Tag Archives: poetry

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.


In praise of The Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail

You should join it. Real letters in the real mail! From a recent one:

In a poem called “A Cold Spring,” the American poet Elizabeth Bishop describes fireflies rising from a lawn “exactly like the bubbles in champagne.” I’ve probably read that poem only six or seven times, but I’ve never stared into a glass of champagne since without thinking about fireflies. What a great discovery! I’m unashamed to still believe it’s magical the way a simile can forever change the way we see the world.

Five poems that made this week better

1. There is no good link… anywhere… that contains this poem all the way through, and it makes me sad. I only hope someone liberates it some day because it’s my favorite recently and gives wordplay the business like few can, all while sorting through the mysteries of passion. So, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to make a copy of the poem and put it in my wallet. And when you want to read it, you let me know. If I’m within feet of you, we’ll make it happen. ”To the You of Ten Years Ago, Now” by Dora Malech.

Never fear. I know the difference between
arteries and ardor, arbor and treed,
my bower and a weak-kneed need, a harbor
where one might moor tonight and a port worth
the oars’ effort to come ashore for…

2. A simple Western naturalist poem turns into a brief-but-incisive cultural exploration and then turns into something that made me laugh out loud. “I Flew into Denver April” by Adrian C. Louis.

3. I don’t have much experience with pills, legal or illegal, beyond Advil and Claritin. But these days for some reason I keep finding terrific poems about pills, legal and illegal, and I’m beginning to wonder if this genre is a part of the canon I never realized existed until now.  Plus, to drop in a great little Springsteen reference at the end? Sold. “Meds” by Cynthia Huntington.

4. “Setting out for Atlantis they pause here / on the point of departure; her long train / floats on the surface and drifts and darkens.” The images start slow and get slower, and then they’re rushing and keep up, keep up, done. Exhausted, glad for it. “Beach Wedding” by Simon Armitage.

5. The New Yorker‘s paywall drives me nuts, especially when it comes to poetry. My subscription gets me inside, but it doesn’t get you inside. I have to give you my copy of the magazine, or find a Xerox, or… anyway, it’s a mess. So, I like it when a poem is so short it appears in its entirety in the magazine’s RSS feeds. If the poem perfectly finds the beauty of poetry in that amount of space, all the better. “Beginning” by Lia Purpura.

‘Bubbling and spuming / as if trying to talk under / water’

The week, still young, has flapped up and down like a hatchling. We’ve at last arrived in the new office, which, as hoped, seems better, but national and office events have left both day and night off mental kilter. To distract myself, I’ve been reading the March pages of Poetry furiously on the train. My favorites this time are the ones that hope or admit hope can be hard.

Dan Brown’s “Judo,” too short to no excerpt.

“Inward lush unpetaling purpose in pink blooms of sleep, and I no longer needed to be separate.” – Rachel Jamison Webster’s “Dolphins at Seven Weeks.” Next page: ”We’ve come back to the site of  her / conception. She calls it why / and cries all night, / sleepless, wild.” — Webster’s “Kauai.”

“Why are the woods so alluring?” — Amy Gerstler’s “Bon Courage.”

Her “Sea Foam Palace.” Dreamy, sexy, hopeful, yet so, so sharp. It begins:

(Bubbling and spuming
as if trying to talk under
water, I address you thus:)
Must I pretend not to love
you (in your present bloom,
your present perfection — soul
encased in fleshly relevance)
so you won’t believe me
just another seabed denizen
vying for your blessed attention?

“The pamphlets say: / Patience is required. I say, let’s try again / but John blames the state, the neighbors, the way / we wrote our bios, filling out the forms.” — Bruce Snider’s “Devotions,” most unexpected but welcome.

“Every tripod- / toting birder / knows it never / nests on urban / girders.” — Amit Majmudar’s “Save the Candor.” Read it out loud to yourself!


Aria,” David Barber. ”What if it were possible to vanquish / All this shame with a wash of varnish / Instead of wishing the stain would vanish?”

(Same thing.)

Late in the issue comes James Lasdun writing about Michael Hofmann, and I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with either. But I love this line because it quietly sums up many things: “As with the poems so, at first, with their maker.”

Recognizing, fleeing the language of necessity

When poet Tracy K. Smith told NPR this week that poetry was a way we could get away from “the moments in our lives that are characterized by language that has to do with necessity,” I felt a tremendous twinge and stopped reading the story at that sentence. Smith had hit close to home.

Poetry, in my life, has become exactly an escape from certain language.

Before I’d read Smith’s quote, the escape part was already pretty clear in my mind. But I hadn’t understood as well what I was escaping until she put it the way she did: I was escaping the language of necessity. In that tongue, everyone needed something or needed to respond to someone else’s need. The language of necessity was more than vocabulary. It had grammar, idiom, vocalization, and accents. Necessity was air, and as we expressed its language, we breathed only out of a sense of requirement.

This realization is not the happiest one. But at least there’s escape.

So, I owe thanks to three poems in the last week: David Baker’s “Old Man Throwing a Ball,” Louise Gluck’s “An Adventure” (yes! even Gluck, once a foe on the page and now becoming a friend) and Alice Fulton’s “The Next Big Thing,” which The New Yorker has put behind a paywall and no wilder-than-I Interneter has yet liberated. But know Fulton’s poem contains this passage: “I feel free as water fangling over stone and falling / with a dazzle on the next big thing, presence / ribboned up in ink, instant and constant, / all tied up in a gift. Just wrap the world / around a pen and draw a cradle in a lake / and in the cradle draw a flywheel / free from mortal rust.”