San Diego poets: LoVerne Brown, Lee Gerlach, Kamal Kapur, Al Zolynas

Buried treasure

LoVerne Brown has lived the last 40 of her 78 years in Ocean Beach. Brown has placed work in a host of magazines and journals, and two collections of her poems have been published: The View from the End of the Pier (Gorilla Press, 1983) and Gathering Wine Grapes in the Hollywood Hilton (La Querencia Press, 1986). In person, she is as generous and earnest as her poetry. Brown is small and quiet; her eyes are alert behind large glasses; she shakes hands unselfconsciously, warmly, even though arthritis has curled her fingers and swollen her knuckles. At first, she avoids talking about herself — not out of false modesty, but from a genuine curiosity about others.

Brown: "I used to write a lot of sonnets, because I grew up when Edna St. Vincent Millay was so popular."

Brown: "I used to write a lot of sonnets, because I grew up when Edna St. Vincent Millay was so popular."

In her simple office, she sits behind an electronic typewriter, speaking eagerly. Her voice is soothing, animated by strong feelings for her work, for words, for poems and poets. A few mementos and photographs grace the walls, among them two sepia-toned shots her father took of dog teams in the Aleutian Islands and a framed certificate issued by a long-departed city official declaring Brown the poet laureate of San Diego.

  • I like the wild in things —
  • our river revving up rapids
  • before rushing to freefall
  • from the granite wing of a mountain,
  • the rough breathing of desert wind
  • as it saws an escape hatch through rock

  • — From "Going for the Wild"

Gerlach: "I am writing a poem that Ben Jonson or Keats or one of the great Chinese poets might admire. Is this an elitist view? No, it isn’t."

Gerlach: "I am writing a poem that Ben Jonson or Keats or one of the great Chinese poets might admire. Is this an elitist view? No, it isn’t."

Brown grew up in raw terrain — the Aleutians, the lumber camps and iron mines of upper Michigan, the wilds of Wisconsin. At 17 she earned a scholarship to Berkeley. Disenchanted with her English instructor, she changed her major to physics. But she continued to write poetry — a habit initiated at the age of 5. Through the influence of Oakland Tribune poetry columnist Addison Schuster, Brown was introduced to a group of Bay Area poets, among whom she continued to hone and develop her skills. Soon after, her first published poem, "Of Certain Hands," appeared in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine.

Kapur's drama Kepler Dreams has been staged at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre.

Kapur's drama Kepler Dreams has been staged at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre.

In speaking about her work, Brown reveals telling aspects of craft, which, in turn, suggest how her work comes to possess its unique clarity and passion. “I try not to use allusions that are peculiar to myself — that is, allusions that would seem peculiar to other people. That's very easy to do. The poet has certain relationships with words that may mean something to him but have very different meanings for other people. I try to go over a poem later and make those things less personal. Above all, the poet has to be understood."

  • A voice is not a voice until it moves
  • hammer to anvil to complete the sound.
  • The surest muzzle is the unlistenmg ear;

  • — From "Life of a Minor Poet (1900-1942)"

"I used to write a lot of sonnets, because I grew up when Edna St. Vincent Millay was so popular. And I still write a sonnet now and then — but I don’t begin writing in that form. The poem and the subject matter make that choice for me. Certain things fit into sonnets, and certain things don’t. Also, the sonnet form can be useful to the poet — you might have a certain thought going around in your mind which you can’t get out, and the sonnet might make it clear. In that respect, the form disciplines you. And sometimes, once that thought is made clear, after all that work you might decide to throw it away. In this respect, form provides a test for the worthiness of your idea."

  • The sea and I came to low tide together,
  • he stranded on a kelp bed. I above
  • hunched on the pier against my internal weather,
  • both grim and heavy with resentment of
  • what had been done to us.
  • "Ocean," I cried,
  • "I ache with love" He answered, "I the same"
  • We talked about our moons, held both to blame,
  • swore to dose ranks against them if they came
  • all shame and penitence and recanted since, to parley.
  • Then they sought us, one to beckon
  • beneath a cloud, one where the pier begins.
  • We swore we would not answer, but we lied —
  • a wanting mightier than our minds could reckon
  • launched us to landward on a peremptory tide.

  • — "Low Tide at Ocean Beach"

"I used to go for early-morning walks on the beach, before work — I worked for the city engineering department for years, writing manuals and things — and when I got the first inkling of a poem, I’d come home and write down some ideas or the first few lines. Then, throughout the day, that poem would still be alive in my mind. I’d be sitting in meetings going crazy because I couldn’t write it down. So I learned to keep those lines in my mind until I got home."

  • and the great white whale
  • whose eye is revelation
  • rides the horizon, obdurate gaze averted,
  • while I, cold and disheartened,
  • wrestle my one lean minnow to shore.

  • — From "A Day with No Frenzy of Fishes"

"You always have to reach for something more, for something beyond what you're capable of saying. That’s what keeps you writing. And over time, you learn what not to do. These days, I feel my way into a poem, and eventually I have to be willing to throw away the first few lines. Sometimes you have to get rid of lines that have really nice words but which are just pretty and don’t really contribute anything more to the poem. I used to know a man who taught fiction writing who always told us, ‘Murder your darlings!' The one line you like might be the one you have to throw out. Essentially, a poem has to be honest, and you throw away the lines that are not. Taking out is as important as putting in. Then you have to make sure you put in a bridge from one thought to another, because when you make a jump in your own mind, you might be in danger of losing your reader. Above all, you’re trying to communicate."

  • Poems are not plucked from bushes
  • or found under cabbage leaves;
  • they are root crops, fugitive as truffles,
  • no pig yet trained to snuffle them out
  • for our feasting.
  • If you want a poem, this is what you must do;
  • Go alone to that ancient forest
  • our dreams were born in,
  • kneel in the darkening leaves
  • of last year's falling,
  • with your bare hands
  • dig through the lichened thought
  • to the cool loam of truth,
  • till your arm is buried to shoulder
  • and you lie flat.
  • head cupped in a green fern's growing:
  • Then deep in that hole into wonder,
  • spread fingers wide.
  • When you grasp the elusive tuber,
  • pray, and pull hard.

  • — “How to Harvest a Poem''

"I think you have to respect your craft, whatever you do — farming, woodworking, anything. If you don't have a respect for craft, why write? You have to have a respect for what you're doing and try to do the best you can with it. This is a very important thing in living.”

  • Before I left I asked my usual question,
  • "What have you written?" and he answered, “Nothing ...
  • I've learned it's better to live a poem than write one”
  • "How do you live a poem?"
  • He shrugged.
  • "Well, mostly
  • by not expecting anyone to read you,

  • — From "Life of a Minor Poet (1900-1942)"

Brown’s poems portray a rich drama of voices and characters and events. The speakers of her poems are joyful and awestruck children, imaginative and poignant adolescents, angry yet forgiving adults. Brown shows us beauty — in nature, and in the human heart. As she speaks about her poetry, she conveys sincere delight. Yet there is a thread running through her work that at first appears to be disturbing self-deprecation — in contrast to the striking images from Alaska, Mexico, central California, and from numerous oceans, mountains, and cities. The more one reads and listens and reads again, however, this self-denial becomes something positive and truly rare. It is denial of the everyday self, the physical self, the ego — and a testimony for the existence of something higher, something undeniably spiritual, perhaps a more sublime poetic self. Brown clearly captures this feeling in the conclusion to her poem "On the Need to Be Nobody":

  • Or one might paint me better than true —
  • color me rainbow,
  • pepper me with rhinestones;
  • there is danger also in that,
  • since then and thereafter I might see myself
  • always within limits
  • of that put-round-me frame...
  • might be riveted tightly
  • to what someone says I am.
  • restricted by proud inertia
  • from any further becoming.
  • A frozen waterfall is good to look at
  • if it's somebody else's.
  • I want to plunge on
  • recklessly
  • happily
  • privately
  • into my river.

Lee Gerlach, an accomplished poet and skilled painter, teaches literature at the University of San Diego. His most recent poems have appeared in respected journals — The Partisan Review, The Boston Review, Agni — and he collects many of his poems in private editions, elegantly produced, which he shares with family, friends, and colleagues. As a poetry fellow at Stanford after World War II, Gerlach found his mentor in Yvor Winters, the controversial critic and poet, who insisted good poetry possess a moral and rational dimension. At Stanford, Gerlach explains, he was "Winterized.” After Stanford, Gerlach spent time with other notables like the Black Mountain poet Paul Blackburn, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks from the Fugitive Group. During this period of his life, Gerlach was awarded the prestigious Hopwood Prize for his poetry. There on the post-war American poetry scene, as Gerlach puts it, he was "a big thing."

In the open, airy study of his Mission Hills home, Gerlach sits comfortably in an easy chair, surrounded by his paintings. There are many windows in this room; and outside, an abundance of trees and shrubs merge into the canyon below. Gerlach is tall and fit, dressed in slacks and running shoes. His eyes are bright and alive, and his voice flows smoothly. Gerlach considers writing poetry a game, "a marvelous game," worthy if only because finding joy in games is a normal human endeavor. He writes about “common things, ordinary things," describing the human situation from and through his experience Nothing more nothing less. "I write ordinary poems," he says, "because I live in a very ordinary world."

Winters taught Gerlach to write verse; all his poems are written with the deliberate and meaningful line breaks that distinguish verse. Gerlach feels no poem is alive unless the verse is alive — alive with music and rhythm. As he explains succinctly: “No verse, no poem."

  • The great blue soars, clouds languid, curling
  • In this calm, favored world whose familiar shapes
  • Absolve their changes, we propose our own.
  • I come and I go. You sway in a twilight exercise
  • Of patience and mute anguish, move
  • Still among the distraught, those pallid shadows
  • Of unlosable lives, those downward transformations
  • Of anger and desire imitating madness

  • — From “Psyche"

Gerlach believes a human situation should lie at the heart of a good poem. Part of the poem’s strategy follows out of this situation, enhanced by commentary, and growing in an attempt to earn whatever the poem clams in terms of emotions. Yet the poet never really does anything new, as Gerlach sees it.

Regarding craft, Gerlach explains, "At this point, I just write. I do what the attitudes of the poem suggest are appropriate. The name of the game is limit. I just try to do as much as possible in the smallest space as possible — in a contained space, wherein everything that's going on is related to everything else that is going on. My main objective is to make sure that the experience in the poem comes through clearly, that nothing seems arbitrary. There should be a core of meaning in the poem that is obvious to the reader; yet beyond that core, the margin of suggestion can be quite extensive, expanding into an aura of suggestion that enhances that central experience."

  • Full summer now The hills burn dry.
  • The twilight wind stirs in the great broom tree.
  • The burnished sunlight sways in the jacaranda.
  • It is time for quiet talk. The day is willing
  • You tell me of poverty, despair, sullen anguish.
  • What shall one ever do for the hurt and abandoned?
  • I do not know, nor do you though you give them your life.
  • The twilight here is never the twilight they know.

  • — From "In an Ancient Manner"

"Above all, I avoid what is easy. When I write a poem, I am writing a poem that Ben Jonson or Keats or one of the great Chinese poets might admire. Is this an elitist view? No, it isn’t; because I am not writing a poem for people who don't care about it."

  • Painter or poet what seems you see,
  • prelude to afternoon's descent.
  • Sea-light alive shocks up from the sea
  • to be the languish land had spent.
  • Yet what you sense when light denies
  • that sudden flush of earth turned sky
  • remains their abstract purities
  • at dusk, blue as leaves in a fraud's eye.

  • — From "Twilight''

"Much of what I do, in terms of technique, is habitual. My poems are very much a part of me, possessing my esthetic sense of things. For example, my poems are mostly stanzaic. And I rarely write an even number of stanzas; an odd number is more open to suggestion. All of my poems also describe a definite place and a time. And I don't see myself as having created a body of work that is somehow connected and related. Each poem is a separate thing, and my poems really have nothing to do with each other. Each poem represents a different realization of its own limits and possibilities.

"When writing a poem, one doesn't really know where or why it begins — but one knows why it gets there and how it gets there I might start off with a certain rhythm or phrase or image in mind, and that's enough. From there. I anticipate the direction, getting a stronger feel for the poem the more I work on it. Never forget: It’s all done with words, and words lead to other words. Poems are not made of ideas, they are made of words. And I see now that none of them are really my words, because these words belong to the culture, to the language, to what we are being the people we are. As the Indians suggest, all the words are telling the truth all the time — emanating from Atman, from the supreme Self."

  • Like the mind alive with its prisoned hope.
  • They sweep about us, imaginable yet real,
  • Hovering motionless against the clouds.
  • Plunging into the green-blue swell of oceans,
  • Flicking from twig to branch, untouching, untouched.
  • Their small clamors invade our dreams, their cries
  • Through strangling mist at twilight, their brutal caws
  • Over the battered cornfields white with snow
  • Become our own half-remembered, practiced
  • Anticipations of what we are and must be
  • In the loneliness of a long winter darkness,
  • We wait their return, believe they will come
  • Again to our trees, visionary, dear.

  • — From "The Birds of Egypt"

"There are very few days when I don’t sit down to write a new poem. Writing poetry for me is not a need; it’s more a way of collecting, of enjoying a wonderful quiet, without any practical reason behind it. I write a lot of occasional poems, for birthdays or anniversaries or funerals. And I’m not worried about publication. For this I have been criticized. But I just love doing it. I love swimming also, and I swim every day. Those two activities are similar in the delight both provide.

"People write poems because they truly like to do it. I cannot foresee exhausting the delights of poetry — those delights are endless. I have a son who paints; he makes a nice living as an artist — and he would die if he couldn't paint. But painting, or poetry — this is not work, it’s not labor. And part of the delight is that I’m always learning more about it."

  • Today, a sapphire dragonfly in the room,
  • A hovering blaze Last night a dream of death,
  • Both seem simple assents perplexing life,
  • Filled with mixed impertinence and sense.
  • All comes and goes in an impelling balance
  • Of forms and fires beyond our best invention.
  • And, when we reflect, those small lights cast
  • Gleam and dissolve within us. clouds adrift

  • — From "Psyche"

Gerlach speaks with a wisdom earned from decades of refining his craft. As he describes his methods, one senses that poetry has become as natural an activity for him as breathing. He draws in experience and responds with poetry — daily, regularly. Living and writing have become indistinguishable, necessary yet unnecessary. One of Gerlach's favorite poets is the 15th-century Indian mystic Kabir, who seems to describe this manner of living and working in the following lines:

  • If you want the truth, I'll tell you the truth:
  • Listen to the secret sound, the real sound,
  • which is inside you.
  • The one no one talks of speaks the secret
  • sound to himself,
  • and he is the one who has made it all.

Kamal Kapur was born and raised in India. A playwright as well as a poet, Kapur's drama Kepler Dreams has been staged at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre in San Diego. Full productions of three of her plays have been presented in India; two of them received national awards. For two years, she was playwright in residence for the State of New Mexico Arts Division. Many of her poems have been published in American journals; some have appeared in India, translated into Punjabi and Hindi.

Her collection of poems Radha Sings/Gopis Speak (Dark Child Press/Rolling Drum Press, 1987) embraces the classic Hindu myth of Sri Krishna and his ardent relationship with his consort Radha, one of the gopis — milkmaids and devotees of Krishna. Kapur's decision to portray and reveal Radha’s point of view — intensely human, unabashedly sensual — prevented a number of Indian publishers from bringing out her poems, “for fear the Hindus would burn down their buildings."

Kapur speaks assuredly about her writing and the craft of poetry. Her voice holds a faint British accent, and she communicates with both precision and passion. Across the dining table in her Pacific Beach apartment, amidst an array of Indian food, spices, chutneys, and sweet tea. Kapur shares her art. Brown eyes shining, measuring her responses, she crafts her replies with spirit and with patience.

  • I become woman
  • with a thousand eyes
  • a thousand hearts
  • and stand still
  • paralyzed by so much profusion
  • terrified at my desire

  • — From "Desire"

"Since we’ve lost our oral tradition in poetry, the poet must use words with so much more awareness. It isn't just a matter of communicating with poetry; it's also pleasure, the delight that a word provides, the music. And initially, sitting down with a fresh sheet of paper, starting a poem is exciting, when inspiration is still alive. But then the labor comes. There’s a lot of sweat involved. For me, at least. Looking at and examining every word in every sentence is hard work. Still, there is a certain satisfaction in that labor too. It's not entirely a chore.

“Creating poetry, basically, is the highest affirmation of the mystery of the universe. The process of writing poetry is very illuminating. And I think it humbles you in many ways. My writing, frankly, is the most powerful and the most beautiful thing I have in life. It's my work, my writings — it’s what makes my life and gives it form."

  • Place air on the anvil
  • and with the muscles of your soul. Radha
  • forge your songs
  • with fire from your lungs
  • light the dark
  • mind where you blindly labor
  • not in the blue day now
  • that breeds maggots
  • of desire in your pores
  • but in the dark devoid of all
  • shall you find your wings
  • only the charred fields
  • of relinquished dreams
  • can sprout forth
  • the harvest of your vision

  • — From "That Fleshless Fruit"

“I wrote my first poem when I was 13 or 14, At boarding school, I was sick in bed, all alone in my dormitory, feeling horrible and miserable and isolated. So I pulled out my diary and wrote a poem. And it hooked me right in — I didn't sense time passing, I didn't know I was so involved. The concentration was total, like lovemaking. There's joy, but there’s abandonment. It cuts you off totally from the world. And I haven’t quit writing since."

  • Now the gopis say: "Stay
  • in the present, Radha
  • the actual is sweeter by far
  • than the imagined
  • you just dreamed
  • the past up
  • your memories of Krishna
  • are just fantasies
  • conjured up in the veils of your desires
  • they were never!"
  • I'm trying to teach them. Krishna
  • how false is their truth which excludes
  • fictions, how webs I weave in my mind
  • are real as nets
  • in which golden fish are caught
  • that sate real hungers

  • — "Golden Fish"

“Writing has been the one constant in my life. When I was young, my father wanted me to write religious poems. Certainly any sort of writing requires a spiritual element. But I revolted against that. My Radha poems are very carnal, very erotic. After a while though, I began to see the spirituality of carnality. Spirituality excludes nothing."

  • but somewhere here somewhere close
  • as in your skin and in hers
  • desires have their houses
  • and in them live
  • restless and unexpressed
  • demons we've neglected to embrace

  • — From "Demons in Desire's House"

"Myth is interesting for the poet because it provides a framework and a structure, but then your task becomes to break that myth. You're working within it to break it. In terms of craft, it's very important to know the rules, so then you can play with them, and twist them around, and expand them, in a way. The irony, then, is that myth can be very liberating. In the case of the Radha poems, the myth itself became a tool for self-discovery. Through these poems, I found the Radha inside myself.”

  • It was only later she talked
  • about opening the doors of cages
  • of love being a child
  • of freedom In truth we know
  • that wings are often powerless in the winds.
  • She knew it too. But she couldn't help
  • but choose to surrender to the storm.
  • Or perhaps it was her hunger for love
  • that let love go. Somewhere she was
  • calculating enough to know that
  • wives are not the stuff Myth is made of
  • and the lives of those who live
  • in conjugal bliss (we know)
  • never find their way into song.
  • Now look, she is sung through ages.
  • And every Krishna's heart that beating
  • seeks love
  • seeks her

  • — From "An Explanation"

"A poem is not just a splatter of feeling that needs to be put into a particular shape. It grows into a particular form. There are certain things you trust as a poet, certain techniques and tools, but these you don’t employ consciously. One might think, since the poem is relatively short, that the poet is continually conscious of all the elements of poetry as the poem is being written. But, most often you realize what you've done in some sort of post-partum awareness — 'Yes, those choppy words fit nicely, they are part of the mood there.'

“Initially, the poem comes to you as a rhythm, perhaps, that will carry it through, and perhaps a mood or feeling or image will dictate the ultimate form. And, as with myth, structure sets limits — but it can be liberating also. Certainly good poets are familiar with poetic forms and the history of poetry. But at a certain point, the poet needs to turn his back, he must turn his back, on all that has gone before. Which, ironically enough, is part of the tradition."

  • yet looking for our identities
  • we discover mirrors
  • though not reflecting the inner reflect still
  • a truth: in our agonies we are after
  • all, quite ordinary

  • — From "Mirrors Reflect Still"

“Why do I write poetry? I don’t have a choice. And not having a choice is another form of liberation, really. I do it because it plugs me into the universe, it deepens my experience of life, it’s how I pass my time on planet Earth. It affirms me as a thinking, feeling individual. And I welcome that. In fact, I wouldn't know what else to do in life.

"Simply put, writing becomes a way of not being lost. Each poem represents salvaging some territory from chaos — not so much making sense out of chaos as merely shaping it. And the creation of form, shape, recognizable patterns, all pitted against chaos, imagelessness. formlessness: that's what life is about. For me. Yet I suspect there are as many reasons for writing poetry as there are poets.”

Kapur’s poems represent an extension of myth, beginning with a reinvestment in those original meanings — which reveal as much about what it means to be human as they document the lives of gods. There are moments, too, when her poems seem to speak to the nature of poetry itself, and to the delight of creation, as in "Undressing,” where Krishna serves as nothing less than Muse:

  • Button by button
  • stitch by stitch
  • unskin me then plant
  • your lotus foot
  • deep in the pulp of
  • my heart let it sink
  • there! your weight on me
  • lightens my load

Zolynas is reminded of a bit of wisdom that he attributes to the poet Robert Bly: that a good poem is mysterious.

Zolynas is reminded of a bit of wisdom that he attributes to the poet Robert Bly: that a good poem is mysterious.

Al Zolynas, like many San Diegans, has roots in other states, other countries. Described by one critic as a ‘domestic visionary." Zolynas certainly intensifies the moment and the commonplace in his poems Yet he also draws upon experiences and landscapes that provide his poetry a larger embrace Born in Austria of Lithuanian parents, he spent his boyhood in Australia; at 15 he moved to Chicago; following graduate school, he taught at universities in Minnesota and Utah; recently, he traveled to India on a Fulbright fellowship; and for the past 13 years, he has taught at United States International University in San Diego.

His first book, The New Physics (1979), was published as a volume in the renowned Wesleyan poetry series, and it is still in print. His work has appeared in many journals and magazines — both in the U.S. and Australia. Some of his recent poetry is collected in the popular Gorilla Press anthology The Maverick Poets (1988), alongside such luminaries as Allen Ginsberg, Raymond Carver, Wanda Coleman, Diane di Prima, Charles Bukowski, and Steve Kowit.

Zolynas's poems are careful and caring, polished and tight — qualities reflected in his clean, well-ordered office. His voice is clear, laced with humor and openness. In talking about craft, he admits to never having explained before the specifics of his creative technique. Initially, he refers to himself as an intuitive poet, as opposed to a deliberate craftsman. Yet as he continues to discuss his methods, a portrait of a craftsman is revealed, as decisively as any concrete image from one of his poems.

  • Perhaps because my near vision is so good,
  • I could take up painting miniatures
  • and see how much of the world
  • I could capture on the smallest canvas.

  • — From "Trompe L'Oeil"

"I shy away from traditional patterns, probably because I read so much of it in college and high school. I didn't really start to write poetry seriously until I was in graduate school, where I was the traditional English major in the middle 1960s. Up until that time, I was immersed in the standard canon — Chaucer. Shakespeare, the British Romantics, Americans like Whitman and Dickinson. Those people really captured my imagination. Even though I was in awe of it all. in the back of my mind I thought I might be able to make my contribution, eventually."

And so, the closer he looks at things, the farther away they seem At dinner, after a hard day at the universe, he finds himself slipping through his food. His own hands wave at him from beyond a mountain of peas. Stars and planets dance with molecules on his finger-tips. After a hard day with the universe, he tumbles through himself, flies through the dream galaxies of his own heart. In the very presence of his family he feels he is descending through an infinite series of Chinese boxes.

— From "The New Physics"

"On my trip to India, I kept a journal every day. Sometimes those journal entries would become a poem, sometimes not. But the point is to gather material, to process experience through the unconscious. Even now, I maintain a folder of poems in progress so there's always something there for me to work on. Earlier in my career. I thought you had to write every single day in order to call yourself a writer. But I’ve since made peace with that idea. There seems to be a clear distinction between poetry and fiction: With poetry, you can wait for the poems to come, whereas with fiction, since it's longer, you have to work at it regularly. And I’m not that single-minded I like poetry, because it's a genre that allows you to be lazy."

  • Carried in unconscious from the terrible streets,
  • some wake briefly
  • to the only clean place they'll ever know.
  • Many times, the doctor can only
  • hold a hand or smooth a brow
  • as they shudder out of this life.
  • Unmasked, finally, by so much suffering,
  • the doctor's face is as clear and open
  • as one of those northern Minnesota mornings.
  • In the presence of such a face, in the presence
  • of the goddess Kali's dance of death,
  • we feel our own masks loosening, cracking.

  • — From "At the Home for the Destitute Dying, Calcutta"

"I'm a poet like most other good poets, interested in ordinary life. I think poets allow us to look at everyday stuff we might pass up otherwise, that has much value. Essentially, I like to notice what's around me. Good poetry returns people to the sacredness of everyday life, and I try to point to that quality in my poems. Something knocks on my con- sciousness, and I follow that sensation, reacting to an image or an experience or a phrase. My poems are all based on experience and not so abstract. Each poem has a narrative quality, containing the germ of a story or an event. But they don't begin that way. Above all, a poet needs to be willing to put himself in that process that moves the poem toward completion, through discovery."

  • Seeing yourself suddenly
  • in the convex, flying-away world
  • of the polished
  • hubcap, your hand
  • the largest part of you,
  • you stretched behind it, diminished
  • like the past —
  • like History itself
  • moving this huge appendage
  • back and forth against itself
  • across the invisible, chrome present.

  • — "Waxing the Car"

"Once I get into a poem, once it begins to come to life, I write it through to a conclusion or a place where I'm stuck Then I leave it alone for a day or so. When I pick it up again, I start at the beginning. Always, for me there is a quality of magic and hope in this process. As things change, as the poem grows out from that starting point again, you don't end up being stuck at the same place. Since my poems don't tend to be very long, a process of velocity comes into play. Then, when the poem has shape, you diddle with it, fine-tuning and editing and taking care of the little things. I'm not a formalist — and I think even a good formal poem shows its artifice; there's always the feeling something has been shoe-horned in. My poems create their own forms."

  • I learned that the hands of the dock at thenGreengrocer's
  • were like the ones in the schoolroom — sometimes
  • they stopped, sometimes leapt forward.
  • I learned of daily ripeness and decay,
  • how everything left and returned —
  • days, vegetables, fruit, money, people.
  • Everything came back, but not exactly
  • as it had been.

  • — From "What I Learned at My First Job"

Zolynas’s poems are marked by a distinctness of expression, delivering sudden visions of possibility and wonder. His conversation about his work takes on the same character, as he repeats lines, teasing them out. adding a better word until the full effect is achieved. Then, he is reminded of a bit of wisdom that he attributes to the poet Robert Bly, who might have picked it up from someone else also: that a good poem is mysterious, but first and foremost it is clear; the mystery should come from the clarity. This quality is present in Zolynas's best poems, particularly in the last stanza from "The New Physics":

It's not that he longs for the old Newtonian Days, although something of plain matter and simple gravity might be reassuring, something of the good old equal-but-opposite forces. And it's not that he hasn't learned to balance comfortably on the see saw of paradox. It's what he sees in the eyes of his children — the infinite black holes, the ransomed light at the center.

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