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

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

Complete poem available online at Poetry Society

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

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

Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Alexander Harding

Photo by Alexander Harding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

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

Complete poem available online at Zyzzyva

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

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

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

Why indeed? The glad is worth it all.

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

Pushcart XLII: Tarfia Faizullah, “I Told the Water” (poem) from Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

I told the water             You’re right
     The poor are
                             broken sidewalks
     we try to avoid

Audio recording available online on Soundcloud

This is the third Faizullah poem I’ve encountered now, and each one has a haunting mood, a voice I find compelling even though I’m not entirely sure what the subject is. It’s that voice that keeps me hooked, rather than impatient, the sound of the words somehow conveying there’s something here worth hearing, if I can only find out how to listen.

The poem starts with poverty and moves on to lying “facedown in dirt”, the speaker becoming “hieroglyph a wet braid caught in your throat”. War and the urge to defy gravity. A “graveyard of windows”. And in the end, defiance:

Last night I walked out onto your ice
                                                    wearing only my skin
           Because you couldn’t tell me            not to.

I thought of hurricanes. I suppose that’s because the chaos in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria is still very much with us. And I still vividly remember Katrina, since a couple of friends of mine lived in Metarie and were incommunicado for quite some time (they were fine, they left, if far later than they should have). It’s always the poor these disasters strike worst: people with houses built on flood plains, people living in trailer parks or in substandard homes, people who can’t afford to evacuate or rebuild or invest in insurance policies. On a grander scale, it’s the world’s poor who suffer the most from climate change, which boils down to changes in water distribution and access.

But, as well as that fit, I left something out.

Faizullah lives in Michigan, an hour away from Flint, where residents were poisoned for two years by lead in their drinking water after the state government saved a few thousand by using unsafe pipes, while installing bottled water coolers in government offices so those making the decisions would not share in the consequences. As Faizullah says in a PBS interview, ““I was thinking about things like helplessness and poverty and allocation of resources…” And even those of us on the road of good intentions might forget Flint, in the wake of newer crises.

The poem is included in her recently released book Registers of Illuminated Villages, a collection of all the places undone by the imbalance of poverty and power.

Whether Flint, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans or Bangladesh, water is both survival and danger. I see now how the poem captures that, the speaker admiring, and fighting, the water, and the invisible power behind it, giving voice to those who have none.

Pushcart XLII: Kathleen Lynch, “Abracadabra” (poem) from Tule Review

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan's novel Beside Myself

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan’s novel Beside Myself

When mom wrung her hands over her many
& various worries, whispering I’m simply beside myself,
I tried to picture that diaphanous other version
 
of our mother – not a ghost, but not all there like
a real body – a mystery vapor-vision that mimicked
her hand-wringing, pacing – always beside her.

Idioms and slang can be confusing to kids. I can remember, when I was a sheltered kid old enough to know better, really, being away at Bible camp and hearing our cabin counselor tell us about some interpretation of scripture: “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but this means…” I looked at all our ten-year-old toes pointing to the center of a rounded rectangle, and moved my own feet back under my bunk to protect them. On another occasion around the same time, I had an earache, and the aunt I was staying with for the summer told my uncle she had to call my father for money, because “a doctor visit can cost $10 a shot.” (Yes, it was that long ago). I started to cry, because I didn’t like shots, not at all.

Lynch takes these innocent misunderstandings and uses them as a storytelling device, taking us through her life from the innocence of childhood to the reality of the adult who knows exactly what it is to lose one’s head, to be beside oneself (which, by the way, is related to ecstasy from the Greek ekstasis, “out of place”). We flip forward to see how the speaker, as an adult, experiences being outside herself, with the metaphorical bleeding into the literal in a bit of fancy.

More often than not, we turn into our moms. Drives us crazy, but there it is.

Pushcart XLII: Pui Ying Wong, “Language Lesson for One” (poem) from Constellations #6

If I knew French
I would speak its music,
its melancholy.
 
If I knew French
I would ask questions
like how much, where is,
 
be comfortable with words
like money, lost.

I’ve been trying to figure out what gives this poem its tone. From the very first stanza, I had a particular flavor of sad; melancholy, ok, but more specific than that. Is it just that word, melancholy, in there? I don’t think so. I tried substituting other words – tonality, lyricism, variety, joy – and arrived at the same place. Of course, it’s impossible to unring the bell, so maybe once I had it in my head, that was it.

But I think it’s more than the suggestion of that one word. It’s also the bareness of the poem, the short lines, simple words. I don’t doubt the power of subtle associations – words like comfortable and lost coming up, the solitariness implied by the title itself – but I think there’s something about the sounds of the words. I’m reminnded of the “absolute rhythm” that came up a few poems ago, of Pound’s insistence on “an absolute rhythm, a rhythm . . . in poetry that corresponds exactly with the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” This poem just might have such a rhythm. I can’t define it, but I can feel it.

And then I had another association: the French composer Erik Satie, whose minimalist anthem Gymnopaedia #1 shows up on soundtracks all over. As a teenaged piano student of absolutely no talent but much determination, I dismissed Satie as being baby music. What’s this, four or five notes per measure? No accidentals, no key or time signature changes? Let’s go back to Mozart or Chopin, real music! It wasn’t until I matured that I came to appreciate how evocative a simple melody line can be. This poem was meant to be read over Satie, while holding the Pound dissertation.

I wonder if the stanza structure is significant. As I see it, the poem has two halves, with a solo stanza in the middle. The first half, 3 lines times two, then two lines times three describing the acquisition of French, and the verb book the speaker has found, “4000 of them pressed together”. The single two-line stanza, “This afternoon / no one needs it more than I” allows a kind of turn inward, a plan of sorts to find the needed word. In this half, again we have two 3-line stanzas, but only two 2-line stanzas. It’s as if a stanza is missing, making the poem non-symmetrical. A poem about what is absent?

And then at the very end, we find out what emotion the absolute rhythm has been telling us all along:

Like the word for loneliness,
not the one that means
without friends or love
 
but the kind you find
between horizon and the sea,
 
or homesickness,
the kind you feel when you are home.

Melancholy. Loss. Rescue. Needs. The Satie-esque absolute rhythm. It all adds up now, to a feeling, a particular kind of missing, for which there is no name.

Pushcart XLII: Erica Dawson, “Condition” (poem) from Bennington Review #2

If it don’t mean a thing without the swing
of a gavel, if a trace of doubt can trump
a circumstance, oh beautiful for skies
too small.
 
Today, the paper boasted this—
Five local policemen tied to the KKK—
italicized as if to shout, I’m new
 
here….

Complete poem available online at Bennington Review

The thematic elements start with police brutality and go from there. The poetic elements are set out in these opening lines: swing, trump, skies, the letter K. These are repeated throughout, but morph along the way: the swing becomes Frost’s “Birches” becomes wood used in an A-frame. It’s the kind of poem that just leaves you in a pool of images related by gossamer, and then it closes down with “If even this.” Which is pretty much how I’ve been the past week, hence the paucity of posts. I’m determined to break out of this, so I’m trying, but “if even this” is killing me.

So I apologize for not giving some of these recent entries their due. It isn’t that they don’t reach me, not at all. In this case, it reaches me all over, reaches me too much, reaches me to the point of tearing my hair, my heart, out.

Pushcart XLII: Thomas R. Moore, “How We Built Our House” (poem) from Moon Pie Press

We built our house of wind and salt,
of seeing and touching. Our shovels
 
bit in, our wooden-handled hammers
beat rhythms.

Complete poem available online

This has nothing to do with building a real house, of course, although it may have been inspired by a real house somewhere along the way: Moore lives Downeast (meaning midcoast Maine), has pretty much traveled the world, and seems to be the sort of person who might build his own house. But clearly, this house is the metaphorical variety.

The tone is set by that first line, the “wind and salt” image, things common to coastal Maine, things mundane and omnipresent yet taking great importance when needed. The routine work follows, with ordinary tools. Learning is necessary, of course, since no one is born knowing how to build a house, but the motivated can find ways to learn. Awe and mystery come into play, because don’t they always.

And finally, when all is done, the house is enjoyed to the fullest. Makes me want to sit on the porch, too, listening to the owl and watching the flowering fruit tree.

Pushcart XLII: David Wojahn, “Absolute Rhythm” (poem) from Blackbird 15.2

Krishnakali Roy: “Rhythm”

Krishnakali Roy: “Rhythm”

I believe in an absolute rhythm, a rhythm . . . in poetry that corresponds
exactly with the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.
—Pound

 

Siri, show us a picture of an iamb.
& the pixels gathered on the phone screen,
 
Half-moon married to slash, scythe
Beside spear-shaft. Crescent or chalice,
 
Then a wheat-stalk bending to autumn zephyrs.
& yes, the hearts’-blood coursing:
 
Drumtap, birdcall, ringtone. Resplendent
Atavistic pictograph. Sympathetic magic,
 
Impious to demean it to concept, to symbol,
To sign….

Complete poem available online at Blackbird

With the first line, I thought this would be a fun poem, a literary romp on autocorrect. With the next few lines, I thought, instead, it was a discourse on symbols, particularly in light of Pound’s epigraph. But it became a lot more than that.

For some reason, one line of the compound epigraph was left out of the Pushcart edition. Fortunately, it appears in the original online publication: a single line, “—Claudia Emerson, 1957–2014” that informs everything else that happens on the page. This is a tribute, a memorial service, an elegy to a colleague, friend, and Pulitzer-prize winning former Poet Laureate of Virginia. I confess, as someone who is still embarrassingly unfamiliar with poets (that’s what I’m doing here, after all, isn’t it) I’m relying on google to fill me in. She died at the obscenely young age of 57, and given the number of nominators for this poem – four, where one is the norm and two is somewhat unusual – she must have touched a great many lives.

The poem is quite evocative, even to those of us who aren’t as familiar with Emerson. It all revolves around a tattoo of an iamb, glimpsed in several settings over time. In elegiac style, it ends by looking forward, to the speaker remembering her as inspiration going forward, with the iamb tattoo the very last image.

So let’s start with Pound’s quote. It’s from “A Retrospect” in which he lays out the rules for his vision of poetic modernism. The meter of the poem was less a structural element and more an organic part of the emotional content.

This lead me to a very interesting academic argument. It seems that, at the 2018 AWP conference, Annie Finch discussed heartbeat as the basis of meter, specifically, of iambic pentameter: the “lub-dub” of the heart generates iambs (soft-loud), and a spoken line in one breath averages five heartbeats. Yes, she is (I gather from later comments; the address itself is not online) careful to point out that this is an average, that both heartbeat and breath capacity vary from person to person (and from moment to moment over the course of a day) but in general it fits.

Enter Derek Mong, who disagreed with Finch in a post on Kenyon Review, leading Finch to restate and elaborate her premise, generating another round from Mong.

The heartbeat has long been suggested as the basis of musical rhythm, by the way. Connecting it to iambs is pretty natural, at least to those of us who remember Esther Greenwood’s failed attempt to drown herself in The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

I do have some questions about this approach, since poetry in other languages don’t use iambic pentameter nearly as much as English does (or did, at least, when sonnets and blank verse ruled the house). But I’ve always been taught that this is the “natural” meter of English; what makes it natural, I’m still not sure, other than “all the others sound fake or rhythmless”. However, the physical heartbeat as the source of iambic pentameter, or any poetic meter, is more literal than what Pound was suggesting. But I suspect it’s no accident the iamb tattoo in the poem is placed on the wrist, on the pulse.

But then we add a complication, and it gets really interesting: although this is all about iambs, the poem itself begins in trochaic, not iambic, rhythm (though it does get more complicated in later couplets, beyond my ability to parse). The opposite of iambs. Is this to distinguish the poet from the subject? To indicate the rhythm of that iambic pulse has ceased, to contrast between life and death? Does this incorporate Pound’s idea that rhythm “was part of the poetic idea itself, not a discipline over which the poem was strung” or is it an engineered distinction?

I found it very moving, gradually deepening on first read to a kind of relaxation in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing with words. The tattoo makes a lovely central image (one image only, insisted Pound), rounding out our impression by following that image over time, and using it as a banner going forward, as does the echo of a life well lived.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Todd Anderson, “About the Tongue” (poem) from Tipton Poetry Journal, Winter 2016

My tongue is a prodigy. If it had arms
and legs it would be on talk shows.
It is a genius, it is buff and agile. Eyeless,
it tells sweet from sour, bitter from salt.
It could be the world’s best carnie
or con man. It can wrestle its lover
all night in the dirtiest hotel in Joplin,
then spend the next morning singing
Verdi and feasting on satsuma oranges.

Somewhere not long ago, I said that poetry came from all sorts of inspirations, from the grand (O Captain My Captain, Paradise Lost) to the mundane (To a Louse, To a Mouse, Ode to a Goldfish, Death of a Toad). So why not a poem exalting the tongue?

The poem reminds us that, in spite of its rather ugly appearance, the tongue is a workhorse, taking part in communication, nutritional intake, and pleasure both gustatory and sexual. It’s powered by several different cranial nerves, and includes muscles, sensory cells, and lymphatics (all those anatomy moocs are paying off). I never thought much about my tongue until the dentist noticed a lesion a couple of years ago; suddenly, all I thought about was my tongue and the prospect of losing part of it (turns out, it was nothing more than a bite mark of unusual persistence).

We could dismiss this poem as fluff – and, ok, it is, there’s no deep meaning here, at least none I can see – but there’s something very solid about it. Like the organ it lionizes, the poem is kind of ridiculous looking yet works very well. Here’s where I again curse my lack of familiarity with poetics; I’m sure there’s some reason the poem strikes me as unusually complete and satisfying, but all I can say it’s like a well-crafted chair or house or clock: it reeks of quality. It reads well, like a good song with nicely coordinated lyrics and melody.

The last lines – “Watch as, slick as an eel, / it swims upstream through a river of gin” – might be a clue that the particular tongue in question, as well as the mind writing the poem, has been given some extra lubrication, allowing words to pour freely and without judgment as to the seriousness of their purpose. I can easily imagine the poet, after a long day (Anderson is a professor whose dissertation examined “the depiction of unattractive, repugnant, violent, and disordered aspects of the natural world in nature-oriented poetry of the past two centuries”), downs a few G&Ts and thinks, why not a poem about the tongue? And does a pretty fine job of it, to boot.

Pushcart XLII: Camille T. Dungy, “Natural History” (poem) from Boston Review, 3/30/16

The Rufous hummingbird builds her nest
of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once—smaller than my palm,
but sturdy. I would have told Mrs. Jeffers,
from Court Street, if in those days of constant flights
between Virginia and the West I’d happened
on that particular museum.

Complete poem available online at Boston Review

Not knowing much about hummingbirds, or any birds for that matter, I went looking for images of hummingbird nests. Two things struck me: the bird seems to be part of the nest, and the nests all look very much alike. That fits with the use of the image in this poem. I know what the Jeffers’ home looked like. It’s not that people from that place and time all had similar houses, but they were in some sense the same, a place to burrow down, a place safe from the world. That safety is praised in the poem as well. We’re not so far removed from it today, in fact.

(By the way, this volume seems to be full of bird imagery, bird stories and poems. I wonder if it really is – and, if so, what the significance of that is – or if I’m just using a lot of bird art.)

The Jeffers’ rootedness is contrasted with the speaker’s constant motion. Somehow that fits with the hummingbird, too, now that I think about it. In flight, a hummingbird’s wings beat about 50 times a second – a second, not a minute – yet in the nest, it’s a little sphere of stillness.

I guess it’s no surprise
they’d come to mind when I think of that cup
of spider webs and moss, made softer by the feathers
of some long-gone bird. She used to say, I like it
right here where I am. In my little house. Here,
with him.

There’s a distinct sense of regret to the poem. Not a tragic regret, not a regret for the speaker’s travelling lifestyle – at least, not much, though there are whispers – but a too-late recognition that these people, still and rooted as they were, would’ve been worth knowing better. “Everyone must have once / held someone as old and small and precious as this.” Yes, I think so. So look at what you hold today.

Pushcart XLII: Saeed Jones, “Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music” (poem) from Tin House #69

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” comes on the kitchen radio
and briefly, your mother isn’t your mother—
just like, if the falsetto is just right, a black man in black
lace panties isn’t a faggot, but a prince,
a prodigy—and the woman with your hometown
between her legs shimmies past the eviction notice
burning on the counter and her body moves like she never
even birthed you. The voice on the radio pleas,
“I wanna be the only one that makes you come
running.” Some songs take women places men cannot
follow.

We work so hard, we of the human species, to categorize everything from what we wear (so we can prohibit jeans and leggings but allow trousers) to what we study (so we can chalk up our distribution credits in English instead of, say, history, which we already have) to what we eat (so we can refuse anything that isn’t natural or vegetarian or kosher). And of course it applies to people: to race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. Breaking down the categories, allowing some crossovers and hybrids to exist, creates chaos for those who believe the world naturally exists in categories, rather than categories being something we impose upon the world.

But of course, it doesn’t, not even at a strictly physical level. For the first six weeks of development, a human embryo is sexually indifferent, the biologist’s term for “it could go either way.” As much as it may pain the patriarchy, the normal development development is into a female embryo, fetus, person; the male is the other, resulting only from the interference of the Y chromosome and its SRY gene. But, we all start out with potential for both, even on a strictly physical level. Psychologically, it’s even more complicated, since society gets into the act, determining what to categorize as female, and what as male.

This poem ain’t having none of that. Prince is a prodigy, lover, brother, mamma, sister. Mom, under the spell of his music, is Vanity 6, and the kid is just astonished by it all, and nothing but jealous of the voice on the radio taking away his mom…

… and because you’re young and don’t know the difference
between abandoned and alone just like your mother’s
heart won’t know the difference between beat
and attack. She will be dead in a decade and maybe
you already know what you’re losing without knowing
how, but you’re just a boy for now and your mother
is just a woman, just a girl, body swaying, fingers
snapping and snakes in her blood.

I love the melding of categories in this poem, all kinds of categories beyond male and female: joy and sorrow, responsibility and freedom, uncertainty and growth, youth and age, love and anger, boy and mom. There’s a joy to it, dancing layered on top of eviction notices, the rhythm of the heartbeat laid over the silence of heart attack. Screw categories: be what you are. And sometimes, be everything, all at once. I notice Jones read this poem for a Prince-themed party in 2015, a year before the singer’s death. Context screws with categories, too.

Pushcart XLII: Solmaz Sharif, “Desired Appreciation” (poem) from Kenyon Review #38.1

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: View from the Window at Le Gras

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: View from the Window at Le Gras

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:
All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:
American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness
Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.
I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.
I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness
By shocking dogs. Eventually we things give up.

Complete poem available online at Kenyon Review

This is another of those pieces that got a lot more interesting the more I understood about it. And it starts out pretty interesting at that: the speaker is an immigrant exhausted by the need to constantly reassure the native-born citizenry that she is grateful to be here, that everything is fine-fine, when she knows firsthand how not fine so much is.

The John Brown quote was my first hint that there was more than was obvious to me. Then I found Sharif’s extensive interview with Kaveh Akbar at Divedapper, examining the genesis of the poem. She’d read some of the documents of the torture techniques used by the US, hence the references to tube feeding and handcuffs and doctors on site, amidst the more cheerful face the country put on itself while this was happening. All of this comes to the speaker when she’s asked if she’s grateful to be here – much as Sharif is often asked.

The entire poem is inspired by, and initially mimics, Ovid’s Ibis, written in the town of Tomis on the Black Sea during his long exile from Rome for reasons that remain unclear (in a further twist, the exile was officially revoked in… 2017). In the context of the poem, I have to wonder: did the residents of Tomis regularly demand his gratitude?

The poem is from Sharif’s debut collection, “Look”, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award. The choice of cover image for the book intrigues me: it’s recognized as the oldest surviving photographic image, “View from the Window at Le Gras”, a heliograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, predating Daguerre by about 10 years. I’m not sure of the significance of this, but the resemblance of the image – a country estate – to the thick stone walls of a prison can’t be coincidence.

Pushcart XLII: Amit Majmudar, “Bully” (poem) from The Hopkins Review 9.1

David W. J. Lloyd: Shaddowmen Bully the Small

David W. J. Lloyd: Shaddowmen Bully the Small

First day fake friend
With the knuckle-
Crusher handshake
Making new kids
 
Buckle pleading
By the bus stop:

Complete story available online at The Hopkins Review

There’s something about the letter “f” that’s particularly vicious. Maybe it’s just me; maybe it’s the association with “fuck” and its euphemisms. Maybe it’s the bite, the upper-teeth-on-lower-lip, combined with the (potentially spitting) hiss. It gives this poem a particularly nasty opening, as if the bully isn’t nasty enough on his own.

But the poem is not simply a litany of abuses. Everything has two sides, and the kid who one day calls you “Shitskin” might pick you up and help you to the nurse’s office after he witnesses a beating. He may find some perverse comfort in his racist taunts, but he still has a small space of humanity inside. And then he’ll call you Shitskin the next day, maybe because he’s afraid of what would happen to him if that small space got too big.

And in the end, the bully himself has two sides, because we know that bullies learn to become bullies from someone. And we discover a small space of humanity in ourselves, that we can have compassion for a bully.

Majmudar, named Ohio’s first Poet Laureate in 2016, is, in the tradition of William Carlos Williams et al, a doctor, a diagnostic radiologist. I find it interesting and encouraging that several hospitals and medical schools publish literary journals. Bellevue Literary Review, first published in 2001, is well-known to Pushcart and BASS readers, and spawned a book division as well. The Hopkins Review, affiliated with Johns Hopkins, of course, is a newer participant in literature, entering the field in 2016. I’ve also discovered several other medical schools have literary journals. Most of these feature works that in some broad way reflect on health. This makes sense, as medicine has traditionally been seen, even in the modern age of rationalism, as a combination of art and science. From where I sit, it’s become far more about data management, but, like the vicious fricative f, maybe it’s just me.

Pushcart XLII: Ellen Bass, “Any Common Desolation” (poem) from Poem-a-Day, 11/18/16

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive.

Complete story available online at Poetry; audio on Soundcloud

I almost treated this as a sweet, simple little poem, another of those “what is this doing here” moments I have so often, but a structural element made me look twice, and boy am I glad I did. Let me emphasize again that I have very little training in poetry, and am just flying by the seat of my pants here (hey, we all need our amusements), so don’t take any of this too seriously.

It’s a common thought, really, an oppositional binarism echoed from antiquity to today: We must know pain in order to know joy; we only understand dark because we know light. We appreciate the good things when we know disaster. This kind of thing always makes me wonder what we don’t understand now, because we have never seen its opposite (also a side effect of hanging around too many postmodernists).

The speaker starts with what most of us would consider the “down side” – the “any common desolation” of the title – before listing all the up-sides this down side incurs. She covers the entire sensorium, with elements of sight, sound, smell/taste, and touch. It’s interesting that there’s some violent language in the up-side stuff; leaves shot with sun, a sky a bird might rip. Then the down side is acknowledged again – a broken heart – and again, the good stuff involves words that could be associated with pain: tearing, grating, a cuff. The final pairing, of mud and wonder, likewise includes an ambiguous image of “a needle slipped into your vein” on the up side. The up and down sides, it seems, are not that clearly demarcated at all.

But what really interested me is that use of title as a first line, something I’ve noticed twice now in this volume. I still don’t know what it’s called, so I sent out some queries. Peter Stockwell, a professor of literary linguistics at Nottingham in England (and whose Cognitive Poetics mooc I was lucky to take a few years ago, which is how he ended up on my twitter feed) didn’t know of any canonical term, but suggested “title enjambment”; that cheered me, since I’d suggested a variety of enjambment when I saw this before.

I’m still not completely comfortable with that, though. Enjambment implies momentum, a sense of coming to the end of a line but being pushed across by the natural grammar of the sentence. That’s missing in these title enjambments, since a title is naturally a single line ending with a natural stop. The sense of enjambment isn’t recognized until the first line of the poem is read. This makes me wonder if retroactive enjambment might be appropriate.

The next suggestion came from Patrick Gillespie, a “carpenter & poet living ‘Up in Vermont’”, whose blog came to my attention via a Twitter shoutout from Emily Wilson, the Penn classicist whose recent Iliad translation has been creating a stir. Patrick said:

I’ve always just called them “Line Titles”, but I might be the only one?
Out of curiosity, I looked up Title in the Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. They go on and on and on (ad nauseum) about Titles and how they *mean* things (to absurd lengths in my opinion) but in all that verbiage they somehow forget to notice the Line Title… That one slipped right passed them.
The poetic dictionary, by John Drury, actually has an entry. He called it, in a burst of descriptive genius: “Title as First Line”. He mentions that Marianne Moore was a pioneer of the “device”. “It resides outside the stanzaic structure”, he writes. And when you hear language like that, you know academics are salivating. What could it *mean*?

(We New Englanders have a sense of humor. We have to. After six months of winter, we don’t get Spring, we get a month of mud & flood season.)

I quite like “line titles”; simple, descriptive, and accurate. Since Academia shows little interest in naming this technique, and since no one pays any attention to me anyway, I hereby name the structure a line title, and declare the function to be retroactive enjambment: a sense of momentum not noticed until the next line – that is, the second line of the poem – is read.

This fits the content of the poem quite well. Any common desolation leaves us with the sense of some love gone, some joy ended. We stop, mourn. But if we can just go a little further – look at the leaves, smell the ginger, hear the oars, remember the moments of safety and love, feel our breath – we can realize it need not be an ending, but an inevitable transition; and there will be more love and joy ahead, because the world overflows with it.

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

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

Complete poem available online at Poetry Magazine

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

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

Artist: April Harrison

Artist: April Harrison

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

Complete poem available online
at New England Review

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

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

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

Pablo Romero:  One Hand Slam Dunk

Pablo Romero: One Hand Slam Dunk


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art by Élie Nysquisot

Art by Élie Nysquisot

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

Complete story available online at Rhino

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

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

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

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

By tracing the negatives –

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

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