Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Reading to Remember

We just returned from a wonderful trip to L.A. to visit one of my old high school friends.

It just so happened that Marilyn Hacker was slated to speak at Antioch University, so Annie and I decided to go see one of my favorite poets in the flesh. We were not disappointed.

When she reads her work, you can hear the passion of her ideas and the music of her language.

She also shared a lot of fascinating information as she spoke, such as the fact that the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova , who was persecuted by the Stalinist government, would write poems on paper, memorize them, then burn them. (Akhamatova is portrayed in this 1914 painting by Nathan Altman.)

Hacker read some great poems. One of them was a glosa, a Spanish form that involves "glossing" someone else's poem--in essence, borrowing lines from another poem. (For more detail, click here.) I'm going to try one soon, probably borrowing from Hacker!

But the poem that has been haunting me the most is "Rune of the Finland Woman." Hacker explained that the poem builds on the lives of two characters: one fictitious, one real. The fictitious one is the the young girl who saves her friend who was kidnapped by the Snow Queen in the Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Snow Queen.”

The real person the poem "calls on" is Sára Karig, a Hungarian woman who during WWII helped to save the lives of a few thousand children who had been orphaned by their deported parents.

Later, Karig on she spent some time in a Stalinist prison camp in Siberia for being a Trotskyist. She survived and became a poet, dying just a few years ago in her eighties.

Here's the poem:

Rune of the Finland Woman (by Marilyn Hacker )
For Sára Karig

"You are so wise," the reindeer said, "you can bind the winds of the world in a single strand."—H. C. Andersen, "The Snow Queen"

She could bind the world's winds in a single strand.
She could find the world's words in a singing wind.
She could lend a weird will to a mottled hand.
She could wind a willed word from a muddled mind.

She could wend the wild woods on a saddled hind.
She could sound a wellspring with a rowan wand.
She could bind the wolf's wounds in a swaddling band.
She could bind a banned book in a silken skin.

She could spend a world war on invaded land.
She could pound the dry roots to a kind of bread.
She could feed a road gang on invented food.
She could find the spare parts of the severed dead.

She could find the stone limbs in a waste of sand.
She could stand the pit cold with a withered lung.
She could handle bad puns in the slang she learned.
She could dandle foundlings in their mother tongue.

She could plait a child's hair with a fishbone comb.
She could tend a coal fire in the Arctic wind.
She could mend an engine with a sewing pin.
She could warm the dark feet of a dying man.

She could drink the stone soup from a doubtful well.
She could breathe the green stink of a trench latrine.
She could drink a queen's share of important wine.
She could think a few things she would never tell.

She could learn the hand code of the deaf and blind.
She could earn the iron keys of the frozen queen.
She could wander uphill with a drunken friend.

She could bind the world's winds in a single strand.

*

After the reading, Joyce Jenkins (of Poetry Flash) and Eloise Klein Healy (founding faculty of the Antioch MFA and editor of Arktoi Books) joined Marilyn for a panel discussion about small press publishing, editing, and how the heck to make money in the arts (which was never clarified).

It was a pleasure to meet and talk to Eloise--a very generous woman who is doing a lot of good things in the world, such as promoting poetry, lesbian writing, and eco-arts.
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