On Talk of Happiness

Soon, very soon, the follow-up to Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji will be released by S4N Books.  A lot has happened since I started writing these little songs almost ten years ago, when the aim, like I understand the aim of all meditation and prayer, was to right myself each day.  The poems were an opportunity to listen, and, I hope, more than an account of a listening, they are also an opportunity for the reader to listen, too.  Poetry, like this, shares DNA with mandalas, those Hindu and Buddhist symbols meant to represent the all of everything.  As a book and as a practice, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is successful, I think, because, even now, when I look back at those pages, I am pleased with and proud of the results.  Of course, no poet can return to the state of mind which brought a book into existence.  Neither is it desirable.  Whatever state of mind brought Little Songs into the light was addressed and resolved the minute the final eye was dotted, the final tee crossed.  So while Talk of Happiness begins where LS&LTG leaves off and the two books share a number of preoccupations, the hope of the books couldn’t be more different and so, too, then, the effects.

If LS&LTG is a monument to a certain kind of, albeit humble, success, the poems in Talk of Happiness document failure.  Here I sought not to right myself each day, but rather to test whether poetry could alter my circumstances.  I wanted to know if poetry could make me happy.  When I read a number of these poems at a reading, shortly after their composition, a colleague asked during the question and answer portion, whether the experiment worked.  Are you happier? she asked.  I had to admit, no, it had not worked, I was not happier, and the room laughed, uncomfortably, I guess because of the ironies implicit and explicit in my answer.  But, I added, the experience taught me to look at my circumstances with a certain equanimity.  I suppose I had the stoics in mind, and, if I could conjure a particular image of the lesson, it would be the Wheel of Fortune.  The safest place on that wheel is the hub.  The poems, then, centered me, rather than righted me, is what I concluded then, though I doubt this conclusion now.

I wrote the bulk of these poems over the course of three years.  Again, like with LS&LTG I dedicated myself to writing, at least, one poem a day, though frequently I wrote three or four or more a day, revising–sometimes radically–as I went along.  The notebooks I kept during that time are filled with quickly scribbled compositions, abandoned drafts, and printouts taped into the pages.  I even added to my process, the practice of recording my voice reading the poems, so I could listen to the poems and, thereby, determine which draft best represented the actual utterance as I’d conceived it.  Over the course of one major snowstorm, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 little songs.  Not all of these have made it into the final manuscript.  And certainly, many of the poems as poems were failures.  Even in a book ultimately dedicated to falling short, the poems inside must achieve a certain level of success as poems.

The book is organized chronologically, like most of my books; however, there is one difference.  While it may seem that the poems move, like we assume time does, in a linear fashion, actually the sequence is cyclical.  Each section (there are four of them) is numbered I-IV and titled like so: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. But within these sections, the poems are arranged by date of composition without any consideration for the year of composition.  The effect or the argument, then, concerns the cyclical nature, not only of time but of moods and weathers.  The book, therefore, can be read in any number of ways, that is, from first page to last, but also from the last section through the first and on.  One might even dip in as one pleases.  Or find the season you’re in, and intuit which poem best suggests the complement.  The poems aren’t a calendar, but more like a series of landscapes and still-lives arranged to mirror what a window frames.

Like with most sonnet sequences, read them chronologically and a narrative emerges.  With Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, you can perhaps just make out the silhouette of the story, not just of my spiritual coming into being, but also of my first marriage, several important losses, including the death of a good friend, mentor and fellow poet, and a hasty and ill-conceived conversion to Christianity (specifically, I became a member of the Episcopal Church).  Perhaps it’s best to think of Talk of Happiness, if the narrative behind the poems concerns anyone at all, as the unraveling of what Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji attempted to knot.  It is first and foremost, now that I read it with some distance, a documentation of my first marriage falling apart and the several storms, both literal and figurative, that seemed to come to destroy it.  Secondly, the book is a document of my shifting perspective on the divinity and poetry’s place in all that.  TOH, finally, is the story of all kinds of love failing, and my attempt to recover that love and, failing that, make some peace with the loss.

The last difference between TOH and LS&LTG is the absence of my erstwhile imaginary friend, Genji.  It’s not that communications with Genji dried up.  There are, indeed, two more cycles of Genji poems, “To an Imaginary Friend” and “Genji in Paradise,” but I thought it best to leave those for a future volume.  Maybe I’ll call it All of Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji.

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Reading Friday, November 10th

I’ll be reading this coming Friday, November 10th at 7 PM at the BJ Spoke Gallery, 299 Main Street, Huntington, NY 11743.  I’ll have plenty of copies of Small Fires, Little Flames for sale, and I’ll sign them.  If you already have a copy, bring it along and I’ll sign that, too.

And if you miss this one, you can always catch me at the end of the month, Sunday, November 26th at the Blue Duck Bakery.

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Small Fires, Little Flames Is Available!

Small Fires, Little Flames is available.  If you’ve ordered or pre-ordered a copy, it should ship to you soon.  If you haven’t ordered a copy, please, please, do so now.  You won’t regret it.  If the poems inside don’t move you, the cover art–created by my Max Stablein, artist extraordinaire–will.

Get it on Amazon, with free shipping to Prime members, or from Finishing Line directly.

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Names I Almost Recognize: Montreal, Plateau Mont Royal

One of the errors espoused by contemporary Americans includes the idea that age is just a number, as if time were a psychological, even a spiritual, rather than a physical reality.  But our bodies do age, and time is in our flesh.  The earth revolves around the sun.  Our hair leaps away from our heads.  Our skin sags where before it was drum-tight.  We were once more elastic not only of mind but of body and spirit.  The organ anatomists call the heart and the spiritual organ the rest of us call the heart aren’t composed of two separate substances.  They are one.  One’s pulse quickens the other’s.
from a discarded post called “On Turning Forty” started and abandoned 12/22/2012

*

Like that I was no poet
But what a poet says,
His images: forgetting
The still calm voice
For creation with all
Its faults and flaws

The dark, the light, & in between—
It’s all the soul:
My daughter’s head,
The dirty lot,
Strangers with their strange perfumes,
Names I almost recognize.

*

*

Rue Boyer, Plateau Mont Royale, Monteral, by Max Stablein

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From a Discarded Post II

“So what is the divine?  First, it is in us and not outside of us.  All searching for the divine out there leads to dead ends, unless that searching corresponds to some inner searching.  There are many, many scapes and motions, which correspond perfectly to the appropriate inner conditions from which the divine springs.  However, one might come to find equal success and never step over the threshold of his house into the outer world.  Second, it comes into being and, when we go, it goes.  The divine, to be divine, must be rare and fragile.  Its strength isn’t bodily strength.  Its weakness isn’t bodily weakness.  The most decrepit hermit might be the most spiritually fit, and so may be the child, who dies of some mysterious illness.  Third, it only comes into being by being courted or because of sudden or prolonged trauma.  It is more likely that this divinity comes into being as the result of a combination of circumstances, both inner and outer, and that is why it is so difficult to identify.”
–from a discarded post called “What Is Divinity?” started 11/19/2010

“A Visit,” by Max Stablein

*

That Our Homes Are Images of Our Souls

It’s not true the soul can’t see herself.
On my walks, I count her magnificences:
New siding on the Brodys’ place,
their new pool, and the other neighbors, too,
like Greg, hospitalized but recovering, hopefully,
and his flagpole whose tock tock tock
we can hear two houses down on windy nights.

Mine isn’t a cabin in the woods, the way
I’d wish, but there’s a small garden out front
I barely have the time to tend, not with four children,
six cats, a dog and an ex-wife.  But then,
there’s Shannon.  She makes me forget
the cedar shakes torn away by weather and that dumb
dog.  When she stands out in the side-yard
hanging laundry, the wind bullies her skirt.
And it kills me when, making love, either of us
calls out to the only god we still believe in.

*

This poem is a response to something I read a few weeks ago.  I think it was a line in a John Koethe poem, which I liked very much, but the idea about the soul not finding her image in the world anymore stuck in my throat.  I guess my discomfort relates back to the paragraph above which comes from a years-old post about the divine.  My new book, Small Fires, Little Flames, I understand now, is an attempt to reconcile myself with what might be called the “still small voice.”  It’s a good book, I’m proud of it, and I hope those who read it find something of value in it, but what good is a divinity like that, who advises only?  I reject such a limited capacity for the soul.  Of course, what I’m saying here is difficult to say, to tease out, to define, so forgive me.  But what I’ve been thinking lately is that the soul isn’t so rare a thing only a poet or a prophet can find her.  She is everywhere and everything–even that which we’d disavow.  So while the soul is the sumac an hour before dusk, so, too, is she even the ugliest of Trump’s muggings.  If these things aren’t the soul, they are at least her reflections.  We read her messages or ignore them at our peril.

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From a Discarded Post

“A poet’s first preoccupation has to be with love.  Where ordinary men and women–I don’t mean ordinary in any pejorative sense, but rather in its Latin sense–can afford to submit their lives to chance and do, mostly, fairly well as far as these things go; poets on the other hand, probably from some temperamental urge to meddle, must attempt to draw up to consciousness love’s subtleties.  Yeats’ poem ‘Adam’s Curse’ addresses what the noisy set, those whom the martyrs call the world, think of a poet’s curiosity, and still, he says, when things get difficult, for whom do they reach?  If poetry seems irrelevant to many people, it is because either 1) it asks questions no one wants the answers to, or 2) it doesn’t provide the answers ordinary people need, when they need.  My fear is that more often than not, the latter is the truer of these two causes.”
–from a discarded post called “On Love,” created 08/17/2013

*

Shannon and I are rereading Love in a Time of Cholera.  The only time we have for doing this is when we take trips in the car, running here or there: to the grocery store, to the fair, home from the fair in the dark, when the children are asleep in their car-seats.  She does the reading, and I like hearing her voice articulate the lives and loves of these characters, especially because, we think, that could’ve been us.  We don’t think this in any overly romantic sense.  We just know that not all loves are equal, and that our fates can get confused, thwarted, and so luck plays a greater part in our coming together than we like to admit.  We are lucky, incredibly lucky, and every day is a chance to be reminded of that fact.

“Two Versions of the Same Creature,” Max Stablein

*

I cannot disavow what I don’t understand
Even if it slips right through my hands
A fish I caught in grade school quickens and
Is gone, is going still, is everything
I’ve loved and lost and paraphrased

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This Is Just a Place

for Steve, in memoriam

After you divorced, ten years passed before
We saw each other and,
By that time, ruin found me too
I can’t begin to tell the story

It doesn’t matter now.  Let it suffice
That we were friends
And no one makes friends, thinking:
Someday I’ll watch him go

You left me one last message
Which I haven’t listened to
Save it, some quiet voice tells me,
The one I used to confuse for God’s

“Hows Your Meal,” A Max Stablein Joint

*

After publishing the last post a few days ago, Shannon and I talked about the appropriateness of this particular revision.  Stevens, after the publication of Harmonium and the birth of his daughter, Holly, took a ten-year long hiatus before returning to poetry.  That ten years of silence was as necessary as any writing that had preceded it.  I’ve said on many occasions that I don’t believe in writer’s block.  I believe in the writing process, and a necessary step in that process is silence.  Not all silences are the same.  There is the one after a sudden shock or blow.  There is the pause that comes between thoughts.  There is the silence of having emptied a thing, a room, a house, a neighborhood, a life.  Can you imagine Stevens fretting about writer’s block?  No, if there is something to say, then say it.  If there isn’t, then shut up.  And if your life is taken up with the joys and despairs of living, then, well, what is there to say about that?

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