Archive for the ‘ Poetry ’ Category

Poems New and Collected
1957 – 1997
by Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish
by Stanislaw Baranczak
and Clare Cavanagh

Reviewed by Merilyn Oniszczuk Jackson
For The Inquirer
April 19, 1998


Reading Wislawa Szymborksa’s poems is like gazing into Poland’s famed amber. What does the cracked, ancient resin refract? An insect’s eyelash, a fish’s scale? Her verse exposes the universe’s most mundane rubbish and mankind’s banal indifference to all in its grip.

When she won the 1996 Nobel prize, Szymborska titled her acceptance speech, (included in this book) “The Poet and the World.” She spoke about the respectability of being a poet and places poets in “a select group of Fortune’s darlings.” The world is their subject.

Not surprisingly, Szymborska writes about the conflicting desires in the world; how they multiply and cancel each other out with dizzying speed. Every minute, every word is a wild card waiting to be dealt. Clothes parses no less than two dozen parts of clothing; nevertheless it presents a model of terse economy. The doctor tells the patient that for now it’s not too bad, and the matter-of-fact tone belies the relief in the lines:

…to pull out of handbags, pockets, sleeves
a crumpled, dotted, flowered, checkered scarf
whose usefulness has suddenly been prolonged.

At age 75, Szymborska has published nine volumes of poetry. This welcome new English translation of Szymborska’s poetry is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Baranczak, beloved as a poet and activist in Poland and respected as a poet abroad, holds the chair in Slavic literature at Harvard University. Cavanagh, is a professor in the department of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin. Cavanagh and Baranczak received the 1996 PEN Translation Prize for their View with a Grain of Sand. One hundred of Szymborska’s poems appeared in that 1995 volume, also published by Harcourt Brace & Co.

This latest translation is punchier, more direct, closer to Szymborska’s understated perceptions than the 1981 English translation by Robert A. Maguire and the late Magnus Jan Krynski. Some differences are worth noting because the present translation better projects Szymborska’s ironic voice.

A brief comparison between some of the older titles and the new, shows the earlier translations may be more lyrical, but wordier. What had been Two Monkeys by Breughel, becomes Breughel’s Two Monkeys. Four in the Morning is now Four A.M.
A sea change in cadence also occurs. In one of her most famous poems, A Million Laughs, A Bright Hope, it is “easy to drown in a teaspoon of ocean.” The subject in the current volume’s No End of Fun is “easily drowned in the ocean’s teaspoon.”

Szymborksa more or less repudiates a 1952 collection written in the political themes acceptable during Stalinist times, and her 1954 publication is inexplicably ignored in this translation as well as in the Krynski/Maguire edition. Both begin with the 1957 collection, Calling Out To Yeti. With the addition of 64 previously untranslated poems, including seven written in the last five years, this volume becomes the most complete English-language collection to date.

Her poems can be innocent and wise or truckling and truculent. Szymborska revels in contradictions like these. Seance ends “radiant and deceptive” and Sky in “rapture and despair.”

For Szymborska though, a word is only one consonant away from being a world, one continent away from being free. As a young adult living in the circumscribed world of post-war Poland, in the smoke-blackened, medieval town of Krakow, her writing found flight for her and her readers. She wrote a host of poems on poetry, death, and of course, war. In The End and the Beginning, she provides a formula for cleaning up after war where

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds. p.228

She takes us, her readers, with her on microscopic visits to the insectal world of “ants stitching in the grass” (No Title Required) and beetles “for such great despair/that beetle’s six legs wouldn’t be enough” (Interview With a Child.) And just as simply and swiftly she telescopes us into the universe. In Over Wine, she describes perhaps her own coquetishness at meeting a man:

And I tell him tales about
ants that die of love beneath
a dandelion’s constellation.

Along with inversions like these, Szymborska, like other great Polish writers, uses irony and self-mockery. An Opinion on the Question of Pornography, is a disquisition on the intelligentsia’s preference for “the forbidden tree of knowledge to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines.”

Though Szymborska talks overtly about love or falling in love in at least five poems, she too, steers away from pornography. Two lines in Ruben’s Women, however, are powerful enough to make up for any lack of eroticism:

thick-whiskered Phoebus, on a sweaty steed,
riding straight into the seething bedchamber.
As intimate as her poetry can be, Szymborska is an intensely private person. She does not care for the attention she’s received since winning the prize and is said to go out even in Krakow in disguises. Fellow Nobel laureate and countryman, Czeslaw Milosz, [cq] wrote about writers in internal exile behind the Iron Curtain. In her poetry, Szymborska found internal freedom and so shared with her readers a space to breathe. May our continuing discovery of her poetry not diminish her freedom.

Phoenix Poetry Series 2013


{9} The Gallery

1229 Grand Ave.

Friday, September 27th 7-9pm

Merilyn Jackson


Eric Wertheimer

 Merilyn Jackson regularly writes about dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism.  She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance.  Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself – although she also writes poetry.  Additionally, her poems can be found in Exquisite Corpse, The Rusty Nail, Broad Street Review, PrimeGlib, and several are forthcoming in Alternating Current. 

Eric Wertheimer is Professor of English and American Studies at Arizona State University and currently an Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Programs.  He is the author of Underwriting: The Poetics of Insurance in America (Stanford University Press, 2006) and Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature, 1771-1876 (Cambridge University Press, 1998).  He has published his poems in a variety of journals over the past ten years; Mylar is his first book of poetry.  His other ongoing book projects include:  Pretexts: War and Writing in the Early Republic, and Within Trauma: Biopolitics, Poetics, Praxis (forthcoming from NYU Press).

Finding my voice at poetry camp

BY: Merilyn Jackson 07.17.2012

Tom Lux— aka the Wrecking Ball— plowed over my lines.

Suck in that iambic pentameter! Or:
Notes from summer poetry boot camp

I’ve written poetry since I was a kid— not much of it very good, but I wrote it as best I could. In the ‘70s I took poetry classes and attended readings with my professor. At the original Painted Bride on South Street one June night, I met AJ Sabatini reading his poetry.

Six weeks later I broke my husband’s heart (and my professor’s) by moving in with Sabatini. Together we read poetry by Plath, Stevens and Williams, and passages from Finnegans Wake, in varying cadences to each other as foreplay. We didn’t have a TV.

Almost everyone we knew then wrote, composed or choreographed— all language forms that demand attention, interpretation, parsing and translation.

There was Jack, Maralyn, Patience, Jett, Annson, Karen and Joseph. Steve Berg, who had just started the American Poetry Review, left his shoeprints on our wall one night during an impromptu party we threw after an APR-sponsored reading by Robert Bly. Bly left a more impersonal ring on our end table from his icy glass. Unlike the wall, the table— with its cloudy nimbus moon in full eclipse— has traveled with us throughout the years.

Veiled eroticism

Some time ago, I became a little bored with writing arts criticism and began “raiding” old poems for good lines that refreshed my dance writing. Soon I was writing more and more poetry— mostly what you’d call arch-romantic stuff filled with lightly veiled eroticism. I confess I am a tease.

This year I applied to three summer poetry-writing workshops and was accepted to all three. I chose Colgate and Sarah Lawrence, since both gave me some scholarship funding. I just got back, after working with Peter Balakian at Colgate and Tom Lux at Sarah Lawrence.

I have just one question: Why didn’t I do this 30 years ago?

Colgate’s campus in upstate New York is art-gallery print beautiful. The college sits on a hill that seems a 90-degree angle when you climb it in 90-degree heat. The town of Hamilton is a 15-minute walk from the foot of its slope. And that’s about it if you’re without wheels. If you’re there for only a week there’s enough to explore on foot.

Emboldened by drink

But you find little time for sightseeing at a writing workshop. Matt Leone, who has run Colgate’s summer writing program for ten years, wedges in more talks, readings and social gatherings than a day can hold. It’s all you can do to steal an hour or two for writing.

Most of the faculty are published authors— Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, Dana Spiotta and Bruce Smith— who grew up in Philadelphia and got my Philly Girl ’tude as if we were cousins. Participants chatted with them after their readings and talks. Among the pithiest readers were Lennon— whose book of flash fiction, Pieces for the Left Hand, I gobbled at the beach in one afternoon last week— and Smith, whose Devotions are still wending homeward via the mail.

They also comprised a generous audience for the student readings each afternoon and again late into the evenings, when drinks emboldened us. These readings ranged from drab to dazzling, ho-hum to outrageous. Best of all, I got my first opportunity to read my work to an audience.

Finding my voice

Some of my fellow workshoppers weren’t sure my poems read well on the page. But when I stood up and said, “I don’t need no stinkin’ podium” and plowed into the crowd, performing my poems, they got it. I had never read to an audience before, but the minute the floor didn’t open up and swallow me, I knew I owned it. I had a voice, a pretty good one; I just had to find better ways to translate its tonalities from the stage to the page.

The workshops with Balakian had a warm and fuzzy quality, tentative and blanketed in political correctness and politesse. Balakian has a delicious international sidekick in Ioanna Karatzaferi, the Greek-born and part-time Manhattanite author and translator of more than 50 books in Greek. I had the pleasure of riding the six-hour bus to New York with her on my way down to Sarah Lawrence. I learned as much in those six hours as I did in the previous six days.

Ioanna and I shared common past adventures in political activism: she for Greek democracy, I for a free Poland. Each of us understood that meant we were working for people to be free to fuck up or succeed— their choice. By the end of the bus ride I reached the conclusion— which I think Ioanna supported— that I should follow my heart as well as my intellect in my poetic choices. That is, I should let the poems find their audiences instead of changing them to please less passionate, less nuanced readers.

Confronting the ‘Wrecking Ball’

Sarah Lawrence, just north of New York City, is more like jumping out of the print into a live, micro-version of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill. Very tony. Its much less sprawling campus put our living quarters within a two-minute walk of the dining hall and most of our workshops and events.

Here on Sunday afternoon the poet Tom Lux, who designed and founded the Sarah Lawrence workshop 19 years ago, sat in wait for our group of 11 on a large round table. We jumped right in with no introduction.

Lux— whom I dubbed The Wrecking Ball— was fiercely devoted to the cause, the sound and the meaning of poetry. He plowed over each of our lines, questioning our choices; then, after demolishing them, he assured us that as poets we are the final arbiters. We were left to pick up the pieces and rebuild our work then, as best we could.

You could sign up for as many one-on-one conferences with other instructors as you could squeeze in. Each of Lux’s workshop participants got almost a couple of hours of his time– that made for about 20 hours out of a week that immersed us all for 12 hours a day in wrenching, hard-driving poetry-talk.

During my freewheeling one-on-one with Lux, I pulled an old poem out of the pile at random. A short one, I figured, and one that had already been published. Lux immediately liked the title, “It makes you want to find out,” he said.

My original read:

How You Warriors Came to Farm

Hearth embers singe the soles of my feet.
My hair, ashen, tangles in the treetops.
I turn my back to you.

To you, it is the steppes of Georgia.
You, Cossack, gouge furrows
Spew seed.

The bruised land yields up
unending riches:
The groans of Eve,
a loamy perfume —
so dark and hard to chew,
your eye must soften it
with salty tears.

Lux didn’t get that this poem is about a certain kind of sex (like pretty much all of my poems). Both he and another reader thought I should drop the last line. So I tried this version:

How You Warriors Came to Farm

Hearth embers singe the soles of my feet.
My hair, ashen, tangles in the treetops.
I turn my back to you.

To you, it is the steppes of Georgia.
You, Cossack, gouge furrows
along my ribs, spur your seed deep.

The bruised land yields up
unending riches:
The groans of Eve,
a loamy perfume —
so dark and hard to chew,
your eye must soften it.

What was the point of this exercise (not to mention the point of attending poetry camps)? The late Nobel laureate poet Wisława Szymborska, one of my favorites, sometimes wonders who reads poetry. Many poets tackle the subject. So here’s my attempt:

The Efficacy of Poetry

What the fuck’s it for —
poetry – anyway?
It doesn’t give back what was yours.
It doesn’t pick you up from all fours.

When we need it most:
Funerals, the end of love affairs,
the birth of a child,
the cresting of delphiniums
the blistering of desert heat —
does it deaden pain,
mollify our fear of the unspeakable
breathing of cheeses?
(Not to speak of drying your tears.)

Or these tears, cracking laughter,
triangles of reference,
The Finger of God,
chitchat on that porch,
and that halleluwhat?

What is poetry for?
Does it give us closure?
What a conceit!
Who came up with that?
I’d like to stick his hand down
my garbage disposal
before he writes his next.

The only closure is death.

And everything between birth and death

— poetry.

Five poems by Merilyn Jackson were published this year in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse. To read them, click here.


for Broad Street Review
Mar 17, 2012

I don’t know why you’d call German a guttural language, especially when you hear it sung. Depending on the singer, it can be soft and lush like Polish, leering and lurid like English, or seductive and sexy like French.

A singer who captures all these nuances and thousands more is Max Raabe, whose burnished baritone voice veers on the oleaginous with its faux-obsequiousness and then slides into girlish sincerity. Raabe does this by sending the voice exactly where he wants it. Whether he stretches his lips into a large O to throw it to the roof and back of his mouth for a falsetto or relaxes his chin into his chest to drop it into a lower register, he brings it to light with elegant deliberation.

Sometimes Raabe pitches it into his sinuses so that it takes on a more sinister quality— read the silly-sounding word dunkel in German, for sinister. In this instance, dunkel would be a perfect English word for the quality that skirts the edge of the absurd and the contradictory senses underlying everything Raabe sings.

He appeared at the Merriam Theatre for one night only with his Palast Orchester, which was formed with Raabe in the 1980s and still includes many of the same musicians. I’d downloaded some of his songs on my iPod and owned some of his CDs and watched him on YouTube, but I’d never had the chance to see him in person until that night.

Courteous seduction

The experience was anachronistically transporting in the strangest way. Rather than bounding onstage like a vaudevillian or like a louche Weimar cabaret singer of the ’20s and ’30s from where many of his songs spring, Raabe seduced us with his calm intensity, elegance and faux-naif reticence. His pomaded hair, white satin bow tie, tails and patent leather shoes— even his gracile and courteous body nodding his temple away from us as he repairs to the piano to give the musicians some solo moments— all speak of a gentler time, before the unspeakable crimes committed in World War II.

Of course, Raabe carefully never allows any sort of hubris to allude to that grisly episode, as if he hoped time would have stopped while all this delicate and amusing music was popular. And in that suspension of disbelief he made us all complicit.

The wistful Küssen Kann Man Nicht Alleine (“One Cannot Kiss Alone”) is the name of his newest (and I think best) CD, written with the German songwriting sensation, Annette Humpe. Many of the songs that night came from that album.

A lover’s hurt

The title song is one of the best examples of how Raabe pits disparate ideas against one another to jar the listener. It conveys the deep hurt the lover feels when that second, most essential person has gone AWOL:

Kissing is a dual feat
I’m ready for the heat
I can sing alone
And I can break my own wishbone
On the couch with you, my sweet,
I’m ready for the heat.

With a cool hand, in both German and English, Raabe sings the sort of lilting songs that our grandparents danced to. In the end, these are almost all dance tunes. In bringing them back to our ears, I hope they find their way to our feet as well. They do find mine as I foxtrot, quick-step and paso doble around my living room alone.

Yes, you can dance alone. But how much better with a willing partner and a great kisser.

Intimate journey

As in the reading of a post-modern novel, intertextuality plays a role in that Raabe creates a level of ambiguity and reference to other times, songs and places, allowing the listener to bring his own interpretation to the lyrics and the presentation of each song. By the night’s bittersweet ending, you feel as if you have been on an intimate journey with Raabe and his band of co-conspirators, the old world/new sound charm of the Palast Orchester.

One of my favorite songs is Ich Küsse Irhe Hand, Madame, from 1928. Raabe and the Orchester didn’t play it that night, but it’s on a couple of his CDs and you can find it on YouTube by many crooners, including Raabe, and a wunderbar rendition by Richard Tauber in a clip with Marlene Dietrich from 1929.

Flirty and charismatic as only certain seven-year old boys can be, Raabe exudes an innocence dripping with teasing playfulness in songs like Ich Bin Nur Wegen Dir Hier (“I’m Only Here For Your Sake”) and In Geheimer Mission (“The Secret Mission”), the rollicking Doktor, Doktor and the devastatingly lovely Du Weisst Nichts Von Liebe (“You Know Nothing About Love”):

The greater the love, the higher the fall,
Final collision is the fight for the sofa.

Now, what could that mean?

Tomorrow’s generation

You don’t need to know much German to catch the meaning in some songs, as in Crisis:

Hallo, Guten Tag, Mein Name ist Krise,” Crisis says when he knocks on your door.

Raabe’s and Humpe’s Lullabye is one I’m learning to sing to my seven-year-old charmer.

Swarms of birds in evening light play tag high in the skies.
Mama Gnu sings baby gnu old bedtime lullabies.
Sun has wandered far to Timbuktu.
Close your eyes so dreams may come to you;
Venus watches over us from outer space;
The moon stares down in disbelief at all that is taking place.
The ocean’s full of tired fish, the squids have gone to bed,
A whale blows bubbles from behind and suddenly turns red.

I think he’ll get it.

“Fort Blossom,” performed at Bryn Mawr, is a fuller version of a work originated in 2000.

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer


Nude men dance on a black floor, in subdued lighting; women on a white floor, in contrasting brightness.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.” I am never happier than when I can read choreography as poetry, as I – and, I think, the audience – did over the weekend with choreographer John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom Revisited 2000/2012.

This fuller version of the original 2000 work premiered Friday at the Hepburn Teaching Theater, Bryn Mawr College’s black-box theater. The college was the leading funder of the reconstructed and expanded 60-minute work.

On the black side of the divided black and white floor, Ben Asriel and Burr Johnson dance completely nude in subdued lighting (designed by Stan Pressner in its 2000 premiere, now directed by James Clotfelder). On the white side, Lindsay Clark and Erika Hand dance in contrasting brightness, wearing thigh-high dresses the rich red color of cinnabar.

A combination of mercury ore and sulfur, cinnabar is as deliberate and precise a choice as every other element in this revised work. The set’s coloration is minimalistically mid-century moderne, sleek and beautiful. A compilation of Ryoji Ikeda’s eerie recordings made a complementary sound sculpture.

Ever since I saw Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 nude solo, Self-Unfinished, I’ve been thinking about the difference between seeing the naked body and the costumed body dance, and I’ve concluded that the skin is a costume. It hides and holds together everything that is inside, but it also exposes the kinesthetic awareness of the body in a way that even skin-tight fabric cannot. We like to see nude studies in museums and books, so why not live on stage, in three dimensions and in movement?

Jasperse packs Fort Blossom with information of a philosophically poetic and exploratory nature. He creates angular geometrics for the women’s dances and simulated sex between the men, in ways that make us question intimacy and our relationship to our own bodies.

Another startling and playful thing was the repeated zoomorphism of the dancers’ bodies. Asriel lies prone parallel to the audience. On the other side of the divide, Clark and Hand lie on their backs on clear plastic cushions, gyrating on them as if weightless in a gravity-free space. They harness themselves to the cushions, like turtles held upright, with legs dangling from their shells.

Asriel wriggles, wormlike, across the floor, the difficulty of the movement expressed in the tortuous rise and fall of the buttons of his spine. The women bend from the waist, triangulating their legs like flamingoes. The men carry each other at times, looking like camels bearing burdens.

In the upbeat final moments, the women swat the men with the cushions. Near the end, they bend their torsos over one another in a line and walk centipedelike. It seems Jasperse is asking us to see the human body not only as sexual and vulnerable, but also in relation to other species.


Spammer Alert!

Note to Spammers: I am a professional writer with more than 20 years experience. I write every single word that I upload onto my blog and use the blog as a repository for my published work. I would have no need to hire any writers especially at .01 cents per word. What sort of person would write for such peanuts? But you can hire me for $1.00 per word. Merilyn

Posted: Tue, Jan. 17, 2012, 3:01 AM

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Last week a clever little dance festival called Falls Bridge – founded in 2010 by Curt Haworth, who heads PARD (Performance Arts, Research and Development), and Nicole Bindler – provided an investigatory laboratory for dance and movement arts that ended with two concerts.

On Saturday night, Ishmael Houston Jones, Yvonne Meier, Meg Foley, Zornitsa Stoyanova, Manfred Fischbeck, Sharon Mansur, and Daniel Burkholder performed at Mascher Space Co-op. I made it to the Sunday night show at Mt. Vernon Dance Space; after seeing the caliber of Sunday night’s lineup, I was sorry I had missed the first performance.

Merian Soto has partnered with Marion Ramirez since 2003; they opened this contact-improv-based show with Circulations. In total silence, Ramirez, a beautiful mover, paced the space with increasing speed, spiraling her circles smaller until she reached center. She and Soto embarked on an exploration of the space, avoiding collision with each other as their breathing became labored, finally ending in a heap together.

Street Grace was Lela Aisha Jones’ poetic solo, beginning as a paean to a poem she thought her grandmother wrote. The little music box playing Schubert that she danced to seemed to represent the poem. Often just standing in place, she languidly led us through an evocation of many emotions, from hunger for beauty to acceptance of self.

At last, I got to see much-discussed Michelle Stortz, who danced a witty improvisation called Open Wide with Leah Stein. At times, they played like small animals, mostly communicating with each other via guttural sounds or visual signals in a language we all somehow understood.
Another wonderfully playful improvisation – between Sarah Gladwin Camp, of Green Chair Dance Group, and Gregory Holt – started out with a kind of rock-paper-scissors stare-down. Holt ran around, wildly flapping his arms like a madman wanting to shout his love from the treetops, while Camp sat watching impassively. In a magnificent moment reminiscent of Xavier Leroy’s nude Self-Unfinished, the fully-dressed Holt upended his legs over his upper back to touch the wall, head unseen, backside up, his arms and hands extended absurdly behind him, taking on a life of their own.

NOW! by Silvana Cardell was all about immediacy. She and her five dancers blocked and challenged, held and climbed over one another, as artist Jennifer Baker drew life-size impressions of them on six large easels. It was fascinating to see her stretch all over with her charcoal even as she watched and studied whatever phrases the dancers presented. Baker captured the whip-snap swing and sway of the choreography better than any words.


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