3 Books of Poetry to Change Your World
I've been reading Patrizia Cavalli's book translated from the Italian, My Poems Won't Change the World for a couple of years now. (Which is how poetry is best read, through time, repetitively, learning something new with each reading).
You can just hear the weight and the lightness, the drollness and the dryness, the seriousness and mock-seriousness in the following:
Someone told me
of course my poems
won't change the world.
I say yes of course
won't change the world.
There are many ways to go on (not) changing the world, and the poems are a witness to beauty; they win the reader over merely by existing.
O stay where you are! Here
in the uncertain hour of a late afternoon
looking outward and looking in
I see this beauty
all I see is beauty.
Something that convinces, asks to be seen,
though it does nothing, just stays where it is,
and merely by existing wins me over.
In another poem, the speaker declares, "How sweet it was yesterday imagining I was a tree!" and notes, "I was neither joy nor torment to myself." There is a sort of brilliantly lazy mood, if that makes sense, running through the poems, a raised eyebrow. The poems are uttered as if the poet is just about to walk away from the listener with a shrug. They are most often short, which I think is a feat unto itself. Cavalli manages to make a grand sweeping gesture but condense it in five lines:
How life tries! It knows
it must end, it's condemned,
and even in dying it tries.
Even diminished, there it is, it persists,
playing its part, playing at life.
The Brazilian poet, Adelia Prado has been on my radar for a while – she received The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry’s Lifetime Recognition Award in 2014. But it was when I read this article in Image magazine that I ordered her selected poems, The Mystical Rose. There's something about an author who steadfastly refuses to speak about herself that appeals to me.
Her poems are spiritual, transcendent, yes, but they are also about ordinary days and occurrences. When she was discovered by the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade when she was nearly 40, he said that "St. Francis was dictating verses to a housewife in the provincial backwater of Minas Gerais."
In "Guide" Prado begins, "Poetry will save me." She goes on, "I feel uneasy saying this, since only Jesus / is Saviour..." But, "Nevertheless, I repeat: Poetry will save me." The poems ends, "What is poetry, if not His face touched / by the brutality of things?"
In "The Alphabet in the Park" Prado gets right to the heart of life:
I know how to write.
I write letters, shopping lists,
school compositions about the lovely walk
to Grandmother's farm which never existed
because she was poor as Job.
But I write inexplicable things too:
I want to be happy, that's yellow.
And I'm not, that's pain.
Get away from me sadness, stammering bell,
people saying between sobs:
"I can't take it any more."
Later in the poem she says, "There's no way not to think about death, / among so much deliciousness, and want to be eternal. I'm happy and I'm sad, half and half." Which is so often how it is.
She writes about poetry in a way that most writers will relate to. When it leaves us, everything leaves.
Once in a while God takes poetry away from me.
I look at a stone, I see a stone.
The world, so full of departments,
is not a pretty ball flying free in space.
I feel ugly, gazing in mirrors to try to provoke them,
thrashing the brush through my hair,
susceptible to believing in omens.
I become a terrible Christian.
In the introduction to the poems, the translator, Ellen Doré Watson asks Prado about her way of writing and Prado responds, "Who am I to organize the flight of the poem?" Watson remarks: "She sees poetry as open territory, open arms that refuse nothing. Each poem, then, is allowed to live its individual and multiple life without setting out to prove a point, provide a final solution, or better the previous one."
The third book I'd like to talk about is titled Visiting Night at the Academy of Longing by American poet, Kate Farrell. Well, tbh, she had me at the title, which I think is gorgeous and poetic and speaks volumes. These are very often thick, long poems, meaty and fine. They're both philosophical and conversational.
In "The Instructions" she begins:
PLEASE NOTE that the instructions are
encoded in the world around us (peonies out
back laying down their lives for us, the laurel in
front lifting its millions of cups) all intricately
correlated with every nuance of our fluctuating
situations, apart and together – and thus in easy
reach where you go....
We all have the instructions for life, which can often be best read, or understood, when we are in the presence of death. And as in life, there are deaths in these poems. How many of us haven't lost someone we loved? In "The Ticket," Farrell pulls no punches, "One day a few months after / my husband's suicide, I was on my way to pick up the kids / at nursery school when a cop / pulled me over for doing 40 / in a 25." What follows is tears, and the reader breaks down, too, at the cop's dressing down which begins, "did you happen to notice..."
I've experienced something similar to what Farrell talks about in "Dying Before Spring."
The summer after she died, I went to
Europe for the first time and found her in
paintings, moving easily between landscapes
houses, centuries, situations. She would
sit beside a river,
open a book, turn to say
something in turbulent blue weather; the face
at the supper, the servant with a dish, the girl
lost in thought in a fresco one morning.
There are all sorts of hauntings in the book, not all of them bad, and really just a part of the job, the work of poetry – witnessing mystery.
One of my favourite poems in the book is the last one, maybe because it's brave enough to be so minimalist after the thicker poems preceding. It goes:
The instructions are there, too, in the scraps of light, which also follow us through life, just as we see our loved ones in paintings and frescos, or maybe in a museum crowd.
Will any of these poems change the world? Will poetry save anyone? I'm naive enough to think that, yes, it can. For I believe in the scraps of light that fall through leaves, and in the messages of peonies, and sometimes a stone which steadfastly remains a stone. I believe in the way that life persists, and in how poetry captures small slivers of beauty, even though poetry has been condemned, and even though we all are.