nuances colliding here with reference to Matthew Arnold and Christopher Marlowe. This is great stuff.

My father was known to quote Victor Hugo

Burning the candle at both ends these days, and something has to suffer. This week it’s the blog. But I’ve been thinking about work ethic…where it comes from. I’ve also been thinking of where I come from. A long line of peasants on both sides. Very little other than peasants a long, long way back.

In those cantons where there was a taste for the law, and where the
farmers were ruining themselves with stamped paper, he would say, “Look
at those good peasants of the valley of Queyras. There are three thousand
souls there. Why, it is like a little republic! Neither judge nor
constable is known there. The mayor does everything. He apportions the
impost, taxes each one according to his judgment, decides their
quarrels without charge, distributes their patrimony without fees,
gives judgment without expense; and he is obeyed, because he is a just
man among simple-hearted men.” In the villages which he found
without a schoolmaster, he would again hold up the valley of
Queyras. “Do you know how they do?” he would say. “As a little
district of twelve or fifteen houses cannot always support a
teacher, they have schoolmasters that are paid by the whole valley,
who go around from village to village, passing a week in this place;
and ten days in that, and give instruction. These masters attend the
fairs, where I have seen them. They are known by quills which they
wear in their hatband. Those who teach only how to read have one
quill; those who teach reading arithmetic have two; and those who
teach reading, arithmetic, and Latin, have three; the latter are
esteemed great scholars. But what a shame to be ignorant! Do like
the people of Queyras.”

Les Miserables, 1862

From the NY Times today

San Diego County, the largest county in California without a fire department, relies on a hodgepodge of local departments that are almost all serving areas where populations are growing faster than their tax bases, and which are often low on money among a constituency that is generally allergic to taxes.

Pay attention people: when you get rid of your infrastructure or don’t support it you get rid of your infrastructure and have no support…

Phebus Etienne

How did I miss this?? Haitian-American poet Phebus Etienne passed away this year. I met Phebus in 2000, at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, where she was compiling her manuscript, much of which she had written while at NYU. Beautiful, aching poems that traced her childhood in Haiti, and in East Orange, NJ, with her mother who was a seamstress I believe, on top of her work at a factory, and who had died a few years prior, a loss that left Phebus alone, and inconsolable. Nicole, I believe, was her mother’s name, and I hope that her manuscript appears somewhere because those poems were passionate, white hot, and full of rage at a system that had failed her mother. Bastard M.D. was one title.

Many of those poems appeared in journals over the years, and Phebus was particularly happy to have been chosen by fellow Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat, for the Beacon Best of 2000. It is a curious fact that poets can go so long without placing a manuscript. I know she had a hard time with that. But like most of us, she moved toward lightness, and loved to laugh. Other notes are found on blogs, including the wonderful Cherryl Floyd-Miller, and on Poetry Foundation and Cave Canem. Damn.


After I buried my mother, I would see her often,
standing at the foot of my bed
in a handmade nightgown she trimmed with lace
whenever I was restless with fever or menstrual cramps.
I was not afraid, and if her appearance was a delusion,
it only confirmed my heritage.
Haitians always have relationships with the dead.
Each Sabbath, I lit a candle that burned for seven days.
I created an altar on the top shelf of an old television cart.
It was decorated with her Bible, a copy of The Three Musketeers,
freesia, delphinium or lilies if they were in season.
My offering of her favorite things didn’t conjure
conversations with her spirit as I had hoped.
But there was a dream or two where she was happy,
garnets dangling from her ears,
and one night she shuffled some papers,
which could have been history of my difficult luck
because she said, “We have to do something about this.”

She hasn’t visited me for months.
I worry that my life is an insult to her memory,
that she looks in and turns away
because I didn’t remain a virgin until I married,
because my debts will remain unforgiven.

Lightning tattoos the elms as florists make
corsages to honor living mothers.
I think of going to mass at St. Anne, where she was startled
by the fire of wine when she received her first communion.
But I remember that first Mother’s Day without her,
how it pissed me off to watch a seventy year-old daughter
escort her mom to sip from the chalice.

Yesterday, as the rain fell warm on the azaleas,
I planted creeping phlox on my mother’s grace,
urging the miniature flowers to bloom larger next year
like the velvet petals of bougainvillea that covered our neighbor’s gate.
I crave a yard to plant lemon and mango trees as she did.
Tonight I mold dumplings for pumpkin stew,
add a dash of vinegar for spice as she taught me,
sprinkle my palms with flour before rolling the dough between them.
I will thread my needle and embroider a coconut tree on a place mat,
keep stitching her presence in my life.

Phebus Etienne

Weekend Round Up

Just when I was beginning to give up on Helen Humphreys it looks like she has completely invigorated her approach to fiction with this new book…I must go and get this one. I have all the others, and some of them are fabulous, but I had decided that was it, I wasn’t going to get the new one as a matter of course. Anyhow, never say never and all that. And a new publisher…maybe that has something to do with it. In any case, go Helen. I’ll report back on that.

Well, who knew Kay Ryan was a lesbian? I didn’t think the New Yorker published lesbian poetry, but they do publish Ryan. I heard her at the New Yorker Festival in Bryant Park a while back. She’s very funny, but not in that Billy Collins way. Here she talks to the NYT about writing, and the experience of belonging to a vanishing tribe:

Sometimes I go to look for myself in inferior bookstores – at airports, say – and I find I don’t exist. Sometimes my entire people does not exist.

Oh yes, we know that feeling. She means poet, not lesbian…

It has come to my attention that most Canadian poets don’t know Marie Ponsot. Here is a beginning. David, if you’re reading this, can we talk about Ponsot and her influence on your generation of NY writers?

Anansi turns 40. That means Coach House is the older sibling. But hmm, who is leading the way here? Just teasing. I’m not sure there is any real rivalry between these two presses which are both historically important, particularly to Canadian poetry, which isn’t vanishing, not quite yet.

And 50 years ago today, Ginsberg’s Howl was deemed “not obscene.”

A climate change book that’s uplifting…hm…meanwhile the NYT Magazine informs us that the world is drying up.

Susan G. Cole on the failure of Canada’s GG Award jury…I agree that Lawrence Hill’s book is impressive. Hey New York, he’s coming your way November, 11 at the KGB.

Meanwhile the International Festival of Writers is on in Toronto, though I hear they are relegating poetry to single-shot warm up acts for fiction writers…maybe we are disappearing…

I recently discovered Dani Couture’s Good Meat. Nice little book, both in design and content. I laid it out with about half a dozen newish titles by young Canadian women under 30 that I haven’t already mentioned on this blog, and well, it stuck out like neon. A few poems can be found here.

Poetry and film in Toronto.

Oh, Joshua. Clover that is. More on the company of poets.

Much ado over the “real” Carver stories. When I teach Carver I like to include both versions of a story where possible. It’s an interesting question. He cuts back in one. He fleshes out in the other. He reacts to an editor who is reacting to a market. All part of writing. Why pretend it doesn’t exist?

The cynical might think Rowling is courting the gay audience…but of course Dumbledore is gay…and she doesn’t need to court any audiences does she?

What is up with this show?? I thought I slipped twenty years back in time…

And finally, a new, nifty little site on Canadian Arts & Culture.