Ready For Their Close-Up: Two Poems

Curated by Suzanne Lummis


In the American Heritage dictionary close-up is defined as:  1.  A photograph or a film or television shot in which the subject is tightly framed and shown at a relatively large scale. 2.  An intimate view or description.   

Not Yet

by Jane Hirschfield 

Jane Hirschfield               (photo ©Jerry Bauer)Jane Hirschfield will read on SUNDAY, MARCH 23 – 2 P.M. at Central Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, Fifth and Flower Streets, Downtown Los Angeles Parking $1 with library validation.  Tickets $8 general admission, $6 for Library Associates and students 213/228-7025 or www.librarystore.org


Baghdad

by Kent Johnson

 

 

 


 

Ten, Nine, Eight . . .

Reader (assuming I have a reader), could you cast your eyes above my head and tell me exactly what nature of thing you see suspended up there?  Is it Doom, or merely Dread that hangs over me just now?  I'm hoping it's Dread only, since Doom must be a bit worse.

 

As I write, certain people going about their  tasks, making use of the daylight hours the best they can, carrying on in little shops, or in fields, or in school rooms, are likely to be dead a few days after the posting of these poems.  And American soldiers, too, at this very moment a whole coterie of them resting up after a military exercise –  I expect in two weeks or so certain members of the group will have been swept,  in the one sense that really counts, quite completely from the face of the much-beleaguered  Earth. 

 

And here in the continental U.S., some on the phone right now, or at a key boards, will shortly come to understand that the last time they saw their son or husband, daughter or wife  – will be the last time. 

 

That much seems certain.  We do not know yet whether retaliatory explosions will start going off, here and there, like tossed fire crackers.  I named my last book "In Danger" with the belief that there is no safe zone on this earth – but I wish that fate, providence, and particular holders of high office had not gone to such lengths to prove my book relevant. 

 

Poetry does not console, not quite, but I feel something next door to consolation knowing that in the face of all that is rotten certain stalwart beautiful poems endure. They stand up to The Terrible.  They take root  -- stubborn, extraordinarily difficult things to destroy.  The paper on which they appear can be burned but, unlike paintings or novels or architecture, poems themselves can be carried in the secret cache of the memory, as Anna Akhmatova's were during the years of the Stalinist scourge. 

 

Flesh and bone, cement and steel – all transitory wispy things, but the fine and fiercely wrought poem sometimes proves indestructible. 

 

And so, while I can't  guarantee I'll be here in two weeks, the fine and fiercely wrought poems I've reprinted below will.

 

There's no indication that Jane Hirschfield was thinking of war when she wrote gratefully of being held aloft and away from, just for a while, some impending fate – the fate common to us all.  So, it was not conceived as a war poem, or a peace poem, but is instead one of those we should pull out and look at once again, now, because it has lately acquired layers of sorrowing dark relevance and implication. 

 

And I recommend to you a stunning poem I pulled off Sam Hamill's www.poetsagainstthewar.org.  I had never heard of this poet, but when I came upon it I thought to myself  "well, however history remembers this campaign people won't say, as I've sometimes heard said about Viet Nam, that the war didn't give rise to any unforgettable poems."

 

His method of using a children's tale to reveal a bitter – very adult – knowledge of the world reminds me of something Philip Levine said in an undergraduate class, oh, many years back, about Elizabeth Bishop's "Visits to Saint Elizabeths".  Her account of Ezra Pound in the insane asylum borrows the accumulative pattern of "This is the House that Jack Built".  He read it aloud to us, mused a moment in the silence . . .

 "Ideas like this come to a poet maybe twice in a lifetime, or once, or never". 

 

How brilliant that Kent Johnson's poem takes off from Margaret Wise Brown's sweetly haunting children's classic "Goodbye Moon".  The little picture book was written. . . well, not in an innocent era.  Nineteen forty-seven was not by most accounts an innocent era.  Yet somehow she and the illustrator, Clement Hurd, did – in the context of the disagreeable world – find their way to a place of inviolate purity.  It's a place that seems almost another dimension of space and time, and possibility.

 

This many years later, no longer children, we might suddenly notice a  ghost of sadness behind those lines:

 

Goodnight comb, and goodnight brush,

Goodnight nobody and goodnight mush

and a quiet old lady whispering 'hush' 

 

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere.

- Suzanne Lummis


Jane Hirschfield

Not Yet

 

Morning of buttered toast;

of coffee, sweetened, with milk.

 

Out of the window,

snow-spruces step from their cobwebs.

Flurry of chickadees, feeding then gone.

A single cardinal stipples an empty branch –

one maple leaf lifted back.

 

I turn my blessings like photographs into the light;

over my shoulder the god of Not-Yet looks on:

 

Not-yet-dead, not-yet-lost, not-yet-taken.

Not-yet-shattered, not-yet-sectioned,

not-yet-strewn.

 

Ample litany, sparing nothing I hate or love,

not-yet-silenced, not-yet-fractured, not-yet-

 

Not-yet-not.

 

I move my ear a little closer to that humming figure,

I ask him only to stay.

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Kent Johnson

Baghdad

 

Oh, little crown of iron forged to likeness of imam's face,

what are you doing in this circle of flaming inspectors and bakers?

 

And little burnt dinner all set to be eaten

(and crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school),

what are you doing near this shovel for dung-digging,

hissing like ice-cubes in ruins of little museum?

 

And little shell of bank on which flakes of assets fall,

can't I still withdraw my bonds for baby?

 

Good night moon.

Good night socks and good night cuckoo clocks.

 

Good night little bedpans and a trough where once there was an inn

(urn of dashed pride),

what are you doing beside little wheelbarrow

beside some fried chickens?

 

And you, ridiculous wheels spinning on mailman's truck,

truck with ashes of letter from crispy girl all dressed with scarf for school,

why do you seem like American experimental poets going nowhere

on little exercise bikes?

 

Good night barbells and ballet dancer's shoes

under plastered ceilings of Saddam Music Hall.

 

Good night bladder of Helen Vendler and a jar from Tennessee.

(though what are these doing here in Baghdad?)

 

Good night blackened ibis and some keys.

Good night, good night.

 

(And little mosque popped open like a can, which same as factory of

flypaper has blown outward, covering the shape of man with it (with

mosque): He stumbles up Martyr's Promenade. What does it matter

who is speaking, he murmurs and mutters, head a little bit on fire.

Good night to you too.)

 

Good night moon.

Good night poor people who shall inherit the moon.

 

Good night first editions of Das Kapital, Novum Organum,

The Symbolic Affinities between Poetry Blogs and Oil Wells,

and the Koran.

 

Good night nobody.

 

Good night Mr. Kent, good night, for now you must

soon wake up and rub your eyes and know that you are dead.

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Jane Hirschfield               (photo ©Jerry Bauer)Jane Hirschfield's books include Given Sugar, Given Salt and The Lives of the Heart from which the above poem is taken. She edited the popular anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women.  The Library's "Words in the World 2003" program notes that she "brings each subject into a surprising and magnified existence, expressing the interconnection of human and natural worlds."


Kent Johnson is editor of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala), and Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Michigan). He is translator of A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua (West End Press).  With Forrest Gander, he is translator of Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz (U. of California Press, 2003), and author, with Alexandra Papaditsas, of The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek, forthcoming from Skanky Possum Press.


Ready for Their Close-Up Archive


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach