It’s InterNational Poetry Month and I want to encourage you all to celebrate the poetry in your lives. To that end, I’ve devised a BINGO card for you to keep track of how much poetry you read, read aloud, watch, and revel in. Feel free to forward. Feel free to scratch out the 2018 and change it to 2019 next year and do it all again 🙂
My first class with Bill Knott consisted of him harranging the students about how difficult writing poetry in form is and how we would all want to drop out and how people just sign up for the class but can’t see it through. I had taken the class specifically because it would be acceptable to write in meter and alliteration and so there was pretty much nothing he could say that was going to make me change my mind. I was so intent on the course material—and proving him wrong—that I can’t tell you how many people dropped the class and didn’t show for the second meeting.
The ironic thing about Bill was that he was an excellent teacher—you just had to weather out the storm. (And sometimes I got very angry about that storm.) Whether you reached the eye or some other calm, I was never sure. But I will never forget the classes where he composed in rhyming iambic pentameter on the spot, writing stuff up on the blackboard and not erasing as he went. He spent hours going over student work in class talking about where stresses fall in English words and how those places are affected by the context and meaning of the sentence.
Another strong memory of Bill is how he acted at readings. Poems were infinitely valuable—you could tell by the way he read them—and he would interrupt himself when a new audience member came in late so that he could hand them printouts of his work. I’m sure in the greater context of the po-biz that might have meant something else but, not being in that whirlwind, all I saw was someone who cared so much about poetry he wanted everyone to have it.
Thomas Lux’s introduction to I Am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014 both upholds and expands my viewpoint on Knott. Lux writes (page xxvi) “In my opinion, Knott did not become an exceptional poet because he was an orphan, because of abuse, because of poverty, because of illness, because of any kind of suffering. Everybody suffers. Knott became an exceptional poet despite these things.” He continues (page xxvi) “Knott possessed a wide range of subject matter, a long working life, and a prodigious work ethic.” To show that, Lux tells us (page xxix) “Knott published twelve print books between 1968 and 2004—with small presses, university presses, and major houses.” The Unsubscriber was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giraux, and it still strikes me as amazing how Bill scribbled all over the title page of my copy with his dedication, as if the pen marks were trying to cover over the famous publishing house. Lux closes his introduction by mentioning how Bill met Randall Jarrell’s criteria requirement regarding lightning for being a poet many times over but I appreciate this statement as an attempt to summarize Bill more: (page xxx) “He is one, in a school of one, among the American poets.”
And then, of course, there is re-reading his poems now that he’s gone. Bill’s book The Unsubscriber is one of the few books I have been able to use successfully to interest non-poet non-poetry-reading readers in poetry.
I admire the wordplay, which really ought to be word play so that you see both the “word” and the “play”. Bill wrote in “Step on It”:
Passing the threshold one
does not reach
which contain words
that contain us
who contain no words
prior to birthsill—
I admire the pithy in all of Bill’s work. His poem “Flash” is, in its entirety:
their shadows having caught up with them,
There are too many here, and too many in Lux’s selections—and unlike most contemporary poetry books, with Bill’s work it is A-OK to just open to a page and read the poem—that just lift my head-hairs and beg for a second reading. I’m going to close with another short one, because it seems to say a lot to me, both about people in general and Bill in specific.
I wish to be misunderstood;
to be understood from your perspective.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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”.
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.
Scriptorium: Poems, Melissa Range, Beacon Press 2016
Melissa Range’s Scriptorium concentrates sounds and sights to weave together poems on the topics of Appalachia, Christianity, and the natural sources turned into ink for use by Christian monks in Europe during the Middle Ages. While perhaps disperate-sounding topics, Range uses the colors of the titular scriptorium as a backbone to structure the topics for the reader.
Verdigris, orpiment, kermes red, ultramarine, shell white‐these are a few of the colors Range writes about in a series of sonnets, enlightening the reader to the creation process and source animal, mineral, or vegetable of the inks. Opening “Woad”, Range writes
Once thought lapis on the carpet page, mined
from an Afghan cave, this new-bruise clot
in the monk’s ink pot grew from Boudicca’s plot—
a naturalied weed from a box of black seeds found
with a blue dress in a burial mound.
But whatever the range, ahem, of topics, Range’s musicality on the page is what stays with me. Take, for example, “Pigs (See Swine)” which is 32 lines, eight quatrains, of monorhyme, one rhyme sound for the entirety of the poem. The second stanza goes
But there’s a book whose pigskin bindings shine
for youth and aged alike, in which the terms align,
pigs and swine; and in its stories, sow supine,
your litter’s better bacon in a poke done up with twine.
Other flights of music I loved include “Anagram: See a Gray Pine”, “Hit”—really, most of the poems about how they speak where and when Range grew up. Range wrings music from the most simple and the most complex of English words but even at the syllables’ most simple, her meanings are multiple and deep and worth reading.
Either poetry is dead or it is what people turn to in times of need, at least according to the Internet.
I asked a number of my poet-colleagues to write for hope, to help people during difficult times.
The result is a small chapbook of sonnets you can download for free: EPUB or MOBI (Kindle) files here on Gumroad. (Just enter 0 for the price.)
The chapbook contains poems by Carol Berkower, Sherry Chandler, Peg Duthie, Jenny Factor, Annie Finch, Cindy M. Hutchings, Marc Moskowitz, Charles Rammelkamp, and Mary Alexandra Agner.
If you, in turn, should pick up pen to reweave these end-words, originally borrowed from Edna St. Vincent-Millay, to write your own piece of hope, please share it with us here by leaving a comment with a poem or a link back to your own post with a poem.