My response to Rene Char’s “Not Eternal nor Temporal”

stonelyreMy original post published thanks to Susan Scarlata at Lost Roads Press

Alexandra Mattraw on Rene Char’s “Not Eternal Nor Temporal,” translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press), originally published in Char’s “Le Nu perdu” (1971).

“O wheat in May, green in the shivering earth that has never known sweat.  A happy distance from diving suns of the ends of lives.  Low-lying under the long night.  Color glows, watered.  For vigil and last rites, two bedside blades: the skylark, bird who alights, and the crow, the spirit engraving itself.” – Rene Char

Most new parents would agree that the first six weeks with their newborns lured them into a ferocious battle with Time and Pain.  This battle, which usually boils down to one with Control (or lack thereof), can’t be won by the human sufferer in any linear sense.  I believe poet Rene Char also knew a version of this truth.  In the midst of dawn surreality, before the new day has broken but after the fan humming comfort of post dinner drowsiness, a mother awakens. Her heart tightens, her eyes widen in terror, and her disembodied physical self moves to the yowling bassinet, her will dominated by a biological imperative that has nothing to do with human law or Time blinking rudely in iPhone glow.  An hour or so later, after the sh*t, piss, nursing, blood, vomit, drool, swaddling, rocking, and crying (by both parties), she lays her tiny beloved back down with the most tender and careful of gestures, realizing that one wrong move could destroy the moment, startle her baby awake, ruffle her tired husband, and begin the cycle all over again. Yet later, mother and father learn the pointlessness of judging any moment as a static entity over which they can exercise control.

It is within this swampy reality, where I quickly learned to be grateful for a glass of ice water (let alone a shower) that I reread this mysterious little prose poem by Char.  The title alone encompasses the exact paradox I continue to consider as a new mother and an amateur Buddhist.  How to embrace the moment and suffering despite the chains of our socially constructed view of Time?  As such, the “O Wheat” apostrophe here thrusts me into a different sort of meditation: How can I, through a radical acceptance, survive my human vulnerability without dwelling on that very frailty?

Char claims this wheat “[shivers in an] earth that has never known sweat.”  He personifies wheat that knows sweat only from the hot farmer’s dripping brow yet paradoxically “shivers” like an infant.  Doesn’t a body sweat in order to shiver and cool down in spring heat?  No, Char reminds us, Demeter’s wheat will never know pain or suffering, or at least, not through our chosen understanding of these categories.

I’m also interested in the rather obscure image of “A happy distance from diving suns of the ends of lives.”  Certainly, this emotionless wheat trembles (with fantastic, French Symbolist influenced synesthesia!), but only because of wind.  Unlike people, unlike prideful Icarus falling from the sun, wheat does not obsess itself with beginnings nor ends, nor with the horror of looming war, nor with the terrible grief of a colleague who passes, nor even with the joy resulting from a son’s first smile.  However, even this metatemporal wheat, united with nature (and all that stands beyond Time), grows old and meets its thresher, as will I, as will my son, greeting an inevitable “vigil and last rites.”  Of course, the curious difference is that the wheat, like Wallace Stevens’ Snow Man, moves within a song beyond thinking, “low lying under the long night” (Char).  The wheat grows through the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Stevens).  I respect wheat that doesn’t fret about the existential is-ness of its plight.

Interestingly, the final sentence of Char’s poem also recalls his belief that “the truth is in the blade.” We are confronted with “two bedside blades,” “the skylark” and “the crow.”  Surely, a double-edged truth then.  Char teaches us that truth and beauty can only result in the coexistence of good and evil; life and death; empathy and violence.  In digesting Char’s symbology, I return to my postpartum experience in which my child was my skylark (symbol of daybreak/light/life), while my physical pain and resulting spiritual realignment led me to several deaths: my own childhood and idealizations about parenthood being merely two of them.

Char’s conceptual vision in these lines isn’t my only fascination.  I can’t help but note the striking musicality of Carlson’s sonically resonant translation.  She has preserved the aural essence of Char’s French as well as his poetics, inventing layered assonance and resulting internal rhyme; lulling alliteration; and a condensation that allows each image to sharpen its counterpart.  For instance, Char’s “O le ble vert dans une terre qui n’a pas encore sue, qui n’a fait que grelotter!” becomes “O wheat in May, green in the shivering earth . . .” In English, this long “e” assonance has always reminded me of the wet, fertile green rush of May.  The sound itself elongates in the throat and mimics a sigh of contentment.  This gorgeous lyrical pattern echoes throughout all the lines: “wheat,” “green,” “shivering,” “happy,” “diving,” “lying,” and “engraving.”  Similarly, the repeated long “i” fills us with a delightful brightness: “lives,” “lying,” “diving,” “night,” “rites,” “bedside,” and finally, “alights.”  The poem is endowed with a feeling of crescendo (“color glows,” a bird who lights and flies up in order to land/ “alight”) and decrescendo (“low lying,” “diving,” “watered,” “engraving,” etc.), with the appropriately woeful “O” assonance repeating as well.  In short, we are gifted with an explosion of song that comprises both sides of Char’s bladed and rather violent truth—one that Blake and Keats also new well— death and suffering (“the crow”) sit in the same temple with birth/joy (“the skylark”) and are wed as one “spirit” (Keats, “Ode on Melancholy” and Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Perhaps, Char challenges us to encounter a vision of Time’s meaninglessness, teaching us to live each day with gentleness, with what I recently heard someone call a “circumcised heart.”  This open heart comprehends each blade life deals us as one incision closer to a fuller life— a higher consciousness.

Thanks, Green Apple!

Thanks, Green Apple!

I am so grateful to have read with poets Raina Leon, Jessica Wickens, and Della Watson at Green Apple, on August 22nd in the Granny Smith room. These ladies read their incredible poems with an infectious air of spontaneity and passion, and I have to say that it was my favorite reading experience so far. In the cute-as-a-button Granny Smith nook, we enjoyed wine, cheese, and the company of several good friends (and some interesting strangers, too!). Thanks to Nick, Ashley, and all who helped us out that night…

Chapbooks Emerge with reading celebration, BIRD & BECKETT!

ImageJoin us at Bird & Beckett for a father’s day poetry reading to celebrate the emergence of our new works. I am excited and honored to be reading from my two newest chapbooks (just out this week!) along with poets Raina Leon and Jessica Wickens, both of whom will be reading from their new and inspiring poetry books.  My two new chabpooks are not the only small packages that will accompany me; my partner and I will also be taking our newborn son on his first outing to San Francisco. What better way to celebrate all these blessings than with poetry in the cozy reading nook that is Bird & Beckett Books & Records, a charming little bookstore in the heart of Glen Park.  The store is an easy, quick walk from the Glen Park Bart.  We begin at 2 pm with some snacks and refreshments, and we will have all our new works available for your perusal.  Hope you can join us!!

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop!

Thanks to my inspiring poet friend Raina Leon, I have been tagged in a fun blog hop project called “The Next Big Thing.” Writers around the world are tagged by other writers and asked to respond to 10 questions in a self interview about their latest big project.  Here is my response, which outlines the inspirations behind my forthcoming chapbook, out soon through Dancing Girl Press.

1. What is the working title of the book?

in the way of harbors

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

The spark for the book’s ideas occurred much earlier than its actual composition.   The conceptual foundation takes its materials from my experience of traveling solo in the summer of 2005 through the strange tundra of Iceland.  Iceland is such a mercurial place of geological extremes; a place that is forever shifting in a literal, visible way; a place where the unpredictable natural environment so clearly determines not only the landscape but also (perhaps) the moods and ideas of the people there. At the time, I was writing many of the poems of my first chapbook, which was concerned with the power of human projection—the way we all tend to create truths and realities based upon our own subjective perceptions.  But traveling to Iceland in that “endless” summer and again in the dark winter of 2006, I began to appreciate another notion of projection, thinking of how the seemingly inanimate (natural elements, as seen in Iceland, but also objects of the city, as well as intangible social constructs) can have a moving, mind-rendering force as well.  I began to imagine that maybe we shape and project upon what is “other” just as much as outside forces render our internal identities.  In any case, my interest in these fluid ways of understanding selfhood and meaning began to enter my poems.  Before I knew it, I was obsessed with this fact of impermanence and finding mirrors of it everywhere during my travels, including in the similarly shape-shifting cities of Sao Paulo, Rio, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Bangkok, and Mexico City.  I began to collect several poems that emerged out of those wonderfully dislocating but revealing experiences.

Yet I suppose the language and prosody of the book has much earlier roots.  In my former life, I was a musician, and grew up playing jazz guitar and flute in various bands, both in the U.S. and abroad.  As such, I’m really attracted to the movement and rhythm of music, and its power to reveal a certain solid, sublime truth in a life that can have just all too much uncertainty.  So the poems are very interested in the infinite music hidden within that uncertainty.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4.  If applicable, whom would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My protagonist would definitely be an imaginary actress.  Let’s say, the mid 20s adult love child/daughter-actress of Leonard Cohen and Virginia Woolf.  Let’s call her Shalene Woolf Cohen.  Her godparents were Ingmar Bergman and Gertrude Stein.

5.  What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Perhaps it’s best summed up by Virginia Woolf (the epigraph):

“But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. . .Sounds made harmonies with premeditation; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds.”


We are invited to explore life’s transience through the imagination of a skeptical tourist who engages the paradoxes of fixed human constructs and eventually learns to embrace the invisible music pulsing inside all things.

6.  Will your work be self published or represented by an agency?

Dancing Girl Press will be publishing in the way of harbors in the late spring of 2013.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Most of the work was written over the course of 2010-12.  A few poems originate from the last year of my MFA program at University of San Francisco (2006) and take their inspiration from those Iceland trips.

8.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See question 2.  Or:

Urban and natural experiences involving flux, impermanence, or some form of violence….Volcanoes, earthquakes, Camus, my husband’s forensic engineering field notes, a bridge demolition at Vermont Studio Center, Celan, glaciers, hotel or motel or pension rooms, looking out the window during road trips in foreign countries, geysers, hospitals, Marker’s Sans Soleil, mosques…..And, as always, the invisible— the space between.

9.  What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Questions like this always make me uncomfortable. I’d like to think the work stands on its own just as the work itself challenges the human obsession with categorization.  But, I’d say my chapbook shares a kinship with Brenda Hillman’s Cascadia, Christine Hume’s Alaskaphrenia, Brian Teare’s Sight Map, Andrew Zawacki’s Petals of Zero Petals of One, and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Some readers might enjoy the Mallarme inspired use of space featured in most of the poems (think: “Un Coup de Des”, or maybe Barbara Guest’s Quill, Solitary Apparition).

I have chosen and tagged the following writers to discuss their latest project(s) on their blogs or websites.  Thanks to these incredible artists for sharing their inspirations. Please feel free to visit their blogs and comment. Keep the circle moving!

1.  Fiction writer Ryan Wilson will be talking about his debut novel, Spiral Bound Brother, on March 20th.

2.  Poet Della Watson will be discussing her new book, Everything Reused In The Sea, now out through Mission Cleaners Books.  Della co-authored these poems with poet Jessica Wickens.  Della will be posting on March 27th.

3.  Poet Jessica Wickens will be discussing her new book, Everything Reused In The Sea, now out through Mission Cleaners Books.  Jessica co-authored these poems with poet Della Watson.  Jessica will be posting on April 3rd.

4.  Poet Tiff Dressen will be discussing her new book, because Icarus-children, out later this year.  Tiff will be posting on April 10th.

5.  Poet Ed Smallfield will be discussing his new work on April 17th.


Thanks to PRESS and Litquake Litcrawl!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to read from my two chapbooks at Litcrawl, thanks to Robin Ekiss’ generous invitation.  I read with three other inspiring poets, Dina Hardy, Sarah Maclay, Amy Maclennan,  and Genine Lentine, who also have chapbooks available, and I’m grateful to them for their work: I was also very impressed by the gorgeous simplicity of PRESS: Works on Paper (on 24th Street), an eclectic, creative bookstore that sells hard-to-find texts on everything from poetry to 70s Playboy anthologies, along with one-of-a-kind backpacks and stationary.  Thanks to the graciousness of PRESS, you can buy my chapbook at this beautiful store.

The bright future of my chapbook, and some new poems out!

I am fortunate and thrilled to share that that my second chapbook, in the way of harbors, has been accepted by Dancing Girl Press and will be published in early 2013!  I am in love with Dancing Girl’s vivid, vintage aesthetic and gorgeous covers; plus, they publish many inspiring women writers.  Please check them out and support them if you have not yet!  I am also happy to announce that a few of my new poems are now available at Diagram and Realpoetik!  Thanks especially to Lily Brown for all her warm support.

Watch this video of Rose Tully’s reading at Lone Glen!

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the readers at the Lone Glen prose night that I curated at the end of July.  Matt Martin, Paul Ocampo, and Anna Pulley all gave inspiring and diverse readings: Matt gave us hilarious rules on “How to be an Eccentric,” Paul read image and dialogue rich lines from his moving memoir, and the infamously witty Anna  gave us an unexpectedly serious and naked view of unsent love letters she once wrote to a married woman.  And the charismatic Rose Tully, often bent over with laughter at her own story, gave us this: “Earwigs”

Join our Lone Glen reading: Prose Night in the Garden!

Join us in our garden from 7-8:30 pm on Friday evening July 27th to hear seductive and scintillating prose from four inspiring, mind-bending writers: Matt Martin, Paul Ocampo, Rose Tully, and Anna Pulley.  Expect a prose gamut, including essay, memoir, experimental fiction, and stand-up comedy lines that are sure to bring you to laughter and tears! For complete details, go to LONE GLEN.  Please feel free to bring a friend who creates or admires those who do. Meet us at our home at 239 Cotter Street, SF, 94112.  We will provide wine, soda, and simple treats but if you have the means or memory, please bring something to share.  Don’t forget to bring a coat in case we are blessed with Twainian fog!

Lone Glen is a reading and art series motivated by a love of creative community and a passion for all art forms. We seek to create a space in which diverse artists, writers, and genre bending creators can mingle, share, and inspire.