Ken Craft

711 posts

Raymond Carver “On Writing”: Words of Advice for Poets, Short Story Writers, even Novelists

Before diving into my 2023 project of reading a short story a day from the Library of America’s Carver: Collected Stories, I read his brief essay “On Writing” and jotted some bon mots (French for ‘words that seem more important than others’). Of course, no one gives a damn about a writer’s opinions on writing until said writer has “made it.” I’ll give Ray that. Loved his collected poems, so why wouldn’t I respond in kind to what he is most famous for?

Without further ado, here are some Carver-isms for those plying the trade:

 

“This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

“Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. ‘Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.’ Ezra Pound. It is not everything by ANY means, but if a writer has ‘fundamental accuracy of statement’ going for him, he’s at least on the right track.

“I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘…and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all—what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense of relief—and anticipation.

“I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say ‘No cheap tricks’ to a group of writing students. That should be on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to ‘No tricks.’ Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span.”

“Too often ‘experimentation’ is a license to be careless, silly, or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all—a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.

“It should be noted that real experiment in fiction is original, hard-earned and cause for rejoicing. But someone else’s way of looking at things—Barthelme’s, for instance—should not be chased after by other writers. It won’t work. There is only one Barthelme, and for another writer to try to appropriate Barthelme’s peculiar sensibility or mise en scene under the rubric of innovation is for the writer to mess around with chaos and disaster and, worse, self-deception.”

“It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine—the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story, ‘Guy de Maupassant,’ the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: ‘No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.’ This too ought to go on a three-by-five.”

“If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing ‘weak specification.’”

“But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.”

“I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.

“V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.’ First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky—that word again—have even further consequences and meaning. The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things—like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”

 

A final interesting aside about this essay: Carver quotes Flannery O’Connor on how “she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was there.”  You often hear this about novelists who hate outlining in advance. They just write and let their characters provide directions as the novel progresses (a strategy called “pantsing” by practitioners of the trade).

Carver found O’Connor’s words liberating. He had considered it his own dark secret—how he’d start stories with a particular line he loved but without any real sense of where the story should go. That’s right. He often had no idea how the line would inform a story and a character’s truth about life. That nugget should reassure some writers out there. The ones who need a license to just go. Just write. Just see where it all leads because usually it leads SOMEwhere.

What, after all, is revision for? Once you get to the story’s  Promised Land (read: the ending), you can go at it again, revising, ultimately editing for the precision of those periods and commas. You know. The stuff of Babel. The stuff you’d be proud to put your name to because any story or poem or novel worth writing is worth writing the right way.

Writing About Not Being Able to Write About Frank O’Hara

For the record, non-fiction writer Ada Calhoun is *not* “also a poet.” Her book wanted to be a biography of Frank O’Hara but it’s not that, either. It almost wound up being a memoir, but alas, it’s not quite that, either.

Honestly, her book had no choice in the matter. Her father Peter Schjeldahl had collected all manner of taped interviews of people who knew Frank O’Hara, intending to write a biography of the New York School poet, but it all came to naught, partly because of his make-up and mostly because of the recalcitrance of O’Hara’s sister Maureen Granville-Smith, who is the literary executor of Frank’s estate.

Upon discovery of the tapes, daughter Ada decides to fill Dad’s big shoes by writing Frank’s bio herself, picking up where he left off. Only there’s this problem called Maureen Granville-Smith, still alive and well, still recalcitrant, and every bit as stubborn about blocking a bio by Ada as she was a bio by her dad.

This leaves Ada with little choice but to write a semi-biographical O’Hara book and a semi-memoir of herself book — the story of her attempt to write an O’Hara biography, how it brought to a head some lifelong issues she’d had with her dad, and how the manuscript wrestled on the floor, two genres fighting it out to a draw.

Thus you get word-for-word excerpts from Peter’s tapes of people who knew Frank O’Hara because Dad gave Ada permission to try where he failed. She fails, too, and provides a transcript of her phone conversation with Frank’s sister, who comes across as a termagant sure that no one can do her boy Frank justice.

Weird.

But the book itself is weirdly wonderful. It leans more frankly in a biography kind of way in the first half, then in a decisive memoir kind of way in the second. What is it about these artistic fathers who don’t know how to love their children, even when their children enter the same trade, in this case, the trade of writing? Rhetorical question.

Interesting? Firstly the excerpts from the tapes. Then, as the story builds, the dynamic between father and daughter. And trivia. Lots of trivia and odd bits, like Ada sharing her favorite O’Hara poem, which led me to my copy of The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara edited by Donald Allen. For the curious, here it is:

 

To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

 

No, not O’Hara’s most famous poem by any means, but probably one that speaks to Ada Calhoun because she reads “father-daughter” into it (whereas O’Hara had some other relationship in mind).

Another oddity: one of O’Hara’s (who worked at the MoMA) favorite paintings is Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider. Again, not something that comes to mind when one thinks of the Dutch Master smoking cigars while New York poets originally from Grafton, MA, (of all nearby places!) might choose one of his works as “great,” but Frank kind of liked the looks of the horseman. You can find him riding online. The Pole, not Frank.

OK, wrap-up time.

Who would like this unaligned genre of a book? Certainly peeps interested in poetry in general and O’Hara in particular. Or fans of the anything-goes NYC scene in the 50s and 60s (even were he never struck and killed in July of ’66 by a dune buggy at the beach on Fire Island, I fear O’Hara’s liver would have taken him down soon enough). Or readers with a particular interest in problematic family relationships— in this case, a daughter who must forge a separate peace because the daddy she so wants to impress is who he is, as imperfect as any Y-chromosome can be.

If you fit one of those descriptions, you should pick it up. If not and you’re curious, pick it up as well. Over, out, and also a poet,

Ken C.

New Years, Always Bittersweet

new

A new  year. Always a bittersweet thing. Having 2023 on the doorstep, left by someone who wants no part of it, all swaddled and innocent-looking (for now), is a scary thing. Isn’t it every year? Been there, done that, know better. And it all gets you thinking… thinking about stuff you’ve thought a lot about already:

  • Is it me, or do celebrations seem “forced” on New Year’s Eve? Like St. Patrick’s Day, it has devolved into a drinking holiday more than any other kind of holiday.
  • The best New Year’s Eve I ever spent? One where I  broke a commitment to attend a party and stayed home reading E.B. White’s Collected Essays. I never even noticed as midnight came and went. Now that’s a great way to ring in the new–turning pages!
  • I noticed the neighbors took down Christmas decorations much sooner than in past years–before New Year’s Eve, even. One reason might be Christmas exhaustion. The material holiday, songs and all, gets foisted on us the day after Halloween nowadays. By December 26th, folks are waving the white flag. Mercy!
  • Speaking of, is there a cleaner feeling than a house once the tree is pitched and the decorations are boxed and returned to the basement? Yes, we will find a few needles from the tree along about Easter, but still, it’s a sigh of relief to be done with it once it’s done with you.
  • Before you call me a Christmas Curmudgeon, know this. A lot of my fellow Americans really got into the holiday this year because it was comfort food of a sort. Yes, they overindulged in their family traditions, but given the pall over our heads these days (Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and targeting of civilians, inflation, Agent Orange running for president again, etc.) it made them feel better to go to the birthday party at Farmer Gray’s or to shout “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” or to listen to silver bells in the city. Who can blame them for covering themselves in the warm folds of Christmas pasts? They were simply hiding in hopes of making it all go away.
  • Resolutions? Don’t do it! They don’t work, especially this time of year. Pick another day to resolve. Arbor Day resolutions, maybe, sturdy as an oak. Then make sure said resolution is measurable and concrete–one you can track and WILL track. Otherwise, who wants to hear it?
  • The average American gains around 2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, or so I read. Seems low… or so my scale thinks.
  • Let’s hear it for January, named after the Roman God Janus, a two-faced sort who looked both forward and back, refusing to play favorites between past and oncoming year. Most folks find it bleak, cold, and insufferable, but January’s all right by me, being holiday-free once the first folds.
  • I’ve been avoiding front pages of newspapers lately, cutting right to the sports and the arts sections. Is this similar to the Christmas-as-comfort-food thing? And who am I kidding? Just because all the bad news goes away for me doesn’t mean it goes away, right?
  • After enjoying Laura Dassow Walls’ biography of Henry David Thoreau, I might up the ante on my bio-reading for 2023. I already have the door-stopper from Ron Chernow, Grant, and am thinking about a bio of Joyce, too.
  • Hopefully, Grant does not become a Broadway show. The thought of ole Ulysses S. traipsing across a stage while singing tunes is enough to discourage any man, although (fact!) he once performed in an army play during the Mexican War.
  • This morning, I caught a falling star as I was out in the climate-warmer than usual air. Must be my lucky day, this last one! Should I buy a lottery ticket, maybe? Nah. One tax I don’t have to pay.
  • Minor Miracle: How something as small as a chickadee, titmouse, or nuthatch can not only live in winter, warm of frigid, but do it joyfully.
  • Speaking of taxes and New Year’s, is anyone still watching all of these NCAA bowl games? I didn’t think so. Factoid: Just learned yesterday that the NCAA, one of the biggest money-makers in the nation, is not taxed because of its (ahem) educational mission. The new tax legislation continues this boondoggle. More taxes for you and me, but none for the NCAA sponsored by $$$ Chevrolet $$$ and $$$ Coca-Cola $$$. It’s the American way: we are all equal, except corporations are more equal than the rest of us.
  • As the famous line goes: “Government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations” is here. Poor Mr. Lincoln must be turning over in his grave.
  • Also learned yesterday: Many people eat sauerkraut on New Year’s for good luck. Really? My grandmother used to make it in a crock at home. Fermented was big with our grandparents, who knew a thing or two about healthy eating before we had “experts” to tell us a thing or two about healthy eating.
  • Grandma ate “organic,” too, though the word didn’t even exist because EVERYTHING was organic before the Chemical Age (which came to us along about WWII). So the next time you sniff and dismiss yuppies and foodies who spend more for “organic,” remember that it is normal, healthy food that should NOT be overpriced but is thanks to the giant corporations who prefer the profits in irradiated, herbicide- and pesticide-laden foods (not to mention GMOs)—all stuff Grandma would rightly call “science fiction to be avoided.”
  • For a guy who avoids front pages, I’m getting awfully political. Good. Get it out of my system. All politics is local, which you might be able to control. Focus your life locally, then, starting with your family.
  • Happy New Year, readers May your local dreams come true in the fast-approaching year!

“If It’s Darkness We’re Having, Let It Be Extravagant. “

xmas tree

Christmas. It’s so entwined with childhood memories that people can get unreasonably sentimental about it. And while I like the look and the music and the food surrounding the holiday, I’ve never been a fan of all the work involved.

You know. Dragging out the boxes that either sit all year in the attic or the basement. Moving everyday items to make room for the four-weeks-only items. And, most feared of all, trimming the tree.

Putting the holiday dog on is one thing, but taking it down is another altogether. After the holiday passes, ye olde tannenbaum begins to feel like a visitor who’s overstayed his welcome. Moodwise, it no longer delivers because, without the anticipation, it has become stale goods.

It’s a cruel but necessary task, deconstructing a tree. And, once it and all the rest are finally done and packed and restacked in the attic / basement, there’s no cleaner feeling and no bigger sigh of accomplishment. Welcome, January! (Words you never thought you’d see.)

The poet Jane Kenyon decided to tackle this post-holiday mood in her poem below. Let’s read along as she conjures a few specific objects in the roles of the not-always-pleasant purveyors of memory:

 

Taking Down the Tree
Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcase increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

 

The last stanza says it all—and more: “If it’s darkness / we’re having, let it be extravagant.” This after the sound and smell of the needles’ death, hallmarks of the holiday’s annual demise, heralders of January’s annual welcome, winter notwithstanding.

This Christmas Gift Comes Back Every Time You Return It

box

In the UK, Dec. 26th is known as Boxing Day, a more relaxed extension of Christmas Day where banks close and folks take another day off to fritter with family and friends.

In Ireland, the 26th is called St. Stephen’s Day, with much the same relaxed schedule.  Once upon a time, “Wren Boys” would go out and stone to death wrens (just as poor old St. Stephen took it on the noggin, apparently), carrying the dead birds door to door in exchange for treats.

That tradition has died, much to the wrens’ delight, but the lasting tradition remains: eating holiday leftovers, enjoying family, connecting with friends.

Here in the States, it’s mostly a returns day, wherein people brave the roads and stores to return ill-fitting, ill-conceived, or just ill-looking clothes to beleaguered returns cashiers.

But really, let’s dial it back to the best part of Christmas gatherings: not the materialism, not the madness of keeping six dishes cooked and hot for serving, not the drinking, but the connections and reconnections with family.

This emphasis is captured by Gary Short in his poem “Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day.” It’s one humble poem, focused on things that really matter. And though it’s a football that’s being caught, Short is really trying to capture a certain je ne sais quoi about brotherhood.

Je ne sais quoi-ing” is what good poetry does, no? Let’s unwrap this box and take a look:

 

Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day
by Gary Short

Only a little light remains.
The new football feels heavy
and our throws are awkward
like the conversation of brothers
who see each other occasionally.
After a few exchanges,
confidence grows,
the passing and catching
feels natural and good.
Gradually, we move farther apart,
out in the field,
the space between us
filling with darkness.

He leads me,
lofting perfect spirals
into the night. My eyes
find the clean white laces of the ball.
I let fly a deep pass
to his silhouette.
The return throw
cannot be seen,
yet the ball
falls into my hands, as if
we have established a code
that only brothers know.

 

The last two lines of the first stanza are the surprise you get when lifting a box’s lid and peering in: “the space between us / filling with darkness.” It works especially well in contrast to the ending of the second, where the ball-throwing leads to an unspoken connection, where they’re throwing a ball that cannot so much be seen as understood on an instinctive level:

“The return throw
cannot be seen,
yet the ball
falls into my hands, as if
we have established a code
that only brothers know.”

The darknesses that separate brothers are many: time, distance, misunderstandings. And yet the bond, forged by fire on the anvil of childhood, connect them no matter what. You go deep, look up into that good starry night, and a ball drops into your hands like some perfectly-boxed gift.

American brothers wouldn’t know Boxing Day from Muhammad Ali (no connection), but they surely know the awkwardness of reconnecting and, once it’s done, how it brings you back to where you were so many years ago.

Sharon Olds’ “The Winter After Your Death”

index

 

I found this Sharon Olds poem in Jane Hirshfield’s lovely collection of essays, Nine Gates, and, as someone who who enjoys nature poetry, both as a reader and a poet myself, thought I’d share it:

 

The Winter After Your Death by Sharon Olds

The long bands of mellow light
across the snow
narrow slowly.
The sun closes her gold fan
and nothing is left but black and white–
the quick steam of my breath, the dead
accurate shapes of the weeds, still, as if
pressed in an album.
Deep in my body my green heart
turns, and thinks of you. Deep in the
pond, under the thick trap
door of ice, the water moves,
the carp hangs like a sun, its scarlet
heart visible in its side.

 

 

How Low Can a Book’s Price Go?

Editor’s Note: There must be a chimpanzee pushing buttons in the Amazon pricing booth. Two days after this post, in which I marveled that the cost of my book was marked down 48% by Amazon dot glom, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants returned to its full price. Three days after that, it dropped to 24% off. The moral of the story, Tarzan, is to check daily for bargains. When it hits half off again–jump!–because it doesn’t go lower than the mezzanine.

 

When it comes to Amazon dot com, one is always wondering, “How low can you go?”

No, I’m not speaking of their ethics. I’m speaking of their prices. And their pricing policies, the mechanics of which are unknown. In fact, the variations in some books’ prices track like New England weather—spring today, winter tomorrow, summer next week if you don’t pay attention. If someone understands what’s going on, it’s surely a mystery wrapped inside a bang-the-conundrum slowly.

Exhibit A has been my latest poetry collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants. I’ve been watching it roller coaster, and it’s a wilder ride than any Mr. Toad ever took.

Today, though, took all. Its price dropped to 48% off, $9.65. Halved like a grapefruit.

I’d like to say (indignantly) this hurts, but it doesn’t. In fact, though I don’t know why this book has been singled out (and my second from the same publisher, Lost Sherpa of Happiness, still selling for the manufactured retail, has not), I’m OK with it. Sharks need movement to live, poems need eyes. Cue the music.

So, yeah. If it moves a few books into Amazon’s cart. If it stuffs a few stockings. If it warms the hearts of a few poetry fans, all good. Sold books do wonders for the little guy (waves hand from the back row), so I hope the bottom line is that it helps my bottom line and attracts more readers. As for Amazon’s bottom line, nobody’s worried about that. No. Not in the least.

Merry 17 Days Until Christmas!

Knock-Out Poetry

When your average reader thinks of the word “poetry,” he doesn’t think of the word “macho” at the same time. And yet, macho poetry exists. That is, if you’re willing to bend “macho” from its negative connotations and tag along instead with Edward Hirsch’s description of Edgar Kunz’s Tap Out – “gutsy, tough-minded, working-class poems of memory and initiation.”

Then there’s Tap Out’s cover. A man’s hands clasped. True, they’re so greasy they look less like a wrestler’s hands than a miner’s or auto mechanic’s, but they certainly convey the idea. What’s most important, though, are the poems in this 2019 outing. Y-chromosome or no, many are damn good.

For instance, Kunz mines the tried and true (for poets) territory of an alcoholic, abusive father to good effect. I was especially taken with “Close,” which originally appeared, appropriately enough, in Narrative magazine.

 

Close

 

Off early from B&R Diesel, sharp

with liquor and filtered Kings, he drifts

across the double-yellow, swings

into an iced-over lot. He runs me through

the basics: K-turn, parallel, back-in.

Jerks the Sierra into reverse and eases

the bumper up against the side

of the old bank building. We meet

at the end of the loaded bed, exhaust

and brakelight pooling around our knees.

He balls the front of my coat in his fist,

pulls me close to show the distance

between bumper and brick, pulls hard

until I’m up against the slender arc

of his collarbone, the fine dark stubble

shading his jaw, his hollowed-out cheeks.

He’s still beautiful, my father. Fluid.

Powerful. His bare forearms corded

with muscle, bristling in the cold. Yes,

he’s drunk. Yes, I have already begun the life-

long work of hating him, a job

that will carve me down to almost

nothing. I have already begun to catalog

every way he has failed me. Yes.

And here he is. Home early from a day shift

in Fall River. Teaching me what I need

to know. Pulling me roughly toward him,

the last half-hour of sunlight blazing

in his face, saying This is how close

you can get. Asking if I can see it.

If I know what he means. Saying This. This

close. Like this.

 

Like many poems in this collection, a narrative poem told with economy. A vivid snapshot in time. “Close” is particularly powerful thanks to the turn that begins with the line “He’s still beautiful, my father” – not words you’d expect from a teen whose father has him by the fist. And that bit about “the life- / long work of hating him, a job / that will carve me down to almost / nothing.” Whew. It’s lines like this that leave me wondering why there are so many readers who do not bother reading poetry, for it is only poetry that can deliver rabbit-punches like this. What these readers are missing!

While still on my heels from reading “Close,” I turned the page and read “After the Attempt,” which appeared originally in Gulf Coast. In this case, it was the closing that wowed me. Kunz nails the landing, as they say. Even the Russian judge is forced to say as much.

 

After the Attempt

 

They took your shoelaces,

your carabiner of tooth-

edged keys, but left you

your belt, which you cinched

over your loopless scrubs.

 

They shaved your scalp

for the stitches but missed

a tuft above your ear

that catches the light

from the hingeless windows.

 

The receptionist holds up

a small paper bag

stapled shut. Whatever

you had worth saving.

You look, then look away.

 

Once, hungover

on a gut-and-remodel job

in Grafton, you cracked the root

of your nose with your claw

hammer’s backswing.

 

You stood very still after,

watching your blood scatter

on the plywood floor, alien

and bright as coins

from a distant country.

 

I don’t know about you, but I was bought and sold on that blood money at the end. Great image. It didn’t hurt that the familiar worked for it, too. Assuming the setting was Grafton, Massachusetts, this was only a town over from where I lived for twenty years.

In the end, I guess you can say this. There’s not a lot of “macho poetry” out there, and when there is, it’s not always worth reading. In the case of Edgar Kunz’s collection, however, another story. Another story entirely.

Metaphors for Violence

boxing

Why do so many metaphors speak the language of violence?

That question occurred to Ocean Vuong as he was writing his “novel” that walks and talks like a memoir, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Though many examples abound, Vuong chose just a few as shown in this excerpt:

 

But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration?

“You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience is a target audience. ‘Good for you, man,’ a man once said to me at a party, ‘you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ ’em dead.'”

 

I have heard of metaphors for violence being essential in the language of sports, but here it creeps into creativity, the arts, everyday language itself. Do we even notice it, though? If not, then metaphor has assumed its place in our language, no longer looking like a comparison in glasses and wig, but acting like a thing unhidden itself.

On Earth We’re Briefly Violent, maybe? Even if it’s not with sticks and stones but with those legendary “words that will never hurt me.”

Ada Limón’s Stretch Drive

Ada Limón

Newly-anointed Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s book, The Carrying, is divided into three parts, and those who believe you should save the best for last will be pleased to hear that the strongest set of poems hide behind Door #3, the stretch drive.

Thematically, it covers—in its own novel way—such well-trodden territory as love, nature, sickness, sexuality, feminism, horses, and death. I might add “time,” but there’s something in my head saying, “Same as death, brother.”

Oh. OK, then.

The first poem from section 3 I’ll share shows Limón’s talent with description, specifically the way she can weave concrete observations from nature into more abstract ones about life:

 

Instructions on Not Giving Up
by Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I’ll take it all.

 

The title poem is in section 3 includes a little projection between woman and horse. This is that rare instance when a poet (not known for Fortune-500 incomes) owns a horse (a small fortune or 500 to own, they say):

 

Carrying
by Ada Limón

The sky’s white with November’s teeth,
and the air is ash and woodsmoke.
A flush of color from the dying tree,
a cargo train speeding through, and there,
that’s me, standing in the wintering
grass watching the dog suffer the cold
leaves. I’m not large from this distance,
just a fence post, a hedge of holly.
Wider still, beyond the rumble of overpass,
mares look for what’s left of green
in the pasture, a few weanlings kick
out, and theirs is the same sky, white
like a calm flag of surrender pulled taut.
A few farms over, there’s our mare,
her belly barrel-round with foal, or idea
of foal. It’s Kentucky, late fall, and any
mare worth her salt is carrying the next
potential stake’s winner. Ours, her coat
thicker with the season’s muck, leans against
the black fence and this image is heavy
within me. How my own body, empty,
clean of secrets, knows how to carry her,
knows we were all meant for something.

 

While on the theme of horses, it’s quite an exercise in creativity to compare spontaneous love with the birthing foals: ready to go; microwaved in the momma, practically. I like the leap! Even more fascinating, she gets away with using a “thou-shalt-not” word in poetry, “liminal.” Is she on a roll or what?

 

What I Didn’t Know Before
by Ada Limón

was how horses simply give birth to other
horses. Not a baby by any means, not
a creature of liminal spaces, but already
a four-legged beast hellbent on walking,
scrambling after the mother. A horse gives way
to another horse and then suddenly there are
two horses, just like that. That’s how I loved you.
You, off the long train from Red Bank carrying
a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two
computers swinging in it unwieldily at your
side. I remember we broke into laughter
when we saw each other. What was between
us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed
over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.

 

And finally, politically speaking, the following sacred object. As a man, the thought of some asshat verbally assaulting you while you’re gassing your car is, well, as foreign as Mars. Reading this poem gives men a taste of life on Venus, and it’s a bit nauseating.

My mother, who brought up four sons, always said, “Any man who hits a woman is not a man.” I think we can extend her wisdom from physical to verbal applications. Real men treat women with respect. In every way. Period.

 

Sacred Objects
by Ada Limón

I’m driving down to Tennessee, but before I get there, I stop at the Kentucky state line to fuel up and pee. The dog’s in the car and the weather’s fine. As I pump the gas a man in his black Ford F150 yells out his window about my body. I actually can’t remember what it was. Nice tits. Nice ass. Something I’ve been hearing my whole life. Except sometimes it’s not Nice ass, it’s Big ass or something a bit more cruel. I pretend not to hear him. I pretend my sunglasses hide my whole body. Right then, a man with black hair, who could be an uncle of mine, pulls by in his truck and nods. He’s towing a trailer that’s painted gray with white letters. The letters read: Sacred Objects. I imagine a trailer full of Las Virgens de Guadalupe—concrete, or marble, or wood—all wobbly from their travels. All of these female statues hidden together in this secret shadowed spot on their way to find a place where they’ll be safe, even worshipped, or at the very least allowed to live in the light.

 

Great stuff. A poem every man should read, especially the wonderful line “I pretend my sunglasses hide my whole body,” which originally included the unnecessary add-on, “and I’m made invisible.” The other minor revision I liked was the alliterative change of “secret shadowed place” to “secret shadowed spot.”

May Ada and all women, too, be allowed to live in the light.