Pushcart XLIII: Rick Barot, “UDFj-39546284” (poem) from Arroyo Literary Review #9

For context, today I learned that the farthest galaxy
we know of, located by scientists in 2011
is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away.
It goes by the name of UDFj-39546284
for reasons that I haven’t yet looked up.
In the photograph you can see online, the galaxy looks
like dusty stuff in the corner of a window pane,
something you could look at sometimes,
something that is nothing, and has nothing
to do with what you know about distance and time.

If this poem were available online, I’d start at the beginning, but it isn’t, so I’ve presented, as an opening, the end, which is the titled example of the point of it all: what we “see” – that is, how we interpret the sensory signals we receive and turn them into opinions, facts, beliefs – depends on a whole lot of things, including a) what we expect to see; b) what we’ve seen before; c) what we want to see; d) what aspects of the scene we’ve been told are important; etc etc. It’s the poetic version of the intersection of the neuroscience of perception and philosophy, my favorite place.

The poem starts off with bunraku, a Japanese form of puppetry in which the puppeteers, two or three per puppet, are in full view of the audience, holding the puppets and coordinating movements. I was lucky to see a bunraku performance of Hansel and Gretel at my local library a few years ago, and I agree with the speaker of the poem: at first, you watch the puppeteers, but then you get used to them, and you start watching the puppets and get caught up in the action of the play. This is “The seeing and non-seeing that makes humans / humans”, as the poem puts it. Or, as comes later, foreground, background, context.

…. I’m thinking now of the placid
English estates where the servants had to face the wall
whenever anyone of importance was near,
where workers had to cut the lawns with scissors
in candlelight, to save the master the trouble
of seeing and hearing all that effort.
What the mind does with this kind of information
is probably the knot within the post-
in what we call post-modernism, knowing all we know
now about the cruelty that made modernism

Do we see the beautiful lawn, or the servants whose crippled backs and hands made it that way? Are their images as disposable as their lives? Whose lives are we not seeing right now?

I like the commentary on modernism, when we knew everything as objective truth, vs post-modernism, when subjectivity took center stage and we realized things look different depending on where you’re standing. Don’t talk to me about post-post-modernism, I’m not ready yet.

The speaker gives other examples of this process of foregrounding/backgrounding – painters who were hired to paint background, while named artists who signed the paintings did the figures in the foreground; his grandmother’s hands in an old photo – until we get to the galaxy UDFj-39546284. I did spend some time looking for the naming conventions that would generate such an appellation, but the best I could do was to discover UDF means “ultra-deep field” on the Hubble telescope. The other characters might signify a particular image taken by the ‘scope, and a particular grid on that image, some kind of location parameter, but I don’t really know.

A couple of things about the peculiarly-named galaxy that aren’t necessarily clear from the description of “the oldest galaxy”. First, because of the expansion of the universe, farthest means it is the oldest galaxy, the one formed first of all the galaxies we know (and it is, it seems, a proto-galaxy rather than a formed galaxy), though of course there may be others we just haven’t seen yet. Its light has been travelling for something like 13 billion years to reach Hubble. And, the most interesting point: it no longer exists. I’m not sure how that is known – maybe it’s due to the age, galaxies have life spans too, and our own will someday die – but what we see was there, but now is not.

This is a poem, and, as I often do, I wonder why this is a poem, not an essay. There’s no meter I can discern, certainly no rhyme, yet it’s arranged in pairs of lines (TIL they can’t be called couplets unless they have the same meter). Why pairs? Does this suggest a duo, such as what we see and what we perceive? Or what is foreground and what is background? Or is it more of a process, a one-two step, almost a march? Or was it just what the poet was in the mood for? Is what we are seeing – an image of a thought, an emotion – something that was there, but now is not?

These are the background questions the poem raises for me. And, because the poem has sensitized me to these issues, I wonder why I choose to foreground my interpretation of content, and background form. There might well be another way to see it, and seeing it that way, like walking around a building to get a better sense of its structure, might increase – or change entirely – the impact.

Pushcart XLIII: Allison Adair, “The Clearing” (poem) from Southeast Review #35.2

What if this time instead of crumbs the girl drops
teeth, her own, what else does she have, and the prince
or woodcutter or brother or man musty with beard and
thick in the pants collects the teeth with a wide rustic hand…

Complete story available online at Southeast Review

Ok, we’re back to the land of “I have no idea what’s going on”. This poem made me far more uncomfortable than the BBHBB poem, possibly because the meaning was less clear. It seems to be a linkage of fairy tale with primeval misogyny, turning the Brother Grimm into writers for L&O:SVU. Nature itself is against the female: the wolf who “licks his parts with a sandpaper tongue”, and in the final lines:

…how dark birds come
after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.

That would be social media, blaming the woman for being out after dark, for being drunk, for wearing a short skirt, for flirting at a party, for having a vagina to penetrate in the first place. For ruining a young man’s life by demanding justice.

But it could be a poem about something else entirely, I have no idea.

Pushcart XLIII: David J. Rothman, “Kernels” (poetry) from The New Criterion #36:2

When you told me about his whistling belt
And your cruel stepmother, who placed each kernel
On the hard floor then made you kneel, I felt
Like I had wandered into some infernal
Fairy tale. But it was real.

Complete poem available online at New Criterion

On the surface, the poem is a story we’ve all heard many times: the story of the abused child, told between adults, a story of rage, strength, and, perhaps, forgiveness. We are frequently shifted between the teller of the tale, who was the abused child, and the listener/speaker of the poem, who is… we don’t know. A friend? Lover? Counselor, minister, door-to-door vendor? The contrast is between the sufferer, who forgives, and the listener/speaker, who does not. It goes through tiny chapters: the revelation above, a moment of reflection, then an address to the sufferer, and a closing declaration by the listener/speaker.

You did the brave thing, learning how to live.
But me? They hurt a child. I don’t forgive.

But here’s where I wish I had more of a foundation in formal analysis: the poem seems to take the form of a sonnet, with some modifications, that coincides with the chapters.

The original Shakespearean sonnet of 14 lines is traditionally divided into three quatrains – four-line sections – each with their own alternating rhymes, and then a final rhyming couplet. As best I can tell, Rothman’s poem modifies that by extending the first, very traditional quatrain into the fifth line, the remainder of which seems to be unrhymed, a half-line unto itself. Then there is another traditionally rhymed quatrain, followed by a three-line tercet with interleaved rhyme, borrowed from the earlier Petrarchan form of the sonnet. The two emphatic lines of listener/speaker declaration end the poem.

Several lines stand out as emphatic markers, the rhythm distinct from the surrounding lines: “But it was real;” “And I believe you have.” They’re shorter sentences than the rest, and somehow signal a shift.

Then there’s the remarkable line, smack in the middle of the poem: “Failure to grieve / can freeze what frees us up”. The sound is distinct: the repeated “ee” sound, the homophones “freeze” and “frees” acting as semantic opposites. At this point I wonder if the listener/speaker is talking about him/herself, is another sufferer, or perhaps someone who saw abuse close at hand. Is the listener/speaker (and isn’t it interesting that I’ve come to that phrase, the speaker of the poem is the listener in the narrative) indicating there is something frozen, unfree about the sufferer? Or is the listener/speaker’s inability to forgive a sign of something unfree? What is the relationship between the two? Is it possible they are the same, someone so alienated from the past so as to see it as someone else who forgives, but a core that still rages?

Considering my initial reaction to the poem was “I’ve heard this before”, I’m glad that a bit of concentration yielded more than was first evident. I only wish someone who knew what they were doing – with sonnet, formal analysis, whatever – could provide more guidance.

Pushcart XLIII: Tiana Clark, “BBHMM” (poem) from The Journal #41.1

I, too, want to be naked,                     zebra-striped
in the almost dried accountant’s blood,                     sticky
and sucking                    a fat blunt inside a Louis Vuitton
suitcase brimming                    with the newest money.
This                    is another way to see myself, too,
in the way Rihanna                nooses              a white woman          up
by her smooth feet, a blue-blooded pendulum          swaying
as her beautiful tits                look more perfect than ever.

Complete poem available online at The Journal

Ekphrastic poetry, the august journal Poetry tells us, is adescription of a work of art, but also more: “Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” The Getty Museum reminds reminds us that, in the original ancient Greek use, ekphrasis was an intense description of anything; they use the example of Homer devoting 150 lines of the Iliad to a description of Achilles’ shield. But they, too, indicate that “an ekphrastic poem usually includes an exploration of how the speaker is impacted by his or her experience with the work.”

Tiana Clark also draws upon high-status definitions of ekphrasis in her article at Adroit Journal describing her experience of writing and publishing this poem, using a quote from Edward Hirsch, poet and author of How to Read a Poem: “There is something transgressive in writing about the visual arts. A border is crossed, a boundary is breached, as the writer enters into the spatial realm, traducing an abyss, violating the silent integrity of the pictorial.”

Clark’s description of her experience shows she understands transgression:

When I wrote this poem as a modern ekphrastic response to Rihanna’s music video, I was met with some resistance from various sources in my life and M.F.A. program….
I was told not to publish the poem. I was encouraged not to write about pop culture, and definitely not pop music. I was told the poem was too violent. I was told the poem would make white people feel uncomfortable, and then a white person actually said, “This poem frightens me.”….
….when I, a black artist, want to use black art that was made for me (FUBU poetics), somehow that’s not allowed or not deemed as elevated or worthy enough of a subject for a timestamp.

Tiana Clark, interview at Adroit Journal

I will admit, the Rhianna video this poem describes makes me uncomfortable, too. “Bitch Better Have My Money” is violent and angry. It’s also beautifully produced with a seriously catchy hook, multiplying my discomfort. I’m not including a link to it, so some unsuspecting naif doesn’t get more than they bargained for by clicking, but it’s very easy to find (and is preceded by multiple warnings about violence and language – and nudity, as though that’s the problem).

However, on watching the video again, I realized the violence is more implied than shown. Bullets and fists and knives fly in critically acclaimed movies like The Godfather and TV cop shows (often about women being raped and murdered). By contrast, In the video, we see two women get on an elevator, one with a large trunk, and one woman get off dragging the trunk. We see a chain saw, but no dismemberment. We do see a woman swinging upside down, strapped to the underside of a pool float, and in the trunk, but she doesn’t look all that terrified (though she does clearly look dead in the pool). And we see the amazing opening and closing scene referenced in the opening stanza. We see revenge. We see payment of what is owed.

That’s what strikes me most about the video: “Pay me what you owe me.” This isn’t a robbery or a shakedown; it’s a collection letter. Yes, it’s set in an entertainment context, a manager or agent who has skimmed off the top and not delivered the artist her due. I don’t know about now, but women in entertainment, particularly women of color, have historically been victims of this kind of fraud. But given the American habit of stealing from African Americans on US soil for the past 400 years or so, it reaches far beyond Hollywood.

I hate it when people
talk about black artists                    being capitalists.
Why can’t we thrive in something rich and green too? And let us
be loud about it? Let us be loud        without consequence.

I’m still uncomfortable with the video. I’m not entirely comfortable with the poem. But I realize my view, and Clark’s view, are very different (FUBU poetics indeed), and I don’t begrudge her a viewpoint. In fact, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the idea of the poem, the more I look at it.

Pushcart XLIII: Tom Sleigh, “Face” (poem) from Literary Imagination #19:2

i.m. Mark Strand

Mark came into the room and said, Tom, you have
the face of a dog. Alan, you have the face
of a horse. And me, I have the face of

but Mark couldn’t decide what kind of face
he had, or else I couldn’t in the dream
remember or maybe it was that the dream
couldn’t remember. And in the second part
of the dream Mark came into the room smiling
and laughing, and after a while he left the room
and Alan said, It’s only natural he wants
to have a good time.
And when Mark didn’t come
back for a while, I went looking for him,
and though I knew where he was, I couldn’t find him.

And here I am again, thinking I would understand this poem much better if I had a better grasp of who Tom Sleigh is, who Mark Strand was, who the Alan in the poem is, and how they all relate to one another, poetically and/or personally. I do know Mark Strand was a master poet who died in 2014. I’m going to assume Alan is Alan Shapiro, with whom Sleigh edited the Spring 2016 issue of Ploughshares as a tribute to recently deceased poets Mark Strand, Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney: “ ‘We wanted to bring them back–if only in these pages.’ Featuring work from the aforementioned poets alongside their students, peers, and also variety of emerging voices, the stories and poems in these pages reassure us that great writers and teachers never really leave us.” So I am going to assume this poem is a dream-recreation of the process of editing that issue.

It’s a dream in five parts. In the first, as above, Mark joins Tomm and Alan and identifies the two living poets as having the faces of a horse and dog, but can’t identify himself. The second part is more of a reaction. In the third part, Mark returns and changes the identifications: now Tom has the face of a horse, Alan the face of a dog, but Mark still doesn’t know what he is. In the fourth part Mark decides he has the face of the horse and the dog.

And then the fifth part:

And in the fifth part of the dream –
but there was no fifth part of the dream –
only Alan, me, horse, dog, and Mark
coming and going, coming and going in the room.

I get a very strong sense of the poet/teacher who is always present, offering what may to me seem like random and unsatisfying hints and prompts, but which, to the more attuned poetic ear, is inspiration. Is this based on a real dream? Is the sequence meaningful in some way beyond my understanding?

The poem is included in Sleigh’s 2018 collection House of Fact, House of Ruin which publisher Graywolf Press describes: “The book ultimately turns on conundrums of selfhood and self-estrangement in which Sleigh urges us toward a different realm, where we might achieve the freedom of spirit to step outside our own circumstances, however imperfectly, and look at ourselves as other, as unfamiliar, as strange.” I don’t know about the other poems in the collection, but it fits this one perfectly.

It’s another poem I don’t really get, but one that interests me. I like the repetitive but progressive dream sequences; I may not know what’s going on, exactly, but I’m intrigued nonetheless.

Pushcart XLIII: Maggie Smith, “Parachute” (poem) from Pleiades

Because a lie is not a lie if the teller
believes it, the way beautiful things
reassure us of the world’s wholeness,
of our wholeness, is not quite a lie.
Beautiful things believe their own
narrative, the narrative that makes them
beautiful. I almost believed it
until the new mother strapped
her infant to her chest, opened
the eighth-floor window,
and jumped.

Complete poem available online at Pleiades

Poet Maggie Smith (not to be confused with the British actor) wrote this in response to a real news story: a 44-year-old attorney and new mother, presumably suffering from post-partum depression, jumped out of an eighth-floor window with her baby. The woman, who left behind a 13-page suicide note enumerating her flaws as a mother, died; the baby somehow lived.

Smith ties it to her daughter’s field trip visit to a firehouse. Kids love this kind of thing: they slide down the pole, caught by burly firefighters who keep them safe on the 12-foot trip, they see videos about stop-drop-and-roll, they look at the shiny fire trucks and the axes, and somehow it’s all separated from the actual fires, from real fear and pain and death. At least, we think it is, until later: “She asks me if she knows anyone/who got dead in a fire, anyone who/got fired. When will I die? she asks.” How do you answer a question like that? How do you explain a mother jumping out of a window with her baby?

A lie is not a lie if the teller
believes it? Next time the man
in the video will not ignite.
The baby will open like a parachute.

Maybe you tell a story. Maybe you tell a story to yourself that makes it more bearable.

This poem is part of Smith’s 2017 collection Good Bones, and for me is intrinsically linked to the title poem of that book, recreated here as a 4-minute film. Apparently this poem went viral after both the Pulse shooting in the US, and the murder of British MP Jo Cox in England, and ultimately was declared the poem that most captured the tumult of 2016 by various press outlets. It covers the same ground: how do you talk to kids about the dangers of the world, without scaring the hell out of them? This becomes especially meaningful when you’ve got kindergarteners practicing lock-down drills and being taught good touches and bad touches.

These two poems walk a kind of balancing line between hope and despair. It’s a tough spot to hit, but Smith does it quite effectively.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Jo Bang, “Like Someone Asleep in a Cinema” (poem) from Vallum #14:2

Like someone asleep in a cinema who wakes to lean over into your space
and mock your open-eyed wonder. That’s how it was then, the eye
movements of others tracking my every reaction on the stage that ends
by design sans everything. When everything is over the shape of the moon
will still feign a bathtub boat in the underworld, at rest on its side. I’ll be
the flower I’ve always been, held by a woman wearing a hat, half-veil,
half-opened lips, the whites of her eyes matching the moon as the sun
reflects off its surface.

Complete poem available online at Vallum

We have now reached the “I have no idea” portion of our program, where I founder and grasp at straws to come up with something.

My first thought was, the speaker is a stripper, turning the male gaze back on itself. This was primarily based on the stage setting, the sans everything ending, references later to soap and cleanliness. But I’m not really convinced by that. Maybe it’s more of a nested metaphor for the reality of a life, which indeed necessarily ends sans everything. Then we’d have more of a retrospective view, of being scolded for one’s utterings, of everything being over, of time the “hissing is”. That doesn’t feel satisfying either. But I’m afraid I don’t have anything else that works better.

The first lines bring to mind the opening essay of this volume, with its plea to abandon ironic distance for genuine feeling, as again we see someone mocked for “wide-eyed wonder”.

Language meaning mutates in parts of the poem, particularly the word “lie” in the second half.

I so wanted to be stone but never achieved it. Wanted to lie to get
what I wanted, without wondering, What will happen if I lie?
…The clock no longer flips one to two,
time is a hissing is. Lying is now in fashion. Lie down with me, people say,
when they hold someone back from the edge of that insane remembering.

I wonder which lying the speaker sees as in fashion. I know what kind of lying is, in fact, in fashion now, but the poem may have other ideas.

Pushcart XLIII: Dana Roeser, “My Hobby Needed a Hobby” (poem) from Seneca Review #47:2

your hobby your art needs a hobby that feels completely free and doesn’t
have anything to do with the buying and selling attaching your
      worth to some
chips or tokens markers or whatever so you’ve got to get a new free thing

I’m beginning to understand – understand in a real way, not just in an “I read it in a book” sort of way – that when a poet uses a particular style, grammar, or voice, it’s not because she woke up that morning and thought, “Hey, I’ll write something that doesn’t use punctuation and has weird enjambments.” It’s not because he feels like if no one can decipher the poem, just on a grammatical level, everyone will assume it’s deep and insightful and mysterious. It’s because the form contributes to the meaning of the poem. Good poets, at least.

(See what I did there? Yes, I could rewrite it, putting references next to each other, in a way that would get an A in composition class, but to do it this way more closely resembles the poem, which has phrases that go on and on and then resolve after you’ve forgotten the antecedent. I’m not trying to be an artist, I’m just trying to understand)

We start out with the familiar thing about pets needing companions, children needing siblings, and comparing that to an artist now producing for a living who needs a new hobby, now that the art is a job and there’s pressure and bills to pay and judging eyes all around. The speaker found a horse: she’s not serious about horse shows or riding, she’s 63 years old and is just concentrating on staying on the damn horse (yeah). That leads to an interesting consideration:

Berto walks peacefully to the gate with me he acts sometimes
      like I’m his buddy
which makes me shine all over never mind the transactional aspect
      the treats and
carrots I’m loaded down with most of the time ban the word

So the exact nature of the relationship is a bit unclear: is it really free? Are carrots, instead of dollars and book sales, coin of the realm in this kingdom? Is every relationship transactional in some way? Is the obedience of the creation – to the laws of physics, or aesthetics, or simply to being – the coin of the realm for the creator?

I’ve often said that money ruins everything. The more money is allowed into politics, the worse our leadership becomes (just compare those who ran for/held office before Citizens United, and now). Moocs were magical in that experimental, let’s see what we can do period before they started thinking in terms of who would be paying for the product and tailored the courses accordingly. As soon as Twitter starts talking about increasing investment I get knots in my stomach because I know I’m going to lose that, too. And raise your hand if you can think of an actor whose work went downhill once they hit it big. Tales of lottery winner tragedies about, and psychologists insist that, once you get above a solid middle-class income, more money doesn’t bring more happiness.

But we’re not done yet. The speaker takes us further along, into relationships with fantasy lovers. Are they like pets? And what about guardian angels? Wait, angels? Yes, angels.

….the priest tonight said we each
      have an angel
this is really the first I’d heard of it and I started picturing my crush
bathed in light oops no my angel I mean my real one though I don’t
it he she is my pet but more like I’m its I’m surrendered as
      somebody’s distraction
from their day job their support poodle crossing buddy safe space
      spice cake.

It’s the first line of that last stanza where it all came together for me, but it wasn’t easy. I found the whole poem very hard to read, so I had to mark it up into phrases, figuring out which word went with which phrase. The last stanza turned into:

Though I don’t think
it/he/she is my pet [horse, crush, angel]
but more like,
I’m its [pet],
I’m surrendered [handed over to] as somebody’s distraction from their day job,
their support poodle,
[their] crossing buddy,
[their] safe space,
[their] spice cake.

“I’m its” turned into the pivot on which the whole thing rocked, the ambiguity of the language reflecting the ambiguity of the relationship. One of the reasons a pet or support animal works well for a lot of troubled people is because they become better advocates for the animal than they can be for themselves, and, secondarily, it is by means of an animal that they make connections, if brief and superficial, with other people, beginning to learn patterns that can, with guidance and some luck, become deeper and more significant. By supporting the support animal, one supports oneself. By the way, it’s almost a cliché now that no one owns a cat, the cat always owns you.

I think the poem is written in couplets. I say “I think” not because I can’t count to two, but because the only copy I have is in Pushcart, and it appears that the line breaks leading to small indents are due to margin restrictions rather than poetic intent. Do the couplets also emphasize a relationship between person and hobby, supporter and supportee, vocation and avocation, economic survival and the nourishment of the soul?

And again, I’m reminded why I blog: I would have just turned the page on this one, had I not committed to saying something about each piece in Pushcart. Should I have to work so hard to find meaning? First of all, who says it’s hard work; one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, maybe I should have seen it all along. Second, I enjoy puzzling things out a little. And third, the Ikea effect: don’t we appreciate more what we put effort into?

I’m still struck by the image of the writer who, when writing becomes a job, has to turn elsewhere to find creative release since now one’s writing is a product that must appeal to customers. I’ve always said the up side of obscurity is that I can write anything I want and, if the literary world dismisses me as not being worth reading, no one’s going to ridicule my missteps either. Like the 63-year-old woman in the poem, I get my joy just from staying on the horse.

Pushcart XLIII: Victoria Chang, “Barbie Chang Wants to Be Someone” (poem) from Copper Canyon Press

Barbie Chang wants to be someone
                  special to no longer
have wet hair to no longer be spectral
                  to be a spectacle Barbie
Chang wants to befriend the Academy
                  which is the Circle

Complete poem available online at Alexandria Quarterly

Circles are perhaps the most natural shapes, which may be why so many pre-historic and early historic settlements and civilizations incorporated them into their lives: huts set in circles, beads shaped as circles, dwellings with circular footprints. By forming a circle, a group can define and defend a space, protect what is theirs from what might intrude. And only by breaking the circle, at least temporarily, can a new member be admitted.

So I’m intrigued by the use of circle imagery here connected with the Academy, the Academy Barbie Chang so wants to join if they would just turn from looking inward to looking outward. If they would just break the circle for a moment and let her in. But of course, Barbie can put on a business suit, a lab coat, or a Navy uniform, and still all anyone’s going to think of is her boobs.

Barbie Chang wants to forgive
                  the Academy for its
cattiness wants to hate the Academy
                  and its Circle and their

It’s one of the delicious ironies that, unlike Barbie Chang, Victoria Chang is, in fact, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, a twist Michael Odom brings up in his interview with her.

It’s a poem that makes good use of absent punctuation and irregular enjambments to create a kind of suspense with each phrase, each word: will the meaning change when I read the next word? The first line feels complete ending with someone, particularly given the title, but then that special gets added on, with a to that sets up a question, special to whom?, only to find the question moot when the reader finally parses the words and finds a missing comma or semicolon or something that starts a new thought. It’s disorienting, and notifies the reader in the first stanza not to jump to conclusions, to consider more than what has already been read before declaring a grammar.

There’s also wordplay throughout: special/spectral/spectacle, the emphatic rhyming spondee eat meat that comes across like the bang-bang of a drum or double shot, the tongue-twister awards for words.

But it’s the imagery that wins me over in the end, as the poem becomes more and more narrative:

…each year she buys climbing
                  shoes to go up the tree
she tries but can’t climb and sells them
                  on Craigslist she gets a
new pair each year on her wish list but
                  can’t get past the first five

And then the final knockout punch, the image of Barbie Chang, fallen onto the ground, trampled under the feet of others, discovering “aspirations of worth/everywhere”, even in the crushed bugs whose bodies in defeat form an iris, which is, in humans at least… a circle.

The poem, from Chang’s 2017 collection Barbie Chang, is not poet Chang’s first work with circles. In 2005 she published a collection titled Circle which acts in response to Emerson’s essay “Circles,” and “adopts the shape as a trope for gender, family, and history.” Then there’s 2013’s The Boss; I’m intrigued by the thematic discipline of her collections.

Only once have I been so bewitched by a poet on the basis of what appears in Pushcart; I might love a poem I read here, but seldom want to read more. I find myself wanting to read more of the poet Chang – and if Barbie Chang comes along, so much the better.

Pushcart XLIII: Michael Collier, “The Storm” (poem) from Kenyon Review #39.5

The afternoon the Air Florida jet crashed in the Potomac
I was working in the basement apartment on 10th Street.
The blizzard had been accompanied by lightning and thunder,
big booms and flashes, as if there were a storm within a storm.
We lived close enough to National to hear planes land
and take off, intermittent muffled rumblings I’d learned
to ignore, although at first I tracked them tensely
like a passenger strapped in his seat silently urging the plane up.
Back then, I was afraid of so many things, I dealt with fear
by acting brave and impervious, cultivating as well
an ironic bonhomie that covered up the effort.
Everything was an effort, so I made effortlessness my goal.

This is one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem. It’s a long poem – ten pages, and not much white space so I’d guess as an essay it would be about eight pages – that starts with stanzas of random length and no discernible meter. Why is it not an essay? Obviously, it’s a poem, but why does it need to be a poem? I think maybe the simplistic answer is, because the writer is a poet, but that isn’t satisfying to me. I feel like the young Will in Passus 1 of Piers Plowman (My Favorite Medievalist is leading a #ReadingPiersPlowman workshop on Twitter for the next several months), asking Holy Church over and over, how is he supposed to know what goodness is, how can he know how to be saved? Except I ask, What does the form of poetry add to this, why does this content need to be a poem, rather than an essay?

That said, it’s a nice piece, a kind of scrapbook of various memories and ideas from the life of the speaker, a Washington DC resident from childhood. He starts with a portrait of the run-down neighborhood in which he lived in 1982, some neighbors including a woman whose apartment was burgled. Then he moves on to the plane crash, and, later, to his father’s death at age 96. All along, he relates these events to his own psychology:

Twenty years later, the sister
of one of the crash victims said, “There’s a tenacity
the dead have on the living that no living person has on you.”

This weaving of the different threads is quite effective. It reminds me a bit of Chae’s essay, how the past is always with us, always building upon itself using bricks from the present.

Art plays a part as well: John Berryman’s ekphrastic poem “Winter Landscape” following Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow”, a piece I have some familiarity with as it was mentioned in another story several years ago. But we keep coming back to scenes from his life, and the motif of “problems of living”. Living is, after all, a problem to be solved, and some are more, some less, adept at tackling it.

Then he brings in another note: a troubled school mate who needed psychiatric care, and eventually killed himself.

What might it mean
That during the semester O’Laughlin began to contemplate his demise,
I was writing an art history paper on Dadaist suicide.

And Dada suicide was an act of such
nonchalance and indifference that I mistook it for courage.

I think of it
As one among many solutions to the problem of living,
Different than the others all of which involve staying alive.

The dead do indeed stay with us, whether they be positive or negative influences in our lives, their lives heroic or tragic. And all along, I remember the little boy who covered up his fear with ironic bonhomie – another way of handling the problem of living.

The poem is part of Collier’s recent collection My Bishop and Other Poems; the title poem takes as its subject a boy abused by the local bishop. More problems of living.

Pushcart XLIII: Kristin Chang, “Yilan” (poem) from The Shade Journal: Seed

Angie Wang: cover art for Past Lives, Future Bodies

Angie Wang: cover art for Past Lives, Future Bodies

In Taiwan the rain spits on my skin.
I lose the way to my grandmother’s
house, eat a papaya by the side of the road,
         papaya in Taiyu meaning wood
melon. My grandmother’s house is wood
& always wet, as if absence
holds water. As if drowning
itself. My stomach oversweetens
on fruit, wears a belt of rot.

Complete poem available online at Shade Journal

Taiwan is one of those complicated places: originally settled thousands of years ago by seafaring islanders, who were pushed out of the way by subsequent arrivals (sound familiar?), an island that’s been a blend of religions and languages, and an unwilling pawn in power plays for centuries and today is a potential keg of dynamite as it finds itself the reluctant tentpole of the One China policy. Into this comes Kirsten Chang, an American-born descendent who initially rejected, then embraced, the culture of her mother.

The poem is from her recently published collection Past Lives, Future Bodies and, as she explains in her Queen Mob’s Teahouse interview, draws on “the rhythms and migrations of stories, but also about the grief between the women in my family, those severances and losses that are birthed from movement”.

That movement may be why the poem is formatted in three-line stanzas, indented in a way that, even in the absence of rhyme or consistent meter, suggests a similarity to terza rima’s walking quality. The content as well has a kind of semantic and linguistic momentum: the papaya leads to wood melon leads to wood house leads to wetness and water.

There’s a kind of looseness in the identity of the speaker. Chang is quite young – her Twitter profile gives her age as 20 – so it can’t be her mother mentioned in the stanzas about the Japanese coming during the war. This may be where ideas of reincarnation and transmission across cultural connection comes in.

The speaker watches a typhoon from her Taipei hotel, and muses on the words that connect Taiwan and typhoon, her family’s past, and the history that has flowed through her to bring her to this spot:

In Chinese,
typhoon is tai feng, sharing a wordwith tai wan. A nation named
after its greatest disaster. My body
named for what it bears, what

it bares: this nation,
where nothing is still
waiting to be saved

& the dead are still

Those last lines emphasize the motion by almost denying it: the enjambment momentarily changes the meaning of “still” twice, from being still – lacking motion – to still as in even now, a perpetuation. And the last step, the dying, is the big one, almost a leap.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Ruefle, “Singular Dream” (poem) from Poetry, January 2017

I was born in Speckled Eggs Garden.
I will die on Broken Egg Farm.
I’m hopping between them now,
I consider everything
to be friendly
and nothing dubbed.
I am a chick with legs
and yellow hair.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What am I supposed to do with a poem about a chicken? Seriously, Henderson, you have me immersed in guns and death and then spring chickens on me?

Thing is, I have a stubborn fondness for Mary Ruefle, born of my 2014 Pushcart encounter with her poem “During a Break in Feeling”, tackled with the help of some Modpo friends, and her erasure poetry. So I had at least some understanding of what she might be up to here.

Her words might change meaning retroactively; or, non-words or obscure words might suggest more common meanings through close spellings. What does it mean, “to be friendly / with nothing dubbed”? Dubbing is a film technique to translate a film from one language to another; it’s also a process of naming and entitling, as with dubbing a knight, with an old and obscure meaning of “to dress or adorn”. A “chick with legs and yellow hair” could describe a teenager walking by, rather than a literal chicken, giving a slang and somewhat casual sense.

Oh Lord Almighty, creator of
all things beautiful and sick,
who prefers another life on top of this,
who are you to judge?
When Adam and Eve vanished
solemnly into the dark,
shrouding themselves in the forest,
I was timid and nibbling and
stayed behind, betrayed only
by the plucking of my beak
upon the ground you so graciously
provided (thanks).

That’s a good point; it was only the humans that were kicked out of Paradise. Orthodoxy does not consider that animals have free will to obey God or not; this might seem reasonable until you’ve tried to get a cat to eat the special food you bought for her. In any case, it’s a nice little scene.

I spent a fair amount of time looking for some interpretation of “noth” (hampered by the ubiquity of Chris Noth), but in the end decided nothing was a good an inference as anything. As for “margent”, that applies to the flowery borders, the margins if you will, of a document, giving yet another sense of the chick being outside the margins, but still under the care of the Lord of the Margent, and who’s to say it’s worse off, or not as valuable, as we humans are.

In the end I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing here – this Pushcart isn’t going so well for me so far – but I still have a fondness for Ruefle, whether I understand her or not.

Pushcart XLIII: Robert Hass, “Dancing” (poem) from American Poetry Review 46:06

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

The radio clicks on—it’s poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill. Because if killing large numbers of people
With sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness—
You might want to begin with fire, our early ancestors
Drawn to the warmth of it—

Complete poem available online at American Poetry Review

In December 2017, Beacon Press published Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, an anthology of poems – including this one by a former US Poet Laureate – and citizen responses touching on the subject of guns in America.

The poem takes a sweeping historical view of our fascination with guns, starting with the first time someone in prehistory discovered “some sands that, / Tossed into the fire, burned blue or flared green”, to the myth of Prometheus, to Rome and medieval Europe and the Age of Exploration – “How did guns come to North America?” – and the Civil War and all the wars since then, right up to June 2016 when:

They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.
Crying out sharply. As the French ship breasted the vast interior
Of the new land. America. A radio clicks on. The Arabs,
A commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. Dancing.

It’s a longish poem, three pages of free verse in uniform lines (one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem instead of prose), that maintains a momentum by repetition of tropes like the sands thrown into the fire, the blue and green sparks, looking back at the beginning while moving to the present. There’s a video of Hass doing an informal reading of the poem in the office of a Miami Dade professor; he repeats the line “they threw powder in the fire” at the end although that isn’t included in the APR published version. It’s this simple act, this fascination with the sparks unleashed by burning certain minerals, that connects us with those imagined paleolithic wonderers, traces the fires of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten every day by birds but grew back each night to allow another day of torment. There are days in contemporary America when it doesn’t seem like punishment enough.

As I read this poem, I realized how tired I am of the tributes and memorials – or rather, tired of the need for them – and how I wish some day they will be part of history instead of everyday life.

Pushcart XLIII: Tony Hoagland, “Into the Mystery” (poem) from The Sun #500

Of course there is a time of afternoon, out there in the yard,
an hour that has never been described.
There is the way the warm air feels
among the flagstones and the tropical plants
                                                                                with their dark, leathery green leaves.
There is a gap you never noticed,
dug out between the gravel and the rock, where something lives.
There is a bird that can only be heard by someone
who has come to be alone.
Now you are getting used to things that will not be happening again.

Complete poem available online at The Sun

I always approach the poetry in this volume with a touch of anxiety, since I have little background in poetics. This poem was doubly intimidating, since I was aware that Tony Hoagland died a few months ago. He has appeared on these pages before, and I wanted to do him justice. I also wondered if the poem was prescient, or, for that matter, if all the poems in his last volume from which this comes, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, were likely written with an awareness of time. Maybe, maybe not. He’s known for including humor in his poetry; Meryl Natchez describes his work as having “a wry tone, a genius for the appropriate detail, and an underlying sadness about the state of the world” in her review for ZYZZYVA. There is a sense of living in the moment in the content of the poem, a relaxation of the compulsion to analyze.

Ironic, then, that I should, by listening to the audio of Hoagland reading his work, that I should be lead to analyze, and in so doing, increase my appreciation of the poem (which is, of course, the only purpose of poetic analysis, or should be, right?).

I more clearly noticed anaphora in the opening lines: the four lines beginning with “there is a [x]”, followed by the line about getting used to things that will not be happening again. The poetic structure strengthens the poignancy of the moment as he lists what will not be happening again, and I wonder anew if this was written with foreknowledge that it would be the last poem of his last volume on this earth.

But the biggest revelation came with the last lines of the poem:

Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs,
happy because there never has been a word for this,
as you continue moving through these days and years
where more and more the message is
                                                                                not to measure anything.

The poem has, until these last two lines (and let’s call them two, at least for the moment) been fairly unmetered, or mixed-metered, as far as I can tell. But in the poet’s reading, I suddenly heard a very strong /x/ pattern over and over in those last few lines. Warning: I’m venturing onto shaky ground, please be merciful in your judgments. But one way to think of it is like this:

The first line is strict iambic hexameter, the meter of Homeric epic, of the Iliad and Odyssey, stories of long battles and longer journeys home, for a line about moving through the days and years.

Then comes a combined line that begs to be the same, except… there’s a missing unstressed syllable between “is” and “not”, where, coincidentally, the line break occurs; the line break can be seen as replacing the unstressed syllable. The meter, literally the measurement of poetry, breaks down, just as we’re advised not to measure anything, a lovely example of form matching content.

I also played around with the cretic foot, a three-syllable pattern of strong-weak-strong, since that was the rhythm I heard most clearly in Hoagland’s reading. But that gets complicated, since it requires dropping some leading unstressed syllables. But it was tempting reading, since the cretic foot is most often seen in Greek paeans; this poem could be seen as a song in praise of the unnamed, a celebration of the unmeasured. It doesn’t hurt that the Annie Hall “la-di-da” is given as an example of the cretic foot. But in the end, Occam’s razor would favor the prior reading.

It’s also interesting – and this is something I would never have noticed, had I not needed to figure it out for formatting in this blog – that both indents are 80 spaces, not related to the lines that precede the indents. I don’t see any content relationship between the two lines, but it’s a whimsical touch that the line “not to measure anything” is, indeed, measured on the page.

In spite of my initial anxiety, I had a great deal of fun looking at this poem. As someone rather obsessed with measuring, getting things right, never being wrong, I think maybe I should listen to the words more, relax a little, and live in the moment. Sometimes the moment gives you a much better sense of things than any measurement.

Pushcart XLII: Cecilia Woloch, “Reign of Embers” (poem) from American Journal of Poetry #1

Early Christian martyr from the Roman catacombs, reinterred at  Weyarn, Germany. Photo by Paul Koudounaris

Early Christian martyr from the Roman catacombs, reinterred at Weyarn, Germany. Photo by Paul Koudounaris

“In the dark time will there also be singing?”
“Yes, there will be singing about the dark time.” — Bertolt Brecht

I. (Aftermath: Paris)
Can you make a song of the love of death?
(And how does it go? the poet asks.)
Some had been singing before they died.
Some had been bringing the food to their lips.
Some had been kissing. Some had been drunk.
Some had been screaming, God is good,
as they fired into the crowd.
Can you make a prayer from the love of death,
from the fingerprint of the finger
blown off the assassin’s hand?
Can I love my enemy as myself?

Complete poem available online at The American Journal of Poetry

2015 in France was an annus horribilis: the Hebdo attack in January, a string of isolated violence and attempts throughout the year culminating in November with coordinated attacks at several sites at the same time. A few days later, police raided the Paris neighborhood of Saint-Denis to capture the suspects. For those of us following the events from afar, it seemed like complete chaos, but it was considered successful.

Woloch captures the pain, fear, and confusion of that November in this long poem divided into ten parts, rotating from Paris to LA to Saint-Denis with brief sections of Macbeth and news coverage. Themes of God, love, death, children, morality, all swirl around. It’s brutal, tragic, heartbreaking, and filled with questions, short on answers, because they are the kinds of questions that are nearly impossible for thinking people to answer.

It’s quite a tour-de-force. I’ve been way out of my pay grade for a while now, and this raises the bar even more. I’m tempted, as I often am when confronted with something bigger than I can handle, to just encourage any readers who may find their way here to read the poem itself via the link above. Maybe I’ll leave some breadcrumbs here, hoping they will be followed, and include a few of my own reactions, peripheral though they may be.

III. Ratline
One source says the source is everywhere.
One source says the source is our enemy.
One source says the source is us,
with our blundering, with our greed.

I didn’t know, until I read this poem, that ratlines are a system of illicit escape or transit routes; the word originally referred to the rope ladders on the rigging of a ship’s sail, by which sailors could abandon ship if necessary. But that isn’t the important part here, is it?

I can’t remember where I read it – I thought it was Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” but it seems not – but where you start the story determines what the story is about. If you start with the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent, that’s one story; if you start with the thriving indigenous population already there, that’s another. If you start with violence and wars raging through central Africa today, that tells one story; if you start with European partition and colonization of Africa, that tells a different story. If you talk about civility when a restaurant won’t serve a powerful government employee, that’s one story; if you talk about civility when immigrant children are ripped away from their parents and locked in cages, when women seeking health care are harassed outside Planned Parenthood offices, when a twelve-year-old in a park is gunned down by the police after less than 2 seconds of deliberation, when a presidential candidate brags about grabbing women by the pussy and mocks a disabled reporter and insists that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, when two people can’t get a goddamn cake for their wedding, that’s a different story.

Where do you start to look for the source of contemporary violence?

Have we chosen the wrong men to lead us?
Have we made the wrong people rich?
Have we put power into the hands
of those who love power as much as death?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

The poem ends with a cab ride in LA, and a friendly cab driver, an immigrant who prompts the speaker, “Guess where it is… my favorite country in Africa.”

Rwanda, he answers, his smile
lighting up in the rear-view mirror,
because, after the genocide there,
so few men were left alive,
it’s a country of women and children, now,
a new country of the young.
And the women who’ve taken the law
and the government into their hands
hold everyone accountable, he says.
Because all the warriors are dead.
Because they killed one another so well.

A 17-page poem is quite unusual in Pushcart. It’s even more unusual in an online journal; these usually blanch at anything beyond two page scrolls. The American Journal of Poetry, a recent descendant of the earlier journal MARGIE, proudly bucks that trend, looking only for “a strong voice and risk-taking”. They certainly found that in this poem.

Pushcart XLII: Jane Wong, “When You Died” (poem) from Foundry #1

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Five years of fireflies in oil; five years of ants gnawing
through red flags; five years of pockmarked suns, your face:
each ray, each sweltering August; five years of unraveling,
hair loosening from your crown like a rotten tooth;
five years of how easy it is to split a frog in two; five
years of pollen in your mouth, that bitter buzzing;

Complete story available online at Foundry Journal

And again, I come to a poem that makes little sense until I read some context. Yet it’s quite beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes me want to understand. A kind of pain only beautiful now that it’s recollected in tranquility.

Wong has considered what she calls “The poetics of haunting” for a long time. Her dissertation was about precisely that: “how social, historical, and political contexts “haunt” the work of Asian American poets.” She made it into a website , a collection of the works examined in the academic document, and discussed the origins of her interest in this aspect of poetry – “it’s not a matter of the repressed coming back to haunt you, but is a productive and intentional act to go toward the ghost and rewrite forgotten histories – in her TEDx talk.

Which brings us to this poem, part of a “project” addressing her own personal history, the recollection of stories from an unknown, unnamed family who died long ago:

With my missing family members who starved during the Great Leap Forward, I can not visit their graves, their physical bodies. They exist as ghosts for me—a kind of presence that it always there, across distances and spaces of time….
In my forthcoming project, I am writing a series addressing my missing family members during the Great Leap Forward (poems entitled “When You Died“). I do not know their names; I wish I new their names. I wish my family could talk about what happened during that time, but they do not. Silence itself is a ghost.

~ ~ Poet interview at lithub

Given the current situation here, I can’t help but wonder if thousands of Central American kids will be growing up not knowing their stories, how their parents, in a desperate attempt to get them to safety, were torn from them. I wonder if some Guatemalan poet, some years down the line, will also try to remember a forgotten history. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Sometimes, even if the poem doesn’t land, the backstory does, and I end up in a puddle of tears just the same.

Pushcart XLII: Lo Kwa Mei-En, “Aubade for Non-Citizens” (poem) from New Orleans Review #41

Alien status, a blue bourgeois dress, the hustle of Rome. A waltz—
zoom out—the citizen ingenue’s cool, cool crinoline and persona
buckling in the silhouette the ahistorical hourglass. I have no story,
your shout into this century’s solar wind, a yellow ribbon on a bomb
compromised by compromise, a citizen’s birthright, a little box
xeroxed white, the alien body folded like a french flap in the epic
determination to predetermine the alien body in the here / now.

Complete poem available online at Poetry Society

As with several poems in this volume, I was completely confused as to what is going on here. It starts out with clear references to aliens – that is, the political designation of someone residing in one country with citizenship from another – but that quickly morphs into a more science fiction notion of aliens (the poem originally appeared in the Science Fiction issue of the New Orleans Review) with references to gravity and ships and “Here on Earth” and colonists. Adding to my confusion is the element of entertainment: karaoke, webcams.

….The future, the TV
vectoring the colonists’ self-portrait, thumbs up for this handmade
family, zoom in—Citizen 2 karaokes in low gravity (Zou Bisou Bisou),
unlikable kiss shot to Earth besmirched. The camera winking, stiff
grafts in the ship’s greenhouse untrembling at the speed of light,
turmeric tumescing quietly, and the brilliant soldier of a pear sapling.


So, I did what I do: I went looking, and I found an author statement explaining the genesis of the poem. This was extremely helpful in understanding how the pieces fit, because the pieces are, indeed, 1) her own immigration experience, 2) a project to colonize Mars, and 3) reality TV. And once I knew the background, it all made sense.

This comes from the mission statement of Mars One, a non-profit foundation that aims to establish the first human colony on Mars by the mid-2020’s…. Reading about the standards of physical, social, and psychological desirability potential colonists needed to fulfill in order to be deemed eligible reminded me of the questions asked of immigrants attempting to obtain American citizenship—Have you ever been a sex worker? Are you willing to go to war for the United States of America?—and the message of undesirability that underlies such questioning. When I learned that Mars One planned to narrow down their applicant pool to four final colonists via a reality television audience vote, I was reminded of how popular culture, deformalized media, and social narratives can serve as powers that can enforce (or denounce) the structures of phobic policy.

That’s kind of impressive, to weave all those things together, even if it was done in a fashion that was, for me, less than coherent. I wonder if a more expository approach would have blunted the impact of the combination of events, if disorientation is part of the intended aesthetic experience. The poem is included in a linked collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, which continues to explore the idea of this Mars colony. That title, by the way, evokes the Biblical Samson’s riddle pointing to a beehive within a lion’s carcass, itself a story with a wealth of interpretations, and juxtaposes it to the economics of worker bees. Like Oulipo, the concept interests me greatly and I admire the semantic crossconnections, even if I am a bit dubious about the poem itself.

And of course, as I’ve been saying all along, context is king. The cries of children in cages still ring in my ears, the sound of Republican heavyweight Corey Lewandowski’s abhorrent “womp womp” when told of a child with Down syndrome who was taken from her parents (call them asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, they are trying to negotiate a bizarre system with a built-in Catch-22 aimed at keeping them out for the express purpose of keeping their families safe) and put into what amounts to a confused, uncontrolled system so ad hoc and run with so little disregard for children and human rights that no one can explain just how the children will be reunited with their families, where they are all being kept (New York, Michigan, tents on the Texas border where temperatures consistently exceed 100 degrees), and, most troubling, just where the girls are. But corporations are making money, so what are these concerns. This is what colors everything now: disgust for the country that is my home, rage that it is done in my name as a citizen, and absolute impotence to stop it in the face of shameless greed, bigotry, and egotism that propels it. Protests, petitions, phone calls, donations may help us feel better, but I don’t see anything that can stop the boulder rolling down the hill, crushing what is left of America.

Pushcart XLII: Nick Norwood, “Latchkey” (poem) from The Greensboro Review, Fall 2016

Photo by Alexander Harding

Photo by Alexander Harding

Remember the first time
you let yourself in—
stunned by the sheer
silence of it all,
the sunlight blooming
on mute, blank-faced

We don’t know why this kid is now coming home to an empty house; maybe we don’t need to know. We can’t be sure whether he’s excited or scared; probably both, as he runs with a burst of energy, yelling at the sun to go away so he can be alone. Does he see it as a threat? An intrusion on his privacy? It’s probably something he never noticed before, just as, when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, we hear quiet sounds that never made it to our consciousness during the noisy day.

But even a kid’s energy can’t continue forever, so…

you dropped
into your mother’s chair
and watched
that same sunlight creep
silently across floors,
up walls,
and let itself out.

His mother’s chair: an important detail. Almost like a hug, sitting in that chair, I’d imagine, comfort and safety surrounding him. That gives him breathing room, enough to observe, to watch, and to learn that, if you have a safe place, even the scariest things might turn out to be kind of interesting, kind of beautiful, and you just might miss them when they go away.

I love the image of the sun moving around the room. Many years ago, there was a TV commercial for something, windows or shades maybe, that showed a sped-up beam of sunlight moving across a room as the day progressed and the light angles changed. At the time, I wished I could do something to capture that in my living room. I never thought I’d find it, captured for me, in a poem.

Pushcart XLII: Rebecca Hazelton, “Gunpowder” (poem) from Southern Indiana Review, Fall 2016

What if I did request that incendiary
                                                  touch, the slow-burn
                    of all too much, the bleaching kiss of a man
who twisted my mouth
                    into the words he wanted to hear?
                                                                                If it’s written, it’s written,
but what’s read differs.

When I saw this poem was nominated by Alan Michael Parker, I expected a twist of wry humor. Maybe that’s the case, and I’ve just had all the humor drained out of me over the past 18 months. The poem is, however, clever, and maybe that’s a better way to think of humor anyway.

The first few lines work with rhyme and rhythm. Some of that carries through – the wordplay of friction and fiction – but I’m left torn between the violence of love and the violence of violence, and why am I so obsessed with violence? I suppose gunpowder comes with its implication of violence, no matter how you arrange the words.

A section in the middle references alchemy, and feels right, even if I’m still not sure where the fire is or what’s being burned. Although alchemy has a rep for being all about turning stuff into gold, it’s really about finding ways to adjust substances by adding and subtracting fire, water, earth, air, and who knows what into the perfect ratio, the expected result being that perfect metal which (in the ancient/medieval mind) is incorruptible. And if metal can be perfected, why not the body? We all remember the factoid that Chinese invented gunpowder, and, by the way, the discovery was made by alchemists looking for the elixir of life, the substance that would purify the body, make it incorruptible. And if the body, why not the soul? Is that what love is, the purification of the soul, and our speaker is purging fire?

So after groping fruitlessly for a while, I turned to Google, and found an interview with exactly what I needed: “…[T]he inspiration for this poem came from Francis Bacon who said the printing, gunpowder and the compass altered ‘the face and state of the world.’ This poem uses composition of gunpowder as a metaphor for a challenging relationship.” As usual, I was trying too hard; it’s really right there on the page.

I said love, and that is a match.
                    I said believe me, and that was powder.

What an interesting change of tense: the saying of love was in the past, but the equating it with a match is in the present; the believing is all in the past. It’s the recognition, perhaps, that love is a match, that is present, a post-game analysis of what went wrong. Believe what? The love? Followed by… the flight of fear, of too much? Or a betrayal that proved the love false?

“I fell into a burning ring of fire” sang Johnny Cash. June Carter wrote the song, about Cash, when he was still married to his first wife. Nothing to do with the poem, really, except.

Pushcart XLII: Kaveh Akbar, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” (poem) from zyzzyva #107

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

You’re in a car and crying and amazed
at how bad it feels to do bad things….

Complete poem available online at Zyzzyva

If there’s one thing addicts love to do, besides their addiction, it’s talk about their addiction. Or, in this case, fantasize about it. It does feel bad to do bad things, but somehow, like multiplying two negatives equals a positive, it feels good, too. So we take a little tour of bits and pieces from a nightmare, without having to live the nightmare.

I have a very low tolerance for addiction literature. Sure, it’s powerful since it taps into all the energy zones – self-destruction, acting against self-interest, danger, pain, death – but I just find it all boring. But it does, in this case, make a nice little poem, neatly wrapped up by the last couple of lines:

It’s so lucky,
this living forever all at once. When you turn
on the lights, you’re inconsolably
glad. You could stop this whenever, but why?

Why indeed? The glad is worth it all.

Yet when I read a review of Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic, dedicated “for drunks”, and from which I assume this poem comes, I wonder if I’m putting too much emphasis on the “relapse” of the title, which to me signals recovery. Maybe not so much. Though it isn’t evident in this poem, the collection, the collection includes several references to Akhbar’s Muslim background. Per Seth Copeland’s review, “drunkenness in the Islamic literary tradition is a long and time-honored metaphor. For what? Abandonment to God, a cessation of the self—but not so here; no. Here it’s real, it’s coarse, it’s dangerous.” Just like the real thing.