Pushcart XLI: Emily Skillings, “Basement Delivery” (poem) from Jubilat #28

Having lived so long without one, we forgot
what a basement felt like—how it seemed
to the carrier(s), to the inhabitant(s),
the structure(s), that there was an underneathness
to all that daily interaction and exchange—
i.e. an empty teacup hovering just above a pool.

Complete poem available online at Jubilat

Welcome to another round of “Karen doesn’t have a clue about how poetry works (but that doesn’t stop her from blogging about it)”.

Let’s start with the teacup above a pool. To me, a teacup is a strong symbol of social propriety and decorum, linked to the Queen, delicate sandwiches, formal luncheons intended primarily to show off new hats. A teacup is fragile, merely a swirl of porcelain in space, as opposed to a coffee cup which is solid and practical. I’m not saying that’s what a teacup actually is, just what it brings to mind. Then there’s the pool below, with its unknown depths and shifting surface, a place where one could dive in or drown, who knows which.

Then there’s the basement. All houses have foundations, but a basement is something else, a hollow in a foundation, where old junk or dormant ideas are stored, a place that can become another room someday when the time is right or just stay a spidery place for laundry machines and boxes of the past.

My family moved from New England to South Florida when I was a kid; we lost our basement along the way. A house with a basement feels different, at least the houses I’ve been in. The floors echo. And there’s always something else, something unseen, beneath. In metaphorical terms, this could be viewed as positive or negative – it’s great to have a sense of where one came from, to have space for future memories, but doesn’t memory also limit our expectations? And did I mention spiders? And sump pumps? – but it seems to me the poem treats it as positive, keeping a vibrant, energetic tone throughout.

I get the general idea of being without a basement as being without that extra, out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage, and the installation of a basement as expansion of the capacity for memory, for depth of experience. The installation itself is whimsical and fun: of course, basements aren’t installed in this way (I know nothing about construction, but I suspect it’s not possible to install a basement under an existing house). Ten women arrive to install it. Why women? Because women tend to keep family memories more than men? Why ten? The number required for a minyan? A sufficient generational span to warrant a basement of the past?

Alternate take, based on a true story: When I was a mere lass of 19 or so, I made some self-deprecatory remark and a friend answered, “You know what bothers me about you? Your abasement.” I spent a couple of beats trying to figure out why I was a basement before it clicked. I don’t think that’s anywhere in the text of the poem, but every reader brings a different past – a different basement, if you will – to a read, and that’s mine for this one. I tried reading the poem in that light, in fact. A poem about installing abasement would be a very different poem, wouldn’t it? Darkness, underneath the pink (I’m still haunted by “The Spring Forecast” from a few weeks ago) and the we and the freed collection? Is this a poem about the erosion of confidence that comes, for so many girls, at puberty? Is the substory that comes at first blush of waking sexuality a sense of shame, of a new context in every social exchange? And again I’ve fallen into some super-subjective abyss. Give me a minute to climb out…

Then I have formal questions. Why three sets of six lines plus a couplet, enjambed with the last sestet? Does trochaic pentameter (if that’s what it is; I have some congenital inability to accurately parse meters, especially when they are just a bit irregular, as they are here and in most modern poetry) add some level of meaning? What function does this serve? Must it serve a function, whether aesthetic or symbolic? And semantic questions: Why the (s)s in the first stanza? To me it adds to the whimsy, maybe just because it looks like smiles, but is there a deeper, more poetically valid reason? And that last line: while keeping the importance of time forefront (it was again again), the whimsicality of the poem stretches to another level, almost to wordplay with “Leave no stone already.” There’s a confusion of past and present, but why end on that switch? To confound the past’s role, now strengthened by the basement, in expectations of the future?

This is why I get so frustrated with poetry: significance of any element varies from poem to poem. I’m going to stick with what grabs me – the teacup and the basement and the pink and the ten strong women and foundational memory, background, context (oh, but I do so love the abasement angle, it followed me home, I promise to feed it every day, can I keep it, please, please?) – until I learn a better way to read.

In her On Poetry podcast episode, Skillings (a Columbia teaching fellow and MFA candidate) mentions she’s only been paid for two poems. “No one goes into poetry for money anyway,” says host Gabriela Garcia. Same could be said for all that’s important and irreplaceable. Her first full-length collection, a compilation of her work over the last four years (including this poem) will be released this Fall.

Pushcart XLI: Stephen Dunn, “The Revolt of the Turtles” (poetry) from Southern Review 51.3

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit "Follow the Leaders"

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit “Follow the Leaders”

On gray forgetful mornings like this
sea turtles would gather in the shallow waters
of the Gulf to discuss issues of self-presentation
and related concerns like, If there were a God
would he have a hard shell and a retractable head,
and whether speed on land
was of any importance to a good swimmer.

You can almost hear them, can’t you, these turtles debating questions much like our own “How can God be a trinity” or “Is philosophy of any use to anyone anymore” or “If you do what you love, will the money really follow”. But these turtles have some serious business on their minds as well, such as running a world where kids keep flipping them over on their backs.

It’s an amusing poem, but dark at the same time. We can’t help but see ourselves in the turtles, but also feel superior to them because we see their mistakes. It’s so easy to see what’s wrong from the outside. It’s why we’re all experts on how other people should live their lives, while our own lives are in tatters. Lecturing us wouldn’t do any good, so Dunn holds up a mirror made of turtles.

One of the turtles has an idea as he considers “ways in which power could bring about /fairness and decency” :

And when he finished speaking
in the now-memorable and ever-deepening
 
waters of the Gulf, all the sea turtles
began to chant, Only fairness, only decency.

Poor turtles. We all know that historically, fairness and decency don’t stand much of a chance against fear-mongering, greed, and deceit. We’re in a real-time laboratory right now to see if they stand any chance at all. I waver daily, sometimes hourly, between hope and despair.

I didn’t realize the full significance of the ever-deepening waters mentioned in that last stanza until I discovered the Summer 2015 issue of Southern Review was a 10-year retrospective on Katrina. I imagined the turtles holding their meeting a day or two before the storm. That’s when I knew I had to include the sculpture popularly called “Politicians Discuss Global Warming” as header art. Poor turtles.

Pushcart XLI: Shane McCrae, “Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man’s Face” (poem) from Poetry, Nov. 2015

Image by Joshua Tilghman after Michelangelo

Image by Joshua Tilghman after Michelangelo

Before it disappears
on the sand his long white       beard before it disappears
The face of the man
in the waves I ask her does she see it ask her does
The old man in the waves       as the waves crest she see it does
she see the old man…

Complete poem available online at Poetry

In McCrae’s bio entry on the Poetry website, I read “[his] attention to both meter and its breakage in his poems emphasizes the chafe of historical accounting against contemporary slippage, engaging this country’s troubling history and continuation of oppression and violence.” I can see elements of both in this poem: phrases lapping and overlapping as waves at the shore. The choppiness of the language adds to the disjointed images and messages we’re subjected to all the time, but perhaps more to the attention span of a child: everything is in the moment.

Thanks to a lesson I learned from “Spring Forecast” a few entries ago, I’ve never been more aware of the title informing the poem. Without the title, this could be any beach scene. Start with the title, and cute family drama becomes social commentary: we see the difference between the vision and imagination of the child who creates God in her own image, and the adult, aware (those spaces after white, twice) that interpretation of what we see is shaped as much by socially acquired imagery of what is the norm and what is other as by the reality of photons on retina.

Pushcart XLI: Shelley Wong, “The Spring Forecast” (poetry) from Crazyhorse #88

Soon, the sea. On the city corner,
     a tree asserts I am every
            shade of pink.
Like the inside.
     Dresses as transparent
as watercolor. Doors flung open
     
                  to receive gold arrows.
      (stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
      like bougainvillea.

One of my first serious literary experiences in college (or as serious as one can be in Poetry 101) was a class on The Canterbury Tales. The instructor tried to convince us the Prologue had a sexual tone – all that piercing and bathing and generating – and I was unconvinced. I guess I’ve learned something since then, because I see a lot of the Canterbury Tales sex in this poem. Not to mention a bunch of other stuff.

But first – full disclosure. I was googling around looking for notes on the poem, as I always do, or at least an online copy so I wouldn’t have to type all those indents (I hate typing indents, though formatting them for blogging is even worse) and what do I stumble across but Jacob Weber’s blog post about this very poem. Jake has been a regular participant in my BASS posts for a couple of years, and this year, Pushcart.

We had similar overall impressions (with some big differences) of a walk down a city street to the beach in Spring, with romance blooming all around. I’d been thinking myself pretty clever for considering the ambiguity of “strings” as referencing music and/or Cupid’s bow, but he’d made the same observation so now I feel like a copycat. In fact, his analysis is certainly preferable, for anyone serious about poetry, to anything I’m going to come up with, so I highly recommend a trip over there.

I’d throw in some observations about the rhythm of the poem. “Soon, the sea” sets a wavelike rhythm in short phrases that persists until “Skirts flare into bells”, an appropriate phrase for a disturbance of regularity.

I also had a very different impression of the identity of the speaker. I was thinking it was a man, enjoying the springtime pulchritude, until he’s interrupted by a memory, a voice in past tense from somewhere inside his head:

Once, a stop sign
     
before the water. Once, he traced
     the arch of her foot.

And then it’s back to present tense. And I have to wonder: what happened at that stop sign? Is he an old man, remembering his own spring romance from days gone by? I hear this intrusive memory returning, maybe, with “Her hand / petaling open” and I’m imagining all sorts of things happening at that stop sign, from long-lost love to rape to a tragic accident. Is he on his way to the Island, where, though he won’t enjoy the scenery, he also won’t be tormented by this memory any more? Or where he won’t be bothered by temptation? And yet he longs for the pied-à-terre. Could this be a woman, recapturing a once-experienced spring blooming, with sweet nostalgia for the foolishness, and a not-terribly-serious wish to live in the midst of it forever?

The personage of the speaker became my focus. The poem references both “he” and “she”, and the syntax is irregular enough to put those in any context. But in the end, I’m left ambivalent. I always wonder, when I’m ambivalent, if it’s because I’m stupid or because that’s the point. We remember our youth in a certain way, and even when we romanticize it, I think we always know it was filled, not only with bursting pink, but with uncertainty and worry and pressures.

I had to smile at one of Jake’s comments about sexual excitement recast in a dark light, mocking the romance. I skipped right over theme of “niceties constructed to cover animal lust that leaks out anyway” and rushed straight to abuse and death. I went a step too far, I have to admit: the peach, “strings up” and the “offwhite leader”, well, I’ve been reading a lot about Reconstruction lately, so … I think I’ll leave it there. I prefer Jake’s interpretation of strings up: bikinis. Wish I’d thought of that.

I too wonder, as Jake did, if there’s some reference I’m not getting. I seem to be getting all kinds of references, and that’s even worse: The Canterbury Tales, To The Lighthouse, Prufrock, and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and I wonder why I’m trying so hard. Why can’t I just see this as a guy lost in a sexual fantasy as he walks along Main Street on his way to the island, and admire the poetics? Short answer: because I don’t know much about poetics.

In the end, I have no idea if this is a pleasant idyll, a bittersweet memoir, a social critique, or something else entirely. Bring on Emily: I dwell in possibility. But I do wish I knew what town I was in.

Pushcart XLI: Sally Wen Mao, “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles” (poetry) from Missouri Review #38.1

When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves
 
But my mink collar protected me.

I bet men – and not a few women – are tired of hearing about the indignities of being female. And I’ll bet nearly everyone, including some of the woke, is shocked to find that Asians deal with racism, too. Well, the speaker of the poem doesn’t care what people are tired of hearing about, or what level of stereotyping others think is not too bad; she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it any more.

The poem is one of a set of five poems concerning Anna May Wong, considered the first Chinese American actress. Her career started in the 1920s and moved from silents to talkies to radio and television, and while she performed in dozens of movies and almost as many TV roles (IMDB lists 61 credits), when it came to major roles, she was sidelines by whitewashing: the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a practice that’s still common today.

The conceit of the poem is the conflation of Wong’s 16th birthday and the speaker’s sweet 16 from 1984 [Addendum: See Comments – I missed a major reference here] with the overarching sense of the present. The concerns haven’t changed much:

                                                            ….It’s 1984
 
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
 
without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets centerstage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch
 
or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes
 
extinguish and burn.

I don’t have much to add. Anna May Wong, and/or Sally Wen Mao, has done a pretty good job of speaking for herself. Most women do.

Pushcart XLI: Robert Wrigley, “Elk” (poetry) from Conduit, #26

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

His hindquarters must have fallen through
the ice, and he could not pull himself back out
and the incoming colder weather
refroze the hole around him and he died,
sinking some, only his broad horns
holding his head and neck above the surface.

I’m always a little uncomfortable with nature poems – I feel like I’m supposed to be in awe of something, but I’m not sure what – but following the theme of “look beyond the surface of what’s in front of you” from the first couple of pieces in this year’s volume, I found several points of interest.
The narrative concern a youngster (I’m presuming), headed out to the frozen-over lake to skate before the forecast snow falls, who finds a dead elk stuck in the ice where he seems to have fallen through. Apparently this sort of thing happens a lot in Norway: the NRK calls it the fourth leading cause of death for moose, and once in a while, a school of fish gets itself naturally frozen. So I’d imagine it isn’t unheard of in Wrigley’s home state of Montana, either.

The poetic speaker seems to take it in stride. Things get a bit grotesque for those of us city folk who can watch homeless old men lie passed out on the sidewalk and read about shootings and stabbings of our neighbors and drone bombings of children in Yemen with mere disgust or sorrow or helpless rage but are appalled at the idea of a coyote eating the face off a trapped elk. I think it’s the face. Eating a leg would be gruesome, but the face is so much more personal. To the coyote, it’s just dinner; he doesn’t claim to be made in the image of God. What’s our excuse?

I see the poem as occurring in several stanzas, though it’s presented without any white space. Given my penchant for finding patterns when I’m not sure what else to do, I can see some similarities to both elegiac and sonnet form, complete with variations and shared structures moving from past to present to future, shifting attention from object to subject, from observation to speculation.

But I’m punching above my weight there, so I’d rather think about the meaning of two particular places:

A half-mile skate back to where I hung my boots
from a limb, a hundred yard walk from there
to the truck, in which I keep a bow saw,
which I could use to remove a wedge of pate
with the perfect rack, but I choose not to.
Something in the weariness of the bones
of his jaw, also the snow just now beginning.

I love that simple “but I choose not to” – present tense, single-syllable, a wall of will. But the speaker doesn’t try to claim more than he’s earned: he’s motivated partly by the distress he sees in the elk’s posture, but also by self-interest, because it’s just too much work. Had the snow not been starting to fall, had the saw been at hand, he might’ve gone home with the rack, and he doesn’t try to paint it otherwise. And by the way, that last couplet is one of the two-line turns in between two sonnet variations, as well as the turn of the overall elegiac structure. Because I can’t resist. And I’m trying to get the thought of what it’s like to saw an elk’s antlers off out of my head.

The final sextain also got my attention:

Although the coyotes may be back tonight,
to dig their way from the horns’ stumps
for the ears, which I notice are still whole and upright,
the left one turned slightly farther left,
as though, with the last of his miraculous
senses, he heard them coming over the ice.

Beginning with “Although” preps the reader for a second clause: although this, that. But there is no that, only this; the “although” connects to the prior lines. Past, present, and future are all brought together, speculation brings subject and object together once more as the speaker notices those ears and imagines what it might mean. The final line is horrifying, and brutally honest. Yet I wonder if the optimistic elk might have thought the sounds of approach predicted rescue rather than scavenge, and was cheered. And then I wonder if I’m really that determined to turn this into something hopeful, to avoid considering that we are all stuck in the ice and the sounds we hear are footsteps of coyotes rather than angels.

Pushcart XL: Kevin Prufer, “Immigration” (poem) from Southern Review, Summer 2014

When the wheels came down over Miami,
the stowaway in the landing gear,
half-frozen and unconscious,
slipped from the wheel wells into blue air.

Modern life is amazing. Wikipedia has an entire page listing the 103 wheel-well stowaways since 1947: names (if known), to-from locations, and, in the case of the 75% who die, a guess at the cause of death. Typically, that’s freezing, hypoxia, or falling from altitude, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which occurred first. Most (though not all) are travelling from poorer or more repressive places to large cities like London, Paris, New York, though there was a 16-year-old who ran away from home the hard way, stowing from North Carolina to Baltimore. His body, damaged beyond recognition, was found in a nearby woods the next day.

You’d have to assume someone’s pretty desperate, for one reason or another, to do such a thing. I’m not sure most of us, sitting at our computers and reading poetry, can begin to understand that level of desperation, but I think the world right now would be a little better off if we at least tried.

Whether this poem is based on an actual specific incidence of stowaway immigration or is merely representative, I don’t know. I can’t find a report of a stowaway falling on a car roof, but I didn’t look that hard, since I don’t think it matters to the poem. Or to the stowaway.

In two stanzas, eight lines each, starting with syntactically end-stopped lines that get progressively more enjambed as we proceed through the poem, Prufer manages to capture three (or four, depending on how you count) points of view.

We start off with the stowaway himself, or, more precisely, the speaker’s vision of the unconscious stowaway. Speculation about his frame of mind on the way down follows, before we shift, in the second stanza, to the occupants of the car on which his body fell. We then focus on the young son who was with his family in the car, and his reaction, before broadening out to the speaker’s embodiment of the stowaway again in the final line. I’m fond of such circular structures, and it seems morally right, somehow, to begin and end with the stowaway, as seen through the eyes of the poet.

Pushcart XL: Jane Hirshfield, “A Cottony Fate” (poem) from The Paris Review, #209

Art by Julia Bereciartu

Art by Julia Bereciartu

 

Long ago, someone
told me: avoid or.
 
It troubles the mind
as a held-out piece of meat disturbs a dog.

~~ Complete poem available online at Harpers

In her Rumpus interview with Rebecca Olson, Hirshfield reveals that the advice to “avoid or“, offered by Ted Weiss, referred to poetic construction. This poem, as she notes, transplants the poetic advice to life as lived.

I’ve always had the sense that the word avoid was less emphatic than don’t. We might avoid things we find unpleasant (for me, raw onions or Westerns) but make occasional exceptions if the reward is high enough (I’m very hungry and that chicken salad with Vidalias looks amazing) or simply to see if our tastes have changed (nope, not even Star Trek could make a Western I could sit through for 47 minutes). But if I’m highly allergic to shellfish, you can bet I’m not going anywhere near them, and boxing is a big don’t for me.

My sense of the word appears to be idiosyncratic, however; most people think of it as a prohibition. In that case, I have very mixed feelings about the dictum in both spheres. I’m not sure if Weiss was referring to the use of a word in the final draft, or to an attitude during composition, but I’ve been thinking about that for days now: while I can’t come up with an example, a line something like “it’s a metaphor-1 or a metaphor-2” seems very familiar, either with contrasting metaphors to show multiple senses of an event, or with a progression to deepen a single sense. I don’t see why either should be prohibited.

In the broader sense, we are our choices. To have an open field, with the option of going left or right or up or down, is the foundation of freedom; without choice, we’re hamsters on a treadmill. And yet, choices can paralyze us. Psychologists are convinced that when we face too many good outcomes, we freeze and end up with nothing. I’ve mentioned the Bell Jar scene of Esther Greenwood’s fig tree dream before; it’s a good example. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t, have choices.

But Hirshfield is right: as of now, “there was no other life.” I did what I did. Some of it, I’m not proud of. Some of those decisions were life-saving; others were highly destructive. I don’t have those decisions to make any more, and it’s time to live with the consequences. And by the way, tomorrow I will have to live with the consequences for today’s decisions.

I’m uncertain about the title. Is the cottony fate the present uncertainty of how we will look back on our decisions, years hence? Or is it the comfort of swaddling that abandonment of the path of “what might have been” for acceptance brings?

My decision-making technique, as I’ve grown older, has evolved from benefits and risks to what I call the Morley Safer test (no one under 60 will understand that reference, but so what). A year, five, ten years from now, when Morley Safer interviews me on 60 Minutes, how will I feel about the decision? Can I honestly say I did what seemed to be the right thing? That’s what I get in the last line of the poem.

Pushcart XL: Dan Albergotti, “Holy Night” (poem) from Crab Orchard Review, 19.1

My father said he wished the child were dead.
He didn’t say it in so many words,
but he said it. And it was Christmas Eve.
I breathed in silent tension next to him.
 
The news anchor said that of the seven
born to a black couple three nights before
the weakest child had gathered strength and would,
the doctors said, most likely now survive.
 
I’m sorry to hear that, my father hissed.
 

~~Complete poem available online at Crab Orchard Review

Timing’s a bitch sometimes.

I originally wrote an incoherent, rage-filled post on this poem last week, even scheduled it, but decided to unschedule it and let it sit a while.

Reading poetry, really reading it, requires a kind of willingness to enter into the text and become part of it for a while. Given the events of last week – the video images of Alton Sterling being pinned down and executed (there’s no other word for it) because there are police who believe shouting “Stop resisting” after the body cams have, oops, “fallen off” is some kind of olly-olly-oxen-free; then watching Philando Castile die in the front seat of his car and wondered what it was like for the four-year-old child in the back to watch, first her father shot, then her mother forced to her knees at gunpoint by people in uniforms; then watching Twitter explode with the murders of police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas and, by the way, the wrong man identified online as a suspect for fuck’s sake – I wasn’t in the mood to listen to someone whining about how sad he is that his asshole racist father ruined another family Christmas so he drove away to look at the moon.

And that’s too bad, because I think the poet’s probably a very good guy. It’s a gentle, lyric poem with a biting edge, and yeah, he feels rotten and it’s Christmas and he doesn’t understand how these people who are, through no fault of his own, his family can claim to be Christians and go to the Candlelight service and sing hymns of divine love and then spit out hate. At another time, maybe even a couple of weeks ago, maybe a couple of months from now, I would’ve come up with a couple of observations about the poetic structure, told a few stories of my own racist family. But that seemed inadequate last week. Still does. Probably always has, and I guess I should wonder why I don’t always notice it. Maybe I already know why.

Over the weekend, while I thought I was letting this post sit, the hashtag #WhitePrivilege started trending. That’s what this poem is about. I don’t think that’s what Albergotti intended it to be about – I think he intended it as showing his own sadness and helplessness in the face of the insanity of racism – but the ability to escape racism – to not have to talk about it with your kids, to turn off the news feeds, to relax secure that you don’t automatically arouse suspicion just by being – has to be one of the top signs of white privilege. I should know, I do it often enough.

So I hope the poet will understand if his work is less the conduit for aesthetic or emotional connection, and more the receptacle for my anger, an anger directed at myself as much as at anyone else. Timing’s a bitch sometimes, and he deserves better. But, so did Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and Oscar Grant and John Crawford and Freddy Gray and Tamar Rice and Eric Gardner and and and.

Pushcart XL: Keetje Kuipers, “Migration Instinct” (poem) from Codex Journal, Spring 2014

Today the wife of the last man who made me lonely
is having a baby. Oh, October: we all want
to get up and leave, crawl out of our flesh sacks and fly
like mad.

~~Complete poem available online at Codex Journal

For quite a while, this one was a real head-scratcher. What does migration have to do with a long-ago love, with what used to be, other than the obvious: we move on. And thankfully so, or we’d all be acting out like jilted teenagers all over the place. But the poem, what is the poem doing, and how is it doing it? I see a turn: is it a sonnet? I don’t have the confidence to declare a 17-line poem to be a sonnet; can I do that?

I’m not sure why it suddenly dawned on me, but it did: Stop tying it to a chair with rope, as Billy Collins puts it – this is hilarious! Stop getting psychological (no one makes you lonely, we do that to ourselves by where we focus) and for pete’s sake, stop counting syllables (yes, there is an accumulation effect in the phrases of the first sentence, a kind of expand-and-contract in the first two lines, that makes it read so nicely, but so what) and look at what’s going on: all this drama over an old boyfriend becoming a father? A day of green eyeshadow – really, green? – and running stop signs? And then back to washing diapers and everything’s ok?

Sonnet, maybe; the turn in the last four lines is unmistakeable. But parody, definitely. And possibly, just possibly, elegy: a couple of lines of mourning, complete with interjection, then some praise for what she was back in the green eyeshadow days, before the forward looking conclusion of baby care. Which, frankly, is my idea of hell, but I understand some people like it.

Then I see there’s a dedication: To Becky. Is Becky the daughter? Will she someday read this poem, and think, wow, Mom was a hellraiser? Or is Becky someone else, a friend who hasn’t yet migrated? Come to think of it, I still don’t quite see the connection with migration, other than the obvious already stated. I’m not invested enough in the poem to care. Bad sign. But sometimes, they go by me. Maybe I’m just too removed from days of passion’s rage, and too uninterested in motherhood, to find a way in.

Am I being disrespectful? Insightful? Stupid? All at once? Probably. But I giggled through Madame Bovary, and this strikes me as tapping into the same hyperdramatics.

Pushcart XL: Edward Hirsch, “Variations on a Psalm” (poem) from Five Points #16.2

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and I would not be comforted. (Psalm 77:2)

And I would not be comforted
        When I was in distress
            I sought the Lord
I did not know why I did not believe
 
While I stretched out untiring hands
          And I would not be
            Comforted in my distress
I sought the Lord

~~ Poet’s reading (audio only) of complete poem available online

The 77th Psalm is about repentence. It’s one of the later psalms (the “Asaph” psalms, which may be by Asaph or just transcribed or collated by him) so it’s probably not about David’s major sin of murder and covetousness. But all of these get applied to a more general audience anyway, a nation of Israel that has forsaken the ways of their God.

A verse from the psalm is repeated in slightly different order, and every once in a while, a new phrase is introduced, generally about not believing or not praying. It’s kind of interesting to think of praying and not believing in the same phrase, to pray to find out why there is no belief, but I don’t think the belief is one of believing in the Lord, but of believing in the eventual deliverance from suffering: impatience with forgiveness. Who hasn’t felt that. “Hey, I’ve said I’m sorry, now where’s my forgiveness?” The variations become very personal, however. Tormented. Confused. Pushing away, pulling towards.

The sound of the poem when read aloud is hypnotic, like a chant. At one point the grammar is inverted “Comforted I would not be”) leading me to wonder if this can all be read in many different ways. There’s no punctuation; which phrase goes with which? Are the stanza breaks, the line breaks, guidelines or rules or just for visual regularity? Hirsch’s reading (link to audio provided above) becomes less regulated by visual cues as he goes on; it’s an intriguing effect, changing the sense at some points. If the poem were much longer, it would turn into word salad – but not quite.

Here’s where my lack of technical poetics training really hampers me: I have no idea what’s happening here. Hirsch is a literary giant; I regret I can’t follow where he leads. Perhaps I should read his “Poet’s Choice” column, or his 2000 book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. But instead, here I am with untiring hands, impatient for the deliverance in which I have no belief.

Pushcart XL: Bob Hicok, “Every Machine Has its Parts” (poem) from Georgia Review, Winter 2013

Art by Andy Marlette

Art by Andy Marlette

 
 
My father can talk to him but that’s about it –
a guy you could sit beside in a bar and never know
he’s picturing the knife in his boot
in your throat because you remind him
people exist and make noise – he is what war does
to some, a twitch covered in skin – ….
 

I’m beginning to see a pattern in some of these poems. They start out with a very intimate focus – a father, a mother, a child – make us feel at home, then introduce subject matter that isn’t home at all – the child is sick, the father is talking to someone desperately ill – before broadening to show how these tragedies are embedded in a larger context, and how we so often take that context for granted without realizing the damage below our line of sight. Then the poems come in again, close enough to break our hearts by the last line.

It’s a very short poem, no mystery, no obscure rhetoric to hide its truth: some people, like the speaker’s uncle, are ruined by war in a way that can’t be fixed. I suspect it’s always been like that; maybe we’re just more aware of it now. People in suits in air-conditioned clean rooms surrounded by security guards advocating send people – some of whom only a few months or years ago were children too young to drink or sign contracts – to a strange country where their lives will be in danger for months or years.

The poem poses a solution:

certainly for presidents and senators a foxhole
should be required – some bleeding – a bit
of brain in their coffee – but I’m a poet,
you can excuse anything I say as antithetical
to reason – ….

I’m not sure that’s so antithetical to reason. Then again, I think the universal draft is the best anti-war mechanism we have, so I’m a bit antithetical to reason myself.

When I saw Hicok’s name, I had the impression of a somewhat lighthearted poet. I looked up those poems of his I’ve read. His Pushcart winner from last year, I described as “whimsical.” From two years ago, “sad but hilarious”. There’s no whimsy here. It’s straight-out indictment, a song of anger and mourning.

Pushcart XL: Ellen Bass, “Waiting for Rain” (poem) from The Sun #458

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener
 
someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on
 
making and unmaking….

~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun

It’s very difficult to dissect a poem when the subject is as personal and universal as a sick child. I wonder if that’s part of the process, for a poet, of dealing with such a massive personal stress: to control it, use it, turn it into something with meaning and beauty in order to get through another crisis.

Ellen Bass knows a lot about coping with crisis. Back in the 80s, she co-wrote The Courage to Heal, which became the bible for those still recovering from childhood sexual abuse, the scope of which was just emerging into the public consciousness at the time.

But this poem is a different kind of crisis: a sick child. We start with that intimacy, a mother waking up, thinking of her sick daughter. But this is set in the larger context of the earth itself, personalized by the drought clearly seen in the shrinking Kilimanjaro snowpack. Zoom out farther, to the entire universe, to Lucretius’ Epicurean theory (ancient epicureanism isn’t what you think it is) of atoms and the void: we are interrelated on the smallest, and the largest, scales, as we share atoms with all other matter in the cosmos. My own personal buddy, Walt Whitman, echoed such a strain in “Song of Myself”: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The dying elephants in Tanzania, the sick child in California, are one.

Bass zooms in again, bringing us to a painful intimacy with her child, and ultimately, with her, by the close of the poem:

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.

The child is so fragile, so easily sent into paroxysms. We think the world is more robust, but that’s only because the scale is so much larger; if we could zoom back, we might see it, too, is wheezing.

Pushcart XL: Rigoberto González, “The Soldier of Mictlán” (poem) from four Way Books

Once upon a time there was a soldier
who marched to Mictlán in his soldier
boots and every step was a soldier
step and every breath was a soldier
word. Do you know what this soldier
said? I’d like a piece of bread for my soldier
hand. I’d like a slice of cheese for my soldier
nose. And I’d like a woman for my soldier
heart. …

~~Complete poem available online at Poetry.

A quick primer: Mictlán is the Aztec underworld, the place of the dead. I’m startled by some similarities to Dante’s Inferno: nine levels, a river, a dog, a four-year journey.

That’s the easy part. I’m not sure there’s a word to describe the style of this poem. Perhaps polyphonic verse? It’s extremely clever: while written in a single block with each line ending the same, when read aloud the rhythm creates different patterns, often very strong rhythms. Take a look at a restructuring of the first few lines above, for example:

Once upon a time
there was a soldier who marched to Mictlán
in his soldier boots and every step
was a soldier step and every breath
was a soldier word.
 
Do you know what this soldier said?
 
I’d like a piece of bread for my soldier hand.
I’d like a slice of cheese for my soldier nose.
And I’d like a woman for my soldier heart.

Suddenly death and war turn into a nursery rhyme. If you read it aloud, you’ll find several places, most places, break apart into stanzas like these, a variety of irresistible rhythms that cling lines together differently from the printed page. And notice, the “I’d like” section could be much simpler, could match the first group more closely by just omitting a few words in each line: I’d like some bread for my soldier hand, for example. But that isn’t how it’s done. That isn’t how it’s meant to be. It’s meant to be different.

It wasn’t until I read a post in Waxwing that I got a glimmer of what might be at stake here: The disguised rhythm is different, but the lines uniform, like soldiers in a row: each one a different soldier, but as a group the same. Not one soldier of Mictlán, but soldier after soldier, each line a soldier, a horde of soldiers one after the other entering the land of the dead, because that’s where so many soldiers end up, without bread, without cheese, without love, for the good of king and country, their stories told by a series of nursery rhymes to make it all palatable.

The poem leads off González’ 2014 collection Unpeopled Eden, described by the publisher thus: “Haunted by border crossers and forgotten deportees, lost brothers and sons, González unearths the beautiful and musical amidst the grotesque. These mournful, mystical poems are themselves artifact, a cry for remembrance….”

Pushcart XL: Tony Hoagland, “Song for Picking Up” (poem) from The Sun, #461

Every time that something falls
someone is consigned to pick it up.
 
Every time it drops and rolls into a crack,
blows out the window of the car
 
or down onto the dirty restaurant floor
— a plastic bag, a paper clip, a cube of cheese
                                                                     from the buffet —
 
there somebody goes, down upon
                                                               their hands and knees.
 
What age are you when you learn that?

~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun

It’s not just the image of someone on hands and knees – a deeply rich symbol, being down on one’s knees – that makes this powerful. It’s not just the reminder that moms and janitors pick up after us (and, by the way, they could be one and the same). It’s not just that we need reminding sometimes, that whenever we make a mess – whether it’s throwing strawberry hulls on the sidewalk, or trapping the vulnerable into no-win mortgages or drone-bombing some country that has despots and assassins but also farmers and babies and grandmothers just trying to survive – that mess will need cleaning up. We can clean it up ourselves, or we can just walk away knowing it will be cleaned up some day by someone, though perhaps not in a way we like, and maybe in a way that’s worse than the original mess.

It’s all that, this poem is, but it’s more because of that last stanza that snapped me to attention:

After that, then, no more easy litter. No more towels
on the hotel bathroom floor. You bend over
 
for even tiny bits of paper,
or, bitterly, you look back at your life — like Cain
 
upon the body of his brother.

Cain is another of those deeply-rich symbols, like being down on your knees. And, like knee symbology, we have many ways to go with it. Bended knee can refer to worship, to fornication, to the romance of “Will you marry me” or to hard, dirty labor, but all have their roots in subservience. We can dissect the mark of Cain as a symbol of evil or as a protective measure, see him as the bearer of evil into the world or look at him through the lens of forgiveness and atonement (I’m taking a mooc about the Talmud at the moment, and we just had a great discussion about the Jewish concept of T’shuvah, which, in my elementary understanding, encompasses concepts of atonement, forgiveness, and return from exile). He didn’t clean up his own mess, and look what happened.

But why should Cain be bitter? He was the cause, not the victim. Maybe, even causes suffer. Maybe even Cain deserves compassion. Now I’ve got a rabbit hole to explore.

It’s even possible some damn fools will come along and try to proclaim the mess to be the way it should be: embrace the mess. Watch out for those people. Chances are, they sell the mess, but never have to step in it.

Take-home: Imagine your mom on hands and knees picking up the mess you’re thinking about leaving behind. Makes it easier to live neatly.

Pushcart XL: Raena Shirali, “Holi: Equinox Approaches” (poem) from Quarterly West, #82

holi

                 –“Young woman attacked on bamboo platform in front of entire village.”
                 The Independent, January 24, 2014

 
         Palash, flame of the forest, unfurls
against morning: a signal as it begins.
If only to forget the women
 
we won’t speak of, we toss
powder colored with spring crops
& watch our bodies eviscerate
the concentrated tone. If only to celebrate,
 
we look, for a day, past
the fire our kin have lit—blaze that chases
young women into alleys, or out
 
of this nation. If only to watch these bodies—only
ours.

~~ Complete poem available online at Quarterly West

First, read the news account of the incident that triggered this poem. Then, read the complete poem.

There’s nothing I can really add. Oh, I can fill in a few details (Holi is the spring Festival of Colors, a playful celebration involving throwing colors at anyone within range) (her crime was in being seen with a Muslim man) (the rape was ordered by the village council in lieu of a fine she could not pay) (India’s Supreme Court pronounced the rape “disturbing”) (enjambment is used brilliantly) (one truly outraged blogger asked, among other things, “Should I write about how painful it must have been for a father to see his daughter being gang-raped in front of the whole village because he didn’t have enough money to save his daughter?” ) (palash is a flower ground up to make some of the colors for the Holi celebration) (the woman was hospitalized in serious condition) (the rapists were sentenced to 20 year prison terms) (I can find no indication of how the woman is doing) but really, all you need is in the poem.

Although I’m carried off on waves of rage and horror by the content, I should say a bit about the poetry, particularly the enjambment (such a good word for a poem about rape). The first stanza ends with forgetting the women (I wonder what happened to her after she left the hospital) then completes the thought, specifying which women we will forget: the one we won’t speak of, not because of what she did, but because of the ugliness of what was done to her (although that distinction will be lost as it is for the American college student who, when she reports a rape, is asked what she was wearing that night before the rapist is sentenced to six months so as not to disrupt his life too much). Then there’s the inter-stanza enjambment again of “into the alleys, or out / of this nation” which uses the force of “in or out” (oh, god, the violence encoded here through language) to carry the momentum through, then twists the sense to show how serious this is.

         If only I could tuck a jacaranda
flower behind her ear, place dried tea leaves
in her hands, ask that she color her flesh
 
back again….

Pushcart XL: Rachel Rose, “White Lilies” (poem) from Prism, #52:3

It is hard for the dying to leave us.
We make it hard for them. So they wait
for us to step outside before they cut
the cord. So the baby
in the cabin, lungs full of staph,
who had been fighting the infection
for long nights and days
waited until his mother went out
to chop firewood before he sighed
and stilled.

Progression, transitions of focus, of person/subject; that’s what most interests me here, seeing a player introduced, take center stage as another is introduced, then be eclipsed by the newcomer, only to see the pattern play out again. There are two constant presences, although we aren’t aware of them at first. Nevertheless, they’re there.

I’d divide the poem, which is written as a block of lines, a single stanza so to speak, into six sections by these shifts. The first sentence, which I see as the first section, starts out with the most abstract, passive construction possible: “It is… [phrase].” I still remember a high school writing class, an assignment to write up a local newspaper story about a minor fire from some bare facts, and I began the story with: “There was a fire at…” In my defense, I was trying to avoid excess, like “Fire raged last night in the home of…” (it was a kitchen fire, for pete’s sake!). But I went too far, and thus learned about the purpose and importance of the lede.

But why would a writer of Rose’s stature begin a poem that way – a poem judged not only publishable, but prize-worthy? And again, I remember something I first read on Charles May’s blog, a remark from Irish novelist Joyce Cary: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail, Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?” If the poem starts that way, there must be a reason. I think the reason is this progression, this wandering through different aspects: we begin with the most abstract, an establishing shot if you will, and then zoom in for closeups on the players. The near-repetition of the first sentence in the second – a clarification, really, a restatement, an assignment of responsibility – could be seen as underlining this. “That wasn’t quite what I wanted to say, but it’s a start; here, let me try again.”

The last word of that first line, in fact, brings “us” into the mix. Still abstract; not “us” in the sense of “the three of us sat around the table” but a more general everyone-us. This marks a transition to the second line, which brings the abstract “us” – the ones who are being left by the dying – and the abstract “they” – the dying. But it attributes concrete action to the “they”, and motivation as well. And it turns us towards the direction we will next travel, as “us” and “them” go from abstractions to individuals.

The third section is the concrete example of a particular baby who did, indeed, wait until his mamma stepped outside before dying. The abstract theory is suddenly very personal, as we are brought closer to these two individuals and see both their pain and needs. The fourth section continues to focus on the mother in vivid terms, and brings in the speaker of the poem, the “I” as another person in the scene: as a child, she saw the mother, clutching her dead baby in her arms, running desperately for help. While the baby is still present, he fades from the specific, becoming more of a concept, an echo, which hovers in one form or another over the entire poem from the fourth word on.

The fifth section then turns to the “I”, her memories of gathering flowers as a child, of being forbidden to attend the somber funeral. We spend some time with her memory of the events, and her present-day meta-analysis of the process of memory, before linking it via metaphor to the sixth and final section, putting us in the footsteps of the father who, arriving home, does not yet know his child has died. That poignant, highly detailed moment before the world changes, when whistling is still an option, ends the poem as far from the abstract opening as can be imagined. I think of the excellent/horrific short by David Foster Wallace, “Incarnations of Burned Children” and his focus on the father who also was outside just a moment before his child incurred a terrible accident. That moment from normal to new-normal, from innocence to loss, has a lot of power. We could be in that moment right now. Or now. Or now.

Lilies are quite versatile, spanning from weddings to funerals without hesitation; at Easter they mean resurrection, but they’re also highly sexualized. The all-purpose flower, beautiful, ready to take on whatever emotional significance is needed.

I’m also compelled to remark on the “I” who, as a child, gathered white lilies but was forbidden to attend the funeral. Would it not be better for her last memory of the baby to be at his burial, rather than his lifeless body clutched in the arms of his frantic mother who is running for help that does not exist? So often we try to protect children from pain, but I think it’s ourselves we are protecting. A funeral is about controlled, socially acceptable emotion, and the presence of a child could disrupt that control. A crying child could make us cry, or feel our own loss more authentically, and we wouldn’t want that, not in public, now would we.

Pushcart XL: Nicole Brossard, “A Tilt in the Wondering” (poetry excerpt) from Vallum

LEXICON 1
 
my best buy of the year is an alarming creativity
a new concept for management so business becomes
a cute gentle occupation
almost a must for you and me to be creative so
everyone take part in the nyou wealth
 
I left the office I left the bar with non-written words
just excitement sur le voile du palais

I’m usually way over my head with poetry, some times more than others, like now. So I’ll just blather. I see someone, someone with a poet inside, who’s working perhaps in marketing, getting out of the business world, shedding it like a skin, feeling good to be back to her natural form. Excitement on the palate: ready to taste what is real, what is alive. And there’s a change, not only in scenery, but in language and emphasis. Now, this probably is not at all what’s happening. It’s more likely that nothing’s “happening” in the poem, it’s not a narrative at all, but this is what comes to me as I read it.

Again, I wish a piece was online, since I can’t possibly do it justice. It’s an excerpt from a single poem, published in chapbook form. Brossard typically writes in French, so most of her readings on youtube are in French. An exception is the Pennsound clip of a conversation with Charles Bernstein, which is about half and half, and has nothing to do with poetry but with her impression of regional French accents within the New World, that is, Haitian French vs New Orleans French vs her native Québécois French. What makes it an interesting inclusion here is the camera angle, clipped above: Brossard is literally atilt in the wondering.

After leaving work, it seems we have a movie:

VISUAL LEXICON 2
 
saw only 5 seconds of the kneeled woman about
to be throat cut by a male, saw a line of blood
from left to right on the neck
did not want to find out if it was true.
Suspect it was true. Could not watch. Would with one touch
of the finger on the screen not see IF IT WAS REAL real if it was
                                                                                               not REAL

At this point I have to wonder: why is it crime if the woman’s throat is cut on the street, and entertainment if it’s cut on the screen? A few months ago, I read a think-piece about the prevalence of violence against women in tv shows and movies. Although I’ve often enjoyed the original Law & Order and find the Criminal Intent spin-off fascinating, I’ve never paid much attention to the SVU part of the franchise, which, oddly, seems to be the most popular. Is that because, while the first two feature a blend of victims and evil motivations from greed to power to lust to jealousy to pain, SVU focuses on rapes, sadistic murders, and child abuse, its victims almost always women and children? I go back to last year’s essay by Pacifique Irankunda, “Playing at Violence,” and again wonder the hell is wrong with us.

Of course, Brossard may have something completely different in mind

HALF-WAY
 
half-way through the book
time came back with a question a trace
a spiral ready to expand meaning
a tilt in the wondering
 
how do you remove time from
meaning so meaning grows roots
in sound to exist beyond sounds

And that’s for me the mystery: are we talking about the wondering being tilted – “a tilt in the wondering” – or are we atilt within the wondering? The orthography declares a preference. I think I prefer the camera’s opinion.

Pushcart XL: Afaa Michael Weaver, “Waste” (poem) from Poetry, #December 2014

Romare Bearden, "Untitled" (The Father Comes Home) c.1970

Romare Bearden, “Untitled” (The Father Comes Home) c.1970

       …I am a wish in the skies
spun out from celestial space to be poor,
 
to be covered with black skin, a felt
quilt of a map with only one way to China—
 
through pain as big as hogs squealing
at killing time on black farms in Alabama—
 
the noise of death, the shrill needle
that turns clouds over to rip the air
 
above the cities where people are young
and all that is given is never taken away.

~~ Complete poem available online at Poetry

By sheer coincidence of timing, I just finished the portion of a 10-part mooc on Chinese history introducing ancient Chinese philosophies, including Dao. Although there are many approaches, I was quite drawn to both Laozi (who is echoed in Whitman) and, especially, Zhuangzi who tells intriguing parables about butchers and butterflies (one of the marvelous supplementary lectures, by Michael Puett, is available online). I can’t say I come close to understanding this in any depth, but I don’t despair: Afaa Michael Weaver has been studying Dao for years, and he’s still figuring it out. One of the ways he figures it out is through his poetry.

This poem is found in his collection City of Eternal Spring, the third part of a trilogy outlining his journey from suffering to recovery. I confess, this poem is beyond me, but the echoes are so beautiful, I can’t help but listen. In a reading at Carthage College, he prefaces the poem (13:35 mark) with the remark, “When souls change genders”. I’m not sure how that fits, but it’s part of the intrigue.

Pushcart XL: Chana Bloch, “The Joins” (poetry) from Southern Review, Winter 2014

Paige Bradley: "Expansion"

Paige Bradley: “Expansion”

…what’s between us
is made of clay,

like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.

We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history,

the cup more precious to us
because
we saved it.
 

~~ Poem available online in text and audio.

Many years ago, on a virtual mountain now lost amidst the electrons, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi: the flaw that perfects. Now, as it happens, my grasp of this idea was itself flawed – it’s more closely related to the idea of taking nature as is, not forcing nature into an artificial concept of beauty but letting blossoms rot and leaves fall, and it’s most often heard of in combination with its partner sabi, the acceptance of age with all its effects. Personally, I think my flawed understanding perfected the idea, but I suspect a few thousand years of Japanese philosophy might argue with that.

As it turns out, I was perhaps closer to the philosophy behind kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with golden joins. The artist does not try to hide the break, but instead makes it part of the aesthetic of the piece. It’s quite an honest approach to art, and an expansion of the concept of beauty to include history.

Bloch uses these ideas to approach a broken and repaired relationship in this poem. Interesting, how this is the second approach to broken cups included in this Pushcart. The first, Margaret Gibson’s “Broken Cup,” applied the metaphor to health, and saw the break as a weakness that imbued the cup with great value, as its handling now required extra care. Here, Bloch’s relationship metaphor also sees enhanced value in the broken piece, but feels it is for the opposite reason: the joined places are stronger than before the repair.

There’s no reason both can’t be absolutely true. And absolutely false. How each of us approaches the broken cup in our lives is up to us, and could easily vary depending on not just our attitude, but the circumstances of the break, and the nature of the cup itself. However, the point is made: a break can be successfully incorporated into history, can be embraced.

I use that word, “embraced”, under the influence of a video by nerdwriter, aka Evan Puschak: “Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage”. He so beautifully sums up the concept, I feel like there’s nothing left to do, except to note that I can’t speak to the accuracy of his report, only to its meaningfulness, particularly in relation to Bloch’s poem.

Why is the poem written as it is? I can speculate. The opening line: “What’s between us” puts two one-syllables at either end, with a two-syllable between. Something bigger than us is between us. I find it interesting that, while the speaker is referring to the emotional bond that keeps people together in a relationship, as gravity keeps the earth and moon together, “what’s between us” could also be read as “something has come between us,” as a problem. Again, we have the choice of how to view what is between us: as a shared experience that lends depth and strength to our relationship, or as a problem.

After several rolling lines with varied rhythms, the speaker discounts the idea that the bond between them is flexible, like the thin sheet of skin that webs thumb to hand. No, she says, this thing between us “is made of clay.” The four syllables march across the page with an emphatic force. And again, it’s a question of what we make this: a wall between us, or a way to connect through the golden join.

Why is the poem written in three-line stanzas? I’m not sure if three has particular significance to Japanese art, but it tends to stand for completion in English language. A couple of years ago, I took part of a poetry workshop with Robert Haas through Iowa’s OPEN mooc platform. He had some ideas I found wonderful, among them:

      ― a single line poem is about identity
      = a two line poem is about relation
      ≡ a three line poem is about weaving together different things.
      ≣ a four line poem is how we organize the world

Now, he was talking about poems, not stanzas in poems. But I’ve come to see poems written in couplets as being about relationships between two subjects, and so I can easily see how a three line stanza could involve this weaving together, a join. It could also be about two people and the thing between them – which, again, could mean the relationship made stronger by a break, or could mean the problem itself. I also wonder about my vague recollection (which may be as flawed as my long-ago understanding of wabi) of rhetorical structure: two is the structure for opposition, three is the structure for stability, four is the structure for conformity.

I’m not sure that we are stronger in the broken places that heal. If that’s the case, why don’t we break our children early and often, to make them the strongest they can be? Instead, we rely on the breaks of ordinary life – the death of a pet, the betrayal of a friend, a first love gone bad – to do the job for us. Maybe we think that’s enough. Maybe we know that some breaks do heal stronger, some remain broken, and some heal but hurt forever.

But sometimes, if we’re grown-up enough and have learned enough about relationship kintsugi, it’s possible to choose whether a break is a flaw, or art.