Poetry from the Catbird Seat: Don Share

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Don Share




Poetry from the Catbird Seat: Don Share by Jeremy Glazier

April 16th, 2014 reset - +

BARELY A FRACTION of the poetry written today will be read or studied a hundred years from now, and that is true of any era. If a magazine like Poetry takes poetry’s pulse each month in America and beyond, its occasional anthologies offer a long-term health report. It is a way not only of cataloging the poets and poems who stood the test of time (or those the editors believe will do so) but also of archiving “[m]any fine poems by authors not destined to what, prematurely, we call immortality” — to quote from Daryl Hine’s introduction to The Poetry Anthology: 1912-1977, which he edited with the magazine’s second-longest serving editor, Joseph Parisi.

Monroe and Henderson arranged their anthology alphabetically; Hine and Parisi took a chronological approach, decade by decade. But whatever the organizing principle, these anthologies suggest that poetry’s sustainable health lies not just with the William Carlos Williamses, the Ezra Pounds, and the Marianne Moores, but also with the Edith Wyatts, the Allen Upwards, and the Clara Shanafelts — all of whom appeared in The New Poetry, though their names aren’t likely to ring any household bells today. Monroe’s justification of her selection:

We have tried to be hospitable to the adventurous, the experimental, because these are the qualities of pioneers, who look forward, not backward, and who may lead on, further than we can see as yet, to new domains of the ever-conquering spirit of beauty.

One finds a slightly less optimistic, or perhaps simply more pragmatic, echo in Hine, whose task of culling 65 years of the magazine’s history was, understandably, a bigger strain on the eyes: “Our inevitable myopia as participants in our own time,” he writes, “limits our perspective with regard to the products of that time.”

Imagine, then, the task faced by Don Share and Christian Wiman when they were asked to edit an anthology for Poetry’s centenary in 2012. “We didn’t want to do the anthology,” Share confessed to me during a phone conversation earlier this year. “Everyone was sick of hearing that ‘Prufrock’ was in Poetry magazine. We thought there was no way we could do the ‘greatest hits’ thing.” And they didn’t. What they came up with is an unexpected contrast to its predecessors. Its table of contents refuses the alphabetical and rejects the chronological in favor of an “idiosyncratic sequence” (in Share’s words), an eclectic, catch-as-catch-can approach that results in surprising juxtapositions and discoveries. And whereas Hine and Parisi’s volume holds some 520 pages of poems, Share and Wiman’s is quite compact, with fewer than 200. It is a mere “century” of poems: “100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine,” as the subtitle of The Open Door has it.

The book starts with Pound’s 1913 version of “In a Station of the Metro” and ends with Yeats’s “The Fisherman,” from 1916. In between, the reader finds Charles Wright’s “Bedtime Story” (2004) followed by Delmore Schwartz’s “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” (1938) — it’s hard not to imagine someone’s having a laugh there. H.D.’s “His Presence” (1933: “I foreswore lover and love…”) sits next to Rae Armantrout’s “Transactions” (2011: “What do we like best / about ourselves? / Our inability / to be content.”). Sprinkled throughout the book are selections in prose from Poetry’s “Comment” section or from letters to the editor: “It is all very well to group by-gone artists into schools for class-room convenience,” Amy Lowell cautions in 1914. “But these are purely exterior phenomena and leave the profound individuality of the artist untouched.” John Ashbery isn’t represented by a poem in the print version of the book. “It was the only time Chris pulled rank on me,” Share explained — though Ashbery’s “El Dorado” replaces Schwartz’s “Chez Jane” in the ebook version. But he does get a word in edgewise: “It is for moments like this,” Ashbery writes in 1957, “that one perseveres in [a] difficult poem, moments which would be less beautiful and meaningful if the rest did not exist, for we have fought side by side with the author in her struggle to achieve them.”

One senses that struggle — and that perseverance — toward beauty and meaning being played out in Share’s own work, as well. Though he admits that editing Poetry comes at a certain price: “I work every waking hour and don’t sleep much.” The editorial staff is small, they receive 120,000 poems a year, and they often work on four issues of the magazine at once, which leaves precious little time for his own poetry. But, he quips (and I get the sense he’s only half joking): “The better people get to know me as an editor, the less interest they seem to have in my own work.” If that’s true, it’s a shame, because Share has given us three excellent books of verse in the last 12 years. He has written poetry that — to borrow Wiman’s description of the poems in The Open Door — exists on a “spectrum between life and learning, between linguistic powers honed to surgical precisions and the messy living reality out of which all language, if it would stay alive, must be rooted.”

“Language,” Share tells me, “has its devices on us all the time. It’s been abused by politicians and advertisers, and almost every kind of language we have now is either bullshit or ironic. It’s hard to be surprised; it’s hard to be taken aback.” As a poet and as the editor of Poetry, Share says he’s “looking for language that wakes us up.” One place where Share found that kind of language early on was in the work of Miguel Hernández, the 20th-century Spanish poet whose poetry he has translated and championed. Share’s translations of Hernández were first collected as I Have Lots of Heart: Selected Poems in 1998 from Bloodaxe Books, and last year they were reissued as part of the NYRB/Poets series.

“I never had that experience of the first book being my own work,” he says. Yet anyone who’s done any translating knows how thin and blurry the line is between the poet’s work and the translator’s. I quoted to Share a line from Peter Fallon’s note to Virgil’s Georgics, thinking he might agree that “[i]deally, the translation of a poem by a poet displays attributes consonant with the kind of poems he or she composes.” Instead, Share insisted, “There’s nobody more different from me than Hernández.” Certainly, in terms of biography, that’s true — Hernández fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and died in prison at the age of 31 — but Share was talking about poetry, so I asked him to elaborate. “It’s hard to translate someone like you,” he said, “because you project so much into it.” Indeed, translation seems to entail a double dose of projection — the projection of the translator’s voice into the poet’s voice, which is already a projection of sorts.

Virgil’s early work, with its finger on the pulse of Roman society, its deep engagement with the poetry of its time and of the immediate past, nevertheless makes an interesting parallel to I Have Lots of Heart, which might be Hernández’s Eclogues, if not Share’s. Poems like “Your Heart is a Frozen Orange” and “Lightning That Never Ends” — beautifully crafted sonnets in Spanish, many of which are on themes of nature, love, and the hardship of war — can be likened to the shepherd’s songs that paved the way for Virgil’s later, greater works. (The analogy isn’t much of a stretch. Share tells us, “For most of his life Miguel worked in the family business as a shepherd.” Octavio Paz, in his homage to the poet, describes his singing voice as “sounding like the countryside.” The image of Hernández as shepherd, peasant, and pastoral poet is reiterated by Pablo Neruda, Rafael Alberti, and others who knew him and heard him read — or sing.)

And Hernández’s poems do sing in Share’s versions. The images are bold and striking, and he manages to find music even when he doesn’t find true rhymes in English. When he does find them, they can be astonishing, as in the near-perfectly rhymed sestet of “You Threw Me a Bitter Lemon”:

You threw me a bitter lemon
from a hand so warm and pure
that I tasted the bitterness
without spoiling its architecture.

With a yellow jolt, my sweet
and lazy blood turned hot, possessed,
and so I felt the bite
of the tip of that long, firm teat.

But glancing at you and seeing the smile
that this lemon condition produced
(so at odds with my greed and guile),

my blood blacked out inside my shirt,
and through that porous golden breast
I felt a pointed, dazzling hurt.

¤

Share’s first collection of his own work, Union, published by Zoo Press in 2002, actually begins with a translation of another Spanish poet, Luis de Góngora. Share uses poems by Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo, two 16th-century masters of the Spanish sonnet, to introduce each of the book’s three sections. The first is a small catalog of apocalyptic visions — “split clouds, broken-mouthed winds, / high towers kissing their own foundations” — but the poet, though he lives in “days like Noah’s,” can only think of his own worries:

shepherds, dogs, cabins, and cattle,
             over the waters I saw them, formless, lifeless,
and nothing more than my own cares troubled me.

What follows in Union deals extensively with those cares. “Signals over Hill” focuses on the need to make sense of the poet’s childhood history. A wider history — that of Share’s native Tennessee and the burden and legacy of its past — is addressed in “Dilemma,” with its backdrop of Shiloh (“There is no sign of the future here, / And the past? All murk”) and Memphis (“Where the past still hurts, and gets sung about”):

But not even a war set everybody free.
In the original disaster of our history
we became Christ-haunted, contrapuntal.
We fought America in ourselves.
We pitched a dilemma, and it still
heaves us around on its wild horns.

Share often represents the “union” in these poems — marriage, faith, family, country — as disunion, rupture, separation, and war, civil or otherwise. The skillful and intricate use of rhyme and other formal elements to structure the poems’ discord is a hallmark of Share’s work. Union begins on a sonnet and ends with a villanelle, and in between the book achieves a balance of form and free verse. “I am odd and getting older,” Share writes in “Refrains,” a poem that begins, “So I broke our wedding vows”:

Maybe the secret of love is to let
It gets, like the unscalable peaks, colder.
She was the hottest thing, my tropics, and yet —
Each season passes. But to forget
Her is impossible no matter how long ago
It was she got wind of this, and let me go.

The long title poem, penned in short, unrhymed couplets, is an elegy for the South written just as war threatens to tear the country apart. The specter “of blood and dust / of war lost / of the South’s ghost / disgraced” hangs over Memphis, “but the monuments / engraved and broken / leave their marks / and contain understanding / forever: / The South has gone down / and it will not come up.” What does threaten to rise again is the river and a war in which “America folds in / on itself and against itself,” as the river does. The Mississippi snakes its way through the poems in Union like an artery. It is “a long American wound” whose “currents flow / like knuckled roots / into one lonesome earth.”

Union is a tour de force, establishing Share’s credentials as well as his poetic voice. From the (Spanish) Golden Age of the opening poem to the ironic “golden age” of “Pax Americana,” it’s clear that “The good old days are over,” as Share tells us, “and peace is history; / and that’s why I left home / and that’s why I have no home.”

¤

Many of Union’s themes are continued in Share’s next collection, 2007’s Squandermania. If the poet left home in Union, he came back to it in full force in his second book, though he admits in the title poem that “Domestic bliss is, after all, hit or miss.” Threaded through the book are poems of various domestic crises, real or imagined: the existential fallout from marriage, child-rearing, and the evolving relationship with one’s parents as they age.

“Our separation / brings spaciousness / to my life,” Share writes in Union’s “Ending is a True Marriage.” He continues: “solitude is a bargain; / I hold up my end.” But in Squandermania’s opening poem, things have been patched up, for better or worse, and solitude wears a different mask. Marriage — that most sacred “union” — becomes “the island, / alien, / of our affections.” This time it’s not the speaker but the spouse who’s playing Robinson Crusoe: “you’re marooned / in our marriage / again.” That “again,” isolated in its own stanza and repeated later in the poem, seems like one deserted atoll in a long archipelago.

But there are consolations. There’s a daughter who, despite the initial reminder of the poet’s own mortality (“I look / at my daughter / and the thing is, / I’m a dead man”), also brings a renewed sense of joy and wonder to the world. In “Maddy’s New Rhyme,” the child’s discovery of the consonance between “clock” and “dark” is superimposed on a more complex consonance between time and death, and on her father’s own role in the perpetuation of that cycle (after all, we read later, “To father is a verb”):

Millennia of dark ink, not blood,
illuminate the paper-thin walls
of our kindred veins: it’s the dead
who keep us going,
because they couldn’t live without us.
It’s because of them that we
have to keep going.

Suddenly, this existence that he has played a role in bringing into the world causes him to question everything he thought he knew. Staring at “the sprawling of hairs on the sink — / brown, hers; black, mine —” that “curl into question marks,” he wonders:

What if the terrorists strike again?
What if I don’t live to see my daughter thrive,
or she survive to escort me to my grave?
Larger questions:
Who will be free? Who will die?
What is paradise?

The daughter herself, young though she is, brings her father round with more grounded and immediate questions. Spying the holes left by animals foraging in the winter outside the window, she asks “whether seeds are lonely” and “why / are there wounds in the ground / here…here…here…here?” Like most children, she has no way of knowing that “she is [his] microcosm,” but she is.

As for his own parents, that’s an even more complicated relationship. Children “inherit” their parents, Share suggests in “The Sandpaper Ministry.” That inheritance, however, can be brutal. In a brilliant sequence of four sonnets late in the book, we see the poet reconsidering his own inheritance, the relationship to his mother and father refracted through misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misprisions. The phrase “Honi soit quit mal y pense,” the motto of the British Royal Order of the Garter — or, rather, the slight mis-rendering of it as “Evil / To him who evil does” — becomes an occasion for coming to terms with a father’s physical abuse. In “Bookish Men,” the mother’s quip, “The age of chivalry is gone” (“apparently quoting Burke”) forces the speaker to reflect not only on his parents’ “marriage / Of inconvenience” but also on how its “cheerless shire of shared sham and rage” made him who he is.

Reading these sonnets, it’s hard not to recall James Merrill’s sequence “The Broken Home,” partly, of course, because of the form and the subject matter. “A Drop in the Bucket” ends,

Words, to Dad, were data, nothing to be spoken;
to Mom, syllables strung together, each a token.
My mother wanted to be remembered and quoted;
her magisterium was full-bore, lachrymose, full-throated.

But while these gnomic verses, with their sly rhymes and byzantine architecture, may be scathing portraits of the parents, they also share Merrill’s oddly touching nostalgia, which perhaps accounts for their beauty as well as their brutal honesty.

I’ve focused here on Squandermania’s poems about family matters, but other themes are threaded through this multifaceted book. War is a recurring presence. Sometimes it is in the foreground, but more often it is mentioned almost off-handedly, as though it’s been fully assimilated into everyday reality. In “Rest,” the “Sabbath is a river that flows / every day but Sunday, / yet there is no rest / from war.” The poet asks in “The Counterfeiters,” “So who dreamed that this war would begin?” And in “This building is alarmed (anger language),” the natural world itself echoes omnipresent human conflict: “The pyracantha thorns scrape the side of our house / saying, ‘War…war…war…’” Even in some of the poems of domestic strife, the war on terror isn’t far from the speaker’s mind.

Despite that, there is also humor here and a reveling in the relative freedom of verse and in the joy the poet finds in language, which remains another of the consolations of being human. We need such consolations wherever we can get them. In “The Dead Language,” the discovery of a polyp leads to a hard look at what really matters, since “a few virtues are what makes us human / [and] the rest is death”:

I refuse to call it a polyp
on the grounds that this sounds cultivated
and terminiological, God, anything but that!

Share’s resigned laughter in the face of “what makes us human” — the existential doubts, the family drama, war, and, yes, even the polyps — is rarely cynical. It’s genuine and searching and resilient:

[…] like a poet
a man should stick to his very last
so please give me what I have or even less
then let me live for what’s left of my life.

And, like so much of Share’s work, ultimately it’s wise.

¤

Wise, yes, but also funny. One of several humorous epigrams in his third collection, Wishbone (2012) — this one titled “Hwæt!” — asks, “Who among the angels would hear me, / if I started screaming my head off?” This wry, almost self-deprecating couplet brings to mind Share’s comment about people being more interested in him as an editor than as a poet. Of course, if the angels can’t hear you perhaps you’re in the wrong place — or headed there. But my sense is that Don Share is right where he needs to be, even if, as they say, there’s no rest for the wicked.

“Drink your ass off, scream your head off!” he writes early on in this third book. “It’s why / God gave you that molecule of his indecipherable wrath.” Perhaps it’s that very indecipherability of the divine spark — a struggle between us and the gods that the Greeks called our agon, the root both of “agony” and “protagonist” — that accounts for Share’s wisdom as well as his humor. There are a number of poems here that deal with a father’s death — presumably the same father who in Squandermania “cursed and bruised me and saw no evil / In doing so.”

In Wishbone’s “Epitaph” (a poem, incidentally, that seems far too long to fit on a tombstone, though maybe that’s the point) each of the four stanzas exhorts us to “pray to God he absolves us all.” It’s hard to get through the book without feeling that such absolution might just be possible. In the brief “Bowling on the Day of Atonement,” we learn that,

My old man used to say
a little rain never hurt anybody.

There were downpours
at his funeral.

After his father’s death, the poet becomes his doppelgänger. In “The Man Who Walks Like Me,” he writes,

Now that my father isn’t
around anymore, I’m the guy
at home who has to look old.

Limping around the house, he seems to have taken on the burden of his father’s sins — although by the end of the book, in “Lines Written During Harvest Time,” the speaker, “though sad,” has “quit saying Kaddish for Dad.”

Absolution doesn’t necessarily mean salvation — at least not for everyone. Someone, after all, has to get the short end of the wishbone. In “Ready for a Psalm of My Own,” the poet, finding himself on the “L” amid a sea of slack-mouthed Chicago commuters staring into their iPhones, declares he’s “done praying daily for the souls / of the commuting dead”:

waiting on the Green Line train to Harlem
and Lake, waiting for climate change
when it already has. The shekel
stops here!

Such judgment isn’t merely directed at others, either. Likening himself to an Odysseus “in the Loop, the very definition / of hideous,” he remarks: “If I were any less resilient, I / would have to be a murderer.” Well, we’ve all had those moments, to be sure (particularly on public transportation), where humanity blurs into a dirty, sweaty mass that threatens our sense of individuality. But for Share that’s a short-lived feeling. As he writes very seriously in the otherwise funny “Fantasia on the Rapture,”

[…] I don’t believe
that an individual is
the result of a crowd of a million
divided by a million.

However comforting that may be, many of these poems, whatever else they’re about, are also about the difficulty of keeping open the lines of communication that connect us as individuals and as a collective. (Another of Share’s epigraphs, “Civilization and Its Discontents” — this one consisting of just two lines — quips, “I’ve never sent a telegram, / and now it’s too late!”) Even on “High Holidays,” such as Yom Kippur, the poet finds himself “Rushing over the notes” of the Kol Nidre, “as if in an unearthly / hurry to get someplace.” Where that place is, perhaps his father can tell us. In the meantime, we talk, or pray, or sing — though,

[…] our songs
are heard by no one
but us, and here, and only here,
just this once.

That’s okay. Sometimes it’s less about who hears you and more about who listens. Share is a poet worth listening to. Not just because he’s inherited one of the most defining literary magazines in American history — and as the editor of Poetry, he’s certainly in a position not just to share but to shape that history in the years to come. Not just because he’s an accomplished translator and a respected anthologist (including a beautiful edition of Basil Bunting’s translations of Persian poetry and an earlier collection called Seneca in English).

Yes, he’s in the catbird seat. The catbird, appropriately enough, is a songbird. But in the poem “Wishbone,” Share sings the song of an alley cat who “get[s] yelled at in human / language every single day / for things [he] can’t begin / to comprehend, let alone change.” The words might describe a bad day at the Poetry office. But in fact the poem goes on to reveal the deep sympathy, empathy, and humility that characterizes the work of Don Share:

I wouldn’t harm a fly normally,
but why doesn’t anybody
take care of me? How am I
supposed to know that it’s Easter,
that I’m not allowed to die
in my own bed, and that neither prong
of this wishbone is meant for me?

Ultimately, Share is worth listening to because he’s a fine poet in his own right. But grab either end of his work — the poems and translations on the one hand, or his work as editor and anthologist on the other — and it quickly becomes obvious that both prongs are meant for him. And they’re meant for us, as well, one end always reinforcing the other. It’s a wishbone that won’t easily snap in two. But that’s okay; we can share.

¤

Jeremy Glazier lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University. His poems have appeared in A Public Space, Antioch Review, Denver Quarterly, The Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

 

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