Alice Walker’s poem “Janie Crawford”

In honor of Women’s History Month, which begins Thurs Mar 1, I am posting Alice Walker’s poem “Janie Crawford” which has always been one of my favorite poems.


Janie Crawford


i love the way Janie Crawford


left her husbands   the one who wanted

to change her into a mule

and the other who tried to interest her

in being a queen

a woman unless she submits is neither a mule

nor a queen

though like a mule she may suffer

and like a queen pace

the floor


Alice Walker


A key element that I look for in any poetry – narrative or otherwise – is accessibility. This does not mean that the best poetry is that which is immediately transparent in all areas, but that the best poetry (to me) is that which offers some kind of immediate access; something – whether beautiful sound, captivating imagery or clear, incisive meaning – that allows me to enter into at least the foyer of the poem’s dwelling or structure. Just as not all buildings are designed and built in exactly the same way, neither are all poems. Because not all poems are built alike, this level of accessibility will vary greatly from poem to poem. Some poems, such as those of Eliot, Bishop, or Moore, are large complex structures – mansions, if you will – containing a seemingly unlimited number of rooms and floors and nooks and crannies. The first time I heard T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” read aloud (by one of my high school English teachers) I immediately felt the greatness of the poem, felt as if I had entered into the foyer of a large and masterly-built structure. I did not understand the poem – i.e., I would not have been able to explain what the poem meant or was about – but I was enough taken – or taken in – by the poem that I knew I wanted to remain inside it in the hopes of someday touring and understanding the poem in its entirety.

If, in a “mansion” poem, I am moved to look “inward” – to stay inside the poem in order to learn more about the inner workings of the poem, the poem’s architecture in all its rich complexity – then, in a “cottage” poem, I am drawn outward because of the poem’s plainness (with respect to syntax and diction) and immediate accessibility of meaning. When I read “Janie Crawford,” I am struck both by the plain inward “structure” of the poem but also by the outward view that this poem provides me as a reader – a magnificent view into the world of the poem. Not that there is anything magnificent about the subjugation of women but that there is something magnificent (to me) about being able to see so immediately into this world as it is represented in the poem. Of course, just because the language and syntax are plain, doesn’t mean there aren’t structural elements – or furnishings – which I can admire. The space after the first line of the poem is a clever and effective way of setting up readers for something positive – we are given space here to wander off in one direction only to be pulled back immediately with the unexpectedness of the second line. The line breaks also are effective and add interesting meaning to the poem, as with the next line in which the words “the one who wanted” are placed in such a way as to suggest “the one who lacked” in addition to the straight-forward meaning of the one who desired.


Submitted by Lisa Dordal





Dandelion Weeds (Response)

Dandarians, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Milkweed Editions, 2014

I am unsure that I can manage something summarizing or encompassing to say about Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Dandarians because the content is too expansive, too large, and I loved it without managing to be critical about it. So this is a response to, an exhortation to read, if you will, Roripaugh’s book.

There are many bright spots in the book but I think I loved most what the first poem promised me: a discussion of meaning and wordplay at the intersection of multiple languages and cultures, an exploration of Otherness, how history never stops resonating into the present.

The first poem is titled “The Planet of Dandar” and Roripaugh begins it:

Prismed through the scrim of my mother’s Japanese accent, I think dandelions are Dandarians. Dan-dare-ee-uns. Futuristic, alien—like something named after late-night B-movie space creatures from an undiscovered planet.

Maybe this is why the disturbingly lurid fronds seem too yellow to me. They seethe, I believe, with feverishly incandescent radioactivity. I’m convinced this explains the obsessive, anxiety-laced fervor with which my parents uproot them from our lawn. As if under threat of colonization.

The poem moves from here to Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, to the ramifications of the speaker’s pronunciation of this term at school, to the relationship between speaker and speaker’s mother. In these two verse-paragraphs, my music-ear picks up prism/scrim, seem/seethe/believe, feverish/fervor, feverishly/incandescent, lawn/colonization. Not to diminish the amazing conceit that Roripaugh is building, dandelions as metaphor for colonization, for Otherness, for threat.

Roripaugh continues:

And so when I tell you I’m an alien—a Dandarian, hailing from the planet Dandar—I am, of course, mostly joking. But not entirely. When I tell you I’m radioactive, it’s mostly a posture. But not entirely.

How anaphora makes her point. This verse-paragraph introduces the “you”, which comes back many times throughout the book and changes faces most of those times (but not entirely).

But the remainder of the book is not about the Dandarian, at least not by name. In the poems, the speaker continues to wrestle with language, with love, with lovers, with nature, in amazing ways but not in the same way that the opening poem captivated me. “Senchimental” is another strong example of a poem that discusses language as a metaphor for Otherness and for mother-daughter relationships: “As a child, I weld the words centimeter and sentimental together because my mother pronounces centimeter as senchimental…” The mother counts out centimeters as she knits. That poem closes:

It is, perhaps, no accident, that this is a poem in which the speaker is unsure about whether or not she is running away from something, or running toward it.

          One senchimental. Two senchimental. Three senchimental.

I learn how to knit early on. But I do it very rarely.

Understand about needles. Beware the sudden flash and parry, the silvered piercing which leaves a hole that’s sometimes a wound, sometimes an aperture through which we fill ourselves with light. Understand that even the best of us can be skewered, tender pieces of meat that we are, as matter-of-factly as shish kebab.

In addition to the language poems, I loved Roripaugh’s nature pieces. “Antimoaney”, “Dee Aster”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vermillion River”. But “Skywriting” stands out for me, another example of a poem-long conceit. I too remember those little green caterpillars hanging from invisible strings in the woods behind my childhood home. But to think of them as writing in the sky, like airplanes? Amazing. And Roripaugh goes further:

A star drops out of the sky—sparkling spider dropping down from a shimmering dragline—and you are there to see it.

What I take away from the book as a whole is Roripaugh’s extensive vocabulary, the music within the language, the deep and thoughtful ideas and the juxtaposition of imagery which built those ideas. I had to slow down and think about what I was reading. It was marvelous. I look forward to reading it again.


In dangerous times, choosing what to save
becomes both chancier and more deliberate,
a ping-pong of panic vs. preservation.

A milk-splotched sketch. A bicycle bell.
What might be needed for getaways
and what would merely weigh us down
instead of attracting help? Glasses, knives,

a bin full of bulbs we meant to plant last fall—
we used to read about Nazis
as though they were fairy-tale villains—
too long ago and so far out of the pale
to fear with any seriousness, much less flee

but, now being too much of this world,
I parcel out the bulbs: half into the yard,
hoping to be alive in the spring, and allowed
to love the pointless, fruitless flowers,

and half into the pantry, next to the case of water
that’s there just in case. I don’t need the future
to laugh at myself already, for whom am I kidding?

This is a different century, with nowhere to hide

unless you’re so damn rich and white
that laws don’t apply, much less stick. But I
have houses and HQs to clean. Oh, abide

with me, O Thou of bitter herbs and floods
and silence amid sociopaths. Pray I shall
but also pack, and sing but also study,
and sift through what might save me if I store it,
but not set too much store in saving it, or myself.

Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”

The poem below—“Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden—is one of my all-time favorite poems. I love the passion, the directness, the emphasis on physicality, the confident assurance that someday things will be different—not if but when. I love the way Hayden brings concepts like freedom and liberty down from the abstract into the flesh and blood world. The poem is not about freedom in general but about this freedom, this liberty—a freedom and liberty that are clearly present in the world. But, as the poem beautifully articulates, it is not available to everyone (the poem was written during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s). I love the weariness of the word “Oh.” I love the description of freedom and liberty being beautiful but also terrible (depending on what we choose to do with our freedom and liberty).


Thank you, Robert Hayden, for your exquisite poem!


Frederick Douglass


When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful

and terrible thing, needful to man as air,

usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,

when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,

reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more

than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro

beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world

where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,

this man, superb in love and logic, this man

shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,

not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,

but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives

fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.


– Robert Hayden (1966)



Last Laugh (Review)

Tricia Knoll, Ocean’s Laughter, Aldrich Press, 2016

Tricia Knoll’s Ocean’s Laughter drew me in with its opening list poem, “I Came Back Again and Again”. I appreciate very much how each item in the list differs from all the others and yet the whole paints a place, a duration of time, a chunk of the narrator’s life, with vivid phrases like “tickle sea anemones”, “stuck-up clouds”, “fly a white shark kite”, “canted sand”.

The first half of the book takes the reader through Manzanita, Oregon, its beaches, the wind, the waves, the specificity of tides, the tourist traps and the town empty of tourists, nearby Nehalem Bay and Neahkahnie peak. Downtown “Tide tables are free. Newspapers sell out early.” (Quotation from “As For Shopping”.) In between the tabloid stars and high-end dog boutiques, there are power outrages, furious storms, and one endangered species after another. The poems’ narrator clearly loves and fears for this place, the experience of being in this place.

And just when the reader begins to think the entirety of the book is beauty, we come to the Fourth of July with its masking tape set-up, its local parade—description and commentary—fireworks, and bonfires. And it is in the aftermath of the bonfires, recalling an earlier poem about one left smoldering and unattended, that the narrator gives us “The Shattered Visage of the Wilderness Act”.

The shattered visage of the Wilderness Act
lies buried ear-up in rippled tide-sands
listening for fractures. A sparkler wire pierces
its eyeball socket black with burn.

The holiday star-works of a bombing nation
burst open a war zone. This hangover.

The west wind at the end of the poem leaves the reader breathless. And before they can take in enough air, the poems move to houses lost to fire, enormous storms, mourning of loved ones, memory loss, and an unexplained decision to move away.

I admired Knoll’s turn, that it happened at all as well as how the threads of the poems up to this point—people and nature—came together to make the turn happen. From here on out, the narrator gives us loss after loss, some of it bittersweet. But Knoll’s narrator is no fool, having paid such close attention to their surroundings for so many years: the book ends in a place of balance but where the power of the sea to destroy is only slightly tempered by humanity’s power to witness.

Lost Wax

Lost Wax

In the basement of my high school—the art teacher’s den—
I learned to carve the shapes of thoughts and prayers
into dark green modeling wax. Shrouded in plaster,
the wax was then burned into a nothingness,
a hollow to be filled with scraps of silver
scrounged from past projects and pawn-shop dregs.

I’ve since lost count of all the schools
shot up, locked down—art slashed out of budgets
too small a thing to miss among so much.
The air is thick with “thoughts and prayers”
empty as those molds I used to fill,
the corridors of power crowded with pawns—
those who have sold their souls for green and silver.


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.




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.