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. 

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.

 

 

Dancing at the end of Summer

Remember how it rains at the beginning of summer?

Big, warm, playful droplets washing over your eyelids, disappearing inside crevices of your smile which you cannot keep still just like you cannot keep still your limbs almost dancing with joy from promise of a long, golden summer.

Cicadas serenading relentlessly inside the overgrown bushes of your garden. Nights of velvet and honey.

The best nights to read Pablo Neruda and drink overly sweet wines until orangy dawn spread sleep over casually thrown words.

Slowly some afternoons grow too immense; overripe and heavy. Dull from heat.

Young girl of early summer dancing her shiny, new shoes through long, fragrant evenings and bright sparkly mornings, with each step closer to the matronly lady in a maroon coloured taffeta dress.

It was one such afternoon when I walked with crowds gathered at one of our local festivals. For a small capital, Wellington offers surprisingly diverse assortment of events. That is especially true for Newtown’s festival, a suburb I once lived in before discovery of ‘Writer’s Den’ which is nestled nearby Botanic Garden and moved into space fit for one only.

It is said that in Newtown you walk with the World; from Africa to Europe to Middle East to Asia, they are all represented on the streets of Newtown. The festival is held every year to celebrate this fantastic medley of cousins, languages, and music. Ethiopian ‘Doro Wot’ next to Hungarian ‘Chimney Cakes’. Chinese Dragon Dancers next to Balkan Brass Bend.

And it was to the beat of those Balkan Gypsy drums that I come undone. They still send shivers down my spine even though some time has passed since I heard them for the first time on a cold, wintry night in one of those establishments frequented only by certain type of drunk and lonely.

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Photo – courtesy of Rachael Ivory

The beat was as surprising as haunting … long, slow cry of trumpet pierced by clear longing voice. Singing the words and melodies I recognized. They ambushed me unprepared on the dusty village road from times now long referred to only as ‘my life before.’ ‘Before’ remaining undefined.

Later I learned that ‘Niko Ne Zna, Renegade Brass Bandits’ are New Zealand Balkan Gypsy Brass Band, formed in Wellington some six or so years ago! The wonders and surprises of little capital!

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Photo – courtesy of Rachael Ivory

But that late-summer afternoon in Newtown my feet started to move to the beat of gypsy drums and there was nothing I could do to keep them still or in shoes … so I danced barefooted on the street, for all I am worth! Eyes closed so to see one long silvery river slicing through the ancient lands of Balkan where dogs of rage and dogs of sorrows never sleep.

Later they put one of their CD’s into my hand and told me I won the street dancing competition. I out- danced all others.

Niko ne zna

Only I did not. I only out-danced the young girl who once danced barefooted on the roads long abandoned. Her long, black hair flying behind her like a flag. Flag of a barefooted gypsy countess.

On my way back to ‘Writer’s Den’ I took the usual path, the one I love best as it leads through the old Jewish cemetery which stops the city and then winds up through the Botanic Garden.

Path

At the beginning of summer I found small opening in the Garden’s long wooden fence and call it my ‘Secret Entrance.’ I fancy it as my own.

Somebody placed old-fashioned lamps behind my favourite bench.

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I sat there for a while.

Shadows grew longer.

Then wind picked up from the ocean. There was chill and mist in it.

One cold droplet landed on my eyelid.

It might have been a tear.

At the end of summer.

Return

 

Almost two months have passed since the Lantern was last ignited. Once bright glow paled into flicker; lone, distant star in the vast darkness of southern summer sky. Only enough light to guide its keeper to return.

Lanterns

To return to words under the Lantern’s soft gleam, the keepers only home.

And as everyone knows, when weary wanderers return home, stories are told of what has come to pass.

This is one such story;

 

The Immigrant’s Love Song 

 

Let us not speak about love,

we each first learned of in different words.

 

Let me tell you instead why I search for the bluest shade of blue in your eyes,

in this sacred hour of night while milky summer sky cradles me into dawn, and

lonely rivers of time rush silently by my window.

 

To glance into depth of one distant sea you have never seen,

where small waves break over the rocky shores and

air smells like pines and oleanders after the first rain.

 

Oh how it rains on those islands!

Big, warm, droplets dancing in narrow, cobbled streets, and

washings our mothers hung getting drenched,

small children giggling in puddles.

 

Let us not speak about love,

we each first cried for in shades of different autumns.

 

Let me tell you instead why I search for a shelter in your arms,

in this tender hour of dusk, while first flame of orange ignites the sky,

and lone sparrow flies by.

 

To hide from nameless graves hidden in birch forests,

to wash away all the tears, and all the sorrows,

to dry tiny droplets of blood sparkling in the early snow,

jewels of burned thresholds.

 

Let us not speak about love,

we each first knew joy from, in colours of different spring.

 

Let me touch your face instead, even if just for a moment,

trace my fingers gently across your lips,

breathless with desire, and

whisper into your ear secret words of an old tongue,

to awaken the magic,

so that I could lie down next to you, and

become the light of home,

as pure and as innocent as

a tear from a child’s eye.

 

Tear

Dancing in Odessa

Ilya Kaminsky is one of those poets whose heart sings in his poems. And that is of course a wondrous irony, as Ilya lost most of his hearing at the age of four due to misdiagnosis.

ilyakaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky, Credit: Wikipedia

He was born in 1977 and grew up in Odessa; ‘A city famous for its drunk tailors, huge gravestones of rabbis, horse owners and horse thieves, and most of all, for its stuffed and baked fish.’

In 1993 his family was granted political asylum by the United States and settled in Rochester. At the time he spoke no English and continued to write in Russian while learning English. ‘Traveling Musicians’ (2007) is a selection of his poems originally written in Russian.

Following his father’s death in 1994, Ilya began to write poems in English. In an interview he explained; ‘I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it – no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.’

As someone who had to choose English, since no one around me spoke Croatian, those lines resonate strongly with me. Journey into another language, especially one very different in sound, syntax and structure to the one with which we first made ourselves heard, is a journey into one’s secret realm of being, the very core of existence. Whether we cherish words as admirers of literature and poetry, or simply use them in our day to day exchanges never giving them any other considerations; as humans we depend on them to confirm our presence. It is for that reason that all of those who toil on that journey found themselves profoundly changed by it.

In 2002 Ilya Kaminsky’s first poetry collection ‘Musica Humana’ was published. Only two years later, in 2004, second poetry collection; ‘Dancing in Odessa’ followed, winning number of significant awards. Ilya’s new manuscript; ‘Deaf Republic’ won the Pushcart Prize, and his poems have been translated into numerous languages. He is currently teaching at San Diego State University.

While it is quite true that I love almost all of Ilya’s poems, the one below I is very special to me.

Dancing in Odessa

In a city ruled jointly by doves and crows, doves covered the main

district, and crows the market. A deaf boy counted how many birds there

were in his neighbour’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialled

the number and confessed his love to the voice on the line.

My secret; at the age of four I become deaf. When I lost my hearing,

I began to see voices. On a crowded trolley, a one-armed man said that my

life wold be mysteriously linked to the history of my country. Yet my

country cannot be found, its citizens meet in a dream to conduct elections.

he did not describe their faces, only a few names: Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad.

Sitting at a window

Let me sit here at the window,

In the quiet colours of dusk,

Pale shadows of the day end,

To think of the year gone since last I wrote a birthday post,

And of today’s shiny colours wasting into sunset.

 

Let me send a wish to one distant, wandering star;

For a little memory of our orchard at the end of summer,

Glistening with ripen plums, and

For a little memory of true love,

Before the day’s end.

 

plums

 

With so many words only

The challenge was to write a story with 150 words only including the title. Below is what I have written.

At the Doctor

‘Please sit down. How have you been?’

He is young, and is wearing a pacifying smile.

‘My chest hurts. It rattles each night like an empty coffin. There is nothing in it. I try to fill it with poetry and flowers but it will not have it. I need something to fill it in.’

‘Are you taking your medications every day like we agreed?’

He is leaning forward now, trying for an eye contact.

‘I am already dead. I know that because my mother planted pink and white roses on the small patch of dirt under an old walnut tree in our garden. The tree was there before the war and my brother and I used to play under it. A sniper took him down outside the bakery on our street. He was running in front of me. I never stopped.’

‘We will need some more tests.’

 

Roses