Pushcart XLI: James Kimbrell, “Pluto’s Gate: Mississippi” (poem) from Cincinnati Review

                        For Private First Class, C. Liegh McInnis
 
I appear to be a full-on rich guy
wheeling into Oxford
down the Cedar-lined drive across from William Faulkner’s
determined to shield myself (my fancy wristwatch
                                             my roadster
                                             both used both fast as hell) from the
                                             shame
I once knew in this my state

Pluto’s Gate was, in the ancient world, the entrance to the Underworld. Proto-travelblogger Strabo, writing in the time just before BCE would turn to CE, wrote: “This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” Located in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis (today’s Turkey), only eunuchs devoted to the fertility goddess Cybele could tolerate its fumes. The site was unearthed by archeologists in 2013, but lots of people, including poet James Kimbrell, were more than familiar with it long before then.

Kimbrell gives us a tour of the present and past of his home state through the poem. It’s not a narrative as much as it is an evoked memoir. He grew up poor, but the speaker acknowledges the pain of that poverty alongside the recognition that “no one swerved to hit us” the way they swerved to hit the black people on their way to the voter registration sites in 1964. Even in poverty, there is white privilege.

…and we all cry out stumbling in that wilderness
if we had soup we could have soup and crackers
if we had crackers. but of course
we don’t because love comes on like a weight
and a claw and a sucker punch
and in the case of Mississippi
gateway to this our under-country
history is the dish that leaves us skinny

The poem has an off-and-on two-column structure, reminding me of a dialogue. Between whom? Past and present? The speaker, and Mississippi? The poet and PFC C. Leigh McInnis, to whom the poem is dedicated, a friend and fellow poet Kimbrell originally met back when they both served in the Air National Guard? Speaker and reader? The sparse use of punctuation, mostly in quotes, gives some freedom to reading as some words and phrases align one way with a bit of a psychic overhang in another.

The language is rich with allusions blending into each other, most of which I’m probably not even picking up on but I’ll give it a shot:

backwoods Medusa with a kudzu Afro
whose green gaze
sprouts branches from the fluted
columns of Beauvoir
                      O hold my hand brother before we return
peckers in the dirt of our poke-salad geography
redeemed as empty Faygo bottles
in the burned-down shed
in the bamboo patch
behind Bilbo’s poolhall.

The mention of Medusa brings us back to the ancient world, her snake-hair now an Afro of kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South, and bringing in the dual fascination and fear the white world has with black women, often shown in attitudes towards black hair. The columns of Beauvoir, post-bellum estate of Jefferson Davis in Biloxi, brings us back to the South, and pokeweed weaves in the kind of poverty that has people eating weeds. I was a bit surprised to find there may be a guy in Mississippi named Bilbo who happens to have a pool table in his garage, per a Flickr photo, but mostly it brings the obvious to mind, the hobbit pilgrim.

In spite of my fumbling with symbols and references, I greatly enjoyed this poem. The tone has a strong effect on me: a kind of thrumming of different pulses on some subharmonic frequency that’s sad and beautiful and hopeful, all at the same time. The past never leaves us, but matters most in how it affects actions in the present and future, and that is, to a large degree, our choice.

Pushcart XLI: Jamila Woods, “Daddy Dozens” (poem) from Poetry, April 2015

My Daddy’s forehead is so big, we don’t need a dining room
table. My Daddy’s forehead so big, his hat size is equator. So
big, it’s a five-head. Tyra Banks burst into tears when she seen
my Daddy’s forehead. My Daddy’s forehead got its own area code.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What a fun beginning: I did, in fact, laugh out loud, right there in the coffee shop where I read this, at the line about Tyra Banks. Guilty pleasures confession: I spent more time than I care to admit watching ANTM for a while there. But, like ANTM and everything else under the sun, the poem changes, and while the tone remains this loudmouth bratty teen dragging stock mocks down the page, a lot of truth gets mixed in along the way. We start to understand more about her Daddy, and by the end, we understand some of the loneliness the blustery humor can’t hide any more.

Woods has done poetry slams, musical albums (including a collaboration with Chance the Rapper). Considering how aural that is – and poetry itself is, of course, a spoken art, though it’s not always presented or perceived that way – I’m surprised how much the layout of this poem on the page contributed to its meaning. At first I wasn’t sure it was a poem; maybe the lines are sentences, just breaking at the margins like all paragraphs. But no, I don’t think so. The words are so dense on the page, not in a heavy or cumbersome way, but in a busy, fast-talking sort of way. The blank lines between stanzas give the reader a moment to readjust, the speaker a bit of time to weigh the options of going on or not. And that last line, isolated and alone, makes a perfect ending, visual, aural, and semantic aspects all focused as an underscore.

Pushcart XLI: Allison Benis White, from “Please, Bury Me in This” (poem) from Copper Nickel  #20

I am making a world I can think inside.
 
Cutting faces of paper and taping them on glass like thoughts.
 
Am I a monster, Clarice Inspector asked in The Hour of the Star, or is this what it means to be human?
 
To have a mind, I think as I cut another face.

I’ve checked the page again and again – yes, it’s definitely Inspector, not Lispector. Is that a typo or a twist of phrase? I’m going to assume it is what it’s supposed to be, fitting with the introspection of the poem as the speaker contemplates mortality on Día de Muertos. I misread another line – “tapping on the glass”, as if requesting attention or entry, instead of “taping them on glass “– so it would make sense. The line “To have a mind, I think…” also led me to expect a prerequisite action rather than a prepositional phrase. I have no idea if this is just my sloppy reading or if there’s some attempt to induce a kind of alternate construction. It’s an interesting question. I suppose I’ll never find out.

In an interview with Niki Johnson of Superstition Review, White tells us this is an excerpt from a book-length poem in the form of a series of letters concerning various aspects of death, “[s]o it seems like I’m working on avoiding titling poems forever.” I like that, even though it does aggravate my more obsessive tendencies.

The metaphysical mind exploration continues in this section of the anthology. Right now I’m in the middle of a mooc combining psychology, neuroscience, and religion; there’s some evidence that the pervasive belief in an afterlife is connected to our inability to conceive of being gone. That’s what poems like this are for. The sugar skull, the person, here today, then “I am you gone.”

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Scanlon, “The Brain Is Not the United States” (poem) from Boston Review, April 2015

The brain is not the United States, the brain is the ocean,
Dr. Yquem said, referring to its activity as opposed to its structure,
the brain is not the United States whose borders are mapped
and whose expansion is inhibited by bodies of water —
 
The brain is the ocean who is vast
and incorporates every chemical dumped into it,
whose depths we do not know, whose darkness we fear
in the most primordial way,
who stymies knowing up from down when one sinks fast into its long pull.

Complete poem available online at Boston Review

Ah, how cool, a poem that triggers a soundtrack (earworm alert) picked up in one of my moocs on how the brain perceives spatial location. For the second time in as many weeks, a Pushcart piece has fit right in with several of the brain/mind moocs I’ve taken over the past few years. Scanlon, it appears, is no stranger to these issues: another of her poems, “Stroop”, accurately characterizes the Stroop test; “will over sensation” is as good a way as any to phrase System 2 and System 1. So she knows the territory, probably better than I do.

But I felt I needed to sweep that aside and read the poem on its face. But it wasn’t possible, because we all bring everything we’ve ever learned, felt, experienced to everything we read, just as we bring our entire lives to every next moment.

With the Dr. Yquem reference, I tried to fit this into some grim tale of someone with some physical or mental brain disease, but it’s just too playful a poem, and I discovered Yquem is a French winery, which fits nicely with the chemicals dumping into the brain. I do love the distinction between structure and function; that’s straight from a couple of brain/mind moocs, in fact.

Wordplay abounds, but it’s subtle, maybe not even there and I’m inventing it. Dr. Yquem, for instance: is that really to evoke wine, or am I making that up, and it refers to an actual person? But who, if not a physician – a neuroscience professor? When the speaker gives the French word for brainle cerveau – I’m reminded that the Spanish word for head is cabeza and for beer is cerveza and now she’s got me doing it. Like Dan Reeder’s song above, it’s irresistibly catchy.

Despite all that, the language hints at something much darker than random babbling over afternoon wine, a darkness that shows up again and again in words and phrases – darkness, “its long pull”, medication, salvo and artillery and “a slow gun”, “a warning”. But as a whole, the poem is so much fun, using subject as in math to leapfrog to subject as in subordinate of royalty, the Pledge of Allegiance, taxes.

Then the last stanza:

The brain is not the United States, it is the ocean
and we are everywhere on its shores,
never knowing it entirely.

And I change my mind again, feeling a kind of desolation in that last line. Is this a woman touring France getting a little tipsy in the afternoon and letting her mind wander, getting to know previously unexplored or little-used corridors, watching how it works as it leaps from one association to another? Or is it a woman using wine to drown out her terror at some catastrophe: an illness, a failed marriage, a lost job? Just general anxiety? I don’t know.

In these dark days I tend towards play, much as the speaker does. I hope she has better luck than I do.

Pushcart XLI: Sea Sharp, “The Tallgrass Shuffles” (poem) from Storm Cellar 4.2

Cover art from Sharp's recent collection

Cover art from Sharp’s recent collection

 
last night the wind said
be careful girl the
moon be watching
 
said keep your fingers
out the mud keep your tongue
in your head said the moon
 
is watching you said she’ll pull
you apart like the tide
when your time comes girl
 
Complete poem available online from Storm Cellar

One of the many benefits I get from reading Pushcart is that I “meet” so many interesting writers through their work. So far, I’ve been most intrigued by poet/math tutor Dominica Phetterplace, by the late Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen from the Faroe Islands, and now by Sea Sharp, intersectional “refugee of Kansas” now living in England.

I had a strong sense of the oppression of this poem on first read. I thought of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” with all the commandments and blame and implied terror of the world, the need to step very carefully even though you see others dance and dream and you can’t understand why you’re different. The moon imagery brought two things to mind: the moon is strongly associated with the feminine, and the moon sits up there in the sky above us all glowing white. I thought I had to choose. It wasn’t until I read Sharp’s website that I realized I didn’t, that the two conceits could coexist, and that’s the point.

However, it wasn’t until I read about her recently published poetry collection, The Swagger of Dorothy Gale & Other Filthy Ways to Strut that this poem came into focus for me. Now, I admit, I have no idea if this is one of the poems in the volume, but it has to be, it just must: Dorothy being chased down that Yellow Brick Road by a cautionary wind and a scolding, judging moon that has nothing to do with any wizard. Shuffling? Forget that; not this Dorothy Gale, no matter what the wind says.

Another great aspect of Pushcart is that I see some literary journals I otherwise wouldn’t. Storm Cellar calls itself “a literary journal of safety and danger” which, too, fits this poem. Focusing on, but not exclusive to, the Midwest, they look for “authors and artists who are under-represented in the Anglophone literary world. We want everybody to get weird and enlightened and learn and fall in love and have superpowers.” My wish list.

Pushcart XLI: Alex Dimitrov, “Cocaine” (poem) from The Adroit Journal #13

People disappear.
And go looking for a place to be looked at.
All the way down Wilshire and above us: like a sheet of indigo tile.
As we waited, our nicotine glowed in the distance like flies
to some heaven, some high road.
“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?”
Like gods and at home being extras at best.

Complete poem available online at The Adroit Journal

I give up. Doesn’t happen often – I can usually find something to grab onto in any poem, essay, or story, even if I don’t really understand what’s going on – but here, I found myself at a complete loss after many readings, whispered, shouted, silent. Even after I found an interview with the poet in which he explicitly discusses the origins of the poem – two trips to LA, passing down the same block of Wilshire a year apart – I still don’t follow. I’m feeling pretty stupid right now, particularly since it was nominated by three poets in addition to the journal itself, so its meaning and excellence are clearly evident to those who know what to look for – and I’m missing it entirely. Guidance welcomed.

Pushcart XLI: David Tomas Martinez, “Consider Oedipus’ Father” (poem) from Poetry, June 2015

It could have been a car door
                leaving that bruise,
 
as any mom knows,
almost anything could take an eye out,
 
and almost anybody could get their tongue
                frozen to a pole,
 
which is kind of funny
                to the point of tears
                plus a knee slap or two
that an eye can be made blue, pink
by a baby’s fist, it fits
perfectly in the socket. It’s happened to me.
                Get it?

Complete poem available online at Poetry

A brutal poem, but in vocabulary, it’s also a very subtle poem, as subtle as the excuses the abused tell for their injuries. Lots of words of injury in innocuous contexts: tears, slap, sock-et, and hands, lots of hands.

My favorite line is almost comic: “For me, a woman’s tears / are IKEA instructions / on the European side.” I’m not sure what’s so hard to figue out, but I guess I’m the wrong one to ask.

I found myself uncomfortable as I read, at least until it gets into more analytical territory:

I’m sure for Laius, Oedipus’s father, it was the same.
                Think of him sleeping
after having held a crying Jocasta
because they had fought for hours
because she was stronger.
 
                Who knew better the anger of young Jocasta?
Knew that when the oracle, or the police,
                come, they are taking someone with them.
 
I’m sure Laius looked at the crib
                and thought better you
than me, kid
.

I’m not sure I understand the reference to Jocasta’s strength. Though she had nothing to do with Laius’ sins that brought on his curse, I always thought of her as a full participant in the abandonment of the baby Oedipus. I’ll give her mixed feelings, that she might be devastated as she pierced his ankles. I do love that sense of Laius trying to weasel his way out of another scrape. Excuses. Always excuses. The man gets the title; the woman gets the blame, the woman and her tears, her strength, damn her.

I had a hard time getting a grip on this one. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hit squarely on point, just that I’m not able to come up with much, or am not willing to publicly come up with much. It might be one of those things you get or you don’t.

Pushcart XLI: Martin Espada, “The Beating Heart of the Wristwatch” (poem) from Purple Passion Press

My father worked as a mechanic in the Air Force,
the engines of planes howling in his ears all day.
One morning the wristwatch his father gave him was gone.
The next day, he saw another soldier wearing the watch.

Complete poem available online at The Progressive

In the age of cell phones and digital watches, have we lost the sense of time tick-tocking away? Maybe that’s overly romanticized, but I think there’s something about those regular clicks that subconsciously reminds us of time slipping away, maybe for the good, maybe for the bad. I wasn’t quite expecting the turn this poem gave to the ticking of a wristwatch, however: as a son’s reminder of his father’s heart, a perpetual keepsake that survives the loss of a parent.

The poem features at least three father-son pairs: the speaker’s father and his father; the speaker and his father; and the watch thief and his son. Quite possibly, the watch thief’s father is implied there as well. I wasn’t aware of the watch as a masculine symbol of one’s father, but why not. It could be, as well, that the symbolism is unique to the speaker, and he’s merely projecting it onto others, assuming they feel as he does.

When he died, I stole my father’s wristwatch.
I listened to the beating heart of the watch.
The heart of the watch kept beating long after
my father’s heart stopped beating. Somewhere,
the son of the man who stole my father’s wristwatch
in the Air Force holds the watch to his ear and listens
to the heart of the watch beating. He keeps the watch
in a sacred place where no one else will hear it.

The second stanza starts in what I consider a very confusing way: if the father’s watch was stolen years before, is this a replacement watch? Why would he have to steal it, and from whom? There must be a reason the poet chose to write it this way, so I tried to see it in different ways: maybe we’ve changed speakers, it’s the son of the watch thief – but no, he’s referenced later in the stanza. Maybe I’m just getting tangled up in minutiae. But it stopped me, and it’s an odd place to stop.

The repetition of phrases – “the beating heart of the watch. The heart of the watch kept beating…” does have a rhythmic presence. I also felt the last line of the poem – ” We listen for the heartbeat and hear the howling” – had a lot of rhythmic howling in the repeated “h” sounds, linking back to the howling of the jet engines and the howling night the father got drunk in the first stanza.

I find it kind of surprising, given the subject, that the poem doesn’t have a more obvious rhythmic structure. Maybe it does, and I just don’t have the ear to pick it up; maybe it’s meant as contrast.

I’m a big fan of the digital world, from the computer I’m typing this on right now, to, yes, the cheap no-wind watches that helps us catch the trains on time. I’m not sure if such things even last the decades needed to become associated with one wrist. If they do, I’m sure a son would treasure it passed down from his father. But he won’t know its beating heart. Does that matter?

Pushcart XLI: Adrian Matejka, “The Antique Blacks” (poetry) from Copper Nickel #2

– For Sun Ra, Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford & the 13 other black astronauts who made it to outer space

 

In Richard Pryor’s origin myth of black
size, the two most magnanimous black men
 
in the world are peeing off the 30th Street Bridge
into the White River’s busted up water. & above,
 
Constellations in the sky’s pat afro seem
as indiscriminant as linked in hair & more mundane
 
lights move lowly on the horizon the way cop
lights always move when black people think
 
about congregating outside of church. One
brother stairs towards Saturn & says, Man,
 
this water is cold. The other looks in the same
direction & says, Yeah, & it’s deep, too.
 
*
 
They are as the upward inflection of it –
                the honeyed smile of space
                front & center in our heads –
                Voyager winking
                like a gold incisor
                on its way out
                                of this solar system.

Last week, just days before reading this poem for the first time, I found this clue in a NYT Sunday crossword puzzle: “Old bandleader with an Egyptian-inspired name”. I didn’t know, so only came up with “Sun Ra” incidentally as other clues filled in 18-across. I looked it up to be sure, and discovered the jazz and electronic music artist Sun Ra, leader of Arkestra (I had to say it out loud before I got it, but I’m dense). Although Sun Ra is no longer on this astral plane, the Arkestra performed on NPR’s Tiny Little Desk Concerts as recently as 2014.

So I was thrilled to come across his name again in this poem, this time linked to Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, the thirteen who came after him – and a teenager in Indianapolis.

And again I will admit I’m overmatched and refer to a more educated source for a more professional reading, this time Rebecca Schwarz of The Review Review. She cites the ease with which the poem moves through different forms, similar to the ease with which Matejka moves from Richard Prior comedy to poetic imagery of space travel to his own youth in Indianapolis to Sun Ra in a poetic version of jazz improv.

This movement also characterizes Matejka’s early life: “My mother told me I lived in Germany and in 10 states before the age of 7. That’s healthy, I’m sure”, he says in an interview with Emily Bonner of Barely South Review.

One of Schwarz’ observations strikes me as the essence of writing, all writing: the poem has an intimate feel when the subject is the vastness of space or the progress of history, and feels universal when it returns to the most personal moments. This reminds me also of Roxane Gay’s comment from a few years ago: that an essay must “look outward as much as it looks inward.” This poem does both at the same time, reversing mood and subject, turning the personal universal and the universal personal:

The moon was still out the Tuesday morning I got my first
real curl & Guion S. Bluford became the first black man
into outer space. August 30, 1983. I styled my wet frond
like Purple Rain Prince: left side tucked behind my ear, right
side getting activator in the same eye I would have used
to telescope the Challenger as it eclipsed Kennedy Space Center
at midnight in the habit of every brother I have ever met
trying to get away from something without a quotient. Math,
astrophysics – it doesn’t matter. It all equals escape. All
those funny words related to spaceflight, too – velocity,
trajectory, stamina
….

Maybe that’s why I loved the poem without being able to pin it down (though I always swoon at any mention of the Voyager Music from Earth recording sent to space almost 40 years ago; I still remember the excerpts included on the Cosmos record). I felt right there with Matejka making his Prince curl; I understand the dream of escape. Like Schwartz, I felt the joy in the poem, a poem that includes sobering images but always, always, looks up, like the cap of Richard Prior’s characters or the tip of the space shuttle on the launchpad – or a young man in Indianapolis who loves words.

I’ll offer one additional observation: the poem begins and ends in couplets, a form I associate with a pair-bond of some kind. Here, I’d say it’s the poet talking to the reader, and I think it might be what creates that sense of intimacy. “I’m going to tell you something,” says the poem. All we have to do is listen.

I’m not sure how to read the title. Antique Black is sometimes used as a home furnishings designation, but it’s more of a descriptive than prescriptive phrase and can mean anything from a rubbed black finish to plain old black paint with the name fancied up. The notion of a rubbed finish is interesting in this context: friction, applied by hand, polishes the stain unevenly, leaving a slightly mottled matte finish that’s hard to machine-replicate. I suppose Sun Ra, Bluford and Prior are now an older generation, pointing upward for Matejka’s generation, and even more, his students at Indiana University where he teaches.

Forthcoming this month is Map to the Stars, Matejka’s collection examining “the tensions between race, geography, and poverty in America during the Reagan Era.” I’m pretty sure, from the description (I can’t find a TOC) this poem is included.

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.