Hello! This week I’m going to talk about a 20th-21st century American poet named Grace Schulman. Born in 1935, Schulman has worked as a critic and academic, and published several collections of poetry. My personal favourites are Burn Down the Icons and The Broken String.
Things that Schulman likes: Religious/faith orientated ideas and images, historical engagements (poets, people in general, architecture), male and female figures, movement and self-expression, transformations.
Thing that Schulman dislikes: Critical of anything rigid.
Things that are cool about Schulman’s poetry: Schulman is inspired by a lot of other poets, including Dante, Whitman, Donne and Shakespeare, and her writing reads as logical evolution of their designs. Her poems are all quite formally structured, with some very elaborate language.
Some good poems: “Apples” engages with ideas of growth/consumerism/maturity, in a setting similar to Rossetti’s Goblin Market. “Borders” shifts around anti-war sentiments with biblical imagery, connecting to another young female figure’s experience, as well as a need for transcendence. “Joy” explores Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and connects this to broader human experiences.
Rain hazes a street cart’s green umbrella
but not its apples, heaped in paper cartons,
dry under cling film. The apple man,
who shirrs his mouth as though eating tart fruit,
exhibits four like racehorses at auction:
Blacktwig, Holland, Crimson King, Salome.
I tried one and its cold grain jolted memory:
a hill where meager apples fell so bruised
that locals wondered why we scooped them up,
my friend and I, in matching navy blazers.
One bite and I heard her laughter toll,
free as school’s out, her face flushed in late sun.
I asked the apple merchant for another,
jaunty as Cezanne’s still-life reds and yellows,
having more lift than stillness, telling us,
uncut, unpeeled, they are not for the feast
but for themselves, and building strength to fly
at any moment, leap from a skewed bowl,
whirl in the air, and roll off a tilted table.
Fruit-stand vendor, master of Northern Spiesm
let a loose apple teach me how to spin
at random, burn in light and rave in shadows.
Bring me a Winesap like the one Eve tasted,
savored and shared, and asked for more.
No fool, she knew that beauty strikes just once,
hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,
tasting of earth and song, I’d risk exile.
The air is bland here. I would forfeit mist
for hail, put on a robe of dandelions,
and run out, broken, to weep and curse – for joy.
Perhaps because of the twiggy cigars
he offered me, the showy “Come, American,”
the outstretched hand, the hasty, sidelong stares
at shorts I packed to wear in white-hot sun,
at windblown hair, I knew he was a friend.
On my side of the gunfire, date-palm fronds
waved in groves. On his, white sand. In Kfar Saba,
they warned, don’t walk the path too near the border.
Soldiers were shot, and would be, ours, theirs;
and new borders, none deadlier than the mind’s.
Why was it then I had to cross, and why,
at that dizzying moment, fear disguised
as ignorance, I asked: “Where is the border?”
“Moved,” he answered. “Now it is where you stand.”
The numbers numb the deed. She was thirteen,
they noted, when they peered at sixteen feet
to “inspect the kill.” She had crossed a line,
threadlike in white sun. The girl was shot.
I saw her name, Inam, today.
Its vowels roared over what numbers had told.
Thirteen. Twelve noon. A security area
ten yards wide. She skipped on that banned road,
some days her shortcut to a field of citrons
that seized her, or the red-and-white carnations
so plentiful they wither if ungathered,
or else in that bright air she could not fathom
those timeless warnings: No, don’t wander. Halt.
Don’t look. Or lose your love. Or turn to salt.
The lines I want are on the mezzo’s pages
tonight, when she unlooses a Bach aria
to drift skyward: Erbarme dich, have mercy,
and when the chorus stands, sorrow and rage
in counterpoint, cross-rhythms, harmonies
and brawls, Guard me the cry of one alone
and everyone. All. For St. Matthew Passion,
read passion: the burn of grief, the rise of joy.
Four hundred daytimes snatched from the Leipzig choir,
and nights from children’s squalls, went into notes,
one and one inked with wings, inside the bars,
or rows of threes and fours, freed by their limits
to swell beyond the church dome and strike fire,
blessed to transcend time, road lines, and borders.
The crowd yells, stamping, for the “Ode to Joy”
that swells to close Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,
played when the night air thickens with cries –
deaths by gunfire and a trespassing sea.
They always shout for it, the tease of hope,
the lure of gladness. I’ve heard that when
the deaf composer led the first performance,
he flailed both arms after the music stopped
until an alto turned him clear around
to see them screaming. He bowed, not in joy
but in prayer, the doubt more real than the possession.
Beethoven set the ode to notes so high
and so low that no chorus can sing joy
without a struggle – and that’s the point.
Turner, who saw mud rivers shin in fog,
hunched in a cellar and one day a week
flung open pine shutters and cried: “What jewels!”
As a boy, he curled up in a brig’s bow
to see skies whiter over murky waters.
I think of him this zero January
of prose chatter, nightfall at four-thirty.
Sometimes diamonds glitter in dark snow
layered with filth, and track you down dirt streets
the way a Byzantine Madonna’s halo
some monk made into hold from egg tempera
can follow shining after you’ve walked on.
Emerson’s wild delight. All I cannot fathom.
All that I imagine, therefore am.
Joy’s ode: the unexpected transformation,
the flight, the mystery of what is given,
tentative, unasked for, and uncertain,
yet sure, the words I never knew were there.
All poems are cited from Grace Schulman’s The Broken String, 2007.