Monday, August 13, 2012

New Poems by Irina Yevsa

Image courtesy of RIA Novosti

I was happy to see that the May issue of the journal Novy Mir features seven new poems by Irina Yevsa, the Ukrainian poet whose work I translated not long ago for Anomalous Press. (The editors even had me make audio recordings of the poems! I wish that Ms. Yevsa could have done the the Russian originals, but we were thwarted by technical difficulties.)

The new batch includes an epistolary dialogue between Libra and Aquarius, an elaboration on a children's rhyme from the Soviet years, and a belated confession of Nabokovian ignorance. But my favorite is this one, an elegy for an old friend killed in a fight, with its long lines and narrative sensibility:
“Погиб, — сказали. — В пьяной драке не уберёгся от ножа.
Его нашли у гаража, ну, там, где мусорные баки”.
Два бака. Я их помню. Да. Ещё — беседку в брызгах света,
где мы играли в города, а повзрослев, совсем не в это.
Кусты, скрывающие лаз в заборе. Запахи столовки.
За тридцать лет хотя бы раз могла сойти на остановке.
Так нет же. Пальцем по стеклу водила, злясь на жизнь иную,
где старый хлебный на углу перелицован был в пивную.
Но если б знать, что ты уже — от встреч случайных независим —
в тот край, куда не пишут писем, успел отбыть на ПМЖ,
чтоб, как тогда, — из темноты, многоочитой и хрипатой, —
кричать мне с первого на пятый: “Я не люблю тебя! А ты?”
(Notice the internal rhymes, which mask the poem’s true form. Why did Yevsa disguise her tetrameter quatrains as octameter couplets?)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Poems that Drive Us Bonkers

Bonnie "Prince" Billy at a show in Dallas / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m a professor of poetry, more or less, but sometimes I find myself exhausted by the intense focus that poems demand of me. (Wallace Stevens can be especially exhausting—though well worth the effort.) Naturally, my students tend to get fed up with poetry’s opacity too. Who doesn’t? So I was pleased as Punch to find a short piece in the June issue of Poetry that takes on the topic of tricky poems from the point of view of someone intrigued but frustrated. It’s called “To Hell with Drawers,” and it was written by Will Oldham, the songwriter who goes by the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy and whose bearded visage I remember from movies like Old Joy.

The trouble is, you can’t read the damn thing online. In fact, “To Hell with Drawers” is the only thing from the June issue that the magazine doesn’t allow access to. So I’ll tell you about it.

In his central metaphor, Oldham sets up a contrast with prose: while prose arranges its contents neatly on shelves for inspection, he says, poetry hides them away in drawers. And Oldham doesn’t like drawers, even if he loves what they contain. “There must be shelves,” he writes, “where the contents are visible. When things are hidden in drawers, they do not exist. Prose is shelving.” Come to think of it, this is precisely why many of my students enter my course wary of poetry: they don’t want to have to open all those drawers. Or maybe they’re afraid that they won’t even be able to open them.

Yet I would argue that much of the pleasure of reading poems comes from opening the drawer and sorting out what’s inside of it. A poem that you find bewildering at first can later give you a sense of real satisfaction when you’ve figured out just what it’s up to. Auden knew this. He once explained that he took a workmanlike approach to reading poems, asking himself, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” And really, figuring out what a poem is doing turns out to be a pretty straightforward task, since the poem itself tells you which questions to ask. Why is there a line break here? Why do those words alliterate? Why is this stanza so long and the next one so short? Why is that word used and not another? This pragmatic method is something I try to pass on to my students.