It’s National Poetry Month.
I confess, I’m afraid of poetry. I loved it when I was a kid, when “poetry” meant “Annabelle Lee” and “The Highwayman”. And I still have a couple of general anthologies I picked up in high school. I had a lot of fun in college memorizing all the different meters and feet (Higgledgy Piggledy was my favorite, though I now can’t remember the official name for it). [addendum: double dactyl]
But I never really got to the point where I could distinguish between adolescent emo and art.
So, what better way to nose back into poetry than via the Pushcart volume. I’ve been working on this post over the course of the past couple of months, one poem at a time (and many thanks to Panos at wpbtips who was so helpful with my questions about indents within blockquotes).
So many of these poems were so wonderful. And, so many of them are available online. So, for those of you who, like me, are a little nervous, just try. And for those of you who know what you’re talking about, I welcome further enlightenment on any or all, particularly the ones that went over my head.
“Station” by Maria Hummel – from Poetry Sept 2010
Read online or listen to the poet reading
We wear our hats and ride the knives.
They cannot fix you. They try and try.
Tunnel! Into the dark open we go.
Days you are sick, we get dressed slow.
Great imagery; riding the knives (trains, but also surgery). The sing-song quality makes me think “you” is a child. This is in the form of a pantoum, which, I’ve discovered, is similar to a villanelle, a form I’ve always loved (“I think I made you up inside my head,” and “Do not go gentle” among others).
… – a spiral so huge,your mind mutinies and denies it all.
“Laugh” by Stephen Dobyns – from American Poetry Review Jan/Feb 2010
What he wished was to have his ashes flushed
Down the ladies’ room toilet of Syracuse City Hall,
Which would so clog the pipes that the resulting
Blast of glutinous broth would douse the place clean…
A memoir of someone with a sense of humor; terrific blend of sorrow and joy.
“Song” by John Murillo – from his collection Up Jump the Boogie
Watch the poet reading.
And I say, praise it all. Even this ride, its every
Bump and stall, and each funky body pressed
To another, sweat earned over hours, bent over moats,
Caged in cubicles, and after it all, the pouring
Of us, like scotch, into daylight….
A joyously musical paean to urban life; it deserves to be sung out in every subway stop.
“Ode to Late Middle Age” by Richard Cecil – from Atlanta Review October 1 2010
(sorry, no longer online).
At last, someone else who can’t stand the forced happiness of summer, and he extends it into the lifespan.
Free at last from summer’s hectoring
how come you’re not having a great time? –
But there is the downside:
Why am I reluctant to embrace it/just because it ends so horribly?
“Man on the Dump” by Donald Platt – from Alaska Quarterly Review Fall & Winter 2010
The poet observes a photographer taking pictures of a murdered Iraqi man thrown on a garbage dump (“But my eyes always return to the blue hands…”) and connects though Susan Sontag’s “Let the atrocious images haunt us” to other images. Powerful.
“December Fever” by Joy Katz – from Ploughshares
A mother lies sick and delirious while her baby rips up a book: “Please keep ripping up the words/Please don’t need anything from me.”
“Black People Can’t Swim” by Douglas Goetch – from The Gettysburg Review winter 2010
A unique and clever take on racial harmony, as a white man gets schooled in the secret lives of black women.
We were all toddlers, or unborn, when Martin dreamed
of little black children and little white children
going to school arm in arm. He dreamed this too:
a restaurant table where we were free to reveal
not just our true but our mysterious, irrational selves
in the presence of the other tribe without apology.
Tracing Back by Alice Friman – from The Gettysburg Review Autumn 2010
Following an essay “Logophilia” makes this poem of the seductive quality of language particularly interesting. She uses the example of the serpent in Eden; the Fall was caused by words, after all:
…What do you
think that first slither was,
coiling the winesap…
and the result:
to what she didn’t know yet
but would be looking for
in all her troubled incarnations.
“Mending Wall” by Janice N. Harrington – from Quiddity Spring/Summer 2010
You learn to take the splitting skin
And seeping scabs for granted, understanding
that the body refuses, at last, to keep its wall.
Harrington drew the poems in her collection, The Hands of Strangers, from her experience working as a nurse’s aide during college. As I read, I was thinking, this is a lovely but routine poem about old people – until I got to the last stanza and especially the last sentence, which, in combination with the allusion to Frost’s poem of the same title, turns it into something very special. Reading this poem immediately after finishing Head Cases gave it extra punch, I think.
“Orphanage” by Elaine Terranova – from Salamander, Summer 2010
All day, I watched my mother: what she
could clean up, what she could
get out of the way. You know, in the rush,
in the desperation to do the laundry.
with my parents past the orphanage. I looked
with longing at the empty swings
and the wide green playing field behind the gate.
The children. Where were they? Locked away
like a treasure. What was freedom then, what?
I think (I’m a little hazy here) this is a childs-eye view of life during “the war” – WWII? the poet would have been a small child then – wondering what is this freedom everyone’s fighting for, since her mother is enslaved by housework and the children at the orphanage are locked safely away, leaving only the empty swings and fields.
“Roll Out the Fool” by William Trowbridge – from Poems & Plays, 2010
In cave days, Fool. mated
with the pratfall…
A lighthearted explanation of human history. It’s from his collection Ship of Fool; other poems from this collection, in the same vein, plus videos of Trowbridge reading, are available at his website. This is why I don’t understand poetry. It’s fine stuff, you realize; that’s not it. I just don’t understand why it’s a poem. But I’m glad I read it anyway – and I agree.
“After 11 A.M. Bombardment” by Ilya Kaminksy – from Spillway #15
When they shot fifty women on Tedna St.,
I sat down to write and tell you what I know:
A child learns the world by putting it in his mouth,
A boy becomes a man and a man earth.
This poem is available, under different titles, such as “Tedna Street”, at various online sites as well as in Spillway. It’s moving, in a dark and obscure way, and I’m again reminded how all our complaining about this and that is so ridiculous; we don’t know how good we’ve got it. Ilya Kaminsky, founder of Poets for Peace, has several books of poetry available.
“Watching My Mother Take Her Last Breath” by Leon Stokesbury – from Georgia Review, Fall 2010
…the body holds some tenets of its own.
Pretty much what you’d expect from the title. Lovely.
“A Tibetan Man in Hawley, Massachusetts by Pamela Stewart – from Ghost Farm
Read the poem online in an excerpt from the collection on the B&N website
It’s hot, but the man from Tibet will pace this roadside ditch
waiting for his shoes to rise out of the shadows.
A mysterious, intriguing, and wonderful short poem.
“I’m Only Sleeping” by John Rybicki – from Ecotone Fall 2010
Read online (scroll down to page 12 of the excerpt).
Exquisite: a man drunkenly mourns his recently passed wife (I think).
“Casals” by Gerald Stern – from Five Points
Read online or listen to the poet read.
It helps to know a little about cellist Pablo Casals. I especially like the idea that music comes from a quilt (soft and comforting), a glass top table (hard and fragile), and rage (hot and emotional).
“Patronized” by Tara Hart – from Little Patuxent Review, Summer 2010
I can’t believe that you, with your eyes to the sky,
is all that the Church has to give me when
I have lost everything – love, labor, lost.
The title makes it perfect.
“My Sky Diary” by Claire Bateman – from New Ohio Review 7 Spring 2010
…..it will take me millenia
to progress from tedious tracing
to the graphomaniacal excess
my right hand assures me
I was born for.
The poet meditates on leaving school and facing the world. The sky is the underside of a table next to her bed. Completely charming; a great progression of themes and language, culminating in the final lines above.
“Spell Against Gods” by Patrick Phillips – from New England Review 2010
Let them know they will die.
And all those they love.
Wishing the worst part of humanity on the gods – and then sitting back to watch.
“Theory of Lipstick” by Karla Huston – from Verse Wisconsin, Winter 2010
Read online (PDF, pg. 25; or, if you don’t like PDFs, here)
I’ve been doing really well with the poetry so far, even though I don’t understand poetry, but then something like this comes along and I have no idea what to make of it, why it’s “better” than other poems, what the art is in it. Maybe it’s because I don’t like lipstick. Best I can figure is, lipstick is a weapon.
“Ocean State Job Lot” by Stephen Burt – from New Ohio Review
where every piece of evidence
has a notional price and a buyer, and we find our own
among its premises:
Yes, there is an Ocean State Job Lot online (stores scattered though New England), “Home of Adventure Shopping” – “we prefer to think of ourselves as opportunistic merchants.” But the poem laments the sadness of these horrible orphan items, and somehow creates art out of overstocked canned oysters – which, if you watch cooking competitions, have their own sad history. How to create art from the hideously tacky. Love the dual meaning of “premises.”
“Grace Notes” by Nancy Mitchell – from Green Mountain Review Vol. XXIII, No. 1
A woman more at home with nature, messy as it is, than with modern life and her husband, who is very picky about his yellows and blues:
Easier to find a four leaf clover
in a nettle patch than the linen pants
on line for him – no, not yellow,
more a golden rod–
I’m not sure about the title, though. The grace notes are the chirps which may be the cardinal or the battery warning? There’s a lot of music in this – sheep grazing, Philip Glass, creaking, chirping, a voice in her mind telling her she’s plainer than a marsh hen – her mother? And the day grows late, she still can’t get herself to tear herself away from here and meet him for drinks. Really nice.
“Meditation After An Excellent Dinner” by Mark Halliday – from Court Green #7, 2010
All the new thinking is about not getting
Squashed like a bug under the boot of time.
In this it resembles all the old
Bundles of tropes and rhetorical maneuvers
On the shelves in your basement next to
Scattergories, Scrabble, Mastermind, Monopoly and Clue.
For someone who doesn’t really “get” poetry, as I admitted right up front, I’ve done pretty well, and I’ve followed along so far. But here I get lost. I love the opening, quoted above, but then I get lost in Whole Foods among the olives, and have no idea how we ended up in a morass of pouty lips screaming banana banana banana. However, I have faith that there is a reason for all of it, and there is a strange kind of appealing kookiness to it. Still, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference between this poem and one by a clever and playful Drama major. Hints welcome.
“Family Math” by Alan Michael Parker, from The Kenyon Review, Spring 2010
Tomorrow is not my birthday
but all the math will change again.
Vince Corvaia perfectly in his review for The Review Review website: “The poem is both a cataloguing and a celebration of cataloguing, the narrator not unlike a baseball fan who lives for the statistics.” It starts off with something that sounds like a series of word problems, and since I’ve been doing a review of algebra (why? Because, like Mt. Everest, it’s there) I had to concentrate to keep myself from figuring out how old the guy is, how old his computer is, etc etc. But it morphs into something moving and profound. Math is sometimes like that.
“Murder Ballad” by Jane Springer from The Cincinnatti Review Winter 2010.
I don’t know what dark country of the heart this music comes from.
In a Cincinnati Review interview Springer talks about her collection Murder Ballad which is about “the decline of the oral tradition of storytelling” and “acknowledges the violence inherent in that form of music;” she also talks about the importance of duende in music, and poems, like these. Really nice muse on dark Appalachian folk ballads.
“Russians” by David Rigsbee from The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems, Black Lawrence Press, 2010
Read online at the Black Lawrence Press blog.
An exquisite catalog of the power of denial.
“Silhouettes” by Sarah Busse, from Think, Fall 2010
Well. More upside than down, as these things go.
I never saw him again. As far as I know.
A frightening encounter with an intruder whose face she never saw. I’m puzzled by the rhyme of the last stanza; is it deliberate?
“The Telephone” by Kathleen Graber, from The Kenyon Review, Summer 2010
I don’t really have a clue on this one, other than it’s a paean to the telephone. It’s pretty much what I fear when I say I fear poetry.
“The B’s” by Steve Myers, from Lake Effect, Spring 2010
weddings in the Eighties? The serial
nuptials of Youth for Reagan – black tux,
white gown, garden variety born-again
clergyman sucking the lifeblood
from the Song of Songs? It seemed possible
no one would ever get drunk again…
I don’t quite understand nostalgia for the 80s, but I remember how amusing my parents found 50s nostalgia. This will probably be more meaningful to B-52’s fans. And, really, here we are again, aren’t we?
“Little Wet Monster” by Chad Sweeney, from American Poetry Review, November 2010
You devour the night’s holy sound
Come home my little wet monster
Watch the poet read; the intro is, for me, better than the poem. It’s quite a performance. Or, you can read it online, but it’s nowhere near as fun. A dark and scary meditation on the impending arrival of his baby son, who he thought of as the little wet monster, which is gonna make for some fun Parent-Teacher conferences, y’think?