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Willis Barnstone

Willis Barnstone

Willis Barnstone's most recent book is The Poems of Jesus Christ(Norton, 2012). His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, the Times Literary Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and the Paris Review.

Carolyn Kizer: A Cosmic Charm

Carolyn Kizer is a charm held in a treasure room of Wang Wei on Deep South Mountain. Wang is the finest charm of silver among the 10,000 Chinese gold birds who sang their poetry in the Tang Dynasty. In Odessa, near the ancient Greek settlement on the north end of the Black Sea, Carolyn is a charm made of Scythian gold, discovered off the ancient city's windy coast. Up in Hudson Bay she is an exquisite whalebone charm carved by Inuits to appease ocean goddesses and the polar bear. How has the poet managed to voyage from century to century, from continent to continent, from galaxy to galaxy on a floating Persian rug woven by nightingales and leopards? The commonplace explanation is that Carolyn Kizer holds the globe pleasantly in her apron pocket while she dozes, pen in hand, at her desk. She has the knack of miracle and caustic truth as she looks into herself, knows herself, and blossoms everywhere while the rest of us take Greyhound buses or the A-Train to look for a marveled precinct of poetry. She is already there.

I have known Carolyn since I began to write and think myself a poet. We met everywhere. My fondest reminiscences are in Bloomington, Indiana, and the annual Poetry Society's meetings down in Gramercy Park in New York. We both were gaining awards from that then turbulently expanding society. Though I had a dozen books out, most of them in poetry, some in Spanish and religious studies, the PSA had low enough standards to shower me over a decade with six awards. One evening after one of those glorious boisterous dinners when prizes were announced like Christmas candy bags, as I was leaving, Carolyn firmly took my arm. In those years I was optimistic and utterly diffident. We were pushing into darkness. She said, half formally, "Willis, why are you, a goddam idiot savant with all your languages and Gnostic behemoths, a national secret?

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You." I was flustered and flattered. We were strolling through the spring darkness around the large iron-fenced-in Gramercy Park gardens until the southern belle moon came out in her linen petticoats. We went on for hours, through sidestreets, reaching the brownstones of not-yet-gentrified Chelsea, and the warehouses and bars of raw Hell's Kitchen. The moon danced over us till she tripped and slipped into dawn. Finally, we got up to Central Park South, skirted along the paths just inside the dangerous sleeping Park. The horizon was peaceable and so were we. At Columbus Circle in morning light we kissed goodbye and fled back to our rented rooms.

Carolyn was ever joyous and serious, ever there to help a troubled friend, to elevate someone she esteemed. She worked for us poetry workers at both the center and at the periphery of poetry villages. Our conversations were sweet, smart, and tough. She is the most hard-assed, gentle wise guy I've ever known. And a pure cacophony of elegant contradictions. There was always a good cause that possessed her and in which she was soon thoroughly involved.

Any time we could spend some time together we did.

That very early singular evening after the Poetry Society meeting gave me a jolt of confidence from which I've not recovered. Our night of strolling is with me now.

On a professional note, Carolyn gave me the best blurb for a book I ever had, which begins, "He's just too good." Every serious idiot needs a Carolyn Kizer.

Another American poet, a powerful independent and rebel like Carolyn, was Ruth Stone who, until her recent death at ninety-seven, lived mainly alone on top of her cold Vermont hill at Raspberry Rump. I was asked to blurb a new book by Ruth. She was top-secret in America, with clandestine followers of her poems, who saw her usually in the summer, but many, like myself, found winter just lovely to stay a few days in her cottage in the blasting gales off the Vermont Gulch and the bales of snow on the ground. In the blurb I called Ruth "America's Akhamatova." That epithet worked as the always-cited phrase when she won successively the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Wallace Stevens Award.

If I could blurb Carolyn's literary career, I would say that Carolyn Kizer is America's Marina Tzvetayeva, for her dazzling technical skills, her relentless originality, her triumph with Chinese poetry, her championship of women and the down and out. Como Carolyn no hay dos, as the Spaniards say. "Like Carolyn there are not two." The documents of achievements are there, but more, the spirit of the strong woman of infinite energy prevails and we are happily vanquished.

I must add that I have a special sentiment, which I know I share with many and that we are right in possessing. I love Carolyn Kizer with whatever strength I possess in my compromised lungs. We all know her prizes, her many volumes of poetry, her magnificently generous and pioneer federal career in the arts. As someone who has spent much of my life with ancient Greek texts, I recall Plato's superb epitaphic poem for Dion, Tyrant (leader) of Syracuse. The words are worthy of Plato as he praises the person beyond all his external public fame. They perfectly fit Carolyn Kizer:

      Tears were fated for Hekabe and Illium's women from the day of their birth, but
      Dion, just when you triumphed with famous works, all your wandering hopes were cast
      down by the gods. Now dead in your spacious city, you are honored by patriots, but I
      was one who loved, you, O Dion!

Our poet is alive and beautiful. How could she not be? She is a silver charm resting in the treasure room of the Daoist nature poet Wang Wei in his cottage on Deep South Mountain. She has been with us in hill cities of Anhui Province in China. She is here and wherever we have been together, be it New York, Berkeley, Paris, wherever we have joined in absorbing her books. Keep singing to us, Carolyn.

Bonjour and hello.