Tuesday 24 May 2011

Valzhyna Mort (again), Jorie Graham, the dangers of speaking to poets at readings

This is a postscript to my last piece on Valzhyna Mort and Factory of Tears.  A London audience heard her a couple of years ago at Poetry International on the South Bank.  She read very well and intensely, including some poems in Belarusian, but seemed quite shy.  Maybe she was shy in the company of Jorie Graham, Mark Doty and Mourid Barghouti.  She’s been described as a ‘fireball’ and ‘electrifying’, and the internet audios of her reading in Belarusian sound great. 

Mort’s publishers hadn’t managed to get her book to London in time, and at the end of the interval when the poets had been signing books I went along to say I loved her poems and would get the book when it arrived.  She wasn’t there, and instead two of the contemporary poets I most admire, Graham and Doty, were sitting side by side at empty desks.  As Jorie Graham signed a book for me, I asked her if she knew where Valzhyna Mort was.  ‘WHO??’ she said.  I repeated the name, loudly and too clearly.  She didn’t seem to be fully aware of her co-reader. 

Moose thinking about Sarah Palin. 
 Alaska Moose Foundation

Just shows one should never approach famous poets at readings, especially those one admires.  I was then too put out to say to Mark Doty I was only not asking him to sign Theories and Apparitions as I’d got it at home… but that would probably have gone wrong too.

Anyway I remember it as a really good reading, all four of them – though Jorie Graham nearly spoilt it by starting her spot with a rant several minutes long against Sarah Palin hunting moose from a helicopter.   
This didn’t go down at all well with the audience, who had come to hear her read her poems and didn’t need to be told what Sarah Palin was like. Did she think we didn’t know?  Was this all to do with not everyone thinking Graham’s recent books are as good as the earlier ones? 

I’m still not sure what I think about that.  The earlier books are more accessible, but I am fascinated by Sea Change and Never, the way she seems to write at the edge of both geography and consciousness.  Here is an extract from near the end of ‘The Time Being’, from Never:

… The breaking waves tossing
spume the whole length of the beach.  The glassy
tidal-retreat zone where the reduced
incline allows for a full measure of sky
every eight seconds or so to be strewn over the
otherwise dark-wet sand – a sun, a blueness,
clouds clearly moving, the skin of water
giving us “where-the-earth-opens” [it must open],
sun in there one cannot look at any
more than one can look at the one above – then the retreat –
sun, clouds, blue, all being taken back
into the shorebreak, tossed-up, in-ruffled
airily into huge plumes and upcast mists, the looking-down
leaving tiny holes where clam and crab and tubeworm
suck back under and the water goes down as well as out
and the earth is filling and the earth is
shut.  The time presses.
The sense of one’s person
numbs as in having been too long in too
strong a wind.  The idea won’t
hold as I push it out.  Then it will.  Then it
is held [not by me].  Then it is all gone. 

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