Saturday, May 10, 2008


It's been my habit, for many years, to turn down the corners of pages of certain kinds books and magazines. Not all of them, by any means. Novels, for example, I generally prefer to leave intact. In novels I will write brief, unobtrusive marginal notes—in pencil—or use Post-its or tape flags. The only novels I really work over are the novels I teach, which get the whole treatment: dogears, highlighting, underlining in various colors, Post-its, tape flags, page points, marginal notations, lists of page number references written on the inside covers.

Mostly it's my poetry books that are dogeared. On my first run-through of a book of poems, I like to read fairly quickly and loosely, turning down the corners of poems I want to come back to. Once I've read through the whole book, I go back and re-read, much more deliberately, the poems I have chosen. Depending on how that goes, and how rich the re-reading is, I sometimes go back again and read the rest of the poems to see what I might have missed the first time through.

Each year at my school we give awards in each subject area at an evening assembly for the awardees and their parents. (There's also, during the nomination process, a yearly ritual of hand-wringing and second-guessing about whether or not we should in fact be giving awards, and what message the giving of awards conveys to those who receive them and those who do not, but I'm not going to get into that in this post.) In recent years, the English Department has chosen to give the award winners, in lieu of a plaque or trophy, a book. Recent award books have included Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Tobias Woolf's Old School, Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, and Ted Kooser's Home Poetry Repair Manual. This year, the suggestion was made that the teachers might each select be asked to suggest a favorite poem, so that the selections could be bound into a sort of personalized anthology. So it's been my pleasant duty, over the last few weeks, to have been in charge of the somewhat laborious process of accepting the nominated poems, preparing the typescripts, arranging for the school to procure the copyright permissions, and putting together the anthology.

In order to secure the copyright permissions, it turns out that one needs not only the author and title and ISBN number of a particular book, but the actual page number on which the poem appears. In many cases, it wasn't that hard. Amazon's makes most of the relevant information available online; their "Look Inside this Book" feature is invaluable since they almost always include the table of contents, which allow me to get the necessary page numbers without leaving my desk. Some books, however, are not (yet?) so indexed, which is why I found myself driving, one evening last week, to the brick-and-mortar Borders at Ward Center in Honolulu, on the off chance of locating the page numbers of the two remaining books on my list: Wendell Berry's Given and Jack Gilbert's Refusing Heaven. Against all odds and expectations, there they both were on the shelves, one last copy of each book, with the relevant poems both appearing on page 18. In a small gesture of propitiation to the gods of serendipity, I wound up buying the Gilbert book, as well as a new collection of poems by Carl Dennis called Unknown Friends. Although it would take a mighty sharp eye to make the discrimination, those are the two books whose pages you see turned down in the picture at the head of this post.

Of the two poets, Gilbert is the darker and more idiosyncratic. His poems are often meditations on ambiguity and discontinuity, on the way pleasure shades into sorrow, love into loss, belief into betrayal. My favorite of the poems in the book, after "Failing and Flying," a poem which was nominated by two of our teachers, was this one:

Homage to Wang Wei

An unfamiliar woman sleeps on the other side
of the bed. Her faint breathing is like a secret
alive inside her. They had known each other
three days in California four years ago. She was
engaged and got married afterwards. Now the winter
is taking down the last of the Massachusetts leaves.
The two o'clock Boston & Maine goes by,
calling out of the night like trombones rejoicing,
leaving him in the silence after. She cried yesterday
when they walked in the woods, but she didn't want
to talk about it. Her suffering will be explained,
but she will be unknown nevertheless. Whatever happens,
he will not find her, despite the tumult and trespass
they might achieve in the wilderness of their bodies
and the voices of the heart clamoring, they will still
be a mystery each to the other, and to themselves.

The poem is a pretty good example of Gilbert's manner and preoccupations. It is direct and accessible, but it is also artful: there are nice little surprises embedded in the way particular nuances are conveyed: her breath "like a secret alive inside her," the "tumult and trespass they might achieve in the wilderness of their bodies." It's also, like many of the poems in the book, alert to and explicitly concerned with the ways in which we fail ourselves and each other.

Carl Dennis shares some of the same preoccupations, but his style is much different. His poems are less obviously "poetic." He has a very smoothly modulated conversational style that often relies on anecdotes that are arresting and often gently, ruefully humorous:

The False and the True

The story she told at their first meeting,
Last spring in the health food store,
That she'd just returned from a year at a school
For Buddhist nuns outside Benares,
Turned out to be falst, the jade barette
That loosely gathered her waist-length hair
Made in Detroit. But his feelings for her
Revealed the partial truth behind them:
That she'd dreamed of going, and would have,
If she'd been able to save enough for plane fare
And didn't have a daughter in high school
Here in Erie County and a job at the hospital.

As for his tacit hint that his quiet demeanor
Was a sign of a peace-loving character, that was true,
She later discovered, though his conversion to peace
Happened more recently than he'd suggested.
Just a month before, in fact, when his doctor warned him
His ulcer was worse, and no wonder,
What with his years of quarreling with his colleagues
In County Health. But who can blame him,
She wants to know, for his outrage
At their lax enforcement of pollution laws?

It's true she still hasn't told him about her brush
With cancer last fall. True he's been silent
About the operation scheduled for spring
To repair a heart valve. But if their silence
Has cast a shadow between them,
Each knows the other knows that the odds are slim
They'll have more than a score of years together.
Meanwhile, here they are,
With time enough to list the efforts they'll make,
If given a chance, for the other's sake,
Many of them ambitious and meant sincerely.

There's no individual line here which would call attention to itself as poetry. But theres a precision to the delivery and pacing of the whole poem that I find very convincing. There's no waste or fluff here. The story is told is compact and funny and true to life.

Once I get done with the dogears, I can usually tell how much I liked a particular book by seeing how fat it is at the top. I liked both of these collections a lot, for different reasons.

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