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tara shea burke

tara shea burke

 

“When you hear nothing about the body…you stop listening to it, and feeling it; you stop experiencing it as a worthy, integrated entity..So [hunger] persists…channeled into some internal circuitry of longing, routed this way and that, emerging in a thousand different forms…Hunger may be insatiable by nature, it may be fathomless, but our will to fill it, our often blind tenacity in the face of it, can be extraordinary.” ― Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want

When I read the passage above in Caroline Knapp’s posthumous memoir, Appetites: Why Women Want (Counterpoint), I was living in Boston, busy with community and bolstered by solidarity in which it was impossibly easy to think about – and openly discuss! – the lives and real needs of women before they are proscribed by politicians and confined under the guise of decorum. Over the next few years, I recommended the book to others, and loaned out my copy with its pages dog-eared and underlined for their compelling message and radiant language.

Two months ago, as I read Tara Shea Burke’s Let the Body Beg for the first time, some of Knapp’s passages returned to me with keen clarity.

The 16 poems in Burke’s first collection look into desire: how we deny or misinterpret its call from fear, apathy, and misunderstanding, and what allows us to heed its various pleas. The collection achieves its political perspective with personal poems about the body, family, love, and sex.

Though Let the Body Beg does not shy from its feminist and queer sensibilities, it viscerally portrays what Knapp called the “circuitry of longing,” and its arc from struggle to recognition, is universal.

Let the body beg, Burke says, but attend to it – aptly or amid tangles that can accompany attempts to cipher complexities of the soul – with acceptance.

Burke lives in Chesapeake, Virginia, where she lives with her partner and teaches writing and yoga.
______
Q: When did you start writing and what was the impetus?

A: I love this question mostly because I used to hate this question. I’ve always been in love with memory. I’m also very aware of how constructed and picky it can be. And, I’ve always been a liar. Or, let’s say that now that I’ve come out of my compulsive, impulsive, ungrounded twenties, that I’ve always been a storyteller. That sounds better.

If the stories I’ve told others and myself are true, I began writing stories when I was very young. I’ll never forget the first story that was published in our elementary school’s tiny little lit journal when I was in first grade. It was about a girl who went wandering through the woods and found another world through a hole at the base of a tree. She fell down the hole – or jumped, happily escaping real life, like I’ve always wanted to do – and landed on a bed of mattresses and pillows. I can’t remember what she did in that other world, but I think it was a kind of mixture of my own life growing up in the woods with my imagination, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the cartoon movie adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Probably some of The Neverending Story in there, too. I’m quick to admit that I’ve always had an intense imagination, and have always wished for a life wilder than the everyday; but I’ve always been a copycat, too. My creativity didn’t go very far before I reached for my closest influences to fill in the gaps.

Regarding poems, I don’t remember writing my very first poem, but I do, perhaps, remember the first series of poems that came out of me. It was when I was in the seventh and eighth grades. And it was about the boy mentioned in First Crush, a poem that appears in my chapbook. So they were about love. Love-ish. The kind that hits you like a sack of puppies, right in the face: surprising, soft, and a little wrong. I think many kids write their first, and last, poems about the body as it’s awakening for the first time. We’re either tortured by our feelings or lucky and over the moon. Or, we’re utterly alone. And then we’re embarrassed and we feel that there is no place in the real world for these feelings, so they get put away, swallowed, and shit out.

My teacher read one of those poems aloud  in class, after I’d half-seriously turned them in for an assignment. I’ll never forget how proud and embarrassed I was. I used to blab about everything, so even though the boy wasn’t mentioned in the poem, everyone knew who he was and what it was about. At the roller skating rink a few weeks before, I think he took pity on my inability to hide my crush on him, and asked me to skate during a song. I turned that moment into a repetitive poem that made it seem like we had been in love and he had left me to my sorrow. Just writing about it brings it back so clearly! What a mess.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that we all are just so drenched in our yearnings. We just want love…to be seen, to be understood, to connect. When I think back to my first poems, that’s what they were all about. Like most kids, I had these big giant balls of conflicted emotions circling around in my gut, unattended to and unseen. I had to understand them and get them out in a way that made sense. Though I didn’t know it at the time, poetry was this vessel for the human condition…for our emotions and desires and conflicts…for all time. I was simply stepping into a tradition. It was very natural to me. Poetry has just always made sense.

Q: What were you aiming to express in Let the Body Beg?

A: Inclusion. Deep feeling. Bodily attention and messy, sloppy yearning. An awareness, acceptance, and pride in our desires and how we express them. So much of our problems, I think, come from denying our ability to express and feel, and how we carry guilt and fear. There is so much me in that book, but I hope the poems are a kind of call to action, or a call to pay attention to how we live in bodies that are wise and willful; and that it’s all, really, okay. All of it. We have to be true to ourselves first, or we only do harm to ourselves, which therefore hurts us all. I feel like we can be so burdened by information and expectation, which creates a feeling of helplessness. We turn our backs to everyone because we haven’t learned how to turn toward ourselves. Those poems are a bit of my own journey through hunger and into fullness. They’re like my little first step into a kind of bigness I hope to keep moving toward.

Q: What is your daily writing schedule like?

A: Dear Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Great Mother, Atom, and Brain, please give me a daily writing schedule. Please. I’m half joking, but I want one so badly. Thankfully, I have a therapist to help remind me to accept what I can give right now without guilt. It’s a process.

I’ve been thinking about this a so much—what it takes to be a writer. I know that it has to be work. To write poems is to step into the ultimate, intimate, eternal conversation with The Muse, which is spiritual to me. But, to write and embody this spiritual act is also work. I think I have to put the spiritual aside – within sight – to truly get the work done. I have to make it no big deal and see it as just work, and not as this thing wrapped so closely to my identity. It is still personal and spiritual, but I get more done when I see writing like making eggs or drinking coffee.

I currently do not have a daily discipline of writing, or a daily discipline of anything, for that matter. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to have one, either. This isn’t to deny the purpose of daily writing for those for whom it works, but I think many writers in 2014 need a bit more flexibility, too. And we need to not feel terrible if we don’t wake up at dawn and write for 10 hours each day. We need to know that we can still do it, and do it well. Daily writing is a luxury many of us don’t have, both physically and psychologically. I mean psychologically because routine is something that doesn’t come easy for some of us. I have to force myself into a routine, and it really is a fight I lose and cry about often.

I think I can make it happen soon, though. I’m currently carving out space—but sometimes, you just have to be okay with what you can do. I read that Cheryl Strayed binge-writes because there is simply no other time … in her daily life. She would wait tables ferociously to pay the bills and save enough for weekend retreats and hotel rooms, then just shut the door and unplug the appliances for three days until she was spent. I like that idea. I’ve done something similar. If anyone has tips on forcing the attention or tricking the very wild mind into routine, I’ll take them.

Q: Congrats on placing 2nd in “Split This Rock,”  a contest judged by Mark Doty with Fall, the poem that finishes the collection. How do you decide which publications and contests you’re going to submit to?

A: Well, that one was a no-brainer for me. At the time, I was writing pretty wildly physical and political poems about the body and lesbian sex, my trip to South Africa, race, class, gender, love. Split This Rock had been on my brain for a while, and they were looking for poems of provocation and witness. Provocation and witness is what I strive for; to provoke and to witness is, to me, poetry’s true radical. I try, now, to look at things in a similar way. I want to find themes that speak to my own themes in my poetry, and I want to know what kind of work a journal or press publishes and is looking for. But I’m going to need to be honest here, and I think many will relate: the places I think are perfect fits for my work almost never pick it up. When I look for general submissions and just start scouring through random listing on New Pages or CRWOPPS, I have better luck. At this point, I’m working on completing a huge bucket of finished work, and then I’m going to send it out to as many places as possible. I’m a gut thinker, though. I send to places that speak to me on a visceral level.

Q: What is your revision process like?

A: This is my magical time. I’ve begun to feel like revision is the true mystical poet-animal, or at least an animal from a separate continent than the one that initially creates. Revision is my favorite, and honestly, that’s mostly been my writing process over the course of these past two years or so. When I open a blank page to try and vomit out new lines of poetry, and nothing happens, I can always look at unfinished poems and play. I reopen the document, read the poem out loud, cut the fat, try new verbs and images, cut the reality out or the last line and see what makes the poem open up. Sometimes I’ll retype a poem from memory to see what stays and what goes. Sometimes I’ll just listen and play with cutting out whole stanzas to see how meaning changes, or where sound takes me. It’s a process I used to resist, and now I love so much. It truly feels like I am of service to language when revision works, and not the other way around.

Q: Does your yoga practice inform your poetry?

A: I used to think these were very separate identities for me, but since I’ve started teaching yoga and changing the way I understand what the practice truly is, the answer to that question has been yes: yoga informs my poetry immensely. Yoga is not about the body at all, really. One tiny part of the yoga practice says to move your body in such a way to clear it out and calm it down, so you can sit with a calm mind and heart and observe the world, both within and without. It is about clarity of attention and deep calm. Poetry is also about this, even when it is radical, angry and wild. There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a yogi or practice asana. People think that to be calm is to not feel, be angry, or react; but true yoga actually asks us to feel as deeply and as truly as possible. It asks us to see both sides of a debate, but also to act in the face of oppression and in the name of humanity. If we are angry, we need to communicate it in a healthy way, not stifle it or pretend it is not real. The more I realize this, the more my poetry begins to slow down and look more closely at things as they are. Yoga asks me to be radically honest and radically okay with the present moment so I can live truthfully and give myself to humanity with a big open body and heart. When I sit down to write poems now, I try to remember this and simply describe what is, whether the subject is the boy shot in the streets, Ebola, my own body, or the way I wash my dishes each day. It all matters. Every moment. Every breath. Every body.

Q: Does your teaching impact your writing process?

A: Yes. On a very literal level. Teaching (whether it’s yoga classes or general education classes about literature and writing) is so hard and so beautiful. I’ve tried to resist this profession I’ve found myself in over an over again, but I come back every time. When I’m in it, deeply, I don’t write, but when I’m away from it, just waiting tables or trying on other jobs I can do with my strange background, I miss it terribly. Teaching feels honorable to me. It matters as much as writing poems do, I think. But the attention it asks of me keeps me from the page. Here’s some truth: I haven’t quite figured out if I should be teaching right now, mostly at the university level. I know I will later in life, but I don’t know why I keep coming back to it when it causes so much anxiety for me. The students break my heart and refill it over and over again, and are so wonderful – at the end of the semester. I think I feel like I have to, like I owe it to my degree or my identity or something to do this important, worthy thing. But I’m not quite sure if it’s right for me as I work on my first full manuscript. Space is important. Routine, as I said above, is necessary. When I teach I don’t feel like I have space or a routine. I’m all over the place. And it makes me emotional in weird ways. I want so badly for my classes to have a huge impact, and I have to check that shit at the door, lest I think of myself as a failure when that impact doesn’t happen.

I will say, though, that teaching humbles me. Feeling the reciprocation of impact in the classroom through sharing stories is powerful. It keeps me on my toes and makes me want to write more.

Q: Who are some writers who have been influential in some way on your writing?

A: My beloved teachers, Tim Seibles and Luisa Igloria. They are and always will be in my head. Always. Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, Nikky Finney, Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kristen Naca, Mark Doty, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stacey Waite, and Julie Enszer. The list of poets goes on and on, mostly contemporary. Ani Difranco, though. That little radical folk singer that could, she is probably my reason. For everything. All my feeling, all my love and understanding. All my fight. I’m also highly influenced by memoirists like Cheryl Strayed, Jeanette Walls, Joy Ladin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sheri Reynolds, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Wally Lamb, and Margaret Atwood.

 

(Editor’s note: this poem first appeared courtesy of Split Rock)

Fall

By Tara Shea Burke

When we met we fell for each other like leaves.

Behind black curtains your bedroom was always dark

except for unexpected soft-yellow walls. Your dogs

would lie behind the closed door, waiting quietly

to be let in between us. Later, we became

four sloppy beings intertwined: fur, legs, breasts, sheets

skin, slobber, scents—all sleepy and sweet together, snoozing

until the bedroom’s next dark noon. We slipped pink steaks

between our wine-stained cuspids one night, chewing

and chatting by autumn city fire pit, enjoying the slow

getting-to-know-yous necessary to make something more

than just sex. Why would you want to fight in Iraq? I asked

between bloody bites, knowing the wrong answer might set

me off, make me primal, an animal wanting nothing more

than a few more nights: tipsy urge-easing evenings. Nothing more.

Your answers always surprised me. You taught me

more than I’d bargained for, the old me ready to run with one

wrong answer about war. You made me listen, and your body

suspended my judgment long enough to fall quickly. I worried

every night that I’d become a dry winter earth, cracked and cold

from holding in all the protest, just to experience, just once

what it was like to fall in love. That night, we took the fire

to the bedroom again. I expected the slow honey we’d made

to cool off, change shape. But I ate the thick sugar and finally

let go. I dreamt of you behind steel Navy-Walls at sea, not

active but present, taking down American-made enemies,

awoke in the dark and touched your skin, understood

your choices

like most things that live in the raw honey between extremes.

We were two women finding beauty in clichés, in differences,

in overlaps, the sweet burn of sun on our skin as we fell

to the ground.

apocryphal

Apocryphal By Lisa Marie Basile

Noctuary Press, 2012

ISBN 978-0988805132

Reviewed by Karl Wolff

 apocryphal

 

I put two bare feet up on the dash and spread myself

            but he is a boulder,

            smells of salt, has a chest that could possess

            me, or other nightmares

 

Lisa Marie Basile’s Apocryphal exists in that Nabokovian twilight between childhood and adulthood.  Between these realms one confronts monsters and the monolithic oppression of tradition.  This is Alice in Wonderland re-imagined as a harrowing nightmare journey, a poodle-skirted damsel thrown into the jaws of a slavering beast, who may be the speaker’s father.  What remains are fragments, memories, and fantasies strewn about or reconfigured.

When reading the book’s sticky sensual passages, the slow realization occurs that these prurient shards point to something more sinister than adolescent sex and appeasing those base cravings.

 

            I notice: the other children do not live this way

                        but then again they do not enjoy

                        getting fucked either,

                        & this, I do.

 

            I would learn to devour everything,

                                    mollusk & man,

            become obsessively pregnant with you,

            I mean:           become those women staring,

 

            & I would abort you.

 

Apocryphal is divided into three parts: “genesis,” “apocryphal,” and “paradise.”  It is equal parts visionary and horrific.  Childhood nostalgia turns into body horror.  Everything curdles into corruption and family secrets.

Then the speaker meets Javi:

 

when I meet Javi again he is the worm in my mezcal. once a constellation, once a man who bore a flag of kings, a crown of thorns & power suit, oh my god the forearms

 

While Apocryphal is a critique of traditional male masculinity, it is not beyond denying the urges – those primordial needs – and a celebration of those urges.  It is a contradiction—a friction—that creates heat and light.  Slowly, slowly, more details emerge: a Cold War childhood in a Mexican-American community (?), references to mantillas, and to Javi as “the worm in my mezcal.”  But things aren’t exactly clear, like stitching together a narrative from found footage and random newspaper clippings.  The book is simultaneously dream and pastiche: half-remembered events and the glaucous haze of nostalgia.  Everything about the speaker is fabricated.

 

I could take off my wig and rub off my

  sheen, become real, the bodytrophy underneath all this

 victimized shimmer. 

but I don’t own my own sexuality:

  it is borrowed from somewhere bad, a beach side-show of

 bouffant & glitter, two breasts propped up behind a taupe changing curtain

 

But things are more complicated than that.  Basile thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments.  “& thank you to my family, who I sincerely ask to not read this book. Please. I have borrowed and sculpted lives in order to write this, & I feel bad about it. You are beautiful, mom.”  Despite its avant-garde exterior, Apocryphal enacts the ancient tradition of poets adopting masks, personae.  At first blush, I felt betrayed by its confessions.  But not every book requires a finely wrought personal exorcism of childhood trauma and sexual abuse.  So long as the word “memoir” isn’t in the title, a poet or novelist is free to warp and deform their own personal experiences into something fictional.  Basile might have had a traumatic childhood, since that is more common than one would expect or be conned into believing.  (The patriarchal mythologizing of Leave It to Beaver down to The Partridge Family would make one think that growing up white and in the suburbs involved only trivial problems and a canned laugh track.  But only the fanatically credulous believe these TV shows bear any resemblance to actual lives or historical evidence.)

“everyone I love is recast as father, as murderer, a reconstruction, a deconstruction, an abuse-of, a haunting, a polaroid.”  Apocryphal is all these things.  Basile’s narrator attempts to exorcise memories, but she remains tainted, both in mind and body.  In “paradise” she says “it hurts to speak but it must be done.”  “I don’t respect these monsters but I weep anyway,” she thinks, “with bubblegum/popping through my black veil.”

Sea images return, only this return is more monstrous, a demonic reincarnation, the lasting legacy of abuse:

 

            tiding in,

            the lure of the long stem

            tiding in,

 

            the victim

            is never the victim,

 

            the victim

            is a new monster,

            tiding in.

 

Apocryphal is a haunting meditation on the violence perpetrated against women by those who should know better.  Not simply fathers, but the father-worship of our many institutions: government, organized religion, corporations.  Basile’s speaker gives us a privileged look inside a damaged and wounded soul: someone who wants revenge, the sweet satisfaction of parricide, but also cannot eradicate the cloying sticky shame that clings to her every surface.  Those beach side trysts yielded illicit pleasures, but they also contributed to creating a monster, tiding in and preparing to strike.

mordarling

 

mordarling

EXCESS AND ASCESIS: TWO FEMINIST VISIONARY POETS

VOW, BY KRISTINA MARIE DARLING

THE BLUE RENTAL, BY BARBARA MOR

____________________________________________________________

-“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

 Timothy 11 -12, The Bible, King James Version

-“Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque revenit.”

(“You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, she will nevertheless come back”)”

 -Horace (65-8 BC), Epistles I.X.24

Kristina Marie Darling created a domestic drama that unfolds in white space, an emptiness surrounded by a commentary in the footnotes.  It is a text without text, a Beckett-ian “texts for nothing” literalized.  Barbara Mor created a panorama, a historico-politico-paleontological rant against collective and individual injustices.  It is written with chthonic excess, with Whitman-esque long poetic lines set amidst the painted landscapes of the American Southwest.  Both Mor and Darling represent visionary feminist poetics; one spare and skeletal; the other a surrealist logorrhea.

Vow is about a marriage.  Rendered in short lines and esoteric marginalia, the bride faces the slow reduction and negation of her identity.  Unlike Mor’s work, The Blue Rental, Kristina Marie Darling’s work isn’t a frontal assault on violent male idiocy and its institutional tentacles (the state, the military, the corporation, etc.).  Darling works through small meditations on relics and debris.  At the bottom of the page she writes,

“Our house burns with light.  He is a shattered window overlooking a desert.  I am smoldering in a field of dead poppies.”

The images are distinct but unrelated, images of light and “a shattered window” (fragmentation), followed by an image of fire and desensitization (“dead poppies” – even the poppies, the flower that yields opium and heroin, body-deadening intoxicants, are dead).

Another recurring image is a “scorched altar.”  Reading through the book, one has to piece together the narrative from the fragments and clues.  Could arson be a cause?  Who set it?  Is the fire a cleansing act like a forest fire?  Or was it set alight to cover-up criminal activities?  The white space creates narrative silence.  It refuses self-incrimination, but also self-expression.  In The Blue Rental, Mor reduces the entire patriarchal enterprise of marriage and reproduction to a dismissive biological assessment:

Sin at the Origin of Earthly Life my desire that

shapes Evolution becomes His Curse,& when did

they respect sex breeding females like cattle who

thinks his little 20 second squirt of sperm gives him

the right to own Humanity

(from Hypatia)

Mor catalogs crimes against women with brutal and explicit descriptions.  The repetition of rape and murder made commonplace.  In her poem Hypatia, she traces this back to the atrocities committed by Saint Cyril and his Parabolans, hired thugs reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s black-clad enforcers of religious morality.

Luckily The Blue Rental isn’t all horror and solemn rage.  Tiny flashes of humor leaven the otherwise dour proceedings.  In one poem she traces the history of a mining town in the Southwest.  The denizens desperately cling to a vision of middle-class propriety while a deep pit spews out various and sundry minerals, machines, and liquids.  While Mor’s intent is to give a David Lynch-ian nightmare patina to ecocidal damage, the poem reads like an episode of the popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale (itself owing much to David Lynch, H.P. Lovecraft, and Area 51).  If Thomas Pynchon has taught us anything, it’s that paranoia can be funny.  In another poem, three Mesoamerican goddesses end up working at Wal-Mart.  The unintentional humor make them no less profound or beautiful as poetic works.

“Once the bride enters, there’s no way out.” (Vow, “Appendix C: Misc. Fragments”).  Where Darling offers the reader bon mots and koans, verbal fragments suspended on the page surrounded by white space, Mor buries the reader in an avalanche of text, a chthonic mudslide of information, images, history, politics, broken bodies, and crime.  She gives us the American Southwest that negates the dominant patriarchal mythos of John Wayne, John Ford, and Western tropes.  This is the Southwest as overbearing capitalist force, seen by the female workers in the maquiladoras, the unending litany of murder victims that Roberto Bolaño writes about in 2666 (The Part about the Crimes).  Mor folds these crimes into a larger history of violence, rewinding the clock beyond the Conquistadors to the Hobbesian all-against-all of dinosaurs and trilobites.  While violence and consumption is an eternal verity, it is something all organisms do all the time, we humans have, in our short-sided attempt to rectify the ecocidal rape of the planet, erected artificial ideologies like vegetarianism and veganism.  While these puritanical dietary regimes offer the individual some modicum of moral superiority, it was John Maynard Keynes who said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”  The sad truth is that veganism is nothing but a prop to hold up one’s self worth.  And vegans being offended by the term “meatspace” comes across like an act of heroic self-delusion, akin to Christian Identity adherents who deny the Jewishness of Jeshua bin Miriam.

“I dream another me exists in the burning house, reading aloud from what I have written.  Broken glass.  A sad film.  The awkward silence.” (from Vow)

When they brought the horses i knew them   a crack in the

universe a fissure in mind look up the Milky Way divides the

sky into 2 hemispheres a brain 100,000,000,000 stars in

this brain a mythos in the sky  with a brain as mirrors  slow

transit of codes in the particulars of their eyes  they will say

they are not entertained by such discourse a memory where

they do not live or think they live  but the horse burst from rock

crevice in a sidewalk  all from Time returned little eohippus

dawn horse Dawn of mammals 53 million years Eocene in the

West   as their hands on cave walls opened mineral flesh and

it was there(30,000bce Aurignacian)evolutions later  and

all the beasts emergent from a stony hole or cavernous mind

dark and shining like night (from The Blue Rental)

Vow and The Blue Rental both act as visionary texts, railing against the nothingness that surrounds us and will eventually consume us.  Darling’s fragmentary meditation on marriage and domesticity literalizes St. Paul’s palaver for women to be silent and obedient.  Like a complementary text, Mor elucidates what St. Paul’s injunction has wrought upon women, civilization, and the planet.  Women treated like property or livestock or simply violated by men acting like predatory beasts.  Civilization turned into a free market capitalist frenzy to consume more and more, but with a belligerent ignorance at what constant growth and increased consumption mean in terms of limited resources and environmental damage.  And crunchy granola hippies chastising us to be simplistic and go off the grid (usually with unintentionally ironic Facebook updates) equally ignorant that a Noble Savage co-existing happily with Nature is just another myth White Patriarchy has erected.  While it may seem futile, at least Mor has the cojones to explicitly inventory the wrongs done by man against man, woman, and planet.  But it would be equally ignorant to chide Mor for not giving us solutions to the problems she points out.  The Blue Rental is a visionary collection of poetry, not a policy white paper.  Vow is visionary in its compactness and fragmentary distillation of marriage and domesticity, not an amicus brief on behalf of marriage equality.

These visionary poets need to be read, since their poetry needs to be experienced.  Both illustrate how words on a page can be a transformative experience.

whale of desire

 

 

WHALE OF DESIRE
BY MICAH TOWERY
REDUX CONSORTIUM, 2013
ISBN 978-0991152315

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I’ve worked and corresponded with Micah Towery as a contributor to thethepoetry.com. It’s a cozy website that’s been kind enough to publish my rambling reviews, though I’ve only spoken with Micah through email or gchat. This wasn’t enough to preempt my reading of his debut collection Whale of Desire, and, since I am a poor follower of journals, I hadn’t come across any of his poetic work before this.

That said, I tore through this book, finishing it within a couple of hours despite the many re-readings and moments of reflection. Debuts are often meticulously crafted over a long time, but Towery’s is more than the best of a life lived until publication. It’s elegant, sharp, and balanced, a slim volume with no fear and no agenda. And in many ways the title, Whale of Desire, automatically encapsulates this, though it requires perusal beyond first blush.

This is a book of many desires and loves, affinities so vast that perhaps it can seem unwieldy. This title and the tribute to Melville are no accident: desire is a leviathan and easily obsessed over. Around desire so many other emotions eddy, but Towery doesn’t offer merely a swirling glut of emotion. His lines dance and crackle, his subjects both revered held accountable to magnification, his tone surreal but never disingenuous:

You leviathan—

laughing at the children who are laughing at you.

You’re taking out my brain and smoking it again

                like the cheap, cherry-flavored cigar it is.

My hairs are splitting you—

 (from Tribute to Herman Melville)

Surrealism and Christianity are siblings in their appreciation for symbology, though Towery never overloads. He investigates and we follow along, from Christian theology to the theology of jazz, through the canon and those unfamiliar with such things. The balance lies in Towery’s openness to life and its poles, not interested in lessons so much as associations. God above, the union below, “while Miles and John / play together upstairs.”

Philip Levine lurks around On the Closing of the Coca-Cola Plant…, though for a book full of God there is a distinct lack of blind subordination. Instead Towery transmits, journals, and observes with an open heart the decay of a type of certainty.

Praise you, laid off workers, part timers,

injured and summer laborers like me

who got out.

 

Goddamn the rest of you—

 

I know you had no place to go…

 

(from On the Closing…, I. Invocation)

Not quite ballads, maybe epigraphs of a sort. The narrator is only a “kid” at the bottom of the corporate flowchart, so we get a fly’s eye on the crumbling beauty of American industry.

The hottest mornings of summer

we get here early. It’s

still. Summer dark

fogs the windshields

 

and these men, left behind—

only a matter of time

until Binghamton plant closes

and we all become Crowley

 

Milk men, who have the same

but better union, who taunt me

in the backs of supermarkets:

You Coke guys eat more shit

 

than my dog.

 

I put product on the shelf

and declare, I am only

here for summer.

Though of course what new hire doesn’t believe that they are exempt, excluded from the politics of a life on the line. The curse of youth in general, flittered away without appreciation. The same could be said for belief, but Towery neither proselytizes nor anguishes. Binghamton deserves its songs, and the poet shifts his lines and injects enough jazz to keep the tune shifting and engaging. Where Levine was always an old man a grumbler, Towery blows a mean horn.

Not that there isn’t space for softness, but it never cloys. Love poems are a dangerous proposition in much current poetry. Even in verse many couch and armor themselves, or dial up the sweetness towards tooth decay. With the same deftness that he sings of labor and faith, T0wery approaches his love poems with the right combination of open-heart surgery and honest deprecation.

So instead, I’ve become accustomed

to false visions and vibrations,

the struggle of every little thing

and come to believe this might be a sort of love song,

a careless moment

of truth, an aloofness in which

I hear a train whistle—

I hear a church bell.

 

I am so impulsive for you—

I write this in the cold for you.

 

(from Love Song in the Light of Gas Stations)

Gas stations are rarely the regularly associated stage setting for love (maybe lust?) but beyond an unexpected association Towery delivers genuine love in a genuine world. The almost tidal nature of impulse, push/pull of desire and even moment it yanks around within us:

Almost—as I view you

              from the kitchen—I almost

come behind to hold you. and later,

              after dinner, I am full of sadness that

I didn’t. and I’m sad the roast

              I labored over lies half-eaten,

leaking on the cutting board.

 (from Third Love Poem for Jill)

These poems are walks, sights, and musings. There isn’t an indulgent indentation to be found, nor poetic seriousness or elaborate fretting. Towery delivers a taught, thoughtful collection to be savored, simmering with thought and experience. The Whale of Desire is large enough for all loves, from belief to fidelity, and each poem rings out as a hymn.

peace

 

 

PEACE
BY GILLIAN CONOLEY
OMNIDAWN, 2014
978-1890650957

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

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

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

My family is more than simply the genetics I inherit.

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

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

And spinning stories for the sundry experiences.

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

Softly walking upon the graves of relatives,

And never quite letting go…

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Maria, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by discussing your book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, particularly the idea of “personal poetry.” Could you start by explaining what your vision of that is?

My vision of poetry is that it should be based on some essential truth about what it means to be human and I think narrative poetry gets at those truths more directly and effectively than many other types of poetry. I want to give people permission to tell their own stories and to look at the world unflinchingly through the their own eyes rather than worrying about what critics or literary theorists say about writing. Like Faulkner, I believe literature is about the truths of the human heart and not about intellectual analysis. I trust the old lady who lives in my belly more than I trust intellect when writing a poem, and I encourage my students to go to that deep place inside themselves that I call the cave. I want them to get rid of the crow who sits on their shoulders and tells them everything that is wrong with them because that’s the critic that will keep them from writing. I believe in poetry that tells a story. I want poetry to make me cry or laugh; I want it to make the hair on my arms stand up. I want to remember it. I want to carry it with me for years after I’ve read it or heard it. For me, writing narrative poetry was very liberating. I started by imitating the work of other poets, but I realized, finally, that I was not an English Romantic poet, but rather that I could look around me and be a poet of the things I know. I know my father; I know 17th street in Paterson, NJ; I know Public School No. 18; I know what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a child of immigrants who did not speak English until she went to school. I know about grief and loss, the grief over the loss of  individual people in my family but also grief for war, grief for what we’re doing to the environment. If you can’t get rid of the crow who sits on your shoulders, you’re not going to write anything that will touch another person. One of the things I see in Allen Ginsberg’s work is his willingness to fight his own demons—his mother’s madness, his own fears, accusations against him for this poem Howl. He talks about that in the film Howl. He said he had to learn about everything. He ends up saying that everything is holy. If you are willing to go to all the places that maybe you’re ashamed of, and really look at them, you can make them blessed, you can raise them up, you can give courage to others just as Allen did. Literature provides window in someone else’s life and give us the connection between the writer and the reader. It forms a bridge between reader and writer. In writing narrative poetry, I think we learn about our own humanity. The writers I admire are ones who are afraid but go ahead anyway—Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Joe Weil, Jan Beatty, to name just a few of the great writers creating memorable work today.

Maria, what you say reminds me of something I heard the Canadian actor RH Thompson say once. He said that all theater training is essentially designed to get actors to return to their natural baby voice. Pointing out that babies can scream for days but never go hoarse, Thompson explained that humans have a natural knowledge of how to use their voice, how to speak loudly and clearly; at some point, though, he said someone turns to us and says “shut up” and we begin to feel our voice is a kind of vulnerability: we tighten our jaws and begin to speak from ‘the wrong place,’ to use our “inside voices” as we were so often instructed to as children. Actors must go backwards, Thompson said, and recover a place where their voice was actually them and not simply their voice. Would you say that this example is analogous to what you’re saying?

Yes, very much so. I think it is unfortunate that so much of our education trains us to subdue all that is wild and primitive and honest inside ourselves and in our writing. I think that we have to be willing to let go, to ignore our intellect and allow instinct to take over. In revision, we can use our intellects, but in writing the poem we need to believe that this instinctive voice knows what we need to write and as soon as we look that very middle-class,suburban inside voice, we lose the energy and vitality in our work. Even in revision, we have to be careful, to prune the work with delicate hands. We have to believe that our voices and stories are important and need to be heard. Did Whitman play it safe? Ginsberg? Anne Sexton? Adrienne Rich? No, they didn’t and that’s why people remember their work. Playing it safe is for accountants and not poets. Poetry needs the energy that only specificity and truth can provide.

While reading the book, I was struck by your focus on encouraging everyone to write. It’s a very democratic vision in that sense. That’s what I meant by radical because, as you’ve observed, many regard poetry as something for the academically minded. The book was very much like a portable version of the classic Maria Gillan workshop. I’m sad to say that I never had a chance to take a full class with you, but I did sit in on some of your weekend workshops, which were unlike most I’ve been involved in. I always felt that writing in that environment almost involved an act of faith. I have always been moved by how much faith you put in the very process of writing. In fact, you explicitly state that your book is about ‘process’ and not ‘craft.’

I think I did not make myself clear. Maybe an example will help. I was raised in a lower-class immigrant household where there were a lot of voices raised in argument and laughter. No one spoke of an inside voice. It would have seemed strange and unnatural to us. But when I was raising my children in a middle-class suburban environment, my own children pointed out that I often did not use my “inside” voice, indicating that I was too loud and boisterous and embarrassing. When I was growing up, I used to think that I would be truly happy if I could live in a middle-class community and raise my children there. My life was safer, more comfortable, but I felt that I lost some of the energy that was in my childhood home and that I had not been able to give my children the feeling of what that was like. I don’t want to play it safe anymore. I don’t want people to be lulled or put to sleep by my poems or any poems. I don’t expect contemporary poets to be bards, but in a way, I think they have to be able to communicate to people, not just to academics or other poets, and they should be able to read a poem so their reading helps to put the poem across. there are many writers and academics who will disagree with me and who will be angry with me. I don’t call my poetry confessional because it isn’t and because I think it’s a way that the academy has found of putting narrative poets, particularly women poets, down for not writing poetry that is so obscure that only an academic poet would understand it. That/s not a radical idea or a new one. I edit a journal, and have done so for 33 years. I am the only editor and I choose poems and stories and memoir based on my ideas about writing. I’ve organized a reading series for 33 years also, and again I choose the poets who are capable of reaching people of all types and classes. I am not interested in work that uses language as a screen and I don’t feature that kind of poet. I think my audience likes my poetic taste and they return month after month, year after year, to celebrate poetry that is rooted to the ground, poetry that celebrates ordinary life. I think that there is resurgence of narrative poetry because in this mechanistic world , people need and want meaning. I think of Shakespeare whose plays have survived because he wrote for both the elite and the people in the pit. I think that’s why we are still drawn to his plays even today so many years since they were written and performed.

This was another thing that struck me about your book: you insist that poetry is the work of the inner life, and your focus on everyone’s ability to engage in the process of poetry (or other art) as a result of the inner life. You affirm that everyone’s inner life matters and that it is their right–perhaps even their duty!–to cultivate their inner life. I respond to that because I did not come to poetry as an elite art that I aspired to in a class sense, but as something that broke through to my inner being in spite of these distractions. I guess I’m really interested, biographically speaking, in hearing about what led to this breakthrough. You spoke about wanting–for a time–to raise your kids in that  middle class safety, and later rejecting that safety in order to speak in a “clear and direct and specific” way. What was happening in your life that led to this?

Micah, I hope the book is like carrying Maria in your pocket. I truly believe in the writing process and I believe that people become better writers if they believe in themselves and the value of their own lives and stories. For me, poetry is a way of saving myself and others, so I guess I’m like a preacher, only I’m preaching poetry and not religion. (Of course, religion and poetry are not mutually exclusive, but poetry has been so important to me and I love it so much that I can’t imagine living without it, and so I want to share it the way a preacher wants to share loving God. I also am very opposed to the idea that poetry is an elite art written by upper class people for other upper class people. I want my poetry to be clear and direct and specific; I want to be able to reach anyone who reads or hears it. I remember once reading an article in the NY Times Magazine many years ago, and in it, the person who was then the President of the Academy of American Poets was quoted as saying something like “Poetry has always been an elite art; it will never have a large audience and it shouldn’t.” I went apoplectic when I read that statement (I’ve paraphrased it, but that was the gist of it, I think I want to be like the wandering minstrels who went from town to town reciting their poems and stories). I try to encourage my students to believe in themselves and to think of the audience for their poems, to think of that audience as much larger than the audience of 5 white guys from Harvard.

You have defined “personal poetry” over and against “confessional” poetry, which you feel has been used dismissively by critics, so I think it’s interesting that you bring class into this discussion. Generally, we think of the poetry community as a very progressive community, but you seem to want a more radical vision: creating a nation of writers, of bards. Was this always your vision or did you come to it over time?

I started publishing poems when I was thirteen, but it wasn’t until I was 40 that my first book of poems was published. I had gone to graduate school when my children were in high school, and one of my graduate school professors said to me, It”s in this poem about your father that you find the story you have to tell. He gave me courage, made me feel that someone might be interested in reading poems by a working-class woman who did not speak English when she went to school, poems by a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, an Italian American so my poems became more rooted in place,memory, and narrative. This was 1980; my first book publication coincided with my starting the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ in 1980. I also was and still am the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. As my own work began to gain critical attention, my own self-confidence grew and I was willing to take bigger and bigger risks in my writing. There’s something about shutting the crow up that is very freeing. At this point, I believe that what I’m doing in my work is what I need to be doing; and I want my students to believe in themselves and their work in the same way. Prior to my 40th birthday, I was teaching as adjunct in various colleges and trying to be supermom. The more I went out into the world, the more I read my poetry in public, the more students I taught, a big change came over me. Somewhere along the way I stopped being that introverted, bookish, shy little girl I had always been, and I discovered that I could make things happen both in my work and in creating programs. Everything we do ends up feeding our courage.

Speaking of risks, allow me to risk a characterization of your new book of poems The Place I Call Home. I have read a number of your books, and yet this book seemed different to my sense. While still being rooted in your life, these poems seemed more expansive in their scope, their claims. Would you agree?

Yes, I do agree. My grief over my husband’s long illness and subsequent death, led me to a wider examination of grief to include my grief for the way we have managed to destroy so much of the natural world and even the world of human connection. My book The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ books) deals with these issues even more specifically. I have another book called Ancestor’s Song (Bordighera, CUNY) which ties together many of the themes of my earlier books with the new direction that my work is taking. What I advise my students to do is to let go. I do believe that a force wiser than we are guides our writing. It’s fun to be exploring new territory even after all these years, and I’m happy to find that my production of work has not slowed down; if anything, I feel more prolific than ever.

Maria-Pic-1-color-681x1024

 

THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

silence-in-empty-house-

All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

grapes-of-wrath

 

ALL THAT REMAINS

BY BRIAN FANELLI

ISBN: 978-1936373468

OCTOBER 2013

UNBOUND CONTENT

all-that-remains-front-cover

Here’s a challenge for all of you poets out there. Get a copy of Brian Fanelli’s All That Remains and try to write like him. At first blush it does not seem an insurmountable challenge. Fanelli’s work is approachable. He does not brandish his technical prowess with intimidating sestinas. There is no pandering to theory, nor does he flaunt his erudition by quoting obscure thinkers or having his characters speak in Latin. (Though there are some well-placed references to Bob Dylan and horror movies.) What we do find are rusting towns and their hard-working denizens, whose horizons are limited through no fault of their own. We also catch moments of tenderness and regret and glimpses of youth with chances seized or lost.

While All that Remains is best consumed end to end, I am going to focus first on a poem that appears in the middle, After Working Hours. The people inhabiting this poem are not poets or artists or academics or urban professionals. The woman works in a grocery store. The man works construction, and the images and sounds of their work day follow them home and further still into their dreams, but they wake to love and consideration as he pours coffee and she touches his hand, “feeling warmth between his calluses and cracked skin.” These are not people with careers. For the couple in this poem, a job has little reward beyond the monetary. The drudgery exacts both a physical and psychological toll, but the simple affection between a man and a woman makes it something that can be borne.

Perhaps the most refreshing attribute of Fanelli’s work, in my opinion, is that he has overcome the temptation to write about oneself. There is always an “I” in his poems, and the “I” is usually the poet (though not always, as in Speaking from a Sick Bed),  but the poet exists not to tell about himself and what he has been through, but to tell the story of the people around him.  Summer at the Press Plant is more about the alcoholic, good-natured horror movie buff Frank, barely holding on, than the poet who is looking back to when he was “19 and home from college.”  How I Remember Her ponders the fate of a female activist who surrenders the barricades because of motherhood and marriage to a man “she loves sometimes, when he’s nice.” While we may be curious about the poet’s true feelings for this woman, who is clearly a friend or more than a friend, the poem is not about unrequited love, but about the forces of life and time that make someone, once passionate and vigorous, quit the battle and surrender. The poet may not approve of his friend’s choice of a mate, but, if there is any judgment, it can barely be discerned.

In fact, there are few judgments rendered in All That Remains. Fanelli opts not to expose the violence, resentment, and ignorance that are often fellow travelers with hopelessness. He is not an ironic writer, not looking to poke fun at or criticize his subjects. His hard-working blue-collar characters are not racists or homophobes, not bullies or reactionaries. In fact, save for a passing reference to “decisions of law makers and kings,”  “some senators and congressmen”  actual villains are hard to come by in All That Remains.  The people in these poems toil in dignity seemingly without residual bitterness, the cause of their fates unmentioned or distant.

I decided to set myself a challenge and write a poem like Brian Fanelli. I tried my best to transcend myself, to write about marriage and fatherhood from the perspective of someone who has a job, but no career (or no job at all), who works with his hands instead of tapping keyboards, who is too exhausted and concerned about how he will pay the heating bill to concern himself with questions metaphysical or mundane. I found it is not easy to capture with wit and humanity lives that are near your own geographically, but further in terms of class or race or gender. Fanelli writes about fates that he himself has escaped, but he is unwilling to turn his back, to say: “I’m out of here. You’re on your own.”

diamond years

 

FOR LACK OF DIAMOND YEARS

BY CAROLINE BEASLEY-BAKER

ISBN 978-1938349096

NOVEMBER 2013

PELEKINESIS 

diamond years

As a literary person who became an art critic, the nexus of visual art and poetry has always been of interest to me. I have known Caroline Beasley-Baker as a painter; now I know her also as a poet. 

In Beasley-Baker’s visual art—in all of its diverse forms—I always saw a perceptually acute link between the visual and myth. In his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer describes how visual feints and impressions, physiognomies (seeing faces in things), fears, animation of the inanimate, and conceptual reversals begin; how nervous ticks comprise the human fight-flight physiology.  He describes how epiphanies were experienced and then clarified over time  as the presence of a god (or “temporary gods”) emerged, places subsequently becoming sacred as shrines.

In secular life, such huhs? are often the result of mishearing something, of making a sudden new connection between two odd things, or having a little insightful eureka. Recent neuroscience has found support for Cassirer’s linking of  sight and myth to the study of how humans figure out the world; to how–from purkinjee trees inside the eye to how we see during reverie to how early dysmetropsic misunderstanding of the world is processed through the eyes of a child–forms the basis of all later perception of the world.

In one statement about her poetry, Beasley-Baker said that in her youth she saw the world as a whole laid out below her, that when when she blinked she thought the world changed. These are classic ur-dysmetropsic events, which, if held onto and cultivated, lead to a distinctly personal culture and mythology which seeks to give voice to that seen reality. A poet like Pound, so responsive to Japanese calligraphy, to the haiku, and to other short forms of poetry, sought out poetry to put a visual sensation into something other than conventional words. He sought to give voice to the passing visual sensation of the world in the form of a kind of nervous gestalt beneath or before words. This line of poetry is grounded in sensation. As a result, it paradoxically, harbors an alexithymic suspicion that once you put a label on something you have gone too far and crushed the moment in its delicate passing (as so much lyrical and more confessional poetry, in my view, does). Indeed, much of such poetry has been written precisely in response to visual moments or visual art with the express purpose of not using denotative or even connotative words…but some other kind of word. 

Beasley-Baker was the only artist I knew who dealt with both the macro and micro dimensions of mythic perception (or, as Cassirer called it, “mythic thought”). Later, the titles of her works of art developed into little poems, and she began to put captions or titles into her meanders of lines too, right there in the painting. Her current poetry digs even deeper; it strikes me as what art historians are now calling sfogo (Italian for “steam”)… the little musings to oneself that accompany the making of a work of art; a kind of nonstop texting-below-texting that the mind in metacognitive itch continues on with as it will. Not the lecturey talkback run-on that keeps one from getting to sleep, but the dream-phrasings that incant over walks in the cold or in the dark—or being in the flow of making art. Beasley-Baker seeks to capture these odd, errant “what-made-me-think-of-that?” thoughts at a very micro level. I have called this voice of nature “nomos”, and find that it often takes form in visual art in words that rise out of the very surfaces of the facture of painting or as broken fragments of words: fractured, surgically transposing adjective, adverb, verb, noun moments into other figures of speech; making use of punctuation as if in a musical score, thus leaving behind a finely etched and lean transcript of a visual-mental response, given overvoice or underbreathvoice by the mind. A mental world of phenomenological ghosts (Husserl’s term) and a world made of metaphor, this is not a nexus that positivist categorical American art and American poetry have had much time for. But in John Donne, in Emily Dickinson, in folk song, and in the late work of the Beatles, even, the hesitant, immediately retracting, spelling it out, taking it all back (it all adding up, after such an emotional outburst, to precisely nothing) has sometimes taken shape.

You can see this worked out perfectly in Beasley-Baker’s For Lack of Diamond Years poems. When she puts a slash in, she is pulling up short, telling herself, maybe, to stop; when she hyphens words into supercompounds, that’s an emotional compression, a sudden transposition, a freezing, a making noun of verb, adjectives into an entity. Then an image will come and immediately bump up against another, then something else will block it, or counter it: all of this mental byplay between talking to oneself and telling oneself to stop doing that, to be silent, is there. Beasley-Baker, as a painter, knows that the best moments are the most fleeting and mythic; in her poetry, she seeks to enlist words against themselves to capture moments prior to words, so fleeting as to almost be an enunciated form of silence. Consider her description of a clock stopping after her father dies: “I found meaning and comfort in that ceasing moment, in that…..what? the breath between living and my imagining”.  There it is, right there. The title of her poems refers to “diamond” years, a reference to age, but also to precision, facets, carats, if you will. Her visual art has always had, in addition to larger scale meanders, and an overall almost maximalist quality, countless dispersals of micro moments too, many of them faceted by gems or things that shine or sparkle. It’s really very rare  for a visual artist to so completely translate or, more precisely, transcribe her visual sense into words. For this reason, for me, Beasley-Baker’s poems are a significant achievement.

 

BEND TO IT
BY KEVIN SIMMONDS
SALMON POETRY
2014
ISBN 978-1908836793

cover_bend

When the young Miyamoto Usagi (from the pages of the Stan Sakai comic Usagi Yojimbo) won his first tournament, his reward was a pair of swords. The katana was named “Yagi no Eda” (or ‘Willow Branch’); and the short sword was name Aoyagi, or Young Willow. His future lord and master Mifune explained that the willow bends so as not to break, and that strength isn’t just power but, perhaps more importantly, adaptation.

This comic book was essentially my main role, from days at Alta Vista elementary to my present as a semi-professional thirty-something. Pliability over strength and sacrifice are things I learned from Usagi, and thought about way too much as a teenager. I still ponder them almost daily, and clearly so does Kevin Simmonds, as evidenced by his new book Bend to It.

The cover depicts a tree under the kind of weight one might encounter in a hurricane, which Simmonds’s New Orleans is all too familiar with. But he’s no stranger to Japan either, as he splits his time between there and America. This collection of poems is sectioned off by kanji numbers, and often references Simmonds’s faraway home. Between Louisiana and Nippon, the author is drawing from a wide swatch of culture and voice, including but not limited to music and growing up gay.

Not that such things are totally disparate, but between the various subjects, epigrams, shifting title conventions and poetic structures, and sections, this book does begin to bend under a certain weight. Throughout it though, Simmonds balances it all with grace.

Off the bat he gives us wild, there:

wreckage is the lasting thing

||:  so mean its music:|| 

 

whatever vows you’ve made

cello them

 

sink your vowel

into them

An undulating sense of music is well-wrought through the lines in this opening piece, which Simmonds continues to use to great effect throughout the book. His strength lies in communicating the effects of music without getting bogged down in the particulars of it, in utility in the right symbols and references without overuse.

Immediately after this he moves on with longer, more narratively rooted poems, and throughout shuffles through these modes regularly. One doesn’t get the chance to become bored with any style, but neither are they afforded a longer meditation. The poems are for themselves, and as soon as you settle into a section it’s over.

Later we find Exegesis:

There was nothing trivial about the

Thai masseuse who slid his vertical

along my vertical, the power

outage, or those extra minutes

without charge. I cannot say he

wasn’t God. What I felt then, what

I feel with a man’s body on mine, is

holy, holy the way I imagine it is

right & without damage, worth

thanks & remembrance &

justification for.

A more personal, sensual poem, still jetsetting and musical. In the book things are forced into a justified column, giving rigid rules to a subject matter better interpreted loosely and interpersonally.  The alignment of verticals references the narrator’s desire to align with the world at large: spiritual synchronization. But at the same time it’s a self-justification. It is what it is, knowing right but excusing that correct feeling as well. Though all contact is a form of damage, anything else is a wistful request.

The negotiation between contact and damage, yearning for what you love but in so yearning causing harm, threads throughout the book. Maybe it’s more a matter of time than interaction. Bend to It, a little wildly at points, swings to and fro as if buffeted by a hurricane. But Simmonds certainly does not break, and gives us a book of perseverance; and in that survival, between moments of confusion or abuse or damage, an exploration of the joy found in small moments of peace.

 

DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?

 

 

THE BROTHERS PERDENDO AND PERDENDOSI
BY BRIAN TRIMBOLI
RELEASED BY NO, DEAR MAGAZINE AND SMALL ANCHOR PRESS

Brothers1-copy

This is how terrible of a reader I can be: didn’t even think to look up “perdendo” or “perdendosi” until after I’d read this chapbook at least four times, the first two in quick succession immediately after it arrived. Not that it’s necessary to define every little thing in a book or poem, or so I feel; but the title is that much more fitting knowing that these brothers are named after, if not actually, a manifestation of loss, or at least the musical term for a fade out. The Brothers of Loss, things fading away.

This might have been more accurately titled The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi and their Father, as far as the literal ongoings within as the dichotomous distinction between the two halves set them up next to the father as if they were a single entity. We read their experience, and a few soliloquies from the father, and loss operates in tandem, theirs the royal “we” though this automatically connotes their individuality. Their names are so similar, and roots of the same gerund, to fade out in the face of their father. In Rilievo, the musical command is to become louder, to “stand out over the ensemble”.

Really I should have seen it all, though it is late in the chapbook that Trimboli basically spells out his thesis:

 Two different time signatures,

my father in the center talking loudly

 

to himself. Lights all around him.

He is dressed like a seven-year old boy.

He will not take his costume off,

even after he has gone home.

Families are baked in with the potential for discordance, a mess in the making. What are boys to learn from a father who never grew up? They raise themselves, and their father, in the process. Though there are limits.

Ultimately it’s a stressful cacophony to live under. As Trimboli indicates, “Our father was coal at the bottom / of the ocean. We named him In Rilievo, / / his voice a brash horn.” The father didn’t exist until found, and then named as the equivalent of an orchestral drama queen. But they did the naming, knowing coal’s potential for escalation.

The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi deals directly loss in the wake of an irreconcilable father. It’s further appropriate when we consider how the poems themselves fade out, as the musical definition of “perdendosi” commands. Which isn’t to say they aren’t gratifying or unfinished, but rather they weave throughout each other with such open expression. These verses thrive in quick structures, usually fewer than ten lines and alternating between two conjoined books stitched together with no other directive in reading. Page by page as if mirroring each other, one after the other, right to left or vice versa, this chapbook is built to be remixed through reading.

It’s the kind of setup that could drag itself into tedium if not done carefully, concisely, and in the frame of this chapbook, necessitated by the disintegrating emotions expressed therein. Multiple readings are subtly encouraged but no one experience gains ground over another. And really each line sings with such vulnerable vigor, title-less, divvied up by page as the only indication of where one fades out and another fades in.

That’s the surface poetics at work, wrapping up these short pieces as sublimely poetic, musical, and layered. But it’s more than an exercise in cross-genre ekphrasis. Trimboli’s well-wrought lines sway, graceful with their weight, are best self-described: “an orchestra of small insanities held together with catgut.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

La Luz Azul*

San Miguel de Allende
Dia de la Asuncion

Mediodía. Ligeros velos
Transparentes del ancho cielo….

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

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

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

 

The Blue Light*

San Miguel de Allende
Feast of the Assumption

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

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

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

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

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

 

St. Anthony in the Desert

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

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

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

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

 

A Note from Jorge: I did not want to make any personal assessments regarding these poets, their poetry or why they were chosen by me. But if you need me to, I will keep it extremely simple. These are four American poets of various ages and backgrounds who published a volume of poems in 2013 whose books, out of much else I also read in 2013, I either enjoyed or found much in to ponder about. I did not choose to publish them here to advance aesthetics and/or processes, but to look and listen back at a few voices that added to America’s and the world’s orchestration of poetic music and images in the about-to-be past year. I will let each poet and his/her words speak or sing for them.
REPORTS COVER FINAL (1)Kathryn Levy, whose “Wedding” and “Becoming Angels” from her Reports (New Rivers Press, 2013) are highlighted this week, reflects briefly on these poems, the process that led to their creation as well as a few poets who inform her life and/or craft.

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

Kathryn Levy: I begin most of my poems with one or two given phrases and then, in Roethke’s phrase, “learn by going where I have to go.” The first drafts of poems often come quickly, but I tend to revise for a long time, sometimes for years. In the process of revision, I try not to betray the first impulse and the discoveries made through the poem—which is easier said than done!

As for the circumstances leading to these two poems, it’s simpler to describe the evolution of “Wedding” since the composition of that poem surrounded the preparations for my actual wedding. I never thought of myself as someone who would get married and I always had ambivalent feelings about marriage. Yet when the man who became my husband asked me to marry him, I immediately said yes. However, as I was swept up in wedding preparations, I kept wondering: Who am I exactly? What is this about?  It caused me to contemplate these unions, and our celebrations of them, more deeply than I had before. The poem answers some of my questions about the ritual of marriage and points the way to others. Like most of the work I care about, it surprised me. In particular, the phrase “this is for life” took on a powerful resonance in the course of writing the poem.

The origin of “Becoming Angels” is less clear, except that the poem deals with subjects which obsess me—death, isolation, those 3 AM moments, the “dark night of the soul,” when, however secure we feel during the day, the illusion of security and certainty is ripped away. For me, the image in the poem that is most vivid is the children in the snow flapping their arms “becoming angels,” an emblem of what might be happening to us throughout our lives. As for self-pity, the use of that derisive term amuses me, and in revising the poem, I was interested in playing with the unacknowledged value of self-pity.

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

Kathryn Levy: That often vaguely defined and elusive term “voice” is a critical element in poetry—it’s one of primary things that animates and defines a poem. I think the voice in these poems is a particularly intimate one, even as it speaks of “we,” and in the case of “Becoming Angels,” to a “you.” Perhaps it’s a voice spoken in secret to an imagined other—perhaps all my poems are that. It’s urgent, born of a desperate need to escape isolation and to answer questions about survival, and it is skeptical, even of the answers it tentatively offers. 

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

Kathryn Levy: You could see these poems, as people do much of my work, as dark and death obsessed. But to be obsessed with death is to be obsessed with life—to question what we are living for, and how to make sense of the constructs we create to live and keep sane. And then, how to explode those constructs—to ask new questions.

Both of these poems also play with punctuation—there is unconventional punctuation, or none at all, in the majority of the poems in Reports. While finishing my previous book, Losing the Moon, I became interested in the ambiguity of this approach, in particular the unexpected connections it creates—the way it allows a phrase to pull simultaneously in two different directions. And I think, partly thanks to unconventional punctuation, these poems have a propulsive, edgy rhythm, with some bite to the lines.

As for the impression the work might make, I don’t think very much about that. If the poems are alive, searching for something vital, and if the language and the vision of the world are renewed for me in the process of writing, I hope they will be alive for the reader. There are plenty of poems that don’t meet that standard and I keep those in the drawer. The ones I send out to the world involve moments of discovery or at least real questioning. 

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

Kathryn Levy: This is a difficult question, because I read and love so much poetry. In responding to these sorts of questions, I think we tend to refer to poets who are foremost in our minds at the moment—there isn’t an overarching answer. Or if there were one for me, it would be Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare. But aside from Shakespeare, whose plays haunt me, I’ll play the game and pick four poets from my long list.

Dickinson and Frost always stay with me—I rarely go through a day without thinking about or reciting one of their poems to myself. I agree with Wallace Stevens’ notion that that “all poetry is experimental poetry,” but some people engage in more dangerous experiments than others. Certainly Dickinson seems to write from the very edge of being. I often think of the line from one of her letters to T.W. Higginson: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic,’—I am in danger—Sir—.” I love her peculiar “gait,” her deeply charged language, and her profound understanding of the constant experiment of being a human being. She demonstrates how vital it is to “play for mortal stakes.”

That last phrase is from Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Although Frost is on the surface a more conventional poet, he is also playing in very dangerous territory. He explored some of the most complex and disturbing elements of our experience, and through his fluency in poetic form and ability to draw on a wide range of voices, he delved deeply into what can and can’t be said. For me, it’s hard to imagine any poet interested in the human predicament and in the way we use language, “the American idiom,” not drawing strength from these two poets.

Two contemporary poets who have been important to me for many years—Michael Burkard and Robert Pinsky—are seemingly quite dissimilar, and have very different sensibilities, but both have a great lyric gift and a kaleidoscopic vision. However, they both push against the music of their poetry—it is restless, never completely comfortable work.  In their different ways they demonstrate how to keep exploring, searching for those rare moments of truth, the moments when intensely alive language embodies the complexity of our being. And I don’t think either of those poets can be easily categorized, which is certainly what I hope for myself.

Wedding

We sang songs
and danced in circles
and dropped
sticks in the dust

sticks that formed
strange new patterns
we stood
over the patterns
the ground

slipping beneath us
like watching your wake
as the boat presses

into the wind the sails
swell the hand grasps
the powerful tiller—this

could lead us to death—
risking so much
we had to dress
in the palest colors
and place

flowers on our heads
flowers on the tables

flowers flowers
obscuring the stakes
that hold up the house

the minister placed
hands upon hands: This
is for life

—as everything
always was—
and some days you see that

and stop

Becoming Angels

I have felt it too—the blinding
self-pity in the dark
and longed to hold on
to any treasure longed to clutch
my husband’s arm
to scream to the neighbors
What are you feeling?
let’s make a fire and burn
all the fences
let’s sit in a ring feeling the flames
singe our faces—all
made out of flesh all falling
out of our flesh
becoming angels we did it as children
lying in the snow
flapping our wings as the cold crept
toward our bodies—have you
felt it too? I know you have I know you
have fallen awake the darkness crashing
into your face seeing
all at once—no one can help you
no god no lover
not one of the others lying
incredibly close—and they all
pity themselves
so much—as well they should
someone has to

____________________________________________
Kathryn Levy is the author of the poetry collections, Losing the Moon (Canio’s Editions) and Reports (New Rivers Press), as well as The Nutcracker Teacher Resource Guide (New York City Ballet Education Department), a guide to poetry instruction. Her work has appeared in various journals including SlateCimarron ReviewProvincetown ArtsThe Seattle ReviewThe Southampton ReviewDahse MagazineManhattan Poetry ReviewBlink, and Lo Straniero, among others, as well as the anthologies The Light of City and SeaWe Begin Here:Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, and Adventures in the Spirit. In the spring of 2013, a musical setting of her poetry, Only Air, was premiered by the Illinois State University Orchestra.

Levy has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received numerous writing fellowships, including awards from Yaddo, the Blue Mountain Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Cummington Community of the Arts. Her many readings include appearances at the Harvard Club of Boston, KGB, Middlebury College, and The Bowery Poetry Club. She was founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, two poetry-in-the-schools organizations. She has taught poetry to public school students throughout New York and conducted courses in literature, film, theater, and arts education for numerous schools and cultural institutions. She divides her time between Sag Harbor and New York City (www.kathryn-levy.com).

 

BARELY THERE: SHORT POEMS

BY YAHIA LABABIDI

RESOURCE PUBLICATIONS, 2013

ISBN 978-1625642790

When a few fateful re-tweets put me into contact with Egyptian-American poet and ‘seeker’ Yahia Labadidi, I never expected to come across a work with such suave girth. A work of 21st century mysticism grounded in earthly reality, its call directs us not to the transcendental ‘upwards’ but all around and within. The poet’s flow trickles as an ode to sacred silence; stanzas articulate the ubiquitous truth, as his natural simplicity in word choice colors the work organically, like a handpicked selection for an autumn cornucopia. Yet in its sleek simplicity of layout and tender word choice, Barely There whispers Truth with an echoing boom.

From the moment the eyes glaze the book’s cover, towering, strong trees seemingly fade out amidst swirling clouds of light essence—the mist of forest fog, the calling to the Omnipresent while light beacons. Throughout the work, lines between form and the formless blur, as the title suggests. Like the image of the rising trees, humans too exist on this earth only in passing. We too will be swept away by the white light—or, perhaps, as seekers of Truth such as Lababidi come to realize, the point of life is to get swept away while we’re here and breathing. The path of the mystic or journeyman to enlightenment, then, entails fostering our souls’ desire to ascend and reunite with its source. Maybe as our angelic spirit soars to liven and and lightening our being, it leaves the worldly, animalistic carnal soul crouching in retreat, leaving us barely here.

To realize union, shunyata, mu’arafa, haskalah, jnana, or gnosis, as humans of all religious traditions try to describe the mystic aim in un-encompassing terms, means ultimately to reunite with the divine essence at the core of each self while still firmly embracing the walk of our imminent lives. As the author presents in an aptly titled poem, A metaphor: “Where ocean and shore greet/ a metaphor/ for where Spirit and body meet”. To live with the Spirit, then, is to live that awakened life wherein one accepts reality as constantly shaped by the Divine Ocean’s curling tide whilst maintaining balanced footing on the earth’s ever-sifting shore.

This secret of existence is evident in all things. In his opening song, Breath, Lababidi alludes to this interconnected “tapestry” of reality in each waking breath—“the prayer of all things:/trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains alike/All giving silent remembrance/each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead/ while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries.” His stanzas call his readers to heed the Omnipresent’s silent song, to weave its harmony into our existence and let it permeate into our very being. Despite the natural song, all reality submits to the way of the forces, the unraveling string of destiny. The tree, however sturdy, bows to the powerful gusts of a storm. The ant’s intricate foray is squashed by the wandering footstep. The creek’s pleasant hymn falls silent with winter’s cool stare. The rock-solid mountain, in its unyielding call to ascent, is pulverized by the splitting fissures of earth’s quaking shivers. Like nature’s wonders, the human must “Yield,” Lababidi says with respect to reality. “Not by pushing/ does one get ahead,/ but by allowing/ oneself to be pulled/ by the constant/ tug of all things.”

To be consumed by our selves—our egos in this world, humans fail to embrace the divine vibe embedded amongst all things and carrying us through life. Rather than trying to dam the river of destiny with our arrogance, we should allow well-intentioned choices to help us navigate its tide like skilled gondoliers around the river’s sharp rocks and treacherous curves.

Lababidi‘s work is essentially one of pithy truths—aphorisms of the spiritual motif. He points the reader toward certain values and lessons that allow for a more fulfilled life. He stirs hope in the reader by reminding us that, “It’s easier to be fearless/ when we remember/ that we are deathless.” He reminds us that without fear or habit “there would be daily glimpses/ of the indestructible world/ and intimations of immortality,” for the new experiences hindered by the fatal couple may very well be those that make life worth living the most.

The interested reader will find more compilations of the author’s aphorisms around the web. For the refreshing wise tweet, follow his handle @YahiaLababidi; he calls social media the “ballroom of dancing consciousness.” Yahia Lababidi is the Pushcart Prize nominated author of Signposts to ElsewhereTrial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly DancingFever Dreams, and The Artist as Mystic. His works can be found online on Amazon, or AUC Press bookstores.

I end this review with one of my favorite of his lines which I believe speaks to the root of much of the world’s narrow mindedness: “Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth.”