Going to poetry readings in New York City is an experience comforting in its consistency, a bit like what I imagine going to church must be like for some people, if the church is not very popular. Except in the cases of the most famous contemporary poets (John Ashbery, Anne Carson, etc.), a reading typically looks like this: 32 wood folding chairs in rows of four, 10 people scattered among them. We are people who are interested in contemporary poetry, and thus most of us look a little flustered. The younger men tend to have excitable hair that does their talking for them. Many of them wear vintage sports jackets and sneakers. By and large they are a handsome group. The older men (a professor or two) resemble kindly, dignified predatory birds–hawks, owls, ospreys. The women, mostly brunettes, are clad in tall leather boots and carry huge canvas purses stocked with modified recycled notebooks. They wear large funky earrings; around them I feel a bit unfashionable. There is a long table, at one end of which can be found the following: one bottle of screw-top red wine (making a comeback), one bottle of Trader Joe’s Coastal Fume Blanc in a tin bucket of ice, a plastic container of green olives, a wedge of Brie, crackers, and an assortment of soft drinks in cans. Coincidentally, these items comprise most of my favorite foods. At the other end is a small pile of the latest or most famous book by the poet who will read that night. Most of us will probably not buy the book, because we cannot afford it. The title of the book is either something referentially lovely and inscrutable like Goest or quippy like The Bad Wife Handbook or Mr. Pleasant. Tonight the book fell into the first category: Circadian, by Joanna Klink.
Joanna Klink’s poetry has been said to take place in an imaginary landscape–nature abstracted. At the reading tonight she spoke of a letter from an editor which had urged her to ground her poems more in the real world; more people (she often writes to an amorphous “you”), more names, more things. She’s been trying. While it’s always useful for poets to stretch beyond their comfort zones, I think the austere and unusual planes where Klink’s poems take place may be all the more moving–more universal and open–for their lack of specifics.
Unfortunately I couldn’t buy her book, either, so I can’t post the poems she read tonight–which may be for the best, since I’d otherwise be tempted to put up every one. Instead, here a few gleaned from the interweb. In the discussion portion of her reading, Klink quoted George Oppen’s line about “things we believe or think we believe or want to believe which will not substantiate themselves in the concrete material of the poem.” Poetry, Klink said, is unforgiving in that it forces us to be honest with ourselves; write a poem, and it will expose you. (Hence the lack of a strong tradition of hate poetry; poems that begin with anger at the outset tend to transform themselves along the way, as the writer questions him or herself.) Tonight Klink read from a series of poems called “My Enemy,” seemingly written to the woman who has won the heart of the man the speaker loves. As the poems progress, the speaker loses some of her sharpness as she imagines the life of the other woman and tells her of her own. By the end of the poem, the speaker seems to have forgiven her–even if, as the Q&A made clear, the real-life Joanna hasn’t. When Klink wrote the poem, though, I think she must have felt herself healing, if only temporarily.
Nor have you ever been apart from all I wanted.
Bitter, sweet, a commerce we turned
and fled from, I have always felt the questions
tread upon us. Faraway, incertain of you, I felt
seablue the morning hold us, the curtain-light
cast over you in sleep. Sweet, bitter,
incertain of you, I saw your throat your arms in
quiet, all effort to make a place for ease.
Simple life where morning and waiting
prepare again this entrance:
are you traveling far, are you yielding.
Beneath the tattered voices of your sleep,
seagray with the foam of dust and ocean, a light
enters your sleep and shines untroubled in me.
Fog-locked for three weeks we breathed the haze that hung on trees and
hooped the mountain-town, a valley pooled with the stuff of
nothing. A hand could slide through a heap of sidewalk-fog and—
briefly—retrieve itself. Fog in the mouth, across the tongue,
fog in the bronchi, owl-gray abrasions, an air so cinderthick no
deepening was possible—no place to leave to.
Where will you go?
When the cold fell a fog-frost beaded the weed-
stems and faintly feathered the tree-tips. Imperceptibly a pattern
began to make itself felt—the gravel, the fat brown sparrows that never
returned to our feeder—everything wants to be scarved in ice,
everything wants to be hallowed.
This was never true. The seconds that pass
pass at your expense, and vaguely one day you find yourself
hardened and the stiff films of tree-lace gone. Where did you go?
While you were away
the early dark-of-early winter entered
each thing and burrowed in. A tinge of ink in the red pickup
with its obscene tires, a blackening tint to the air that spooks the empty
houses then spreads its soot-silt across lowering clouds,
the bright-white sky-streaks above those walking home pushed
back by the aerial night. These
are no imagined sorrows. You are the light of the world with me
who have also felt a heaviness gather in the present hour
and against all confusion stepped
onto a backroad daily exposed to the sun’s
fierce and incremental shuffle, where strange balls of fleece
(sheep) stare and dry clouds pass shadow-ponds over dead grass.
Here is space also to grow attached to surfaces, the way seaweeds
hold to those bathed by water (the undersides of boats, ropes, piers),
to feel (at the same time!) sixteen waxwings in the juniper
and the moon glint across the mountain’s mica veins.
Here is the real world
given in exchange for that illusion of weather you call life
or the way things are and should you find it can’t sustain you
(or you miss the wry urban chatter or the concrete plums in the fridge)
you can leave whenever you like—I’ll stay with the mutable fish,
the parking lot that was ten thousand years ago a sea,
the seaweeds (which bloom here and have roots) and yard-weeds
and two women laughing, clutching wet paper bags as their eyes
leap with cold, each heart beating against the heart-of-
fog or ice or smoke-still
night. Snow-bits make fine nets in their hair.
Sea by Dusk
Comes to gather you from clocks and says be moon,
be progress. Gathers the bitter fact of chance and says
change in every way. Depending on the harvest,
a sadness glassed in autumn, depending on the sea.
Shatters the lullaby, lush and drugged, that would settle
in the downcast reaches. You who bear the light in you
bear the deep compass, unending corrosion,
an irreparable white meadow. Gather what voyage you can,
a sound far into water, susurrous in the array of salt
and drifting sunlight, what is left for us to live. Below water
or close above, rhythms emptied in the flutter of Pacific,
without limit, a human sound breaking hard against this air,
endure, says become what you can in the summer fluency of waves.
Sleep, saline, gathers the currents of blue driftwood,
says a hymnal loose with eiderdown and light—
and comes to prize you in the hour of your late undertaking,
your new and precise fear. Listen, lean, that you might feel,
in the warm blurring of waves, the opening and closing of flowers,
a circadian call that pulls all desolation toward clearing,
be ready, be shirred, task of light, a cadence of star
and constancy, change, dropping far in pressured water,
sails of shadow change in every way. As in the halls of night
the swallows gather up whole acres of past error,
vision into vision, printed in the last coral light spilled out
across the tides, your arms, gathered and withstood
in such arcades of stars and sleeping fish, within, without,
pulling near—do I know you—issued in calligraphies of brine
on darkness, turn, return. We are drifting out of phase,
lost, calendar-sprung, and feel the wings slanting through air
above these fleeting museums of the sea, held
within a single note that moves in pain, pattern, scarcity
and abundance, abide, turn and return, some small, far happiness—
and the nocturne grows within each drowsy marine creature,
rope, tack, slowing muscle of the heart, depending on the tides,
depending on the air, a perfect mammal stillness
beneath all flights of caution, the net cast far into
space, who, clock, stopclock, falling lace, beautiful and slow
across the warming skin, in the slipping borders, your body,
shall be safe, unscheduled beyond the seatorn cemetery,
gracious fields, the gardens, as in a true response
to daylight, here, unearthed in cooling water,
full of suffering, mirrors, moving countries
of fish and floating grass, your hopes, receding
terror, recognize you, it says, no loneliness, no more
loneliness, open, it says, your arms.