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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Bathanti’

All that morning’s scenes recurred to his mind,
not with the precision of everyday reality nor with the sharp outline
of things seen, but with the peculiar intensity of things felt.

Georges Simenon, The Evidence of the Altar Boy

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I spent a sizable chunk of the Sam Ragan Poetry Festival peering through a camera lens. Mostly waiting. Angle, composition, exposure, they were all displayed right there in the viewfinder, but I was waiting for something else. That tilt of the head, the outstretched hand, the merest curl of the lip — expression. Something personal in the personality.

Has anyone ever asked you what some certain poem is about? Has your answer ever been anything other than inane? Not only is a poem more than the sum of its words, the true poem doesn’t really fully exist until it has been assimilated by the reader. The poem’s expression and the reader’s impression combine to create the poem’s meaning. What it’s about. In one reader that peculiar intensity may produce a slight tilt of the head, in another an outstretched hand, in the third a gradual curl of the lip.

Every photo records and preserves a moment, its expression. The matrix of pixels may be technically perfect, but is it interesting? Does it create an impression? A good photograph may have something in common with good poetry. The viewer doesn’t merely remark, “Oh, I was there.” Some novel synapses fire, some new cortical amalgam is forged — “I am here!” In fact I’m in a new place that wasn’t obvious until I connected with this image.

Does this photo connect? I can’t tell you what it’s about, but I will say Sammy Osmond is standing at the lectern and his mom is listening:

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Joseph Bathanti was Sammy Osmond’s mentor through the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. I was Joseph’s student in a workshop series lo these many years ago and my lasting impression of him as a teacher and a person is someone whose enthusiasm is contagious. Literally. You catch it, it incorporates itself into your genome, and you’re never cured. You just don’t get over being enthusiastic for words, verse, stories. (Sorry, Joseph, for the retrovirus analogy.) Maybe Sammy was becoming a poet before he met Joseph, but after listening to Sammy read his wonderful poems at Weymouth on March 21 and after watching the relaxed bond of friendship he and Joseph shared throughout the day, my diagnosis is that Sammy has caught a bad case of poetry, real bad.

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Anson County           –           Joseph Bathanti
(for Joan)

You come off the bed
as if expecting me,

take my hand, the morning
of your thirtieth birthday.

Not quite light, perfect
for the movie we’ve talked of making.

We bicycle the 8 ½ mile loop –
the dogs, one of them blind, lope

ecstatically – gravel
the first two miles,

the ruined church on Savannah Creek,
in a cottonwood swamp that floods

every spring; then a long tar road:
abandoned farmsteads. The last crop –

corn, give-out haggard, by late July,
left to hang into Advent – down

by the Pee Dee, the Ingram Plantation
where Andrew Jackson stopped

to have his hair cut by a slave girl.
The light is like Petrified Forest.

You’re Bette Davis. I’m Leslie Howard.
You read Francois Villon

and work in a diner in the middle of the desert.
I arrange my own murder

at the hands of Bogart, so you, Davis,
can cash in on my insurance policy.

Tragic beauty.
We avoid making a sad film,

Instead ride into the rising sun
among the regal bucks,

their unfathomable
algorithmic racks, gathered

in homage to you, roaming
McAllister land –

what I had wakened
you so early to witness.

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Vividity          –          Sammy Osmond

I want to paint vivid pictures,
You close your eyes to see,
Use your ears to smell,
Empty air to taste
And your mind to hear.

I want you to feel like you’re touching it.

A rainy day –
Just slightly cool
Caresses your face
And, even though you stand under shelter,
The breeze carries the rain to you
So your cheeks bear a watermark.

A rainy day –
Heavy drops landing from eaves around,
A bass drum beneath the light hiss of misty droplets.
A car rattles by.
People pass you, feet splashing into inch-deep puddles,
They chatter to their phones.

A day of rain-
Cold air,
A hint of sharp gasoline rides in the wake of a taxi.

A rainy day –
Light fog whirls and curls
Around grey figures.
Red and blue “Open” signs lay distorted in puddles,
Flashing a message up to you.
The ground glistens,
As if the black tar wants to be crystal.
And oil rainbows glide, like boats, across the street,
Then fall through rusty brown grates.

A day of rain-
You drink the air
As though it is fresh ground coffee
From the cafe you pass by,
Letting it rest on your tongue,
Before the cool condensation crowds it out.

Pictures,
To touch,
hear,
taste,
smell,
to see.

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Joseph Bathanti, recent bio

Books by Joseph at Press 53

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Doughton Park Tree #1

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For one brief moment each place is its center. The sky parts, darkness rends, the sun touches that place then moves on, but the place retains the sureness of its center.

We are wakened at 2:00 a.m. by trumpets and tubas playing hymns. They have stopped outside our window on Marshall St., played two verse, then moved on. I peek through the blinds while downstairs my Mom goes out onto the front porch in her nightie to thank them. From other parts of the old town, faint and distant, Linda and I can hear the band’s counterparts. Our alarm is set for 4:30. We whisper in the darkness. For a moment we are the center.

By 5:30 we have gathered with hundreds of others in the darkness outside Home Moravian Church in Salem Square. Robins sing continuously. There’s a scolding chickadee in the fresh-leaved poplar, its silhouette barely discernible in the pre-dawn. The old church clock strikes the hour. The liturgy commences. The congregants respond: This we truly believe. A brass choir leads the hymns and we listen for the echo.

Now we have processed from the Square to God’s Acre, brass harmonies behind to encourage, bands at all corners of the broad fields to call us along. As we gather among the unadorned white gravestones, “the democracy of death,” each with fresh flowers, the players gradually converge into one orchestra at the center. Three hundred strong. The liturgy concludes with a sweeping final anthem. The sky parts. Darkness is rent. Here is the sun, and the center.

The Lord is risen indeed.

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It’s hard to count how many times Joseph Bathanti has visited Elkin, NC to bring us poems. He read at the library here in March to prepare us all for Poetry Month, and as he always begins when he stands up after the introduction, he said, “It’s great to be back here at the center of the universe.”

Thank you, Joseph. We always feel like you mean it. And after we’ve listened to your poetry we do discover ourselves at the center.

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Joseph’s poem EASTER is from his book Anson County. It was originally published in 1989 but has been re-released in 2013 by Press 53 in Winston-Salem. When we returned from this morning’s Easter sunrise service in Old Salem, and after a nap, I sat on the porch in the sun and leaned back with Anson County. “I know there’s an Easter poem in here.” I was not disappointed. I never am.

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EASTER

They stand like shades
against the skyline:
in resurrection suits
and second-day dresses;
waiting to be gathered and burned
by the first fires of dawn
they have come to believe
will perfect their two-days-planted fruit.
Now like the rush of souls
it leaps across the sky
shredding fog with cerise flames
sudden as tongues.
And there can be no denial
of this white light
that carves fields rife
with wheat and corn,
sculpts holy men behind plows,
draws the harrow and martingale –
nor the flash and raiment of seeds
above the red river mouth.
Behold.

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from Anson County, Joseph Bathanti, Press 53, Winston-Salem NC, copyright 2103.

Originally published in 1989 by William & Simpson, and again in 2005 by Parkway Publishers.

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Each of us needs a friend who challenges us a little.  Someone who expects more from us than we expect from ourselves.  Who wiggles something interesting in our peripheral vision, something we may not have thought about in years, and just knows we will turn and reach for it.

I have a friend like that who wiggled poetry where I just couldn’t quite ignore it.  About twenty years ago Anne Gulley called: “Bill, the Friends of the Library is sponsoring a poetry series, and I think you should come.”  “The last poem I read was Walt Whitman in college.  Well, I think I did try to write Linda a poem for our twentieth anniversary.”  “There, you see.”

When I took German in high school our teacher, Herr Watt, spent as much time narrating all the Wagnerian operas for us as he did on pronunciation and declension.  He insisted, “This is important!  It’s part of your allgemeine Bildung*.”  Maybe it was curiosity, maybe I recognized the need to beef up my allgemeine Bildung, maybe it was a sheepish feeling of being undereducated, but I went to the series: six Sunday evenings reading contemporary poets I’d never heard of like A.R.Ammons and Sharon Olds.  Holy Zeitgeist, this was writing as fresh as today’s Washington Post and a couple of orders of magnitude more compelling.  My brain fizzed.  Thanks, Anne!  And the very best part was the instructor.

Joseph Bathanti drove down from the mountains for each of those Sunday sessions. So calm, so coaxing, another friend who just naturally expects more from you than you even expect from yourself, he held out a handful of seeds to the squirrels of our curiosity with confidence that we’d come.  When we read Ammons’s Hymn I shuddered to discover language that melds lyricism and physics, imagination and biology, the particular with the cosmic.  I had to discover more of this stuff.  I’m still discovering.  Thanks, Joseph!

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Last month Leighanne at the Foothills Arts Council called to see if I’d like read some poems at an event she was planning.  Music by “Not Your Usual . . . ,” wine by Grassy Creek, eight readers, she titled the evening BEAT!  If there are going to be beatniks, you can’t neglect Allen Ginsburg, so I decided to read America, but I also wanted to introduce folks who don’t know his work to our newest NC Poet Laureate – Joseph Bathanti.  I re-read Joseph’s newest collection, Restoring Sacred Art, and finally chose to read Your Leaving.

What grabs me about this poem (besides the razor sharp dead center descriptions) is the complexity of the characters, artfully revealed in just a few lines.  There’s the father laughing drunk the night before his daughter’s wedding, then next day standing stoic in his “mourning suit.”  Marie, giggling in a muumuu with her bridesmaids, is transformed, “perfect in all the ways a bride desires to be.”  Mother, one moment stern and organizing, the next moment lost “on the edge of her bed, still in her house dress.”  And of course there’s the little brother, angry at the cousins and the loss of his bed, but struggling with a greater loss as he begins his “apprenticeship as an only child.”  Ambivalence, conflict, longing, revelation – reading these lines is to walk into a new household and become part of the family.

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Your Leaving
for Marie

The night before you married,
Pap’s godsons from Detroit
got him drunk and I had to help
wrangle him upstairs, so mad

I threatened to punch them.
Married men, cement finishers
with mortar grey hands who spoke
broken English with Michigan accents,

they wore Bermuda shorts, undershirts,
black socks and tennis loafers.
My outrage made them laugh.
A father marrying off his only daughter,

his best girl, after all, is entitled
on the eve of the wedding
to drink as much as he wants.
Pap laughed too,

but he felt sorry for me.  Like them,
he figured I was still innocent.
We laid him in my bed.
Mother wouldn’t sleep with him,

“stupid drunk
the night before his daughter’s wedding.”
She blinked the porch light off and on
to signal you in from kissing

your fiancé in his red MG,
the first Protestant
to marry into the family.
No wonder Pap got drunk;

it was you last night home.
Your bridesmaids slept over,
cosmetic kits and high, spun hair,
spit-curls scotch-taped to their cheeks,

rustling aqua gowns lounging
from the mantel on cloth hangars.
the six of you stayed up all night in muumuus,
laughing and eating popcorn.

Downtown, the groom and his ushers cheered
the stripers at the Edison Hotel.
I had nowhere to sleep,
so I crawled into your empty bed, and began

my apprenticeship as an only child.
The next day, Pap got up
and donned his mourning suit.
The girls descended the porch steps

in single file, heads bowed
over nosegays as the photographer
stilled each for posterity.
And you, only twenty, behind them,

without hesitation, disguised
in wedding dress and veil, perfect
in all the ways a bride desires to be,
the repeated click of the camera

documenting those first irrevocable seconds
of your leaving once and for all,
while upstairs Mother san on the edge
of her bed, still in a house dress.

© 2010 by Joseph Bathanti, Star Cloud Press, Scottsdale AZ

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A couple of years after that Friends of the Library series Anne called again.  “We’ve arranged a Saturday morning poetry writing workshop at the Arts Council.  I really want you to meet Frank Levering.  And Bill is going to be there.”  A whole new story – estrangement, reconciliation, inspiration, new friendships.  Anne, you can’t quit challenging me!

While I was trying not to step in the bear scat on Albert Mountain two weeks ago, the Foothills Arts Council held opening night for Anne’s show Mythology–eyes, which will be up through most of November.  Her oils, from almost pocket-size to wall filling, are for me a little like that Ammons poem.  Rooted in closely observed and rendered beasts, landscapes, they branch and soar into surreal planes that challenge me to see, to think, to discover.  Thanks, Anne!  My allgemeine Bildung continues to accrue.

Here’s a photo of Anne cloistered in her Cabinet of Curiosity, and me reading Your Leaving at the FAC.

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*   Allgemeine Bildung = general culture, or education – Google the phrase for 17 megahits.

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