Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Why is it we find the unfamiliar so hard to digest? I didn't think about this too much, frankly, until Kerri, in a recent blog posting, brought up the amazing poem "The Love Life of j alfred prufrock.

I love T. S. Elliot's poetry and I love the aforementioned poem. To death. I mean, I really like it! But did I buy a book of his poetry? No. I don't think I loved that wonderful poem that much, when I first read it.

Why? That's what bothers me.

Which brings me to the poet August Kleinzahler. Can I move beyond the strangeness of his poetry and truly love it? It's not Robert Frost you're reading here. This is hard, city-bred boy speaking. But his poetry lives and breathes.

He recently won the National Book Critic's Circle Award. I find his poetry difficult, but when I read it (and I'll have to read it many times, I'm sure to truly get it) I have the feeling--just beginning, you understand--of being transported and isn't that what reading a good piece of writing is all about--being transported?

The Tartar Swept

The Tartar swept across the plain

In their furs and silk panties

Snub-nosed monkey men with cinders for eyes

Attached to their ponies like centaurs

Forcing the snowy passes of the Carpathians

Streaming from defiles like columns of ants

Arraying their host in a vasty wheel

White, gray, black and chestnut steeds

10,000 each to a quadrant

Turning, turning at the Jenuye's command

This terrible pinwheel

Gathering speed like a Bulgar dance

Faster and faster

Until it explodes, columns of horsemen

Peeling away in all the four directions

Hard across the puszta

Dust from their hooves darkening the sky

They fall upon village and town

Like raptors, like tigers, like wolves on the fold

Mauling the sza-szas

And leaving them senseless in puddles of goaty drool

Smashing balalaikas

Ripping the ears off hussars and pissing in the wounds

They for whom the back of a horse

Is their only country

For whom a roof and four walls is like unto a grave

And a city, ptuh, a city

A pullulating sore that exists to be scourged

Stinky dumb nomads with blood still caked

On shield and cuirass

And the yellow loess from the dunes of the Takla Makan

And the Corridor of Kansu

Between their toes and caught in their scalps

Like storm clouds in the distance

Fast approaching

With news of the steppes, the lagoons and Bitter Lakes

Edicts, torchings, infestation

The smoke of chronicles

Finding their way by the upper reaches

Of the Selinga and the Irtysh

To Issyk-Kul, the Aral, and then the Caspian

Vanquishing the Bashkirs and Alans

By their speed outstripping rumor

Tireless mounts, short-legged and strong

From whose backs arrows are expertly dispatched

As fast as they can be pulled from the quiver

Samarkand, Bukhara, Harat, Nishapur

More violent in every destruction

This race of men which had never before been seen

With their roving fierceness

Scarcely known to ancient documents

From beyond the edge of Scythia

From beyond the frozen ocean

Pouring out of the Caucasus

Surpassing every extreme of ferocity

From the Don to the Dniester

The Black Sea to the Pripet Marshes

Laying waste the Ostrogoth villages

Taking with them every last cookie

Then dicking the help

These wanton boys of nature

Who shot forward like a bolt from on high

Routing with great slaughter

All that they could come to grips with

In their wild career

Their beautiful shifting formations

Thousands advancing at the wave of a scarf

Then doubling back or making a turn

With their diabolical sallies and feints

Remorseless and in poor humor

So they arrived at the gates of Christendom

From The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, by August Kleinzahler
Copyright © 2003


Heidi said...

I think poetry - more than any other form of writing - often requires serious thinking. It's not always obvious and easy to read. To really get it requires some concentration and thought. Which is why so many people don't like TS Eliot.

Robert Frost, or Emily Dickinson, or EE Cummings, are easier to read and understand, and so they enjoy a popularity some others don't.

I like this poem you've written here. Like Eliot, it requires a bit of thought but the imagery is wonderful!

marsh to the fore said...

Thank you Heidi. You've cleared up some things that have caused me a lot of frustration.

I love certain lines of this poetry. The rest will come with some work.

Kerri said...

That's an incredible poem, filled with movement and imagery. I love the "Bulgar dance." Maybe he's playing on the word, like vulgar? I love poems that have deeper meanings and make challenge the reader to find his/her own interpretation.