The Familiar Stranger
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.
We also discussed form poetry, all of us realizing you are the authority, and most of us also realizing we are sadly undereducated in form poetry. [The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms, Revised and Expanded Edition].
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.
Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem "Lovers"
How many decrepit, hoary, harsh, writhen, bursten-bellied, crooked, toothless, bald, blear-eyed, impotent, rotten, old men shall you see flickering still in every place! — Burton.
The bed frames them. Their eyes
tell little of the story. Some old passion
has been eroded. Rivulets of time have
eaten their cheeks until their faces
lie flat against linen
landscapes — or against each other in a dark
room, on a night empty even of owlcries.
Their flesh is a sophistry of shadow:
nothing is hidden. They
must therefore film their eyes in order not to
notice there is nothing there to see. They sang
songs once, to each other, in moon light.
Now, not even night hawks
call out to the lovers in their still stead. Not
even sleep lifts the veils from their sight, returns
each other's image for an hour's dream.
And if the world wheel, what then?
The grim creature of the mind stunned
by the spaces of stars hung silently
among the dumb regions where death dwells
in an old house, watching from twin windows,
snuttering among pebbles
like a hag made of pimples and
sacks. She will stow her hours in odd chinks,
fondle each old thing on her ticking
as night whines beneath the bed and her roof
trembles with light. Then, at last,
when least she needs his flesh — when least
they know each other in their age, the stars
will smash their windows, their roof vanish,
and the world come burning while they make love.
[From Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, Scottsdale, AZ: www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007. Available in a Kindle edition.]
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.