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Best American Poetry Anthology

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David Lehman:

For those just joining, I'm David Lehman, editor of the “Best American Poetry Anthology” series and I'd like to welcome you to the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] Poetry Pavilion. The NEA is sponsoring this pavilion through the generous support of Rich and Nancy Kinder of the Kinder Foundation. And at this time I'd like to introduce our next poet, if she's here. If she's not I'll introduce her anyway and see what happens.

Her name is Tami Haaland. She's a wonderful poet. And she represents the great state of Montana. She teaches English at Montana State University in Billings, Mont., and she's here. Here she is.
I knew that if I introduced her she would materialize. Such is the power of the spoken word. She has won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize for her first book of poems, “Breath in Every Room,” which was published in 2001. Her work has appeared in many publications, including “Cowboy Poetry Matters,” and “Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region,” as well as a number of other literary magazines. And it's a great pleasure for me because Tami and I worked together at Bennington College, where she took her MFA in poetry in the year 2000, and where another reader in this program, Ethelbert Miller, also teaches on the faculty. So I'm really looking forward to her poems. And here she is. Tami Haaland.
Tami Haaland:

Thank you. And thank you, David. And I just want to say as we're starting that I'm not a cowboy poet, just so you know. While I was deciding what to read, I went off to a quiet corner of the Natural History Museum and immediately I wanted to start deleting lines and, you know, changing line breaks. But then I decided that wasn't a good idea right before I came out here. So I'm just going to leave it the way it is. The first poem is called "She Eats an Apple as the Salamander Observes." I have two children, two sons and we've always had salamanders and insects and things all over the house.

It swims in a stainless steel bowl

where I might wash spinach on another day.

A flat rock placed strategically makes it feel

safe, the way people in the Titanic felt safe

when they experienced the merest shudder

and went on dancing or climbing into bed.

Salamanders don’t eat apples that I know of,

preferring insects or earthworms, but this one

seems mildly interested as I bite--

black dot of pupil in a gold ring meeting

the rods and pupil of my own brown eye.

It has four fingers on the front, five

on the back, its skin slick and spotted, its face

unlined. We share mostly the same DNA,

mapped like cities and farms on a curving road.
Sometimes it looks like a dog, jumping up

to pull crickets from our fingers. Sometimes

it’s like a baby, round eyes spread wide

on its skull. It dives when I slice beans and

boil pasta. I don’t think dirty salamander

on the counter. I don’t think in my way.

I think don’t splash, don’t startle,

don’t disturb this silvery world.
I'm going to read a couple of poems, the first one about pregnancy and the second one about the kinds of questions that children ask when they're in that wise stage.
"First Trimester"
For three quiet months it's not much more

than a mouse nest behind the pubic bone.

so interior no one else can know.

A tiny cataclysm in the body

of the mother, it creates more earwax,

shiny hair, softer flesh, keener smell,

the need for fried eggs in the middle

of the night. It is a transformation

no more noticeable than aphids

colonizing the underside

of sunflower leaves or the soft larvae

of cabbage moths stretching themselves

along the broccoli’s interior stems.
And the next one is called "How Pennies Cry When They Get Lost." When my son was maybe three or four, he asked.
My son asks me if I know how and I don't,

because my ears are tuned more to human voice

and washing machines than the sound made

by copper molecules jetting around the head

of Lincoln. You can see, though, how electrons

might spin in invisible tizzy far from proton

and neutron centers, which undoubtedly shiver

at the thought of massive wheels on pavement or

dark nights alone on a dirt road. But I tell him
if the molecules could raise their volume and

if we could listen for the minute cry

of coppery clanging, or even magnify that sound

with some metallic instrument designed for

that purpose alone, well, maybe someone close

to the ground, like my son could hear

the tiny vibrations rising dimly in the dark.

and in that way a penny could be saved.

The next poem is called "The Idea of Order." I borrowed the title from Wallace Stevens. He has a poem, as you may know, called "The Idea of Order in [at] Key West.” So I borrowed "The Idea of Order" and there's mention of a book in the poem called “The Palm at the End of the Mind,” which is one of his collections.
"The Idea of Order"
Sometimes I think that he

Thinks that I am not quite

a real woman the way

I can leave beds unmade

and let bills and poems pile up

on the dresser. And sometimes

it annoys me too, like now

when I'm looking for my comb.

So I make the bed and set shoes

in the closet, hang up shirts,

stack books on the desk

and pick up The Palm

at the End of the Mind, dropped

beside menstrual pads and

earrings and the wildflowers

I put in a cup. And beneath

the book, I find the comb.
"Lipstick" --I'll tell you stories about this one afterwards.
I wonder how they do it, those women

who can slip lipstick over lips without

looking, after they've finished a meal

or when they ride in cars. Satin Claret

or Plum or Twig or Pecan. I can't stay

inside the lines late comer to lipstick

that I am, and sometimes get messy

even in front of a mirror. But these

women know where lips end and plain

skin begins, probably know how to put

their hair in a knot with a single pen.
So some women say, "Yes, that's just the way it is." And I've had some women come up and say, "Well I didn't realize that some people have such difficulty with their lipstick" [laughs]. And then sometimes they tell me about other, you know, makeup articles like, people who can put eyeliner on without looking. So I've learned a lot from reading this poem.
And here's a follow-up to it. I guess in some sense it's on the same theme, called "Catalog Shopping."
In recent years her eyes moved

away from clothes to dwell on models,

examined lines in their smiles and cheeks,

wondered about hair color, the bra’s lift.

The old wants surfaced: if her legs

had been longer, hair darker, skin olive—

or hair lighter, skin ivory, eyes blue.

And the new: were her lips full as these?

Did her hair catch the light? After all these years

should she begin to wear heels?

The knuckles, the hands, those lines at the wrist,

the skin below the chin when the neck twists.

Youth, yes, lovely enough,

but oh, the addition of years!

If she continued the study, surely her pen

would learn the body in words.

The word eye, for example, might conjure

the face and shadows, the enclosure of lid,

uncover a place where texture and fold

sing praise to the enigma of skin.

I'm going to read a poem that is a bit darker than that. It's called "July 3." And it makes reference to a story by Alice Monroe called "Boys and Girls." And it's a story about a family that raises fox, and then of course, they kill the fox and use their pelts, sell their pelts. And there's a girl in this story, the main character, she's about 12. So she's right in that coming-of-age period of her life. And she is starting to realize her separation from that world. And there's also a horse in this story that's old, maybe, you know, 30ish. And the father intends to shoot the horse because it's getting old and I think sickly and they don't want to keep it anymore. So the reference in the last few lines is to that story.
"July 3"
Red-tailed hawks circle the sun and

light trickles through their feather tips.

Father and sons light firecrackers

and smoke bombs in the bull-dozed edge

of a road. Beyond, a hill lifts into sandstone

overhang, scrubby fir, and the calls of

meadowlarks, chickadees and flickers.

“Come with me,” I say to my young son,

But he won't go far from the others.
Crackling and flames spread near the roots

of a juniper. “A fire,” I say, “you started a fire.”

“Don't stand there,” he says, and

I jump the trickle of creek between us,

throw shale on the circle of flames.

He covers it with mud, then lights another fuse.

At dinner they talk of twenty-twos

and shot guns, pheasant hunting and

the gutting of deer. Our sons' hair is cut

close to their heads. Nothing to tousle.

When he was ten my brother shot a sparrow

out of our biggest cottonwood. We circled

the fallen bird, my cousins and brother

and I, watched those last breaths, and

my brother scooped the bird into his hand.

I'm looking for the horse to set loose

Like the girl in that Alice Munro story,

send it through the gate though

the father will catch it anyway.
That poem is, takes place in a, obviously, I guess, a Montana landscape. That's where I'm from. And this next poem does too. It's set in the Marias River region of Montana. And it's called "Goldeye, Vole." And a goldeye is a fish, about a foot long and silverish. And there are other things I mention in here. A vole is a mouse-like creature. And I talk about teepee rings and in this place where I grew up there are many teepee rings, which are, you know, the stones that surround the teepee and hold the teepee down. And the landscape is such that the — it's very dry and things remain on the surface. In the cretaceous area there was a sea there and there are still shells. When things die the boned end up lying around. So I tried to write about this place for a long time and always found it difficult. And one day I was following along a deer trail and just started naming to myself the things that existed in that place. And so this is the poem that resulted from that.
"Goldeye, Vole"
I say sweep of prairie

or curve of sandstone,

but it doesn't come close

to this language of dry wind

and deer prints, blue racer

and sage, its punctuation

white quartz and bone.

I learned mounds of

Mayflowers, needle grass

on ankles, the occasional

sweet pea before I knew

words like perspective or

travesty or the permanence

of loss. My tongue spoke

obsidian, red agate,

arrowhead. I stepped

through tipi rings, leaped

buffalo grass and puff ball

to petrified clam,

jawbone of fox, flint,

blue lichen gayfeather,

goldeye, vole--speak to me,

my prairie darling, sing me

that song you know.

[low audio]
Okay. All right. Okay. I think I'll read, maybe four more poems. Off an on I become interested in mythical themes in my poetry. And I went through a phase where I was interested in bears. They seemed to be cropping up here and there, and did some research. There are all of these bear and woman stories, which, which you find in the northern regions, in the Northern Hemisphere. The -- so there are Native American stories, Scandinavian, Siberian and so forth. And often what happens in these stories is the bear comes along and he either carts the woman off to the woods or he'll seduce her to come with him. And one way or another when she's there she either is transformed into a bear or becomes more bear-like.
So I decided to write a poem about the Scandinavian version of this. It's called "Meeting Valemon.” And the voice in the poem is this poem is the voice of the princess, who first dreams of this bear and then here comes the bear. So this is her story.
I dreamed the circle of flowers first,

Hyacinth and heather wound

into clematis, and in the morning

life without it was impossible.

Then he walked into the yard,

this talking bear,

tossing the wreath, teasing.

I asked if I could have it, felt

his breath on my forehead, sweet

like berries. And he gave it to me,

then said I must leave with him

in three days or he would take it back.

My father called in his army.

Big men lined the castle wall, shot

their arrows, threw their spears--

nothing could touch him. My sisters

went out but he turned

them away, wanted only me

and I wanted to go.

I ride on his back now,

Holding long white hair

that springs from his shoulders,

soft hair, smelling of the forest

we are about to enter.

My friend brings me chocolate macadamia nut whales

from Hawaii, mother whale swimming with baby

under her fin, long mouth, dot of an eye. I tell her
we bought my mother frilly hearts filled with chocolate

for Valentine's day, candies I would bite into and put

back until I found a caramel to melt on my tongue.
I wanted to grow up, I tell her, ‘so I could have

my own pretty heart, and I'm still waiting. My friend

had a friend who spent her whole allowance on
chocolate covered cherries for a girl she liked. They

went to a ballgame together and the girl went off

with someone else. There she was, my friend's friend,
those chocolate covered cherries mashed and

gooey in the pocket of her coat. Girls are like that,

we say. My whale, near a shipwreck of paper
on the ocean of my desk, sends its sugary scent

to me on waves, says maybe we could swim when

this work is done. There are worlds we need to see.
"Not Scientifically Verifiable"
What if I walk around the corner and

fish swim into my mind, and when a man

I don't know walks past me the thought

leaps into his mind and later he mentions

to his wife that he would like to have fish

and so she goes out to get some, since

he asked, and the word escapes from her

thoughts into the mind of the woman

in aisle three who passes it to the checker

and so on.

Only, what if I am really

Thinking of your breath on my neck, my

fingers on your shoulders, your palm on

the curve of my waist. We could explain

how these thoughts leap from one mind

to another with words like pheromone or

hormone. It's harder to say why fish might

take this course except they have been

known to swim upstream five hundred miles,

as you or I might, if only for a slim chance.

And I'm going to finish with a short poem called "In the Sky over Water."
She is a thin, clear note

in the sky over water.

Until the song is through,

she is sound, not flesh.

It would be so easy to arrive,

to become the last note and

then the echo before silence,

but she wants to be what lasts

and does not last, not the last

note but the one before.

Thank you very much.
[end of transcript]

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