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the things we do not know

The things we do not know

I don’t know which is what
but either the dark or the light slats
of the cheese board I rescued
from a scrap pile in Nonno’s basement
date back to 1492, but that
only means something to us.

Those Friulese peasants
knew not how auspicious
the year they chose to frame
their church would prove—
that some Genovese sailor
with messianic delusions
thinking the world half
as round as it is would sail west.

He did not know when he confused
the manatee for a mermaid,
witnessed the wonder of mute dogs
and dragons raised for human consumption
that the marvelous land he’d found
was not the Asia of Marco Polo—
much like the Venetian did not know
that his unicorn was a rhinoceros.

No one felt the tremor announcing
the sea change, who would question
the preeminence of the spice route’s
western terminus, who could predict
the seismic shift of Europe’s gaze
turning away from the Levant
and towards the promise of the Ponent.

Those peasants only hoped
that their capella would stand
as midwife and undertaker
of their lives and the lives
of their children’s, children’s, children’s;
they did not know it would be razed
in 1976 by a quake that claimed
hundreds of lives; they did not know
my grandfather would return
after fighting with the 10th;
that he would be on site and help
clean up in the aftermath;
that he would pilfer the beam
and turn it into a cutting board.

They did not know that I would find
a warped scrap of discarded board,
miter its edges and add a hand carved
poplar handle as a gift for my fiancée.

I did not know that he would laugh
and tell me it looked like a penis.
————-

I’ve just recently purchased Jorie Graham’s latest book, Overlord, maybe I need to read more of her, despite her being universally despised by many in the poetry workshop industry. Then again, much of Overlord seems to be narrative poetry as well. No, maybe what I should do is read nothing written by non-metric and non-rhyming poets…

 

Comments

Acute awareness of history-in-the-present is true for her—poetry workshoppers be damned, of poets there are few better. (Though of poets, there are also few denser; Hopkins is maddening to me in similar ways as she, though the comparison is not a precise one.)

given the comments, i suppose, in part, it’s because she’s as successful as a poet can be; because she, “reads heidegger for inspiration before hand;” and because

But that kind of nepotism is old hat, esp for Harvard teachers. W. H. Auden did the same when he headed the program… Not that history makes it right, but she’s not doing anything that’s unprecedented.

tru but it’s especially painfull to people who think her not to be a poet and her friends and lovers to be worse poets than she.

the whole pseudo-anaphora of they did not know is really irritating me… it’s a crutch… and one of those so often used by workshop poetry… not that people haven’t made good use of it (the best and the worst use can most likely be found in whitman, no doubt)

alas! this is what i get for posting the first draft of a scribbling.

It’s a trap of history, though, where the insignificant takes on significance thanks to time and connection—hardly her fault. That she would choose to fall into that trap may be tiresome and lamentable, but you may not be giving her enough credit: I think she knows it’s absurd, too, and that’s why she ended the whole with that capstone of so much real and fake analysis, a penis (which isn’t really). (Which may be the more lamentable image of the whole, in that church + time = “looked like a penis.” Is that all church + time must be?)

Perhaps I give her too much credit.

oh wait, this is my poem… not jorie. the comment at bottom was simply my recognition that i need to read more poets that challenge me.

you do give her too much credit er, you don't give her enough credit… but that is what i was going for…

i’m flattered, or have i misread thee?

it seems much less portentous when it’s signed by me rather than her… no?

ah, c’est la vie!

retraction, i wasn’t trying to say that church+time=looked like penis

Perhaps what threw him was the apparent gender confusion in the last stanza.

A picture of this penis-like wooden object should be included. A good laugh will be had by all.

Well, not less portentous or pretentious, since it’s a good poem (and all I said above still holds true) but I did wonder that her style had changed considerably and was more accessible than last time I’d read her, when her lines were long and she liked to leave blank spaces in the midst of them. I’ve read a fair bit of JG, but not enough to know her work at the sight of a line. This poem reminds me ever so slightly of her early work (The first 1/4 of The Dream of the Unified Field, I mean), which is also why I was confused.

Also, I was also half asleep and heading to bed, so I was skimming a lot last night.

Finally, the church + time = penis was a stretch of a reading. Although, what led me to it wasn’t any gender confusion—the voice of the poem is pretty neutral.

It does sound a bit like early Graham (though I should add the disclaimer that I have only read a very little bit of her work).

I was thinking, meanwhile, “Well, if this is from Overlord, who’s the fiance she’s refering to? Is she looking back to when she was engaged to James Galvin, or has she gotten engaged to someone else?”’

Must go drink more coffee. . . how I would love to spend the morning drinking coffee and reading poetry, but sadly work calls within the hour.

I like the poem.

i personally have nothing against jorie graham… but that gif of her on foetry is also another thing that poetry workshoppers love to hate about her… her reading style. which, in the bizarro world of poetry readings in nicotine hazes and caffine stained parchments, i simply don’t understand their dislike.

but, when she was doing spaces and dashes, she apparently would mark them with her body… either with hand chops or side-steps and some such things.

i guess i should change he to Nonno, that italian for grandpa, which is what we called him.

that’s a good idea. i didn’t confuse you with jorie, but i was a bit confused at the end there.

i really like this poem a lot.

Maybe it depends on the workshop you’re at, too. She’s not unpopular in these parts, anyway. And someone (in NY? or here?) once convinced K to buy a lot of her books.

i think i bought those books because i actually liked a reading she did when she was still here (years ago)...can’t say i’ve spent much time reading them, though.

it would be interesting to know what people in the workshop here really think of her. that i don’t know.

The poem tinkered…

The things we do not know

I don’t know which is what
but either the dark or light slats
of the cheese board I rescued
from a scrap pile in Nonno’s basement
date back to 1492, but that
only means something to us.

Those Friulese peasants
knew not how auspicious
the year they chose to frame
their church would prove—
that some Genovese sailor
with messianic delusions
thinking the world half
as round as it is would sail west.

He did not know when he confused
the manatee for a mermaid,
witnessed the wonder of mute dogs,
and dragons raised for human consumption
that the marvelous land he’d found
was not the Asia of Marco Polo—
much like the Venetian did not know
that his unicorn was a rhinoceros.

No one felt the tremor announcing
the sea change—who would question
the preeminence of the spice route’s
western terminus, who could predict
the seismic shift of Europe’s gaze
turning away from the Levant,
towards the promise of the Ponent.

Those peasants only hoped
that their capella would stand
as midwife and undertaker
to their lives and the lives
of their children’s, children’s, children’s;
they did not know it would be razed
in 1976 by a quake
that claimed hundreds of lives;
they did not know my grandfather
would return after fighting
with the 10th; that he would camp
nearby in a silver Airstream,
on an abandoned farm,
and help clean up the aftermath;
that amongst themselves four
or five would divide
the hand-hewn beam, only because
of the date cut in to its face;
that he would turn it into a cutting board.

They did not know that I would find
a discarded, warped scrap, miter
its edges and add a hand carved
poplar handle as a gift for my fiancée.

When I showed it to Nonno,
I did not know that he would laugh
and tell me it looked like a penis.