We asked poet, essayist, and critic Maureen N. McLane to tell us about some of the poetry she's excited about right now. Maureen has written two collections for FSG, Same Lifeand the forthcoming World Enough. She currently teaches at New York University. You can find audio of her reading her own poetry here.
I am, in a way, still in recovery from the poetry of 2009—or rather, still metabolizing the work of several incredibly strong poets, some very established and some newer, at least to me. Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959–2009 is clearly a, and perhaps the, towering work of the moment: his “Kill Poem,” from a few years ago, still makes my hair stand on end—a ruthless diagnosis of the spirit of the age. He is so knowingly, funnily, evilly brilliant that his power can be measured by the force of his detractors as well as by the intensity of his admirers. He is, thank god, inimitable. “I’m a liar with a lyre. Kiss me, life!” (“Pain Management”): youza! Seidel is our great poet of (among many other things) masculine abjection and authority, their mangled and mangling embrace.
Other work I’ve been absorbed by: Louise Glück’s A Village Life, with its stunning collective wager, its slowly and profoundly etched portrait of individuals in community; Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents (Wave Books), an intriguing, vertiginous, ingathering counter, if you want one, to Seidel’s sense of where we live now; Rae Armantrout’s Versed (Wesleyan), continuing her lyric scything; Mahmoud Darwish’s If I Were Another (translated by Fady Joudah), an overwhelming volume that will take a long time to settle fully in me—and one that proves the urgency and necessity and gift of translation.
On the translation front: I am immersed in, and fascinated by, Jonathan Galassi’s translations of Leopardi’s Canti (forthcoming from FSG in November 2010), and I look forward to assigning some of these rigorous, fluent, wholly modern lyrico-critical poems (as well as the illuminating, elegant introduction) to students next year.
Other volumes exciting me now: Ange Mlinko’s Shoulder Season, just out from Coffee House Press: I’d seen some individual poems in magazines, and it’s terrific to have the whole volume. The wit, musicality, and careening intelligence here are a boon: consider “Babyclothes made of camo— / There should be a Lysistrata in the forsythia” (“Camouflage”). Or “It’s hard to know whether today or yesterday was the full moon; / excitement isn’t rigorous. It’s just river-silvering / blent with the odor of silt where the roofs spike / along a repurposed waterfront” (“Children’s Museum”). Mlinko seems to be taking James Schuyler’s kind of precisely rendered urban pastoral and bringing it elsewhere—American English sings differently in her lines and mind. Then, too, certain poems are stationed elsewhere—perhaps in Beirut, or Paris, or Croton-on-Hudson, all alert to “the realpolitik / of utilities.”
For all the praise-and-blame hooplah around National Poetry Month, I am glad to see individual poems appearing fresh and savage and singing in various magazines and on websites: Cathy Park Hong’s “Ballad in A”; Robyn Schiff’s “H1N1”. And, as usual, I am permanently excited about Sappho, Anne Carson (have not yet seen her new book, Nox), Shelley, Wordsworth, and Wallace Stevens.
This year for National Poetry Month, FSG Publisher Jonathan Galassi has agreed to say a few words about our upcoming poetry collections. You can expect his comments here every Tuesday and Thursday for the rest of the month.
Today I want to say a few words about a young poet whose work has brought me a great deal of delight.
Maureen McLane's SAME LIFE was published last fall. As the two complementary and contrasting drawings by Sol Lewitt on its jacket suggest, there are (at least) two lives in SAME LIFE-- the life experienced and the life considered if not always in tranquility then in retrospect. As Maureen writes in one of her understated, often devastating lyrics, "Same View":
same long lush lawn
same three tall maples and their lower kin
same windwashed lake
and beyond, the immemorial mountain
the sleeping granite man
still keeps his giant sleep
but I have come back
and I am not she
The changes that come into a life that is the same and yet not, the discontinuous nature of our experience which still contributes to a unified self—that is Maureen's territory. She brings to it a refreshingly spare, classically-informed modernist lyricism that hops backwards over several generations of poetic lingo to something at once modest, pure, direct, and commanding.
Maureen is also a gifted critic and her book BALLADEERING, MINSTRELSY, AND THE MAKING OF BRITISH ROMANTIC POETRY, was recently published by Cambridge University Press. Her poems are brilliant, sometimes wickedly aware, deeply sophisticated, and amazingly moving. She understands sexual politics AND love AND death AND loss AND memory and writes about them all with the kind of clarity that engraves itself on the mind. There is nothing same-old same-old about SAME LIFE.
After Sappho 1
some say a host of horsemen, a horizon of ships under sail is most beautiful but I say it is whatever you love I say it is you
By now, you are all probably well familiar with Maureen McLane's 'After Sappho IV,' which has been printed out since early April and hanging on your office wall. (Right? You all printed it out, right?)
And now here is McLane reading two poems from that cycle, 'After Sappho IV' and 'After Sappho V,' which McLane describes as "emerging out of a year of reading translations of Sapphic fragments."
As a reminder, both of these poems will appear in McLane's debut collection of poetry, Same Life, which will be published by FSG in the fall.
I am going to want to sit with his stunning title poem for a long while. I don’t think I’ve read a more vertiginous, powerful take on US myth-history in a long while. “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City”: this is some world-historical hangover! AK plunks us down in “the exact dead center of America,” and diagnoses (or gives an autopsy of) the current condition of “the dead solid center of the universe/At the heart of the heart of America.” Even to put it this way abuses the poem, since AK doesn’t write poems announcing their “about-ness” (“here is my poem about the state of the nation; here is my poem about X, about Y): but with its layering of and cutting between geologic time, Oglala myth, General Custer’s writings, Mt Rushmore, Kevin Costner, historical monuments, stripmall culture, the “heritage” industry, and the question of what might be “sanctified ground/Here, yes, here,” this poem sounds out a ramifying homage to and critique of what he satirically, but not only satirically (as I hear it), calls “this great land.” “God bless America/We’re right on top of it, baby…on a great slab of Mesozoic rock.”
I could go on and on, but one art these poems embody is the art of knowing when to stop.
And now, part two of MaureenMcLane'spost about August Kleinzahler's new book of selected poems,SleepingItOff in Rapid City (part 1 can be found here and the final section will arrive later today):
Precisely naming. A “sense of where you are” is what Bill Bradley had on the basketball court, according to John McPhee, and that’s what these poems paradoxically offer—paradoxically, because many of these poems seem to distill themselves out of apparent dislocation, a condition which seems to be one true “home” for the Kleinzahlerian adventurer. He puts us in transit—on airplanes; in Vancouver, the Coney Island boardwalk, Cork (Ireland), and what seems to be Amsterdam; cinematically zooming down on couples in a plaza in one city, a hotel in another; elsewhere taking us through the postmodern “no-places” that seem to constitute the spaces and strange hours of certain western travelers.
Funky tunings! Lots of gongs! Thanks to iTunes and August Kleinzahler, I am sitting here listening to ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee’s transcriptions for two pianos of the Balinese Gamelan, played by McPhee and Benjamin Britten. Here are some of the first auditory-consumer fruits of reading August’s “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City,” one of whose poems. “A History of Western Music: Chapter 49,” draws on excerpts from McPhee’s memoir, “A House in Bali.”
AK has “big ears” and there’s enormous sonic vroom but also delicacy here—“Chopin floats; Schubert, as well./What is it exactly?” The nervy, fascinatingly inventive music of the new poems in this new-and-selected volume take off from some previously established motifs: the “History of Western Music” series, installments of which appeared in his last book, “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep,” are wonderfully, episodically continued here (and torqued to non-Western musics in the case of the gamelan). There’s a lot of talk out there, for those who like poetry-talk, about poetry and/or information, and what’s amazing to me is how this poet processes the most apparently diverse data-bits into propelled, simultaneously attitudinal and elegant poems. AK’s poems land somewhere between a blow and a caress. It’s been argued that when you read a poem you meet a person, and not in some dopey “confessional poetry” way; whatever is going into these poems, the peculiar, distinctive neurological dance we might call “voice” is always signaling here a governing, wily, sensitive intelligence. I don’t know how AK manages to get a “9-cyclohetadecenone-addled marionette/Mewing” in a poem “(Secondary Sexual Characteristics”), but he does. Nothing—and certainly no register of style or diction—is alien to him. Let’s pivot from “Kill me, fuck me, write me bad checks” to “Hold on, the jacaranda’s gone missing” to “Downstairs, Sol, of Sol’s Paradise Club,/mixes a fizz drink for a mummy blonde./--Thanks, Sol.” And on to “You’d figure the hawk for an isolate thing,/commanding the empyrean.” There’s a lot of rain in this book, as well as clouds, airplanes, music, drinks, love, wiseguys, motorcycles, birds, jets, and precisely named chemicals and geologic strata.
With the release ofSameLife, coming out this September, Maureen
McLane will be the newest poet to enter FSG’s roster. (Maureen, please keep an
eye out for your jersey, which should be in the mail.) And I think it’s time
you all get to know her a bit better.
So today for you I have a downloadable broadsheet, a preview
of the poem After Sappho IV from Same Life. You can set it as your computer’s
wallpaper, or print it out and hang it on the actual wall—I’m not picky about
the way you appreciate our poetic broadsheets, and I suspect Maureen is fairly
loose about it as well.
“We faced, of course, some problems of definition. With
kids, unlike undergraduates or grumpy academics or bickering coterie poets, one
need never enter into metaphysical, formal, or historical debates revolving
around the question, ‘What is a poem?’ Anything you said was a poem. A prose
poem, a poem in stanzas, a poem in free-verse lines: all were poems. No
problem: who cares? It became clear that our tacit definition of ‘poem’ was, ‘a
short piece of writing, in lines, more or less.’”
I’ll also have some audio and maybe even a guest blog from
her in the coming weeks, so be ready.