April 6, 2020
One of the many poets I had the privilege of hearing read at the WordTemple Poetry Series was San Francisco poet Thomas Centolella. I remember sitting in the front row thinking “He’s one of the magicians.” What did I mean by that? He wasn’t pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a costume-clad woman in half, but as he read one poem after another I found myself asking How did he do that?
In Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry, he says his idea of art “often has at its center a long floating leap, around which the work of art in ancient times used to gather itself like steel shavings around the magnet. But a work of art does not necessarily have at its center a single long floating leap. The work can have many leaps, perhaps shorter. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem. A poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object or idea soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance. What is marvelous is to see this leaping return in poetry of this century…Thought of in terms of language…leaping is the ability to associate fast.”
So, yes, I think these leaps have something to do with the magic I find in Centolella’s work; that and a good dose of passion.
Thomas Centolella is the author of four books of poetry: Terra Firma (Copper Canyon Press), selected by Denise Levertov for the National Poetry Series and winner of the American Book Award; Lights & Mysteries (Copper Canyon Press), winner of the California Book Award from the Commonwealth Club; Views from along the Middle Way (Copper Canyon Press); and Almost Human (Tupelo Press), winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Edward Hirsch.
Centolellla was given a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry in 1992 and a Lannan Residency in 2000. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has taught creative writing and literature for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here are a few poems by Thomas Centolella. Your comments, as always, will be appreciated.
I could have gone this evening to evensong.
Watched the light from a star on its way to dust
arrive at my cathedral’s nave, collaborate
with colored glass, and dazzle the congregation.
But it’s all paled for me, the luminous, the legendary
lives of saints (alleged to be as human as us
but impossibly strong). And my idea of exaltation?
A grunting old woman with grocery bags, her own joints
nearly leaden, trudging in from the street
not so much to be delivered from evil
as to get out of the cold and off her swollen feet.
I could have gone to evensong and joined the singers
from my choice seat near the sanctuary,
in that pew where another woman (exempt from pain
because much younger, one of fate’s loveliest chosen few)
let my long fingers stroke her long fingers,
and settled her fragrant head on my shoulder
in full view of the bishop — whose smile,
though benign as a saint’s, was a far cry
from laughter, as if we embodied the kingdom
and the power and the glory
he had always hungered after.
No surprise that I go to evensong anyway
when I close my eyes. I go out of spite, and irk the mild clergy
with my black leather jacket and the godless smirk
that says faith is for suckers — one of the Dark Prince’s
minions, now that I have fallen further
than I ever intended…But above a steady pilot light
fragrant herbs are steeping to balance my humors
(she used to joke I resembled a medieval saint),
and when did I ever feel completely at home
among the cynical one-note gloom-and-doomers?
And the voices I hear when I’m this alone
(somewhere between a locked ward
and a choir primed for heaven)
make their own kind of music
in their own sweet time,
and keep me even.
The Art of Preservation
Morning, the way mornings used to be
before those brilliant few days
when light would stir our sleeping bodies
like revelation. Early morning, the rooms
in half-tones, and I’m holding in my left hand
as if it were some kind of evidence
my own heart: encased in a pouch
of the latest plastic, murky in its own
dark blood: the art of preservation.
Those fine yellow words
from the manufacturer — are they instructions
or a warning? How calm I’ve become,
pale in the bathroom mirror, a casualty
that by all rights should not even be
breathing, much less on my feet.
On my left side there’s the slender bruise,
reddish purple, where my heart (to be replaced?
transplanted?) was deftly removed. Obviously
the operation is incomplete. What I need to do
is reinsert it — it’s getting late,
I’ve got to get to get to work. I keep thinking:
This is a dream, it ought to be easy,
it should slip right back in-between my ribs…
And wonder to behold, it does.
Then the alarm goes off: it’s morning
time again to go to work. I check my side
in the bathroom mirror: I’m fine,
more or less. Just a little scar
like expensive silk. Just a little tenderness.
“In the Evening We Shall be Examined on Love”
— St. John of the Cross
And it won’t be multiple choice,
though some of us would prefer it that way.
Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on
when we should be sticking to the point, if not together.
In the evening there shall be implications
our fear will change to complications. No cheating,
we’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true
to ourselves. In the evening when the sky has turned
that certain blue, blue of exam books, blue of no more
daily evasions, we shall climb the hill as the light empties
and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city
and try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested
like defendants on trial, cross-examined
till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,
in the evening, after the day has refused to testify,
we shall be examined on love like students
who don’t even recall signing up for the course
and now must take their orals, forced to speak for once
from the heart and not off the top of their heads.
And when the evening is over and it’s late,
the student body asleep, even the great teachers
retired for the night, we shall stay up
and run back over the questions, each in our own way:
what’s true, what’s false, what unknown quantity
will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now
to look back and know
we did not fail.