Lewis Turco is one of the great undiscovered treasures of American poetry, though those who really follow the scene know his work well, both as poet and as critic. In that latter role, he has not only provided cogent commentary on major poets and on the mode of poetry itself (and I say that being a less ‘formalistic' reader myself than Turco is, but granting and celebrating his percipience), but he has also rediscovered and championed a major early nineteenth-century American poet in Manoah Bodman. He taught at SUNY Oswego for many years and has been a vigorous and constructive participant on the poetry scene. Though I know full well that Turco was born in 1934, that he was already mature and established by the time I started reading him in the early 1980s, it astonishes me to think of him as over eighty, as his work is not only still buoyantly being produced but vitally contemporary, offering perspectives on imagination just not available elsewhere.
Turco's latest book, The Hero Enkidu: An Epic, is particularly timely, as we are all thinking about Mesopotamian civilization in the light of the atrocities toward archaeological remains in Iraq and Syria of the terrorist group calling itself ISIS. Or at least we all should be. Sadly, many of the same people who celebrated the movie The Monuments Men, about the heroic attempts of a special detachment of the U.S. Army to save European art treasures both from Nazism and general wartime destruction, do not seem to give a darn about these ancient Near Eastern antiquities. Not only are they so remote from most of us, erected by people whose languages are no longer spoken or known—they were not Arabs any more than they were Israelis —but they were built by people often described as villains in the Bible, and under the aegis of harsh-ruling kings whose combination of rigid authority and appreciation of artistic skill and craft brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism. This is true of the history of Western art works, often born of hierarchy and privilege. But in the Middle Eastern context it is far more obvious that ‘we’ cared about Palmyra more than ‘we’ did about Hatra or Nimrud simply because Palmyra, architecturally, shows Greco-Roman influence and was influential on neoclassical architecture, is the proof of this shameful bias. Western concern about Palmyra may have—knock on wood—stopped the ISIS from utterly destroying it. But we should have spoken up just as much for Hatra and Nimrud.
This Western bias against the ancient Near East has extended even to the most prominent document of Mesopotamian civilization, the poem called Gilgamesh. As the recent scholarship of David Damrosch and Wai-Chee Dimock, has shown, Gilgamesh has assumed a privileged role in accounts of 'world literature' and has in turn been translated by writers of various gifts and dispositions such as David Ferry, John Gardner/John Meier, Herbert Mason, and, most recently, Stuart Kendall. As Michael Palma reminds us in his splendid introduction to Turco’s book, the Gilgamesh poem has also inspired a para-literature of epic, fantastic, and historically minded retellings.
One might see Turco’s focus on Enkidu, the best friend, homosocial soulmate, and sidekick of our hero Gilgamesh, as simply another instance of the various postmodern retellings of canonical stories from the vantage point of subordinate or alternate points-of-view. But Turco is turning to Enkidu for a different reason: to make sense of the tremendous distance between us and the poem, or the cultural origins of the poem, as figured not only by ‘our’ indifference towards the terrorist atrocities in Iraq and Syria but the way it is acceptable to be an intellectual in the humanities and have near-complete ignorance of ancient Mesopotamia; for instance, a literate reader of one of the translations mentioned above said to me, in deprecation of his ultimate abilities to assess the translator’s achievement, that he did not know the original Sanskrit! As if Sumerian were Sanskrit, a language that it has as little relation to as it does to Sindarin!
Turco uses Enkidu as a prism through which to relate to the poem: as Enkidu's earthiness, primal rage, and unbridled bundle of emotions are closer to us psychologically than Gilgamesh’s heroism, always imbricated with themes of piety to both his gods and his city, barriers that do not hinder our view of Enkidu, wild, unfettered, in Turco's words “hairy and naked” and thus unacculturated in Mesopotamian civilization. With this psychological proximity, Turco gives us verbal proximity: by making the bold, but infinitely successful, decision to approach the material through the verse forms of Anglo-Saxon and alliterative Middle English poetry.
Turco is not just making a a comment on the comparable ‘state’ of civilization between the two cultures, but also a musing on the possibility that Gilgamesh might have had, in Mesopotamian culture, a similar role to what which Beowulf might have had in Anglo-Saxon culture. (We can never know, as both works were rediscovered much later, after many of the other elements of the literary corpus of those cultures had been lost). Though we actually are as much at sea concerning the original date, author, or cultural purpose of Beowulf as we are of Gilgamesh, we have linguistic connections to Beowulf we do not to Gilgamesh, and even more to the Middle English alliterative corpus such as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Turco’s verse maximizes these connections, especially in his deft use of alliteration:
the fertile forest
And found the traps
that he had dug
Had all been filled
with soil and scrub;...
Turco even uses rhyme at times, though this is highly anachronistic, as rhyme only entered the Western tradition in the High Middle Ages—the Greeks and Latins, as I discuss in chapter 4o of my recent book Barbarian Memory, did not use rhyme—it is our primary mode of poetic coherence. Since Turco only uses rhyme sparingly and tactically, it does not make the verse mawkish or stringy, as too much of it might:
To stare, astonished,
at this wonder,
then stood in sorrow,
in agony and woe
to see this man aglow
with manliness as though
he were godlike crown to toe.
This is disciplined and restrained, and coexists happily with the alliteration, blank verse, and Turco’s own elegant attempt to simulate the distich-structure of the Mesopotamian originals (as the text was first written in Sumerian then 'adapted' into Akkadian). The very end of the poem also rhymes in ways both apt and gratifying. My favorite mode, though, is the alliteration, which can capture ingenuous cultural truths in a sly apothegm, as when the gods Anu and Inanna are called "sky sovereigns”: simple, supple, and stark. In something i read by him in the 1980s, Turco pointed out that his middle name is Putnam, and that this is the same surname as that of George Puttenham, the great Elizabethan anatomist of metaphor. Turco's deft and seamless handling of figuration would have warmed the heart of his Elizabethan forebear.
There are some aspects of Turco’s poem I could have done without—I did not like the intrusion of Biblical personages based on, but not themselves present in, Mesopotamian myths and histories, although this objection is merely “Johnsonian” on my part and not meant to be taken as universal cavil. On the other hand I rather like the intrusion of Tolkienian references, based on Tolkien’s use of “Erech”—the Hebrew rendering of “Gilgamesh's home city and the version, rather than “Uruk” employed by Turco—to the resting-place of the Faithful Stone brought to Gondor by the Númenoranean exiles, themselves fleeing from a flood much like the Gilgamesh story's Utnapishtim.
On their trek to Erech
Enkidu the tale
of the city’s founding:
“In the second age
Out of the ruins
of golden Númenor
A great globe
made of stone.
Upon the stone
he etched an oath
And caused the great
King of the Mountains
To place his hand
upon the rock
And swear that he
would bear fealty,
To Isildur’s lineage
and to Erech when
Its temple and walls
were raised upon
The crown of the hill.
I myself explore this connection in my essay on Tolkien and Mesopotamia in Jason Fisher’s Tolkien and the Study of His Sources. Turco uses the Tolkien allusion to explore how the Gilgamesh story contains both history and prehistory, both the human and the supernatural. Turco’s moving poem shows how literature can be a bridge between the immortality Gilgamesh vainly seeks and the frail mortality that envelops even the ferocious Enkidu:
When he saw its walls
He also saw
that they were his
for they would last
Walls can in fact be destroyed, as we have seen all too vividly recently, but the stone tablets of the Gilgamesh story miraculously made it into the permanent record, and Turco has given us a thoughtful, innovative, and perceptive expansion on it, a contribution to the literary trove in its own resplendent right.
Turco's New Take on Oldest Extant Epic
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is five millenia old. Such an antiquity doesn't seem likely to speak to readers today, in any measure. But it is a story examining the nature of friendship, the nature of loss, and the troubling question of human mortality. It is therefore as relevant to modern readers as it was in the beginning, when it existed first as an oral tale, and then when writing came along, as cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets.
Gilgamesh has heretofore been the hero, the epic's central figure.The story's emphasis has of course been on the semi-divine king, over the centuries in various renderings.
What Lewis Turco does infuses the old tale with warm new energy by placing the emphasis on Enkidu, the wholly mortal and vulnerable companion to the king. In the course of the tale, Enkidu grows: from the innocent playmate of the animals, through experience, to become a seasoned and trusted warrior and leader. When Gilgamesh is set on destroying the ogre Humbaba, Enkidu advises him against it, but takes the dangerous lead position when they undertake the enterprise. The elders advise Gilgamesh:
be in the van
And you will be safe
Shamash has sworn.
Using the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form, Turco gives the tale the feel of antiquity, but a fresh antiquity, not that of Homer or the Bible. The story races along—it never lags--and that speed is due in part to the hemistich line pattern. Much of the delight of the rest is due to the splendid diction, the exacting choices, of a peerless poet.
And forth they marched
together, the heroes
And their warrior army
to find the spot
Where Humbaba dwelt
in the Cedar Forest
had been born ...
Ruth F. Harrison
Another tour de force-- in service of a great cause.
I speak with a forked tongue: one fork is that of a person immersed in Medieval literature, hence very much interested in the epic tradition; one fork is that of a person so sophomoric she had never been able to hear or see "Enkidu" without singing "inky dinky parlay voo" all day long. But thanks to Lew Turco's masterly poem Enkidu has been rescued from his thousands of years as merely an epic sidekick in the first epic poem ever written. Thank you, Lew. Another tour de force -- in service of a great cause. Oh, and great fun to read!
COMMENTARY FROM CORRESPONDENTS
The mailman dropped off The Hero Enkidu about an hour ago, and I’m already deep into the Afterword, which is fascinating! But first I read the Prologue to Tim Murphy, who called from North Dakota just about when the mailman arrived and I had just opened the package. When I finished reading he said, “Oh God! I have to order that!” And I replied, “Yes, you do.” I’ve just now e-mailed him the announcement you sent out in May, with information from Bordighera Press, and the quotes from the cover. I told Tim it’s so good that it reminds me of his translation of Beowulf, which is very high praise.
It seems impossible, but it’s even better than I remember, faster, stronger, more daring in its music, somehow reckless but perfect. Tomorrow I’m going to pass it around during the Powow River Poets’ workshop, but in the afternoon I’m going to read from it during the Open Mic that will follow the readings by Rick Mullin and Anton Yakovlev. Those guys are both wonderful, so we’ll have a fairly large audience, with guests coming up from Boston and NYC and down from NH. I’m excited over introducing it to the group! The Intro by Palma is excellent, by the way.
Alfred sends you his congratulations and best wishes: I read him the Prologue over lunch, and told him something about the legend itself.
I forgive you—just barely—for wreaking havoc on Walt Whitman. Tim Murphy did away with him some years ago in our screened-in porch, which has been known ever since as The Walt Whitman Memorial Porch. Tim says I had to mop up Walt’s blood after his savage discussion of several poems proved that poor Walt deserved to die. I am, I must confess, unconvinced by the evidence, and am still profoundly moved by many passages in Leaves of Grass. But we’ll let that issue rest, along with Walt, and I’ll close with this instead: Kudos to you, mio caro fratello, for achieving this magnificent project, and thank you for my copy with its priceless inscription!
Dear Mr. Turco,
I am fascinated that you fastened on heroic tetrameter with caesura mid-line as the form for your epic. Rhina has sent me a couple of emails and read some over the phone. I've wanted to translate the Gilgamesh since I was a kid, but now that is unnecessary. Congratulations! You manage the Gawain [and the Green Knight] meter far better than the poet did. Again, Congratulations.
I passed your book around to the 19 people present at our Powow River Poets Workshop this morning, and some of them asked to see it again and jot down information from it during lunch. Then during the Open Mic section of our very well-attended reading this afternoon (by Rick Mullin and Anton Yakovlev), I discussed it briefly, and read the Prologue and the opening pages of the first section.
Everyone enjoyed hearing it! Some people were surprised to learn that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story, and the source of much of what has come down to us as "biblical," and others were intrigued by the "bob & wheel."
Glad to see you're getting good reviews! And no surprise.
Thanks ever so much for the kindly signed copy of The Hero Enkidu. Beautiful cover, sterling innards! What an accomplishment, to liberate the Enkidu story from the longer surrounding epic that obscured it. The Anglo-Saxon verse line makes the poem all the more tempting to read out loud, and willread out loud very well. Here’s hoping Enkidu finds a host of readers. And it’s clear that nobody will try to do what you’ve done, for a long while. Heartfelt congratulations!
What Charles Eliot Norton said of Walt Whitman’s poetry in 1855 was as obvious then as it was to me ninety-five years later in 1950, when I was sixteen and in high school, and as it still is today: that Whitman wrote prose poems. He had never heard of “free verse” which was a term circulated in America after 1912 (Whitman had died twnty years earlier) by the Modernists because they thought they needed a term that included the word “verse” in order to legitimize their practice. They did not – prose poetry is as old as poetry itself. Verse is metered language, prose is unmetered language. “Unmetered metered language,” “free” “verse” makes no sense at all.
Today, April 6, 2015, Ann Putnam, the mother of one of my former students at SUNY Oswego, Laura Putnam, sent this to me:
I'm semi-rising from slugdom, and want to tell you about the two groups that I talked to about your books.
The first group turned into a three-hour event and was more animated and engaged than usual, especially given the state many of the members were in -- one whose husband had died suddenly in February, from the flu, at age 61, one who had to leave the table occasionally to wrestle with her cough, and one who was having post-chemo therapy for breast cancer. Etc. But it is a tenacious group.
We focus on one book a month, and I chose The Familiar Stranger, poems by Lewis Turco. I read a bio of you that I had put together, then (wildly breaking with tradition) passed out copies of “Brontophobia” from another book [Fearful Pleasures]:
BRONTOPHOBIA: The Fear of Thunder
The first time she could remember hearing thunder
she’d been sitting on her grandma’s lap
in the formal parlor of the big old house where she
was visiting. She flinched and shuddered. “What’s that,
grandma?” She’d asked. “That is the voice of God,”
the old woman said, and then they heard it again
rolling out of the clouds, across the sky
and into the formal parlor hung with drapes
where the portrait of her dead grandfather hung above
the mantel and stared at her
as though with the eyes of God. She blanched and shuddered,
and had been shuddering ever since, whenever
the great dark clouds rolled over the deep blue sky,
shutting all the earth into a parlor
hung with mists and rain, where a dead old man
stared down at them out of the roaring heavens
and told them what he thought without a word,
with only the sound of warning, the sound of dread,
the clap resounding out of admonition
and into the parlor in which they were entombed.
I then read and discussed “Trinity.” (I'm tempted to say it went over with a bang.)
I. The Big Bang
II. The Big Blink
Is it a butterfly or a wasp? No matter,
catch it in our net – don’t let it get away:
When life blinks out, that’s it: Nothing existed, ever.
The Big Blink takes place. There’s nothing to regret,
no one to regret it. There will be no darkness —
darkness so deep we are of it, no silence
so vast one can hear oneself think, nothing to wish for,
nothing to want, no one to think or wish for,
no darkness or silence so vast and deep that we
are the silence, nor so deep and vast we are of
it, nor in it, nothing to want, no self to wish
or wish for, no being to become, to Be.
III. The Big Blank
One member chose “The Skater,” one chose “A Song,” others read “The Stone,” “Mon Coeur” and “Aubade to Say The Least,” and each one was discussed at length.
Whenever I saw an opening, I tried sneak attacks of poems from other books – “Dorothy,” “Burning the News,” “The Cat,” touting the amazing range of your books.
What was amazing was how deeply everyone got into your poems. They especially liked your word choices, how brilliant the words were, how layered, how perfect for the poem. As for the collection, some felt it may not have been as cohesive as your other books. I believe you said the poems were mostly ones that didn't fit in other collections.
This was one of the most interesting meetings I've been to in seven years with the group. Sadly, two members were missing -- one with scheduling conflicts, one with agoraphobia. (Both of them men, leaving us with a 5 - 1 female/male ratio for the day.) Poets are such an interesting bunch.
Then last Thursday, at a group that allows a 15-min. presentation before critiquing poetry we have written for the meeting, I did a brief bio and then read several poems –“Trinity,” “Brontophobia,” “The Stranger,” “The Stockyard,” “The Trees” and one that absolutely wowed everyone –“Lovers.” In fact several members asked for copies, which I'll send them if it is ok with you. The members range in age from mid-50's up to me, and “Lovers” seemed to really hit home. Very powerful.
They were all very impressed, and I flashed Fearful Pleasures, The Familiar Stranger and The Shifting Web around, letting them see what's available but not, of course, letting them borrow anything that might not come back to me.
Wesli Court's Epitaphs for the Poets went home with Donna Marbach after the first meeting, as she was loving it and can be trusted to bring it back. And as far as Satan's Scourge goes, my son Jim thinks his wife let her cousin borrow it. So I just up and ordered a new copy, instead of waiting to track it down.
Donna Marbach, one of the group members, writes a monthly newsletter, Pencil Marks. She asked me to contact you about interviewing you for one of the up-coming issues. So if you are interested in that, I'll let her know. She also sponsors a chapbook contest every couple of years, and I am one of the first readers.
Well, gosh, I suppose I should do something else today besides chat. It's possible you also would like to do something besides listen to me. And thanks for writing so much for me to appreciate.
Lewis Turco. The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories. Scottsdale, Arizona: Star Cloud Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-932842-16-6, trade paperback, 196 pp.
By Miriam Kotzin
Editor, Per Contra
This book ought to come with a warning. You’ll stay up late and put aside chores in order to keep reading these compelling stories. If a collection of fiction is good, you’ll want to savor the prose, think about the ideas and read another, as you will with these. But you won’t expect the book to have the same insistent pull on you to keep going that you’d find in a popular novel. Lewis Turco’s The Museum of Ordinary People, however, will keep you reading, pull you from one story to the next. Although some of the patterns are those of entrapment, abandonment and loss, a strong life force perfuses this well-crafted and passionate, deeply textured collection.
Like the title story, the book itself is a “Museum of Ordinary People,” some in ordinary, others in extraordinary situations. While these stories aren’t all linked (as in, say, Winesburg Ohio) some imagery recurs, such as a god’s eye, and a mechanical canary in a raffia cage, which becomes associated with the life force. While these items are evocative the first time we encounter them, when we come upon them again, an echo of their former context increases their power as symbols.
Some of the stories have elements of the supernatural: “The Museum of Ordinary People,” and “The Chimney in the Sand,” for example. In these stories, it isn’t only the supernatural that commands attention—though its presence is undeniable. It’s the character development.
In the title story, Janet and Harold, a married couple whose children had disappeared nearly ten years earlier, are the protagonists: “The pain had diminished over time until it was a dreary ache, but it was there, always. Every now and again it would put out a blossom of poison and then fade. It was the same for both of them.” The phrase “blossom of poison” is representative of the brilliant turns of language found throughout The Museum of Ordinary People, at once beautiful and economical.
Much of this story is devoted to the loss of the children. When Janet and Howard are in a wax museum, each of the figures speaks in such a natural way that the two have difficulty remembering that the waitress, the fisherman, the policeman are exhibits, not real people. As they go through the museum, “They lost track of time. Every room held a crowd of ordinary people who spoke to them, offered advice, asked directions, complained...” Finally, they decide to go up an attic stairway where they find relics: “a god’s eye raveling, next to a girl’s ballerina slipper, a box of toys, Christmas tree ornaments.” The attic was “a dim place where time lay in keeping.” Dear Reader, you think you know what’s going to happen, do you? Don’t bet on it.
What makes these stories so compelling is that while they are character driven, they also have strong plots. At times the suspense is harrowing. In “The Chimney in the Sand” a couple whose marriage is in trouble buys a house on the Maine coast. They find a chimney protruding from the sand, voices of an arguing couple rise from the chimney, voices Carl and Mary hear, but which are silent when the policeman comes to investigate. Carl insists, against Mary’s protest, on digging down to them. And then he’s down in the pit without the ladder, and then....
One of the most affecting of these stories is “Lemon Ice.” By naming his protagonist “Lewis,” Turco increases the poignancy of the narrative, a little boy’s thwarted quest for lemon ice on a hot summer’s day. The reader learns about Meriden’s barber shop, the ice wagon, the grocery, the butcher, his father’s study on the porch, the child’s aquaria. “It is almost as though [Lewis] is inhabiting two different days at the same time—for yes, he has felt the breath of autumn stirring and rustling among the leaves.” “Lemon Ice” works on a number of levels: a child’s experience of a particular small town summer in l945 and 1946; a meditation on the nature of memory; a lament about the passage of time, experienced in unsatisfied yearning: “Lew’s mouth is as dry as the last leaf in a sheaf of leaves. Who knows where he is now? Perhaps it is no longer even autumn.” The desire for that lemon ice modulates until it becomes a desire for all that’s vanished.
In any writing—perhaps especially so in short fiction—the successful author has to know where and how to begin—and then when and how to end. Turco knows both. He knows, too, how to make the path from the first to the last sentence, when to use description, when dialogue. His language is exact and evocative. Although one of the characters’ favorite poets is Wesli Court (Turco’s formal-verse alter-ego), and although some stories have the feel of memoir, the writing is never about him; it’s always in service of the story.
Many people seem to believe that, because I wrote The Book of Forms, I am some sort of rigid curmudgeon. Jack Foley doesn’t think so, though he thinks I am weird because, in his opinion, I like any and all forms. On the other hand, I think Jack is weird because he seems to like any and all poems by whatever poets exist.
Jack may be right about me. I do seem to like forms of any kind, as long as the poems written in those forms are well-done. My motto is, “Something said well is something well said, but something said superbly is a poem,” no matter what form it’s written in, or what mode, either prose or verse.
Case in point: Ruth F. Harrison is a vastly overlooked and underappreciated poet, as her latest book, West of 101 (Turnstone Books of Oregon, 2013), clearly shows. This first poem in the volume is, I think, magnificent:
I had forgotten silence, here
where the sea-voice, omni and present, surges,
dims, clatters, rumbles, is
first principle, the given of this assignment.
Crying, even by gulls, seems useless in
the presence of so much that is
water and salt, so much white sound.
Newborns hear that, before the mother’s voice:
what the world sounds like is compose of sea,
first sea, always sea, and over that
small tempered coos, the creak of chair, and step
of foot against this arrhythmic amnios of sound.
But I remember how, in the shadow
of some outcrop in the redrock, my ears
grew tall in that silence, swiveled
to pick op the sift and whisper of dust,
a minute tac-tac of lizard feet,
a sage-leaf’s slither, its fall. Far overhead
circled three turkey-buzzards in air so still
I heard the whisk of their wings.
Perhaps eternity speaks to
the roll and clash of surf, but
I think when the ocean has dried and gone
whatever ear remains will hear
under light wind the shift and settle of sand.
This poem is written in what many people call “free verse,” but what I call prose, because this is unmetered language (no one is counting syllables in any way), and that is the definition of prose. That it is not metered, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t rhythmic. Harrison’s ear is accustomed to the rhythms of the Pacific Ocean, and she writes her phrases and clauses in the counterpoint of the combers, tides, breakers and winds. None of these is perfectly regular, but there is an underlying regularity in the poet’s long lines. The language is beautiful, but not flowery.
A few pages farther along this poem exists in equilibrium with “Having Ears”:
A CERTAIN WEATHER
Morning brings rain and a leaden sky
and the feel of life-run-down-a-drain.
Nothing will change. Just, from on high,
morning brings rain.
Don’t tell her summer will come again.
Don’t warm her cold hands or catch her eye.
She is enwrapt in her pleasant pain.
She sits looking out, while heaters sigh.
Water oozes down her window-pane.
Her ears don’t hear what the seagulls cry –
morning brings rain.
This poem is written in verse, in a standard form, the eleven-line roundel. The refrain, which appears three times: in the first half of the first line, and as the last line of stanzas one and three. The long lines are iambic tetrameter, and the short lines are dimeter. But if one compares the meters of this poem with the rhythms of “Having Ears,” one will not find much difference because English prose is comprised of iambs (-/) and anapests (--/) primarily, and the roundel here is made up of iambs and trochees (/-) which, when they come together, can sound like this: “morning brings rain” (/- -/), which sounds and acts like an anapest in the second foot, in other words, like “the presence of so” (-/- -/) as in line six of “Having ears.”
But what do we say of this poem? What do we call it? --
Despite the shape of this poem, which suggests that it is a calligramme or “picture poem,” the major effect it has, at least on this reader, is suggestive rather than assertive, subjective rather than objective. It even has its humorous side in the wordplay “deep-pression,” and the ensuing sonic effects of the surf-hissing words “cession, cessation, and recession” spilling over each-other. Like R. S. Gwynne’s poem “Chang Eng,” about the famous Siamese twins, Ruth Harrison has invented a nonce form to express all that she has to say about her subject, which is Being, in the environment of the coastal sea. This form combines in unique equilibrium a “box” (perhaps the self?) containing the verb “be,” surrounded by sounds and scenes that outline the abode of the self and the landscape surrounding it.
If we take just these three poems, in a book full of poems just as fine, just as complexly simple, what can we deduce from them? First, that Ms. Harrison has talent. She was born with that, it cannot be gained. But skill can be inculcated, and it is perfectly clear that the poet here has studied and practiced a long time to be as capable of doing with the language pretty nearly anything she wishes to do. The third thing she has is intelligence, the ability to sense and absorb the world about here and to express it in forms that help her to do what she wants to do, whether those forms be traditional or invented, given or nonce. Perhaps this poem will illustrate how Ms. Harrison combines the old with the new; the traditional with a bit of her own invention. This piece turns on only two rhymes; it has one refrain that begins as the first line and works its way down the page to end the poem as well. In fiction we would call this a circle-back ending:
COME, COME, SPRING
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow
high in a pot the shadows take.
It may be May. You’d never know.
Winter persists. We had a fake
couple of days of summer’s bake.
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow:
Some tender leaves I watched her make
are small and bronze as if in snow.
Where are her buds, her urge to grow?
Her vines, instead of trailing, ache.
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow…
might as well move to Great Bear Lake.
Hang up the hose and garden rake;
brisk snow is falling. Vertigo
takes over as we watch each flake.
The fuchsia’s hanging numb and slow
I open Harrison’s second book, How Singular and Fine, (CreateSpace, 2012) to the first section, sonnets, finish one and say to myself, “What a beautiful poem!” And I read the next one — beautiful again! And again, and again…. Then I run across a poem that uses the word “infundibulum,” which I have to look up — an organ shaped like a funnel…it works! And I’ve learned a new word besides. Then I run across “despoilation” and I think, “Hah! I’ve got her now! It should be ‘despoliation’! But her spelling is right, too, according to Babylon, though not to my other dictionaries. I can’t believe it.
In the next section I read a poem titled, “Playing Ping-Pong with Donald Justice” which, it turns out, is a rewriting in verse of my prose memoir about playing ping-pong with Donald Justice at Iowa half a century ago. Ruth Harrison is a wonderful writer who is ever inventive, often as full of song as a skylark, and always interesting.
This poet’s third book, Among the Cat Tales (Turnstone Books of Oregon, 2014), will be a delight to cat lovers everywhere, of whom I am one. When I received this slim volume of poetry and cracked it open, the first item I ran into was, "What Does a Catamount To?" I never saw a pun I didn’t like. Eight of the nine lines that make up this catalog begin with a word with the prefix "cat": catastrophe, cataclysm, catatonic, catapult, caterwauling, catalog, caterpillar, and category, and the author manages to slip in catnip as well. By the time one has reached the end of the volume all these items and more have been explored and amplified in tuneful songs purrfectly illustrated with drawings by Anita Sue Andrews.
I think we ought to add a fourth element to Ruth F. Harrison’s pack of equipment. She has talent, skill, intelligence – and a great sense of humor.
Unlike Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Kizer never forgot how to keep an eye on the language and make it dance and go deep simultaneously. Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1925, she was educated at Sarah Lawrence College. She held a number of positions both in and out of academics; her academic career included teaching stints in the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa, Ohio University, University of North Carolina, Barnard College, Columbia University, and the University of Washington in Seattle.
Kizer's first book, The Ungrateful Garden, was published in 1961. Her long poem "Pro Femina," from Knock Upon Silence (1965), was an early feminist work which, in the opinion of some, has never been excelled by any other poem on the same subject before or since. She speaks in this poem "about women of letters, for I'm in the racket," and it's a man's world in which she must make her way and find her place. Her third collection, Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems, appeared in 1971, Mermaids in the Basement and Yin in were published in 1984, and The Nearness of You came out in 1986. In each of these books her wide range of emotion appeared packaged in all sorts of formal bottles — she has been accused by critics of using her technical skills to "distance herself from pain." However, Kizer was well aware that humor is a weapon with a sharp edge, keener even than a sharp tongue.
Another element of Kizer's success is that she never forgot how to tell a story, and no one told a story quite the way she did, as a slow passage down the pages of Yin demonstrated. Though her material was topical, it was also timeless, and Kizer remembered how to get and keep the reader's attention without resorting to the sensational or the hortatory. In "Semele Recycled," for instance, the poet told a narrative out of Greek myth, but she made it so near, familiar, and compelling; loaded it with so much resonance, that the reader wanted to keep going and going.
Semele was the mother of Dionysus — god of wine and fertility — by Zeus, the supreme father-god. Semele asked Zeus to appear to her in all his majesty, but the apparition was so terrifying that she died. Semele's various body parts were scattered and had undergone transformations and sundry adventures, but then her lover returned, and the body parts, hearing the rumor, "leapt up" and as many as could do so reunited themselves.
"This empty body danced on the river bank. / Hollow, it called and searched among the fields / for those parts that steamed and simmered in the sun, / and never would have found them." Then Semele and Zeus were reunited; their "two bodies met like a thunderclap / in mid-day — right at the corner of that wretched field / with its broken fenceposts and startled, skinny cattle. / We fell in a heap on the compost heap / and all our loving parts made love at once,..."
When the poem ended, the reader might have wished to read it again immediately to savor its richly concrete language, its psychological complexity, the narrative embodiment of the war between the sexes, and the eternal truce that is struck again and again. Then the reader may have turned the pages to find another poem as good — and one would be found, over and over.
Although Mermaids in the Basement was subtitled Poems for Women, for many years Kizer wrote with real power for an audience that was wider than the special interest audiences that so many Post-Modern American poets tried to reach during the period following the Second World War: Kizer kept her balance with The Nearness of You which was subtitled Poems for Men.
Critical material on Walt Whitman may be found here:
and Revisions of American Poetry by Lewis Putnam Turco, Fayetteville, AK:
University of Arkansas Press, 1986, 178 pp., ISBN 0938626493, cloth; ISBN
0938626507, paper. Melville Cane Award of
the Poetry Society of America.
Ben Doyle ["Ben Doller"], Lew Turco, Chris Turco, Morgantown WV, 1997.
FAQ by Ben Doller, Boise: Ahsahta Press, 2009, New
Series #27, ISBN- 13 978-1-934103-05-0 trade paperback, $17.50.
The publisher says, “Thank you for your question. In this book of
answers, Ben Doller (né Doyle,
author of Walt Whitman Award–winning book Radio, Radio) molds a speaker confident in his own impertinence
to the form of an FAQ culture, participating in an all-pervasive, invasive
questioning—ultimately raising questions about voice, knowledge, and our
speakers/our selves. Bending but not breaking to the form, this book of poems
takes a turn for the novella, busting open the prose poem and walking the
dotted yellow line in the headlights of an increasingly invisible interviewer.”
Susan Howe, who chose Doller’s first book, Radio, Radio as winner of the Walt Whitman Award, says, “Is
what seems absurd really absurd? We can never be sure what poetry is for. This
poet strikingly connects a world of surveillance with one of poetics. . . . Is
this expert knowledge, or psychotic ‘private’ truth? . . . In an upstate
wilderness of noir, the only certainty is that everything recurs, that
recurrence itself recurs. What makes this young poet’s work so compellingly in
the spirit of Crane and Spicer (even Poe) is its tone of pixilated
The Author says, “Thank you
for your question. FAQ: springs from several fascinations: for one, the form and
language of advice, especially the sort of advice frozen in online portals,
usually tapped from the fingers of nameless or aliased non-credentialed
purveyors of wisdom. I am happy to report that this fascination has now
officially been exorcised. The other long-standing fascinations continue to
linger and trouble: the (im)possibilities of the poetic line, the distinctness
of aural and visual elements in writing, the obsessive accretion of sentences
in prose, and the non-narrative potential of texts as energy.
Asked Questions’ (or ‘FAQ’ in the acronym) are masses of questions listed
alongside corresponding answers, intended to streamline any website’s communicative
features. If you want to know something within a certain context — any context —
simply trace yourself into that context on the web, and you will most likely
always find that you aren’t the first to have such a quandary (a disturbing
existential problem in itself).
know what I was looking for like five years ago, but there was something I
wanted to fix, make, or understand. It might have even been a kind of poem or
animal I wanted to know more about, and instead I found this strange ‘FAQ’
breed of meta-communication—a communication at once collective and clubby and
oddly impersonal. (I often find myself a little too entranced reading similar
such forms of formally directive public speech — recipes, instruction manuals,
bus schedules, advertisements, and so on.)
“So I began
Googling ‘FAQ’ — repeatedly — and got lost in the omnipresence of this form.
Then I began to construct my own.
distinctly FAQ brew of laziness ISO couch-potato practicality, along with the
complex dramatic situation inherent in this ghostly interface between people
(or typings that are remnants of creatures that were at some point real people)
still strikes me as funny, sad, and staggering. The necropolis of the interwebs
is almost too nauseating to bear, the detritus fetid with abandoned
possibilities and existences. The voices behind the “Frequently Asked
Questions” blend together and boil. The voices behind the “Frequently Offered
Answers” are conspicuous in their pretense of mastery and wisdom, while
inhabiting merely partial identities, someones somewheres purely textual.
lies on the page in this same way: strings of decisions made we know not why,
other potentials discarded and disappeared. A poem can be as remarkable for the
things it omits — the zones it suggests but does not hazard — as the things it
“No one even
knows how to pronounce FAQ: ‘fak,’ ‘fax,’ ‘facts,’ ‘fock,’ or ‘ef-ay-cue.’ We
live in an era so textual that the names we use are often only seen, never
uttered. I want a poetry that does the exact opposite: combinations of
words/sounds that make new meanings beyond their textual placeholders, new
potentials, which liberate rather than confine a reader.
“FAQ: the book is, in some ways, a total
resistance to FAQ the mentality.
“I was also
thinking of the portability of conceptual art while writing this book, a
suitcase full of concepts, jokes that can be retold in form only. Then there’s
the South American experimental narrative tradition, which I love and towards
which I can only hope to tip a hat. (Hello, Madam Lispector; Good evening,
Señor Cortazar.) There’s “Fizzles.” There’s Cela’s Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to
Her Son. There’s the
piling up of language in sentences, in vignettes seemingly unconnected but by
voice. Speaking of sentences piling, here’s where I should stop now.
the line. As to the poetic line, it is the reason I am drawn to poetry. The
line and its breaking is, to me, the fundamental quality of poetry, the thing
about which I think the most, and of which I think the most highly. In this
book, I wanted to see if there were ways that prose could hold the same
potential for energy and transformation as I see built into the end of a broken
line (the “gulp”). I hope the twin phantoms of poetic music and logic rattle their
chains between these margin walls.
The publisher on its web page gives us a sample poem to read:
Thank you for your question. The first industrial modern robots were the Unimates developed by George Devol and Joe Engelberger in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The first patents were by Devol for parts transfer machines. Engelberger formed Unimation and was the first to market robots. As a result, Engelberger has been called the ‘father of robotics.’ I like to call my arm Engelberger Arm, these people it points to—“fixing the power”—Unimates. The flashlights on their helmets are undeniable, and therefore good. The lights on their helmets are each kind of part. O light, wed to dust, leave it, flux me into a cloud shape; I know the first man to lift a stick to strike was the first man, the first man to dissolve the first god the first god. Another theory posits the scarecrow as the first robot. This theory is endangered however, due to the recent discovery that the first scarecrow was an eviscerated crow. Still other theories posit the effigy, the story, the bomb, Cye, and the SDR-3X.
I say, Thank you, Ben, for your volume. Now I have two of them. No, I
have three of them. No, I have two of one and one of the other. So I do have
two of them. And three of them. But I do have both of them. Both of them are
good. But one of them is doubly good because I have two of that one. Both of
them speak volumes. Both volumes speak a volume. The speaking these volumes do
is voluminous. One of them speaks voluminously twice. It is difficult to turn
up the volume. When I go looking for it I turn up the wrong volume sometimes.
Sometimes I turn it up twice and it is still the wrong volume. But thank you
for both of them if not all three of them.
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.