Sara Wallace: Smoke in Streams of Light

Sara Wallace
photo: Rose Ann Franklin

Sara Wallace writes poems with vivid details, immersing you in her scenes, whether it’s a walk through the narrator’s grandparents’ farm in “Take This Old Coat” or the unflinching depiction of an abusive relationship in “You.” But her poetry can’t be reduced to “naturalism” on the one hand or “raw emotion” on the other; it’s the two elements in tandem that make the poems in The Rival stand out. It’s a point she takes up in this guest post, with reference to some of her own favorite poets…

I wanted to start with noir.
A woman’s dress like a tight shadow,
her fingertips dipped in darkness.
Beauty reduced to Glamour and made Suspect.

I am endlessly fascinated by Reality and Imagination and my favorite writers comment on and complicate this supposed binary. On one side, we have Reality—the commonplace, the solid, common sense, “salt of the earth” people and the hum-drum comfort of greasy spoons, where we “burst the bubble,” and “come back down to earth,” but where we also see “the cold light” and “hard truths,” where humankind’s greed and brutality are mundane givens. On the other side, we have Imagination—that imaginary get-away with a longed-for yet imminently unattainable Beauty, the “mystic visions and cosmic vibrations” (Allen Ginsberg, “America”) of faith, encounters with inspiring art, where there is charm, elegance, and wonder but where there is also affectation, ostentation, pride, “spells and incantation” (Keats, “To…”), and the constant danger of aesthetic failure (“I am going to dream up a tiger,” Borges writes in “Dreamtigers.” “Utter incompetence! A tiger appears, sure enough, but an enfeebled tiger…” )

Indeed, each side of the binary actually has multiple binaries within it, like the fractals studied in chaos theory. The most interesting contemporary poets play with this “hall of mirrors” effect. For example, Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Alyosha,” opens with a quasi-Gauguinian moment, with the narrator seemingly fetishizing locals: “the sound of women hidden / among the lemon trees.” The work as a whole, however, is hardly a simple celebration of primitivism (which, after all, exists in the imagination of the beholder). Gilbert’s disillusioned narrator knows that the reality of Beauty’s life is often terrible even as he covets her: “He is not innocent. / He knows the shepherdess will be given / to the awful man who lives at the farm /closest to him….”

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7 July 2015 | poets on poets |

David Constantine: A New Center of Attention

David Constantine
photo courtesy Bibiloasis

When you start reading In Another Country, it’s the precision of David Constantine’s prose that gets you first. His descriptions, his dialogue—it’s all so unnervingly exact, dropping you into scenes that are both immediately recognizable and profoundly unsettling. And one consequence of this exactitude is that you simply can’t skim a Constantine story. There’s that school of thought that every detail in a short story should be an essential detail, but actual stories live up to that theory to varying degrees—the point being that Constantine’s best work, as represented in this career-spanning collection (which includes stories from the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award-winning Tea at the Midland), hits that mark with riveting consistency. In this guest post, he explains the purpose behind this careful approach to language, a literary purpose that’s equal parts aesthetic and philosophical.

The phrase is Lawrence’s: “The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention.” So does fiction. And, doing it, poems and stories ask us to do the same: attend better. I associate that demand with Lear’s shocked utterance when he is evicted out of kingship onto the heath and begins to notice that the poor have a hard time of it: “O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this …” We all take too little care. Fiction and poetry jolt us into caring more. They widen our sympathy.

In practice the new effort of attention will most often have a polemical edge because it will alert us to the state we are in. The declaration that citizens have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be un-declared. So, alerted, paying attention, we look around us and see, at best, that the aspiration has been very imperfectly realized, and, at worst, that much has been done to make its realization unlikely or downright impossible.

Fiction and poetry continually remind us that we do not (are not permitted to, don’t try hard enough to) live as connectedly, wholly, humanely as we might. They help us imagine a livelier life.They do this intrinsically first by practising the autonomy without which no artistic creation is possible. That autonomy contradicts and challenges the unfreedom which in various forms (some more obvious than others) reduces our lives in society. And secondly, a poem or story unsettles us by its own truth and beauty because it confronts us with that famous pairing all too often in circumstances of very great ugliness and mendacity (trashed environment, debased public discourse and conduct, for example). Fiction and poetry by their intrinsic workings urge us not to give up the hope of freedom, truth and beauty. In fact, they incite us to revolt.

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14 June 2015 | selling shorts |

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