TheThe Poetry
≡ Menu

The Other

You Were Born One Time. Quitman Marshall.
Ninety-Six Press, 2014. 70 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9797995-4-6

I take pleasure in some poets for their incredibly beautiful music, while others thrill me with their startling metaphoric leaps. Still others I enjoy for their sheer exuberance, the ability to transform dark material into light, such as Jack Gilbert and this poet: Quitman Marshall. His latest and first full-length collection is You Were Born One Time. It received the South Carolina Poetry Archives Book Prize and was published by Ninety-Six Press in 2014.

There is a deep undercurrent of gratitude in his poetry. There are moments that intrude on speakers and surprise them with beauty or insight. This occurs in such poems as “Civilization,” or “Bagel.” Here is the collection’s concluding poem “Twenty Thousand Sunsets,”

The sun going down
is at one o’clock
from where I am
or where I face,
on a southbound road
going someplace,
a great peach-colored sigh.
And then the streaking,
lines like these
across the abandoned sky,
until the birds move
as they always do,
and I have as much joy
as I’ve ever had
from something never sought
or asked for.

Although not formal, the compressed clarity recalls to mind the poetry of Robert Francis. But the comparison only applies to the occasional poem in Marshall; on the whole his poetry is expansive. Even when the poem is on a small scale, the sense is of something opening up and out. So in every respect this concluding poem and that undercurrent of gratitude should not mislead us: the light this poetry provides is not that of a Pollyanna. The collection also confronts dark issues, societal disparities, such as wealth inequality but with such a light hand, it doesn’t strike one as the cultural criticism it is. So the early poem “Blackbeard” starts innocently enough with a memory:

In St. Augustine once,
two men in buccaneer drag
swayed past my daughters
and “Aaarr”ed so well
the girls still thrill to recall it.

But then the poem diverges into considerations of our reasons for liking pirates, the kind of fantasy they represent but also how the skull and crossbones “codifies our mute contempt for the rich” who

Now colonize his hiding places,
and the beaches where he buried
his relatively minor treasure
are their immense front yards.

So delicately, we are brought to see who the greater pirates are, how the rich pirated the buried treasure of the famed pirate himself. It is not easy to handle such issues without climbing on a soapbox, but that is what Marshall manages here as elsewhere.
Quitman Marshall_You Were Born One Time
(Click image to be taken 96 Press
to order You Were Born One Time)

What makes these poems a pleasure to read is that Marshall is not simply a poet of issues, he is a poet of attentive clarities. That is to say, he is deeply aware of the subtleties of inner and outer worlds and of the inadequacies that distract from the real life around us. If, as he says, “It’s my job, this naming,” that naming, to be right, implies focused attention.

Failed metaphors and past times,
they are the rain that continues
while we become rain ourselves
or diamonds, say, dissolving as we slide.
(“You Are”)

Here is the implication of our very nature hinging on the right language, the right name. Without it, we dissolve and lose sight of the reality before us. Though, of course, in time we will do this nonetheless, which makes this into a subtle and wonderful double-entendre. Again, in the conclusion of “Walk Across the Yard,”

. . . the bees visit them one-by-one
like the wandering merchants
we might remember as real
even as we lose ourselves in the high
ringing of cicadas or the flights
of birds who travel farther
and with far more reason than us.
Maybe we forget even why,
with all there is and we aren’t,
we’ve walked across the yard.

Here attentiveness to the beauty of life leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, a transcendence. This is another of those moments that surprises us with joy and points toward the collection’s final poem. But there is also implied in all that “we aren’t,” everything that pulls us away, that blinds us or which we blind ourselves with. So there is always a sense of things lurking, both for good and for ill. Everything is about to break upon us: the moments of reprieve and the distractions that obscure the joys and realities we could discover. The wrestling between these two extremes constitutes the journey of the collection. However, unlike many poetry collections today that bask in uncertainties, this one ends on an unequivocally redemptive moment, those “Twenty Thousand Sunsets.”

The style throughout is balanced. It doesn’t way heavily in any direction but provides both the pleasure of music and the clarity of insight. So one finds both delectable phrasings like “incendiary symmetry” or “The blue pluff mud of low tide,” but also a concluding line like “What is the use of flight?” All this adds up to a collection that one finishes feeling grateful for having read and a collection one makes sure to find a permanent place for on the shelves.  [click to continue…]

Rachel Eliza Griffiths

The Human Zoo

Soon I appear through the fog, my face presses against the cage. There is a scrim of dark edging the metal. You are there, pushing life toward my mouth with your fingers. Now I reach without biting. In the dark my own hands grasp how small & tame I am. You say, stay wild with your eyes & ideas. But imagine if my hand could not find your hand. Through the skin of what has survived. If I come up for air but then slip again beneath the current, remember how I glittered, with water pouring from every pore. You would walk down into our earth & watch me race behind the captive green glass. I leave you the gills of my faith, the jaw of my empathy. The flowers will remember my rain & my murmurs. How absurd I am. Even the thunderheads will remember a woman who shook with fire. You sink my net to the floor & work fast. It is how we must perform kindness. My flesh opens like a black claw. Why are you still not afraid of me? I want to see how close the sun will near the water. How the end will hold a woman’s wings above the flames.

______________________________________________________________

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. She is the recipient of fellowships including the Cave Canem Foundation, Millay Colony, Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her visual and literary work has appeared widely. Griffiths is the creator and director of P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), a video series of contemporary poets featured by the Academy of American Poets. Griffiths’ fourth collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow, will be published by Four Way Books in 2015. Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lighting the Shadow is now available: http://www.amazon.com/Lighting-Shadow-Rachel-ElizaGriffiths/dp/1935536575/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424987994&sr=8-1&keywords=lighting+the+shadow

School for the Blind by Daniel Simpson

Click image to order School for the Blind at Amazon.com.

School of the Blind. Daniel Simpson.
Poets Wear Prada, 2014. 31 pages, ISBN: 978-0692284575

Homer and Milton were blind poets but one doesn’t think of them as blind poets, only as poets. And that is what Daniel Simpson is: simply a good poet. He also happens to be blind. School for the Blind is his first collection, and, yes, it centers on his life growing up blind. The reality is that we are all blind in some way and that is what surfaces in these poems, not simply physical blindness but a failure to see, to notice the reality of others, even to notice what we reveal about ourselves.

. . . in conversation,
I try to act undivided
while, in fact, I’m on alert
for any glitch in composure,
any revelation of an actor playing a part.

It’s often a matter of tone of voice.
Most people don’t realize it goes even further —
that I’m listening to them breathe,
that I hear body language.
(“Vigilance and Dissembling”)

This is the larger blindness, in ourselves, that, toward others, is the one that leads to indifference, fear and sometimes cruelty which many of the other poems explore.

Opening and closing with poems related to his twin brother, also blind, the poems in between for the most part chart the course of life growing up in a school for the blind. There, he has his first French kiss, witnesses power struggles among faculty members and learns, eventually of the larger reality of people’s lives beyond what we assume of them. In what is one of the more poignant poems of the collection, “The Luxury of Being Children,” the assertion that “certainly, we could be forgiven/for not caring much beyond ourselves” is a kind of outrage in the context of the poem’s closing with one of the faculty members freezing to death, alone, in a cheap apartment for lack of money. What is innocent in a child is callous in the adult who is surely the one reading the book. And that is the point. . . of the poem and much of the collection.

In the poem “About Chester Kowalski I Don’t Know Much,” the admission to himself of what he didn’t know about his schoolmate becomes real to the speaker only after Chester drowns. These incidents shock the speaker and the reader into taking note of his blindness to the reality of those around him. Self-absorption is the primary blindness of the young and is forgiven as innocence. But we must surely learn from that as we grow. A collection like this, which distills that insight into fine poetry, is a helpful schooling for all of us. And, what is more, it is done, in these poems, with a wonderfully skillful hand.

The poems in School for the Blind are sensual and reflective, providing the telling detail to draw us in to their emotional reality. They are musical without being overstated, poignant without being lachrymose. Simpson is a very good poet, one whose work I look forward to reading more of. Until that next collection, savor this small one that carries a clear and moving voice.

james-richardson

For a poet who confesses to having more subscriptions to science magazines than literary ones, it’s not surprising to find something like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle couched in the closing of a poem such as “Your Way,”

you get just one thing or the other—
where the water came from, or the water.

What is surprising and gratifying is that James Richardson’s poetry is not merely clever. It is also tender. Not necessarily in the way that Bishop’s “The Shampoo” is tender. It is not so much intimacy but a glimpse into the grander scale of things that puts our smallness into perspective, that kind of perspective science usually gives through its comprehension of vast spaces and terribly long intervals of time. It’s a perspective that permits a compassion for the fragility of our place in the scheme of things. From it, we see into the isolation of our humanity, the pathos of our condition as if seeing from the perspective of God, whom Richardson evokes in this insightful capacity. For instance, in his long tribute poem to Lucretius, in section 10, about how what we perceive are not things themselves but our brain’s recreation of them, “the ripple/inward, of chemical potentials,” the last stanza declares:

It’s as if I were watching behind video goggles
a movie of exactly the path I’m taking,
hearing on tape exactly what I hear,
though to God, looking down in trans-sensual knowledge,
it’s darkness and silence we walk in,
the brightness and noise only in our heads,
which are the few lit windows in a darkened office tower.
(“How Things Are: A Suite for Lucretians”)

This kind of beautiful long-distance view of our humanity is at the core of Richardson’s poetry, in one form or another. Another example of its explicit use, and perhaps my favorite, is “Evening Prayer.” A poem that addresses God directly and, indirectly, our abuse of him to gratify our own ends. It is in this kind of distance that Richardson’s poetry, better able perhaps than poets attempting to be overtly religious, evokes God and gives him voice to plead with us to be humane:

To be a lake, on which the overhanging pine,
the late-arriving stars, and all the news of men,
weigh as they will, are peacefully received,
to hear within the silence not quite silence
your prayer to us, Live kindly, live.

In other poems, in subtler ways, it surfaces as the vast stretches of time that outdistance human life and in which our lives are embedded. In fact, the title of his New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms: Interglacial, is precisely that kind of vast interval. The brief title poem goes,

Anyone’s story,
dear, ours:
almost didn’t happen.
One
incredible day
between two colds.
The “O and. . . “
someone out the door
leaned back in to say. . . .

So life and beauty emerge from gaps, and patience is the essence of insight and even writing.

. . . here is another thing I cannot say slowly enough.”
(“Blue Heron, Winter Thunder”)

Or

it is a weed slipping fine blue rays
through walk and porch, where flags
or the hours do not quite meet.
(“Tastes of Time”)

The compassion and tenderness come in realizing that some of the things that touch our lives and make it meaningful exist in intervals that we will never live to see. That there are kinds of renewals in nature that we cannot witness come round. In a wonderful poem called “Nine Oaks,” he recounts how a storm brought down magnificent trees near his home and he’s “half-mad at my tears-on-cue.” The tenderness in these poems, the compassion, comes out in the last stanza of this poem,

Or maybe these trees, though not our property,
were something I had counted on to stay.
When I was younger, I wanted to hear sages
say everything grows again, to everything its season.
But less of life seems replaceable, now
when the less that’s left seems somehow more my own.
Some things I will see again. Things that take time—
great trees, a nations, peace, or a friend’s,
or on the white sill just that patient light—
may come back to this life, but not to mine.

This kind of insight reminds me of Loren Eiseley, the kind of thing he would say in something like The Immense Journey. I’m sure Richardson, a lover of science, has read Eiseley, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was influenced by him. He is, like him, certainly adept at articulating the vast inhuman contexts in which our humanity struggles to survive. It is a difficult project in the language of poetry, which prefers the local and particular to the infinite and abstract. But Richardson manages to find those details, those locally visible moments that telescope our existence and bring out its fragility.

It’s the very last day of 2014, and I wanted to post one more installment of TheThe Infoxicated Corner before we take off a few (more) weeks, and I catch y’all again a bit later into the New Year. I can’t believe Infoxicated went live at the beginning of September: the past few months have flown by, and yet I have the feeling that we’ve gone some crazy places together through all the absolutely stunning contributions people have shared with us. I feel very blessed to have brought y’all this amazing stuff, and really grateful to the other TheThe crew, who invited me and and gave me my own little corner. (How sad would it be if I didn’t have this platform, and this embarrassment of aesthetic/creative riches had been kept to my quiet little niche of SoCal?) And I’m really pleased — no, I think a better word might be proud — to finish out the calendar year on this note, to be able to bring y’all these final pieces to keep you art-inebriated until we reconvene in 2015.

These pieces are all about vision — learning to see things, and how. Tyree Guyton and Trista Dymond over at The Heidelberg Project in Detroit have not only shown their city a new way to look at a “bad” neighborhood — more recently, they’ve also taken physical evidence of malice (the remnants of their houses, destroyed by arson) and transformed them into a community-unifying, buoyantly creative project that fosters connectivity of all kinds. Bradley Harrison reviews Dorothea Lasky’s Rome, paying careful attention to her work before it and tracing the trajectory of her craft with the kind of keen, thoughtful focus that all artists hope their work will receive. PhD/RN Samantha Cohen Tamulis has penned a personal, delightfully smart and smart-alecky essay about how her advanced degree in Literature advances her struggle to challenge the application of hostile language to women’s bodies within the medical profession. And Allie Marini Batts graces us with her sweet, fantastic, smithereen-ing poems: they dance in flux between the wounds of the past, the abandon of the present, and the inevitability of a future whose dimensions refuse to fully reveal themselves until it’s too late.

May your days be merry and bright. I’m already kvelling over the stuff I get to bring y’all in the New Year.

Beatitudes,
F3

Drought

Every day ripe corn lingers
in the field unpicked:
silk, more brittle in the sun
husk, papery from the heat
cob, like bone—no rain on the horizon—
rows of kernels puckering,
until the corn prays
for even earworms and flea beetles to come,
lest it fall back to the dirt
untasted

 

 

Yield

You are buckled in, strapped down, belt tensioned
across your hips, crossed taut from your shoulder—
doors locked & rumbling as the car rolls,
skids, slides across the blacktop—
the graceless ballet of a car crash

tearing up squares of sod with shredded tires
the vicious perfume of oil & burnt rubber
from tires, safety brakes locked & useless—
somersaults in nearly perfect arcs, punctuated by
the squeal & shriek of bending metal

finally just the hiss, rattling like a gentleman snake,
you come to a full stop, softer than you’d braced for: then,
just the quiet of air whooshing through a blizzard of safety glass,
or is that just
the breath you’d been holding
filling your lungs again?

 

 

 

Wacissa Blueberries

like the last years of a marriage,
are luscious toward the end of the season,
before the rains rumble inland
and wash the sweetest fruits away.

 

 

image

Allie Marini Batts holds degrees from Antioch University of Los Angeles & New College of Florida, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been a finalist for Best of the Net & nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is managing editor for the NonBinary Review & Zoetic Press, & has previously served on the masthead for Lunch Ticket, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, Mojave River Review & Press, & The Bookshelf Bombshells. Allie is the author of Before Fire, (forthcoming, ELJ Publications), This Is How We End (forthcoming, Bitterzoet), Unmade & Other Poems, (Beautysleep Press, 2013) & You Might Curse Before You Bless (ELJ Publications, 2013). Find her on the web: https://www.facebook.com/AllieMariniBatts or @kiddeternity

Kathryn Rhett

Photo credit: Cade Leebron

As autumn deepens, poet and essayist Kathryn Rhett meditates on the magnetic forces of inner weather.

In Bed

I can’t stop talking about the weather.
You say not to, and I can’t stop.
Did they say it would rain?
The white light pours down—I don’t
think it will rain, but did they say?
I don’t know. It’s eight o’clock
in the morning—
one child has a fever
and another is in a play about death
and nobody’s slept.
He’s performing all the parts about death,
death itself and the one who doesn’t want to die.
The rain and the one who waits
for what they say—
they didn’t call for snow sometimes they’re wrong
it’s no wonder with all this
change in weather he has a fever.
You say not to, and I can’t
stop the white light that filters in
through fabric blinds.
If only you would with your hand
cover my mouth, lay down some violence
like what we watch with satisfaction on TV—
lay down some violence against me
while we wait for
death and what they say we’ll get.

The poem alludes to the play “Death Knocks” by Woody Allen, originally published in The New Yorker, July 27, 1968.

___________________________________________________________________

Kathryn Rhett’s essay collection, Souvenir, has just been published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is the author of Near Breathing, a memoir, and her poems and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, River Teeth and elsewhere. An associate professor at Gettysburg College, she also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and in the Pan-European MFA at Cedar Crest College.

For more info about Souvenir, visit: http://www.upne.com/0887485893.html.

Dan Brady

The Lost Ark

Between their wings, space only
for God. The air, charged. Within,
only dust. What shall we put in the ark?

Nothing, but the tablets. The gold
flaked away, baring acacia. The poles
broken. We cannot carry it any further.

What shall we put in the ark? Nothing,
but the testimony. The sand, cemented.
The faces, muted with time. Silent. Eyes closed.

What shall we put in the ark? Only that
which has been commanded. Only that
we may listen. Our attention. Our obedience.

Our vigilance. What shall we put
in the ark? Our ears, our hearts. Nothing,
but the testimony. How He speaks

and moves. The sound of his laughter.
The sound of our cries. His provision.
His victory. The walls, fallen. The necks,

broken. The hands, struck down.
The ark, untouched. Buried, unseen.
What shall we put in the ark? It is over,

destroyed, yet not undone. Nothing,
but what is there. Two tablets. Dust.
The power. The sound. Nothing. The dust.

But what?

 

___________________________________________________________

Dan Brady is is the author of two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press, 2014) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press, 2014). He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and son.

Kate Rosenberg-Minbiole

THE FOURTH WAVE KISSING PARTY

Let’s not invite the whole class; let’s pretend that we are the bosses of the fourth wave. [The Fourth
Wave, JoyceAnn McManus would say. In all caps, she would say] and when she is done being the
boss of the way words will appear, we’ll kick JoyceAnn out of the waves. When we play pretend,
we’ve got on cowboy hats and eucalyptus panties—refreshing!—and go off into the sunset every
evening and to the disco every night. [That would be cow
girl hat or cowwoman hat JoyceAnn
McManus would say and bucking broncos and steers and the dull-eyed cows she would say not
noticing that
girl and woman have been left behind for altogether new pronouns JoyceAnn McManus
wrings and wrings and wrings her hands] and we wouldn’t have time for those words we’d opt out
of consensus we’d just leave her behind so much on speed we’d be. May peace be with the slow-
worded. Yippee Ki Yay the way we are and will be, we bosses of the fourth wave; we labia-ed Bruce
Willises, we ecstatic and drugged and discoed and rocked hard; were we each to pull a book from the
shelves loosening a new cluster is The Way We Were. Is the way these waves go which is all we agree
that we’ll ever agree? JoyceAnn? From behind the shelves whose open backs are portals. Petals we’d
say we’d say slippery sounds all day because we could say them without gagging on them the oysters
sliding perfectly the way they do in dreams the way they do when the party makes our waves
temporal. When we find ourselves sliding backward past the first wave where our loves light slender
torches and we dress in full skirts go braless kiss in corners kiss again in corners where all there is is
kissing and our mouths are too busy to say JoyceAnn McManus shut your mouth all you have is
words and we are kiss

_________________________________________________________________

Kate Rosenberg-Minbiole is a feminist housewife cowgirl movie star who is also a lecturer in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at Penn State University. She has her Ph.D. from the University of Utah, her MFA from the University of Arizona and has published here and there, but not yet everywhere. Kate’s got a husband and a daughter and if she had a dog, she’d call him Yadi.

Mondrian-red-tree

The Nest
By Carl Dennis

The omens of fall are out again.
We sit in the park with our feet bedded in leaves.
The wind widens,
The sun grows small,
Warnings that friends should band together
For joint defenses before the end.
Now it seems foolish for anyone
To grow cold alone.

You want me to turn and notice you
But I look inside.
There I can see bare branches
With a single bird
Peering out at the litter of fall.
He has built his nest too high in the tree
Or too small.

This poem, like all Dennis poems, has a simple surface but a lurking depth. Its title, right off, tells us there is a bird involved, or at least the evidence of a bird. Birds in poetic tradition are often identified with poets because they both sing. Keats’s nightingale, Hardy and Frost’s thrushes are all simultaneously birds and bards that tell us more about the human world than the natural one. In this case, it is significant that we are given the evidence of a bird since poets too leave evidence of themselves: all those leaves in all those books. And haven’t we all seen abandoned nests in the bare winter trees? One can’t help wondering of both birds and poets, what will survive.

The opening line, “The omens of fall are out again,” seems simple enough. However it would be thoughtless to gloss over the word “omens.” Omens don’t merely indicate an apparent reality but portend an invisible future; they prophesy—something good or bad—to come. Of course, that which is coming is winter: this stripping of summer regalia down to bare bark and branches foretells the desolations of a starker season. And since trees have little use for omens it presages something of our own end. So with this portentous sense we move on to the next line where

We sit in the park with our feet bedded in leaves.

Though a little peculiar, it is possible to picture people at a park bench with their feet in small piles of leaves. It is, more likely, a hint toward a deeper identification that will reveal itself slowly. For now, let’s think about the great bird poems in this tradition like Ode to a Nightingale, The Darkling Thrush, and Come In. They all take place in or near the woods. But Dennis is a suburban poet of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We don’t frequently live near dark woods anymore. Instead, we go to the park. And that is where we are. What is more peculiar about this poem is that the speaker isn’t alone. It’s “we” who sit in the park. It is another break with tradition. Perhaps Dennis is simply honest enough to allow someone else in on this moment, admitting, as we sometimes aren’t willing to, that we would rather not face the dark autumn and winter days alone. But more telling is that nightingales and thrushes are solitary birds, as are poets, at least when they’re composing. But on the larger stage, poets sing in the context of culture, hoping to be heard by others. This break with tradition is a comment on that desire, a desire that the second stanza, and ultimately the whole poem, says more about.

Before moving on, let’s consider the word “bedded” in this line. It stands out because it’s not the obvious word choice. “Buried” is likely what any of us would have chosen in describing this moment to someone. Since the poems of this tradition are all about death in some way, “buried” would have been a heavy-handed word. Besides, death is strewn all around in the discarded leaves. This freed Dennis to choose the more interesting word “bedded.” Its horticultural significance is “to plant in or as in a bed.” This suggests that his feet are planted in the leaves, rooted, we might say, like trees. It hints that the speaker and his companion, indeed, are trees. Although maybe this is a stretch. Perhaps it’s best to see if that emerges again later.

The wind widens,
The sun grows small
Warnings that friends should band together
For joint defenses before the end.
Now it seems foolish for anyone
To grow cold alone.

Added to the omens of leaves are now the widening wind and the shrinking sun. These warnings suggest we should “band together,” gather with our friends so we don’t “grow cold alone.” That last phrase can’t help but call to mind the body of the recently deceased growing cold. Also, embedded in the word “cold” is “old.” That’s what the speaker is getting at, is possibly a little too fearful to simply say. But we all feel it: “no one wants to grow old and die alone.” Then there is that word “now,” which introduces it. It echoes strangely, weighs in the mind and kicks up in its dust Keats’s line when he finally declares, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die.” Both lines are contemplating death or at least the imminence of death. But Keats, in isolation, listening to the nightingale, in the wake of his brother Tom’s death only a few months prior, longs to escape the world of suffering. Dennis’ speaker, on the other hand, is contemplating the autumn leaves and reflects on his own aging condition as a corollary, an old poet in the wake of what he has done with his life. His speaker is less oppressed but is, ultimately, no less doubtful of his condition. At least, that is the case by the end.

You want me to turn and notice you
But I look inside.

This is the pivotal moment in the poem. We’ve just left off considering that it’s “foolish for anyone/To grow cold alone.” The companion’s desire is now to be noticed, which implied the companion’s noticing the speaker. Perhaps his companion is another poet, maybe a younger poet wanting the attention of an elder. But the speaker is only human and turns “inside.” The period following “inside” pivots the entire work into the speaker’s psyche. Why the speaker turns inward, from his companion, after not wanting to be alone seems less a consequence of self-importance and more a natural turn, a result of the speaker’s aging, and dreading what his future might be. The omens of that future are all around, as the opening told us. The leaves about him are as much evidence of his age as of his accomplishment. One is tempted to think of him as Yeats’s old man who is “a tattered coat upon a stick,” which is also very subtly a tree image. In old age it’s natural to take account of life and one’s achievements. So the speaker turns inward and what does he find there?

There I can see bare branches
With a single bird
Peering out at the litter of fall.

This is a description not of the outer landscape but the inner landscape. The speaker is now explicitly comparing himself to a tree with bare branches and a single bird in its nest. In the course of his life he has stopped and wondered “what have I done?” And there is the “litter of fall,” the remains of all his summer efforts. The final two lines come in this context:

He has built his nest too high in the tree
Or too small.

The bird-poet has failed in some way. The poet has either aimed too high, beyond his powers, or forced great work into a vehicle it couldn’t bear. It is peculiar that Dennis’ bird never sings or we should say, is never heard. It’s another break with tradition. Where all other solitary poets hear their birds singing, Dennis simply observes him sitting silently in his nest, “peering out at the litter of fall.” It’s as if the bird is the soul of the tree and all the scattered leaves are the text of his poetic undertaking. It’s a poet at the end of his effort looking over his work and dreading that what he has accomplished will not survive.

But this poem is not just in the tradition of bird poems. It is, really, a hybrid of the bird poems in poetic tradition and the tree poems in poetic tradition, those such as Frost’s “Tree at My Window,” Hopkins “Spring & Fall,” or Edward Thomas’s “The Green Roads.” In fact, “The Green Roads” is very much a precursor to Dennis’ poem. The symbolism of both bird and tree are balanced equally in the thematic development. And both are dark in their conclusions. The oak at the center of Thomas’ poem is dead and “saw the ages pass in the forest.” Near the end he declares, “all things forget the forest/Excepting perhaps me.” That is, the poet remembers and as children of Mnemosyne that is, of course, their job: to remember. In Thomas’ poem, goose feathers strewn the ground, taking the place of Dennis’ leaves. In this way, Dennis more thoroughly integrates the imagery and themes. Then the way Dennis’ poem aligns the psyche of the poet with that of the tree also harkens back also to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which is not a tree poem but is another poem in which the poet compares himself to a tree. It’s enlightening to see what Shelley says:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
. . . What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

. . . Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
. . .My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Shelley goes on to transform the West Wind from the opening “breath of Autumn’s being” into a “trumpet of prophesy” of the coming spring. But where Shelley insists on an optimistic close, Dennis shows the inevitable loneliness and danger in poetic aspirations. The bird has spent himself and he sits in the bare tree in a nest that is too high or too small. But now that the bird-poet has cast his efforts into the world, to the wind, he can do nothing more. This is the end of the line, what he has done with his life cannot be undone or redone. Whether his accomplishments will resonate in history is beyond his power to control or influence. He can only continue to sit, “peering out at the litter of fall.”

Poems in this tradition are typically dark and melancholy. Dennis’ poem keeps with this tradition. Hardy’s poem hints at a failure beyond individual death, toward a failure of the poetic tradition itself. Keats’s ode splits the psyche of the speaker from the bird in a way that suggests the hope to escape suffering is only a dream. Dennis’ speaker too has little or no hope, for there is no way of knowing that our words will survive us, even if we are a great poet. Shakespeare assumed immortality in writing as long as there were people to read and said, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Dennis can’t make such an assumption. It is not modesty as much as a modern condition. In our age, we are all too aware that we are ever on the brink of annihilation. And even without that, we are a scientific age with a perspective on time that stretches so far in both directions, for the most part, it doesn’t include us. We know there are billions of years ahead of us into which our small world will drift and disintegrate. But in the poem, in its small world, even if we pull back into the shorter arc of our own culture and history, think of all those dead leaves again and the double-entendre they are: both the poet’s life-long efforts and the efforts of other aspiring poets. It is a landscape cluttered with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of voices shouting for attention.

In a bookstore with a well-read friend, I pointed out a collection of poetry by Juan Ramón Jiménez. He didn’t know who it was. Jimenez won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956. In the vast litter of leaves, of books and even great voices, who is to say even another great one will be noticed or remembered? And in the vast cosmic time, our little planet will be like a decaying leaf when our own sun swells to a red giant and engulfs it. Dennis’ poem doesn’t question the success of the poetic endeavor, the simple writing and publishing, but rather it questions its endurance, whether it will be heard in time regardless of its current success. In the tradition of this kind of poem, the speaker is always someone who is hearing and listening to the song, hearing the poet-bird speak. Dennis’ poem doubts the inherent assumption that the poet’s voice will rise from the scattered remains and be heard. It is a poem foreboding an eternal silence. For where the poet’s voice goes unheard, there is no one to lift us out of the gaping mouth of oblivion.

image

After a week-and-a-day hiatus, it delights me to return to TheThe Infoxicated Corner to share more aesthetically innovative sugar plums with y’all.

This week’s work is almost Shainbergian in how all of it expresses/discusses the beauty and attraction of private, interior spaces — the erotic appeal, if you will, of personal detail. (n.b., Infoxicated readers: if you don’t already know Steven Shainberg, check out Secretary and Fur as examples of his amazing ability to create physical, visually-oriented spaces that feel, when you enter or view them on film, like learning a secret.) What is revealed, however, doesn’t function a cheap thrill, but rather as a comforting, sustaining experience that reminds us the importance of actual contact, of being invited in. (So frequently mired as we are among the many unwelcoming surfaces of this world, no?)

Lorien Bales’s breathtaking beaded heart is not only impressive in the obvious amount of labor and time it took to create, but because,in its overall effect, each bead reads like a secret, or a memory, or an impulse. It’s as though, when we look at it, we are endowed with the ability to look at the physical shape of a human heart while simultaneously seeing all the tiny, individual fragments of experience that psychically compose it.

KT Billey takes us through Jessica Piazza’s book Interrobang, a book of sonnets that explores various forms of pathological fear and love — the idiosyncratic, often truly strange details of extreme, and extremely internal, human reaction — rendered in the compulsive order of fourteen-lined, rhyming iambic pentameter. Piazza’s craft and Billey’s cerebral mode of discussion, anchor us through the bizarrely attractive chaos of, well, diagnosably insane emotions & tendencies.

And the stunningly gorgeous poet Saba Razvi gives us three poems. Difficult themes of attraction, revelation, and accessibility prevail in “On the metropole walkside, he watched in the dimming light,” in which a voyeur watches an unknown woman roll down her stockings, apparently without her knowledge. We, too, of course, watch her through the lens of the poem, becoming complicit in an act that most of us would likely not condone. And yet, while watching this woman undress is hypnotically rendered by Razvi’s use of sound and repetition, the allure of such witness seems to come less from a sexual thrill and more from the intimacy of detail: the rhythms of her small, repetitious motions, the “spill” of light in the room around her. And despite (or perhaps because of) the sacred nature of exposure in Razvi’s writing, the reader must also encounter & acknowledge what price is exacted as a result of too much exposure — of too much or too frequently allowing outside forces in. As the speaker tells us in “Gingerbread Girl,” her identity has been permanently altered by the “luminescence” of her “unraveling unreveling”; she cannot find her “lost way,” cannot return to “anything like home.”

And this conclusion, though unsettling, feels inevitable: how many more-interesting journeys begin.

Beatitudes,
F3

image

On the metropole walkside, he watched in the dimming light.

She stood in the window-
frame rolling
down her stockings
She stood
rolling down her stockings
She stood in the the window-frame
her foot on the ledge of windowsill
raised and rolling down
her stockings
pale against the pale light
pale rolling down her stockings
She stood
In the window-frame she
stood
one arm stretched, tall,
high above her head
She stood rolling down her stockings in
the window-frame
one arm hooked around
one arm stretched, tall, above
high above her head
and pale rolling down
her stockings
constellations spread along her
thighs
spilling down her navel
down her thighs
rolling down
her stockings
breasts in the pale light
one arm stretched,
taught along her taut along her belly
A spill of light
She stood in the window-frame
nude but for her
rolling down her stockings.

 

Longing Along the Long Winter’s Eve

Open your windows and open your doors and open your
arms and open her arms into your arms and open your legs
and open your mouth and open your sex and open your
arms and open your legs and open your eyes to this
blanketing dark-ness. Open your arms to the mask over your
face. Open your own patchwork colored lens, logic left
better in sleep and lucid dreams and. Open your hands and
open your mind and your head and open your touch and
your self, opening like this, oh, like this, like a petal, like a
lotus, like a dew-drenched rose, like a thistle spilling nectar
from the misty close of the open of the open of the lock of
the lows. Open your windows and open your doors. In the
open feel the open of the pages, yes the pages and the, oh,
your pages open open like the petals left in honey and in
dreaming and in lights like the others, like the shimmer of
the stone-circled lights on the marshes and moors and the
open doors and open yours…

 

Gingerbread Girl

She could cut seams down her skin, thin
as red wires they might sting. Peeling
one and then another down, bright petals
drooping
to blanche the bones. Later,
stitch the edges up again, rag doll hems.
This crosshatched cicatrix a reminder
of unraveling, unreveling,
of luminescence
on a rocky moonless terrain, where
unshining pebbles cannot lead back again
to the lost way, anything like home.

 

 

Saba Razvi’s collection of poems Of the Divining and the Dead is available through Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Offending Adam, Arsenic Lobster, The 13th Warrior Review, 10×3 Plus and others, as well as in anthologies such as Voices of Resistance, The Loudest Voice, and The Liddell Book of Poetry. She has given readings in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Omaha, Honolulu, Glasgow & Stirling in Scotland, Lismore & Dublin in Ireland, Dallas, and in Austin, TX at The Fun Party Reading Series. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Texas, and she is currently teaching writing and literature at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX.

 

Allen Grossman_2

Allen Grossman_2Allen Grossman died in June this year and it returned me to his poetry. He is the kind of poet our time needs but rarely acknowledges. Grossman received a 2009 Bollingen Prize, one of those high honors that only other poets know about. He didn’t receive the more obvious Pulitzer or National Book Award. But, then again, prophets and prophet-poets don’t open their mouths to receive accolades.

When I first read “The Ether Dome and Other Poems” I found that I couldn’t read him silently and truly hear his voice. I had to read him out loud to taste the textures of his words on my tongue. Because I do much of my reading in public while in transit, I often looked like a madman walking down the street, talking, gesturing and laughing to myself. But allowing myself the freedom to do this in spite of the public display, helped me to see what a remarkable poet he is, one with a voice that needs to be heard in more ways than one. He is a late 20th century child of both Blake and Stevens, but not a child in the sense of merely inheriting traits or styles, but an active creator or, in his own words, “the self-determined maker.” With epigrammatic lines like “Eternity and Time/Grieve incessantly in one another’s arms” he echoes but comments on Blake’s “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Or his recurring use of the realm of the unborn recalls Blake’s vale of Har from the Book of Thel but goes on to make further comments for our own time. He engages those paradoxes that strike at unapparent truth as when he says, “Distance and intimacy grow together” or “In the/ Book at hand is a book beyond all hands.” Then he will also comment on and extend Stevens as when he says, “sex and imagination are one” or when he says, “the whole/Body is an Orphic explanation by a most eloquent spirit/Failing to be clear.” To be sure, there is also humor in this, a playfulness that is the mark of a truly great mind. For only the truly great mind is great enough to remain playful even when serious.

Unlike Steven and more like Blake, one sees in Grossman a man of vision: a prophet. Stevens was a deep man of intellect and imagination, but not a man of spirit—or should I say, of faith? For Stevens to say, “God and the imagination are one” was to echo Protagoras in saying, “man is the measure of all things.” While for Blake to say, “imagination is Holy Spirit,” was actually to assert the indwelling reality of the divine. Stevens is at the end of the long line of Romantic thinking, but in him there is no faith as there is in Blake. What we have in Grossman is a poet who embraces the polarities of that arc from Blake to Stevens, uniting them in a poetic dialogue that reasserts the status of the poet as prophet.

Subsuming the disillusionments in Stevens into a larger spiritual commentary on our time, Grossman reconnects with the dialectic vision we find in Blake. At the same time, he confronts the darker realities of the modern world, assuming the infinite cycles and entropies we take for granted, as in his poem “The Guardian,” where he says,

. . . after a long time, all this will stop, flow
Back into the universe, cease form, cease
To be metal, become another thing,
Become nothing.

It is the colder reality of the flux of a universe too large for us to know. We will be absorbed back into it and this is part of the whole. There is something of the idea of Indra in this, the small god who oversees the current universe, but who himself is merely one in a number of Indras from countless universes as each world is born and dies in the sleep of Vishnu. Grossman’s poems are always peeling back more and more layers of appearance to disclose deeper or more distant realities. Some of those realities are so distant and so deep they no longer include the human. Yet, it is always in the context that we are a part of this, this is the whole spiritual context of our singular existence at this moment. Because of that, it is surprisingly comforting. A rare quality to find in a modern poet and one profoundly needed.

skirts and slack di piero

skirts and slack di piero

tretheway domestic work-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay will be posted in three sections. Part 2 will post on Thursday, October 16th and part 3 on Thursday October 23.

     Place plays a substantial role in establishing environment. Place can be used as a metaphor to define abstractions, as a backdrop that can help set tone or even as a character which can enhance movement and increase tension. Utilizing a sense of place can be an important factor in building depth in a poem and can be a significant tool for the development of characters.

     In the collection Skirts and Slacks, W.S. Di Piero uses place as a character as opposed to a backdrop to hang his characters upon. The characters do not merely exist where they live, place is used to give the reader additional bits of information that play out like vignettes around them. And although at times Di Piero’s characters seem to exist in spite of where they live, many times there is a subtle redefining of the habits of these characters through place.

     For instance, in the opening poem “Cheap Gold Flats” the title alone gives the reader some sense of style for this neighborhood. And even though the poem begins in a neighborhood bar, the image of those “cheap gold flats” seems to hang in the air waiting for recognition. This is a two-part poem, “Part 1.” Philly Babylon” opens with the bartender and whether or not the reader has ever been in one of these neighborhood bars doesn’t matter, Di Piero very effectively sets tone and place by appealing to the senses:

“The bartender tossing cans, carton to cooler,
hand to hand, with silky, mortal ease,
while the 4 p.m. beer and shot standees
study the voiceless TV above our heads.
The worst and longest storm on record.
Iceworks canal the pavements, power lines down,
Cars pillowed helpless in the snow.
Bus fumes vulcanize the twilight’s
911 sirens” (3)

     The reader can almost hear the clink of aluminum as the bartender tosses the cans, see them gliding as if he or she has watched the bartender perform this trick many times. The standees at the bar watch the voiceless TV as if this is a sacred place, which sets up the bar as if it were a sanctuary. We learn there is a storm. The wording here is particular “longest storm on record” not the worst, or the most snowfall, not even the greatest amount of damage, just simply the “longest.” Power lines are down, cars are “pillowed” which brings the drifts of snowed-in cars into a soft focus of airy snowdrifts with powdery white snow piled upon cars, angelic if form. The terms used to describe the storm and the setting does a lot to increase the feeling of seclusion in this opening section even though there is a group here there is little interaction among the characters.

“enter HAZEL, touching my elbow at the bar.

My Staticky Daily News breaks into the draft.

‘What’s my horoscope say today, honey?’

Dear Hazel, dear Pisces, don’t be hurt

Leave me alone a while, my mother’s dying,

I’ve been beside her bed for several days” (3)

     This intimate moment in which Hazel speaks to him and touches his elbow creates an interesting transition by breaking the silence with speech and continues with an unexpected insertion of the horoscope. This is such a great sarcastic break not only of the silence in the bar but lets the reader into the state of mind of the narrator. The reader finds out that his mother is dying without leaning on sentimentality. This line also reveals something more about the narrator himself. Di Piero pulls from the anger and hopelessness someone would feel about the eminent death of a mother: the seeking of isolation, the anger, the want to crawl into some sort of escape. The storm, the icy pavement and power outages now become a metaphor for not only the death of his mother, but the narrators state of mind as well. The chill he is feeling and the silence of the people standing in the bar watching the voiceless TV seem more significant now that we know he is in the midst of this crisis. This setting of the bar becomes a silent refuge for him until the solitude is broken by this sympathetic “touching” of his elbow. He no longer can escape the emotions that he is holding in and they begin to come out on the page.

“and when she looks above her head, she groans

to see whatever it is she sees, so here,

take my paper, go home, forgive me.”

     This passage does a few things. The mother looking up at some voiceless, soundless image harkens back to the men standing at the bar staring at the TV set. The “go home, forgive me” holds a double meaning. On one hand he could be talking to Hazel, on the other he could also be talking to his mother. The progression of place (the bar), the setting, (silent people standing around, frozen from the storm) and the actual emotional event the narrator is experiencing (his mother dying) all interconnect and foreshadow. Place becomes a character as important as the narrator, the other occupants of the bar, Hazel and his dying mother.

     In “Oregon Avenue on a Good Day” Di Piero also uses the senses to set place but in this poem he relies on taste and smell to set up this memory in which place becomes a concrete character.

“Some nights I dream the taste

of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal

from my old exacting street.

This time home, I’m walking to find

I don’t know what. Something always

offers itself while I’m not watching.”

And then onto:

“enameled aluminum siding, brick,

spangled stonework, fake fieldstone

and clapboard, leftover santa lights,

casements trimmed in yellow fiberglass

our common dream of the all

and the only this, that’s exactly

what I can’t find.”

And finally:

“husband and wife inside, plus kids, suppertime,

pine paneling where scratchy exterior light

rises sweetly above a TV voice.”

     Place is as much a memory as a search for something the narrator cannot find or cannot regain. I find it interesting that in this poem the TV has a voice. The scene of the family having dinner has sound and a connection, unlike ‘Cheap Gold Flats” where the TV is voiceless. I like the idea of “a scratchy exterior light” The use of “scratchy” to describe the light shifts the feeling of this section into a completely different texture. This ‘scratchy” light from the exterior seems to be an intrusion into a memory diluted by time that threatens to “shed light” on this illusive thing he believes he has lost; the thing he longs for that may only exist in memory and not in the true reality.

     The poem “Hermes: Port Authority: His Song.” begins with the use of specific regional speech. The opening line is a type of hustler street-speak. Using a regionalism like this to open a poem is another way to set up place. The reader understands that this is happening in a city bus terminal and the character takes on a distinctiveness based on the idea of setting him in a city environment.

“Hey, mister, find a bus for you?

I burn my tracks, I stink.

I lay down in the dust.

And then:

“A dollar’s good. A quarter, too.

Any bus will do.

Wee got them all. There’s Teaneck,

The Oranges and Hackensack.

Atlantic City too.”

“”I’ll sell you pussy, nookie,

what you will. I’ll soap

your goodies in the men’s room sink.

O play me how you will.

Sleep tight. God speed your bus.

A dollar, quarter, dime will do.”

     This modern day Hermes is a very different messenger of the gods. This is the voice of no place. This is the voice of invisible existence and of things unseen. People ignore these unwanted, grittier people within all cities. This may be why the cities are named instead of described; this creates a namelessness that is created by treating places as well as people in this way. As if this new voice of Hermes is a universal telling of how all things have become: nameless, faceless, and disregarded. This is the voice of the hopeless and lost.

     Di Piero’s use of place as a character in Skirts and Slacks acts as another dimension for the characters and narrators to inhabit. Place not only begins to embody the character’s development but helps the reader to identify with even the most complex characters by giving the reader a solid anchor. But foremost in creating this place are the language choices that Di Piero embodies in these poems. This sense of collision that surrounds his characters is not limited to place alone.

     In “Pocketbooks and Sauerkraut” an essay from City Dog, Di Piero states that: “What my culture did give me was a sense…of language as the embodiment of contingency … but language … was swampy, crazily shadowed, and veined with unintelligible matter.” (43). Di Piero has created place in these poems from this “swampy, crazily shadowed and veined” language, and as a result, place becomes not only a naturally occurring extension of character but a solidly formed presence which acts as a character in itself to enhance and support the actions of the narrator and other characters in his poems.

     Natasha Tretheway’s domestic work, on the other hand, uses place in a very different way. Place in Tretheway’s poems is internalized by her characters. It is a sense that is carried within their movements. By using place as an internalized characteristic, she is able to create a persona that is expressed through the characters sense of their place in the world. In the opening poem of the collection, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process” even the things around these women are part of them:

“Around them, their dailiness:

clotheslines sagged with linens,

a patch of greens and yams,

buckets of peas for shelling.”

“Even now, her hands circling,

the white blur of her apron

still in motion.” (3)

     The women are consumed as a part of the things that make up this place. “Their dailiness”; “the white blur of her apron”; the “buckets of peas for shelling.” All of these things speak to their work. There is little shared that is personal about these women. The chores they perform, the place that they perform it in and how they go about their day is interwoven into who they are. This truly epitomizes the idea of “I am what I do.”

     In “Domestic Work, 1937” The woman in the poem varies her movements and her temperament depending on place. Although she is doing the same work, her demeanor changes according to where she is:

“All week she’s cleaned

someone else’s house,

stared down her own face

in the shine of copper-

bottomed pots, polished

wood, toilets she’d pull

the lid to.”

But when she is at home doing the same work:

“a record spinning

on the console, the whole house

dancing. She raises the shades,

washes the room in light.”

“She beats time on the rugs,

blows dust from the broom

like dandelion spores, each one

a wish for something better.” (13)

     It becomes very clear that place is internalized into her actions. Her demeanor, her lightness is apparent in her own home, so different from her demeanor in the house of her employer. There is a joy apparent in the duties performed at home that are not present when she performs these things in the house of her employer.

In “Three Photographs” Thretheway uses place as a subjective part of her characters.

In “1. Daybook April 1901” she uses the narrative voice of the photographer who begins:

‘What luck to find them here!”

     This line turns them into objects within the photograph. Who they are does not matter. They are used merely as reference points to complete the photograph:

“two negro men, clothes like church,

collecting flowers in a wood.”

‘a blessing though their faces

hold little emotion. And yet,

they make such good subjects.

Always easy to pose.”

Even when she speaks of framing, it is still focused on the men in the photograph:

“how well this arbor frames

my shot—an intimate setting,

the bough nestling us

like brothers, How fortunate still

to have found them here

instead of farther along

by that old cemetery,” (6)

     They are not positioned within the things in the photograph; the things in the photograph are positioned around them. It’s as if as objects they hold more significance for the photographer. Flowers in a field would be incidental in a shot of an elaborate vista point so it seems that the men in this photograph are only necessary in order to capture the true nature of the “bough” or the “old cemetery.”

In “2. Cabbage Vendor” the focus is once again how this narrator does his/her work:

“When I’m in my garden

tearing these cabbages

from earth, hearing them scream

at the break, my fingers

brown as dirt—that’s natural.”

The narrator labels this work as being natural. Later, when the narrator speaks of the photograph it becomes the unnatural thing:

“But he will keep my picture,

unnatural like hoodoo love.

I could work a root of my own,

Turn that thing around

And make him see himself

Like he be seeing me—

Distant and small—forever.” (7)

     The idea that working the ground, pulling the vegetables is more the natural thing than her reflection in a picture is interesting in this passage. It brings again to mind the adage “I am what I do” which carries into the third and final portion of the poem: “3. Wash Women.” The narrator in this poem is looking at the picture. There is a different sense here as if the narrator’s connection stems from something other than familiarity. There is a communal sense of history and an understanding of that history that shifts between the narrator and the subjects in the photograph.

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

Stare out from this photograph

Saying remember.”

    The description of the work is supposed. This is a much more somber poem than previous poems in this collection. This poem gives the reader a more intensely disconnected feel. The women simply stare. The narrator supposes the lightness and joy in the chores but the faces of the women seem to tell another story.

“I picture wash day:”

“I hear laughter,

three sisters speaking

of penny drinks, streetcars,

the movie house. A woman

like my grandmother rubs linens

against the washboard ribs,

hymns grow in her throat.” (8)

     The narrator is giving us an imagined idea of these women working. It repeats the image of joyful work that we have seen in other poems in the collection until the poem comes to the final stanza:

“But in this photograph,

women do not smile,

their lips a steady line

connecting each quiet face.’ (9)

     This is the first hint that this is not happy work. This is the first time the sense of these women is different from the outer expression they portray. They are “a steady line connecting each quiet face” which tells the reader that this internalized place is dark, prison-like and inescapable.

     I find it significant that Thretheway uses place in this way. Many of the portraits in this collection are displaced persons. Slaves that do not belong to the homes they inhabit or the jobs they are perform. They seem to carry a sense of belonging only to themselves because of this displacement. They have been forced to fade into the background to survive and so in a sense they have become part of the place they inhabit. This is more of a social commentary than it first appears. In some ways, this idea of belonging to self and contented abiding within seems a very zen-like thing. But when the reality of slavery is considered this becomes a much different perspective. The fact that the people in the pictures are regarded as owned objects is significant. When viewed this way, the expressions on the faces in this picture become a reminder not merely of displacement, but of ownership. Slaves were often listed on manifests along with other “owned” objects: houses, furniture, china, bales of hay, acres of land and heads of cattle. Family members “willed” slaves to other family members at death and often used slaves to settle debts and disputes among landowners, trading them as if they were mere objects. So in effect, the only place for these women to have any power or strength is to revert to something internal that cannot be taken away from them.

     The differences in the way Di Piero and Tretheway use place enhances the characters and the settings in each of their collections. Di Piero’s poems are city poems. They have a beat and a strut, which narrates a type of separation from place so that it becomes something that enhances the poems as a separate character. Tretheway‘s characters don’t belong to the places they inhabit, so they carry these places inside themselves whereas Di Piero’s characters, imprisoned by their own actions, emotions and choices, pull out of the scenery around them like a 3-D image.

image

image

 

Note: The Hesperides are divine nymphs in Greek myth who tend a blissful garden in some idyllic corner of the Western world, and are associated with the golden light of sunset.

 

 

 

image

Patty Hyland is a freelance illustrator in the NYC metropolitan area. She is currently working on her first webcomic, Tri-UMPH!, a humorous seafaring adventure epic. You may find more of her work on her Facebook and Tumblr pages.

Jen Ashburn

Jen Ashburn

The Flight Home                                                                  En Route to Louisville

Remember the laundry that hangs on bamboo fences, on the edges of corrugated tin, on the rafters next to fishing nets that clump together and billow like 18th-century petticoats. Remember the blue jeans, the yellow t-shirts, the thick-hooded sweatshirts. Remember the slender brown legs that slide into the jeans, the fat lips of the toddler who sat on your lap, the hands of the man who, while working his day job as a security guard in front of an ATM, tied the knots that made the nets. Remember the brown waters of the Mekong, the Nam Khong, the Nam Song, the heavy rains in the afternoon, the early morning mist. Remember the clear rising song of a gibbon family at dawn. Remember the Chinese rock music. The gristle and fat in the meat. Even remember the mosquitos and salmonella. Remember how to say, “Do you speak English?” in five languages. And thank you. And please. Let me remember even when I’m hunched with work, when I’m old and crumpled with life. This life. Thank you. Please.

_________________________________________________________________

Jen Ashburn recently completed her MFA at Chatham University in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has work published or forthcoming in Grey Sparrow, Pretty Owl Poetry, Anak Sastra, The Poet’s Billow, Puff Puff Prose & Poetry Vol. II and the anthology Make Mine Words (Trinity University Press). She lives in Pittsburgh.