Kizer’s Translations

I’ve finally managed to finish all 500 pages of Carolyn Kizer’s Calm, Cool, & Collected. No doubt about it, the older I get the harder it is to read a 500 page book of poetry, no matter how good the poet is, or isn’t. Reading something that long seems too much like taking a college course, and there’s too many things I want to do in my life to be taking more college literature courses. I guess that means I’ll be focusing on shorter works than Alan Dugan’s last collection of Poems for awhile, that I’ll put off reading Berryman’s book even longer, and that I’ll be focusing on shorter works of poetry I already have waiting on the shelf.

Of course, if I were really being thorough, I’d go back and re-read several of Kizer’s best poems, or the whole volume, in light of her whole body of work and read what other literary critics have to say about her. Luckily, though, that is not what I do. I’ve gained new perspectives and new insights from reading her poems, and that’s all I want from a book of poems.

Though fascinated by Kizer’s "Pakistan Journal" written in 1969, by far my favorite translations were those of Chinese masters, particularly Tu Fu's poems. Reading this section, though I came to realize just how different the worlds are that Kizer and I have lived in. In the introduction she notes that her mother was reading her Arthur Waley’s Chinese translations when she was eight, and Kizer interrupted her college work at Columbia University to go to China, where her father was “administering United Nations relief.? I’m not a big believer in using autobiographical details to interpret poems, but I suspect that I might see much of what she’s written differently after reading these biographical details.

Though I liked several of Tu Fu’s poems, I guess I like this one as well as any of the others:

SPRING GOES

Petal by petal, the Spring dissolves.
A small wind carries the rest away.
All nature conspires to sadden me.
But gross, unrepentant, I will be gay.

I devour the flowers that yet remain.
I shall not stint myself on wine.
A cock, red-throated, a green-winged hen:
The kingfishers nest in the ruined vine.

The River Pavilion lists in decay.
Beyond these boundaries I see
A grave stone unicorn, adamant;
He leans on a tomb, stares far away.

You natural laws! I take your measure;
Forgetting rank, work, weary days.
I find my nature made for pleasure,
And drink and linger, at ease.

Perhaps the poem sounds like little more than a traditional carpé diem poem, but it’s not the kind of poem you’d expect from an English or American poet, unless it’s Walt Whitman. Considering my recent photographic series, perhaps I was merely hooked by the reference to the kingfisher’s nest.

As I get older, though, I can certainly identify with Tu Fu’s sadness and his attempts to remain happy despite the fact that many of the things he loves most are fading away.

Despite my sarcastic outbursts, I’d like to be remembered as one who lived life as fully as possible and refused to give in to weary days, hopefully without having to resort to copious amounts of wine.

Kizer’s “Medicine II”

Though there are barely 75 poems in the sections entitled “The Nineties? and “New Poems? in Kizer’s Cool, Calm & Collected, there are nearly as many poems here that I enjoyed as in the rest of the collection, though I must admit I also favored the earliest section.

Perhaps it’s merely that being ten years older than me, Kizer has anticipated many of the questions that life has forced me to consider as more than theoretical questions. Perhaps her poetry has become less obscure, simpler, more direct, a style I increasingly admire. Maybe, like Kunitz, as she has aged she has gained a new perspective on life that I find appealing.

Though “Medicine II? isn’t typical of this section, it does seem typical in its straightforwardness:

MEDICINE II

When the nurses, interns, doctors, came running full tilt down the hall,
Dragging the crash-cart with shrieking wheels and flagless IV pole,
And that squat box, the defibrillator, made to jolt the heart;

Then we next-of-kin, pasted against the walls, ran after them
To your room, Mother-in-Law, where they hammered hard on your chest,
Forcing you back to life in which you had no further interest.

For the third time they pressed like lovers on your frail bones
To restart the beat. They cheered! Marked you alive on your chart,
Then left you, cold, incontinent, forlorn.

When the man loved by you and me appealed to your doctor
To know why you couldn’t have your way and be let go,
He said, “I couldn’t just stand there and watch her die.?

Later, when it was over, we spoke to a physician
Grown gray and wise with experience, our warm friend,
But ice when he considers the rigors of his profession,

And repeated to him your young death doctor’s reply,
We heard the stern verdict no lesser person could question:
But that was his job: to just stand there and watch her die.

Perhaps you have to have endured the death of a parent to fully appreciate this poem, but reading it pulled at all those emotional strings that resonate with the death of a loved one.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in the end the poem draws the same conclusions about life and death I have drawn. In other words, it confirms my own prejudices, an important trait in any poem, whether we admit it or not.

My favorite lines in the poem are “They cheered! Marked you alive on your chart,/Then left you, cold, incontinent, forlorn.? Of course, being “marked? alive is not the same as being alive, now is it? And probably not much to cheer about. Though we don’t want to admit it, and I’m probably not quite ready to admit so myself, death is a natural part of life, as inevitable as the falling of leaves.?

Of course, you’d be crazy not to want a doctor who considers Death the enemy and fights it for everything he’s worth. But even physicians, if they’ve “Grown gray and wise with experience,? will realize that it is their job to just stand there and watch their patient die when it is finally time for that to happen.

Kizer’s “Thrall”

I was hard pressed to pick a favorite poem from “The Eighties? section of Kizer’s collected works for here she turns from a sometimes strident declaration of women’s rights to a quieter understanding of herself and her role in creating and, ultimately, freeing herself, from the bonds that would bind all of us to our roles in life.

Perhaps my favorite poem in the section is “Final Meeting? where she describes her last visit to poet James Wright. It was also hard to ignore the more famous “Bitch,? but I found “Thrall? equally moving, and perhaps more revealing of the kinds of insights she focuses on in these poems.

THRALL

The room is sparsely furnished:
A chair, a table, and a father.

He sits in the chair by the window.
There are books on the table.
The time is always just past lunch.

You tiptoe past as he eats his apple
And reads. He looks up, angry.
He has heard your asthmatic breathing.

He will read for years without looking up
Until your childhood is safely over:

Smells, untidiness, and boring questions;
Blood from the first skinned knees
To the first stained thighs;
The foolish tears of adolescent love.

One day he looks up, pleased
At the finished product,
Now he is ready to love you!

So he coaxes you in the voice reserved
For reading Keats. You agree to everything.

Drilled in silence and duty,
You will give him no cause for reproach.
He will boast of you to strangers.

When the afternoon is older
Shadows in a small room
Fall on he bed, the books, the father.

You read aloud to him
“La Belle Dame sans Merci.?
You feed him his medicine.
You tell him you love him.

You wait for his eyes to close at last
So you may write this poem.

If you read carefully enough, you probably don’t have to read past the first stanza to understand this poem, though it’s certainly easier to comprehend the second line after you’ve finished the entire poem. It’s probably not a good sign when you consider your father part of the “furnishings.?

Of course, it’s not a good sign that he doesn’t look up “Until your childhood is safely over,? though it might be a relief when “One day he looks up, pleased/At the finished product … ready to love you!?

The ambivalence of this hate/love relationship is probably not truly revealed until you read Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci? and read the lines, “La Belle Dame sans Merci/ Hath thee in thrall!? and begin to wonder whom the title refers to. Is it a mutual agony, where “Pale warriors, death-pale were they all?? Can there ever really be a true, loving relationship when children are treated this way?

And, if she doesn’t love her father, why does she have to wait until he closes his eyes before she can write this poem?

Though I may ultimately have been influenced to choose this poem by some recent entries on fellow bloggers’ sites, it strikes me as a powerful reminder of the ambivalence many feel toward parents. It is certainly a relationship all of us must come to terms with to feel whole.

Kizer’s “The Good Author”

Carolyn Kizer’s poems in the section entitled “The Seventies? of Calm, Cool, and Collected often seem anything but calm and cool. It appears to have been a rather tumultuous time for her, as it was for many of us who grew up then.

Personally, I was rather surprised, and pleased once I’d read it, to find a long prose selection entitled “A Muse,? wherei Kizer describes her rather strained relationship with her mother, ending with.

… My mother died. And then my serious life as a poet began. At last I could write, without pressure, without blackmail, without bargains, without the hot breath of her expectations.

I wrote the poems for her. I still do.

This short section gave me a new perspective on the author, especially when taken together with a later essay on her father,

Though the poems range in tone from a rather sentimental poem dedicated to a daughter who had to suffer through her mother’s ups and downs to my personal favorite, a seven page poem “Running Away From Home? that opens with the line “Most people from Idaho are crazed rednecks.?

However, the overall tone of the section is probably better represented by the tone of this poem:

The Good Author
for Bernard Malamud

Contrary to the views
A few days earlier
Of a fading Irish poet
Who flared into the room
With Rimbaud round his shoulder
But with hair and spirit
Receding, too much the wise
Predator not to know it,
You told us to be good.
Meaning: pure in spirit,
To strive for purity.
“Oh, play as much as you like!
But remember that an author
Is one who labors daily
Putting words to paper,
Not a man who wrote a book,?
You concluded, quietly, gravely.

We were aware as we walked
Through the campus in the snow
Of a game of hare and hound:
We found him chasing her
In tighter and tighter circles,
The innocent one flying
From wily nose and jaws.
Then he cracked the diameter,
And the only rule she knew,
To plunge her to the ground.

We could not save her, nor
Quickly enough turn away,
Fists over ears, lids clenched
From the brilliant agony.
And now your calm tones linger,
But tinctured with her cry.
Though I shall not wed the image
To any word you say.

I must admit that it was the early 70’s before I realized just how predatory some college relationships were when I was shocked to discover that a classmate was sleeping with a professor I liked. Poor naïve me, it turned out that most of my fellow students had long been aware of such goings on.

I’ll have to admit to still holding on to the rather naïve belief that authors should “strive for purity? and am always a little put off when I discover otherwise, put off to the point of questioning just how “wise? they really are.

That doesn’t mean that I’m ready to reject Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea after discovering what a terrible father he was in his son’s essay in Fishing with My Father. However, I’m glad I didn’t know what I know now before I read the book, or I probably would have had a very different reaction to it.

As an ex-teacher I understand how you could fall in love with a student, but it’s hard to see much wisdom in those who purposely prey on the innocent, and I hope to God I never change that view.

Kizer’s “A Month in Summer”

The section entitled “The Sixties? in Kizer’s Cool, Calm and Collected is rather short compared to other sections in the book. Many of the poems are labeled “Chinese Imitations.? However, the most interesting poem to me is “A Month in Summer,? a rather odd combination of confessional poetry and haibun formalism.

Too long to quote in its entirety, I will try to suggest why I found it intriguing. In opening, Kizer notes, “I have come to prefer the four-line form [of haiku]which Nobuyuki Yuasa has used in translating Issa because, as he says, it comes closer to approximating the natural rhythm of English speech. Though not convinced that the four-line haiku is better than a three-line haiku, it’s an interesting idea.

The poem consists of thirty days of journal entries written in haibun form describing the ending of an important relationship in the narrator’s life.

THIRD DAY Strange how tedium of love makes women babble, while it reduces men to a dour silence. As my voice skipped along the surfaces of communication like a water bug, below it I sensed his quiet: the murky depths of the pond.

Alone, I play a Telemann concerto on the phonograph. A rather pedantic German note on the slipcase speaks of “the curious upward-stumbling theme.? Can we upward-stumble? If so, there is hope for us.

When we go away
I play records till dawn
To drown the echoes
Of my own voice.

TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY

Seen through the tears
This moonlight
Is no more poignant
Than a saucer of cream.

Why the artifice of this haibun, which I have appropriated from a culture which doesn’t belong to me? Perhaps to lose me. Perhaps because the only way to deal with sorrow is to find a form in which to contain it. And, at last, surely it is time to study restraint

It’s intriguing how a poet can present material this personal, this emotional without embarrassing the reader. I know I wouldn’t want a complete stranger telling me these kinds of things about his or her life, but somehow they feel perfectly acceptable in a poem.

In reading this “poem? it struck me that, though I’m not sure I would want something this personal put on the web as it happened, I would love to write a blog that followed this format.

I tried to use the haibun form for several of blog entries, specifically those describing my cancer surgery and recovery. Perhaps unconsciously I felt like Kizer that I needed a formal structure in order to present those painful feelings.

Unfortunately, I lacked the discipline needed to write haibun’s daily, but I still think it may well be the ideal format for a blog as it conveys the important aspects of one’s life succinctly, a quality sadly lacking in far too many blogs, even some I love dearly.

For anyone interested in contemporary use of the haibun, this long poem might well justify looking this collection up in a local library or, may one dare suggest, buying the collection.

Kizer’s “Through a Glass Eye, Lightly”

Carolyn Kizer’s 500 page Cool, Calm & Collected will probably take me awhile to finish. Though my favorite Kizer poem from the 50’s is “The Intruder,? a close second would have to be one I don’t even remember from my previous two readings of The Ungrateful Garden :

THROUGH A GLASS EYE, LIGHTLY

In the laboratory waiting room
containing
one television actor with a teary face
trying a contact lens;
two muscular victims of industrial accidents;
several vain women – I was one of them–
came Deborah, four, to pick up her glass eye.

It was a long day:
Deborah waiting for the blood vessels
painted
on her iris to dry.
Her mother said that, holding Deborah
when she was born,
“First I inspected her, from toes to navel,
then stopped at her head…?
We wondered why
the inspection hadn’t gone the other way.
“Looking into her eye
was like looking into a volcano:

“Her vacant pupil
went whirling down, down to the foundation
of the world …
When she was three years old they took it out.
She giggled when she went under
the anaesthetic.
Forty-five minutes later she came back
happy! …
The gas wore off, she found the hole in her face
(you know, it never bled?),
stayed happy, even when I went to pieces.
She’s five in June.

“Deborah, you get right down
from there, or I’ll have to slap!?
Laughing, Deborah climbed into the lap
of one vain lady, who
had been discontented with her own beauty.
Now she held on to Deborah, looked her steadily
in the empty eye.

Despite the fact that this poem seems to me to read more like a short, short story than a poem, I like its immediacy, its conversational approach, its non-sentimental tone, and its clear message.

I’m afraid most of us are prone to comparing ourselves to those that are more “blessed? in some way rather than to those who are less fortunate. We do so, of course, so that we can convince ourselves that we must have, or that we deserve, something we probably don’t need at all.

Modern readers will have to remind themselves that this poem is written in the bad, old days when contact lenses were made of glass, not plastic, and cost much more than a pair of eyeglasses. You wore them out of vanity, because you wanted to be one of the “beautiful? people, not some nerdy bookworm.

It’s hard to read the poem and not remember just how lucky most of us really are, no matter how much we’d like to lose twenty pounds, have straighter, whiter, teeth, or have 20/20 vision. It’s even more embarrassing to discover this by meeting someone who seems perfectly happy without those things.

Loren’s Swan Song

Blake's picture of Leda borrowed from Jeff's page:

If this was the image I had in mind when I read Kizer’s poem about Roethke, I probably would have come away with a very different reading.

Luckily, I had recently read my grandson Gavin the story of “The Ugly Duckling” and held in my mind the image of the ugly duckling that each of us sees in ourselves as a child being magically transformed into the beautiful swan that each of us truly can be if we but recognize it within ourselves. Anyway, that’s the swan I want to be, not the one Blake captured in the above print.

No, this is the portrait of ultimate despair. Look at those eyes. Only someone who has unfairly chastised his dog or has watched a favorite pet suffer, could truly identify with the anguish in those eyes.

Perhaps it is as Jeff points out: “And as both Blake and Yeats conjecture, it's also possible that after the rape Gods and humans might share each others characteristics, as Blake has so aptly drawn.”

If that is true, then Blake’s Leda seems to be caught in the awful moment of realizing she is:
half saint
half harlot
united in one

It’s hard to imagine any greater sorrow than to have that holy half tied down to the vulgar earth, no longer able to rise above bodily desires, and all of this brought about through no fault of her own, her only sin a beauty so profound that even the god’s lust for it.

What this powerful print does show, though, is the ability of the true artist to employ a symbol to convey the meaning he desires. Symbols are merely tools, and in the hands of masters they are powerful tools to convey their vision of the world.