Practice on Mountains
The 2013 Sawtooth Poetry Prize winner, selected by Dan Beachy-Quick.
In a long-form poetry that tirelessly makes its case for its own heritage, Practice on Mountains documents a striving lover through eight weeks of various literatures, reflections, and desires. The poems and translations in this book value experience—the lived poem. The metaphysic of the literary love affair leads to its beautiful, chaotic, thoughtful pile of lyrical musings. Wallace Stevens writes, “it is not the reason / That makes us happy or unhappy. The bird sings.” H.D., Thoreau, Li Po, Pound, classic country hymns, Glenn Gould, and the poet’s friends are called on, among many others, in the reckless appropriations that provide for such a poetry.
Four: Quixote in the Bedroom
The sixteenth century collapsed into one bronze Don Quixote
around the corner.
He so immersed himself in those romances that he spent whole
days and nights over his books.
Permit me be bold in these ways. Permit me some knighterrantry.
Permit me harvest eyes like two folding moons.
I want to make classic beauty, to elope into it.
Elope from the sixteenth century French, abscond, run away.
But before that from the Norman Anglican, to leap.
I want to elope from where there is no tradition into a tradition
and then out again, the sweaty grip of tradition.
There is no wandering in search of chivalrous adventures for
There is the dim lit home collapsing all space between two
people like two folding moons sitting in opposite chairs like two
. . .
. . .
I have never been very good at describing the ways my lover
There seems no act that more exaggerates the insufficiencies of
both lyricism and realism.
I have tried to narrate her motion her eyes her face, but
searching, I find alone snapshots that are alone and by the way
and in third person.
The gross move that occurs in literature, the desperate default of
I finally said it.
. . .
She brings one knee up to her chest. A little.
I bill and coo.
Copyright © 2014 by David Bartone
“‘I cannot believe I am interested in this method of speaking,’ writes Bartone, in his first full-length collection. Method, here, involves balancing statement with astonishment, fact with question, fragment with completion: ‘What’s worth most?// The worth must be telling.’ Unsurprisingly, at the core of this book is a troubled love, but Bartone has invented a kind of hermeneutics as poetic confession, which more than freshens the subject. ‘I will continue to pursue her because I am weak, though now both she and I know the peak of our capacity to care for each other is behind us, and I guess we are preparing to discover a beauty in that.’ Echoing George Oppen in fragmentation and appropriation, Bartone is ‘not threatened by excerptibility’ in the 10 multi-sectioned poems that comprise this gripping book, where relationships to language, lovers, and the reader (whom he terms ‘beautiful friend’ throughout) are equally urgent, beautiful, and troubling: ‘Once again the tone has been exhausted before the form has// ... Not a bad understanding of the twentieth century.’ Rather than becoming detrimentally self-conscious, Bartone’s hyperawareness of the self that makes art in a world that makes absurdity spurs a sharp analysis of method—though never at the expense of emotion—to fashion a testament to poetry that is inexhaustible.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The cast-off lover of a married woman, the speaker calls on his analytical and imaginative capabilities, as reader and as poet, as he comes to terms with the end of an intense affair. While the poems are connected to the social world (through love, lust, and friendship) the mind behind them is in the midst of a refractory period—at times stunned, remote, and wounded in some fundamental way.
“Informed by the Modernist sensibilities of Stein and Faulkner, the poems are also rich with the homophonic wordplay, indirection, and disconnection inherent in East Asian kōans, building an interesting conglomerate of Western and Eastern poetic approaches. Grief, creating a language of its own, maps the communications of despair and repair. Often the lines read as fragmented answers to queries only the speaker hears, leaving the reader to infer what those questions might be, as in the poem, ‘Slippage Is a Privilege Theme,’ when the speaker, seemingly unprovoked, replies, ‘About one year ago. Like a Beatrice moment.’” —Laurie Saurborn Young at americanmicroreviews.com
“Epic, aphoristic, poem-touched, poem-filled, Practice on Mountains is a chronology of a love affair, a lifetime of needing poetry to make sense of things, an homage to William C. Williams, Augustus, Melville, Thoreau, Dante, Cervantes, Li Po, Basho, Hart Crane, Yeats, Blake, Shelley, Byron, H.D., and others, a poetic journal and a spiritual journey, combining poetry and prose, certainty and uncertainty, relinquishing ravishments of brain and soul and heart and time's little care for us. This book takes being a reader into the drama of a story that’s essential and heart-breakingly impossible.” —Dara Wier
“To read David Bartone’s Practice on Mountains is to stand in a rare position. Voyeur, confidant, enabler, and ‘beautiful friend’—we are in all these roles and more over the distance of this gorgeous book, an exhilarating account of what it means to be intimate, or what it means to be a reader, which might just be the same thing under Bartone's generous gaze.” —Paul Lisicky
“David Bartone’s first book offers a vivifying and deeply intelligent addition to the literature of longing; it should be read alongside Dante’s Vita Nuova and the work of Marguerite Duras. In its inconsolable devotion, in its faith in linguistic transfiguration, Practice on Mountains is audacious, acrobatic, and rapturously reverent to the serene tumult of insistent and ancient innocence. I have read this book many times—each time, I have been altered by its ardent chronicle of frequencies Blake knew, Thoreau knew, the most significant mornings continually know.” —Zach Savich
“Beautiful friend, beautiful reader, let us carry the weight of these remarkable poems together; let us learn the lines by heart and ‘enter again the etcetera moment,’ bearing Bartone’s genius up the mountain. Let us listen patiently as Bartone—a rambling man, a threadbare soul, an earnest and frightful lover—struggles toward ‘plain put, a way that is not wayward,’ while offering wisdom from the wound that is faith’s failure. In Practice on Mountains you will encounter confession as communion, confusion and doubt as evidence of principle, and closeness as a vast and insurmountable, spectacular but terrible distance.” —Caryl Pagel
“Preoccupied with love, faith, desire, logic, shame, joy, and poetry itself, this conversation we find ourselves in the middle of enacts all of these necessary orbits at once, a hybrid text for the hybrid mind. Meaningfully reminiscent of Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Practice on Mountains arrives complete and on its own terms. Not content simply to spark the connection between the author’s mind and the reader’s mind, this electric space—this invention—is the very home the book inhabits.”—Lisa Olstein
Toms River, New Jersey, no apostrophe, is where I’m from. It is across the bay from Lavallette, where we lived when I was born in a good year. The town is famous, in my lifetime, for the certain swell of cancer incidents among youth, following from a Ciba-Geigy contamination in the water supply, for winning the little league baseball world series, and for public corruption by the school superintendent. Toms River historians—there are few—bicker over its namesake: I’ve heard a ferryman named Thomas Luker; I’ve heard a Native American called Tom. I don’t know. Point is, I am much more interested in this tidbitting about the place now, some 15 years after having lived there, than I ever was then, a testament to this awful habit of applying current interests to past experiences.
After a Bachelor’s in History at Boston University and some additional spirited years in that spirited city, I moved to Pontiac, Michigan, and lived, like everyone else, according to its choke of impossibility and corresponding imagination. I mostly split backyard firewood and had grand, searching thoughts. I lived in a 1840s Victorian with a bunch of ceramicists, metal-smiths, and sculptors who practiced at Cranbrook Academy of Art. It is important for me to be around people always making things, and I miss those years.
I went to Vermont Studio Center and Atlantic Center for the Arts; they were formative for me. And then my MFA studies at UMass Amherst, with Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, James Tate, and Lisa Olstein, offered me more than I could have expected. Many occasions for the occasional poet, many inspirations for the inspirational (both of which I am)—I will try to name some in my author statement.
During my years at the MFA Program for Poets and Writers, it was endless opportunities, mostly with the amazing poets also making poetry there. Anne Cecelia Holmes and I became the sometime makers of handmade broadsides as Grommet Press. Jeff Downey, Zach Savich, and I made Microfilme Magazine One. I continue to help organize the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, previously as assistant director, now as a pair of hands. I have written a blog for Kenyon Review, and my poems, prose, and translation appear variously. I have taught classes in food-writing, creative writing, and rare forms. Now, I am faculty at University Without Walls at UMass Amherst, where I teach experiential learning and writing, and I advise adult learners.
Happy enough to have lived like this, I am also thankful to be alive in a rather generous, exciting time of poetry—a poetics cropping up that seem to err on the side of faith, a fondling of immediacy, a figuring of it out later. The belief that one’s beliefs will provide enough. Or maybe I’m describing a historical problem of our country. And why shouldn’t the visionary be merely reactionary?
Somewhere, I should like to add, also, I am over the moon that Dan Beachy-Quick, whose work I have long reverence for, selected my manuscript for the Sawtooth.
Just yesterday I moved with my partner Marissa and her son Oliver to a little ranch at the foot of Mt. Tom in Easthampton, MA, and the sun bleeds it now. Soon I’ll owe it a good tour.
on the grass the flower the spray
where they lie eating primroses
grown crazy with sorrow & all
the beauties of old
I wanted to write a book of experience. If what poetry offers is a more living language, as it does, let me say experience and mean it variously and newly and also in those old high ways—spiritual, emotional, literary.
Emerson begins his grief-stricken essay on the subject: “Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.” Auden suggests a practice in his “daydream College for Bards”: “Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.” There are Blake’s Songs, and I think of Sappho’s direct addresses as notably experiential. On the long tradition of experience, such as it is marked by trying and by trials, the most I can do is remind myself that the willing participant is a practitioner—and I should carry on with vigor and folly, that I might achieve somewhere a single, good moment.
I keep my little notebooks filled with the quotes, images, and tra-la-las of other writers. I look to track these to where they have an earthly home. My walks may be minor in any but a personal context, but sometimes I feel I understand the exact time of day, the spirit of a season, the temperature, whatever, enough to know that pilgrimage is the most compelling reading. On September 29, 2010 at about 4pm—it had rained in the morning, it was warm, upper-70s—everything was available for me to imagine this simple, insignificant passage from Melville’s The Piazza, which I must have been on that day: “Pausing at the threshold, or rather where threshold once had been, I saw, through the open door-way, a lonely girl, sewing at a lonely window.”
In New England, one is only ever a few miles from a wood that contains the possibility for such a house. In Amherst, Ma, a half-mile from a little cape I was renting when I wrote Practice on Mountains, there is a trail that heads southwest along the orchard grass and timothy. About forty minutes in, you will find a mostly-cleared brickyard with a stone house foundation on an overgrown plot hidden now in the thick. The lonely window, the threshold, the seamstress. The only thing in the scene not lonely, it would seem to me, is the girl’s love affair, which I admit I would probably invent to give me a little pleasure on my walk. How the plainest sights prove home to the lyrical Olympics of the imagination. It’s a sort of reckless documentary—the recreational pilgrimage—meant to value experience, a living for making poetry, cruel as that can be.
But this is said backward-looking. I talk so much about ambulation and writing, but Practice on Mountains was written during a period where I remained almost entirely on the couch. It was a heart-swept, vivid autumn, though I had lived it idly.
I remember initially I sat to try something simple—after a few years of writing the monstrous musical lyrics that seem to bend me to them, I wanted to be able to write a single, good sentence. I wanted to make, as James Galvin once said, “some foray into a craft I know nothing of—prose.” I began with a few starter-kit tools: earnestness, palpability, and a half-baked notion of faith, and I wrote the first line: “I don’t write poems that much anymore and so I must apologize if I am unable to express.” More sentences rendered the form into its fragmentary mode, its accumulated arc.
At the time, I had been studying rare forms and incipits and epigrams and Dickinson’s letters and 19th century New England cookbooks and travelogue and Basho and Sora and Niedecker and Merrill Gilfillan and Bernadette Mayer and Hawthorne and the cultural identity of Nebraska and translation of classical Chinese text. I remember my students were plenty good that semester—we went on expeditions, and we, in Richard Kenney’s phrase, “confirmed a quantity of Latin.”
You see, when I was writing Practice on Mountains, I had been falling in the hardest steps of lasting love, and you know what that can do. When the biggest obsessions are not yet ordinary to your own heaving self, good intentions do the rawest shredding, their aphorisms worth tossing over, taking apart. It’s dangerous to let your life to language, the dog’s toy, and I found it worth it.