Cover to Cover with Jack Foley

Cover to Cover with Jack Foley – January 15, 2020

Jack looked into his files and discovered a show with the late, wonderful Carolyn Kizer. It aired in 1996.

Wikipedia: Carolyn Ashley Kizer (December 10, 1925 – October 9, 2014) was an American poet of the Pacific Northwest whose works reflect her feminism. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. According to an article at the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, “Kizer reach[ed] into mythology in poems like ‘Semele Recycled”; into politics, into feminism, especially in her series of poems called “Pro Femina”; into science, the natural world, music, and translations and commentaries on Japanese and Chinese literatures.”

Jack writes,

Ecco Press asked Carolyn Kizer to contribute to its volume of Dante translations. Kizer responded by translating Inferno, Canto XVII, into what she calls “antique hipster”:


“Yo, Dan, just give a look at this repulsive creature

Called Fraud, the wall-buster; He’s the prime polluter,

The poison in his tail’s an added feature.”

Then Virgil gave the high sign to that stink

Of rottenness, to make a three-point landing on the shore . . . .


It is an amazing effect–a little like translating Paradise Lost into baby talk. Dante’s “Ecco” (like the press), usually translated, “Lo,” becomes here “Yo.” “Wall-buster is an accurate rendering of “rompe i muri,” but it carries overtones of “ball-buster,” a term with which a “pro feminist” like Kizer was surely familiar. “The prime polluter” (Dante’s “colei che tutto ‘l mundo appuzza“) brings us even more definitely into the twentieth century with its ecological concerns, but a moment later the end rhyme of “creature / feature,” alive with echoes of ancient American television, returns us to at least the suggestion of terza rima. Virgil signals the monster, “that stink / Of rottenness,” to make a landing, and we go on with Dante’s story.


Kizer’s version was, she tells us, “quite properly rejected for irreverence and

‘not fitting in'” by the editors at Ecco Press. She published it under the title, “In Hell with Virg and Dan,” first in the magazine 13th Moon and then in her book, Harping On. A note to the poem states, “I just don’t care for Dante’s obsessions with shit and revenge. For me, he ranks up there with St. Paul as one of the most destructive literary geniuses of all time.”


This is Kizer’s poem, “The Intruder”:


My mother—preferring the strange to the tame:

Dove-note, bone marrow, deer dung,

Frog’s belly distended with finny young,

Leaf-mold wilderness, harebell, toadstool,

Odd, small snakes roving through the leaves,

Metallic beetles rambling over stones: all

Wild and natural!—flashed out her instinctive love, and quick, she

Picked up the fluttering, bleeding bat the cat laid at her feet,

And held the little horror to the mirror, where

He gazed on himself, and shrieked like an old screen door far off.


Depended from her pinched thumb, each wing

Came clattering down like a small black shutter.

Still tranquil, she began, “It’s rather sweet …”

The soft mouse body, the hard feral glint

In the caught eyes. Then we saw,

And recoiled: lice, pallid, yellow,

Nested within the wing-pits, cozily sucked and snoozed.

The thing dropped from her hands, and with its thud,

Swiftly, the cat, with a clean careful mouth

Closed on the soiled webs, growling, took them out to the back stoop.


But still, dark blood, a sticky puddle on the floor

Remained, of all my mother’s tender, wounding passion

For a whole wild, lost, betrayed, and secret life

Among its dens and burrows, its clean stones,

Whose denizens can turn upon the world

With spitting tongue, an odor, talon, claw,

To sting or soil benevolence, alien

As our clumsy traps, our random scatter of shot.

She swept to the kitchen. Turning on the tap,

She washed and washed the pity from her hands.



Jack remarks,


“The Intruder” shows contradictory impulses in the same person. Similarly, is Dante a hero of poetry or a villain of religion for Kizer? Clearly, he is both, and what is said about him depends entirely on which context you are emphasizing. This is one of the exhilarating aspects of this poet’s work: it is never possible to predict what she will say about anything; she is constantly shifting perspectives…Kizer’s poems are frequently very funny, but they are also very touching and personal, and various other things besides. They are evidence of a mind which stays wonderfully open to its own potential contradictions.


This is from “Anniversaries: Claremont Avenue, from 1945.” It’s a marvelous example of a loosely pentameter line and the subtleties of free rhyming. It also remains relevant to the problems we still experience in 2020.


It’s 1985: in pain, my Mother-in-law has died.

Appraisers from Doyle pick through her possessions:

old furniture blistered by sun and central heat.

Twenty-One Claremont is no longer ours.

Recollections are blistered and faded too:

My husband’s boyhood toys, my fragments of Chinese.

Mothers have disappeared. Wars come and go.

The past is present: what we choose to keep

by a process none of us can ever know.

Now those little girls are grandmothers

who must remember, after fifty years

the doll, the chill, the tears.

Greatness felled at a blow.

Memory fractured. Black and white apart.

No sense of direction, we Americans.

No place to go.

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