The Pen That Fits Their Need: Six Poets

Peter Everwine, Pulling the Invisible But Heavy Cart: Last Poems (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2019, 106 pp., $18)

Yusef Komunyakaa, Night Animals (Sarabande Books, 2020, 32 pp., $15)

N.C. Germanacos, Ora et Labora (Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, 2019)

Eduardo C. Corral, Guillotine (Graywolf, 2020, 72 pp., $15.99)

Maryann Corbett, In Code (Able Muse Press, 2020, 92 pp., $19.95)

Etel Adnan, Shifting the Silence (Night Boat Books, 2020, 88 pp., $15.95)

The youngest of these six poets, Eduardo C. Corral, was born in 1973; the eldest, Etel Adnan, in 1925. All but Peter Everwine (1930-2018) are living as of this writing. All six saw or have seen some, or much, of the twentieth century and a fair chunk of the twenty-first. All seem ripe both in experience and in their art. What do they have to tell us?

At this dark moment late in 2020, the questions that inevitably arise when one considers the work of any poet, and especially that of a varied group of poets such as this, feel more pressing than usual.  How does each poet (or does each poet) confront the issues of their time? How does each poet, at mid-career or later, avail themselves of the decades of a life already lived, with its memories and regrets? Does their work nurture hope, turning its face forward, or is it despairing, or does it dwell in some realm removed from the quotidian or historical? What to include, and what to leave out? Who do the poets seem to be speaking to, as, or for? Which tools in the poet’s kit does each choose to deploy, and which to ignore?

Of course, the answers vary from one poet to the next.  But it is always bracing and in some sense consoling to observe yet again how stubbornly poetry follows its own generic laws, the very medium working itself out from one writer’s individual struggle to another’s.

Peter Everwine, who died in 2018, has a poem, “Joe’s Garden” (as many of Everwine’s poems are, a tribute to a friend), which captures the challenges a poet faces in our time.

Joe has a garden on his desk growing
in the best light a window can provide.

He’s planted it in fountain pens, and no,
I’m not inventing this: he calls it “The Garden” –

A double row of hollow wooden tubes
like tiny fence posts bored in odd diameters.

From each tube, Joe plucks, like a flower, the pen
that fits his need: black for the sullen days,

deep blue when happiness looms, the marbled colors
for confusion when the anxious hours arrive.

Lucky the poet for whom organic form
blooms close at hand, and yet how difficult

it is, these days, finding a pen to fit
the darkening fields that lie beyond the window.

So, making use of Joe’s idea and of Everwine’s handy trope, which pen, in these difficult days of darkening fields, does each poet select?

Everwine’s work has an attractive simplicity of surface which makes his work easy to read. Like “Joe’s Garden,” the poems often feel like anecdotes or memories or tributes to family, friends, or neighbors, most of them now deceased. “A Small Story” begins with a memory which turns out to be a memory of hearing a story. One might call Everwine’s pen a temporal telescope rather than merely an instrument to write with. Time and space conflate: “a story like a small / clearing in the woods at night, seen / from the windows of a passing train.” Even “The Day,” a poem about the poet’s own past, achieves a calm detachment, as the speaker, on the edge of sleep, revisits a distant day in his life:

And that night, easing myself toward sleep,
I thought how blindly we stumble ahead
with such hope, a light flares briefly –  Ah, Happiness!
Then we turn and go on our way again.

But happiness, too, goes on its way,
and years from where we were, I lie awake
in the dark and suddenly it returns –
that day by the sea, that happiness,

though it is not the same happiness,
not the same darkness.

“I Thought,” another appealingly unassuming poem, could be read as a dwindling toward disappointment but seems finally to be an acceptance, a making do with what was given, with what was always already there. It’s characteristic of Everwine’s humility that this modestly radiant poem takes the shape of a series of self-corrections: “I thought…but no.”  The poem ends:

I thought when I opened my door and called
“Is anyone home?” I heard

a voice I faintly recognized
or remembered from a dream I had

but no, it was only the old implacable
din of silence waiting for me to enter

and replenish its empty bowl.

The invisible but heavy cart of this posthumous collection’s resonant title: is it time? Memory?  The trail of a life that we all carry around like Marley’s ghost with its clanking chains?  Heavy the weight may be, but as these excerpts should show, Everwine carries it lightly.  His intention is clearly to pass the memories and the joy around.  The books’ dedication reads in part “for my family – those gone, lost, present, to come – each and every one of you.” And we believe it. This posthumous volume, assembled by friends, is clearly a labor of love. I hadn’t known this gentle and eloquent poet’s work and am very glad to have made its acquaintance.

*

As befits his book’s title, Night Animals, Yusef Komunyakaa has chosen a dark pen. It may also be that the gloomy vision of the poet’s collaborator, the artist Rachel Bliss, has infused these poems.  Bliss’s creatures are elegant and sometimes witty creations – I particularly like her armadillo and platypus. But when Bliss comes closer to depicting what resemble human beings, the images tend toward the grotesque.  The sharp teeth in many of the faces we encounter in the illustrations either echo or evoke a corresponding sense of threat in the accompanying poems. If Everwine’s work is luminously accessible, Komunyakaa’s poems here are sooty, smoky, hard to negotiate; little lights up the darkness. It’s as if this celebrated senior poet’s wealth of experience has here been compressed, or perhaps has dwindled, to a dark consciousness that observes, speculates, questions, but always feels oddly impersonal and perhaps (bolstered by Bliss’s images) inhuman.

When the poems in Night Animals do feature human beings, those people turn out to be one more kind of nocturnal beast whose antics are observed from afar, perhaps spied on: “What does a small room look like / with two drunken men dancing / with each other….” (“From a Distance”); “I can’t take my eyes off the nude / in a third-floor window at one a.m.” (“Night-Blooming Cereus & Façade”). When the voice here rises above a foreboding mutter, what we most memorably hear are melancholy and probably unanswerable questions: “Hyenas on a hilltop, / are you still trying to tell me something about mercy?” (“Another Kind of Night”). Whatever answer one imagines (and the hyenas seem unlikely to respond) isn’t encouraging.

Full of rich rhetoric—“Another Kind of Night” is a beautiful poem—Night Animals is also burdened by a deeply ingrained isolation. It’s as if both the prowling nocturnal lives and the hidden observer are locked in claustrophobic chambers which lack access to the outside world—spaces that are more than a little airless and that also seem detached from time and human incident. Full of mysterious, semi-submerged life forms, Komunyakaa’s nocturnal jungles seem denuded of memory.

*

Memory, the sheer length of time we pull in our final decades, is the invisible but heavy cart Everwine’s title refers to. This cart and its cargo are also in evidence in N.C. Germanacos’ Ora et Labora. Germanacos’s cart, though, is less invisible, less abstract than Everwine’s. Cosmopolitan and peripatetic, Germanacos engages with both time and place in a mode that sometimes seems documentary, almost matter-of-fact, and that at other times aspires to the mythical.

Born in Cyprus in 1940, brought up in Wales and England, Germanacos was a teacher in Athens and now lives in the Bay area, travelling twice a year to his farm in Crete. He calls his poems “the distillation of a lifetime of moving from country to country, home to home, language to language…” Poetry for Germanacos is an aide to guide him through the maze of that lifetime. Whatever its color, his pen is remarkably versatile: now a compass or a rudder, now an Ariadne’s thread. With the pen of a historian, Germanacos records family history or the fate of an heirloom.  Then, putting that factually oriented pen aside, he picks up a pen with which to write or rewrite myth.  The resulting book is a bit of a hybrid, but its recurrent probing questions take us back to the heart of any older poet’s dilemma: what—in a memory, a culture, a lifetime, a household—is worth keeping? What do we leave by the wayside on our journey?

Some of the strongest and wisest poems in Ora et Labora strike a balance between holding on and letting go.

The house, from cellar to attic,
is choked – all shapes and sizes –
a mob of cataleptic chairs mutely
clamouring for use, when all I need
is one:
…………..a marble stool
carved on a marble stele,
on which to sit upright,
extend my hand for hers,
and bid her Xaire.

(“Chairs”)

Germanacos by and large avoids sentimentality.  Poems like “Chairs” combine affection for the old and familiar with the sage counsel to put it aside in favor of the simplicity of a classical grave stele depicting a farewell.

Seeing both sides of a question (the men and de of classical Greek come to mind), Germanacos has a habit of writing more than one poem about the same topic. Sometimes, as with a group of poems about a house, this mode of reduplication works well. And, of course, the urge to tell the whole story through time, to revisit the past from a variety of angles, is both one of the salient poetic impulses and also a privilege poetry makes possible. At other times, as in some of the many myth-inflected poems here, the redundancy makes one wish this collection had been edited with a heavier hand. One of two poems here about Cleobis and Biton is poignant and eloquent; and one is enough.  Some of the great poets Germanacos clearly reveres—Cavafy is a telling example—have managed to compress the strata of centuries, to capture both the ambiguity of a palimpsest and their own ambivalence about history and culture, into single poems which hold contraries in the balance.  But if reading Ora et Labora invites a certain amount of skimming, nevertheless the range of reference, the candor and clarity, and the warm humanity of this collection make one grateful that this traveler and scholar has put down roots in poetry.

*

Eduardo C. Corral is by far the youngest of this group of poets. But this son of Mexican immigrants is an old soul, imbued with the suffering of the nameless and unnumbered border-crossers to whom he gives voices with his painful, sensuous lyrics—“retablos,” as D.A. Powell calls them, “interrupted by borders, checkpoints, crosses, cages.” The question of what to include and what to leave out has been triumphantly, almost ferociously, solved in Corral’s new collection, Guillotine: These poems animate the silenced living or the mute dead. The poems are preoccupied with the physical, which turns out to be hard to disengage from the spiritual: “Delirious, / touch-starved, / I pinch a mole / on my skin, pull it / off,  like a bead – / I pinch & pull until / I am holding / a black rosary,” “Ceremonial,” the opening poem in Guillotine,  begins. The eroticism that persistently bubbles to the surface of even the grimmest poems here is by turns life-affirming and necrophiliac, and sometimes both at once.

Always in these poems the body is in evidence, sometimes threatening, often threatened or violated.  From the title poem: “The scorpions always arrive / at dawn. Gently, / their pincers / touch the cuts / on my lips.”  Reading Guillotine throws into relief how abstract and distanced the bodies in Night Animals are. The memories evoked in Ora et Labora and in Pulling the Invisible But Heavy Cart are air-brushed by a kind of decorum Corral deliberately eschews. In Guillotine, everything is seen or experienced from close up, or, if not, from inside out. We may want to turn away, but that’s not an option Corral allows.

The beautiful “Black Water” showcases some of the density and complexity of Corral’s lyric idiom.  The four fearsome wolves that burst into the beginning of the poem might emerge from myth, whether Norse legends or fairy tales. They could also, of course, be predators in the desert landscape which forms the backdrop of Guillotine. Buried at the heart of “Black Water,” after an eloquent stanza break produces charged white space on the page, is a glint of domesticity: “I’d watch him / lather his beard. / Once a week, / for a year.” A sheltered interlude of habit and safety shines out here, but then the wolves reappear. And at the end of the poem, the mirror itself becomes a threatening beast: “Then I hear / the mirror / in a room miles away. / Furred with frost / &lust, / it howls.” How can a mirror howl? How can a wolf become a mirror?  In this nightmare realm, the line between animate and inanimate blurs, so that a mirror can be “furred” and can indeed howl.  Also blurred are the lines between human and bestial, and between pain and pleasure.

If one were to choose a color for the pen that wrote these poems, it would be blood red. But the appropriate emblem for the poet of Guillotine isn’t a pen at all, but rather a rusty nail scratching on an unyielding surface. Corral’s searing sequence “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel” reminds us that these utterances do not issue from a desk in a comfortable study. They’re mimetic of effortful, desperate evidence that someone was there.

*

Maryann Corbett’s In Code is a book whose contents have been incised with a sharp-pointed pencil. Meticulous without being prissy or preening, Corbett’s poetry reflects, and reflects upon, the swerve of her career, which is described as follows: Corbett “earned a doctorate in 1981, with a specialization in medieval literature and linguistics. She expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creation of finding aides for the law.”

Disappointment, regret, at the very least irony, might well lurk in the loop of this career path. But Corbett’s sharp eye and pointed wit find plenty of subject matter in the world of legal proofreading, law writing, and endless tinkering with language—tinkering which turns out to be not so different, perhaps, from the work  done by a poet. A cluster of poems that feels like the heart of In Code probes the parallels between different kinds of drafting and revision. The title poem, “Stone Ground,” “A Volume of Cases,” and “Working Draft” are eloquent, witty, and wounded explorations of both these kinds of work, with their attendant disappointments: “Most utterances are stillborn” (“In Code”); “This poem incorporates by reference / the little winces of my working life, / the years of small regrets” (“Working Draft”).

Those winces and regrets do double duty.  Much of the legal work Corbett so assiduously edited “made lives invisible…sentenced them to decades without voices”—and here Corral’s speakers, scratching their testimony in the desert, might come to mind. There are also regrets not only for the teaching career that didn’t happen but for a whole way of literary life consigned to oblivion. “The Vanished,” a heartbreaking ode to card catalogues, has an epigraph that informs us In the autumn of 2015, the production of paper cards for library catalogs ceased. In “The Indexers Talk Back to Borges,” “the  old ways are withered.  The slips of paper / sift into dustless electrons. The dry workspaces / are lit by screens. The songs of digital birds / repeat, repeat, repeat from the tinny hearts of the speakers.”

Puns, always a rich poetic resource when it comes to double meaning, come to Corbett’s aid. I love the data cloud in the final line of the excellent sonnet “Experimental Design;” the phrase for a digital term also suggests a cloud of fruit-flies. And that’s not all; consider the final couplet as a whole: “The new design of darkness to appall; / the data cloud, and not the sparrow’s fall.” Corbett here unites Frost’s sonnet “Design” and Hamlet’s pondering on the fall of a sparrow into a single elegant punning trope. In the beautiful and searing “A Volume of Cases,” both nouns in the title work overtime, denoting both a book and a critical mass. The verb “decline” in the final stanza signals both a grammatical principle and a process of deterioration. The puns and their migratory meanings seem to be pressed together in the closed cases, the shut volume. The triply rhymed tetrameter tercets (one thinks of Frost’s also harsh “Provide, Provide”) contribute to the feeling of severe finality, even as much of the imagery in the poem suggests a stout gold-spined tome’s worth of heartbreaking human stories.

In Code offers much more wit, literary reference, subdued rage, and pervasive compunction than I have room to trace here. It’s a rich book. Corbett belongs at the far end of a poetic continuum from the other books considered. Guillotine asks to be read as one aria; Ora et Labora is a family album whose contents gradually transition from family anecdotes and heirlooms to mythology. Everwine’s heavy cart is loaded with scraps of memory. Komunyakaa’s nocturnal creatures seem all to breathe the same dank and opaque air. By contrast, Corbett’s poems, though they share a sensibility and a style, present themselves as more separate from one another as utterances than the work of these other poets. Corbett’s poems are also, for all their delicacy and detail, their precision and fine finish, in a curious way more public. It’s as if Corbett’s sensibility were a delicate bird perching on some heavy monument, perhaps a courthouse or a statue. The bird looks frail, but it’s fearless and misses nothing. And the wonder of poetry is that it can perch on a monument or pun on law and poetry or fruit flies and the cloud; it can crash through nightmarish jungles; it can scratch human desires and testimonies on water barrels in the desert; it can capture memories and dreams; it can retell myth.  Each new book reminds us that although no one poem or book of poems is likely to be able to do all these things, nevertheless the art of poetry can.

*

And finally, Etel Adnan, whose book Shifting the Silence resists categorization and summary. Adnan’s work seems to float, agendaless, untethered.  I’d thought I wasn’t partial to prose poems, but this has to be the collection that proves me wrong—and less a collection than a durchkomponiert utterance of sustained pitch. Shifting the Silence is at once improvisatory and incantatory. It can be read as a vision, or a loosely linked series of epiphanies, yet it’s also, and perhaps primarily, journal-like in its attentiveness to the ever-shifting but also recurrent matters of the quotidian (I was ill; fog is rolling in; a friend died; it’s terribly hot; a neighbor reports seeing the same small cloud every afternoon).

Adnan’s age (she was born in 1925) surely has something to do with the almost-but-not-quite- disembodied quality of this rhapsodic book. Not that Adnan is beyond emotions or bodily sensations; but she does seem to be beyond getting caught up in them. Instead, everything that happens and that therefore appears on her pages is ephemeral. This spacious quality makes itself felt in the book’s mysterious and evocative title, and also in the cover art, a pastel drawing by Adnan herself, whose colorful lines lightly drawn across the page suggest a fugitive gaiety—not quite a scribble, not wholly improvisatory, but relaxed, abstract, and quietly blissful.

Almost anywhere one opens this book, something arresting catches the eye, yet the pervasive floatiness means that one moves on, reading forwards and backwards.  Was there ever (in life; in this book) a plot, a narrative curve, a shape? It no longer seems to matter.

Two passages picked almost at random seem to speak, as so much poetry does speak, to the poet’s sense of her art:

Almost all of my beliefs have deserted me. I take it as a kind of liberation, and anyway, they were never too many. Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.

I want to go rafting, not only on rivers but on any experience, the mental ones particularly, feel the joy of frantic concepts, of their freedom…

And for a wry, rueful, wise valediction and salute of poetry, let Adnan have the last word:

…poets are poets.  Nothing will dislodge them.  Even…in their most pathetic moments, they’re badly needed.

How fortunate we are, both that this is true, and that we seem to keep on having those poets we so badly need.

Rachel Hadas

Rachel Hadas

Rachel Hadas's verse translation of Euripides' two Iphigenia plays was published in June by Northwestern University Press. Her latest collection, Poems for Camilla, was published by Measure Press in 2018.
Rachel Hadas

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Author: Rachel Hadas

Rachel Hadas's verse translation of Euripides' two Iphigenia plays was published in June by Northwestern University Press. Her latest collection, Poems for Camilla, was published by Measure Press in 2018.