By Abriana Jetté
Brooklyn, NY, USA
Hundreds of noiseless miracles occur each day. From the dark blue of early morning brightening to the soft orange of day, to the inflorescence of a water lily in the middle of a quiet pond, as the age-old idiom says, what comes with peace is quiet. Of course, real life is messy and loud and chaotic: it disrupts the silence. One of the many reasons I turn to poetry is its ability to exist in both silent and sonic landscapes, simultaneously and apart. I am always amazed at a poem's ability to embody, with each reading, differing worlds and experiences, to sway with its alternating tones and shifts. Perhaps this is one true difference between music and poetry. Music is created to be heard. Don't get me wrong, I know of miracles like Beethoven. Still, the sensation sent down the spine at the first tickled C of the ivory keys of a piano, or the jump in the stomach from the sound of the G plucked on a guitar, in all, the melody of a song seems to me as tremendous a miracle as the rising sun, and evokes the same awe-inspiring pause-of-honor as does a flower in bloom. Many understand, too, that a poem on the page is not the same as a poem first heard at a reading, or through the mouth and voice of a teacher or friend. A poem transforms depending on speaker, on listener, on mood, and company, and time of day.
From Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", to the cathartic meditative opus of Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish", poems have long begged to be read aloud, and swallowed from mouth down to throat down to gut. Indeed, poetry's roots are grounded in the oral tradition. And yet, so much of a poem's power emits from its ability to occupy our imaginative, nonverbal, innermost thoughts. There is a fine balance between invoking the noises and colors and words of the world through the music of poetry, and allowing the poem to thrive within the space on the page, and the lines in which it is contained. The poets you are about to read translate, manipulate, stimulate, and incorporate all aspects of language into their created worlds. Because of their ethereal use of sonics, imaginative utilization of semantics, and captivating control of form and line, I've put together Genevieve Betts, Wesley Rothman, Duy Doan, and Geza Tatrallyay for this summer's column.
How many poems on Death can you think of? Perhaps Dickinson's widely quoted "Because I could not stop for Death --- / He kindly stopped for me" first pops into mind, or the haunting line posed by cummings at the end of "Buffalo Bill", " "how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death", echoes throughout your memory. Regardless, the answer to my proposed question is countless: a myriad of poems exist on the experience and/or personification of death. In fact, amateur writers often cling to the theme in order to flex their imaginative and syntactical strength – a test to determine how well they can articulate the unknown. Unfortunately, in many cases, the outcome is obvious, overly sentimental, or cliché.
Grief, as much as we may crave for it to be while we experience it, is not an insular experience. For fellow grievers, the signs of bereavement are easily detected: the slouch of the shoulders, the purple swell under the eyes, the thinning of the figure, and the unsteady tremors of the fingers reveal some sort of internal weariness. We may not speak it, but we see it. To recognize such signs is to empathize; thus, in our grief, we are never alone. The tone throughout Genevieve Betts's work aches with this knowing.
Consider the epigraph of Betts's "An Unwalled City", which quotes Epicurus, and establishes the poem's initial conflict. Readers begin by exploring the philosopher's understanding that while we can protect ourselves from many things, "when it comes to death", we are, none of us, safe; we all "live in an unwalled city." The chaotic freedom of the unsecured landscape, our un-walled setting, terrifies readers from the start. We are warned:
"Never mind what your mother says.
The coyotes are howling again"
Forget about the stark, aggressive nature of the first line, which directs readers to abandon the deep-seated inclination to trust our mothers, universal symbols of nourishment and comfort, most indicative to me is the use of the word "again", suggesting a familiarity on the speaker's part with such macabre scenes. Betts's intense focus on the animalistic behavior in the first stanza emphasizes the tone of the cyclical nature in the unwalled city. The speaker describes dinner as a feast of "black housecats", then pauses readers' thoughts by ending the first stanza on the image of the coyotes, who, now, are motionless, "silent and gut fat." Readers take a breath, the coyotes take a rest.
Space creates fiction, the poet understands, and so the rest of the night passes within the break of a stanza. Such manipulation of time is not easy, and depends entirely on the poet's ability to earn readers' trust. The space a poem occupies on the page is crucial to its ability to seep into readers' consciousness; indeed, poetry is art. Betts's work reflects this understanding of space and form, creating playful, philosophical, and authoritative poetry. Consider the three compact stanzas of "An Unwalled City", which contains the otherwise infinite world of the poem, or the alternating use of parenthetical reveries with indented, present tense stanzas, a form meant to mimic the uneasy feeling of relinquishing control of consciousness in "Dream 1: Anesthesia".
"Dream 1: Anesthesia" is an optical frenzy of memories interjecting the now. In one moment the speaker remembers how a "guide's machete" revealed "in crosshatch chops / the road", while the stanza immediately following describes the present-tense "doctor's rubber- / gloved finger[s]" as they "bump / along behind" her ear. Here, the plosive sounds of "doctor", "rubber", "bump", and "behind" ping-pong readers back and forth between here and there, the past and the present. The poem, which adopts an ethereal use of sonics, is just another demonstration of Betts's mastery of dark verse.
The semantic rhythm of "An Unwalled City" also controls readers. Betts's application of the short sounds of the "a" in the first stanza lull readers, that soothing, familiar rhyme of "cat" and "fat" undercutting the fear permeating through the poem's ghastly paranoid world. At the start of the second stanza, the speaker reminds us:
"Even the house cannot stand
forever, forgive me
for saying so."
Here, the elongation of the sentence throughout three lines, as well as the aesthetic and phonic repetition of fricatives ("forever, forgive, for") sustain the poem's audible anxiety. Because "An Unwalled City" confronts the unavoidable fate we will all meet, the pressure of the poem builds in the speaker's ability to first gaze outward at the coyotes, then closer, towards the literal home, then finally, inescapably, directly onto the self. At the start of the last stanza, readers and speaker face the ultimate question:
"And how will death come for me?"
The speaker's wish?
"Earlier than for you, I hope,
and like a giant black-eyed moth
closing its white velvet
around the winter of my body."
In the closing moments of "An Unwalled City" clusters of vicious language, rough on the tongue, induce panic within readers, and quicken the tempo of the poem. The "white velvet" that follows, which warms the "winter" fright of the body, alleviates this fear. The final images of "winter and white", the blankness amidst carrion and a decaying town, maintain the speaker's assumption that death is some sweet escape to be welcomed.
In all, Genevieve Betts's first manuscript "The Deafening", a finalist for the ABZ First Book Prize, is an enchanting amalgam of grim poignancy. Few poets can focus on the ugly details so beautifully. Betts's poems and flash fiction pieces appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, Poetry Quarterly, OVS Magazine, The 33rd Anthology, Quarter After Eight, Nano Fiction, 42opus, CHAIN, and MATTER. She received her M.F.A. from Arizona State University where she was a poetry editor for Hayden's Ferry Review.
When imagining the dead, the poet Wesley Rothman turns not to illustrations of grimacing, frightful premonitions, rather he envisions the energetic everyday hustle and bustle of the city of the afterlife. In 'From the Book of the Living", a free-verse poem with no stanza breaks, Rothman's depiction of the underworld includes "police and politicians, / artists and biotechnicians" and an "orphanage" that "hosts a barbecue / every month." The speaker claims it is a quotidian world, "your average town." Except in the city of the dead "Generosity is never absent." Intriguingly, it begins:
"The city of the dead is bloated with life."
Bloated: "swollen with pride or rank", "especially describing the effect of gluttony", "puffed-up, turgid", according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The antithesis of generous. Underneath the ordinary, Rothman reveals the unjust, ugly, under-detected aspects of mankind. In the candid portrayal of the poem, the dead keep busy gardening or sitting at cafés; they are hardly different from the living, even the children "blow up / mailboxes." Rothman's incorporation of intoxicating rhythms with colloquial speech appeals to readers of all levels: through its rhythms and repetitions, the poem offers a voice for those whose ability to speak has vanished. In "The Book of the Dead", the conversational diction allows readers to suspend their disbelief into trusting this extraordinarily ordinary world. Most captivating to me within Rothman's work is his intrinsic concern with sequence, patterns, and measurements, in all, the essence of time.
How wonderful that in poetry, the poet is the puppeteer, and time the puppet. One way to control time, the puppet, is through the pace in which it moves, with the literal beat of the words of the line (are the they multisyllabic? iambic? sapphic?). By controlling the sounds or syllables within each line, a steady rhythm develops, thus embodying the poem and enveloping the reader with its intoxicating flow. The challenge of sticking to the pattern is the fun part; the outcome, a cathartic blend of skill and thought. Like the villanelle, which bears its name from the Latin "villanella", a rustic song or dance, formal poems are reflections of the longstanding marriage between poetry and song.
In "The Invention of Clock Theory", a villanelle, Rothman displays his understanding that punctuation, enjambments, caesuras, and end-stops, are pertinent to a poem's success. Grammar and punctuation comprise equal parts of scaffolding and finishing touches to the poet's overall design. They are the stop signs, turns, and never-ending winding roads on the journey of the poem.
The speaker in "The Invention of Clock Theory" is stirred by the power of words. In Rothman's villanelle, the initial focus on the tongue, an integral muscle in the production of speech, is just one indication of the poet's careful consideration to language. The rules of the villanelle require the first and last line of the first stanza to be repeated throughout the following five stanzas, and this schematized treatment of language is the foundation from which the rhythm of the poem grows. "The Invention of Clock Theory" begins:
"A child is born with no state of mind.
I was born with a blank tongue,
blind to the ways of mankind.
The speaker's revelation that he was born without the words creates the need for him to say them, to find the right balance of history and truth. The repetition of the required lines, with their notions of innocence, history, and of a palette unchallenged, foreshadow the notion that a "blank tongue" and "blind" eyes never last forever. Notably, the cadence of "mind", "blind", and "mankind" compose a current of rhythm on which readers flow. But the language does not stay so simple. The following stanza calls for tongue-twisted, doggerel alveolaric verse that literally forces readers to bring the poem in their mouths, to touch the poem to their teeth:
"Tock tick fresh, with tip top lungs
a child is born. With no state of mind"
Power lies in the distinct use of the period, the caesura that slices the line in half, separating the once connected subjects. Such delicate handling of language is mastered throughout "The Invention of Clock Theory", controlling its time. In all, the poem is a dream-like meditation in which the speaker recounts how he
"howled and whopped through youth
strung blind to the ways of mankind."
Rothman's villanelle calls upon other classic forms of music, specifically the beats and blues, which intoxicate the already seductive intonation of the poem. At first introspective, a story of the self, reading upon reading, "The Invention of Clock Theory" accumulates into a metaphor on the insular, charged, unending writing process, the need to speak for "the ways of mankind, of beats and binds."
What Wesley Rothman's work achieves is nothing short of modern transcendentalism. In one line he mystifies; in another, clarifies, developing an imaginative and intelligent balance of voice. Wesley Rothman's poems and criticism have appeared widely in publications including 32 Poems, Asheville Poetry Review, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Four Way Review, H_NGM_N, Harpur Palate, and Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He has worked with Copper Canyon Press, Ploughshares, Narrative, Salamander, Tupelo Quarterly, and edits TOE GOOD Poetry. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize and recipient of a Vermont Studio Center grant, he teaches writing and cultural literatures at Emerson College, Suffolk University, Berklee College of Music, and Grub Street Writers' Workshop. He earned his M.F.A. from Emerson College.
The pantoum, a poetic form reliant on a repetition pattern similar to the villanelle, derives from the fifteenth century Malaysian folk-song, pantun, and its meaning can be loosely translated into "quatrains interwoven." Like the villanelle, the pantoum's appeal depends on the incisiveness captured by the repeated phrases or lines. They serve as the echoes readers can't ignore. Though the index for the Vietnamese presented in "History Lesson from Anh Hai", a pantoum by Duy Doan, isn't offered until the end of the poem, I present it to you first:
An Hai: older brother, the oldest son
Bà Nội: paternal grandmother
đi tu đi con: enter the priesthood; become a monk
As I'm quite positive you've gathered, a line can make the world of difference. To say the least, "History Lesson from Anh Hai" is as much of a learning experience in personal heritage as it is in understanding the multifaceted annals of language. The anticipation of reaching the glossary creates for readers, upon first reading, a disoriented yet strangely familiar world to navigate through. Once readers are taught the phrases' meanings, the poem's many rich implications are multiplied. From its start, the sparse, direct observations effortlessly interweave history into the ever-heavy now. A sense of innate lineage surrounds the first line:
"I spoke to Great-Aunt tonight. She sounded like her sister."
The first person pronoun directly situates readers next to the speaker, and while we may not yet know just who Great-Aunt is, the mention of her name penetrates the reading with importance. As the layers of the poem build, perceptions of Great-Aunt, and of her story, change because the speaker switches between mother (great-aunt's sister), and child (child of speaker/mother, child of bà nội). While this layering may seem almost too intricate to understand, it is a direct reflection of the contemporary world's handpicked, mixed-up, blood-bound, separated-by-oceans families. One reason why forms like the villanelle or pantoum pair so well with narrative poetry is because history repeats itself. Thus the poem emphasizes these patterns through its demanded form. In Doan's poem, this is just one connection of yesterday and today. For many of us, the roots of our ancestry are knotted and hidden beneath stories, dates, and connections unknown. This empathizing of history's mystery (who is Great-Aunt?) urges readers to continue on.
We are told "it had been fifty years since they'd last spoken." Memories of bà nội instructing the speaker to "đi tu đi con" flash between lines. Trust for the speaker grows when, together, we acknowledge the foreboding truth that "the difference between tu and tù is one mark." The unapologetic deviation between languages, and intermingling of eastern and western traditions, expresses an inseparability of cultures, at least, it seems, for one speaker. The negative effect of western capitalism creeps out in the haunting memory of "the rodent problem -- 200 dong per severed tail."
Most powerful in their litany, for me, are the lines: "fifty years since they'd last spoken", "A nun and monk were made to fornicate in the street", and "I spoke to Great-Aunt tonight." These lines, along with the familiarity readers develop with Vietnamese, form readers' understanding of the heavy weight of familial history, and the poet's, and speakers' individualized inheritance of suffering.
The burden of hereditary grief is carried over throughout the larger portion of Doan's work. In the free-verse poem "Engagement Ring", the past's customs bound the speaker to feelings of abandonment towards the confronted "you." Doan masterfully knits the metaphoric poignancy of winged-things and loss throughout each stanza, avoiding the cliché connection of birds and love. "The gold in bird's feathers" from the first stanza is found "in a pillowcase close" to the speaker's ear in the second, and appears in the path the speaker and the you "will travel, until" they arrive "at a screened porch" at the poem's end. The image of the semi-protected door, spotted and not-quite transparent, represents memory's elision.
Time moves ethereally throughout "Engagement Ring" as "the wind plays tax collector, the mountain / alchemist." Natural elements fulfill their roles as characters, while the smallest piece of gold, strong and shimmering, fails to satisfy its goals. The bond meant to be unbroken reveals itself when the speaker states "Your family gave my family a dowry." This was an arrangement that was supposed to last. At the end of the poem, speaker and readers are left without starling or blackbird, are left in an open-field, an "arboretum / within walking distance", are left with the decision to choose a path and follow it. The ambiguity of last line, three deserted words, resound in readers' ears:
"You promised me."
Duy Doan received his M.F.A from Boston University, where, as a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow he travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam. He has taught English and Creative Writing at Boston University, Lesley University, and The Boston Conservatory. He is the Programs Director of the Favorite Poem Project. His collaborative MOOC with Robert Pinsky, The Art of Poetry, which goes live in the fall and is offered through Boston University, already has 6,500 registered students. He has been a Kundiman Fellow, and received a Massachusetts Cultural Council award and the Hurley Award from Boston University. A second-generation Vietnamese-American, he was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. Doan's work has appeared in Slate, The Cortland Review, and Amethyst Arsenic.
Though it might seem reasonable for there to exist some sort of disconnect in a poem that relies on two languages, it is actually true that bilingual students, readers, and speakers are more apt to empathize and develop deeper connections with those around them than those who speak only one language. The beauty of living with two or more languages is, of course, that one may live in two (or more) worlds, and observe the most mundane of happenstances form various perspectives. Sadly, it is often true that the move from one place to another may bring with it memories from a past best forgotten. Language is also the inescapable reminder of what was left behind.
In 1956, Geza Tatrallyay escaped the Hungarian Revolution with his family, immigrating to Canada, where he grew up in Toronto, and attended the University of Toronto Schools, where he was School Captain. In 1972, he graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Human Ecology, and was selected as a Rhodes scholar, earning a B.A./M.A. in Human Sciences from Oxford University. These days, Tatrallyay divides his time between Bordeaux, France, and Bernard, Vermont.
Originally written in Hungarian, Tatrallyay decided it was his own responsibility to translate his four part series "Autumnal Question" into English. The full text of the first part of the series appears below:
Fall has come,
under the redding oak tree
what lurks for me?
Like an unfinished prayer, the fragmentary, mostly monosyllabic syntax immediately arrests readers' senses. Here, again, (as where we began with Betts's work) is the unavoidable question, the poet's addiction, the begging to know what comes after this life. The short lines of the poem infer moments of untranslatability, or perhaps, even, insinuate the fear of speaking the truth. Regardless, it is in these quiet moments that the poem lives. Throughout "Autumnal Question", "summer" and "fall" are void of color, and the lines harbor no true specificity; still, they speak to readers through the unsaid knowledge of what follows fall: winter. Death.
In "Autumnal Question II", the speaker wonders "what clouds there, all dressed in black", and the meditative sequence continues on to personify earthly matters as agents of the after-life. Tatrallyay's work describes a Death readers are comfortable imagining, a death we fear, and attempt, though in vain, to avoid. According to the speaker in "Death strikes up...", Death
"madly jeers at life's symphony -
the tragic, daring song of earth."
The image is familiar: a dark-cloaked, eerily-mouthed reaper mocking his way about earth.
Whether the lens is narrowly focused on the anticipation of what lies after this physical world, or broadened to contemplate spiritual and emotional solitude, the tone of Tatrallyay's poetry is craftily managed by provocative, insular soundscapes. The clever wordplay present in "Echoes", demonstrates the muscular integrity present in his many years of writing. The poem begins:
"The distilled soul's silent song
yearns to break out, to penetrate
the evening's thickening mist..."
Visually and verbally, the pulling sounds of "distilled" "evening" and "thickening", contrasted, ironically, to the strong "i" in "silent", propels the movement of the poem backward and forward, creating an immeasurable capacity to the poem's shape. The poem calls upon the title of Tatrallyay's manuscript, "Cello's Tears" in the last stanza of the poem:
"Oh, these echoes reverberate
sonorously, like cello's tears
streaming among silhouettes..."
In their confessional tone, Tatrallyay's poems transform into philosophical meditations on the human condition. His poems seem emotional ramifications to a soul deeply altered by the world him. They are observant, finely-tuned recordings of thought.
Tatrallay experienced early publishing credits, but took time off from his poetry to work in government, environmental entrepreneurship and to focus on family and athletics – he was an épeé fencer in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Now, retired, and a grandfather, Tatrallyay has returned to his creative work, and "Cello's Tears", with a reinvigorating zest, redefining the boundaries of what it means to be an emerging poet in the contemporary world. Poets like Tatrallay prove there is always room to welcome and learn from well-trained, highly-educated, patient writers who have kept their great work secret, and whose work, thankfully, has shouted that it is time to be read.
Whatever this summer brings you, I hope you spend some time getting to know Genevieve Betts, Wesley Rothman, Duy Doan, and Geza Tatrallyay. And then, because you can, I hope you write your own villanelle or pantoum, or verse, or even a line scribbled down on a napkin or texted to yourself on your phone's notepad. There's no reason not to! This summer, take a deeper listen to the world around.