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God Writes Straight with Crooked Lines

Sos Del Rey Cotholoica, Aragon, Spain

Sos Del Rey Cotholoica, Aragon, Spain

A Portuguese proverb, “God writes straight with cooked lines,” is the best line and a good summary of The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The proverb, which means that strange events become clear with time, is a metaphor for the book, the story of the transport of an elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the fall of 1551.  

Owned by King Joao III of Portugal, Solomon, the elephant, is given as a wedding gift to Archduke Maximilian of Austria.  King Joao is speaking with his secretary.

Ah, no one can outdo your highness in dialectic and response.  Although there are those who say that the fates who presided over my birth did not endow me with a gift for words, Words are not everything, my lord, going to visit the elephant Solomon today is a poetic act and will perhaps be seen as such in the future.  What is a poetic act, asked the king, No one knows, my lord, we only recognize it when it happens, So far, though, I have only mentioned my intention of visiting Solomon, Ah, but the word of a king would, I’m sure, be enough, That I believe, is what rhetoricians call irony, Forgive me, your highness, You are forgiven, secretary, and if all your senses are of like gravity, your place in heaven is guaranteed.

Portuguese soldiers journey with Solomon and his mahout Subhro overland to Valladolid where the Archduke and his new wife take over and escort the pair by boat to Genoa, across the Alps to Innsbruck and down the Danube toward Vienna.

Like any good travel tale, The Elephant’s Journey is filled with bad weather, poor sleeping conditions, questionable provisions and dangerous conditions including wolves in Iberia and the threat of avalanche in the Brenner Pass.

One day, it starts to rain.

It isn’t true that heaven and the heavens are indifferent to our preoccupations and desires.  They’re constantly sending us signs and warnings, and the only reason we don’t add good advice to that list is that experience, heaven’s and ours, has shown that memory, which isn’t anyone’s strong point, is best not overburdened with too much detail.  Signs and warnings are easy to interpret if we remain alert, as the commanding officer discovered when, at one point along the route, the convoy was caught in a heavy drenching shower.  For the men engaged in the hard work of pushing the ox-cart, that rain was a blessing, an act of charity for the suffering to which the lower classes have always been subject.  Solomon and his mahout subhro also enjoyed that sudden cooling rain, although this did not prevent subhro from thinking that, in future, he really could do with and umbrella in such situation, perched up high and unprotected from the water falling from the clouds, especially on the road to vienna.

This highly improbable endeavor that lasts a good three months and involves the labor of dozens of porters, soldiers, oxen and horses actually took place.  Knowledge of the historical journey was itself the result of an unusual circumstance which came about when Saramago visited a Portuguese professor in Salzburg, Austria who took him to a restaurant that displayed wooden figures of buildings and monuments from cities along the route that Solomon journeyed.

Saramago uses his powers as omniscient narrator to observe the social disparities between royalty and the rest of the entourage, especially Subhro who rides above everyone on top of the elephant but who is totally dependent on the good graces of the archduke.  The elephant, on the other hand, never complains.  He endures an attempt at exorcism, agrees to perform a “miracle” by kneeling before a saint’s stature and saves a child from trampling by wrapping his trunk around her and raising her in the air.  But the people around Solomon are changed by him or by observing Solomon and Subhro together, resulting in respect for the elephant handler and even friendship.

What the reader does not know is that the real Solomon was born to royalty in a town in Sri Lanka that was a Portuguese trading post.   So Solomon has already traveled from Sri Lanka to Lisbon before Saramago introduces us to him.  Solomon’s fall from object of reverence in Sri Lanka to the back of the royal stables in Lisbon is something he bears stoically so long as his rather large portion of forage is consistently available.

In the Alps, a wheel on the Archduke’s carriage tears off, stopping the caravan but resulting in a fortuitous event for Solomon.  The Archduke has renamed Solomon and calls him Suleiman.

With heavy snow like this, the road is always light, no one will get lost, said the  sergeant …  And it was true because, at that moment, the cart carrying the forage arrived, and just in time, too, because suleiman  having dragged his four tons up those mountains, desperately needed to recharge his energies.  ….  When one thinks about it, the accident to the archducal coach could only have been an act of divine providence.  As that never sufficiently praised popular wisdom teaches us, and as has more than once been shown, god writes straight on crooked lines, and even seems to prefer the latter.  (Italics added.)

Saramago contrasts the Portuguese – sunny and intelligent – with the Austrians – cold and hidebound – and is nostalgic for a time before modernity and globalization, which, ironically, was set off in 1497 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

Readers may have difficulty with Saramago’s long sentences and unusual punctuation which neglects quotation marks, capitalization and even periods.  But the book is only about 200 pages long and the people, scenes, events and travel challenges move the book along and Saramago’s observations from high above give the reader something to think about along the way.


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Best American Poetry 2012

103 dino

Dinosaurs at the San Antonio Botanical Garden

Last year I reviewed many of the poems in The Best American Poetry 2011.  This year I am just going to make a few observations.

First, I was grateful for the explanations the poets provided.  In most cases their comments added a lot to understanding the poem and appreciating its nuances.  In a few cases, the explanations were as bizarre or obtuse as the poem.  There were very few poems like that, however.  The majority are thoughtful, dense and layered, and very personal in the sense that these poems are from deep inside the poet, the result of a great deal of thinking, remembering, studying, and toying with an idea or image.

Many poets commented that they had been working on the BAM poem for years, either to wait to be able to finish it or to subtract from it or to add to it.  Many used historical and literary sources as their muse; some poems just came from tapping a hidden memory or from a close observation.  A couple of poets self-referentially selected lines from their own, older, poems to trigger a new one.

However, using my newly found ModPo knowledge, I do not think any of these poets are in the chance or unoriginal camps.  There are a couple that are definitely Language Poets, but even then, when you read the poet’s comments on the poem, you realize these are not just randomly constructed sentences strung together.  Rae Armantrout’s Accounts, for instance is so much more accessible when you understand that she’s writing about a conversation she had with a physicist about the origin of matter.

All of the poets – with one exception – are academics with long or at least established positions and many publications.  One exception is Spencer Reece who is chaplain to the Bishop of Spain.  Reginald Betts is an author and spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice; Stephanie Brown is a librarian;; a Canadian, Steven Heighton, is a novelist;  Sarah Lindsey is a copy editor; Amit Majmudar is a radiologist; Fady Joudah is a physician.

Franz Wright says he “…cannot say I have an occupation…”  There are several other full time writers, usually novelists.

There are no plumbers, carpenters or secretaries; no clerks or street sweepers.  These are careerist poets, not dilatants.  That could be a function of the guest editor, Mark Doty, who freely admits that the anthology could be called, “Seventy-Five Poems Mark Likes.”  But, as a well-established poet and professor himself, Doty no doubt is also responding to his tribe.

Finally, two last comments.  A couple of women, actively mothering, I believe, mentioned their children in their bios.  Only one man did, the physician Fady Joudah.

Mary Ruefle is an artist as well as a poet.  She erases words from books to create new text.  Her website is and well worth checking out.

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The “Level Four Poetry Manifesto”

In the Spring issue of the Museletter, The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets newsletter, Lester Smith, the WFOP President, writes about how William Roetzheim selected poems for the Giant Book of Poetry.

To back up a minute, I’d like to say that I sure wish I’d seen these criteria first but since this blog is my on-line poetry scrapbook, I want to make note of them here so I don’t forget them. They are good.

Okay. William Roetzheim is the editor of the Giant Book of Poetry, which was published in 2006. In the introduction, he writes that to understand what makes a poem good, and thus understand the criteria for including a poem in the anthology, we must turn to his “Level Four Poetry Manifesto.”

Poetry, according to Roetzheim, operates on four levels. On Level One, the poem must communicate on the denotative level, or on a direct level with the casual reader, e.g., the poem might tell a story, describe an image, or contain a surprise ending.

Level Two poems communicate on the connotative level; they suggest something more, such as music, communicated through meter or rhyme.

At Level Three, poems may have a separate message conveyed through a metaphor, for instance, that becomes apparent when pointed out to a non-skilled reader of poems.

Finally, Level Four uses a symbol to communicate a separate message. Roetzheim says Level Four poems have both literal and representational meanings, and readers should be able to “fill in the specific meaning that applies most closely to their personal life.”

Each level builds on the previous level and should not be skipped, although many poets go straight to Level Three or Four, leaving innocents in the dust. Roetzheim contends that Levels One and Two grab the reader and without them, the poem will be lost to history, and not read and re-read. Further, he says poets should begin writing at Level One and then move on to Levels Two, Three and Four.

I am used to looking for symbols in art, but not so much in poetry. But now I own a Kindle copy of The Giant Book of Poetry so I will read the poems knowing that all four levels are there, waiting for me to find them. “The Level Four Poetry Manifesto” is a very interesting and useful construct for readers and writers of poems. I’m grateful to Les for writing about it in the Museletter.

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My Time With Walt

A few months ago I ran across a list of the ten best American poems, posted by Jay Parini on the Guardian web site.  He starts with “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman.  I’d read Whitman as a student and recall thinking:  stuffy 19th Century language full of poeticisms and bad odes to Lincoln.  But, here was a Brit saying Whitman’s “Song” was number one in a list of the ten best.  I had to start over with Walt.

I don’t recall where or how I heard about C. K. Williams 2010 book, On Whitman.  It’s a joyous celebration of what moves Williams about Whitman:  his music.  He starts with Whitman’s genius:  where did it come from?  Maybe the King James Bible, maybe Shakespeare; maybe, just maybe from nowhere but inside Whitman’s head and heart and ear. 

Williams discusses Whitman’s biography, his notebooks and revisions, his audacity, his sexuality, the poets influenced by him, and Whitman’s imagination:  inclusive, accepting and exhalting.  “Isn’t this, finally, what all art eternally promises us?  That it will make our own imaginations more encompassing and at the same time more acute?” Williams asks.

Williams drops references like leaves along a path, and I now have a list of about a dozen books, compendiums and scholarly analyses, about Walt Whitman.  However, recalling my original memory of Whitman’s poems, I discovered that I probably read the “death bed” version of 1891-92.  I knew that Whitman tramped about, adding and scribbling, expanding on Leaves of Grass over time, but what I did not know – what my teachers did not tell me – is that Whitman suffered from “the law of elapsed time,” in Galway Kinnell’s words in The Essential Whitman.

Kinnell writes, “All writers know this law:  revision succeeds in inverse ratio to the amount of time passed since the work was written.”  Whitman’s final, self-approved version of 1891-92 is the one that he probably thought addressed the critics, covered for youthful exuberance, seemed more “poetic.”  However, Williams recommends the first, 1855 edition as the greatest poet’s greatest work.  He also recommends Kinnell’s The Essential Whitman, “…a great poet’s personal line-by-line culling and reassembling of the best of the poetry,” and Gary Schmidgall’s Walt Whitman:  Selected Poems 1855-1892.

The thing is, except for these two recommendations, it is not easy to find the early Walt Whitman.  I stopped at a university bookstore and among the five books of Walt Whitman’s poems or Leaves of Grass, the prefaces all quoted from Whitman’s preface to the 1891-92 version as Whitman’s own final version, and that is what followed.  I wanted Walt on my Kindle; the various versions available are not identified by edition.  Reading them, they appear to be the deathbed version.  I finally found the 1855 First Edition version of Leaves of Grass, for ninety-nine cents, by searching the Amazon website first and then clicking on the Kindle version.

So now I have a good handle on which “Song of Myself” to read:

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul.

I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

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The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy



Chinese paintings have writing on them.  Sometimes it is the artist’s name and personal seal.  But the writing can be a philosophical treatise or a kind of journal entry about the painting – the style, the occasion, the artist’s feelings at the time, or relationships with friends or patrons.  Michael Sullivan, in his book, The Three Perfections:  Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy, says that “…the idea that writing and painting belong together is a very ancient one in China.”

The inscriptions may be distinguished as follows:  those written by the painter, those written by friends, and later comments by collectors or connoisseurs.    Sullivan says, “Needless to say, no one would, or should, dare to write on a painting unless his handwriting were accomplished, and the sentiments, however conventional, were elegantly expressed.” 

Friends might add a bit of social history about the painter and the painting, but comments by great critics or connoisseurs would add to the value of the painting.  The Chinese do not see the painting as a complete artistic statement, but “…as a living body, an accretion of qualities, imaginative, literary, historical, personal, that grows with time, putting on an ever-richer dress of meaning, commentary and association with the years.”  Of course, imperial inscriptions were in a class by themselves, sometimes commonplace and sometimes beautiful poems.

Sullivan writes about the interplay between poetry and painting.  A Sung poet wrote that the writings of a famous poet are paintings without form; and a famous painter’s work is a poem without words.  According to Sullivan, “Painting was often called ‘silent poetry,’…and thought of as a way of release of feelings that need not, or sometimes could not, be put into words.” 

During periods of political repression, a painter/poet could not express his opposition in words.  Sullivan sites an example of a painter who expressed his feelings about the Mongol invasion by painting uprooted orchids and adding a very neutral sounding inscription.  Later, scholars added inscriptions interpreting the painting more explicitly than the painter could express himself.

When they could express themselves, painters felt that a landscape without a poem would be without interest.  The painting must be “…developed as it were, like a photographic image, by the poems, before the viewer can become aware of it,” Sullivan writes.  “When painting and poem appear together, the one reinforces the other, taking the idea far beyond the visual or verbal images, and meaning and feeling vibrate in some mysterious way between the two.”

A philosopher may write about truth that is obtained through his experience of the world and especially nature.  A painting, by evoking the images he experienced, is a symbol of his spiritual journey.

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Ruth Zardo

Ruth Zardo is a poet from Three Pines, a village in Quebec Province, Canada, the fictional creation of Louise Penny, who writes a mystery series set in Three Pines.  In the second of the series, A Fatal Grace, Ruth has just published a book of poetry called, I’m FINE, and some village members go to a book signing at Ogilvy’s department store in Montreal.

Ruth is a true curmudgeon.  She is seventy something, she drinks, often from someone else’s glass, and she swears like a trucker.   She signs the book of a villager with the inscription:  You Stink.   Ruth is also a natural leader:  she is chief of Three Pines’ volunteer fire department, skills which become needed later in the book.

The villagers give as good as they get from Ruth.  It is Christmas time and the gay man who owns the village bistro, whom Ruth calls “fag,” says Ruth will portray Father Christmas because she does not have to grow a special beard.  Ruth writes bristly poems that well from some vast source of pain.  Here is an example:

‘Forget what?

Your sadness, your shadow,

whatever it was that was done to you

the day of the lawn party

when you came inside flushed with the sun,

your mouth sulky with sugar,

in your new dress with the ribbon

and the ice-cream smear,

and said to yourself in the bathroom,

I am not the favorite child.’

Much later in the book, the wife of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the Surete headquarters in Montreal, says that the letters FINE in the title of the book of poetry must be an acronym for something.  Sure enough, when Gamache asks, Ruth says, “…FINE stands for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical.  I’m FINE.”

Another character, Clara, reads poetry in the bathtub, humming and moaning.  Her husband is jealous:  “He wanted all her moans.  But she moaned for Hecht and Atwood and Angelou and even Yeats.  She groaned and hummed with pleasure over Auden and Plessner.  But she reserved her greatest pleasure for Ruth Zardo.”

You were a moth

brushing against my cheek

in the dark.

I killed you

not knowing

you were only a moth,

with no sting.’

The series is a delight, full of village characters, some of whom have deadly secrets; breakfast at the bistro with fresh croissants and homemade jam; a smart, sensitive detective who sometimes quotes Shakespeare, loves his
wife and has conflicts with his boss; and lots and lots of snow.

Ruth Zardo is the vinegar in an otherwise sweet setting.  A keen observer who listens only to her own counsel, she’s a poet worth getting to know.


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Do you read your horoscope?  I used to read mine all the time, especially when I was working.  Horoscopes seem geared to working people looking for a better job or more money and to singles looking for love.  Sometimes the horoscope was eerily prescient.  I guess that’s what kept me reading it. 

Now I read my horoscope when I feel uncertain about something, or when I want an intimation of the future.  Last weekend with the girlfriends, I read it right away, the first morning we were together.  Here it is:

There is no need to worry about your public perception.  You are seen in many different ways by many different people, and you have little control over it now.  The happier you are the more effective you will be.

“…little control…now.”  Interesting, that word now.  As though sometimes you can control people’s perception?  Well, try to, I suppose.  Anyway, I took to heart the message to be happy.  You can’t go wrong with that advice, no matter what.

I have a cartoon I cut out from The New Yorker that shows an editor leaning over the desk of the resident astrologist exclaiming, “You mean all this time you’ve been making up the horoscopes?”  I sometimes feel that way about Rob Brezsny’s horoscopes. 

Brezsny’s website is at  He writes a weekly newsletter that includes a bit of his philosophy of “Pronoia” and, of course, horoscopes.  My horoscope for the current week includes the following prediction:

Speaking as a poet, not a scientist, I speculate that
those two luminaries, the sun and moon, may also generate a lurching but
medicinal effect on you sometime soon. Are you ready for a healing jolt?
It will relieve the tension that has been building up between two of your
“tectonic plates.”

The line breaks are an accident of WordPress, but I like them.  Brezsny also quotes this week from his book, Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia, saying “poet Kay Ryan told the Christian Science Monitor how she cultivates the inspiration to write. She rouses the sense of a ‘self-imposed emergency,” thereby calling forth psychic resources that usually materialize only in response to a crisis…. She visualizes hypothetical situations that galvanize her to shift into a dramatically heightened state of awareness.”

Somehow I think that poets will not need to visualize a self-imposed emergency soon.  There have been enough shocking events this year to keep us busy for years.  However, it is possible that a healing jolt to my tectonic plates may well lead to a heightened state of awareness.  I am open to it and I can’t wait to find out so I can write about it!  Until next week’s horoscope, that is.

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