Reviews
The Return of the Moors

"The Battle of Kosovo"
Translated from the Serbian by
John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic
Preface by Charles Simic
Afterword by Christopher Merrill
Swallow Press/Ohio University Press,1999


A second examination of Jose Saramago's "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis," inspired by an enthusiastic friend, reveals such brilliance that I must admit I didn't comprehend the ingenuity and political/literary sophistication of the book when I first tried to read it eight or nine years ago.
I think I get it now. Saramago's presumption is that one of the psuedonyms under which the loony Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote, "Ricardo Reis" (another poet but also a physician/monarchist who exiled himself to Brazil in 1919 rather than live in Republican Portugal), has out-lasted his creator. Reis returns to Portugal a week or so after Pessoa's death, to witness the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In fact, upon his return to Portugal, Reis also discovers that he alone can see the ghost of Pessoa, who visits him in his old apartment on a regular basis, commenting on politics, sex, and the conduct of life. (Would it be wonderful or weird if all of us knew apparitions like Pessoa? cf. "The Changing Light at Sandover.")
If we can agree that the only true history of the world will be written by our poets, it also seems correct, as Saramago obliquely suggests, that a poet's death will presage important historical events. Dali identified the death of his friend Lorca in 1936 as the essential sacrifice that made the civil war in Spain real to the rest of the world, and it seems that Saramago is suggesting that Pessoa's death in November 1935 was similarly significant.
Reis, who seems to be the only monarchist in Portugal in 1935, forms an unlikely sexual alliance with a chambermaid in his hotel, and through her eyes, because of his sympathy for her (strengthened by the fact that he, a doctor, carelessly allows himself to impregnate the young woman), has his world view shaken to its core by her devotion to her brother, a Marxist sailor in the sadly depleted Portuguese navy.
Lisbon's revolutionaries were no more successful than their 1905 Russian counterparts, sailors also. But of course it is out of failure that epics grow, or so it seems. While I savored the delicious density of Saramago's book a chapter or two at a time, I was simultaneously reading a new British edition of the epic of the Serbs, "The Battle of Kosovo," a series of oral poems that, amazingly, have been blamed recently for inspiring a spate of 20th century deaths and brutalities in the Balkans. (I guess someone had to take the blame, and it might as well be anonymous poets from the 1300s!)
I experienced an epiphany of sorts towards the end of Saramago's book, when he not so coincidentally referred to the epic Spanish knight, El Cid. Just as Generalissimo Franco crossed the Straight of Gibraltar with a fearsome army of Moors, and led them into battle against the motley modernist infidels: sailors, other Reds, poets, Anglo-Saxons, novelists and professors of literature, El Cid once plowed with his Catholic knights into a teeming army of Moorish invaders, and left a churning mass of severed limbs, slaughtered horses, fallen standards, and rivers of blood. For his successes, El Cid was awarded riches and land by the King, but then saw his daughters callously betrayed by the royal gentlemen to whom he had bethrothed them.
An act of betrayal also plays a central part in the Kosovo epic, and, of course, is at the heart of that other great Christian, anti-Moslem epic, "The Song of Roland," which dates from about the same time as "El Cid." As the knights of Charlemagne race hopelessly to rescue the doomed Count Roland, he whose very name has become synonymous with romanticism, they are not simply rushing to assist their endangered peer, according to Frederick Goldin, but are "affirming the existence of a coherent political being, a state... a defined being capable of engendering obligations..."
I defy anyone to put "Roland" or "El Cid" or even "The Battle of Kosovo" down once the reading has begun, but I suppose if someone could get up with a straight face and say that Lorca died in1936 as the result of a squalid homosexual love triangle, we can also blame the medieval poets for everything that is wrong with the world today. One of our latest Nobel Prize winners, Ms. Szymborska of Poland (that romantic land of tragedy), points out that everyone wants to live between the wars, not in them. But then again there never seems to be any shortage of doggerel-spouting poet-statesmen who are eager for young, fearless sailors or legionnaires from Morocco to step forward and take up rifles and grenades in defense of the motherland.
Who am I to say that the exquisite nation-state of Granada, enchantress of every recent foreign or native visitor, even in its modern dishabille, or Athens, or Paris are not worth taking a bullet in the stomach for, or having a limb blown off. If it was good enough for Hemingway, who's our epic poet, our tragic muse, the guy who took his unarmored fishing boat, for goodness sake, and trolled the waters of the Caribbean, looking for German U-boats, who drove an ambulance in Belgium, rode a horse in Spain, and aimed a journalist's Willys Jeep down Hitler's throat in the streets of Paris -- well it has got to be good enough for me. That's why I think all poets should be physicians, like Ricardo Reis, or should be physicians, like the good Doctor Williams, before they can be poets. Heal thyself. Be careful what you wish for in an epic poem. Be aware, Lord Byron, that the medics will be carrying your shattered corpse back to your loved ones, who will then be required to rent their hair in anguish, or throw themselves in despair from the castle walls.
Old Ezra implored us to go down to the ships in armor, but be aware that the first person he introduces there is the sorcerer Circe, "the trim-coifed goddess" whose contempt for men was legendary. War is never as easy as it seems from the shoreline, and the poets are always the first to go down with their misconceptions ablazing. Whoever then speaks for Pound - a weary, suspicious, unhappy man - says: "I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead."

- Greg Simon

 


 

Four Reviews


The Never Wife
Cynthia Hogue
Mammoth Books, 1999

The Surface of Last Scattering
Gray Jacobik
Texas Review Press, 1999

Hotel Imperium
Rachel Loden
The University of Georgia Press, 1999

Barbarism
Molly McQuade
Four Way Books, 2000

* * *

Cynthia Hogue's The Never Wife is composed of three kinds of poems. "The Guests" is typical of one kind. In its first stanza, a character says " . . . What can and can't/language say?" "What is the biological/function of metaphysical purpose?" There are similar musings in that same stanza, then various domestic musings in the second stanza, which trails off with other characters at the dinner party that is the occasion of the poem:

"I am totale," she declares.
"Fatale?" her neighbor asks.

"Fatal?" We all sit mute as stars
fall in the tender, wisteriad night.

And so the poem ends. Others end in a similar manner and one is left with a stale aura reminiscent of Fellini's La Docle Vita, as if a group of terribly sensitive people had realized the empty intellectualization of their lives and tried to rescue them by throwing a grappling hook onto a poetic moment.

Then there is a series of poems in the middle of the book which cast aside Hogue's not always successful technique of montage - one where the pieces don't always fit or coalesce. Alicia Ostriker comments on the middle section in a back cover blurb: "The poems that excite me the most are the New Orleans sequence, 'Three Streets from Desire,' which speak of and in the voices of others - mostly black neighbors - and are quietly heartbreaking." Yes. The twelve poems that make up "Three Streets from Desire" show a poet discovering and measuring herself in a setting where she is distinctly out of place, where the other, so different in ethnicity and socio-economic status, turns a deep mirror toward the witness. These poems take on the density of New Orleans: crowded, fetid, the heaviness of below-sea-level atmosphere weighing on crumbling homes. Here, the small moments rise convincingly into poetry:

Next day toward dusk I see over the fence
my neighbor's son taking the laundry down.
("Living Near the Neptune")

When I walk the dog they call,
Lady lady do you have any books?
to themselves, like a mantra.
("Three Streets from Desire")

Preserved in a moment of peace
the child unblinks her good eye.
She's young.
She will not heal."
("Young Girl in Family Portrait").

Hogue's other triumph comes with several poems scattered throughout the third section of the book. "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Tree," "The Woman and the Serpent," "The Widow's Song," and "The Sirens" are solidly in the tradition of fable and myth. The flavor of these is typified in the second stanza of "The Sirens" :

We have been there and are not there -
my gabby women friends and I, who had
no words to reach him. Instead,
we married, merrily singing This is the way
we do the wash do the wash
. . .

and its ending:

We wove our calls with such care
and he, bound dearly to meet us,
dearly to leave us, tore at the cords
to hear another message, the one
we would have sung had we known
of the rocks beneath our undulant words.

Cynthia Hogue can hear and transmit the siren's song.

* * *

What does it mean to speak with one's whole being?
How shape a full-bodied intelligent speaking
for an open-hearted listening? . . .

Thus begins "Whole Speech," the first poem in Gray Jacobik's The Surface of Last Scattering, and the answers to those questions comprise Jacobik's ars poetica, which is amply fulfilled by the poems in this book. "Whole speech" is evident in the poet's medium-to-long lines, the blocky appearance of poems unbroken by stanzas, poems dense with detail, and a narrative that flashes with all of its possible paths and perspectives - a number are prose poems.

Jacobik's poems truly examine their subject, but with wonder. Speaking of two young girls at the end of "Whole Speech," she writes:

I knew them, or was them, or had been them,
and so whole being addressed them, although
nothing was said. Their voices were songs birds
sometimes lend the young, the way, at times,
birds borrow the cries of children to say what their
voices cannot say. But where does that leave you and me?

Outside looking in? It's refreshing to feel the truth of poems like that: however much one identifies with another, one cannot be that other, which is where "open-hearted listening" can lead. Given the task Jacobik sets for herself, there are over a dozen meditations that fill the page with their weaving and "whole speech," though only one, "Apples," ends up succumbing to its catalogue of details - seventeen types of apples are named and described.

The Surface of Last Scattering has a fair number of love poems that are notable for their thoughtful intimacy. "Perspective" is one of my favorites and begins with the speaker watching her husband approach her:

That tiny figure in the distance, an eighth of an inch tall,
is my husband walking back from the ferry,
picking up the groceries ordered from Skibbereen.
He's walking down a serpentine hill that rounds
the harbor wall. Soon he'll vanish as he climbs
the two hills this side of me, then suddenly,
around a hedgerow of blooming blackberry,
fuchsia and grasses, he'll appear nearly full-sized

It's tempting to quote the entire poem, but suffice it to say something happens, so that the poem concludes with

Perhaps we never know the one we think we know
so intimately, the unpredictable predictably to erupt
and dislodge our preconceptions, the way the heart
of life is erratic and wild, and each of us is autonomous
and free, and I've yet to speak to him of my dismay.

This book is full of such treasures of perception and moments of insight naturally revealed. Jacobik's poetry has the uncanny ability to awaken the reader and come to a moment of realization along with the speaker. The poems happen to one, they are not merely read.

* * *

Hotel Imperium's cover is graced with a Warhol-like partial profile of Richard M. Nixon and the typestyle used for title and author's name is an odd Roman/Germanic mix. Thus, cover and title seem to promise a kind of pop-history: trendy, though referencing what is, alas, an ancient political gestalt (imperium). Rachel Loden uses the recognizable names and labels of popular culture, and indeed references the politics of our times: musak, NASDAQ, Winter Palace, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, CNN, Dan Rather, Bernie Shaw, Liz Taylor, Eddie (Fisher), Madonna, Woody Allen, Stepford (husband, not wife), Roswell, and of course "Pat" and "Dick," Haldeman, Checkers, and Bebe Rebozo are all there. Luckily, for the ever-growing population with cultural/historical amnesia, Loden has supplied explanatory notes for most of the significant (maybe) events, persons, and works to which she alludes.

Though maybe half the poems in the book incorporate cultural and historical details from the last thirty years, and attempt to use them in poems whose themes are timeless, it is the poems that eschew pop culture and recent history that stick with this reviewer. Granted, I can see how the popular icons are examples of timeless themes, but how many readers are able to make that connection? "Eddie" (Fisher), for example, probably means nothing to a new population of readers, even in conjunction with the mention of the more familiar (so far) "Liz Taylor." But maybe Loden is pointing out exactly that: surface (pop culture/history) vanishes, and the core of experience lasts. From the beginning and end of "The Killer Instinct":

No one can quite

get over it. It is summer and revenge
lies sweetly in the fields
with her legs open,
her Bo Peep
petticoats in ribbons.
Et tu,
cutie?
Not

far away, alternate worlds
queue up
to be auditioned,
chatting
despairingly among themselves,

but nobody's called back. . .

and, in the final four lines:

Love, revenge, remaindering . . .
is this the end?
- The world pumps on,
with all its gently pitiless muzak.

Unless I am reading that from far left field (a possibility), this is a poem about skepticism and opportunism: the skepticism over the possibility of a pure innocence (Little Bo Peep) and the opportunism that plays on the vulnerability of one who believes themselves to be innocent. Meanwhile, alternate scenarios wait like wallflowers as the one predictable scenario is played out to "gently pitiless muzak," which is the world of surface. Capitalizing on innocence is an old story and has been played out (until we wake up) from time immemorial, but will "muzak"? And will Little Bo Peep maintain her currency? "Et tu, cutie?" is another matter. "Et tu, Brutus" has lasted a fair amount of time, but the use of "cutie" shoots the poem back into the world of surface, though of course it has contemporary currency. The same risky blend of pop lingo with timeless image occurs in "Clueless in Paradise" (the title itself a risky blend): . . . Men on CNN/are weeping and surrendering, kneeling/while they kiss their captors' hands.

It is Loden's lyrical impulse, however, that sings of a core breaking through a surface world. "My Exchange" begins:

Still, the path of the tango was not strewn
with roses. Five thousand years

might pass without a single dance, the dejecta
of great cities rolled out on a plain like dice

And "The Revenant's Tune" begins:

Like an exhausted but beautiful murderess
I am done with my masterful deaths

A coffin closes, lined with butterflies

The lyric, ah the lyric . . . The moments that engender the lyric will repeat themselves, so need we mention the passing names? I don't know the answer to that.

* * *

Barbarism is the first collection from Molly McQuade and it truly introduces a voice like no other. Her poems are of states of being: "Barbarism," "Breeding," "Seed, Rankling," "Knotted, Nervy, Enormous," "Just a Crimp in Lushness," and "Absolution" are some of the titles. Here is "Breeding" in its entirety:

Breeding

They breed themselves, spendthrift, without help.
The tops have a tiff with the stalks
and start to let themselves out.
It happens once, a weak chord, a squeaked note,
and as the fern stoops to unfold,
the fiber groans in a song of sunstruck defiance
and want. Self-envelopement, self-desire, stun
with warmth, and the fern forgets
the life before light hit.
Comes a spasm of stealth abandoned,
underwater chucked, then that arch
with the wadded-up green circus in it,
coded, clenched. Consuming. Every fern does it,
maiden, heated, sired by itself -
springs up.

McQuade is a poet who does not just look, but becomes. In "Tools," anger and tools merge and the tools of anger become words:

But then,
why are words gentle?
They farm the fury they own.
They finish it
with slippery pleasure,
harmless,
or with the harm done.

No, the poems are not here to console, nor are they "easy." McQuade's poems use a Dickinson-like compression and the reader must go along with her in trying to penetrate the impenetrable. "Seeking An Orchid," for example, begins with an observation Roethke would have admired:

Seeking an orchid, I think: she must be a mistake,
an extreme unlived with -

a goner,
foul arctic from Cuba,
her fiber almost extinct,

flame advisor to night.

And the poem ends with a compression that is typical of McQuade, one in which the subject, description, and the very words seem to weld themselves together:

Her demurral - ripe.
The deep bit her,
leaving a sink.

Though the poet's subjects are mainly from the natural world, it is a natural world seen at rock bottom, from the inside-out, and - harkening back to the book's title - from an unvarnished barbaric time, when all things were busy fighting to become what they would be. The poems, quite naturally, function as metaphors for raw states of human experience and emotion. "Absolution" and "Deflowering" are two poems that have, ostensibly, humans as the actors for their subjects, but McQuade will not let us off easily:

You are not alone, and yet
the two of you are not one
exactly, there is so much to do
as more and more flowers find you.
But it is not about flowers, is it?
It is above and under
all words.

One could call McQuade an archeologist of humanity, digging down for the faint shadow of that thing that would presume to use words.

 

- James Cervantes