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Special Education

every morning the machine hands us a hiccuped torch.
recycled failures of the week, the year, the decade before.
cc’d emails collect a swollen desk. an asbestos-lined ceiling
fan stains a memory of the time when a senator, a congresswoman,
and a community member vowed to fight this Brooklyn machine
with the rigor of a Long Island PTA mother. but I am on the front-lines.
every morning i look for answers in their epic eye gazing, repetitive self-injuries,
and empty vocalizations.

____________________________________
Jessica Abel is a Speech Therapist based in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her B.S. in English Literature from S.U.N.Y Binghamton and M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from New York Medical College. She is currently pursuing her M.S. in School Leadership. She is a lover of adolescent literature and music (think Judy Blume and Lorde).

I remember the 90s much better than the 80s because the 90s pissed me off. First, everyone started going grunge, but hell, I had worn flannels and work boots, and funky ski caps back in the friggin 70s and no one gave me credit for it. They told me I was a sloppy dresser. I was surly and moody, too, and took a dim view of humankind, and then along comes Generation X acting as if they had invented flannels and boots and baggy-assed jeans with holes in them, and the Fugs, and did they give me any credit? Well, Do you know Generation X to ever give anyone credit? They just bitch and moan about how greedy the baby boomers are, and then they bitch and moan about the human condition, and then they go gentrify some urban neighborhood, jacking up the rents, and filling it with health food stores and everyone looks very thin and very ungrateful. The 90s actually began in the late 80s. In Hoboken, they had already burned the poor out of their shit boxes and renovated the shit boxes. Then the artists started complaining it was too expensive to live in Hoboken anymore (They were right). They were replaced by surly Wall Street brokers disguised as artists. So the artists either moved to Jersey City or to Alphabet City (this was before Brooklyn) and I had a brief business with my friend Marco, helping artists move out of Hoboken. We had a pickup truck and a willingness to suffer. Lion claw bath tubs were all the rage, and, it being Hoboken in the late 80s/very early 90s, there was a whole field of old lion claw bathtubs. We moved that field of bath tubs. We moved it hither and yonder, but mostly to Alphabet City where the police were starting to beat up homeless folks in Tompkins Square Park because white people wanted to replace Puerto Ricans and turn Alphabet city into a safe, hip, organic, faux bohemian version of Disneyland Manhattan. White people are scared of homeless people. Did we do that? The white folks say. Of course not, we know everything there is to know, and we have read all of Howard Zinn and Chomsky. We also ride antique bicycles and act circumspect, skinny and beautiful in countless indie movies. Lets get these eye sores who will molest our cute children out of here! And that meant we got to move a whole field of antique bathtubs at the same time they were beating up homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. By the 90s I had been in the factory for years but had gotten more involved in poetry. I started running the Baron Arts Center poetry readings, and, for a while, the demographic included a lot of good looking 20 something and early 30 something people from New Brunswick (this is because slam and the brat pack had made poetry cool for a brief period). I finally had lovers in the 90s–just as my good body was going to seed and becoming a bad body. As I recall people thought muffins were good for you at the beginning of the 90s, and bad for you by the end of the 90s. I lived in the North End of Elizabeth on the border of Newark, and it was a good neighborhood for espresso, for Portuguese food, for Cuban food, for slightly burned on the top custards, for baseball games played by kids at night under lights, for Portuguese grandmothers all dressed in black with ankles the size of pit bulls going to mass, and going to the laundry mats, and scrubbing their section of sidewalks on their hands and knees. Allen Ginsberg was later buried in that neighborhood. The grandmothers grew to like me and suggested I give up baggy flannels and jeans for nice shirts with alligators on them and chinos. Then, they said, a good woman might like me. Somewhere around 1989 to 1991 yuppies tried to move into Elizabeth, but it was old world, with real bodegas and botanicas, and no brownstones. Elizabeth had the wisdom to replace most of its brownstones with fast food joints in the 1970s. Affluent bohemians need tin ceilings. All my friends and me had ripped off most of the tin decades ago. So we didn’t get gentrified. Plus, people actually had jobs in Elizabeth and could not be beaten by the cops who were their nieces and nephews and sons and daughters. Affluent bohemians who read Zinn and Chomsky can only take over your neighborhood if you’re broke and look dangerous. We didn’t look dangerous. We just looked like we ate too many custards. I liked the 90s. My cousin Ed had come to live with me in 1989/90 and had left me some good furniture (at a cost above what he had paid for it I later found out). Ed was gay and very good looking and had a bum of the month club. Ed was a player. These guys were very sweet and some would call me crying after Ed dumped them, and I’d have them over for coffee while Ed worked as a limo driver. I’d pray with them. I’d tell Gene, my favorite of Ed’s victims, that Ed suffered a traumatic childhood, and he was not ready for true intimacy. I did their Tarot cards. They said the same thing the grandmothers did: why don’t you dress better? Ed and the one ex he was still friends with took me out to a mall and forced me to buy stone washed jeans and a whole bunch of other stuff I probably ruined in the laundry. This was years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out. When Ed left, he gave me a true compliment: “Joe, you’re the only person I didn’t pick a fight with in order to move out. I love you.” “Same here, Ed.” We parted on good terms, and it was only a couple years later that I realized what a deal he’d made on the furniture. By then, he had entered the seminary (Ed had flare). He later left the seminary and became a good teacher in Jersey City. (He had put my ratty furniture in storage in a wet cellar when he moved in. It could not be redeemed). I remember that I looked forward to hearing music again in the early 90s because it was just like music in the late 60′s and early 70s only slower and muddier and full of the surly nihilism that later became real and cheerful sociopathy in the 2000′s. I liked it. I also liked the Salsa music I started listening to: Ruben Blades especially. There was a salsa club just up the block from me and sometimes I’d go there with Cuban church members and get my groove on (which was not much of a groove considering I was a grunge white boy usually in flannels). My stone washed jeans and dress shirts made me sort of acceptable, and so I remember the 90s as a time of bridging many worlds and of steady work. I worked the night shift at National tool. We had a temporary bubble of prosperity in the 90s so the foremen stayed off my ass and I made my rate, made bonus, got overtime, and threw parties for my poetry friends. I also started taking people in–temporarily–when they needed it. I took in a guy named Jim who was slightly OCD, spoke six languages, and who, I found out later, liked pain. A woman I sometimes saw, sort of, had laid eyes on Jim, spoke French with him, and fell immediately in love. He left that day, taking his garbage bag full of clothes to move in with her, and then a month later, she called me up one night and said, “Why didn’t you tell me Jim was a masochist?” I said, “I didn’t know.” She said, “I don’t mind” but I really would like to do more than beat him up.” It turned out his ex roommate who lived down the block, this older man, had been his abusive lover and had broken Jim’s ribs a few times. This man later turned up dead, and Jim disappeared from the scene. I don’t know if he murdered the guy. So that was one person I took in. I took in homeless folks for a night, especially if they could cook, and I took in friends who were temporarily on the skids. I took in my sister and niece, and then they split to Florida. That’s when it occurred to me I was terribly lonely. My best friend, Joe Salerno died in 1995. That ended the 90s for me, the way Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended the 90s for others. The New Brunswick people became part of the exodus to Manhattan, and then Brooklyn (when Alphabet City became too expensive). The Democratic party, my own Democratic party sold me down the sewer with NAFTA. I remember the 90s as the decade in which the lifestyle blue state Democrats screwed over working class guys like me as badly as the Reagan folks did in the 80s. These new dems were people who saw themselves as “creative” and artistic and outside the box. They were entrepreneurs. They honestly thought they were all going to be Steve Fuckin Jobs–Zen masters of geek and slave masters of outsourced labor. They were the true grandchildren of the beats and saw pudgy white factory workers as so “post.” They completely ignored the fact that, by then, most of the factory workers were the very black and brown and yellow folks they pretended to champion. This was the decade of “post.” Everything was post. The music went bad again, and Madonna became a children’s book author. It never occurred to the white bobos, for all their reading of Chomsky and Zinn, and their “poor” bohemian lifestyles, and their tuva singer concert tickets that they had totally killed what little chance was left for unions, for worker’s rights, or for the real poor–not the “I’m a grad student and can always move back with my parents on Long Island” poor. Well, now, about 20 years down the line, those parents are old and there is no place to move back to, and being white is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember the 90s as being the decade where white liberals had one last fling. It is easy to live on salad with two room mates when you’re 25. It gets tired at 35. And tragic at 45. So it goes. Many married and are now eating salads on Long Island, or in some southern city like Nashville, so I don’t feel that sorry for them. I call these people knowers. They know everything. They don’t know half of what the old grandmothers knew in the North End: scrub your side walk. Love your family. Have nice times. Take care of the sick. Even with the coolest bicycles on earth and a basket full of veggies, you are going to die.

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:

thethefirstlinesoriginalpoetry

Others responded with some published and famous works:

thethefirstlinesfamouspoetry

While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!

 

Ariana Nadia Nash is a poet of the body, like Neruda, like Whitman, but her poems do not move with Neruda’s desire-driven caprice, nor do they swell with Whitman’s electric and expansive equation of body and soul. Rather, they proceed with the structured precision of a surgeon (the title of her prize-winning collection is revealing in this regard: Instructions for Preparing Your Skin).

The first poem below, “To Hold the Body in My Hand,” begins with: “I peel back my skin and scoop.” From there it carefully probes down the page in measured lines that one can’t help but read softly and slowly–an effect of the low enjambment and elaborative syntax (Scoop what? “The origins out of my self.” Like what? “Like embryonic papaya seeds.” From where? “From the center of the fruit”).

The relationship with the body in this poem is recursive and seemingly paradoxical: one can both be and have a body, and for a body to fulfill its purpose, it must be exposed, it must rot. I am reminded of a stanza from Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewel,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

Nash’s poem “Unnamed” takes the idea of holding the body to a more literal level: holding a child, which is both a piece of and a continuation of one’s own body. Again the paradox: the releasing of this body (bluntly, infanticide) is not something that can be released. Again, the recursive turn. In these poems, Nash invites us to feed upon our own bodies, to savor our rotting, and in so doing, to glimpse our own “progenitive seed.”

To Hold the Body in My Hand

I peel back my skin and scoop
the origins out of myself
like embryonic papaya seeds
from the center of the fruit.
No different than
the condensation of sky
into rain, the moss-crept
stone house, the compost—

bodies everywhere exposed
to their own being.

The same rainbow-grey
of fish-scales, the shriveled
density of cloves—I am inside
out and desiccating, everywhere
expanding with scent.

This the carious flesh, I say,
this the progenitive seed.

Unnamed

I should have used
a burlap sack and weighed it down
with rocks but her skin was so soft
and the cloth harsh
and bristly Wrinkled mouths whispered
while I was swelling
that I should burn her (if she was
a her) as a sacrifice
but I didn’t
want her in flecks of ash
and wisps Now I almost wish I had
left her swaddled by the road But
no one else would take her and
as I stirred soup and let it steam
I would have heard her cry as she slowly
starved to death
and that would have reminded me
if she died
this way I saved her
from nothing She would call
my blood to my skin across the distance
bruising me rotten What I’ve done
instead though was too cruel to me
It comes to me this night again—
holding her under clear water
holding her until
her limbs shuddered and fell limp
and I smiled so the last
sight she ever saw
was her mother’s face sweetly
waving through the water

________________________________________________________
Ariana Nadia Nash is the winner of the 2011 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her collection Instructions for Preparing Your Skin (Anhinga Press, 2012). She is also the author of the chapbook Our Blood Is Singing (Damask Press, 2011). She is a recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and a MacDowell Colony residency. Her work has been published in Rock & Sling, Poet Lore, Cimarron Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Southeast Review, among other journals.

Augustine never says an angel spoke to him. Rather it is a child nearby:

I heard a voice from a neighboring house. It seemed as if some boy or girl, I knew not which, was repeating in a kind of chant the words: “Take and read, take and read.” Immediately with changed countenance (note the physical “converts” first. He is in the midst of violent weeping when he hears the voice). I began to think intently whether there was any kind of game in which children sang those words; but I could not recollect that I had ever heard them. I stemmed the rush of tears, and rose to my feet; for I could not think but that it was a divine command to open the Bible, and read the first passage I lighted upon.

In terms of revelation, this most well-reasoned church father, this prince of rhetoricians, this ghost that haunts the whole of Derrida is left weeping violently under a fig tree and allowing the chanting voice of some gender undetermined child to determine the course for the rest of his life. So…is this Magic 8-Ball thinking? Well, to a certain extent, sure, but there is a precedent for such epiphany. For example, Elijah in the cave when he is literally at the end of his tether and does not find God in the mighty roar but in the whispering breeze. There are also the words: “A child shall lead them.” Augustine, being a good persuader, even comes up with a recent precedent for such conversion by words in a moment of transit. He cites St. Anthony (the desert father) who converts upon happening to enter a church where these words from the gospel are being read: “Go, sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”

For Augustine, words are the most malleable and porous of substances. As a master of rhetoric, he knows how they can be bent, distorted, used to flatter, to convince, how empty they are, and yet he is a man of words, and it is by the event of the right words at the right time that he converts. It is written: conversion comes from hearing the word of God.

I think this could be changed to “overhearing” the word of God for, to a certain extent, the will of God in any conversion narrative works like the Eucharist: the actual presence of divine intention under the signs of chance–always the signs of chance. I know someone who converted because, while he was changing a car tire a pouring rain, he cursed: “jesus Christ!” And immediately, for no reason at all, felt a sudden sense of Christ’s presence. He said: “I’d been cursing like that for years, and I was not intending to do anything but take his name in vain, but, for no reason I can think of, my curse was a prayer and he answered it in the middle of the highway. I went to church for the first time that Sunday, and I haven’t missed since.”

Augustine longs for conversion, but his longing must take the form of chance, of the ordinary substance of chance under which hides the extraordinary presence of grace. When the moment of conversion comes, Augustine is not a master rhetorician, not a doctor of the church, not the first creative non-fiction writer: rather, he is a desperate screw up under a fig tree begging God not to delay his conversion any longer. He is in the place of terminus, at the threshold and end of his own effort where grace may act: and grace acts with the same substance that Augustine had used to gain favor with emperors, to seduce women, to lie and outsmart opponents: with words, and not with eloquent words, but with a repetitive, jump rope song: “take and read, take and read.” So under the signs of a child’s repetitive phrase, God’s grace comes to give Augustine the peace nothing in the world can give–the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Still Augustine is not merely passive. He must “hear” these words as the words of God and this is an imagination, a necessary leap into the absurd (some child is speaking for God) that most modern people, even religious folks would caution against. They’d say: “perhaps, but be careful>” They’d say: “faith is not a moment of overwrought emotion.” They’d say a lot of intelligent, well reasoned cautionary stuff, at which time, they’d be unconsciously, doing the work of Satan–for it is hard to see God in a world that no longer believes in Eucharistic reality–that reality of God’s actual presence hidden under the signs of the world–and not only the world, but the most inconsequential and dubious signs of the world–that all of existence might be fired in the kiln of God presence, and yet God is looked for in everything but the voice of some random and genderless child. Our ears, unlike a dog’s, are never at attention. God is always passing, but we hear the sounds of our day and nothing more.

Since I was old enough to remember, I was fascinated by the voice of a child that I always seemed to hear above the din of other children playing blocks away. As a kid, I made up stories that this voice was that of a child who had died a long time ago of some long illness that would not allow him/her to play. After the child died, God allowed the voice of the child to be heard on the street. The child was free to play. If you listened really hard to any group of children playing you could hear this voice.

Often I hear the voice of children playing in the distance.
There is always one voice louder, shriller than the rest.
It cuts through my life and makes its dark incision.
It is the thumb of Father Riordan, pressing home the word.

In this poem, children go to Father Riordan because he thumbs the ashes deep into their foreheads, and they like it. It’s a game: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The narrator of the poem, a nun, remembers her childhood. Father Riordan is long dead. She hears this shrill voice of a ghost child as if it were the thumb of sacramental grace–the sign of her own mortality and God’s presence in the world. This is the child she did not have because she has wed her self to Christ. It is her moment for God to speak to her as her lost child–and to remind her she is dust and shall return to dust, but the voice of the child is eternal.

To read Augustine is to be reminded that humility and majesty are not separate occasions. In lowliness, a person weeps and falls down on the body of Christ and is raised above the angels. This conversion narrative is, like all conversion narratives, both a transcendence upwards and downwards: words become the word, and the word comes to live under the signs of words–the mundane, the overheard, the ambush of a single phrase when our hearts are broken, our ears are desperately alive, and we are ready to hear.

I first encountered Mark Leidner’s poems on Apostrophe Cast in 2007. Those early poems struck me for how they treated absurd corners of cultural ephemera with the utmost seriousness, and in a vernacular language that seamlessly ascended to momentary heights of poetic beauty. And Leidner read them in an incredibly patient and affectless voice. The overall effect: hilarity and existential wonder.

 

Those poems matured into the material in Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me, often becoming more expansive. The first four poems below feel like an evolution in the opposite direction: Leidner distilled. So much complexity is achieved in the interplay of title and poem, where every word counts.

 

The last poem, “Little Children Riding Dogs,” calls back most to the early work in the wonderful flatness of lines like “also I had this idea” and in its insistence on proceeding with the syntactic “and then” drive of a child’s narrative. The poem is exactly as long as it needs to be (a simple compliment, but, I think, hard to achieve for many poets). Its scope and pacing are designed to give breathing room for its content, for Leidner is a poet who can’t help but linger on beauty, and he finds it in the most prosaic phrasings, the simplest ideas. And of course, by the end of the poem, the lingering itself becomes something beautiful to admire. The thought that we thought that thought to begin with. I recommend reading these poems to yourself in a slow, methodical fashion, 3 or 4 times. Don’t be surprised if they take residence in your skull.

 
 
Love

A cardboard sign
climbing through
thunder-

clouds
on the bumper
of a flying

car
that reads
‘tag applied for.’
 
 
 
Manuscript

Slain
love

breathing
dragons.
 
 
 
Human Nature

How large
how well
a perfume

that smelled
like wind
would look

blowing through
the hair
of suffragettes

would sell
looms.
 
 
 
Reading

Biting in-
to a mirror

plated apple.
Finding out

the apple is
mirror all

the way to the core.
 
 
 
Little Children Riding Dogs

I love the idea of children riding dogs so much
to think of how they’d dress them
I want to be a kid again
and ride my dog to elementary school Bucko!
Charley! Rex! Socrates!
and dismount at the school
and send the dog home
also I had this idea
if all the children rode their dogs to school
when they got there at dawn they’d tell their dogs sit
and the dogs would just sit there
all day in the sun
with the shadow of the flagpole like a clock
while inside the children learn
until the bell rings and they burst out of the school
and mount their dogs and ride them home
and some of them get home at dusk
that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever thought.
 
 
________________________________
Mark Leidner is the author of Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) and The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator Press, 2011). @markleidner

I thought since I had to witness a whole bunch of snotty poets dissect the working class poets (or lack thereof) on a thread today, I’d have some fun and brand them as they brand folks like me.

First this is the general gist of what they inferred. All white working class people have disappeared. We don’t really exist and so must be represented by Philip Levine and James Wright–two men who didn’t spend as much time in the factory as they spent teaching at leading universities. They wrote about working class people. We were interesting back in the day. We had clout because class and fashionable communism (not the real thing, but the kind you embrace when you take a theory class) prevailed. Now all we got is the “white working poor,” and we all know those fuckers just show up in photos of fat asses in the people of Wal-Mart and as extras in movies that prove it was working class whites who lynched all the black folks, and the rich white elites tried really hard (they really, really did) to stop them Yeah, Sure. Right.

If every upper middle class southern novelist’s family had been as “different” as they are in the novels, there never would have been Jim Crow. So myth number one: working class white folks no longer exist and that’s a good thing because they lynched all the colored folks while upper middle class whites sang Joan Baez songs and went on secret life saving missions with their black maids to the poor side of town. Uh huh…. Fucking spare me. Now only poor working whites exist and that’s a bad thing because they’re really stupid, have fat asses, and vote Republican, and we all know what that means: they must be sterilized.

My own branding iron on artsy white folks: the first thing artsy white people check out are your clothes, your weight, and your shoes. The next thing they check out is what program you were in and who you studied with. Then they check out where you were published. If it’s a rainy day, and they’re bored, they may even check out what you actually wrote (to make sure its what they write, only different–different in the same way).

Artsy white folks call themselves foodies then waste 60 percent of the shit on their plate. Al dente is misapplied to everything. Everything is almost raw. This allows them to think they are cooking things the right way and showing off their good teeth, yet not eating much because all the chewing tires them out and reminds them they need to up their anti-depressants. Upper middle class white artsy folks do not like soft foods. They like crunch and bite, and things you have to chew for hours. They like soup, but only if its “comfort food.” Artsy white folks use comfort food, the phrase, the way pool players call a safety when they have no shot: it absolves them from being branded working poor. When I eat macaroni and cheese among artsy white folks I say: “I’ve had it rough lately. Time for some comfort food.” It doesn’t work for me because I’m husky and I never order anything I have to chew for more than four seconds. I also don’t wear the right pants.

Artsy white folks still hang out with people who fucked and dumped them and gave head to their best friend. This allows them to feel bitter indefinitely, and say sarcastic, bitter things while pretending they are mature and above holding a grudge. This also allows them to feel that they have real and important issues. Artsy white folks “grow apart.” They “move forward.” They “let go.” For some reason they use some of the same terms in romances as they do in business meetings.

Artsy white folks all try to look like William Hurt or the older Jessica Lange if they are over forty. If they are in their thirties, they all try to look a little like a cross between Natalie Portman and Kathleen Keener. If they are really artsy, they all look like Katherine Hepburn playing Joan of Arc in 400 dollar jeans (both the men and the women). There is always someone who looks like Catherine Keener among their friends, and this person is always mean and funny. Artsy white folks keep a rich supply of mean and funny people around them at all times. These used to be their gay or bi friends, but then they realized this was stereotyping, so now all their gay friends are happily married men or women who wear expensive Irish sweaters and really “grock them.” Mark Doty is always on their book shelves. Artsy white folks know enough not to listen to Pachelbel (though they have hidden him somewhere in the house with the one pack of cigs, and the can of beefaroni). They listen to Philip Glass instead, and, sometimes, even John Zorn. They go to Lyle Lovett concerts even if they never listen to country music. They want the whole country to be Brooklyn, Portland, or Austin, Texas. All artsy white folks eventually live in one of those three places. If they can’t, they live in Jersey City or in Nashville.

All artsy white folks can get really conflicted when the cashier says: Plastic or paper? They have different strategies for dealing with it. Some get haughty and say:”you must be joking,” And then hope the cashier gives them plastic. Others say paper and don’t really mean it. Still others look around quickly, say plastic and live with their decision. If they ever shop at Wal-Mart, they wear a disguise, do it in the dead of night, and make amends the next day by walking in the breast cancer or gay pride parade. They are all green conscious people who lived in the suburbs which destroyed the woods and created the fossil fuel emissions problem. Now, because they said oops and want to solve it, they all think they dance with wolves.They moved back to the cities because they realized the suburbs were a cultural desert and unsustainable. You’ll know when artsy white folks are moving back to your urban neighborhood because both the rents and the police presence goes up and everything starts to resemble a slightly cooler version of White Plains, New York.

Artsy white people might even be amused by this post if they feel superior to me (they do, and I agree with them) They know they are the exception. Artsy white people are always the exception. They hate cops and lawyers and the industrial military complex though they are usually involved in some form of litigation and feel “violated” when someone steals from them, and they do nothing to stop the poor from fighting wars for them. They love equating getting ripped off with being violated. They hate cops even though they are likely to call them first, and they deplore racial profiling, yet count any art house immediately to make sure there is enough of a sprinkling of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and cool white people to be worthy of their presence. They are always lauding people of color yet somehow manage to end up with each other–deploring those unenlightened working class whites and Republicans who give whites a bad name. Along with corporate Republicans, they rule the world, but feel really, really bad about it…you understand? After all some day we will all be living in Agamben’s post-identity community and none of this will matter. An artsy white person who likes you can always be trusted to take you to the “real Mexican restaurant.” That’s one of the things I like about them. Artsy white people are all knowing, and always know the real Mexican restaurant. They always know what’s real. After all, they invented it.

I have always admired how Jay Thompson’s poems approach meaning by backing away from it, inhabiting that paradox of quantum observation, that one’s gaze affects reality. In this excerpt from Winter, it is not the superfice, but the essence that is mutable: “day to day only essences change”. A counter-intuitive statement, which perhaps makes more sense if one conflates appearance with essence in an act of reduction, a refusal of the platonic, an offering of respect for each individual thing. Jay Thompson’s metaphysics is not that of Robert Hass, where “each particular erases / the luminous clarity of a general idea,” where the presence of something unique is a “tragic falling off from a first world / of undivided light.” In Thompson’s conception, there are as many essences as there are things and so the act of observation takes on a kind of sacred eros: “how long / since looking on a thing felt / like a perfection of desire”. Thompson refuses to master the things he observes, to subjugate them to meaning. And yet, we are met with phrases like “unborn factory pigs,” “the sunset’s medical bankruptcy,” and “paper blood,” which complicate these poems. They are half-seen intrusions from a world of political and social consciousness, but they do not impose meaning on the observational subjects of his poems. Rather, they reveal that even a choice as small as the poet’s when he chooses what to observe, be it his toddler or the tree out his window, has grand implications for our fraught lives.

Five poems from Winter
 

unborn factory pigs
queue at the gates of life
a thin moon sees
my toddler talk to his sister
the spider
my bitter and shiftless spirit came
before the bad world
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
another November I still
haven’t learned the tree out
my window’s name
its achey
paint-well yellow how long
since looking on a thing felt
like a perfection of desire
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
day to day only essences change
this is the same homey tone of skin
same plain-blown blossoms
I’ve been living
where voluptuous weeds
bloom to swallow the money
and stunt the white-collar skill set
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Mark I’m not coming downstairs
but I love you and agree to
debase myself and my sense of time
the billboard deadheads its basil brother
the sunset’s medical bankruptcy
forgets my conscientious
spending of paper blood
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
he asks who killed me but I stay silent
my child’s child’s child
alert in the mulberry and shelves of coral
frightens me
his small laughter makes me sick
you’re waiting for me to make this a story about mastery and meaning
but I won’t
 
 

______________________
Jay Thompson
teaches poetry to women incarcerated at King County Jail, co-edits the journal Thermos, and plays guitar in Princess Seismograph. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

First tree I met yesterday turned out to be a black cherry–a friend I remembered from working at National Tool and Manufacturing. We had one on the fence border of the factory. Black cherries, originally a tree of the deep forest thickets, loves sunlight, and is what they call a pioneer tree: it will grow with black walnuts and other such sun loving trees on the borders of farms, or old orchards, and on the outer areas of thickets. It’s a late bloomer (flowering as late as June) and its bark which has been described as resembling thick charred corn flakes, and the rather tortuous path of its branches makes it look like a tree struck down by lightning–burnt to a crisp.

In winter location and bark is the best way to identify it. No farmer would purposefully plant it as a windbreak so the young trees with their smooth more typically cherry tree like bark are seldom seen. What you’re likely to see is a tree of a hundred years or more. There’s a reason farmers don’t always like them: their leaves contain the chief agent used in making cyanide (as do the seeds) and they can poison cattle. The reason you find them on the borders of farms is because, in their younger days, their bark is very similar to normal cherries or other desirable windbreak trees. They sometimes grow too thick to be fully cut down. The outer trees remain. Because they are a pioneer, they’ll also grow with Beech and other trees that are the first to move into a burned area of woods.

What I like best about black cherries is how ugly they are, how fully without life or merit they seem until flowering in June. They look charred and their branches go willy-nilly in search of the light. Sometimes they have blisters and boils and large humps. When they do leaf and flower their fragrance rivals the smell of lilacs and Linden trees. I used to go over to the black cherry at lunch time when it flowered and take in the scent, try to carry it back with me into the plant. Even had a poem about it, about Esau and his brothers.

At any rate, the twigs smell of almonds if broken off. The fruits are tart but retain some sweetness and they are now finding out these sour cherries are super foods, containing the highest levels of anti-oxidants. This is one tree I would definitely tell my kids not to swallow the seeds of (no one wants a kid to take in cyanide, no matter how low the dosage). Birds do, and that’s often how black cherry travels–by the process of “Scarification” (carried in the shit of birds).

So this is a tree that looks like shit, and whose seeds are carried in shit and yet its timber is the cherry wood used for making the most expensive cabinets, its fruits contain super amounts of antioxidants. The flowers have an amazing fragrance. It’s a very poetic tree insofar as its value, like the value of poetry, is not readily available. To see it in winter is to see a, charred, dead looking thing with equally dead vines and wild grape leaves still clinging to it. My kind of tree!

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?

2.

Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.

4.

So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?

5.

See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

6.

“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”

7.

Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)

Sources

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

From Chris: Mark Conway’s poems refuse to sit still, even when, or perhaps especially when talking about stillness. The double colons and forward slashes that punctuate these lines seem to me to operate like the stutter or dip of a manual transmission shifting into higher gear, propelling the poem forward. The poem below is about memory (and a particular memory) and how it remains kinetic within its stasis “in the time of the mind,” which shares the mutability of dreams, where rain becomes silk and silk, skin, where the brain is a “pulsing / pink worm that pulls in / all it sees.” In some sense, this poem is playing on loop, and I think you might do well to read it that way.

in the orchard

*

in the time of the mind
memories fall
like regimes ::
lamplights glance off the streets of the lost districts / varnished
by epochs of rain
remember it all / so / vivid
and dim
remember _____the night
when rain turned
to silk and the silk changed to skin
in the shank of the orchard
just the width
of a soul?
rumors of futures were blown down
like clouds dripping
from trees;
we stayed and lived –
for a while –
still as a house

**

or start instead –
later / after
the fall – the snow studded
with starlings and half-
rotted fruit –
the slick floor of the orchard seethed
with fog wrung
from the snow:
the child was there / the one
to unfold – inside
the red raincoat –
with two telling buttons left open…
we know she’ll appear /
stunned / when the apples turn green
when the snows turn to mist
arrayed in the white
flesh of the meat / riveted in
by black polished seeds –
ultra-trees of trees reduced
to the size of a fist:
orchard come down

***

remember with skin – with the back
of your hand greasy
as sin_____ remember
the snow: the blank
and the roar
the field erased by looking
too deep
remember_____with the hole
in your head / stuffed
with whipped cream and wood /
home to the brain – the pulsing
pink worm that pulls in
all it sees and excretes
what it dreams : : remember
your skin when it took in the breath
of the tree / wheezing
in spring / exhaling white petals
and the boys at the quarry
who tore the girl’s
clothes as she swam / who tore
the girl’s eyes as she gurgled
and choked
remember her eyes
looking at you

****

forget the girl
at the slag-hole /
the girl made of stone and black waves –
look instead at the child
through the holes
in your face / lie through
your eyes down into
her head
say it’s not you
who needs
to take it all back
it’s not you who pulled
the girl down
as she strangled and
churned / say
what you say: it’s never
been you

_________________________________________
Mark Conway is currently completing a third book of poems with the working title in the infinite head of wheat. Other poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Slate, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review Online, Iowa Review, Boston Review and Bomb.

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

From Chris: Richard Armstrong’s poems attempt to say smart things in dumb ways, to slip under the intellectual scrutiny practiced poetry readers bring to bear on unfamiliar work. I am continually surprised by how he is able to create an emotive impact through sloganeering, through the melding of bro-speak, blue-collar imagery, street slang, and archaic capital-R Romantic posturing. Next level shit.

Usual Resistance

Business was business and required
only what was required of us.

The tongue found the groove
and we found the joys of immobility

wearing on us like a condom on a flaccid cock.
Still, carefree was the way to be

then, amongst the birch-trees and the lunch-trucks.
We moved our product. We towed the hotlines…

Buffoons with experience assailed us
with application forms and drug-urine.

We did what we could to keep doing what we could.
Like that day

in ’98, when the leader of the local 149
pulled the fence back

and all we did was stare
through that man-sized gash in the chain-link.

Sub-Sexual Proctor

I imagine Full Beauty to be the most sudden
of all stops—
the whole world’s movements gathered

into an impossible solidity:
the perfect stillness of total kinesis.

To put sex into a poem is to take a bold but calculated risk.
Like emailing naked photos of yourself to everyone on your contact list.

But to put love into this world is not a risk;
rather it’s a something, like something something…

_______________________________
Richard C. Armstrong III lives in Seattle where he earned his B.A. in Literature from the University of Washington. He works as a home designer and is the culture editor at hirschworth.com. His poems have appeared in such publications as the Cortland Review, and Mare Nostrum.

All the hipsters are making their aggravating lists made of poets from Brooklyn and Amherst with good haircuts, trust funds and irony. Lists where the majority of poets have one book and slept with the writer of the list. I have nothing against poets sleeping with each other but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good list. In an age of truly remarkable work these lists are full of too many gutless poems made of flippant language that make one big metaphorical turn near the end and we are supposed to go ooooh and ahhhhh. Many of these poems show the shallow influence of a poet like Dorothea Lasky but without her wit and ability to create a voice of endearment. They want to be Lasky, but the young poets don’t have her talent. All they have is a Brooklyn address, connections, and great internet savvy. Oh and an MFA. And ironically their ironic poems are DISEMBODIED and RHETORICAL in the worst way. These lists are aggravating, full of poems of the moment, books that will soon fade into youthful oblivion but in a year when some of the best books I have read in my life, books that can sustain a person for decades and not lose their relevance have been published, collections by some of our grand masters and some young sharp guns from the outer edges, I want to offer some poets I have not seen on any list floating online despite some of them winning big awards or garnering academic notice this year:

Whether first books, second books, and career collections, what these books share is a commitment to make a poem that— even if linguistically playful, still has a commitment to speaking to this world, and the idea and importance of experience and identity (such a dirty word to the hipsters, played out they say, how passé’ they say) and how we negotiate both in this difficult world. They all share some commitment to negotiate the body through lived space, and language. Perhaps pulled in so many directions by the confusion of late Capitalism, by the disconnect of technology, our best poets are reclaiming the body and lived experience and space? In the corrupt spirit of these lists I also tried to choose poets that I actually knew, since it seems that is what you are supposed to do with a list. Though I failed here in not really knowing everyone on my list. And sadly I failed again: I did not sleep with any of them.

~

These are serious books. I sometimes wonder if the young poets still know how to make “serious” art, but then I read The Backlit Hour by young Jose Antonio Rodriquez and I know they are more than capable. This book is western, political, and deals with the conflicts of gender, class, race, and power through story and lyricism. If only more young poets had such bravery. Another poet with such bravery is Corey Zeller whose book Man Vs. Sky offers us a series of poems in the voice of his friend who committed suicide. In a year of many books of such grievous loss this original voice and point of view stands out. And other young poet is Cody Todd whose book Graffiti Signatures is such a experimental gem. A hip hop DJ and graffiti artist, an old B Boy from Denver, Todd combines his knowledge of experimental poetics with the street and structure of the turn table. I know that after her death the grand tome of Lucille Clifton will help many people to live and understand the terror and joy of our country. Roger Bonair-Agard offers us a book both streetwise and worldly, one that unflinchingly crosses borders. Charles Fort’s Selected Poems brings together one of our most important and under praised African-American poets and prose poets who tackles issues of race, love and form. Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems brings us together one of our master New York School lyricists. Ron Padgett has always been my favorite NYC poet, and one who has that rare ability in poets, to express JOY. I always grieved he was far in the shadow of John Ashbury as I found Padgett’s work far more engaging and …. And well true. Jillian Weise presents a book that reads as a 21st century book, full of slips and slight moves of lyricism while maintaining an interrogation of the body’s role in Being. Yona Harvey first book Hemming Water brings us a long awaited book that pushes sound and music into fragments only the body and history can hold and by doing so sustain us. Another great first book is Mathew Olzmann’s Mezzanine, a book of remarkable range and metaphor whose interrogation of Spaces evokes for me memories of the French theorist Batchelard in the best way. Joe Weil’s auspicious Selected Poems gathers his many poems from the small press into one beautiful tome. It covers the territory of cities, the self suffering, the idea of the other, of labor and loss, in a manner both tragic and comic rarely found in American poetry. Mary Biddinger’s edgy O Holy Insurgency, continues her project of exploring the body, the spirit, and the beautiful wreckage of the things and moments of our lives. Lastly, Jennifer Militello’s second book Body Thesaurus firmly presents herself as a quiet heir to the Lorcan tradition, a poetics of lyricism and emotion and dare I say duende. There are thoroughly fierce books, often political, the kind of books that Milosz wrote “can save nations” if we will only listen. Buy them.

GRAND MASTER SENSEIS

Lucille Clifton The Collected Poems 1965-2010 BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/the-collected-poems-of-lucille-clifton.html

Ron Padgett Collected Poems Coffeehouse Press

http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/collected-poems/

Charles Fort We Did Not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems Red Hen Press

http://redhen.org/book/?uuid=35FD4A0F-6C64-2656-C499-99E8419A08DB

Joe Weil The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems NYQ Books

http://books.nyq.org/title/greatgrandmotherlight

SECOND (or THIRD) BOOK ASSASINS

Jennifer Militello Body Thesaurus Tupelo Books

http://www.tupelopress.org/books/body_thesaurus

Bury my Clothes Roger Bonair-Agard Haymarket Books

http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2013_p_bonair_agard.html#.UrLegdJDsYE

Jillian Weise The Book of Goodbyes BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/catalog/product/view/id/944/

Jose Antonio Rodriguez Backlit Hour Stephen F. Austin University Press

http://www.powells.com/biblio/71-9781622880041-0

Mary Biddinger O Holy Urgency Black Lawrence Press

FIRST BOOK NINJAS

Yona Harvey Hemming the Water Four Way Books

http://fourwaybooks.com/2013spring/harvey.php

Corey Zeller Man Vs. Sky Yes Yes Books

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781936919130/default.aspx

Cody Todd Graffiti Signatures Main Street Rag

http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/graffiti-signatures/

Mathew Olzmann Mezzanines Alice James Books

http://alicejamesbooks.org/ajb-titles/mezzanines/

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
Tables_by_Alfred_Corn_coverAlfred Corn, whose “La Luz Azul”/”The Blue Light” and “St. Anthony in the Desert” from his Tables (Press 53, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform his life and/or craft.

Q: 1) Can you briefly describe how you came to these poems; or how they came to you; or how you came to each other?

Alfred Corn: About a decade ago I was staying in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. It was mid-month in August.  I had come down with something and was staying indoors, in bed with a fever.  Walls were painted white.  There seemed, though, to be a sort of blue illumination that gathered in the corners of the room.  Feverish hallucination?  August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, who is associated with the color blue, the color also of the sky.  I had been impressed during my several visits to Mexico by the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who seemed to command more reverence from the people than Christ himself.  In my illness I wanted to be taken into that blue light, to be healed by it.  Those times when you are seriously ill, the thought occurs to you that you might not get well, indeed, you might die. And there is a certain kind of silence that, once heard, never becomes inaudible again. Determined to put all these sensations and feelings in words, I also decided to write the poem in Spanish.  I’d studied the language and had some practice speaking it during visits to Spain and Mexico.  Also, I’d read the major poets in Spanish and knew that hispanic meter counts syllables not accents.  I settled on nine syllables per line, even though that is not a common meter in Spanish poetry.  “La Luz azul” is the result. Though of course hispanophone friends corrected small errors.  I’d first wanted the title to be “Luz azul,” which is a palindrome, but my friends said that it didn’t sound quite right without the definite article. They were also a little doubtful about the word “asunto,” which means “subject,” “undertaking,” “matter to be taken up.”  But I left it as is because its etymological connection with the word “asunción,” “assumption,” and the poem says it was the Feast of the Assumption.  Having arrived at my Spanish text, I then set myself he task of translating it into English.  That was difficult, despite the fact that I was the author. I couldn’t bring across everything that is in the original. But I feel the result is close enough to give a general idea of the poem.

As for “Anthony in the Desert,” it was written about a decade ago when I was teaching in Oklahoma.  Familiar surroundings and friends were far away.  I had been reading a book titled The Desert Fathers, about the early hermits and monk of Egypt, and I recalled Flaubert’s play titled La Tentation de St. Antoine (“the temptation of St. Anthony”). Suddenly the idea of writing about a desert hermit became appealing, partly because you could try to describe some of the apparitions (or “temptations”) he was exposed to.  Once my early drafts began moving in the direction of the sonnet, I decided to avoid perfect rhyme and instead rhyme voiced consonants with their unvoiced counterparts.  The sound “d” is a voiced consonant, as “t” is the unvoiced equivalent. The same for “v” and “f”, and for “z” ad “s”.  I’m not aware that anyone has ever taken this approach to rhyming, and of course poets like to develop new techniques and practices.

Q: 2) Please comment upon voice and the necessity for that/of that voice in your poems highlighted here.

Alfred Corn: I’ve never been certain what the distinction between “voice” (in literary terms) and “style” is.  In our time I suppose the word “voice” is used for style, possibly because it sounds less literary.  The kind of style I try for is one not too far removed from the spoken language.  I admire Milton and Hopkins, but I wouldn’t myself try to write in a special, anti-conversational mode like theirs.

Q: 3) How do these poems reveal in microcosm what you and your poetry are up to in macrocosm? If they sound or draw out a story, if they sing of vision/visions, yours, what impression/s do you hope they make in that endeavor?

Alfred Corn: I’m not sure. Many of my poems are meditative, and certainly “La Luz Azul” is.  “Anthony in the Desert” has a minimal narrative, but is essentially meditative as well. Most of my poems present a dilemma (“un asunto”?) of one sort or another and then seek some sort of resolution for it, if only acceptance. Possibly these two do that. I hope I’m answering your question.

Q: 4) Recommend two age-old poets/writers and two contemporary poets/writers you feel are vital in your own life and work. Briefly state why.

Alfred Corn: Among the classic poets, I would mention Dante and Shakespeare.  Dante for his “architectural” skills in building an epic, and for the sense he gives that life choices have an importance that extends beyond the individual’s death. With Shakespeare, the first thing I note is that his people are plausibly individualized, not at all stock characters.  And then the way they have of speaking sublime poetry, if only in short bursts.  He is able to convey considerable knowledge of what the world is like and how people are likely to feel and behave. Many of his lines have become proverbs, quoted by people who never read him.  That in itself is a kind of poetic immortality. As for contemporary poets, there are too many to name. I think we live in a very rich time for poetry, when all sorts of approaches are being tried.  It is a rich compost out of which much that is enduring is sure to arise.

 

La Luz Azul*

San Miguel de Allende
Dia de la Asuncion

Mediodía. Ligeros velos
Transparentes del ancho cielo….

En la estancia una sombra amorfa,
Blanda, no acabada de anunciar
Ese alto silencio que jamás
Ha de callar:

_________Tan comprensiva
Como dulce, recíbeme, luz
azul, que colmas los rincones….

¿Pues, inmóvil? No, mejor fuera
Salir en busca del asunto,
La palabra del mortal piedad
Caída como una flor ardiente
Entre las piedras de la calle.

 

The Blue Light*

San Miguel de Allende
Feast of the Assumption

Twelve noon. The open sky’s transparent
Weightless veils.

In the room, a mild, amorphous
Gloom wouldn’t give up announcing
That exalted silence that will never
Again hold its peace.

_________________As comprehensive
As you are gentle, gather me in, blue
Light, you, filling up the corners….

Immobilized, then? No, better to go out
In search of assumed subject—
The word, embodied, compassionate,
Fallen like a flame-red flower
Among the street’s rough cobblestones.

*Written in Spanish by the author (previous poem) and translated into English by him as well.

 

St. Anthony in the Desert

To be filled with that hallowed emptiness
The hermit sojourns in a desert cave.
Fasting and prayer will make seclusion safe,
His daily bread, each word the Spirit says.

Chimera stirs and rears her dripping head;
A slack-skinned reptile puffs and makes a face;
Vile, harrowing nightmares shimmer through long days;
The sun beats a brass gong and will not set.

Faint shadow on cave walls, you foretell grief
Or joy, not known till whose the profile is:
Love itself may corrupt and then deceive
Its object, hiding venom in a kiss.
Anthony kneels, embraces his fierce lot,
And hears: Be still, and know that I am God.

________________________________________________
Alfred Corn has published eight previous books of poems, the most recent titled Contradictions. He has also published a novel, titled Part of His Story; two collections of essays; and The Poem’s Heartbeat, a study of prosody. Fellowships for his poetry include the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. Poetry magazine awarded him the Levinson, Blumenthal, and Dillon prizes. He has taught writing at Yale, Columbia, Oklahoma State University, and UCLA. Since 2005, he has spent part of every year in the U.K., and Pentameters Theatre in London staged his play Lowell’s Bedlam in the spring of 2011. In 2012, he was a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, preparing a translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. His first ebook, Transatlantic Bridge: A Concise Guide to the Differences between British and American English, was published in 2012. Unions, a new volume of poems, is forthcoming in March of 2014. When in the U.S., he lives in Hopkinton, Rhode Island (alfredcorn.org).

 

 

On the thirteenth day of Christmas, your true love returns the partridge in a pear tree,
buys cashmere, hires the Cajun she’s philandering to murder you. No two turtle doves
coo alike. No two entertain you so, nightly, before dawn enters. No three French hens
sleep as sensitive as you. Anyhoo, his orders are to corner you before four calling birds
can dial 911, a feat they’re trained to accomplish in seconds. You see five golden rings
emerge from a sink of dishwashing soap. Your marital status makes six geese a laying
seem like six geese not getting laid. You try personalizing all seven swans a swimming –
still can’t tell why they tread in unison.  You’d file Chapter 7 if eight maids a milking
didn’t churn enough product to fill every cereal bowl in town. All your nine pipers piping
produce is hemoglobin and ash. The cost of replacing leotards for your ten ladies dancing
staggers Art, your lawyer/krump dancer. He intends to defend your eleven lords a leaping
as soon as they settle down. A soundproof shed holds your twelve drummers drumming.

It snows Wednesday. The Cajun plans to shiv you Friday while your six geese a laying
honk in despair. Your true love orders him to retrieve the twelve drummers drumming
that she may enlist their aid on private karaokes of herself doing Cher, five golden rings
coiled like an asp in Wisteria around her waist. She desires your eleven lords a leaping
to make an appearance in a music video. By the way, your true love is four calling birds
short a singing voice. Ice Caps can melt before you give up lords, or ten ladies dancing
for that matter. Art’s stopping over later with ballyhoo, mahi-mahi. Nine pipers piping,
nitrogen oxide aside, do toss a mean garden salad. You would marinade two turtle doves
for the main course, but it offends the two already living with you. Eight maids a milking
whip up vanilla shakes. Your confidant Wes, living the life of a partridge in a pear tree
on a fortieth floor, brings dessert. “Wes, please ignore these seven swans a swimming

and welcome.” Wes cares nothing for swans — says, “good lamb, do ten ladies dancing
perform topless?” 56: the hypothetical maximum egg-clutch of seven swans a swimming,
all female.  (You checked the sexes). Art arrived an hour late. Your four calling birds
gave him the wrong apartment number.  Athena saved Perdix: a partridge in a pear tree,
after Uncle Daedalus pushed him off a cliff. Art mock-dispositions eleven lords a leaping.
Wes says, “you sure seem calm for somebody about to perish.” Eight maids a milking
add cherries to the shakes and serve. “Wes, this morning I witnessed five golden rings
emerge from a sink of dishwashing soap. I felt like an apostle.” Your two turtle doves
play a game of freeze tag on the balcony. “I can manage my twelve drummers drumming
all week without going pagan/postal, I think I can handle my death.” Nine pipers piping
light Wes a clove before you say drive safe. All night you dream of your six geese a laying
brick inside your sepulcher-shaped bathtub. The sole commiserate: three French hens.

It snows Thursday. Your mail is late, but so what. Tomorrow, your eight maids a milking
will be jacking cow nipples for somebody else. You’ll be dead, and those three French hens
who seemed so concerned in dream will be pecking your nose raw. Eleven lords a leaping
might be victims de facto. The Cajun doesn’t warm to dancing men or six geese a laying.
Tomorrow, he will celebrate your death with the refund from your partridge in a pear tree.
Why does going for a little walk mean spending money in true love? Nine pipers piping

stink less than this situation. The postman arrives as if stamped. Your four calling birds
dictate your bills. Impending doom makes you languid. Of twelve drummers drumming,
twelve stayed. The bassists heard your true love pays, made like seven swans a swimming
for her sound studio. Normally, holiday gifts are of no consequence, but two turtle doves
and things of this ilk grow on you like roller coasters or manslaughter. Ten ladies dancing
do not perform topless. Half of them are engaged. Look to their fingers: five golden rings.

Now is the hour to say what needs to be said. The heart is more than nine pipers piping
blood to organs you’ll never see unless you’re a surgeon or a maniac. A five golden ring-
around-the-collar is no justification to suckle a Cajun’s penis. Partridge in a pear tree
sounds like an Uncle Tupelo song, but it isn’t. What is marriage? Are ten ladies dancing
nothing more than twenty legs a moving to basic rhythm? What does six geese a laying
prove? They aren’t proving reproductivity. You can’t imagine a heaven: two turtle doves
feeding you stir-fried rice from beak to mouth. A blue trampoline. Eleven lords a leaping
into grape vats. Art hanging from a leaf, cross-examining them. Seven swans a swimming
setting a record for the 500-meter freestyle. Paint-ball wars between three French hens
and three Spanish chickens. Max Roach denouncing the twelve drummers drumming
in front of Saint Paul. What is marriage? A polygamist requires eight maids a milking,
a multiple-furrow plow. You require a mate who doesn’t flap away like four calling birds

when she finds you meditating naked. There comes a point when your two turtle doves
wish they were test canaries. Likewise, there comes a larger point in every man’s life
when the best idea is to give up, but so long as three French hens or six geese a laying
urinate throughout your apartment, that point has yet to evolve. Eight maids a milking
sing a glorious song concerning varying degrees of love and fatigue. Ten ladies dancing,
or five rather, agree to shimmy bottomless in hopes the twelve drummers drumming
might stop pan-beating long enough to take notice. There is one partridge in a pear tree
advertised on ebay. At breakfast, you considered bidding, until the three French hens
reminded you it’s Friday and time to expire, like an image from Hamlet. Five golden rings
appear in a glass of pulpless OJ.  There are varying degrees of seven swans a swimming
and love and fatigue, but of murder? There are no healthy murders or nine pipers piping,
you decide. A samurai or the U.S. State Department may disagree. Eleven lords a leaping

lose five pounds each day. Wes visits around brunch. Five of twelve drummers drumming
offer him gin, but he abhors juniper berries during the fiscal year. “Eleven lords a leaping
desperately need refills”, Wes jokes.  Wes is a true, selfless friend. Five of ten ladies’ dancing
labias don’t faze him. He’s here on your behalf. “Krampus Navidad”, nine pipers piping
choke. Wes implores you to move, or buy a shotgun. He gestures to eight maids a milking
and calls you a humanitarian. “Just look at all the weirdoes and seven swans a swimming
you’ve taken in,” he says, “I don’t care if they are gifts.” He motions to six geese a laying
when you see his grief. “If I move,” you say, “I’m drying cement.” “I saw five golden rings
in my Simply Orange this morning.” Wes asks you why so symbolic? Your four calling birds
order a pizza. “I don’t know, Wes, I can’t stop reading Shakespeare. My three French hens
are freaking me out. I think they may personify my momento mori. My two turtle doves
wish they were lovers in a poison cave. Hey Wes, you should buy a partridge in a pear tree

on eBay.” He tears up, but leaves krumping. (Art taught him.) Seven swans a swimming
surface for air. Pizza comes but the driver smells oddly like a partridge in a pear tree.
His moustache is slimy. Where’s Ian Fleming? The man ogles all eight maids a milking.
You slip his tip back into your pants. His name tag reads Ozgar. No two turtle doves
coo alike. Ozgar sounds totally made up, but Ozgar is very real. The nine pipers piping
adjourn to the balcony. Your only witnesses left in the room are the three French hens.
He invades living space like a brass family member. The topless five of ten ladies dancing
always distracts you at inopportune moments. Ozgar reveals a blade. Four calling birds
try 911, but the two doves changed the speed dial to poison control. Eleven lords a leaping
perform a series of jujutsu kicks, but it’s all too homosexual. Five golden rings
abstract the air like refulgent Lady Macbeths. Twelve of twelve drummers drumming
watch Scooby Doo, high-five whenever Daphne flashes on screen. Six geese a laying

seem more like six spaces a wasting. Now is the hour to say that three French hens
are too prima donna. Now is the hour is say what needs to be said. Six geese a laying
are animal equivalents to doilies. Does infidelity start with a vow? Nine pipers piping
think it starts with a vowel. During a commercial, five of twelve drummers drumming
say they think it starts with a kiss, which is cute but quite moronic. Two turtle doves
await poison control. They still make-believe they’re in a cave. Your five golden rings
vanish like a frightened stagecoach. Why hasn’t he killed you? Eight maids a milking
blush. They know how cyclical churning spellbinds men, except eleven lords a leaping.
Ozgar dodges the wet spots in the rug, and rages, “she blew my partridge in a pear tree
money on a cashmere bunnyhug! I should be dicing in Reno!” Your four calling birds
hang up the phone. You open the pizza box and eat a jalapeno. Seven swans a swimming
submerge in unison. “True loves”, you tell him, “love bunnyhugs.” Ten ladies dancing

swing to their partner and bellow ‘yeehaw’ in agreement. Five of their five golden rings
sparkle. It’s Friday. He sheaths the blade. He staggers over to your ten ladies dancing,
smooches each one behind the earlobes. You hand him his tip. Your two turtle doves
pretend to be swashbuckling. Doves are peculiar that way. Seven swans a swimming
squawk for cleaner wading water. Art’s back? Had he heard twelve drummers drumming
watching cartoons and entered? He’s wearing a Life’s a Beach shirt. Four calling birds
appreciate Art’s serenity. He yearns to represent a film noir studio of nine pipers piping.
He doesn’t trust you if you’ve considered suing motion pictures. Cartridge in a Pear Tree,
his first independent project, drew a massive audience of krumpers. Six geese a laying,
you think, could have sat through it. It was that constructive. Eleven lords a leaping
don’t possess patience for cinema. “Life is artful enough,” they tell eight maids a milking
who would normally smile like any nice face multiplied by eight, only four calling birds
now flutter around you as if to remind you it’s still Friday. Your eight maids a milking
are too nervous to smile. Ozgar sizes up Art and one of the twelve drummers drumming
then stabs the solo musician during Daphne’s last monologue. No three French hens
sleep as terrible as you. Art yells ‘cut’, and exits stage left. Seven swans a swimming
dry off and follow him out. He pops back in to collect his clients, eleven lords a leaping.
“Ozgar, why did you kill that drummer?”, you ask. Ozgar’s eyes stare off: two turtle doves.
Now is the hour to say what needs to be said. The room is not clean. Six geese a laying
pretend to sweep. Ozgar should leave. You are tired of him. The ten ladies dancing
worked with Jimmy Durante. You are tired of everything. A partridge in a pear tree
is a terrible Christmas present. It doesn’t take you long to realize the five golden rings
were the same bands you gave your true love over a ten year span. Nine pipers piping

call that epiphany. You call that crappy, and start to regard those eleven lords a leaping
as true-love payback for your refusal to hang her plastic mistletoe. Nine pipers piping,
nine wooden chimneys. What is marriage?  “Good riddance seven swans a swimming.”
Ozgar exits eyeing your nonpareils and other decorative sugar balls. Five golden rings
emerge from a pyrite paperweight. Where’s Ian Lancaster Fleming? Three French hens.
Three French hens. Three French hens. Ozgar smelled like the partridge in a pear tree.
He should collect trash of trash collectors. The hour to say twelve drummers drumming
is noise pollution passed. No one refreshed the wading water. Your ten ladies dancing
will run out of steps or maybe they’ll keep dancing who cares. Your eight maids a milking
return to Amish life. A single photograph of their smiles is worth the fine. Six geese a laying
look like shower nozzles. The hour has passed to say nothing beats your four calling birds,
especially during the MLB playoffs. Who blow-dried half your snowman? No two turtle doves

coo alike. A partridge in a pear tree smells like nothing else. Two turtle doves
or four calling birds make super stocking-stuffers. You miss your true love most
during the fiscal year. Five golden rings and six geese a laying make abhorrent
Christmas gifts. Seven swans a swimming and eight maids a milking represent
assembly line mentality. Nine pipers piping and ten ladies dancing barely know
each other’s import. You live 3500 extra Fridays. Eleven lords a leaping prepare
to eulogize a lone casualty of twelve drummers drumming drumming drumming.

xmas vintage joys

(Ed. note: this poem first appeared in its author’s debut collection, Rumble Seat)