Now we begin to separate the dark from the dark

oct04cover_x150.gifToday was a terrifically bad day. Every other phone call or conversation seemed to be some kind of incoming. My stress level sky-rocketed. In an attempt to calm down I went to the bookstore and bought two books of poems and the newest copy of Poetry magazine. Consequently I’ve updated my current reading list in the left hand column.

Dylan’s autobiography I ended up buying after reading the Newsweek excerpt; I’m almost done with it. Slow Food: The Case for Taste is a birthday gift from my dear friend Silbatron that I’m just getting around to reading. I think after spending a prolonged time in close quarters with me, he was a little disturbed by how quickly I consume my food. As L says, “nobody’s going to take it away from you, Nicco.” I tried to explain, “yeah, well, when I was a kid, if you didn’t eat it fast, one of the other orphans would take it from you.”

But the real pleasures right now are the poems. Although I haven’t yet cracked the current issue of Poetry, the cover photo is just stunning — the croc eye. I want to track down the original and get a big blown up version. I love the photo — find it deeply unsettling, and in that way, moving. And the back of the magazine has a tribute to Donald Justice — I guess he must have passed away recently. One of the first poems I ever memorized was Donald Justice:

On a Woman of Spirit Who Taught Both Piano and Dance

Thanks be to the Powers-That-Once-Were
for her rouges and powders,
those small cosmetic subterfuges
which were the gloss upon her book of hours;
and to Madam L. herself,
whose heart was a hummingbird
and flew from art to art.

All the standard caveats apply there — that’s from memory, so I might have the line breaks all wrong, etc. etc.

In any case, there on the back page of the magazine was one of Justice’s better poems and the little inscription, 1925-2004, and I felt sad.

I originally went into the bookstore to buy a book of Ted Kooser’s poetry. I had randomly started reading Kooser’s book of prose, Local Wonders, when I noticed he had been named Poet Laureate of these United States, which was kind of funny because I didn’t even realize he was a poet. So, having immensely enjoyed Local Wonders, I’ve been meaning to pick up a volume of his poetry for some time.

And sure enough, there were several freshly minted copies with shiny new “poet laureate of the united states” labels, so I picked up Delights & Shadows, and once I’ve digested it I might post some thoughts here. But perhaps even more exciting is that Kooser is close to Levine in the small word of poetry, alpha by author — and there was what appeared to be a new volume of poems by Philip Levine. It was hard cover, copyright 2004. How had I missed this? He’s one of my all-time favorite poets — author of one of my top three favorite poems, What Work Is. Levine’s poetry speaks to me in a direct, clear way — books like The Simple Truth, What Work Is, and The Mercy. And his prose is wonderous, too – I love the essay, “Mine Own John Berryman“.

So a new book of Philip Levine poems is no small affair for me. I opened the book, noticed it’s epitaph (or whatever-its-called, the quote at the front of the book):

Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song
in my own breath.

and my heartbeat quickened with joy. I needed to buy this book.

On the metro ride from the office back to the apartment, I opened it and read the first poem, “Gospel”. And that’s it. I read that first poem over and over again on the subway ride home, just delighting in its every syllable. It is a fine poem. Levine is a fine poet. This one line I kept turning over on my tongue: “…The pines make / a music like no other, rising and / falling like a distance surf at night / that calms the darkness before / first light…”

That is just good. Better than any food or drink, or any thought or words I’ve had all week.

(Turns out the epitaph is from another Levine poem, Call It Music.)

One Response to “Now we begin to separate the dark from the dark”

  1. anne Says:

    I haven’t read any poetry recently at all, except for the ones that come in on the Writer’s Almanac (I subscribed after your post about WC Williams’ birthday). Or writing any, for too long.

    Instead I’ve been reading blogs and news. I was all set to make today the one day I read no news, but it’s not working out. I even got a part-time job to keep me from the news — polling for US Congressional races. Thought maybe it would mix my fix; but no.

    I hope there are many people, like me, whose lives will never be the same after this race. It’s our own election of 1968 — Nixon, Humphrey, McCarthy, Wallace. We have one of each ourselves, though I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that.

    That election’s graduating class certainly left its mark on our history — may that history of change repeat itself.

    Otherwise things are goodly quiet down here in Charlottesville. I’m trying to pray as much about the election and the state of the world as about my own small town and small problems. And preparing for the coming long years of hard hope.


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