poetry books

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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.

***********************************************************************

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.

“To Love Is the First Innocence”

pessoa

“You just don’t think!”

As a child, I often heard these words, usually from one of my parents, sometimes from a teacher, but always as a reprimand. Nowadays, however, I see some merit in not thinking — at least in certain situations.

Thinking too much can get you in trouble. Some people fail to keep matters simple because they overthink. Other people inadvertently open the door to depression because they think too much. Reading the news? Following politics? Worrying, worrying, worrying? All symptoms of thinking too much.

Yesterday I started reading the new translation of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari, The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro. 

If you know Pessoa, you know that he had numerous heteronyms and that the bucolic Alberto Caeiro was one of them. This was a poet Pan could enjoy, a simple man who took simple pleasures by way of his senses only. As the operative words are not to think but just to be, you’d think Caeiro would make a good Buddhist, but he professed no philosophy whatsoever. Even that would be overthinking matters.

Poem #2 of the 114 in this edition lays it out. Caeiro is going to make like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and just absorb the sun and the rain. Of course, reading on, you realize it’s a deception. A lot of thought indeed goes into what follows. By way of Caeiro, Pessoa was a notorious revisionist, and although he won’t say “writing is thinking,” it is and he is first and foremost a practitioner.

Still, as he states in Poem #1, Caeiro wants only “to be a little lamb / (Or to be the whole flock / And wander over the entire hillside / And be many happy things at the same time).”

Poem #2 of The Keeper of Sheep by Alberto Caeiro
(heteronym of Fernando Pessoa)

In my gaze, everything is clear as a sunflower.
I’m in the habit of going for walks along the roads,
Looking to the right and to the left,
And now and then looking back…
And what I see at each moment
Is something I’ve never seen before,
And I’m very good at that…
I know how to feel the profound astonishment
A child would feel if, on being born,
He realized that he truly had been born…
I feel newborn with every moment
To the complete newness of the world…

I believe in the world as in a daisy
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it
Because to think is to not understand…
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(Thinking is a sickness of the eyes)
But for us to look at it and to be at one…

I have no philosophy: I have senses…
If I talk about Nature, that isn’t because I know what it is,
But because I love it, and that’s why I love it,
Because whoever loves never knows what he loves
Nor why he loves, not what it means to love…
To love is the first innocence,
And the only true innocence is not to think…

“Lit Windows Painting Yellow Rothkos on the Water”

good bones

Late to the party (per usual), I found Maggie Smith’s poetry collection, Good Bones. Reading it, I found themes that resonated with me, especially the fascination with time and how it manifests in the form of poems touching on past, present, and future. Other topics she dwells on include childhood, motherhood, marriage, nature, and love.

For a representative piece, I give you “Twentieth Century,” which originally appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review. Like most centuries (thanks to humans), the Twentieth was pretty ugly, but memory plays interesting tricks, chief among them the propensity to sift out bad and magnify good. Maybe it’s a survival instinct.

See what happens when Smith personifies the Twentieth Century, directly addressing it. The poem has a confessional tone, almost like something out of a diary, something intended for the author’s eyes only but found by another reader, who can’t help but read it.

Twentieth Century
Maggie Smith

I must have missed the last train out of this gray city.
I’m scrolling the radio through shhhhhh. The streetlamps

fill with light, right on time, but no one is pouring it in.
Twentieth Century, you’re gone. You’re tucked into

a sleeping car, rolling to god-knows-where, and I’m
lonely for you. I know it’s naïve. But your horrors

were far away, and I thought I could stand them.
Twentieth Century, we had a good life more or less,

didn’t we? You made me. You wove the long braid
down my back. You kissed me in the snowy street

with everyone watching. You opened your mouth a little
and it scared me. Twentieth Century, it’s me, it’s me.

You said that to me once, as if I’d forgotten your face.
You strung me out until trees seemed to breathe,

expanding and contracting. You played “American Girl”
and turned it up loud. You said I was untouchable.

Do you remember the nights at Alum Creek, the lit
windows painting yellow Rothkos on the water?

Are they still there, or did you take them with you?
Say something. I’m here, waiting, scrolling the radio.

On every frequency, someone hushes me. Is it you?
Twentieth Century, are you there? I thought you were

a simpler time. I thought we’d live on a mountain
together, drinking melted snow, carving hawk totems

from downed pines. We’d never come back. Twentieth
Century, I was in so deep, I couldn’t see an end to you.

Truth is, everything is “a simpler time” when it has the advantage of living in the past. In the wrong hands, this can even be used for nefarious purposes (think: “Make America Great Again”). But in the right hands, it can strike a wistful tone illustrated by a montage of realistic images. Kisses in a snowy street. Opening the mouth a little. Lit windows painting “yellow Rothkos on the water.”

If you, too, are a product of the Twentieth Century, what belongs to the speaker becomes partly yours. Because the century of your birth is capable of two-timing more than one person.

Thus the appeal of poetry — how it is individual yet universal at the same time.

First-Person Point of Dock

dock

Here in Maine, we are in the very heart of what I call Dock Days — mornings and afternoons where you simply while away time on the smooth, sun-struck slats of a dock jutting over a lake.

After a brief heat wave, more reasonable weather has come in. The humidity went to Miami for a few days. The heat signed a cease fire, agreeing to be agreeable, to be more “Maine-like” for the time being.

Dock Days inspired a poem once. I dug it out for a reread yesterday. It’s one of those poems written last for a manuscript (which would become Lost Sherpa of Happiness). One that never had a chance to play the markets and look for a home in some poetry journal.

I often like these orphans best. Never accepted anywhere, but never rejected, either. They just “are,” which is the perfect metaphor for whiling away hours on a dock, like you did when you were a kid and time held nothing against you.

 

From a Dock on a Maine Lake
Ken Craft

Lying here, side of my head resting
on the crook of right arm and gazing
from the grotto of my right eye,
I hear the water and see the creased
dam of my left elbow, the occasional bird
flying through its wild blond grasslands.

The left eye, though. It peers over
the tanned levee, sees the high gold-shot
lake—so high it threatens
to flood and marl the east shore
where clear sky, punctured by treeline,
seeps anemic blue to airy bone.

Shifting to my back I get the sky’s
gas-flame blue scribed by pine and maple
treetops, the firmament a forgotten
language from first-person point of boy.

And my God, the wind! Needles and leaves
nodding like anxious ponies,
wagging like old ladies’ heads
at green gossip. Trees exhaling a ropey
poem of clouds. White thoughts, broken
words, startled birds put to flight. They flock,
elongate, twist and split open like smoky time
seeking its own shore to roost.

“As If Death Were Nowhere in the Background”

lee

I just finished reading Li-Young Lee’s now 34-year old collection, Rose. Reading a collection of poetry wall to wall brings out certain themes and stylistic quirks. For one, Lee trades in plain language only. He is rooted in family and the quotidian rhythms of life. His verse is also infused with nature: Fruit. Vegetables. Flowers.

There’s a thread of sadness in many of these poems, too, as if the family and love and desire all go on despite the presence of death. As the last stanza of his poem “From Blossoms” puts it:

 

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

 

Here is a representative poem by Lee. Note how the first and last stanza form bookends for the poem’s reflections on a mother and a father. It all seems almost too simple for a poem, but simplicity is the stuff of Lee’s work — and he makes it work well.

 

 

Early in the Morning
Li-Young Lee

While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.

She sits on the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
against hair.

My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.

But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.