Frames

Last hearth standing . . .

Here’s a farewell to glued-on seashells
and glitter-frosted plastic leaves
and all the instructions on “making things your own” —

We. Own. Nothing. Not even when we pay for them
or when we pet or polish or pray
our longings into titles and possessions,

much less when we press our names or initials
into their layers with ink or fire —
this world is not our home,

our images like water, even as
they freeze for long minutes on our screens.
Here’s to the clutter of bins and warehouses

and here’s to the wind that sweetens the sky
even as it stings our cheeks
on its way to whipping more things away.

Last hearth standing . . .

In Memory of “Amanat”

For this month, I am posting a poem in honor and in memory of the woman who was raped and tortured on a bus in New Delhi, India on the night of December 16th, 2012. She was a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was returning home with a friend after seeing the film Life of Pi. She was referred to in the media as Amanat which is the Urdu word for treasure.

 

Amanat

 

The hyena kills the zebra,

then the orangutan.

 

The tiger kills the hyena.

And the boy survives.

 

Pi is an irrational number.

And a woman boards a bus.

 

If horses could draw,

they would draw one god

 

in the shape of a horse.

Oxen would draw many,

 

each with a body like their own.

And the bus is not really a bus.

 

The relationship

between the width of a circle

 

and its circumference

continues infinitely without

 

repeating. And Pi is a boy

who just wants to love

 

God. If dark matter could draw,

it would not draw itself.

 

The human intestine

is approximately five feet long.

 

Only five percent of hers

would remain. They would be called

 

joyriders. The instrument used was

metal. The instrument used

 

was flesh. And the woman,

it was said, died peacefully.

 

First published in CALYX, Fall/Winter 2015

 


 

Some thoughts on Maurice Manning

There exists in Kentucky, a certain group, but not a school, of young male poets I call the sons of Wendell. That’s Wendell Berry.

These poets write out of grief for the lost Eden that is the United States, and Kentucky in particular. They speak out of a longing for a simpler, smaller, slower, more agrarian time. A time, perhaps, before God was declared dead.

All these young men are excellent poets, but the one who appeals most directly to me is Maurice Manning.

Manning ‘s persona speaks to us with a voice part frontier braggadocio (think Mike Fink) and part the trickster hick (think Mark Twain). He frequently makes me laugh, just before he makes me cry.

Manning’s could be the voice of my grandfather, who was known as Hick and whose humor was dry. When invited by his son, my father, to consider the many wonders he’d witnessed in his lifetime, he said only “We nearly starved.”

Manning’s voice takes the perception of Kentucky as a backwoods full of hillbillies and uses it to defy that perception.

Manning’s is the voice of a desperate nostalgia. My last grandmother, he writes

dead by now
for twenty years with another sad,
erasing century underway, . . .(“Grammar”)

Whereas Wendell Berry’s is a farmer’s God, tranquil in a well-kept farm, nature well under control, Manning’s is a God of passion, one more of Isaiah than of Christ:

In that real, God-given place,
which was composed of possums and dogs,
of horses and birds and trees and gloom . . .

His is like that voice “crying in the wilderness, “

That older truth and time are gone,
but not the place and not the dream,
and not the boy turned man who dreamed
the passionate dream and felt his heart
breaking open with passion, not yet. (“Old-Time Kentucky Salt-Kettle Dream”)

[These quotations are taken from Manning’s latest book, One Man’s Dark from Copper Canyon Press.]
Disclosure: I have had workshops under Manning’s tutelage and consider him a friend.

Whereas (Review/Response)

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier, Graywolf Press, 2017

For many U.S. readers, November means Thanksgiving. It is not ironic and entirely intentional that it is also #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth. Most readers don’t know or think about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday, its origin and the events on which it was based. That erasure can blind readers to the hurt the holiday causes as well as to the incorrect and damaging way in which it portrays aboriginal North Americans and continues to reinforce the idea that they live only in the past. That’s part of my reason for posting this review/response at this time; the other reason is because Long Soldier’s poetry is powerful and worth reading, no matter the time of the year.

The organizing principle behind Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is the structure of legal language. The book’s structure is a moving combination, using the language of the colonizer and, specifically, the language of the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, to demonstrate the injustice done to aboriginal North Americans during the colonization and existence of the United States of America.

The first section of the book, titled “These Being the Considerations”, is filled with heart-breakingly beautiful poems describing Long Soldier’s nation’s language and geography. The poems include Lakota words; the poems both explain the meanings of and incorporate an existing understanding of these words. I am grateful to Long Soldier for sharing bits of the Lakota language, from words as universal as those to describe loss and those whose meaning is re-used to mean coffee. To me, it’s a vibrant way to make the people in her poems three-dimensional.

The final, titular, section of the book gets into the meat of the Apology, using its words, turning and evolving them, to see what they really say. Each of these poems ends with a semicolon, adding to the sense of legalese. The majority of the poems also contrast the legal language with what appear to me to be memoir/anecdotes from Long Soldier’s life.

Long Soldier’s poems use a great many concrete devices: they sprawl across the page, they right-justify, they build boxes, they mirror, they line-break in the middle of words.

What strikes me, in my ignorance and inexperience with the use of language to break down language, is how deft a writer Long Soldier is. While she clearly expresses the need to use the colonizer’s language against them, she is also clearly not one to do that without first infiltrating that language and becoming an expert in it.

Excerpts from Whereas are available online at Poetry magazine and Graywolf Press.

That Kind

sexton pumpkin

I was given a pumpkin last month just before Halloween, and lacked time for taking a proper stab at it, so I grabbed some markers and scrawled Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind” across it (and sketched a semblance of Anne’s face on one side).

A few days later, said pumpkin started leaking while in my kitchen, so we hurried it outside. A day or two later, I spotted squirrels doing their thing…

IMG_4058

IMG_4039

What I find far, far more obscene than local rodents romping with Miss Sexton O’Lantern is the behavior of various so-called public servants. Which is what led to this coming out of yesterday’s exercising:

That Kind

(after Anne Sexton)

I have gone out, whom they call bitch,
haunted by headlines, braver when I write
than when I dream, where with the hitch
that plagues my breath when awake I bite
down fire-curled curses, tame my mind
and modulate my voice to just above quiet.
I have been that kind.

I have found within old pockets of mourning
mustards hard as mortar, mayo soft as silk
and masking like poisons—like how milk
need not stink nor supply some other warning
before it brings a houseful to their knees.
I have buried shame amid indifferent trees.
I have been that kind.

I have been Cassandra, my screeching
marking not one slat of prideful walls
that keep no danger out. No beseeching
of gods will save us from the squalls
that care not who’s been good or who meant well:
the storms will scour us all from here to hell.
I have been that kind.

10 Reasons to Pre-order Mosaic of the Dark!

As we enter the holiday season, here are 10 reasons to pre-order Mosaic of the Dark, my first full-length book of poetry!

  • It’s a beautiful book. Really. But don’t just take my word for it. My mother-in-law, Sherry Samuels, says so too. She would know—she’s a former English teacher. 😊
  • It received a starred review in Kirkus! Click here to read the full review.
  • It’s better for the publisher to pre-order. Don’t you want to do your part to help small, independent poetry presses thrive???
  • The more copies I sell during the pre-order phase, the slightly less broke I will be after my book tour. Chicago, Austin, Pittsburgh, Knoxville, San Francisco, New York, here I come!
  • The more copies I sell, the more exposure my sister-in-law, Jill Samuels, will get for her beautiful artwork.
  • For any order placed by 12/31/17, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Tennessee Equality Project to support the good work they do on behalf of LGBTQ folks in TN. The Tennessee legislature spends a lot of time thinking up ways to marginalize us. Think how much good you can do by buying my book!
  • If I reach my target number by Dec 31, I am going to treat myself to a six-pack of blackberry La Croix.
  • The book will not be released until January but if you want to order the book to give as a gift before then, let me know (by Dec 15th) and I can send a nice card to the recipient. Hey, it’s something.
  • It’s the right thing to do. Trust me. 🙂
  • Have I mentioned how much I love La Croix???

To order, click here!

 

Hauntings by Lisa Dordal

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately, in part because of a recent, unexpected death in my spouse’s family. In part, because the days are getting shorter. And, in part, because we are approaching that time of year when, in some cultures, the “veil” between the dead and the living is thought to be at its thinnest.

I don’t know what happens to us when we die or where our loved ones go but I do know that sometimes, as a poet, I feel “haunted” by people who are no longer living. Sometimes I feel haunted by historical figures–people from the past who I suddenly want to learn more about. In my poem “Even Houseflies,” for example, I reference Pliny the Elder who was a 1st century Roman Historian and Otzi the Iceman whose 5,000-year-old body was found in the Alps over two decades ago.

Other times I am haunted by family members–by my mother, in particular. My mother died in 2001, largely from the effects of alcoholism, and just when I think I’ve written the last poem about her, another one comes along. Although many of my mother poems emerge from a place of pain and loss, I consider these hauntings to be a wonderful gift; a way for me to connect, through my writing, with one of my dearest ancestors.

I am sharing two poems below: “Last Poem about My Mother” (which is definitely not the last poem about my mother) and “Even Houseflies” which references both kinds of hauntings–the personal kind and the historical kind.

 

Last Poem about My Mother

 

This is my mother

watching her heart–

 

dark, liquid motion

on the screen beside her.

 

How she called it

beautiful. This is

 

please and thank you,

and softens the wounds

 

of strangers. This is a body’s

last words; what is left

 

after fire. This is cavities

in the bones of a bird

 

that make flight possible,

and flits unseen

 

through every gesture and word.

This is my mother

 

and a way out of my mother;

a place I can say

 

that I left.

 

 

Even Houseflies

 

The day they entered our house

I did not know that their brains,

 

if separated from the body,

would resemble a single grain of sugar.

 

Or that liquid is their only intake,

requiring them to moisten anything solid

 

with their own saliva. Their lives,

an array of endless regurgitations.

 

And who’s to say, after I’d killed

the last one–nine, maybe ten in all–

 

and resumed my reading,

only to be stopped by the words:

 

Even houseflies must have their angels–

that it wasn’t the angels themselves

 

who sent me to learn how they live.

Who’s to say this wasn’t the gesture

 

of some lively god pressing a small coin

into my heart. Like my mother

 

who won’t stay dead, her eyes

fixing into mine like she knows

 

I’m her best chance. Or like Otzi

who keeps coming back–as shaman

 

or shepherd–in a cloak of woven grass;

the ease with which he walks

 

on hilly terrain. Or Pliny,

studious and brave, drawing a bath

 

too close to Pompeii. Who’s to say

these aren’t the gestures of gods. Active

 

during the day, but at night they rest

in the corners of rooms, where their eyes–

 

their thousands and thousands of eyes–

make a mosaic of the dark.

 

 

Both of these poems were first published in Connotations Press, 2017

Truth and Thieves

Truth and Thieves

In dreams and footnotes,
the ancestors’ ghosts —
mine, yours, theirs —
prod me with splinters
of broomsticks and music stands:
It was not easier, cleaner, sweeter
once upon a time. No no no.
Can’t sing if you’re dead, baby girl: look sharp,
speak low but speak up, and praise the moss on the trees.

Not exactly about poetry

Cleopatra: A LifeCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Langdon Hammer, in a Yale Open Courses lecture on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LYar… , at about 38:00) , speaks of “Leda and the Swan” as the culmination of a series of poems indicating Yeats’s belief that history is somehow in the body, hence the rape (divine force reduced to brute power) and the question, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power?” I was a little skeptical, and I’m not absolutely convinced that I’ve got it right but when one considers that European Caucasian culture grows from Rome, that shining city on seven hills that has as its founding myth the rape of the Sabine women, the idea begins to seem less outlandish.

And yes, Leda is Greek and so was Cleopatra, but the Romans borrowed their pantheon from the Greeks.

In “Cleopatra,” Stacy Schiff presents us with the triumphant Julius Caesar, balding and vain, strutting and rutting around Rome in red cape and calf-high red boots, “seducing” the wives and daughters of all his colleagues. I am tempted to draw comparisons with modern times but will resist.

But I will say that his triumph was an example of conspicuous consumption that puts our 1% in the shade.

Cleopatra, on the other hand, comes to Rome from another city where arts and culture are much more sophisticated and creature comforts much more decadent. Alexandria had, in addition to its great library, 400 theaters and lots of street theater. Meals of the lark’s tongues variety were served on platters of gold-plated silver. It had hydraulic lifts, automatic doors, and coin-operated machines (the acme of civilization). Moreover, Cleopatra is accustomed to a culture in which women had extensive rights and privileges. They could, for example, “initiate lawsuits and hire flute players.” Because an “and” yokes items of equal value I am left to wonder what is so special about flute players. By contrast, Schiff informs us that a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. In Rome, ‘women enjoyed the same legal rights as infants and chickens.”

That must surely be a typo but, given the cockish behavior of Caesar, perhaps not.

Not that Cleopatra was innocent. Though she could be benevolent. And seemingly she was a damned good administrator.

We know little about her. Schiff’s strategy is to draw a highly detailed picture of the culture that formed her, leaving a sort of Cleopatra-sized model we can use to picture the woman behind the legend.

I will not finish this book. Not because it is less than fascinating but because I have so many things I must read and I cannot read this one fast. I am constantly compelled to go in search of someone to whom I can say “Listen to this.”

I’m reading it for a book club and today’s the day. And here I am on page 107 of 302 pages. Mark Antony’s name hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

So I’ll let it go.

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Excerpt from Mona Van Duyn’s “Economics”

Out of a government grant to poets, I paid
to be flung through the sky from St. Louis to San Francisco,
and paid for tours and cruises and bars, and paid
….

                                                                And yet,
did I spend enough in that city all that time
of my country’s money, my country’s right or wrong,
to keep one spoonful of its fire from eating
one hangnail, say, of the Vietcong?

“Don’t clear the fish away yet,” one poet said.
“The cheek of the fish is a great delicacy.”
With a spoon handle he probed away in its head
and brought out a piece of white flesh the size of a pea.

“For the hostess,” he said, “from all her grateful gourmets.”
In SAVE THE CHILDREN ads I’ve seen the babies.
Filled with nothing but gas and sour juice,
their bellies bulge like rotten cabbages.

“One dollar to CARE will pay for ninety meals.”
They cry. They starve. They’re waiting. They are in anguish.
How can we bear to imagine how it feels?
Pain. Pain. I ate the cheek of the fish.

In an instant of succulence my hideous maw
swallowed, I’d guess, the dinners of fifty children.
What good does it do to really take that in,
and what good does it do to vomit it out again?

Gentle reader, should I economize?
I write poems for fifty cents a line.
This poem is worth what it’s worth to the families
of two human beings under the age of eighteen

to see them blown to pieces. “Indemnification
for civilian casualties: from eight dollars
and forty cents for a wounded child, on
up to the top sum of thirty-three dollars

and sixty cents for a dead adult.” I tipped
the waiter fifteen percent, which came to nine dollars.
The cab drive was a third of a child. I slept
each night for a fourth of a mother. What are dollars?

….