Pushcart XLII: Reginald Dwayne Betts, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving” (poem) from Poetry, April 2016

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of  Tamir Rice & shed tears, the weeping
all another insignificance, all another way to avoid
saying what should be said: the Second Amendment
is a ruthless one, the pomp & constitutional circumstance
that says my arms should be heavy with the weight
of a pistol when forced to confront death like
this: a child, a hidden toy gun, an officer that fires
before his heart beats twice.

Complete poem available online at Poetry Magazine

This is one of those poems that I’m not going to touch. I’m just going to let the excerpt sit there on its own power, with a link to the complete poem (please, go read it). Sometimes I don’t say much about a poem because I’m not sure what to make of it, and that feels like cheating, but sometimes, like now, I just don’t want to get in its way, and that feels just right.


Pushcart XLII: Safiya Sinclair, “Good Hair” (poem) from New England Review 37.2

Artist: April Harrison

Artist: April Harrison

Sister, there was nothing left for us.
Down here, this cast-off hour, we listened
but heard no voices in the shells. No beauty.
Our lives already tangled in the violence of our hair,
we learned to feel unwanted in the sea’s blue gaze,
knowing even the blond lichen was considered lovely.

Complete poem available online
at New England Review

Over the last few years, several poems and stories have come up dealing with the stigmatization of black hair in white-dominated society. I won’t repeat the issues I’ve mentioned, the school children harassed, the servicewomen required to conform, the general idea that the only hair worth having is long, flowy blondeness, even praised in the Yeats epigram that precedes the poem.

This poem has a somewhat different tone than the contemporary stories, however. In addition to lyrical language, the setting is in the family, where two sisters have not inherited their mother’s “good hair”. The mention of violence – and I love the metaphor of “the violence of our hair” – gives a grim tone to the poem. It’s very possible I’m missing an allusion somewhere: two drowned sisters? In any case, the imagery is haunting, melancholy, and ultimately angry (or maybe that’s my anger) at the efforts to artificially fix what is perceived, even by the speaker, as flawed.

Pushcart XLII: Keith Ratzlaff, “Poem Imposing Order” (poetry) from I-70 Review 2016

Pablo Romero:  One Hand Slam Dunk

Pablo Romero: One Hand Slam Dunk

The chestnut on the playground,
its pinkish flowers.
Three boys playing Hacky Sack.
And the fat guy with a basketball
imagines himself
lanky and light as a balloon –
which is a kind of perspective,
a way of being
able to dunk when you can’t,
which is the oldest kind
of story,
the lie we tell ourselves.

Metamorphosis. We change; our perspective changes; our stories change, our lives change. The poem changes. I tend to like poems and stories that change, where you’re reading and just as you think, Oh, that’s what this is, I’ve got it now, it becomes something else.

This poem changes in two ways that move in opposite directions: from looking at the tree then panning back to see the forest, on the one hand, and from looking out to looking inward, on the other. The transition – both subtle and sudden, another atypical pairing – hammers it home with great effectiveness. And again, as we have so often in Pushcart, there’s an artist, a writer, at the core.

Following the speaker’s gaze in the opening lines above, we start on the playground watching the fat guy with a basketball. Things move pretty quickly into a more metaphorical direction, even as we find more details of the scene. Then we get to a kind of high point, or maybe just a resting spot, one of those Oh, I see points:

And he shoots, imposing order
on the day. Each made shot
erases a scar,
some old humiliation –
which is a kind of forgiveness,
a way to tell
the story right the second time.

It’s a double-daydream: someone thinking of a guy playing basketball, rewriting his life, correcting all the mistakes. We’re given only broad outlines of those mistakes – an uncle with a mangled arm, betrayal, a day in Greece – so we can imagine our own versions from the mistakes of our own lives, making us one with both the imaginary basketball guy and the speaker in the poem. As the number of consecutive free throws climbs, so does the imagined glory, and life gets better and better by the power of a basketball swishing through net. So what if it’s only in the mind of the basketball guy in the mind of the speaker in the mind of the poet? It’s real enough to us. Who wouldn’t want to live over a few days, undo a few mistakes? But would our lives turn out differently? Would we be courted by NBA scouts for fame and riches instead of ending up a fat slob at whatever ordinary job? I’m not so sure.

Then the poem does that back-and-in-at-the-same-time move (like a basketball player doing a fakeout to a pivot?) and we move out to see the bigger picture: the speaker, maybe even the poet, and it’s suddenly not “Look at that guy over there” but an intense inward gaze:

the unfolding story where
I never go home.
And x means
there is no story,
no palimpsest,
just the world
retold, scraped clean.

We all have ways of imposing order on a chaos: the writer as god, saying “let there be light” in infinite ways, creating a universe that makes sense. And then, when that, too, gets messy – because our existence seems based on increasing entropy – there’s another blank page waiting.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Citro, “It’s Something People in Love Do” (poem) from Sycamore Review 28.1

It’s a late film, not one of their best, clogged
with a love interest that never really makes
your pants itch, but when the Marx Brothers
keep the train moving so the hero can make it
to town to record the deed and afford to marry
the girl of his dreams, they chop the whole
damn train up to feed the fire.

Let me again plead ignorance of the intricacies of poetry beyond a few basics, and admit that I have no idea why this is written as a poem and not a story. What does the structure do for it? If I had to guess, I’d say it was a summary of the poem: the form, a regularity of even-length lines (but not necessarily even rhythms), versus the wide-ranging emotionalism of the content, just as the relationship it describes, measured by practicality and stability, encases a heart of passion and wild imagination that desperately wants to use a different yardstick:

What I am saying is maybe everything’s not
a metaphor for trying to pay the bills on time.
I love your credit score. It could pin my credit score
to the late summer soil and pee on its head.
My credit score would roll over and take it.
But what do you think of that chicken dinner
I made last night, how caramelized the thigh,
the bourbon from a plastic jug.

I broke the poem into three sections, of 13, 3, and 12 lines. The first section describes the movie (Go West), and then wham, we’re in the kitchen with these people, late at night, maybe after a fight about money, and there’s a capitulating honesty followed by an invitation to try the new yardstick. The final line kills me: imagine loving someone who needs this explained.

In the end, I gave up and read it as a story. It’s not available online via Sycamore Review, the original publisher, but those who can’t get their hands on a print copy (or a copy of Pushcart – local public libraries can be very helpful) might want to check Citro’s blog. It’s worth it. I love this poem/story.

It simultaneously makes me smile, and breaks my heart. And believe me, I’ve been on both sides, I’ve been the careful planner and impulsive romantic. I’ve worried about paying the bills when I should’ve been tearing the roof off and licking bourbon-laced chicken juice from my beloved’s mouth, and I’ve thrown caution to the winds when I should’ve been taking care of business. Maybe that’s the case here, too: this isn’t a permanent state of the relationship (that would be too sad), but a moment after a fight when readjustment is possible, a crossing of parallel paths to bring two sides back together. Or it’s a weasel worming out of the latest failure of responsibility. I’ve mixed those two up before, too.

Pushcart XLII: Teresa Dzieglewicz, “Stranger, Thank You for Giving Me This Body” (poem) from Rhino, 2016

Art by Élie Nysquisot

Art by Élie Nysquisot

                                    to break
on Lakeshore Drive. For the eyes I turn
                  to the radio as the lady
in the red SUV slams
                  on her brakes. Thank you for bringing me
into this world,
                  where my Pontiac crumples
like crepe paper, where the airbag’s white fist
            pummels my chest and burnt talcum erupts
                        like confetti, stains my clothes
with the scent of singed hair.

Complete story available online at Rhino

We’ve all heard that, in a moment when one expects to die, our lives will flash before us. The speaker in this poem has a slightly different vision: a thank-you note to the unknown woman who bore her, then gave her up for adoption.

Like the prior poem, two related but separate threads are overlaid and seen together, like seeing two translucent panels together, each contributing something to make an impression that is neither. Here, it’s stark life-and-death imagery, the gratitude overlaying pain.

I found this poem to be a great example of the use of structure to reinforce meaning. The jagged line indents perhaps bring to mind the shattered glass and ruptured steel of the car around our speaker (and let me admit that I haven’t precisely reproduced the poem’s format; but since an online version is available, I merely approximated the indents). I’m not sure if there’s a technical term for using the title of a poem as a first line without repeating it in the poem proper – a special form of enjambment, maybe? – but it seems to give a sense of a muddled beginning, something a little different but easily comprehended, similar to how an adopted child might view her own beginning.

The poem reads like a grateful prayer, a recognition of something that may not always be acknowledged. I wonder if the title is worded as it is – “thank you for giving me” – to bring to mind forgiveness, perhaps in both directions: the child and mother forgive each other for whatever wrongs they may have perceived in the past: the child forgives the mother’s abandonment, the mother forgives the child’s anger. Whatever rancor may have been, it is gone now: the essence of forgiveness.

By tracing the negatives –

But I mean, I’ve learned no name
      for how we’ve never sat across a table,
            fingers greasy with fries,
                  how it wasn’t you who read to me each night,
                              taught me to make pizzelles and Sunday gravy,
rushed to the emergency room.
                  But still, somehow, I know you
by the beautiful facts
                  of my fingers, my cracked sternum, the skin of my chest
            purpling with fireworks of blood.

– the positive is acknowledged: even though the beginning confuses us for a moment, it began something beautiful. May we all have such gratitude in our final thoughts – and a little before wouldn’t hurt, either.

Pushcart XLII: Carolyn Forché, “The Boatman” (poem) from Poetry, October 2016

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

Poets can be inspired by all sorts of things: a heroic moment from history, a graceful Grecian urn, daffodils, a mouse, a louse, a nightingale. Or a cab ride through New York courtesy of a Syrian refugee who tells his story. Forché tells us in the audio reading that accompanies the online version of this poem.

Since I’ve just taken several history moocs that looked at the Levant and at medieval Islam, I was interested in the geographical references of the poem. The city of Homs, familiar to us from the news, is the “mother of the poor”, so called in modern times because the cost of living was low. The Sword of Allah refers to Khalid ibn al-Walid, a compatriot to Mohammed and military hero in the early decades of the Islamic Empire; his mausoleum in Homs is bordered by a mosque named in his honor. The “oldest church in Christendom” is more problematic; as far as I can tell, the oldest known church building is a house church in Dura-Europas, not Homs; Syria was part of the Byzantine empire early on, and thus was an early site of several forms of Christianity, so perhaps “church” is being used in the congregational, rather than architectural, sense.

In any case, places and names are merely background; the heart of the poem is clearly deeper.

A brief discussion by Poetry Magazine editors Lindsay Garbutt and Don Share in their October 2016 podcast helped to align the poem for me. The two journeys – one a flight from war to an uncertain destination, a flight that is possibly more deadly than what is left behind but still offers possibility; the other, a simple transit – are overlaid in the poem, resulting in a kind of melding of one small facet of the experience: the putting of one’s safety in the hands of another for the duration of the trip. We get to hear a lot about refugees through newscasts, commentary, and debate, but this is an attempt to let us hear more directly, albeit filtered though the poet’s ear, heart, and mind, from one man who managed to arrive safely, and now spends his day ferrying others, bringing them safely to their destination.

Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?
To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?
You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.

The connection between cab driver and passenger, between refugee and harbor, is beautiful and devastating. Any one of those people we see on the news could become our shepherds; and, believe it or not (and I fear it becomes more believable every day now), we could find ourselves on troubled waters, looking for a safe place to come ashore. We are not just our brothers’ keepers: we are our brothers, every one.

Pushcart XLII: Laura Kasischke, “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad” (poem) from Lake Effect #20

Once, he found one
among the lettuce leaves and
cabbage shreds a former
girlfriend had
arranged on a plate for him. If
it was still alive, I can’t
remember what my husband said that
he and the girlfriend did with it.

Words pass over me so easily sometimes. I was all set to file this under “goofy love poems”. It is, but it’s also well-structured and crafted with purpose: to see different perspectives, to carry emotional impact.

What’s the one thing anyone remembers about a praying mantis? The female has a tendency to eat the males after – or sometimes during – mating. “Yet this behavior seems not to deter males from reproduction”, National Geographic notes drily (or maybe the dryness is inferred by me). Seat that in a poem written by a wife about her husband’s ex-girlfriend, and you’ve got a little soap opera in a poem.

… He’s never, my
husband, been
a salad-eater. Was he then?

Are we still talking about salad?

There’s a wonderful balance of humor and venom, much as the mantis maintains a prayer-like posture before killing; “And their martian faces, of course, with / such innocent expressions. / But all-knowing. / And all business.” And again: are we still talking about salad?

What really grabs me comes up next: “My tiny, triangular head, swiveling / From side to side….” In reviews for Kasischke’s 2017 collection Where Now in which this poem appears, I see phrases like “notices then subverts the so-called ‘normal’”, tug-of-war, and shape-shifting. And here’s a downright shift of speaker, right into the mantis’ triangular head.

Then we shift into the future, while never leaving the recollection of the past; because that’s where the present is, always.

… the meal she’d made for him, and which
They were about to share, beginning
With that salad, and
Also ending there.

Yeah, this is clearly about way more than salad. And I imagine the speaker, forevermore on the alert for the possibility that another praying mantis – or some other predator – might turn up in her husband’s salad some day.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Kempf, “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” (poem) from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

We run the kókúku trail (translation—
snow owl, in late-American) alone
this morning, its strict, midwinter alders
dark against the snowfall, its flocks of crows
shrieking as we pass. & as for the river—
there is a river. & as for those vast
accumulations of gasses—& as,
too, for the Fords & Hyundais, & the flows
of copper from Chile to Santa Cruz
& the migrant workers of Sri Lanka
scaling their towers in Dubai—that will,
some evening, rear up & expunge us,
yes, we can almost imagine ourselves
last here, our species’ sole surviving pair
of scavengers ventured forth for water
& shelter, as surely it will be, we
accept now, those new years the planet—poor
rock—is at last absolved of us.

Complete poem available online at Gettysburg Review

Paradise Lost is one of those literary works I’m afraid to read; I keep hoping I’ll come across a mooc or some heavily annotated guide at some point, and will finally tackle it as I did Dante a few years ago. But too late for this poem, which draws heavily on it; I think if I had more than a vague outline of the content, I’d be much better prepared. Oh well, the poem will still be there some day in the future when I finally get around to it. In the meantime, I can do the best I can with the poem, which shouts its message so clearly it almost compensates for my lacks.

It’s an eco-poem, but has so many reverberations – with the tragedy of 18th century Native American culture, with the short-sightedness of American capitalism, with industrial greed as the antidote to poverty, with Milton and Shakespeare – it’s far more than that. While I can’t really nail it down into a precise outline of interwoven themes and images, I wonder if maybe that’s missing the point, that poetry doesn’t have to be science, but can just leave a trace of some ineffable sensation lingering that sticks with us.

From the highest location for miles,
Milton says, he is shown, Adam, the wide
& lavishly manifold history
that will follow him. & it is glorious,
partly. How the banners ripple cleanly
from their turrets. With what refinéd grace
the courtesans attend their farandoles
& coronations. Paintings. Waltzes. Also,
however, in the teeming congeries
of men & animals, influenza
racing like a terror. Diphtheria
lifting its lurid flag, & back of this,
Milton describes, the emergent money
systems of sixteenth-century Europe
carried forth in the rolling cannon smoke
of capital.

This section draws from Book XI of Paradise Lost: after the first people are cast out from Eden, the angel Michael shows Adam the history that will unfold, the history he has created by his sin: his older son killing the younger, greed and hatred, hypocrisy, sacrificial altars, all humanity’s foolish and wayward doings up to the Flood, so Adam has an idea of just what he has unleashed. Kempf sets this against the French intrusion into North America in quest of furs, colonies, wealth, and the Indians’ view of the destruction caused by these endeavors. What follows is a reference to the massacre at the Enoch Brown schoolhouse in what today is Pennsylvania, a particularly grisly Native attack on children, teachers, and a pregnant woman that inflamed tensions. The speaker acknowledges the white settler’s point of view through the eyes of Andre Michaux, botanist, explorer, and namesake of the state park in which the poem is composed; but he sets that against the point of view of the Lenape Indians:

He would have, Michaux, heard
often of their savagery. He would have
called it that, & been properly appalled
when four Lenape entered a schoolhouse
here, winter 1764, & peeled
their blades across the skulls of the children
as they practiced their numbers. He would have
wept probably, though for the Lenape
it seemed simply the extravagant end
of a whole history of sicknesses
& ruin.

There is, of course, no pardon for murdering children (though we as a nation have decided it’s more important for NRA funds to flow freely than it is to reasonably license and control guns, even following the murder of twenty children in Newtown, CT). The speaker manages to give voice to both sides, not glossing over the horrendous violence, but looking back to see what it was in reaction to. And, by the way, violence beget more violence, as the settlers instituted “scalping bounties” to encourage murder of Indians.

And speaking of violence begetting violence:

When finally the earth—or
“this goodly frame, a spot,” Milton says—starves
us from its forests & riversides, it
will not be merciful. It will finish
us slowly. We know this.

Here I again call upon context: having just been immersed in a Shakespeare mooc for several weeks, I flashed on Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech, written about 60 years earlier, which also uses the term “this goodly frame”. Is this a deliberate allusion? Or is it just a phrase common at the time, thus prone to being used by two poets? For that matter, did Kempf deliberately include an ambiguous phrase – and one which, in either context, is comfortable in this context – or was that, too, a happy accident?

I was able to find a footnote referencing a pertinent article on the cross-reference between Milton and Shakespeare by Concordia professor Judith Scherer Herz titled “Paradise Lost VIII: Adam, Hamlet and the Anxiety of Narrative” and am attempting to get my hands on the article (from 1988, but my local library has pulled off bigger miracles). In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices to see a connection with the poem.

[Addendum: Aha, a PDF of the 1988 article from the journal English Studies in Canada arrived, free of charge, compliments of my library, the UMass/Aherst library, and the Interlibrary Loan program. Public libraries are awesome!
I learned several things things from Dr. Scherer:
First, and perhaps most important: the use of the phrase is not an accident. “The linking phrase functions in Milton’s text as both allusion and echo. Milton is far too conscious a poet to let in another unwittingly, especially Shakespeare”, says Scherer.
Now, about Book VIII, she makes several points that relate to Kempf’s poem:
1. The poet is delaying The Fall with this mini-narrative; Kempf is doing something like the reverse, rolling back time to our Fall itself.
2. Adam is not gazing in wonder at the stars, but challenging Raphael about what seems to him, unaware of what is about to happen, about the seemingly unnecessary complexity of the natural world; this leads to doubt; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanape Indians felt similar doubts about the French settlers in their midst.
3. Adam is “a speaker whose relation to his materials is complicated both by his participation in his own narrative and by his essential ignorance of its final shape”. This seems pretty modernist to me, which is surprising; but I may be misinterpreting Scherer here. In any case, the speaker in Kempf’s poem is likewise an observer, and a participant, as are all of us in contemporary society.
The passage that seems most relevant: “Adam both derives from and is Hamlet’s original. Hamlet is what Adam will sound like after the goodly frame has shrunk to the sterile promontory.” And so we have Kempf’s speaker, what Michaux will sound like, if he were here, seeing the goodly frame polluted and stripped bare to make it yield every possible nickel. And we stand beside him and see our sin played out. ]

If I’m interpreting Milton correctly, the pre-Fall Adam is marvelling at the splendor of the universe and asking the angel Raphael how it works. Hamlet’s approach is distinctly different: he recognizes the marvels of the universe, but mourns them as he is unable to appreciate them in his state of mind; the earth has become “a sterile promontory.” This seems more pertinent to the speaker’s frame of mind, yet Kempf chose to stick with Milton; is he assuming the connection will be made?

In any event, both uses of the phrase deal with beauty, and loss of that beauty; Adam before, and Hamlet after that loss. Maybe it’s about point-of-view: the Lanape, and Michaux, would have seen the glory of the earth without knowing the Fall was coming, a la Milton; today, we imagine it, a la Hamlet.

Our speaker returns to Milton, to the pre-Fall tour of the universe, and we again see him in awe. But another element is woven in, some acknowledgment of what the Lanape Indians might have felt.

How for Adam the vast
globes rolling in their sky lanes, & comets
& stars & “space incomprehensible”
between the moon & Sirius exist
merely—oh, & here he is particularly
brilliant, listen—to “officiate light”
round this meager atom, the world. & round
its lemon trees & robins. Round his wife’s
hair in its evening coruscations. Her hand
in his hand. & the lush & ample breast
of the new world laid before them. For that,
he thinks, my God, what wouldn’t we butcher?

Just breathe a moment, and let that last line sink in.

One of the features of this poem that I found annoying was the use of ampersands instead of the word “and”. The symbols are used, particularly in the beginning of the poem, to begin sentences. I don’t see a clear pattern. I did a “paragraphed” version of the poem, to see if .& was an indication of a new thought, or what might be considered a stanza, but I don’t think so. I wonder if it’s another of those typographical signals, little tics to keep us on our toes, to pay attention when shortcuts are taken. And maybe there’s a sense of continuity, everything both blended together – the Lanape, Michaux’s park, the earth, we of the 21st century – and separated.

I’ve been delaying publication of this post to see if the article on “this goodly space” would come in; not yet. If it shows up, I’ll do an Addendum. But having read ahead, I can now say that I’ve been greatly surprised by three poems in this volume, poems that grew on me, revealing more and more as I read through them and read them again and thought about them. Slow reading has its rewards.

Pushcart XLI: Tatiana Forero Puerta, “Cleaning the Ghost Room” (poem) from Hawaii Pacific Review 2/25/15

Mami made me dust
the ghost room as she swept
the kitchen downstairs, washed the fruit-
shaped porcelain dishes.
I objected, tearing up and shaken, clutching
to the dust rag, heart pounding. She said,
it builds character of high caliber, camaraderie
with the spirits. You want the dead on your side.

Complete poem available online at Hawaii Pacific Review

Most of us have deeply ingrained attitudes towards the dead, and fear probably ranks highest. To a young girl, the idea of dusting in a room where someone died – we never know who Mr. Traynor was, a tenant, a patient? – must’ve been terrifying. She imagines him in the rocking chair where he spent most of his time. But Mom saw it differently.

While the first four stanzas express the child’s discomfort and resentment, the last three acknowledge the lesson that was taught and the gratitude felt towards a mother who made her “wipe / the mirror clean to reflect my / fear up close”, to “see myself in its pupils.” And as mother prepares child for an inevitable eventuality, so the poem prepares us for the last lines.

Pushcart XLI: Jericho Brown, “The Tradition” (poem) from Poem-a-day

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

The final line – go ahead, read it, it’s only 14 lines – is a knife to the heart. I wasn’t expecting it, though I see now the ground was prepared – it was our dirt, philosophical advice, father, brothers, even the blossoms fast-forwarded to see them in time. It’s all there, I just wasn’t really reading, I saw flowers and thought, oh, flowers. Yes, flowers, blooming so beautifully until that turn in the last line and then they aren’t.

I thought about just putting the poem here to speak, which it does more eloquently than any commentary could. That felt like cheating somehow. I thought about doing more with sonnet structure. About looking more closely at the flowers mentioned: don’t flowers have individual meanings or something? I waited a couple of days for some inspiration, for something I could write that would be the right setting. I think I should’ve gone with my first instinct.

The poem serves as an epigraph for The Fire This Time, the 2016 anthology of essays, poems, and written work edited by Jesmyn Ward dealing with race in America. And now it’s 2017. Damn it.

Pushcart XLI: Jean Valentine, “Hospice” from Shirt in Heaven

I wore his hat
as if it was the rumpled coat
of his body, like I could put it on.

At first I was worried: it’s a poem about death, obviously heartfelt and personal, by a highly distinguished poet, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I wondered again if I should be doing this, blogging every poem like I have any idea what I’m doing. But that’s the deal, because otherwise it’s too easy to turn the page and do something easier, and what way is that to do anything worth doing. And as sometimes happens (which is why I’ve stuck by the deal), while no doubt there are subtleties beyond my reach, I found more was accessible than I’d expected.

First is the repetition of words: hat, hand, water, life, rumple. Rumple, of all things. The others are grand words, but rumple? It’s the rumpling that makes the hat, the hand, the water, the life, all beautiful and meaningful. The repetition unites the poem, keeps reminding us why we are there in the hospice room with the dying… dying who? Friend, lover, spouse, child, rival; the details of gender, age, and relationship are omitted so the figure is vague. All we can see is the speaker.

Embodiment again: that familiar recent theme, the body as the medium of experience. Here it’s the medium of goodbye, not grief exactly but more like the presence at a ship’s launching; more like anticipation. I’ve been encountering embodiment in many diverse areas while reading these pieces, in physics and philosophy (which again twine together as they did in ancient Greece). The observer is part of the observed. To measure is to affect what is measured. That must be just as true of watching someone – someone beloved – die as it is of measuring the velocity and position of electrons. Truer, no doubt.

And embodiment, in poetry, turns to typography as form becomes function:

I remembered
like an islander           my island


like a calving iceberg, air

The island, the I- land, as he-land slips away from sight: isolation. Just yesterday I learned, courtesy of lexicographer @JesseSheidlower, that island and isle are linguistically unrelated, one from Latin, one from Anglo-Saxon. And now I’m self-conscious about every I that I type, which maybe isn’t a bad thing.

And at the end, after an asterisk (A star? A sound? Or just typographic direction?) there’s a turn. Poems frequently feature turns as part of the semantic structure; sonnets and elegies depend on them. This poem doesn’t have the surface structure of either sonnet or elegy, but maybe it’s an elegy in a deeper way. The turn is one of the most dramatic I’ve read recently; I actually see the speaker physically turning after the death has occurred:

I thought I’d have to listen, hard,
I didn’t even swallow.
But nothing from you stopped.

In prior lines, the speaker used third person to refer to the he; now she promotes he to second person, to you. I can’t help but see this as a step closer to first person, to the I of the island. I see it in my mind, this scene, a companion/comforter/witness at the bedside facing the dying, then rising and turning outward back to the world with that you. Or maybe it’s a different turn, an embodiment not of the hat but of the spirit, a more conceptual turn. And suddenly I wonder if I have it all wrong, if the speaker is the dying, the he/you is the friend/comforter/visitor/witness, the turning not from losing to loss but from embodiment to release.

Of course, it’s entirely likely I’ve missed a larger point about relationships or grief or death while I looked at typography and grammatical persons. But I’m glad I stuck with the poem, that I didn’t let it scare me away, because if nothing else, I know other ways of turning.

Pushcart XLI: Kate Levin, “Resting Place” from River Teeth, Sept. 2015

When we arrive at daycare, I step out of the car and close my door gently, hoping not to startle my son awake. As I open the back door to retrieve him from his car seat, I see the bird.
I gasp, but only its stillness is gruesome.

Complete piece available online at River Teeth Journal

The first year, maybe two, that I blogged Pushcart, I only did the fiction. Then I added the nonfiction, and a year later, one post for all the poetry, reading it separately. I think I missed a lot skipping around that way. Case in point: we have a second piece about a child, and a bird. A very different piece in tone, theme, and genre – I’m not sure if this is poetry or nonfiction (I would call it poetry), but I’m sure it doesn’t matter – to show us the wide-ranging possibilities of a single combination.

Again, we have a frightening intrusion into an everyday moment, nowhere near as tragic as in “The Raptor” but alarming nonetheless: Life and death, protection and destruction, innocence and guilt, side by side. But mostly there’s the sense of fragility: not just of the sleeping child or the trapped bird, but of the possibility of tragedy under the most pacific scene. Maybe it is the same theme, or at least a similar one: danger lurking everywhere, revealed at the most innocuous, routine moment, and the effect that has on a parent. “There is my sleeping son, and there is the dead bird,” says mom.

But that’s just the first act of this one-page play; the scene doesn’t end there.

But then I would look at him, breath muscle bones, humming in motion; a system insisting on itself. Who was I to doubt it?…. Through the windshield I can see my son, eyes still closed. Beneath a buckled harness, his chest rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls.

And we come to the question of will, also raised in “The Raptor”. Both involve the will of a very young child. But here, the will is more the will of the body: the will of “a system insisting on itself.” The rise and fall of the chest (echoing the open and close of the car door?), even in sleep, even next to death.

I’m taking yet another biology mooc, and I continue to be in awe of this bundle of atoms we call our bodies, of the billions of things that happen every second to keep our chests rising and falling, to keep us working and playing and loving and laughing and writing blog posts. Is the will to live the will of the body? Maybe it’s the will of nature: like charges repel and opposite charges attract, ions pump, cardiac muscles contract, nerve cells signal the diaphragm to take another breath, even in sleep. “A system insisting on itself,” and mom sees her world isn’t quite as fragile as she thought.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces is marvelous. Either one alone has power, but together, they hold a conversation.

Pushcart XLI: Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops” from Nepantla #2

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin

i name my body girl of my dreams
i name my body proximity
i name my body full of hope despite everything
i name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet
i hope i come back as an elephant
i hope we all come back as animals
and eat our fill
i hope everyone gets everything they deserve

Complete poem available online from LitHub

The ordering of Pushcart pieces, unlike BASS, is up to the editors. This year we opened with a cluster of art-themed stories, a theme that’s echoed from time to time throughout. I sense a distinct pocket of body-themed works, going back to Charlie, or even to Slocomb County, though now the theme takes precedence over other threads. The body as male or female, brown or white, me or not me, human or animal, cop or civilian.

I read a poem that starts out with elements of bitterness, but turns towards hope. I’m enchanted by the idea of wanting to come back as an elephant; I keep wondering what it is about the elephant that is so appealing. Its size? Its reputation for memory? Its thick skin?

I also spent some time wondering about all of us getting what we deserve. I think nearly everyone wishes that, yet I suspect most of us will be disappointed with our deserts, a kind of moral Ikea effect.

Pushcart XLI: Richie Hofmann, “Idyll” from Second Empire

Fernando Vincente:  “Atlas” series

Fernando Vincente: “Atlas” series

Cicadas bury themselves in small mouths
of the tree’s hollow, lie against the bark tongues like amulets,
though it is I who pray I might shake off this skin and be raised
from the ground again….

~ Complete poem available online at TNY


My initial impression of the poem was of rebirth, of an emergence from a life of repression and fear into a more free existence. But when I’m uncertain, which is most of the time (particularly with poetry), I go researching. And in my research I found gold.

First, cicadas. I have a vague idea of a cyclical existence, of an emergence every so often in a loud frenzy of insect celebration, but I didn’t know if that was folklore or fact. Turns out, it’s both:

Cicadas begin life as a rice-shaped egg, which the female deposits in a groove she makes in a tree limb…. Once the egg hatches the cicada begins to feed on the tree fluids…. Once the young cicada is ready, it crawls from the groove and falls to the ground where it will dig until it finds roots to feed on. Once roots are found the cicada will stay underground…. After the long 2 to 17 years, cicadas emerge from the ground as nymphs. Nymphs climb the nearest available tree, and begin to shed their nymph exoskeleton. Free of their old skin, their wings will inflate with fluid and their adult skin will harden. Once their new wings and body are ready, they can begin their brief adult life.

This fits beautifully into the poem: the mouth and feeding imagery, a life cycle of becoming, “one life / abrades another”, the sense of rebirth even I could not miss on first reading. We all pass from the truths we believed in childhood – truths about ourselves, about the world, generated from unquestioned pronouncements of authority figures or merely from perceptions in a very limited frame of reference – into a more complex, nuanced, and fact-based truths that withstand critical examination as contradictions are encountered.

Yes, of course it’s a coming-out poem, mixing the literal coming out of the cicada from the nurturing protection of the tree to the world, and the more figurative coming out into self-acceptance and freedom to own one’s space in the world as one is, scraping off the criticisms and fears in favor of “a body built for love”. Specifically aiming towards queer metaphor, it could also be applied to any kind of emergence from a poorly-fitting set of imposed norms into a life that fully celebrates one’s existence and understanding of reality, a more nimble and authentic way to progress through the world: feeling what we feel, rather than what we’ve been told to feel.

I was surprised to see a poem from The New Yorker in Pushcart – the champion of small presses ignores the glossies – but the nomination came instead from Hofmann’s premier collection, Second Empire. Soren Stockman’s Kenyon Review analysis gave me a greater appreciation of this metamorphic theme that runs through both the collection and this individual poem:

Richie Hofmann’s debut collection, Second Empire,contains the fierce construction of a life saturated with love. Hofmann’s speaker looks closely at the world he is born into as well as at the world he would create in its place, the former existing as a battlefield whose rules have not been proclaimed widely enough and the latter being forged from a sensual and uncompromising imagination. These two worlds often appear in the same moment, line, sentence, or poem, like two opposing emotions gripped simultaneously in the mind. Over the course of the book, they move closer, tentative as new lovers. Hofmann builds a steadying cord between the eyes and what they view in both his speaker and his reader. He grants us a tightrope and we walk out of ourselves into what eventually become our lives.

~~ Soren Stockman for Kenyon Review

Many of us are right now walking a tightrope of truths: loud voices, some of them supposed authority figures, are telling us, and the truth of what we experience in our own lives and know from however many years of our lives. Can there be a reverse metamorphosis, back into the childhood of uncritical acceptance of authority merely because it has power? I hope not.

I was particularly struck by Stockman’s observations about the cover image of the book: “We see finally the map on the book’s cover to be a torso, then the cords of someone’s neck, and then a mouth opening.” Yes, I had noticed, on the KR page, an intriguing image that looked somewhat like a 19th century anatomical drawing of a torso. His chronology is spot-on: then I noticed the map, then the neck, then the mouth. It’s a carefully cropped version of a work from Spanish painter Fernando Vincente’s “Atlas” series; I’ve used the uncropped version as the header art for this post.

The purists will tell you a poem must be taken on its own, that it’s a weakness of analytical and aesthetic skill if the reader can’t recognize what’s going on based purely on the text of the poem. That may be true, but some of us need some guidance to develop those skills. Sometimes my guidance comes from more experienced and knowledgeable poeticists; sometimes it comes from separating myth and reality to better understand cicadas.

Pushcart XLI: Melissa Broder, “Forgotten Sound” (poem) from Last Sext (Tin House 2016)

Photo by Martin Stranka: “Rejected”

Photo by Martin Stranka: “Rejected”

I pretended the lust was voices
And I wrote down the voices
And sometimes the voices spoke as I had written them
To confirm what I already knew
Which is that I am a child and ready for petting

Complete poem available online at The Rumpus

I confess that I’ve been a bit puzzled, maybe even slightly put off, by the Broder phenomenon. She earned her MFA, has published several poetry collections since 2010 (including the one featuring this poem), and her bio at Poetry Foundation lists leadership work with literary magazines and organizations. Yet she became a sensation because of her melancholic tweets (@sosadtoday) and her same-titled book of essays about vulnerability and insecurity and, well, being sad – a book she herself felt might make others take her less seriously as a poet, a book that ended up enshrined in everything from Rolling Stone to Elle to The New Yorker. In the film Broadcast News, dysphoric reporter Allen Brooks whines, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If “needy” were a turn-on?” Turns out, in the right hands, it can be.

I can’t dismiss this poem, and not only because Broder was a prolific and respected poet before her Twitter fame. There’s a powerful haunting quality to it that touches me: the build to the last line, the echo after the words go silent like the click of a closing door, a hollow openness reminiscent of the quality Sinéad O’Connor brought to “Sacrifice”. My admiration for Elton John knows no bounds, but it took O’Connor to expose the emotion, as Broder does with Brooks’ well-defended comedic lament.

Maybe it’s a new confessionalism. Maybe it’s just relief that someone else gets it. I’ve said often I don’t pretend to know what’s “good” and what isn’t; sometimes I don’t even know exactly what it is I feel when I read something; but I still know when I feel something intense, something important, and I did. Isn’t that what a successful poem does?

Pushcart XLI: Cecily Parks, “Hurricane Song” (poem) from O’Nights

"After the Hurricane" by Wayne Rogers (detail)

“After the Hurricane” by Wayne Rogers (detail)

The pines dizzying for a hurricane, the wind
so hotly twirls their skirts and underskirts,
unnerves their pinecones, ratchets up and up
their branches into needle-spangled, needle-spraying
plumes. The white running sunlight falls and tumbles
through the meadow, rattling the grass. The meadow
sweeps me up in its arms so that I lose track of east
and feel that little kidnapped thrill that comes with drastic
Complete poem available online at Kenyon Review

Imagine a forest as a community filled with the sentience of nature: trees, grass, deer, birds. Now imagine that community dancing in the storm, not fearing it but playing with it. That’s the kind of personification I see in this poem. Pine trees as skirts particularly strikes me as particularly nice imagery; that is how the branches move in a stiff wind. I hear a lot of sibilance – grasses, guess, yes – in several parts of the poem, imitating the sound of wind.

Hannah Fries of Southern Humanities Review points out, in her review that O’Nights, the title of the collection containing the poem, comes from an entry in Thoreau’s journal reporting a friend’s comment: “He thought that Emerson was a very young-looking man for his age, ‘But,’ said he, ‘he has not been out o’ nights as much as you have.'” Being out o’nights has its costs, perhaps, but also its benefits in experience.

The forest has loved itself long enough to do this.
Is now when I should love myself into a safer place,
or is this the place where love makes me safe? I guess yes
and yes.

The idea of being safe from the storm in the forest seem odd, doesn’t it? I’ve experienced hurricanes in Florida and New England, and I’m not trusting enough of the forest to keep me safe. I wonder if Thoreau ever did.

Pushcart XLI: Taije Silverman, “Spiritual Evaluation” (poem) from Massachusetts Review #56.2

If You Think You Have Been the Victim of Witchcraft,
Envy, the Evil Eye, or Bad Luck, Come Inside
and Get a Spiritual Evaluation.

—sign on the Church of Jesus Christ in the Lord, Philadelphia


Did you want this baby?
There are a certain number of questions you may pass over
without forfeiting your score on the test.
Do you understand that metaphors involving hummingbirds
are not useful? Do you understand
that you are in no way related to hummingbirds?
If this baby is the size of an a) eraser or b) apricot
or c) memory, will you be able to determine
whether on the day after the hurricane,
the river was as full as a river can be
without flooding the ramp to the bypass?
Complete poem available online at Massachusetts Review

That first line is possibly the most meaning-per-word sentence since Hemingway. Yet, because it places the baby in past tense, it’s difficult to reconcile with the rest of the poem, which consistently looks forward in time from the present. I briefly wondered if it could be a backwards poem, but it’s not structured to make backwards-reading seem tenable.

At first, concrete symbols unify the poem and provide a certain momentum: the hummingbird, apricot, eraser, water. Then then there’s a relatively static moon section – interesting choice, since the moon is itself a symbol of change, of fluctuation, not to mention the original fertility symbol with its connection to the female menstrual cycle – followed by the concluding lines including symbols looping back to the beginning to reestablish the unity.

When you picture the moon,
do you see its surface or a not inhospitable orb
that alternates in size according to proximity with rooftops?
This problem is commonly referred to as moon illusion.
This theory is generally known as shape constancy.
With the shape of your body please prove
that the moon does not generate its own light. Do you like
charades? If this baby is a girl, what.
If this baby is a boy. Do you think
you have been the victim of bad luck?
Describe in five words what this baby will fear
if this baby is an apricot. List everyone it will love
if it is an eraser.

I’m trying to get some picture of this scene. My first thought was a woman who’s recently miscarried, seeing a “spiritual healer” to work out her grief. The metaphors seem to indicate someone with a more eclectic approach: shape constancy and the moon illusion, both recognized phenomena, along with apricots and hummingbirds .

But then I thought: what if that first line stands out because it is spoken by someone else, a nurse or doctor, or perhaps a friend trying to offer what she thinks is comfort? What if the rest of the poem is the woman’s response? That doesn’t really fit, however. Too many “you”s. What if it’s a woman talking to herself, conducting some version of a searching and fearless moral inventory while deciding what to do about an unexpected pregnancy? The last lines intrigue me as well: it must be important, this notion of loving someone more than the baby. It invites totally different scenarios, some a bit obscure, involving the father or other children.

So I ended up back where I started. I’m strongly reminded of Mary Ruefle’s “During a Break from Feeling” which I also found beautifully obscure. I’m not sure what the story is, but I love the imagery, and maybe that’s where I should stay on this one. Maybe the confusion, like the inconstant moon, is intrinsic to the poem. Or am I just making excuses, being lazy?

Confusion is my genre.

Pushcart XLI: Patricia Spears Jones, “Etta James at the Audubon Ballroom” (poem) from A Lucent Fire

Someone knocks over a chair (drunk one)
Fight ready, but this vivid sound stops
fists—who let them big black birds
In? Again. This night. What
Flight. Fight. Let’s try dancing the blues


Audio of the poem available online at PennSound

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes, a poem just happens to be part of the PennSound archive from the Kelly Writers House at Penn. Then you can not only listen to the poet read her work, but hear her discuss the poem, and her poetry in general, with poet and professor Charles Bernstein.

Maybe you would’ve guessed that the Etta James performance is imagined rather than factual. And maybe, given the historic significance of the location, and the break in the poem, from chaos to order, from abandon to attention at the line “There he stands”:

Your skin beams sweetness while your voice screams
Where’s the fucking fun house?
Your chest blossoms possibilities/ hips thick enough to swing
Which way and oh my
There he stands
In suit sharp as steel and shoes patent leather,
squarish frames/that wiseguy demeanor, the tipped chapeau

that it’s Malcolm X who has the tipped chapeau, whose appearance changes the tone of the Ballroom from chaos to order. But probably not. And in any case, it’s nice to know, not guess. And then you’re ready for that last poignant line.

Jones resists being categorized as a blues poet; she thinks it’s broader than that, encompassing more music, more of the culture of her home and travels, a kind of testimony to her life, heard through a filter and written through a musicality of her own. Imagination is her finest poetic tool, and she uses it well.

Pushcart XLI: Ye Chun, “The Luoyang Poem” (poem) from Lantern Puzzle

Gray streets and dim staircases.
We slid down the banister:
often one of us,
in dream or in memory, fell.

I couldn’t find much about this poem, or the collection whence it comes, so I was worried. Turns out, I found a great deal in it, not in a “this is what the poem means” sort of way (and I wonder if any poem that can be summed up as such is a poem at all) but in a “oh, I see what happened here (I think)” way.

One of the approaches I use when I’m not sure what to do is comparison of the beginning and ending of a poem. That doesn’t always help, but here it was marvelous. Whereas the first stanza above gives a glimpse into a hazily remembered childhood and is painted in gray and dim, the last stanza shows a new direction:

That winter, a boy
came riding beside me,
my big coat a dark corner.
We rode past the sweet potato vendor and his stove;
they stood in every winter
like a small lighthouse.
We rode past Chairman Mao
in front of the Mining Machine Factory
his marble arm waving at us.
Black flags of smoke blew above our heads.
We rode toward the huge
suddenly blooming setting sun.

The dimness is still there, but there is also the promise of blooming, a setting sun ending one phase of life, the speaker beginning another, of adolescence and youth in spite of what hangs over them. And I’m charmed by the imagery of the sweet potato vendor’s stove as a small lighthouse: a light so that the ship won’t founder on an unexpected shore.

Throughout the poem, I particularly noticed the transitions between the numbered sections. Section 1 above ends with an isolated “fell”, and section 2 starts with “I fell ill”, a completely different sense of the word. That double use prompted me to check for similar transitions, and I found them. Section 2 ends with smoke from the factories, and section 3 begins with the history of burning in this town, from the tragic to the trivial:

New dynasty burned houses of the old.
Red Guards burned 55,884 rolls of sutras at the White Horse Temple.
Twenty factories burned the sky blind.
Families of the dead burned paper horses.
Crematoria burned the dead.
My father burned another fall’s leaves.
I burned my diary.

There’s such a layering of history in this stanza in particular, from the speaker’s lifetime back to old Dynasties. I found a few references to the practice of making a paper horse and carriage for a funeral, then burning them in an echo of ancient custom of burying items with the dead. I can’t find a historical reference to burning of Buddhist scripture at the White Horse Temple; 55,884 is such a specific number, I’d love to have more information.

Section 3 ends with a reference to burning ourselves, and the next one observes Luoyang’s cross made by a factory smokestack, a somewhat attenuated transition on the notion of sacrifice. Four ends with distance, and five begins with parents being sent to the city “to build a new nation”, presumably in the era of the Red Guards. Sacrifice underpins every parent’s life, some more than others. Section 5 ends with spit and 6 begins with a dry river. The transition from 6 to 7 is possibly all self-constructed: from peach flowers to a new friendship, a new adolescence, and the literal riding off into the sunset.

So I ended up with a memoir of a place since left, with time whistling around my ears throughout the poem. Quite lovely. I’m almost glad I couldn’t find any other analysis, because it gave me the freedom to create my own.

Pushcart XLI: Mathias Svalina, from “Thank You Terror” (poem) from The Volta

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: "Fictional Reality/Daily Dream" series

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: “Fictional Reality/Daily Dream” series

I was dead
but they kept killing me
by the seaside,
the Super Target,
on a plane,
in a beetle’s husk.
Complete poem available online at The Volta

Allow me to once again admit that I have no idea what I’m doing here. However, I was able to find some information that helped me at least understand the neighborhood we’re in with this poem: dreams and nightmares. Along the way, I became intrigued by the poet as well.

In a Harriet article, I found a video where Svalina explains his approach: “a dream logic.” Ah, that gave me a touchstone. A few years back I did some work on Ishiguro’s “The Village After Dark” and The Unconsoled, and discovered, thanks to an interview in The Paris Review, that the story was a warm-up in the use of the grammar of dreams for the novel. I’m not sure Svalina uses precisely the same approach, but it’s similar enough to serve as some kind of footing for reading this poem.

It’s more of a nightmare, really, the kind induced by constant reminders of terrorism in everyday life. Images shift without warning, and these shifts are accepted as they are in a dream state: personal death in the beauty of the seaside, or the banality of Target, or the more rational setting of a plane, to the surreal beetle’s husk to keep us from feeling too comfortable. The request of Artaud, poet and dramatist, creator of the theatre of cruelty, for sonnets. Flaying that brings joy. And the last stanza, a stabilizing summary, a reminder that the dream, the nightmare, takes us where it will, and while shaped by images and events from the world around you, it is your own mind that is the sculptor of the nightmare.

None of that nightmarishness is alleviated by knowing, thanks to a comment the poet made at a Brooklyn reading, that the title is following Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”. Maybe he was being ironic.

For those who didn’t bother to check out the Harriet post linked above, it includes an explanation of Svalina’s Dream Delivery Service: for a subscription of about $60 a month, he will write and mail – or deliver, if you happen to live in a city he’s visiting – a dream; nightmares cost a little more. It’s his way of forcing himself to write at least half the day. While a bit flaky, he has a PhD in creative writing, teaches at various places and has published several books so he’s not a total crackpot. Just the right amount of crackpot, I’d say. Is his poetry any good? How would I know? I don’t even have a yardstick. I can only say I’m intrigued.