An early autumn evening

Stilness of an early autumn evening is predatory,

Disguised inside small pockets of dozy, warm air,

Waiting.

For the first frost at dawn,

As fine as the fresh gauze over a new wound.

Barely touching.

But covering.

Before the rains expose the earth anew.

And there were some rains this year already.

Opening river banks and washing small settlements away.

Peoples and dogs swimming for each other.

And before that there was a summer without warmth.

It never arrived.

When my daughter returned from her travels abroad.

Where ‘abroad’ names any place outside our floating islands.

Otherwise you could say that she went to visit home country outside of which lays ‘abroad’.

It all depends on the name you give to horizon you see while standing with both feet planted in the soil.

We can only ever see one.

Unless you are a character in Murakami’s novels. Two moons might be handy.

It would certainly explain a lot.

Anyway, it was a slow summer and I was teaching myself to write poetry.

What a mess!

Silences stretched across summer nights like the elaborate tablecloths my dead grandmother made from the thin white cotton she called ‘konac’. They were heavy.

She would lay them across our wooden table to fully show their opulence.

While all I learned is that poetry is like a fickle lover; it tempts, it seduces, it intoxicates,

Only to turn away without a warning,

Or a word of comfort,

Or a word of hope.

And still one waits.

And hopes.

And loves.

Poetry.

In our times, they are serious people (and seriously trained for number of years) whose job is to name such state of affairs. They come up with such names as ‘psychosis’ or ‘disorder’. It helps rest of the population cope.

But I did learn other things too.

For instance – a man to whom I wrote a poem some four or so years ago invited me out.

He still remembers it.

I do too.

The poem.

Not him.

The trouble with people in poems is they take it for real.

Poetry is not real! No more than our souls and our hearts!

Otherwise what would be the point – you can hug your knees – they are real enough!

Still, I listen while my daughter talks.

She carefully pronounces names of streets in Zagreb she visited, people she spoke with, dishes she tasted.

She watches me carefully waiting for recognition.

I have none to offer.

The trouble with exiles is that everyone wants them romantic.

They are not.

Your memory makes a fool of you.

There is no square you swear on your mother’s grave was there once complete with flower sellers and an old man playing accordion in all weathers.

Your words desert you.

You say not what you want but what you can.

No language would have you.

And that surely is a death of any poet;

True or Imposter alike. 

Under the Pale Winter Sky

Sitting by a window in a shelter of an unnamed winter evening,

I solicit words.

But they are slow in coming.

Writing, like love, cannot survive neglect.

Absence maybe.

But not neglect,

Deliberate act of abandonment.

Lovers who hide from love in pain or fear, soon

See it perish.

As do writers who hide from words.

Shrivel and wilt, scorched by salts of sorrow.

 

And so I think I should sit here,

Until I have enough

Words to describe

Slow hum of town living below my balcony,

Brilliant colours of geranium’s flowers spilling from terracotta pots nestled against the rusty balustrade,

Smell of sea mist dissolving over dove coloured hills,

Shapes of travelling clouds touched on the edges by a rose brush,

Sound black and white can makes when passing softly under a naked tree,

Taste of loneliness.

 

I might be waiting for a long time,

A day, or

A lifetime.

 

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Winter Vignette

Autumn descended into winter since I last wrote.

There is a still certain light in the evenings of May and June,

Like a dusty hurricane lamp hanging haphazardly over an empty porch,

Thrown by the winds this way and that,

Until the last of scattered leaves departs,

And air stiffens with cold and silence,

Winter.

You might dream of home;

Hot soup bubbling on the stove,

Smell of thyme and onion and melting candlewax,

Old dog lying in front of the fire-place,

Pine logs sizzling.

You might hear your mother calling you to supper,

Cutting wedges from round bread she baked at the crack of dawn,

Scratching frost from the kitchen window with her fingers, and

Blowing gently into the mouth of an ancient stove stacked neatly,

With newspapers and dray wood shavings.

Until you can no longer bear any of it;

Then, like me, you walk downtown;

Into alleyways where certain establishments let you stay, and

Mix with stage-folk,

Until they make you laugh, and

You forget all of it;

Cold of winter,

Your mother and

The last bastard that broke your heart.

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Prayer

Earlier today I sat down to write a story.

Or a poem.

Sun was high across cornflower blue sky.

And then I waited for a long time.

But no words came.

Virginally white page offered no relief.

Without familiar flood of words to break her loftiness, it just glared at me stiff and unforgiving.

Ogling the debris of pain and loss and grief, swelling

In me,

Mute,

Unsayable.

mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.

Poet

It is the last day of February and I cannot let it pass without thinking (and for me thinking means writing) about Philip Levine who died on 14th day of this month.

I only came across his poems three years ago and entirely by chance. Being new to a language means been new to its poets too. And, unlike anywhere else, in language ‘newness ‘is not measured by mere passage of time. As it takes a lifetime.

What Work Is’ arrested me with power of recognition. I wrote to my daughter about it when I wished to tell her about work.

I remember reading and re-reading the poem in disbelief such poems are still written somewhere. By someone. It was imperative for me to find out who wrote it. I only felt that way when I was very young and reading poems of Tina Ujevic’s in my native language and many years later those of Charles Bukowski in English

I decided to find out as much as I could about Philip Levine.  What I learned made me understand why his poems resonate with me so deeply.

He worked in factories and knew the drudgery of manual labour, camaraderie of working class, bleakness of dawns after the grave-yard shifts, sweat that glues your shirt to your back until you peel it off in the evening.

When I was 15 I needed a job and found one at the local rubber factory. It was summer and girls that worked next to me on the production line making gloves and condoms would take their factory-issued shoes off at the end of the shift to walk home barefooted across meadows fresh with dewy. It helped bleeding blisters.

I was told I could do better. I was young enough to believe it. Even though nobody knew what the ‘better’ is. What it looks like. What it feels like. I set to find out. For years. Before the age of 30 I acquired some degrees and what was described as an important job. I was still years away from the critical discovery that there is no such thing as an ‘important job’. Because that which is important is not a job. It is your life and what you meant to be doing with it. If you dare.  Philip Levine did.

When I first landed on these remote islands I now call mine, I also needed a job. Badly. As you do if all you have is a baby and nothing else. Not even language. I found one in the local Plywood Mill factory. And I was happy. We laughed a lot. And sang around 3 a.m. to stay awake. I learned why Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ is an important song and Maori word for honour – mana.

And once again I embarked on ‘bettering myself’. Learned English. Got me one more degree. And an office job. It was said I did well. But ‘well’ did not have colour or vibrancy or smell. ‘Well’ felt fake.

Philip Levine stayed true to his blue-collar origins of which he once said: ‘I believed that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.’  His honour intact.

In his youth he was an amateur boxer and learned how to rebuild the universal joint of a car’s powertrain. He started reading poetry as a teenager while working at auto factories, soap and bottling plants; ‘You do the work, and you don’t whine’ is what he said about those years.

He graduated from University in 1950s and began to frequent the Iowa Writers’ workshops often only sitting in on classes because he could not afford the tuition. In later years Philip Levine became protégé of the poet John Berryman and began teaching at one of the working-class universities that he much preferred to Ivy League ones. I recently read somewhere his observation of Ivy Leaguers who ‘were shocked to learn that their poems were no good.’

Philip Levine’s first book was published in 1960s and he became one of the America’s most honoured poets. He won the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards before serving as poet laureate in 2011 and 2012.

Nevertheless there were of course those who criticized sharply his ‘prosaic, non-lyrical style’. Unsurprisingly they are mostly from Ivy Leaguers ranks.

Above all Philip Levine’s was a poet of human conditions. He wrote about and for people, unimpressed by lofty, self-centred poetry and uninterested in writing about nature. He once observed; ‘Hiking was what we did in Detroit when the car broke down.’

In 1994, incidentally the same year my daughter was born, he won Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Simple Truth’.

Salute for the poet.

 

The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,

took them home, boiled them in their jackets and ate them for

dinner with a little butter and salt.

Then I walked through the dried fields on the edge of town.

In middle June the light hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,

and in the mountain oaks overhead

the birds were gathering for the night,

the jays and mockers squawking back and forth,

the finches still darting into the dusty light.

The woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland;

she was someone out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses

praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables

at the road-side stand and

urging me to taste even the pale,

raw sweet corn trucked all the way, she swore, from New Jersey.

“Eat, eat” she said, “Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”

Some things you know all your life.

They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance,

meter and rhyme,

they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,

the glass of water,

the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames,

they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965 before I went away,

before he began to kill himself, and the two of us

to betray our love.

Can you taste what I’m saying?

It is onions or potatoes,

a pinch of simple salt,

the wealth of melting butter,

it is obvious,

it stays in the back of your throat like a truth you never uttered

because the time was always wrong,

it stays there for the rest of your life,

unspoken,

made of that dirt we call earth,

the metal we call salt,

in a form we have no words for, and

you live on it.

 

 

Farewell to summer

Rain surprised me on my way home yesterday.

Sky darkened, like someone quietly dimmed the lights in the brightly lit music hall.

Downpour opened quite suddenly. An urgent symphony.

Large droplets landing in their thousands, still warm and fragrant but no longer of the kind that makes you want to dance and laugh and kiss under. Rather to seek shelter.

In the houses dotted on the side of the uphill road I took, people were closing shutters on their windows.  Picking up washings left to dry outside. Hurrying their children inside.

The last storm of summer.

Some dawns will still arrive bursting with promise of brilliant sunshine. And some afternoons will still unfold mellow with warmth.

Their brevity only equal to their beauty.

I did not hurry.

I wished for the smell of dampened earth and flowers and grass to permeate my nostrils, my skin, my eye sockets, curious tubes inside my ears, cavity of my mouth.

To lie into the embrace of a moist and heavy garden, lulled into sleep by whispers, sashaying of leaves, caresses of gentle breeze,

My hair tangled with petals and smeared with blood of small insects.

Before I reached home, evening tiptoed in and air stiffened with cold.

That night I dreamed of running under the summer skies of my youth.

 

summer lost