"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Monday, September 14, 2015

Chariton Connections

A View of the River, for which the Review was Named
Photo by Jay Beets

My personal 40 - year old copy of first issue!
Cover photo by Bob Zeni

Forty years ago,in the Fall of 1975, one of my first assignments as a college freshman was to read the first issue of The Chariton Review from cover to cover -- so many unforgettable stories and poems -- by Quinton Duval, John Haines, Jim Thomas, Glen Tracy, Winston Weathers.

And this one by James Tate:

Discovery & Recovery
we jump over their graves
frightening a red bird
we jump over their graves
hovering to applaud
we jump over their graves
who's afraid to love
we jump over their graves
spitting over our shoulders
we jump over their graves
taking flight like pheasants
beside a highway
we jump over their graves
whistling in the ozone
we jump over their graves
whistling in the ozone
we jump over their graves
the thousand million acres
we jump over their graves
like balloons skidding in the wind
we jump over their graves
leapfrog into the empty ones
the graves jump over the graves

I am hung by the toe from a star
with a blacksnake of dentalfloss
with a machete of dentalfloss
the hibiscus of dentalfloss
the cable - car of dentalfloss
the bikini of dentalfloss
the national anthem of dentalfloss
some $5's worth of used dentalfloss
12 miles of used dentalfloss
3 tons of used dentalfloss
the dentalfloss that rebelled in the night
and strangled the crest
the dentalfloss on which you strangled
your first tooth
the dentalfloss with which I bet
my tongue for nosing - in
the dentalfloss with which we lassooed
our first housefly
(a potential power source?)
the common housefly is an open book
(a potential power source?)
the hornet is a power source
for screams
which make the world go around
solving all my problems in the end
hung as I am by a toe from the star.

Another favorite for students of poetry in the midwest, in the 70s was Tate's cliche - defying "It's Not the Heat So Much as the Humidity". Suddenly the dog days of summer were filled with hometown nostalgia, witty connections and provocative contradictions:

It’s Not the Heat So Much as the Humidity
Only a dish of blueberries could pull me
out of this lingering funk.
I’m tired of taking the kids down
to the riot, no longer impressed
with the fancy electrical nets, sick
of supersonic nightsticks.

Buy myself a hot dog and a glass of beer—
That helps. It’s hard to say
who’s winning. Nobody is winning.

Boy, Kansas City! Big Zoo! Oriental art!
Starlight Theater: Annie Get Your Gun
going into its seventeenth year.
Once I met Tab Hunter there, four o’clock
in the morning, standing in line

at the Coke machine, so tall and blond,
though not much of a conversationalist.

It’s good to be home, trying to soften
the blow for young girls who are inclined
to fall off their porches.

Some of my best friends are . . .
Curse on those who do and do not take dope.

When Autumn comes, O when Fall arrives,
in her chemise of zillion colors,
I will sigh noisily, as if an old and
disgusting leg had finally dropped off.

No more drinking beer, no more
The perpetual search for an air-
conditioned friend, no more friends.

I’ll take piano lessons, French lessons,
speed-reading lessons, and if there is
still time to kill, gawk at a bluejay
tumbling out of the maple tree.

Cars slide by with their windows up,
whispering of a Mexican Restaurant
“with really good Chili Verde.”

The gutters billow with mauve death;
A mother’s sad voice sends out
a tugboat whistle through the purple mist:
she worries about her children.

And the dangerous fishhook of melancholy
dangles from every dog’s ear.
The dog that saved my life,
that keeps on saving each long, humid night.
The dead dog. And so:

a shiny baseball hovers over the city.
No one asks why. And so: it passes on.
And so: a telephone starts to ring
in a widow’s cake-filled kitchen . . .

A rollerskate collides with a lunchpail.

~ by James Tate (8 December 1943 – 8 July 2015)

In the wake of Tate's death this summer, numerous tributes -- by Dave Eisenstadter, Rich Smith, and Ned Stuckey - French, to name a few -- honored Tate's vision and recalled exemplary poems. Jeffery Gleaves of The Paris Review, included these irresistible references:
"Tate’s poems were 'always concerned to tell us that beneath the busyness and loneliness of our daily lives, there remains in us the possibility for peace, happiness and real human connection,' wrote Adam Kirsch in the New York Times."

"But John Ashbery once opined that Tate is a 'poet of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous, and these phenomena exist everywhere.' ”
"Surprising consequences" and "real human connections" -- these comments from Ashbery and Kirsch pretty much explain why it's no surprise that I've turned to Tate's work previously, in both a Fortnightly essay ("I sat at home and began to cheer up. What if none of this happened? I thought. What if there was nothing to be sad about?") and a Quotidian post ("What I thought was infinite will turn out to be just a couple / of odds and ends, a tiny miscellany, miniature stuff, fragments / . . . But it will also be enough, / maybe even more than enough . . . ").

My professor and friend, and long - time editor of The Chariton Review Jim Barnesreminisced, "Yes, sad to hear of Tate's death. The old Blue Booby is gone. Funny how I associate him with that one bird in his great little comic poem":

The Blue Booby
The blue booby lives
on the bare rocks
of Galápagos
and fears nothing.
It is a simple life:
they live on fish,
and there are few predators.
Also, the males do not
make fools of themselves
chasing after the young
ladies. Rather,
they gather the blue
objects of the world
and construct from them

a nest—an occasional
Gaulois package,
a string of beads,
a piece of cloth from
a sailor’s suit. This
replaces the need for
dazzling plumage;
in fact, in the past
fifty million years
the male has grown
considerably duller,
nor can he sing well.
The female, though,

asks little of him—
the blue satisfies her
completely, has
a magical effect
on her. When she returns
from her day of
gossip and shopping,
she sees he has found her
a new shred of blue foil:
for this she rewards him
with her dark body,
the stars turn slowly
in the blue foil beside them
like the eyes of a mild savior.

Time and again, Tate's poems open their arms to a poetry - starved world, embracing all the nonsense, affirming the quest for meaning, and giving the reader a little something to smile or smirk or laugh right out loud about, as well as plenty to worry about. Like this one, for example:

Dream On
Some people go their whole lives
without ever writing a single poem.
Extraordinary people who don't hesitate
to cut somebody's heart or skull open.
They go to baseball games with the greatest of ease.
and play a few rounds of golf as if it were nothing.
These same people stroll into a church
as if that were a natural part of life.
Investing money is second nature to them.
They contribute to political campaigns
that have absolutely no poetry in them
and promise none for the future.
They sit around the dinner table at night
and pretend as though nothing is missing.
Their children get caught shoplifting at the mall
and no one admits that it is poetry they are missing.
The family dog howls all night,
lonely and starving for more poetry in his life.
Why is it so difficult for them to see
that, without poetry, their lives are effluvial.
Sure, they have their banquets, their celebrations,
croquet, fox hunts, their sea shores and sunsets,
their cocktails on the balcony, dog races,
and all that kissing and hugging, and don't
forget the good deeds, the charity work,
nursing the baby squirrels all through the night,
filling the birdfeeders all winter,
helping the stranger change her tire.
Still, there's that disagreeable exhalation
from decaying matter, subtle but everpresent.
They walk around erect like champions.
They are smooth-spoken and witty.
When alone, rare occasion, they stare
into the mirror for hours, bewildered.
There was something they meant to say, but didn't:
"And if we put the statue of the rhinoceros
next to the tweezers, and walk around the room three times,
learn to yodel, shave our heads, call
our ancestors back from the dead--"
poetrywise it's still a bust, bankrupt.
You haven't scribbled a syllable of it.
You're a nowhere man misfiring
the very essence of your life, flustering
nothing from nothing and back again.
The hereafter may not last all that long.
Radiant childhood sweetheart,
secret code of everlasting joy and sorrow,
fanciful pen strokes beneath the eyelids:
all day, all night meditation, knot of hope,
kernel of desire, pure ordinariness of life
seeking, through poetry, a benediction
or a bed to lie down on, to connect, reveal,
explore, to imbue meaning on the day's extravagant labor.
And yet it's cruel to expect too much.
It's a rare species of bird
that refuses to be categorized.
Its song is barely audible.
It is like a dragonfly in a dream--
here, then there, then here again,
low-flying amber-wing darting upward
then out of sight.
And the dream has a pain in its heart
the wonders of which are manifold,
or so the story is told.

And this one, from The Paris Review (Summer 2006, #177):

The Old Soldiers
When I came out of my study, Ginny was standing there with
wet hair. “Are you going to town today?” she asked me. “I wasn’t
planning on it,” I said. “Oh, never mind,” she said. “What is it?”
I said. “I need some stuff for my allergies, but I can get it
tomorrow,” she said. “No, I can go. It’s no big deal. Just make
me a list,” I said. Ginny had to be at a planning session for the
League of Women Voters. I went back to my study to line up
several dozen lead soldiers on my desk. They were expensive antique
specimens I had saved since childhood. When I had them all lined up
the way I wanted them, I knocked them all down. Ginny shouted, “Are
you alright?” “It’s nothing, just a small accident,” I shouted back.
She said goodbye and left me the list on the counter. I made myself
a bologna sandwich and sat staring at the list. It all sounded like
stuff that could kill you. But if it could also stop your nose from
dripping and your eyes from running, then good. I walked back and
stood at the door to my study: all dead. Then I put on my jacket
and drove into town, which was crowded and bustling for some reason.
I found my secret parking space at back of the deli. In the drugstore
I roamed the aisles until I found the section devoted to allergies.
There seemed to be hundreds of products making great claims, all with
dire warnings: dizziness, fainting, nausea, etcetera. I felt myself
getting sick just standing there. Finally I found everything Ginny
needed. It was really quite expensive. It wiped out all the cash
I had. When I stepped outside, I saw a mob had gathered in the park.
I asked a woman standing next to me, “What’s going on?” “They’re
protesting,” she said. “Protesting what?” I said. “Just protesting.
You don’t need to have a special cause anymore. In fact that’s now
thought to be kind of quaint and old-fashioned. I do think it’s an
improvement, don’t you?” she said. “I always miss the old ways, until
they come back to haunt you,” I said. She moved away from me, as if
from a bad aroma. The police were moving in on the mob, nightsticks
at the ready. I heard one of them say, “What is this about?” The other
one answered, “Spoiled brats don’t know what to do with their Saturdays.”
Finally I made it to my car behind the deli, and it had a ticket on
it. This made me sad. There had been a flaw in my otherwise perfect
mission. I drove home and lined up the medicines on the counter.
I hoped Ginny wouldn’t faint and throw up, fall down the steps, and
crack her head open. I walked into my study and the first thing
I noticed was that all the soldiers were standing up. I was
certain I had knocked them down. Ginny had left the house. No
one was here but me. I didn’t like thinking of the possibilities.
Nonetheless, I walked from room to room, slowly, quietly, glancing
at every item carefully. Everything seemed to be normal, undisturbed,
leaving only the uprighted soldiers unexplained. I could just be
losing my mind. That was a simple explanation. Yes, that was it.
Unless the soldiers righted themselves. They are old and have experienced
thousands of battles. Maybe they’ve learned a thing or two. I
entered my study and sat down at my desk. With a sweeping gesture
I knocked them all against the wall, breaking several bayonets
and a leg or two. I sat there solemnly contemplating my deed.
Ginny wouldn’t be home for three hours. That seemed like a very
long time. I went into the living room and waited for them to regroup.
I had a feeling this was going to be a fight to the death, but still
I was surprisingly calm.

In closing, a little irreverence never hurts; in fact, it often helps:

Goodtime Jesus
Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau-
tiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little
ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

~~ Rest in Peace James Tate ~~


~ More Chariton Photos from Jay Beets ~
Looking North, August 2015

Shadows on the Chariton, August 2015

A Rocky Patch, May 2015

A Somewhat Bleaker Chariton, March 2015

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, September 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

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