Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Roger Reeves on severed tongues

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of reading together with Roger Reeves on a few occasions here in Chicago. I think you’ll appreciate what this poem does to you.

Cymothoa Exiqua

cymothoa exigua*: the tongue as what it is not—blemish
and parasite: gimp and glottal stop: what question can be
answered with a truant mouth: can the lynched man hung
from the sails of a windmill taste the lead pipe wedged
between his lips: when the signifiers dangle, empty chum
lines in a cold creek: when the men in Waco, wearing white
straw hats, fraying at the crisp edges of their white shirts,
leave Jesse, leave John, leave Paul in ashes in the unpaved
streets to choke passing mules into prophecy: when we pinch
our noses to staunch the smell of the twice burnt black man
burning for a third time this day: when the boys, sweet
and good animals, come to what’s been left in shallow ditches:
false rib and femur, clavicle and severed hand—quite simply,
the language of sorrow: glyph of the gadfly rooting himself
into the rotting meat of the dead: when it is too late
to refuse our bodies being made urns: corn, unharvested
and heavy in its husks: when, in the marketplace, the butcher lifts
our tongue from a bed of ice, shouts: who will speak for this flesh:
when the tongue answers as all severed tongues do:

*Notes:
Cymothoa exigua is a parasitic crustacean that attaches itself to the tongues of spotted rose snappers and extracts blood from the tongue until it atrophies and falls off. Then the parasite attaches itself to the nub and acts as the fish’s tongue. According to scientists, the fish is not harmed in the process.

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Photo of Roger Reeves from the Whiting Foundation


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Rita Dove on transcendence (or something like it)

I missed a few days due to some matters I won’t get into. My apologies. I hope this beautiful poem by Rita Dove makes up for it.

American Smooth

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
magnificence,
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.

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Photo of Rita Dove from Wikipedia.


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Gwendolyn Brooks: The Independent Man

This is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I really like it.

Now who could take you off to tiny life
In one room or in two rooms or in three
And cork you smartly, like the flask of wine
You are? Not any woman. Not a wife.
You’d let her twirl you, give her a good glee
Showing your leaping ruby to a friend.
Though twirling would be meek. Since not a cork
Could you allow, for being made so free.

A woman would be wise to think it well
If once a week you only rang the bell.

 

gwendolyn-brooks

Photo of Gwendolyn Brooks from Wikipedia

 


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Langston Hughes on making America great again

I need to thank my colleague Cole Lavalais, whom I met at a literature festival in Memphis, for showing me this poem. I had not read it in school. It should be standard reading in contemporary America.

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

 

(America never was America to me.)

 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

 

(It never was America to me.)

 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

 

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

 

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

 

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.

 

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”

 

The free?

 

Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,

America!

 

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

langston_hughes_by_carl_van_vechten_1936

Photo of Langston Hughes from Wikipedia


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The evening we shared snowflakes (new translation)

It’s official. I am now a translator of poetry.

This past summer, I was delighted when Diana Rebirth, a poet participating in the SLS seminar in Vilnius, approached me about translating a few poems. She had a chance to publish in Quarterly West, and I happily took my hand to them. The results were very interesting, to say the least.

Now I get to put “translator” on the resume. Translating poetry is much more fun than interpreting bar room conversations outside the Vilnius bus terminal, if you know what I mean. One of the poems, Glassland, required learning the structure of a dual pane window, something I never thought I’d investigate.

At any rate, if you enjoy poetry, I hope you’ll share these texts with your friends.

Here are my children, sharing snowflakes, albeit in a different way:

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The origins of the cold

My daughter has been talking to me about the temperature lately. She’s four years old and doesn’t like the cold. She knows that places like Los Angeles and Odessa, cities she’s visited, are warmer than Chicago. Of course, she has endless questions, including this one: “Can we move to California?”

Perhaps I’m the only parent I know who doesn’t completely (and I mean entirely and thoroughly) delight at her endless battery of “why”. All children are philosophers. It’s not stupid to wonder why there isn’t any grass under the evergreens or why one part of the world virtually never gets snow. She asks me why people begin as children and not the other way around. Why can’t we start as adults and get younger? (In other words, why can’t we be born allowed to do all the stuff she really wants to do?) Yesterday she asked me if we could Skype Charles Mingus. And she consistently asks about my childhood, though not only because she’s curious about me. At the end of a story, she’ll ask questions like this one: “And when you were fishing with your grandfather, where was I?”

Like her, I was insatiably curious as a child, and not merely about the things I saw in my world. My curiosity led to an identity as a bookworm; books, as we know, present ten new curiosities for every one they satisfy. So I had tons of questions, all of them impossible to answer. Many of my questions had to do with origin and the past. I rarely wanted to know how something functions, but I was always interested where it came from.

I was probably seven or eight years old when I asked an adult where the cold came from. I understood that heat came from things that burned. I knew that the sun, a star, was burning, and that gas flames in my childhood home heated the water that circulated through our radiators. But what generated the cold? Was cold just the standard state, the way things actually were when you removed all fire? If this was true, was it “more real” than heat? In other words, was heat artificial?

The adult told me that cold comes from the air. Air is cold. You can feel it if you stand in the wind. So when you have air, you have cold. And if you want air to warm up, you need fire.

Most adults in my childhood answered questions this way. He spoke authoritatively even though I knew he simply didn’t understand my question. By the time I was seven or eight, I had learned not to press on, to explain that this could not possibly be the answer. Air could not be the source of cold because air did not exist at the beginning of the universe. This was in all the books, even the Bible.

I tried to ask another adult, a teacher this time. She told me the cold doesn’t come from anywhere. Cold just is. But I didn’t believe this answer, mostly because I strongly believed a priest who had taught that everything had an origin someplace. If this were true, cold must have been created just as fire was created.

No book I could find in the library or in school helped me with my problem. The question remained unsolved until I learned about absolute zero in high school. My understanding was that the lowest possible temperature in reality actually couldn’t be reached. I interpreted this in a radical way: cold doesn’t exist. Every temperature is a measure of warmth, either some or a lot. While we feel uncomfortable in negative temperatures, it doesn’t mean we’re experiencing cold. What we’re really experiencing is a smaller amount of heat than we would like.

It strikes me now that this is a rather Zen-like way of understanding something. The teacher who had told me that “cold just is” had one way of looking at cold, but the truth was that “cold is just in your head.” Sure, certain temperatures will kill you. But “cold” is a concept, a construct. The origin of cold is the mind.

Cold is, therefore, a kind of poetry, brutal and hard-kicking, harsh on the skin. It retracts gonads and turns exhales into spectres. Seeing this poetry in action is no consolation to the freezing, perhaps, although I propose an experiment. Next time you’re waiting for a bus in an ice storm, see what happens if you think, “What a harsh poem I’m telling myself.” When you see how something functions, you often realize where it comes from.

Elvensky