Tag Archives: poetry

Five poems that remind us the current is not the permanent

Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun: “In the first part of my life with Sotatsu, he lived in a cell in a jail where the sun came south through the window on an avenue all its own where it was forced to stoop and stoop again until when it arrived at its little house it was hardly the sun at all, just a shabby old woman. Yet we were always looking for her, this sun, when she would come, always eager to have her meager presents, her thin delineations.”

Robert Frost,  writing a letter in 1913: “The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”

These two quotes are the only two reasons I’ve dog-eared pages recently. The first is from late in this story, and the second is from late in this one.

I haven’t been focusing as much as I’d like. I’ve been working or packing all the time recently, one or the other. I’m getting ready to move, and tasks at the other end of the apartment are always calling, no matter at which end I may be. Work is kind of the same. These poems have broken through a bit and directed my focus outward, at least for short periods of time. Yes, they deserve better. They throw me off kilter in a way both scary and hopeful.

Son of Fog,” Dean Young.  Makes me think of being in San Francisco two or some  years ago, staring into a foggy cove and having no idea where life would go next. “What a mess. We stand at the edge / of a drop that doesn’t answer back,  / fog our only friend although it’s hell  / on shrimpboats.”

From “The Sonnagrams,” K. Silem Mohammad. He puts a Shakespearean sonnet into an anagram engine, then rearranges the text until it makes some sense again. I feel this way at the end of almost every week these days. Productive but scrambled. “A purple fist, a Federalist, a sunspot, / A bird that’s got a big big butt to study, / A guy named Toots, ten dumb galoots, a gunshot, / Die Fledermaus by good ol’ Strauss (my buddy)….”

You’re,” Sylvia Palth. For Plath, happiness looking at her baby before her eventual final sadness. “Clownlike, happiest on your hands, / Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled, / Gilled like a fish.” And then we flip the journey…

Epilogue,” Robert Lowell. Starts with sadness, ends with a higher calling, within sight of happiness? In life, sadness haunted him, but he never gave in.  “Pray for the grace of accuracy / Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination / stealing like the tide across a map / to his girl solid with yearning.”

Song,” John Fuller. Naturalism of the face. “You don’t listen to what I say.  / When I lean towards you in the car / You simply smile and turn away.” A lover? God? Life? Take your pick, your perspective. Take the smile, at least.

Winter poetry: The goon of the season never leaves, but still…

You hadn’t seen the mobster’s girlfriend. Tasty,
But are you sure her goon has gone away?
It’s not so wise to come on overhasty
In the Grünewald Café.

Not since Marty Robbins’ El Paso has making a pass at a dangerous man’s lady been so much fun in verse. “In the Grünewald Café” by Alfred Corn is the kind of poem that gets you through the winter that never ends. That’s what it’s all about at this point in the season, yes? Survival? A little drama by which to keep warm? So, let us review the varieties of warmth in verse.

These varieties, of course, come in poems that have captured me recently.

Warmth as challenge. “The Forms of Resistance” by Emily Berry.

Is this mountain all rock, or are there any villages on it?
These are some of the things I said to her.

We bake because it is a way of overcoming.
In the journey of zest, I see myself.

Warmth as complex fuel. “Scene” by Maxine Chernoff.

What the body might guess,
what the hand requests,
what language assumes
becomes amulet

Warmth as desperation. “Sweet Virginia” by Michael Robbins.

Don’t worry about the environment.
Let it kill us if  it can.
I give a tiny tinker’s damn.
I put the ox behind the cart.
Consume away my snow-blind heart.

Warmth as pain. “Roses” by Marion McCready.

If you listen carefully you can hear the vibrations,
the heart drone of their petal jaw-harps.

Warmth as the moment of death. “The Break” by Franz Wright.

Pandemonium
in the cerebral
combs, unprecedented
mass desertions, solar
flare-ups.

Warmth as fighting to stay alive, I think. “Hand” by Robert Pinsky.

The Brush-off, the Fig, the Finger.
Backhand brushing the chin for
Fuck you, I hereby pull your beard.

Warmth as unexpected spring. “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May.

There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.

None of these poems are sunshine and happiness.  But in the long gray cold, you burn what you can and stuff the rest into your coat pockets.

Invigorating lines needed

Alice Fulton, I don’t know whether you jump out of bed every morning like the monster underneath gave you a hotfoot, but your finished works turn out that way. Your three poems in October’s Poetry magazine are what I needed this season. I’m a little behind on life, you see, but I’m catching up.

Fulton’s trio:

1. “Personally Engraved.” Opening lines: “There are many opportunities here for unrequited friendship, / the offer letter said. All you need is a chain saw and die grinder.” A truly terrific love poem for chilly times.

2. “Make It New.” It’s nearly impossible for me to decide my favorite part of this poem. Maybe it’s: “It will be new / whether you make it new / or not. It will be full of neo- / shadows. Full of then — both past and next, / iridescent with suspense.” Or maybe it’s: “New is a hooligan.”

3. “You Own It.” Opening lines: “For your birthday, I’m learning to pop champagne corks / with a cossack sword when all you asked for was world peace.” The ensuing chase with that sword is gloriously unrelenting.

Check them all out. So good. I’m now Googling dozens more of Fulton’s poems and remembering how her April New Yorker poem, which I tried to blog about here, is the one that’s left me  most disappointed this year in the magazine’s paywall. It’s just unfair sometimes. Set good verse free.

Meanwhile, here are other works that have been giving me similar feelings recently, feelings of fire and randomness and freedom. Some are from the same October Poetry issue (a great one, in my mind, or at least a great one for me right now).  Some are from other sources. All are night-rockers.

  • Lines for painting on grains of rice” by Craig Arnold. In the middle of it, nut graf-ly: “Love is like velocity we feel the speeding up / and the slowing down otherwise not at all / the more steady the more it feels like going nowhere / my love I want to go nowhere with you….”
  • Pitahaya” by Craig Arnold. So close yet so far.
  • Most People Would Rather Not” by Hannah Gamble.  In the middle of it, a couple more fathoms down: “I have to admit, sometimes / I want nothing more than to be lying on the bottom / of an unimpressive river.”
  • Thunderbride” by Mark Bibbins.  Opening lines: “My throat is full of sparklers / making me a lighthouse / for a loveship that can fly….”
  • Caedmon” by Denise Levertov. “All others talked as if / talk were a dance. / Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet / would break the gliding ring.”
  • The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill” by Hayden Carruth. It’s a letter that’s so friendly and familiar you’re going to wish you were pen-pals with Carruth and, upon Googling, you’re going to be sad he’s dead.
  • Before” by Rae Armantrout. Breaks your heart. Or mine at least.
  • Hand” by Robert Pinsky. Great journey, awesome ending.

Last, we have “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye and “To the New Year” by W.S. Merwin. I don’t know who invented New Year, but I’d like to shake that person’s hand. One week just like the last — but better.

Transposing memories is okay

Why? The December issue of Poetry gives five arguments I like.

1. Ango Mlinko, “Epic.” Because when you are somewhere amazing alone, you can think of bringing someone there someday. “It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with / You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen….”

2. Louise Gluck, “Visitors from Abroad.” Because when you write as an aware first-person, you write as many first people. “I write about you all the time, I said aloud. / Every time I say ‘I,’ it refers to you.”

3. Emilia Phillips, “Saul Bass Redesigns the First Man.” Because the best movie posters are the pop earworms of the eye, you can disassemble your existence, under the right light, as easily as Bass a film.

4. Tomas Q. Morin, “Love Train.” Because the world of repetition inside an overnight train is more transpository (can that be a word?) than any other mode of transportation, an overnight train cradles love.

5. Merrill Gilfillan, “Alfresco” (an essay not a poem). Because an up always exists, new worlds are okay. “Facing any landscape demands bearings, finding a footing, and then a bearing. Which way is up, for example.”

Masters of verse in a small, beautiful room

librarycongress

In her free time, Lori helps manage Rosanne Cash’s website — newly (and beautifully) relaunched. When she heard Cash was coming to the Library of Congress to talk with the U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, we had to go. The best parts came when the two compared notes on writing and editing. (I’m a sucker for when showing beats telling.) Steps from the Library’s main reading hall, the room was ornate but small and colonial by federal scales, holding fewer than a hundred people. I felt huge feelings for my city and what tucks away in welcome corners, there in the small room.

Reading back and forth, up and down, going somewhere

Barring the unexpected, we’re due to launch a pair of big projects at work tonight. In the past couple weeks, running the final tests and making the final pre-launch changes, life has been dramatically up and down. Moods have been all over the place. Confidences have died and lived again. Dishes and laundry have piled up at home as inboxes and bug reports have taken up hours at the desk nearby (in times when home beaten work at all).

Since code freeze on Friday, I’ve been pulling my self back together. While the snow has made tonight’s push a little more complicated, it’s made this morning and afternoon a cozy and maybe necessary time of recuperation. After all, when the code goes lives, that’s when life gets crazy again. After tonight, the work days aren’t going to quiet down again for a week or so.

So, the poems catching my attention these days are the ones that go back and forth, up and down. I’m working through old issues of Poetry, and the May issue is a goldmine (a snowfall?) of such verse. Back and forth on grit? By A.E. Stallings, “The Rosehead Beauty.” Or back and forth on focus and wholeness? By Peter Cole, “Song of the Shattering Vessels.” How about back and forth on work? By Peter Cole, “Quatrains for a Calling.” And back and forth on nature? By Jessica Greenbaum, “The Storm-struck Tree.”

Then there’s a combination of poems at the end of the issue’s new work. Three from Kay Ryan — “Party Ship,” “Album” and the heart-rending “Still Start” — lead into James Hoch’s “Round.” I’m not even going into details. Read the four in a row. Consuming them set inside the Poetry Foundation website, as minimal as it is, isn’t going to give you as much of a blow as receiving them on richly beige and empty magazine pages. But I bet a bit of the effect will still arrive. The string is the most brutal, head-first run into a brickwall as I’ve ever seen a magazine execute. That some editor has constructed such an experience is a glorious (brutal) back and forth.

Put another way: A concussion is awful, but the seeing-stars part is nice.

Lastly, here are four poems relatively new to me. They are more upbeat overall, or at least don’t dive as far to sadness. They’ve each confronted me on their own but assembled a collective identity in my browser tabs. They are late fall, aware of the gray but looking forward to the warm, whether inside or in seasons to come. Even the “Landscapes” poem, cold and dry, sets up a realization of being more than the sum of our parts, more than the sum of our emails, issues and hours spent inching towards a goal.

“Snow would be the easy / way out — that softening / sky like a sigh of relief / at finally being….” By Rita Dove, “November for Beginners.”

“Gettin’ together to smile an’ rejoice, / An’ eatin’ an’ laughin’ with folks of your choice; / An’ kissin’ the girls an’ declarin’ that they / Are growin’ more beautiful day after day….” By Edgar Albert Guest, “Thanksgiving.”

“Someday I’d like to go / to Atlantic City with you / not to gamble (just being / there with you is enough / of a gamble) but to ride / the high white breakers / have a Manhattan and listen….” By David Lehman, “May 2.”

“Between water reading itself a story / with no people in it / and fields, illegible, and a sky / that promises nothing, / least of all what will happen now….” By Vona Groarke, “The Landscapes of Vilhelm Hammershøi.”

Poems to keep warm amid the cold snaps

What Is The Zoo For What” by Patricia Lockwood. There are vaginas and Neil Young, and neither are the point. “The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose, / the smell of the rose rattles in its cage, / the zookeeper throws something bleeding / to it, the something bleeding is not enough….”

A Moment” by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. Of the “related context” section on the Poetry Foundation puts it: “Poet’s region: England; School/period: Victorian; Subjects: Love, Romantic Love, First Love.” Despite its origins, the poem is nearly aflame. I know nothing about Coleridge but — oh my.

To Be Elsewhere” by Hsia Yu. “We met in a coastal village / spent a lovely night without leaving an address / going separate ways….” The poem picks up three years later, and every song we know plays at once in our ears.

Poems when you’d consider trading places with a squirrel

Last week, I had 25 hours of meetings. And those were just the formal ones. Count the informal ones and all the hundreds of emails in between, and someone who tests strongly on the introvert end of the personality spectrum (like me!) sits in a weird, Zen-less place. These weeks aren’t exactly like launches, where, like I blogged last week, the line-assembly shocks the system. What exists instead is a need for immersion, to get lost, to sink into a foreign world, far away from meetings and deadlines.

So… here are the poems that offered some escape last week. They’re not all happy, but more important than their mood is their journey inward and — more important still — their subsequent and doubt-free lack of return.

Squirrels” by Nate Klug.

Needy and reticent
at once, these squirrels in charred November
recall, in Virgil,
what it is to feel…

Empire of Dreams” by Charles Simic.

On the first page of my dreambook
It’s always evening
In an occupied country.

The Letter” by Dana Gioia.

And in the end, all that is really left
Is a feeling—strong and unavoidable—
That somehow we deserved something better.

“Moon River” by Lucie Brock-Broido. Not online, but Mookse and Gripes has a long, thoughtful and beautiful analysis here. Excerpt of the best lines:

Like a lantern-boat half on fire somewhere down
The crazy river of your mind,
Framed by endless strings of small whortleberry lights, ablaze,

Still, I go on crossing you in style.

A Boat” by Richard Brautigan.

O beautiful
was the werewolf
in his evil forest.
We took him
to the carnival…

Yes, I live inside the piano” by Katerina Rudcenkova.

[This poem is only three lines. It's a tiny joy. Click the link.]

The specks of poems that help with work

Last time I had a big launch, Kay Ryan helped me breathe. Her Say Uncle collection lived in my bag in August, and I read it on every commute. And the poems helped. Her brevity and clarity fought well versus big and hairy.

Now another huge launch approaches, maybe as soon as six weeks away — nothing in coding time. This morning, the associated nerves kicked in for the first time with full force. So, I went back to Ryan and took more advice.

She had an essay in the September Poetry called “Speck,” and she chased the small places in poems where one piece runs into another and meaning unexpectedly ignites. Her lede made me laugh out loud, and I was grateful:

While writing a poem the hot wire of thought welds together strange chunks of this and that.

It can’t completely combine the disparate elements and make a new element of them, but it can loosen the edges of mutually disinterested materials enough to bond them so that a serial lumpy going on is achieved, crude emergency bridges made, say, of  brush and old doors, just barely strong enough to get the thought across before the furious townspeople show up.

God bless the townspeople. They want greatness or perfection, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiration. But I’m happy to take the crude emergency bridge-makers as role models, compatriots or friends. Sometimes you have to run with the thoughts (and brush and old doors) you have on hand.

After reading, I went back and collected my favorites from Say Uncle. The poems were mostly about pieces and increments, how they join together and fall apart. They were also, to a possibly healthy extent, about survival.

A Hundred Bolts of Satin.”

Composition.”

Gaps.”

The Pieces That Fall to Earth.”

Bad Day.

Closely Watched Things.”

Survival Skills.”

It’s Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn.”

The line I love most is the one that kicks off “Bad Day.”

Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.

In the stretch run, it’s always good to have company.

Just learned the word ‘gravid’ and it fits

The mood made him tense—
How she sharpened conditional futures
On strops of might-have-beens,
the butchered present in sutures.

Can a poem be both grammatically obsessed and emotionally devastating?

A.E. Stallings’ recent “Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda” proves yes. If any piece of writing sends you to a dictionary this week, let it be this piece. It sent me twice. I saw Something Else at the movies last week, and a reviewer noted how interactions were minimal until a late close-up hurled them together and kicked your ass. Stallings does something similar here. The grammar starts you at a nodding but near-academic distance, reaching for elements floating above. Then the poet zooms, and you pull away in shared shock.

Other poems hanging out, obstinate, great, in my tabs recently:

Separation,” by W.S. Merwin. Over in three lines and needs no more.

The Ship Pounding,” by Donald Hall. This may very well make you cry.

Happiness,” by Jane Kenyon. And this may very well make you smile.

American Poetry,” by Louis Simpson. Love a weird shark metaphor.

Recuerdo,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Because it never gets old.

Gravy for the Prisoners,” by John Ashbery. Because it’s an enjoyably tough nut. Every line is a challenge to the reader. “I wouldn’t try to capture it on the page, or in a blog, the inauspicious leaving of a day…”