Meghan Maguire Dahn for Word for Word Poetry, May 20, 2014
Featuring CUNY Poets
The desert, the body (quantified), the two-week grudges of lobsters, the disputes overheard in convenience stores, the unspoken rebuttals of 18th-century execution sermons, the parts Faulkner left out, the book that opened its mouth, the block of marble only partly carved by Michelangelo – all of these were posited as correlatives for poetry during the Evening of CUNY Poets at the Bryant Park Reading Room on May 20, 2014.
|Anne Lovering Rounds|
Organized by Anne Lovering Rounds, assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College, the evening featured Carl James Grindley (associate professor of English at Hostos Community College), Alexander Long (associate professor of English at John Jay College), Salita Bryant (assistant professor of English at Lehman College), and the work of Isaac Goldemberg (distinguished professor at Hostos Community College) presented by Ángel Morales (a teacher in the Humanities Department at Hostos and Artistic Director of the Hostos Reparatory Theater) and Annelly Chalas (a Hostos sophomore).
|Carl James Grindle|
Carl James Grindley read primarily from his new collection Lora and the Dark Lady, which won the 2011 Ravenna Press Cathlamet Prize for Poetry. The collection reconsiders two of the most prominent objects of the western canon – Petrarch’s Laura and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. The poems Grindley read don’t necessarily refer to a real Lora or a real Dark Lady. Rather, they’re amalgamations of women he’s known or heard of over the years – the nice ones are Laura and the others, the Dark Lady. If this sounds reductive at first, it’s not. The poems are linguistically playful, lending such an appealing, embodied voice to the women that any criticism involving the false dichotomy of good woman/bad woman disappears. And that is where Grindley’s significant skill lies: in writing his way through a vast range of voices, each of them fully textured. It could be a marine biologist, a paper, a man down on his luck, a casual conversation between strangers, an address to the history of poetry. From the highfalutin to the day-to-day, everything feels justified in Grindley’s work.
Salita Bryant’s work takes a very different approach. While she also writes about violent subjects (the execution of children, the murder of children, dead corpse-mothers written out of the canon, the body broken into its absurd functions and quantities), she does so with an unflinching attention to the beauty of language. Her book Addie Bundren is Dead is a series of persona poems from the perspective of the deceased mother in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It would take a writer who has the unflinching attention to language and its beauty to take on Faulkner. It helps that Bryant’s command of language is akin to his. Hers unfolds at a somewhat more consistent pace, rather than the undulating loops of big time that his books tend to engage. This consistent unfolding is also a quality of a long poem cycle from which Bryant read called “Anatomy Lesson.” Each section related to a part of the body – skin, blood, bones, etc. At times lyrical (the tongue, “the silver spoon of rust” is the strongest muscle) and, at other times, ruthlessly quantitative (pointing out that we have enough iron in our blood to make one 3” nail), the poem works as its own system, full of wonder, but equally concerned with being thorough. In this way, Bryant gives us the sense of a knit theater of intimacies, both in terms of our anatomy and in terms of the way we relate to others, to culture, to history.
If Bryant’s work is tightly knit in its relation to all these things, Isaac Goldemberg’s work treats them with wild leaps. In his work – read beautifully in the Spanish by Ángel Morales and translated into English by Annelly Chalas – subjects take on unlikely behaviors. In one poem “Cain and Abel act as brothers.” In another there is “a whistling that calls you black.” In “Funeral Oration” Goldemberg declares that “the desert is text woven in sand.” The poems ask us to take these leaps of faith about what the world is and what it can do. And we do so without a fuss, because they progress with their own kind of logic, unfolding wonderfully, culminating with some element of marrow-knowledge.
The gathering showed the remarkable variety of styles and overall quality of the work that CUNY professors are producing, of course, but there were also some concerns they held in common. One was grappling with what it is that poetry does—sometimes this took the form of an ars poetica (from Bryant). Goldemberg reflected on the shift in poetry from communally spoken to printed in a book. Grindley used his poems as a means of synthesizing of academic and colloquial talk. And, for Long, the space of the poem was one that allowed for meta-conversation (an ekphrastic poem in the form of a letter, written in conversation with an earlier ekphrastic poem in epistolary form).
The other common attention of the poems was to the source of the speaker’s voice. This was perhaps most prominent in Bryant’s work, which is sometimes drawn from historic figures (she read from a gorgeous poem in the voice of Hannah Occuish – a young girl executed for murder in colonial Connecticut). And the Addie Bundren poems work in a similar vein. Grindley, who grew up in working class western Canadian city of Victoria, invented a persona from which to write poems so he wouldn’t “feel weird” about it. Long’s ability to pick up on the syntaxes and rhythms of everyday speech also work to complicate a speaking “I” of a poem. Does this voice come from a unified speaker or from whatever local social group the poet moves through? Goldemberg considers the same issue but with a more historical lens, in the shift from sung verse to published poems that we read solitarily. It might seem somewhat counterintuitive to count the intended audience in a discussion of the speaker of a poem, but not in this case. If the early role of sung verse was to have the poem learned and re-sung from town to town, then the sense of the speaker (and sometimes the very text itself) would have changed accordingly. A solitary reader is in a position of more passivity, receiving the text as fixed, a step removed from its embodied performance.
But we were not solitary for this event. We were in a public space, one of the gems of New York, sitting together as the day ended, listening to poems. Passersby sometimes paused, sometimes took a seat, and sometimes went along their way. Poetry was in the open air. We have not, as Goldemberg wrote, “sold the house to oblivion.”
|Meghan Maguire Dahn|