Tuesday, April 30, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 30 with Asekoff

In this last trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet humbly chases after L. S. Asekoff’s “Lyre.” While the Steiny Poet has tripped through poems on themes of deathlove, poetry, the natural world, and design/creation (David Starkey’s “The Ways of God to Man” on intelligent design, Carmen Váscones’ sonic design poem “46)” as translated by Alexis Levitin, Melanie Jordan’s ekphrastic poem “The Kiss of the Cage,” and Andrew Sofer’s musically focused sonnet “Hautboys”), nothing reviewed so far matches the vast reach of Asekoff’s “Lyre,” a free-verse poem written in one stanza of 44 lines.


As best as the Steiny Poet can understand, “Lyre” is about civilization and the morality and love that might happen in a chaotic universe. As the poem opens, the lyre is addressed by an unidentified narrator whom the Steiny Poet presumes to be Asekoff.

You have witnessed the sorrows of the rose-grower’s daughter,
The ivory grin of the lacquered beast
& where aging fingers once lingered lovingly.

The lyre is a stringed instrument of the harp family. Relative to the size of modern day harps, the lyre is small and hand held. In ancient Greece the instrument accompanied poets or entertainers reciting poetry. The lyre is a symbol for the Greek god Apollo, known as the god of music and poetry.

According to Greek mythology, Hermes crafted the first lyre from a tortoise shell and the intestines of cattle he stole from Apollo. Apollo forgave Hermes for the stolen cattle when he heard the music produced by the lyre and then traded more cattle for the musical instrument. Dear Reader, hang on to this image of the first lyre being made from tortoise shell.

For now, the Steiny Poet is stumped by the reference to the rose-grower’s daughter, but she thinks daughter is a critical element but only understood by the closing lines of the poem.


So, shipwrecked on the shores of time,
They hauled their great stringed instruments
Upright over the wagons like sails.

The last two lines are a quote from Isabel Fonseca’s 1995 book about the Roma people, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. The quote is about members of Papusza’s family who were harpists. Bronislawa Wajs (1908-1987), the most famous Romani poet and also known as Papusza ("doll") stood out because she defied her Polish Romani family and their people by learning how to read. During World War II, German Nazis and Ukrainian fascists murdered Romani people in Poland. Various governments also pushed Romanis to settle in one place and so many gave up their carts and horses but retained their heavy lyres. With this information at hand, the Steiny Poet thinks she now understand lines four and five:

The dream of a man wheels
Takes precedence over the gathering of colors.

The Steiny Poet thinks the gathering of colors might refer to national flags and the various European countries lining up for war. It might also refer to the gypsy predilection for brightly colored clothing.


Lines six and seven are italicized and the Steiny Poet knows where part of the quoted passage derives.

So the prosodic hallucinarium,
Physics stark mad in metaphysics,

Physics stark mad in metaphysics comes from The Education of Henry Adams, a memoir by the same Henry Adams. Here’s the passage:

In these seven years [between 1895 and 1902] man had translated himself into a new universe, which had no common scale of measurement with the old. He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his sense, perhaps even to his instruments, but perceptible to each other, and so to some known ray at the end of the scale. Langley  seemed prepared for anything, even for an indeterminable number of universes interfused – physics stark mad in metaphysics.

Historians undertake to arrange sequences,—called stories, or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably replay, with one voice, that they never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about.

This passage goes on to say that Adams was not satisfied with ignorance and he worked hard, but in vain, to uncover the meaning. Meaning comes only with breakneck force. Adams continues:

Where he saw sequence, other men saw something quite different, and no one saw the same unit of measure. He cared little about his experiments and less about his statesmen, who seemed to him quite as ignorant as himself, and, as a rule, no more honest; but he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the irruption of forces totally new.

Returning to Asekoff’s poem and picking up at lines six and seven, observe the interplay between the Adams text and “Lyre,” especially the line “Shamed into speech by such voluble silence”:

So the prosodic hallucinarium,
Physics stark mad in metaphysics,
The theorist in pain
Playing the black keys against the white
While across the long twilight this windowless room
Offers a door to the shoreline
With its abundant shifting sands
& self-delimiting sadness—
a glimpse of an eighteenth-century sea.
Shamed into speech by such voluble silence,
You think: The hand, a tortoise; the mind, a hare.
The Prince of Infinite Space inherits the Kingdom of Ends.

While the Steiny Poet is not entirely certain, she believes that prosodic hallucinarium refers to Asekoff’s poem “Lyre” and that the theorist is Henry Adams (18381918) though the imagery of the piano seems ascribed by Asekoff to the theorist and Adams was not a musician of any measure, let alone the piano. Nonetheless Adams acknowledged the importance of music in his education. In his memoire, Adams referenced the eighteenth century frequently though he is clearly a man moving into the twentieth century. However, he is formed by the Age of Enlightenment and his more famous grandfather John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) and great-grandfather John Adams (1735–1826).


The narrator tells us the theorist, put on the spot, begins to ascribe the tale of the tortoise and the hare to himself, likening his hand (where action begins and is sustained) to the tortoise and his mind, which is quicker than the hand but undisciplined, to the hare. Then Asekoff makes a huge leap of imagination saying the prince of infinite space inherits the Kingdom of Ends. Shakespeare has his tragic hero Hamlet say, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” (Act II, Scene ii) Therefore, Hamlet remains prince and seems to be bound in Asekoff’s statement by moral imperative. Why? The Kingdom of Ends is a thought experiment in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and is tied to Kant’s categorical imperative. Rational beings live in the Kingdom of Ends and must choose to act and be judged by a set of standards that imply absolute necessity (categorical imperative).


From this point until the last three lines, the poem open out to the universe in a description that seems to chart ritual and chaos theory and then the Steiny Poet conjectures, that poem turns back to the gypsy life where two teenagers steal away for their elopement which is hinted at with these phrases: half-closed buds open over unfurled leaves,  amorous awakenings, lilies afloat in a pool,  final inscription. The Steiny Poet also believes now that rose-grower’s daughter may be someone depicted in Forseca’s Bury Me Standing.

Surfing the night’s black static, neon glow
Everywhere you see the golden section—
A keyhole into the lesser dark.
Wind blows over snowy windrows, rattles the corn.
The shaking of a buffalo blanket spooks an Indian pony.
As the range rises,
Fingers move across strings of an invisible lyre—
Heartbeats, flapping wings, water waves,
The periodic motion of heavenly bodies,
Chirr of cicadas, ticking clocks, a dream of stones.
Now a colorless hiss zeroes in on
Random fluctuations of electrical resistance.
Wandering beyond the keys, a pale melody
Remembers where it’s been;
The dark sea points to a lovely flickering curve,
Underground currents, spectral densities,
The nervous system of Tokyo traffic flow,
Daring conjectures of the changing landscape.
Haunted by such arabesques,
Half-closed buds open over unfurled leaves,
The longing of the asleep for amorous awakenings,
A frieze of water lilies afloat in a pool,
Adrift & drifting as they are towed toward
The perpetual velleities of their final inscription.

The Steiny Poet imagines there are other ways to approach this impressionistic and philosophic poem with it loose connections between lyre and the tale of the tortoise and the hare, between lyre and the piano which has an internal harp.  For example, one could just talk about the engaging word choice and the music of the lines like “Wind blows over snowy windrows, rattles the corn.” Also Asekoff’s “Lyre” resonates with Kathy Fagan’s “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place.” Both have an other worldly dimension. One other observation is that Asekoff chooses to capitalize the first word of every line. While the Steiny Poet sees this stylistic choice as a throwback to the 19th century, other contemporary poets choose this style element. Those in BPR 40 reviewed during this thirty-day project who capitalize the first word of each line include Kathy Fagan in “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place,” Daniel Anderson in “Someone Is Burning Leaves,” and Erica Dawson in “Chinquapin Leaves on the Riverbank.”


To sum up the project, the Steiny Road Poet found the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 to be an exceptional collection of book reviews and contemporary poetry of varying styles, formats, and forms that also included translation. The eye-catching artwork on the cover “Man Pretending to Read Like a Hawk” by poet Debora Gregor makes a political statement about the state of poetry today—not enough readers! The BPR, printed on high-quality paper and beautifully laid out with an easy-to-read font,  is worthy of a wider audience. This volume included 59 poets and the Steiny Road Poet reviewed one poem by 30 of these 59.

Other poets included in BPR 40:
Betty Adcock, Tory Adkisson, Jo Brachman, Gaylord Brewer, Robert Collins (founder of the Birmingham Poetry Review), JamesDoyle, Alex Fabrizio, Brett Foster, Jeff Hardin, Katie Hartsock translating St. Augustine, William Logan, David McLoghlin, Zachariah McVicker, Sandra Meek, Erika Meitner, Homer Mitchell, Mary Moore, Emilia Phillips, John Poch (also translating Enrique Barrero Rodriguez), Christine Poreba, David Roderick, F.Daniel Rzicznek, Martha Serpas, Megan Sexton, Patty Seyburn, Rawdon Tomlinson, Sidney Wade, William Wright, and Matt Zambito

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