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?

….

Finding Beauty in the World

A couple of weeks ago, one of my students from last year made an appointment to see me. I assumed it was because she needed a recommendation letter. Although I am always happy to write letters for my students, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this student did not want anything from me. She just wanted to say hello and catch-up. During our conversation, she told me she has been feeling overwhelmed lately by various world events and the current state of political discourse in our country–but that she has been so thankful to have poetry in her life. She spoke passionately about how poetry has been helping her to feel grounded in the midst of so much worldly turmoil.

I, too, have been overwhelmed by what has been going on in the world lately. And I, too, have been very thankful for poetry. I cannot remember a time in my life when I have felt such a visceral need for literature–for the transcendent power of a poem or a work of fiction. I have been reading much more fiction and poetry lately–not to escape what’s going on in the world but to satisfy my growing hunger for meaning, for transcendence, for beauty.

One of my favorite poets–Traci Brimhall–recently had a poem published on Poets.org. To me, her poem speaks so well to this desire for beauty in the world. Here is the link:

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/fledgling

Until next month,

Lisa D.

Constellated (Review)

32 Poems Volume 15 Number 1

It’s been many years since I last read an issue of 32 Poems. I picked up Volume 15 Number 1 out of curiosity and perhaps a little nostalgia—oh, and because there were stars on the cover.

32 Poems is a bit what it says on the tin: 32 poems in one issue. The first half-dozen included science—biology, aeronautics, archaeology—which surprised me, making me wonder if the issues are themed. The remainder of the issue discussed racism, video games, expensive parties, airports.

While there was only one poem in a traditional form, I found most of the poems to be full of vibrant words which contributed a lot to how interesting the poems were to read. The lack of sonic texture in the majority of them meant I had no incentive to re-read them.

I do appreciate the issue for introducing me to the poems of Cortney Lamar Charleston, for the title of Kathleen Winter’s “All my engineers” if not the poem itself, for the way revision came back around in Anne-Marie Thompson’s “Prayer to San Francisco”.

Friable

My neighbor Ben’s been dead since spring,
his memory gone for longer, yet
his driver’s license sits in my car —
stuck, I think, to the base of my backpack
when I set it down on a postal counter
where someone — widow or executor — must’ve
left it behind, their own mind rocked
by too much grief-smog smothering the have-tos.
Once I thought I heard my mother calling
clear across a KMart, even though
I knew I’d left her dozing or dazed
on a couch at home — some semblance of resting
while I dealt with errands that could not wait
— and, truth be told, also some chores
that let me stay away from the house
a little while longer, to breathe off-script
away from the memories — never to line up,
hers against mine — of what should have been.
Or, let’s be precise, of what we wanted to insist
the memories should have been. I hear Ben sang
a lot of hymns in his time. My fault,
among my many others, not making time to hear
the singing, though I feel not guilt,
just sadness. Clutching and squeezing a watch
won’t make its face roll out any flatter
or wider. Time is not a piecrust one
can stretch or lattice into enoughness,
no matter how many badges one collects
for working instead of sleeping, for other
bargains with devils and demons. I shall
make time, this next new year,
to hold what sweetness it can, but also
let it crumble and flake, as it must,
like pastry and soil and other layers
from which good thoughts may somehow emerge.

Introduction by Sherry Chandler

Hello.

Or in the immortal words of Cousin Minnie Pearl — How DEE, I’m just so proud to be here.

Mary Alexandra Agner invited me to add my voice to the harmonies here, a timely invitation for me, serendipitous even, though I use that word with caution.

I wrote a blog for several years but one day I discovered I couldn’t do it any more. I think they call that burn out. Lately, however, I’ve felt an awakening of the urge to blog, accompanied by a reluctance to take on so intense a task.

So when Mary’s invitation showed up in my inbox, I accepted joyfully. It seems as just right as Baby Bear’s chair. I like what I read here and hope I can contribute something worthwhile.

Is this a preamble or just an amble? I really don’t like introducing myself. My life story is available at sherrychandler.com. To give you a notion who I am, I’ll give you a poem from my book Weaving a New Eden. The poem culminates a geneology in poems following mothers instead of fathers.

Sherry Florence Chandler
(daughter of all of these)

So I am arrived here, not in the plumb-bob
Heritage of my father’s line, my father called
Eagle-eye because he could raise a barn foursquare.
Rather I am come in zigs and zags, a looping
Ragged line of mothers and grandmothers, nested
Yarn, a thread spun, woven, hooked into coverings.

Fancy finds these women plain, and poor, working
Land farmed out since the first generation plowed
On clear-cut hills. Time’s mainstream washed past like
Rivers and creeks that took their topsoil, left only
Eden Shale, academic term for sticky yellow clay.
Nurture in such an Eden was a fulfillment of God’s
Curse, toil and pain, and yet, from this unwelcoming
Earth they brought forth lilacs and tender lettuces.

Cuttings and seed, handed on, handed down,
Homespun petticoats, spinning wheel on the hearth,
A loom in the barn, then feed-sack frocks, the reciprocating
Needle of the Sears and Roebuck Singer in the corner.
Daughter of all these, I would sing for these women
Like Virgil – strong arms and the woman
Except, of course, that that is not their style.
Rather I’ll call you a dance to the figure of the Black-Eyed Girl.

Aubade (first draft)

Sun on my arm

I wear the sun on my arm to say
Nothing can be true or total all the time:
Ink blurs and bleeds, features fade,
and I have been called a thousand names
that weren’t my own, sometimes with malice
and often within a miasmatic memory’s
failure to ever-fix my mark among its grooves.
I shall not be greedy. Two hundred years hence
we all shall be writ in water and fire —
dead light lacing the streaks of diamonds
plummeting into planets no plutocrats can plunder.
What is a treasure no tyrant can touch
or tax — what shall we call currency
that cannot be spent or shared? Under my pillow,
I press my palm to a coin from Taiwan,
tracing not the actual engravings —
a dictator’s face, a palace-museum
I played within but have no precious
recollections to cherish, precise
or otherwise — I finger the metal,
trying to melt into sleep, the better
to stay alive and sane, the better
to be not constant nor correct for all time
but often enough — just often enough,
just enough, often just, often adjusting —
you see how it is? Let me not
to the marriage of minds
deny the truth of impediments:
I am no compass, but I am the moss
that glows jewel-green on even mundane days
and coats the trees on trails,
a mute map through midnights.

Swimming Together (Review)

Driftfish: A Zoomorphic Anthology, 2016

The aim of this anthology is to promote the connection between humans and marine animals, and to highlight the variety of marine animals. The anthology’s introduction states, “[We] were motivated by the urge to celebrate the exhilarating variety of ocean wildlife….while also bearing witness to the shattering reality of their plunging numbers.”

I found the poems in the anthology to spend a lot of time on the latter: explaining to me this animal or that but saying little more than “here’s an animal.” Notable works which break that mold include

  • Meg Files’ “Penguin Parade”, for going somewhere unexpected
  • Christina Lloyd’s “Car Wash”, for starting somewhere unexpected
  • Beth McDonough’s “Flatly”
  • Kathy Miles’ “Hydromedusa”, for its turn

Given my interest in poetry which uses devices such as assonance, consonance, repetition, and rhyme, I paid close attention to the form of the anthology’s poems. In the majority, they are free verse which does not utilize these sonic devices. The main exception is Andy Brown’s wonderfully musical “Oyster Shells”. Kathleen Jones moves her “Whale Fall” in the directional of musicality through her use of assonance. And Sharon Larkin’s “View from the Benthos” makes its own music through scientific jargon; a real treat.

Two other poems stood out to me. Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s “Fishing for an Octopus” is one of the few poems that actually comments on human-animal interactions and does it superbly and with a dark twist. Bryce Emley’s “To the Bumblebee Who Landed On My Stomach At High Tide” got my attention for the amazing sentiment in its first line and for stretching the definition of “marine animal” in a way no other included poem did.

While I find myself very much agreeing with the editor’s motivation, less than a quarter of the poems exhibited, to me, the exhilarating variety of musical device.

introducing Dawn McDuffie: “Where do you find these ideas?”

Dawn McDuffie is a wonderful woman whom I’ve had the good fortune to know since the mid-1990s; we met at a YMCA Writer’s Voice workshop in Detroit. For the past twenty years (!) or so, we’ve corresponded about applications, books, church life, dolls, eats, and a good many things beyond. This is her first post for Vary the Line; please check back each month for more insights from Dawn (and the rest of us).


Where do you find these ideas?

I spent an hour or so this afternoon watching a pair of monarch butterflies flit from yard to yard. The four households own tiny city lots, but the homeowners have stuffed them with flowers and tasty milkweed. It seems unfair that the grace of butterflies, the changing of colors as one perennial blooms and another dies back — that all these riches didn’t inspire a new poem, although I did write a haibun last year during a terrible drought. In the same way, the current political state has sparked a sense of dread, but has not given me any poems. I’m grateful that somewhere between pure beauty and total distress I find possibilities lining up, waiting to be written. Here’s the haibun from last summer’s heat wave:

Detroit, summer 2016

7:00 A.M. and it’s 80° in our back yard, a small space surrounded by a high fence, and most years, the green of shade and sun, regular rain. Tangerine day lilies, pink lilies, coral bells with their sparkle wands tolerate the dry part of summer, but none of our plants can stay healthy with no rain at all. Summer thunder storms have passed us by. I go to bed with a glass of water on the night stand, just in case I’m too thirsty to sleep. In the morning I pour what I didn’t finish into a black plastic watering can. Seedlings, I’m sharing my drink with you.

Thirsty hummingbirds,
I have watered the bee balm,
cool gifts quickly gone.