Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss

By all rights I really shouldn’t like Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss nearly as much as I do.  In fact, if I had happened  to read this online review before buying it:

“The poet’s capacious vocabulary, sensitivity to the etymological implications of her word choices, ear for phonemic subtleties and hunger for verbal precision, apparent everywhere, give her unique access to the overlap of world and word that we are so often told is merely linguistic illusion. But for Stone, like Keats, the truth is proved ‘upon the pulse,’ and her truths, in their syntactical rhythms and syllabic music, are proven through a rhetoric of pulsations.”— B. H. Fairchild, from his Introduction to How Else to Love the World

I probably would not have bought the book which would have been too bad because I really liked  several of the poems, like this one: 

Rosalie


Taller and older than the rest of us, she arrived twice held
back, her past present in her eyes the way
the early-Winter light was


that December-—brutal, brilliantly clear, clarifying everything
and nothing. And we called her nothing
as real as her name, nothing


as benign as Rosie or Rose, nothing we could resist repeating
in covert whispers as we passed her desk
in the last row at the back


of the room, as though we understood even then that she-
with her waist, with her breasts and hips—
thought of herself as anything


but a child, as the sum of all we could and couldn’t imagine
her to be, as though we knew as well as she
how negligible, how transient


she was, that as she moved among us through the parochial
halls of St. Denis, dressed day after day
in the same washed—out


blouse while the boys openly mimicked her every motion
she was someone merely passing through
who would not be passed over.


I’m pretty sure this poem resonates with me because of an incident that happened when I was in the 5th or 6th grade in Concord, California.  A truant officer escorted a boy into our class who had to be at least three to four or five years older than anyone in our class. He was tall, muscular and had beard stubble.  I’m sure the whole class was dumbfounded by his appearance.  At recess, everyone avoided him, and even the boys gathered and gossiped instead of playing dodge ball.  Luckily for the boy, he wasn’t subjected to the embarrassment of being in that class for long as he left after a week or so.  

It wasn’t until later that I realized, or was told, that he must have been one of the gypsy boys who traveled around the country with his parents picking fruit. Perhaps it wasn’t even until our family spent weekends picking walnuts that I realized this.  Gypsy children often worked in the fields next to their parents and seldom attended school unless rounded up by truant officers.  When they did go to school, it was often only for short periods of time because once the fruit crops were picked they left for the next crop.  No wonder the boy was behind in his schooling.  

The fact that I acted no differently than the rest of the class was particularly embarrassing in retrospect because all too often I was the outsider since my father was constantly transferred as he got promoted.  Naturally an introvert, we often moved about the time I started to make friends at a new school.  In fact, when I entered the fourth grade in a previous school I got into several fights because it was cool to pick on the new kid, and the only person I allowed to pick on me was my big brother who was four years older than me and who I eventually learned it was unwise to challenge unless driven to the point of despair.

Unfortunately, having taught high school for thirty years, I observed this phenomena all too regularly.  I’d like to think that adults are wiser and  more considerate of others than teenagers, but, unfortunately, current events would seem to suggest otherwise.  Tribalism seems genetically ingrained and is too often culturally reinforced even by religions that seem to theologically promote the love of our fellow mankind.  

In fact, the title poem, “The Art of Loss,” depicts Botticelli devastated by the burning at the stake of Savonarola, Botticelli’s inspiration,  for heresy. I was a little surprised that Stone’s poetry, like Pastan’s, contained several poems that referenced famous artists since I seldom encounter that in the poetry I read.  

Not surprisingly, “Love” often causes the greatest loss of all, but it’s not just romantic love that leads to loss.  Stone’s “Camera Obscura” depicts how even the best-intended love can limit people, causing them to miss out on some of life’s greatest opportunities.  

I’ll have to admit that several of the poems are too formal and too literary for my taste.  That said, though I’m not ready to pronounce this great poetry, like all great literary works it leads us to empathize with others by seeing the world from a different point of view than we are used to.  Our world definitely needs more of that right now.  

Thomas Brush’s Open Heart

Long, long ago Lael, Logan, Leslie and I were visiting Pt. Townsend, and Lael and Logan wanted to go into a bookstore.  I went in but had to leave immediately because they sold used paperbacks, and I’m deathly allergic to book mold.  I waited outside, but Lael came outside and told me that the store had a fabulous poetry section. Sorely tempted, I rushed inside and grabbed a handful of books by local poets without browsing them very closely. I’m addicted to poetry books, and its hard to find good poetry books in the big-box stores — much less ones featuring local poets.  I’ll  admit I buy most of my poetry books from Amazon because it’s one of the few places I can find them, and more-often-than-not I buy the Kindle edition because I’ve run out of storage space and  need to throw an old book away every time I buy a new book.  

I bought Thomas Brush’s Open Heart because he’s a Seattle poet and several of his poems focused on places I was fond of.  It turned out those aren’t the only thing we have in common.  He is almost exactly the same age as I am and taught high school English (not sure how long, though).  I can’t tell if he went to Vietnam or if he just knows its effects because his brother was there, but we have certainly both been affected by it, though maybe not quite in the same way. 

We also share a love of place, a love of the Puget Sound and of the “the single mountain that holds/Puget Sound in place” as shown in 

HALF—WAY TO MAURY ISLAND


Thank God for the rain,
For the green home of moss and mud
And for the old wooden hull of the steam ferry
San Mateo that still floats
From Tacoma to Tahlequah,
And for all the rusting steel decks and rotting
Dugouts and the single mountain that holds
Puget Sound in place, and for the salmon that rise
Like the lost language of the Salish and for the clean
Hands of the rivers and the wet and swollen stones
That balance the earth beneath us.
And thank the damp breath
Of the leaves, and the sweet torrent
Of twigs stirring the black bark, and the branches
That twist and swell in the writhing
Trail of air, and the long, secret whistle of geese
That crosses that falling sky, and the sobbing music
Of the tides, and for what I can take
From this sinking island and call it
Home.

I may not always thank God for the rain, but I’ve never wanted to live in a place that isn’t as green as the Pacific Northwest, and you can’t have that without all the rain we get. Until I looked up Maury Island and Tahlequah I didn’t realize that this poem is about the ferry terminal that is just a few blocks away from our home in Tacoma. I love to walk the area around the Tacoma side of the ferry route and would love to ride the ferry again once Covid-19 subsides.  The view of Mt. Rainier from that ferry terminal has graced my site several times, and I’m sure you would get an even better view from the ferry. Only a Puget Sounder would recognize the importance of Mt. Rainier and recognize that Puget Sound is often referred to by its Indian Name, the Salish Sea.  There are many poems like this that I can relate to.

Unfortunately, there’s a side of Brush that I can’t relate to no matter how hard I try, one that is suggested by the blurbs on the back of book that praise the “the sweat and mud of the ordinary,” and “the cracked music of everyday life,” comparing him to Richard Hugo and Raymond Carver.  The main similarity I see is a focus on drinking, a symbol of the despair that threatens to overwhelm all of us, but also a sort of tribute to those hard-drinking men who tackle the world directly and manage to transcend it.  To me, Brush seems closer to Charles Bukowski who argued that “Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.”

“Dream Wars” appears early in the book and most clearly suggests these associations, but there are several references in other poems, one that struck particularly close to home was “Cannon Beach,” where he says his brother “spent the hoarded days of rest drunk/ and in bed with a girl…”  I spent my R&R in Bangkok in a drunken haze trying to forget everything I’d seen in the previous six months. As a result, I only have a vague memory of what I actually saw there and might not have any memory of it if I hadn’t snapped shots of sites I visited.

DREAM WARS


This morning mist rose from the valley,
The last hot day
Of July, strings the color of tarnished silver hanging
In the birch trees, wispy sheets floating like thoughts
I once had of something memorable, something
As transparent and important as that brief hour.


There’s a stray
Cat, adrift in a pool of sunlight, and I envy
Him, King—Of-Sooner-
Or-Later, but not
now, winding my way
Through the smokeless air, so blue
It could be a lake turned upside down.


On the sidewalk
A rope of little kids holding hands swims by,
Led by a woman wearing a tee shirt emblazoned
With a baby hippo, and I begin
The morning ritual, sipping bourbon
Beneath Christmas lights framing the back
Bar, seeing the mirror as another body
Of water as holy as any, knowing how
I got here and why


Two stools down
A man holds his beer in one fist, bleeding
From some dream war
All of us recognize and know
We can’t win but we keep trying
One drink at a time.

I can easily identify with the ideas expressed in the first two stanzas. At my age, I’m more apt than not to let “memorable” thoughts slip by without writing them down or taking action on them, and I have always been too busy to just sit and enjoy the sun, to just enjoy the moment. 

Brush loses me, though, in the last two stanzas.  I can’t even imagine a “morning ritual, sipping bourbon” in a bar lit by Christmas lights.  It’s hard to imagine anything more depressing.  Perhaps it is the contrast of sitting in a dimly lit bar sipping bourbon with the kids holding hands being led by a woman with a baby hippo that Brush is trying to suggest, but “ seeing the mirror as another body/Of water as holy as any” would seem to suggest otherwise. If sipping bourbon is a ritual, perhaps it’s time to seek another religion.

The last stanza is even harder for me to accept. It could be a striking image of someone who has been totally defeated, but to suggest we are still trying to win the war “one drink at a time” strikes me as just plain absurd.  The world you see through the bottom of a glass is never the real world; it’s always a twisted, distorted world, one that may confirm your view of the world but can never show you the way out.  

I’m certainly not denying that the world Brush is depicting isn’t real; it is, no doubt about it. Nor am I denying that there are a considerable number of writers (Hemingway comes to mind) who celebrate tough, hard-drinking heroes.  Bukowski is an extremely popular poet,  more popular than several poets I admire much more.  If you admire Bukowski’s poetry,  you might like Open Heart, but, no matter how hard I tried to like it, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

A Last Look at Carnival Evening

I’m going to spend one more day, though I could easily spend a week more, trying to convince you that Carnival Evening is definitely worth your time, a perfect companion during the Covid-19 lockdown. I’ve chosen  two poems which represent two themes in Pastan’s work.  

Several of her poems focus on famous paintings, which I might have found frustrating before the invention of the internet since I would have to run to the library and spend at least an hour finding the painting.  That’s not a problem now, though, and being able to look at the artwork while reading the poem elucidates both.  

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t know who Vermeer was before I read the poem, but I did recognize a couple of his most famous paintings, just not this one, when I looked him up online.  I was a little surprised to find how many references there were to this painting, particularly this one.

Woman Holding a Balance
Vermeer, 1664


The picture within
the picture is The Last
Judgement, subdued
as wallpaper in the background.
And though the woman
holding the scales
is said to be weighing
not a pearl or a coin
but the heft of a single soul,
this hardly matters.
It is really the mystery
of the ordinary
we’re looking at—the way
Vermeer has sanctified
the same light that enters
our own grimed windows
each morning, touching
a cheek, the fold
of a dress, a jewelry box
with perfect justice.

When Vermeer put an illustration of The Last Judgement in the background of his painting he seems to be suggesting a tie between that and the scale, by referring to it as “wallpaper” Pastan notes the painting while at the same time suggesting it is far less important than the “sanctified” light at the heart of the painting and her poem. Even the “weighing” of a human soul to determine its eternal fate “hardly matters”  compared to this holy light. More importantly, for the reader, this is “the same light that enters/our own grimed windows/each morning…”  Most of us are too preoccupied to notice the light; it takes the artist,  the poet, or the photographer to remind us of this daily blessing in hopes that we, too, will see it as holy, sanctified.

Pastan’s interest in art isn’t limited to paintings, she also focuses on her art in poems about Emily Dickinson, new poets, marginalized poets, and the nature of books in general.  My favorite of these types of poems is this one, which made me think that it might have been Emily Dickinson’s version of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

postcard from cape cod


just now I saw
one yellow
butterfly
migrating
across buzzard’s bay
how brave I thought
or foolish
like sending
a poem
across months
of silence
and on such
delicate
wings

There is a nowness to the poem that transcends the years it took to reach my eyes. I can almost see the butterfly.  I know many people think of poetry as a foolish waste of time, but I have never thought of it as taking courage to write poetry. Perhaps it takes courage to send it to out there for fear of appearing foolish.  I like this poem because it is delicate, barely two sentences long and, yet, quite beautiful. 

Pastan’s poetry reminds me not only of the Chinese and Japanese poets I’ve come to love but even more of Emily Dickinson.  It’s not just the immediacy and simplicity of her poems that is reminiscent of Dickinson. There is a sadness, a shyness, a sense of isolation that pervades her poems which she transforms into wisdom.  

Memorial Day, 2020

Long, long ago when I was a freshman in college and had overcome my dislike of poetry, I memorized Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” because I loved the sheer sound of “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and because I identified with the poet’s attitude towards death.  

Do not go gentle into that good night


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It’s still an amazingly powerful poem.  I certainly knew at that age that my wisdom had “forked no lightning” and that I wasn’t ready to depart this world.  I believed that even more fervently when Lt. Wright died when his tank was blown up by a Viet Cong bazooka while escorting a supply convoy, a death that still haunts me every Memorial Day.

I’ll have to admit, though, that I hadn’t thought of this poem for a long time until I read Pastan’s “Go Gentle,” a very different view of death. 

Go Gentle


You have grown wings of pain
and flap around the bed like a wounded gull
calling for water, calling for tea, for grapes
whose skins you cannot penetrate.
Remember when you taught me
how to swim? Let go, you said,
the lake will hold you up.
I long to say, Father let go
and death will hold you up.
Outside the fall goes on without us.
How easily the leaves give in,
I hear them on the last breath of wind,
passing this disappearing place.

The similarity between the titles of the poems doesn’t seem entirely coincidental — though their views on death are diametrically opposed.  “Go Gentle” made me reexamine my views toward death some fifty years later. 

At 78, my attitude towards death is no longer so black-and-white.  Seeing my mother spend the last years of her life suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in a residential care facility  might well be the worst experience of my life, especially knowing how much she hated seeing her own grandmother die from the same disease. Faced with the same fate, I’d be sorely tempted to use the shotgun on the top shelf of my closet.  Visiting a close friend slowly dying from lung cancer after his throat cancer spread was nearly as painful. 

I’ve overcome three different cancers in my life.  When I was told that I wouldn’t live for more than six months if they didn’t immediately treat my throat cancer at the age of 57, I opted for surgery three days later. After the surgery, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision.  Being on a feeding tube for three months unable to talk can make you question the value of your life.  Twenty years later, the pain and suffering seem justified but faced with the same decision at 78 I suspect my decision would be different.