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Prayer for Topaz, 1942

Dear God,

Mom said you are busy and don’t have time to listen to a little 8-year-old Negro girl from North Carolina and her foolishness, like praying for a box of candy. That would be selfish. But if it’s really important she said, then I should take it to you in prayer like the preacher says on Sundays.

I’m not asking for anything for me. But I’ve been hearing the kids at school talking about some place out west called Topaz. At first I thought they were talking about a spot to get rings and flashy jewelry, but Margaret’s big brother, Ed, who’s in 5th grade, says it’s something like a jail where they put Japanese people. I didn’t believe him because he’s always trying to scare us girls. So I asked my dad, and he said it’s true. The government put them there so that the country would be safe. I know that some Japanese airplane men did some bad things in Hawaii back before Christmas, but the people they put away aren’t from over there. They’re Americans and some have been here since before I was born. Some of them are just tiny little girls like me.

I know, God, I’m young, but I really don’t understand how the government thinks that a little Japanese girl could hurt this big country. Anyway God, I’m praying for you to take care of those little Japanese girls and boys. I hope they have some toys to play with and maybe some candy. I hope they get to go home soon.

And God, while you are doing that, could you also watch over me and my family and all of us at school. I worry that we might be next.

 

_________________________________________

Le Hinton is the author of five poetry collections including, most recently, The Language of Moisture and Light (Iris G. Press, 2014). His work can (or will) be found in journals such as Little Patuxent Review and the Baltimore Review, anthologies such as The Best American Poetry 2014 and outside Clipper Magazine Stadium, incorporated into Derek Parker’s sculpture Common Thread in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

 

 

Ned at Atomic Books Aug '13

First Thaw

This morning was the first time: all the snow
that buried us receding, still in drifts
piled high, crusted with ice and yet receding,
slowly drawing back—abandoned cars
revealed, crushed grass, the shattered road ice-slicked,
salt-splashed, slush running downstream, breaking up
over the drains, dissolving….All this time
I thought the whole world lost, but now the light
glances off roofs still cracking with the weight—
a little less, today. The second time
is now: when I can bear to look around
once more and watch this world emerge—old world
from which so much is missing still, new world
in which so much will, one day soon, appear.

______________________________________________

Ned Balbo’s The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Story Line Press) was awarded the 2012 Poets’ Prize and the 2010 Donald Justice Prize. His two previous books are Lives of the Sleepers (Ernest Sandeen Prize and ForeWord Book of the Year Gold Medal) and Galileo’s Banquet (Towson University Prize). He was co-winner of the 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. His commentary on the poetic turns in Andrew Hudgins’ “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” appears at Voltage Poetry.

First Thaw” appeared previously in Lives of the Sleepers (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

 

 

 

Loren Kleinman HeadShot

At Fifteen

I measured time in cigarettes.
Underneath the underpass
I popped reds
and dropped blues
next to sucked off Popsicle sticks.
I straddled the concrete curb
and anointed the night with love.
I was alive—
snorting coke in abandoned homes
where pigeon shit painted the floor white.
I ripped off loose wood and climbed
to the top of the roof.
I wanted to feel the air
against my cheeks and fuck.
I wanted to break in half.
Fold like heaven and hell.
I was at war with myself.
At fifteen, I hummed paradise,
became those streets that tied
into other streets,
became my own country.
How I talked.
I could’ve been anyone.
I was incurable.

_______________________________________
Loren Kleinman‘s poetry has appeared in journals such as Nimrod, Wilderness House Literary Review, Paterson Literary Review, Narrative Northeast and New Jersey Poets. Her interviews appeared in IndieReader, USA Today and The Huffington Post. She is the author of Flamenco Sketches and Indie Authors Naked, which was an Amazon Top 100 bestseller in Journalism in the UK and USA. Her second poetry collection The Dark Cage Between My Ribs releases March 2014 (Winter Goose Publishing). She is currently working on a literary romance novel, This Way to Forever. She also runs an author interview series on The Huffington Post Books community blogs vertical. Loren’s website is: lorenkleinman.com. She can also be found twittering @LorenKleinman.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

thethefirstlinesoriginalpoetry

Others responded with some published and famous works:

thethefirstlinesfamouspoetry

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

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

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

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

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!

 

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Liberation Theology:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes I no longer desire to teach the way I have been teaching–not because I am ungrateful, but because I wish to do a fair day’s work. I wish I could have nothing but independent studies, work from the morning until the late afternoon–9 conferences a day (One hour for lunch) five days a week. By the end of the week, I could see forty five students in an intensive, close hour where they would get far more from the experience, and so would I. Once a week, for another two hours, I could meet with them all together and we could break bread, have a reading and a party–maybe even a dance.

Everything about my life, all its pains and losses, its odd twists and almost impossible paths, has been a call to communion. I have something to teach, but not in this sad thing we call a “class room” where it is so hard to break down the wall between talking head and passive recepter. I would like my young men and women, and occasionally older men and women coming to my office to show me a poem or story, and I could truly respond to it–like a friend who is also an expert on this particular thing–and I could give them tea or coffee and pull books down from my shelf and loan them the books. And if the conference went over an hour, I’d have the next person come in anyway, and we’d all have a brief chat–and we’d look at this next poem or poems together.

First, I have true solitude so that I never really need to be alone. I always am. Second, I could do all my reading and editing right there–and the student would get my response immediately, and I would have my time away from the school truly free and so would they–in terms of my class. The other professors would hate this. It makes no sense for lecture classes, but for writing workshops–or creative writing students, this would be the best of worlds. I would be on campus from 9 until 6, with an hour lunch, or I could eat lunch in. If the weather was nice, the student and I could take a brisk walk and read the poem under the trees. Literature is learned through friendships–by building a rapport with another mind so that you know when it is hitting its stride or getting caught on a snag. If you leave me alone with all the free time I have , I never do any work, because I am always writing or thinking, except working on what I should be working on. For me, this “free time” is no good. I am not self-motivated. Left to myself, I can sit still all day and do nothing but stare, or walk for miles. I need a routine, a series of relationships that fill my day.

If I ran classes this way, I could take as many as forty five kids, and they would get a vast amount of attention, and still meet once a week for a reading, and a party (optional). They could workshop each other’s poems through e-mail, or get together for a cup of coffee.

My perfect life: I would “sit” in prayer five days a week–from 7 in the morning until 7 at night at my house, which would be my hermitage. Part of my prayers would include recieving visitors all day who could bring me a poem or poems to look at and work shop, or simply need me to listen or pray, or have a cup of tea. I would live on donations, and a small reading fee ($3 a poem). After 7 I would write my own work, or pray my rosary, and relax. On weekends, I would see friends or attend readings and exhibitions. I would be a “poetry monk.” I think I’d like to wear a robe–the color called “ashes of roses.” I want my life to be simple, and completely not my life at all.

Perhaps I would do this seven days a week–when I needed to journey, a novice would take my place until I returned. I love to go to the eucharistic adoration chapel at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton. It is silent, and I adore the eucharist for an hour. I don’t want “peace.” I want true engagement, the opportunity to give back whatever God has given me. I want this with all my heart, but the world is stubbornly in love with its gadgets of control. The world is always trying to complicate the simple, and make simplistic the complex. So my monk’s life is out the window, and I remain a “fuck up” in this system. I feel so bad. I want to be used, but I have to figure out where my handle is, so then I can convey to others: this is how I am most useful. This is how you pick me up and pour.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

You’re asking so you must have them and have them alive in the hand you hope will one day hold me.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

My friend, my friend, I was born
to a father who didn’t want what I am. I am
doing reference work in sin, and born
to fuck married men with no shame in
confessing it. This is what poems are:
willing to burn in public
with mercy
and liberty and justice for not but
for the greedy,
and the six other sinners who say
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the hair follicle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star
playing the chitlin circuit I call home.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interview liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink,what your poems dream about?

They dream they are dreaming, and in that dream they never have to wake again.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interview looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

No big thing really—jus wanna fuk wit yr I’s til u c yrslf well enuf to admit that u 1 evil bitch.

It was late in the smoke-painted bar, a quarter past the blue hour, when The Interviewer pulled The Poet into an even darker room. And in the dark of that darkness, came the first question. Tell me, said the Interviewer, where do your poems live?

My poems have roommates, and until two weeks ago, slept on a loft bed they bought in 2006 while still a paralegal. The last girl my poems had over called that shit a bunk bed. They forget to take out the trash on Sunday. They are from Ohio, and know enough to start there. They live lives I can almost imagine, and rarely, but sometimes, ones that I can’t. In the subway, in karaoke dive bars, in my grandfather’s house. In my mother’s text messages. They’re trying to fall in love with someone tangible and special. Their stomach flips when the landlord sells the building. I know my poems can’t live in a nicer apartment than I do.

The dark room was the color of closed eyelids now. Music reached in through a window deprived of its pane. With his eyes on the music, The Interviewer asked What was the last sin your poems committed?

It’s the future you can change. Not the past. My poems don’t pick and choose when they want to be themselves. If anything, they’re party to the sin of silence. But that’s not their choice. That’s a muzzle I build for them. They’re everywhere: When I open the refrigerator. When the last of my hometown friends are married and having children. When I’m gentrifying a neighborhood I’m about to be priced out of. If my poems don’t materialize, I’m the one who makes that silence. When they’re afraid to speak. When I don’t read enough to nurture them into reality. That’s me. They’re waiting to love me. I try to be brave enough to reciprocate. They know when to listen, and what needs to be said. They know when I’m lying, and help me right that ship. They help me be bold. It takes a lifetime.

A blade of moonlight cut The Poet’s body in half. The Interviewer liked this. The Interviewer wondered which half wanted most to be taken. Drinks appeared at the table without explanation. I want to know, said The Interviewer, pausing to take a sip of his drink, what your poems dream about?

That all sixty-four of my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers are in the same room. That the poems are being watched by something larger, not judgmental, just something that is to them what they are to me. And that supervising presence is made from, not just the writing that came before, but playgrounds, divorce papers, two hours past my bedtime camp fires, journeys that ended in bloodshed, or silence, or catharsis, or surrounded by children each two years apart. Whatever explosion happened a million years ago to build the old light we see on this canoe ride. That’s who my poems dream to meet. Who they answer to. Who they often don’t find, but when I’m really proud of them–when my stomach has an ache akin to sorrow, but not quite. A somber pride, that’s when I know they are reaching. That they’ve dreamt big.

Minutes were hours in that shut eyelid-colored room. The moon turned into the sun without apology. Music that had been reaching through the window pulled its hand away. The Interviewer looked less himself. Tell me, please tell me, what have your poems come here to do?

Like quarter notes, brush strokes, like windmills. We journey to find the art. Our minds have to train, not theirs. The poem’s agenda is the specificity of truth, which is complicated, and delicate. Full of broken rules and emotional history. They aren’t here to save anyone’s life, and not because they don’t have the heart for it (I’d argue that art is the single most empathetic force in the world), but that salvation is not their journey to dictate. When I read something beautiful and my heart tells me it is true, that’s my pilgrimage to walk toward. To dissect, and wear in my mouth, to let change me. To experience the magnitude of something that doesn’t turn away. A force that can (and many times over, does) save me, yes.

But this happens in retrospect for the art, the artist, the audience. The poem whose foundation is a desire to effect change and alter the emotions of others, risks compromising its relationship to discovery. To saying what needs to be said. If I’m writing from a base of trying to make others turn right, I risk not being able to turn left, or backwards, or do a somersault. I turn the key and try not to crash. I open the rodeo gate and wrap my arms around the bull’s head.

Bob Marley songs, for instance, feel like they came to make so much available. But I’ve seen enough daytime frat parties where everyone’s singing “Buffalo Soldier” to understand that with every person comes a new way to experience and utilize a piece of art. Art’s job is to exist. To belong to the air around it and the eyes and imaginations that see it. An invitation to consider something deeper. I strive to know that whatever change comes from that, for both artist and audience, is on us. Not the music. Not the poems.

_______________________________________________________
Jon Sands is a Brooklyn based author known for electrifying readings. He wrote, The New Clean, released in 2011 from Write Bloody Publishing, and starred in the award winning 2011 web-series “Verse: A Murder Mystery” from Rattapallax Films. He is Director of Poetry Education at the Positive Health Project (a syringe exchange center located in Midtown Manhattan), an adjunct with the City University of New York, as well as a Youth Mentor with Urban Word-NYC. He’s represented New York City multiple times at the National Poetry Slam, tours extensively, both nationally and internationally, and makes better tuna salad than anyone you know. Say yes to www.jonsands.com.

The Disappearing is a new app for iPhone, iPad and Android that (literally) explores poetry and place. Beginning with a collection of over 100 poems about Sydney, the app creates a poetic map charting traces, fragmentary histories, impressions and memories.

Along with previously unpublished poetry, The Disappearing features exclusive videos of readings and interviews with poets. Users can upload their own poems to The Disappearing, preserving ideas, emotions and experiences about their own environment that vanish over time.

Explore Sydney streets or upload your own memories of place – Download The Disappearing – The Red Room Company’s free poetry app for iPhone and iPad or for Android.

THEthe Poetry and The Red Room Company are teaming up to share poems across the oceans. This collaboration introduces new audiences to the works of emerging and established poets from America and Australia. Weekly installments of poems, interviews and artworks will celebrate poetic observations from Brooklyn to Sydney and places between.

The Red Room Company is a not-for-profit poetry organisation founded in 2003 and based in Sydney. Their mission is to provide professional commission opportunities to contemporary Australian poets, particularly emerging voices. They present poetry to the wider community in engaging, unusual ways involving film, audio and installation. Since 2007, The Red Room Company has delivered Papercuts, their national poetry education program for primary and secondary schools. In 2010 the poetry education program was extended to Correctional Centres.

Three poets name their favorite books and poems from the 2011.

b bearhart

1. Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (UAPress) edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Indigenous Americas. Nuff said. (It’s a poet’s wet dream. Can I say that? Cause I just did.)

2. Mad for Meat (Salmon Poetry) by Kevin Simmonds
This collection is honest and beautiful. No frills or tricks. Simply fantastic poems by a very talented human.

3. “En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith” by Tarfia Faizullah
Thank god for poet friends. So many people linked this poem on social networking sites. I love the way this poem builds through sound.

4. “The Blue Dress in Mother’s Closet” by Saeed Jones
Who is this dude?! This poem is brilliant. Read it.

5. “Yard Sale” by Melissa Jones
This poem is not like my other picks. Or maybe it is and I’m not getting the connection. I like the jarring nature of this poem. It felt like I was reading two poems fighting. And I enjoyed that.

(See and hear b bearhart’s own poem here.)

Alexander Long

1. The Insomniac’s Weather Report by Jessica Goodfellow
In The Insomniac’s Weather Report, we are introduced to Jessica Goodfellow’s method in which the subsequent image or idea pushes the image or idea that preceded it in surprising yet inevitable ways. It’s as though Goodfellow is, at times, entrenched in a game of high-stakes poker against herself, and the ante is steadily raised from image to line to stanza to poem to book until someone wins (we, the readers) and someone loses (she, the poet). And so, the poet clears the table and begins again “by learning the 10,000 ways/ to spell water”.

2. White Shirt by Christopher Buckley
In this, his eighteenth, book, Buckley mines material that readers of his work may initially find familiar: childhood, The Pacific Ocean, the aftershocks of a Catholic upbringing, homage to poets who matter to him. But what may first appear to be nostalgia is actually a confrontation with not just the past but the present, and how the future influences them both. White Shirt is evidence of a poet’s resilience giving way to an almost pure music.

3. Bright Body by Aliki Barnstone
Pastoral, political, erotic, maternal, measured, candid, and always lucent, Barnstone’s seventh book accomplishes something I thought impossible: she makes even Las Vegas gleam with classic beauty, a place where such beauty runs far beneath the surface of glitzy tawdry…as long as the observations are Barnstone’s. Mothers and daughters reveal the brightest light in these poems.

4. Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This book has, rightly, received a good amount of press, most of it well done. I won’t repeat what others have said here explicitly. But I will say what’s obviously been implied: if you are an American and if you don’t know your history (I realize I’m dangerously close to being redundant in that statement), get this book. The Amistad narrative is as American as any of the other so-called feel-good narratives spoonfed to us since grade school.

5. Clean by Kate Northrop
Northrop’s poems have always struck me as strange, beautifully strange, the way angels must appear to us as someone/something strange…at first. I’ve been reading Northrop’s poems for nearly half my life now, and Clean shows me, again, how lucid her vision is, how honed her craft has become.

Jonterri Gadson

1. “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux
The way this poem is both specific and universal excited me. It’s a reminder that nothing is a waste of time, there are no mistakes, and that–one day–the pain will be worth it. Well, at the very least, this poem makes those things seem true. This is a poem worth reading every day.

2. “What I Should Have Told the Homeless Man in Cleveland Who Mistook Me for Mary’s Son” by L. Lamar Wilson
This poem explores the complexities of humanity, sexuality, and religion. Yes, all in one. It took me to church in a way I’d never been before and I loved it. Honestly, this poet is worth Google-ing. It was hard for me to choose just one of his poems that stunned me this year.

3. “Midas Passional” by Lisa Russ-Spaar
This poem’s first line gripped, transformed, and transported me. I love how it works both in and out of the context of the Midas myth. The last line makes me want to write.

4. “Found” by Stephanie Levin
I love how this poem gets more and more interesting with every line. It doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of loss.

5. “Ardency” by Kevin Young
This is Kevin Young’s amazing chronicle of the events and people involved with the Amistad slave ship. It’s a full-length poetry collection, but it’s more than just poetry–it is history and it is music and it lent blood and bones to the voices of the Amistad rebels.

(See and hear Jonterri Gadson’s own poem here.)

 

What were your favorite poems & books of 2011? Share them in the comments or on Twitter @thethepoetry.

Certain sections of broca’s area of the brain are involved both in how words are given syntactical order and how gestures, physical movements are interpreted as flow, as arc, as coherent actions. We know that broca lights up like a pin ball machine when shadow puppets are introduced before the eye. My theory of narrative is that it is arc, gesture, syntactical force the most common of which is what we call a story, but not exclusive to story. We have difficulty seeing narrative as lyrical because it seems more “rule” bound than what we consider lyrical–thus, my students tendency to resist turning their gerunds and participles into active verbs, as if adding “ing” to the verb kept the language safe from being overdetermined and definite. This use of gerunds and participles creates a lot of syntactic ambiguity and I think the brain recognizes this as somehow more “lyrical” because it does not activate the broca region to the degree that a syntactically definite sentence (or concrete sequential gesture/action) would. I have often been called a n intensely narrative poet. Truth is, hardly any of my poems use story as their main agent. There are antidotes or gestures toward action in my poems, but very little plot or tale. If I think of four of my most well-known poems, only “Elegy for Sue Repeezi” is a true narrative. “Ode to Elizabeth,” while using antidotes, is truly an ode–a poem of praise and its narratives (I never have one narrative in any of my poems) are illustrative of a panoramic attitude toward a place rather than telling the story of that place. My poem “Fists” is also without a plot. There are actions and memories, but nothing happens that could be construed as a plot. “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” is not at all a strict narrative.

So if this is true, why do I have a reputation for narrative rather than lyrical poetry? First, with the exception of Whitman, I loath floating or ambiguous syntax. I find blunt sentences, strong verbs, and concrete gestures to be far more aesthetically appealing than ambiguity. Floating is not a desire of mine. Words with no definite position are active principle tend to be inert and uninteresting to me. I also am not a big fan of conventional plot, or linear progression. I like quick bursts of energy, the voice strong and moving between different registers of speech. this does not fit the groove of what we currently recognize as lyrical poetry. It also is outside the groove of what we call narrative poetry proper (which I often find pedestrian and boring). I am far more interested and turned on by affective–narrative, poetry that excites with many gestures and strong movements. My poems are too cognitive for many contemporary poetic tastes, yet, among the narrative poets, or those more conventionally anchored to narrative, I am considered too lacking in progression and the nuance of progression. What many contemporary poets admire I often find inert and faux-lyrical. I also have no love or particular patience with neutral registers of speech and much of what passes for lyrical shares this very middle brow way of uttering–a sort of ongoing equivocation and mincing around nuances that may or may not exist. No thanks.

So if narrative poetry is not story, or linear progression, or antidote, what is it? It seems to be that form of poetry that engages the syntax of gesture,of action, that lights up the part of the brain that wishes to create an arc, to make sense of an action or series of actions. I write poetry in this manner because, while prose can relay information or story well enough, it can not come close to poetry and line in terms of creating the vital tension and speed of gestures, and it cannot isolate single lines, or rhythmic gestures as well as free verse. Prose, except in its more experimental forms, insists as an ordering agent that is closer to logical progression and priority of information, and its stories then are never pure modes of action. They are set up by exposition. Poetry allows me to dump exposition and cut to the chase. Poetry allows me to move between the ordering of the Broca region (syntax and gestures) and the isolate, monolithic qualities of single words as words–language as a form of pure sound and vocality without locality. Poetry for me is the realm of affective action. line moves, line itself is narrative. It makes sense that much language and experimental poetry, getting rid of coherent meaning or story, would start skewing and playing the line in a far more dramatic way. Why? Because the line is a gesture! The line itself then becomes the story or story arc.And gestures also stimulate the formal, narrative impulses. Narrative does not go away, it simply is transformed into the actions of the lines. As for prose poems like those of James Tate, much of Tate’s work is hyper narrative, a series of gestures that may add up to something very different than a coherent story, but which activates the sense of kinesis, and verbal action I think we need to stop seeing narrative as antithetical to poetry. Lyricism in its manifestation of divine possession and afflatus and ecstasy (thus closer to speech as the gift of tongues, and steeped in mystification) made an unholy marriage with prose a while back. Most of what we now call lyrical poetry is merely neutral middle class equivocation complete with line breaks, and the absence of any strongly gestural speech. In short, little of our current poetry talks with its hands. I believe both the greatest narrative and lyrical poetry is gestural, in infinite process of gesture and flux. My poetry is not so much anchored in the understandable as making a dance out of the understandable and the obvious. I like to set the overt dancing. And the most rhapsodic, non-cognitive poetry which we tend to think is lyrical does the same–only from a covert position that must be careful it is not simply a species of class identification. True lyrical poetry moves. It has its being in movement. Both the genuinely narrative and the genuinely lyrical speak with their hands. Poetry speaks with its hands.

So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

NOTE: In this new series, THEthe writers share their first experiences with poetry or discuss the first poems they ever loved.

~~~

My first sense of poetry was music, songs my mother told me taught me, as they say. My father loved to scream Milton at me, so my first memory of my father is: Hurled headlong flaming! Or Disemboweled (the word alone).

He also loved to say: Bah Humbug! Or Latin poems: Non amo te nec possum dicere quarere hoc tantum scio.

I do not like thee Doctor Fell–my mother read poetry to me at night and my father had the family recite Shakespeare: Be not afeard the isle is full of strange noises.

My father and my uncle the pianist were best friends in high school and they both loved to write poems. My uncle was often in the NY Times with a sonnet–my father would test us as violinists memorizing many pieces–Who dost defy the Omnipotent to arms–My father also did a good Tyger, Tyger.

Now it comes back to me a lot, my father screaming Lasciate ogni speranza you who enter here. Longer and longer passages I memorized and received money from a neighbor for Paul Revere. And I certainly knew Antony’s oration.

If you had memorized your concerto you could just practise with no music-stand and walk around the room and think. I knew the genius of music listening to my grandfather pray and sing at gigantic Brooklyn synagogues and his records.

Later I loved reciting The Waste Land–at least the part l knew by heart–and I set some of it to music composed (too Coplandy).

I hated school because the poems were terrible or Mrs Popper’s apothegms: Before you spread a rumor Put it through the three sieves–the golden sieve of truthfulness, the silver sieve of kindness, and the pearl sieve of necessity.

I did love speed in counting and multiplying and concentrating. I loved music and words together madrigals, Christmas carols. (We hid from our grandfather in case he saw my Mom singing and carolling delightedly. We felt such guilt I felt God would kill me when I played O Come All Ye Faithful.)

In a word, Jason Schneiderman is a poet of the helix. In his new book, Striking Surface, he turns and returns a fine Merino wool finer. By refrains; bits of anaphora; tonally and topically, he returns to his concerns in cycle after cycle, rending or revising earlier understandings, and leading new ones up new twists. Scattered throughout the book’s three sections are cycles that include “The Children’s Crusade,” “Stalinism,” “Ars Poetica,” “Physics,” “Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha,” and “Hyacinthus.”

The middle section of the book is entirely a cycle: an unforgettable family of elegies that address his mother’s death with tenderness and probity, in a casual voice talking through grief without flinching and without sentimentality. From “Elegy I (Work)”: “Whatever dead is, you are, and how you must hate that, / busy fixer of problems, busy stitcher of crafts.” Soon we learn the role crafts played before death—how they were a kind of tacit conversation between father, mother, and son—and the roles they assume, still unfinished, in the afterdeath. Here, in “Elegy IV (Tallis)”:

I don’t tell Dad that you never finished cross-stitching
the tallis piece because you were punishing him.
You wouldn’t tell him, so why should I? I finished
the curtains you were planning, though I didn’t line them.

Picking up the thread, in the next elegy:

I wish I could see the dead as completed instead
of stopped, that some monument in my head
would be erected to you, instead of these scraps
of uncatalogued memory.

And again, in “Elegy VI (Metaphors for Grief)”:

____________________________I’d think,
why finish this if Mom won’t see it, or why
go to work if my mother is dead? She had never
been the axis my world turned on, but suddenly
everything seemed to revolve around her. No.
Not an axis. A skewer. A spit.

Throughout the book, we encounter a philosophical version of transubstantiation that an object or subject undergoes when it has been taken from us or is otherwise no longer in reach. In “Elegy V (The Community of Mourners),” Schneiderman calls it “a trap”: “Mourning’s a trap, / isn’t it? A way to pretend that what you lost / was better than what you had,” a delicious riddle that obviates our thinking those two things (people) are the same, with the bereft feeling that they are not. It’s a trap revisited in the last section of “Susan Kohner (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life),” which begins, “Death tricks you twice. First about yourself, / and then about others,” and ends:

Does Sarah Jane owe her dead mother
more than she owed her live mother?

Of course not—but she can’t deny her dead
mother what she denied her live one.

Having gathered impressions of her sense of humor, her quietly persistent love, and her humiliating, de facto last rites before the surgery that would be her death, we feel we know this woman—this arch, in its stone and filigree—just in time for the keystone eighth elegy, which—in its omnivorousness (including a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who returns from being buried in an earlier elegy); in its valences and ambivalence through which an earnest love reflects—seems to accomplish something of Shakespearian ambition (“That in black ink my love may still shine bright”), even as a stand-alone poem:

Elegy VIII (Missing You)

I thought I’d find you here, that I’d finish these poems
and you would stand out as clear as the day. As bright
as the moon. I hate those poets who tell you that
they love, but never make clear whom they love.
My mother’s eyes are nothing like the sun. How do I
miss my mother? Let me count the ways. So where
are you? I couldn’t believe you let yourself
be filmed for the video they showed at your tribute,
and I wanted to tell everyone, That’s only her voice
when she’s nervous. That’s only her face when she
has to be on display and she doesn’t like it. But at least
you were there. Everyone knows you can’t write
your way out of grief. Everyone knows that grief
never turns into anything but grief, and OK, I can grieve
you forever. But I wanted you here, in the middle
of my book. Not a complaint about what I lost
or what it feels like to lose it. But you. Your smile.
Your denim dress.

Schneiderman addresses another, closer-to-literal kind of transubstantiation in “Adorable Wounds.” An epigraph from Hopkins invites us to “approach Christ in a new way” and cast ourselves “into His sacred broken Heart and his five adorable Wounds” (a fitting bit of pronoun play between a man and his apotheosis). Longinus of Caesarea already having stuck his spear into the body of the crucified Christ, pre-poem, the poem’s speaker asks:

Is it blasphemy
to be the nail,
the spear? To want
to be the nail,
the spear?

These fives lines—in their deceptively simple revision and reiteration of that deceptively simple question—ask as much of us as any nineteen syllables I know. “A simple truth miscall’d simplicity,” as Shakespeare might have said and did, in Sonnet 66. Substituting “question” for “truth,” we have a working description of Schneiderman’s quest to understand.

In all three sections of Striking Surface, understanding is key and a key to the poems. From “Ars Poetica II”:

I’m trying to say:
Forgiving is the end of love.

The end of hate.
The end of strong emotion.

A poem should be
an understanding.

A forgiving.
But not the end of love or hate.

The poem comes to doubt itself directly (“Maybe this / isn’t a poem”), before ending up at a new understanding:

If understanding
was the wrong thing,

I asked
for the wrong thing.

It was what I wanted
when I asked.

Besides the candor of these lines, what makes them feel natural and accessible is their role in a dialogue into which the poem is structured. The poem’s speaker addresses the world-as-poem and world-as-parted-intimate simultaneously, a parted intimate who responds:

Look at all the sense you keep

trying to make.

You should know better.

That’s why I did what you think

I need to be forgiven for.

Another theme these poems thread and rethread is the nature of identity—in theology and philosophy, called the problem of haecceity (essential “thisness”). Schneiderman pinpoints the requisite subtleties with a weaver’s needle. In his death-by-flower poems (“Hyacinthus I” and “II”), he turns a wry eye upon the notion that Apollo had preserved anything of Hyacinthus in his eponymous flower, ending the first poem with, “Who are we fooling? // I’m just plain dead,” and the second with:

Who wants
to be a flower?

Better that weeds
should mark my grave

than the stars
should hold my face.

This frames the issue in a smart(ing?) little star-rimmed face. In “Echo (Narcissus)”—a sort of third wheel or three-way for the “death by flower” pair—the Narcissus myth is restored to its context of male-male love, and (as always in these poems, with a twist) it speaks for an Echo who learns to say “No.”

In “Probability,” the problem of haecceity comes more clearly into relief:

________The statistical probability of being a dinosaur
at the moment that the meteor hit is impossible to calculate,
because you would have to know whether any given dinosaur
was as likely to be any other given dinosaur, or whether
any living thing is as likely to be any other living thing—
but no matter what, the chance was tiny. No matter how you do
the math, every single dinosaur was statistically safe from
meteors. But then again, here we are, you and me, as human
and furless as we might have hoped, tiny teeth, opposable
thumbs, and all the birds locked out of our safe, insured
houses.

Here we see another large-looming theme, really a component of the problem of haecceity. If something is essentially ‘this’—an exact and unique something—then it can’t be exchanged for something very much similar, or even something identical in all its properties (Leibniz argued: if two things are identical in all their properties, those two things are really one thing). But look!—Schneiderman’s poems ask between (and within) the lines—at how exchangeable and reversible we and our circumstances are. By a fluke, we’re the ones insured, for the moment. The oscine dinosaur descendents are in the garden singing… for the moment.

In “Sailor at Nostrand and Bedford,” the non-uniqueness of exchangeable things is again brushed against. Here, from the poem’s second section:

There was a sailor, once.

What we wanted

was the same,

and each other

was the last place

we’d looked.

And in “The Book of the Boy,” the issue is fully foregrounded, pleading loudly:

____________“Why was I made?”
and the answer comes: “Because we
wanted you,” which puzzles the boy.

“But there was no me to want,” the boy
protests, and the answer comes: “Well,
we wanted something like you.” And the boy asks

“Would any small person have done?”
and the answer comes: “Any small person
we made. It was critical that we be the ones

who made it.” The boy hesitates.
The answers are getting angry. At last:
“So I was interchangeable? Then?

Before I was made?”

The poem ends exasperated and without resolution. Hiding in dreams, “maybe / by morning, he’ll be someone / specific and loved and necessary.”

Near the end of the book, in the four-part poem, “Notes on Detention” (in effect the title poem: in the second part we learn that there are six striking surfaces on the human hand, and the strongest striking surface is the elbow, according to the latest interrogation manual), we once again snag this braided issue of identity. We encounter a mine-detonating robot that has done its work so dutifully that it’s lost all but one of its legs, and is continuing to scrape along on its last before an army colonel “declared the test inhumane and stopped it. / The robot’s inventor was surprised, as this / is what the robot had been designed to do.” Then comes the crux:

________Perhaps the robot stepped
through the same door into humanity
that every victim steps out of. Perhaps
we should find that door.

In the next, the book’s penultimate poem, “The person you cannot love,” we’ve reached the end of probing the issue until, in the final poem, we’re asked to bury it in a bed of flowers that Schneiderman’s husband tends. “I Love You and All You Have Made,” wraps up the triple helix of identity—transubstantiation, exchangeability, haecceity—into a convincing and moving three-line finale: “Some days, I flatter myself to think / that I’m one of your flowers. Some days, / I flatter myself to think I’m not.”

Viewing this book through one (or three related) of its themes, much that recommends it has been passed over: its several senses of humor; its pop-culturings sprinkled handsomely throughout; its rabbinical backstories; its children’s crusades; and its wise and wide-eyed meditation on war—“Billboard Reading: War Is Over / Billboard Reading: (If You Want It)”—that puts Prometheus in dialogue with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, the Aztecs, and the 1952 film, High Noon, to name a few. Nor have I mentioned my favorite poem in the book, “The Numbers Wait with God for Humans to Invent Them,” which involves Two’s being kissed, Four’s hair being tussled, imaginary numbers “who screamed at night / the things they knew,” and—almost free of charge, almost subliminally—a parable about the freedom that is division.

Fearless and affectionate, Striking Surface is a book of lyric poems that neither emphasize narrative nor shy away from it. The story, when it comes to a poem, seems to come across a music already being played; an understanding already being groped; an Ariadne’s thread already followed halfway back. Schneiderman’s are exuberances on dark topics, trimmed to their essentials, and plangent (rung up and down turns of thought and feeling) in what remains.