Issue 108 |
Spring 2009


I love poets who bring us to our proper size. Think about taking a picture of a mile-high waterfall, and about that little human figure you need in the shot to suggest the magnitude caught in the image—the tiny person is the scale factor. It isn't that true scale diminishes the human, but rather that it celebrates our luck to be in the picture at all—such wonders! I think of that simile from Anglo-Saxon poetry —of our lives as the flight of a sparrow across the lighted mead hall, from darkness to darkness, and bow to the poet whose image that was. I don't care what his name was, or who he slept with, or where he got his credentials—all these things that seem to trouble us so much in our current silliness. I do care some that it is necessary to use the male pronoun for any bard back then, and for so many "back thens"—but not that much, for at least we have the image, and I have no trouble in taking that tiny sparrow 's flight for my own-mortality's bright brevity and dark frame having not the slightest thing to do with gender. Human, after all, has its roots in humus, from such earthiness as that from which we come.

So, in this brief introduction, I want to include the American poet Leonard Nathan, recently gone from among us, no longer available to submit (think of that word: submit!) to this or any other journal, these pages of voices raised "against the old indignities: the static / Heat of nothing, nowhere // No how against this conversation / Of fingers and tongues, this / Rent party above the / Slaughter-house. " That's by Cornelius Eady ("Muddy Waters & The Chicago Blues"), and that's pretty much how I think of poetry, and of the journals—like this one—that give us a place to get together, who gather us to raise the ante, keep things going a while longer, by pooling what we've got to keep our hold on a living space above the slaughterhouse of history.

I'm not quite "at the doorsill of sorrowful old age," but old enough to start taking personally the disappearance of poets into that darkness beyond the mead hall; whether I knew them personally or not is not the point, but rather that their poems had that ability to call things by the right name, having got the scale factor in place—and I miss them among the company of the present. (Those who were dear friends, of course, I miss differently, acutely, but that is extra-literary, and threatens my precarious hold on proportion.) As emblematic of poets who are wise, and wise to us, I publish here, in his absence, some poems of Leonard Nathan, who died in 2007 at the age of eighty-two. I knew him only through his poems; I know virtually nothing else about him, except what little Wikipedia tells me. No matter. Enough the way he restored proportion: nobody better at getting it right, with the kind of compression that turns carbon compounds to precious material. Here 's "Opportunity":

We thought we owned the apple
Having raised it simply
To bite at our pleasure.
But this worm
found it a sweet way
into its own ripeness.
That was a mouthful
of sour knowledge
for spitting out.
Could there be a higher purpose
that used us both
toward its own ripening?
Ha, say the dark seeds,
ha, and exult
to the core.

And in his "Ragged Sonnets, LXXXI," Nathan places the dawn dreams of the West's ancient poetry in the scale with whale song; like ours in imagining "origins and ends," their submarine singing also suggests what "we will never understand." With lyric composure, he manages, in the context of admiration for the larger mysteries of nature, to define our art—its indispensable power to reveal what we can know of ourselves:

The whales, we're told, sing. And sing, as befits
their size, immense sagas, vast patterns
they can repeat or vary as they choose
and send to listeners seas away, deep
in oceanic shade awaiting stories
that will give the sounding of their lives
an origin and end, a majesty
of meaning we will never understand.
Thousands of years ago, we also made
a massive music, though far beyond our power
to act, for—even then—we were quite small.
Now, Homer's greatcoat drapes us like a tent.
Besides, we mostly sang of treachery
And wrath; of love, only to lament.

But then there are those moments of jubilation. I am back now to Chicago, and one of the biggest rent parties of all time there—November 4, 2008, when millions of us leased the White House for the next four years to a worthy occupant. In my mind 's eye, I see again that deliriously happy Chicago crowd, and Obama walking out on the platform runway, a small figure standing before an ocean of cheering citizens. And one of the things he said that night, as he surveyed that (for once) exultant multitude, was "It's not about me." Well, yes, that's true. And no, it's not. And maybe exactly that yes and no will do as well as another for introduction to what follows.