reading poetry

234 posts

When It Comes to Books, You’re Probably Too Fast and Too Far-Flung

Chances are you eat too fast. And buy food from very far away (which is next to Fiji, I believe). And financially feed the profits of some incredibly huge corporations, be they retail (Amazon, 24 billion in 2020, as an example), Big Food (Cargill, 115 billion, for another), or Big Pharma (Pfizer, 42 billion, and I could go on) .

Is it any wonder things like the Buy Local and the Slow Food movements came on the scene like Davids without their slingshots? In the case of slow food, the basic tenet is a throwback: People (especially families) should sit at the table together every day, break bread, eat their food slowly, and talk to each other. 

No televisions. No electronics on or within reach. Just speaking, listening, and slowly savoring (vs. inhaling) a home-cooked meal — a talent most of us lost somewhere along the line.

Then there’s the Buy Local Movement, which gave rise to farmers’ markets, which in turn gave hope to The Little Farmers That Could (and DID, but it took a village).

Turning these admirable trends to literature, you might ask yourself this as a reader: Why don’t more readers (or people who want to read more) subscribe to the Slow Reading Movement. Or how about the Read Local (as in someone you know, either well or virtually) trend?

Poetry offers unique answers to both questions because poetry is a unique animal. As Randall Jarrell once wrote: “Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure — i.e. that he is difficult, i.e. that he is neglected — they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.”

Think about it. Reading novels — which the majority of readers do — is often a race. You “inhale” your entertainment and turn pages in the name of that golden calf, Plot. Speed means page-turner means reader pleasure.

Chances are pretty good, too, that you financially feed the bottom line of the equivalent of large literary corporations (“Big Lit,” if you will — or even if you won’t): Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, et al.

If only more readers would diversify by mixing a little poetry into their reading regime. Poetry requires different reading skills than novels do. With different rewards, too. You need to slow down, first of all. Savor words and white space. Reread in the name of “How did the poet do that?”

Unlike a novel, which you might reread five or ten years from now if you truly loved it, you can no sooner finish a 100-page poetry collection then set to rereading it again, start to finish. You won’t just notice one or two new things on the second voyage, I assure you. It’s like being a driver the first time and a passenger the second — you see a lot more scenery coming back. 

Some things you may notice include sound devices that are music to your ears, metaphors that you first skimmed over, or multiple word meanings which, at first glance, you never considered. Or how about a rhythm equivalent to a favorite song’s. Or imagery that brings good old Kodak to mind. Or even unlikely word pairings — words you’ve never seen together that, after some thought, belong together.

Nice? Nice!

And what of “reading local”? For decades we paid no mind to the farmer in town beyond maybe mooing at his cows (irresistible!) as we drove by those big, doleful-eyed cuties along the fence. Now, despite realizing we can’t get EVERYthing we need from this farmer, we sure can savor the limited (and still growing) specialties his farm has to offer.

Read Local means taking a flyer on the writers you know or have heard of but Archie in Oshkosh has not. The up-and-comers who are where the large literary “corporations” stood themselves once upon a time. (Yes, Virginia, there once was an unknown writer named Stephen “Who?” King.)

Without the spirit of a Slow Reader Movement and a Read Local Movement, literary grassroots turn brown and die from lack of attention. Farming is work, and without support from the locals, small farmers go under and are forced to stop production.

Writing is work, too. Few realize it, but months and often years of writing and revision go into any finished product — the book you can hold in your hand. Like farming, writing is a business we don’t consider a business. And like farming, to reach the next level, it needs leaps of faith on the part of the locals. 

A poem that falls in the wilderness, after all, is heard by no one. Even if no one has an imagination like Emily Dickinson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — too?)

The silver lining to this advice? Diversifying your reading, like mixing up your buying and exercising habits, will make you a better person. An eclectic person! (That’s Greek for “fascinating.”)

As Robert Frost would say: 

Whose readers these are I think I know.
Their house is in my village though;
They may not see me writing here
For the sake of their reading, you know.

OK, so I left out the snow. And I’m only pretty sure Frost would write that. On a slow day. In a good mood. While thinking about “books less traveled by.”

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Look Back

eurydice

Stories like this are our lot in life. Don’t look back, whether it be religion or mythology. The Buddhists would approve, I suppose, though I’m not sure looking forward would be any better in their eyes.

Still, there’s something about the story of Eurydice and Orpheus that gets to the heart of the matter. Death. Second chances. The type deal even Lazarus could love. But can you trust yourself to trust others? Even the God of the Underworld?

As Karl Marx didn’t say, music is the opiate of the masses, and certainly Orpheus put some religion in people, from Hades to his seasonal bride Persephone to a host of lesser gods and nymphs. As the Bard would have it (at least, on the Twelfth Night of things): “If music be the food of love, play on!”

Anyway, to be a poet with chops, you compose your version of a subject many before have trodden. Penned your ars poetica already? How about a Greek myth? How about one that wraps death in love like bacon ’round baby hot dogs? Eurydice will do, as well as any.

Looking at Ocean Vuong’s entry, “Eurydice,” you might make a game of the allusions he offers. Sound is there (check) as is a “hole / in the garden” (check). But we have “the rib’s / hollowed hum,” too, bringing matters Adamic to mind.

There’s also the matter of “where you stand” here. In the myth, to heighten drama, Orpheus is right at the portal of hell and earth, his love just approaching the threshold, when he gives in to his oh-so-human weakness for curiosity and doubt. Cue the Greek Chorus singing “You. Idiot.”

What’s most unusual about the OV version, though, is the ending. Orpheus calls for the girl, but she is still “beside him. Frosted grass / snapping beneath her hooves.”

Really? Are we horsing around here? Or is it cloven hooves, as in Jack Scratch the Devil? The allusions begin to swirl like cotton candy around a paper cone, sometimes pink and sometimes blue but always remarkably like insulation.

I don’t know. Sometimes giving up or remaining on the outside of meaning looking in is the peace we forge. Between writer and reader, a house divided will never stand, they say, but how long can you go through life trusting “they”?

Give a listen:

 

Eurydice
by Ocean Vuong

It’s more like the sound
a doe makes
when the arrowhead
replaces the day
with an answer to the rib’s
hollowed hum. We saw it coming
but kept walking through the hole
in the garden. Because the leaves
were bright green & the fire
only a pink brushstroke
in the distance. It’s not
about the light—but how dark
it makes you depending
on where you stand.
Depending on where you stand
his name can appear like moonlight
shredded in a dead dog’s fur.
His name changed when touched
by gravity. Gravity breaking
our kneecaps just to show us
the sky. We kept saying Yes—
even with all those birds.
Who would believe us
now? My voice cracking
like bones inside the radio.
Silly me. I thought love was real
& the body imaginary.
But here we are—standing
in the cold field, him calling
for the girl. The girl
beside him. Frosted grass
snapping beneath her hooves.

How Voice Escorts Us into the “Interior of the World”

voice2.jpg

It seems fitting that Tony Hoagland’s farewell book to the world would tackle the concept of voice. If any poet knew of what he spoke, Hoagland was the man. Whether you read his poems or his sage essays about poems or writing poetry, you “heard” Hoagland and felt as if you were lucky to have found an open seat in his seminar.

The last seminar you can attend is The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. The posthumous collection of essays stands as a short, “Hey, wait a minute,” on the matter of hard and fast rules about poetry writing. Chief among them? Your poetry must be as concise as possible to succeed.

The old adages sound logical, but Strunk and White weren’t poets, either. What about voice? With due diligence, Hoagland demonstrates that voice often requires colloquialisms, idioms, asides, etc. — the stuff that leavens our daily speech.

If executed with purpose, voice quickly bonds writer with reader, who is more than willing to forgive linguistic excess in exchange for a temporary soul mate capable of providing an insight or two on the world.

Hoagland provides many examples of poems, some complete and others frustratingly not, to back up his words. Here’s an excerpt he uses from Lisa Lewis’s poem, “While I’m Walking”:

Once I saw a man get mad because two people asked him
The same question. The second didn’t even know of the
first;
Anyone would’ve called the man unfair, unreasonable,
He stormed at the person who approached him
That unfortunate second time, and it was nothing,
Where’s the restroom? or Where could I find a telephone?
He was a clerk, and the second person, a shopper,
suggested
He “change his attitude”…

But though it ruined their day it improved mine, I could rest
Less alone in anger and wounded spirits. That was long ago,…

Hoagland comments, “Lewis’s plain linguistic style might be described as ‘prosaic,’ that is, verbose and unpoetic, yet it compels us because her speaker tells more truth than we usually get, and she does so with a bluntness that tests the conventions of decorum. Lewis is a narrative-discursive poet in style, not a poet of lyrical language, but there is a rhythmic, businesslike terseness in her storytelling and thinking that is riveting in is purposeful informality. Her speaker captivates us for the duration of whatever she wants to say. That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us deep into the interior of the poem, which is also the interior of the poet, which is also the interior of the world.

“In a world where, socially, we often feel stranded on the surface of appearances, people go to poems for the fierce, uncensored candor they provide, the complex, unflattering, often ambivalent way they stare into the middle of things. In a world where, as one poet says, ‘people speak to each other mostly for profit,’ it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.”

And so the book leaves practitioners with an oxymoron of sorts. For voice, the poet must practice her intimacy, plan her informality, execute her natural voice for a casually-preconceived cause.

There are some writing exercises at the back of the book, if you wish. And some reader-writers will dive in. But others, like me, will find the book’s encouragement enough. Rereading a 168-page book is an exercise of sorts, too.

Either way, you’ll leave the book realizing that there are more angles than you thought to “voice,” and more “types” of voice, too, such as “speech registers” and “imported voices” and “voices borrowed from the environment.”

Bottom line? Strunk and White were fine for your college freshmen writing course, but maybe not for your poems. Perhaps it’s time to make like Pygmalion and give voice to your art.

A Poem Should Be…

macleish

Ars Poetica. According to both Merriam and Webster, it means “a treatise on the art of literary and especially poetic composition.” And strictly speaking, in the Dead Language (that’s Latin to you), it means “the art of poetry.”

Many poems carry this title, and it is considered a rite of passage to write your own Ars Poetica. Thus, if you count yourself a poet and haven’t written one, you should. I know, I know. What a pain in the ars.

So to start, think of this: What should a poem be?

Done? OK. Then here’s better advice: Think of what a poem should not be. Chances are, brainstorming this way will lead you to thoughts most no one else has had while parsing and arsing this fabled beast called poetry.

Don’t believe me? Check out Archibald MacLeish’s go at it:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

 

I don’t know about you, but I like this definition of poetry. As the Beatles (or what’s left of them) like to say: “Let it be.”

And if you’re looking for deeper meaning, find a beach and pound sand. Archie’s having too much fun telling us what poetry isn’t. Or maybe what it is but no one in their right mind ever would have guessed it is (poetry being for left minds, as you know).

Got it? Then good luck and get writing.

 

 

Smart Poets Pay Attention to the Asterisk

*

In the back of every issue of the august (for some reason it’s always the dog days) issue of Poetry magazine is a list of contributors to that issue. Me, I pay attention to the asterisked names, for the little star denotes “First appearance in Poetry.”

Each time you submit your babies (read: humble, home-hewn poems) to a poetry journal or e-zine, the guidelines beg you to read sample issues of that journal to understand the type of work they publish.

My asterisk to that plea (in Poetry, anyway)? Take special note of the first-timers. For, unlike the veterans and well-knowns, they crashed the (august, did I mention?) gates on their poetry’s own merits. Period.

For example, from the September 2019 issue, I give you Amy Woolard, whose bio in the contributor sections reads “is a legal aid attorney living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her debut poetry collection, Neck of the Woods, received the 2018 Alice James Prize and is forthcoming in 2020.”

Legal aid attorney? I rather like that, as it casts shades of good old Wallace Stevens sunlighting as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut, each day before going home to count blackbirds and crown emperors of ice-cream.

Laura Palmer, from what I researched, is a pivotal character in the old Twin Peaks TV series once upon a time. She lived a classical good and bad double life and died young. The secrets attached to her would subsequently turn her home town inside out (and drive some nice Nielsen ratings while they were at it).

 

“Laura Palmer Graduates”
Amy Woolard

I can’t love them if their hands aren’t all tore up
From something, guitar strings, kitchen knives & grease

Burns, heaving the window ACs onto their crooked old
Sills come June. Fighting back. That porchlight’s browned

Inside with moth husks again & I can’t climb a ladder
To save my life, i.e., the world spins. Even when it’s lit,

It’s half ash. Full-drunk under a half-moon & I’m dazed
We’re all still here. Most of us, least. For the one & every

Girl gone, I sticker gold stars behind my front teeth so
I can taste just how good we were. I swear I can’t

Love them if they can’t fathom why an unlit ambulance
On a late highway means good luck. I hold my cigarette-

Smoking arm upright like I’m trying to keep blood
From rushing to a cut. What’s true is my shift’s over &

I’m here with you now & I’m wrapped up tight
On the steps like a top sheet like the morning paper

Before it’s morning. Look up & smile. What does it matter
That the stars we see are already dead. If that’s the case well

Then the people are too. Alive is a little present I
Give myself once a day. Baby, don’t think I won’t doll

Up & look myself fresh in the eyes, in the vermilion
Pincurl of my still heart & say: It’s happening again.

 

So, there. Newbie work to compare your own to and for a very good reason: it’s a realistic standard and an appropriate goal. I like the “moth husks” and the “gold stars behind my front teeth” and the “unlit ambulance on a late highway” meaning good luck, among other things. Lots of concise imagery throughout.

Take it (and other newcomers’ work in various poetry markets) as encouragement, then. With enough discipline, you too will graduate.

Poems That End with a Question

dunn

On June 24th, his 82nd birthday, Poetry World lost a big one in Stephen Dunn.. This post features his poem “The Inheritance,” which shows one of his many talents — ending poems with a question.

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Let’s hear it for poems that end with a question. Reason? Questions are more fun than statements. Questions better reflect life, which is, after all, nothing but a big question mark. Good question makers are much more inspiring to be around and to talk to than big pronouncement types who hit us with their ego-driven blah, blah, blahs like so many blasts of hubris in a growing balloon.

Last time out I discussed a New Yorker poem that gave me pause like so many big-glossy-winning poetic efforts do. You know, the type poem that has you saying, “Really?” to some imaginary editor with an imaginary dream job.

Today, though, I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him (move over Mark Antony). The Sept. 4, 2017, issue serves up a breezy philosophical piece by old friend Stephen Dunn, a poem that ends on a question that, like every good question, leaves you thinking. Have a look, why don’t you:

“The Inheritance”
by Stephen Dunn
 
You shouldn’t be surprised that the place
you always sought, and now have been given,
carries with it a certain disappointment.
Here you are, finally inside, and not a friend
in sight. The only gaiety that exists
is the gaiety you’ve brought with you,
and how little you had to bring.
The bougainvillea outside your front window,
like the gardener himself, has the look
of something that wants constant praise.
And the exposed wooden beams,
once a main attraction, now feel pretentious,
fit for someone other than you.
But it’s yours now and you suspect
you’ll be known by the paintings you hang,
the books you shelve, and no doubt
you need to speak about the wallpaper
as if it weren’t your fault. Perhaps that’s why
wherever you go these days
vanity has followed you like a clownish dog.
You’re thinking that with a house like this
you should throw a big party and invite
a Nick Carraway and ask him to bring
your dream girl, and would he please also
referee the uncertainties of the night?
You’re thinking that some fictional 
characters can be better friends
than real friends can ever be.
For weeks now your dreams have been
offering you their fractured truths.
You don’t know how to inhabit them yet,
and it might cost another fortune to find out.
Why not just try to settle in,
take your place, however undeserved,
among the fortunate? Why not trust 
that almost everyone, even in 
his own house, is a troubled guest?

 

Very cool, don’t you think? Especially if you consider your mind a “house” of sorts. We are all troubled guests in our short durations here, and just when we think we’ve stumbled upon the key to happiness, we are disabused of the notion in swift fashion.

Some people, for instance, think the key to happiness is a new start, as in moving away. They quickly discover, however, that you can’t move away from yourself. That “house” we call a mortal coil moves with you.

Money? An inheritance? It is to laugh. In that sense, Dunn’s poem is a cautionary laugh, a troubled, how-did-this-happen laugh.

I don’t know about you, but I like troubled poems, ones with furrowed brows, ones that finish in a questioning tone. It’s as if the poet brings up a problem in life and then hands it off. “Here,” he seems to say, giving it over like a meditation bead, “why don’t you chew this over for a bit.”

And so, we’re left with bougainvilleas and Carraway-less dreams that gently disturb us. Isn’t that what good poetry ending in questions do? Isn’t that one thing we ask of them?

The Importance of a Poem’s Title

climb

When unlocking a poem’s meaning, titles are one of the first “must considers” of your process. The wonderful trouble is, a poem’s title is often more than meets the eye. That’s OK, though. Even desirable. Poetry titles that hold multiple meanings are always satisfying to a reader. Even two will do. I’ve been poking around the 700-plus pages of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965 – 2010 and came across a good example:

 

climbing
Lucille Clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.         i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.

 

There’s climbing (literal) and then there’s climbing (theoretical). Certainly it works on a literal level, but poet and reader easily agree that “climbing” has something to do with desires, wishes, cravings.

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths would warn the speaker off these desires because it only leads to suffering. That and the minor fact that every desire achieved is a temporary state, thus becoming yet another desire leading to yet another state of dissatisfaction. Thus we get the line “maybe i should have wanted less” twice, signifying its importance to the poem’s theme.

Heck with maybes. Certainly we should all desire less. And certainly we’re better off when not comparing ourselves to others (braids, clothes, or whatever), because the ever-changing game is one that never ends.

Our speaker, then, is gaining wisdom of a sort. The kind that comes with age. Speaking of, the capitalized “Sixty” could well be the age ahead. Clifton published this poem in 1992, putting her at around 56 years young, so you can connect the dots and see the speaker’s personal struggle. What struggle specifically? Against “the bowl in me / burning to be filled.”

You might think the last line, “hand over hungry hand,” with its lovely alliteration, signifies that the struggle goes on to become the woman climbing ahead, but it depends which woman ahead you mean.

If that woman is a wiser version of the narrator herself, then yes. The struggle is not for material goods or a physical look or a return to the desire or the dreams of youth. Instead, it is for the ability and discipline to understand the foolhardy nature of these desires, or what some might call a more enlightened state.

As for the reader? Good to know, we think, as we scale our own challenging mountains.

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 Cut Off My Head and Threw It in the Sky”

war of foxes

Poets point the way to poets point the way to poets. This is a corollary of Gertrude Stein’s famous “Rose is a rose is a rose,” a.k.a. “Three ways to hit readers over the head with a dictionary.”

Anyway, while reading Victoria Chang’s Obit, I noted in her acknowledgments that one poem was inspired by a poem in Richard Siken’s collection, War of the Foxes. On Victoria’s recommendation, I found the book and started reading.

Still early on, but let’s look at a Siken poem that looks at painting in an interesting way. What if a man walks through a landscape? And what if we blur the line between artwork and life? We get something like this, which I offer as your “thought of the day.”

Oh. And don’t forget to tell people that you read this via Chang to Siken to Craft.

Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede

Richard Siken

I cut off my head and threw it in the sky. It turned
into birds. I called it thinking. The view from above—
untethered scrutiny. It helps to have an anchor
but your head is going somewhere anyway. It’s a matter
of willpower. O little birds, you flap around and

make a mess of the milk-blue sky—all these ghosts
come streaming down and sometimes I wish I had
something else. A redemptive imagination, for
example. The life of the mind is a disappointment,
but remember what stands for what. We deduce

backward into first causes—stone in the pond of things,
splash splash—or we throw ourselves into the future.
We all move forward anyway. Ripples in all directions.
What is a ghost? Something dead that seems to be
alive. Something dead that doesn’t know it’s dead.

A painting, for instance. An abstraction. Cut off your
head, kid. For all the good it’ll do ya
. I glued my head back
on. All thoughts finish themselves eventually. I wish
it were true. Paint all the men you want but sooner or
later they go to ground and rot. The mind fights the

body and the body fights the land. It wants our bodies,
the landscape does, and everyone runs the risk of
being swallowed up. Can we love nature for what it
really is: predatory? We do not walk through a passive
landscape. The paint dries eventually. The bodies

decompose eventually. We collide with place, which
is another name for God, and limp away with a
permanent injury. Ask for a blessing? You can try,
but we will not remain unscathed. Flex your will
or abandon your will and let the world have its way

with you, or disappear and save everyone the bother
of a dark suit. Why live a life? Well, why are you
asking? I put on my best shirt because the painting
looked so bad. Color bleeds, so make it work for you.
Gravity pulls, so make it work for you. Rubbing

your feet at night or clutching your stomach in the
morning. It was illegible—no single line of sight,
too many angles of approach, smoke in the distance.
It made no sense. When you have nothing to say,
set something on fire. A blurry landscape is useless.

“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!