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.
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.”
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:
it is a matter
of which side you are on,
and if you have no body—
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.
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.
The epigraph to Maura Dahvana Headley‘s The Mere Wife is a translation of “The Wife’s Lament” by Ann Stanford. It’s bold and grammar-inverted in a way that makes grief obvious. I immediately wanted to read the remainder; I immediately wanted to read more of Stanford’s poems if this was what her translations looked like. Stanford’s last volume, Holding Our Own, was selected by two of her students and each wrote an introduction to it. One was emotional, the other was distanced; both discussed why, although patronized by May Swenson, Stanford’s work was not collected in the big women poet anthologies of the late 20th century: No More Masks! and The Rising Tide.
I have long been a fan of Abbie Huston Evans‘ poetry but only recently did I get a copy of Carl Little’s essay “The Life and Poetry of Abbie Huston Evans”. It was occasioned by her death, although it did discuss her antecedents, genetic and poetic, spent some time quoting her poetry and raving about said quotes, and listing other essays which discussed why Evans’ work did not appear in No More Masks! or The Rising Tide even though a poet as famous as Edna St. Vincent Millay introduced her first volume.
In both cases, the reason listed was political. Neither Evans nor Stanford wrote political or political-icizable poetry. Although, if one needs some help #resisting at the moment, I would point you to Stanford’s “The Weathercock”. And if you need music to convince people the earth—rocks, plants, weeds, trees—around them are worth valuing and working to save, I could pelt you with poems by Evans which do just that.
A lot of feminist criticism talks about The Canon, what authors are passed down, and who is excluded. And here I find that not even May Swenson, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, unlikely to go forgotten anytime soon, can keep a poet’s work in the barrel of history. Instead, I believe, we are required to exhume the beauty we need and hand it down to others, handful at a time. I hope that you have a moment for Stanford or for Evans. And I hope that when you do, you too find something you were looking for.
“To E.D. in July”
by Abbie Huston Evans
(copied from Evans’ Collected Poems p. 93)
Emily, lie you below
And I above, this morning,
While this same earth you used to know
Stabs deep and gives no warning?
It passes me how it can be
That I instead am seeing
Light loved by you implicitly
While you resign your being.
Tell me truth, did you find heaven
And your old neighbor, God?
Or is it nothingness, not even
A sleep, beneath the sod?
Did your relentless wish create
What is from what could be;
Or found you one grim predicate
Wherewith nouns must agree?
Listen: the tide is out again;
The rock-weed lies out hissing.
I could weep in the world of men
To think what you are missing.
To your low ear I bring in news
Gathered this same day, giving
A pocketful from which to choose
Fresh from the land of the living.
The sun finds garnets on this ledge
The tide’s bare hand is slapping;
And where the grass fails at the edge
A poplar bush stands clapping.
Woodpecker drums his hollow log,
Pond-lillies open slow,
Shell-pink upon the cranberry bog
Has just begun to show.
This morning early, Emily,
I saw a crane go wading
About the glassed cove to the knee,
The ripples round him braiding;
The cove out of the mist pulled free
As radiant as a bridge,
But smokiness blew in from sea
With the turning of the tide.
Know kittens still lap creamy milk,
Know mice still gnaw the rind,
And like great lengths of waving silk
Hay-fields blow out behind;
Barn-swallows scissor down and up
With tea-stained vests (you know!),
And hawkweed crowds on buttercup,
And elderberries blow.
—Here, take them, Emily, they hurt
In telling; can you bear
To hear of elderberries, skirt
The coasts of sun and air?
Know all that hurt you once hurts still.
Need any tell you now
Night brings the moon, dawn finds the hill?
Want you such hurting now?
This morning, my subconscious chose to inflict on me an extended dream about work. This is in itself nothing new, but I am nonetheless vexed that my interior film projector can’t come up with better movies. It’s not as if dwelling on the heaps of deliverables will deal with them, so why can’t the reel revel instead in, say, ridiculous Bottega Veneta jackets? Sheesh.
In the meantime, I’m sneaking in some postcard-scribbling between work, working out, and housework. Some with addresses from Postcards to Voters and Americans of Conscience, and some as part of the August postcard poetry fest that doubles as a fundraiser for SPlab (the fest + service fee added up to 11.71 USD for me); registration closes July 19.
Three of the postcards I wrote on today are in the above snapshot; because there isn’t a lot of room on the cards, and I try to write something related to the image and/or stamps I’m putting on them, I am (so far) spinning out springboards rather than dives — that is, prompts rather than full-fledged poems. That’s OK. The ground rules emphasize that these should be first drafts, and each card is a handful of steps toward something more, which is more than I’d come up with left to my own devices when this hemmed-in by must-dos.
May blitzed by me in a blur of bacteria, bureaucracy, and blackspot. But it also brought Amanda Parer’s BIIIIIIIIG bunnies to a botanical garden in my town:
At Hoppy Hour, there was a silent disco that escaped its blue-lit headphones while I was waiting for my food-truck banh mi and Thai iced tea. It was a fine way to start a Friday night, and so was the spoken word Happening yesterday night at the Frist Art Museum, which included Rashad thaPoet slammin’ the four-
dollarcent jury verdict, Debria Love leading a laughter- and snaps-punctuated takeoff on the Lord’s Prayer laden with hip-hop in-jokes after the crowd agreed that Kanye was a Kan-NAY, and S-Wrap (Saran Thompson) pulling the crowd into chants. One refrain:
SW: I speak
Crowd: You speak
All: We speak life!
In case you were occupied with actual lunch yesterday 🙂
I'd like to keep experimenting with cinquains. Which is where you come in 🙂 Send me a small idea (I've only got a few syllables!), a word or a phrase. Once I've got 2, I'll write and post the resulting cinquain. #thetypewriterisopen #socialmediacinquains
— Mary Alexandra Agner (@marywordymary) May 30, 2018
And that's one! 🙂 Who else wants to toss into the cinquain ring? https://t.co/e5JUl1zjVA
— Mary Alexandra Agner (@marywordymary) May 30, 2018
— Mary Alexandra Agner (@marywordymary) May 30, 2018
When both the glitter and gunk have been scoured away —
tapes and ropes into dumpsters, crumbs and the birds that hoovered them up
long decomposed into daffodil feed — what will we say
to one another, about how we looked before we knew
what it meant to be marked for life, with life,
or will we have learned enough to speak more
about what we are looking at now, however riotous
and unruly and rancid its remains?
[Springboard: temp tattoo (originally on me here) that I ended up (mostly) erasing with tape a few minutes after midnight. What the streaks of pigment on tape really remind me of: smears of frosting. Some other night….]