Poetry Centered

Matthew Zapruder: Poems for Passengers

March 30, 2022 Season 5 Episode 6
Poetry Centered
Matthew Zapruder: Poems for Passengers
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Matthew Zapruder selects poems that employ the powers of song, memory, and imagination as points of reflection and comfort amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He shares Adam Zagajewski conjuring a life lost to his family (“To Go to Lvov”), Gerald Stern recognizing the fortunate circumstances of his domestic and writing lives (“Lucky Life”), and Li-Young Lee traversing his own psychic landscape (“I Loved You Before I Was Born”). Zapruder closes by reading his “Poem for Passengers,” which celebrates public spaces and the momentary relief from differences they can afford.

You can find the full recordings of Zagajewski, Stern, and Lee reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Adam Zagajewski (1989)
Gerald Stern (1983)
Li-Young Lee (2020)

You can also watch a reading by Zapruder for the Poetry Center from 2019.

[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.51] Thank you for joining us for another episode of Poetry Centered, the podcast that features archival recordings of poets reading their work between 1963 and today, chosen and introduced by a contemporary poet. These recordings are part of Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's open access online audiovisual archive. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, the Poetry Center's archivist and outreach librarian. 

[00:00:30.84] We're joined today by Matthew Zapruder, a poet, translator, professor, and editor. Fathers Day is his most recent collection of poetry. And he's also the author of Why Poetry, a book of essays. He's editor at large for Wave Books. 

[00:00:47.64] Matthew recorded his episode very recently during the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prompted by this moment, Matthew shares work by Adam Zagajewski, Gerald Stern, and Li-Young Lee, choosing poems that each turn to the power of song, image, and the vibrant life of the imagination. Matthew, welcome. And thank you for bringing these poems together for us. 

Matthew Zapruder:
[00:01:13.47] This is Matthew Zapruder, and I'm recording this from my office at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. The first poem I'd like to introduce is by Adam Zagajewski. It's from a reading he gave at the Poetry Center on March 8th, 1989. It's called To Go To Lvov. 

[00:01:34.23] Zagajewski was a Polish poet, and his family was from Lvov. Now known as Lviv, which is a city in the Western Ukraine. I'm recording this during the unconscionable, brutal Russian invasion of the Ukraine. So the relevance of this poem to our current geopolitical situation is obvious, but it's long been one of my favorite poems. 

[00:02:01.65] Its use of song, image, and lyric to conjure a lost life of his family history from Lvov has always been a great source of poetic inspiration and solace to me. And I love the poem, and I'm glad to share it with you. Again, it's Adam Zagajewski's poem, To Go To Lvov from a reading on Wednesday, March 8th, 1989 at the Poetry Center. 

[00:02:35.66] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Adam Zagajewski:
[00:02:40.30] Perhaps now the first one, To Go To Lvov, which is not very long for an American-- for American standards, but medium one. Not even a medium one. Lvov is the English version of the name of the city where I was born. The Polish name is Lvov. 

[00:03:05.99] And it is a poem on the city that I practically don't know, because the front chairs were changed and the cities in the Soviet Union. So I had no chance-- the family moved westwards. I had no chance of knowing this city, which was mine in a way. 

[00:03:33.32] To go to Lvov. Which station for Lvov, if not a dream at the dawn when due gleams on a suitcase, when express trains and bullet trains are being born? To leave in haste for Lvov night or day, in September or in March. But only if Lvov exists. If it is to be found within the frontiers and not just in my new passport. 

[00:04:07.61] If lances of trees of poplar and ash still breathe allowed like Indians and the streams mumbles their dark Esperanto. And grass snakes like soft signs in the Russian language disappear into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave without a trace at noon, to vanish like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green armies of burdocks and bellow under the canvas of a Venetian cafe, the snails converse about eternity. 

[00:04:47.66] But the cathedral rises, you remember, so straight, as straight as Sunday. And white napkins and bucket full of raspberries standing on the floor, and my desire which wasn't born yet, only gardens, and weeds, and the ember of Queen Anne cherries and indecent Fredro. There was always too much of a Lvov, no one no one could comprehend its boroughs, hear the murmur of each stone scorched by the sun. 

[00:05:24.17] At night the Orthodox Church's silence was unlike that of the cathedral. The Jesuits baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew, grew so mindlessly. And the joy hovered everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills, revolving by themselves, in blue teapots, in starch, which was the first formalist. And drops of rain, and then the thorns of roses, frozen forsythia, yellowed by the window. The bells pealed and the air vibrated. The cornets of nuns sailed like schooners near the theater. 

[00:06:11.81] There was so much of the world that it had to do on course, over and over. The audience was in frenzy and didn't want to leave the house. My aunts could not have known that I would resurrect them, and lived so trustfully, so singly. Servants clean and iron, ran for fresh cream. Inside the houses a bit of anger and great expectation. Brzozowski came as a visiting lecturer. One of my uncles kept writing a poem entitled, "Why?" dedicated to the Almighty. 

[00:06:55.07] And there was too much of Lvov, it brimmed the container. It burst glasses, overflowed each pond, lake, smoke through every chimney, turned into fire storm, laughed with lightning, grew meek, returned home, read the New Testament, slept on the sofa beside the Carpathian rug. There was too much of Lvov and now there isn't any. 

[00:07:26.72] It grew relentlessly and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners as always in May, without mercy, without love. Ah, wait until warm June comes with soft ferns, boundless fields of summer. It is the reality. But scissors cut it along the line and through the fiber. Tailors, gardeners, censors cut the body and the wreath. Pruning shears work diligently as in a child's cut out along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan. 

[00:08:07.09] Scissors, pen knives, and razor blades scratched, cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees fell soundlessly as in a jungle. And the cathedral trembled. People bade goodbye without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry mouth. I won't see you anymore. So much death awaits you. Why must every city become Jerusalem and every man a Jew? And now, in a hurry, just pack, always, each day, and go breathless, go to Lvov. After all, it exists, quiet and pure as a peach. It is everywhere." 

Matthew Zapruder:
[00:09:08.10] The next poem I'd like to introduce is by Gerald Stern. It's called "Lucky Life." And it's from a reading he gave at the Poetry Center on Wednesday, February 9, 1983. This has also long been a favorite poem of mine. And as I mentioned, I'm recording this during a difficult time, a really scary time of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. And it's really easy to be overwhelmed by world events and to think of nothing else. So I felt really privileged to be able to listen to this recording and fall into Sterne's evocation of his life with his family, the mixture of feelings he has in the middle of a domestic life, a writing life, and a life of the imagination, and also a life of the real, and his lyric ability to remember and sort of hone in on the great good fortune he has simply to be having experiences, and to be processing them, and thinking them through, and writing them down. 

[00:10:26.24] I found this poem, listening to this recording to be a great comfort in this time. And I love the poem, again, like the Zagajewski poem, and I'm thrilled to be able to share with you. Again, it's "Lucky Life" by Gerald Sterne. And it's from a reading he gave in February 9, 1983 at the Poetry Center. 

Gerald Stern:
[00:10:52.56] "This poem "Lucky Life"-- I used to go to-- we used to go down to the seashore once a year. Our place was Long Beach Island. Everybody has this summer place. You go to the cabinet. You go to the boat. I used to-- for years, nobody knew it, my wife, I hated the seashore. And I'd go down there, it was terrible. Dirty quarters, crowded up dirty, crowded and noisy, and sandy, and I hated the ocean, I hated everything about it. 

[00:11:13.46] And I got into the habit of writing a seashore poem every year. I have four or five seashore poems. I wrote four or five in one week once to get it all over with. And it's really awful. This is one of those poems. And there's unfortunately some things here that are not common knowledge. There's a reference to a city, but it can be any city. It's called Phillipsburg, New Jersey, but it could be any-- more or less any city. It has trees, and streets, and I mentioned a statue of Christopher Columbus. My God, there's one everywhere, isn't there trying to con you before he killed the Indians, you know? Lucky Life, it's called. 

[00:11:53.10] "Lucky life isn't one long string of horrors. There are moments of peace and pleasure as I lie in between the blows. Lucky I don't have to wake up and Phillipsburg, New Jersey on the hill overlooking Union Square, or the hill overlooking Kubler Brewery, or the hill overlooking SS Philip and James, but have my own hills and my own vistas to come back to. Each year I go down to the island I add one more year to the darkness. And though I set up with my dear friends trying to separate the one year from the other, this one from the last, that one from the former, another from another, after a while, they all get lumped together. 

[00:12:33.18] The year we walked to Holegate. The year our shoes got washed away. The year it rained. The year my tooth brought misery to us all. This year was a crisis. I knew it when we pulled the car onto the sand and looked for the key. I knew it when we walked up the outside steps and opened the hot icebox and began to struggle with swollen drawers. And I knew it when we laid out the sheets and separated the clothes into piles. And I knew it when we made our first rush onto the beach. And I knew it when we finally sat on the porch with coffee cups shaking in our hands. 

[00:13:09.93] My dream is I'm walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey, and I'm lost on South Main Street. I'm trying to tell my memory which statue of Christopher Columbus I have to look for, the one with him slumped over and lost in weariness, or the one was him vaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe in one hand and a compass in the other. 

[00:13:29.97] My dream is I'm in the Eagle Hotel on Chambers Street, sitting at the Oak Bar, listening to two obese veterans discussing Hawaii in 1942 and reading the funny signs over the bottles. My dream is I sleep upstairs over the honey locusts and sit on the side porch overlooking the stone culverts with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless. 

[00:13:55.74] Dear waves, what will you do for me this year? Will you drown out my scream? Will you let me rise through the fog? Will you fill me with that old salt feeling? Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand? Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study the black clouds with the blue holes in them? Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year? Will you still let me draw my sacred figures and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind? 

[00:14:28.65] Lucky life is like this. Lucky there's an ocean to come to. Lucky you can judge yourself in this water. Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness. Lucky you can be purified over and over again. Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone. Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh, lucky life. Oh, lucky, lucky life. Lucky life." 

[00:14:59.87] [APPLAUSE] 

[00:15:02.24] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Matthew Zapruder:
[00:15:07.48] I'd like to share with you all a marvelous poem that I did not know before finding it in the archives of the Poetry Center. It's called "I Loved You Before I Was Born," and it's by Li-Young Lee. I am a big fan of Li-Young Lee's poems and have been for a long time. And this is from a recent reading that he did at the Poetry Center on Thursday, January 23, 2020. And it's a poem about going into his own psychic landscape, and trying to understand his attraction to certain archetypes, and to deal with that powerful draw that he feels within himself to a certain way of understanding his romantic attachments, his love through song, through repetition, and through a kind of lyric precision that I am in awe of. 

[00:16:15.69] It's a poem that I think is nakedly honest. And it is a masterpiece. So I'd like to share again with you this poem by Li-Young Lee, "I Loved You Before I Was Born." And it's from a reading at the Poetry Center in January, 2020. 

[00:16:41.39] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Li-Young Lee:
[00:16:45.53] This is a poem. I kind of pride myself that I write about feelings that everybody has. I don't have any special feelings, but I know this one, everybody must have had. This is called "I Loved You Before I Was Born." I have to tell you, this is a poem I wrote to God, or the goddess. One of my dysfunctions when you were talking about love is I always mistake the mortal living beloved for the goddess, even when she's telling me, look, I'm not a goddess. Treat me like a person. 

[00:17:33.49] I say, I'm trying. And I have a friend who's a brilliant Jungian psychologist and he says to me, he said, there's no hope unless we withdraw all of our projections. I'm trying to withdraw the projection of the goddess onto her, but I-- it's very difficult. So this is called "I Loved You Before I Was Born." 

[00:18:09.82] "I loved you before I was born. It doesn't make sense, I know. I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see. And I have lived longing for your every look ever since. That longing entered time as this body. And the longing grew as this body waxed. And the longing grows as this body wanes. That longing will outlive this body. 

[00:19:00.76] I loved you before I was born. It makes no sense, I know. Long before eternity, I caught a glimpse of your neck and shoulders, your ankles and toes. And I've been lonely for you from that instant. That loneliness appeared on Earth as this body. And my share of time has been nothing but your name outrunning my ever saying it clearly. 

[00:19:46.88] Your face fleeing my ever, kissing it firmly once on the mouth. In longing I am most myself, rapt, my lamp mortal, my light hidden and singing. I give you my blank heart. Please write on it what you wish." 

[00:20:19.20] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Matthew Zapruder:
[00:20:27.51] I was asked by the organizers of this podcast to finish with a poem of my own, which is a pretty humbling thing to do in the context of the poems I've introduced by Zagajewski, Sterne, and Lee. So I wanted to choose a poem that I think is in their spirit, at least. And the poem I chose is called, "Poem For Passengers," and it's from my most recent book of poems, which is called Father's Day, which came out from Copper Canyon Press. 

[00:21:02.85] And this poem began-- I wrote it because I was asked by Amtrak, of all people. They have a magazine that they put in the backs of all the seats called The National. And each month they have an original poem. And they said, you can write about anything. You don't have to write about trains, but write something for us. And so being the obedient eldest son that I am, I agreed and wrote this poem. 

[00:21:34.27] And I was thinking about how I used to take the train all the time on the East Coast-- where I was born, and where I'm from and grew up-- between Washington DC, where I'm from, and New York City, and Springfield, Massachusetts, which is near where I went to college and graduate school, and about that odd ritual of when everyone gets on the train together and all the differences and conflicts we have recede a bit. They certainly don't disappear. But for a moment we're kind of all doing the same thing, and settling in, and what a sort of wordless kind of collective moment that is. 

[00:22:15.21] And I was thinking about that moment, and I began from it, and wrote into it, and remembered all those train trips I've had up and down the East Coast, past abandoned factories and strange, nameless towns to me. And here's the poem, "Poem For Passengers." 

[00:22:34.22] "Like all strangers who temporarily find themselves moving in the same direction, we look out the window without really seeing, or down at our phones trying to catch the dying signal. Then the famous lonesome whistle so many singers have sung about blows and our bodies shudder. Soon we will pick up speed and pass the abandoned factories there has lately been so much conversation about. 

[00:23:07.82] Through broken windows they stare, asking us to decide. Will we fall asleep next to each other riding into the tunnel, sharing without knowing the same dream? In it we're carrying something, an empty casket, somehow so heavy only together can we carry it over a bridge in the snow. 

[00:23:33.12] Emerging suddenly into the light, we wake and open our laptops, or a book about murder, or a glossy magazine. Though we are mostly awake, part of us still goes on solving problems so great they cannot be named. Even once we have reached our destination and disembark into whatever weather, for a long time there is a compartment within us filled with analog silence. Inside us the dream goes on and on." 

[00:24:14.84] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:24:22.70] Matthew, thank you so much for those selections and for your own poem. Listeners, thank you for sharing your time with us. May we all recognize those public spaces where our differences and conflicts recede. This is our final episode in season five, so we'll be on pause for a few months before bringing new episodes your way this summer. 

[00:24:42.35] In the meantime, we hope you'll check out any episodes you've missed and we invite you to explore Voca on your own. There are 1,000-plus hours of poetry recordings to enjoy there. Thank you again for being with us. And we look forward to being with you again soon. 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:24:57.44] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center Library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson, with support from-- 

Sarah Gzemski:
[00:25:27.68] Sarah Gzemski. 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:25:28.54] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive online at voca.arizona.edu. 

Adam Zagajewski's "To Go to Lvov"
Gerald Stern's "Lucky Life"
Li-Young Lee's "I Loved You Before I Was Born"
Matthew Zapruder reads "Poem for Passengers"