Monday, October 1, 2018

Deafening Music by Paul B. Roth

This is another installment of Poetry? I just don’t get it. A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work.

Today’s poem is "Deafening Music" by poet and publisher, Paul B. Roth.

Paul has been published widely in the United States and his work has been translated and appeared in journals from Japan, Peru, Israel, Bolivia, Ecuador, India, China, Mexico, Romania, Estonia and the UK.

He is the author of eight collections of poetry of which his four most current are Cadenzas by Needlelight (Cypress Books, 2009), Words the Interrupted Speak (March Street Press, 2011), Long Way Back to the End (Rain Mountain Press, 2014), and Owasco: Passage of Lake Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2018). He lives in Fayetteville, New York, where he’s served as editor and publisher of The Bitter Oleander Press since 1974.

What I like about the poem, and what I like about the poetry I find in The Bitter Oleander, the magazine Paul edits, is that there are numerous imaginative leaps throughout. The poem starts in one place and ends in another, moving in a spiral, like a vortex, a tornado, bringing more and more parts of the world into its field of gravity. And then there's the line "a salamander's slithering exit suctioned through a vertical flute's mouth-high octave…" Say it out loud. See which part of your brain lights up.

I first read this poem in Skidrow Penthouse .


Deafening Music

            Beethoven knew external music eluded him whenever meteor showers or burn victims from a nearby barn fire screamed at him from all directions without making a sound. A jellied hand, a cloven toe, a bandaged shoulder blade, or lightning's crack at the back of every headache should have been enough to make anyone curious, but he could not, beyond his own heartbeat, hear what was happening to him. He'd already given up listening for a katydid's tympanic legs scratching underneath August's dry leaves, a salamander's slithering exit suctioned through a vertical flute's mouth-high octaves, even a stone's subtle tumble after heavy flooding from torrential rains kept flipping and sliding it further and further downstream in a viola's dream. Those handclapped blackbirds bursting their sudden flight off his raised eyebrows finally got his attention. Not to mention pieces of his body crawling away in the night where he thought he heard their goodbyes without feeling any difference. Dreams separating from their colors with only the silhouettes of their effective sub-plots to guide him. Thoughts no longer tethered to a planet believing itself special because of its human habitation. Everything more sacred than him and him knowing it. More sacred than those who believe they do no wrong at the expense of every other living organism on the planet. Religions precluding them by forcing them to don ritualistic costumes that no moon, ring or methane crystal this side or that of the universe would ever recognize except as those messy bits of carbon smeared when swept up after all they've become.


On the Poem
“Deafening Music”

As with any of my poems, there’s no reason for this one to have been written. I may have been listening to one of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets at the time or maybe I wasn’t.  It really doesn’t matter since nothing I write, when I write, is ever planned. If it were, wouldn’t I only be repeating myself to myself; a scribe of my own words, of what I already know, rather than a poet seeking the gratification of the unknown through all of its possible and even improbable presentations? Isn’t that how one lets the poem lead him or her into the future without having to copy the past or what others have already written? It seems now that the only preconceived and formulated notion in this poem was his well-documented and unfortunate deafness. It couldn’t help but become the necessary background against which everything about to be written would hold the poem in place. Everything has a background, even absence and in this case, there happens to be the absence of hearing. Yet rather than try to write about the well-documented difficulties of the master composer’s deafness, it must have seemed better for me, at the time, to imagine all that he missed by coupling instruments with the natural world he loved and in which he found such great inspiration. Still, there had to have been low points I felt obliged to mention regarding his self-importance as a human being. Not to mention how religion, in those turbulent times, might have culled together his most painful and suspicious doubts. How even at his lowest moments, he might have felt that, after all he’d accomplished, after all he’d transformed, he might still be one of “those messy bits of carbon smeared when swept up after all they’ve become.”  And since it might have been nice to tell him otherwise, maybe in some way, through this paragraph poem, I was doing so.

Paul B. Roth 
Woodside Way

Links to Poems & Interviews


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

4 New Poems in Leaping Clear

I have four new poems in the new issue of

A Magazine of Art, Literature &

Leaping Clear is a journal of fiction, poetry, the visual arts and music from artists whose work is grounded in meditative and contemplative practices.

Landscape after Wang Wei's Wangchuan Picture

These four poems are from a manuscript I've been working on since December, 2017, tentatively called "Absence Presence Absence." The poems are heavily influenced by the work of Classical Chinese poets, especially Li Po, Du Fu, Chia Tao, and Wang Wei.

I've been consulting the translations of David Hinton,
J.P. Seaton, Red Pine, Mike O'Connor, Burton Watson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Stephen Owen, among a few others.

You can find my poems 

The Peach Blossom Spring from a poem entitled Tao Yuan Bi Jing written by Wang Wei

Monday, July 2, 2018

Ruins: in American Journal of Poetry

I have a long poem called
in Volume Five of

The poem can be found


For years I've been meaning to write an essay about ruins. I love ruins. Many of us love ruins. Why? Villages, towns and cities have huge tourist industries based on the love of ruins. And so, I wanted to explore my own relationship with ruins; write about what passes through my head, my heart, my guts, when I'm standing in the middle of a thousand-year-old castle or looking at a pile of boards that used to be a ranch, or staring at the remnants of a paleolithic burial site (inside a cave above the waves of a sea that used to be a forest).

Everything is a ruin in the making. Think of the stars: light that's alive, that pierces our eyes, arrives from many suns that are already dead (What the poet Erling Friis-Baastad calls Fossil Light - the title of his last book).

I thought of the essay as moving through the denial, grief, and acknowledgement process that happens within proximity to any death. And so, I divided it up into different ruins I've visited and the emotions/thoughts that rose up while there. 

But once I looked at my notes, I realized they were close to being a finished poem. For me, a poem can get to the heart of something, and still make the associated connections (maintain the complexity), in a way that a linear essay cannot. Thus, a poem was born out of the notes for an essay...a poem-essay.

Below are some notes about the poem, which aren't necessary to "understand" the poem. I wrote the notes because I'm always interested in the process of other artists…

The poem can be



1. The introduction is a description of an abandoned farmhouse in Iowa I came upon in the early nineties. There was a rose bush outside and I sang William Blake's poem, The Sick Rose, to the rose (from Poems of Innocence & Experience):

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed 
of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

When dealing with ruins and death, Blake's poem seemed a perfect introduction. I've always interpreted it in terms of the worm that is always at everyone's ear, that's always whispering to us about death. This worm, the promise of eventual death, can be seen as a horror, something to be avoided, or it can be seen as intricately woven into life - that there is no true life (the feeling of being truly alive) without acknowledgement and acceptance of death.

2. Innocence about death: Playing in a World War One Trench, Belgium. When I was a kid (sixth grade) I was playing with some friends in a forest of spindly trees outside the town of Nimy. I suddenly realized - probably because I read books? - that we were playing in a former WWI battlefield. We were young enough to see the battlefield in terms of glory and mystery.

3. Romance about death: standing in the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales. The rich of previous centuries in the UK created a tourist industry based on the aesthetic appreciation - the haunting beauty - of ruins. Before the leisure class focused on these ruins, they were just piles of stones where poorer folks sometimes lived.

4. Fear of Death: the gravesite of a ten-year-old girl behind a crumbled wood house in Northeastern Colorado. I sometimes get a fear of death, of the passing of time itself, of transience, in some ruins. The moment when I feel the broken stones as my own bones. This is where you are going. This is where all things go…

5. Prophesy: wandering among the ruins of the pueblo village at Bandelier National Monument. What I found even more intriguing than the ruins (still a sacred site for nearby pueblos - the former domain of their ancestors) were some rock formations that seemed to be guardians of the place - so, a geological or cosmic view of human cycles.

6. Acknowledging Transience: this came about in the ruins of a concrete hotel built near the top of Mount Overlook, above the town of Woodstock in New York. I was thinking about the desire for wealth that kept spurring the building and re-building of this hotel. It was finally abandoned after three fires. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is "Dukkha." Meaning, all life is suffering. A truer translation would be: all life is transient. It's easy to accept intellectually, but hard to swallow when we suffer as love dissolves, as loved ones die, as things change beyond our comprehension. In those ruins I felt the space between my own atoms mirror the space - the holes - in the concrete.

7. Acceptance of Death: this castle is on the Gower peninsula, near Swansea, Wales, where I lived for two years. The castle sits next to a golf course. Which makes the whole gravity of "time passing" and "transience" kind of a joke. Fore! Acceptance comes in that sense of humor, I think. This section is somewhat surreal, as it should be. Acceptance also leads to strange doors that suddenly appear - strange signs pointing the way.

 8. Coda: After writing the poem, I thought of the US in terms of a ruin. But a ruin similar to the light in the night sky. All poetry, all writing now, is writing in the maelstrom: children being held in cages on the US border, a prison system lining the pockets of various corporations, the militarization of the entire culture (and still so little news of the wars), water in the streets of towns on the Atlantic coast, saltwater invading the land, the supreme court disassembling the New Deal (destroying the rights of labor), along with upholding an unconstitutional ban on people from middle eastern countries (I'll say it again: a ban on people)…
And so, the attitude of this section I thought somewhat resembled the irascible and prescient poet, Robinson Jeffers, a poet of praise (for the natural world) and a poet of rage (against destruction of the earth and the militaristic designs of the nation). As the poet Gary Snyder once said of Jeffers (a very loose paraphrase): "He was right. But why did he have to say it as if he was the only one who knew?" Some of Jeffers' poetry can be found here.

Robinson Jeffers

Friday, May 4, 2018

Two New Poems in Serving House Journal

Two New Poems
are in

Both poems are from a new manuscript
influenced by Classical Chinese Poets
(Tu Fu, Li Po, Su T'ung Po, Wang Wei, Chia Tao…)

You can find the two poems

The poem "Dead of Night" was influenced by Tu Fu's 
"Night at the Tower."

In mid-December I was reading the poem and heard this massive low droning noise outside.

I opened the door and saw plane after plane, one following the other, all heading west, on some training maneuver.

The names in the poems - Chu-ko Liang and Pai-ti -
are figures in Chinese history (the first a state official, the second a warlord), referenced in relation to military adventures.

Night At The Tower

Yin and Yang cut brief autumn days short. Frost and snow
Clear, leaving a cold night open at the edge of heaven.

Marking the fifth watch, grieving drums and horns erupt as
A river of stars, shadows trembling, drifts in Three Gorges.

Pastoral weeping–war heard in how many homes? And tribal
Songs drifting from the last woodcutters and fishermen…

Chu-ko Liang, Pai-ti: all brown earth in the end. And it
Opens, the story of our lives opens away…vacant, silent.

                                         (translated by David Hinton)

Issue 18 of Serving House Journal
 includes poems, fiction, memoir and art
Beate Sigriddaughter, Jim Zola, Mel Takahara,
Alexis Rhone Fancher, Simon Perchik, Mary Makofske,
and Vivian Shipley, among many others…