Thursday, December 22, 2005

Escalator   [decade-old blank verse sonnet]

[May 12, 1995]:

The winter of my 38th year having passed
it's once again May   & again one may sit
in morning with mint in a cup & a book
& the warmth of the sun & a semblance of leisure

but here where I stand   in artificial light
as the daily commuters rush forward to work
here on hexagonal tiles of red
with wind from the tunnel & sound of the coins

the click of the heels   the cough of a throat
the screeching of wheels & the tones of the subway
(a descending third   to signify the imminent
close of a metal electrical door)
the notion of spring   is muted & odd
till one glimpses the sky from the rise of the stair

Over the past couple decades, it has been my ideosyncratic, irregular custom occasionally to scrawl a poem in the outer leaves of a published book (not, needless to say, my own, though one that I do own) -- a sometime-habit that owes something to sheer convenience [if one wants a nice blank area of paper, well there it is at hand, if one haps to have a book in hand] and something, too, perhaps, to a sense of equality among writers (so to say), and something, as well, to a notion of the oddity of the historical moment, if not, even, the quiddity of the materials (book, whatever it be, and one's thoughts/words, whatever they my amount to) assembled in one time & place by, for want of a better phrase, the great whim of the world.

At some point in recent days, walking thru the literal garage area that amounts to the anteroom of my (sort of) 2-room basement studio, I knocked over a box of books, and a little pile of them spilled out on the floor. For some days, I walked past this pile. This morning, I picked up one of its constituents. The book in question proved to be poetry: Galway Kinnell's Imperfect Thirst (1994). I was delighted to read the epigraph (from which the volume's title derives) -- a sher from none other than the distinguished Sufi ancient Sohrawardi. Worth quoting:

If your eyes are not deceived by the mirage
Do not be proud of the sharpness of your understanding;
It may be your freedom from this optical illusion
Is due to the imperfectness of your thirst.
I don't see that Kinnell anywyhere identifies the translator. For all I know, it was translated by a friend of his.

This reminds me of running across this poet, Galway Kinnell, one summer in the woods in Vermont. It wasn't quite as impromptu as that may sound. I had driven -- along with Janet Fine and Carol Tuynman (and a friend of Janet's from India -- a sort of curious Hindu philosopher-character known as Doctor Daran, seemingly 80 or so years old) to see the Bread & Puppet Circus pageant.
We had the fun of crashing at the summer forest hut (an archetypal rustic hermitage) of the notable experimental violinist Malcolm Goldstein (though I seem to recall Dr. Daran slept in Carol's car). And we did make it to the festive site that the Bread & Puppet Theatre maintains as their rural home base, and would open to the public annually for this country pageant -- a weekend of entertainment (offered sans admission charge) in Glover, Vermont. [Google informs me this long tradition came to a close in 1998.]
The Circus included both a main show (which we didn't necessarily pay full mind to) as well as an array of side-show performances (which I wandered around watching). [The Bread & Puppet Theatre, incidentally, oftentimes use huge-scale puppets for their dramas -- maybe my memory's wrong, but what I picture are mamouth figures some 20 or 25 feet tall. I did also glimpse them in Manhattan at some point, possibly in a parade? But here I digress from my story. Back to the side-shows.] One of these was, it turned out (to my pleasant-enough surprise), a poetry reading amid the trees. (A suprb setting for such.) Galway Kinnell was there; I believe he was amidst holding forth as I arrived.... (He lives in Vermont, though teaching at NYU. His companion Sharon Olds likewise read from her work.) Galway shared a sequence I enjoyed -- work later included in an eponymous book, When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990). I imagine this excursion of ours was in the summer of '89.

This book of Kinnell's (Imperfect Thirst) I purchased circa 1994-95: consider publication date ('94) and date of my poem ('95). I bought it at Chapters Bookstore in Washington, DC (back when they were still located on K Street). The book includes a few ghazals Kinnell essayed to write -- spurred on toward this (I'm fairly sure) by the (now) late Agha Shahid Ali (who around that time was button-holing a bevy of poets to venture the exercise); -- though come to think of it, I've an idea Kinnell had himself lived in Tehran at one time. (Is it so? Where does this thought come from?) At any rate, I'll not turn attention to his ghazal efforts here (beyond noting their existence). Rather, my rambling note but serves to explain how it is I came to have at hand my 14-line poem inscribed above. It was found in the book I carried with me to work this morning, written out clear enough to be still decipherable. I'd not put in breaks between stanzas (seen above), but am certain I'd intended it as a species of sonnet.


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