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Blitzkreig
By John Gosslee
Rain Mountain Press
2013
ISBN-13: 978-0989705110
70 pages

The tree lay down
on the garage roof
and stretched. You
have your heaven,
it said, go to it.

–William Carlos Williams, The Hurricane

Maybe World War II ends earlier if white lab-coated William Carlos Williams scrawls “The Hurricane” longhand on the back of each issued prescription drug ticket?  Mrs. Myrtle, patiently waiting in queue for Penicillin, flips her note to discover what I consider the philosophical equivalent of the sentiment “All Dogs Go to Heaven”.  I assert Mrs. Myrtle would feel more alive, even for a minute.  She might show the pharmacist or a child behind her recovering from whooping cough.  She might read it to Mr. Myrtle while he sleeps fully-dressed, pretending to listen to The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald’s chart-topping hit I’m Making Believe on the radio.  Eventually everyone in Rutherford, New Jersey might begin faking joint discomfort simply to visit Dr. Williams, have him perform that nifty knee mallet reflex test.

Though he doesn’t practice medicine (yet) John Gosslee is a poet and the editor of Fjords Review.  His second collection, Blitzkrieg, is a fascinating hybrid of new locale poems and an impressive supplemental memoir.  Most of the book traces his obsession with one particularly Williams-esque poem (Portrait of an Inner Life) from state code examples VA, TN, AR, OK, TX, NM, AZ, CA to multiple No Trespassing properties in between.  Other noted editors–Rattle’s Tim Green, for instance–publish and praise the minimalist piece.  Gosslee’s preoccupation with this one poem manages to avoid solipsism because Gosslee decides to enact what all writers probably want to do going back to Sappho: roll up good work, bottle, cork, fling the recyclable object into different water outlets (rivers, oceans, bays, streams, cricks, sewer systems), and hope somebody who needs it receives it.

On April 8 we drove down a one way road to an abandoned-dock-turned-arts-district underneath the San Francisco Bridge and I threw two dozen bottles into the mouth of the bay towards the Pacific.  Two people in the area have found bottles.  The other 22 are still unaccounted for, which I like because it allows me to muse on where they might appear or where they are in the ocean.

It’s like Robert Pinksy’s Poem-A-Day Project except it’s the same poem.  Oh, Gosslee also prints 1300 stickers of the poem and affixes those to pretty much any city apparatus you can think of: storefront, light pole, condom dispenser.

With half a box full of stickers in the back seat and a few cases of bottles left, I drive to Albequerque, New Mexico.  Out of my element, I attended the Blackbird’s Poetry & Beer poetry slam after reading at Bookworks early in the evening on April 3rd.  The weather was a little chilly, the audience was receptive and I was glad they let a newcomer doing traditional poetry assert his method.  In return, I gave out seven stickers I had in my pocket, but kept one to stick on the advertisement plaque above the urinal in the bathroom before leaving.

Like Huck Finn, Gosslee nearly gets arrested on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.  I’m not going to print the poem in this review because that would be a bit of a killjoy, now, wouldn’t it?  I’m hoping you more or less find it yourself, perhaps stuck out of the mouth of a brown trout swimming the Pere Marquette river.  As for me, I find mine at Sandals Royal Bahamian Spa Resort.  I order a Red Stripe but I receive Portrait of an Inner Life.  The waiter is sorry and serves me a Red Stripe (on the house) that’s been sitting on dry ice and perhaps dead crabs.  “Two free libations,” I tell my wife while she sleeps half-naked and pretends to listen to Mogwai’s jaw-dropping non-hit “Take Me Somewhere Nice”.

There are many reasons why Karl Shapiro is no longer taught or on the lips of MFA students.

First, he was part of the post-war formalist/structuralism/urban boom in poetry, but he had enjoyed great success (Pulitzers and whatnot), and he was a Jew. A Jew with a Pulitzer in the 1940s/1950s who was neither humble nor particularly unwashed and earnest (Shapiro…was dapper) was treated with some envy and contempt.

Second, the Beats had visited him and not thought themselves properly treated (they expected a hipster jazz sort of poet because it was Shapiro–not Ginsberg–who first start writing in long rhapsodic free verse lines in emulation of Whitman). Shapiro became for them the symbol of stuffed shirt bougie poetics (as you will see from this poem, Shapiro was anything but. He was sexually open and using the long free verse line a good ten years before Allen Ginsberg came anywhere near it).

Shapiro was buried under the reps of Lowell, and Jarrell, and Berryman. Of those three, Berryman appeals most to post-structural poets (he’s the darling of every grad students MFA program). Lowell has enjoyed a rise in fortune after a ten or fifteen year eclipse. Jarrell’s name is starting to come up again, albeit more for his essays than poems.

But here’s the rub: Shapiro was doing everything they got the credit for innovating a good ten years before they were doing it: including confessional poetry. Those who run poetry are shrewd. They know the best way to disappear a poet is to refuse to talk about him–neither to praise nor ridicule, simply relegate him to a non-entity status. Ginsberg (and I think this makes Ginsberg a total self serving piece of shit) would not admit that it was Shapiro’s sexually explicit, long lined free verse poems, and not Whiman’s, that influenced him most immediately. (Whitman made for a more exciting father). Shapiro was a Jew with a Pulitzer. It was Shapiro to an extent who represented the most legitimate use of Whitman in terms of modern poetry–not Ginsberg. So what were Shapiro’s sins? He was eloquent, and proud. He probably pissed off the Columbia school (Trilling may have sniped at him, and Ginsberg and the Beats were Trilling’s pet primitives).

It doesn’t matter. He is a superb poet who does not deserve to be in obscurity but will remain so. Below is his “Aubade,” written in the 1940s when Ginsberg was a student. It’s elaborate, courtly, sexually explicit, but purposefully artful, and it uses the long Whitmanesque line and the sense of humor–the American suburban wise ass that Ginsberg would employ in Supermarket in California. We must return to Shapiro. We won’t. So it goes:

AUBADE – KARL SHAPIRO

What dawn is it?

The morning star stands at the end of your street as you watch me turn to laugh a kind of goodbye, with
love-crazed head like a white satyr moving through wet bushes.
The morning star bursts in my eye like a hemorrhage as I enter my car in a dream surrounded by your
heavenly-earthly smell.
The steering wheel is sticky with dew,
The golf course is empty, husbands stir in their sleep desiring, and though no cocks crow in suburbia, the
birds are making a hell of a racket.
Into the newspaper dawn as sweet as your arms that hold the old new world, dawn of green lights that
smear the empty streets with come and go.
It is always dawn when I say goodnight to you,
Dawn of wrecked hair and devastated beds,
Dawn when protective blackness turns to blue and lovers drive sunward with peripheral vision.
To improvise a little on Villon
Dawn is the end for which we are together.

My house of loaded ashtrays and unwashed glasses, tulip petals and columbine that spill on the table
and splash on the floor,
My house full of your dawns,
My house where your absence is presence,
My slum that loves you, my bedroom of dustmice and cobwebs, of local paintings and eclectic posters,
my bedroom of rust neckties and divorced mattresses, and of two of your postcards, Pierrot
with Flowers and Young Girl with Cat,
My bed where you have thrown your body down like a king’s ransom or a boa constrictor.

But I forgot to say: May passed away last night,
May died in her sleep,
That May that blessed and kept our love in fields and motels.
I erect a priapic statue to that May for lovers to kiss as long as I’m in print, and polish as smooth as the
Pope’s toe.
This morning came June of spirea and platitudes,
This morning came June discreetly dressed in gray,
June of terrific promises and lawsuits.

And where are the poems that got lost in the shuffle of spring?
Where is the poem about the eleventh of March, when we raised the battleflag of dawn?
Where is the poem about the coral necklace that whipped your naked breasts in leaps of love?
The poem concerning the ancient lover we followed through your beautiful sleeping head?
The fire-fountain of your earthquake thighs and your electric mouth?
Where is the poem about the little one who says my name and watches us almost kissing in the sun?
The vellum stretchmarks of your learned belly,
Your rosy-fingered nightgown of nylon and popcorn,
Your razor that caresses your calves like my hands?
Where are the poems that are already obsolete, leaves of last month, a very historical month?
Maybe I’ll write them, maybe I won’t, no matter,
And this is the end for which we are together.
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensembles.

Introduction for October: Being Unreal

I don’t know about you, but my right-now life is laden with reality: bills, the 9-to-5 (necessary to pay said bills), the leaden thing that weighs on everyone at said 9-to-5 (making them mean and me mean), family, the failures of family, a slowing metabolism and no will or energy to exercise. It’s a maddeningly endless personal abyss. And the language that surrounds me every day–mostly sad, simple transactional language–fails.

Yet the poems I’m sharing this darkening October month come from writers who somehow manage to slip out of the trance that keeps us subservient to reality, tethered to the mundane. When they lapse into consciousness, they are possessed as Nietzsche was when he wrote “No artist tolerates reality.” Those who are awake, if only momentarily, are the artists. And by artists, I mean these writers who feel and tinker until they’ve given form to something that exists within the bandwidth of reality but resists humdrum conventionality. Of course, it’s akin to the famed tell it slant. But more than that, they’re telling it like it ain’t, not keeping it real.

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This poem appeared previously in the chapbook, in the way of harbors (Dancing Girl Press, 2013).

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Alexandra Mattraw’s third chapbook, in the way of harbors, is now available at Dancing Girl Press.  Her first two chapbooks were published through Achiote Press and Beard of Bees.  Her poems and reviews have also appeared in journals including VOLT, Cultural Society, Verse, Word For/Word, Seneca Review, Realpoetik, Denver Quarterly, alice blue, Lost Roads Press, and American Letters & Commentary. Alexandra’s first full manuscript has been selected as a finalist by Nightboat Books and 1913 Press, and her second, Inside the Mind’s Hotel, was recently chosen as a finalist for the Colorado Review Prize.  A former Vermont Studio Center resident, she curates a writing, reading, and art series called Lone Glen in Oakland, California. If you are interested in learning more about Alexandra’s projects, please visit http://alexandramattraw.wordpress.com.

Tupelo Press.

2013.

60 pages.

“Memory remembers matter remembers/ Make make make make” –Lee Sharkey

In The Book of the Dead, Muriel Rukeyser writes, “What three things can never be done?
 Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.” In Calendars of Fire, Lee Sharkey refuses to be that historian or activist, tamed in middle age, no longer pained by injustice. In the title poem, she explains, “It was what I wanted, the sobering fire.” You may wonder how and why fire sobers, but then ask yourself, what do poets do best? They fight forgetting, silence, and isolation by paying attention—really paying attention, so much so that they make others nervous, including themselves. You may remember Tiresias from Greek mythology—the one who hit two mating snakes with a stick and became a woman for seven years. He was not only a blind prophet with a preference for burnt offerings but also a great listener to birds’ wisdom. “Tiresias at last,” a persona poem in six parts, is where Sharkey’s theme is most pronounced: “the will to keep silent that needs to speak” (“With birds on his shoulders”). In “Possession,” we learn Sharkey’s anti-poem is “A quiet in the face of it.”

The whole time I was reading Calendars of Fire, I kept thinking that Sharkey is a better person than I am. She isn’t intimidated by scale, and she doesn’t flinch from difficult reckoning. Her effort is noble, and the only way that noble can work is if it’s humble. Sharkey is humble, as we should all be with fire. When I was an early reader, nearly every book seemed to change my life. I remember that feeling, rather addictive, but I only have it once or twice a year now. What was the last book that changed your life? Calendars of Fire is a collection to heed.

If you believe that learning lasts a lifetime, then you are willing to be schooled by Sharkey.

Lesson #1: If you listen, then you’ll remember. It is never just the wind. That’s a lie for people to tell themselves when they have the shakes. Whether “the air already faltering, the wind’s petition,/ I had not heard the ones who whisper yet” (“The voice is the last we forget to remember”) or “Now the wind blows through me/ I tremble to face you” (“Ash pit under snow”), you can’t forget when you are willing to hear. What you hear is likened to a force—of nature, courage, and plea. However, being willing doesn’t make it easier. “Listening” opens, “Skin flours with ruin’s dust/ It wants us to close our eyes,/ it wants us to stitch our lips. . . Time rose and fell/ with the currents of my listening.” Today’s demands and expectations seem to be speeding up, but listening and remembering still can’t be rushed. We have not been able to find a time substitute for those. The best teachers make you want to act right, and that means due diligence and finding the time. A book like Calendars of Fire makes you crave more courage for yourself, others, and this shared life:

When I held the plate, I held the ones who remembered the plate

Of all those who remembered the plate, I still remembered

Women are for homes and opened graves

I listen softly, softly, to the ant beat of his heart. (“Possession”)

What is held is a connection that crosses borders and decades. So, too, there is violence and work in that heartbeat.

 

Lesson #2: Say what you see. History doesn’t go anywhere. Plenty have been denied, their humanity rejected. If you look, they will meet you:

If you remember a house that arose from fire

In Death’s walled face, the lids blink up
Eyes meet my gaze as if from a black backdrop

You, the eyes say, well, the eyes say, pull, the eyes say
Say, they say, I’ve got no time don’t skirt around
I want what you know. The whole past rushes forward
Folded flat as a kerchief, opening to flower. (“Calendars of fire”)

No more looking away. No more illusions of safety. Sharkey’s repeated imagery of the apricot flowers remind us of the beauty, hunger, and vitality of fire. If you begin to know, and if you take history seriously, then what’s the reward for speech? She answers in the ending of “Its roundness curving to a cleft”: “When someone in the future makes an offering to the heart/ its ever-moment passes, hand to hand// Reticence the shell, joy the nutmeat/ The skin reluctance, joy the open mouth.” Here is another new joy and another hand to ours.

You can’t miss the literature concerning today’s paradox of connection, incriminating or defending social networks, high speed this-and-that, and the choice of wires instead of the physical. What if thinking about fire can change our assumptions of how connection can be sustained? We often forget that fire stimulates growth. With the sheer abundance of it all—videos and blogs abound at the ready, where a café can’t make it without free wi-fi—what is the relationship between our agency and attentiveness? What of war, of genocide, of lasting failure? Click something else, think about something for less than a minute. That onslaught of I-Can’t-Do-Anything fatigue is like no other. Too often we simultaneously whine and apologize with a parenthetical about our First World problems. In contrast, Sharkey offers political poems that don’t preach, divide, nor become leaden under exposition, never once coming across as more enlightened-than-thou. How many successful political poems stand the test? I can’t tell you how many poets have told me that they won’t feel like real poets until they can write a decent political poem. This inadequacy looms large. Look to Sharkey, not only as a reader and writer, but as a fellow fortunate, thinking person, forever fumbling, too. She takes on the task to reckon with explanations and accounts of personal loss and the war tragedies of ancient Greece, the Spanish Inquisition, Thran’s Evin prison, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. She teaches us about forging a togetherness: “They shiver from the we in tenderness. It is inexplicable” (coda of “Atonement”).

Lesson #3: Whatever you do, it will never feel like enough. “Ash pit under snow” opens, “Is that all you can do for me?/ This is all I can do for you/ You with your hands gessoed in the material/surely you can braid a rope to guide me/through this blindness that surrounds you. . .” Genocide’s loss can’t be grasped by one person reading a book, and your effort won’t bring anyone back or prevent more death, but you still have to try. You can pay attention and hopefully connect. A poet can be that maker of connection; language can be that maker of connection. The connection can also be false, another propaganda, as history has proved time over. We know those who write can be fellow enforcers of oppression: “Where is the maker now that we are branded/ with what we call his voice// and whose the shadow voice beneath his, if it is his,/ breath that underlooms the listening?” (“The voice is the last we forget to remember”). What does language make? Who gets the power to tell a story? Sharkey is careful, as always, not to oversimplify or ignore difficulty and complexity. To pay attention is to labor “to gather stones from the speechless/ Tongues in the rock” (“By your intolerable acts of grace”). There will always be more stones, more rocks.

Lesson #4: Form is no afterthought. Calendars of Fire is an exemplary use of form to complement subject. The movement of the book through three sections is masterful: from sequencing, length variety, poems in series talking to the singletons, to the elegiac settings. Polyvocality is central in all fifteen poems, mixing dialogue and narrator, past and present, fact and lyric, victim and oppressor, chorus and individual, and Tiresias—seeing what is not meant to be seen—and of those who look away from suffering because it is not overtly their own. Look to these accomplished lines from “Sequestered”:

It prison’s name is almost a perfume
It flowers with apricot blossoms, enfolded in vaginal hills
Knives are sharpened. . .
I did it. I did it all. Tell me, so I can confess it. . .
Each cot has a bedskirt of slit-tongued questions. . .
Where is my daughter?. . .
Scarlet remnants, a plain gold rind. A bowl for kneading. . .

Each poem in Calendars of Fire is a “mouth cross-hatched with vowels” (“The voice is the last we forget to remember”). Each poem is open, giving and receiving. Sharkey knows a maker is active, sober. A maker seeks what she can learn from fire, and most of all, what she can remember to share with the rest of us.

If asked what my greatest ambition was, I’d admit it was still to write a great poem–not a great poem as per some throng of critics, or high powered literary figures, but great to one talented, intelligent, engaged reader who I trust to never let me down in terms of aesthetic judgment. This reader exists only in the mind, as a sort of faith. At times, this reader has found partial embodiment in certain individuals, but never full, and never in that “Admiring bog” Emily Dickinson joked about. The bog never liked me much and, at an early point in my so called writing life, I had to realize the in crowd might patronize me, even hold me in a sort of pleasant regard, but I am not idol material, and on those rare occasions when I have been “Worshipped” I did my best to dispossess my worshippers of that opinion, even highlighting my flaws (usually ad-nauseum).

To put it succinctly, I am a failure, but I am a failure in a worthy game, and that is better than being a success in a rigged contest. The University encourages networking so as to build your profile, ballyhoo your accomplishments, and promote your career. I must be some anachronism because I find that sort of ongoing and relentless self promotion to be immoral, even evil. If you are not standing for something more than yourself, then you are not standing. That’s my own personal feeling on the matter, and I am, no doubt wrong. The self Whitman stood for was as much a creature of faith as the “ideal” reader for whom I wish to write a great poem. The self of networking differs in this respect from the self of true community in that it sees others only as means to an end, public service only as a means to an end. It does charity to be “Seen.” It is Machiavelli Lite. Its self is all Ayn Rand meets Machiavelli and has a blood drive. It believes in nebulous words such as excellence and achievement. When I speak of greatness, I mean it in a far from nebulous way: I mean to fail at something so magnificent, so sublime, so beautiful and good that even your failure seems, in the best light, holy. I sound like third rate Don Quixote, but why not? Better that than a third rate Ayn Rand.

I did things lately I would never normally do: I asked a student of mine who has become celebrated to write a blurb for me. This was not easy, or even close–not because of pride, but because I love this former student, am proud of him and felt I was taking something good and decent and lowering it to the level of business–which I was, but I did this because I have a wife and baby, and most of the people who have power over me do not think like me: they think in names, they think in terms of who is published where, and who went to what school blah, blah, blah, and, frightening as this may be to me, they are true believers in this crap. I need to care about my daughter and wife–not myself. My former student was gracious enough to write something for me, but I am in great conflict and pain about it. We spent years eating very unhealthy food together, sometimes at 2 in the morning, talking about everything–including poetry. He helped me as much as I helped him, and I don’t mean in terms of a career–I mean in terms of helping me remain a human being, helping me do time in this existence, in this place. To sully that by asking for an intro or blurb was hard to bear, but, I feel necessary. Oh I don’t know. I don’t know what is necessary anymore. As you grow older, you think you know and that is horrible. I really don’t understand what it truly necessary. I do know I chose the vocation of marriage and children, and this is greater and more important than my vocation to teach or write a great poem–but if I don’t promote myself, or do what I can to meet the world where it is–am I a good husband or father? Hell, no. To compromise and cheapen myself in this respect is holy, but it is not holy to be a true believer in this crap: it’s all a lie. All of it: the kudos, the achievements, the publications are all a lie and a lie can be a beautiful thing–like a great fish story–provided you don’t start believing in it yourself. My greatest ambition is to write a great poem, and I know this is also true of my student who is now somewhat famous. I know I did not fail him in this respect. I did not teach him to believe the wrong sort of lies.

The reader you wish to write for is an act of faith. If I teach this poetry at its highest level, then I teach you to fully immerse yourself in the study of poetry as a way of life–not as a course. You cannot teach poetry as a course. Work shopping is not enough. Anything done in a workshop could be taught online: any form, any aesthetic, any period of literary history is available online–just Google it. What I have to give is complete immersion in a faith that failing at the highest levels is worthwhile. I am teaching you to stand for more than just yourself. If I don’t teach you that, then Obama ought to replace me with an online course, and the babble of faux achievements ought to rule forever. Amen. To be a failure in the best way possible is a worthy thing. The world won’t understand it. The world understands “published in” and “Studied with.” When you go to get tenure, or into graduate school, you’ll be lucky if they look at the work first. I won’t lie: network, schmooze, do good things in order to be seen, do all that stuff, but remember if you are truly ambitious as I am, as my former student is, this won’t ever satisfy you. The crap they put on school promotions will be just that: crap. I want you to want to write a poem as great as Keats. You want to believe that somewhere, in some room late at night a great reader Whitman claimed every poet needed is reading your poem with compassion, and understanding, and more skill than you could ever imagine. This reader is more important than you are–because he or she is your soul stripped of the ego, the flaws, the petty envy and ambitions, and he/she exists when everything else is damaged. I can teach you to believe in this reader. If I can’t, then let’s just follow the syllabus. I’ll assign, you execute, everyone will be happy or not happy according to the usual process, you’ll get your grade, I’ll get my paycheck, and my daughter Clare will have a roof over her head. None of these are bad things. On paper, we will call it an education. That’s the neutral term for being processed. I want to believe there is more to life than mere process. Hell if I know, but I want to believe this is an amazing privilege–to preside over something greater than myself. The jury is out. Who knows? Judging by University Facebooks, and bios, and vitae, I’m wrong. That’s OK. I’ll cross that bridge when I burn it.

How to Write a Poem

The day hath too much red in it—
death licking her chops over the salty carcasses
of abandoned ideas. But this week, I fell in love.
It came over the hill hungry & surprising.
And I will take the mysteriousness out
of my best poem to appease apple pickers,
students, mothers and all of Ohio.

Finally, the poem is what you want it to be:
a rose of splendor; a lover in an abandoned room
marking time with a lover’s laughter.

__________________________________________________
Mike Hackney is the author of five books, a grant recipient from the Ohio Arts Council and Ohio Arts Commission, and founder of the Almeda Street Poetry Group.

Easy Math: Poems, Lauren Shapiro, Sarabande Books (Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry), pp. 65, $14.95, February 2013.

Reading Easy Math by Lauren Shapiro is like being invited to an outrageous party where “the only escape/is realizing you’re already there.” It’s a come-as-you-are party, so readers are encouraged to show up with tousled hair, wearing their flip-flops and shower towels, or pajamas and ratty cardigans with tissues spilling from their pockets. Pink curlers optional.

The guest list will surprise you. There’s you, of course, even though you won’t remember being invited once the speaker throws open the door, a little breathless, and says, “I have been away for some time./ I don’t speak this language anymore. / Please teach me.” The speaker, you soon realize, is the alter ego of your host, Lauren Shapiro, who has written the kind of breakout first book that any poet, emerging or otherwise, should be ecstatic to have written. Her speaker, however, is more preoccupied with stuffed animals, among other things, including but not limited to the beautiful absurdity of the universe.

The speaker tells you straightaway, “A hundred stuffed animals/ the size of a fist and I can’t make the claw catch.” You nod. You like her already. Later, she says, “Saturday I’m at the carnival, which means/ I’ll have another stupid chance/ to win that giant panda I couldn’t win/ in fifth grade for Stephanie St. Clare.” You relate to this impulse—the desire we all have to rectify the clumsy shortcomings of the past. But later, when you hear her refer to “The stuffed panda with the bikini/ [she] didn’t win at the fair last weekend,” you’ll wonder exactly how long exactly you’ve been at this party, and then you’ll realize you don’t care. The important thing is that you have no intention of leaving.

Things start to get truly surreal when you discover who else is in attendance. For starters, there’s the Australian painter Dale Hickey, with whom the speaker purports to spend a lot of time hanging out at bowling alleys.

There’s Martha Stewart, but when you get a little closer, you realize it’s not the actual Martha Stewart, but her namesake rose. Now what you overheard in the garden makes more sense:

________Martha Stewart opens up her petals
like a cup of tea in the jungle. The delicate dog takes

a delicate piss. The quadriplegic smells Martha Stewart.
I smell her. A line starts. Even the infant wants a go.

Nostradamus is there, of course, because what’s a party without Nostradamus? His mind grew cloudy with the weight of his perceptions in a manner with which he was all too familiar.”

You take some other inventory of this enigmatic scene: “all the posters/ [a]re of Homer Simpson smoking dope.” Curious. “I’m not that innocent, sings Britney. / Baby, Baby, Baby, sings R. Kelly.” And who let in that know-it-all, “little orphan Annie on a soapbox”?

The speaker’s grandmother “walks into the room/with a bowl of sucker candies. / Isaac Newton is on the lam again, she says.” And because this is the kind of fine-tuned, madcap, neosurrealist writing that it is, you know once Isaac Newton has been mentioned, he’s sure to show up. When he does, you never take your eyes off him. You listen intently: “I can’t be found out, he says. / He is very hypochondriacal.” You like the word “hypochondriacal” and appreciate especially that it appears in a poem with other words you like, including but not limited to “bereft,” “fairytale,” “pineapple,” and the mouth-watering phrase, “sucker candies.”

Passing through to the patio where a barbecue is underway, you hear the speaker whisper to someone you can’t see, or maybe to no one in particular, “She’s pregnant/ again. I could have sworn/ she had her tubes tied.” You laugh because she’s funny like that, candid and incisive as hell. But the speaker turns to you and says, “Just let it go./ Just eat it,/ it tastes like chicken.” She points to a man you noticed earlier, whose name might be Greg: “I shoved his tie in the air vent. / Don’t tell.”

Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton arrive separately but leave together, “holding their skirts up out of the mud.” It tickles you to observe their matter-of-fact flirtations.

St. Augustine makes a brief cameo—just long enough to invent the Just War Theory. Lindsay Lohan is there, but in headline only. General Tso is there, but in chicken only. Hans Christian Andersen inspires the speaker’s striking realization “that there is a tiny world in each pore of the universe/ populated by tiny people who also dream/ of larger realities.”

The TV is on in the background almost the whole time, not as a distraction so much as a running sounding board. The speaker mentions it only in passing: “Television/ reminds me of a math problem/ I got wrong on the SAT.” You relate to this feeling and feel especially implicated when “Kathy says, / can’t you just enjoy it for once?” Who says you aren’t enjoying it? You were just talking with someone in the den about

_____the finale of Weeds in which
another hysterical woman blames herself
for sucking up tragedy through a straw.
It’s a beautiful and intriguing straw,
even psychedelic. Likewise, the commercial
shows a woman escaping with a blindfold
in the back of a minivan, which is like burrowing
into a locker in the gym.

Popular culture under scrutiny of the right mind has been known to result in some killer insights: “Thing is, most of the time no one’s looking, which is both a relief and cause for further paranoia—/ no one can hear you fall like a tree in a forest/ of trees with no ears. What were you doing/ in a forest anyway, bro?” Good question. And it all started with the Weeds finale and that commercial about the mini-van.

Someone sighs, “I don the hard hat/ and the ski mask only to find/ it’s not a costume party after all.”

That’s OK, you say, and you have a tremendous urge to repeat what you’ve heard now, so you slap the stranger on the back and offer, “Thing is, most of the time no one’s looking.”

The party should be winding down by now, you think, but Joan Rivers walks in, flashy and overdone as usual, and the speaker says, “Nothing Is More Beautiful When You Try to Make It that Way, Joan Rivers,” her voice in all capital letters just like a headline or the title of a poem.

Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs and Al Gore all get a mention, and the parakeets sing a Bob Marley song. You realize that a lot of legends, living and dead, are here in spirit.

You should be tired at the end, but instead you feel exhilarated. This party has punch—strong punch, like the stuff of these poems. It packs a wallop. You thank the host for what you can only describe as an experience not unlike a multi-valent, multi-vocal, multi-dimensional game of Words with Friends.

“Who isn’t looking for the intricate equation of the universe/ in CliffsNotes?” the speaker says. She’s being sincere, not snarky. You realize she empathizes with the Cosmic Predicament.

And “as [you] walk home […], the world looks like a Brueghel painting and all the trees/ are sending off beautiful/ little equations into the air.”

If you read the Bible with no authority other than your love of story and your lack of “judgment” (meaning without the lust to prove yourself justified by an authority), it opens up to you like the long love between you and an old family member–like the way my heart opened up to my grandmother. In real peace, there is room for ferocity. In real feeling, there is room for contradiction. God instructs the heart not by certainties but by pains and contradictions. The Bible is full of pains and contradictions.

Because I read the Bible and knew the story of Ruth, I knew how wonderful and brilliant Keats had been to yoke himself to that long ago figure standing and hearing the nightingale “amid the alien corn.” I didn’t have to look the story up, and it had the force for me it had had for Keats: the nightingale’s song was the continuity between myself and an ancient woman who had been the direct ancestor of my lord, Jesus Christ. It was this ability to connect the vast to the intimate that made Keats such a great poet–and he made the connection in one brief, so brief stroke.

Because I knew how Abraham had traveled under a night sky so vast, so glutted with stars and had heard God’s promise, I wept when I first read Mark Twain’s description of Huck and Jim looking up at the night sky and wondering about the origin of the stars, and I was awed by Cervantes when he had Quixote and Sancha under the same sky. My dream was always to retrace the journey of Abraham/Yahweh, Huck/Jim and Quixote/Panza under those same night skies. How would the night speak to me in each journey, over the Spanish plains, in the desert, on the river? I remembered night fishing with my own father, the slow burn of his Chesterfield King and how he warned me about the sharp fin of the catfish. All of this was what Keats moved toward: the collapsing of brevity and eternity.

This afternoon I hung out with Clare as her mom went on some errands. It’s one thing to do constructive activities with your child and another just to hang. She has two teeth now and is very proud of them. We put on the television and hung out on a pillow and I stood her up from time to time to give her practice, and she grabbed my beard and/or chest hair to give it a yank. When her mom came home Clare was asleep with the bottle still in her mouth. What would it be like if we could just hang out someday in Spain and Israel and on the Mississippi and retrace the books–the Bible, Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn? The river, the plains, the desert are one–they are where you encounter God and yourself. But the living room is also one, and the porch stoop is also one, and the hoods of parked cars late at night when you are 15 and hanging with friends is one: all of them the place that is sacred, ground set apart.

I want my students to know that this is the ultimate place of learning–this communion of “hang.” The kingdom of hang is like this: you are old or young, or somewhere in the middle and always claiming you are busy and then, some night, without planning, you sit down at the table where brevity and eternity are the same thing–and you hear the nightingale singing inside your own soul–in joy and grief at once, and you know that death hath no dominion– not over this Eucharist, this Eucharist of there–wherever there is, you’ll know, and if you don’t, a thousand years of life will not be enough to teach you.

Light Pollution, Match.com Potlatch

No man is an island. Some men are on islands.
Some men are on two.
Odysseus flicked his phone awake
began to type:
“Penelope, my darling, I —”
Calypso came into the room.
Phone disappears into pocket, on silent.

Whisper I to you:
“Come on the drift of the moon. The light flies
from our windows and our streets to space
It hits tiny bits of dust, bounces back aground,
hits your eyes; hits my eyes.”
Or eyes stare at the dull impeded glow of the skies.

Penelope marries a suitor. Odysseus moves in with Calypso.
Nausicaa sits on the beach; the stars they are shining
she thinks and looks up and counts them. Twenty-eight.
Twenty-eight points of light, she thinks, how’s that for a metaphor?
It’s her twenty eighth birthday, and Odysseus has messaged her.
A million pixels of light in her eyes, a picture of a tripod he drew:
“When you dressed me and when I sang to you.”

Say you to me:
“Clutch to the bits of the truth. I fly
slowly now, you know, it seems. My voice
carried over the waters, hits your ears.”
My ears strain to hear your voice, my house hums.

No island is an island anymore.
When Alcinous finally dies, his house is filled with the hum
of the fruits of his works. Faces line the benches,
Flowers line the walls, the alcoves spill out irises,
The tripods are full of stew. Odysseus brushes Alcmene’s ear with his mouth,
After kissing her cheek, “your beauty still the sweetest fruit of all.”

I loved you when the sky still held only gods;
you are divine too, you know,
And when I was young I remember lying awake
in the desert
well past midnight, millions of stars, clouds of them,
uncountable light. All the gods up there then still are,
I presume,
Unless they’ve been released by light pollution,
Carried down on the light we reflect on ourselves.
When I slept, I dreamed your profile.

________________________________________
Ammon is a philosopher and writer who dreams of being a full-time roustabout. He lives in Toledo, lured by glossy pamphlets sent by the University of Toledo promising him a view of the Ottawa River in exchange for the occasional seminar on phenomenology, aesthetics or ethics. In his academic writing, he explores the intersections between philosophy and literature. In his creative writing, he explores the boundaries of good taste.

Horsetails

The cirrus above were horsetails
running from the smoke stacks
as we latched flaps and buckled coats,
holding out for incredible
thunderings, standing long as the
mud of the dirty Susquehanna
where girls lose virginity to four wheel drives
and lift kits. We go on working
despite our Sunday ghosts and rotisserie
traditions. Here mothers use food stamps
for cigarettes and children learn to
talk to rabbits or fall asleep to infomercials.
Parades drum on to resemble community but the trailer
parks know better, sharing lovers and thirty
packs, having yard sales for angry fixes
while school boys are mauled in saw mills
and two keg bars.

______________________________________________
Zach Fishel‘s second chapbook, Thorn Bushes and Fishhooks, will appear from NightBallet Press this fall. His poetry has twice been nominated for the Pushcart, and at present he teaches environmentalism in New England.

Reading Goat In The Snow

emilypetit

Emily Pettit’s lush lines unfold and unfold and unfold. She’s a master of the short line, gorgeously complex in her use of dark themes (strongest being a version of intense human anxiety) and poignantly reveals these themes in an unselfconscious, direct voice. The distinctive “leaping” I find in so much great poetry of our generation (the feeling of non-sequitur logic and negative space between lines), is conquered by Pettit. But what’s so powerful about her poems is that she never loses the initial thread which allows each poem to remain entirely distinctive and unique, rather then forgoing sense. Each individual poem, like a planet in a solar system, orbits; sometimes harkening back to others nearby. Her poems are introverted planets, with extroverted survival skills, in a chaotic universe.

pettitCard

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No one, I think, is quite as masterful at titles as Emily Pettit. In her book Goat in the Snow (Birds, LLC 2012) they’re like poems above poems. Thus, the relationship between the poem and the title on the page is powerful. Take the poem “HOW TO APPEAR NORMAL IN FRONT OF YOUR ENEMY OR COMPETITOR.” The first line is “Damn icebox and my fist, I didn’t hit it.” The humor and seriousness of the juxtaposing lines are brilliant. It’s dramatic irony at its best in poetry. There’s so much authority and wisdom in the voice, mixed with a kind of vulnerability that resists the didactic. Similarly, the clerical precision—or Pettit’s statements—resist any hint of melodrama. But she’s not afraid of beauty:

All over town footprints are flying. When walking
on tiptoes we ignite suspicious minds. Hovering,
hanging out nowhere near the ground.
I’m on my way to the end of the world again.

(from HOW TO HIDE AN ELEPHANT)

Within the controlled leaping are these moments of lyrical explosions.  “When I blow everything up / I promise I won’t put everything back / together in the old comfortable ways.” Pettit wants the sentiments, the conceits, to be precise. But she also knows that precision is absolute, fixed. So we’re shown one problem and how to fix it, and then why it shouldn’t be fixed but celebrated. Goat in the Snow is, in a sense, is a celebration of art and expression. It invites the reader to embrace a kind of chaos. Emily Pettit is one of the most promising, gifted poets of our generation because she can ask questions without an answer. Because she can fluctuate in humor, as well as complex, important themes. What I find most clandestine about the book is that the speaker is deceptively coy. When she tells us to put an elephant in our pocket so “it can be the elephant in the room / that no one ever talks about” it’s not simply endearing: she’s calling us out. She wants us to pay attention. And that’s just what I’m going to do. Something intense is happening. And Emily Pettit knows it.

Emily Card

Characters:
Wallace Stevens
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
W.H. Auden
James Merril
Robert Lowell

Introduction

Lowell: Why are we here? Can someone tell me this, please?

Auden: A little testy, aren’t we?

Lowell: Testy? Of course. I was not planning on being summoned from the grave today, and in fact had plans this afternoon with my dead first wife.

Bishop: Do you mean Jean?

Lowell: Yes, I mean Jean. We were going to visit Boston, MA, so that I might once again visit the stomping grounds on which I bullied my classmates and earned the nickname “Cal.”

Bishop: Short for “Caligula.” And you’re proud of this?

Auden: Proud? He’s positively beaming, the old bully.

Stevens: Bully indeed. I agree with Mr. Lowell, this is a most wretched occasion for being summoned. The malady of the quotidian? I meant to say the malady of the long dead.

Merrill: An elegant turn of phrase, Mr. Stevens – just superb. But less we stray too far from the reason why we have been called from the dead, I suppose I must ask aloud, Who called, and what are we doing here? Where are we, anyways?

Moore: I called. This is my summoning.

Lowell: A-ha! So this is your doing, eh Ms. Moore? Getting lonely with only your mother in the afterlife to tend to your exacting observational powers?

Auden: “To tend to your exacting observational powers”? What happened to the antithesis of long-windedness you developed in Life Studies, by dear Robbie?

Moore: Enough. I called us together for a conversation.

Merrill: A good enough reason.

Auden: Agreed.

Bishop: Hear hear.

Lowell: Yes, and all that.

Stevens: Indeed. But pray tell, Ms. Moore: a conversation regarding what?

Moore: Regarding John Ashbery, my dear poets.

Lowell: Oh god, here we go.

Bishop: Cynical, Robert?

Lowell: Cynical? More like “risible.” I have a deep distaste for that silly man’s work.

Merrill: Ha! “Silly man”? Do explain yourself, dear Caligula.

Lowell: But where to begin? I coined, many years ago – that is, I stole, many years ago – the phrase “raw and the cooked” to describe the difference between my early work and the work of, say, Ginsberg. And yes, with Life Studies I did leave the cooked for the raw. But my poetry always maintained some aspects of the cooked – a certain formality, even in my autobiographical writings. Ashbery, on the other hand, is the rawest poet I have ever encountered, by which I do not mean to praise, but rather simply observe with some disdain.

Bishop: But do explain yourself, Robert. What you mean by “raw,” I mean.

Lowell: We might as well recite something. Here, look at this poem from the poet’s first well-received book, Some Trees. I do not wish to look at the more canonical works – “Instructional Manual,” “Some Trees,” “Illustration,” or “The Painter.” Let us look at something more “minor.” Ah! Here: “Sonnet.” Good and short. (Clearing throat)

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

His pain is the servant’s alive.
It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.

Fellow poets, how are we supposed to read something so surreal, so nonsensical? I’m baffled.

Moore: Great question, Mr. Lowell! How do we read this poem?

(Long pause in the conversation as the poets begin thinking.)

Musicality and Narrative

Auden: I feel I owe some explanation for the poem, as I did choose John over his friend Frank O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Back then, I explained that John’s poetry was interesting but dangerous; that it was an interesting experiment, but that too much nonsense could deprive his poetry of too much meaning. And that would be bad.

But let me try to say more, now, about what I liked about John’s poetry, and therefore what I also admire about “Sonnet.” To begin with, a reader must always interrogate his or her own assumptions about what it is he or she likes about poetry. By self-interrogation, I do mean something analogous to the intention of psychoanalysis – that is, the better a reader understands his or her own predilections, the easier it will be for said reader to find the literature that moves this reader the most. Now, the reason I like “Sonnet” – and I know we cannot stay merely on reasons for “liking” the poetry, but I find it a fine place to begin – the reason I like “Sonnet” is because, like my own early work, Ashbery is developing a different way of talking.

Bishop: How do you mean, “a different way of talking”?

Auden: Well, if you can suffer through it, let me recite from memory one of my earliest works, entitled “Taller Today.” Afterwards I”ll explain why. (Clears his throat.)

Taller today, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in a windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing but here, sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

Merrill: Beautiful. But do explain.

Auden: I believe this poem works for two reasons – one because of its music, and secondly, because of its approximation to narrative.

Lowell: And by “music” you mean…?

Auden: This is hard to say. Yet I think I mean something akin to the music that Mr. Stevens creates in his poetry. Do tell us, Mr. Stevens, how you understand what I mean when I refer to the haunting musicality of poetry, and then I shall be happy to continue.

Stevens: I’m not very comfortable discussing my own work, Mr. Auden.

Auden: Humility, expressed grandly! I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Stevens. Well, let us return to you in a second. What I mean by musicality is something I believe Mr. Stevens refers to in his “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:” I mean “the beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” For poetry doesn’t necessarily sound like human speech. I know this sounds shamelessly obvious, but occasionally what is obvious needs to be emphasized, in case it is forgotten, shamelessly. Poetry is not simply embellished speech given a meter. It is a deeply strange and other way of speaking, with roots I would imagine in divination. It is magical. And yet what makes a phrase magical? It’s sound. Therefore, notice the sound of “windless orchard,” “lonely roads,” “Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl”. These are haunted, haunting phrases, and they are haunting and haunted because they are other. No one would say, in a conversation, “nights come bringing the snow,” just as no one, doodling in their notebook, would draw an enormous abstract painting the size of ten men. Such experimentation in language, like experimentation in form and color in the visual arts, heightens and augments our consciousness of language, the way that painting does the same for form, shape, color, and line. It is a seemingly deeper way of talking. And this depth, this haunting quality, is what I mean by “musicality.”

Merrill: Interesting, Wystan.

Auden: Thank you. But now, Ashbery’s work. I believe it carries this same sort of musicality. But moreover, it is a musicality that is Ashbery’s alone – he sounds like himself, and no one else.

Bishop: But what about “Some Trees”? I’ve always thought he sounded in that poem like you, Wystan.

Auden: Well, I mean as he develops as a poet. But notice some of the turns of phrases in “Sonnet,” (named, I noticed, Elizabeth, similar to your great poem, “Sestina”). “After many years he has been brought nothing.” “The light walls collapse next day.” These are assertions which are completely nonsensical. They combine the confidence of assertion with the artifice of imaginative freedom. It is for that reason they are so strange, yet lovely and, in a way, hauntingly enigmatic.

Moore: So, Mr. Auden, are you saying you like John’s poetry because he writes creative phrases?

Auden: No, but I think that is a part of it. What I’m saying is that what John is doing is harder than it looks. Here: everyone come up with a nonsensical phrase. I’ll give us ten seconds. 10….9….8…..7…..

Moore: The pelican’s head was a grouchy artichoke.

Bishop: The sandpiper’s library is a crumb of an almanac.

Stevens: Far from the languorous sea, a dog’s asbestos legs rang vividly.

Merrill: Dear, please send me those pool balls shocking the nerves of a kimono.

Lowell: Damn garret in the house sets my cigarettes to flame!

Auden: “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.”

Lowell: But that’s a line from the poem.

Auden: Yes. I wanted to juxtapose our “nonsensical” statements, in order to show that John’s line is not very nonsensical. In fact, of all the phrases we came up with, I would say that the line “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face” is a very interesting kind of metaphor, which – in a shockingly disturbing way – seems to serve as a mirror for the reader’s own experience reading the Ashbery poem. For aren’t we all, facing “Sonnet,” as confused as a pattern of honking gridlock?

Bishop: So “Sonnet” is a mirror for the reader’s face? And what happened to the “story” you mentioned, along with the musicality?

Auden: I’m getting there. But notice the phrases in “Sonnet.” “Each servant stamps the reader with a look./ After many years he has been brought nothing. / The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience. / The servant goes to bed. / The patience rambles on / Musing on the library’s lofty holes.” Notice how each line is a separate sentence, until the final enjambed line, which is sensible, for musing is a longer process that would carry itself over, past a shorter sentence. Now, is it dangerous to say that it is as if Ashbery were voicing some of our own experiences reading the poem? For what if we were to replace “servant” with “writer”?

Each writer stamps the reader with a look.
After many years [the reader] has been brought nothing.
The writer’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The writer goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Ashbery, equating the writer with a servant – perhaps who who serves creativity, imagination, new ways of thinking and talking, poetic knowledge and experience – describes one experience reading a poem. The writer makes the reader pause; the reader feels frustrated; the writer, echoing the reader’s frustration, makes the reader feel less frustrated and more patient; the writer leaves the reader, or the reader puts down the book; the feeling engendered by the skillful writer hangs in the air of the reader’s mind like a powerful lingering scent; and this lingering somehow muses on “lofty holes” in the library – perhaps a metaphor for the strangeness of the familiar.

Stevens: Bravo, Wystan! A very nice interpretation.

Auden: But I’m not finished. First, we can sense the uncanniness of the passage now, a little closer. And yet we can also see how John’s work gestures towards narrative, without becoming a narrative itself. It is suggestive – something Marjorie Perloff has also written about. And here it is suggestive, because it seems, in some very bizarre and weird way, to be ahead of the reader, to out-anticipate us, and know our expectations before we ourselves know them.

Moore: So Ashbery knows us better than we know ourselves. A discomfiting position, to say the least. But what does it actually mean?

Installation Art and Complex Moods

Merrill: I think it means something like this. Take Proust for example, that remarkable exemplar of the winding sentence brooking no obstruction, who wove tapestries of sentences that, in their unwinding joi de vivre, wove us different faces, different ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves. Proust set out to write a book, and the book turned out to be a book with a style innovative enough to spawn myriads of imitators. Why would people try to imitate the master? I believe because it was as though Proust had placed a new face us for within our own hall of mirrors. He had imagined himself and others within a new kind of vocabulary, a vocabulary that stretched our self-image, made it more elastic, more expansive, less fixed or dull. Is this what you believe Ashbery is doing, Wystan?

Auden: Precisely.

Moore: But then what is the difference between sense and nonsense? Wallace, you are famous for saying a poem, pardon the paraphrase, “resists the intelligence half-successfully.” Do not Ashbery’s poems err too much on the side of the resistance?

Stevens: I have wondered about that, especially in the poet’s second book, “The Tennis Court Oath.” For what do we do with passages like, (and this is from “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”, a more-praised poem from the book):

Stars
Painted the garage roof crimson and black
He is not a man
Who can read these signs… his bones were stays…
And even refused to live
In a world and refunded the hiss
Of all that exists terribly near us
Lilke you, my love, and light.

I mean, this at least makes some sense, and comes from a poem that itself makes some sense. It is as if Ashbery were giving us some raw blocks of experience, some raw linguistic (and poetic) data, and were asking us to assemble this data in a way in which it makes sense to us. Like a piece of installation art. We walk into this installation, grabbing at particulars that appeal to us, and with these particulars we form our own experience of the artwork. Perhaps Ashbery is simply calling overt attention to the way in which we actively construct meaning.

Bishop: Yes, but then what of the very obscure Ashbery, such as his “Europe”?

Moore: Elizabeth, give us an excerpt.

Bishop: Alright. Here is the opening four sections of “Europe.”

1.
To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
cannot understand
feels deeply)

2.
a wave of nausea –
numerals

3.
a few berries

4.
the unseen claw
Babe asked today
The background of poles roped over
into star jolted them

Now I find these passages suggestively rich, but too lean on the meaning to satisfy.

Lowell: I agree.

Moore: But isn’t that exactly the point? Isn’t the poet simply experimenting, like any poet, with how much he can give us, and how much he can hold apart?

Merrill: John Shoptaw’s book, On the Outside Looking Out, illuminates what “Europe” is ostensibly about. But imagine if we had not read this book; what would we make of this poem?

Stevens: I confess I have never been able to finish it.

Bishop: Ditto.

Auden: Harold Bloom claimed it was an abomination, to put it mildly.

Stevens: Yet other poets, like Charles Bernstein, have claimed it as an important poem, one that figures as a precursor to the Language poets’ experiments.

Moore: So what is it? An abomination? A prescient experiment? What?

Bishop: I think this depends on the reader’s taste, to be honest. If the reader enjoys a poet who does not make overt meaning, but gives us the building block of sense, of intelligence, of imagination, of memory, and asks us to do with it as we please, then perhaps The Tennis Court Oath would be their favorite book. For my taste, I enjoy the Ashbery who does more with meaning then simply barely alludes to it. I like the Ashbery that is funny, that writes long sentences with their own idiosyncratic elasticity, that is brimming over with original ideas, that is wacky, that is fun.

Moore: Is there a specific poem you are thinking of?

Bishop: Yes, actually, Marianne. I’m thinking of “The Skaters.”

Moore: Let’s hear some of it, keeping in mind that it is a much longer poem.

Bishop: Indeed, let’s do that. “The Skaters” begins with these two stanzas:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Proud out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpetedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

Bishop: Many critics have pointed out that Ashbery is hearing the sound of people ice-skating, that these sounds are the “decibels” that are “a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart.”

Imagine the poet typing beside a window, and he hears the sound of the ice-skaters. The sound allows him to in some ways “enter” the scene, participate in it, but at the same time the poet is distant, apart from the scene, both in the game and out of it. The sound of this activity does not make the poet want to ice-skate, but rather makes “for masses of inertia” that paradoxically make a demand on the poet. What is the demand that “stumps the absolute”? It seems as though Ashbery is commenting on a preternatural quality of the ice-skating – that the sounds and colors seems somehow to have already existed, that they are a kind of given, a kind of fore-grounded immanence, as opposed to a receding transcendent that constantly eludes the poet; but that this preternaturalness, this givenness of the skaters, contrasts funnily with the way in which their sounds are “unexpected.”

One might therefore create an analogy between the experience of the sounds and colors of the skaters, and the experience of the tradition of poetry within which Ashbery writes. Both the skaters and the tradition are simultaneously given and surprising, old and new, expected and unexpected, traditional and innovative. Ashbery himself, steeped in French poetry, in the works of poets as varied as Pasternak, Rimbaud, Stevens, Auden, the Metaphysical poets, Whitman, etc., still finds a way to make it new. Thus Ashbery is commenting on a dynamic that is rife throughout his own work – the play between the old and the new, between originality and continuity. Indeed, as we read further, Ashbery writes,

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o’er the ice,
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden “dump” or lament.

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

As you can see, Ashbery now is sort of expanding on this dynamic between innovation or “novelty” and older ways of being. It’s as if we are watching a symphony of colors, light and dark, and the light stands for novelty, which can be exhausting, and the dark stands for habitual ways of living, which can also be exhausting. So that Ashbery is navigating himself and us through this symphony of colors, through desire for change and desire for certainty. We hear that these “Colors slip away from and chide us”, perhaps suggesting that they bring to the poet a kind of regretful nostalgia. And indeed, “The human mind / Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme / Of some sodden “dump” or lament,” meaning that the human mind is incapable of nothing except a kind of familiar, weary lament, an existential complaint. “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes” – and yet, and yet, and yet. As you can see with the two stanzas that are sentences –

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

and

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

The changes in the activity of the skaters, which seem to precipitate changes in the poet’s mood and mind, consequently precipitate changes in the mood of the poem, and pragmatically effect transitions in the poem from one mood or sentiment to another. We are all going to hell, the first stanza suggests, but “Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heart.” All we can do is listen to the sad horn in our mind, “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.” It is akin to a sad mood interacting with a gloriously aesthetically pleasing landscape – in that bittersweet confluence of longing and temporary satisfaction, we have a tonally rich experience that demands a poem (as Ashbery recognizes, and delivers) to do justice to the pungent, fragrant, potent contours of that experience.

Moore: Bravo, Elizabeth! But you said earlier that Ashbery is a funny poet…?

Picture 905

Photo by Carolyn Baskis

No Use Crying

I don’t know who decided that idiom.
You wanna cry, cry.
What, are we all so wealthy
that we can afford to pour milk
over granite tabletops and not think
about the cost of such behaviors?
Do we own and operate dairy farms?
No, we don’t – not most of us. Sucks.
So go ahead, let fall your tears
(or an apropos typo: let fall your fears)
and cry, weep, howl, shriek, rage
until you are at last sponge-ready
and eager to clean and begin anew.
But you know what else you could do?
Go get some juice. Spill that, too,
in arcing droplets that ape the sun.
Add an asparagus spear, a broccoli floret,
a Brussels sprout; arrange accordingly.
Look at this interesting composition you made!
All textured and nuanced – and to think
that it started from a mild milk tragedy.
And here you assumed that the spill was a mistake.
Honey, there are no mistakes.

__________________________________________
Josh Lefkowitz is a graduate from the University of Michigan, where he received the Hopwood Award for Poetry. His poems and essays have been published in Court Green (forthcoming), Conduit, The Rumpus, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Freerange Nonfiction, Ohio Edit, and Open Letters Monthly, among others. He has performed two autobiographical solo pieces—HELP WANTED: A Personal Search for Meaningful Employment at the Start of the 21st Century and NOW WHAT?—in theaters and spaces across the country. Additionally, Josh has recorded humorous essays for NPR’s All Things Considered and for BBC’s Americana. He received a Young Artist grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and an Associate Artist appointment from the Atlantic Center for the Arts. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and most recently was the 2013 winner of the Wergle Flomp humor poetry contest, sponsored by Winning Writers.

We could say we long for someone, or we could better say that someone has triggered our longing. Certain mechanisms exist in the human brain that when brushed by a combination of memory and bodily functions, demand interpretation. Feeling is situational interpretation. The same chemicals and hormones, and even, to an extent the same physical manifestations that define being “in love” also accompany the fight, freeze, and flee complex of fear: increased heart rate, dilation of the eyes, blood flow to the hands, feet, lips, and genitalia, a rise in blood pressure, an increased sharpness yet reduction of our focus to the matter at hand. We must interpret these sensations as either love or fear depending on the situation and all our past experiences, and very often, we waver between our interpretations: this is the basic fodder of romantic comedies. Boy meets girl: fight, freeze, or flee (usually some combination of all three). When working with students in poetry, many of whom are preoccupied with romantic love, usually its pain and infamy. I find certain tools useful for punching holes in the cliches, and helping them find a way in to what matters to them. It is stupid to rid them of the mechanisms that has lead to “piercing blue eyes” and “melting brown eyes” and all that crap. They are right: blue eyes have certain atavistic advantages insofar as they display to better visibility the dilation of the pupils that indicate interest, including romantic interest. Melting brown eyes are hardly ever used to indicate evil or coldness because, well, because they are “melting” which means warmth and a sense of depth. Madame Bovary’s large brown eyes fooled Charles into thinking her noble and full of womanly virtue. Blue eyes show interest, but brown eyes appear bigger and trigger an atavistic mammalian tendency to protect. The larger the eyes, provided they are symmetrical, the more we are likely to ooze oxytocin, the chemical of well being, maternal care, and post-orgasmic bonding. Joan Baez, in her thinly veiled tribute to Dylan, wrote:

You gave to me oh so many things,
it makes me wonder, how they could belong to me.
And I gave you only my brown eyes
which melted your soul down
to the place it longed to be.

This is what I would do if confronted with a student wallowing in cold piercing blue eyes, or melting brown eyes, or (and this is rare) emerald green eyes. I’d say: remove the eyes, and distill their qualities throughout the poem. For example piercing blue eyes:

Something sharp, something being pierced (not a heart), but perhaps a shirt or stitch that is being woven into a fabric of different color. All things blue: sky, a robin’s egg, some semi-precious stone. Then, if your eyes are brown, remove those too, and play with the “warmth” of brown: old rivers, dead leaves, chocolate, whatever. It might go something like this:

You who have stitched your bright blue thread
through the flow of my dark river,’
who have pierced the sparrow of my eyes,
who have pulled the needle out and in,
until pain has its own rhythm, and moves
through the brown thistle of my day: blue thing that looked at me:
a robin’s egg falls from the highest branch,
a shrike impales its prey:
the small brown wren, the thrush
whose song rose from the secret wood,
they have lost both thrift and song.
On a blue thorn the sky god descends,
earth moves through its umber rounds,
knows all winds pierce and sting
yet blesses them. Blesses what tears and rends,
what breaks: this brown word that is on the tongue
of blue, this mud deeper than all time.

The point is to take the essence of piercing, and blue, and longing, of sharpness, and pain, and mingle it with the warmth of brown—its humility, its less dazzling, yet deeper beauty. The point of “piercing blue eyes” has not been lost. The student has not conceded his or her interest, but has rather distilled to give it both more original detail and a greater ontology. In the next post I will take some cliches and show how they can be the raw material for this process of distillation. It is important to respect cliches as well as vanquish them, and we do that by treating them seriously, and using whatever force they once had–using their vestige power.

WHEN AT A CERTAIN PARTY IN NYC

Wherever you’re from sucks,
and wherever you grew up sucks,
and everyone here lives in a converted
chocolate factory or deconsecrated church
without an ugly lamp or souvenir coffee cup
in sight, but only carefully edited objets like
the Lacanian soap dispenser in the kitchen
that looks like an industrial age dildo, and
when you rifle through the bathroom
looking for a spare tampon, you discover
that even their toothpaste is somehow more
desirable than yours. And later you go
with a world famous critic to eat a plate
of sushi prepared by a world famous chef from
Sweden and the roll is conceived to look like
“a strand of pearls around a white throat,” and is
so confusingly beautiful that it makes itself
impossible to eat. And your friend back home—-
who says the pioneers who first settled
the great asphalt parking lot of our
middle were not in fact heroic but really
the chubby ones who lacked the imagination
to go all the way to California—it could be that
she’s on to something. Because, admit it,
when you look at the people on these streets,
the razor-blade women with their strategic bones
and the men wearing Amish pants with
interesting zippers, it’s pretty clear that you
will never cut it anywhere that constitutes
a where, that even ordering a pint of tuna salad in
a deli is an illustrative exercise in self-doubt.
So when you see the dogs on the high-rise elevators
practically tweaking, panting all the way down
from the 19th floor to the 1st, dying to get on
with their long planned business of snuffling
trash or peeing on something to which all day
they’ve been looking forward, what you want is
to be on the fastest Conestoga home, where the other
losers live and where the tasteless azaleas are,
as we speak, halfheartedly exploding.

WHEN AT A CERTAIN PARTY IN NYC a poem by Erin Belieu from Motionpoems on Vimeo. Video courtesy of Motion Poems.

This poem first appeared in 32 Poems and was reprinted in Best American Poetry 2011. Poem copyright 2011 Erin Belieu, all rights reserved, used by permission of the author.

___________________________________________
ERIN BELIEU IS THE AUTHOR OF 4 POETRY COLLECTIONS ALL FROM COPPER CANYON PRESS, INCLUDING HER FORTHCOMING SLANT SIX, DUE IN SEPTEMBER 2014. BELIEU TEACHES AT FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY, THE LESLEY UNIVERSITY LOW RES MFA PROGRAM AND IS THE CO-FOUNDING CO DIRECTER OF VIDA WOMEN IN LITERARY ARTS.

No Apocalypse by Monica Wendel
Georgetown Review Press
ISBN 978-0615705989
June 2013
70 pages

I read the majority of these poems on the beach. It was a struggle. Sun, sand, and humanity conspired to constantly deflect my attention from No Apocalypse. That selfsame destruction, denied but still conjured through just naming, crushed the elements around me, and in the wreckage I found courageous poems blooming throughout this book, poems that are self-assured but still eager to wander through the world around them. Monica Wendel’s first collection shows us a poet open to unsure footing and revelations from this fantastic mess around us.

Like A.R. Ammons’ in Garbage, Wendel is looking to craft poetry out of all available input, refusing to shy away from the most personal details or political angles. Her tastes are laid bare and she is free of agenda, crafting with the material of her life, thoughts, dreams, the borders of New York, and beyond. Within her openness, she never reads as vulnerable, exposing raw wounds for the world to bear. Rather, she processes and transmits, as poetry in its finest forms is meant to do.

At a party to raise bail for those incarcerated,
a half-dozen anarchofeminists wore armbands
and patrolled the dance floor for safer-space violations.
One of them got so drunk she ended up on the roof, yelling
to a mostly-silent Manhattan skyline: hands cupped to her mouth,
skinny arms jutting out like wings from her face.
[from For the Birds]

There’s no doubt that this language is charged, but while the lay reader may recoil at such familiar usage of the term “anarchofeminists”, Wendel gives no quarter and expects none. Rather, she is comfortable bringing this language to the fore and demanding the reader step along, to the edge of the roof, to take in the Manhattan skyline, where a conscientious party is still a party, especially when the wings are open wide and we all throw out our voices.

Surely Wendel has a built-in audience, but this book is open to all, allowing context to do the heavy lifting and language to play out as required. As such, the poet often shifts forms, winding lines long and small into poetry that is readable but sparking fires left and right. Wendel refuses to let speech be hemmed in by strict designations such as “poetic” or “political.” She posits that there is no separation between them.

These poems are a form of astral projection, winding around the world we recognize but demanding a confrontation with injustice, arguing that maybe acknowledgement—not just answers—is all we need.

From Liberation Theology:

My friend brings me stolen gifts –
Cookies from Whole Foods,
American Apparel leggings.

No cat or dog growing up,
but he had a rooster rescued
from a fighting ring, a life

of amphetamines and razorblades.
Bloodbeak would scream from the garage,
peck at its own flesh if you

came near. And somewhere outside
activists don black balaclavas
to perform rescue operations

on pit bull puppies, roosters,
sweatshop sewn sneakers. We eat
standing up in the cold kitchen.

Gestures, grand and diminutive, poetic and otherwise, made with integrity. That integrity, along with strength of line, innate musicality, and willingness to do what’s best for the poem, make No Apocalypse not only a book worth savoring but a testament to the voracious mind of Monica Wendel. You will find no detritus in her lines or thinking, no ashes covering the ground, just a need to write towards what she feels is worth confronting.