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Poems of the Week

Alfred Corn’s new play Lowell’s Bedlam will be opening at Pentameters Theater in London, April 7th. The play runs until the Saturday before Easter.

Set in the Autumn of 1949, during a period when Robert Lowell was being treated for bipolar illness, the play also features Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Hardwick. It’s worth noting that Corn met all of these writers several times.

www.pentameters.co.uk
Telephone: 02074353648

If you haven’t heard yet, Mark Strand has released a new book with Monk Books called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka.

In honor of this beautiful new book, THEthe will be giving away a signed copy of this limited edition chapbook. All you have to do to “enter” the drawing for this book is make a comment on any THEthe post (past, present, or future). Each comment is an entry to win, so feel free to go crazy (we like your comments anyhow!). Please observe the commenting guidelines; no spam or blatantly vapid comments, please.

Please sign in with some form of contact information (via Facebook, Twitter, etc.) so that we can contact you if your name is drawn.

This is one of my favorite Stevens poems, and I was very cheered when I found out years later that Stevens felt the same.  When I first read “Large Red Man Reading,” I thought he had Matisse in the back round of his mind. Years later, I found out he was, indeed, a great admirer of Matisse. The elemental colors, and the longing of the dead to get back into the world—to feel thorns, cold, anything elemental—the pots above the stove—this was a much greater version of what Thornton Wilder attempted to get at in his play, Our Town. It is the implied mystical oxymoron of desiring and longing for what we already have. In this sense, Stevens is the great poet of the obvious.

Poeisis is not a form of intelligence, but, rather, stupidity in its old sense: as that which arrests the intelligence, which stuns us from “being” into being. Stevens leaves us standing before the one who reads, and what he reads is the new law of what Wallace called the poem of earth. To state the obvious—to truly state it—is the most difficult task of poetry.  Stevens is saying what Rilke said: rock, tree…name them. This poem invokes. It is about invocation, the most ancient of poetical powers.  It conjures. The large red man might be the sun fading in the west. He invokes what is living before night returns the dead to their rest. It is Stevens’ poem of the living and the dead. I am in awe of it.

Large Red Man Reading

There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.

There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,

That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly

And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,

Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

I hate when poets are called brave. Gets on my nerves. Fearless is another term I find dubious. Poets win grants. They are professionals. Most poetry festivals are lamer and more sedate than Star Trek conventions. If I pick up a poetry book and see the words “brave” or “fearless” in any of the blurbs, I think twice about buying it. No one is brave or fearless if they live in the suburbs, have tenure, or inhabit parts of Manhattan that have been made safe by the police force. This is not brave. Being fearless in a poem is along the same lines as being an aggressive grandmother expressing road rage in an old Buick sedan. Spare me. Being “brave” in a poem is like those snide one liners people zing you with from the safety of a Facebook comment.

But, sometimes, poets write poems that aren’t being considered for an award. Sometimes they are writing out of some necessity beyond the latest AWP bullshit. (anyone for the “long poem” or the “poem of place?”) Sometimes poets are good in ways no one gave them permission to be. No one kissed their bums at the work shop, or published them in some glossy university magazine that is full of “brave” poets. They just wrote something that was fully cooked (Hate the term raw) and happened to contain your children. They served it up to you, and you ate it, and asked for second helpings, and, only realized later when you went back to your part of the world where police make it unnecessary for you to be brave, that you ate your own future. They make you complicit in a crime. They made you destroy the evidence. They feed you something you hadn’t counted on, and it goes beyond your usual dietary restrictions. These poets are sneaky, and lethal, and kill you with stealth, and have the skill for abomination. Abomination—true abomination—takes great skill. All true burns are controlled burns. All the knives are sharpened to such perfection that the victims can voice no cry. Such poets don’t need to be brave or fearless because they scare the shit out of you. After reading them, you know your pantoum sequence is a lie, and your ears are made of tin, and it does not matter if you won six grants, and had a blurb from Jesus: you know you’re a liar, and a hack, and you better step up your game. The poet I picked for this week is like that: a skilled assassin, a pro in the way pros ought to be, taking what she thought was useful from American poetry, and leaving the rest with its throat slashed on the floor.

I first read Ai when I was a teenager and didn’t know any better. She didn’t whine, even when she was dumped, or ignored, or had to suffer fools gladly. She got them back. Her poems had sex in them, but not as a recreational activity. They were driven by some inner magic I couldn’t forget, and which stayed with me for days, and it made me rip up two notebooks of poetry. She was intense in a way that made the comedians and the clever keep their mouths shut. They’d never say to her: Ai, where’s your sense of humor? Compared to her, Christopher Walken was a fucking nun playing Lady of Spain on a mandolin. She tossed all the buildings out of the way, sent cars flying, and made me stand alone to face her, and, being street smart, I got the hell out of there.

I would have never wanted to meet Ai. Her poems have a fierce precision that precludes any literary lunches. Ai’s work reminds me that poets don’t need to be brave, or fearless. They need to be good, and, if possible, ferocious. I know she’s dead, but if I was near her grave, I’d walk carefully and I’d take off my hat. You can never be too careful. A friend of mine went to Monk’s memorial service and had the bad taste to ask Miles Davis for an autograph. “Man,” Miles said, “we’re at a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m sorry, Miles.” Miles Davis said: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.” This seems like an Ai poem. She was not brave and fearless. Great birds of prey don’t have to be brave and fearless. They just know what they’re doing, and they eat you.

Salomé

by Ai

I scissor the stem of the red carnation
and set it in a bowl of water.
It floats the way your head would,
if I cut it off.
But what if I tore you apart
for those afternoons
when I was fifteen
and so like a bird of paradise
slaughtered for its feathers.
Even my name suggested wings,
wicker cages, flight.
Come, sit on my lap, you said.
I felt as if I had flown there;
I was weightless.
You were forty and married.
That she was my mother never mattered.
She was a door that opened onto me.
The three of us blended into a kind of somnolence
and musk, the musk of Sundays. Sweat and sweetness.
That dried plum and licorice taste
always back of my tongue
and your tongue against my teeth,
then touching mine. How many times?—
I counted, but could never remember.
And when I thought we’d go on forever,
that nothing could stop us
as we fell endlessly from consciousness,
orders came: War in the north.
Your sword, the gold epaulets,
the uniform so brightly colored,
so unlike war, I thought.
And your horse; how you rode out the gate.
No, how that horse danced beneath you
toward the sound of cannon fire.
I could hear it, so many leagues away.
I could see you fall, your face scarlet,
the horse dancing on without you.
And at the same moment,
Mother sighed and turned clumsily in the hammock,
the Madeira in the thin-stemmed glass
spilled into the grass,
and I felt myself hardening to a brandy-colored wood,
my skin, a thousand strings drawn so taut
that when I walked to the house
I could hear music
tumbling like a waterfall of China silk
behind me.
I took your letter from my bodice.
Salome, I heard your voice,
little bird, fly. But I did not.
I untied the lilac ribbon at my breasts
and lay down on your bed.
After a while, I heard Mother’s footsteps,
watched her walk to the window.
I closed my eyes
and when I opened them
the shadow of a sword passed through my throat
and Mother, dressed like a grenadier,
bent and kissed me on the lips.

Etheridge Knight wrote some of the only haiku I can stand in the American idiom. In addition to that, his ear was impeccable, and he was liable to go just about anywhere in a poem so that he invigorates the tradition of the conversational lyric and does so by using mixed registers of speech while avoiding both the political correctness and formulaic “Non-academic” traditions of spoken word. The list in second part of this poem shows how a poet can still use cursing and invective to maximum rhythmical advantage. This is a list, worthy of Whitman. Knight is not an “unschooled poet.” His training is in the whole array of American speech from the reflective, almost introverted poet, to the raucous street preacher. “All Fucked Up” represents true spoken word–not a slam formula.

Feeling Fucked Up
by Etheridge Knight

Lord she’s gone done left me done packed / up and split
and I with no way to make her
come back and everywhere the world is bare
bright bone white crystal sand glistens
dope death dead dying and jiving drove
her away made her take her laughter and her smiles
and her softness and her midnight sighs–

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth
fuck marx and mao fuck fidel and nkrumah and
democracy and communism fuck smack and pot
and red ripe tomatoes fuck joseph fuck mary fuck
god jesus and all the disciples fuck fanon nixon
and malcom fuck the revolution fuck freedom fuck
the whole muthafucking thing
all i want now is my woman back
so my soul can sing

 

I was 14 years old when I read this poem. I found it in an anthology called New Poets of 1965, which I kept until it fell apart and no longer have a copy of. I did not know Robert Kelly’s work then. I did not know he was part of the first wave of deep imagists. I felt the twang of common ground in the somewhat Catholic imagery, and in my awakening sense of how Eucharistic reality might fit with my growing awareness of desire, my sexual desire. The poem made my horniness mystical, and my sense of the mystical twain with my passion–in all senses of the word passion.

I think what I like best about it is its ceremony, an almost liturgical feeling that moves as all good lyrical poetry moves on the precipice of the silly, the precious, and the absurd. I wore this poem out and memorized it, along with the Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets in the anthology, Kathleen Frazier’s poem in which she accepts her legs, and Gilford’s poem “The Abnormal is Not Courage.” 38 years later, and I still enjoy this poem, though now it does not come to me as a revelation, but as a memory of a voice I found true.

Poem for Easter

All women are beautiful as they rise
exultant from the ruins they make of us. . .
and this woman
who lies back
informing the sheets
has slain me with all day love
and now keeps vigil at the tomb of my desire
from which also she will make me rise
and come before her into Galilee
Rising I fall
and what does her beauty matter
except it is a darkness, sabbath,
where the church
our bodies
everywhere comes together
to kindle one small light
the unyielding, the flesh,
then Resurrection
The radio messiah
I know that my redeemer liveth
and he shall stand in the last days
up from this earth
beyond blasphemy
beyond misunderstanding.
Oh love, this hour will not let me name
They will say I make a sexual mystery of your passion
whereas we know, flesh rises
to apprehend one other mystery,
as the astonished lover’s eyes come open in his coming
to find that he is not alone.

dearest,

they told me a surgeon sat down in the hospital morgue

next to your body.
He yelled at the aide to get out.

His two sons had been your students.

–me, too, little-knowing–

Anyhow.
I’m always, my young fathers,
out in the air, loving you.
Water to water.

____________________________________________

Jean Valentine won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book,Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry is Break the Glass, just out from Copper Canyon Press. Her previous collection, Little Boat was published by Wesleyan in 2007. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia.

A song cycle of David Shapiro’s sonnets called Unwritten has been written by the great young composer Mohammed Fairouz and will be played at Carnegie at Recital Hall on March 21st. Word on the street is that David Shapiro himself may play the coda.

Once I Walked Out

Once I walked out and the world
rushed to my side.  The willows bent

their willowy necks, tossed green hair hugely.
The hawk cried by the well.

The crows kept counting their kind.
Once I walked out and the sheep

bleated with sensitivity, touched
black muzzles to the grass.

I was followed by dogs, by flies,
by horses both curious and spiteful.

The field of beans worked its sums
under green, the corn licked the air to haze.

I said goodbye to the house
with its sagging porch, attic hung with bats.

Goodbye braided rug, rabbit hutch, corn popper, copper tub .
The green world greened around me—

Virginia creeper, crown vetch, thistle, mullein, sumac.
I was full in my limbs, my laugh, pinkish skin.

I swung my arms, pulled air into lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew,

bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.

______________________________________________

Mark Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage which received the Lambda Literary Award, and Voluntary Servitude, which was published in 2004 by Graywolf Press.  He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Photo

Everyone in it dead now––Dad,
three, in a skirt––and I see her

again, the unnamed woman.  She
is me.  No one to introduce us:

Hello, Me. Unruly eyebrow woman,
eyes sepia but blue––they must be;

hair pulled slant, frame bent
lensward, skeptical mouth

smiling––I know you.  How did you
leash your mind, when you

looked through the small window
or stared through water

at your veined hand?

_______________________________________

Joan Larkin’s most recent collection, My Body: New and Selected Poems (Hanging Loose Press) received the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award. She teaches in Drew University’s Low-Residency MFA Program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation.
Packing Her Things

And I could nearly stand it—the stained blouses;
the nubs of drying lipsticks with their botched nose jobs;
the undershirts; the bras; the slips; the books.
I packed them away, like a dutiful child.
I did it dry-eyed, thinking, I could spend a day like this
in hell, and then at the back of the closet
I found her cache of gift bags—pretty foil bags;
tiny starred ones; slick big bags with cabbage roses—
the way we both squirrel them away. I never knew,
the way I cried when I saw her paintings for the first time,
or her secret collection of beaded purses.
Which part of the soul is handed down? Which part is its own?
Then I sank down on the bed and howled.
I wept like an orphaned child.

___________________________________________

Liz Rosenberg is the author of the novel Home Repair and five books of poems, most recently The Lily Poems from Bright Hills Press and Demon Love from Mammoth. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review and elsewhere. She teaches English at the State U of NY at Binghamton.

Epithalamium with Rust

I remember the dream of rust on its own vague terms:
dredging the canal as though it were oneself,
hoping for trinkets that fix life to a landscape of flowers and trash,
and settling for bothering the levee with a stick,
notching my time card in the holy city.

In the margins of sky and dust­­­­­––distance specific to the dream of distance––
the thought of water comes on like vanity.  It is error,
as are the certainties of children, to make much of the dumb bend of sun
on copper, to heed what God writes in the sand with his pretty little feet.

Crows flood from the factory shell and out over trump ground,
into the easy marriage of actuality and nothingness that is the long patina
of days, drunk on lawn seed and disquiet.
I remember it again, but differently.  Archipelagos of debris and glow,
stars fashioning what light benefits the dead…

_______________________________________________

Brandon Kreitler‘s poems have appeared in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Web Conjunctions, Indiana Review, Eoagh, Sonora Review, and Maggy.  His criticism has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Proximity, and Village Voice among others.  He was a winner of the 2010 Discovery / “Boston Review” award and a finalist for the 2010 Ruth Lilly Fellowship.  A native of Arizona, he teaches at Queensborough Community College and is working on a manuscript of poems.

He’s like those children who take apart a clock in order to find out what time is

“Fog forgets.  Fog is forgetting.”
This was hard for the drunk man
on the shuddering train to say
clearly, but he managed in fits
and spurts—thoughts through
a kinked hose.  In a past life,

when you wiped the counters,
the dogs stared up with saucer
eyes from the hardwood floor
as if you were a cleaning deity.
I was in the kitchen, too, waiting.
You’d stare into the vacant lot

through a window on the socially
awkward sycamore disrobing amid
frozen beer bottles and losing lottery
tickets.  You were your own
undocumented fog.  Years pass.
I’m still an inverse of the spiritual—

still feeling merciless forgetting
can’t mean joining cosmic order.
Above, a building rakes sky
as if it were the obscure index
finger of want, losing its end
in a belly of low, concise cloud.

________________________________________________________

Evan Hansen lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a public high school teacher.  He has work forthcoming in Issue 50 of The Cortland Review.

Symptoms of Island

Sometimes in the morning your hand
finds the dip in my side.  For the moment

we’ll call it happiness.  This does not
account for weeks spent cursing

the apple trees, their sticky bloom.
The man on the bus gaping

at my slack lip knew.  Plump dumb
stone in my mouth.  I’m sure of it.

That afternoon you were a brisk,
starched thing.  We slipped out

the back way, screen door banging
cruel on my slim-boned grim.  Today,

like most days, my mind arrives
an island, tongue-numb, child wishes

ivied onto me.  God takes away,
it’s said.  Call it what you will.

_______________________________________________

Camille Rankine is the author of Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, she is featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet. Her poetry has appeared in American Poet, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM and POOL: A Journal of Poetry. She is Program and Communications Coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation and lives in New York City.

Poem in the Manner of Charles Bukowski

You do what you want,
I’ll do what I want,
and we’ll see which one of us
gets to the twenty-dollar window
in time for the fourth race at Del Mar.

On the goddamn radio
that’s always playing
in my bitch’s kitchen,
I heard some East Coast big-shot author
say he needs to jerk off before he can write.
All is I can say is fuck that shit.

I hate poets who beg you
to like them because you feel sorry for them.
Do not feel sorry for me.
I won on Bitches’ Brew in the fourth
and went home and drank
a fifth of bourbon
and got laid.

___________________________________________
David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford American Book of Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at The New School.

A special thanks to Brian Adams for letting us use his photos in this post. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.baphotos.com. To see more of his pictures of David Lehman, click here.