by Nola Garrett
I have a low pleasure threshold. I suppose another way to say this would be that I’m easily amused, as if I were living my life as a playful cat. This winter I’ve especially enjoyed watching falling snow here from the condo’s windows when the air currents surrounding this building caused the flakes to fall up. I find it intriguing to see how snow transforms Mt. Washington’s cliff side into stacked deckle edge book pages, depicting Pittsburgh’s geological stories. I’m still savoring my morning walk a week ago from Grant Street down Forbes Avenue when with my every step the snow softly squeaked. I know that I’m blessed to be retired, so I don’t have to drive every day no matter how snowy the roads become. Not commuting, too, is a pleasure: another reminder that I’m living a cat’s life, though my years as a tenured English professor gave me great pleasure with only occasional grief.
Beyond the stages of healing, grief, I’ve found, does have its simple pleasures such as learning to live alone. I’ve slowly transformed my living space into a place cleared of painful reminders and kept what soothes me. I’ve added an additional desk, a pair of floor lamps, a red velvet back pillow, a down comforter, plants, a plant stand, and lace curtains. I eat when and what I want to eat—lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and oatmeal. The oatmeal has been something of a surprise that’s taken me a long time to understand.
Some of my earliest memories with my brother Joel are watching Mom cook oatmeal for our breakfast. Joel and I came up with a phrase to describe the emerging tiny steam explosions dotting the boiling oatmeal’s surface, “bubble stankers.” Though our phrase was faintly naughty, Mom never objected the same way she always would if we said “belly button” which made saying “bubble stankers” all the more delicious. Further, Mom always cooked oatmeal with raisins just for her and us kids, because Dad refused to eat any breakfast that didn’t consist of at least fried eggs and meat. Dad weighed 300 pounds; Mom 117. Gradually, I came to understand that serving oatmeal for breakfast was Mom’s quiet declaration of independence—her version of a low pleasure threshold. I’ve taken oatmeal a few steps further by adding white raisins, currants, or a selection of Jumbo Mixed raisins and eating it for lunch or even dinner.
Nearly forty years later, I encountered Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Oatmeal” even before he published it in his 1990 book, WHEN ONE HAS LIVED A LONG TIME ALONE. I immediately elevated “Oatmeal” to my poetry’s Top 10. It seems to me that though that poem is not his book’s title poem, it is the real heart of that collection. Kinnell’s “Oatmeal” speaker and John Keats who joins him for a breakfast porridge initially take a less enthusiastic approach to their breakfast cereal:
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness
to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.
Keats then goes on to explain his composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” and to relate his poem’s lack of unity to eating oatmeal alone. (Only halfway through reading “Oatmeal” at this point I was laughing so hard I cried.) Kinnell recounts
[Keats] still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move
forward with God’s reckless wobble.
After breakfast Keats recited “To Autumn” and then off-handedly gave credit for two of that ode’s most memorable images to a view of an oat field and to eating oatmeal alone. Lots of poets at that point would rest on their laurels, but not Galway Kinnell. He takes the poem further, gives a critical jab to Patrick Kavanagh by inviting him to eat oatmeal and presents the poem’s readers another line, a line that has somehow helped me to accept “God’s reckless wobble” and its relationship with my own grief:
Maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.
Like Galway Kinnell, I’ve come to enjoy eating oatmeal alone, and I’m willing to give him and his poems some of the credit for my easy pleasure.
Poems by George Bilgere
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
The world George Bilgere represents in his sixth collection, Imperial, tight-ropes the simple with the complex. Bilgere’s voice—casual, matter-of-fact, and vaguely amused—edges at the last second with anxiety and denial. His poems, an empire of “Yard Sale,” “Fly Balls,” “Prostate Exam,” simultaneously mix with the metaphysics and mythology of what Bilgere attributes to the “beautiful ordinariness.” Among these pages occurs a combustion of universes. The stars collide on the heels of our feet, galaxy light-years rush us slowly through the decades, away from the youth of yo-yo’s and the Cold War, into the final battle with old age. This proves fitting, for even among the grandiose “It would be normal life, / which threatens at all times to overwhelm us.”
The convergence of universes is found most prominently in “Scorcher.” The setting: an after-dinner walk during summer twilight. The heat of day folds into the damp cloth of night, the birds asleep, the lightning bugs aglow. The poem’s action is close to motionless, the neighbors “mystical and obscure,” and the walkers awed by the brilliant strangeness of humanity amidst the vastness. Bilgere narrates the scene with a slow affection, ends the poem on a bird’s-eye view:
“for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.”
Here, Bilgere shows that the world of our planet is only an arm on a child galaxy. Throughout the collection, Bilgere constantly reminds us of our place, and while his tone never veers towards anger, there appears an air of pointedness, as if Bilgere himself has uttered with his pencil tip, we need perspective.
This happens in “Mexican Town.” The poem is quick in comparison, especially against the pace of “Scorcher.” No time to appreciate, to dive into the culture, and here craft matches intent: to reveal America’s under- appreciation of an extrinsic, natural world, free from the technology that consumes our current age. The final stanza sums it up, the brevity obvious,
“The boys go down to the beach
and play futbol in the sand.
At sunset they race each other
into the surf. It’s sad.”
Perhaps due to the sadness that comes with the loss of connectedness in our modern world, Bilgere’s speaker is reluctant to move forward. In “Jane,” the speaker witnesses the old woman across the street pack in preparation for “a home of some sort. A facility.” While the speaker talks with Jane, the only real information provided in regards to her is the fact that she is old and must move to accommodate such aging. The word facility repeats five times within six stanzas. A white-knuckle denial lives inside the speaker,
“…I have no intention of doing so.
What Jane is doing—growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility…”
Instead, Bilgere circles the past around his tongue, writes about youth in the 1950’s with Stan Musial and Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo’s, the horrors of war and the atom bomb through the lens of new toy technology. This way the past, barely, looks better than the future.
In “Traverse City,” the speaker reflects on the days spent with family by the lake, “The tiny cottages on the shore are still there.” The appearance of the lake and beach, and even the children playing on the shore is cyclical. This physical preservation of the past fogs the speaker’s ability to solidify the procession of time. In one of the more moving stanzas in Bilgere’s collection he demonstrates the bewilderment of time passing, of growing old:
“My sisters are middle-aged women,
children and divorces behind them.
I am older than my father ever was.
Yet there are the cottages and the beach
where we played with our buckets and shovels,
as the children on the sand are playing now.
No one can explain this.”
In addition to the individual loss Bilgere’s speaker experiences, a cultural loss brims to the surface. The art of language fails in this new America. “Yard Sale” finds volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica soaking on a card table in the rain. Bilgere writes, “It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old./ That’s because it was only used a couple of times.” The days of needing physical books to discover information are long gone.
“Attic Shapes,” also hints towards the loss of language when the speaker stores his dissertation, for the second time, in the attic. The hours spent studying Keats, and the years living a lifestyle that would make the Romantics proud, become boxes collecting with dust. The language that fueled the past has given way to the “beautiful ordinariness,” a world in perspective. Maybe, though, reason backs the evolution of days, the future not entirely lost, because on second look we’ll find
“a time too painful with hopeless yearning,
and too beautiful with poetic self-pity,
and generally too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,
either to hear again or ever throw away.”
by John Samuel Tieman
Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly.
– Richard Wright
Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. I am really looking forward to meeting whomever it was you were talking about.
I may well be the least likely poet in the world to give a lecture on composition. I sometimes think I have these mutually exclusive frames, in which people know me as one thing but not the other. Some know me as a certified middle school and high school teacher. Others as a university lecturer. Some as an obscure historian. Others as a minor poet. To the extent that anyone knows me at all, I’m probably best recognized for my political commentaries. A few folks know my scholarly essays about educational psychology. My beloved wife is a highly regarded psychoanalyst, so in some crowds I’m Phoebe’s husband. To some I’m Mr. Tieman, and to others I’m Dr. Tieman. Some know me as a Vietnam veteran; some know me as a peace activist. I don’t know – maybe I’m simply a highly accomplished dilettante.
My point being that my writing, frankly, is just one aspect of my life. An important one, don’t get me wrong. I identify myself as a writer, as a poet and an essayist. And as an educator. And as an historian. As a war veteran. As a scholar. As a loving husband. As a Roman Catholic, for that matter. All that. And more.
In any case, you asked. Let me begin by saying that I am not going to be didactic. Too many good writers have written eloquently on this subject. (What does one say after Phillip Sidney’s An Apology For Poetry, Richard Hugo’ s The Triggering Town, John Ciardi’s How Does A Poem Mean?) But you asked. Therefore, I will tend toward the impressionistic, and the vaguely autobiographical.
Let me begin with a poem about poetry.
I’ve never written a poem
that said what I meant
one means as much as shrapnel
one means as little as ink
I wish I had wisdom
instead I have lines
silent as a blackboard in summer
loud as a glacier breaking away
I’ve never known a poem
to stay where I left it
a prisoner climbing a fence
a landing light in the sky—–
I sometimes think I wasted decades looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.
mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light
I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again
That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young. I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday –
in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …
Sometimes a poem takes decades.
Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”
And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Howard’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.
This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched as “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s much more like wwwwhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.
I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.
I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself. Perhaps my memories of Howard put me in mind of W. B. Yeats’ “After Long Silence”, the echo of which can be found in this poem –
Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.
I’ve been influenced by many other poets.
St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal
the leaflet says Emile Nelligan once prayed here
horrified and solar and pale
dementia like an ice violin
a vein where no one finds gold
what did you see when you saw Jesus
a rag doll a neon eclipse Baudelaire
fantastic nostrils sudden birds
psalms sung by orphans
nearly fifty years in a hospital and
I envy you, Emile Nelligan, envy you composing
the same poem every morning and every morning
When my wife Phoebe and I vacationed in Montreal a few years ago, I was amazed at how little I knew about Canadian poetry. We went to Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I read in a brochure that Emile Nelligan was baptized there. Without explanation, it read “Nelligan” like I should just know him. He is considered the Arthur Rimbaud of Canada. Schools and libraries are named after him. Like Rimbaud, he stopped writing in his late teens, in Nelligan’s case at the onset of schizophrenia. Emile Nelligan spent the rest of his life, the next forty-two years, in a hospital. And became a legend.
Here’s a poem Nelligan wrote. His poem is from a notebook found on him just after he had the schizophrenic episode that landed him in the hospital. For a little over two months in the summer of 1899, he wandered the streets of Montreal, sleepless, reciting scraps of poetry, haunted by the dementia he recorded in that notebook. I’ve often thought that this poem speaks to us directly from the dementia, and, perhaps, comes as close as one can to expressing what Jacques Lacan calls “the real”. I follow his poem with my humble effort.
He wrote –
And now I dream of shadows stained with blood,
Proud prancing steeds; the sounds I hear
Are like children’s coughs, cries of tramps’ despair,
Death-rattles of the slowly dead.
Where are they from, those horns that blare and blow,
Snare-drum or fife in noisy wars?
It could be said that through the town, hussars
Gallop with sea-green helms aglow.
I wrote —
Vision, 3 AM
And now I dream of a certain shadow stained
glass creates, of a procession and its priest,
of children softly coughing, of pews.
Where are they from, the psalms and antiphons,
the incense and The Seven Sorrows,
the nun who prays, “Let us pray”?
It could be said, of a certain Catholic
orphanage, that deacons in purple stoles
lead the Stations Of The Cross.
What I love about writing is the process. Good poem or no, good essay or not, I love to sit at my desk, stare out the window at, today, the snow, knowing that I have a warm cup of coffee, a brilliant and sexy wife, and, if I’m lucky, a good idea.
I am in perfect agreement with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the artistic process comes out of the same place as play. I have never been one to suffer over writing. My wife is an insightful writer. I love my wife, but there is a certain way in which I don’t understand her, or anyone, who suffers as she does with writing. If I found it unpleasant, I wouldn’t do it.
One of the mysteries of my marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft
and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly
clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.
For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision begins with bloodshed.—–
I have no great lessons to impart, nothing large that I’ve learned in life. If angst is a lesson, I’ve learned a lot about that. I am glad I was a professional musician before I was a writer. Music taught me patience and practice. My wife was surprised when I told her that, as a classically trained musician, I often spent the first hour of each day simply playing long tones – one note held for, say, half a minute – scales and chords. All this before I ever opened a sheet of music.
I’m also glad I was a bachelor for forty years. That also taught me about practice, patience and rejection.
Tieman’s Rule Number One: Being an artist is no excuse for being a wanker.
I’ve known poets who were really nice. I know poets who are doting parents, and poets who have sexually abused children. I’ve known poets who are lawyers, and I’ve known poets who are felons. I can’t count the alcoholic poets I’ve known. What seems to unite these poets is a love, indeed a need, for the word. That’s about it, at least as near as I can tell.
But about that dissipation.
More than for his athletic prowess, considerable though it was, Stan Musial is remembered for his simple decency. Bob Costas tells of a night with Stan, Stan’s wife Lil, and Mickey Mantel. “The Mick” vowed to stay sober for the evening, so as not to embarrass himself before Stan and Lil. Later, after the Musials left, Mantel said to Costas, “I had as much ability as Stan. Maybe more. Nobody had any more power than me. Nobody could run faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret I live with.”
In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized. In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy. I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles. I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me. There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with. Throughout all that I was an artist. I just wish I had been a better person. I thank God I got better with age. I became a better person, and, because of that, I became a better writer.
Sometimes it helps me to remember my favorite Bible passage, the 38th Chapter of Job, the one where God finally responds to Job by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. … Can you lift your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?”
A few folks have asked how, with my busy work schedule, do I manage to find time to write? A lot of the time, frankly, I don’t find the time. It’s the price I pay for a pension, the price I pay that my wife and I might have a dental plan. Someone once said to me, “If you a good teacher, then you often go home tired.” I must be the best freaking teacher in the world. There have been days when I’ve pulled into the garage, turned-off the car, and have fallen asleep right there.
I love Japan, its people and its culture. I spent four years as a Buddhist, and spent about a month in a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. I fell in love with Akiko Yosano, a feminist known for her tanka. I love the way she combines sexuality and spirituality.
Tanka and haiku provided a solution to a nagging problem. Often I would begin a poem and, because of my schedule, I’d write a line here, a line there, all this over the course of maybe a month. But if, after that month, I thought the poem sucked, if it seemed, as it often was, choppy, then – WHAM – there went January.
Thus began my romance with haiku and tanka. They’re short enough that I can scratch a line here, there, and have a poem done in a day. This form also fits in nicely with an aesthetic that influenced me when I was young, the epigram, especially the epigrams of Martial, Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal. In any case, Akiko Yosano and my wife inspired this one —
when you stepped out
of the shower this morning
I kissed you long
enough for you to leave
wet impressions on my shirt T
Here’s a line by Ernesto Cardenal that haunted me for decades. It’s not in his Epigramas; it’s from “Managua 6 PM”, but it is epigrammatic –
Y si he dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
Which I’ll translate as –
And if asked to give testimony over my era
it’s this: It was barbaric and primitive
Cardenal’s emphasis on the poetic and the political inspired this tanka of mine –
if asked to judge
my age I’d say we wasted
our best years on war
from Nam to Iraq we saw
the whole world through sniper scopes
Occasionally I can still find time to write a full-length poem.
I asked Andre how he felt after yesterday’s professional development. “It wasn’t especially soul crushing.” This was his idea of something good to say.
That said, we spent the entire morning pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andre keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.
I usually write poetry at these meetings. It looks like I’m taking notes. Like this one, for example, which I published not long ago.
7:45 Roosevelt High
it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student
she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness
to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear
and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love
I always liked that poem. I remember needing a name, and, looking up, I saw a name-tag on this woman across from me. I spent some time imagining what her day was like, not that it would be that different from any of the rest of us. Then I noticed a smudge of lipstick on her cuff, and I knew I had my poem. All the stuff about the mother is my own mother, who, at that time, was 101. Also, I do the laundry for my wife and I, so the Tide is mine. I chose the name Roosevelt High because every school district in the U. S. has a Roosevelt High.
But I never got a copy of the poem to Arianna. By the time I published the poem, she had quit.
Thus do I have little wisdom to pass along. Listen to the greats. Have fun with the process. Practice. Find a form that works for you. All that and the simple fact that accomplishment means little without kindness and decency. I got better with age. I became a better writer, because I became a better person. “I, too, went to bed amid the howling of the autumn wind, and awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests … .” So says Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road To The Deep North.
I don’t want to get away without talking about prose.
I write my prose like I write my poetry. When I’m writing for a newspaper or a magazine, I look for good verbs, alliteration, rhythm, all that. In a word, prosody.
I even break my prose paragraphs like I break my poetry lines.
I don’t want to take my audience’s time by reading a whole essay. I think, however, this prose technique comes together, at least for illustrative purposes, in a form I call the modern haibun. In essence, I update and Westernize a Japanese form. I begin with a haiku, go to a prose poem, and finish with a tanka. And while I borrow the form from the Japanese, it really is thoroughly Western in its sensibility. The prose is much more influenced by, say, Michael Benedikt than Matsuo Basho.
a modern haibun
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow
My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.
I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing
“My War”, my memoir in this month’s Vietnam magazine, I’m surprised by the letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — the husband never talks about our war.
in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed
If there is one last thing, and only one last thing, I would wish a young poet, I would wish that poet a great passion. Everything else will follow, the right words, the necessary silence.
That’s it. That’s all I got. That’s what worked for me. Is it is generalizable? I don’t know. I think I’m safe in saying that life is better if you’re not a poetic prick. At least that was my experience. As for the rest, maybe there’s a small something in there somewhere.
Parts of this lecture originally appeared in the following magazines, books, journals and newspapers: The Autumn House Anthology Of Contemporary American Poetry, Coal Hill Review, Mainichi Shimbun, Modern English Tanka, Schools: Studies In Education, and my chapbook of poetry, A Concise Biography Of Original Sin. Ernesto Cardenal’s epigram is taken from his Nueva Antología Poética, published by Siglo V
The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
|Low Ghost Press, 2013
Reviewed by Dakota Garilli
In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.
Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.
Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.
But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.
Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”
Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.
Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is
such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.
We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”
In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”
Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:
Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.
The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”
This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.
And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
Pennsylvania Welcomes You
Poems by Kristofer Collins
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
As a Boston native living in Pittsburgh for the past five years, I’m sympathetic to the belief that a city produces hypnotic powers on the psyche, charms us, provides a geographical ‘tribe’ that continues, no matter where we’ve been, to call us to our home streets. Kristofer Collins’ most recent collection, Pennsylvania Welcomes You, is a tribute to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to those city dwellers who stand like bookmarks against its populated streets. The poems address particular local hotspots, poems titled “BBT” for Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, like publicized love letters. Yet, Collins is steadfast in welcoming his readers into the intimate as he writes, “We can read it together/Exhausted under the sheets, the city spread wide & waiting for our feet.”
Before we reach the poems, the table of contents stands: a column, single-spaced, without page numbers. The titles stack down the page like a skyscraper, tight and together. At times the lack of page numbers causes confusion when searching for a particular poem, but Collins’ artistic choice here seems intentional. Within the collection, each poem is a new street corner, a side-alley window into a different district, a neighboring bar, and so while a lack of direction appears disorienting, it’s not, for we are never truly lost. For the duration of the collection, at least, this is our city too.
Collins’ speaker appears equally content and discontent, which makes it difficult to peg down a tone for the collection, but feels truer to real human emotions. For example, in “Poem Addressed to Jaquelyn Seigle” Collins writes,
“…I’ve spent many
Good days writing poems outside bars
Watching the old neighborhood & the girls
Who live there now.”
There is a wistfulness to these lines, yet not quite a full-faced-nostalgia, for the speaker never claims to regret the way the neighborhood has changed. It’s more a head nod, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and the speaker, regardless, will continue to sit in the same spot and write poems.
There is direct nostalgia in a later poem, titled “The Book of Names”:
“And admittedly I don’t think of you as often as I should
But when I do there is such an ache so much good talk I miss
In our booth at Nico’s splitting pitchers precisely as atoms…”
Here, the speaker is nostalgic for the times of the past, but only when he consciously reflects. This balance teeters throughout the collection, each poem nostalgic, while simultaneously content with the present.
Similar to the balance between contentment and discontentment, there is a balance between localized and common knowledge that rears its head more frequently when intimately discussing a home location. Personally, I assume everyone knows the Boss, Whitey Bulger, and the battle between the Italian North End and the Irish South. After one graduate workshop class, I’ve concluded, this is Bostonian knowledge, with the exception of a few history buffs. Overall, Collins walks this line carefully, successfully, because the emotion of his work is never sacrificed based on location. Still, there are moments where cue words would benefit the outside reader to eliminate possible alienation, especially when it occurs in the first poem of the collection as Collins ends,
“Behind K & L Gates, stroking the Roberto Clemente, fingers
Facile as Anton Karas’ upon this golden zither, I brush the hair
From your eyes at PPG Place and check my teeth for cervelat”
In one breath we are overloaded with Pittsburgh, which five years earlier, would have felt exclusive.
Collins loses me in places, true, like in “Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX,” when after the second stanza there is a sudden spark of violence, “How nervy taking a razor to a stranger’s wrist, drawing/ My heart into that mix. A thief of names is that what I am?” The poems, in places, seem more for those they are dedicated to, for ‘Anna’ and ‘Jonathan Moody’ and ‘Don Wentworth’ and ‘Robert Frank’ to name a few, instead of a wider audience. With these poems there is the distinct sense that I’ve walked into the middle of a conversation on Forbes between old college roommates. On some level, though, there remains a charm to this degree of intimacy, and it’s Collins unflinching dedication to these streets and individuals that keeps me invested.
One of the main elements in Pennsylvania Welcomes You that I found fitting was Collins decision to leave each poem open, lacking end punctuation. It’s a D.A. Powell move, and the way it works in Chronic it works here: the individual flows into a collective. Each moment blends into the next as if the speaker has one foot on each page, balances between times that never truly feel distinct enough to name.
My one hesitation is the amount of exclamation points found throughout the collection. It’s a form of punctuation that, within poetry, always tastes forced.
Even among the exclamation points, it’s hard to overlook Collins’ moments of brilliance, his control of language, with lines such as “Nostalgia creeps up on us like a housecat/Let loose in the yard” “I am tattooing the tatters of your memory into this soggy napkin we call ‘poem’” and “the black sky has got its hat On.” These are the lines that stand like road signs, welcome us into Collins’ world, and make us trust we are among a skilled tour guide.
by Nola Garrett
1. I never saw my grandmother twice with the same colored hair. Instead of the world, she traveled the spectrum— Tahitian Brown, Romanian Gold, Irish Red— without even the pretense of reclaiming tints once hers. I was so embarrassed, my teenaged self was mortified. My grandmother after years of misdagnosis died. Rather than her liver, it was her heart after all, but who could tell? As for myself, one October afternoon when earl snow on my unraked leaves looked like me peering out of my mirror at an old self, I wasn’t quite ready. Yet, my staid self departed on Light Brown # 7. 2. During my afternoon walk, I may have found a geode. Gray, hunched, a little off-center, it could be opened, perhaps to a scatter of sand or to an amethyst vault, or left alone like both my grandmothers. Oh, they married, raised their share of children, but as widows their lives began. Neither was a Mrs.— just Belle and Marie. Belle for a living sewed and mended, reused her basting thread, played church piano, read, bathed at her kitchen sink with multi-colored soap slivers. Marie watched TV evangelists, favored her richest son, dyed her hair a different color every month, window shopped daily, preferred rhinestones and orange. Disliking dogs, sticky children, and old men Belle and Marie each slept away in their small lavender rooms. I smile. I whisper back to them my middle name—Maribel.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
Next month, I will be judging the State Finals for Poetry Out Loud in Iowa. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest where high schoolers choose a selection of canonical poems to perform from the stage to a live audience.
I’ve done judging and coaching for POL in several states, and I’ve given most of my adult life to the study of spoken word. I intend to keep doing this as long as the various state arts councils allow me. I think it’s time I declared my biases and offered some coaching, so competitors know what they’re getting into.
First, a bit of rhetoric. Poets are people. Audiences are people. Poems are tools for disseminating ideas—logical, emotional and ethical—among people.
Who are your people? Who’s in your audience? Regardless of what the author intended (I’m very firmly in the “the author is dead” school), what do YOU intend to get across with this poem? What’s the central conflict/tension of the poem? What’s the core message? If you could assign your audience one “takeaway,” what would it be?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, all the technical performance work in the world can’t help you. Voice, breathing, dynamics, whatever—they are tools, not goals in themselves. They only work when you’re using them do the work of poetry—to get your ideas into somebody else’s head.
Of course, research can make this easier. If you read all the poems POL has to offer, and read them deeply and out loud, eventually you’ll know which poems speak to you best, and can best be translated by you to a live audience. Do not choose based on what you think people will like or what you think sounds like an important poem. Choose with your heart. Which one of these feels like it could/should be yours?
Next, lose the ridiculous distinction between poetry and song. There is none. A spoken poem is a song with particular choices in pitch and timbre. Your choir teacher/vocal coach has just as much to offer in this process as your English teacher, and might be willing to help. Use your resources, and SING!
With these two ideas in mind—1) that poetry comes alive only when it is treated as living communication among real live humans, and 2) that the mechanics of spoken word are breath for breath the same as the mechanics of song—you are ready to begin.
Print out the poem, double or triple spaced. Get a pencil, and mark it up. What are the natural dynamics (louder and softer parts) of this poem? Where does the tone change, and what should your voice/body do to reflect this? Where do you stumble, and need to put in extra work? What’s the core message, and how does each part of this poem contribute?
Remember, the poem should take your audience on a journey. If you read it the same way from beginning to end, the journey won’t be very interesting. Pay attention to what you’re doing in any given moment, how it’s related to all the other moments, and what you’re doing to bring the audience through these moments with you.
Also remember that I asked you to use a pencil. It’s likely your performance will grow and evolve as you practice. Don’t be afraid of this process. Embrace it, and keep pushing for something better. One end writes; the other end erases.
THIS IS THE ONLY ALL CAPS SENTENCE IN THIS ESSAY, BECAUSE I WANT YOU KNOW IT’S IMPORTANT! People don’t like to be yelled at all the time. People don’t even like to be talked to all the time. Have you ever seen a score of sheet music without any pauses?
Take your pencil, and mark all the natural silence in the poem. Remember that the words you’re using are drawn on a canvas of silence. Some poems are busier, some poems are quieter, but all poems have silence in them, and that has to be respected.
Now you’re ready to begin.
Stand up. Make sure there is room around you. Put your arms straight out to your sides, making a “T” with your body.
It is likely you did this with your palms down. Everybody does. In fact, this exercise wouldn’t work if you hadn’t.
Leave your arms where they are, and rotate your thumbs 180°, so that your palms face straight up, and your thumbs point behind you. Push your arms back, following your thumbs, until your hands are just behind the plane of your body.
If you did it correctly, this action should have pushed your sternum up and out, and your shoulders down and back. Whatever happens for the rest of the poem, keep you sternum out and your shoulders back. This is the only way your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to do their job.
Keep your sternum where it is. Lower your arms.
Your body is now prepared to breathe, so breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Take deep, slow breaths. Feel the energy flow in and out of your body, in balance with the air around you.
It’s not actually energy—it’s oxygen—but it has the same effect when you’re delivering a poem.
Now, on an out breath, begin your poem. Pay attention to all the dynamic and tonal markings you made on the page. Keep mind, body and spirit open. You should imagine yourself as an instrument. Don’t mute that instrument. Open.
This will be hard to maintain. I know this, and so does ever other working spoken-word artist on the planet. This is why we rehearse.
Now that you understand the poem, and you’ve begun using your body to correctly sing it, make space in your life to rehearse. Begin rehearsals early, and hold rehearsals often. Get as many live audiences as you can, and find microphones and stages as frequently as possible. The closer your rehearsal is to the actual conditions you’ll perform under, the better.
If there is an all-ages open mic near you, go there. If you happen to write your own poetry, and can find an all-ages poetry slam in your area, go there too. Even if you don’t write, find your local poetry slam, and sit in the audience. You can learn a lot just by watching.
As you rehearse, continuously google “Poetry Out Loud,” “poetry slam,” “spoken word poetry,” etc. Look up the great contemporary artists, like Shane Koyczan, Patricia Smith, Suheir Hammad, Anis Mojgani, and others. Locally, get all the audience you can find, and ask them to reflect back to you what they see, and where you can improve.
If you’re brave enough, record yourself, and watch the tapes.
As with any other sport or art, the more preparation you put into this, the better the results.
And now, at the end, come back to the beginning. When you step out on that stage and see me in the judges chair, when you see all your friends and teachers and their friends and family in the audience, when you see a sea of faces out there all looking back at you, waiting to hear what’s going to come out of your mouth in the next few minutes—remember that we are all human, and that there’s nothing humans want more than a good story.
Use your poem to give us that story.
Gospel of Dust
Poems by Joseph Ross
|Main Street Rag, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
There are a lot of people out there writing poetry, and most of it will be forgotten tomorrow, or maybe even later today. But just a handful of poets might be remembered. Joseph Ross should be one of those poets. Ross writes the poetry of witness. His debut, Meeting Bone Man, is a powerful meditation on mortality and humanity. Ross’ follow up, Gospel of Dust, continues Ross’ investigations while shifting to a humanistic examination of Christian values and beliefs.
“In a Summer of Snipers,” is one of several poems dealing with the Civil Rights movement, and not only the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the fact that many of them knew that they were probably going to be murdered for their actions. Ross shifts to Brazil for “Mothers of the Disappeared” in which he describes the aftermath of political dissidence. Later, Ross considers the murder of David Kato, a Ugandan Gay Rights Activist, and Matthew Shephard:
Though you died
in crisp hospital sheets,
no one believes you
felt them touch your skin.
The last touch your
skin knew was wooden:
a prairie fence, whose wood
was nearly as splintered
These poems appear in a section called “The Human Gospel,” and it’s difficult not to see the connection Ross draws between martyrdom and holiness. These people often carry certain qualities of sainthood, sacrifice being the most obvious, but also the effect they, or their deaths, have had on the zeitgeist. But not enough effect, obviously; something Ross is trying to remedy.
The second section in the book is called “The Pieta Gospel,” though many of the poems in the book could be described as pietas of a sort. Ross begins with Fritz Eichenberg’s “Pieta” and shifts to “American Pieta,” a poem about the photograph of Mary Vecchio kneeling beside Jeffrey Miller who’d been killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. One of the more well-known poems in this section is Ross’s excellent “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God:”
If Mamie Till was the mother
one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.
No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field
would be burned in praise
and their teeth.
If Mamie Till was the mother
every river would be still
so nothing thrown in
could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be
worn as a necklace
If Mamie Till was the mother
every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see
how baptisms are done
Ross’ closing image is especially keen; he’s captured a violent, uncaring world where even God seems oblivious, unaware of just how brutal His world has become.
“The Written Gospel” is Ross’ third section, in which he examines specific biblical instances such as the washing of feet. “The Ritual Gospel” closes out the book with some of Ross’ most powerful poems. Ross established a style of series poems in his first book, and he continues it in this section with poems about Tupac Shakur, for example, in which Shakur is considered as a martyr and even prophet. Cool Disco Dan, the graffiti artist, returns as the subject of a series of poems, as does J. Alfred Prufrock.
What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter. So much of modern arts—from visual arts to writing to music—is nihilistic in its approach, and nihilism simply cannot maintain an audience’s interest because it’s incapable of progress and change. If nothing matters, why should I even pay attention? It’s a masturbatory trap, at best, and something quite sinister (though unintentionally so) at worst. Ross is an antidote to this nihilism, which may seem ironic since his work so often deals with death and suffering.
Joseph Ross is the author of two collections of poetry, Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013). His poetry has earned multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and the 2012 Pratt Library – Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. His poems appear in many anthologies and journals including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Tidal Basin Review, Drumvoices Revue, Poet Lore, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. In 2007, he co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He teaches in the Department of English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at JosephRoss.net
Poems by Jennifer Maier
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
If Jennifer Maier’s second full-length collection, Now, Now, was likened to a type of candy it would be a Hershey’s Special Dark. I say this based on accurate metaphor, not hunger. On first chew, Maier’s poems are delicate, quiet, deliberately fond with a spark of bitter, subtle destruction, as if what is sweet is temporary. It’s a world of the everyday—of Dave the Electrician, paper men cut-outs, and Edith Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome. Yet, in Maier’s collection the tender hand of memory is tainted by the fleeting nature of time, the past relative to the past of this exact moment, suddenly gone, as she writes, “the past,/ once yours, you wouldn’t trade for any other,/ ringed by the past you’re living now—here…” Everything, it appears, ends while it begins.
I once read in my high school journalism textbook each bar of chocolate contains eight insect legs. I imagine the grasshoppers in their sugar comas, ripped apart in sleep by the dessert miners, their tiny spindle bodies not surprised because it happened to their brothers and sisters. A result of their environment, our lives are a balance as Maier explains, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Now, Now is a woman’s middle-aged awakening, the romantics of youth manifest only in nostalgia and time “a collapsible cup.”
The first poem in the three-section collection, “Hangman” brims with tension, foreshadows the fallible future, which carries into each poem of Maier’s. On the surface, a daughter rides shotgun to her father as they drive into town, play hangman on a pad of paper. It seems innocent enough—the word Volcano—the daughter excited to stump, unaware of the real danger as Maier writes, “he can still get it you know he can if he just concentrates,/ so you hand him the bottle, taking the wheel as he leans back, eyes closed, thinking.” The speaker of the poem seems to be positioned outside their car, this moment, as if it has already been lived and in remembering, years later, the speaker sees the warning signs to come. This is achieved, and appears subtle and effortless, through Maier’s balance between the interior and exterior of the vehicle. She weaves, “Then seven spaces underneath,/ like the broken centerline the father will cross when he feels/ under the seat for the bottle…” The speaker is omniscient here, unveils the inevitability of death hanging, in wait, like the penciled circle of the hangman’s head. Her language is suggestive of violence in, “the headlights that slice through the cab like a quick and painless incision” and “the road a running scar through the dense woods…” Maier likens the hangman to the father, a childhood game to the reality of death. This is the poem that begins her collection, and so, we understand within the following pages that memories will be re-visited and re-examined in an attempt to locate what always existed: imperfection.
While the first section seems the most concentrated to a particular past, the second and third section appear current, moments fresh from happening with titles “The Wind Blows My Dictionary Open To ‘Man’” and “Sharing A Bath.” Yet, what carries throughout all sections is Maier’s wrestle with love—what should it look like, how should it resonate, does it alter with the passing of time and the loss of youth? Should it?
Two of my favorite poems, “Jane” and “Heat and Light” examine the wild, uninhibited love. While the speaker in “Jane” believes with few doubts the relationship between Jane and Tarzan existed, she questions the reality of a woman giving herself entirely to a man:
“Jane was pure make believe: the good,
A-student girl who gives up everything for sex…
And if you were like her, dipped in the waters
of her nature, how could you find your way
home to that lost continent? How could
you ever return?”
To the speaker, the question is not why Jane loves Tarzan, but how. The sacrifice too large to conceive and hidden among the social constructs, for “a woman shapes/ a man, haft and point, into the thing she needs…”
“Heat and Light” echoes the desire to discourage the Jane and Tarzan love, through the novel Ethan Frome. The speaker reminisces on Sister Bertrand’s sophomore English class, thinks,
“She must have thought the subject
of doomed, illicit love
would slow the downward slide
she’d marked in faces streaked
with rouge, in pleated skirts,
rolled at the waist.”
Here, she pushes against Sister’s Bertrand’s opinion of Ethan and Mattie’s love, claims a tight hold, for “Love,/ our true religion, would save them/ in the end.” Wharton though, does not save Ethan and Mattie, and so the ideal, sacrificial love is broken and the students, broken, are left copying “More heat than light” down for their test. Maier is conscious of the past and its ability to curb the future, the speaker’s ideas of womanhood shifted by the literature of her childhood. The past is never the past, but fluid in its influence on the present and future.
Now, Now does not seem to reach a climax or spiral towards a particular finish. For Maier, there is no end, but only the interconnectedness of time and our memory’s desire to look backwards. Maier’s title to her collection represents this idea. On one level, Now, Now sounds like words cooed with a gentle pat after receiving bad news. On a deeper level, the title speaks to Maier’s main focus: time is never stagnant. The now that exists before the first comma is over in an instant, followed by another now. Memory aids in our remembering, but it fails to slow down this process. It’s bittersweet, this life, but Maier accepts this, as should we, as she reminds,
“And if it all passed in an instant,
a comfort now to know you had your life of ordinary good,
of love’s tart fruits, its showery blossoms.”
Jennifer Maier is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and associate editor of the arts quarterly IMAGE. Her other poetry collection Dark Alphabet won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets. Maier’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, New Letters, Smartish Pace, American Poetry Review, and has been featured on Public Radio International’s The Writer’s Almanac.
by Jim Coppoc
‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse
When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.
Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.
In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.
However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.
And this is the power of poetry.
To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.
The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.
The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.
Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.
And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.
If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.
And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.
And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…
1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.
The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Dakota Garilli
The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.
My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.
The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”
Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.
Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.
In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:
“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”
The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.
“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.
But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.
Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.
And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.
In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.
It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”
As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…
Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
At least once a month—and just about every time I do a reading—someone asks me for advice on publishing, getting a job, getting into an MFA program, etc. Most of the time this person is already a writer, and when I see their work it’s usually pretty good, but they also always seem to be looking to take that next step and become professionals.
The problem is that I’m not sure I actually know what professional means. If there is a clear path to a writing career, I never found it. I stumbled through my first few years on some combination of luck, pluck, guesswork and industry. I wrote all the time—most of it junk—and I failed again and again and again until I didn’t. Most days, that’s still the cycle I’m in. Writing is hard, making a career of it even harder.
So here’s my first piece of advice for those wanting to become a “professional” writer. Don’t.
Seriously—don’t. You’re probably very talented, but so is everybody else. MFA programs all over America are overflowing with young, ambitious, talented writers who will never make it and who will spend the rest of their lives working crappy jobs teaching freshman comp just to pay off student loans. Give up the idea of writing as a profession, because except for a lucky few that path just doesn’t exist.
If you can do that—if you can strip yourself of any capital-R Romantic notions of winning a National Book Award, getting your work in the Norton Anthology, and watching your mailbox flood with royalty checks—you just might come to a much more important and telling truth:
Writing is not a profession; it is a calling.
Right now, the rest of your life is spread out before you. If you can imagine yourself grading the essays of football players and Ag majors every evening for the rest of your life, replacing the steak-and-caviar award dinners of your dreams with Chinese takeout in your crappy apartment; if you can imagine yourself driving the same car fifteen years at a time, forgetting about royalty checks and watching your mailbox fill with rejection slips and past due bills instead—if you can imagine all that, and the writer’s life still seems worth it, then we might have something to talk about.
If it turns out instead that the lifestyle you imagine is more important to you than the actual act of writing—well, your skills would be equally useful in law school, and that path can buy you all the steak dinners and first-class living you need.
So here, for those of you still with me, is what I know about becoming a professional. It’s not much, but it’s what worked for me…
First, write. Then read. Then write. Then read. Then write then read then read then write then write then write then read then write.
Most of what you write won’t be very good. You won’t know that on the same day you write it. Sometimes you’ll instantly fall in love with garbage. Sometimes you’ll hate what’s creeping out of your pen, but later it’ll turn into the best and most important art you’ve ever made.
If I’ve learned one thing studying the writers who have made it, it’s that they write. Whatever processes or rituals or routines they need—at the end of the day, they sit down with pen and paper (or keys and screen), and they do their job.
Anne Lamott—whose Bird by Bird is a book every aspiring writer should own—writes in her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts” that what is important is getting your thoughts on paper, no matter what shape they’re in. Self-censorship is the enemy. Quality comes with revision, not with drafting. You can’t really begin to apply real craft until you have something on paper to apply that craft to.
And of course, learning the craft you need to apply in revision is not something you can do by yourself. You can’t reinvent the wheel with every story/poem/essay. You would never get anything worthwhile done.
A more realistic approach is to carefully read all the writers you can who are better than you (and there will always be writers better at something than you), and learn how they work. My imagery comes from Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Pinero, the King James Bible, and a whole host of slammers from around the turn of the century. My prosody comes from Jack Kerouac, Saul Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bryonn Bain, Shane Koyczan, and the Baptist hymns I grew up with. My themes come from grunge music, urban spaces, the Gospel of Matthew, and all the hip-hop crossover poets—like Saul Williams and Miguel Pinero—I can find…
These lists go on, but the point is that writers write in community. If you want to grow, you will need both a living community of writers, editors and honest friends, AND a large library of truly great influences you can draw from. There’s no Ginsberg without Whitman or Blake. There’s no Shakespeare without Petrarch. There’s no tree without roots. It just doesn’t work any other way.
As for the MFA—well, that choice is yours. I chose the best possible MFA for me. Hamline University is interdisciplinary by nature, and so am I. Jim Moore—one of their flagship poets—brings big metaphor to everyday living in a way I needed to learn. Deborah Keenan—their other flagship poet—is good at all the things I’m not. I learned more from her than I could have from a thousand professors whose writing is more similar to mine.
Maybe even more important than all that, the MFA program at Hamline prides itself on faculty who can teach instead of just faculty who bring big name recognition and high visibility. This is what I needed at that point in my life.
I made my choice. You make yours. Find writers you admire, and look them up on sites like Rate My Professor to see if they can teach. When you find the faculty you need, apply to the schools they work for, regardless of reputation or location or price or any other factor. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…
And give up on trying to game the application. Just send them your best writing sample and your most honest essay. Don’t overthink. Let the pieces fall where they may. If the program doesn’t like what you do, you would probably not be happy there anyway.
As for the job market and the publishing game—nobody really knows how they work. Apply to places you want to work, where you’ll be surrounded by people you want to work with. Send out to journals and book publishers you admire. Find out whether or not you admire them by doing your research, reading past issues, and learning what they’ve published before.
Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Careerism has its place. That place is not on top of your list of priorities. Read what you read. Write what you write. Remember your calling, and trust that somehow the Universe will keep you afloat long enough to put something worthwhile out into the world.
If it can happen to me…
Girl at the Watershed
Poems by Nicola Waldron
Stepping Stone Press
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
You’d expect a little vertigo from a poet who migrated from the berries and cream at Cambridge to the red eye gravy of South Carolina. The speaker in Nicola Waldron’s poems in Girl at the Watershed is ever on the move, but even at 30,000 feet, or on bicycle, or dogging it, she has an uncanny ability to find her middle in spite of the contrary motions she engages. Sometimes it’s a moment, or else a rock, but feeling or thing, it’s always a magic lamp of a noun kicked up in the flourish of action.
Waldron’s finding of her middle is often represented by holding the stillness of it in her hand. Stillness in spite of the heavy forehand pace. The result is that Waldron’s most profound lines have nothing to do with the obviousness I associate with light and dark subject matter. Sure, there’s some grief in here, but these are not poems about how the speaker lost a leg or had a parent die or sometimes considered suicide or noticed how an incident along the coast bore a resemblance to Greek mythology.
There’s plenty of Voice, and Tone, but these don’t steer the lines either. Instead, Waldron’s poems are crocheted with a kind of fantastic internal logic. Her words are marionettes, yet we seldom notice the strings. The drama is that dazzling.
Some readers will want a clue as to how a patriotic Brit would have found herself in a state known for hounds traveling in pick-up beds or which was the only state to carry Bush One in the 1992 Presidential election. About the only thing South Carolina and England have in common is a love for breakfast. England is one of those countries which have specialized dishes for coddled eggs. The state flower of South Carolina, on the other hand, is the Waffle House billboard that blooms at every highway interchange where one can have grits and pancakes for 24 hours every eight miles.
I was looking for those clues in Girl at the Watershed because I know Waldron as a memoirist who has made great work of tugging back the curtain and dressing, but not undressing, in front of the reader. The tone in her prose is so direct it’s as if you’re listening to her chapters instead of reading them. Her poetry however, is quite a different beast. The mystery is in the revelation. Every second, every small square inch, seems to have a story to tell.
Waldron’s poem “In the Capay Hills” involves a trek through old French fur trader country along the Cache Creek in Northeastern California where the speaker and her partner have gone to find “something more than fields / blank with winter; pages waiting to be turned.” Her partner has “purple rings around his eyes” much like the sediment that she cannot name that “splits the red stone.” The waters “rage with life” but a “quail sits dead on the trail like a defeated dancer.” The couple are lost and must become each other’s compass: “The bridge to the trail’s been washed away. / Without direction, what are we to do…?”
I pick out stones and when he calls,
I bring him the sandstone treasure in my hands,
and he takes my face in his hands,
because there’s no one like me who loves him.
The logic here transforms her face into his sandstone treasure, and “In these hills, / we cannot get enough of touching: we reach out / like prophets, making the streambeds run.” The couple have to pass the dead quail twice, once heading out, once heading in. On the second pass, the speaker gets “down on my knees, press my two fingers inside the crescent footprint of a deer, to show him I am true.” It’s a graceful stroke: the two lovers, the two fingers, the raging with life, the passing by death, the touching, the kneeling, the Sufi crescent, her lover’s washed out bridge of his faith, her belief in everything, and her trueness which becomes their direction.
“Red Barn” is a conditional poem. It’s premise is not what the speaker would do if she had a million dollars, rather, what she would do if she were a farmer: “I’d weave the dubious contours / of my land into some kind of dream…I’d kneel in the valley / and wash my face in the sand, / in the lines the sky made before falling…We could lie on our backs and look at clouds— / call it work, I would have reasons / for the folding of the mountains.”
Like Elizabeth Robinson has sometimes done, Waldron is more apt to dwell on her birth than her death, as if her own birthing, her becoming, were something that never stopped happening. It’s a process where we move from blindness to vision so that sense of self and sense of place are linked. Most poets start thinking a lot about death when their parents die and there aren’t any more doors between themselves and nothing. Waldron in her true and believing way looks for ways to add doors between herself and the fear. “New World” is a symphony of this thinking about existence.
If I chose to travel here,
how then did I come to exile?
If I can sort the broadness of new sound
like pebbles on sand, but make no sense
of a hand raised, a soft hello;
if I, afraid of voices jangling in midair,
feel color now but distantly,
translating marigolds as sun,
should I stay
to make my history happen here?
Will what was England in me
be swept down strange waters?
I do not recognize the bird you call robin:
to me, the hated blue-jay is miracle;
here, springtime is not carried in
on swallows’ feet, but comes to earth
as fury. How is it summer will follow
without lawns of daisies, ladies’ slipper, chamomile?
Can an alien lie down, feel April on her skin?
and what does her child hear
at the moment of birth?
Waldron’s syntax lets her connections and associates occur without any awkward self conscious feelings or edgy juxtaposition. Her poem “At 30,000 Feet” is a marvel of symmetry as she butts up against some issues: “While the movie runs eight inches from your face, / I lift the window shade and scan the screen.” In the first line, we’ve moved from 30,000 feet to eight inches, and soon we go from a movie running to the world running outside the window. The couple are flying and the first information we get is where they are not flying to: “the ice below that frills and parts like first love / is from Iqaluit: a place we’ll never go.” Waldron then smears her brush into the birthing and existence bucket: “It’s been six hours now since London, my body / lifted by my father from the gritty newborn earth. / Outside it’s 70 below and if we fall out here / we’ll freeze and die before we can say I—
Your hand falls loose against my thigh,
I squeeze the belt across my lap,
which makes me want you.
The sun behind us races to keep up.
When I turn my head, I’m looking
at the left side of your face, where
they cut the skin to take the cancer out.
I wonder about the science of flight,
and if we’ll understand each other
when we land breathing in America.
My favorite poem in this short collection is “Stalker” where again there’s a suggestion of sky and flying, and again, the speaker focuses on one small mystery: “I pick out a rock and / pretend it is my father: / it is a big rock, and cowardly. / When I grasp it in my fist / it cringes, and will not / look me in the eye. / Perhaps it is / the altitude.”
Girl at the Watershed is all too-brief a book from a writer who has lived and seen so much and publishes so seldom. Waldron surely has more to come—she’s previously been a winner of the prestigious United Kingdom Bridport Prize—and it will be fascinating to learn which press will have the honor of putting out her long anticipated debut collection.
by Dawn Potter
Gretel Ehrlich writes, “A writer makes a pact with loneliness. It is her, or his, beach on which waves of desire, wild mind, speculation break. In my work, in my life, I am always moving toward and away from aloneness. To write is to refuse to cover up the rawness of being alive, of facing death.” Within that aloneness comes, now and again, the grace of a conversation—with a poem, with a forest, with a circle of readers, with another burning, lonely mind.
For Robert Frost, that conversation happened with poet Edward Thomas, whom he met in England in about 1913. After Thomas was killed in the war, Frost said, “[he] was the only brother I ever had. I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life. I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He told Thomas’s wife, “He is all yours. But you must let me cry as if he were almost all mine too.”
I met my friend Jilline Ringle in the mid-1980s, when we were eighteen-year-old college students. She was an aspiring actor, I was an aspiring writer, and we began a burning conversation that lasted until her death in 2005. We wrote to each other when we were callow, hopeful, untrained girls. We wrote to each other when we began to achieve our first tiny successes. We wrote to each other at moments of misery and epiphany. Today she has been dead for nearly a decade, yet our conversation continues, as Frost’s conversation with Thomas continued for the rest of Frost’s long life.
In 1999, when I was overwhelmed by babies and solitude and the struggle to make poems, Jilline sent me a letter:
“I love, I love, she cries into the gust.”
That is our mantra, yours and mine, each for our own reasons, each for our own sanity. This is why we have each other. There is a talismanic charm . . . that we cling to in order to return ourselves to this earth. Keep figuring it out, honey; I will be flat and frank with you if you will as well with me. If it is impossible for us to hold each other’s hands, we will charge each other’s minds telepathically, ethereally, and hopefully we will help turn on some lights in those dark corners.
With love, your lantern bearer.
[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
The Philosopher’s Daughter
Poems by Lori Desrosiers
|Salmon Poetry, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Lori Desrosiers first came to my attention as the editor of the Naugatuck River Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry, a journal, similar to Rattle or Flint Hills, and many of the better, though lesser-known journals, that carry the torch of well-crafted poetry publishers. Naugatuck stands out not only for its focus on narrative poetry but for Desrosiers’ fearlessness when it comes to publishing sometimes risqué, bawdy, gritty, but always powerful work. So I was quite excited to sit down with her debut full-length collection, especially considering that it was published by Salmon Poetry, one of the best small presses around.
The Philosopher’s Daughter is a portrait of Desrosiers’ family. She, herself, appears as an ancillary character, an observer; the true focus is on others. The first section, “Starting Places,” opens with “Conducting in Thin Air,” a poem ostensibly about the odd event of an airplane crash survivor (or fortunate dodger, since she missed the flight) who, a week later, died in a car accident. Desrosiers uses this springboard to examine larger issues of mortality and fate, setting up a major theme for later in the collection of the fragility of life. The final poem in the collection, “Night Writing,” bookends this nicely as a sensual exploration of the body, of feeling, so that we see that the answer to the curse of mortality is to fully inhabit the cage, so to speak.
Several of the poems in this section are simple-seeming scenic reminiscences. “Thinking Rock” describes a playing girl “safe/from pernicious imaginary monsters” as she climbs onto the thinking rock and “thinks until she is tired of thinking.” There is a marked lack of danger or stress. Back home, the girl watches her grandfather “smoke his cheroot,/have a whisky with her father./ Smoke rings rise like grey ropes.” There’s a hint of the future danger, here, with these ropes, but only a hint.
“Last Seat, Second Violin” is a humorous poem about the ability of children to overcome difficult or annoying situations in creative ways: “In 7th grade, Mr. Hayden would throw his baton/at anyone who played a wrong note,” she begins. The children are terrified, of course, and learn how to “fake bow” and not actually play any music, leaving it to the first chairs to actually play. A handful of the poems in this section deal with this theme of the attempted stealing of childhood. “Mile Swim” is about the Red Cross certification swimming requirement. The 12-year old swimmer stands “alongside fellow campers’ goose-bumped bodies/to start the swim across lake Coniston.” They “plunge into icy water, crawl away from the screaming/children on shore, relieved it is not their turn today.” Desrosiers’ language is vivid: “Our toes brush lake muck, seaweed, fishes,/shadowy spirits of unhappy campers forced to swim on rainy days.” But the 12-year old Desrosiers breaks free of the others:
To my surprise, I am alone.
Blue ripples, cloudless sky,
silence smells of dragonflies.
At the center of the emerald lake
all is green-gold and shimmery.
For a moment I am free—
free from swimming lessons,
the endless teasing,
the pain of my budding breasts,
my parents’ divorce.
It’s a moment of grace amidst the hardships of growing up.
“Paris 1950” captures a moment in Desrosiers’ parents’ lives in which “I am only a thought.” She begins:
Footsteps on cobblestone
Blanche eats crepes on Ile de la Cite
learns to sing Schubert.
Leonard studies philosophy
at the Sorbonne
The poem is spare and mysterious, mirroring Desrosiers’ knowledge of her parents’ lives at this time. Similarly, Desrosiers meditates upon reading her father’s philosophy books and connecting them to her memories of him (she’ll explore him more in-depth later).
The second section, “Mother’s Places,” focuses on Desrosiers’ mother, Blanche. “Last First Kiss” is a poem about love, specifically about a man who proposed to Blanche:
He was a violinist,
he would pay
for voice lessons.
She described him as
older (27) and going bald.
She was seventeen
Unfortunately (for the violinist) Blanche declined. Desrosiers explains:
she had already been kissed
by my father,
who had no money,
but at eighteen
had long lashes,
and silky blond hair.
“Daughter’s Places,” the third section, focuses on Desrosiers’ relationship with her daughter, and “Internal Spaces,” the final section, focuses more on Desrosiers’ herself as an artist. Throughout all of these sections, though, the mystery of Desrosiers’ father pervades, so that we see that she has become, in many ways, a philosopher herself by examining her life and the lives of those around her in order to find meaning.
What stands out when reading these poems is Desrosiers’ vivid, clear imagery, her attention to detail, and the emotional resonance she manages without tiptoeing into the realm of preciousness. Writing about ones parents, especially her father who died of cancer, would be a difficult task to accomplish without overt sentimentality, but Desrosiers manages to not only do this but to reveal her parents (and her children) as interesting characters.
Lori Desrosiers has a full-length poetry collection The Philosopher’s Daughter from Salmon Poetry (2013). She has a chapbook, Three Vanities, a chronicle of three generations of women in her family, from Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications. She earned her MFA in 2008 from New England College. Desrosiers also edits the Naugatuck Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
I’m writing this blog on Columbus Day. Because I am an American of Euro and Indian heritage, this is not one of those days I can ignore race.
I actually think about race quite a bit these days. Because I teach both literature and creative writing, from both mainstream and American Indian Studies perspectives, and because—after the basic bits I gather from Gardner and Bloom—I draw most of my teaching theory from the realm of Critical Pedagogy, I am always teaching race.
Let’s start with a few basic facts. A couple years ago, a student had a question I couldn’t answer in class. How do you know the canon is a bunch of dead white males? Everybody says this, but nobody ever proves it.
Every part of my political self wanted to scream at this student because it just is!, but for once, I was able to step back, and give my critical self some space to enter the conversation. I told the student I’d get back to him.
So I went to the capital-C Canon, and I dove deep into my own weird fascination with statistics-as-truth. After some consideration, I chose four primary stakeholders in the Canon: the government, the literary establishment, the education establishment, and mainstream America. I looked for consensus from the four main stakeholders by choosing representative groups of poets from each, comparing these groups side by side, and building a list of poets who appear all four places.
To represent the government, I chose the poets listed for the National Endowment for the Art’s “Poetry Out Loud” program. To represent the literary establishment, I chose the poets listed on the Academy of American Poets website at www.poets.org. To represent the educational establishment, I chose the Norton Anthology of Poetry. To represent mainstream America, I chose Wikipedia’s “List of Poets from the United States,” to which anyone can at any time add entries. Of the hundreds of poets listed in these groupings, exactly 75 were listed by all four.
Once I had uncovered the 75 poets who by process of consensus seemed to best represent The List of Canonical American Poets (hereafter referred to as “The List”), I decided to evaluate it in several dimensions to see if the stereotypes about canonical poets held true.
First, I wanted to know if The List really was populated by Dead White Males. The List is definitely white (85.33%, compared to 65.4% in the general U.S. population) and even more male (74.66%, compared to 48.5% in the general U.S. population). Surprisingly, though, The List wasn’t very dead. Of the 75 poets to make The List, 21 of them (28%) were still alive. Even those who were dead hadn’t been dead very long. A startling 67 poets, or 89.33%, were alive during the 20th century, with 35 of them, or almost 47%, alive during the past 20 years.
After establishing that the Canon of American Poetry is 1.3 times whiter than America itself, I began to wonder how many other races were represented. The answer, to any degree of statistical significance, is one. Of the 11 non-white poets on the List, 10 are African American. One, Li-Young Lee, is Asian American. With the possible exception of William Carlos Williams, there are no Latinos. With the possible exception of Langston Hughes, there are no American Indians. No other race is represented.
While it is a sign of progress that African Americans are proportionately represented (13.33% of the List, compared to 12.4% of the U.S. population), it is clear at least that no agreement has been reached about leading voices among other races. At best, this represents an unfortunate underrepresentation mixed with inevitable problems in the sampling process. At worst, this is institutional racism.
Although it’s difficult to pin down through statistics, one possible explanation for the racially imbalanced canon could be class. As I researched the biographies of these 75 poets, I was struck over and over again by the wealth and privilege that seemed to accompany the poets’ lives. Numbers aren’t available for each poet’s family income, but it is very revealing that 36 of them (48%) attended Ivy League schools with 21 (28%) at Harvard alone. Bio after bio revealed old families from New York and Boston, world leaders and captains of industry in direct lineage, and the sort of independent wealth that allowed for travel, education, networking, and other seeming prerequisites for the canonical poet’s life.
More than just economics, though, are the social connections these poets share. Thirty-seven of them (49.33%) lived in New York City at some point in life, and most of the rest came from other East Coast states. Thirty-eight of them (50.67%) taught at major universities, giving them access to each other and to the many book and journal editors supported by the American academic system. The Yale Younger Poets Series alone published the first books of more than ten percent of the poets on The List, 8 poets (10.66%) are Columbia grads, and 6 of the poets (8%) are graduates of the Writer’s Workshop.
The last dimension I evaluated The List for was a hodgepodge category of traditional stereotypes. As it turns out, most are true. Poets on the list are 5 times as likely as the general public to self identify as homosexual or bisexual, 3-4 times as likely to suffer from alcoholism, nearly 3 times as likely to suffer from depression, and more than 2.5 times as likely to commit suicide.
Conclusions? Well, all I really have to offer are the numbers. How America came to be this way is a mystery too deep for me, and too deep for any one blog post. The Canon is what it is, and my job, as I see it, is to give my students what they need to raise the right questions to build something better in the next generation.
As for the student who started me on this research project—let’s just say his participation grade was secure for the rest of the semester.
For those who are interested, I’ve pasted in The List below. Please feel free to use your own criteria and repeat the experiment as often as necessary. I’d be interested to see what you come up with on your own terms.
A.R. Ammons, John Ashberry, Amiri Baraka, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Robert Creeley, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, James Dickey, Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Robert E. Hayden, John Hollander, Langston Hughes, Richard Hugo, Randall Jarrell, Robinson Jeffers, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stanley Kunitz, Li-Young Lee, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Amy Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Herman Melville, William Meredith, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Howard Nemerov, Frank O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, John Crowe Ransom, Adrienne Rich, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, May Swenson, Phillis Wheatley, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright
Poems by Alan King
|Willow Books, 2012
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The acknowledgments page is standing room only in Alan King’s debut collection of poems, Drift. In fact it’s two pages long, which might say a lot about King’s gratitude, but climbing aboard these poems (each one is a train car) the first thing I noticed were the many passengers. The speaker is almost never alone. Yet neither are King’s poems boxing matches where dramatic tension is drawn from characters at odds. Usually the company he keeps is a lover, a brother, his mom or dad, a wife, some friends, or just some fellows from the neighborhood. There is a matter of fact sort of intimacy that sweats out from his lines. It made me realize how I’ve been reading too much of the loner stuff, speakers isolated from the world, with fractured egos, driving empty cars on highways without any trucks to follow.
King seems like the kind of poet who would be perfectly comfortable with a stranger sleeping on his shoulder on an airplane. And these poems, having meter without being metric, are conversational without being plain spoken. How nice to read them without suffering the “I am being a writer” tone that dulls most music.
Drift is divided into nine roomy sections of between one and twelve poems each. I read one section a day in a span that included busheling some tomatoes for sauce canning, skipping a pitchfork, writing a poem for Saemus Heaney (how original), loading a piano onto a truck, and making love to my wife twice (once downstairs). It’s so pleasant to carry on with them, here and there, sharing King’s world with mine. King’s poems are almost always one page, but that’s plenty of space to offer some adventure. Consider his poem “Conundrum” in which the speaker and his brother head out to find the recipe for pheromones, an irrational pursuit of an irrational goal that somehow makes perfect sense:
A decade before, my brother
and I were strapped inside the leather
belly of an Oldsmobile 88 that roared
like something feral, with speakers
coughing up bass and spitting rhymes
from Busta’s first album. I don’t recall
where we were headed, just that we
cruised the city with our fresh
haircuts and fragrant whispers
of Egyptian Musk behind our ears.
The clock and the compass, the when and the where, are not so important to King’s journeys, this one to “answer the riddles of women,” which makes it possible to swing between narrative and metaphor without losing your balance. The logistics are rich with detail, while the subjects continue to be abstract, searching moments. In “Why I could Never Be Vegan” we initially think we’re in the land of memory: “The smell of charcoal gets me / nostalgic: my childhood and / those summers my parents / were always throwing something / on the grill…” But quickly the discussion moves from nostalgia, to animal rights, to human rights. Birmingham is also part of the speaker’s memory: “…fire hoses / and what was unleashed / on protestors. What’s sacred / then?” In this poem, the only sacred thing left is his mother’s sense of exaggeration: “Ask my mom and she’ll say / I might have been / an Alvin Ailey dancer the way / I Step Hop and Run to a bubbling pot / of curry goat.” The speaker concludes “Why does salad, / despite its dressing, seem incomplete / without chicken?” King is asking, Why does memory, despite its dressing, seem incomplete as well, given our Birmingham, our history?
The past, hunger, hope, and resignation are so intimate in these lines. Perhaps a thousand poets will write a poem about a horse this year, but almost none will have ridden a two minute lick in company, wire to wire, at a race track. Being so comfortable with intimacy, having had some experience with it, having ridden that horse a time or two, we’d expect King to shape some physical intimacy where the actual doesn’t sit so far back from the ideal. His love poems made me think of John Donne. King runs to all sorts of bubbling pots, and not all of them are cooking curry. In “The Invitation,” like many of these poems, King gets us into and out of a poem with images: “Your lips were petals brushing / my neck…” is followed by some light-hearted analysis “This was not supposed to happen // on the third date” and eventually concludes “our bass-heavy pulses. / The eye contact, / you biting your bottom lip, / then smiling.”
The poet’s vexing history and his passionate flair join up in “Horn”:
The more I watch the news,
the more my country resembles
a biblical city destroyed by fire;
the more I think of those
who spat on the messenger
their God sent them. At the gates
of a temple called “Beautiful,”
sat a blind man. How many of us
are him? Sometimes there’s no name
for what runs the streets with
misspelled picket signs and hate
as its bullhorn. Sometimes
what’s wrong with this life
could be an avalanche ready
to wipe us out. The only true Bible
might be your open arms. Your name
is a communion wafer on my tongue.
The only true psalm might be
what washes over us while
we sleep, your breath in my ears—
the sound in a shell.
While some poets may marvel about empathy, how it comes from using image and lyric to wed unmarriageable ideas, King returns again and again to the simple truth, that empathy is very intimate, expressed in the oneness you discover after slipping out of routines of living, desire and memory, but without slipping out of who you are. It’s cruising in a big car with your brother in blood. It’s the sermon in a barber shop. That post-modern poets love the hero afraid of being alone and dying alone may just be a mask for the greater fear of connecting with others, of being intimate. King describes such poets in his poem “How to Call It”:
Take the woman walking
alone down a boulevard
or the guy seated
at a table for two
with a glass of wine
and his favorite book.
King concludes these portraits of poets with one of himself: “I need a lot of things: lips / and fingers waking the body. / And from what? // Call it hibernation, / but never loneliness.” Read a book to yourself and you’re a scholar. Talk to yourself and you’re a nut. But poetry evolved from an oral tradition. It’s always been about talking and listening between friends and strangers.
Why are we so afraid of empathy? That is the “drift” in Drift. King writes in the superb title poem: “What were you / searching for among the buzzing / kazoos and party blowers // punching the air? That night // the bright streamers were serpents / curled among liquor bottles that blurred / like landscape through the windows // of a train headed to the end // of its line. You watched the lit / subway cars zigzag the night / like the Dancing Dragon / of Chinese New Year.”
Move over Mr. grumpy disassociated poet with your arms and legs and ears falling off your disconnected body. There’s a new kid in town.
Alan King is a poet and journalist living in the DC metropolitan area. He is a blogger on art and domestic issues. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Alan is also a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum.
by Dawn Potter
Sound may be our deepest and most instinctive connection to poetry, not only as individuals but also as members of the human community and inheritors of its ancient traditions. “The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry,” writes Robert Pinsky, “is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants.” But that childhood comfort stretches beyond the confines of our private selves, back through the history of language and our species.
In “The Hymn to Earth,” a Greek poem dating from about 650 b.c., the speaker reaches out to his listeners, coaxing them to recognize their agency in his creations:
but if you liked what I sang here
give me this life too
in my other poems
I will remember you
No page lay between this poet and his first listeners. Sound was the primary element of communication, and poet and listeners shared a direct physical experience.
Today poetry has become as much a visual as a sonic art. Yet the sound of a poem still transmits an intensely emotional message, even in those moments before a reader begins to engage with the poem’s narrative or thematic threads.
Take the opening couplet of Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”:
The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.
The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it scan as blank verse. Except for its couplet format, it looks rather like plain spoken English. Yet if you study these two modest lines, you will see that Justice makes extravagant use of sound: he repeats individual k and s sounds; he repeats entire words and phrases; he uses commas as silent beats within the cadence. Try reading the couplet out loud, and you will feel, too, how his syntax and word choice force you to modify your pacing. It would be almost impossible to read this poem quickly.
For contrast, look at the opening of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous “Recuerdo.”
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
In certain ways the lines look very similar to Justice’s. The two poems share a simple subject/predicate nominative construction: “The clocks are very sad,” “We were very tired.” Both use comma splices as musical devices. But while Justice’s poem moves slowly and heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion, Millay’s speeds across the page. Her rhymes sparkle; her commas denote breathlessness rather than weighty moments of silence. Like the ferry, her lines go “back and forth,” hustling between the rhymes, riding the alliterative vowels: short e’s, long i’s, the repetition of We.
In other words, as I hope this comparison has shown, a poet’s sound devices are intimate elements of a poem’s essential being. From the very first moments of creation, a poet begins to hear her poem take shape. In my own case, I often feel the pressure of a metrical stress or a letter sound before I begin to consider what words I might choose to try out next in a line. This is true whether I am writing formal or free verse. The sounds in my ear lead me to pursue the sense of what I am trying to articulate.
[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
Proving Nothing to Anyone
Poems by Matt Cook
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Funny is hard. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s a popular attitude that funny is somehow easier than serious, that comedy takes less skill to write than tragedy. I would say that they are equally difficult in many ways—both (when done well) require careful pacing to achieve emotional impact, and both require all the hallmarks of strong writing—but I would argue that comedy, at its extreme, is more difficult in one way than tragedy, at its polar extreme: written comedy requires just as much tragedy as written tragedy does, but comedy also requires hope. Tragedy is allowed to revel in its nihilism, whereas comedy must resolve that nihilism by drawing forth hope from it. Tragedy brings us to the brink of desperation; comedy must bridge that gap.
Matt Cook’s collection is that rarest of thing: funny poetry. “Commitment to Excellence” is a self-deprecating piece which describes a dinner party:
A woman leaned back into a candle
And caught her long hair on fire.
She did not notice this right away, but I noticed it—
but at that very same moment,
I was in the middle of telling a really good story
But Cook isn’t simply reveling in the misfortune of others; he knows “the punch line of the story was only seconds away” so he continues, though he does wait until “after the appreciative reaction of the room” before informing the woman of her burning hair. He makes sure to tell us, “The woman was not seriously harmed,/And then ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.” So there’s a happy ending. Here, Cook is getting at something about the nature of storytelling and art. Aren’t all good stories about the misfortunes of others in some way? “Duane Duane” deals with this issue. Cook describes a man who “was in and out of institutions during the nineteen seventies.” Duane “wrote a song once about feeding saltine crackers to a duck.” Cook goes on to describe Duane’s belief that the actors in Gilligan’s Island were trapped on the island and forced to act out the episodes, “that they were enslaved by television executives and forced at gunpoint, or through emotional blackmail, or whatever, to act out Gilligan’s Island every week.” The depth of Duane’s delusion is intense. He believed the actors attempted to communicate their plight through codes. Cook concludes, “This story isn’t funny, but it’s also funny. It’s not my fault that this story is funny.”
“The Drunk Man’s Hat,” similarly gets at the nature of comedy in a surreal way. “The poetry comes easily in the morning,/Not because the head is clear, but because the head is confused,” he begins. He describes a dream he had about a drawing of a drunk looking for help from a security guard:
The drunk man is saying something like:
Give me the awful chemical I need to clean this hat.
If you can do that for me, I would certainly appreciate it.
If not, I can find something else to appreciate.
Cook’s turn at the end gets to the heart of humor, almost as a study in form rather than a comprehendible narrative. “Unchanged from Ancient Times” accomplishes this in a more straight-forward manner:
He wanted to see trees that were thousands of years old.
He wanted to lie on the forest floor and
Look up and see a view that was unchanged from ancient times.
So he went deep into a national forest and
Then he returned and I asked him how it went.
He said he took mushrooms and freaked out and
Smeared peanut butter all over his Volvo wagon.
Here, Cook explodes the expectation of the reader, but at the same time, he hits something profoundly human with this character. Frankly, if his friend had had some sort of magical experience, the reader might’ve said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it wouldn’t have meant much, and at the back of our minds, there’d be a hint of doubt. I’ve been in a lot of forests and mostly felt itchy, though they were very pretty. Cook’s description, though, is absolutely believable.
“My Wife’s Car” is a narrative poem that stands out because of its powerful descriptions. The narrator goes for a walk and sees his wife’s car:
You feel a kind of existential panic when you see your wife’s car somewhere.
My grandfather said death is like looking at your house from across the street.
It’s probably something like that.
You walk past a row of meaningless automobiles,
And suddenly there’s your wife’s car—what do you do?
You can’t just walk past your wife’s car.
Cook’s language is straight-forward and lacking in pretention, even when relating profound ideas. The narrator decides to use his spare key to get in and wait for his wife. There are all sorts of preconceptions the reader might have about what will happen next, but the narrator assures us, “I knew she’d be happy to see me because we have an excellent marriage.” The question is, do we believe him?
Then I saw her in the distance approaching the car.
I was enjoying the situation, the childish suspense.
But then she came closer, and I could see she was crying.
She opened the door and she put her arms around me.
She said, “I’m so glad you saw my car.”
Even though Cook may have dispelled our expected outcome (that his wife might be returning from a tryst, perhaps) he still manages to surprise us.
Another thing that sets comedy apart from tragedy is the brutal honesty required of comedy. One has to be able to mock oneself ruthlessly. He states, in “They Probably Laughed”
Just because it takes courage to admit you’re wrong doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.
I used to be young and drunk and stupid.
And then I became less young and less drunk and less stupid.
But I’m still pretty young and pretty drunk and pretty stupid.
Cook makes observations on all sorts of things one might not realize, for example pointing out that fish never taste clean water and then wondering if he’s the first to consider this. At his best, Cook is shocking in the way all good comedy is shocking. He explodes the simplicity of ones preconceptions and gets to the heart of what it is to be human. And he’s funny. So there’s that.
Matt Cook is the author of three books of poetry (In the Small of My Backyard, Eavesdrop Soup, and The Unreasonable Slug). His work has been anthologized in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, The United States of Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. He lives in Memphis, TN.
by Dawn Potter
Early in this book I mentioned how common, almost ubiquitous, the I point of view has become in poetry. So often our poems are outlets for the personal, the private, the spoken secret. Even when it is an outright fiction, a first-person poem can feel as raw as a diary entry.
Literary essays are a different story. While the I does rule over many forms of creative nonfiction, it is conspicuously absent in academic and critical prose. Its scarcity is puzzling because publishers, even scholarly ones, explicitly ask their authors to avoid wordy passive-voice constructions that mute the speaker’s voice and opinions. “The book can be thought of as a waste of time” is a way to evade responsibility for announcing, “I think the book is a waste of time.” Yet time and time again, authors retreat behind that cushion of words. In doing so, they may take themselves off the hot seat, but they also retreat into obscurity, anonymity, invisibility.
As you work to become a poet, you may find yourself in a position of needing, in some deep, personal way, to write about what you are reading. I urge to you to commit yourself to saying I think—not we think, not people think. Work hard to keep yourself from falling into convoluted grammatical “objectivity.” The truth is that you should not be objective when you’re writing a personal literary essay. You should push yourself to write subjectively about your own curiosity, your own reactions. The goal is to discover what you think about a work of literature, not to create an essay that you makes you look well read or professorially remote. Please understand that I am not deriding academic scholarship or theory. Simply I am saying that, like poetry, a personal literary essay comes from a different and far more vulnerable place in the author. It’s important to push yourself to write in ways that cherish that vulnerability, not mask it.
If I sound bossy here, it’s because I believe that for many years my own writing suffered from a timid unwillingness to face head-on some of the many issues I brought up in the Blake and Milton essays I’ve excerpted in previous chapters. How does a contemporary poet speak to a poet of the past? How does an obscure woman speak to a canonized man? How can their speech be an actual conversation rather than rant, polemic, diatribe, or blind adoration? For creative writers who take reading seriously, these are fundamental questions that have never been easy to answer.
In the introduction of this book I mention Countee Cullen’s life-long, necessary conversation with the Romantic poets—and how some of his peers derided that need. Why, they asked, should a twentieth-century African American poet waste his time talking to nineteenth-century English white men? The question I ask is, why shouldn’t he?
[from a chapter in draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
by Jim Danger Coppoc
I wanna hear a poem about revolution
about fists raised high and hips
twisting in a rumble like a rhumba
I wanna follow the footsteps of Che
and hear the truth about the day
the CIA killed Lumumba
-from Steve Coleman, “I Wanna Hear a Poem”
I’m waiting just offstage, two hours after the plane landed, trying to catch my figurative breath, about to give what I hope will be the show of my life to a room full of total strangers.
“Jim Coppoc is, well, Dangerous.” the program director alludes to my Facebook name, which has somehow become securely attached to me in real life as well. She pushes her reading glasses into place, and beams down at the front row. The front row beams back.
“He’s, um…” she looks down at me, as if there’s a question she forgot to ask, then back to the audience. She lifts a paper from the podium.
“Coppoc has published several books of poetry and nonfiction, his plays are being produced in multiple cities as we speak, and…” she drifts off into boilerplate she got from a book cover somewhere.
Bookstore owners. Grad students. Library administrators. Conference organizers. It seems like nobody is quite sure how to introduce a creature like me at readings. They know that half the audience is there for my spoken word roots, but they’ve been trained to believe that “slam” is an insult to the serious and literary minded. So instead, they gloss over the most important parts of me, offer up a list of books and awards, and get off stage as quickly as they’re able.
But I am slam. And so are you.
See, poetry is a process, not a static art. It grows. It evolves. But it never loses the most basic parts of its own DNA—the core pieces that animate and give it life.
Poetry is the Ur genre. It existed before fiction, before nonfiction, before drama, before anything else we think of as literature. All other genres spring from it. Poetry is in the chants and ululations around the campfires of our earliest ancestors. It’s in the griots and shamans and monks and cantors and clergy and medicine people. It’s in our bones—the natural music of bodies in motion and at rest. It took a long time for us to forget that, and if slam and hiphop and charismatic religion are any indicators, the truth is that this most basic, primal aspect of poetry has never really left us.
The earliest laws were written as poetry. The earliest histories and religious texts too. For millennia, even poetry and music were indistinguishable. A ballad is a ballad is a ballad, no matter what the delivery. A psalm is a psalm with or without a lyre. A villanelle is just a villanella that goes undanced.
The list goes on, but I think the point is clear. This truth might be hidden now, but all the priests and troubadours and minstrels in our collective history knew, without a doubt, that poetry and music are just two dialects of the deeper language of the human spirit.
In the mid 1980s, a construction worker from Chicago named Marc Smith took a good look at the contemporary poetry scene, and realized that all of us could stand to be reminded of this. In a flash of genius, he added a silly game show format with live judging to an open mic, Slam poetry was born, history was made, and a movement was begun.
And once begun, Slam grew like a contagion. People get one taste of poets who write for a real human audience—poets trained by the random and arbitrary nature of the contest not to take themselves too seriously—and they want more. After the first couple years, slam spread like wildfire. Ann Arbor. New York. San Francisco. All the big cities and college towns of the United States and then abroad. It found its way into schools and libraries, coffee shops and theaters, street corners and music venues. It found its way into our culture, and made a home there for itself that it’s unlikely to be dislodged from anytime soon.
If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you’ve been touched by slam. Maybe you’ve read poets like Patricia Smith (a 4-time national champion), or maybe you’ve read one of the many hundreds of young poets in Cave Canem and elsewhere who’ve been mentored by her. Maybe you’ve picked up a book published by a trendy press like Write Bloody (founded by a slammer), or maybe your college poetry professor, like me, likes to sneak away on Tuesday nights to refill his tank at the local slam and draw inspiration to bring back to the classroom.
Poets write in community, and when the community is on fire with something this transformative—something that reaches this far back in our collective poetic unconscious to the deepest roots we have—it’s bound to touch all of us eventually.
I do have books, and I do have awards. I’ve been very fortunate so far. Some of that is talent, some of it is luck, and some of it is just hard work and good networking. But the core of who I am as a poet has nothing to do with the number of lines on my CV. Who I am and who I want to be as a poet is the thing that Marc Smith was trying to touch almost three decades ago. I am Slam.
To those who might be reading this blog because I’m coming to your town, and you’ve been tasked with introducing me—if you want the introduction to be both honest and meaningful, consider leading with that.
What Things Are Made Of
Poems by Charles Harper Webb
|University of Pittsburgh Press: Pitt Poetry Series, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Webb’s title implies a certain amount of realism, an engineer’s approach, and his poems certainly follow through with this idea, though frequently with a philosophical bent. His weapon of choice is humor. The collection opens with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be,” an elegy for the ice cream trucks of his youth. Webb begins by admitting the fallacy often ignored in nostalgia for the past, the idea of “privileged bourgeois affability and valorized/ consumption.” The songs played by the trucks “legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,/ and the Mariana Trench of slavery.” He goes on to question the relationships he remembers, the people he remembers as “friends who may/have cared nothing for me.” He admits the “Capitalist hegemony” and even the stereotypes reinforced by some products. But under the weight of all this middle-class guilt, he does manage to dig out some slight memory of untainted human interaction.
Webb tackles interesting occurrences as easily as many poets tackle life-and-death situations. “Mummies to Burn” deals with just that: the practice of burning mummies for locomotive fuel in the nineteenth century. “Duck Tape” plays with the common mispronunciation while also poking fun at the governmental placebo of the Bush era.
“Where Does Joy Come In?” Reads like a riff on one of those questionnaires one find’s in a Woman’s Day magazine:
It sneaks through the cat-flap when you’re busy microwaving a beef-and-cheese burrito.
It slides down a beanstalk from another galaxy.
It overflows your clogged commode.
It breaks into your triple-locked, burglar-barred life, just before you can bolt out the door.
Webb’s humor and verve morph what could easily be trite material into something profound and enjoyable. “Never Too Late” is a nature poem, ostensibly, but also a respite from the memento mori of life as Webb recalls his childhood. Webb’s true power, as evidenced by his humor but also demonstrated beautifully in this poem, is his ability to sneak up on the reader. He begins with a natural description:
Doves flute in peeling eucalyptus trees.
Rain pit-pit-pits off lance-point leaves,
and pings into expanding bull’s-eyes
on Descanso Pond. Redwings ride
bucking tules at the water’s edge.
Beside them, still as a decoy, a mallard
rests—emerald pate, brass chest,
His language evokes elegant imagery which would be enough to make this a fine poem. But as he continues, the scene grows into something truly beautiful as flowers, wildlife, and fish all become evident, and then the turn:
…The baking soda
submarine I lost in 1963
surfaces: full-sized, blowing
like a whale. The crew flash V for Victory.
Suddenly, the poem isn’t simply a nature poem but recalls something profound from the narrator’s youth. Though in poems like “The Last Bobcat” Webb displays his ability to write a powerful, serious nature poem. He begins with the wonderful line: “The hill behind our house still wears its cape/of African daisies.”
The title poem deals with a history of physical philosophy, from Thales, who thought things were made of water, to Aristotle who added earth, wind, and fire. Though he waxes philosophic, Webb is really getting at the fragility of life. And at its heart, this collection reveals Webb as a humanistic, down-to-Earth soul trying to survive and prosper but also trying to live well and morally. The fragility of life is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. In poems like “Manpanzee” and “Sad for the Hunchback,” Webb reveals his own moral failings while also recognizing that they are common failings; he doesn’t stand on an altar of shame or moral righteousness. There, he deals with the fragility of goodness and morality, which can shift so easily given the proper circumstance. There’s a preconception about humor: that it’s easy and that it lacks substance, but Webb shows that his humor isn’t light. There’s darkness beneath it.
Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, and Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and Poets of the New Century. Webb has received the Morse Prize, Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Pollak Prize, and Saltman Prize, as well as a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches in the MFA in creative writing program there.
By Dawn Potter
Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” makes me proud to be a person who tries to write poems.
Language, colour, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonyme of the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone.
* * *
Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
* * *
A single word may be the spark of inextinguishable thought.
* * *
Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
* * *
Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.
All of this feels true to me. No doubt someone with excellent arguing powers could prove otherwise, but the creation of poetry has nothing to do with argument. I especially love the final line I’ve quoted: “the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of [creation's] approach or its departure.” I agree: any real poem I’ve written has crept in through an unlocked, unwatched door.
by Stephanie Barber
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
We’re a nation of critics and deciders—folks hired for their opinions rather than physical labor. One of the pleasures of nonobjective painting is that the role of the critic in defining contemporary art becomes obsolete. The artist—photographer Linda Conner in the Seventies, or painter Susan Rothenberg in the Eighties, or poet and video artist Stephanie Barber today—loosely shapes the art, sharing the discovery process with the viewer or reader. In its purest form, the nonobjective painting or poem is the energy produced between the original signifying work and its audience. An audience of thousands or an audience of one. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the waves produced by someone experiencing the photograph or poem, waves where feelings and thoughts don’t swim in different lanes. Think Reiki therapeutic massage. The touching is figurative, but the healing is real.
Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves tests the outer limits of concept poetry, but because hers are found words the bulky, baggy premises which accompany most concept works are happily not present. Barber draws on YouTube comment threads responding to Mr. Seger’s song “Night Moves,” a ballad of desire and aging and nostalgia. Is it even poetry one might ask, to tap into the energy between a Classic Rock song and its listeners and then to reproduce it without altering so much as a comma? Thomas Sterns Eliot might have thought so, based on his view that poetry was the mix of desire and memory. And whether one samples Sanskrit texts or The Golden Bough, or whether one samples three chord harmony, using literary allusion to scaffold the mix is sturdy stuff.
“I remember…I remember…,” writes one listener. Keyword search “Heart” and variations on “Memory” in this volume and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes to count with. One of the mystifying traits in Barber’s Night Moves is how the “comments” come from witness, and become seductive in the way that witnessing is so sculpted by memory and wanting. By using their comments, each listener becomes a speaker, each speaker, a viewer. Participation is the thing, Barber seems to say. It’s what makes art of our day to day, as if life weren’t about the drowning but all the riotous splashing we make before the end.
“Love this song…I remember this song and dancing around singing it, stereo as loud as it would go…” says another. Like people who all seem to remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, these speakers hear the song and it cues them involuntarily to a forgotten context. It was love-making before there were any responsibilities. It was having a magic night begin with an unforgettable dinner at the Golden Corral. It was a song you hummed driving your first car before you ever flattened a tire or bent a rod. The funny thing is that so many have forgotten an “unforgettable” time. Hearing the song out of context brings it back, which is one way that old music is still so important to poetry.
The comments Barber reproduces are not epitaphs in some strange graveyard. Listeners interact with the song, but they also interact with each other interacting with the song. There’s even a lot of debate as to what makes music real, or what “points” may mean, or what could be wrong with the seventy-eight or eighty-four people who hit the “dislike” button. Maybe they never had sex, one listener wonders. “Must be under twenty years old,” another writes. In one sequence, two listeners spar about the meaning of art:
You claim this song is boring but I think what
you are missing is that it is a “Mood” song. It might not
have interesting melodies and chord changes but to
Add these you would Subtract from the “Mood.” Some
of the best songs are the simplest and this you do not
In such plain-spoken ways, Barber transforms a modest 2013 discussion about a 1978 song that romanticized something going on in the summer of 1962, so that the YouTube comment thread reads like the minutes of an AWP panel about the meaning of poetry today, its riddle of memory, and desire’s cryptic role. “Gina will never know the truth,” someone writes, in what could well be the best six-word short story since Hemingway.
The interactions vary between the heart-breaking and ones sopping with praise. Most are emotional, some rational, some even seem scripted by authors who have some experience at this sort of thing. “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered. I feel such emotion with this part of the song. So true. That’s how life is. Honestly, one of the best transitions in song writing I’ve ever heard.” This writer, like all the others, anonymous, which blurs point of view. We’re used to first, second, and third voice, but Barber’s Night Moves seems to offer a hybrid, a fourth voice which combines the other three and makes it seem as if the reader is hearing his own thoughts aloud.
Particularly evocative are the anonymous notes intended for a specific unknown someone: “Night moves in her dad’s barn 1975 love you Pam! Hope you are doing well. I think of you every time I hear this song.” Someone else chimes in “Pam I do not know where you are now. I think of you every time I hear this song. I am glad my first night moves were with you. I hope you have a great life.”
One of the hazards of living in a high concept world where the idea of something has more weight than the actual doing of it, where the abstract replaces the concrete, is that poets lose track of a narrative thread’s value. It becomes all about the lyric, or all about the extended metaphor, and we lose track of how important it is to use narrative to give the reader’s empathy some place to go. Greek myth is interesting, but it becomes relevant to us through the story of the Odyssey. “Today’s music can’t tell any stories about their experience in life,” someone writes. Neither does a lot of the poetry either.
I love how this “nonobjective painting” of a poetry book makes us ache for more in our lives to not be so objective. Praise to Stephany Barber for taking the time to sit cramped on her former bodega’s trembling wooden floor between the friendly cat and the other cat who gets sick a lot, hustling what internet she could when the wind was blowing right, and crying for days over this comment thread that was so sad and so inviting that she had to share it with us.
This book gives us permission to lust for what we remember about whom we loved. Take any three years out of the past fifty. What were you doing 1962? What were you dreaming about in 1978? What has become of all those doings and all those dreams? Your personal answer is a poem for everyone. Now thump your left hand on the roof of your speeding dark sedan and sing it.
by Dawn Potter
Or can she only be taught to appreciate poetry? In other words, are all poets actually self-taught? And are writing workshops essentially useless–either “warm and fuzzy” or “butcher block”?
If you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the disputants bring up, questions that I find both tedious and germane. I do get weary of these what’s-the-point-of-an-M.F.A. quarrels, but I also know that nearly all the poetry workshops I’ve attended have been either “warm and fuzzy”–e.g., “This is such a great poem! I love it!,” which is flattering yet unhelpful–or “butcher block,” in which a participant prepares to be publicly humiliated for breaking craft rules, focusing on unfashionable subjects or forms, or not respectfully imitating the teacher’s style. Of course there are variations on these two extremes; of course there is also the personal bond (or lack thereof) between a student and a mentor; of course there are the issues of stage of growth and prior experience.
You can read about approach that Baron and I use at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which involves neither cuddling nor hatchets. But, in the end, is this method more effective than any other at teaching a writer to be a poet? We work primarily with teachers, who, even if they think of themselves as poets, are for the moment focused on bringing poems to their students. In other words we are trying to teach teachers to be the kind of mentors that we, as young embryo poets, did not have ourselves.
Nonetheless, we grew up to be poets anyway.
Poems by Martha Rhodes
|Autumn House Press, 2012
Reviewed by Marcella Prokop
In her fourth collection of poems, Martha Rhodes examines illness, love, the infidelity of the body, and “The pleasures and inconveniences of being detested.” This, the title of the twelfth poem in her collection The Beds, begins with frailty, meanders through the doctor’s office around “friends tired of all the errands and schlepping” to end on a humorous note, setting the tone of breakdown and amusement that underscores this book:
And broken leg again.
And 81 stairs.
Despite the difficulty of caring for an ailing loved one, or caring for themselves, Rhodes’ speakers share an unwavering sense of grit and humor, and the poet’s ability to work from abstract title through bone (and heart) breaks and line breaks to clear image often brings the reader to a muscle-clenching moment of understanding. This sense of connection is sometimes so subtle it may be missed on the first read.
This is the case with “Thrombosis,” “A rat carried this week to us between its teeth and dropped it at our feet…And the rat will find its way to us here, too, where at the hospital I hold onto your foot lest you be rolled away without me…today I am able to eat every doughnut New York City offers.” Rhodes with another story within a story, the connotation of doughnuts and roundness and illness gelling together in an instant at the end:
My grandfather was a baker from Vienna. Perhaps he’d say to me today, Doughnuts are in your blood. And what should I say about your blood, dear, not knowing yet what’s in your blood that brings us here this week.
Without a doubt, Rhodes’ poems are curious and provocative, like a small animal scratching at the window. Her simple, quick lines create a sense of immediate imagery, urging the imagination to run like a fever unchecked. And as the sound and mouth feel of her words works its way inside, the symbiotic relationship of reader and writer, of experienced and imagined, consumes the reader.
On the surface, Rhodes’ poems are about the natural processes of separation and loss, illness and grief and the mirthful capacity to overcome reality. Weaving imagery of the domestic life and the human implements of hospitals and houseplants into the earthy textures of the world beyond, Rhodes yields a quiet, uncanny power over nature unknown to most humans.
In “Fog Horn,” for instance, the gauzy language of disorientation pulls at the reader’s senses.
The first stanza, “The sheet’s dark-on-dark pattern, / a flat dull sea, calm enough,” pulls readers into a quiet, dark seabed of solitude. But as the couplets progress, the speaker becomes unsettled, then solid, leaving the reader with a sense of direction.
I’ve begun my own noise—
of warning—a trembling at first,
then persistent, even confident,
through the night’s steady fog.
Rhodes continues drawing upon the natural world in “The Gathered,” layering the detritus of a stalled river and a stalled life until the physical image pushes the mind to a new reality.
The river sludge hardens and cracks.
We pitch tents in mile-long rows.
We’re camped above, too tired to press
one more step; we sleep in fits—
the gnats, the howlings, the mess
of our lives brought in our eyes and lit
before us, our precious disasters.
…we deserve this rot
and roll in it, thrive in it, and in turn
welcome those who follow us. Need a bed?
Rest here with us, friend. End of the line.
While Rhodes’ perception of the physical world lends itself to the hardscrabble life of the outdoors, that sense of emotion, fragility and strength comes through best when she relates the physical world to the natural process of stagnation, decay, creation and existence as it applies to the personal. The best poems in this fifty-four page collection explore death, absence and illness, and create meaning for those facing or remaining after, a final absence. Readers will search for the underlying connotation of each poem, and with each new reading the poems will reveal something new of themselves, in much the same way a wound’s appearance changes with each unbandaging.
Martha Rhodes is the author of At the Gate, Perfect Disappearance (Green Rose Prize), and Mother Quiet. Her poems have been published in such journals as Agni, Columbia, Fence, New England Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and TriQuarterly and anthologized in Agni 30 Years, Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, Poem in Your Pocket (a publication of the Academy of American Poets), and It’s Not You, It’s Me. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Martha Rhodes is the director of Four Way Books in New York City.
by John Samuel Tieman
the army drafts me back to the war
I’m the oldest corporal in the 4th Infantry
I curse my neighbors who are all my father
the barracks is French
I beg my wife not to leave me
the Red Alert siren turns to an alarm
Phoebe is surprised I would ask
Allowing for a bit of poetic license, this is in essence a dream I had night before last. I’ve been home from that war for forty-three years. I learned in therapy that, while the pain fades, the wound remains.
But about that poetic license. And about that dream. The controlling image is my war. The dream is about abandonment, and the subject, my greatest fear.
In the actual dream, my love is disrupted, as is my work, as are my friendships. The barracks is a school in which I taught many years ago. There’s no work in that barracks/school, just disorientation. The French barracks image I take from an actual abandoned Foreign Legion barracks in which I spent a night in The Nam. I use a flat statement, ‘the barracks is French’, in which the disorientation is implied. In the dream, I simply turn my back on my father, who abandoned me when I was ten. I didn’t curse my neighbors and friends in the dream. I debated them, the end result being that they leave. I conflate these two bits into a single image, throw out the dream debate and throw in ‘curse’ for drama of the image and the hardness of the c and the r, the hiss of the s. The Red Alert siren turning into the alarm clock, that’s pure poetry aided by associational logic, the purpose being a transition to wakefulness. Phoebe comforts me in the dream. When I actually awoke, she really said almost nothing beyond, “I’ve got another hour to sleep” or some such.
For many years, I used to dwell upon Vietnam. In its many variations, this nightmare was a response to that trauma. Today, just now, I really don’t think that much about the facts of the war. But the emotions — the emotions are forever.
Poems by Eric Pankey
|Milkweed Editions, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Pankey explores the idea of traces in several ways throughout this collection. One version is as traces of religious faith or traces of evidence supporting that faith. Another is traces of memory, specifically memories of Pankey’s deceased father. And finally, there are traces of meaning in the poems, which could be inspired by any of the other traces.
The collection opens with a section of poems focused on Pankey’s religious beliefs. “The Sacrifice” questions the validity of blind sacrifice. “A Bird Loose in the House” nicely conjures an analogy of the soul, “A shadow-play alive on a curtain alive with wind.” As evidenced in this poem, Pankey finds inspiration in nature, not only for poetry but for his faith.
Pankey tends to avoid the easy, well-trod imagery of religious poetry. He doesn’t speak from a place of fear of retribution, or scold. He doesn’t belittle human endeavor for the sake of appeasing divine ego. Instead, he paints a chaotic world in which so little is understandable, not that science has failed us, but rather a world so complex, simple cause-and-effect relationships often don’t make sense. “The Creation of Adam” describes a humanistic landscape:
On a cross of branches tied with baling wire,
An old man hung a ragged wool overcoat.
As he weeded, he instructed the scarecrow
On the doctrine and conundrum of free will.
When a crow landed on the scarecrow’s shoulder,
The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew
If he chose, he could shrug and shoo the crow.
If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.
Another version of traces are traces of memory. “Faith” describes a lost love, which retreated like a glacier. “The Burning House” describes “The house afire, the house of my childhood,/All tinder and kindling married to spark.” The burning house is never consumed, of course recalling the biblical burning bush; it exists in a liminal state in Pankey’s memory. “Southern Elegy” is a subtle commentary on place. Pankey describes a garter snake hunting “along cracked masonry/Marked by rust, along slate//Slabs in the unkempt graveyard.” It’s a desolate world in which “Autumn passes like empty freight cars –//Some doors open, some doors closed.”
Finally, Pankey focuses on traces of meaning in his poems, which he struggles to reach. But clarity isn’t something that can necessarily be reached. “Sometimes I exist,” he says in “Models of Paradise” “only as anxiety.” And later, he struggles with finding that clarity not only in his poetry but in his faith as he describes “Just stars above me,/ a broken abacus of stars:/The beads scattered, the beads unthumbed.” Finally, he begins to reach meaning, “What we lack, mostly, is context.” This leads to wisdom: “One measures the void a gram at a time.”
Pankey doesn’t so much try to make sense of the world as he tries to make sense from the world. He shares observances, reserving comment many times, in favor of letting the images resonate by themselves. Pankey’s language is beautiful and spare and he constantly surprises with profound lines. Pankey’s built a name for himself, and considering the quality of the poems in this collection, it’s no surprise.
Eric Pankey is currently Professor of English and Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University. Trace is his ninth collection of poetry.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
My grandmother used to turn off her hearing aids at what seemed like the oddest times. There are those in my family who considered this an act of passive aggression. The more of herself she lost to dementia, though, the more striking the difference became between those moments the hearing aids were on, and she was fighting through the pain and confusion to make sense of her surroundings, and those moments the hearing aids were off, and her face registered nothing but a perfect, blissful peace.
The world I live in—a world of students and their essays, children and their questions, a marriage by turns on fire and burning down—is chock full of beauty, love, joy, adventure and excitement, and I never have to reach very far to find my gratitude. But sometimes when that beauty comes at me from ninety directions at once, with demands and deadlines attached to every one, I wish I had my grandmother’s hearing aids—those magical instruments that could instantly switch off the noise and bring her back to center.
I think a lot of writers have the same dilemma. We are called to engage fully in life, so that we have something real to write about, but we are also called—sometimes at the same time—to disengage fully so that we can do the work of processing, writing and revisioning our experience.
Ernest Hemingway famously sharpened 20 pencils before each writing session to put himself in the right frame of mind. Willa Cather read the Bible. Best-selling novelist Steve Berry goes in to work early, before anybody else is there, and writes in his laptop. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in coffee shops because the walk outdoors was what it took to get her infant daughter to sleep.The list goes on—from the hyper-literary to the hyper-popular, writer after writer describes the need for silence. For escape. For a quiet center from which he or she can write.
That’s why this month my project to make myself a better writer was to find a space to escape the rest of my life. A scriptorium. A sanctum sanctorum from which I can put my words out into the world, and in which I can focus only on writing. I rented out a corner of an artsy tattoo shop on a second floor, with high ceilings, exposed brick, and a window overlooking Main Street. I don’t imagine the few lit journals that publish me will pay the rent, so I’ll take on more readings and sell more books to pay for it. I’ll be there 3 mornings a week for as long as I can afford it. With luck, I’ll find the place my grandmother found—my quiet center—and I’ll be able to put something worthwhile out into the world.
by Dawn Potter
It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.” Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:
A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.
And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:
they opn our mail petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer
Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.
cain’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.
Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:
sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—
sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—
sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—
Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:
Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.
But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.
Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:
Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith
of smoke, which I believed came from the house,
but every smoker carries his own wreath;
then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.
In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.
[Draft excerpt from my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]