4 Poets in AGNI

4 Poets in AGNI

AGNI is one of the best known of the small presses and in an illustrious forty years of  publishing has showcased many of the big names of contemporary poetry.

Translations are an important aim, and these now include examples from Urdu,  Dutch, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Chinese, Turkish, Hebrew,  Italian, Slovenian, Polish, French and Latvian. In recent years, however, to judge  from the selection available in free online access, the work has been more mundane  and prosy. I have tried to find poems that offer a little more, and hope the four  pieces summarized here at least give a flavour of the better offerings.

The first is Brouhaha by Jason Sommer and may be read here:  http://www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/online/2010/sommer.html. The author’s latest book  of poems is The Man Who Sleeps in My Office (University of Chicago Press), and he  teaches at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The poem starts, oddly with ‘is’ — perhaps it should be ‘it’s’ — and sets the theme in  motion: the language and the nature of Jewishness.

is the Jew, the dark Jews
present in you,
in your very mouth
Brouhaha you say after
them, long after
the despised, and so now
in their honor,
from the Hebrew of—
so scholars say, by way
of French—

‘Brouhaha’ is hubbub or commotion, but ‘barukh ha-ba’ means welcome in Hebrew,  or, as the poem puts it:

barukh ha-ba,
blessed be the one who arrives,

Unintelligible to gentiles, and made fun of in plays (Farce de Martin de Cambray is a  ribald medieval comedy)

what sounds like nonsense
garble the stranger overhears
as brouhaha,
thinks to store for mockery,
and passes it along till somehow
it becomes the devil’s
cry as he arrives on stage
circa 1490 in Farce
de Martin de Cambray

The poem is a witty play on the derivation of brouhaha, which may indeed come  from barukh ha-ba, or from brou, ha, ha! used by the devil in French drama. But as  the poem remarks in ending, as economically as throughout, that very difference
helps to give the Jews their identity:

say after me:
blessed be the arrival of that
which brings to the tongue
taste, and sustenance to the body
of our speech.

The second poem is by Simon Armitage, who needs little introduction, having  wowed, wrong-footed and baffled his audience with many changes of style since  winning the Forward prize for poetry in the U.K. He has published two novels, a  version of the Odyssey, and a translation Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The  poem is a rambling narrative,  Cheeses of Nazareth, and can be read here. http://www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/print/2009/70– armitage.html

I fear for the long-term commercial viability
of the new Christian cheese shop in our neighbourhood.

It’s almost prose, continuing with:

Poor old Nathan, he’s sunk every penny of his payout
from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board into that place,
but to me the enterprise seems doomed.

So what makes it a little more? The exactness of pacing:

he said. “Hope must put down its anchor even in troubled waters.
Today a cheese shop, tomorrow a wine bar or delicatessen,
next week a community centre or a playground for the little ones,
until ye church be builded.”

The line endings, which group the words into semantic units:

only three people crossed the threshold of his emporium:
some knackered old dosser asking for a glass of water,
a young villain in bare feet looking for the needle exchange,

And the playful tone:

“Nathan, it will be an honour to wear the smart blue smock
of the cheesemonger and to spend time
amongst such noble foodstuffs,”

Which rises to end the poem in sublime farce:

I can see Nathan right now in his ironed apron and starched hat.
Nathan, oh Nathan, silent and alone,
presiding over the faceless faces of Camembert and Brie,
the millstones of Butterkäse and Zanetti Grana Padano,
the dried teardrop of San Simon, the uninhabited planets
of Gouda and Chaumes, and the cowpat of Cornish Yarg,
mummified in its drab, nettle-leaf skin.

The third poem, entitled Margaret MacDonald: Port Glasgow, 1830, is by Annie  Boutelle, a Scots poet who has published in leading journals and teaches at the  Poetry Center at Smith College. The poem can be read here:  http://www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/online/2007/boutelle2.html

It’s a carefully-wrought piece about a young woman who represses her sexuality,  appalled at menstruation:

Fifteen, and the first blood oozing,
staining her sark, and nightly she
dreams of boys unbuttoning.

At the coarseness around her:

clumsy arms, dirty fingernails,
hidden hardness.

And her own thoughts:

In the raunchy
rain-soaked city, only the slow grey
river knows her secrets, and it
dumps them into the Irish Sea.

Who then strives to be androgynous:

She learns to slouch, look down,
hide in the warm stink of the close,
scurry past pubs and the lurching
men who fling coarse words. She
binds her breasts, flattens them
into nothing.

So as to give herself to God:

And she is the lamp, brimming
with oil, waiting for the bridegroom

Whom she imagines will be her true annunciation:

—she’ll blaze in his presence, while
the land swarms with terrors, hiss
of the serpent, seas and waves
heaving—and his day shall be as
the lightning, and his church
a golden candlestick.

A chilling and moving piece that succeeds by the exact connotations of words that  say exactly what is needed and no more.

The final piece is Anniversary by Carolina Ebeid, who has published in various  journals and now lives in Columbia, Missouri. The poem can be accessed here:  http://www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/online/2007/ebeid.html

It’s very different from the Boutelle piece, half humorous:

Last year’s June brides are setting out lacy cakes to defrost.

But with a undercurrent of sad whimsy:

The first year is made of paper.
“My silence you undo like the moment the globes of overhead light in a ballpark  shut
their humming wattage—and the stars begin to swirl,” she wrote on a valentine  of paper.

Which rambles into disconnected thoughts

The smell of snow, memory is a fabric dense with perfumes: Father shoveling
white heaps that cower like strayed sheep;

That hint at disappointments:

But this bird doesn’t sing: caught between storm glass and screen, half sun-
bleached, half
cardinal wing.

That nonetheless need to be wrapped as presents:

Tell me the air is filling with ticker-tape, trombones, victory of softly falling

A decorum that will be preserved throughout their lives:

Remember me in a future April when rivers are the color of tea in the Carolina
Lowcountry and where Easter recipes are lettered on handmade paper.

In short, there are many ways of getting the emotional charge across: here by mock  solemnity, mischievous tomfoolery, by exact diction and by letting social niceties tell  their own story.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *