too early for Happy Lamb

[July 14]

Something I like about travel is that it kicks my “everything can become a subject line or poem seed” mindset into a higher gear. I’d thought about stopping by Happy Lamb Hot Pot on my way to South Station, but it doesn’t open on Sundays until noon, and I’d already used up my cutting-things-close quotient yesterday, when I capped my 79-hour work week by setting off alarms at the Southwest kiosk by checking my luggage in late. One failed geocaching attempt and beer request later (Tavern in the Square being out of Lord Hobo Brewing Boom [sic] Sauce, I’m chilling out with tortilla soup, a pint of Devil’s Purse Pollock IPA, and the ideal pair of screens (Federer-Djokovic next to the departing train list) in front of me:

tennis at South Station

[July 21]

… and I was not so chill as Federer came oh-so-close to winning the championship. It was fun, though, to watch and listen to the other occupants of the bar cheer and moan in response to the rallies, the aces, and the misses, and as the set stretched on, the clusters of onlookers on three sides of the bar thickened:

tennis at South Station

The night before, I’d ended up walking past St. James the Greater twice on my way from the Silver Line stop to the hostel. [It was past midnight by the time I reached the hostel, I had a 1 p.m. train to catch, and (as feared) I was running on fumes with work still in tow, so I didn’t try to meet up with any friends this round.] That said, if I hadn’t been hauling two weeks’ worth of clothes and music/dance paraphernalia with me, I still might have been tempted to wander around until 2 a.m., to see more and take notes. (One trickle of people included several Asian women holding armfuls of flowers, reminding me of the pageant contestants I spotted two Mays ago in San Francisco, during another walk that ended up being less straightforward than planned.)

Instead, I scribbled a few lines to myself in Bunk #4 before sacking out and, over two bagels and a bowl of coffee, wrestle-teased them into the start of something more:

the start of a poem

the start of a poem

the start of a poem

I’ll return to it in August, perhaps. Right now I’m at the Amherst Early Music Festival, and it’s wrenching enough having to choose among things I can enjoy only while here (practicing on lutes and harpsichords in particular), pursuits that would arguably provide larger returns were I to devote myself more fully to them (e.g., building vocal and keyboard chops), time with people, time with trees, time in/on water, time on postcards (to voters, decision-makers, and others),
and so on. And, like on Friday, sometimes the right move is to nap instead of practice, even when one feels woefully underprepared for, say, playing quartets. Or to seek out a keyboard in a nearly empty building long after nightfall instead of attending a party. Sometimes I feel pangs about the many details that will evaporate from my memory sooner than later because I’m not journaling like I used to — but, even back then, there were poems I started and then lost momentum on. There’s a sliver of me that hasn’t let go of finishing the one about the Christian Science Center pool, keeping company with the Past Mes who put her feet wrong every which where — including just yesterday. (The good thing is that as I get older I have gotten a smidge faster at getting over myself.)

Surrounding all this, of course, is delight and wonder. I’m mopping my face and neck and cleavage every three minutes, and the little breezes that do make it through my open window feel all the more divine. Someone down the hall is playing their violin. Most of the faculty members and many of the students are accomplished musicians. There are heart-tugging phrases in the Rameau pieces I’ve been inflicting on the harpsichords, and there are encounters with, say, bass recorders that look like contemporary public art:

faculty concert

I hadn’t planned on drafting any new poetry during this trip, what with the intensity/immersive pace I knew to expect, so to have a poem insist on getting started — those three pages above — that too is a gift.

finding the right poetry

Just saw a post at Sam’s Tumblr that made me thrilled and sad at the same time: one of his readers discovering that they do in fact like poetry now that they’ve found Leonard Cohen.

When my book was published, one of my childhood friends apologetically said he’d given up on reading poetry and hoped I would forgive him for not buying or reading mine. I wasn’t offended about him not liking my poems — they’re not everyone’s cuppa — but given how many lyrics he’s quoted to me over the years, I’m with Sam: he’s into poetry, just not mine.

Other people have said to me (or in reviews) that they don’t usually “get” poetry, but that what I write is their speed. (Another frequent reaction I get: “You’re making me hungry!” It does help to like food if you’re hanging out with me, though you’ll lose patience with me if you’re too precious about it, since I’m the kind of gal who likes wine but whose level of discernment pretty much divides it all into two categories — “tastes like wet socks” vs. “tastes good.” Though I do recognize and admire the chops (so to speak) of people who can tell by taste whether a sauce contains flour or cornstarch, or if it was made with butter or oil. It’s not so far removed from my understanding that there are at least three tiers of perception in play when viewers and judges reacted to singers in this year’s edition of Voice France, with me smack in the middle tier: with pretty much every singer, there were commenters who were outraged by the judges’ reaction or lack thereof, usually along the lines of “They were great! Why the eff didn’t the judges turn around?” (or “Why didn’t all the judges turn around?”) And I sat on my hands when reading most of those reactions, because I’ve been around long to recognize that “Well, actually” should be deployed with caution and care: The people venting don’t need to hear from me that their favorite was flat on a few notes or lacked agility or failed to communicate an understanding of the words they were singing. At the same time, as happens every year, the judges got excited over certain qualities and moments I just didn’t hear myself — one semifinalist in particular I found all but unlistenable, but the judges and other audience members were geeking out through multiple rounds over his potential, and he wasn’t so handsome that it could be explained by his looks, so my conclusion is that they’re perceiving him at a level / through a lens I don’t have.

What is really awesome, of course, is when there isn’t that gap between what one loves and what a beloved might like. I recently recommended René Marie‘s mashup of “Bolero” and “Suzanne” (her father’s two favorite songs) to my friend Carolyn. The next day, she replied, “Loved this. David a room away making breakfast called out ‘Who IS that?'” *glee* So it is with poems. The anniversary of Gwendolyn Brooks’s birth was a couple of days ago. Back in junior high, I copied out “One Wants a Teller in a Time like This” for a couple of people. One sneered. That stung. But some months later, the other showed me the much-read copy he kept in his wallet, and that remains my lodestar these many years later: to make a few poems that people might want to keep with them and to share.

(Which doesn’t mean I’m above frittering away whole afternoons on bonbons and experiments and throwaways and general goofing off. I’m also reminded of Mika’s talk-through about “The Origin of Love,” where he describes slogging through a year of generating “crud after crud” before the lyrics suddenly, finally gelled.)

Bracket

In my WorkFlowy and on the backs of envelopes buried somewhere beneath coupons and lists and public health reports, there are assorted subject lines for VTL posts sketched out in my head while waiting behind trucks or doing laps in the pool.

Then, when I actually start typing in the WordPress or Dreamwidth window, I inevitably roll my eyes at myself, for if “all the things I mean to write about soon but not today” were an awards genre, I’d have so much metal in my house that the collectors would be rubbing their hands in glee. Not the historians and archivists, but those scrounging for every last scrap they can to get by.

==

What I really signed in to say was: I came across Sean F. Munro and Henry Goldkamp’s “Battle for America” while scooching around for something else, and after reading a few lines was “I’m not closing this tab until I tell someone about this poem, because goddamn.” I am perhaps overly fond of not-really-joking that I contain multitudes, and this poem is a demonstration that “being really fucking angry” and “having basketloads of fun” can occupy the same screen.

It may be that I am extra-susceptible to enjoying brackets as someone who grew up in Kentucky — the state so basketball-mad that when UK got put on probation folks were shooting at Lexington Herald-Leader boxes, because they could not bear how the newspaper was reporting the truth. Kentucky is also the state that elected Mitch McConnell senator while I was in grade school. Because my big brother will probably see this, this is where I feel compelled also to say that Kentucky has fine dancers, dedicated teachers, some superb museums and hotels, public libraries that lend out fishing poles, and excellent restaurants — I had a terrific time just a week ago at Frankfort’s Bourbon on Main and Serafini, and so did the motorcyclists with me, including the hockey-coaching civil engineer who had flown planes during Vietnam and assessed the wine list with the ease and expertise of someone who really knows his Chiantis and Cabernets. Kentucky is not a cultural desert, but I cannot frown on anyone who might be feeling the urge to milkshake its governor or senators.

Munro and Goldkamp’s bios indicate that they, too, live in the South (NOLA and MS respectively).

[Writing this entry has (in spite of myself) demonstrated (to myself) why I don’t actually follow through with blogging most days: 19 years of this has taught me that I will spend far more time on even casual running-my-mouth “hey go read this” entries than I intended to, that twenty rabbit holes will open up within the course of coming up with three sentences, and that I will end up ranting more often than not. And/or that I will nearly melt a colander, discover fridge frost on a bowlful of radishes, and rant for real about oil pulling and detox teas when my man jokes about me sipping shots of sesame oil (because that bottle was on the counter by my glass, whereas I’d already put back the Monkey Shoulder) in the course of cooking and consuming dinner, which was happening between and in the middle of some of the sentences here.]

On Flexibility (Brief Review)

Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle, Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, editors, Kelsay Books, 2018

Edited by Marilyn L. Taylor and James P. Roberts, Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle contains more poems in the form of a villanelle than probably any other book you’ve picked up: over 50 villanelles, covering topics ranging from gun laws to cats to bereavement.

A villanelle is a 19-line poem, composed of five tercets and a quatrain. What makes the form so difficult is that the first and third lines repeat—ideally without modification—alternatively as the final line of the second through four tercets. After the opening two lines of the quatrain, they come together as the closing couplet. Additionally, of course, the remaining lines follow a tight rhyme scheme. (Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a famous example of the form.)

In general, the form of the villanelle best supports a topic that lends itself to obsession. In Thomas’ case, it is grief. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” it is loss. While I personally wouldn’t put many of the topics covered in this anthology in the obsession category, an incredible poem could change my mind. But my main issue with the majority of the poems included in this anthology is that they feel as if the form is using them, rather than the other way around.

Specifically, the lines that repeat in the villanelle need to be supple enough to take on different shades of meaning each time they come around again. Unfortunately, I found many of these poems to include repetons that were too specific to change meaning with each tercet. Additionally, that specificity kept them from being able to magnify in meaning when the two repetons appear together again as the closing couplet of the poem. An example of such an inflexible repeton was “Ease my pain, play me part-songs for Delphinia” from Richard Roe’s “Requests for Torch Songs for Flowers Sent to the Villanelle Show”. Contrast that with Barbara Crooker’s “I will not falter, neither will I fail”, from her poem “Diagnosis: Autism”, which, while a bit repetitious itself at least allows for the lines around it to give it a different context as the poem proceeds.

Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle collects poems with a wide range of topics (so many cat poems!) but I feel it does a better job of showing off poetry’s versatility and applicability to contemporary life than providing the reader with villanelles which, as Dickinson said, raise off the top of your head.

Flown (Brief Review)

Flyover Country, Austin Smith, Princeton University Press, 2018

I have spent some time thinking about which facet of the opening poem of Austin Smith’s Flyover Country is the one which kept me enthralled. But as I type I realize it is the combination, Smith’s skill as a writer: the narrative, with its hint of mystery and, like all narratives, the fuel for your desire to find out how it ends; the concrete nouns which pin you down like the red spots on the wings of the blackbirds mentioned; the imperative voice, which never allows for the idea that you might not want to listen and which makes urgent even the empty rocking chairs and whose certainty comes across like that of a close friend.

Flyover Country is divided into three sections, with poems about the rural interior of the U.S. bookending those taking place in Turin, Lourdes, or Anne Frank’s house. That does not mean the poems in the middle section exclude Smith’s home country; many are rooted there while simultaneously touching other times and places. In “Wounded Men Seldom Come Home to Die”, Smith writes

And this is why: when a wounded man comes home
To die he must come in through the summer kitchen
Clutching his wound like a bunch of kindling.
At the sight of him his mother faints. He catches her

Just in time and lays her down on the floor.
When his sister comes in from slopping hogs to find her
Brother at the table with his long legs kicked out
And their mother senseless on the linoleum, she sighs

But no matter where the poem takes place, or to whom, Smith’s voice sings. From the titular poem, “The lobes of the thunderhead / Flaring with lightning”. From “Country Things”: “while in a seam / Of gleaming honey in the oak that lighting / Cleaved the queen daintily eats her offspring”.

And his voice makes story. From “The Man Without Oxen”:

The harness you might have taken hold of
Last fall to still this shaking in your hands

Hangs on the barn wall, smelling faintly of lather.
Being a farmer, you know you didn’t sow them

Deep enough, and that it won’t be long now until
Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.

In the end, I personally found Smith’s work to be so grounded in place and time that it felt universal. In “Some Haiku Found Scrawled in the Margins of the Old Farmer’s Almanac 1957”, he writes,

Drafty farmhouse
All the wicks
Curved the same way.

American Sonnets (A Signal Boost)

Terrance HayesAmerican Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is one of the most moving books of poetry I have ever read—as well as one of the strongest examples of well-executed poetic device on (simultaneously) the syllable, word, line, sentence, poem and cross-poem narrative levels.

Having been so moved, I want to signal boost Hayes’ work. Perhaps you have heard about the book and just not gotten around to it. I encourage you to request it from your library or buy it at your local bookstore.

Hayes’ book is a sequence of sonnets, all with the same title as the book, each of which delves into and shares his experience as an African-American man living in the United States.

Because I value music in my poetry, I want to praise Hayes’ poetry. There is anaphora and assonance and slant rhyme after slant rhyme, building associations of meaning through sound. It is very powerful.

Over-aged, over grave, overlooked brother
Seeks adjoining variable female structure
Covered in chocolate, cinnamon, molasses,
Freckled, sandy or sunset colored flesh
….

While the above excerpt exemplifies Hayes’ facility with language, it also touches on his personal socio-political experience, although not as much as other poems in the collection do. (I really love how he reclaims the thorny issue of describing skin color in terms of food here.) Hayes can definitely be more blunt:

Glad someone shot deserved to be shot finally,
George Wallace. After you send your basket of balms
And berries for the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham,
After you add your palms to the psalms & palm covered
Caskets of the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham
….

And because I value narrative, I want to tell you that these sonnets, taken together, do tell a story, a dramatic monologue in pieces that you, the reader, need to put together to understand what’s being said. I do not mean that in a difficult way, as some contemporary poetry can be make you guess after meaning, but that as you continue through the sonnets, you’ll see characters return and themes—whole beautiful musical phrases—return, sometimes modified and sometimes not.

It is so difficult to pick out just a few instances to share to convince you that you should read these poems. There are so many amazing poems and they are so intertwined. One sonnet begins:

Because a law was passed that said there was no worth
To adjectives, companies began stringing superlatives
Before unchanged products…

and ends

A racehorse became a horse, a horse race
Became a race. The race was made of various adverbs
And adversaries. The relationship between future
And pasture was lost. Because a law was passed,
There was no worth to adjectives, there was no word
For the part of the pasture between departure & the past.

I feel like what Hayes has given us in this book is his heart. He has shared it without holding back, shared exactly what it means to be him, in this moment in time. It’s immensely powerful and reading it will change you.

I hope / there is a heaven copious enough…

Today’s subject line is from Camille T. Dungy’s “When I Die, I Hope They Talk About Me,” which was published a week after the death of George Bush, which was announced on World AIDS Day, a coincidence not lost on those of us still bitter about how people with AIDS were (mis)treated during his reign. It was a relief to see that I wasn’t the only person digging deep below the fold:

There is, we learned, as we all must learn,

always an even worse man willing to take

the job. I didn’t even know that guy

had a daughter. When he was breathing

all I ever heard was son, son, son. But now

his little girl is headline news, and I have to dig deep

below the fold to find stories about how

he turned his back on boys who were quilting

America’s cities in gay enclaves.

A poem I (and several church associates) need to spend more time with is Langston Hughes’s “Freedom’s Plow,” which the chamber choir performed yesterday. The arrangement contains only a small section of the poem — mainly the lines in the Harper’s excerpt, which outside of full context can sound really rah-rah (the full poem is a doozy — I tried summarizing it on the fly after-while scrolling through my phone mid-discussion Wednesday, but the gist was “I’m sorry, y’all, this is huge, you gotta read it, yourselves), and a bass singer pretty much said, “I’ll sing this, but it’s BS” after we read through the piece a few days ago. After an intense discussion during the rehearsal, one of the altos who is also a worship associate drafted a statement on behalf of the choir that was reviewed by several other members and read by our senior pastor before we sang the anthem. You can hear both the statement and the song (starts at 9:15) on the recording of the service.

if the grass wanted to live

This entry’s subject line is from Mary Oliver’s “Owl Poem,” which I read at my honorary mama’s memorial service in June. I selected the poem for two reasons: Nancy had collected owl figurines through most of her life (many of them are now at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary; I have one next to my bayonet), and it was a poem I read aloud to her when I visited her in February. The story of that visit is at my personal journal. and I will be forever grateful to Mary Oliver — and Kate and Kathy, for buying Blue Horses — for helping us through that day.

Empire of the Jellyfish (Response)

Post Subject: A Fable, Oliver de la Paz University of Akron Press, 2014

I confess: I have no idea what the title of de la Paz’s book means. It makes me think of literary criticism, of which I am fairly ignorant, and mythology.

I confess I was also not expecting to open the book and to find every poem begins with the same two words: “Dear Empire”.

After further thought, though, I feel that my initial comments above may be a more accurate description than I had originally realized: the book critiques, in an attempt to dismantle, the myth of Empire and colonization, without forgetting that there is beauty in not only the world but the the people caught up in Empire.

In a series of nearly-epistolary poems, de la Paz builds an entire world: Empire, artist, jellyfish, and the history of the conquered peoples as the Empire expands. It begins as a catalog—the Empire’s meadows, parks, salt flats, skies, vistas—and before you can begin to ask who is speaking?, you have met the artist’s son and the artist, and ghosts and martyrs begin to populate what feels like a narrative, delivered in thin slices.

Which is not to say that the poetry is thin. The language is thick with evocative nouns. Each epistle is presented in three verse-paragraphs, giving each poem a sense of structure and relationship to the others. The repetition of the address and the use of the second person also have a cumulative effect as the book continues.

But I think what stayed with me the most were the jellyfish. I associate them with climate change and cluttering up the oceans, and in Post Subject: A Fable, they recur as one of very few ocean/water motifs. De la Paz gives them and their potential metaphor a lot of weight, by choosing to close the book with a focus on them, including these lines, which, on re-read, can never just be about mere polyps:

“And in the darkness of the sea, something blooms. Something blooms. Something unseen divides and rises.”

Mountain Climbing (Response)

WHITEOUT, Jessica Goodfellow, University of Alaska Press, 2017

I write this to praise Jessica Goodfellow‘s poetry in WHITEOUT.

Poetry is the intertwining of form and content. And, I would argue, that in the best poems you cannot separate those things, that the form presents the content in a way that makes the content its most moving version of its self.

On the content level, Goodfellow expresses a nuanced grief, missing someone you barely know but whose absence torques the people around you, affecting how they interact with the world but also you. How the absence of an uncle translates into silence in her immediate family. Goodfellow’s main vehicle for her metaphors about grief, for this different sense of absence or missing, is the mountain Denali, its white faces, its cloud cover, the snow, the crevasse, the thunderous history of a glacier.

As for music, for form, Goodfellow presents a number of nonce forms, as well as sonnots of different varieties, all of which perfectly fit what they are trying to say. (There is at least one absolutely rigorous pantoum, as well.) Additionally, at the level of word and syllable, Goodfellow has rounded up so many words which fit her content but also contain the letters UNCLE in order; she uses them for poem titles so that she spells the absence of her uncle out of “uncle”: “Unconsoled”, “Uncalculable”, “Uncollected”, “Uncleaved”, “Unreachable”.

But this focus on single words is not limited to permutations of “uncle”. Goodfellow’s poems are full of text where everyword carries weight, where the words used are so strong they make articles and pronouns pale next to them—until you realize there are barely any of that type of word in the poem. In “The Relief Map Fails to Relieve”, Goodfellow writes

All maps view their subjects from above,
while a glacier glissandos always downward—
gouging as it goes, unzipping the underworld.

The void’s already hoisted its No Vacancy sign.
All those still corseted by torsos cannot cross,
cannot join the vacated in their icy cradles.

In addition to the high frequency of strong words, this example shows off Goodfellow’s amazing ear for consonance and assonance whose presence uplifts the meaning of the lines rather than skewing them like the grammar of a sentence rearranged to provide an end word with the proper rhyme.

But there is much more in this collection than I have touched on. There are the poems dissecting what it means to have no body recovered, in funeral, in grief, in how the living interact with the world. I especially enjoyed how, in “Heresy”, Goodfellow offers a different relation for body and soul, including

Imagine the body as irritant, a grain of sand inside
an oyster that conjures in response a cosmic pearl.
Let the soul be the glow-in-the-dark dark.

You who hate this proposal must never
have lost somebody whose body was never
recovered. You want the body as cage

that releases, finally, the soul…
….
….

…You see the soul as map
of the body’s limited terrain; I see the body
as map of the measureless parish of soul.

There are poems about what grief does to a family, about the role of pictures, painted and photographed, in that doing. In every poem, there is a mountain, especially “The Fold”, which Goodfellow ends thusly:

Mountain, valley:
it is a matter
of which side you are on,
and if you have no body—
no matter—
you are on neither side.
You are the fold,
the stylus of silence
on which hinges both
our Cartesian cathedral
and the vertex of our vortex.

Chasm and scaffold,
cornice and crevasse,
the steep pitch of life
and its inverse, its obverse.
Observe, mortals:
the edge. Welcome
to our fold.

The alliteration, the punning—or the use of all possible connotations of a word, together—the transition between words closely-tied by sound and letters, all of which is wielded to say something about life. This is Goodfellow’s amazing artistry.