3 posts

A “Wow” Poem Is Born

If you said a beautiful poem could be written about the beautifully messy process of giving birth, I’d say, “I’d like to see you try.”

Enter Kevin Young’s wow poem (as I call poems that bowl me over), “Crowning.” I’ve read it dozens of times, often aloud, often just to enjoy the sound devices that come in lovely waves like contractions.

It’s all there: alliteration, assonance, consonance. And colors. And words shifting their part of speech to allow for passage of the baby: “purpled power” and “crocused into air.”

A poem is born! The reader can do nothing but step back, offer congratulations, and say, “Wow! I wish I’d written that!”


Kevin Young

Now that knowing means nothing,
now that you are more born
than being, more awake
than awaited, since I’ve seen
your hair deep inside mother,
a glimpse, grass in late
winter, early spring, watching
your mother’s pursed, throbbing,
purpled power, her pushing
you for one whole hour, two,
almost three, almost out,
maybe never, animal smell
and peat, breath and sweat
and mulch-matter, and at once
you descend, or drive, are driven
by mother’s body, by her will
and brilliance, by bowel,
by wanting and your hair
peering as if it could see, and I saw
you storming forth,
taproot, your cap of hair half
in, half out, and wait, hold
it there, the doctors say, and
she squeezing my hand, her face
full of fire, then groaning your face
out like a flower, blood-bloom,
crocused into air, shoulders
and the long cord still rooting
you to each other, to the other
world, into this afterlife
among us living, the cord
I cut like an iris, pulsing,
then you wet against mother’s chest
still purple, not blue, not yet
red, no cry,
warming now, now opening
your eyes midnight
blue in the blue black dawn.

“The Water Turned Her Skin Sky.”

While reading the November 2019 issue of Poetry, I came across a poem that lends a bit of magical realism to its grammar. Though some readers might object to using words in unusual ways, I find it refreshing to read and one of the chief joys of poetry.

The poem is “América” by Sarah María Medina, a newcomer to the magazine whose work has appeared in Prelude, Black Warrior Review, and Poetry Northwest. I will only share the first third or so of the poem to illustrate a few moves that look simple but are actually not (if you’re the one trying to think of them, anyway).

Alas, the HTML does not allow me to reflect the visual aspects of the poem, as each line is indented by various degrees in double-spaced succession. See if you can pick out the words that come across as more “poetic” than most:


From “América” by Sarah María Medina

The river was deep & wide.
Wild girls grew along
the riverbanks. Wild strawberries grew
among the wet grass. A girl tramped barefoot.
Her tips arrowed. The tracks wept
in the distance. She scavenged
wild strawberries. The river water stung her mouth.
The water turned her skin sky. Alone
the girl knelt to sift water
through her fingers. There was once a dock
with a wooden boat. Once a general.
Once a sister. Once a mother who hid
behind the general. Once a machete.
Once a girl who swallowed salt.
She held the resonance of chromatic
harmony. The quiet of faded mist…


The first unusual word is “arrowed” in L5. Arrow is a well-known noun, but less often seen as a verb. That said, Merriam-Webster provides three definitions of “arrow” when used as a verb, the first being the intransitive version, “to move fast and straight like an arrow in flight.”

What I like about the usage is its subject “tips.” This word immediately brings arrows to mind, even though it is referencing the tips of the girl’s feet. Good poetry enlists words in refreshing ways. It gives the reader pause, and any time a reader pauses for a good reason, the poem can be said to be “working.”

Directly thereafter we get “The tracks wept / in the distance.” (L5/6)  Personification works best when it works twice. Yes, it is a poetic device, and yes, we don’t often think of tracks as weeping, but when you consider looking back at your own tracks over any damp grounds and how the soft the imprints look wetter due to your weight, you see the appropriateness of “wept” as a predicate for “tracks.”

Finally, in L8, we get “The water turned her skin sky.” Again, the reader pauses at the unusual word pairings. Water? Turning skin “sky”? You might first fear that the poor girl is turning blue, but it makes more sense to see the girl as one with the natural world she apparently lives in each day. River water, sky, girl. And a “double” is scored in that we get alliteration “skin” slides into “sky.”

At this point in the poem, a narrative tempo begins to pick up. Anaphora is used in a series of “Once…” lines presaging story. And story you will get. One that might help answer the accent aigu found in the title.

If you’re interested, you can find the complete poem in a copy of the magazine for sale or at the public library. Meanwhile, as a reader and a writer, note and consider how language is used in unusual, thus effective, ways as you read poems. Grammar is important, yes. But it is never a tyrant in the Kingdom of Poetry. Poetic license and creativity provide the checks and balances. And thankfully, the rule the realm.


Music, the Opium of the Masses

Karl Marx is famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for saying, “Religion is the opium of the masses.” Right church, different pew, I think. It’s music that is the opium of the masses, which may explain why churches resonate with song, the nearer God to be.

Unconvinced? You need only walk along city sidewalks or ride in the subway to see as much. People with earplugs, now wireless and white, poking out of their ears as they walk or sit to the beat of their own drummers, avoiding at all costs engagement with their fellow man.

Thomas Lux (Latin for “light”) was on to this. In fact, he penned a poem to music, specifically music without words which, by his reckoning, loses nothing without the voices. There’s something primal in the beat, he was convinced. Something beautiful, like a field of poppies in bloom.


Regarding (Most) Songs
by Thomas Lux

Whatever is too stupid to say
can be sung.
—JOSEPH ADDISON (1672-1719)

The human voice can sing a vowel to break your heart.
It trills a string of banal words,
but your blood jumps, regardless. You don’t care
about the words but only how they’re sung
and the music behind—the brass, the drums.
Oh the primal, necessary drums
behind the words so dumb!
That power, the bang and the boom and again the bang
we cannot, need not, live without,
nor without other means to make sweet noise,
the guitar or violin, the things that sing
the plaintive, joyful sounds.
Which is why I like songs best
when I can’t hear the words, or, better still,
when there are no words at all .


Lux was fond of wandering into a patch of end rhymes before returning to his regularly-scheduled free verse. Thus “sung,” “drums,” “drums,” “dumb.” Dumb but necessary. And primal because of “the bang and the boom and again the bang,” which is Lux’s way of employing a sound device (alliteration) and rhetoric (polysyndeton) to the rhythm and the cause.

It works. I should know. I sometimes offer myself up to music, too. Or lose myself to it. And write to it.

And I, too, prefer wordless music–at least when I write. It seems to lead me to heights without leading me astray as the distraction of lyrics might.

What about you? Ever been to the church, mosque, or temple of music? And ever notice how important it is to its second cousin twice removed (but returned), poetry?