James Fenton - 92Y, New York

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James Fenton

Dec 12, 2011

Former Oxford Professor of Poetry James Fenton reads three poems: "Out of the East," "Blood and Lead" and "The Milk Fish Gatherers." Poet Natalie Eilbert attended the reading and wrote:

In his introduction, Richard Howard listed James Fenton’s accomplishments in deliberate detail. “I specify all this because it’s my impression that James is not known on this side of the Atlantic,” Howard remarked. If one had to find a common thread in Monday night’s reading, which also featured German poet Durs Grünbein, it might be that there are poetries at work which thrive without Americans paying much attention. I admit that, prior to this event, I had read only a handful of poems by Fenton and, what’s worse, Grünbein was barely on my radar. In reading Fenton, I’ve always felt I was teetering between a terrible excitement and boredom. But the boredom—or, rather, the numbness—makes sense when you consider Fenton’s commitment to meter at a time when edgy parataxes rule the day.

The more I listened to Fenton, however, the more I realized I was dealing with a different beast altogether. His poems depart from the personal, as Howard suggested, to speak of war and globalization. “The Milk Fish Gatherers” details the famished landscape of the Philippines, where milk fish are gathered in nets: “Something of value struggles not to die, “The spine lives when the brain dies in convulsive misery” and “A hatched fish is a pair of eyes—there is nothing left to see.” While I found myself clinging to his guttural lines and the monotony of meter, I came to appreciate the lyricism in which he immerses himself.

Durs Grünbein, who was introduced by translator Michael Eskin, began with a self-portrait called “Vita Brevis,” from his collection Ashes for Breakfast. I recognized Eskin’s astute claims to a Celan connection, especially in lines like “I spoke as others might spit,” “Shaved my skewed grin over a bucket, under canvas” and “For want of lilies, I sniffed the garbage on the breeze.” This poem, the title of which translates as “brief life,” describes a harrowing bildungsroman-style account of growing up in Dresden. Beyond the dirty piety and grit of Grünbein’s poetry is unexpected humor and playfulness—a kind of spirited nationalism.

I left the reading with an urge to write a metered poem to see what subversive voice would remain. I left thinking the self occurs everywhere, waiting, like Grünbein’s poetic self, to be written.

Natalie Eilbert received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Linda Corrente Poetry Prize. Her work has been published by Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, La Petite Zine, and InDigest Magazine.

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