Cynthia Cruz introduces poems that mingle “the everyday with the mystical, the unreasonable,” the poems' meaning and beauty transcending the words themselves. Cruz considers the urgency of the quotidian in Denis Johnson’s “The Monk’s Insomnia,” the magical life a poem can carry within itself in Jon Anderson’s “Fox,” and negation as a place of beginning in Orlando White’s “Ats'íísts'in.” To close, Cruz reads “Hotel Letters,” a poem from a forthcoming collection.
Listen to the full recordings of Johnson, Anderson, and White reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.85] Happy new year, and welcome back to Poetry Centered. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, and I'm here to welcome you to the show where we invite a contemporary poet to select and introduce recordings from Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online archive of recorded poetry readings spanning from 1963 to today. Today's episode is hosted by Cynthia Cruz, a poet, essayist, art writer, and journalist.
[00:00:30.46] She's the author of six collections of poetry, including her most recent Guidebooks for the Dead. In this episode, Cynthia shares recordings of Denis Johnson, Jon Anderson, and Orlando White, reveling in the way each of these poets uses language to create something new, something that goes beyond the words themselves. Cynthia closes by reading a poem from her forthcoming collection, Hotel Belgrade. Welcome Cynthia.
[00:00:59.65] Cynthia Cruz, Brooklyn, New York.
[00:01:03.26] The Monk's Insomnia by Denis Johnson. Recorded on Wednesday, September 29, 1993. I chose this poem, maybe in part, because I've circled back to Johnson's work right now, teaching and re-reading his poems that do what all great poems ought to-- they marry the concrete world, the everyday with the mystical, the unreasonable possibly secret of life. This is the first poem of Denis Johnson's I read in graduate school, and it still haunts me.
[00:01:32.54] The poem reminds me to write out of the quotidian and in my own true everyday voice. These days I am more and more interested in the music and scaffolding of a work. And in this poem, as in others of Johnson's, it is as if the libidinal has been sublimated directly into the poem. By the libidinal I don't mean sex, I mean the life force, I mean the rage, terror, sorrow, the raging energy within us that can make us go mad, or, if sublimated, make an incredible meaningful original work of art, like this poem. So here's Denis Johnson reading The Monk's Insomnia.
[00:02:13.56] I kind of wanted to stick with Arizona. There was a Discalced Carmelite Monastery outside Sedona, Arizona for some time. And I believe they've moved on to rougher terrain. They liked it wild, and it was getting less wild there.
[00:02:39.98] But I visited them, this was several years ago. And actually, what happened was I called them up, because my girlfriend had dumped me. And, you know, they had a phone number, and I rang them up, and said, you know, what do you do? How do you get in?
[00:02:58.10] And they said, well, you come for a visit, three or four days. And if it works out, you come back for 10 days, and then you come back for three months, and then you can take vows for two years, I think, and then you can take vows for five years, and-- sounded good.
[00:03:17.60] So I went up and stayed. I lasted about six days, I guess. But I was surprised-- during that time I expected them to say, we don't come here just because we've been dumped, you know? We're serious here. But they seemed to think that was a good beginning.
[00:03:38.56] And they were happy to let me stay. They said, you have a radical personality, and maybe you should think about making a radical commitment to your face-- faith, excuse me.
[00:03:53.06] I remember the phrases very well. But that was a very scary thing to have said to one. And it caused me to leave right away.
[00:04:05.09] Anyhow, while I was there I guess I imagined somebody who might be considering leaving having been there for many years. And this is all fictional. The landscape is accurately rendered, but I think the rest is entirely fiction. It's called The Monk's Insomnia.
[00:04:28.13] The monastery is quiet. Seconal drifts down upon it from the moon. I can see the lights of the city I came from, can remember how a boy sets out like something thrown from the furnace of a star.
[00:04:45.72] In the conflagration of memory my people sit on green benches in the park, terrified, evil, broken by love. To sit with them inside that invisible fire of ours day after day while the shadow of the milk billboard crawled across the street seemed impossible, but how was it different from here, where they have one day they play over and over as if they think it is our favorite. And we stay for our natural lives, a phrase that conjures up the sun's dark ash adrift after ten billion years of unconsolable burning.
[00:05:28.13] Brother Thomas' schoolgirl obsession with the cheap doings of TV starlets breaks everybody's heart. And the yellow sap of one particular race of cactus grows tragic for the fascination in which it imprisons brother Toby. I can't witness his slavering and relating how it can be changed into some unprecedented kind of plastic. And the monastery refuses to say where it is taking us.
[00:05:58.07] At night, we hear the trainers from the base down there, and see them blotting out the stars. And I stand on the hill and listen, bone-white with desire. It was love that sent me on the journey, love that called me home. But it's the terror of being just one person, one chance, one set of days that keeps me absolutely still tonight, and makes me listen intently to those young men above us flying in their airplanes in the dark.
[00:06:38.93] Fox by Jon Anderson. Thursday, March 2, 1978. I discovered this poet through listening to these archival recordings. In one of Franz Wright's readings, as he often did, he began his reading with a poem by a forgotten poet. This is also how I learned about the poet John Wiener's work, similarly through Franz Wright. I'm grateful to this, and to whenever a poet with a following chooses to introduce the work of a poet whose work should not be forgotten.
[00:07:09.46] I listened to many of John Anderson's poems on this site. And they are strange, glimmering creatures, all of them wonderful. I chose this poem, because it seemed to me to be the most magical, elliptical. It transcends meaning.
[00:07:25.78] Its music, its inferences, and its inherent dialectics create an altogether different language, a separate language from the one created by the words within the actual poem. Also, the poem is minute, it's a mere diorama. When read, it is akin to a pirouette. It's stunning.
[00:07:46.15] Anderson's work, and this poem in particular, remind me to let go of utilitarian language, to let go of the poem altogether, and allow it to become what it is meant to be, not what my would like it. When listening to this poem, listen to the sounds that the poem makes. Here is John Anderson reading his poem Fox.
[00:08:12.00] A couple of old, strange-- I think most poets, when they retain any affection for their early work, probably like the poems best that they understand least. That they haven't in some way, hopefully, outgrown. These are two odd poems, very short ones. First is entitled Fox.
[00:08:31.18] Nijinsky is mentioned in it. And Nijinsky was a Russian ballet dancer, who it was purported could seem to be able to hold himself, momentarily suspend himself in the air in his leaps. He died.
[00:08:44.07] He went mad before he died. One of the aspects of his madness-- this is mentioned in the poem. This is just gossip. He imagined that there was cut glass all over the floor so that he couldn't walk, which is a strange, poetic form of madness for a dancer.
[00:08:58.65] Fox. Fox, eyes red, stands on the rocks. Puts his long head down to the lake. Drinks cold oil. Overhead the jet's wheel and go to sea.
[00:09:12.81] Fox is thoughtful and indifferent ear. If he listens, he is wing commander Joe shift in the dark electronics. Nijinsky, the wind whispers on the wings. Where are you now, the radar sings.
[00:09:27.51] See, it doesn't mean anything. That's why it's [INAUDIBLE] --retain an affection for it.
[00:09:37.76] Ats'íísts'in by Orlando White. Monday, November 7, 2011. I chose this column for a number of reasons. First and foremost, because of its beauty, but also due to its dialectics. The way the poem deconstructs or negates itself, becoming nothing, which is to say becoming something new.
[00:09:57.38] In the poem White says, this is not the end of language. This poem, then, is not an ending, but it is a negation, which is to say it's an affirmation, an erasure, and a lifting. In this way, it is philosophical. The poem itself is an Aufhebung.
[00:10:15.53] Also, the poem feels as if each word is a staple in the text, which is to say that each word feels inevitable, that the poem is also folded in with bones, and death, and language, but also at the same time it is really quiet. The poem reminds me to take more risks, both in my life and in my writing. When you listen to the poem, listen to how White introduces through negation.
[00:10:44.39] For example, he says, but the skull is not a skull. And the piece of the letter under it is not really a bone. So here is Orlando White reading Ats'íísts'in.
[00:11:02.15] This next one is titled Ats'íísts'in. Which is a Diné word. It's the word for skeleton.
[00:11:12.05] Below the skull there is part of a letter, shaped like a bone. But the skull is not a skull. It is a black dot with white teeth. And the piece of the letter under it is not really a bone, rather a dark spine.
[00:11:33.03] This is not the end of language. When it was alive, it had a rib cage. Each rib taken out by small pincers, the way strands of eyelash are removed from eyelids.
[00:11:51.87] And the used to have eyes, white like two grains of salt, but they were dissolved by two drops of ink. The way a letter fades on the page after many years of reading, or how it soaks into a fingerprint and forgets itself. The way a word tries to breathe inside a closed book. The way a letter shivers when a page has turned, because underneath sound there is thought. Language, a complete structure within the white coffin of paper if you shake it and listen it will move, rattle like bones on the page.
[00:13:00.55] This poem is called Hotel Letters. It's from a forthcoming collection entitled Hotel Belgrade. Hotel Letters.
[00:13:09.39] Chanel creams and draining plans for marathons. Floradix and magnesium. Piles of glass bottles of nail polish, and a silver cosmetics case of unused Tom Ford makeup.
[00:13:23.58] When I woke this morning, I could sense the beginning of the end. Three months in the black flame of the desert, and still they could not cure my father. He learned to live with it, I wrote once in a letter.
[00:13:36.45] Black and white photographs of Mexicans in the locked archives of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. And still they cannot stop asking me where this mysterious illness derives from. It finally hit me, and now I've taken to smoking cigarettes and riding the U-Bahn to its end.
[00:13:56.93] Michelle and Almaty, and her letters, like snapshots, like Ademeit's Polaroids in which he documents everything he owns, and their gaseous auras. Sabina says, honesty is the only antidote for shame. She is trying to save me, but I'm tired. And besides, I'm telling you everything.
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:14:26.96] Thank you so much, Cynthia, for those selections, and for the reminder both to embrace our true everyday voices, and to take more risks on the page. That feels like a good place to start the new year. Thank you, listeners. I hope you'll join us again in two weeks for an episode hosted by Douglas Kearney.
[00:14:44.33] If you're enjoying the show, we'd love to hear from you through a rating or a review, because this helps us reach new listeners. We're wishing you all a good start to this new year. And we hope to be with you again soon.
[00:14:57.17] 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 supported by the work of--
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:15:24.62] Diana Marie Delgado--
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:15:27.74] And I'm your producer Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the poetry center's audio visual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.