~This poem first appeared in Gulf Coast (1998).
Before Sunrise, San Francisco
Bruno’s by sallow candlelight,
The jacketed barkeep counting
Tips from a jam jar and horseshoe
Booths burnished a bit too bright,
Yet the stained mahogany walls
And the lazy lament of Spanish
Horns from speakers huddled
In the corner speak a different
Language altogether, one that rolls
Effortlessly off the tongue and fills
The room like myrrh, a promise sent
That four walls can indeed keep out
The world, that when horns wail
For percussion and those walls
Are elegantly attired, why there
Is no need to ponder the gristle
In the Mission outside, no need
To wonder why that one left you
Or why you are always too
Late. The weight of your existence
Roughly equals the martini glass
In front of you, the thick mass
Of the past collapses into brightness
As well-lit as the dripping star
At the center of your table.
Nod. Snap your fingers. Order
Another drink. Let horns grieve,
Let the wristwatch think on sheep
Before you leave. Tonight,
The only eyes on you are two
Pimentos stuffed into olives
Bloated with vermouth and gin.
~This poem first appeared in LIT#3 (2000).
Sifting through teeth and carapaces
With a magnifying glass, you adopt
An hyperopic perspective, history
Fermenting from what continually
Ends to replenish itself. A peregrine
Falcon’s scapular is slowly eaten
By soil from which poke the spoke-
Heads of late summer’s dandelions
Ten thousand years later. Permian,
Ordovician, Cretaceous, Devonian,
Triassic: we’ve named the major
Eras of mass extinction. The past,
Happening, has preserved its portion
In amber, in crenellated clamshells
And tree bark, to augur what we’ll be
For posterity. Drop the horsehair
Brush, permit the slides to drowse
In disinfectant, leave the bones;
Someone warm lies waiting.
~This poem first appeared in 88: Journal of Contemporary American Poetry (2002).
Yea, it was pundit debunking, sage with newness,
meaty ruse, elaborate masquerade of unmeaning,
stage where words pose counterpoised to signification,
where rummy syllables string along kinks of syntax
and gum of virgules jimmies together clauses
to devise a monument of fistulous happenstance,
subverting address for free play—
Rare vestiges pitched headlong in stochastic
eddies, dreaming a livelong laterality,
polygons alongside tapirs in grammar-shorn dance—
Slithered mid-speech an intention a seam
the color of politics, even the furthest minutia
run on dollars, come what cannot until (s)pace
Breaks into half itself &
music the bramble where bare verbs rabble,
seeking the iota behind the bestial bars
that proves no forged lattice girds the mind
with predicates efficacious as prison searchlights—
Senses slip the faster usurps fate from syntax
how kowtow to solipsism or preset a page?
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
Before going to graduate school in New York, I lived for a year in San Francisco during the height of the tech boom. I worked in publishing, lived in the smallest, most cramped apartment in the Marina, and spent my time cruising the city on a red vespa, feeling somehow intuitively that this world I had entered where my friends worked at start ups with masseuses and foosball tables was a bubble about to burst. I roamed the city, unencumbered, and stumbled upon Bruno’s in the Mission, which had the reputation of being an old mob hangout, complete with two-way mirrors and supposed bullet holes in the velvet lounge chairs. This poem is about waiting for someone whom I had been dating at the time who was adorable, difficult and maniac-depressive, though I didn’t know it at the time. I also didn’t realize I had fallen in love with her depressive side, but it was springtime and she had changed, leaving me stood up at the bar. As I succumbed to that growing sense of liquid warmth and the anguish of existential aloneness, waiting, waiting, lubricated by one, then another dirty martini, I began this poem on a cocktail napkin and from the smeared words crafted the poem “Before Sunrise, San Francisco,” which was my very first published poem. I actually submitted it and won the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, while I was in my first year of graduate school on another coast. Picked by Edward Hirsch, it won $500, and I thought, man, what a great and easy life this writing poetry thing is going to be! Little did I know that it would be followed by a good few years of rejection, but I hold this poem in esteem for what it captures and what it portended in my own evolution as a writer.
Paleontology’s End is one of those poems that derived from a single word: “hyperopic,” or far-sightedness, has none of the cachet of myopia, but somehow I think of poetry as being fixed on the distant horizon of time, even while the dailyness of task and commerce scorns the endeavor. I saw that word at an optometrist’s office and it spawned this poem, which is my version of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” When we think of the vast expanse of time and our own short life spans, then what imperative do we have but to seize the day, to revel in the moment, and to leave aside our speculation for the immediacy of grasping someone by the waist and spinning them around? This poem is about the disheveling specter of time and the carnal response we might make in face of it.
Finally Language Poetry is my language poem about language poetry, an attempt to capture what at the time was both derided and celebrated. As defined on by Lyn Hejinian, “language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.” This poem is just that embodiment of transmutation and linguistic radiation, employing many of the signature devices of the movement—lack of personal pronouns or “voice”; parataxis as a signature move; post-structural affiliations and political inquiry; detachment and an explosion of the illusion of continuity; ambiguity and syntactic playfulness; parody and punning; and formal experimentation. This poem still feels to me the perfect formulation of my ideas about the movement at the time; I think I was both praising and mocking what had become a kind of predominant, but too little understood, movement of my time, something that allowed for exciting new linguistic vistas, but that also propagated a certain spiritual vacuousness and sloppiness of craft, a way to write something but also avow oneself of the responsibility for having written it, and I don’t think I’ve ever captured my complex response to something so perfectly as I did here.
ABOUT RAVI SHANKAR
Ravi Shankar is founding editor and Executive Director of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts. He has published or edited eight books/chapbooks of poetry, including the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize winner, “Deepening Groove,” called the work of “one of America’s finest younger poets” by Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he coedited W.W. Norton’s “Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond". He has won a Pushcart Prize, been featured in The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, appeared as a commentator on the BBC, NPR and the Jim Lehrer News Hour, and has performed his work around the world. He is currently Chairman of the Connecticut Young Writers Trust, on the faculty of the first international MFA Program at City University of Hong Kong and an Associate Professor of English at CCSU.