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David Rothman

David Rothman

David J. Rothman's recent books include two volumes of poetry, Part of the Darkness (Entasis Press) and The Book of Catapults (White Violet Press) and a collection of essays, Living the Life: Tales From America's Mountains & Ski Towns. He directs the Poetry Concentration in the MFA at Western State Colorado University, and also teaches at the University of Colorado and Lighthouse Writers Workshop of Denver. He co-founded the Crested Butte Music Festival, was the founding editor and publisher of Conundrum Press, and serves on a number of non-profit boards, including the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), where he represents the western states. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
I find it almost paralyzing to have to choose one poem by Kurt Brown that means the most to me, as my relationship with Kurt included encountering hundreds of poems through him and by him that changed my life. At home I have a folder filled with letters and drafts of his poems and essays, many never published, including what may be an early masterpiece, a 228-line poem titled "Abduction," on the Ted Bundy murders. All of these poems meant so much to me because although I had many great teachers—Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Mark Strand, Robert Fitzgerald—Kurt was my only mentor. I met him when I was just 20 years old (he must have been about 35, which seemed ancient) and I was taking a year off from Harvard to ski race and live in Aspen. One day in January, 1980—despite the fact that I was taking a year off from school—I walked into a class on contemporary poetry he was teaching at the Aspen Institute (we read Galway Kinnell, Gary Snyder and several others), and soon enough I was an editorial intern at Aspen Anthology.

It was Kurt who gave me my first job in the literary world, taught me how to edit a journal, published my first review, edited the first poems I ever published, and showed me how to run a non-profit. As this is the kind of thing that I have spent the rest of my own life doing, I can't possibly overstate the influence he had on me. I spent part of almost every day for months during the muddy off-season with him, sitting in that dingy office in the old Wheeler Opera House, reading and editing submissions and pitching drafts of our own poems at each other. That summer I then served as star-struck gopher at the 5th annual Aspen Writers' Conference, during which all of this literary activity rose to a fever pitch fueled by cocktails and other stimulants. My own first published work, which appeared at about this time, obviously shows Kurt's influence. I was one lucky guy.

Over the years, one of the things we debated at great length was the question of meter, rhyme and other aspects of prosody. Kurt was part of a generation that could be quite fierce in its insistence that the foregrounding of such craft was passé, whereas I became more and more convinced that his generation had thrown the baby out with the bathwater and such elements of craft should at the very least be rigorously taught, something I have devoted another part of my life to doing. We had all sorts of testy epistolary exchanges about this kind of thing, in which, going on the responses I've just been rereading with growing embarrassment (thank God I don't have what I wrote...), I'm sure that I was, shall we say, less than gracious.

So imagine my astonishment when I read Kurt's last collection, 2012's Time-Bound, and found a number of poems like the gorgeous "A Moment," in which Kurt showed that....he utterly knew what he was doing with meter and rhyme all along (see "For Miklós Radnóti," and "Old Howard," among others). Cunning fox. This epiphany of love uses every trick in the book, gracefully modifying the six-line "Venus and Adonis" stanza. That form goes ABABCC, whereas Kurt places the couplet first and runs AABCCB. In effect he takes the second line of the traditional stanza and places it last. Kurt's poem also reverses the theme of "Venus and Adonis" itself. In the myth and in Shakespeare's poem, Adonis resists the goddess's hot overtures and goes off to get gored to death by a boar. Kurt, on the other hand, who always to my knowledge met love with love, is at first paralyzed by Laure-Anne's beauty, but soon responds: "I recalled myself, and smiled back." The meter is craggy and rich, with as many cunning twists as anything by Walcott or Heaney. A beautiful thing.

I read what I've just written, and while I think it's true, I also hear Kurt's voice castigating me from beyond the grave for a certain failure. Wait a minute, I don't have to imagine I hear it, I can just quote it, from an enormous email on another matter he sent me on June 10, 1995, at 5:52 pm Mountain Daylight Time:

      A word of caution (I can still speak like one of your teachers, because I'm

      old enough to be your Dad): don't approach poetry as a vast pile of work to

      be placed, according to your considerable knowledge, in its proper location

      on some vast grid. You have a tendency to do this, I've noticed. It's natural.

      I've done it too. You've read so much you tend to categorize things, as if

      that were the purpose of reading and thinking about poetry. It's not. You  

      soon miss what's original, personal, new in work when you do this. ANY


      POEM WRITTEN BY SOMEONE ELSE. [Kurt's emphasis.] Once you

      pass through the "I know who that reminds me of" phase, you will begin to

      read poetry again with a fresh sensibility: the way you read it before you  

      studied so much poetry in school (and so much criticism, which does this

      ad nauseum [sic]. I do not mean to sound condescending. But I know what

      I'm talking about. The GLORY of real poetry is that it emerges out of the

      legacy of all poetry, makes subtle but sensible connections which can only

      deepen it, yet feels perfectly idiosyncratic, fresh, original at the same time.

      This is a lovely paradox which will keep you coming back and back to

      poetry for the rest of your life. If you approach poetry with the feeling of:

      "I know it all, now, I've read studied, thought about everything" you will

      soon grow weary, become jaded and hate poetry. That would be a shame,

      and a real loss to your life. And it happens to more people than not. Almost

      any critic you can name, and most poets, too. Be careful, David, you don't

      lose poetry and wind up with nothing but knowledge, which is worth little

      in the end.

Kurt Brown's late "A Moment" describes a memory to which he "keep[s] returning." It is a seemingly ordinary minute in which he is so astonished by the beauty of Laure-Anne brushing her long, blond hair in her sunny kitchen that even though he feels "such blatant beauty required a response," he is struck dumb and paralyzed, even rendered inanimate, "like some stone figure in a stone chair." Then, in the poem's climax, when it seems that he will fail to respond—"But I did nothing, though my heart halted / in my chest, a small, numb exalted / animal"— she smiles at him and he says "I recalled myself, and smiled back." Seems simple enough. That smile is surely a little triumph of ordinary life, showing us how deeply love abides in even ephemeral gestures. But the lasting power of "A Moment" lies not in Kurt's compelling description of Laure-Anne's beauty, in the tender exchange of smiles, or in the sentimental moral I've suggested. It lies in what the poem does, for like all strong poems, "A Moment" is an action: a blessing, a promise, a vow, a declaration. Kurt's smile is one response to Laure-Anne's beauty, but the more lasting response, the one that shows us what beauty and erotic love can be, is the carefully wrought poem itself. The true climax of the poem is the moment just before Kurt's smile, the action that caused it, when "I recalled myself." For that act of recalling the self—something that happens here by recalling he is in a loving relationship with someone else!—is what has led to the act of returning to and recalling the event in words, specifically in verse. It is Kurt's returning to life (from "stone") and his subsequent making of the poem that shows us some of what it means to be human when we are at our best, when in the full light of who we are our words no longer merely comment upon reality, but inflect it. "A Moment" is so good because it is more than a love poem, or perhaps because it is what a truly great love poem should always be. It is not just about love: it is love-making.

Thank you, Kurt.

A Moment

I keep returning to that moment, one
day at your kitchen table with the sun
slanting in through the glass above your sink.
You stood before me, brushing your long hair,
stroke after stroke in the astonished air
while you talked of nothing, and I sipped my drink.

Then suddenly you bent your head, and threw
your hair forward in a bright fan to show
your beauty in a simple act, at once
casual and contrived, while I sat there
like some stone figure in a stone chair
such blatant beauty required a response.

But I did nothing, though my heart halted
in my chest, a small, numb, exalted
animal, until you tossed that golden wrack
of hair to settle once again upon
your shoulders and you smiled your wan
smile and I recalled myself, and smiled back.


Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux
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Charles Simic


Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn
On Kurt Brown...