Lyle Daggett – The Stone of Language

Stone of LanguageWednesday, August 31, 2005

The best book of poems I’ve read in the past year or so is The Stone of Language by Anya Achtenberg (published 2004 by West End Press, PO Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125). I first met Anya, and read her poems, in the early 1980’s when she was living here in Minneapolis. I encountered her poems at a time in my life when, although I had not stopped writing poetry, I had for the most part stopped doing anything public with my poems. Anya Achtenberg was one of the poets whose work helped me to find a way for my poems to come back out into the world, to write poems that I felt might be capable of engaging with the larger world.

This, from the poem “4A, Brooklyn” in The Stone of Language:

Why is she here, this street, this number,
between seagulls and the roar of trash?
How far can she pedal, can she run,
before her breath, extinguished, rises
to her throat and will not go down
to the cave where it flowers?
What marked the spot, built her into
the brick, another piece that fit,
arm caught in a slot,
leg caught behind her, always
stepping back, the perfect dance
away from the ledge?

Passionately human poems of encounter with the psyches and textures of city life in the modern world, and of life in the greater world. Throughout Achtenberg’s poetry runs a stubborn insistence on telling the truth, no matter how terrible. From the poem “Questions of War” (subtitled “1991”):

This time all is surgical, Baghdad
is a hotel room with two or three frightened voices
whispering in Standard American English
what they hear through the floor,
what they see through the window.
There is no tall uniform blowing the brains out
of a thin Vietnamese peasant
who kneels on the screen until he flies away
from the bursting stream of his brains,
there is no screaming mother running
with her burnt and burning child in her arms
away from the village
which is renamed napalm.

With a quiet lyrical intensity, Anya Achtenberg’s poem draws out and illuminates the essential experience of what it is to be a human being trying to know deeply, and be known by, other human beings through the frantic and explosive interference of late 20th and early 21st century life.

We are lying together and you are
the one who is searching inside me,
you are the one I am eating and drinking,
the one whose hands hold me up,
whose breath keeps me alive,
whose body works against me until it loses its fury,
whose throat lies in honey,
whose limbs are sculpted in the journey,
whose aching forehead falls into song only once
or twice, then into fever,
then into the ancient cave of shadow.

(From the poem “Elegy.”)

The early 1980’s in Minneapolis was a thriving place for poetry, particularly for poetry written from a politically conscious outlook. Among the remarkable poets and writers and publishers who lived and passed through here during those years (some of whom still live here) were Anya Achtenberg, Ruben Medina, Teresa Anderson, Roy McBride, Kevin O’Rourke, Ivory Giles; Jim Dochniak (poet, and publisher of Sez Magazine and Shadow Press); Meridel LeSueur, Tom McGrath, Timothy Young; John Crawford (publisher of West End Press), Kevin Fitzpatrick (poet and publisher of Lake Street Review), poet Bob Edwards who a few years later would begin publishing the great poetry magazine Pemmican; Jim Perlman (publisher of Holy Cow! Press), Dale Jacobson coming down periodically from East Grand Forks; Mike Hazard who was starting to produce and distribute videos about poets through his Center for International Education; Johnny Hazard, publishing his free handout ‘zine of lethal political satire and commentary, the Heathen Science Monitor…

Among the highlights of those years was the annual Great Midwest Bookshow, a lively and audacious gathering of poets and writers and small press publishers, from the midwest and anywhere else they made the trek from. (I specifically recall Place of Herons Press from Texas, Copper Canyon Press from Port Townsend, Washington — in those days they were still essentially a “small” press — and a consortium of small press publishers from Maine. Among the featured poets reading at the first Bookshow I attended (in 1982) were Carolyn Forche (shortly after publication of The Country Between Us), Sharon Doubiago (shortly before publication of her epic poem Hard Country by West End Press, and Tom McGrath (McGrath and Doubiago did a reading together on the third day of the Bookshow). There was also a good panel discussion on People’s Culture featuring (among others) Jim Dochniak, Fred Whitehead, and Meridel LeSueur as panelists.

It was during those times and in this place that I first met Anya Achtenberg and read, and heard, her poetry….(I Know What the Small Girl Knew, published 1983 by Holy Cow! Press, and still listed as available in the publisher’s backlist.)

I like to spend time with books of poems. With the best ones, the books and the poems that reach me the most profoundly, that speak with the greatest truth and clarity about the beauty and sorrow and tenderness and struggle of life in the real world, I’ll carry the books with me, day after day, week after week, reading slowly, letting the poems work on me, letting them grow within me and shape the world around me. Much of the greatest poetry works best taken slowly, even when the message is urgent and compelling. After I started reading The Stone of Language last year, I carried the book with me for months.

I run after,
shouting whispering or singing.
I can never tell it
at the university or office,
but in the middle of long nights,
in my dreams of the carnival,
the breathless meals of lips and flesh,
the chase and the final death,
the prophecies that plague me,
they are there, their song is there.
In my empty palms
they twist around my lifeline, my heartline,
through the numbers of my marriages and children,
and in the dry empty space where my pulse beats,
volcanic, under threats of fire, flood, avalanche
and ferocious winds that keep the earth turning.

(From the poem ” ‘They are there, their song is there’ ” in The Stone of Language.)

Review by Lyle Daggett; Minneapolis, Minnesota

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