O True Illusion

Telling the truth, one slant piece at a time……

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Mary Szybist’s “religious book for non believers”

A post from my other blog that many of you poetry-fans will find of interest:

Electric Genizah

There’s an interview up at the Paris Review with Mary Szybist, the winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry. Szybist is a wonderful poet as well as a delightful and generous person. As usual, poetry, faith, doubt, and faithlessness interest yours truly (who does also have a blog wholly devoted to poetry: True Allusion)

Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.

The National Book Award judges called

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Ars Poetica – Blaga Dimitrova

by Blaga Dimitrova

Write each of your poems
as if it were your last.
In this century, saturated with strontium,
charged with terrorism,
flying with supersonic speed,
death comes with terrifying suddenness.
Send each of your words
like a last letter before execution,
a call carved on a prison wall.
You have no right to lie,
no right to play pretty little games.
You simply won’t have time
to correct your mistakes.
Write each of your poems,
tersely, mercilessly,
with blood — as if it were your last.

Ars Poetica

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

National Poetry Month may be over, but poetry remains timeless and timely, as Czeslaw Milosz reminds us in this ode to poetry.

Ars Poetica?

By Czeslaw Milosz

Translated By Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
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Retreating Light

Creation has brought you
great excitement, as I knew it would,
as it does in the beginning.
And I am free to do as I please now,
to attend to other things, in confidence
you have no need of me anymore.

Louise Glück 

This is one of many persona poems from The Wild Iris. Here Glück writes in the voice of God – a God whom I initially imagined as a tired and put-upon mother, or the artist-as-mother who would perhaps like some time to be left to her own devices and write a story that isn’t for children. She’s impatient, but ultimately well-intentioned: she wants to see her children “like independent beings….dreaming by the open window / holding the pencils I gave you / until the summer morning disappears into writing.”

God here is somewhat like the Kabbalistic notion of God who withdraws from the world so that there is room for other beings, other wills to exist. God-as-artist is the deus absconditus, the hidden God, who steps aside to let humans to take over the creative work.


sally-mannThere’s something about the portrait of humans/children in the poem that reminds me of the photography of Sally Mann. The children in her famous family photographs have a combination of almost-adult knowing and a kind of raw innocence. They are both otherworldly, yet not rapidly becoming worldly….we can only hope they will not become merely tired consumers of this world, but participants in crafting beauty.


Retreating Light

You were always very young children,
always waiting for a story.
And I’d been through it all too many times;
I was tired of telling stories.
So I gave you the pencil and paper.
I gave you pens made of reeds
I had gathered myself, afternoons in the dense meadows.
I told you, write your own story.

After all those years of listening
I thought you’d know
what a story was.

All you could do was weep.
You wanted everything told to you
and nothing thought through yourselves.

Then I realized you couldn’t think
with any real boldness or passion;
you hadn’t had your own lives yet,
your own tragedies.
So I gave you lives, I gave you tragedies,
because apparently tools alone weren’t enough.

You will never know how deeply
it pleases me to see you sitting there
like independent beings,
to see you dreaming by the open window,
holding the pencils I gave you
until the summer morning disappears into writing.

Creation has brought you
great excitement, as I knew it would,
as it does in the beginning.
And I am free to do as I please now,
to attend to other things, in confidence
you have no need of me anymore.

We interrupt this blog….

to introduce Your Dear Author’s other blogging platform:  Electric Genizah (the Sacred and the Profane Walk Into a Bar….). In addition to being a passionate devotee of poetry (and rather secretive producer of such art), I’m a student/scholar of religion (Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity, current graduate student in Comparative Religion and South Asian Languages and Lit, for the curious). My blog on religion/religious studies has now gone live, so do take a look if you have any interest or morbid curiosity toward such matters.

My first post Why study religion? or Beyond Terrorists and Stained Glass Windows discusses some of the reasons to study religion as an academic discipline:

Telling someone that you study religion – academically, professionally – tends to provoke questions and sometimes strong reactions. When I was an undergraduate studying religion at the very secular University of Washington, someone (a Linguistics grad student, if I recall correctly) asked me incredulously why I would study religion, of all things. Living in Seattle, the realm of many a None or devoutly Spiritual-Not-Religious type, I often received befuddled or antagonistic responses to my preoccupation with religious matters. I was prepared for this. So I replied rather breezily that I found religion interesting as it contained some of the greatest heights of human thought as well as some serious trainwrecks of human thought and behavior.

The Ostensible Linguist drew himself up to his full height, eyed me through his hipster glasses, and snorted in disdain. “Greatest thoughts? You mean endless mediocrity and the death of the imagination!”

I’ll be the first to admit that religion has a problematic track record. There are the Crusades, the medieval blood libel, the Catholic sexual abuse scandals, just to draw a few well-worn examples. We need not and should not sweep such things under the carpet. Yet, to jump from this to the conclusion religion is not only wrong and wrongheaded, but that it is a) dull, b) irrelevant, and c) not a fitting object of study in the modern (semi-secular!) world seems to me to be utterly missing the point…

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I know the truth! (Poetry and truth)

Up to the age of four, as my mother testified, I told only the truth, but after that I must have come to my senses – Marina Tsvetaeva

In the last year, I read a review of a poetry collection which was centered around the poet’s wife dying of cancer. The reviewer initially assumed that it depicted the poet’s life, but when he attended a reading of the book, he discovered that the “plot” was a literary creation. There was no cancer, no dying wife. Even though he knew the book was a work of art with no compact to be sociology or memoir, he admits that he felt in some way betrayed. Something seemed cheaper about the emotion, the symbolism: the cancer, the death, the wife. Perhaps the portrait was “true” in the literary sense or in the sense of deeper truth, but the emotion manufactured, contrived, not earned, not real.

Tell the truth but tell it slant. – Emily Dickinson

Poets have a strange relationship with the truth. Like novelists, they are in some sense expected to be liars for the sake of truth. Even more so than of fiction, readers demand of poetry a distilled truth – the raw being of this world filtered and made, if not necessarily beautiful, into an aesthetic creation. Truth in artifice.

Rilke, Yeats, Stéphane Mallarmé, & co spoke of poets as priests of the modern, secular world. Wallace Stevens wrote that “The poet becomes ‘the priest of the invisible.'” Poets are to be the ones who bring mystery, meaning, grace to a world without an obvious God or order. Out of the raw materials of their lives – out of the welter of their emotions, loves, disappointments, sufferings – poets are supposed to make order out of chaos.

Poetry…is capable of saving us; it is a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos. – I. A. Richards

Is poetry capable of “saving” us? What kind of truth does it get at? This brings to me one of Marina Tsvataeva’s most famous poems, in which she proclaims “I know the truth – forget all other truths!” or “I know the truth – give up all other truths!” depending on the translation. It’s a high claim, a claim befitting the priestess of poetry that she often speaks as.

I’ve mentioned Tsvataeva here before, and to know any of her history is to know that poetry did not save her in the literal or material sense. It didn’t spare her from any of the vagaries of history or turmoil in Russia. Her life was overshadowed by starvation, imprisonment and loss of family members, severe poverty and hunger, exile, death and despair. Was poetry the truth and redemption in that? Was it, if not enough, something powerful – a truth of its own?

What is the truth that she knows, the truth that makes her poetry sing? Does it balance out the truth of her life overcome by the awful sufferings of the twentieth century? Does the truth of poetry hold any weight against the fact that “soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we / who never let each other sleep above it.”?

I know the truth
tr. Elaine Feinstein

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

Letter to Jerusalem

Letter to Jerusalem

by Elana Bell

To hold the bird and not to crush her, that is the secret. Sand turned too quickly to cement and who cares if the builders lose their arms? The musk of smoldered rats on sticks that trailed their tails through tunnels underground. Trickster of light, I walk your cobbled alleys all night long and drink your salt. City of bones, I return to you with dust on my tongue. Return to your ruined temple, your spirit of revolt. Return to you, the ache at the center of the world.


As It Ought to Be


By Guillermo Filice Castro

into a hole
somethingof the self





and this morning

of hairs

peeled off
the drain

and dropped into the toilet

as mournfula gesture

as a wreath

in the ocean

(Today’s poem was originally published in Fogged Clarity and appears here today with permission from the poet.)

Guillermo Filice Castro is a recipient of the 2013 “Emerge-Surface-Be” fellowship from the Poetry Project. His work appears in Assaracus, Barrow Street, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, Ducts.org, Fogged Clarity, LaFovea.org, Quarterly West, among others, as well as the anthologies Rabbit Ears, Flicker and Spark, Divining Divas, Saints of Hysteria, and more. His translations of Olga Orozco, in collaboration with Ron Drummond, are featured in Guernica, Terra Incognita, U.S…

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Dawn Chorus

by Sasha Dugdale

Every morning since the time changed
I have woken to the dawn chorus
And even before it sounded, I dreamed of it
Loud, unbelievably loud, shameless, raucous

And once I rose and twitched the curtains apart
Expecting the birds to be pressing in fright
Against the pane like passengers
But the garden was empty and it was night

Not a slither of light at the horizon
Still the birds were bawling through the mists
Terrible, invisible
A million small evangelists

How they sing: as if each had pecked up a smoldering coal
Their throats singed and swollen with song
In dissonance as befits the dark world
Where only travelers and the sleepless belong

Poetry Will Save Me (Naked Poetry of the Body and Soul)

“This is poetry at its hottest and most naked, beautiful poetry of the body and soul.”

So says James Tate of Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, born in 1935 in Brazil. Sometimes described as a “Catholic intimist poet,” Prado is unabashedly Catholic, physical, and fleshly in her poems. Daniel Bowman calls her almost embarrassingly incarnational and relates this wonderful story:

Prado was obscure in her own country until her public writing career began in the mid-70s by way of an unexpectedly grand gesture by Brazil’s elder statesman of poetry, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who had been shown several of Prado’s poems. Andrade changed her fate overnight when he pronounced in the Rio de Janeiro paper of record that “Saint Francis has been dictating verses to a woman in Minas Gerais.” The pronouncement literally brought publishers to her door.

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