“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

9781555971311Jane Kenyon is the rare poet who shared her Christian faith and was still recognized as a critically important poet. Perhaps it is because her faith avoids any syrupy raptures, instead, providing a different glimpse into everyday life. Still, even an excellent site like the Poetry Foundation can ignore her faith when writing about her life.The literary world is not comfortable with faith, even with “one of their own.”

Anyone reading the collection “Let Evening Come,” will see Kenyon’s faith clearly. It is present in her everyday mentions of her work at church or in one of her daily walks with her dog. In “At the Winter Solstice,” we get a glimpse of a Christmas Eve pageant in a small church:

“At the village church last night
the boys–shepherds and wisemen–
pressed close to the manger in obedience,
wishing only for time to pass;
but the girl dressed as Mary trembled
as she leaned over the pungent hay,
and like the mother of Christ

wondered why she had been chosen.”

But it is a faith of honesty. While she often finds comfort, she also struggles — as do most jane-kenyonpeople. Kenyon suffered from depression, wrestling with it for most of her short life (she died from leukemia at age 47 in 1995). Struggling to reconcile it with her beliefs, she is left short of answers. In “Now Where?” she opens with verses that can reflect depression or grief:

“It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I

turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,

‘Where is your God now?'”

Most of her poetry celebrates the rural and rustic found around her New Hampshire farm, although she was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not leaving until she married the poet Donald Hall after finishing her Masters degree at the University of Michigan. Kenyon sees much in the simple actions of the day. In her poem, “Father and Son,” she writes how the neighbor keeps cutting wood with his chainsaw as his son helps. He does it on Sunday afternoons and she comes to “mind the noise.”  But the neighbor is:

“intent on getting wood for winter, the last,

as it happened, of their life together.”

So, she takes from this everyday scene which can even be annoying and gives us pause to think about these moments when either the father or son (she hints it is the father) dies before the next season. The importance of the present moment is never lost on Kenyon. She often sees in others the stories they carry with them, revealed in tiny glimpses. She does the same with seasons as they come and go. She tends to embrace each season. In, “Dark Morning: Snow”:

“It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail

come late.

The nuthatch spirals head first

down the tree.

I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.

There nothing I want…”

Kenyon appeals to me and others because she reveals how many of us feel. As a Christian, I can relate to her moments of comfort and her moments of despair. She does not need to go far to find her inspiration — it is the farm she lives on, the people surrounding her, her faith, her dog, and her friends. We benefit from how her eyes often see more than we do. The present does not slip by her. Instead, she lives in the moment with an eye on eternity.

The collection ends with the title poem, and it is one that is often reprinted. In fact, it has been set to music by several composers  with my favorite being by  M. L. P. Badarak.

It is a beautiful poem, so I’ll let it end this post
.

Let Evening Come

 

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear

and moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
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Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Describing the Past”

Layout 1There are books in life that we read slowly for the pure pleasure of feeling the words in our mouths. Meaning becomes secondary as we are lost in the pleasure, a feeling that brings many us back to reading again and again. Not many authors have this gift. There are great writers with incredible books who cannot write like this. And there are writers, the French novelist and Nobel prize winner J. M. G. Le Clezio comes to mind, who in the midst of a story create passages and chapters so enticing that their context does not matter.

Ghassan Zaqtan is such a writer. There are many adjectives for Zaqtan we could put in front of “writer,” such as Palestinian, lyrical, narrative, political, personal, activist, Middle Eastern, and more. But, first, he is a writer. He breaks down the boundaries between poetry and fiction, creating prose that reads like poetry and poetry which tells a story. But the words themselves are a joy. A writer seeks to bring us into their world through words. They create portals into which we step without knowing where we are going, hoping to return different, and better, than when we left. Zaqtan is a writer who can take us deeper into our own lives but taking us along with him. And while his writing is transcendent enough to escape context, it is firmly rooted in experience and place.

While writers do not like always being linked to a place, Zaqtan’s background and current life are a central part of his writing. Although well known and highly respected in the world of Arabic literature, he is not as well known in the English-speaking world since only two of his works have been translated.  The first was a collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, and just recently, the novella, Describing the Past. In Arabic we can find 10 volumes of poetry, more fiction, and plays and essays as well.
Zaqtan was born near Bethlehem and now lives in Ramallah. He has lived in Jordan, Syria,

zaqtan

Ghassan Zaqtan

Lebanon, and Tunisia, and is active in the struggle for  Palestinian freedom. He has edited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s literary magazine and is a leader in promoting literature in the West Bank. His political involvement has made international travel difficult and a trip to Canada occurred only after prominent writers spoke out for him after his visa to visit was initially denied.

He has lived much of his life as an exile and memory of this life is essential to understanding his work. His novel, “Describing the Past,” (written in 1994 and just published in English in 2016) emerges from his time as a child in the Karameh refugee camp near the River Jordon. The beautiful translation is by Samuel Wilder,  and there is an excellent introduction by Fady Joudah.

The story is told in the voices of three narrators: the author, his best friend, and a girl they love. But the story is not told in a traditional narrative sense, but instead, draws us in and slowly comes over us. Memories do not work like people often think they do. Our lives are not remembered as history but as moments and experiences. Zaqtan writes in this way so that we are brought into the experience of being young and awakening to the power and attraction of another. We are brought back into the sense of wonder and awe that we experience but do not remember.

“It was not easy at all. I had to return. There were so many things left to be done that could no longer delayed, places where one had to sit, surfaces and peaks of mountains to stare into with strength, narrow and wide roads to walk over, hands to be clasped, many words to be said. There were greetings to be exchanged and a hand with five kind fingers to be laid on your knee so you believe the speech in the air….

These opening lines set the stage for someone hoping to remember an experience, even though a phrase such as “five kind fingers to be laid on your knee” reminds us of what we do not forget. In his introduction, Joudah describes it better. “Zaqtan transports memory as dream narrative or, more precisely, as a state of being with altered consciousness. As if in a seance, voices appear and speak from a truncated time, resected and persevered in a jar.”

The book  emerges into different modes as it continues. It is a coming-of-age story, an elegy for a dead friend, a celebration of childhood, and a glimpse into the humanity of those called refugees. In a particularly moving passage, the writer sees the young woman they love walking toward him. She has a young boy with her:

“On her other side, he was walking in death. Behind him, on the road of dust, a strand of river water poured from his hair and body. He was silent. Behind us the Hadj walked. I slowed down so that she and he followed my lead, slowed down so that the Hadj could catch up to us. He was silent too. Three men surrounded her. All four of us kept climbing.

I was going off to die. That’s what I was told. She didn’t know this, but the two men did. We three dead men surrounded her as we climbed the narrow, straight road of dust.”

The past, present, and future become one and are impossible to separate. We are made up of all of these times and our past experiences do not leave us but shape us. Still, in a world always forward looking, Zaqtan understands the importance of remembering where we come from. The refugee camp he was in was destroyed and the physical memories are lost. But for an individual and a community to understand themselves, they must describe the past.

“I am compelled to speak now. You know the necessity of it here. Things evaporate and die if they don’t find someone to remember them.”

This is what Zaqtan accomplishes. He remembers, he reminds, and he lifts up the past which can shape our future.

Zaqtan is a gift and worth spending time with. Although best known for his poetry, Describing the Past shows his writing skills go beyond any one genre. If like me, you depend on the translations, we can only hope more of his writing is translated.

Like a Straw BirdIn the meantime, in addition to this book, You should read Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and other Poems. The book won the prestigious 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize International Prize.

You can find some of his poetry at Poem Hunter.

The Poetry Foundation provides a biography and an audio podcast of Zaqtan and Joudah discussing Palestinian poetry with Ilya Kaminsky.

There is also a great review of Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and Other Poems is on poet’s Ron Slate’s blog.

“Stay” by Kathleen McGookey

Stay_cover_smDeath and life have long been tied together in literature, a reflection of our shared experience. One of the strongest connections between the two is grief when life transfers into death and love takes on the lens of loss. All these elements emerge strongly in Kathleen McGookey’s stunning book of poems, Stay. From the loss of children not yet born, to the loss of parents long lived, McGookey struggles to retain what is lost and to accept what is left.
McGookey writes prose poems, allowing her the freedom to develop her thoughts while using the fragmentation of poetry to create lines of depth. In “Shallow” she describes a living moon. “She is pinned to the sky, unapproachable: to be aloof, to be cold and disinterested and not afraid if anyone knows is a decent strategy.” McGookey clearly does not emulate these traits, and so her poems reach out to the reader.
We listen as McGookey interprets life through the decision of becoming a mother, and then the mother who does not conceive.  In “Again” she opens with: “Never conceived, never arrived into the light and the clatter and the chill. Never rapt, like a statue. Never arrived for the slap…” She is grieving the loss of the life never created with the same intensity we grieve the loss of those who die. In both situations, we are left with an absence. One carries memories and the other possibilities, but neither are tangible no matter how much they are experienced.

She is continually struck by the grief and horror an individual can experience that does

mcgookey

Kathleen McGookey

not impact the world. How life seems to go on all around you as your own life falls apart. In “Like Stars” she describes an awe-inspiring evening setting full of the life of insects and birds, and ends with the line: “Right now my friend is having a baby boy who is expected to die.”  In “Sometimes the Ache Sleeps” we see her facing her parent’s declining health, “But each day the purple morning glories bloomed after the sun rose, and each day promised to be just like the one before.” At times, the poet seems to be torn between the thankfulness for ongoing life and being stunned that all the world does not understand your grief. But grief, while universally experienced, is a private affair.

The title poem expresses a theme found throughout these poems. The longing to hang on to what we had while having what is changing. She wants to stay with her ailing mom, who sends her up to her husband. But they only trade places so the husband cares for her mother while she nurses her child. We have a desire to keep what we have, yet we want what we do not have. You cannot care for your dying mother and your young son at the same time. We desire change and we desire to stay in our place.
Clearly, this collection is full of much pain. But she does not lose herself in the pain. She acknowledges it, struggles with it, but still recognizes the beauty around her. She seems in awe of life, wanting to experience it from a distance but finding herself an active part of it. When no hope seems left, she finds it in a note from her mother, the unconditional love of her child, or in the vision of a teenage boy with one leg water skiing and looking for girls in bikinis.

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

Art Objects coverBeing an artist, it does not necessarily follow that you can speak about art. Artists gifted with the poetic mind can bury themselves in lifeless prose as they try to explain what is difficult to explain. In fact, the critics often sound more eloquent in exploring a world they do not even create. So it was with trepidation I approached the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s collection, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. But Winterson succeeds in delving into the world of art criticism with the power of a creative writer and creative mind. However, it as much her enthusiasm as her intelligence that makes this collection work. Art is no academic exercise for Winterson; it is a way of life. And her passion is infectious.

“A work of art is abundant, spills out, gets drunk, sits up with you all night and forgets to close the curtains, dries your tears, is your friend, offers you a disguise, a difference, a pose. Cut and cut it through there is still a diamond at the core. Skim the top and it is rich. The inexhaustible energy of art is transfusion for worn-out world” (65).

This, by the way, in an essay focusing on Virginia Woolf. The essays show Winterson’s love of modernism, but her essays on Woolf (two of them) and Stein (and extended comments on Eliot) are springboards for Winterson’s thinking. In other words, she not only knows art impacts our lives, she shows how this works by her reaction to art.

The first of three sections is a longer essay, entitled “Art Objects,” where we see how jeanette_winterson240visual art becomes important to her. Even though she really knew nothing about visual art, she learns to expand her life by expanding her exposure to art. “When I wanted to know about paintings, I set out to look at as many as I could, using always, tested standards, but continuing to test them”(16).

Winterson rails against the subjective “I just like it” mode of approaching the arts. She wants us to seek out what others like and why, but never hesitating to push back. With intelligence!

“The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ has nothing to do with the picture in its own right.
‘I don’t understand this poem’
‘I never listen to classical music’
‘I don’t like this picture’
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience” (13-14).

The other two sections of the, “Transformation” and “Ecstasy and Energy,” combine several essays. In “Transformation,” we see the art that has shaped  and continues to shape Winterson — it is an ongoing process. In the final section she seeks out the personal in terms of how it relates to art. Her essay on “The Semiotics of Sex,” explores how her being a lesbian does and does not influence her art. She takes to task both the “straight” and “Queer world” (her term) for their polarizing approaches to art.

Her final essay applies much of the earlier discussions to her own work, but again, this serves as jumping off point. In “A Work of My Own” she makes a strong case for the importance of arts in the world.

“…each new generation considers itself more enlightened than its predecessor;  a view that science both encourages and depends on. Literature (all art) takes a different view; human nature, emotional reality is not seen as a progress from darkness to light but as a communication, with ourselves and across time…Whereas science outdates the past art keeps it present” (166).

She notes that while science debunks the past, “Shakespeare has not been sunk by the weight of four hundred years of scholarly and popular interpretations” (166).

Winterson’s writing is lively and thought-provoking. She challenges us to give art its due, to take time. This is not another voice saying we move too fast, but she is clear that art should make you pause. It is time well spent. What do you get from examining a work of art for an hour as opposed to putting on the museum tour headphones and being told what to think. Winterson would say listen to the headphones, but also spend time alone with the art. This goes for literature, the visual arts, music, all arts. This book is worth slowing down for and spending time with as we consider the impact of art.

Explore Winterson’s world at her website or on Twitter @Wintersonworld

 

 

 

Tree of Codes

tree-of-codes Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Tree of Codes, is an unusual work. As opposed to creating a novel from scratch, Foer takes his “favorite book,” The Street of Crocodiles by the Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz, and cuts away that text to create a new novel.
 
It is a unique idea and raises the philosophical questions of what makes a novel, what is authorship, and even what is morally acceptable in taking work from others. Foer gives no authorial credit to Schulz, presumably because he sees this as his own work. This may actually be deconstructionism taken to its logical extreme.
 
In order to do this, Foer has worked with a publisher (Visual Editions)  to present the novel with the full pages, but every page is die-cut to show only the words he has chosen. The result is a book with tree of codes insidemany pages, but few words. As a work of art, it is interesting to see. As a literary work of art, it is an interesting experiment.   
 
But does it work? As a novel, no. The text he has kept is clearly constrained by what is already in the Schulz’s novel, so he is trapped within that structure. He can re-imagine the words in different ways and with different uses, but he cannot escape the structure. As such, he must create a story which can be found within a limited text (if we think of all texts as limited by their scope). He does not succeed in creating a full story.
 
I struggled with a way to summarize the book (best shot: son sees father’s demise at the hands of his mother), so I went in search of what others say. This was not a scientific survey, but a look at what a good Google search would bring up. Not surprisingly, almost everyone focuses on the physical safran-inside-tablebook or the idea behind the physical book, but not the narrative itself. Why? Because the narrative is not nearly as strong as the idea behind it.
 
It can be better viewed as a work of poetry, but with lines like  “Weeks passed like boats waiting to sail into the starless dawn, we were full of aimless endless darkness,” it even fails in that category.
 
This is a book worth looking at, and because it is short, go ahead and read it. But it has been noticed not for what it contains, but how it was created. When the act of creation exceeds the creation, then it says little for the creation itself.

When to give up on a book?

Perhaps it was how I was raised. I participated in sports from my youngest years and all through high school; the most basic lesson was — never quit. Once you join a team you are committed to that team at least for the season, so you tough it out no matter what happens. I’m not sure this is the best advice, but I recognize it as part of me.

So, does this apply to books as well? When you start a book you make a commitment to the writer to give serious attention to what they have written. It seems almost insulting not to show them some patience, some grace, in delving into their work. It is a relationship, and relationships take time and effort.

I remember seeing an interview with the children’s book writer, Maurice Sendak (and I can still quote “Where the Wild Things Are” from memory thanks to four children), and he said children have no such qualms when approaching a book. If they don’t like it, they throw it across the room and move on to another book.

But what about adults? I recently gave up on a book, which is truly a rare occurrence for me. It was Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives,” a work which has won a great deal of praise. Given all the rave reviews and endorsements by great writers, I should be loving this book. Instead, after 100 pages I could not take it anymore. I’ll blame myself — maybe I just “don’t get it.” But listening to the narrators pornographic descriptions of his sex life, which had just begun and was off to a roaring start, was getting old. There were few characters I wanted to learn more about (except the really interesting “crazy” father of his first-tryst), and any movement anywhere was just not happening. From my understanding of the story I know this change will come, but I will not be around to see it.

So why did I finally give up? I was dreading reading it. Simple as that. When I realized I was approaching a book as a chore instead of an opportunity, it was time to move on. I read plenty of books I did not like in college and grad school, but I feel little impetus to do so anymore. I do not seek easy books, but I want to know the challenge is paying off.

So should I not recommend this book? Since plenty of people are seeing something in it, you may well love it. I would love to hear that. You just will not be reading that here.

And I’m curious — when do the rest of you stop reading a book?