Empty Benches – Brief Poems by Chris Agee

agee_chris

Chris Agee (born 18 January 1956, in San Francisco) is a poet, essayist and editor and photographer. He holds dual American and Irish citizenship, and has spent most of his adult life in Ireland. He also spends part of each year at his house on the Dalmatian island of Korčula in Croatia. He was educated in the United States where he attended Harvard University and studied with the poet and translator, Robert Fitzgerald. After graduating in 1979 with a degree in American Literature and Language, he moved to Ireland where he has lived ever since. Agee intended to stay only a year or two in Ireland, but by the mid-eighties his residence in Belfast had become permanent. Between 1979 and 2007 he worked in various capacities as a teacher in Belfast. Since then, he has worked full-time as Editor of Irish Pages: A Journal of Contemporary Writing, one of Ireland’s premier literary journals (which he founded in 2002), as well as in a freelance literary capacity, including as a reviewer for The Irish Times.

Chris Agee is the author of three books of poems, In the New Hampshire Woods (The Dedalus Press, Dublin, 1992), First Light (The Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2003) and Next to Nothing (Salt, Cambridge, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, funded by the Poet Laureate and organised by the Poetry Society in London.

 

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Empty Benches – The art of the elegy

Elegies for adults tend to length. Witness, for example, Henry King on his wife in The Exequy; Milton on Edward King in Lycidas, Shelley on Keats in Adonais, Tennyson on Arthur Hallam in In memoriam A. H. H., or Yeats, on the son of a friend, in his In Memory of Major Robert Gregory. Elegies for children tend to brevity. Witness, for example,  Ben Jonson’s On My First Son, Robert Herrick’s Epitaph Upon a Child that died, Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, or X. J. Kennedy’s lovely Little Elegy for a child who skipped rope. The poems in his third collection Next to Nothing which Chris Agee wrote on the death of his daughter, Miriam, who died suddenly in 2001, at the age of four, of complications following a volvulus of the fundus, are also brief. But they eschew the tiny formality of the latter poets in favour of what he has called micro-poems. He explains the genesis of these poems here

9781844715602_largeIn addition to individual poems and several sequences, Next to Nothing includes a section entitled “Heartscapes”, which consists of 59 “micro-poems”, as I call them. Many of these are extremely short; most were written during the very bleak and soul-sick year of 2003; and the whole section (with one poem per page) will take no more than thirty minutes to read, and indeed can be read with ease by any general intelligent reader, whatever their familiarity with or experience of poetry. Swiftness of effect was, in fact, part of the intention and fidelity; the challenge here as throughout the book was to record true and deep “heart-feeling” (as opposed to the “feeling” of sensibility, apperception, historical moment, etc.) – that most delicate of poetic material, owing to the swiftness of emotion itself. For once, I think I can say that these poems wrote themselves, in the sense of my being a quite passive amanuensis caught up in pain rather than any sort of instigator – drawing on the habit of technique belonging to what had become a previous life, whilst suddenly also bereft of belief in the poetic outcome compared to the apocalypse of the loss itself – that is to say, the textual as “next to nothing”, in several distinct senses, like Matisse’s sparest line-drawings in a sea of blank space . . .

Chris Agee has called these poems, twenty of which I have reproduced below, “title-less” with the opening line in a different font. However I prefer to see them as poems with traditional titles leading into and included in the subsequent poem. On this reading Incommunicable becomes a devastating title without a poem conveying the enormity of a grief which he described as like a concentration camp. One day they let you out and there you are on the road in your big, grey coat of grief. I’ve been walking that road for six years and the camp, the grief, is always still there behind me. What is remarkable is the breadth of that grief, encompassing even political comment, conveyed in so few words. Shock and awe is one such political poem where the pity and sorrow extend outward. In a prefatory note to the collection he writes,  The dates given in “Heartscapes” refer to the moment of genesis and not necessarily of composition. I have included these dates beneath the poems.

 

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Brief Poems by Chris Agee

I wish

to live
near
the coffin
of small details

Written in sleep
12 January 2003
(Miriam’s birthday)

***

The word

Death
so old
there is no
first
etymology

14 January 2003

***

According

to Amichai
God is
change
and Death
is His
prophet

14 January 2003

***

Pain

like love’s
Doppler Effect
a sudden onrush
of a passing
memory

21 January 2003

***

Still stunned

I gaze
through the glass
of the barber’s
balancing
on the edge
between the wound’s
wellspring
and the stilled surface
of living

St Brigid’s Day 2003

***

Your face

swims
in the window
where I wave
at the childminder’s
new child

4 February 2003

***

The worst

of the worst
was when
I lifted each lid
and saw
the blue eyes
I loved
more than life
stilled forever
on the splattered bed

3 March 2003

***

Incommunicable

4 March 2003

***

Shock and awe

or better
pity and sorrow
for the boy
with the back of his head
blown off

31 March 2003

***

Birdsong

at dawn
like a far-off
heavenly
music
of the dead

4 April 2003
(Miriam’s deathday)

 

empty-benches-in-garden-during-autumn-season

 

In the end

you still
live
in me
like clouds
in a vernal pond
whose sky
has vanished

Massachusetts
13 April 2003

***

The once

seamless
blue
now rent
with the contrail
of sorrow’s shining
cicatrix

Massachusetts
15 April 2003

***

Its life

is ending
blossom of
horsechestnut
that dripped
on my cheek
from a bough
high above

Washington, DC
6 May 2003

***

Sick

sick
sick
each dawn
as if
I bide
my time
unto Death

Washington, DC
7 May 2003

***

The empty bench

rotted
on the dock
where my father sat
where you sat
the same light
trembling
in the corner
before your
coffin came

Squam Lake, New Hampshire
30 May 2003

***

Winter sun

low
and blinding
over the place
of your funeral
at the end
I’ll be glad
to go
into
its helium glow

1 December 2003

***

Winter moon

Islam’s silver
sliver
depleted
to its bright
scoop’s
nothingness
of memory

December 2004

***

Reading

the Obituaries
I always look
for
the great
achievement
of children

5 March 2005

***

I missed

your stellata
this year
only a baker’s
dozen were left
one still
with the ghost
of a fragrance

6 April 2005

***

Here

not here
is
the one
truth

Dublin
27 May 2005

 

From Next to Nothing, by Chris Agee,  copyright © 2009 by Chris Agee. Reprinted by permission of the author and the publishers, Salt Publishing. All rights reserved.

 

 

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LINKS

The website for Chris Agee.

An interview with Chris Agee on the poems in Next to Nothing.

Robert Peake reviews Next to Nothing.

Chris Agee reads his poetry and explains his view of micro-poems.

An interview with Chris Agee in the Strathclyde Telegraph.

The Salt Publishing page on Next to Nothing.

 

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