Synaptic Traces

by Lee Slonimsky

The solstice comes at 2 AM.  Clouds cloak
starlight so well the owls can barely see;
no moon.  Out in the winter woods you work
at accessing the mind of one oak tree,
in darkness dense enough to conjure up
an atmosphere of increased intimacy.

But silence still from bark, despite the hope
oak thoughts might stir at how astronomy
reflects perfection: how celestial
exactitude leads to our random life.

Yet branches will not whisper; bark is rough,
unspoken.  Woods: unutterably still.

At 2 AM a gust of wind; branch-creak;
as if the woods, at last, herald the hour.
You run your hands up and down a trunk; you seek
synaptic traces, signs of tree mind-power.

Pythagoras Consults with the Swifts

by Lee Slonimsky

Tree’s lean is forty-five degrees, as though
it worships slant more than the bright noon sun,
or maybe it just loves geometry. 

No matter storms, how hard their fierce gales blow,
its angle’s fixed; and nothing he knows can
explain such daring, yet stability.

He’s looked at roots, trunk width, the shapes of leaves,
and even asked the swifts who congregate
on branch-diagonals.  They cannot say
just why a tree has grown this other way.

 Quite stubbornly, he tries to calculate
some formula for slant; math’s what he loves.
This oak must love it too, they all decide—
hypotenuse—the source of leafy pride!

The Economics of Pythagoras’s Academy

by Lee Slonimsky

He finds geometry in woods so easily:
triangular tree crowns, branch-trapezoids,
trunk perpendiculars, bird trills in threes—
fours—fives;

                         the soaring red-tailed hawks that lord
it over songbirds, specialize in arcs,
parabolas, ellipses.  How hawks trace
the formulae he teaches, dawn to dark.

He might as well move to this math-filled place,
continue his academy for free;
use birds as tutors, trees to diagram;
expand beyond the high nobility
to all Crotone’s pupils.  Crises loom
if so few study nature, science, math.

 Abundant learning, on this wooded path.

The Ambivalence of Love

by Lee Slonimsky

A narrow street in Ghent, Belgium.  Dark blue;
late dusk.  Lit windows are small golden squares,
and you slouch in an entranceway. 

                                                                So true,
that this may be the end.  And please, no tears.
You hear a rustling, flights above; perhaps
she’s coming down now: this is it!  Beware,
you tell yourself, of being weak; no hopes
remain of reconciling. 

                                          Stare and stare,
but she’s not there.  You must have heard a breeze.

So emptiness replaces stress.  The sky
goes almost black; more windows come ablaze.
The minutes drag: go up the stairs?  You sigh
at fate’s perversity—you need your pride—
and leave. 

                    Night drowns you in its poignant tide.

Poet, Guitarist, Painter: a Review of Elizabeth J. Coleman’s Fifth Generation

by Lee Slonimsky

Elizabeth J. Coleman. The Fifth Generation.  New York, NY.  Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016. 88 pages.

In Elizabeth J. Coleman’s dynamic new collection The Fifth Generation, the author’s spiritual perspective merges with a musical ear and an unerring gift for language to create a highly fulfilling experience for the reader.  And let us not leave out the vivid imagery present in these poems.  The author, a talented painter as well as guitarist (her compelling work graces the front cover), and poet, brings together all her gifts in this 88 page masterpiece.

At a time when American poetry is fragmented into various “schools” within the greater schism between free and formal verse, an underlying theme of acceptance in Coleman’s work is not only refreshingly harmonious, but also a welcome antidote to the narrowness that abounds generally in our culture.  In addition, her sense of the largeness of time, and the perspective it brings, is breathtaking.  A poem early in the book (“On Trying to Tell My Husband Something Important While He Stares at the New York Times on His I-Pad”) includes one of the most memorable lines in the entire collection:

“until only the wind remembers/
conversations”

And this superb poem does a wonderful job of contrasting the temporal and the immortal, “ancient mountain passes” in line one dexterously highlighting the references to recent and much more recent technology in the title (the newspaper, not as old as we think, and the i-pad).  This 15 line gem has to be read in its entirety to be totally appreciated, but it is a wonderful reflection on the transitoriness of our daily concerns compared to the wind and to the foreverness of a hummingbird.

Personal experience—and the poet has had a lot of diverse ones—and the passage of time join evocatively in a poem like “In the Farmhouse,” with its awesome concluding lines:

“their eyes that glorious
forget-me-not blue that grows riotously on a farm.”

There is no proselytizing in these deeply spiritual poems, instead a powerful reverence for the dramatic history of our physical world which can bring its own kind of solace to challenges like aging and mortality.  Just a few examples:

“Gorillas stay up all night to groom their dead,” (“One Way of Looking at Grace”)
“We come from [the sea]”, (“A Church Funeral”)
“the ancient fish they’ve discovered/that’s sensitive to electricity” (“Belief”)

Quoted above are three slivers of the poet’s vast tree of knowledge, three slivers that emphasize a unity of life well beyond the obvious, the sort of insight that poets have traditionally been cherished for providing.  Coleman’s stunning first collection Proof (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) is even more emphatically “proved” in The Fifth Generation’s display of insight into humanity and nature alike, and the many daily moments in which strangers touch and different people share, moments that will rarely if ever get in a newspaper or onto the news feed of an iphone, but that are the deepest news of life on earth, so many millennia long.

brief disclaimer:  two of my own sonnets appear in this collection, alongside translations by the author

Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets (translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman)

by Licia Hahn

A Review of Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky; French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, 2015, Folded Word

Pythagore, Amoureux – Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky with a French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, is a remarkable act of translation, recreation, and a noteworthy collaboration of poets.

Much like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Slonimsky’s vocation (as an investment executive) informs his poetry. The central persona of Pythagoras is the poet’s alter ego; he, like Slonimsky, was schooled in mathematics.

“Pythagoras, for one, values his name:
he’s faithful always to what math proclaims”

“Marriage Vows”, Pythagore Amoureux, p. 96

Pythagoras was also philosopher and poet. The protagonist Pythagoras takes us on a philosophical quest to understand the elusive mysteries of nature, love and the divine through numbers.

“he longs to make a perfect, mystic sense
of all the numbers earth and mind allow.”

“Watching Day and Night”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.6

The central tenant of the Pythagoreans was that nature and the cosmos could be best comprehended through mathematics. The poet’s examinations of birds and how sunlight “bisects” a tree, brings a new, elegant, and moving appreciation for this ancient philosophy.

Music was the spark for the Pythagoreans’ philosophical insight. They realized that the structure of musical harmonies was mathematical; they used the language of numbers to explain the universe and nature. Life, nature, and the cosmos were governed by a set of organizing principles—some may call it God.

“…The sun is teaching math, this cool May day,
to every leaf and branch that understands
geometry, the gospel of its rays
this is the only meaning he can find.
Each arrowed ray to earth’s a perfect sign
For angle, number shown to trees and man.”

“Teacher in the Woods”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.40

As Coleman recounted in an interview, “It was just an intuitive thing.  I really liked the book and the idea of it existing in French. And I fell in love with that first poem in the book.” After translating “The Last Digit of Pi”, the first poem in Slonimsky’s Pythagoras in Love, 2007, Orchises Press, Coleman was hooked.

Coleman’s watercolor “Mediterranean Sea”, graces the cover of the collection. With her diverse creative talents, she amplifies the meaning, sound and experience of Slonimsky’s poems. Her versatility as a poet, musician and artist are always in evidence. The beauty and lyricism of the French language burnishes the text, enriching the reader’s journey into the senses, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Coleman achieves her masterful translation by avoiding the constraints of the sonnet form or a narrow translation. She honors Slonimsky in maintaining the spirit and intent of his work. In the “Loneliness of Exile/La Solitude de L’Exil”, p.76, Coleman takes appropriate liberties to retain the poem’s rhythms and meaning.

“The sky and water have a love affair
At dawn covertly, so the woods won’t know”
(Slonimsky)

“Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
A l’aube, scretement, pour que ces bois l’ignornent”’
Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
à l’aube, secrètement, pour que ces bois l’ignorent,
(Coleman)

To translate the translator, Coleman’s French version translated literally back to the English reads:

 “The sky and water are lovers
At dawn, secretly, so that these woods ignore them.”

Her translations frequently gift the reader with rhymes that arise organically and harmoniously.  In “Philosopher in Love/ Le Philosophe, Amoureux”, p.26,  “Un est/le plus parfait” or “rayonnment/brulant” are good examples from the verses below:

“…for him eternity’s in numbers: One
the more perfect, like his great love, bequeaths
a universe benevolent and full
of radiance beyond the physical,
alongside eyes as bright as molten sun.”

 “….pour lui les nombres cachent l’éternité: Un est
le plus parfait, comme son grand amour, lègue
un univers bienveillant et plein de rayonnement
audelà du monde physique,
à côté des yeux aussi clairs qu’un soleil brûlant. ”

The musicality of the French language supersedes the constraints of the poems’ original sonnet form. Much as Slonimsky’s exacting choice of words and the sonnet structure bring us to deep reflection, Coleman’s translation meets the challenge of striking the right balance between structure and autonomy.  She is unfettered in her masterful use of the sound patterns of French language to capture the essence of the poem’s meaning.

The collection can be especially enjoyed as an act of immersion; each poem urges the reader to the next. The refrains of sun, birds, leaves, and ponds and the mathematical structures of geometry, angles, and circles—“sun-math of sharp ray angles” (“Lecturer in the Mirror”, p.52) call the reader to contemplate the central themes again and again. The body of work speaks to nature as man’s instructor, and math as nature’s translator.

“The Crow’s Point of View” p.20, illustrates the poet’s virtuosity in capturing nature as man’s “new academy”:

“And yet, when air is still, the water gleams
With trapezoids and ellipses; sunbeams
Seem shining summaries of all the ways
To measure surfaces. Dangling oak leaves
and pond instruct him well in ray-seamed math:
his new academy, a wooded path”

Coleman pays homage to form with a rhyming couplet at the end. “His new academy” becomes “une nouvelle lecon”– a new lesson to rhyme with “rayons”.

“Les feuilles frémissantes de chênes et l’etang lui enseigne bien
les mathématiques cousues de rayons;
dans le sentier de bois, une nouvelle leçon.”

This poem perfectly typifies the recurrent juxtaposition of geometry and nature.

“a loud crow lectures oak leaves just beyond
his line of sight on how a dappled breeze
confuses light. And yes, he must agree
that shadows lie, that rippling branches tease
false theorems from the axes of sun’s rays.”

Coleman artfully strings “corbeau”, “forte”,  “Pythagore” and “Il est d’accord” to connect in a beautiful alignment of sound and rhyme. 

“un corbeau de voix forte que Pythagore ne voit qu’à peine
enseigne aux feuilles de chêne comment une brise tachetée
embrouille la lumière. Il est d’accord:
les ombres sont menteuses, et les branches onduleuses
tirent des théorèmes faux des rayons de soleil."

The poet wanders along his wooded path; poem follows poem like a flock of birds, beckoning the reader to some distant destination. The timeless themes and spare elegance of Slonimsky’s poetry and Coleman’s beautiful translation resonate long after each reading. Slonimsky’s marvelous collection of poems takes us on a transformative journey and we emerge having touched the divine. 

Joe Beneveto’s Poetry: The Voice of Learning and Experience

by Lee Slonimsky

 Joe Benevento.  Expecting Songbirds.  Purple Flag Press  2015.  108pp.

Joe Benevento is a fascinating and original poet, a master of, among several varieties of poetry, the poem that tells a story.  Benevento’s recently published Selected Poems: 1983—2015 from Purple Flag Press gives the reader an opportunity to sample the multiple strengths of his work in depth. There is considerable autobiographical content in Benevento’s work – from an ethnically diverse experience growing up in a working class neighborhood in Queens, NY – but the content is not at all the self pitying inner scrutiny of so called “confessional” poetry.  The introspection consists of wry and self-deprecating humor, honest emotion, and highly intelligent observation.  And it’s accompanied by a refreshing and insightful focus on others: vividly drawn characters, not just the narrative voice that, from a less skilled and authentic poet, can lapse into self-absorption.  

“My Puerto Rican Past,” for one example, with its lists of women like Sylvia Ramos (“just mentioning your names brings me/to the brink of irredeemable loss”) and counterpart “boys” (“now just men who do not know where I am”) is emphatic in the interest it expresses in others, and in fact another culture, not his own Italian-American one.  This is a colorful, flavorful poem, with its reminiscent longing for “the aroma of arroz con habichuelas,” “the blaring sounds of salsa,” and “…how beautiful Sylvia Ramos/ looked, like love, on an endless August evening/in working-class Queens.”

The second stanza of “My Puerto Rican Past,” with its intellectual passion for Spanish language and literature that Benevento in “real life” went on to study, relates to another distinctive aspect of Benevento’s poetry: he is an academic poet in the best sense of the word.  Not a dry, or technique-dominated, or excessively abstract or rhetorical poet but (quite the contrary): a poet whose passion for the highest values in literature (characterization, specifically) informs his work in a compelling way.  Benevento, who wrote a Ph. D dissertation on a quite original pairing of writers (Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges), and who is the author of a scholarly article with the title, “Walt Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges: The Open Road and Its Forking Paths,” seems to suggest in “My Puerto Rican Past” that this bicultural literary passion is related to his bicultural youth in Queens.  And even if this is not the case, the numerous poems of striking yet concise characterization in this excellent collection (vivid examples include “Work Song,” “The Banker Does Not Smile on the Way to Work,” and “Frankie”) feature humanity as a subject in a way that is not always the case in contemporary poetry.  “The Banker Does Not Smile on the Way to Work” is focused on what the poet can glean of the banker’s psyche based on the man scowling at slush on his dress shoes, but the poet also brings in sympathy for the banker’s perceived general frustration.  A kind of mini Sherwood Anderson sketch, it’s a great example of the human connectedness of the author.

Thematic focus should not omit reference to the quality of Benevento’s language, imagery, and music, all of which are woven with abundant beauty throughout.  The range of imagery and metaphor includes moments like “…the clouds on fire,/ the way the horizon rode red and purple/against the snow-covered, lifeless earth”  (“Sunset in Iowa”) and “Night Break”’s “A silver white moon, wider than doubt/stayed whole in the early light/of an all blue sky.”  No quote or poem marks the reverential luminescence and insight of this collection better than “May 31, 1989,” with its array of memorable lines related to Walt Whitman:

“It’s Walt Whitman’s birthday
so I should write a poem.
…I like to believe I cannot sing a song myself
without him hearing it,
cannot cross into Brooklyn
or remember Rockaway Beach
is part of Paumanok, that fish-
shaped Long Island without
conjuring him up as real as
any phantom on these
crowded streets, still, sandy beaches.”
…What a comfort, to believe eternity
need not dismantle death to maintain
its own integrity…”

The profundity of the last three lines seems to me a modern equivalent of the passion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” lines that could only have been written by a poet of deep seriousness as well as self-deprecating humor.  Times and culture have changed dramatically but Benevento’s contemplative and idiomatic humanism, his voice coming from learning and experience, is as clear and committed as that voice of Donne T. S. Eliot so admired. 

It’s a voice that should be heard and read by all readers interested in distinctive poetry, with deft and compelling characterization of people, regions, and experiences.  

Flower

by Lee Slonimsky

These thin blue petals crowd together so,
it’s hard to count them.  But Pythagoras
can gently bend their head into sunlight
and patiently observe until he knows
there are nineteen.  He’s pleased with his eyesight,
a mild west breeze, a gleaming abacus,
the virtues of pure math.  But wait: nineteen,
he thinks, seems awfully random.  Odd.  And prime.
 
He counts four more blue flowers, all the same;
the breeze picks up; a broken branch sags…moans,
as if in sympathy with his distress
at nature’s strangeness.  Quite the mystery,
where nineteen came from, so haphazardly
that life itself could be all chance.  Unless…
 
Thoughts drift off slowly.  Black clouds in the west.
A flock of thirteen birds.  Lightning.  No rest.

Whitman, Not a Cardiologist

by Lee Slonimsky

I never knew the way the earth’s pulse beat
until I stood long hours at this spout
where water sputtered forth each now and then,
as if an open capillary breathed
its salty cargo to the still blue air
up on this cliff, next to the glimmering sea.
 
Walt Whitman, not a cardiologist
would nonetheless perceive this flow of pulse
and shimmer of its rainbows stalking mist
that congregates above the granite hole,
an open ended vein of the great heart
that pulses on four thousand miles below.
 
The sea’s as tranquil as a butterfly:
not a ripple to suggest
a worry, caution, sigh.
 
More a sense of blue-washed earth at rest.

Flash and Glow

by Lee Slonimsky

Sorrento of my dreams–
 
                                            I have returned,
alone, years later, on a business trip–
 
and now it’s Sunday and I watch the loops
a white gull flies.  No matter how I yearned
to speak, to touch you once: you were like stone.
 
Long after now, sea soothes, breezes caress;
the sun dips slowly toward the silent west.
 
All perfect moments are as if on loan,
so fragile, quick.  Saved by memory as best we can,
or art, or dream. 
 
                               We stayed here but a week,
and what a flash and glow back then.  I look
for comfort now at wings, red rays on sand;
 
the hotel hammock sways, as if the earth
has a vast, distant pulse: some fragrant warmth.