Tag Archives: poetry

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


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.”



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.