reading poetry

235 posts

The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

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SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

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Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

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Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

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Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

When Wrong Place & Wrong Time Means Forever

coffee

Gun violence. Poetry. Yes, please, to some sanity. Read Joseph J. Ellis’s book, American Dialogue, where, among other interesting things, he traces the history of the Second Amendment, which was, according to the Founders, all about militias vs. individuals, not that this stops some people in modern-day from rewriting history.

Ellis goes in-depth on how the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia did just that, painting himself, as many others presently do, as a Constitutional “originalist” when he was anything but (that is, if you care, like Ellis, to look at the actual facts from the time of Madison, Jefferson, and Adams).

Once upon a time, even the NRA was a noble organization dedicated to hunting and gun safety. Given the Rambo-style, political leadership that has hijacked it and runs the show today, the NRA of old seems like a quaint fairy tale now, as we read yet another story in the news about senseless shootings in public places.

Why is it that we endure gun violence in society like no other modern nation on earth? Why is it that we endure pain and death and fear? Why is it that we re-elect politicians who offer thoughts and prayers instead of solutions?

The poet Lia Purpura gives these questions some thought in ways that most of us would rather not. We read her poem “Proximities” and realize that we all have lines we could retrace in our every day lives — from last year, last month, or even yesterday at a coffee shop, in a movies theater, at a night club, or in a school.

This is true whether you are a law-abiding gun owner (and I know many) or not. It’s being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a quirk of fate that no citizen, no matter what his political stripes, should be subject to. As Purpura puts it, quite simply, “It’s never a joke / to walk in or out of a shop / unharmed.”

Here’s praying for practical solutions, then, ones that will address the issues while still respecting the rights of hunters and other gun owners who are all about gun safety, not blocking common sense legislation to protect Americans from routine gun violence. It would require profiles in courage from unexpected places (Congress), but I’m convinced it can be done. It has to, or else matters will only gets worse…

 

“Proximities”
by Lia Purpura

A man walks into a coffee shop.
But it’s not a joke.
I bought coffee there
last summer.
Small, with milk.
It’s never a joke
to walk in or out of a shop
unharmed. It’s easy
to forget
you aren’t a person
being shot at.
I’m not.
I wasn’t, though
I was there,
last summer.
Not-shot-at
and I never knew it.
Did not once
think it.
Thinking it now
the moment thins,
it sheers,
and I move back to
other coffee shops
where I never fell, or bled,
and then
I sit for a while
with my regular cup
and feel things collapse
or go on, I can’t tell.

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death

cellar-stairs

Fringe. Niche. Eccentric.

These are words you might hear when people describe poets or poetry in general, at least in the States. Thing is, the joke’s on them (or at least in their mirrors). Why? Because everyone’s a poet, or at least was at one time.

As proof, my favorite 2 minute and 37 second video to share with students is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me.” Before reading a found poem wholly consisting of things her son said when he was 2- and 3-years-old, she shares what William Stafford once said when someone asked, “When did you become a poet?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question. The question is, when did you STOP being a poet? We’re all poets when we’re little. Some of us just try to keep up the habit.”

A little logic tells us, then, that the kid in all of us is the poet in all of us. It’s kind of like Halloween. You never quite get it out of your system. Now #2 behind Christmas in retail sales, October 31st has practically been taken over by adults who want to play dress up and “trick or treat” (without the door-to-door nonsense), too.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a party animal, then, you should take note: It’s the ordinary that should scare you to death.

What if I asked you to write something scary, for instance? Too often, when writers set out to scare readers, they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Fox News talking heads by any measure of time.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child (whether you’re age 50 or 12). As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack little kids have for seeing malevolence in the ordinary, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than a house’s basement.

Don’t believe me? Close your eyes a moment and conjure the basement of the house you grew up in. In my case, there was a rec room of no account on one side and then the unfinished side: concrete floor, washer/dryer, sump pump, oil tank, furnace, and that all important basement prop, “thing that goes bump in the night.” I can recall many a nightmare where various horrors came through the door separating these two sections.

But let’s move on to a good example of how basements tap can into our inner child mentality (and therefore our poetic imagination). It appears in the late poet Thomas Lux’s poem,  “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen. As it’s only three 9-line stanzas, let’s take a look:

      Cellar Stairs
      by Thomas Lux

      It’s rickety down to the dark.
      Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
      on your left and want to slash your throat,
      but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
      On a shelf above, tools: shears,
      three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
      poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
      halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
      you don’t want to fall face first into,

      no, you don’t. To your right,
      a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
      on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
      on a bad. Against the wall,
      on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
      together, no pair, as if the dead
      went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
      which is down these steps,
      at the bottom of which is a swollen,

      humming, huge white freezer
      big enough for many bodies—
      of children, at least. And this
      is where you’re sent each night
      for the frozen bag of beans
      or peas or broccoli
      that lies beside the slab
      of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
      each countless childhood meal your last.

      “Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. Heck with masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, people are killed every day by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs.

My advice, if it’s scares you’re after? Put down your remote and channel your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job — as a writer, as a poet, and as an aficionado of Halloween — is to make them thrum. Basements, attics, crawlspaces, closets, the one room people tend to avoid.

After that, scare yourself even more. Try reading some poetry. Or scare ME by writing a short poem about your cellar and sending it my way. I promise it will not be shared here or any other place, like behind the furnace.

See you later. I’m going to the cellar for a ball-peen hammer and some ideas I’ve been toying with.

 

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

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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.