Tuesday, April 17, 2012

6-9 Crystallography, Axion Esti, Marianne Moore, and The Cake

I apologize for the whirlwind of a post, but it is quite difficult to keep up reading a book a day AND responding to each on top of all the translating and workshop work I've been doing at SFSU lately. It is thus far been worth it! Here's why:

Crystallography is probably the most inspiring book I've read so far this month in terms of form and approach to a topic as a driving force of a project or full-length book. I don't mean at all to put down any of the other items I've read as they've each brought new perspective to my thinking about writing. For example, I am still in awe of the imagery and language that Arthur Sze created and feel emotionally wrenched by the Amelia Earhart and fire circus poems. I respect those works and hope to study them further so that I can make an attempt to develop such scenes and evocative detail. But I feel more connection to Crystallography by Christian Bok for a few reasons: the book approaches a topic in full-length, dealing with language, the formation of crystals, and lucid writing from start to finish. I similarly have been writing with a single focus or moving all of my poetry toward a single cause or project lately. Second, the book is somewhat procedural, addressing crystallography through poetic interpretation of crystal formation. And alongside more lyrical and homophonic word-play there are also more visual poems defining the structures of gems by spelling out and displaying in an interlocking manner the elements of each stone. The book dives into the states of glass, geodes, amethysts, rubies, and more. If you are a collector of gemstones as I did in much of my youth, or if you enjoy thinking about literature scientifically or mathematically I recommend Crystallography for your collection. Of all the books that I've read this month, this is the one that while I was on the bus also sparked conversation. A young man interrupted my reading to ask about it. Mini-success! I convinced him to go check it out as well.

Axion Esti was written by Nobel Prize winner Odysseus Elytis, a Greek poet. Axion Esti which means "Worthy it is" ties itself to the traditions of the Bible and creation, discussing the worth of the earth in relation to man. Its first section titled "Genesis" begins in a state of chaos, and while it reflects much of the religious text, it certainly moves in a different direction which is more evident in later sections of the work when it is clearer that there is political commentary dealing with the military and struggles in Greece. The poem deals much with the idea of creation, the naming of things and how the naming allows for the thing to exist and assume an identity. In the lines: "Your commandment," he said, "is this world/ and it is written in your entrails..." "he said: Look! And my eyes sowed the seed/ racing faster than rain even/ over a thousand virgin acres" we see the power of what has been written, how man has command over the world around him by his ability to create order to the chaos, and by giving things a name so that they fit into a pattern and order. The first section submits to the question of "worth" as mentioned in the title as the character walks in awe of the world and experiences it anew in a naive bliss. It isn't until the later sections of the poem that the character deals with the terrors of the world, the man-made chaos that tears mankind and the earth apart. The sections describe soldiers and their struggle. The final section of the book combines the two perspectives, shows acceptance of the two types of "chaos" the more natural and the man-made chaos, though it doesn't define it in the way that I have just done here. The acceptance is interesting, but I have to admit the most interesting section in my opinion is the first because there is much freedom even for the reader to approach the reader with a green and virgin perspective.

At last I was able to read The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (published in 1967) though it is a misleading title because I don't believe it is actually all of her poems. Still, I very much enjoyed it. I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't actually ever studied Marianne Moore before. I had read her poem "The Fish" several times, which if you've never read, you ought to google it immediately and enjoy. Much of her writing is a glorified encyclopedia of animalia paraphernalia. She displays such a vast knowledge of mythical, exotic & common, and sea creatures. Her descriptions of creatures cultivates settings that seem so true to real nature yet I'm sure I've never imagined before, and her detailed settings bring creatures to life in fresh ways as well. I'm thinking most of the opening stanza in her poem "The Steeple-Jack":

Durer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
to look at; with the sweet sear air coming into your house
on a fine day, from water etched
with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish.

Another thing that I noticed about some of the poetry was the use of blades in relation to the animals, which may just be an obsession that I have: to keep an eye out for the natural world and creatures as weapons or defensive devices. But in "The Plumet Basilisk" we have the lines:

"...the innocent, rare, gold-
defending dragon that as you look begins to be a
nervous naked sword on little feet, with threefold
separate flame above the hilt, inhabiting

fire eating into air..."

And in "His Shield":

"...Become dinosaur-
skulled, quilled or salamander-wooled, more ironshod
and javelin-dressed than a hedgehog battalion of steel, but be

I suppose I shouldn't limit this reflection to weaponry and defensive techniques, as Marianne Moore has many unique ways of approaching, describing, and re-imagining creatures. This happens to just be one that I really enjoyed. Last I would like to mention that she has an impressive command of language and of the line. Her rhymes are eloquent and surprising, her form is extremely thoughtful and aids the content well highlighting where items need recognition and carrying music between the words.

The last book I'll mention for now is The Cake by Rhea Galanaki. Galanaki is a female Greek writer responding in literature just after the times of the military junta in Greece. During that time there was strict censorship of literature, newspapers, and democratic thought in general. Censorship there is a bit different from what we know of censorship here. When we think of censorship here in our present day or even looking back into the 70s which is when this sort of writing was occurring, we think of a black strip covering an inappropriate image on the screen or a tone blocking out profanity. Censorship to us means that we are eliminating something from a text. But censorship at that time meant that all works attempting to be published would be screened and if they were found inappropriate or in conflict with the government and its ideals it would not be allowed to be published. There was one musical artist even that had been put in jail because he sang of his lover's lips as "red". For more on this period and its influence on writing please refer to "The Rehearsal of Misunderstanding" by Karen Van Dyck. Now, because there was such a struggle with freedom of expression writers began writing elusively. The Cake was written after this time, but quite possibly the style carried on as she approaches in this piece to turn masculine and feminine tradition upside down and confuse them and fuse them. She does so with the strange interactions with a cake, using it as a symbol of birth-giving and plunging it through matrimonial commitment, drowning it in blood, and entrapping it in societal norms and expectations. I cannot describe a direct narrative because this writing does as Van Dyck explains, it rehearses in misunderstanding, it turns in and over on itself. This is the fun of the writing and the point into the controversy, confinement, contradiction, and confusion in the topic and work. Along with that it is also a tale of the hunt, where the hunter and hunted reverse roles and become trapped in themselves and each other.

In short, I recommend reading all of these.

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