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Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013. BJ Ward.
North Atlantic Books, 2014. 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1-58394-677-0

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Jackleg Opera is the fourth collection by BJ Ward and is a collected poems gathering together over twenty years of amazing work. It was published at the end of 2013 by North Atlantic Books and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. Ward’s poetry is an incredible blend of wit, intelligence, playfulness and insight. He is a poet that not only loves language and craft but loves humanity, the adept phrasing that reflects the hidden emotional realities, charting what Emily Dickinson called the “internal difference where the meanings are.” His own words describe the accomplishment of his poetry, for his poems are

a net to capture the moment
but release the energy
–Suzuki Dance

This is appropriate for a poet who often writes about poetry, its power and purpose. That’s not to mistake his work for merely academic word wizardry. For his primary concern is with how we connect with other people, and language is one of the essential tools for that connection. So in a clever poem about the purpose of poetry called “Portrait of the Artist as Egg Salad,” the speaker is eating an egg salad sandwich which, of course, the reader can’t taste and in this context, he’s

. . . reminded of the thickest-

headed student I ever had—Debra—
who, when I told her her poem conveyed
nothing, said, “But I really feel this.”

So here we are,
Debra invoked yet long gone,
just writer and reader liaising
in the rectangular dining room of the page,
me still eating my egg salad sandwich,
you beginning to cross your arms and get upset

because I haven’t offered you anything yet
and you’re still hungry and it’s all my fault.

So poetry offers us or is supposed to offer us something that feeds us and nourishes us. In it, we often find the courage to face—or simple the ability to admit—the darker or wilder side of our own nature. It gives us a palatable way to assimilate the unavoidable darkness that is a part of our condition. These are what another poem calls “the molded hollows / in us worn from containing / and releasing, holding and letting be” (A Note to Karen). But those molded hollows are more than simply allowed to exist in the end; they are what make us who we are. Avoiding them is what a life of repression is built on and Blake’s specters are born of. But Ward is a wise poet and tries to guide us aright, for he tells us straight, as a Jersey poet would, “The more rocks we hit, / the louder we sing” (For Those Who Grew Up on a River). This embracing of the forces that wound us or are untamed within us, takes on many shapes in the poems. So in “The Noise I Make,” Ward declares, “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Or in “New Jersey,” it’s “the short, imperfect loveliness of groundhogs.” Or in “Spring Begins in Hinckley, Ohio,” it’s “a wrenching into tenderness.” That last phrase might contain the beautiful power of his poetry, for it is in understanding the deep wounds in us that we come to embrace the full extent of our humanity.

The poem “Compassion,” brings these elements together: that of the difficulty of intimacy in a modern metropolis and the compassion born of the deep wounding that defines a person. The poem opens

Out in this profane city,
sometimes sidewalks
seem the only cement that connects us

As the poem focuses in on a central figure living in this “profane city,” he is in his apartment “checking your scars / which spell your real name.” Later in the poem, the figure gives a dollar to a homeless man, and confronts the various voices that would condemn this compassion since the homeless man will simply “spend it on booze,” and “spend it on his / own death.” But in the end, though the central figure is a dollar poorer and isolated by his compassion from the callous voices that would deny the act,

. . . your inner
walls feel emblazoned by a song
rising from the fathomless depths,
a rosined bow rubbing
its awfully taut body
against catgut

to make music.

Here is one of the rocks that makes us sing from the inner depths. This is the point of it all, the sine qua non of poetry, music—art in general, that, as Stevens put it, makes it a “dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.” But, of course, at the other extreme, Ward also explores what separates us and, not surprisingly, it is often technology or symbolized by technology. Don’t presume he’s a Luddite for he does have a website. But, for instance, in the poem “No Job, No Money, No Girlfriend,” a person with an answering machine blinking to let them know he has a call, recites a litany of the various ways this means the world is reaching out to connect to him. But that expectation is destroyed when he presses the button and

a single electronic static train,
its boxcars full of emptiness,
departs from the speaker,
routes through my chest,
and out the front door—

. . . . . . . click

. . . giving me another hang-up.)

A wonderful double-entendre in which the language of our technology multiplies the emotional turmoil of the speaker. And technology has only accommodated this distancing with irony in something like Facebook, something Ward taps into with his poem “Upon Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave on a Smart Phone,” which ends,

My friends are so thirsty with water in their eyes
so back to the well we’ll crawl:
Tell Plato to rise and rephilosophize—
Facebook is the new cave wall—

Our most popular social media for connecting with people is merely a shadow play of reality. Our connections are only phantoms of the truth as in Plato’s famous allegory. It’s also notable that here we find the relation of this disconnection to a thirst, that is, something primal in us that needs to be nourished since “my friends are so thirsty.” What poetry provides is lost in this network of virtual connections. Poetry, by using language in striking ways, reveals the hidden realities within us and provides a real, emotional connection to others across great distances and sometimes across impossible time. Most forms of social media, tethered and defined by the speed and rush of technology, often have a leveling influence on our language and interactions, and create connections that are as often fleeting and superficial as a single electrical spark. It is a problem Ward states with a kind of epigrammatic precision in “After Googling Myself, I Pour Myself Some Scotch and Step Out onto My Front Porch.” In it he says, “What a sum freedom plus apathy have equaled.”

But countering that apathy, that disconnection, is this collection of twenty-three years of great poetry and something to be deeply grateful for. It is among the best antidotes out there and should be marked by that peculiar phrase in his poem “Cross-Pollination,” which attaches to

. . . one of those rare moments in life
one would never get rid of.

These poems will strike you with their humor, their honesty, their emotional depth and their music. Like me, you may find yourself turning to someone and saying, “You have to hear this.”

bj-ward

Michael T. Young: Thank you, BJ, for agreeing to an interview.

Your newest collection, Jackleg Opera, is your fourth, and is a new and collected poems. Could you comment on putting it together: how and if you worked on the new poems to connect thematically in any way to the whole or just worked on the newer poems independently of any overall cohesion?

BJ Ward: I worked on the new poems as they came to me, not concerning myself with how or where they connected to the other work. Once I had about sixty poems that were publishable or had already been published somewhere, I chose and arranged the thirty-three new poems that make up the first part of the book. The thirty-fourth new poem I placed after my 2002 book, Gravedigger’s Birthday, as it serves as a coda for that manuscript. One of the best aspects of releasing a collected poems is the opportunity to revise some of the earlier work, an assiduity I have admired in poets such as Justice and WCW.

Michael T. Young: I love the title of this collection. Of course, “jackleg” means “unskilled or incompetent,” and yet your work is so wonderfully skillful. Also, much of the collection seems to be about embracing our imperfections. For instance, “The Noises I Make” declares “I rejoice in my imperfections.” Could you talk about that a bit: if you see this kind of embracing as important, or what its significance is in your poetry, or, perhaps even for one’s sanity?

BJ Ward: Although that line asserts that I rejoice in my imperfections, I actually have spent the better part of my life wrestling with them. I suppose I’ve come to live with them. Why did I write that line? I think of two things: Frost’s maxim that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion, and that final line in James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “I have wasted my life.” It’s reported that when Wright was later asked about that line, he said it was just how he felt in the moment of the poem. Supposedly he joked that after he had a sandwich he felt better.

Yet I hope there is also some kind of truth in my line, as your question seems to imply. I’ve always loved these James Joyce lines from Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Michael T. Young:  The poem “Filling in the New Address Book” ends saying, “why threaten any miraculous history,/any great testament, with knowledge/of how empty our current book of stories is?” The poem “And All the Peasants Cheered for the King. The End” which is a fatherly effort to preserve a child’s imagination against the harsher elements of reality and concludes, “The astronauts are still fastened in their flotation /The soldiers still guard the fairytales.” How important do you think it is for people (children and adults) to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life? In what way is it important?

BJ Ward: I don’t think we have to work too hard to preserve some sense of mystery and wonder about life. It’s always there. What we might have to do is learn to be comfortable with it. I question, even as I embrace technology, what we have lost in this age of information. I suppose my embrace is guarded. And somehow forced through my employment. Sure, the ready access of information is useful for many reasons, particularly in terms of a greater accountability of authority and the resultant effects on issues of social justice. But there is this thing in me that feels our urge to be connected through our devices might lead to an unquestioned, or at least implicitly sanctioned, “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I know I am not alone in this. And because of this, I am very protective of the silences with which I’ve tried to surround myself. In a different age of industry, Whitman had it right: he loafed in order to “invite (his) soul.”

Michael T. Young: The poems “Bandages” and “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In It about Her” portray instances of breaking rules for a greater purpose, a kind of reaching out to others when it breaks with laws or social norms. This comes up in your other poems in different ways. I wondered if you might comment on this: do you see this as important in the greater context of our society and world? Why?

BJ Ward: So many heroes of mine were criminals in the eyes of those who were in power. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela. When you live in an unjust system, it may be morally imperative of you to break the rules by using the artillery of resolute compassion.

Michael T. Young: In “After Googling Myself. . . “ you write, “I toast all the engines/I never controlled.” And “Development,” ends with “But the houses/were just fields then./And we were wild.” A number of other places in the collection seem to quietly suggest an embracing of a wildness in ourselves, the uncontrolled. Do you feel this is significant and if so, why?

BJ Ward: I love Donald Justice’s penchant: he wanted the maximum amount of wildness a poem could bear. An artist should be aware of this wildness. I don’t mean to speak for others’ creative processes, but perhaps someone reading this can relate to it: in the act of composition, I’m riding the wildest form of the poem, almost as if seeing where it takes me. A term for this is “transport.” In revision, I’m taming it. If I do it right, what I’ve produced still has wildness. If I do it wrong, it either remains all wilderness or becomes too civilized, too “broken” (in horse-trainers’ lingo). I aim to have just a little more body in the poem than brain—a little more beast than math.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Delaware Water Gap, NJ Side, Election Year, Rush Hour, Hungry Again,” opens with “The sun slips like a tongue/down the sky’s neck/and the flowers within me//open to it all.” This recalls to my mind a moment in Rilke—I can’t remember where—a flower opens so wide to the sky it’s unable to close at night. I wonder if you see opening or exposing our heart to the world, to the greater reality around us, as necessary and if so why. What is gained?

BJ Ward: We create in a time when new houses are more likely to have back decks than front porches. A time of intentional obfuscation, with language that is deliberately imprecise. (In Oxford, NJ, close to where I live, the garbage incinerator and landfill is called a “Resource Recovery Center.”) Greed no longer seems immoral to us, but something that makes one admirable. How revolutionary an act writing a poem in America seems. By doing something so earnest and so outside the expectations of Western culture’s sense of “industry,” you are deliberately engaging in a deeper economy. The first gesture toward engaging in it is what you point out: opening ourselves to the outside world, like Rilke’s flower. The second is to protect that heart you mention, for the world is acidic, and it is drawn toward your compassion and your imagination. It wants to extirpate them. And the third part is to commit to a deep happiness, much deeper than the exchange of money.

Michael T. Young: “Aubade” says, “I want to be as precise with my joy today/as all those poets are with their suffering.” Even in your poems that deal with suffering or difficulties (I think of many of your poems about your father), there seems an effort to find joy and beauty, to be precise about it more than the suffering. It is also evident in the linguistic playfulness of so many of your poems. I wondered if you feel seeking out joy in spite of suffering is important, looking for the beauty rather than the ugliness that is surely always there.

BJ Ward: Langston Hughes viewed his role as a poet as having three important aspects: celebrant, performer, and seer. Although Hughes approached them differently than I do, I aspire to these three myself. (The third one is by far the hardest.) I don’t have to look hard for misery. It’s always waiting for me when I open that door. The writing of a poem is what helps me step past it. I’m lucky in this way; I know a lot of people who get stopped by the misery, and they have my sympathy. I’ve come to look at joy as an act of creation. Experienced fighters know that, when your opponent has a terrific defense, a tight guard that is hard to slip past, you have to “make your own hole,” usually with a combination technique. I find myself almost every day making my own hole in the ugliness that’s out there.

Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera and why is it significant for you?

BJ Ward: I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t have a consistently favorite poem from the book. Right now I suppose it’s “Wolverine The X-Man Kisses” because I just received a generous email from someone saying how much it meant to her. How it helped her understand her marriage. It was generous of her to thank me like that, and it was a powerful moment for me to receive her message.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?

BJ Ward: My first inclination is to say, “Too many to name,” but I’m always disappointed when other authors say that to this kind of question. It seems like a cop-out. So I’ll just name the first ten works that come to my mind. I’ll limit the list to prose by writers who are no longer alive.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, particularly Hamlet when I was younger and King Lear now; the great plays of Tennessee Williams. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. The letters of both Emily Dickinson and John Keats. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. All of Hawthorne. The short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel. The Bible. And the short stories of Raymond Carver. I am sure there are dozens of others I could have listed, but these came to me first, and even now I couldn’t limit the list to ten.

Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?

BJ Ward: I love baseball—watching it and playing it. Also, I’ve trained at a traditional karate dojo for 36 years now. But, given your question, I should say that the men and women I train with have absolutely influenced my poetry, although they wouldn’t know that unless they read this. Right now I train with a mechanic, two cops, a pharmaceutical executive, former junkies, a Shop-Rite cashier, a postal worker, two engineers, a church cantor, and a lumberyard worker, as well as hundreds of others over the last 36 years. The lessons I’ve learned from them have influenced not only my writing process but also many individual poems.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, BJ. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Jackleg Opera.

BJ Ward: Thank you for the interesting questions, Michael. Here is the poem I mentioned earlier. A note about it: as far as I know, the Marvel superhero Wolverine only has one real superpower–the ability to heal instantly. That’s what allowed surgeons to line his skeleton with metal and place those retractable claws in the backs of his hands. The title notwithstanding, this poem is as much about loving someone who has (almost) stopped being vulnerable.

Wolverine the X-Man Kisses

His bones, lined with adamantium, are unbreakable,
. . . . . . . so his lover is just licorice and moth wings
in his careful palms.

And tucked within each open hand
. . . . . . . lie three knives, retracted,
but one thrust and snickt

(x, x, x)

whatever he holds could die.
. . . . . . . What delicacy is in his hug,
but is this a fair relationship?

Before you answer, know this:
. . . . . . . he is a mutant, able to heal
from the deepest of cuts,

and so to hurt him
. . . . . . . she must kiss him.
Look at his trembling lips

as he leans in to hers–see the nervous animal
. . . . . . . in his eyes, how it paces back and forth (x, x, x)
knowing there is no way out of love

but to suffer. He’s a mutant, but is he so different
. . . . . . . from you? Have you ever folded yourself
into someone’s arms, unsure of yourself,

knowing what you have learned in your life
. . . . . . . contradicted such tenderness, leaning in anyway,
lips separating, closing in,

the potential of blades
. . . . . . . running along your bones
just in case?

            (from Jackleg Opera, Collected Poems 1990-2013 [North Atlantic Books])

————————

You can learn more about BJ Ward and his poetry at his website: http://www.bj-ward.com/.

 

 

Amorak Huey

NOCTURNE IN WHICH WE FAIL YET AGAIN TO HAVE SEX IN YOUR PARENTS’ HOT TUB

Your breasts at the surface of the roiling water. The smell of chlorine
and desire. We divide and assign the space between us.

Your specialty is keeping score, mine is pretending not to.
We are not supposed to stay in water this hot

more than 15 minutes. Plenty of time to pretend
we could not drown here or anywhere

in the middle of our own lives. Three walls away
our children dream of life without us,

your parents sleep with their television on. One of us
slides closer. One of us places a finger in the other’s mouth,

one of us stands, dripping, to reach for a towel.
The tub’s motor falls quiet. The air suddenly cold

against overheated skin. Absence swells to fill absence,
water closes in over the holes our bodies once filled.

_______________________________
Amorak Huey is author of the chapbook The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) and the forthcoming poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015). A former newspaper editor and reporter, he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, Gargoyle, The Southern Review, Baltimore Review, Stirring, and many other print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak.

Jen Stein

The Size of Things, Decreasing Scale

1) An invitation
2) The gap between the door open and latched
3) Your open hand resting on my hip
4) Kittens past weaning
5) This human heart quickening
6) A young fist full of garden dirt
7) The curve of your lips
8) The tip of my finger brushing your ear
9) Flat headed worms aerating the soil
10) An avian heart beating
11) Your pupils grown wide soaking light
12) A bean seed to be planted
13) My pupils when fixated
14) The distance between your thumb and my neck
15) Bristles on my paint brush, dried slate clinging
16) Strawberry seeds set to germinate
17) How close my lips hover above yours
18) Capillaries dilating
19) Rushing red blood cells
20) A droplet of sweat drawn from the pores
21) The width of a strand of spider silk
22) The wavelength of an x-ray
23) The distance between nuclei in a white dwarf star
24) Any hope that the children will sleep for just fifteen more minutes

_______________________
Jen Stein is a writer, advocate, mother and finder of lost things. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia where she works in family homeless services. Her work has recently appeared in Rogue Agent Journal, Menacing Hedge, Luna Luna Magazine, Nonbinary Review and Stirring. Upcoming work will be featured in Cider Press Review. Jen is currently serving as assistant editor for Rogue Agent Journal and for ELJ Publications. You can find her on the web at jensteinpoetry.wordpress.com.

Brash Ice. Djelloul Marbrook.
Leaky Boot Press, 2014. 104 pages, ISBN: 978-1909849150

The boundaries of an identity become less distinct the closer they’re analyzed. It’s an existential nuance encountered by everyone from scientists defining an atom to Zen students contemplating a koan. Djelloul Marbrook’s latest collection, Brash Ice, explores that vagueness and various tangential elements such as memory, history and the way the nature of transcendence alters with the self as it encounters the harsher elements of life. The opening poem begins

So this business of being you
is about handling plutonium.
(“handling plutonium”)

The self is radioactive, dangerous to handle. It is not easy, in spite of the ubiquitous exhortations, to simply “be yourself.” There is much to fear. But it must be faced full on if to be realized. So the poem concludes

. . . let
intellect’s luminol reveal
what fears can’t bleach,
to stare at the consequences
even as they throw dirt on your face.

That dirt can cast a terrible shadow over life. The self, in defense, seeks a kind of transcendence, a way out. “To bear such loss we vanish” (“to ease life’s rush”). But that transcendence is not genuine since born out of fear and the desire for escape. “Even angels can’t count the cost of invisibility” (“two dark wishes”). Such an angel can’t help but gently recall Rilke’s angels, fragile in their desire to desire, as some other elements of this collection recall other qualities of that most transcendent of German poets. So, additionally, it’s not surprising that confronting the suicide of a friend and the various dead populates the book. Where the boundaries of the self become fluid, both the dead and living inhabit us and never completely pass away. Loves are lost and our friends die in the context of knowing that

we come off on each other
stains of our encounters
wranglings of our tied dyes
batiks of our fondest ties
(“batiks of our fondest ties”)

Or, with a more sinister tone, “everyone is a ghost of someone else” (“the ash tree’s scrawl”). Where we seek invisibility in the face of loss and pain, suicide is confronted as the ultimate vanishing and love as a kind of false hope. Thus even in a poem about beauty, we read

everything that scuttles
across your headstone
rings in my ears.
(“beauty and unrest”)

And elsewhere we read “whoever sees how populous we are/knows how futile it is to love” (“after image”). This is not the resignation of a depressive but the slow progress of a self defining its cohesion in a world that fragments the psyche.

This has been the psychic battle for every modern self since Mathew Arnold cried out in a letter to his sister, “I am fragments.” It is the nature of the modern dilemma and was the founding assumption of nearly every existentialist writer in the early twentieth century, and also lead the poet George Oppen to write, “We have chosen the meaning of being numerous.” But the grasping of that fragmentation has never been easy. It can be a torturous journey but a great awakening when realized. That is the progress charted by Brash Ice and the meaning implicit in the title: ice that is broken and appears scarred after freezing again. The fragmented self is reconstituted but scarred. In that scarred state it has realized an actual life lived.

. . . my job
is to hurt you into life so that you may say
something happened to someone
even if you can’t remember where
or to whom it may have happened.

This is a poetry asserting with linguistic beauty Goethe’s comment that “color is the deeds and sufferings of light.” This is quoted in one of the poems. But it’s important to shed light on this quote with another Goethe quote. In Book II of Faust, Goethe also said, “Life is not light but the refracted color.” Marbrook’s collection plays on this meaning of light and life throughout and especially in the concluding section. Life is a difficult, sometimes torturous, journey, but it is also dazzling and beautiful when embraced, just as refracted light, in its colors, is beautiful and dazzling. So the poem “habitué,” says “what is precarious is exquisite.” Or, at the beginning of the collection, we are told:

i like inspired mistake,
a peripheral glance that jars
our nerve ends loose,
diseases that best define
our escapades at being well.
(“escapade”)

Since the self is radioactive, we are all, by nature, suffering from radiation poisoning. The cure is a kind of resolving of those suffering colors into a single white light, the dying of the self into its doings, and expressed in the final section in which there is “a light without its maddening colors.”

It is a long, muddy journey to this point. By that I mean that this brief review can only touch on a small piece of the overarching journey of the collection. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tease out the many nuances and threads that are woven throughout. Much of the collection reminds me of the kind of progression and complexity one finds in Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus but not as didactic. In this version of the journey, the self is stripped to its bare phenomenology. So the style is compressed both in its linguistic and metaphoric usage. No capital letters are used throughout and most metaphors carry an immense weight, sometimes to the point of incomprehension. But those moments of incomprehension are so few that the risk is worth the larger success of how often this language sings in its epiphanies. And for you, the reader of this review, to fully realize the wisdom and aesthetic virtue in this book, you must experience it directly, live it through line by line, come to it as any awakening: that is, firsthand.

My own obsession with the nuances of identity have been with me since I was eleven years old, reading Alan Watts and Krishnamurti and every version of the Tao Te Ching I could get my hands on. Among the poetic explorations of that vague thing we call the self, Brash Ice may rank among my favorite books. It is aesthetically pleasing and thematically intriguing. It manages to bring together threads of existentialist thought and insight, and weave it with hints of Eastern subtlety and Western life in a beautiful and urgent language that is relevant to the 21st century. There is enough grit that it doesn’t float off into metaphysical abstractions and enough thought that its images are weighted with meaning. It is a collection that not only holds up against multiple readings, but calls one on to them with the joy of renewed discovery.

BrashIce

A lifetime ago, I sat with some dear friends in their apartment discussing literature, music, and art as we drank wine. We gathered like this as often as we could. A small group of poets, novelists, painters, and musicians; we composed our own little salon. Elizabeth Bishop was the topic of conversation that night, and we grabbed her collected poems off the shelf. We passed it around for each person to take their turn reciting the poem “One Art” out loud. It was a marvelous time. Each brought their own voice, their own character to the poem and then uttered it forth. It was a night of joy connected through art but also a deepening insight into the subtlety of the poem itself. “One Art” is not easy to recite well. One has to be almost inspired to get it right. This is not a fault in the poem but a consequence of its precise insight and power, a result of its very success.

“One Art” was written in response to the suicide of Lota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s longtime lover. Lota was visiting NY with Bishop, who came home one day to find Lota had taken an overdose of tranquilizers. She died several days later. The loss was devastating to Bishop. The depth of her love for Lota was profound and can be seen in Bishop’s letters. Although “One Art” does not identify the person it is about or even indicate the relationship of that person to the speaker, there is more than simply Bishop’s famed reticence in the absence of personal information. The absence is part of an overall effort to avoid the pain of loss. It is also part of why it’s not easy to recite the poem correctly. If one recites it as though every word were a mere statement of fact, it falls flat. If one recites it as though the art of losing really isn’t hard to master, then the most important part of the poem is itself lost. That’s because “One Art” is a kind of spell cast in the hope to dispel pain.

It’s fitting that this poem is made in the incantatory shape of a villanelle with its repetitions and rhymes. An incantation should be deeply lyrical and repetitive. Perhaps the music will distract the caster from the pain; perhaps the repetition will conjure belief and thus be successful. Its central hope is: if I say enough times that losing isn’t hard, maybe when I finally admit the real loss, it won’t hurt. But the overwhelming power of the poem, the source of its potency is that words are not strong enough to disperse such pain—the death of one’s most cherished person.

The speaker is shaken to the bottom of her being and does not believe a word of what she says. The pain in her refuses to be denied and rises against the utterance of the spell. To recite this poem aright, one must allow oneself to feel that pain, to feel at odds with every word you speak, desperately wanting to believe it but knowing it’s all fallacy and the pain of admitting that tenuous phrase, “even losing you,” is a shock to your foundations. It cannot and never will be easy. As you recount the ease of losing so many other things along the way: the watch, the keys, the house, rivers, a continent—each loss trying to be as big as the one you are terrified of admitting—as you recite all those other losses, the focus must be on “even losing you,” that must remain ever present in mind because every loss is about “losing you,” that one for whom all these loses are merely symbols and mean next to nothing, no matter how big they are. In addition to the failure of incantation, of words to dispel pain, this is another reason for the spell’s failure: “losing you” is not a symbol. It’s not an idea or a theme. A real living and loving person took their own life and each of the gestures and nuances of that life are gone. You can’t go out and have another made like a set of keys.

Perhaps I connect to this poem because I can picture certain people in my own past who died: my father, a coworker. I can see in my mind’s eye a particular gesture my father made: stroking his finger down his long nose and chuckling. Or I can hear that coworker’s way of articulating a particular joke he once told me—the way he arched his back and swayed his head as he uttered the punch line “Oh, baby, baby,” drawing out the a’s as though they were small hills his voice traveled over. It was unique. I can hear it and see it in my head, but I can’t imitate it to anyone because it’s not who I am. That loss is permanent. “One Art,” is an attempt to counteract the pain of the irreversible loss of that uniqueness. Of course, the attempt is doomed to failure. The same failure torments the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker wants to “cease upon the midnight with not pain.” But for him too, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.” Both poems are an effort at self-deception.

Even including Jonathan Swift’s celebrated essay, A Modest Proposal, I don’t think there is a work in literature that is a better example of irony than Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Swift’s essay is more accessible because its central emotion is outrage. None of us are afraid to feel outrage. In fact, we sometimes indulge in outrage because it makes us feel smart or better than others. We like reading A Modest Proposal for these emotional reasons as much as the literary ones. I don’t mean to slight the accomplishment of A Modest Proposal. It’s a magnificent work. But “One Art” is more complicated because it requires that we access our own vulnerability to the incredible pain of loss, a pain that is inevitable for all of us. Everyone we love is going to die. To allow ourselves to face that fact is what this poem requires. It is terribly hard. It’s easier to admire the poem’s craft and travel its surface. It’s easier to pretend it’s a stale poem because it’s written in a fixed form, that it’s boring or outdated because it rhymes or has an almost singsong music. But these are excuses or failures of our ability to face what it embraces: that “even losing you” is an art that can never be mastered. Though so simple a word as “even” in the phrase “even losing you,” is weighted with the effort to add “you” to the catalogue of easily lost things, it fails. We are forever inept before the pain of losing those we love. That pain is felt profoundly because the form of the poem endeavors to create the illusion of control. It is why that parenthetical “(Write it!)” is so tormented and desperate, a kind of emotional paradox in the conflict between the power asserted by writing and the underlying emotional impotence.

In that other lifetime, reciting “One Art,” I was probably insulated from the full blow of the pain because I was surrounded by my friends. Then, I was also younger: my father was still alive; that coworker was still alive. I had experienced death, to be sure. But every death makes all the others resonate and makes a poem like this ring, gradually over a lifetime turning a single instrument into an orchestra. Emerging from my own recital of it that night, I was immediately in the presence of my friends and our discussion of the poem’s perfections. Of course, the emotional power simmered under the words and we could all feel it and talk about it. It was like a rip current just near enough to feel its drag but not pull us out, a power that could sweep us instantly out to sea if we let ourselves be taken by it. And that is what the poem needs to be fully understood and realized. The force of it requires we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable, that open to the inevitable death of those we love. Feeling this fearful reality is part of what the poem means. Without it, it is only half a poem, and we only half comprehend it. To read it aright is to be absolutely exposed to the worst pain we are likely ever to feel.

 

 

Lee Ann Roripaugh

 

tsunami as misguided kwannon

her hypervigilance such that

everything becomes a piercing

a harrowing she can’t turn off

 

her superpower a wound

a lightning rod / and sponge / speaking

the language of wounds to wounds

 

like echolocation that dopplers

the contours of another’s sorrow

against her own ricocheted song

 

or touch subtle as the naked push broom

of a star-nosed mole’s tentacles

nuzzling the bruised flesh of worms

 

or a nose for muscling out fresh blood

old ghosts / the sweet fat of lost dreams

like a winter-lean bear come spring

or feathery antennae’s raw quiver

pinched to ash by the hot sparks

of disconsolate pheromones

 

her nervous system a glitter

of neurotransmitters on fire

 

an electric-chaired switchboard

short circuited / fuse blown

 

she’s the exposed nerve:

 

exuviated snake / hulled bean

husked cicada / chaffed seed

peeled grape / shucked clam

she’s the conduit / aperture / cracked

mirror to all that’s scintillant and broken

 

until her compassion mushroom clouds

and swells like a fever / a red infection

a rising tide of salt tears

for the world’s fractured core

 

how could she possibly stop herself

from sweeping it all into her broken cradle

to soothe and rock and weep over ?

 

(her fingers itchy to pilfer and spare

what’s plush and tender

like the rabbit stolen by the moon)

 

how could she possibly stop herself

from the mercy of washing it all clean

in her terrible estuary of lamentations ?

First appeared in Sugar House Review.
_____________________________________________________________

Lee Ann Roripaugh is the author of four volumes of poetry, the most recent of which, Dandarians, was released by Milkweed Editions in September 2014. Her second volume, Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois University Press), was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose for 2004, and her first book, Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin Books), was a 1998 winner of the National Poetry Series. The recipient of a 2003 Archibald Bush Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship, she was also named the 2004 winner of the Prairie Schooner Strousse Award, the 2001 winner of the Frederick Manfred Award for Best Creative Writing awarded by the Western Literature Association, and the 1995 winner of the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize.

 

Her short stories have been shortlisted as stories of note in the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and two of her essays have been shortlisted as essays of note for the Best American Essays anthology. Her poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Roripaugh is currently a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review. She is also a faculty mentor for the University of Nebraska low-residency M.F.A. in Writing, and served as a 2012 Kundiman faculty mentor alongside Li-Young Lee and Srikanth Reddy.

BruceCovey

People I’d Like to Meet

Ken Singleton & Emerson Boozer. Wait, I already met Ken Singleton &
Emerson Boozer signing autographs at some kind of auto show when I was a kid.

Haixia Zheng, Otis Birdsong, World B. Free.
Nancy Kerrigan & Tonya Harding. Surya Bonaly.

The Flash. Lucille Ball. Rosemarie Waldrop.
A helicopter. A litter of kittens. A pair of mittens.

A bolt of lightning. Ellen Page, Kesha. Martellus Bennett.
Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, & the Blue Marvel.

A raindrop. A footprint. 2,000 years.
An image of an image of Billie Holiday.

Yayoi Kusama, Robert Smithson, Jenny Holzer.
(I already met Henry Rollins & Mike Watt & Vincent Price in bookstores.)

Jane Freilicher. James Schuyler.
A dozen roses or slices of bread.

The He & She from the That’s What They Said jokes.
The They & Them from They’re Making Me Do Things statements.

Kathleen Hanna. Ian Curtis. Yolandi Visser. MIA.
Lana Turner, named after the journal. After Frank O’Hara. John Cage.

Vanilla, almond, cardamom, & coconut.
A poor excuse. A field of wheat.

Edward Field. Some kind of statement. A lemon tree.
Kafka. An undocumented week.

 

_______________________________________________________________

Bruce Covey’s sixth book of poetry, Change Machine, was published by Noemi Press in 2014. He lives in Atlanta, GA, where he publishes and edits Coconut magazine and Coconut Books and curates the What’s New in Poetry video reading series for the literary web community Real Pants. He also serves as Small Press Editor for Boog City and has taught at Yale, Emory, and the Atlanta College of Art.

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

terri witek

The Street Where I Lived
______________________(on one Facebook thread, I asked for a childhood address
______________________and a detail from that house. 24 hours later, I asked for an
______________________address where something bad had happened and one detail
______________________from that house)

I think it was on Reservoir Street
_____on 1234 Fremont Street
I think it was on Elemetra
_____on Huckleberry Road
named for Desert Avenue
named for Humble Avenue
named for Swallow Lane
_____for South Layton Boulevard
_____for the oil company
I think I lived on Park Avenue East then
_____on Primm Road then
_____on Lydale Place then
it was was Smith Drive then
where I lived__Denver Avenue
___________Buffalo Avenue
then orPrinceton Road
named for Paseo Primero
named for Menahan Street
_____for East River Road
I lived on East Fairfax then
_____on Northwest 60th Court then
or maybe it was Brookview Drive then
_____or Olympic Drive then
_____or Independence Avenue
where I livedPuritan Avenue
_____livedGreenbriar Avenue
_____livedSer Del Drive
where ISt John’s Avenue
_____ISwiss Hill Road
_____IRiver Avenue lived
on___17th Avenue South then
_____Offenburger Strasse 45 then
_____105th Place Northeast
whereIUniversity Avenue
_____-IRua Madalena
lived__Aleknagik Road
there_-Cain Road
there_-Bomar Avenue
there_-2234 Winnebago Trail
there on Elm Grove Road
_______Linda Lane
_______City Park Avenue
and__I think it was 3rd Street
instead of 4th__I’m sure
it wasn’t__5th or 2nd
where it all__ripped
__________climbed
__________sneaked
__________happened
behind the alley
behind the orchard
_____the playhouse
_____the orange tree
_____the splintery
_____the fire escape
_______balcony
__red porchwith raccoons
__________-with ice tea (hello)
__________-with brick light post leaping
__________-with low-hanging maple limb
our first and only dog
is buried there
where I livedwith red shag carpet
___________with windowsills 2 feet deep
_______________a swimming pool
_______________a big rock
_______________a ufo
_______________a wood-seated swing
my dad made
_______________mayonnaise on white bread
my dad made
and air conditioner
meantblue sky with clouds
meantbaked asbestos shingles
meant3windows too large for the rooms
_______2 windows too small
meant poster with presidents
only through Kennedy
only red bicycle
only the dock where
company coming
only the torn corner
_____of a screen
_____of a cherry tree
_____of a porchlight
_____of grandmother’s cello
and I think it was there
storm torqued black crack
mustard yellow crack
emphysema there
divorced there
shot in the driveway there
_____my one-block-white
_____one-block–black tile there
_____sky turned yellow-green there
where I came home from school
______________from the neighbor’s
(that was Bit’s mother)
______________from Chris and Mandy’s
via satellite phone
via clock radio
via Old Time Rock and Roll
there waiting for my dad
_____2windows too big
and I lived there
_____purple sheets
I lived there
_____school bus
I lived there
_____rushed the fence
_____whippoorwill
_____splintery
_____2 windows
_____my father’s swim trunks
tied to the railing

_______________________________________________________________

Terri Witek is the author of Exit Island (2012); The Shipwreck Dress (2008), a Florida Book Award winner; The Carnal World (2006), Fools and Crows (2003), Courting Couples (winner of the 2000 Center for Book Arts Contest), and Robert Lowell and LIFE STUDIES: Revising the Self (1993). A native of northern Ohio, she teaches English at Stetson University, where she holds the Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing. In 2000, she received the McInery Award for Teaching, and in 2008, she received the John Hague Teaching Award for outstanding teaching in the liberal arts and sciences. Throughout her career she has worked with visual artists, and the reverberations between mediums is explored in much of her work. Her collaborations with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes have been featured in galleries or site-specific projects in New York City, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

For years I was practicing trans-disciplinary methods without anyone telling me, but now that the experts have discovered this sort of pont-consciousness (what I always called building bridges between disciplines). They are already defining it, and making it rule bound and snot-assed for academic consumption. So I am for the motley, and for what I will call cone scenting, and the experts will deride my definition.

Any real learning is contingent upon judicious digression. Digression in so far as it does not favor method driven process always meets with derision and censor. That’s how you know it is good digression.

Trans-disciplinary studies appear on the surface to favor pont-consciousness, but it is far from any real motliness because, far from wanting leaps, it wants dogged and processed focus between disparate disciplines: This means it wants to extend specialization into the realms of inter-disciplinary discourse where it does not belong. In short, it wants to ruin pont-consciousness by making it a specialized new discipline under the guise of branch learning. It wants to take the intuitive and kill it by algorithmic methodology. I was, at first, excited by trans-disciplinary studies. I am now afraid of it. So let me point out my premises:

1.Cone scenting is what a dog does when he seems to meander from side to side down the street. He keeps the scent central and fixed, by making a kinetic “cone” around it. The scent of true learning is that which favors a meandering–a dog’s nose.

This avoids what Thorstein Veblen called trained incapacity–a training so fixed on one thing and a method of seeing that no adaptation or flex is possible. In so far as trans-disciplinary studies seek to be respected for focus and methodology (in order to be seen as respectable) it fails miserably at good cone scenting. it rules out meandering–and that is a fatal error.

2. True learning occurs when both connects and disconnects are seen as equally provisional: nothing joins or adheres fully, and nothing is so disparate that it does not share some sort of baseline connection.

This allows both for fishing in wild streams (finding the connection between a blue jay feather and a rock on Mars) and questioning the methodology of the given and the categorical–which is, to me, the true aim of education: to enable a mind to intuit connection between disparate things (new metaphors, new bridges) while at the same time being able to intelligently question the structures and edifices built upon old metaphors of the categorical that may no longer suffice. Trans-disciplinary studies insists the disconnects be yoked together by a methodology. It is no more a friend of intuition than any other system. It believes system can replace judicious accident and the cultivation of continual and ongoing stumbling. Stumbling is the essence of discovery and learning. I see here, as with all pedagogy tied to power, the lust to remove ability and replace it with motion-study and mechanics. This would kill what I have been promoting all my life rather than aiding it.

3. Connections between disparate fields, methods and ways of seeing the world must remain undetermined to the degree that they do not become merely another form of determinism and authoritarian non-thinking. In effect, most of the meandering must be left as meandering with a “perhaps,” a strong perhaps attached.

I read Belly’s “St Petersburgh,” and listen to Ethel Merman sing “I Had A Dream.” I go for a walk and discover a blue flower with a yellow center growing up through a crack in the sidewalk. I find out it’s a day flower–native to China. I go home and play the piano for an hour. I do not try too hard to make a connection between these wildly disparate acts and experiences. I trust that the cone might yield a true scent between them sooner or later. I gather and I trust that gathering is, in and of itself, a worthwhile thing. One day, I make an analogy between the eco-rhetoric of invasive species (day flowers are invasive species) and the right wing rhetoric against immigration: this leads me to a contemplation on the dangers of any concept of purity. Ethel Merman’s imperfect but unforgettable voice is contrasted with the now fully trained, fully undistinguished “Broadway voice” of academic theatre programs. How is difference made uniform toward a “purity” or tyranny of semiotics: the Broadway voice, the slam voice, fry voice–all the indicators of meaning and power. How is the unique samed and butchered on its way to mass consumption? Now I have a broad idea called the concept of the pure and I can write several chapters on purity–including one which looks at the language of purity in speeches by radical left eco-anarchists, and radical right wing anti-immigration advocates. I can find the common ground of seemingly opposed forces, grounded in ideas of “purity.” This is not how trans-disciplinary study works. Trans-disciplinary study insists that connections be found right away. It has no patience of faith, no rigor of perhaps.

4. The dog chasing its own tail loses the yard.

In this sense all systems are utterly consumed in and with their own methodology or in and with their own process. This is what Santayana called occupational psychosis. Academics are very intelligent. They know bridges must be formed between disparate forms of learning and disciplines, but they attempt to build these bridges with materials of jargon and protocol that are antithetical to the very idea of bridges. They try to hammer in a nail with a blowtorch. Again, the thing is to leave the methods and standards home and believe that one is moving “toward” a standard and methodology–the toward is always more vibrant and thought provoking than the at. To be at a standard or method is to be fixed–to be without flux. It is comfortable. people love being comfortable. Nothing kills learning more efficiently than fixed “methods.” They offer a necessary obstacle. The true value of most academics is that it offers a worthy obstacle to learning which one, if one is so inclined, finds brilliant ways to overcome.

I am not a secular poet, have never been a secular poet, and my work is a journey through both the imagery of my working class Irish Catholic background and my sense of the the incarnate word as Shema Mitzvah–the oneness of God within the act of love toward neighbor. First Shema:

Hear O Israel, the lord, the lord is one.
And you shall love the lord
with all your mind and with all your heart
and with all your strength

and the Mitzvah is

And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.

All other commandments are contained within these two, the whole of the law, the spirit of the law. They are the ontology of my poems, and to truly enter my work, you must understand it in the context of Shema Mitzvah. I do not believe in the separation of faith and works, but, like James, believe faith without works is dead, and works without faith is merely materialism as a form of the dole. Given a choice of which I’d prefer, I’d take works without faith which makes me a radical, but I would not take it happily since I think bread without spirit, and material comfort without conscience is barely worth the bother.

Jesus Christ incarnates into the broken life and impurity of the world. God descends downward, infusing all people, landscapes, and things with the presence of divinity. At the same time, God, having taken on the manner and appearance, and real flesh and needs of the world, is infused with the world which is broken, impure, profane, often ugly, and far from pious. It is also in this world of the broken that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, waits to be recognized. Christ is not to be found so readily in the “purified” realms, but in the midst of the broken, those who are fucked up, strange, unable to live either fully in the world (highest level of Arete–prowess) or fully in God (highest level of Xenia–care for the other)–my poems seek to witness to those who are imperfect and less than fully human but given full humanity by the incarnate word, also to those who are imperfect and less than fully divine, given divine resonance by God come to dwell amongst us: the motley, the dark, sometimes grotesque comic force of the demi-god, the half-God, Half Monster, neither fully man nor fully divine–us, the half assed. The moment in which Christ (fully man and fully God ) is seen in the “least”, is the moment that the unity of Shema Mitzvah is fully realized–the ground zero of being, which, for me, is Eucharistic reality. To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace. Grace appears under the following signs in my poems:

1. The Visible Signs beneath which the Shema Mitzvah lies concealed and revealed: failure, imperfection, exile, ostracism, the ugly, the lost, the comic and inept, the unrequited, the kindly, the motley and in the Falstaff-like bluster of certain of my poetic voices. There are also choices of lineation, and language by which I seek this out: mixed registers of speech, hyperbolic utterances punctured by deadpan understatements, comic or ferocious rants, ungainly one word lines, lines that wobble between long and short– all of this is towards my thematic core:the presence of the divine afflatus where it seems least likely to belong.

I use characters, dialogue, and narrative in an almost novelistic way. I believe poetry has abdicated its perfection as a vehicle for getting straight to the heart of a story to prose which, by its very nature as a conveyor of information, must be far more expository. Prose informs and expounds. Poetry incites and enacts a more immediate ceremony. Most poems, especially free verse poems, are a combination of poetic and prosaic elements, on a spectrum between poetry and prose–demi- gods. I will use an undulating line, an ungainly line because I am not after symmetry. I am after some order within sprawl–the great sprawl of the living and the dead.

2. Personified I, Vatic I, Personal I, and the mutt of all three: Many of the I-voices in my poetry are personifications. In a few poems (“Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”, for example) the I voice is Vatic– the sound of one speaking with authority and almost impersonal gravitas, the I invoking (look! Shemah–listen up!). Sometimes I will employ the personal I as in a memoir (Fists (for my father), or “Elegy of Sue Rapeezi”), but this personal I is likely to blur with the personified I. The mutt I make of all three may confuse a reader who wants the voice to be a genuine contemporary personal voice, or the voice of a character, or that sort of “Wise white man” voice you get with Stephen Dunn. There is also the intentionally stupid, or know-nothing voice of the speculative post-modernist, influenced both by the surreal, comic shtick, and dadaism. I am prone to using all these I’s and mixing them up. It’s important to know that in order to understand my emphasis on the motley. I am doing my own: I contain multitudes. My version also entertains the the darker possibility of “I am legion” (possessed by many demons and conflicted).

I write this not as an apologetic for my poetry, but as an aid to entering it with a greater awareness of its intentions. Of course, each reader misreads differently, and each brings to a body of work his or her own sense of the author’s intentions,successes and failures. To a more secular mind, all I might be doing is writing about losers. To a more sociological type, I may be showing my preference for the underdog. To those who like their lines symmetrical, and their words in a consistent register, many of my tunes may seem full of wrong notes. To those who judge the lyrical merely by the absence of the narrative, I may fail to be lyrical enough. So be it. This is my essay on my intentions. Poem by poem, those intentions wait to be realized or unrealized. On that I rest my case.

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