The Poetry of Jane Augustine
Woman Defined, acrylic by Indu Varma

 

 

Reality Is My Estate: On the Work of Jane Augustine

I met featured poet Jane Augustine first as a prominent scholar of modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). She has also written many articles on other modernist writers, and is the go-to expert on H.D.’s mysticism and Moravian heritage. Augustine’s six collections of poetry include A Womans Guide to Mountain Climbing (2008), High Desert (2019), and the monumental Traverse: Collected Poems 1969-2019 (Dos Madres Press, 2021). At over 700 pages, Traverse confirms that Augustine has been writing poetry — “something every day,” as her manifesto (included in this feature) states — all along.

 

Born in 1931 in Berkeley, Augustine published her first poems at 7 (in the Berkeley Daily Gazette) and her first book of poetry, Arbor Vitae (2002), at 71. In the decades between came college (Bryn Mawr class of ‘52, Seven College Conference Scholar), marriage, children (four), mid-life divorce, and happy remarriage (to the renowned poet and critic Michael Heller). Augustine completed her Ph.D. at City University in 1988. By the 1990s, she was publishing the definitive critical edition of H.D.’s Moravian childhood memoir, The Gift (1998), which established her as a scrupulous scholar and editor. Since then, she has published a steady stream of creative and critical works. She has twice received Fellowships in Poetry from the New York State Council on the Arts and received the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Augustine’s poetry is distinguished by its bold stance — wide open to the world, observant, and concise in its details. Her work is as elegant and forthright as Augustine herself. It is not as austere as some of the modernist poets she admires most, but often similarly sculptural, and highly attuned to poetry’s music. As an exercise, try reading aloud such lines as the following from the first poem in the selection, “At Mid-month”—           

But you know

ripeness is not all     is stasis 
binds

bursts  

noting, as you read, the sonic power of the lines, which open on the alliterative “b’s” and the pitch of the long assonantal i’s. The passage is spare in words and punctuated by spatial pauses for breath, features enhancing the forcefulness of the sonic and visual effects. Its claim is to a feminine power as defined by more than fertility. Surely this notion is more than a moment’s insight, yet as Augustine counsels in her droll “Momentary Manifesto,” “leave things as they are,” and “know no thing more than for its instant.” Then she’s off to contemplate mortality: “Time for a walk / to lean on the graveyard fence.”

As homage to this marvelous scholar-poet’s erudition, I asked if she’d include her remarkable dream-poem about H.D., “My H.D.” You will note that nesting in the complex dream-narrative of the prose poem are italicized lines quoted from H.D.’s greatest poems (both of which are war poems), Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. There are also respectful references to H.D.’s wartime involvement in Spiritualism, when she believed fervently that she was receiving spirit-messages which, once conveyed to the powers that be, would end the war. In addition is Augustine’s fascinating account of the eerie experience of finding a clipping of her own undergraduate article on H.D. in a student journal (H.D. also attended Bryn Mawr), written so long ago it was as if by someone else: “je est une autre,” as Augustine quips (pace Rimbaud). H.D.’s daughter, Perdita Schaffner, had clipped out the article and kept it in her files, now held in the archives of the Beinecke Library at Yale, where Augustine happened upon it decades later. 

Known for her poetic “investigative eye,” as Anne Waldman describes Augustine’s poetry of witness, and the spare “luminosity” of her verse, as Patricia Hampl notes, Augustine has gained recognition in recent years as a socially-engaged and mindful poet who follows her own manifesto’s poetic counsel. A splendid illustration of this vein in her poetry is the tour de force serial poem, “The Man Who Sleeps Under the Scaffold.” The poem concerns a bitter winter in 2018, during a time when veterans were actually disparaged by the president. Augustine tracks the whereabouts of a homeless veteran who sleeps near her apartment building (although by day, he treks to Trump Tower). The veteran is one of thousands of people freezing, surviving, “unnoticed . . . / in plain view.” “It’s not right—,” Augustine avers, “but someone    must    see[.]” As the veteran puts it, bluntly, in his imagined address to the president, “I am an American veteran of wars abroad, / who sleeps concealed as trash [. . . ] / outside of your real estate.” And as Augustine herself poignantly states at the poem’s conclusion, “Mr. President, / I am an American woman[ . . .] / [who] claims reality as my estate” (emphasis added).

I hope that after reading the eloquent exploratory poems featured here, you will pick up a copy of Traverse, in order to read into the poetry of Jane Augustine more deeply. For now, I invite you to savor this selection, as I have done readying this feature.

 

Promenade, mixed media by Indu Varma

 

 

 

Poems from Traverse

 

At Mid-month

          Ripening in my darkness
          every month

          not a red moon to reduce me
          to useful function

          nor a wound to stopper
          with bandages

          —I say a woman is not a myth
          not an emergency ward

          not an empty cup to be filled
          blest—

          it thickens    one silk layer quilted
          over another

          a fine soft place    our warmth
          the child-bed

          every man wants to be brought to.
          But you know

          ripeness is not all    is stasis 
          binds

          bursts    unable to ask
          the next question:

          time then to undo
          throw away

          bits of string   clips   bands
          the lump of petrified wood

          in the desk drawer     everything
          we save

          thinking someday it may save us,
          slough off

          with only a slight pang
          all those prized sentiments

          and start over.  I’m glad to move
          into another house

                              carpeting    curtaining  —a chance
          to make it new.”

          Just as glad to say goodbye
          to a lover,

          pack a knapsack, move on

          So at mid-month I pitch my tent
          in a deep valley,

          listen to its rivers
          underground:

          new blood rising
          to feed

          to shed.

 

 

 
 

Gentians

                         near the Sangre de Cristos,
                         after the accidental death
                         of Robert Secora, 17

     A purple gash 
     in the oat-fields’ wide green
     spread out below still-snowy mountains—

     Barbed wire blocks us:
     gingerly I lower it
     for the ranch foreman’s wife to step over.

     We wade across
     to gaze down into the fringed cups
     lit, it seems, by the earth’s dark blood.          

     She tells me how 
     they had to send away the homeless boy    
     who later fell under the blade at Canda’s sawmill—

     the ranch’s owner 
     wouldn’t take him in
     so how could they?    She says

     “Did you ever see
     so many gentians?  I used to find just one
     or two.  We might as well pick plenty—

     tomorrow they cut
     these oats—see, the kernel’s
     just coming out of the splitting pod—”

 

 

Possibilities, mixed media by Indu Varma

 
 

Note in a Sketchbook

Grapevine and bittersweet
intertwine.  Bugs eat both.  Veins
show intricate

against light, yellow
at edges.  No end to tight
grasping tendrils, drying,

stray twigs caught.

 

 

 
 

Momentary Manifesto

To leave things as they are.
To write something every day.
To know no thing more
                 than for its instant.

Whiff of earth in the air.
Phone number on a scratch pad.
Quick!  Time for a walk
                 to lean on the graveyard fence.

 

 

 
 

My H.D.

  (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961, poet and novelist)

Swiftly swiftly write as H.D. wrote re-light the flame for thoughts run more swiftly than the hand but are also flames     it was war her trilogy a dream a flame to counter the war  the war was fought for an illusion   but this dream of mine I woke from disappointed to wake    this daylight dream of all compounded things this self-no-self must be thought of as a magical illusion,  a flame, a dewdrop, a bubble, a flash of lightning in the dark of night      so this reality of standing in the garden of the poets daughters estate in East Hampton at dusk among a sea of fallen rusty curling leaves a soft yard-light on somewhere behind after the others    the men the conferees had left the table not having asked her questions though she sat there silent throughout  now reappears in a well-tailored pantsuit the deep color of wine her white hair in a pompadour in her eighties now living with her daughter      how happy this chance of mine to talk to her to tell her how it happened she had read words I wrote about her in a student newspaper      and re-reading her clippings saved in Beinecke Library felt an eerie shiver pass through me   Je est une autre but no time to tell this only to ask her about what the others the younger women H.D. scholars want to know about her     my pleasure will be to relay this news:  So what is your life like now what are you writing?  Her offhand candor I have a lover, of course” of course the Eternal Lover Osiris to her Isis union of feminine and masculine principles creativity itself her female lovers being one with herself brought into herself as priestess seer twin but she said no word about her writing then necessity came to the dreamers dark bedroom darker for the rain outside and wind snapping the window-shade against the glass     la vida es sueño    a whiplash fracturing of concept procedure meaning they might say shes as crazy as wartime H.D at her tippy three-legged table hearing spirit-messages she thought would end the war the horror of bombing end all wars     but more bombs ended it   not that its ended     so consider dreams not only meaningful to dreamers who connect them to whatever books words languages they read or listen to   because flame comes when a candle is lit at night a necessity and wind necessarily blows it out a soft wind or hard as now forty miles an hour which can change in ten minutes or maybe not for two days not I, not I but the wind

 


Jane Augustine reading an excerpt from The Man Who Sleeps Under the Scaffold

 
 

The Man Who Sleeps Under the Scaffold

East 18th Street and First Avenue, New York City

 

(i)

Saw him last week
late night—
now it’s 19 degrees    (where is he sleeping?)

His gear roped under  
black tarps and bags
in a shopping cart
includes a sign
upside down    (no other writing)

“Hope for the future”     (not much)

 

(ii)

Blizzard covers the city.
White fills the streets.
Scaffold protects the black

packaging of his life       (he is resourceful)
He will come back—when? 
to live if the weather      (New York City)

lets him.  If
they dont decide
to bring down right now

the empty building         (when will they?)
the scaffold upholds, 
not a place

to live anyhow, now
or in the future                (impersonal)
but a hospital to help,

offices maybe, or labs   (but not beds)

 

(iii)

Haven’t seen him
recently – gray rain-suit,
hooded face, grizzled.

Thousands not seen
note unnoticed spots
in plain view,

cover themselves
with black garbage bags—
what else?

Keep on.  I count on him.
to manage.

It’s getting colder.

 

(iv)

In this savage cold
he sleeps, it seems,

somewhere else
I hope, but because

it’s Martin Luther King Day
—he looks like M.L.K—

his gear is topped
with an American flag,

its frail flagpole
tied by red string

suspended from a nail
or crack overhead

in the scaffold.

Let us salute his flag.

 

(v)

Above the black tarps
lashed to the scaffold poles
a shocking-pink dustpan
on a long handle makes
its dominion—
or made it.
Today it’s gone.
Where does he take it?
What dust scrape into it?

(vi)

Walking south on First Avenue
from East 37th street  I came
to East 34th — big intersection.

On the corner stationed as if 
to be picked up soon, a black
tarp-bundled shopping cart

or rather a skid, rope-bound
like the one under the scaffold,
with black garbage bags too—

a monument, spontaneous sculpture,
a statement.   Does it go unread?
Next to it, farther along

on the gray concrete,
another stony-black block
in public storage. By it

a man lies sleeping.
Is this city art unseen?
Passersby sweep their eyes
carefully over and away.

This free space must be
preserved for them, I think.
That little we can do.

Not happy with this thought.

 

(vii)

Yesterday noon coming down our stoop
I glanced away from the man
under the scaffold. He didn’t want
to be seen pulling a comforter,
fluffy, cream-colored, out of his stash,
not seen as he sets himself up
to sleep.
Will he pull the black tarp
over himself, and look as if
he is only the package on the sidewalk?
I head off the other way
past the brownstones with stained-glass
doors and marble-paved front steps
whose owners have gone south for the winter.

 

(viii)

Three snapshots:

Snap one:
9:00 p.m.     a blonde woman
stands talking to the man
under the bare light-bulb

Snap two:
6:30 p.m.     he sweeps litter
out of the gutter.
Four young men, Ivy League,
shriek and dance in the street

Snap three:
midday      no sign of him
stash disarranged,
flag points downward.

Did he hear Trump’s speech?

 

(ix)

The black monument is tidy today,
heavyweight contractor bags tightly strapped,

two shocking-pink dustpans with green handles
propped on the brick wall under the scaffold

tucked in behind, meant to be inconspicuous—

23 degrees and getting colder—

he must have gone to—

where?

(x)

Dusk.  Stepping out of a taxi
I can’t see
the black heap
in the shadows cast
by the lamp
at a defunct
doorway
or possibly defunct:
earlier there
workmen jackhammered open
a square of sidewalk
three feet deep.

For now, it’s closed up.

We’re all safe, I guess

 

(xi)

The black monument
hunkers down
by the building
 
that’s going
to waste, empty,
decomposing to dust.

The gray-dusted black hoard
chained to a scaffold pipe-post
waits, gathered

to be taken 
to better living space.
Or no.

The black bags
don’t go anywhere.
Not yet.

They’re discards saved
to show that someone
owns them:

“I own, I save, I come
to check;
therefore I am.”

(xii)

He is.
He is where
he is.

He is many.
They are where
he is,

seen everywhere
we are    and where we
are not,

sealed doorway
unused doorstep
subway hallway

Sixth to Seventh Avenue
here or there
a bundle of one

or two lies
face aside—no socks,
piss-smell—

we go fast.
We go where
they are not.

They sleep
underground,
trade off safe

for warm
maybe find a
begrimed friend

to trade words with.
That’s not so small
a thing where

they are, and
we are, each one
a grain of gravel

blown into the wind
away     though
there is no

“away”

 

(xii)

Today a white plastic bag
that hangs on the side
of the packed cart

has been torn open as if
by a marauder, man
or dog, for a part of

a sandwich, a few chips,
messed-up food bits, not
much but not theirs.  It’s

not right, even if only
a squirrel or bird
swept down from the scaffold

to eat—not right that
so much goes unprotected.
It’s a street story
 

I read too often, obsessed.
It’s not right—
 

but someone   must   see

 

(xiii)

Saw him at noon at his stash.
He wears skier’s padded clothing
tight, insulated, logo on the sleeve
—action man!—opening a can
or jar, food maybe.
I look away

so he feels safe, maybe—

 

                 (xiv)

Monday 9 p.m. quiet night,

holiday over, few cars
along the avenue

bought a chocolate bar
at the newsstand

on the way home,
tucked it under a flap

in the black tarp.  Groan
UH—UNHH

Good God, he does sleep there—

“just something
for when you wake up”

Felt bad.
Now he feels unsafe—

 

(xv)

Mr. President,

I am an American veteran of wars abroad,
who sleeps concealed as trash
under the scaffold
in the half-coffin I’ve made
outside of your real estate,
my hope for the future not yet quite
turned upside down

On the brick wall of my bedroom
a mural of my neighborhood
painted by P.S. 40 students
displays my protectors:
the school crossing guard
the mothers with strollers
the kids themselves with glasses, backpacks
the streetlight’s yellow pole
commanding “stop!” and “go!” for safety,
the old lady who totters and obeys the law.

The scaffold turns at the corner
onto the avenue where huge trucks roll
food, fuel, appliances toward
the tunnels and bridges that stand
stable in deep waters.  They supply
everyone’s needs.
Your destroyer’s pen,
Mr. President, doesn’t destroy them.
The suppliers are practical, work around
the pasted warnings “Keep out”.
Passersby maintain the sidewalks
on which they walk. The newsstand sells
flowers and The New York Times.
Headlines: women sue, hostile climate,
run for Senate—

Mr. President,
I am an American woman
who sleeps in the building
next to the scaffold, across the street
from Eve the Psychic—$5 readings—and
the Korean full-service laundry.

I am a veteran of hidden wars.
I claim reality as my estate.
I am the other millions.
We read signs.  We clean fully.

A rain-cloud is rising over your golf course, Mr. President—
“Look!
We are coming through—”

January 12-February 5, 2018


Traverse by Jane Augustine, published by Dos Madres Press,
copyright © 2021. Video, Jane Augustine reading from Traverse, YouTube, 10 April 2022, copyright © 2022. Excerpts reprinted here by persimmon of the author and the publisher.


Traverse
Jane Augustine
Collected poems 1969-2019

To buy a copy of Traverse, visit https://www.dosmadres.com/shop/traverse-by-jane-augustine.

Bios

Jane Augustine is a poet, critic, short story writer, visual/sound poetry performance artist, and scholar of women in modernity. Born in Berkeley, California, in 1931, she has published seven books of poetry, including High Desert and Traverse (2021), both from Dos Madres Press. She is the editor of The Mystery by H.D. (2009) and The Gift by H.D.: The Complete Text (1998; pb 2021), and author of numerous essays on modern and contemporary poets including H.D., Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, William Bronk, and Robert Duncan. She has taught at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn; New York University and The New School in Manhattan; and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She lives with her husband, the poet and critic Michael Heller, in Manhattan and Westcliffe, Colorado. 

Cynthia Hogue’s most recent collections are Revenance, listed as one of the 2014 “Standout” books by the Academy of American Poets, and In June the Labyrinth (2017). Her tenth collection, instead, it is dark, will be out from Red Hen Press in June of 2023. Her third book-length translation (with Sylvain Gallais) is Nicole Brossard’s Distantly (Omnidawn 2022). Her Covid chapbook is entitled Contain (Tram Editions 2022). Among her honors are a Fulbright Fellowship to Iceland, two NEA Fellowships, and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets (2013). She served as Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day for September (2022), sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Hogue was the inaugural Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She lives in Tucson.

Indu Varma is a New Brunswick based multi-media artist. Born and brought up in India, she immigrated to Canada in 1969. After a teaching career of 37 years, she pursued her interest in art by enrolling in the visual arts program and graduated with a degree from Université de Moncton in 2016. Her Indian heritage and Indian culture are very much a part of her Indo-Canadian identity, reflected in practically every aspect of her life and art. For more, visit https://www.saltmarshstudio.ca and https://www.induvarma.com

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