Even when produced with the most meticulous scholarship, our dictionaries ought to remind us that words exceed our best efforts at definition and classification, and that careful reading often ends not in perfect certainty but humility.
“Cuba, 1962” by Ai because the Poetry Foundation put it in their “Poem of the Day” RSS feed and I’ve never found a poem in that feed more surprising.
“Dividend of the Social Opt-Out” by Jennifer Moxley, via Lindsay, because it has been a busy year and a too-busy fall and I would welcome not doing things.
How nice not to hope that something will happen,
but to lie on the couch with a book, hoping that
nothing will. To hear the wood creak and to think.
It is lovely to stay without wanting to leave.
“Prayer” by Yehoshua November because it finds different but equally beautiful (and powerful) means to the same end as Jennifer Moxley’s social opt-out.
“My Father Sings Like a Crow” by C. L. O’Dell because few poems capture our ideas of our fathers so well — and my good friend Jonny just became a dad.
A whole life lives in each fist of my father
the way a burning city lives in a firefly’s gut. It’s there,
a faint light cradling a chicken egg, clutching an axe,
raising a newborn’s almost see-through body.
“The God Who Loves You,” by Carl Dennis. The poem is about God until you discover the poem is about our perception of God amid our thoughts and worries. Or so I think.
It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
“Chicago,” by Carl Sandburg. So brutal, so alive. “Hog Butcher for the World,” begins Sandburg’s address to the city, his muse. “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”
“For the Chipmunk in My Yard,” by Robert Gibb. A squirrel who guessed wrong nearly landed on Lori’s head from a great height the other day, and I’ve enjoyed paying more attention to tree creatures since then. Gibb outdoes me.
Here are my favorite poems from recent issues of Poetry magazine. The imagination of their writers never fails to amaze me. Always pushing on what they see, pushing on what they feel, pushing on meaning in the everyday or cornerstones of the era. And then to reduce all of the thoughts into a relative brevity– I often find myself as impressed with the editorial honesty as the philosophical.
… and we shared thick and hearty laughs, and continued into the very
dense jungle. And thick. Preceding us on the trailsides were ruins
overgrown, boots stuck in mud, and heads of sunken ampersands.
Which made sense to us, for….
From the get-go I have always sought
to know (what, what?) if this is all I’ve got,
to show up in a vestibule, all bothered and hot,
like silver-fingered Iscariot,
like the smiling highwayman, tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot,
while all about me are consigned to slather and rot.
First of all, the July/August issue of Poetry had a glow-in-the-dark cover. How cool was that? Not enough glow-in-the-dark publications, in my opinion. Three favorites from the issue, full of translations:
That is the example that snails offer us: saints who make masterpieces of their lives, works of art of their own perfection. They secrete form. Nothing outside themselves, their necessity, or their needs is their work. Nothing is out of proportion with their physical being. Nothing that is unnecessary or obligatory.
“Snails” by Francis Ponge, translated from French.
“The Moonlight” by Noah Buchholz, translated from American Sign Language.
And over in The New Yorker, part of a (successful!) catch-up mission this summer, Rita Dove’s “Found Sonnet: The Wig” finds great narrative life in the ordinary (which of course is life). I also loved Rebecca Hazelton’s “Letter to the Editor,” which will warm your heart too if you’ve read enough reader letters.
I do not think you cannot have meant I assume it’s in error
it comes to my attention it rises from the muck it sways
elephantine in a Gulf Stream breeze you surely meant
other you must have encountered others you are much
mistaken in this and in all other circumstances I assume
it’s in error I cannot think you mean to suggest it comes
from a childhood spent waiting for someone to notice
Last but not least: My parents gave me Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid Book VI, the one I mentioned the other week, for my birthday. How good? One sitting. That good. Heaney was a magician. I wish he could have done the entire book. The translation is a love letter to Latin-class translation, and every line comes alive in a way you wish your school self had been able to accomplish. The epic is epic. When Aeneas visits the Sibyl to find his way to the underworld is just one moment of many:
Thus from her innermost shine the Sibyl of Cumae
Chanted menacing riddles and made the cave echo
With sayings where truths and enigmas were twined
Inextricably, while Apollo reined in her spasms
And curbed her, or sank the spurs in her ribs.
“Rain” by Kazim Ali. “With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain. / Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.”
“Brian Age Seven” by Mark Doty. “Why do some marks / seem to thrill with life, / possess a portion / of the nervous energy / in their maker’s hand?”
“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith. “Life is short, though I keep this from my children. / Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine / in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways…”
“The crowd at the ball game” by William Carlos Williams. “It is summer, it is the solstice / the crowd is / cheering, the crowd is laughing / in detail…”
“Celebration for June 24” by Thomas McGrath. “Your face against the night was my medallion. / Your coming forth aroused unlikely trumpets / In the once-tame heart.”
“Summer Kitchen” by Donald Hall, via Lori. “In June’s high light she stood at the sink / With a glass of wine, / And listened for the bobolink, / And crushed garlic in late sunshine.”
“Here’s What All The Buttons On An IndyCar Steering Wheel Do” from the Jalopnik blog. “A typical IndyCar steering wheel has 13 main features: a dashboard, RPM shift lights, pit-lane speed limiter, push-to-talk radio switch, fuel-level reset button, fuel-map switch, dash scroll, weight jacker, drink switch, neutral button, reverse, push-to-pass and clutch paddles.”
1. “A Quiet Life” by Baron Wormser (a great name), via Lori.
What a person desires in life
is a properly boiled egg.
This isn’t as easy as it seems.
2. “Prayer” by Keetje Kuipers (also a great name), also via Lori.
Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox
and your mother, to soothe you in your fever
or to help you fall asleep, came into your room
and read to you from some favorite book,
Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie,
a long story that she quietly took you through
until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering
lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then
3. “Nothing” by Ken Mikolowski. Twelve words, six lines long. Ink like dust and ashes to dust and ashes. The poem barely enters the page and your brain before it departs, and a title is rarely more fitting. Life is quick, so embrace what you love while you can.
4. “The Amnesty” by Caroline Bird. I’ve posted this poem here before. But the lines hit me squarely when they first came through my feeds amid all of our wedding planning. How squarely? Years ago, I met a train-jumper — his preferred term versus hobo — who told me with some pride how a wooden board at a construction job the previous week had fallen and smacked him right in the middle of his face. That squarely. I tweeted the poem the morning of our wedding because I couldn’t say much more than it does. “My love / equips me.”
I know we are still in the first days of February. After temperatures were scarf-less early in the week, bone chills re-emerged last night. But I find myself favoriting the warmth in what I read — Jhumpa Lahiri learning Italian, Cord Jefferson writing about his love for his mother, Washingtonian magazine noting (and capturing visually, if briefly) acres open city land and beautiful city-ancient buildings before they’re gone or disfigured, and, as usual, some poems.
A great way to start the day other day was Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” She read it at Obama’s first inauguration. People didn’t love it. I loved it was a way to start my day. Italics are Alexander’s:
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Recently in my feeds as well have been two catch-you-off-guard poems about desire: Mary Jo Bang’s “Definitely” (“What is desire / But the hardwire argument given / To the mind’s unstoppable mouth”) and Heather Christle’s “Pursuits” (“It only gets worse / A girl’s gotta eat”).
And I’ve been catching up on The New Yorker too. Catching up for real. Before the holidays, my backlog had hit three or four months, and the physical stack was so sad. But I began digging over Christmas and have kept the pages turning. I’m now on the current issue. And it’s a double! I’m going to be a week ahead! Maybe. If I finish it today. You can’t count your Remnick chickens before they’re read.
Anyway, here’s the start of Hagit Grossman’s “On Friendship,” a poem of common life and so satisfactorily so, in the latest issue:
If a friend calls out to you late at night from beneath your window
Never send him on his way. And if you’ve sent him away and still
Insist on rigid rules, regain your composure after a moment
And run to the window and shout his name: “Come, Merhav!
Come back! I’ve got some corn cooking! Come eat something.”
Last but not entirely, I’m two issues behind on Poetry (after Conde Zero, so soon, I promise), but two favorites from the December issue were Caroline Bird’s “The Amnesty,” which packed so much metaphor and love in so little space, and Nate Marshall “Harold’s Chicken Shack #86,” which wrings Northwestern, names, race, and poverty from half a quote in a newspaper story.
Marshall also has a good one in the issue about Oregon Trail (“my first venture west was in Windows 98 / or Independence, Missouri…”), and the Poetry Foundation site turns up him penning a “Harold’s Chicken Shack #1.” Maybe the “#86” of the Northwestern poem is poetic license, but I hope there are 84 in between. I’d like to read them.
Related: The Springsteen song “Amnesty” made me think of. No one will put this song on a greatest-hits compilation, or any kind of compilation that comes to mind. But I’ve always found it strange and special, the best song on a not-great album. Heard it playing during a nice dinner at a nice restaurant last fall — Garrison, on Barracks Row — and found it fitting.
Related: Edward T. Wheeler writes for Commonweal about his prison ministry. “I was retired, convalescing from a five-month hospital stay, and needed a focus for my free time. … Soon I—a former high-school English teacher and long-ago Jesuit seminarian—was involved in a biweekly writing seminar for GED students, then a book discussion club, and finally a life-skills course sponsored by the state university’s extension division.”
They say Twitter will begin an algorithmically ordered timeline next week. They say it will be optional. I’m glad for the latter.