Beginning to Weed

I’m beginning to make room on my bookshelves for new things and so I’m picking up books I haven’t looked at it years to ask stay or go?

I can’t recall why I have Linda Pastan’s The Last Uncle. I recall being very interested in her work at one point but there’s nothing marked in this volume and so I’m uncertain. When I re-read now, it’s quiet, it’s speaking but there isn’t much music. I flip through pages, wondering was it for her poem “To Penelope”? I don’t like it’s conclusion.

I bounce off of Wendy Babiak’s Conspiracy of Leaves for what I think is the second time. I admit to myself I purchased Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling so I could look cool. I turn open the Galway Kinnell book which is not my poetry but which was a gift.

To my surprise, I find Monique van den Berg’s along the snow-road. What delightful memories of Mo on the internet so many years ago, such a different internet. And here in “Curves” she writes, “the moon would never call herself fat” and “we prefer curve // integrity in fullness” and I smile. Good for her, to say that then, to still say it to me now.

Full-Rhyme and Ribbons

I’ve been trying to read through all the early novels and poems written by women which have won Pulitzer Prizes. (There were quite a lot more of them in the 1920s and 1930s than later on.) This brought me to Margaret Widdemer whose collection of poems The Old Road to Paradise won the Pulitzer in 1919 (before it was even called the Pulitzer). I could only find a copy locally in a volume of her selected works so I got to hear a little of her different voices, in between her introduction discussing how she ordered the poems and how she introduced the sections and the poems themselves. (She put all the most widely-requested ones in a section of their own. I’m so tickled, both that she had, well, requests, and that she was so thoughtful for her readers.)

In this collection, I found one of two poems she included titled “Search”. (Scan of the poem available here.) I keep coming back to it and I wanted to share why it works so strongly on me.

The first four lines are very typical of their time, I’m assuming, and today they are the sort of thing that would make many people skip over this poem: rhymed couplets, iambic tetrameter (I do love tetrameter). Plus, she’s describing a very girly dress (“in wide bows like a butterfly”). Perhaps I was willing to keep reading because of the context I was in, meaning I was already flipping through a book of metered, rhymed poems, but the emotion that went along with the careful description of the dress really deepened in line 9: “I could put out my hand by night / and find it”. That’s a dress she really loves, that’s a dress that’s more than just cloth.

Lines 10 and 11 were special for me, for their specificity and for the difficulty. She is recalling where to find the dress:

Between my Leghorn on the wall

And Mother’s heirloom China shawl

I don’t know what a Leghorn is, I have to look it up, it’s a particular type of straw hat, but the proper name is magical here, next to an heirloom. So now I really want to understand the importance of the dress. Not just cloth, not just a pretty gown, so important she can find it without sight, she can picture where it waits for her. The description of the gown’s location continues to be very specific, ending with “In the blue room on the third floor. . .”

And that ellipsis is part of the poem. Widdemer purposefully trails off there. Which, of course, has the effect of propelling me on to read faster (at least, the first time, I slowed down there on subsequent re-reads, in anticipation). Ellipsis is a type of punctuation I don’t recall seeing often as a sign of a turn, it’s fascinating.

And then the speaker tells us how “hard to reach tonight” that room is. It’s “at such a height” and “two flights of stairs” away. And this is where Widdemer’s genius, to me, rattles my bones. The penultimate couplet of the poem reads:

I’d have two flights of stairs to climb,

And seven weary years of time

It’s a masterful use of full rhyme, in my opinion, effortlessly surprising the reader (well, me) with two transitions, a physical one and a mental one. In that one line, Widdemer stretches out this description of a dress into the life of the dress, the life of the speaker. That beautiful gown was seven years ago. It is still hanging there now but there is a difference even as the gown is still as loved.

But Widdemer does not stop there. There is more between that gown and today than just stairs of time. She closes the poem like this:

To find it, and the girl-heart, lit

With gay unwisdom, under it.

These are the first two lines in the poem with internal punctuation, slowing the reader down. These are the first two lines with some invented (non-standard) English words. Widdemer has taken what perhaps feels to a reader from today as a nursery rhyme, full-rhyme and ribbons, and written the reader right into its pain.


I can’t help but come back to the title of the poem after the final line. Because it is a bit of a boring title, it is not one that I feel most readers would stop at in a table of contents. And, at the beginning, it is clear we are searching for the dress, the first line says so, explicitly. But, by the end of the poem, we know that the dress is not cloth. And, perhaps because I am so moved by those final lines, I feel like the dress is not simply the speaker as a younger person. The lost dress may be youth, or naivety. It is most certainly light and joy.

Like 2020

Like, A.E. Stallings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

This year was not like many others. And A.E. Stallings’ book of poems, Like, though published two years ago, feels deeply relevant.

The titular poem is a sestina whose endword is “like”. Usually a sestina would have six endwords—and Stallings certainly throws in “dislike” and “unlike” and “alike”—but “like” falls into so many different buckets of speech that you cannot hear the repetition as overwhelming. It’s wonderful to see Stallings’ poetry, often on subjects so removed from contemporary life, bent beautifully into such slang and modernity. The poem includes commentary on what words like “like” do to language, while perhaps exhibiting what “like” does as language, but it read to me, in 2020, as a comment on giving in to peer pressure. In some ways, this year, the only way to reach a friend was the “like” mechanism of social media—but if I truly liked them, I wouldn’t want to endanger them by passing on the coronavirus, and so I would restrict my interactions with them to safe ones, like “like”.

Stallings, of course, is a masterful poet, and so, as in “Like, the Sestina,” every poem in the book is full of musical language accumulated and arrayed to help the reader peer deeper into life, be that physical or emotional or historical. The epigraph for “The Rosehead Nail” tells us the poem’s setting is a blacksmithing demonstration. In the first line, a boy asks if the smith can forge a nail. “He was a god / Before anachronism” and so he makes not simply a nail, but crowns it with a rose. The surprise of the boy’s request, the surprise of the smith’s response, the way in which Stallings draws Hephaestus into the smith’s description, the possibility that the nail is more than a nail with which the poem ends, the simplicity and apparent ease stayed with me.

Other domestic poems revel more obviously in their musicality. In “Cast Irony”, Stallings writes

Who scrubbed this iron skillet
In water, with surfactant soap,
Meant to cleanse, not kill it,

But since its black and lustrous skin
Despoiled of its enrobing oils,
Dulled, lets water in,

Now it is vulnerable and porous
As a hero stripped of his arms
Before a scornful chorus.

The digression into discussion of the Bronze Age warrior seems in line with much of Stallings translations of epic Greek poems, and yet the imagery is put to use as the poem progresses to comment on what is traditionally women’s work (cooking, washing) and a mother-daughter relationship. (And how wonderful is the poet who can throw “surfactant soap” into a poem without blinking?)

“The Stain,” too, is a domestic poem with short lines that emphasize its music (rhyming, in this case). The short lines cause the reader to race down the page and the accusatory tone of the language anthropomorphizes an object usually overlooked, adding to the poem’s interest. “It will not out,” the poem says, recalling every famous stain in literature. Stallings closes the poem with such prophetic fervor that I despair for the option to throw out the clothing, as I would throw out 2020:

What they suspect
The stain will know,
The stain records
What you forget.

If you wear it,
It will show;
If you wash it,
It will set.

Don’t Despair (Reaction)

Brenda Shaughnessy, The Octopus Museum, Knopf, 2019

I had hopes that this book would actually be about what it says on the tin: octopuses, different ones, in some sort of zoo or educational setting. But I also knew that I never get that sort of thing, that isn’t what other people write, a catalogue of octopuses, so I tempered my expectations, squashed them—

So I was very surprised to find that the table of contents for the book is titled Visitor’s Guide to the OM Exhibits and that it was explained how many “exhibitions spaces” the museum has (book sections) and that the sections of the book were titled phrases which contained “collection” or “gallery” or which sounded like art exhibit titles.

There is a prologue poem before the first exhibit—I am sure there is some museum analogue—called “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’)” and when I looked at it, I just told myself: read it like prose. Ignore the lines, the line breaks, just keep the sound going. This was a struggle but I did my best. An essay, a sort of monologue. Ignore the white space. It has no meaning. Squashed.

But I really identified with that first line, so much about an introvert’s desires. I was taken with the narrative voice, the choppy sentences, the little quirks of grammar. But to be honest, I have spent so much time telling myself to remember things by writing them down that the final verse-paragraph was a kick in the gut. I knew that feeling intimately.

What I didn’t know at the time was how skillfully Shaughnessy was using the background scene in this poem to set up the remainder of the book.

The poems in The Octopus Museum are about self, they feel confessional, they are political, they come at today’s concerns from an oblique angle—and they have a consistent narrator who actually has a narrative to share with us. Formally, they scrawl across the page, sentences and paragraphs, but they teem with anaphora and alliteration. Structurally we are reading to travel through the museum and the pieces of art are confessional poems that build up a narrative. Sometimes what carried me through the book is the poetic device and sometimes it is the world-building as it turns into action.

The ocean is in each poem, part of the narrator’s story, sometimes scenery, sometimes metaphor, but we do not have its implications clearly hinted at until page 14: the fourth poem begins “Before”, many of its sentences and verse-paragraphs begin “before”. It is not until the final verse-paragraph of the first section that it becomes a proper noun, a delineation of time.

In the penultimate section of the fourth poem, we meet the Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords and it becomes “clear that they were taking over.” The poem continues on, to make clear that this is not metaphor—not only metaphor—and then it becomes clearest that we—humanity—are the subjects in a museum for octopuses.

The remainder of the poem exhibits discuss the current world and the old, situation the speaker in it and the speaker’s everyday concerns, but also commenting on what threatens you and I today, such as the poem titled “Are Women People?”

Shaughnessy’s poems are science fiction the way Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was science fiction: slipped in so neatly it is unassailable and yet horrifying in the alternatives it shows us.

So this book is very much the cohesive, well-structured, integrated, interlocking artwork I was hoping for. But I don’t want to neglect the smallest pieces from which it is made.

From “Identity & Community (There is No ‘I’ in ‘Sea’):

I was a woman alone in the sea.
Don’t tell anybody, I tell myself.
Don’t try to remember this. Don’t document it.
Remember: write down to not-document it.

From “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)”:

Before health insurance there was health, a pre-existing condition

From “Letters from the Elders”:

Dear Humans,
   One word: plastics.
   I won’t withhold everything I’ve learned. I’ll tell you plain. You will miss plastic.
   I wish that, when people called in Cling Film instead of Saran Wrap, I’d have just let it go. It was a regional thing, not worth losing my long friendship with Mary over it.
   Everything was plastic. We thought it was hygenic. We put it in our eyes so we could see better. We put plastic earbuds in our ears so we could listen ourselves out of any situation. We’d take food that was half-plastic in plastic containers, but it into another plastic container, heat it in an electric box of metal and plastic, and serve it to ourselves, guests, and families.

And from “New Time Change”:

You had your time you took your time after time you had your cake by the ocean and ate it too but now the tide has turned the times tables too when it’s time to change you’ve got to rearrange #timesup and for old times’ sake we will remember you in our time.

Shaughnessy has an amazing ability to take common language and make it work harder to expose our common lives simultaneous with what is precious about them. She foregrounds the artifice—and thus unleashes their utmost potential—in phrases so repeated they could have lost all meaning and devolved simply to tone. Shaughnessy’s poetry uses common phrases to shake you out of a world devolved simply to tone, to rote, or to despair.

Why Is Soft Science So Hard? [Response]

Soft Science, Franny Choi, Alice James Books, 2019

Soft Science by Franny Choi is a collection of poetry focused on the effect of technology and technology-in-media on contemporary lives. One of the threads running through the book is the comparison—and sometimes blurring—of cyborg and women as shaped things molded by the society that uses them. The poems respond vehemently and sometimes violently to Othering in many forms; this is part of what makes the book so powerful and so important. The book is organized according to multiple (imagined) versions of the Turing Test, allowing the speaker (a cyborg? a woman?) to self-express and also to refute the shapes and molds imposed on them. It is representative and slightly a summing-up that the first line of the second poem reads “// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness”.

But I’m writing this more as a personal response than a review; hopefully the above gives you an idea of whether you’d like to look at the poems for yourself. I picked up the book based on the cover and the title; I want to read poetry about science. The first poem is presented in the form of a table, yes, columns, rows, headers, lines separating each entry and boxing them in. I bought the book because I was completely flummoxed about how to read this as a poem and because I really thought this is the kind of thing I should be reading, all the themes presented are important to me—and when I scanned the table of contents I saw a poem titled “Everyone Knows That Line and Ogres and Onions, but Nobody Asks the Beast Why Undressing Makes Her Cry” and how could I not read that?

As I progressed through the poems, I learned that Choi has a wonderful ear for alliteration, consonance, and rhyme, and that she uses full and partial rhymes and homonyms to propel her poems forward. It’s wonderful. I loved how over and over the poems take commonplace phrases and play with them, rewriting them, a word at a time, to build into something completely new, or simply casting a different light on the meaning of the phrase by giving it different context. Many many of the poems sing exactly how I love poems to sing.

But I still have no idea how to read a poem without lineation but with slashes, such as each of the Turing Test poems, such as this bit from the second poem:

// why do you insist on lying

I’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / & born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl / part poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that

By the end of the book, I had given up trying to assign meaning to lineation in the poems that used it. I confess, that made them much easier to read, less probing and confusion, more emphasis on the words, but I keep coming back to the fact that lineation is the main difference between poetry and prose and if it means something the reader can’t understand, then what good is it? One could argue that “understanding” and “having an effect” are different things, and I would agree, but I would have liked something for the effort I exerted.

So, I am very glad to have read Choi’s work and will look for more of it, but, personally, I am even more confused about how to read a poem.

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.

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.”