Favorites Fade

This week I’ve had the honor to share some poems with an online community (other than this one). Given the proximity of my birthday, I thought, I shall share favorite poems and promptly went to my bookshelf and took down the stack of books I had specifically put together a few years ago to have when I wanted to read poems that sang to me.

The first one was easy. I pull that one out all the time. It struck me how much of it was free verse, honestly, but the repetition was still there, barely, and the closing couplet was as strong as ever.

I was dismayed to flip through some of the others and be confronted by more free verse than music, though. So I grabbed a poem whose whole purpose was music. And sighed in relief because it is still singing.

I had wanted to use Carrie Jerrell’s “The Poet Prays to the 9mm under the Driver’s Seat” because that, too, still sings, but it’s a song I couldn’t figure out how to preface with a trigger warning, because it seemed like the sort of thing, because of its excellence in embodying its subject, to need one. So I put Jerrell’s book back on the shelf.

This morning I picked up half a dozen books, flipped through, following the dog-eared pages that signified past pleasure, and nearly lost it. Because I had lost it: these poems no longer sang. There was still wit, and some of them, even the beloved one that has been a touchstone for a decade, still resounded in a line or two, but the emotion that had made me bend the page was no longer there.

No longer there in the poem? No longer there in me?



Speaking of dog-eared, there’s a page (133) in Wendy Lesser’s The Amateur (New York: Pantheon, 1999) that received that treatment a decade or so ago. It came to mind during the recent discussions about a Sherman Alexie selection for Best American Poetry. Lesser writes about serving on a NEA fellowship selection committee with a middle-aged black woman poet:

On the starting day of the panel, when this woman first entered the room–forty-five minutes late, nearly six feet tall, and wearing a hat and cape of indescribable complexity–I shivered with anxiety. Oh, no, I thought, she’s going to derail the whole process with some kind of endless political rhetoric. (Coming from Berkeley makes you prone to anxiety attacaks like these.) As it turned out, she was one of the best, fairest, and most intelligent panelists I have ever served with, but she was scary. She had, she confided to me on one of our lunch breaks, been thrown out of her high school for telling a bunch of the other girls that she was really an alien from another planet–and making them believe it. This story made sense to me after I saw her in action on the panel. …

Anywyay, it was her turn now to comment on the Asian refugee sequence, to put in her two cents about whether this pathetic but talented young girl deserved a prize or didn’t. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think this was written by any young Asian girl. I think it’s probably some white male screenwriter giving us his girlfriend’s story, or some such thing.” Those of us who were in favor of the poem gasped at this, in disbelief or despair. “I’ve read it over and over again, trying to figure out who wrote it, but I can’t,” she continued. “And finally I decided: Hey! If he can fool me, more power to him. No matter who wrote it, it’s a great poem, and I’m for it.” We all laughed at her then; the response seemed to typical, if atypically wrongheaded. …

One of the more famous names to reach our final list was that of a white male poet, author of several published books–and of the heartrending refugee-girl series. When we heard his name announced in conjunction with our cherished poem, we all shrieked in surprise and, a little, in chagrin. Only the Sister from Another Planet could sit calmly and quietly, Cheshire-cat smile adorning her face. She had been right, or as close to right as makes no difference, and she was the only one in the room who had given him the prize for purely literary reasons. (132-34)

[Posted in response to #100untimedbooks prompt 29: equality]

29 - equality


The publisher of Measured Extravagance, Upper Rubber Boot, posted a hundred prompts as a photo challenge earlier this summer. Prompt 27 is “dog-eared” and that brought to mind one of the two anthologies I’ve revisited the most over the years (the other being John Frederick Nims’s Western Wind, which was given to me twenty-nine summers ago and was my introduction to Katha Politt [“Turning Thirty”] and Muriel Rukeyser [“Effort at Speech between Two People“], as well as the John Ciardi sonnet I would later feature on an announcement, “Most Like an Arch This Marriage“). (Adding to my pleasure in the occasion: I know of at least one co-worker who, on being shown the card by a mutual friend, photocopied the cover for herself because she liked the poem so much, and another who subsequently purchased Ciardi’s I Marry You.)

27 - dog-eared 27- dog-eared 27- dog-eared  27- dog-eared

I’ve owned this book long enough to un-ear some pages, sometimes because I ended up seeing the poem in question elsewhere and knew I would be able to find it again:

27- dog-eared

Thomas E. Foster and Elizabeth C. Guthrie, editors. A Year in Poetry. New York: Three Rivers, 1995.

“the thing steady and clear”

During church this morning, in the Story for All Ages, the minister retold the parable of the prodigal son, and I found myself sympathizing wholeheartedly with the brother who refuses to participate in the celebration, pointing out to his father [paraphrasing], I have done everything you asked of me, every day, and even tried to anticipate what was needed before you asked for it. Where is the feast for me? And Jack Gilbert’s The Abnormal Is Not Courage — a poem that knocked me off my feet when I was a teenager, to the extent that I copied it out by hand and sent it to friends, came to mind: “I say courage is not the abnormal. / Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…”

The older I get, the more I end up arguing with Gilbert’s postulates and conclusions throughout his oeuvre, to the extent that five years ago I drafted a poem about dumping a drink over his head. But on less irritable days I am capable of being captivated by texts I don’t fundamentally agree with (readers of my other journals may recognize this in my repeat visits to Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and C. H. Sisson’s “A Letter to John Donne”). I disagree with “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” because it casts a false mutual exclusivity between the burst of bravery and domestic drudgery. As much as I identify with Martha rather than Mary, the cook instead of the countess, yadda yadda etcetera, the either/or angle doesn’t work for me: whether it’s a one-time stand or a stoic stretch of endurance, call it courage if it propeled the person into harm’s way or out of their comfort zone. I’ll allow that there may be better words than “courage” for assessing and elaborating on such acts, but that is also a reflection of where I seem to be headed both artistically and theologically: a general preference for discussing and examining things in terms of what they are rather than what they are not.

In that vein, “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” remains a touchstone poem for me because I’ve known it for almost thirty years, because it does steer the reader/listener toward those things of many days and long accomplishment. and because thinking about it in tandem with this morning’s services may be the kick in the pants I needed to rework the Pittsburgh poem and the Martha poem and draft some new ones on related themes. This morning’s sermon presented a bounty of springboards. Rev. Gail mentioned that she had planned the service with a worship associate, Rachel Rogers, who had read the parable from Luke (15:11-32) as a story about three kinds of courage: the courage of the prodigal, first in claiming his inheritance for adventure and later in admitting that he had screwed up; the courage of the older brother, in showing vulnerability by voicing his anger and hurt; and the courage of the father, both in welcoming the prodigal back into the family and in going out to the unhappy sibling — the courage of trying to keep connections alive. (The title of the sermon was “Loving without Limitation.”) Rev. Gail also spent some time describing her experience of reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son — about identifying with all the bystanders Rembrandt depicted in his painting. (She placed a copy of the book next to the pulpit, and there was a QR code linking to the painting in the order of service.)

Plenty to think about. Plenty to write about. As ever.


New & Selected (Eleanor Wilner)

I take my direction from the “new and selected” subtitle of Eleanor Wilner’s Reversing the Spell to discuss two of her poems, now both selected, neither new as time adds ring after ring even to the tree of a page printed in 1998.

“Never Apologize for Poetry” was originally published in Sarah’s Choice in 1989. It may appear to be an easy poem to open with, a poem for poets—and in one sense it is, for Wilner writes early on:

gives tongue. And when we say, “I, too, hate
poetry,” it is not modesty forbids
the brag of art, but this abundant
wily earth our words must fail.

But that choice of line break separating “hate” and its direct object comes out of the earlier lines, the opening lines that do not begin in a workshop, a poetry reading, anything limp and academic, but the “cunning spiral of a snail” and the falling water whose beauty “beggars speech”. It is a line break that makes you pause even as you rush over the falls with it, headlong into the direct object, wondering about the inclusivity of hate, extending far beyond poet vs non-poet to the whole human world. That whole line taken as one (while simultaneously three bits—end to the previous sentence, preface to quotation, beginning of quotation—) works as one, a meditation on speech from three different angles.

But it is not simply that we hate, it is that we hate poetry, a sitting duck waiting to bite a bullet no matter the metaphor used. And Wilner turns that twice: first, giving our hatred the benefit of the doubt, we might do it because no poem is ever as good as we might like. But that second turn opens out the issue into the universe: we hate poetry because our words will never be good enough. Standing before the Hallmark cards, even the non-poet has felt that, searching for someone else to have gilded the words we wish we could come up with to express the maelstrom inside.

The poem does take a side step into literary device:

here the trope must fail before
the fox, who suddenly gets up, swerves out
of our conceit…

but how is it then we end the poem “joyful and assured of our defeat”? That is why you read Wilner.

“Sunflowers, Repossessed” emphasizes how you never know where a Wilner poem will end. And that is the most basic reason to read Wilner’s poems: adventure into the unexpected.

The title gives you many possibilities for a starting place but I doubt anyone actually is thinking Indian mythology before reading the opening lines:

Dreaming, we turn the gods into such shapes
as lead us on, as in the Ramayana
the warrior Mareech turned himself
into a golden deer to lure the lovely Sita

We do come to the sunflowers by the end of the first verse-paragraph but before we get to the end of the poem we have stopped with Van Gogh, the Rijksmuseum, Tokyo, earthquakes, and young girls counting off their love on flower petals. (I’ll save the final few lines as incentive for reading the poem itself.) Could you have known that when you started? Even an admirer of Wilner’s poetry has little chance of predicting a poem’s trajectory.

It is the strength of the poem that you willingly go all these places, that the resulting trajectory is coherent if unpredictable, that while you transfer from one shade of gray to the next you cannot quite feel yourself do so. The wonder doesn’t diminish on re-reading.

Wilner’s more recent work is also excellent—I highly recommend The Girl with Bees in Her Hair—but “Sunflowers, Repossessed” has a magic that encapsulates the rewards of reading Wilner’s work.

Eleanor Wilner was born in 1937 and has been publishing poetry since [at least] 1979. She speaks about her poems and her writing process in an interview with Rebecca Seiferle in Drunken Boat.

Tap, Tap… This Thing On?

It’s a bit dusty here but that seems almost normal for such a collection of beloved poems and their criticism set about them like baby’s breath in a flower arrangement.

But it’s that time of year again and I do mean poems, not spring, although if spring were to arrive with a poem, how joyous that would be here in northern climes.

So have a poem.

Weeds by Abbie Huston Evans

Weeds need no man’s abetting,
It well may be a sin,
But I am all for letting
The worst of all come in:

Hawkweed, that pest pernicious,
(More orange than a flame!)
And blue vetch, full as vicious,
(Too beautiful to tame!)

Frown now, it is your duty,
Chide me for one who dotes.
I cannot sleep for beauty
Of charlock in the oats.

And some pictures of charlock, hawkweed, blue vetch, and oats.

there’s so much going on…

I won’t fit it all into this post, but here’s some of it:

Mary’s in the thick of a move, publishing articles about tessellations and other niftiness, and receiving great reviews for The Scientific Method.

Joanne’s giving away copies of 140 and Counting over at Goodreads, and coordinated Couplets: A Multi-Author Poetry Blog Tour, which included posts by her, Mary, and me, and a horde of other writers with lots to say (and show) about poetry.

Joanne also runs Upper Rubber Boot Books, which published my new chapbook, Measured Extravagance, earlier this spring:

Measured Extravagance

It’s available in a bunch of electronic formats at a bunch of vendors in a bunch of countries, listed here. The link will also take you to excerpts from some of the immensely flattering press it’s been receiving.

(Not to worry about getting my head through doors, though — nothing, but nothing can puncture one’s ego faster than the newest draft refusing to gel… *wry smile*)

Science, Sonnets, and Speculation

npl reading

Please join award-winning writers Mary Alexandra Agner (The Scientific Method; The Doors of the Body), Joanne Merriam (A Multitude of Daggers; The Glaze from Breaking), and Peg Duthie (Measured Extravagance) for Science, Sonnets, and Speculation. Ranging from tales of goddesses, immigrants, physicists, and werepenguins to Shakespeare-laced hallucinations, the poems you will hear at this gathering include pieces praised for their ferocious lyricism, eloquent explications, and compassionate heresies.

The event will be in the library’s West Reading Room. We look forward to seeing you!

Adrienne Rich’s “The Explorers”

I found this in Rich’s second book, The Diamond Cutters, but there isn’t a citation noting whether it was published prior to this book.

Why should you read this? Because it’s a science fiction poem and rather excellent, only the latter of which you might have expected from Adrienne Rich but you will not be disappointed.

The Explorers

Beside the Mare Crisium, that sea
Where water never was, sit down with me,
And let us talk of Earth, where long ago
We drank the air and saw the rivers flow
Like comets through the green estates of man,
And fruit the colour of Aldebaran
Weighted the curving boughs. The route of stars
Was our diversion, and the fate of Mars
Our grave concern; we stared through night
On these uncolonized demesnes of light.
We read of stars escaping Newton’s chain
Till only autographs of fire remain;
We aimed our mortal searchlights into space
As if in hopes to find a mortal face.

O little Earth, our village, where the day
Seemed all too brief, and starlight would not stay,
We were provincials on the grand express
That whirled us into dark and loneliness.
We thought to bring you wonder with a tale
Huger than those that turned our fathers pale.
Here in this lunar night we watch alone
Longer than ever men have watched for dawn.
Beyond this meteor-bitten plain we see
More starry systems than you dream to be,
And while their clockwork blazes overhead,
We speak the names we learned as we were bred,
We tell of places seen each day from birth—
Obscure and local, patois of the Earth!
O race of farmers, plowing year by year
The same few fields, I sometimes seem to hear
The far-off echo of a cattle-bell
Against the cratered cliff of Arzachel,
And weep to think no sound can ever come
Across that outer desert, from my home.