Greenpoint, October, 2015

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

One from the Road

Rest Stopped
The budget crunch is hitting southern New England states hard. Here's the only rest stop between Providence and Boston on Rte. 95 (on the Mass. side). What would Cortazar say?! Fortunately, New Hampshire and Maine have managed to maintain a more civilized welcome for tourists.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Holy Plates

David Ferry's "The License Plate" (from Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems) wraps up our mini-mini-series on "Licensed Poets." (An appropriate last post, perhaps, before your BTB staff and the Research Bureau hit the road for cooler climes):

On the way back from the hospital we saw
A message on the license plate of a car.

It said GOD HAS. Has what?
Decided finally what to do about it?

The answer to the question that you asked?
The whole world in His Hands? Fucked up? Again?

Apologized? Failed to apologize?
The car went on its way in front of us.

In 2009, a state judge ruled that South Carolina's "I Believe" and other God-themed license plate violated the First Amendment's ban on establishment of religion. (The bill to create the plates had been supported by pre-Appalachian Trail Mark Sanford.) In 2012, a nonprofit rather nimbly figured out how to get around this by creating its own plates, as allowed by SC law. Now it's simply protected speech. When the law gives you lemonades....

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lots of Zeros

Prisoner making license plates, Raiford, FL, 1928
(Courtesy Florida Department of State)
"Serving Time" by Charles Simic (from Sixty Poems)

Another dreary day in time's invisible
Penitentiary, making license plates
With lots of zeros, walking lockstep counter-
Clockwise in the exercise yard or watching
The lights dim when some poor fellow,
Who could as well be me, gets fried.

Here on death row, I read a lot of books.
First it was law, as you'd expect.
Then came history, ancient and modern.
Finally philosophy--all that being and nothingness stuff.
The more I read, the less I understand.
Still, other inmates call me professor.

Did I mention that we had no guards?
It's a closed book who locks
And unlocks the cell doors for us.
Even the executions we carry out
By ourselves, attaching the wires,
Playing warden, playing chaplain

All because a little voice in our head
Whispers something about our last appeal
Being denied by God himself.
The others hear nothing, of course,
But that, typically, you may as well face it,
Is how time runs things around here.

Wander Wonder

How many license plates have you seen in your lifetime? Really looked at? Thought about? Written a poem about? That's what separates you and me (or at least me) from the next couple of poets in our series.

"Wander" by James Schevill

1984 Indiana
licence plates
as if American wandering
   is a
     a curse
     or crossing

(According to the Indiana BMV, the Wander plate was issued from 1984-86. The number issued in 1984: 4,388,881.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

On the Break

Today we give the Research Bureau a brief recess from the poetry (and the Polish!). Instead, we honor one of those businesses that honor their proximity to the (of late) neglected BQE: BQE Billiards Cafe, 35th Ave., Jackson Heights.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Catapulted into California

A poet out standing...
We end our Polish mini-series with Poland's most famous poet, Czesław Miłosz, Nobel laureate, emigre, essayist, translator, teacher. A search of Selected Poems 1931-2004 (Milosz died in 2004 at the age of 93) produced these results on our BTB index:

Heart 15
Horse 10
Vodka 3
Death 22
Blood 17
Tears 6
Car 3 

More horses and vodka, but otherwise pretty consistent with our other Polish poets. Again, a car is as likely to be a train car as something you drive yourself. Remembering that Miłosz spent most of his adult life abroad, and most of that in the States, and most of that in California (where he taught at Berkeley), the Research Bureau checked out a collection of short prose pieces, titled Miłosz's ABC's. Another story emerges.

"Automobile" gets its own entry (so does "Alcohol"). Miłosz describes coming from the (now) Lithuanian countryside where there was only one car, the Count's, and being "catapulted into California, where the automobile was just the same as electricity and bathrooms." From seeing the automobile as a "threat, because of its noise," he came to appreciate its capacity to take one to places one might otherwise not see:

Transformed from a man outside an automobile to one seated behind the wheel, I ought to write a song of thanksgiving to the car, because thanks to it I have toured the West Coast of America from the Mexican border to the Canadian Rockies, slept in a tent beside lakes in the Sierras, and baked in the heat of the desert know as Death Valley.

Postscript: Friend of the Blog, One More Folded Sunset, contributes an anecdote, told by poet Robert Pinsky, and retold on Shed. Pinsky and Robert Hass (another poet), after working on translations with Miłosz, found themselves locked out of their car. It sounds like a joke perhaps, How many poets does it take...? According to Pinsky, Milosz appeared with a coat hanger and in no time did the trick. It's not recorded whether or not he knew how to hot-wire.

(I believe the photo above comes from the documentary The Magic Mountain: An American Portrait of Czesław, directed by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Carless in Wrocław

This and That (2012)
Our third Polish poet is Tadeusz Różewicz. A fighter in the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), he witnessed the utter devastation of Poland during the Nazi occupation of his country (his brother was executed by the Gestapo). Not surprisingly, his poems often return to darkest periods of memory. We used Sobbing Superpower, a recent collection (with an unfortunate title) of translations to English by Joanna Trzeciak for our experiment. Here are the results:

Heart 14
Horse 5
Vodka 1
Death 53
Blood 20
Tears 18
Car 2 

First thought: That's a lot of death. Second: Well, it's twice the cars than Herbert or Szymborska. Not so fast. Both are references to railroad cars. Pretty common in a country well served by railroads, especially the west which were built up extensively by the Germans staking their claim to Poland (and further east). Here is an excerpt from a long poem called "The Professor's Knife," in which the poet mediates on the experience of riding on trains in a place where they have served as vehicles of extermination. (The poem he quotes is by Cyprian Norwid, a 19th century Polish poet.)

I’m standing in the last car
Inter Regnum—of the train
to Berlin
and I hear a child beside me
cry out
“See? The oak tree is running
Into the forest…”
a cart carries children away
I open my book
to a Norwid poem
and build a bridge
linking the past the future

“The past is today
only a bit further away…
Beyond the wheels is a village
Not just anything, anywhere
Where no one has ever been”

Freight trains
cattle cars
the color of liver and blood
in a long line
loaded with banal Evil
banal fear
banal children women
in the blush of youth

Friday, July 19, 2013

What's the Frequency, Kasia?

In which, we continue our whirlwind tour through Polish poetry in search of references to the Car (in Polish, samochód, literally "self-movement"). Today's poet, Wisława Szymborska: witty, charming, emotionally disarming, a true Kraków poet. She won the Nobel for literature in 1996 and died in 2012. She also created collage postcards, like the self-portrait above (more here). We used Poems, New and Collected for our experiment. Here's the count:

Heart 21
Horse 2
Vodka 1
Death 19
Blood 7
Tears 11
Car 1

More heart than Herbert but the same amount of vodka and car. Szymborska's "car poem" is "A Film from the Sixties" (tr. Stanisław Barańczak & Clare Cavanaugh). The car experience here is more direct than Herbert's "automobile parts" but still not that of a driver or even a passenger, rather of one "checked out" by someone riding in a car.

The adult male. This person on earth.
Ten million nerve cells. Ten pints of blood
Pumped by ten ounces of heart.
This object took three billion years to emerge.

He first took the shape of a small boy.
The boy would lean his head on his aunt’s knees.
Where is that boy. Where are those knees.
The little boy got big. Those were the days.
These mirrors are cruel and smooth asphalt.
Yesterday he ran over a cat. Yes, not a bad idea.
The cat was saved from this age’s hell.
A girl in the car checked him out.
No, her knees weren’t what he’s looking for.
Anyway, he just wants to lie in the sand and breathe.
He has nothing in common with the world.
He feels like a handle broken off a jug,
But the jug doesn’t know it’s broken and keeps going.
It’s amazing. Someone’s still willing to work.
The house gets built. The doorknob has been carved.
The tree is grafted. The circus will go on.
The whole won’t go to pieces, although it’s made of them
Thick and heavy as glue sunt lacrimae rerum.
But all that’s only background, incidental.
Within him, there’s an awful darkness, in the darkness a small boy.

God of humor, do something about him, OK?
God of humor, do something about him today.