Category Archives: Favorite Poets

[new translations] Grasses, by Po Chü-i



Parting and parting the grasses on the plain
which one year withers and one year flourishes
which burns again but is never destroyed
a spring wind blows over this life resurging

its fragrance trespasses old paths in the distance
even to the abandoned city comes jade clarity
as we part again, my friend, separated by world’s wind
it’s as deep grasses parting on a crowded plain

–Po Chü-i (Bai Ju-yi)
translated by Jeff Schwaner


Thanksgiving [for P.H. Liotta]


Suddenly awake, writing in the dark, an hour
Before dawn this Thanksgiving.
The air outside as brittle as the century-old window
Above my bed. Out there light has receded into the stars
Like a dream catapulted away by waking
To a place you will never reach again
Though you were there, so far away,
Just moments ago, and were sure you awoke
Yourself to write down something about it
As quickly as possible, which is why you are
Writing in the dark, suddenly wide awake
And with a mind as blank as a black window.

Outside, stars have settled in the empty branches
Across the street. Pausing on their migration
To someplace warmer. A handful of others glow
On the ground, and I could be led to believe
They are really the brightly burning spirits
Of this world instead of street lights.

Up high, at the top of the window
The brightest, most distant ones sit.
Long dead, probably. Living in the moment’s
At its most relative when the moment’s brightest
Nick in the blackness is millions of years extinguished.
Living in the moment, I understand, can be
Living in the light of a source long gone,
In the words of a life ended in fire.
It is more than not forgetting; This light from the past,
your voice, these words—I will take it, I will demand it.

Graveyard_PHLNOTE: It was about this time last year that I found out that an old friend of mine from college, Peter Liotta, had died in a car accident a year earlier. I knew Peter way back over two decades ago, when I was a senior at Cornell and he was an older grad student–already married and in his mid- or late-twenties–in the MFA program. I had printed a pamphlet of one of Peter’s poems, and we kept in touch for a few years as I went into bookselling and he published the wonderful Learning to Fly, as well as a book of poems and a novel. Picking up those books, and a newer title called The Graveyard of Fallen Monuments from 2007, I could discern Peter’s distinctive old-soul voice as clear as a bell. For awhile that voice remained with me in a particularly strong way, and I awoke in the dark of a Thanksgiving morning thinking on these things, and the result was this poem. //JSS

Favorite Poets: Gabriel Spera

standing-wave-poems-gabriel-spera-paperback-cover-artNote: Rambling through some old stored documents earlier this year, I came across a college literary journal from my Cornell days, and found in it a poem by a friend from those days, Gabe Spera. I wondered if he was still writing, and an online search quickly turned up that not only was he still writing poetry, he’d published a few books of verse and was alive and well and living in the city of angels. I touched base with him, and we’ve been trading poems back and forth since then. Recently he asked me to write an introduction to his work for publication in a catalog next year. The paragraphs below are the output of that effort. –JSS

There is nothing formal about this world. Our increments of measure can’t parcel pain or characterize a calm moment of love; the most advanced machines can keep us alive but not living. But still we measure. Like no other poet working today, Gabriel Spera happily explores this emotional arrhythmia of life, maintaining a wary lightness while understanding “all we are is what we’ve kept / of what we’ve touched.”

Like the skateboarder in Spera’s poem “Skate Park, Venice Beach” needs a man-made and challenging surface to rise to the occasion, the poet himself builds his work up out of and against gestures to imposing poetic formalism. He does so with an ease of wheel, with the grace and good humored fatalism of the skateboarder in his poem—knowing every great leap ends in gravity, every fall is the starting point of the next ride, that they are frustratingly and joyously entwined. It would be easy to write here that Spera negotiates passage between these opposing forces—the chaotic world and the reassuring rules of language—but that would assume an opposition that’s just another easy formality itself. Not opposing forces but aspects of a singular landscape to navigate, one that is often personal and subjective while subject to all the pitfalls and peaks of the objectively measured world.

For this voyage’s charter he claims those moments of wonder authenticated by difficulty, bringing them down to earth in a self-effacing way that makes us see the feat and not the featured acrobat. It’s the type of poetry that rewards and strikes personal depths without feeling personally confessional.

At heart Gabriel is a nature poet, and nature poets at their best perceive literal truths in ways that resonate without resorting to simile.  He writes of “The Decorator Crab”: “He has made a landscape / of himself … / too poor to walk away from all / he’s hauled this far”; in a poem detailing the ravages of battling cancer he notes “though more and more / there was less of him to sacrifice.” You can scan the phrases above a few different ways, find enjambed and entombed pentameters, and it can enhance and color your reading. The formal qualities are not the trick, just the ramp’s angle that launches a message connected to nothing but the wild air itself, and your own reader’s ear.

There is nothing formal about this world.  The seasons don’t care for the solstice, nor the trains for timetables. So how do we trust this verse that comes to us with the reliability of the metronome ticking out a time we can never quite keep in rhythm with as we pluck out the notes of our days on these imperfect instruments we are still learning to be? Because it’s more than a sound we set our clocks by. Gabriel Spera’s poetry runs the ragged banner of being up the flagpole of language and because of that we can see more clearly those things we’d give our life for.

Happy Birthday, Moby Dick!

From the 1930 edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent.

From the 1930 edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent.

Call me crazy, but Moby Dick is my favorite novel. My favorite book. My favorite source of inspiration as a writer and a human being. It’s my Single Desert Island Book–narrative, lyrical, philosophical, funny, heart-warming and heart-breaking, one of the Biggest Tales of All Time, but with all sorts of weird almost postmodern flourishes (whole chapters in the closest thing to screenplay format a mid 19th century writer could imagine, doppleganger characters and storylines, characters who appear and then suddenly disappear … or do they?, and so on).

MobyDickpagesOn November 14, 1851, the novel was published in England by Richard Bentley. Bentley was probably counting on the success of Melville’s earlier bestsellers (yep, Melville was actually a Young Celebrity Author in his time) Typee and Omoo, based loosely on his real-life adventures surviving a mutiny and jumping ship off a merchant marine vessel and living among “cannibals” for a while (the guy woulda been all over cable news channels), to generate substantial sales. Needless to say, the industry was fickle even back then. Am I saying that the author of one of the world’s best-known English language novels deserves more recognition than he already has? YES! Am I saying that pretty much all of Western literature and entertainment from Gravity’s Rainbow to “Survivor” can be traced back to this one book? YES!! I’m not saying I’d be right about these things; just enthusiastic enough that I hope it is infectious; just infectious enough that I hope you squint at that first page and read the poetry in that first paragraph, and let the great shoulders of that prose hold you up and point you to the vast waterways within your own story.

Favorite Poets: Tomas Transtromer

One in a series of posts about my favorite poets or books of poems.

The cover of Selected Poems, circa 1989.

The cover of Selected Poems, circa 1989.

Back in 1996, I wrote an appreciative piece about Tomas Transtromer in a monthly literary scandal rag called Captain Kidd Monthly, which my wife and I published while living in Charleston, South Carolina. We had a regular column called “Davey Jones’s Locker” where we or a guest editor would extoll the virtues of a great writer or work which we felt was under-appreciated. Here’s what I wrote back then:

Every time I open Tomas Transtromer’s Selected Poems–the only book of his verse available in America right now–I get the creepy feeling that I’m looking at the inner walls of my brain through the eyes of someone who knows it all better than I do. I forget all my favorite poets, and find myself exclaiming to folks who I know don’t even read poetry, “Hey, you! Read this! This guy is the greatest living poet today!”

Open this book like the I Ching, to any page, and you’ll find your world transformed. I’ll do it right now for you–


The squat pine in the swamp holds up its crown: a dark rag.
But what you see is nothing
compared to the roots, the widespread, secretly creeping, immortal or half-mortal
root system.

I you she he also branch out.
Outside what one wills.
Outside the Metropolis.

A shower falls out of the milk-white summer sky.
It feels as if my five senses were linked to another creature
which moves stubbornly
as the brightly clad runners in a stadium where the darkness streams down.

The first line in his book–“Awakening is a parachute jump from the dream”–sets the stage for a career of perfectly realized poetry. Even in a volume translated by several hands (and edited ably by Robert Hass) the singular volice is unerring and clear. From his poem “Answers to Letters”:

Was the letter ever answered? I don’t remember, it was long ago. The countless thresholds of the sea went on migrating. The heart went on leaping from second to second like the toad in the wet grass of an August night.

Transtromer finds the seams and cracks between disparate segments of experience and follows them to the inner swirl of mind that both covers and uncovers meaning–

In the day’s first hours consciousness can own the world
like a hand enclosing a sun-warm stone.
The skydiver stands under a tree.
With the plunge through death’s vortex
will light’s great chute spread over his head?

Back in 1996 I actually bought ten copies of Selected Poems and gave them away to interested customers at Chapter Two Bookstore where I worked, as kind of an act of thanksgiving to celebrate a new edition of of the book, first published in 1986.  Since then, Scottish poet and translator Robin Fulton has come out with the most comprehensive edition of Transtromer’s published work. Hass’s edition is still in print, and Robert Bly has at least one volume of translations of Transtromer in print as well. You can check them out here. Fulton’s translations have become my favorite, and that volume (entitled The Great Enigma)  includes his short autobiographical piece “Memories Look at Me” as well. But Transtromer survives practically any translation, one of the many things I find magical about his work.

When my wife and I look at art or photographs, we often use the phrase “I can imagine living with that” about stuff we like. It’s not a comment on art-as-furniture; it’s more of a feeling that you establish a relationship with art you like, and that relationship grows and changes over time, and the art that lasts is the stuff that worked for you twenty years ago and ten years ago and still works for you today, even if it works in a different way. We have the same complex relationship with the work of our favorite poets. I titled this post “Favorite Poets” but I could also call it “Poets I Live With” because from the moment I first picked up one of his books in the library in 1989 I have been living with Tomas Transtromer’s work, growing with it and appreciating it.

Read more about Transtromer at his official site