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Emily Vogel

peace

 

 

PEACE
BY GILLIAN CONOLEY
OMNIDAWN, 2014
978-1890650957

Gillian Conoley’s new book of poetry (Omnidawn, 2014) is appropriately entitled Peace because it seems to aim at a kind of reconciliation: with the self, with family, with lovers, with the digital world, and with larger abstractions such as death and the occasional “God” or Christ which she infrequently refers to—but which seems to harbor in the vast undercurrents of the text. Her book is contingent upon a very austere subjectivism, but not without a very oblique, if not unintentional sense of humor. The subjectivism threads through the trajectory of the book in a very meaningful way, and yet the manner in which the subject relates herself to the situations she narrates seems as if through an opaque lens. And the opacity that prevails in its surrealistic bent could make the reader feel like he or she is sleepwalking through a very interesting and memorable dream. It is this which binds the momentum of the book and allows ample room for the reader to imagine, and to perhaps free-associate the given text with numerous other stories, most especially if he or she is of a writerly audience.

I don’t know if Conoley is influenced by Gertrude Stein, but there are certainly echoes of Stein in her work. For instance, in her poem A Healing for Little Walter she succeeds in telling the story with brief, syntactically awkward and obscure sentences: “A blue peal bent so far back it’s red./ Little Walter, beasts looking solemn at you/from the other side./Tina still rising./Turn and run./Gold fill,/Gold leaf fill./Fishbone thereby shall we see the light.” Stein, of course inherited a subjectivism which was obscured and hidden beneath the trail of her glottal-stop disordering of sentences, and yet the reader must conjecture who the speaker is and what she might be aiming at. Later in Conoley’s poem: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill./Crying and wailing with our toy harmonicas/in a space gone unbolt into/a blueness sucking in the sun…” Throughout the poem she repeats the line: “Gold leaf, gold leaf fill…” which if the reader meant to construe this she or he might consider the gold leaf and its fullness in autumn, both in relation to the world and the consciousness of the self.

One of the most beautiful poems in the book is Experiments in Patience II. It reads almost like a haiku: “Family more/than genetics/and laundry/sweep the earth/in your/cemetery slippers/one foot slipping out…” In other words, and if I were to translate this literally and fill in the blank space:

My family is more than simply the genetics I inherit.

Defined by more than the loads of laundry I do each Sunday,

The routine of it like the years I’ve spent growing up

And spinning stories for the sundry experiences.

Family, like laundry, is also the routine of death,

Softly walking upon the graves of relatives,

And never quite letting go…

The incomparable phrase, “sweep the earth in your cemetery slippers” is what allows the poem a very celestial, if not other-worldly sensibility. It is also as I said the essence of the book’s slow and euphoric sleep-walk. Of course, there is a sentiment here, as there is throughout the book, which is not tear-jerking, but rather skin-tingling and evocative of a yearning for a higher spiritual plane.

And Conoley’s book is certainly not without its spiritual element, if not defiantly Christian. For instance, in her poem I Am Writing an Article (Johnny Cash) she asserts “Christ newly staked and writhing/in the heart/in the door-wide chest/in the overall black tower of you…” Here, Christ is a conflicted image of torture, altruistic love, and within his own antithesis.

Conoley’s speaker travels through spiritual planes which exist and yet clash with the digital world she inhabits, such as in the poem “an oh a sky a fabric an undertow:” “The GPS navigational finding device/enhance search/the overly/Google mapped,/severe lack of frontier in the world…” And here, “in mass human’s estranging light” (The Patient) it is evident that the world she sees does not quite reconcile with the world she must envision. Technology has led a mass of humans to begin “exploring the sewers,/recording/sounds of manhole covers as cars…” (an oh a sky a fabric an undertow), perhaps attempting to excavate the inevitable deaths that come with the human condition. It is without doubt that the speaker in Conoley’s poems sees herself as wholly a part of the human condition, and yet the book attempts to reconcile the conflicts which are attached to this.

I would highly recommend reading Gillian Conoley’s book, especially if you’re concerned with the irreconcilable elements of the status quo, with the larger more universal concerns about family and the self, and with the instabilities with which we are faced in the world as it stands. Conoley’s book has the transcendent qualities that future generations will be reading and considering, even after this generation has “[swept] the earth in [its] cemetery slippers.” A must read, for this world, and beyond.

 

 

Pool: 5 Choruses
By Endi Bogue Hartigan
Omnidawn, 2014
ISBN 978-1890650926

It troubles me when readers and writers of poetry insist that “postmodernist” poetry doesn’t make any sense, inherits no concept of consequence, and ultimately leaves all sense of meaning uncertain and equivocated. The fact is that good postmodernist poetry simply succeeds at depicting certain ideas in a way that demands the reader to twist (as the phrases do) his or her own imagination so that they might only skirt the meaning enough to get a hint of the overarching intent. And no, the reader may never succeed in harnessing exactly what the poet meant. But good postmodernist poetry at least allows the reader more agency in determining the meaning. As Derrida insists, it allows the reader “free-play.”

Endi Bogue Hartigan’s latest collection “Pool: 5 Choruses” is not only what I would refer to as an opportunity for free-play, it also presents a complexity of motifs which weave together obscure yet compelling ideas. Her poetry does not demand a singular meaning that everyone can extrapolate and then calmly feel at peace with the incontrovertible ending. For some readers of poetry, this would be a source of discomfort. Some of my introductory students insist “I don’t get poetry.” This is likely because they are anticipating a text which requires less intellectual participation and simply presents an image or concept with very little debate or pliability. Hartigan’s collection succeeds in allowing its readers a commodious room to in which to play and explore, and moves through its five choruses as if like movements in a symphony. The subjects she employs (poppies, cherries, swans, windows, and certain anonymous characters) inherit actual lives of their own—which as Dickinson would say “dwell in possibility.”

The word which recurs throughout the choruses is “slippage”—which perhaps implies that nothing is for certain, and “slips” like the meaning that is aimed at, but never insists that the reader make any determination where it is going. Like Yeats said “the center cannot hold…things fall apart.” And the “slippage” of Hartigan’s text makes for a slow and beautiful dismantling, as if a flower that dies and slowly drops off its petals. It moves like a dance, where the immediate proposals for beauty are the only aspect that matters. Hartigan’s book is an actual story—but an obdurate reader may miss it because the narrative is fragmental, and drifts like movements which possess their own immediate merits. The symphonic quality is evident. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” is not a piece which moves in a deft pattern, and neither is Hartigan’s collection.

A poem which clearly presents the idea of slippage is “Discontinued Chorus:” Do you remember Gumby?/Where did it come from?/Do you remember yourself?/Do you remember the chorus?…/who is erased? This passage suggests slippage even insofar as the human identity, such that no identity is for certain, such that the human mind and understanding of itself is not easily explained, such that we are “bendable” like the Gumby doll and vehicles which do not remain upright and easily determined. We are subjects of free-play. Even the self and its meaning are not closed off to numerous possibilities and interpretations.

“Experiment With Seven Hearts” also begins with invitation to play: Try your heaven in the attic/your taxidermic static cloud/Let in starlings, let in publics/see what they do…and in “Lola, America:” Lola imagines non-Lola by the lake/over herself, over herself/skipping reflection or/some kind of ant that doesn’t care/other ants or soil. Here, not only does she present the problem of Lola’s existential verisimilitude, but she also presents the problem of the ant’s existence.

Everything in Hartigan’s collection is weaving of questions which she insists that the reader ask him or herself, and she doesn’t necessarily insist that an answer be arrived at. In the first poem in the book, “Slippage and the Red Poppies” she asserts We have to begin at the slippage of alertness into fear. And in that sense she is suggesting that we must be a little bit afraid of determining or ascertaining an incontrovertible meaning. We must be made slightly uncomfortable by endless possibilities before we can begin to discover them and accept the invitation to play, among the poppies and the slippage, where meanings are found, erased, revised, disintegrated, and elucidated once again not in their layering, but rather between the layers. Hartigan’s collection is a must read, if not only for its portrayals of beauty, then for its success in satisfying the thirst of the intellect.

The Food Pantry

Don’t have to go to the food pantry anymore.

Got a job
bringing people to the food pantry.

____________________________________________
Dave Roskos is the editor of Big Hammer Magazine & Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books. He lives in his home state of New Jersey where he works as a Life Skills Specialist in the mental health field. His most recent chapbook, INTENSIVE CARE, was published by Black Rabbit Press in 2010.

Like I Said

Okay, so it’s Sunday. I didn’t
go to church. I’m an Irish Catholic,
I know about sin, but I was tired and
just didn’t feel like getting dressed.

On Thursday night, I fell and broke
a slat from the garden fence. My
hip still hurts – the bruise is as big
as my Yorkie’s head.

That would have been enough, but
this morning the vacuum coughed up
a hairball and quit. The only food in
the fridge is a bearded yogurt.

The washing machine refuses to spin.
There’s no clean underwear left, so
I’m not wearing any. Like I said,
I was tired; I didn’t feel like getting

dressed, so I didn’t go to church and
abdicated rights to all that grace.
I put on a pair of dirty jeans, a dirty
shirt, and sat outdoors all morning.

I did nothing but talk to my dogs,
watch squirrels, and wonder what it
might be like to nibble Prozac from
Johnny Depp’s lower lip.

(From What Matters, Welcome Rain Publishers, 2011)
_______________________________________________
Adele Kenny is the author of twenty-three books (poetry & nonfiction) with poems published in journals worldwide, as well as in books and anthologies from Crown, Tuttle, Shambhala, and McGraw-Hill. A former creative writing professor, she is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series and poetry editor of Tiferet. Among other awards, she has received two poetry fellowships from the NJ State Arts Council and the 2012 International Book Award for Poetry. Website:  www.adelekenny.com Blog: www.adelekenny.blogspot.com

Pictures of a Fireman

Grandma said his eyes rose
like moons above the rim of his glasses
when he leaned over the table
at the pool hall the first time they met,
called every shot. I remember him
descending from a cloud
on a ladder of flames
with a woman in his arms,
clipped from the front page
of the Newark Evening News
and framed on their living room mantle.
Or as he was in the photograph I found
in an attic album of him tending register
behind the bar of a speak-easy,
his eyes dark, cheeks flushed,
grinning back at the camera
as if he owned the place.
I see him seaside, sometimes,
up to his knees in weekend surf,
his white, button-down shirt
flapped open like the wings
of a Great Egret, fishing pole bowed,
tip sparkling like a cufflink on a cloud
as he tugs at the ocean, hair black
and slicked back, as it always was,
even at his wake. I can’t recall his voice
or a single thing he told me,
but I dangle on the soft lines of his face,
the dark-spotted skin, drawn thin
about his hands, how they would shake,
his cup and saucer rattle, steaming coffee
splash against the rim, and how his eyes
would rise above his glasses
like apologetic white flags,
then fall away from mine
as he leaned in cautiously for a sip.

NOTE: This poem originally appeared in NYQ.

_________________________________________________
John Smith lives in Frenchtown, NJ with calligrapher Catherine Lent. He has three daughters. John Smith’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines and has also been anthologized in Under a Gull’s Wing: Poems and Photographs of the Jersey Shore and Liberty’s Vigil: The Occupy Anthology. His poem, “Lived Like a Saint,” which appeared in The Journal of New Jersey Poets, was set to music by Philadelphian composer, Tina Davidson, as part of a choral work, Listening to the Earth, commissioned by the New Jersey Parks Commission. John’s poetry has been in NJ Audubon since the late 1980s. His poem “Birding” was commissioned by New Jersey Audubon for their centennial.

April 11th, 2012: I wake up at 5 am, inspired, and begin to scrawl some hasty haiku on the back of an envelope. It is rare that I am awake before my husband. It is still a kind of grayish-dark outside, and I am lonesome that I’m the only one awake, but also secretly luxuriating in this time alone, which is unlikely since I’m usually either teaching students or spending time with my husband. It’s peculiar: the house so tranquil and quiet, the world still dead with sleep. The haiku I’m writing are ambitious, a bit philosophical, perhaps a tad macrocosmic. I’m pleased with them. As I finish with the last one, the coffee-maker sputters to a halt, drips, and emits a breath of steam. I pour myself a cup of coffee.

I have had the nagging suspicion that I might be pregnant for days now; in fact I felt it the day after my husband I made love while I was certain that I was ovulating. It occurs to me that today would be the first day that a pregnancy test would show a positive result, if I had conceived. So I take one, sit down on the toilet lid, and wait three minutes. My husband is snoring faintly in the bedroom. He has no reason to wake up yet. In an hour I’ll have to leave the house and drive seventy minutes east to the colleges where I teach expository and creative writing to undergraduates.

Suddenly, two pink lines appear. Yup. Absolutely pregnant.

When I was in graduate school, a professor once casually stated, “Every baby you ever have is a novel unwritten.” Needless to say, it felt like a warning. It scared me to death. At the time, nearly everything in my life, no matter how momentous or insignificant was destined to be distilled into my daily writing. Writing was not only a passion, but also a necessary obsession. I felt the weight of time urging me to get as much writing done as I could in as few hours as possible. After all, I could die at any time; what would happen if what I really wanted to say most of all never got said? That was my logic for why I couldn’t spend any social time with anyone, why I seemed severely introverted and withdrawn, why cleaning and cooking were of ancillary importance, why the rent was never taken to the landlord on the day that it was due.

When I began seeing my husband, (the poet, Joe Weil), initially I was on a birth control shot called the “Depo.” It was easy to just have sex on a whim, not worry about ovulation, or the responsibilities that getting pregnant would entail. Joe and I were hotel whores. He always seemed to have a poetry gig somewhere in New Jersey, or Philly, and sometimes, we just felt like getting away to some city, seeing some museum, ducking into some unlikely restaurant where the food was French (or something of the sort) and the wine was plentiful. Afterward, we’d fall as easily into the hotel beds as autumn leaves. Things seemed inconsequential, both in terms of sex and of the future. But I had some vague idea.

Joe is Catholic, and eventually, he took me a few masses. We were married in October of 2010, civilly at town hall, with a couple of witnesses and a modest dinner afterward at a Japanese restaurant. But the masses intrigued me. Something felt familiar (although I had been raised Jewish), comfortable, and also reassuring. We didn’t attend on a regular basis, but I was certainly interested in the faith. By January of 2011, I had discontinued the birth control shot, but I was told that I wouldn’t begin menstruating again on a regular basis for at least a few months. By September of 2011, I had signed up to begin my conversion process to Catholicism. I began menstruating again that December, and thus was once again capable of baby-making. Since we were both Catholic, there was no reason not to be “open to life.”

I was surprised at first to see how easy it was to quit smoking and drinking. In the past, these two vices combined had been my primary musing devices. Before I would write a poem, it would be necessary for me to drink a couple glasses of wine, smoke a couple cigs, and get sufficiently delirious. This, I believed would allow the inspiration to flow more freely. It was just what I had become accustomed to doing. So the first concern I had once it had been determined that I was pregnant was how do I write without getting intoxicated and high?

It was difficult at first, but the truth was, the writing seemed to emerge in a bit more of a focused and organized manner. My grammar had improved; there were less typographical errors. Things made more syntactical sense, in general. The focus of the poems had shifted to more spiritual matters, matters of fertility, love, and imminent motherhood.

I am roughly five months along as I am writing this. It is summer, so there is very little responsibility aside from daily worship, cleaning, writing, and watching my belly gradually grow larger and larger. Last night, I felt for the first time the baby’s squirm (and perhaps a little kick?)–it was determined a week ago that I should be expecting a little girl. Sometimes I wonder whether the unborn baby (Clare) has any sense of what I am thinking. There has been very little research conducted on the cognitive connections between mother and fetus, but nevertheless, still I wonder sometimes if she can sense what is on my mind–if someday her creative impulses will derive from a similar place to mine.

They say that dreams are more vivid when you’re pregnant, and that you dream sometimes in symbol about birth. Last night I dreamt about a very large zucchini. I don’t know what it meant, but whatever it was, it turned up in an early morning poem. And I couldn’t ask for a better inspiration than that.

This evening at Catholic mass, while everyone bowed their heads to pray, I asked Jesus not only to help me be good to my husband and my family, but also what he thought about my poetry. I heard a voice, perhaps in my head, or perhaps funneled out the church ceiling which said, “your poetry will touch a few hearts, but it won’t help you in heaven.” Granted, I am aware that it is a bit presumptuous to ask the son of God what he thinks of your poetry. But it had me considering the worth of poetry, and what it means in the grand scheme of things, in relation to other aspects of life, that when you weigh them for their importance, are likely more spiritually imminent. I mentioned this to my husband, the poet Joe Weil, and he said, “You were listening. That is exactly what I would expect that Christ would say.”

When we returned home, we walked to the river on the other side of our land and went fishing. We coexisted, somehow in an almost silent reverie. I listened to the cacophony of birds, noted that there was an absence of geese, and glanced once at the sky, which appeared as if it had been painted in perfect blues and whites by God himself. I thought I would write a poem about it, but then it occurred to me that there is something about experience which simply cannot be appreciated to the fullest extent when you are preoccupied with drumming up lines to illustrate the experience with some sort of fancy language and clever twist of rhetoric. The experience, without the impediment of the literary impulse and obsession stands on its own, no matter how absent the mind must seem, no matter how stupid the utterances of wonder which reference it.

My husband never catches a fish when I am with him on the riverbank. In order not to spook the fish, I walked back to the house. Twenty minutes later, he returned, ecstatic, as he had fought an enormous carp for the whole duration of my absence. There is something, I think, about pure ecstasy, about the thump in the human heart which does not ask of or require poetic language to speak for it. As poets, we need time to live. The poet Franz Wright recently told me that he was finally beginning to enjoy his life, and not drowning in his own misery just because he went a day without composing a poem.

When Joe writes a poem, it is a sacred occurrence. It happens only once or twice a week, but his poems demonstrate quality, as opposed to quantity (of which I am often culpable). I spend so much of my time writing poetry that even the stupid awe that comes from watching two sparrows fly from a tree becomes “crucial” material for poetic concerns. So what is the poetry that transcends the expertly crafted line of verse? From what I have deduced, it’s the ultimate experience of beauty that requires no documentation, and which simply IS, ontologically, existentially, what have you.

After I write a poem, there is a moment or two of the elation related to accomplishing something, but after awhile, I just want the actual experience of love, in its simplest form, the absent contemplation of gazing into a fire or burying my head against Joe’s chest. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be permitted to experience this sort of contentment until I’ve done my job for the day and written a poem. Reader, I can’t tell you in words the intimacy I experience when I am writing a poem. But just listen. Joe is playing the piano. He almost caught a fish. Art is everywhere, in the air, in the buzz I feel from my third drink. Not every instance of beauty requires a literature to uphold it. For there is already a literature, hovering even in the most immaterial moment, in the acts we commit on our way to heaven.

An aspect of poetry which tends to make me peevish is that it demands for a poet to develop a “style,” or to adhere to a particular school without deviation, simply to make their flair emblematic, or to place their stamp on it. You’ll only come across poets who traverse the landscapes of a variety of styles and schools when they attend flexible classes or workshops and are introduced to flexible teachers who provide assignments which require them not to delimit themselves or their work. One might relegate this sort of teaching philosophy to something which lacks specificity or focus, but in actuality, these experiments are necessary so as not to confine the poet to something which might prove to be limiting, inauthentic, and egregiously mimetic.

All poetry is a mimesis of sorts, according to Aristotle, but this concept should not be misconstrued as imitation of another poet’s “shtick.” Shtick can’t be imitated, especially if what a poet is imitating (or borrowing from) is the other poet’s original interpretation of nature, event, political perspective, and more especially that poet’s experience with love and romance. Aristotle meant that poetry was mimetic of all of things, independent of another poet’s unique perspective. It is not necessary that poets imitate other poets, but that they imitate life.

And I don’t mean “experiment” in terms of what is widely understood in literary circles as “experimental poetry.” The truth is that ALL poetry is experimental. Poetry, in effect, demands a “gymnastics” of language, and the poet should always “refresh” their approach to what they want to say with each new poem. Each poem should be likened to the first poem the poet has ever written.

This is not to say that poets shouldn’t study the variety of approaches, forms, and styles that they have at their disposal. And this is not to say that poets shouldn’t take from each style and include them as ingredients, so to speak, for what they might aim to be an unprecedented “recipe” for a sort of poem that no reader can categorize, claim, or relegate to a particular type, or particular package, simply for the fashion of it. Authentic poetry arises from a sort of selectivity of tropes, forms, and approaches. Otherwise, the poet can claim these, or dispose of them. What peeves me the most is that there is presently a poetry scene which necessitates that there must be an adherence to a fashion or trend, must be a reflection of a particular aesthetic, and anything which defeats or transcends this is not meant to be understood or considered with seriousness.

I long and grieve for Neruda. He was a poet of great integrity, and his poems demonstrate a complexity which few poets attempt in the current poetry scene. While most poets in all schools of poetry laud him, few actually play with what might be an approximated conflation of what we now refer to as language poetry, romantic poetry, lyrical poetry, and a very acute rendering of speculative poetry, in addition to types of poetry which are impossible to classify. Why even classify poetry to begin with? True, poets must be taught to read and attempt to understand other poets. But why subsume their poetry into something that actually spills out around that subsuming into other classifications which even remain indefinite or discontinuous? Some poetry we cannot subsume. If you are poet, and you are following a template, or writing in a stanzaic form which does not coincide with the content of the poem, then consider an alternate approach.

The approach, as I have learned, is in observation and the application of language by way of that observation. I’m often accused of appearing dissociative. The truth is, I have often entered the world that isn’t immediate to the matter at hand, or what is often understood and recognized as the matter at hand. I’m on the moon, the snow is the tears falling from the face of an angel, my husband is a superhero, and when we make love whole cities collapse from the intensity.

When I picked up Neruda, I was impressed, but only because his sentiment seemed familiar to me. When I first began writing poetry, I wrote it blindly, having read the poetry belonging to a variety of “classifications,” but intuited all of these styles and concocted an almost subliminal recipe which somehow defined my poems. I wouldn’t classify my poetry as anything, and perhaps that is my outcry and silent war. Poetry arises and from what the soul demands of the poet, not from some contrived prescription of what poetry SHOULD be.

Poetry is translation–translation of observation into any language that suffices for the experience. It is not word layered onto template, unless you are required to follow a traditional poetic form, and even then, there is room for latitude, or for adapting to something which requires innovation within the limits of syllable, ordering, or poetic rhythm. So let’s now look at Neruda’s poem, “Phantom:”

How you rise up from yesteryear, arriving,
dazzled, pale student,
as whose voice the dilated and fixed months
still beg for consolation.

Their eyes struggled like rowers
in the dead infinity
with hope of sleep and substance
of beings emerging from the sea.

From the distance where
the smell of earth is different
and the twilight comes weeping
in the shape of dark poppies.

At the height of motionless days
the insensible diurnal youth
was falling asleep in your ray of light
as if fixed upon a sword.

Meanwhile there grows in the shadow
of the long passage through oblivion
the flower of solitude, moist, extensive,
like the earth in a long winter.

Here, Neruda managed to capture the winter as something from which something is slyly moving amongst all of this fixedness. Things are lightless, unmoving, frozen, and the “pale student” is the only entity which lends herself to the momentum of winter, under all that stillness. Infinity is “dead.” And in the end, the pale student essentially becomes “the flower of solitude,” the only hope of spring, still enduring what is cold and motionless.

His poem is romantic in a sense, and plays gymnastically with language—language as vehicle for idea and image. The sentiment of Neruda’s poem cannot be imitated, simply because of its authenticity. I am abashed, for I have at once attempted to imitate Neruda’s harnessing of image through language, not by imitation of sentiment or experience with love, but by taking language and twisting it to make music. I am not Neruda, by any means, and would never claim to be.

If you are inspired by a poem or a particular poet, take what you need, and discard the rest. Let your soul fuel the gymnastic play of language in your mind. It might wind up heavy with philosophy, like Neruda’s, or it might wind a narrative love poem, or it might wind up a lyrical ballad. But remain true to something which exists outside the limitations of category, school, or attentiveness to the aspects of the poem which might render it a template, or fill in the blank form, without considering the direction in which your poem demands that you go.

Here is my poem (as you might see, it was impossible to imitate his quatrains, since the poem demanded both four line and five line stanzas, and I was required to speak for the poem without a strictness of structure. I caught my own experience, and probably wound up not sounding like Neruda in the slightest. Yet, the concept still sort of wound up echoing his, if you might be discerning enough to notice this. So mimesis, at times, is subliminal and subconscious, and we often do it unintentionally. The trick is to imitate things completely without intention. We recognize these things afterward–after the seizure of the poem is over):

Shadow of Nightingale

Caught in the delicate epilepsy of love’s casual glance,
the body captivated by imagined tremolos
sings through us, fleshy as humans, cherubic
as products of some God’s insurgency of blackbirds
in a sudden departure from the roof of a church.

Say this and claim the night, let no nightingale haunt you
or steal the bread from the work of your hands,
make me a fleeting thing of peripheral excess,
or leave you cold in its enlarged shadow,
enslaved in itself by a pooling of moonlight.

There was new snow this morning,
undisturbed by footprint or mysterious trail,
silenced by the ministry of sleep’s desertions
from the bustle and exchange of yesterday.

Make me something so holy as girl unhandled,
pulsing the bright blood of desire,
and then ravish me, ravish me, release each of my spirits
from the machinery of my bones, the drudgery
of the mind’s labored language.

Render me woman, inhabitant of the body’s swelling fire,
the womb echoing like a drum,
calling forth an unknowing
of a beginning that never stops beginning.

What inspires us to write poetry?

I would think that the commonly accepted assumption about poets is that if one is a poet, he or she has always been a poet. The obvious question which should follow this then is “Can someone be a poet without having any knowledge of poetry?” “Are we born poets?”

Let’s begin with this:  Most primary, intermediate, and secondary schools include some study of poetry in their curriculums, and yet for the majority of these schools, this is not the primary focus, nor is it rendered a very crucial one.  I suppose my first encounter with poetry was a poem written in a photo album of my formative years by my father and mother:  “I drop, you catch,/ I cry, you fetch,/I kvetch, you kvetch” (cleverly scrawled next to a picture of me, naked, crawling along the carpet).  Of course, this isn’t Pulitzer worthy by current literary standards, but it is actually a good poem in terms of iambic dimeter and rhyme.  If I learned anything about the music and rhythm of poetry (two essential ingredients) during my first reading experiences, it was almost directly related to that three line poem I read over and over again.  In addition, there were nursery rhymes and clapping-song games that we played early on in elementary school: “Miss Susie had a steamboat/the steamboat had a bell/Miss Susie went to heaven/the steamboat went to hell–/–o operator/give me number nine…” etc.  The clever twist about the Miss Susie song was that the words at the end of every fourth line were words that became other words at the beginning of the subsequent line, simply by sound, and so we didn’t get caught singing crass words and obscenities at that young of an age.

Moving on:  In fifth grade, there was a lesson on limericks.  If we read anybody’s famous limerick, it must not have been very memorable, since I couldn’t right now recite one or provide a poet’s name to help contextualize this point.  But I did learn to write a limerick myself, and incidentally won first prize for the limerick’s address to dental hygiene and its advantages. It must have been a good poem, but my memory is foggy and I couldn’t right now recall any of the lines, except that it was handwritten on the lines inside the shape of a very big bicuspid.

In sixth grade, as a part of “The Odyssey of the Mind” competition, my team and I rewrote and parodied the words to a William Blake poem: “William Blake ate too much cake…” etc.  I turned into a wild dramatic production with me as writer/director and the four other members of my team as actors, set designers, and costumers.

I don’t know the psychology behind how people train for and develop an ear for poetry, but some of these things must have been of the essence.  In the eighth grade, my final project was an assignment to write a book of twenty poems.  At that point, I assumed, like most adolescents do that poetry was supposed to be sad.  So one of the two poems I remember from that book was a narrative about two of my friends who were very close to one another, until one of them (Betsy) was killed instantaneously when the driver of a car hit her.  I thought (at the time) that it was a fantastic poem.  I included details.  I infused the poem with emotional tropes.

The other poem I remember from that book was partially stolen from one of my parents’ inspirational book of love poems from the 1960s.  “Each line in the poem began “Love is”…(with ellipsis, and followed by some simile, and then following an anaphoric structure until the end).  So I ripped off the anaphoric structure, took some of the poet’s similes and then wrote some of my own.  I feel terrible about this.  I don’t remember the other poems, but they were all original poems written by me.  I don’t have any idea why I stole that poem.  I guess because that was the first year that I was beginning to appreciate poetry as a serious craft, and the poem inspired me enough for me to want to have been the one who wrote it.

But poetry really didn’t get me to see like a poet until my freshman year of high school: to read a poem and want to understand all the necessary complexities, paradoxes, and layers of meaning that prevail if that poem is well crafted.   I stumbled upon Rita Mae Brown’s novels that summer at the local library, and read all of them out by the swimming pool at our house.  I wasn’t a lesbian, but found myself oriented toward women.  Part of it was an adolescent phase, and must have been since I am now happily married to a man.  Anyway, Brown’s characters were typically lesbians (“Rubyfruit Jungle,” the most prominent) and the whole idea about a sexuality with which I was not familiar fascinated me, simply for the theory of it.  After devouring all of her novels, I went to the bookstore and promptly bought a book of her poems.  The poem that finally made me want to be a disciplined poet went like this:

The difference between
my little cat and I
is that I know
I am going to die.

It occurred to me after I read it that cat’s are simply not conscious of their own mortality, and that the speaker (or so it is implied) must want to be like her cat, because it is easier not to be aware of things we would rather not think about or consider.  It had me thinking that if humans just died, and had no precognition that it was one day going to happen, it might save us a lot of grief.  So the speaker was longing for this ignorance, which makes implicit a sort of inner struggle between awareness and wanting to remain unaware–wanting to be something other than herself–wanting not to know death as well as she believes she does.  There is a struggle in the forward momentum of life, the idea of further life or long life deflected by her fear of a finality and the ineluctable condition of mortality which guarantees that we are going to die.  She seems to be addressing the idea of inevitability. And the frank way that the statement is made requires that we think a bit about why the speaker would deflect or ignore the frightening details and rather turn it into a philosophical question which forces us to examine our own relationship to our mortality, while at the same time considering the curious manner in which cats exist, without, according to the speaker, the precognition that they are going to die, or the memory of having been born.

So this brief four-line poem made seriously consider writing poetry.  Through the years following my encounter with Rita Mae Brown’s poem, I’ve read nearly all of the major poets (and some minor) in the cannon.  I have made poetry a daily discipline: coffee in the morning, a banquet of words to choose from, and the assurance that my heart is beating for something cats don’t know–to live, to love, and to always have the luxury of defining and redefining a purpose for this, with poetry as the venue to let the speaker speak, because it is no less than vital and necessary.

This morning, after waking up earlier than usual and drinking the gas station coffee that my husband bought for me (I love gas station coffee), I settled into the enormous chair at my desk in front of my computer.  Suddenly, I had no idea what I meant to do.  It occurred to me that if a poet or writer is to develop discipline, he or she must have some sense of assignment.  And so bereft of direction or purpose, I called downstairs to my husband and asked him to provide me with an assignment.  He said, “Write an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and enter the poem in a new way.”  It sounded interesting to me, but ultimately too huge of a project to suddenly launch into at 6:30 in the morning.

The truth is that as writers and poets, we all discover what it is that we want to write about by what presents itself to us as a deviation from an assignment, or a method of getting around an assignment in order to actually fulfill the assignment.  I needed my husband to provide me with an assignment, not because I wanted the confinement of specificity or structure, but because I needed the inspiration to begin from somewhere, even if where I began was completely unrelated to the assignment.  From where does a poem arise?  I think for each of us, our poems are born by way of our own mysterious processes.  And yet when we attempt to intentionally enter into mystery, we often don’t know where to begin, nor do we even understand the mystery.

When I am without a formal assignment or prompt, it’s like attempting to trespass on something where there is no territory to trespass.  I’ll stare out the window at the evergreen tree in our backyard and hope that the first line will somehow be infiltrated into my consciousness simply by sitting still.  This is a peculiar device which is contingent upon the premise of “waiting for something to happen.”  I’ll watch the sun spread itself on the snow, and then slip again into the shadows.  Once in awhile, our neighbor will wander through the backyard with her dog.  Yesterday, I heard two rifle shots.  And then sometimes there are divine moments when a flock of geese will fly over the river and honk out a cacophonous sound.

But sometimes, nothing happens.  I bite at my cuticles and wallow about being blocked for the rest of my life.  So here’s a trick: I’ll pick up somebody’s book of poems and read something they’ve written.  I’ll find two compelling words, or perhaps just one.  And then I’ll begin the poem with those one or two words and see if it inspires me.  After all, words implicate ideas, and if you begin sorting through all the words that pass through your mind, you’re bound to eventually come up with a phrase.  Once you have a phrase, the trick is in contextualizing it into story, concept and form.  But the other trick is, it’s probably not a good idea to write poems deliberately.  Some of the best lines and images are often not deliberate.  We arrive at them completely by accident, and that it what makes them resonant, entertaining, and unique.

Even mechanisms like enjambment and rhyme are better when they aren’t deliberate.  Once I wrote a poem all in slant rhyme and wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it.  The fantastic thing about having a husband who is both a poet and a critic is that after he reads a poem that I wrote, he exposes it as conceptually complex, as if I had determined the concept before I began to write it.  He has an uncanny knack for seeing the poet’s intentions even as the poet is unaware of them.  He sees the consciousness of the poem. I am never conscious of the poem’s concept until someone has the insight to see it as a whole and complete entity, operating in terms of oppositions, disparities, and reconciliations.  This is why I think it is the poet’s advantage not to outline or premeditate a concept before the poem actually conceptualizes itself.

So what is my assignment this morning? Oh, right “Frost at Midnight.”  So the first line (which is one of my favorites in the annals of all poetry) “The frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind” is Coleridge’s very perspicacious manner of identifying something in nature and personifying it so that it retains its ethereality. The irony is that the very idea of something “performing” almost implies that there would be something auditory involved—something perhaps loud and showy, and yet the frost performs in silence.  In fact, as the whole poem is somewhat of a performance of nature, all of this is performed without sound, except in two places.  First, “the film that fluttered on the grate,” (“the sole unquiet thing”).  What Coleridge achieves by emphasizing the only thing in this performance which makes any sound is the reinforcing of just how quiet everything else is.  The second place in the poem which references noise is only in the memory of the church tower, “Whose bells [are] the poor man’s only music.”  What this does is juxtapose the quiet of the present with the memory of a great influx of music, thus also reinforcing the calm and soundless moments of the poem.  The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon” allows us to actually “hear” the quiet moon shining, along with contrast of the fading echo of those church bells and the almost indecipherable fluttering of film on the grate.

So, was Coleridge thinking consciously that he would juxtapose quiet with sound in order to reinforce these mysterious performances of nature?  I doubt it.  A poet never writes a poem with the intention of predetermining how any given reader will interpret it.  A poet should never say, “this is how my poem should be interpreted.”  The poem is simply an extension of the poet’s arbitrariness, and often, if the poem is good, it doesn’t even make sense to the poet.  After that, it is up for grabs and out of the poet’s hands.  No one will ever know what the poet was thinking.  But, they can conjecture and twist it into the meaning which suits the poem as a whole, whether by imposition or simply innocuous speculation.

The way I would harness this poem as inspiration for my own poem would not be to say, “I think I’ll write a poem about the way nature performs,” or “I want to juxtapose quietness and sound.”

I would take the word “ministry” and the idea of the slumbering infant, ascribe it to a present situation and begin like this:

For the time being, we will exist in separate rooms
lest we should be inattentive to the literature.
The hidden ministries of our holy languages
spin their separate webs–
allow our imaginary child to sleep without babble or fuss–
allow the morning to call itself into its order.

There is no trumpeting or wail–
no storm or fallen branch–
no love that desires itself more
than the awareness
that I can hear you drop a coin by accident
in the other room.

So for now, I think I have more or less completed a part of my husband’s assignment, and that assignment has provided me with a sense of orientation. And it was exactly that orientation I needed in order to disorient myself.  And yet, by way of that disorientation, I still managed to address the Coleridge poem.

Since I began writing this, not a thing has occurred in the backyard, except that the sun slipped into a winter shadow.  But I did hear my husband’s coin drop.  I don’t know what that really means in the context of the poem, and yet I have a vague idea that it means I can be assured with the certainty that he is there.  I didn’t say that explicitly in the poem because I was hoping that this might be implied.  But the poem is out of my hands now.  It spoke for an occasion, and the occasion has been documented.  So now I must wait for the next occasion.  After I make my husband breakfast.  :-)

The distinction between what it is that constitutes the “amateur” poet and what constitutes the “expert” is slippery, yet should be considered in an extensive discussion.  To begin, let me address the amateur’s typical testimonies:  “I write to express my emotions,” or “No, I would never show my poetry to anyone!”  The truth is that all poets want readers.  One of the differences between the amateur and the expert is that the amateur feels he is at the risk of exposing something “personal” about himself, and is hesitant because he feels he will either be made to feel vulnerable or will be relegated to the subject of ridicule, while the expert, on the other hand, disguises and crafts his poetry through a language and imagistic lens which allows him to remain distanced from the poem, and what the poem speaks to.  If a novice poet wants to be recognized, it is usually not about inventiveness of metaphor or image, but because he wants not feel so alone, because he wants someone to know his pain, and because perhaps, he is masking as someone who resists conformity or is practicing all the semiotics of how he assumes a poet should present himself to the world.

Let me elaborate.  When I was a high school student in the tenth grade, I ate my lunch alone in one of the cubicles in the library, wore “goth” clothing, and pierced my own ears with a sterilized safety pin. The trouble with wearing your pain in a semiotic costume is that the person wants to be noticed, and often times saved.  Eventually a teacher noticed me and told me that I ought to be writing poetry.  So I wrote horrendous poems and prayed to God that someone cared about my inner turmoil.  I’ve seen this plenty of times with high school students, and even freshman college writers.  Why do poets insist that they are required to write about their own pain?  Maybe it is because pain is more intriguing than writing about a Christmas that goes along merrily and just as planned, or because since the punk rock era, pain is “fashionable.”

The expert poet might be in pain, but somehow has learned not to indulge in it.  He has taken poetry workshops and knows that he must mask this pain behind an exterior that appears normalized, and not sit around the workshop table sulking.  He has learned not have a nervous breakdown when someone attacks his poem, because it is neither “professional” nor socially appropriate. He knows how to assume an air of aloofness or arrogance where it is necessary.  He knows how to cajole publishers and editors with a subtle charisma.  In some respects, he has lost his innocent and bleeding heart to “the business.”

Here is where the amateur exhibits more authenticity.  He has not surrendered himself to competition or the battlefield of what he wants to seem like effortless metaphor and allusion.  The amateur simply wants to be recognized as human, with something to say, and not necessarily for any other audience other than that mentor (and we have all had those) who will assume the role of therapist, or savior, or suicide prevention official.  The problem with this is that the poetry gets lost in the need to feel important.

So the expert is made to feel important by extensive publications, and laudation, not necessarily for the poet himself as person, but for his brilliant rhetorical tactics.  The amateur poet might write about the “hissing wind” as opposed to “anorexic women floating away in the wind,” and this might be so important to him that his heart breaks.  So does the almost ersatz recognition of twenty editors make the expert feel better for his gratified ego, or does this just leave him feeling empty, in that unrequited manner he can’t expose behind his flashing smile?  Does he want to be loved for his humanity or for the name on the page?

The truth is, no one can take a name on a page out for a romantic dinner.  A poet CAN be taught to twist his pain into clever metaphor and image, but at the same time, must have healthy relationship to his sanity.

The advantage of being married to another poet who recognizes me for my humanness and also (the horror) loves me more than he loves my poetry is that I know I can break down in a hysterical fit of tears over nothing, while at the same time he can say, “edit the lineation in the poem.”  I am by far an expert, though I have been fortunate to attract the literary eye of many editors.  Suffice it to say that the recognition of my work can never be a substitute for the love that my husband gives to me.  It is certainly fantastic to have your work recognized, but if you don’t have someone to make you less alone, and someone who recognizes your pain as something he wants to save you from, than the idea of real human interaction is obliterated.

My advice to both amateurs and experts: care for yourself first.  If the roof caves in and you walk outside your front door some morning to find a dead raccoon, write about it.  If you go to a carnival and the balloons look lonely, investigate why.  Tell your loved one about the lonely balloons in your sleep, and then sigh when he kisses you and makes the balloons seem less lonely.  Tell him that the instrumental version of “C’mon it’s Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with You” upsets you because of the sound of the whip against the reindeer’s posterior.  But never lose your wanderlust, and be naïve about the world.  Do not indulge in the pain of having no one show up for your fortieth birthday celebration in literal terms.  Personify the wall or the tea kettle.  See yourself as a medium, and speak through objects and images which might implicitly reveal your pain, but not render it the primary focus of the poem.  Speak through “things.”  Speak through “event,” as a bystander and unassuming observer.  Be the corner of the room where the dust gathers.  And never underestimate the amateur poet.  Cater to his insanity.  As an editor, in the words of my husband, “see what the poem wants to say or do.”  Regard the poem as an extension of someone whose voice must be crafted in order to be heard.  Poetry, as necessity, should never neglect the person behind the poem.

One of the most curious aspects about poetry is that the element of “truth” presented in any given poem is never stable.  With this in mind, the truth that the reader must accept at face value is constructed by the poet out of his or her organic impulses, and must be credible simply because the poet pronounces that it is.  A question with which I have been wrestling for years is the idea that the poet and the “speaker” are possessed by two distinct and disconnected identities.  What I find fascinating is that I can read a poem about death, sadness, and strife, and in some cases, the suffering of the speaker, and then meet and converse with the poet who always seems to be a contented and well-adjusted individual.  This might evince the possibility that the speaker is not always espoused to the poet, but is rather something of the poet’s alternative identity.

In certain instances, this is not the case.  The idea that the speaker is the poet condemns the poet to a great deal of inner turmoil. The content of some poems would suggest then that poet as speaker is ailed with madness.  So why, when I go to poetry events do the poets all seem like regular people?  Why aren’t they screaming in the streets about their hallucinations?

As poets, I think we all must surrender to hallucinations.  There are those who will attest that every poet must be possessed by a bit of madness.  When I feel too “sane” I find it difficult to produce a good poem.  But if all poets harness that little bit madness when they write, then what they write must be fully believed as true.  The irony in this is that we don’t know exactly whether the poem then becomes a “lie,” later on when we go to the grocery store and happily shop for hamburger meat without breaking into sobs for the plight of the cows.  We just go through the check-out line with our meat, exchange pleasantries with the cashier, go home and cook dinner.  It seems almost dangerous to retain a bit of that madness when interacting with the percentage of unpoetic minds.

I once read a poem in which the speaker claims that he spent three days in a closet and then solved most of the world’s problems.  So I imagined that this was actually true of the poet.  I wonder if this was true, and if after he emerged from his sabbatical in the closet, he drove his kids to school, cleaned the house, and paid his taxes.  So is it perilous for the poet to become the speaker?  I don’t know.  If a poet writes about standing on a cliff and contemplating whether or not to jump, do we check the poet into the psychiatric unit?  Or do we send an imaginary speaker to the psychiatric unit?

If the poet puts on a mask in order to inhabit the madness and grandiosity of the speaker, then what is it in us that can allow us to go out, eat our dinner politely, and carry on a conversation about recipes and yoga?  Where does the poet go when she writes about being somebody’s shadow and love letters up in flame?  How does she then give a reading in a bookstore where they are serving punch and cookies and not be denounced for her schizo-affective depression?  How does she then shake hands and sign books and smile?  Does she go home and tear off all the wallpaper in a fit of despair and then swallow two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka?  Or does she just write about doing this?

Because honestly, most would say that a poem about tearing off all the wallpaper and swallowing two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka is much more interesting than just saying “I forgot to brush my teeth last night.”  So must the speaker live through the poet?

I don’t know.  But we can make our dental neglect interesting, without endangering our own lives.  If the speaker takes over, then what the speaker claims is true is true, and as readers, we must accept this truth.  Someone once told me that all poets are liars.  If this is the case, then what are they lying about?  Does the poet lie through the speaker or does the poet lie about her sanity while buying hamburger meat?  Obviously, the former is more compelling.

I have arrived at the conclusion that poets, then, must have a handle on their madness in order to work with publishers.  Publishers don’t care about your mental instabilities.  They don’t care if you woke up and had a nervous breakdown because you forgot to brush your teeth last night.  They care about metaphor, allusion, command of language.  They care about what readers would appreciate as quality poetry.  So must we assume this madness in order to write and then tell the psychiatrist that everything is going along swimmingly?  Must we write about spending three days solving the problems of world in a closet, or must we really do so?  How far must we go to procure truth?

This is what I mean when I say that the truth is constructed, and through that, an identity from which we may be disconnected.  We must carry our speakers around like children and care for them.  If our speakers die, or say that they died in the poem, then the poet must go on living, liberated from strife.  She must buy hamburger meat.  She must brush her teeth.  She must tear off all the wallpaper, in her mind. And she must always emerge from the madness of the poem into a sense of normalcy, whatever that normalcy is, if normal at all.