I think I’ve mentioned poet Geoff Young’s Gallery in Great Barrington in the Berkshires before. It’s on Railroad Street, over the art supply store.
If you’re ever in that town, check out the gallery. Geoff’s eclectic but educated taste, and the limited amount of space in his gallery, means every show is packed with small works of art that are always unique and often startlingly so.
Geoff also hosts poetry readings there, and last night I happened to be in town so I checked out the latest show and then took a seat to listen to Nathan Kernan read “LUNCH. A POEM”
A serial poem in 12 sections, it chronicles a son’s facing his father’s dying, but does it through memories of particular lunches, as well as asides like ones about the etymology of the words “lunch” and “luncheon” that are illuminated by wit and insight.
Kernan is not only a poet, but has been working for a while on a biography of the poet James Schuyler. Schuyler was for a long time the least celebrated of the “New York School” poets that included Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara (and in some accounts Barbara Guest as the only female member).
You can hear Schuyler’s influence on Kernan in “LUNCH. A POEM” —as well as O’Hara’s (whose LUNCH POEMS initially made O’Hara more widely read than any of them, when it first came out from City Lights).
But Kernan makes various influences his own by bringing them together in a highly personal and distinct way, one that resonated with me as he read it and I occasionally read along from the Pressed Wafer chapbook that contains the poem (with drawings by Anne Dunn).
Here is section 5:
brought in by a friend,
was it only
yesterday? in a
tall jar, the soup
a beautiful pale
with leftover poached
a sense today of
the great emptiness
that will be coming."
Kernan is a presence on the New York scene, who I run into at art openings or book parties (as well as on the street and in the subway), and am always delighted to see. There’s something alert and attentive in his manner that makes me feel like my inability to engage in small talk and usual compulsion to get right to meaty subjects and intense personal conversation isn’t entirely unwelcome.
He seems familiar with the “New York School” not just in a scholarly or fellow poet way, but in a social and personal way. As his poem “LUNCH. A POEM” reveals, his father was a classmate of John Ashbery’s not only at Harvard but at Deerfield as well. The poem doesn’t actually say all that, just that they were classmates; I asked Nathan where during am abbreviated Q&A after the reading in an attempt by Geoff to stall for time until Bill Corbett arrived.
Corbett is the publisher of Pressed Wafer and has been a force in the poetry world since the 1970s at least. He’s often associated with the Cambridge and Boston literary scenes, as well as with New York. He was scheduled to read with Kernan. and was driving down from Northern Vermont and ended up miscalculating how long it would take, only arriving after Kernan was finished reading.
I was happy to see him looking so “hale and hardy” (or however that’s spelled). He has grown somehow in stature, both physically and intellectually, at least to me, in the decades since I’d seen him last.
He sat down behind a table and not only read from his latest book OPENING DAY (Hanging Loose Press) some terrifically personal and observant poems, but also from the poetry of others, including some of Ezra Pound’s CATHAY POEMS and from Jimmy Schuyler’s THE MORNING OF THE POEM.
Bill’s presence reminded me of Charles Olson’s the few times I heard him read and/or lecture back in the ‘60s. And as Corbett commented on his own and Pound’s and Schuyler’s poetry (and on Olson and a female poet whose name unfortunately I can’t remember and whose work I was unfamiliar with) I felt like I was sitting in on a really great teacher’s class.
The poems he chose to read of his own were mostly about painters, in honor of the setting, but his comments went beyond the anecdotal (although that too) and into the reasons for his choices, his taste, his passion for the poets he was reading and the art and artists his own poems were about.
The influence of Schuyler was present, is present in Corbett's poetry as well. Here's an excerpt from "BACKANDFORTH"—the longest poem in OPENING DAY:
Ready or not is the rule.
In one year eyeglasses
and cloud-white hair
not the man I was
but the man I was going to be,
my dressing room so small
I stand up to nap, step outside
and see eight crows flap up,
legs dragging like hooks,
wet char into thunder
It was a perfect evening for me, including an after reading dinner at the nearby Helsinki café, with lots of good conversation. And earlier, during the break between the readings, the poet Rossanne Wasserman gave me a copy of THE LANDSCAPIST, the Selected Poems of Pierre Martory, translated by John Ashbery (The Sheep Meadow Press).
I hadn’t seen her, and her partner on the project, poet Eugene Richie (they co-edited the volume) in a long time as well, and was happy to see them and this book.
Martory is a relatively unknown poet in France, better known to some in the U. S. thanks to the publication of Ashbery’s translations over the years.
Here's a stanza from "Collage":
"Everything is conjugated in the past tense
And nothing starts
Nothing which is not absolutely
In the minute preceding nothing:
The polygon in its lines
The corpse between the signs
The fog in my desire."
I met Pierre the first time I went to Europe in 1974, where I visited him at his apartment in Paris thanks to Ashbery’s suggestion and long distance introduction. He was a charming man with whom I had long conversations about all kinds of subjects, just like my conversations with Ashbery in those days.
Martory, as Ashbery points out in his introduction, loved “American culture” and grilled me on my life in “the states” and my taste in movies and music and much more. He also shared some of his work with me (mostly his journalism and art and music criticism for Paris-Match, for which he was best known in France, that and an early novel).
Ashbery lived with Martory in Paris from 1956 to 1965. And as he admits in his introduction, he is only now beginning to realize the impact Martory’s poetry had on his own. So anyone interested in Ashbery’s poetry should check out these translations, as well as anyone interested in the kind of poetry that the world has a hard time classifying.
As Ashbery says of it: “…there is no very easy way to describe Martory’s poetry. It is sui generis and it deserves to be read. And reread.” I agree.