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.”

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.

Noncanonical

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

“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?

Lunchtime Learning

In case you were occupied with actual lunch yesterday 🙂

BINGO!

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 🙂

Knott Memories (Bill Knott, 1940-2014)

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
the threshyoung.
Language

contains words
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:

Photographs—
lightningbolts which,
their shadows having caught up with them,
perish.

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.

WRONG

I wish to be misunderstood;
that is,
to be understood from your perspective.