Tag Archives: poetry

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.”



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…”

Stanzas for catching a breath after the week

Against Imagism,” by Monica Youn. “Late July. The wet / and dry zones of a firefly’s / chitinous body / fuse in a blue spark….” If you’re curious, here’s the definition of chitinous. It’s pretty much what you think it might be (the type of body a firefly has), but I love how its root word means “mollusk.”

The Dictionary,” by Charles Simic, is the first one I’ve added to my fridge-door collection in a long time. I find myself looking for a lot of words these days. So, when this poem begins, “Maybe there is a word in it somewhere / to describe the world this morning,” I’m in. Even better? A happy end.

In July/August’s issue of Poetry, what I appreciate most is the bluntness. Michael Ryan’s “A Thank-You Note” is just what it claims to be, beginning: “My daughter made drawings with the pens you sent.” Robert Thomas’ (terrifying) “The Gift” sets the stage as quickly, opening with “When I got the box home from the gun shop.” In Steve Gehrke’s “Ships of Theseus,” there’s both a prologue explaining the ships and a line later, “this is just another poem about divorce.” All three poems gift the crux and still stun.

The thing I dig second most — and, yes, that’s how we’re going to phrase it right now — is the weird dualities. “Double Vision” by Wilmer Mills pairs real and imagined visions of life inside a Waffle House. In “Greed,” Philip Schultz puts rich and poor in the same empty homes. Kay Ryan uses two bubbles to talk about “Salvation.” Wilmer Mills’ “Diluvian Dream” puts life and death in one lawn. In his “Falling,” James Dickey couples the same more directly, as a flight attendant falls from a jet. Not the poem to read before going to bed and trying to dream. Exhilaration doubles with fear.

As a balm, try Scott Cairns’ “Idiot Psalm 12,” on “uncommon darkness.”

In another poem, I simply like the line, “A ghetto blaster spools ghazals.”

And there’s “Eggs,” also by Kay Ryan. “We turn out / as tippy as / eggs.”

We sure do.

Poems to blog

All You Did” has a modicum of words, but that’s all Kay Ryan ever needs to make or break your heart. “There doesn’t seem / to be a crack….”

Today Is Work” (pay-walled), which (I think) is an unexpected love poem, by Ben Purkert in The New Yorker, “I’m searching for the right verb / for a dead frog. I want something / large but not so full it floods / my eyes.”

In Another Country” (also pay-walled), by Phlip Levine. Wanders, then pays off in the last line. “The wind kept prodding / at my back as though determined / to push me away from where I was, / fearful, perhaps, I would come to rest.” One of those passages that silences you some.

Casey at the Bat.” YES, that one. Whoever chooses the daily poem for the Poetry Foundation must have gone to a Cubs or Sox game the night before because this was an inspired choice. It may not be the best poem ever, but it is some of the best baseball writing of all time. Totally worth rereading.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

And a follow-up. I blogged about Alice Fulton’s “The Next Big Thing” in April but happened to come across it again in my notes last weekend. The note made me Google the poem again. What turned up was a tiny great thread in a Yahoo Group about typewriters. I learned a new word! Escapement. I found, too, a man had made a strangely simple-yet-beautiful video of one.

The best magazine issue you’ll see this year

In most regions of Afghanistan, women can’t practice the arts. Religious and political restrictions bring beatings or worse for singing, acting, writing, or reciting works. You likely know this much or you could have guessed it.

But among themselves, gathering secretly or calling anonymously to more liberal radio arts programs, Pashtun women have continued the centuries-old tradition of the “landay,” Twenty-two syllables, finished before men or the otherwise censorious might realize the act or content, the landay is a rich, intense couplet. As all poetry, the form speaks to life’s shared events and emotions, but it also now includes war and their digital acculturation. Romantic, mournful, sexy, angry, amused, frightened, the form bends to the mood of the speaker, brave to participate and sometimes illiterate.

Journalist/poet Eliza Griswold and photojournalist Seamus Murphy have spent parts of the last decade collecting landays in Afghan cities, villages and refugee camps, with the crucial help of women translators and fixers and women daring enough to recite or sing the poems to Westerners.

In June’s issue of Poetry magazine, the editors turn over the entire issue to Griswold and Murphy. The entire issue. There are no other poems. There are no letters to the editor. There are no other departments, and Griswold gives the introduction, a truly moving one. It is a substantial claim, I know, to call something the best magazine issue you’ll see this year. But I’ve just finished reading the issue, and I know you’re not going to find one better.

The magazine has given the issue special treatment for the Web. Go visit.

We all live on borders, but only some mine them

One of the cooler nights I had recently was seeing inaugural poet Richard Blanco and local, rising-star poet Dan Vera read at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. The visit to the Center was my first since the great Mr. L’Etoile made everyone in our  high-school English class find a poetry reading and attend it. I found the poets crazy. Having gained an actual appreciation of poetry in the *cough* years since then, the result was worth the wait.

Vera, I had never heard of before. But what a talent. Cuba-born, Houston-raised, gay, the youngest child in his family by a number of years, literary historian, now a long-time resident of the Brookland neighborhood, Vera mined cultural borderlands for the room in a way that drew vocal reactions to every poem he read. One of the poems he read from his new Speaking Wiri Wiri had this beginning (found here in a good interview with him):

Because Cuban food in South Texas
is like dishes from Venus and Mars,
a reporter is sent to interview Mamá.

So different, so good. We didn’t stick it out amid the crowd for the signing, but I put the book on my wish-list when I got home. (Critics loved it too.)


Then came the main event, Richard Blanco, the engineer-turned poet you last saw reading in front of hundreds of thousands on the mall with all of the nation’s leaders by his side. Also a child of Cuban immigrants, also gay, also straddling careers, Blanco brought weighty, curious thoughts on his new role as An American Poet and internal-line command that demanded ears. My favorite was the title poem of his new Looking for the Gulf Motel.

The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts
and ship’s wheel in the lobby should still be
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration.


Also cool: Blanco studied under Campbell McGrath. When he mentioned it, I remembered what McGrath had asked me last year, and I got lost inside my head for a wonderful minute. (Why do we love the poems we love?)

On our way out, escaping the masses, we were sorry not to have a chosen to thank the poets for sharing their work in such an easy going way. Both had long Writer’s Center connections, and their readings couldn’t have felt more comfortable, each telling lots of stories and interrupting himself with this or that aside. But there on our way out of the main room was Vera, and we had a chance thank him. And just outside the Center’s front door was Blanco, having a smoke before his signing, and we got to thank him too. And wasn’t it amazing how poets were real people you could thank?

Six poems with which to escape the week

It’s only Monday. How is it only Monday? Do the number of problems to solve ever become less rather than more? Coming through my streams recently: “Bird-Understander” by Craig Arnold, “Extinction of Silence” by A.E. Stallings, “Almost Ashore” by Gerald Vizenor,  “Muscadine” by Mary Moore Easter, “For Jane” by Stephen Stepanchev, and “Emerald Spider Between Rose Thorns” by Dean Young. I am escaping this very minute.

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.