Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Monday, May 11, 2009

Craig Arnold, "Scrubbing Mussels," and David Wojahn

My initial acquaintance with David Wojahn occurred decades ago when we met at a party just before his first book, Icehouse Lights, was published as the Yale Younger Poets Award winner selected by Richard Hugo. BOA Editions had recently published my own first volume of poems, Along the Dark Shore, chosen by John Ashbery. Although we compared notes on our similar situations, I must confess that I don’t recall much of the specifics of the conversation. Over the time since then, I have followed Wojahn’s career, and I have always admired his poems. Additionally, I believe his commentary on poetry and poetics—especially as evidenced in Strange Good Fortune, a collection of essays published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2001—has been enlightening and enjoyable to read. I have appreciated Wojahn’s approach to writing about literature as a poet-critic. I believe his definition of the role, as stated in the preface to Strange Good Fortune, applies nicely to the task: “poet-critics have an odd and somewhat rarefied mission to undertake when they turn to prose: they have to preach what they practice, and this means that each of their forays into criticism is to some extent designed to help them better understand their own poetry and to better understand the forces—both within the tradition and within their own era—that have shaped their personal aesthetics. But personal aesthetics are by their very definition highly eccentric; they cannot be straitjacketed into theory, nor can they be reduced to simplistic bromides.”

I returned to the pages of Strange Good Fortune again this weekend to reexamine one of the collection’s essays that addresses the publication of poets’ first books, “John Flanders on the Anxious Highway: First Books and the Politics of Poetry.” However, in this instance I was revisiting the work not in relation to our own first books, but because of a section relating a conversation Wojahn had with Craig Arnold (pictured above) on an NPR radio program just before Arnold’s initial volume, Shells, was released as the Yale Younger Poets selection of W.S. Merwin in 1999. At the time, like Wojahn, I had not yet met Craig Arnold. I merely knew that following his earlier years as a student at Yale, Craig, like myself, had studied with Mark Strand in the PhD program at the University of Utah, and we had a number of mutual friends. Furthermore, I regarded highly the poems of his I already had seen in literary journals.

When I learned the tragic news about Craig this past week mentioned in my previous post, I quickly recollected the discussion recounted by Wojahn in his essay about first books, and I wanted to reread it. In the article, Wojahn indicates that, although the two had never met, Arnold had requested him, as a former winner of the Yale prize, to be a participant in the conversation. During the program, Wojahn—sitting in a studio in Chicago while Arnold spoke over a shaky connection from Salt Lake City—invited Craig to read a representative piece from Shells, and he responded with his wonderful work titled “Scrubbing Mussels,” one of my favorite pieces in that premiere collection, which Wojahn reports Craig typically delivered well in his long-distance reading over the radio.


Easy at first to think they’re all alike.
But in the time it takes your brush to scour
away the cement their beards secrete to stick
to the rock, to one another, you find the lure

of intimacy a temptation. Palm
cupping each shell, you learn a history
from what you scrape off—limpets, worm-
castings, their own brown crust—the company

they’ve kept, how many neighbors, on the fringes
or in the thick. This patriarchal shell
suffered a near-mortal crack—hinges
skewered by a scab, its valves will never seal

perfectly, ever. This one lost a chip
of its carapace—the nacre gleams, steel plate
in a war veteran’s skull. Here’s a couple
tangled by their beards. But do they mate?

You can’t remember how they reproduce.
Now and then you’ll find one open, startle,
fling it aside, your fingers too close
to what you hoped would stay hidden, the veil

lining the shell, flushed pink, not orange,
no, not yet. Once they are cleaned, and more
or less alike, they’re ready to arrange
in the skillet, large enough for a single layer,

with chopped onions and garlic, maybe a pinch
of tarragon—no salt, they will provide
the salt themselves—butter, a half inch
or so of dry white wine. Replace the lid,

turn on and light the gas. Make sure the match
is thoroughly stubbed out. If you’ve been tempted
at any point to see in them an image
of yourself, you must make sure your mind is emptied

of all such madness. Mussels cannot mind
the slowly warming pan, the steam, or feel
real pain, which requires sympathy, a kind
of tenderness. The worst, most capable

monsters admit a feeling for the flesh
they brutalize—the inquisitors who cry
with the heretic they rack for a confes-
sion, the kind cop who stops the third degree

to offer coffee, a smoke, the death camp
doctor who celebrates a patient’s birthday,
slips him an extra piece of bread—all symp-
athetic men. Think how delicious they

will be, the shells relaxing, giving up their humble
secrets, their self-possession. Your demands
are not so cruel. Don’t follow their example.
Slice the lemon. Make sure to wash your hands.

Wojahn’s descriptions of the poem and of Arnold’s talent as a poet seem worth repeating here: “The quatrains are graceful, and the tone strikes exactly the right balance between intimacy and rhetoric. Arnold plays a sly game with our presuppositions, warning us against the dangers of the pathetic fallacy while at the same time embracing them, yet he never allows the poem to grow arch. This casual but fervent control is typical of Arnold’s poetry; he’s a writer with a rock and roll heart, but he’s also been to Yale, where J.D. McClatchy and John Hollander were his teachers and instilled in him a healthy respect for traditional forms.”

When I encountered this poem at the time of its publication, I recognized a voice that emphasized careful attention to detail, which eloquently communicated a connection with nature reminding me of some examples in poetry by Elizabeth Bishop or Theodore Roethke. Moreover, I treasured the surprising twists within the lines of the poem’s final few stanzas. Admittedly, my own evaluation also was influenced by similar past experiences collecting mussels along the shoreline of Long Island, as well as by my ardent interest in the particulars involved with cooking.

In any case, I believed the speaker in the poems of this first book was only beginning to display a special perspective and apparent talent that would become even more significant in the future. In the span of time since then, Craig Arnold did not disappoint. His poetry proved even more stunning and valuable as his craft matured. Certainly, every instance during the past decade in which I came across a new poem by Craig Arnold, I discovered further reasons to marvel at his skill. Indeed, in reading Arnold’s illustrative poetry and considering it with a critical eye, I sometimes found myself rewarded by comprehending the art form better, as Wojahn suggested in his comments about the role of the poet-critic, better understanding my own poetry as well. Now, only ten years after the appearance of Shells, I am saddened by the prospect this engaging and instructive poetic voice, that had introduced itself so magnificently to readers in that initial collection, has been silenced so soon.


Anonymous said...

What a gift he had. So grateful that he shared it. Something so gentle about his writing...the rhythm? Don't know for sure.

davideberhardt said...

u realize that this is prose? Poem of the Day: Uncouplings
by Craig Arnold
There is no I in teamwork
but there is a two maker

there is no I in together
but there is a got three
a get to her

the I in relationship
is the heart I slip on
a lithe prison