Sunday, May 16, 2010

Turtles Of Talk

The Recumbent Galaxy
poetry by Alvaro Cardona-Hine and George Kalamaras
C&R press, 2010

The Recumbent Galaxy
is, quite literally, two books in one. It is the product of two authors, Alvaro Cardona-Hine and George Kalamaras. It is a collaborative work, though not in the sense that two minds melded together on a single work. The two authors are bound by mutual interests, mutual aesthetics. They are like two neighbors living in a city called Vallejo. Their houses are similar, but not entirely alike. Each helped one another build their house, taking ideas from one and incorporating it into the other, so that the give-and-take of collaboration created two unique dwellings rather than a single dwelling.

I could extend this metaphor a little further and say that they did not use one, but several different blueprints, those being the work of the Latin American poets César Vallejo and Miguel Hernández. I called their city Vallejo because that sounds like the name of a city. I would have to stretch Hernández into Hernández-ville, which sounds a bit awkward. But I’m getting tangled in my metaphor. Let’s move on.

Alvaro Cardona-Hine, according to the bio on the back of the book, “is a poet, painter, composer, and translator. Born in 1926 in Costa Rica, he came to the United States in 1939.”

George Kalamaras “is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990. He is the author of ten books of poetry.”

The two men conceived this project together, according to Kalamaras’s introduction, “over the commingling of poetry and smoke.”

My wife Mary Ann and (and our then ever-present companion, our female beagle, Barney) were once again visiting Alvaro and his wife Barbara in the beautiful mountain village of Truchas, New Mexico. Alvaro and I were basking in the warmth of a late July sun on a patio situated between their home, and Alvaro and Barbara’s art gallery and individual studios, where they have devoted their lives to poetry and painting for the last twenty years. We spoke, of course, of our mutual poetry mentors, especially the Chinese poets of antiquity and the Surrealist tradition of Spain and Latin America, particularly César Vallejo and Miguel Hernández. We had discovered a few years before that of all the poets we have read, we both held Vallejo and Hernández in the highest esteem. I then read Alvaro a few poems from my ongoing project The Bone Sutras while he puffed gently on a cigar in late afternoon sun, Barney devoting her glorious hound self eagerly to sniffing the richly scented earth about us. Poetry and smoke, I later thought -- both are so intoxicating and so ephemeral.

Kalamaras goes on to say that it was Cardona-Hine who first proposed that they write a book together: “We should write a book together, my friend!” Kalamaras hesitated at first because the geographical distance between Indiana and New Mexico is considerable. Nevertheless, Kalamaras agreed, and as he further pondered the project, he conjectured that “that this book was meant to be.” It assumed the confirmation of fate. Moreover, as Kalamaras observes, and I quite agree, “all poetry is collaboration in one form or another, just as each breath folds into the other, the continuous dance of inhalation and exhalation, or as the yogis of India say, when the pan pours into the apan.” (According to the online Sanskrit dictionary I consulted, pan means praise and apan means exhalation. So, praise pouring into exhalation would be my guess).

The month following their New Mexico visit, Cardona-Hine sent Kalamaras his first installment by post, a “gathering of twenty-four narratives whose wildness and associative leaps delighted me to no end.”

Since my Sutras had first sparked his idea of our collaboration, I thought to respond to his work by writing more Sutras. I decided to take the first line or two of each of his narratives (on occasion, later lines) and either use them in part or pull words from them to make the first line of a poem. Then with that first line as a starting point, I wrote a poem, sending twenty-four such treasures off to Truchas. Although it does not follow the sequence of our composition, the first section of the book is my response.

Sutra, according to Wikipedia, “literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism (or line, rule, formula), or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. It is derived from the verbal root siv-, meaning to sew… In Hinduism the 'sutra' is a distinct type of literary composition, based on short aphoristic statements, generally using various technical terms. The literary form of the sutra was designed for concision, as the texts were intended to be memorized by students in some of the formal methods of scriptural and scientific study.”

I am not at all familiar with the tradition of the sutra, but there is little, at least on the surface, that strikes me as being aphoristic in Kalamaras’s sutras. They are rich and alive with lyricism and imagery, but their highly surreal character would seem at quite a distance from anything remotely sententious or apothegmatic. Surrealism tends toward mutiny. It is language run amok. The intent behind surrealism is not so much to teach as it is to subvert. Capsize. Upend the constraints of logic and reason in order to liberate the trapped energies of the unconscious. It may very well be that this is the underlying instruction of Kalamaras’s sutras. He does not present us with a maxim to untangle but a wave to ride, a momentum of linguistic force whose currents carry us to a heightened awareness rather than an unequivocal answer.

I would robustly agree with Kalamaras’s description of Cardona’s narratives as full of wild, associative leaps. Each has the flavor of an interior monologue, a flow of words with the sensual thickness of a ropy gob of paint squeezed from a tube. Here it is the medium put forward rather than its content; the physicality of words as opposed to their referential capacity. Again, a surrealist predilection. The narratives have the oneiric biology of dreams, organisms developing out of a fecund pool of amino acids and polymerizing abstractions of “sugar and sex.”

The first narrative in Cardona-Hines’s collection titled “The uncertaInty prIncIple” begins with the sentence “This girl was born in the blue mills of my typewriter. An Olivetti.”

Ok, two sentences. But isn’t this great? A girl born from a typewriter. I think that’s wonderful.

And Olivettis were great typewriters. I miss the clack, clack, clackety-clack ding! of the old manual typewriters.

Though, as Cardona-Hines is quick to point out, the actual birth of his creation “had nothing to do with machines. She was conceived at 3:30 in the morning, the end of a dream, and quickly placed in the swaddling clothes of a page in an old diary carrying a date of Friday, December 7, 1990, before she could fade away.” We are clearly in the realm of the surreal here.

And so, too, with Kalamaras. His first sutra, “If You Ask Me My Scattered,” begins “The girl was born in the blue mills of my shame.” mmmmm. Shame instead of a typewriter. A quick glide from the mechanical to the emotional. The psychological.

And the biological: “I woke full of sparrow secretions and required a clean burning of bees from the inside musk of an ox.”

Kalamaras is a poet of multiple interests. His poetic and cultural affiliations are far-ranging. He has lived in India and practices yoga. His interests in surrealism extend beyond France to Japan and South America. He has written a monograph on the poetry of the Japanese surrealist Takiguchi Shuzo (“The Air is a Beautiful Princess Without Bones: Takiguchi Shuzo and Japanese Surrealism”). His poetry is full of allusions to a wide-ranging assortment of poets and cultural traditions. This adds to the intellectual richness of his writing.

The same could be said about Alvaro Cardona-Hine, who, in addition to his literary contribution to this collection, included some of his paintings. These are lush, fanciful, dream-like images that mark, as a frontispiece, each of the five sections of this book.

It’s interesting to compare the poetry of Cardona-Hine to that of Kalamaras. The poems in Cardona-Hine’s section titled “*S*T*A*R* *P*I*E*” are more disjunctive than Kalamaras’s sutras. He eschews majuscules, and his lines are shorter and more telegraphic. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of “Good Advice.”

consider butterflies of cinnamon
turtles of talk
moments in October
the wings of language
thrones of expectoration
that silly miracle of which she will speak
blushing furiously
at the age of concern
when she remembers

Perhaps it is because Cardona-Hine is a painter that his lines seem more like brushstrokes, whereas Kalamaras, a university professor, creates lines with more fluidity. Cardona-Hine, it might be said, leans more toward phanopoeia, image-based writing, than Kalamaras, who leans more toward melopoeia, toward lyricism and the musical phrase.

This is, in any event, a remarkable collection of work, and a strong testament toward the joys and potentialities of collaboration. For who, as Kalamaras has so wisely observed, is not in collaboration by the simple act of reading? Of engaging with someone’s work? And who, does not on occasion, extend their head from their shell, à la the turtle, to see what there is to see, to find what there is to find, to say what there is to say?

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