The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai
Pantheon Books, 2019
Ha Jin’s biography of Li Bai (formerly known as Li Po and Rihaku in the west) provides a vivid survey of the great poet’s life. Bai (701-762 A.D), a legendary figure in Chinese poetry, is said to have drowned while drunkenly chasing the reflection of the moon in a river. The Banished Immortal, although constantly taking account of the myths clustered around Li Bai, focuses more intensely on the verifiable aspects of the poet’s life and work. Ha Jin’s compelling prose not only renders a highly readable overview of Bai’s life, but also provides an interesting gloss of Tang dynasty bureaucracy. Bai’s wanderlust, his political aspirations, his poetic skill (often employed in service to his political ambitions), his setbacks, his literary friendships, his Daoist spirituality, his naivete when negotiating court intrigues, and his gregarious heart make this biography read like a novel. Ha Jin brings Li Bai alive in his writing; he also conjures a world where poetry held a central place by providing interesting digression about Tang poetry devotees like Ge Qing, a street policeman in Jing Prefecture who was “so devoted to the poet Bai Juyi that he tattooed more than thirty of Juyi’s poems on his body, as well as drawings inspired by his verses” and was called “Bai Juyi’s Walking Poems and Pictures.” The world that Li Bai moved through bears little in common with our own, but American poets might find inspiration in the naked ambition of this itinerant immortal.
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019
In a 1996 Paris Review interview with A.R. Ammons, David Lehman said that Ammons’ long poems: “seem in some ways deliberately imperfect—casual, expansive, all-inclusive, loose.” The same could be said for Playlist, which is a direct homage to Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year. Like many of Ammons’ long poems, Playlist unfolds in increments, held in place by the calendar and given momentum by the playlists on Sirius radio and by the enthusiasms of the poet—jazz, poetry, cinema, the great American songbook, and crooners like Sinatra. There’s a cosmopolitan sprezzatura to Lehman’s long-poem, a spritely dailiness, surprisingly intimate and lush, as open to chance as a turn of the stereo’s dial, efflorescing in descriptive passages such as:
after I step out of the car
and onto my favorite perch
above Cayuga’s waters, the porch
where majestic trees devoid of leaves
stand like scarecrows
the sky a deeper hue an orange
and blue blaze dipping
below the horizon
In Playlist, Lehman has succeeded in doing something that hasn’t been done much since the passing of Ammons, viz., he’s written a book-length poem that is propulsive in its readability. Playlist is a testament to a literary friendship of the highest caliber, and an artifact from a life lived in a studied circadian dialogue with art, literature, and music. Anyone who lives poetry, and loves it, should read this book.
Helping the Village Idiot Feed the Chickens (or the Brutal Procedures of Procuring Dinner)
Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books, 2020
The title of Joe Weil’s newest collection might leave some readers nonplussed and might initiate others into the mysteries of another uniquely variegated collection by one of the most underrated poets in America. This is a book contingent upon what Weil himself might call an aesthetic of the motley, a book that contains multitudes—ranging from a Petrarchan sonnet to a poem about the Staten Island Ferry that begins: “a boy vomits over the stern.” Weil’s is a leaping poetry that moves from gazelle to silver maple, from the memory of a mother looping his belt in grade school to a line from Rae Armantrout. Helping the Village Idiot evokes the imagistic intensity, the technical mastery, and the assured iconoclasm of mid to late career James Wright. As Weil notes in “Ars Poetica (or the failure to be jade),” alluding to Robert Lowell’s famous notion: “I am all raw in my very cooked way.” Indeed, Weil’s poetry combines vigor with technique and a canny knowledge of multiple poetic traditions. However, Weil’s autobiographical lyric poems shine brightest, such as “Poem for Emily Ten Years In,” a gorgeous love poem for the poet’s wife, a wily ars poetica, and a poem about raising children with Autism. The collection ends with a poem, “Compline,” that recalls Seamus Heaney’s dictum that poetry is earned communion:
Come: touch this wind.
Out of a vagrant longing
that stands through the night in the house of the dawn,
lift up your chalice with worn mumbled prayers
and sing to ghosts.
May the hour genuflect praise
and deepen the dark river’s gaze
that holds the trees and houses accountable
to whatever they Shelter.
It is this residue in things,
this now, that abides with us,
that gives us bread
If you want to have your heart broken and your faith in humanity reaffirmed at the same time, buy this book.
Note: I read these three books over the past few weeks and they provided me great solace and inspiration during these trying times. I highly recommend all three books, and, indeed, any books written by Ha Jin, David Lehman, and Joe Weil. ~Dante Di Stefano