• Tag Archives Omeros
  • From Powell’s, Back Into the World


    Portland from the Burnside BridgePortland. Walking west across the Burnside Bridge at dusk can bring you to your senses. Your legs tighten against the wind of passing cars and the lewd buzz of a motorbike fleet. Your vision grows fat on the baroque skyline glowing before you. Unlike other cities whose profiles front the sky, Portland’s is cradled by wooded hills to the southwest, rendering it, against its own extroversion, intimate, offered. You can’t refuse. Momentarily glutted, you look to your right for relief from the Willamette, and see in the waning light the illuminated windows of the light rail rolling through the trusses of the North Steel Bridge, and your memory skirts the peripheries of Bladerunner, Metropolis, Miyazaki. On the descent, you look over the guard into a waterside park deep in the city’s shadow, where youth trade joints and important thoughts. As you leave the bridge, you meet a contingent of the homeless gathered about the walls of the Portland Rescue Mission. A drunk man in pajama bottoms wends between parked cars, barking. At the base of a sidewalk tree you catch a whiff, not of urine, of life for once not your own.

    The North Steele BridgeIf you read books and know Portland, you know where this is heading. Ten blocks up from the bridge a large unprepossessing sign presides over the intersection –“Powell’s”. Because you are, at base, a romantic, you were half expecting this famous million-volume bookstore to be housed in something a bit lovelier than this particular building, this industrial rectangle with less architectural romance than a laundromat. Yet as you approach, as you take in the glass storefront, you feel expanded, as at that first sight of the ocean which had countered and held your sense of loss.


    I went to the Oregon Coast to see wave-bashed basalt, miles of sand, lighthouses, and to feel my tiny life threaded back into the large and varied world. Now I was in Portland, at Powell’s, looking for books, those cultural artifacts which more than any others address that very threading.

    Of the hundreds of books that beguiled from the kilometers of shelves, I came away with just six, an act of will helped along by the knowledge that whatever I bought had to fit in my carry on. Looking at this little pile now, I’m bemused. If not entirely arcane, its certainly idiosyncratic:

    Powell's BooksOMEROS (Derek Walcott)     Once again I was holding this book and looking at Walcott’s cover art, that yellow skiff scudding green surf, carrying four figures under a stormy sky. The skiff rides from right to left. In film theory, when a camera pans from right to left, the effect is of moving back in time, towards memory. I’ve always felt Walcott’s skiff is carrying its people home rather than to unknown shores. This is the aim of the epic as a form, to carry a culture across its own history back to itself. I have a recording of Walcott reciting a passage near its end: “I sang of quiet Achilles, Afolabe’s son,/ who never ascended in an elevator,/ who had no passport, since the horizon needs none…” Time to finally own a copy. A first edition, no less.

    FREDDY NEPTUNE (Les Murray)     A few years back, Dan Chiasson, writing for the New Yorker, described Australian poet Les Murray as “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” In whose routine? Apparently Walcott and Heaney had company about whom I knew nothing. I found and read a couple of volumes and discovered a cranky, captivating voice, brilliantly subversive, even of its own heartbreak. Chiasson wrote that Murray’s 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, about a German-Australian sailor who, during the First World War, witnesses something so horrific it causes him to lose all sense of feeling in his body, has “little competition…for the claim to being the best verse novel of our time.” I have never seen it in a bookstore, so when I saw it at Powell’s my impulse was to honor it for being there by buying it.

    THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Graham Greene)     When I asked my friend Anna Pendleton what her favorite book was, without a moment’s hesitation she said The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. “I love that book!” were she a gusher, she would have gushed. Anna is young, fiercely bright, lovely in all ways, a middle school English teacher, and a self-proclaimed introvert who nevertheless projects terrific energy. She will, I suspect, be single for a much shorter time than she imagines, though she will probably always be mildly chagrined by whomever she finds sitting intimately across from her. When I saw her literary love at Powell’s I opened it and began to read:

    A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact own my will to choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?

    Oh Anna, I thought, you like this? Are there no men like you?

    THE LOVED AND THE UNLOVED (Francois Mauriac)     After Patrick White, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner, François Mauriac may be my favorite novelist on the Nobel roster. I say “may be” because on any given day he would be elbowing in somewhere between Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, and José Saramago. Like Patrick White, Mauriac is not talked about much these days. I suspect it is because, as a flinty and ardent Catholic, the existentialists sautéed his reputation and ate it with a glass of Pinot. Too bad for those who read only for confirmation of the rightness of twentieth century malaise. Mauriac’s Catholic malaise, démodé though it is, can attain gruesome heights which leave even malaisophiles gasping for air. I had not heard of this book, a late one in his oeuvre.

    THE TROLLEY (Claude Simon)     I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of novels I’ve begun and failed to finish. Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon is one. It was the spoils of one of my undergrad expeditions into the library stacks. Willing I was, but simply not prepared for the nouveau roman’s daunting repudiations. Of plot, for example, and a meaningful sense of time. I’m a different reader now, and with Simon’s centenary coming up in October, it seems time give him another go. This book was his last, written at the age of 88.

    TWO LEGENDS: OEDIPUS AND THESEUS (André Gide)     I love modern versions of classic literature. Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”, for example, is one of my favorite poems. A few years back I wrote what I believed to be a brilliant poem on the subject of Theseus. I imagined him in old age, living in a ratty urban apartment, and returning to Hades to liberate Persephone who he and his friend Pirithous had once tried, and catastrophically failed, to abduct. The pathos I evoked, the intellectual rigor and linguistic flights, the adroit iambic pentameter – move over Derek! When I re-read it last year I was appalled by its pompous rigidity. The language certainly took flight –from clarity at every opportunity. I had come across this late work by André Gide in Santa Fe awhile back, and failed to buy it. I wanted to learn; no author’s pen runs more fleetly over maters of greater moral import.


    Like a one-night stand who in the morning you realize you’d actually like to get to know, I brought my purchases from the night before to a coffee shop south of the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the river to have a look at them in sober daylight. The Frenchies had won, I saw, and a point each for the Brits, the Aussies, and the Caribbean expats. Two were poets, four novelists. One had lived openly gay. Four had won a Nobel Prize, one probably should have, one still might. I felt happy. I knew that Sam, whom I had loved and lost, and whom I was missing terribly, would never have let me leave Portland without a stack of books just like this one.

    Powell's purchases


  • Derek Walcott won’t save you (part 2)

    Taking my cue from Mark Strand, I decided I would read through Walcott’s Selected Poems, a volume I had been picking at for some time.  For a while, it went everywhere with me.  I remember – it was sometime during the summer of 2008 – sweating by the window of one of the coffee shops I sometimes frequent.  Management at this particular spot kept the temperature in the room roughly equivalent to the inside of the dessert case, so it was either freeze or sweat.  A friend stopped in and sat with me for a few minutes.  He picked up my Walcott and said, “Ah.  Derek Walcott.  I suppose all dutiful poetry readers have an obligation to read him at some point.”  This is how he talks.

    “He’s fantastic.” I said, more out of defense than conviction.

    “I see.”

    I quickly assessed that it would not be worth the effort to speak as a grown-up would and ask him why he felt so archly dismissive of Walcott. So, the conversation shifted to other, transient subjects, quickly assuming the cadences of our familiar banter.  As amusing as this can sometimes be, I often find it wearing.  In such irony-burdened badinage, in which words are ramped up to mean more than they say, one usually ends up saying so much less than on one means. On this particular afternoon, stewing by the window past which joggers paraded, watching the breath of the other patrons condense in the artificially frigid air, feeling slightly resentful at my friend’s infringement on my limited time, I found myself growing less and less inclined to continue what was passing for a conversation.  When at last he left, I again opened my book and read the following:


    I sang of  quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,
    who never ascended in an elevator,
    who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

    never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
    whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
    (which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

    and unread by him).  I sang the only slaughter
    that brought him delight, and that from necessity –
    of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.


    Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” But some  poetry has more the effect of a masterfully placed acupuncture needle, causing a gentle but decisive release in the flow of one’s energy.  Often, in the moment, there is not much more to say about it than this.  One can return to it, examine how such an effect was arranged for by the poet.  How such an effect is actually achieved, if it is, may be an even more interesting question, though ultimately less literary, for it pertains to how a reader receives the text.  What, as it were, he does with the poem after he’s eaten it. The power of poetry – when it has power – has more to do with one’s digestion than one’s frontal lobes.

    Reading this, the opening lines of the final chapter of Omeros, I felt just such a release, hardly noticable, though noticable still, a slackening, if for only that moment, of all that was forced and artificial and taxing in life.  Here was language that was direct, rippling with meaning, meaning, but no doubleness, almost without irony.

    Almost.  It isn’t apparent at first.  Then one hears the summoning bell of the sixth and seventh lines. The poet asks his reader to come to for a moment. We’ll return forthwith to the list, the elegiac enumeration of the elements of this “song”.  But here, he nudges the reader out of the poetic dream, briefly, and  just enough to become aware of reading a book.  This one, without Achille’s drowning in it.  Achille – You weren’t thinking he isn’t real, were you?  Time enough to fall back on that position after putting it down and returning to your coffeehouse window, your companions, unknown and freezing, and whatever upcoming tasks you believe are limiting your time. – Achille never will.  And you may infer from this that he will never read any book. Partly because he is the poet’s creation, that about which he “sang”.  But also because  he created him as a contrast to the reader, whose circumstances as a reader, especially a reader of poetry, would be unimaginable to him.

    Derek Walcott is, perhaps more than any other major living poet, obsessed with how place impacts identity.  His poetic voice is endlessly questioning a certain concept of self (and self-worth) by drawing the subject’s surroundings, often sun-shot and Caribbean, but sometimes alien (read “European”), close about him, carefully examining what he’s been left with, what he’s been left without, and how this positions him in the world.  It could be partly this about Walcott that  bothers my dismissive friend, as he has little patience for people who didn’t somehow spring from Zeus’s head “knowing who they are.”  To allow such uncertainty to remain a poetic goad across a lifetime he would, I suspect, see as pure silliness.  Add to this the distant thunder of Walcott’s anger, the condensation of moral reckoning that forms around the edges of his rhetoric, and you’ll see my friend hightailing it out of there.  Even in this fragment, every word is Janus faced, pointing at the subject, inviting the reader’s love, and pointing back at the reader, subtly requiring something in return: Name everyone you know who hasn’t ridden an elevator. Don’t leave anyone out.  In Achille’s world there is no need of a passport, unlike in the divided and anxious world you likely inhabit.  If you are reading this poem you are well educated, and therefore almost certainly wealthy enough to have been served by wait staff, possibly even by waiters with Achille’s skin color and social standing.  He will not have been among them.  And now, let’s talk about slaughter. By the end of the poem, we stand, not accused, but confronted. The affection we have for this character – he repudiates our ready admiration – does not come free.  It asks a price not so glibly obviated by liberalism or “social responsibility”. Rather, like all great poetry, it asks that we take our own measure. “Quiet Achille,” he calls him.  How quiet, I wonder, are you? How quiet I?