Tuesday, February 17, 2009

pinsky, as in sat-guru

-jeffery mcnary

“In the presence of the sat guru; knowledge flourishes; sorrow diminishes; joy wells up without any reason; abundance dawns; all talents manifest.”
-The Upanishads

Before a rapt audience, Robert Pinsky recently stepped to the podium in the Fullerton Room of the venerable Art Institute of Chicago. He acknowledged the richness of the place and the works therein. He acknowledged the art itself 21st century Chicago has become as an architectural Mecca. And with his understated grace and his usual dignity, the former Poet Laureate of the United States pauses, looks around the filled to capacity auditorium, and checks in,

I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
And we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
The earth and have forgotten that we existed

It was not maya, it was not a ladder to perfection,
It was this cold sunlight falling on this warm earth.

When I turned you went to Hell. When your ship
Fled the battle I followed you and lost the world
Without regret but with stormy recriminations.
Someday far down that corridor of horror the future
Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame
At a stall in a dwindled city will study your face
And decide to harbor it for a little while longer
From the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath

Then silence. Captive in my seat by the crashes of his verse, I heard Pinsky say, “ ‘Antique’, from Gulf Music. It’s the second to last poem in the book.” Almost whimsically he continued, “I was angry at the time I wrote it. I was angry with, with Bush, and Cheney, and Gonzales, and our foreign policy. Then it just became something else. It evolved into something else.” More silence. And from what I could tell, no one exhaled.

Robert Pinsky is a poet, a professor, a writer who shares communion with those absent, those seen and unseen. He writes for the dead. He writes of the maimed, and of fools who sit with their anger, and of celebrations, and of those unable to put crayons down, and of those poised in their wretched existence, and of course, if that is not enough, he forces you, against your wishes to hang there between righteousness and revenge. Those familiar with his work, can only sit, or stand and mouth the words. Robert Pinsky is a gem…who has fallen into American hands.

In his, Poem of Disconnected Parts, also from 'Gulf Music', he even asks:

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather

I met the laureate almost two years to the day of the Chicago session. At that time he’d stopped by the Bartos Theatre at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a snowy night to join a cadre of friends and associates knocking about poetry, democracy and his collaboration with Tod Machover, a composer and professor of media arts and sciences at the Institute. The synergy, ‘Death and the Powers’, Dr. Pinsky said at that time, is the tale of a man who “creates a kind of immortality by converting himself into software. He decides to have his consciousness ported into a computer. This creates complications with his family, as well as the international economy.” It was a broad reach, and it remains so. I seek an update each time I see the poet.

“The character in ‘Death and the Powers’ doesn’t see himself as becoming a robot, but becoming pure spirit. He’s seeking to escape the machine of the flesh”, Pinsky had said. “‘Robot’” comes from a Czech word meaning “worker”, and in that sense, we all aspire to be robots. I’m interested in artificial intelligence, and wanted the story to have some complexity. I didn’t just want to write another Frankenstein story about technological hubris.

The ‘opera’ remains under development and production at the MIT Media Lab and is scheduled for a premier in Monte-Carlo, under the patronage of Prince Albert of Monaco, come September, 2009. It’s rumored, however, the production may open in Cambridge’s American Reparatory Theatre. “If it does open in Monte Carlo”, Pinsky said with a chuckle, “I’ll tell you to get your tux and head over.” I am anxious with this work. I am convinced this will be his close-up for those still compressed and unacquainted.

Time, it appears, is significant to ‘the laureate’ in thought and writing, and he pulls us through it with his craft. “Deciding to remember, and what to remember is how we decide who we are,” he’s written. He often refers to Homer, and he speaks of the Zulu in South Africa. “The Sangomo”, he repeated to the Fullerton Hall gathered, “says in our Zulu culture we do not worship our ancestors, we consult them.” And as if by nature, rather than design, Pinsky reflects on his father, of whom he’s written, and provided an unshaven portrait of his hometown, Long Branch, New Jersey. “Six presidents visited Long Branch”, he’s fond of saying. “My father was a famous athlete there, at Long Branch High School. He played football, basketball, hard-ball. His father, my grandfather, owned a bar, across from City Hall and the police station, so all the cops would drink there. In the 20’s, during prohibition”, he continued, “he was a bootlegger, and my grandmother used to say, ‘Oh Robert, he was in the liquor business, and it happened to be prohibition.’ In school, I had the same homeroom as my dad. I had the same homeroom teacher as my dad, Ms. Scott.” The place is not quite frozen in time and place, Mr. Pinsky revealed. “Change is gradual. In a place like that are stories, and the stories are alive.”

Paying visit to his father some years ago, the two got lost while looking to visit nearby Pleasure Bay. Stopping and asking for directions, one of the locals asked him, “What do you wanna go there for?” Then, Pinsky said laughing, “He says, ‘What’s your name’?” “Why?”, the poet said, “Because it was New Jersey. It was like in the Odyssey.” At Pleasure Bay, from his Pulitzer nominated, ‘The Figured Wheel’, nails a snapshot of the haunts of his coming of age:

In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
Sitting in a roadster. Ancient unshaken pilings
And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick
In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom
Where the landing was for Price’s Hotel and Theater.
And here’s where boats blew two blasts for the keeper
To shunt the iron swing-bridge. He leaned on
the gears
Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works
And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier
To let them through. In the middle of the summer
Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork
Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice
A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white,
Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb,
The Idler. If a boat was running whisky,
The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed
And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter
Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The roadbed whole, but opened like a switch,
The river pulling and coursing between the piers.
Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filing
The humid August evening near the inlet

With borrowed music that he melds and changes.
Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies

Not moving in the open car among the pines,
A sliver of story. The tenor at Price’s Hotel,
In clown costume, unfurls the sorrow gathered
In ruffles at his throat and cuffs, high quavers
That hold like splashes of light on the dark water,
The aria’s closing phrases, changed and fading.

And after a gap of quiet, cheers and applause
Audible in the houses across the river,
Some in the audience weeping as if they had melted
Inside the music. Never the same. In Berlin
The daughter of an English lord, in love
With Adolph Hitler, whom she has met. She is taking
Possession of the apartment of a couple,
Elderly well-off Jews. They survived the war
To settle herein the Bay, the old lady
Teaches piano, but the whole world swivels

And gapes at their feet as the girl and a high-up Nazi
Examine the furniture, the glass, the pictures,
The elegant story that was theirs and now
Is part of hers. A few months later the English
Enter the war and she shoots herself in a park,
An addled, upper-class girl, in her life that passes
Into the lives of others or into a place.
The taking of lives—the Chief and Mrs. W.
Took theirs to stay together, as local ghosts.
Last flurries of kisses, the revolver’s barrel,
Shivers of a story that a child might hear
And half remember, voices in the rushes

A singing in the willows. From across the river,
Faint quavers of music, the same phrase twice and again,
Ranging and building. Over the high new bridge
The flashing of traffic homeward from the racetrack
With one boat chugging under the arches, outward
Unnoticed through Pleasure Bay to the open sea.
Here’s where the people stood to watch the theater
Burn on the water. All that night the fireboats
Kept playing their spouts of water into the blaze.
In the morning, smoking pilasters and beams.
Black smell of char for weeks, the ruin already
Soaking back into the river. After you die

You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs

Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing—maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was--
Here’s where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

“The medium for poetry is one person’s voice”, Pinsky has said. “It’s the human body. Breath.” He jests about never being good enough at anything else, and ergo became a poet, resulting from an attraction to rhythms and was obsessed with the sound of words dating to his early childhood, sharing “I gave myself to poetry when I began to talk”.
At some point it rooted deeper. “I’m discussed by complacent writing”, he confesses, “The works I like the best are jagged, Old English. I like Raleigh, Shakespeare, Yeats.”

That belief appears to have followed Prof. Pinsky, as is clearly reflected in his recitations, with their breathtaking sweeps into exhortations. This can best be found in his gripping, 'Gulf Music', from the book of the same title, is perhaps his most political to this point. Here, with its brilliant, bizarre, buddhist-esque cover of dancing skeletons, he guides us through the Persian gulf, through Katrina , through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and bits of our personal ‘gulfs’…

Mallah walla tellabella. Trahmah trah-la, la-la-la,
Mah la belle. Ippa Fano wanna bella, wella-wah.

The hurricane of September 8, 1900 devastated
Galveston, Texas. Some 8,000 people died.

The PearlCity almost obliterated. Still the worst natural
Calamity in American history, Who mallah-walla.

Eight years later Morris Eisenberg sailing from Lubeck
Entered the States through the still-wounded port of Galveston.

1908, eeloo hotesy, hotesy-ahnoo, hotsey ahnoo mi-Mizriam
Or you could say “Morris” was his name. A Moshe.

Ippa fano wanna bella who. The New Orleans musician called
Professor Longhair was named Henry Roeland Byrd.

Not heroic not nostalgic not learned. Made-up names:
Hum a few bars and we’ll home-la-la. Who ohma-dallah.

Longhair or Henry and his wife Alice joined the Civil Defense
Special Forces 714. Alice was a Colonel, he a Lieutenant.

Here they are in uniforms and caps, pistols in holsters.
Hotesy anno, Ippa Fano trah ma dollah, tra la la.

Morris took the name “Eisenberg” after the rich man from
His shtetl who in 1908 owned a town in Arkansas.

Most of this is made up, but the immigration papers did
Require him to renounce all loyalty to Czar Nicholas.

As he signed to that, he must have thought to himself
The Yiddish equivalent of NO PROBLEM, Mah la belle

Hotsey hotsey-ahno. Wella-mallah widda dallah,
Mah fanna-well. A townful of people named Eisenberg.

The past is not decent or orderly, it is made-up and devious.
The man was correct when he said it’s not even past.

Look up at the waters from the causeway where you stand:
Lime causeway made of grunts and halfway-forgettings

On a foundation of crushed oyster shells. Roadbed
Paved with abandonments, shored up by haunts.

Becky was a teenager married to an older man. After she
Met Morris, in 1910 or so, she swapped Eisenbergs.

They rode out of Arkansas on his motorcycle, well-ah-way.
Wed-away. “Mizaim” is Egypt, I remember that much.

The storm bulldozed Galveston with a great rake of debris.
In the September heat the smell of the dead was unbearable.

Hotesy hotsey ahnoo. “Professor”the New Orleans title
For any piano player. He had a Caribbean left hand,

A boogie-woogie right. Civil Defense Special Forces 714
Organized for disasters, mainly hurricanes. Floods.

New Orleans style borrowing this and that, ah wail-ah-way la-la,
They probably got “714” from Joe Friday’s badge number

On Dragnet. Jack Webb chose the number in memory
Of Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, the old record.

As living memory of the great hurricanes of the thirties
And the fifties dissolved, Civil Defense Forces 714

Also dissolved, washed away for well or ill – yet nothing
Ever entirely abandoned through generations forget, and ah

Well the partial forgetting embellishes everything all the more:
Alla-malla, mi-Mizraim, try my try-la, hotesy-totesy.

Dollars, dolors. Callings and contrivances. King Zulu. Comus.
Sephardic ju-ju and verses. Voodoo mojo, Special Forces.

Henry formed a group named Professor Longhair and his
Shuffling Hungarians. After so much renunciation

And invention, is this the image of the promised end?
All music haunted by all the music of dead forever.

Becky haunted forever by Pearl the daughter she abandoned
For love, O try my tra-la-la, ma la belle, mah walla-woe.

The Chicago reading took on the form of many of the poet’s readings. It held many layers through which one is required to navigate like a drift dive. There’s a buoy out there in that ocean waiting to meet you, somewhere. In route the playful meets the electro-intense. There the political converges with the personal. There the subplots, fraught with both social and aesthetic matter, require repeating, re-listening, re-hearing. There is an absence of ambiguity in Professor Pinsky’s crafting. There are bridges, linkages, colliding worlds, and it is far from safe and predictable to observe as the poet consistently pulls fragments together, while operating on the meta-level transition.

With Ginza Samba, from ‘The Figured Wheel’, Prof. Pinsky involves the audience with this labyrinthine work through an object dear to him, the saxophone. Early in life, Pinsky played the sax and is known to joke that he’d become a poet because of his failure as a musician. The work also expresses his “patriotisim”. He’s patriotic about how the nation’s people cohere, “the pluralistic quality of our country. We are not one people via race or religion. The saxophone is an important symbol of our culture,” he says. “It was invented in Paris in the 19th century by a Belgian guy named Sax. Therefore one would say it is a European instrument. It isn’t. It’s an American instrument. An African-American, a black American instrument, because it was made so by geniuses. Geniuses named Johnny Hodges, Sonny Rollins, and Lester Young, and Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, and Dexter Gordon. They made it their instrument.”

A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone

Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinetely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In sax’s Belgian imagination

And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls, and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two

Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin’s child
Becomes a “favorite negro” ennobled
By decree of the Czar and fonds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife’s honor, while the other cousin sails

In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing

His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths—the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:

It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face—the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellyful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.

His prose book, ‘The Life of David’, takes on David, the “one who is beloved”, the shepherd boy who took over the kingship of Israel, who pushed back the Philistines and established the capital in Jerusalem. “He’s partially imagined. But we’re all imagined in the minds of those we know,” says Pinsky. “He was both horrible and beautiful. Artist, leader, killer. He was of mixed blood, and he could have been a warrior chieftain, a big shot.” He continues, “I was gonna concentrate on the story, not his poems. Some are part of the story. I opted to tell the story. There might have even been more than one David. There are historical explanations for them. A lot of Samuel was written a few generations after David.” He views David as a ‘magnet’ of history, pulling thing into, like the six pointed star which emerged out of the late middle ages, and like the book itself, peering back through 3,000 years.

Pinsky also visited, Samurai Song, from ‘Jersey Rain’ , a piece which, “In my mind, doesn’t seem to fit my social, cultural past. It’s said like a tough guy”, he adds. He fades back and forth to his elegy, Poem of Disconnected Parts;

At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto EACH ONE TEACH ONE.

In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as “Profesor.”

It is as though he holds a teachable moment,

The first year at Guantanamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into Styrofoam cups.

And then,

Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

There were other works including ABC from ‘Jersey Rain’ and The Shirt, with its;

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

“It’s hard to write a good poem.” Pinsky has said. You never know if you did it right. Unlike a pilot or surgeon. There you have objective measures of success. Poetry is vulnerable.”

One would think Prof. Pinsky would be comfortable with his craft. Over the years he’s cracked open an unprecedented three terms as Poet Laureate, a Pulitzer nomination, the Roethke, the Saginaw, the William Carlos Williams Award, the L.A. Times Book Award, The Academy of American Poets Translation Award, and other things. Of his Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Harvard’s Orlando Patterson has written, “This is perhaps the most important discourse on cultural analysis by a major poet since Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.”

Despite his general acclaim, Pinsky holds, “When applauded it’s part of art you’ll never know. When critics say nice things about you it doesn’t insure it. It’s not measured in money. God can’t give you an ‘A’. It’s done, and one try’s to do it well.” Continuing, “You write with your voice, not a pen and paper. Your mind’s voice, and ears. It’s a bodily art. You’re trying to make something. And there are those who do this that are both exalted and tormented.”

Long before there were musical instruments, there was the human voice. There were sounds, poetry. I’ve listened to Pinsky’s electrified and inspiring work for sometime now, and found it writ large as if on canvas. These are structures we would find in the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, in the Washington National Opera, or in Ghana’s Elmira Castle, or any remote Himalayan monastery. And with his crafts kindly glow, we would do well to dig deeper, and like the ancients, foist our helmets and stare into his parables.

take a peek at Death and the Powers

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