Six poems catching me off guard

Kay Ryan has the continual power to leave me blank on a subway ride. Not speechless — because who but tourists talk with strangers on the subway — but blank for the moment, unable to offer any thought of my own to the world. I have her latest collection on my coffee table, fresh from the Amazon box. But I’ve been forcing myself to wait until I catch up on my stack of magazines. Given the power of her “Tree Heart/True Heart,” the tiny poem from today’s commute home, I’m also apparently helping myself get off the Metro at the right stop. The first a.m. I crack that book, I’m going to spend the day in the New Carrollton train yard.

Where Ryan takes you along a path a minute before dropping a piano on you (a Doritos bus-stop ad also comes to mind), Sophie Cabot Black tends simply to grab you and throttle you, and that approach works as well. Black’s “Private Equity” was one of the many poems that knocked me out last summer, and her “Sheetrock” inflicted the same on me this summer. Don’t listen to the poet’s audio. God bless her writing, but the poem works better laid on top of the passion in one’s own head. “As if almost too late we ripped into each other / With whatever we had….”

On a completely different scope recently for me were Kate Daniels’ “In the Marvelous Dimension” and Frost’s “Desert Places.” The former was an epic multi-perspective glimpse of the moments following 1989’s San Francisco earthquake. Speaking as evocatively as any Pulitzer-sought, post-disaster coverage, the roaming voice let Daniels tell stories from the string of crushed vehicles. “I felt myself / growing smaller, like Alice, / a trick so I could travel / out of there, to that ledge / where a petunia waved in the dust rising / from a fallen-down freeway.” For Frost, Post columnist Tom Boswell used the poem in mourning for Mike Flanagan, after the beloved ex-Oriole’s suicide. “Flanagan was a first port of call for Orioles with problems because he had had his share,” wrote Boz, and then he cited Frost as a New Hampshire person, like the pitcher.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

To balance those two this fall, two others, happier, arrived about the same time. Matthea Harvey’s “In Defense of Our Overgrown Garden” couldn’t have packed in more words. A crowded scan proved Harvey’s title true. The wheelbarrow lost in the middle of the mess showed no so-much-depends desperation threatened. No fear existed, only joy.

The other poem was Charles Wright’s “Bedtime Story.” I’ve made the link a favorite and read it a few times at night in the past few weeks. From some steps back, the work looked odd. Was odd. More closely, phrasing I’d seen and liked in an art story came to mind: “in even the wildest de Kooning, you feel securely anchored.” That was how it felt.

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