Saturday, November 06, 2010

Some recent poetry

I have been reading Peter Balakian's Ziggurat, Barbara Ras' The Last Skin, and Matt Zapruder's Come On All You Ghosts, enjoying them all, but in different ways.

Balakian's book has this enormous, encyclopedic long poem, 45 sections long, in fact, titled "A-Train/Ziggurat/Elegy" which is a pastiche including: growing up and coming of age in New York as the twin towers are being built, and the art scene there, working as a mail runner, etc; archaeological explorations of Babylon, through layers of history to the cradle of civilization, and what is found there; all mixed with more contemporary memories of 9-11 and the Iraq war. I'm not sure exactly what he is trying to do with it all, except perhaps to come to terms with his own life, and his relationship to the events, to the loss, to the history. He also has a long poem, "Sarajevo" about visiting the ruins of the Bosnian National Library. It's all pretty heady stuff, well written, but I am not sure yet how it all adds up (towers and ziggurats and libraries fall? their histories sink or turn to ash?). Still, I am intrigued enough to read again.


The Ras book is simpler, more direct. Much of it is concerned with the recent death of her mother, and her grieving process, and what it all means to her now, their relationship, the memory of her. I particularly enjoyed "Once the Ocean Takes You," and "Impossible Dance," in which she brings together the images of a radio playing in an empty house, and the shell of her mother's body taken away by the undertaker, and a translucent floating jellyfish:

Impossible Dance

Standing at the window, at a loss,
I listened to the radio left playing next door
in the house long vacant, the music vacant, too,
so hollow I could supply my own song,
but what came instead was a vision,
clear balloons of jellyfish
sailing through the airiest water,
transparency held aloft in transparency,
tender animate emptiness propelled
by tentacles and sighs.

After they took my mother's shell
to the place it would burn,
I remade her bed and lay there,
wild, pinning
myself to the her last place.
Her air--all I wanted was her air.

Five years later to the day, again I go
through the stations of grief, death's awful
offices, a dance that is never learned, or ever done,
only sorrow, my invisible partner, yanking me
in tune to an orchestra always out of earshot,
somewhere beyond belief.

pg 60

PS: looks like there is a YouTube video of Ras reading this poem at AWP here.


I love the cover of Matthew Zapruder's new book, with the scrawled chalk title, over the black embossed city-scape. The poems are delightful as well, a mix of humor and pathos, philosophical meanderings, dream notes, bon mots and asides. There are also some moving elegiac poems for his father. Here is a taste, I think it is perhaps a kind of ars poetica? It's interesting to me how this poem also begins with overheard music (as in the Ras poem above):

The New Lustration

Last night I heard faint music moving
up through the floor. The thought
I could be one who falls asleep and dreams
some brave act and wakes to actually
do it flapped through me, brief breeze
through a somnolent flag. Across
the room my cell phone periodically
shone a red light indicating someone
was failing to reach me. Your body
kept barely lifting the sheet. I think
my late night thoughts and feelings
about my life are composed
of fine particles that drift far from me
to periodically settle on apartment
or office buildings. Feel the heat
and pulsation within. A man sits
in the Institute of National Memory
examining files. They contain accounts
of what certain people believed other
more powerful people would want
to permit themselves to believe
regular people were choosing to do
all through the years that like terrible
ordinary babies one after another
crawled, grasping daily acts and placing
them into these files anyone now
can hold. Read about the life
of the great ordinary Citizen Z. How
he attended funerals and horrible boring
literary parties, aging and thinking
of his anonymity and writing journals
he later felt he must destroy, and calmly
against his will periodically meeting
in hotel bars with the sad men who asked
questions that along with the answers
they all knew would end in these yellow files.
Each has a label marked with three
or four obscure numbers followed by
a dash followed by three initials.
Europe you had your time. Now
it is ours to drag everyone into a totally
ghost free 21st century whiteness.

pg 25


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