poetry books

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Cheating Death (Sort Of…)

jack gilbert

The old axiom has it that writers can cheat death if their words live on. I’m not terribly impressed with the formula because my words don’t experience the five senses as well as I do. If they live on, a lot of good that does me, in other words. And yes, you might say words (and plots and characters and Muses) have a mind of their own, but that’s like arguing that a computer has a mind of its own, too. It sounds good, but it’s a pleasant and popular fallacy.

When I read Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, it was on a train (I always remember books read on trains, especially) and, as you might expect, I felt like I knew the guy quite well. Immortality, right? Cheated death (asterisk, wink, fingers crossed), right? But poor Jack doesn’t know any better. He died in 2012 after 87 good years.

Anyway, back to the book. It was a loan from the Worcester Library and contained a sacrilege. When I reached page 350 (of 384) with supplies and water running low, I noticed a page cleanly ripped out of the book.

Who does such things? What kind of person? Going to the table of contents, I find the answer. The missing poem, starting on the now-ghost page of 351, is called “The Answer.” So someone found an answer, all right, but apparently couldn’t memorize it, so they stole it, and the devil take the rest of us, apparently. The rest of us who are left with “The Question.”

Of course, curiosity piqued, I had to look the missing poem up on the Internet. Why couldn’t the mad ripper have done the same? Is printer toner that expensive? Anyway, here’s what I (and all readers of this library’s book) was missing:

 

“The Answer” by Jack Gilbert

Is the clarity, the simplicity, an arriving
or an emptying out? If the heart persists
in waiting, does it begin to lessen?
If we are always good, does God lose track
of us? When I wake at night, there is
something important there. Like the humming
of giant turbines in the high-ceilinged stations
in the slums. There is a silence in me,
absolute and inconvenient. I am haunted
by the day I walked through the Greek village
where everyone was asleep and somebody began
playing Chopin, slowly, faintly, inside
the upper floor of a plain white stone house.

 

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Immortal Jack. When people say, “You don’t know Jack,” they’re wrong. I got to know his eternal soul well. He likes one-stanza poems. A lot. Mostly on one page, though occasionally on two. None as far as three. So if long poems drive you to distraction because your attention span is shorter than a Dachshund, check out Jack.

Frequently, Jack discusses past loves — wives divorced (Linda Gregg… a poet, too) and wives died (Michiko). He also is a well-traveled guy. Like Virgil, his ghost gave me more than one tour of towns and villages in Greece and Italy and Japan and New England. Also big cities like San Francisco and New York City. Pittsburgh as well. Jack is a Pittsburgh boy, after all.

Like the ancient Chinese and Japanese, he’s heavily invested in nature. And women. Fixated on nipples, too — a word that makes frequent cameos in his work. And life and death, anticipating his immortality, as in the final poem in the book:

 

“Convalescing” by Jack Gilbert

I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
in those stone processions.
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.

 

Jack doesn’t think he has much of a sense of humor, but he’s being modest. The man who totally lacks a sense of humor is rare, indeed (though he sometimes gets elected to the highest public office in the land). Some of the poems have a bemused tone, the kind of thing you hear in any work where writers are trying to figure life out (a poetic pastime). He also writes about writing on more than one occasion. For those who try to write poetry, there’s this “insider” poem:

 

“Doing Poetry” by Jack Gilbert

Poem, you sonofabitch, it’s bad enough
that I embarrass myself working so hard
to get it right even a little,
and that little grudging and awkward.
But it’s afterwards I resent, when
the sweet sure should hold me like
a trout in the bright summer stream.
There should be at least briefly
access to your glamour and tenderness.
But there’s always this same old
dissatisfaction instead.

 

For true immortality, some might say, you need to reach the level of the Bard and such. And remember, some writers seem shoe-ins for immortality when the moods of Fate turn against them. Famous today, not so much tomorrow. T. S. Eliot is famous, but how much is he read anymore? Longfellow was a Victorian giant, but try to find him now.

On a local level, Jack Gilbert is now famous to me. With this many poems read in this fast a succession, you’re bound to find quirks and holes (e.g. if poems are supposed to be “cut to the bone,” then many of Jack’s dodged the butcher’s poetic blade). But overall, it was a man that began to take shape beside me as I read on the train and, later, on the patio under the spring-break sun. It was a life revisited in a world where very few remain.

Immortal? Cheating death? Of a sort. In a way. But it’s the best a writer can do, so let’s celebrate the lie and leave philosophical arguments for the academics.

Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers

hugo

Rules. More rules. Sometimes rules are good, if they’re “of thumb,” I mean. Unlike compulsory ones, rules of thumb can be treated like Pied Pipers or given the Roman emperor thumb.

Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing features essays both memoir-ish and poetry advice-ish, making it catnip for poets at all levels.

Which brings us to “Hugo’s Rules of Thumb for Poetry Writing” (my term for them). Here are a few selected ones from his book. See what you think:

  • Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
  • Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is.
  • Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  • Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.
  • Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.
  • End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.
  • Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.
  • Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” (I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.
  • Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
  • No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
  • Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
  • Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
  • Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence. 
  • The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.

Hugo provides examples and elaboration on some of these rules, but I just wanted to give you a flavor. Interesting, no? And in some cases, almost mathematical in their specificity.

Taking these to my poetry manuscript, you might find some good possibilities and some not-so-good ones. Not using the same subject two sentence in a row? What about anaphora? Maximum sentence length, seventeen words? How will you ever channel Allen Ginsberg? And make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it? In the immortal words of four Beatles I once knew, that’s a hard day’s night.

I do like the idea of posting a poem-in-progress where others can read it, though. On the refrigerator at work, for instance. That ought to get a lot of reads, between the “Who’s hummus is this? It’s been here for two months!” and the “Who took my Noosa black raspberry yogurt?”

Still, The Triggering Town is an intriguing and at times humorous read. Hugo taught at the University of Montana (of all places!). And, sure as his rules seem to be, he is admirably self-deprecating. In Chapter the First, “Writing off the Subject,” he writes:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until your realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go.

Is there a better caveat than that? And so, all thumbs in, one thumb in, or none. As you like it. An advice take-it-or-leave-it guy can do little better than that….

Funeral for a Poem

Sea-Joy-by-Jacqueline-Bouvier-690x490

Sometimes you meet poems in the strangest ways. I still remember how I met C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka.” It was in reading about Jaqueline Kennedy-Onasiss’s funeral. The poem was read at the service by her longtime companion, Maurice Tempelsman.

Some don’t know that Mrs. Kennedy was a great champion of poetry and even wrote her own (read “Sea Joy” in the photo above). Her daughter, Caroline, would grow up to be an admirer of the genre as well, helping to put together a collection that is now out of print but garners high marks on book review sites.

I’ve since explored a lot of Cavafy’s work, but nothing seems to strike me the way this poem does. Using Homer’s Odyssey, the extended metaphor works perfectly. We are all headed toward our own separate Ithakas, and none of us is terribly intent on arriving at our home port. This poem captures the essence of that. “If not the journey, what?” it seems to say.

Here it is, to cheer up your Wednesday. The translation is by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard from “C. P. Cavafy/Collected Poems,” (Princeton University Press, 1992):

 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon — don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind —

as many sensual perfumes as you can,

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her, you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

***

Lost Sherpa of Happiness   contains poems about my journey (Ithaca-free, so far).

Ada Limón’s Stretch Drive

Ada Limón

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, especially in this post-Kavanaugh hearing air, 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.

My Poem in the Sunday Paper (Or: “Extra, Extra, Read All About It!”)

Although poetry is a familiar sight in small literary and university-based journals, it is increasingly rare to find it in larger, more mainstream magazines and newspapers. Meaning? When you do see poems in such widely-distributed periodicals, you cheer its editors and their priorities, which include getting more eyes on more poetry!

Perhaps the most famous example comes each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, which features a regular column dedicated to poetry. 

Another, just up the coast a few miles, comes from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald’s Sunday paper, the Maine Sunday Telegram, where the poet Megan Grumbling edits and introduces the “Deep Water” poetry column each week. In the June 13, 2021, paper, she writes a gracious introduction to my poem, “Core Body Temperature,” which will appear in my third poetry collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, due out in a matter of weeks.

Like many of my poems, the idea stems from a few simple words — in this case, a man who once knelt in a Maine lake, water neck-high, on a scorching hot day and told us he wasn’t coming out until he “lowered his core body temperature.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but both the words and the example surely impressed me, leading to this poem.

 

Diane Seuss & the Sonnet Renaissance

Diane Seuss, whose element is poetry, has found a more refined element still. Sonnets. Or at least something sonnet-like. In her new book, frank: sonnets, she delivers a generous serving of poetry stretching 130 pages long. Not something Petrarch or Shakespeare would recognize, but sonnets nonetheless, at least by modern standards, where poetic licenses can be had with a quick visit to town hall (bring your driver’s license).

What makes a Seussian sonnet? Fourteen lines, mostly. In an interview, Seuss says she holds somewhat to the meter and rhythm clause, too, which is visually evident on each page, what with the line breaks staying close like sled dogs under the command, “Mush!” Voltas can be found, too. It’s Italian for “turn,” and signals a change in the poem’s direction.

Beyond that, though, the sonnets show little resemblance to what we were force-marched through in school. But boy, do they go down easy. Voice in spades. An easy style. A way with words. Each sonnet is double-spaced. Each shows a special knack for naming things – choosing the right specific nouns to help readers visualize just so. Sound devices, too, like alliteration, assonance, consonance. And yes, everyone’s favorite: metaphor in abundance, like roadside daisies.

The design is memoir-like. Seuss mines her past, her childhood, the death of her father. It moves on to her own coming of age, a relationship with a man named Kev, the birth of a child named Dylan. And the man on the cover – Mikel Lindzy – a friend of Seuss’s who would be lost to AIDS during the 80s, plays a role in some poems, as does a man named Frank makes cameos, too.

If you must know what it’s about, then, I’d say “life,” which translates to “pretty much everything.” To quote Traci Brimhall’s blurbed list: “poverty, death, parenthood, addiction, AIDS, and the ‘dangerous business’ of literature.”

Raw? At times. Bittersweet? That, too. Wry and funny? Yes. In short, the narratives and the voice in these sonnets win readers over and make of the them a willing confidant. What’s more, as is true with all good poetry books, once you finish you need not feel lonely (another theme, by the way). You can dive right back in. There are a lot of pearls on the ocean floor, after all, and sometimes you see new and better ones the more you dive.

You don’t have to be from the Show Me state to crave examples, so I’ll offer two no matter what your state of mind. They will give you the gist, I think, and if you’re like me, you’ll like what you see. For that matter, if you’re like me, you’ll say this is one of the stronger poetry collections you’ve read in 2021. And finally, if you’re like me, you’ll rejoice at the rumor that Seuss plans to write another collection of sonnets in the near future.

Like I said: Diane Seuss, whose element is poetry, has found a more refined element still. Sonnets.

 

 

 

All things now remind me of what love used to be. Swollen cattails in lonely

places. Gluey conditioner in my hair. Firm books. Their variegated spines.

Swirl of words like a stirred cocktail, whirled umbilicus, pulsing asterisk.

The past is this: to have been young and desirous and to be those things

no more. In the future the cattails will explode without me. I pray they will

not go unseen. Who will ride the cemetery horse? Incorrigible blond forelocks

blowing in their eyes. The present tense: to take a loveless path is to court

a purple-blue emptiness, like a disco or a grotto. Or the cave where dead bodies

are stored in the winter, when a shovel can’t break through frozen ground.

I have seen such spaces. I have been alone in them. Sound of water lapping.

Animals calling to each other. Echo of my own breath. Smoke pouring

from my mouth in the cold. Memory, interloper in the corner who means to kill,

heavy rock in its hand. And poetry. This poem right now. This one-night stand.

 

 

I fell in love with death, he isn’t mean, his kisses wet and sweet.

Broken pocket watch, strange chain, like an extra in a Western

who appears at the edge of the screen perched atop a lame horse.

Thinness at the hips, the incubator of is breath. Mother tongue

in his mouth. Kinky, but in the most earnest, heartfelt way: he

sucked my fingers while I read him Peter Pan, itself a children’s book

about dead children. His only perversion is innocence, doesn’t try

to ruin Christmas but ruins it anyway, young uncle in the disturbing

T-shirt who just can’t get into the spirit of the holiday. Try, some

female relative whispers in his ear through her lipstick, just try.

He wipes away her kisses, disingenuousness not in his repertoire.

Can’t fake it. If his eyes are hollow it’s because he’s feeling hollow.

If he’s in the mood he calls me at twilight from some meadow,

Describes how the sun digs its own grave, the copper afterglow.

Old Books’ Fountain of Youth? TikTok.

When opportunity knocks, you say “TikTok” and open the door.  The New York Times reports that books released years ago have come on like Lazarus and his pet Phoenix thanks to teenage girls.

“Huh?” you say. The answer (like most, as in “Dr. Oz.” after “Who was Jeopardy‘s most ill-advised guest host?”) lies in cultural happenings of the moment. In a symbol, it’s #BookTok, wherein girls read excerpts from any old book (and books grow old quickly), then cry with the beautiful sadness of it all.

As any husband or boyfriend will tell you, crying is powerful stuff. Teen criers (a modern version of Ye Olde Towne Criers) have taken such books as We Were Liars (published 2014), The Song of Achilles (2012), and The Cruel Prince (2018), returning them to release-date sales status.

For authors with books gathering dust under their beds, this can only mean one thing. (Hint: It does not involve sending review copies to magazines and newspapers or doing readings in front of three socially-distanced mask wearers who left their wallets home.)

That’s right: send copies of your books to the teary girls mentioned in the Times article. Or to your nieces and granddaughters on TikTok. Instructions: Read, cry, record.

Why? Because TikTok, previously the province of teen dance moves, is now the latest publishers’ marketing plan no matter when your book came out.

P.S. If you are a #BookTok reviewer in search of some sad (as in the emotion, not quality) poetry, please hashtag contact me #ASAP for free review copies of my first two collections. I will make your job easier by pre-sticky noting the especially teary ones while supplies (and attached dust bunnies) last.

Don’t look in your rearview mirror now, Amanda Gorman, but here come my new sales numbers now.

Yours, too, if you calibrate your TikTok correctly. Good luck!

Unfurling Ferlinghetti’s Finest

Filling in another hole in the poetry sock, I add Ferlinghetti to the list. Cheating, maybe, by reaching for his “Greatest Poems,” but who’s to say this editor’s (Nancy J. Peters’) choices for “greatest” are actually the greatest? On the savanna of literature, Subjectivity is King of the Beasts (and I ain’t lion).

If you cringed at that pun, you might cringe at a few of Ferlinghetti’s, too, because he wasn’t above dropping them into his poems. Not that he loses points with me for using them. I am a fan. Every time the groaners start acting superior about them, I point to the Bard, who was a master of puns himself, only in his case, said puns were labeled “great literature.”

I would say it’s a funny world, but let’s just say it’s a funny savanna.

If this collection of “greatest hits” was a hamburger, I would be a carb guy. Meaning, the early poems and late poems (buns, if you’re still with me) seemed more entertaining than all the middle protein (burger, medium rare). I would even lean toward the earliest as the better.

Some enjoyable turns of phrases I wrote down in my journal from the early stuff (as is my habit) are the following:

loud dark winter
burnt places of that almond world
poet’s plangent dream
algebra of lyricism
leaf in a pool…lay like an eye winking circles
silence hung like a lost idea
groaning with babies and bayonets under cement skies

No, not show stoppers, but still, enough to snag the eye before the stream of lyricism pulls them loose and continues them on their way.

As for the middle of the sandwich, I was a bit underwhelmed at times. Not much special in the way of metaphor or imagery. Ferlinghetti’s go-to’s seem to be alliteration and assonance, but he was happy to ignore those, too, once he becomes popular (popularity being the Get Out of Jail Free card in Poetry World, that most strange and wonderful and insulated world).

Here, for example, is LF riffing casually (it certainly seems) on underwear, a subject every poet should write about:

Underwear
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I didn’t get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
Everyone wears
some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
wears underwear
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women’s underwear holds things up
Men’s underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can’t do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing—
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
Help!
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults
in the geological sense—
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I’d keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don’t shout

As you can see, Ferlinghetti forgoes periods and commas, though he does employ capitalization, which is more than some modern poets do, and other punctuation marks make cameos, too. Getting edgy, in other words, but not going over the edge.

Overall, a fun poet but, like Frank O’Hara, probably not one to imitate (unless you truly understand the meaning of that sign at the edge of a dark wood, “Imitate at Your Own Risk”).

“I Love So Many Things I Have Never Touched”

grave

This week I read, then reread (a habit I’ve developed when I discover a particularly effective poetry collection), Victoria Chang’s 2020 outing, Obit. I love it when a writer strikes on a good idea, takes it, and runs with it. Chang does exactly that in this book. Below I share the review I wrote for it.

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In her collection Obit, Victoria Chang takes the journalistic standard we call an obituary and puts it through some poetic paces. For most of the book, each poem looks like a column in a newspaper, forgoing stanzas for one tall rectangular block. And while the starting point may be the stroke and death of her father followed by the death of her mother, her poems take matters a step further.

How? The Table of Contents foreshadows how: Title-less poems commemorate her father’s frontal lobe, voice mail, language, the future, civility, privacy, her mother’s lungs, her mother’s teeth, friendships, gait, optimism, ambition, memory, tears, etc. Some of the poems are repeat-obits, including ones for Victoria Chang, the author herself, who feels beleaguered and fundamentally transformed by grief and its effects on who she is.

To give the reader occasional breathers, Chang includes a series of tankas throughout. Then there is Section II: “I Am a Miner. The Light Burns Blue,” where she forsakes the middle tower spaces of the page used for obits and writes poems that expand to the entire page, using white spaces between single words or small clumps of words, forcing the reader to slow down and carefully pick through the wreckage death scatters like so much flotsam and jetsam.

For this to work (and it does), the poet has to be both confident (check) and accomplished (check) with personification. Let’s look, for instance, at Chang’s obituary for Approval:

Approval – died on August 3, 2015
at the age of 44. It died at 7:07 a.m.
How much money will you get was my
mother’s response to everything. She
used to wrap muffins in a napkin at
the buffet and put them in her purse.
I never saw the muffins again. What I
would do to see those muffins again,
the thin moist thread as she pulled the
muffin apart. A photo shows my mother
holding my hand. I was nine. I never
touched her hand again. Until the day
before she died. I love so many things I
have never touched: the moon, a shiver,
my mother’s heart. Her fingers felt like
rough branches covered with plastic. I
trimmed her nails one by one while the
morphine kept her asleep. Her nails
weren’t small moons or golden doors
to somewhere, but ten last words I was
cutting off.

As Chang writes obituaries for abstract things like approval, it gives her time to explore all the feelings that overwhelm her, first while her parents are ill and then while they die, not to mention her grief in the days and months after they die. In that sense, this collection is one long obituary for both her parents and the familiar way of life she had grown accustomed to, only broken down into the form of obituaries.

The form suits Chang’s talents well. It also challenges the reader to consider all the little “deaths” we experience in life, how they change us in big and small ways, and what we notice about them if we take a moment to try. People change, that’s well understood. But seen through this lens, we come to realize that change in life is nothing but a series of little deaths, some planned or expected, many more spontaneous and surprising. Like this book!

“The Stars Are Its Eternal Nuns”

sheep

Reading the new translation of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry, The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro — especially the section called The Keeper of Sheep — has brought reading the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu) to mind.

In poem after poem, the “shepherd poet,” a creation of Pessoa’s imagination, insists that there is no philosophy in his approach, but anti-philosophical attitudes are in themselves a philosophy of sorts, especially when they pile up and reinforce each other in poem after poem.

Let’s dip into The Keeper of Sheep anew, where the poems are numbered, to sample a few showing the simple pastoral writer’s views. These new translations are by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari:

#22

Like someone on a summer’s day opening the door of the house
And peering out, face-first, at the heat of the fields,
Sometimes, suddenly, Nature beats down
On the sum of my senses,
And I feel confused, troubled, trying to understand
I don’t know quite how or what…

But who ever said I should want to understand?
Who told me I needed to understand?

When the summer runs the soft warm hand
Of its breeze over my face,
I have only to feel pleasure because it’s a breeze
Or displeasure because it’s too hot,
And that however I feel it,
The way I feel it, because that is how I feel it, is how I feel it…

#24

What we see of things are the things themselves.
Why would we see one thing if there were another?
Why would seeing and hearing be an illusion
If seeing and hearing are just seeing and hearing?

The essential thing is knowing how to see,
Knowing how to see without thinking,
Knowing how to see when you see,
And not thinking when you see
Nor seeing when you think.

But this (alas for those of us whose soul wears clothes!),
This requires long study,
An apprenticeship in unlearning
And a solitude within the freedom of that convent
Of which the poets say the stars are its eternal nuns
And the flowers devout penitents for a single day,
But where, after all, the stars are just stars
And the flowers are just flowers,
Which is why we see them as stars and flowers.

A Pessoa-through-Caeiro poem holds equal contempt (though ever so gently) for both the scientist who must know why and for the poet who must see or feel something that is not there. That Pessoa uses metaphor himself to make the point is not intended as ironic, it just is.

And if saying something just is and so should just be seen for what it is strikes you as strange, then you, too, require some unlearning. For a good start, you can read all of The Keeper of Sheep.