Calculations

In dangerous times, choosing what to save
becomes both chancier and more deliberate,
a ping-pong of panic vs. preservation.

A milk-splotched sketch. A bicycle bell.
What might be needed for getaways
and what would merely weigh us down
instead of attracting help? Glasses, knives,

a bin full of bulbs we meant to plant last fall—
we used to read about Nazis
as though they were fairy-tale villains—
too long ago and so far out of the pale
to fear with any seriousness, much less flee

but, now being too much of this world,
I parcel out the bulbs: half into the yard,
hoping to be alive in the spring, and allowed
to love the pointless, fruitless flowers,

and half into the pantry, next to the case of water
that’s there just in case. I don’t need the future
to laugh at myself already, for whom am I kidding?

This is a different century, with nowhere to hide

unless you’re so damn rich and white
that laws don’t apply, much less stick. But I
have houses and HQs to clean. Oh, abide

with me, O Thou of bitter herbs and floods
and silence amid sociopaths. Pray I shall
but also pack, and sing but also study,
and sift through what might save me if I store it,
but not set too much store in saving it, or myself.

Robert Hayden’s poem “Frederick Douglass”

The poem below—“Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden—is one of my all-time favorite poems. I love the passion, the directness, the emphasis on physicality, the confident assurance that someday things will be different—not if but when. I love the way Hayden brings concepts like freedom and liberty down from the abstract into the flesh and blood world. The poem is not about freedom in general but about this freedom, this liberty—a freedom and liberty that are clearly present in the world. But, as the poem beautifully articulates, it is not available to everyone (the poem was written during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s). I love the weariness of the word “Oh.” I love the description of freedom and liberty being beautiful but also terrible (depending on what we choose to do with our freedom and liberty).

 

Thank you, Robert Hayden, for your exquisite poem!

 

Frederick Douglass

 

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful

and terrible thing, needful to man as air,

usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,

when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,

reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more

than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro

beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world

where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,

this man, superb in love and logic, this man

shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,

not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,

but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives

fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

 

– Robert Hayden (1966)

 

 

Last Laugh (Review)

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.

Lost Wax

Lost Wax

In the basement of my high school—the art teacher’s den—
I learned to carve the shapes of thoughts and prayers
into dark green modeling wax. Shrouded in plaster,
the wax was then burned into a nothingness,
a hollow to be filled with scraps of silver
scrounged from past projects and pawn-shop dregs.

I’ve since lost count of all the schools
shot up, locked down—art slashed out of budgets
too small a thing to miss among so much.
The air is thick with “thoughts and prayers”
empty as those molds I used to fill,
the corridors of power crowded with pawns—
those who have sold their souls for green and silver.

Frames

Last hearth standing . . .

Here’s a farewell to glued-on seashells
and glitter-frosted plastic leaves
and all the instructions on “making things your own” —

We. Own. Nothing. Not even when we pay for them
or when we pet or polish or pray
our longings into titles and possessions,

much less when we press our names or initials
into their layers with ink or fire —
this world is not our home,

our images like water, even as
they freeze for long minutes on our screens.
Here’s to the clutter of bins and warehouses

and here’s to the wind that sweetens the sky
even as it stings our cheeks
on its way to whipping more things away.

Last hearth standing . . .

In Memory of “Amanat”

For this month, I am posting a poem in honor and in memory of the woman who was raped and tortured on a bus in New Delhi, India on the night of December 16th, 2012. She was a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was returning home with a friend after seeing the film Life of Pi. She was referred to in the media as Amanat which is the Urdu word for treasure.

 

Amanat

 

The hyena kills the zebra,

then the orangutan.

 

The tiger kills the hyena.

And the boy survives.

 

Pi is an irrational number.

And a woman boards a bus.

 

If horses could draw,

they would draw one god

 

in the shape of a horse.

Oxen would draw many,

 

each with a body like their own.

And the bus is not really a bus.

 

The relationship

between the width of a circle

 

and its circumference

continues infinitely without

 

repeating. And Pi is a boy

who just wants to love

 

God. If dark matter could draw,

it would not draw itself.

 

The human intestine

is approximately five feet long.

 

Only five percent of hers

would remain. They would be called

 

joyriders. The instrument used was

metal. The instrument used

 

was flesh. And the woman,

it was said, died peacefully.

 

First published in CALYX, Fall/Winter 2015

 


 

Some thoughts on Maurice Manning

There exists in Kentucky, a certain group, but not a school, of young male poets I call the sons of Wendell. That’s Wendell Berry.

These poets write out of grief for the lost Eden that is the United States, and Kentucky in particular. They speak out of a longing for a simpler, smaller, slower, more agrarian time. A time, perhaps, before God was declared dead.

All these young men are excellent poets, but the one who appeals most directly to me is Maurice Manning.

Manning ‘s persona speaks to us with a voice part frontier braggadocio (think Mike Fink) and part the trickster hick (think Mark Twain). He frequently makes me laugh, just before he makes me cry.

Manning’s could be the voice of my grandfather, who was known as Hick and whose humor was dry. When invited by his son, my father, to consider the many wonders he’d witnessed in his lifetime, he said only “We nearly starved.”

Manning’s voice takes the perception of Kentucky as a backwoods full of hillbillies and uses it to defy that perception.

Manning’s is the voice of a desperate nostalgia. My last grandmother, he writes

dead by now
for twenty years with another sad,
erasing century underway, . . .(“Grammar”)

Whereas Wendell Berry’s is a farmer’s God, tranquil in a well-kept farm, nature well under control, Manning’s is a God of passion, one more of Isaiah than of Christ:

In that real, God-given place,
which was composed of possums and dogs,
of horses and birds and trees and gloom . . .

His is like that voice “crying in the wilderness, “

That older truth and time are gone,
but not the place and not the dream,
and not the boy turned man who dreamed
the passionate dream and felt his heart
breaking open with passion, not yet. (“Old-Time Kentucky Salt-Kettle Dream”)

[These quotations are taken from Manning’s latest book, One Man’s Dark from Copper Canyon Press.]
Disclosure: I have had workshops under Manning’s tutelage and consider him a friend.

Whereas (Review/Response)

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.

Excerpts from Whereas are available online at Poetry magazine and Graywolf Press.

That Kind

sexton pumpkin

I was given a pumpkin last month just before Halloween, and lacked time for taking a proper stab at it, so I grabbed some markers and scrawled Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind” across it (and sketched a semblance of Anne’s face on one side).

A few days later, said pumpkin started leaking while in my kitchen, so we hurried it outside. A day or two later, I spotted squirrels doing their thing…

IMG_4058

IMG_4039

What I find far, far more obscene than local rodents romping with Miss Sexton O’Lantern is the behavior of various so-called public servants. Which is what led to this coming out of yesterday’s exercising:

That Kind

(after Anne Sexton)

I have gone out, whom they call bitch,
haunted by headlines, braver when I write
than when I dream, where with the hitch
that plagues my breath when awake I bite
down fire-curled curses, tame my mind
and modulate my voice to just above quiet.
I have been that kind.

I have found within old pockets of mourning
mustards hard as mortar, mayo soft as silk
and masking like poisons—like how milk
need not stink nor supply some other warning
before it brings a houseful to their knees.
I have buried shame amid indifferent trees.
I have been that kind.

I have been Cassandra, my screeching
marking not one slat of prideful walls
that keep no danger out. No beseeching
of gods will save us from the squalls
that care not who’s been good or who meant well:
the storms will scour us all from here to hell.
I have been that kind.

10 Reasons to Pre-order Mosaic of the Dark!

As we enter the holiday season, here are 10 reasons to pre-order Mosaic of the Dark, my first full-length book of poetry!

  • It’s a beautiful book. Really. But don’t just take my word for it. My mother-in-law, Sherry Samuels, says so too. She would know—she’s a former English teacher. 😊
  • It received a starred review in Kirkus! Click here to read the full review.
  • It’s better for the publisher to pre-order. Don’t you want to do your part to help small, independent poetry presses thrive???
  • The more copies I sell during the pre-order phase, the slightly less broke I will be after my book tour. Chicago, Austin, Pittsburgh, Knoxville, San Francisco, New York, here I come!
  • The more copies I sell, the more exposure my sister-in-law, Jill Samuels, will get for her beautiful artwork.
  • For any order placed by 12/31/17, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Tennessee Equality Project to support the good work they do on behalf of LGBTQ folks in TN. The Tennessee legislature spends a lot of time thinking up ways to marginalize us. Think how much good you can do by buying my book!
  • If I reach my target number by Dec 31, I am going to treat myself to a six-pack of blackberry La Croix.
  • The book will not be released until January but if you want to order the book to give as a gift before then, let me know (by Dec 15th) and I can send a nice card to the recipient. Hey, it’s something.
  • It’s the right thing to do. Trust me. 🙂
  • Have I mentioned how much I love La Croix???

To order, click here!