Swimming Together (Review)

Driftfish: A Zoomorphic Anthology, 2016

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.

introducing Dawn McDuffie: “Where do you find these ideas?”

Dawn McDuffie is a wonderful woman whom I’ve had the good fortune to know since the mid-1990s; we met at a YMCA Writer’s Voice workshop in Detroit. For the past twenty years (!) or so, we’ve corresponded about applications, books, church life, dolls, eats, and a good many things beyond. This is her first post for Vary the Line; please check back each month for more insights from Dawn (and the rest of us).


Where do you find these ideas?

I spent an hour or so this afternoon watching a pair of monarch butterflies flit from yard to yard. The four households own tiny city lots, but the homeowners have stuffed them with flowers and tasty milkweed. It seems unfair that the grace of butterflies, the changing of colors as one perennial blooms and another dies back — that all these riches didn’t inspire a new poem, although I did write a haibun last year during a terrible drought. In the same way, the current political state has sparked a sense of dread, but has not given me any poems. I’m grateful that somewhere between pure beauty and total distress I find possibilities lining up, waiting to be written. Here’s the haibun from last summer’s heat wave:

Detroit, summer 2016

7:00 A.M. and it’s 80° in our back yard, a small space surrounded by a high fence, and most years, the green of shade and sun, regular rain. Tangerine day lilies, pink lilies, coral bells with their sparkle wands tolerate the dry part of summer, but none of our plants can stay healthy with no rain at all. Summer thunder storms have passed us by. I go to bed with a glass of water on the night stand, just in case I’m too thirsty to sleep. In the morning I pour what I didn’t finish into a black plastic watering can. Seedlings, I’m sharing my drink with you.

Thirsty hummingbirds,
I have watered the bee balm,
cool gifts quickly gone.

Introduction by Lisa Dordal

Hello! My name is Lisa Dordal. I am a Nashville-based poet and teacher and I was recently invited by Peg Duthie to join this group as a monthly blogger. It took me a long time to realize I was a poet so I thought I would spend this first post talking a little about my journey as a poet.

 

I grew up in Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, as the youngest of four. Our house was full of books and there was a strong emphasis on academics–particularly on math and science. The message I received growing up was that logic and empiricism were superior to feelings and personal experience. I did not excel at either math or science, so I spent a good portion of my childhood and early adulthood feeling inadequate academically–as well as denying the importance of my feelings. I wrote some poetry in high school and college but then nothing for many years. It simply didn’t occur to me that poetry was something I should be taking seriously. Having been told my whole life that there was only one legitimate way to acquire knowledge–one dominant and correct orientation for wisdom–I spent years feeling out of sync in terms of my ability to learn about and experience the world.

 

After I graduated from college in 1986, I worked at a variety of support-level jobs. Then in 2001–at the age of 37–I decided to go to divinity school. I had been a Religious Studies major in college and had also briefly pursued a master’s degree in feminist theology in my late 20’s. I never felt called to enter the ministry; I only felt called to go to divinity school. During divinity school, I was drawn to studying the Bible. I wanted to learn as much as possible about this text–or texts–in which women appeared to play such a minor role. I wanted to somehow crack open the stories so that I could hear a fuller story. During my last year of divinity school, I began to write poems in which I creatively re-imagined certain key stories in which women appear only peripherally. My point was to give these women a kind of voice–or at least my version of a voice–that had long been denied to them.

 

The same year that I graduated from divinity school (2005), my partner, Laurie, spotted an announcement on the Vanderbilt webpage for a weekly poetry workshop that was going to be starting that fall and that would be open to anyone from the Nashville community. She forwarded the announcement to me with a message saying I might want to consider signing up. It turns out that signing up for this workshop was the beginning of a whole new journey. Several years later–and many poetry workshops later–I applied and was accepted to Vanderbilt’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing. And there I was–at the age of 45–a full-time graduate student.

 

Prior to enrolling in that first poetry workshop back in 2005, the only poetry I had been exposed to was whatever poetry had been assigned to me in my high school English classes or in the one literature class I had taken in college. Poetry, quite frankly, scared me. On the one hand, I was scared by how little of it I understood and, on the other hand, I was scared by how removed it seemed to be from the more “serious” pursuits of, say, science and math. Through my classes at Vanderbilt, I was introduced to a wide range of poets, and it was in the process of finally reading lots of poetry that I began to feel a sense of homeness inside of me–a sense of deep contentment as, finally, I was able to feed the deep hunger I had for knowing the world in the way that I needed to know the world.

This is what had been missing from my life for so long: the kind of radical, visceral, feeling-based immersion into the world that, for me, would come from reading and writing poetry. By immersing myself into poetry–by lowering myself into it–I am, at the same time, being lowered into the world, past and present, in a wonderfully embodied way. When I read poetry, I feel physically affected by it. Something happens inside of me.

 

Sometimes when I read a poem, it feels as if I am entering a room, a room in which every word has been loved into being; other times it feels as if I am walking along a wooded trail–as if each line of text is a path I must follow, must gladly follow. When I experience poetry as a kind of walking, I am aware of how much reading it slows me down. Poetry is sometimes described as language in which every word matters–take away one word and you take away the poem. When I enter the world of a poem, I am entering a world in which every word must be paid attention to. Slow, meditative attention. This slowing-down effect is particularly helpful to me at those times when I am feeling depressed or just generally overwhelmed by the events of the world around me. Reading the work of some of my favorite poets, slowly and meditatively one word a time draws me back to my center, to the present-ness of the moment. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that absolute attention is prayer. The act of reading poetry is a way of paying absolute attention and, thus, for me, a kind of prayer.

 

Too, when I read poetry, I know that I am not alone. I know that my life is bound up with the lives of others in this strange and wonderful and too often profoundly painful narrative of life. And when I write poetry, I know that I am not alone–that, in the process of writing, I am being led towards something bigger and deeper than my life alone. And it is in this feeling of transcendence–this feeling of connection to the larger web of creation and the web of human history in particular–that I feel a sense of deep, deep joy.

 

So, that’s the slightly condensed version of my journey. And now I’d like to share one of my poems that was recently published in Ninth Letter. I won’t always be sharing my own work on this blog–there’s plenty of poems from other poets I’d like to share here–but I figured this poem sort of relates to my journey of becoming a poet. Here’s the link:

http://ninthletter.com/web-edition/summer-2017/summer-2017-poetry/217-dordal

Until next month,

Lisa D.

 

 

 

 

 

At Bay

bay leaves and book

The leaves my sister
told me to throw out
reminded me of books
I hadn’t read in years

but then I saw
that only the veins
matched the antique pages.
So much for spinning

some spiel about stories,
spices and sauces —
how almost everything fades,
dries out, flickers

into dirt and dustbins. Yet
to greet this morning
with such abundance —
how immense, how marvelous

to sit for a while
with obsolete leaves
and then to cast them
upon last year’s wreaths

decomposing
amid the scraps
of ordinary meals. What
a luxury, this space

to not need what’s at hand
and time to study it anyway —
a few final minutes
of not yet moving on.

old and new bay

Singing Colors (Review)

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.

Bouts-Rimes for Hope

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.

Spirit Speech (Review)

A Field Guide to the Spirits, Jean LeBlanc, Aqueduct Press 2015

The poems in Jean LeBlanc’s A Field Guide to the Spirits cover a range of subjects, opening with mediums and ghosts, dipping into nature and natural sites, famous natural scientists of the 19th century and their family members, and historical figures from even older periods, before returning to the titular poem of the collection.

LeBlanc’s work is not rife with musical device; you will not find sonnet or alliteration here. I found the lack of musical device, usually intended to make a phrase memorable, a bit ironic given that the topics of so many of the poems were things to be remembered or involved remembrances by their speakers.

What LeBlanc’s work gives you is the surprising point of view—be it person or place—and the stunning epiphany.

For example, her “Hope, Hunger, Birds” does indeed trace a trajectory between those three concepts, although not in that order, and begins and ends in such different but related places that you cannot help but feel moved. I loved that the epigraph was by Susan Fenimore Cooper. It’s difficult to pick out just a few lines because it is the context they build together that is striking, but I keep coming back to these:

Like a songbird, my old heart,
still believing it will see another spring, craving
every tender blossom, wanting more.

In these poems, I appreciated the presence of Caroline Herschel, Catherine Barton (Newton’s niece), the unnamed woman describing how the town elders inspected the underwear of a group of women, especially her last snarky, surprising line. There is a lot to learn here; LeBlanc presents vivid portraits that made me, as reader, want to know more in the cases where I did not.

While she may not employ the poet’s arsenal of musical device, LeBlanc certainly understands it. In “Eleven Reasons Not To Marry A Poet,” she writes,

They are enamored of pretty words, but most especially of the saying of pretty words. You must be careful not to believe beyond the final iamb.

Indeed, it is the space beyond that final iamb which LeBlanc’s work explores.

Leaf Against Leaf (Reviews)

Book of Asters, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mayapple Press 2014

Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet Press 2013

The titles of these books suggest a common theme; the poems themselves support convergent evolution: there are so many ways of getting to the epiphany that plants are intertwined with human life.

Burnett’s book opens with a long poem in 46 parts, “Variations on an urban monotone”. That sets the tone for the remainder of the book because the rest of the poems move in a slow arc from the urban to the rural, from the concrete and discrete to the surreal and amorphous.

What I appreciated about the long piece was the sonic texture. There was repetition of concept and word between parts and there was alliteration and repetition inside each part. The parts include “fungus”, “chlorophyll”, “unboxed”, “milk”. They include the speaker’s wait in line at a corner store, noticing they are the only one with skin the color of milk. These are plants in the most unlikely places.

Kindred’s plants are those in the most likely places: yards, ditches, weeds at the edges of driveways. Kindred’s plants define place: the deep South of the United States, dog-days of summer, the stereotypical dysfunctional Southern family. From “Ironweed Summer”:

If we had to be their girls,
then there had to be ironweeds
around that house, needling up
through the pine shreds where
treelight divided one hard season
from the next.

Kindred’s book opens with women, girls, flowers, the allegory of the flower never used as you might expect with respect to women and girls. She leaves behind her oracular voice as the book progresses: the second section focuses on a speaker who has miscarried, using a very confessional voice, and introduces the speaker’s sons, who play a large part in the third section which attempts to blend confessional poems about sons and husbands with the oracular-aster-girls of the opening.

Perhaps the whole is summarized best in an arc drawn between the two sunflower poems: “When They Painted My Room Yellow”, which comes at the end of the first section, and “Sunflowers” which comes near the end of the book. In the first poem, the speaker is a young girl and afraid of “a city of flowers”, “sunflower Armageddon”, and yet knows

the name of my survival
is sunflower
as if I knew myself
gold, a feast of grief ribbons.

In “Sunflowers” the speaker is a mother needing the appetites of sunflowers “needing my skin made gold”, whose sons love to watch sunflowers burn. I confess, I did not want to make that trip with the speaker, from terror to burning. It was the earlier poems, the oracular-aster-girls that stayed with me.

What stays with me from Burnett’s book, even as her poems become literally less grounded, are her ideas. By the time I reach “Icarus” I am a bit lost, wishing for simple leaves, but Burnett instead gives me an essay on gentrification and social-economics tied to place using the conceit of sheep. She offers me the association of “oval” and “ovary” encapsulated in a poem about mirrors in which the lines reflect back on themselves. She offers the beginning of “Acorn”:

let’s grow     just like that oak tree
grows     both ways     both at once

What’s in a Title?

In college, a math prof told me tests were opportunities. [An 8am class on differential equations; who wants an opportunity at 8am? But I think that was his point.] It stayed with me, the concept that difficulty and opportunity are intertwined.

In that same difficult way, titles are opportunities. They are what help the reader decide to read the poem. They need to be appealing, intriguing, have an air of mystery yet be comprehensible—or perhaps be so incomprehensible that the reader is drawn in by what they do not understand. Titles can be phrases from the poem’s body, without the context of the poem yet, in order to allow the reader an epiphany, a mental change of position as they go through the poem. They must be pithy—or they must wave their verbosity as so large a flag it is impossible to deny.

Every weekday, over at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Christine Klocek-Lim posts a new poem. I get them through Twitter. And this fact, the fact that Klocek-Lim tweets only author and title and URL is what has made me think hard about titles.

Because, dear reader, most of them do not make me want to click the link. That little effort. Raise the thumb, squeeze. That’s it. And yet often I find the titles do not compel a mash on the phone.

So I want to take a look through the most recent ten titles and say yea or nay—and why.

  1. “Soldier’s Home” [link]
    I clicked this one because I decided there was enough ambiguity in the possesive apostrophe—it could be the home of the soldier or “the soldier is home”—that I wanted to see which. But I had to think about it.
  2. “Yokohama” [link]
    Sure, I like Japan. I also like specificity.
  3. “Idiot Hearts” [link]
    Oh, yes, what’s an idiot heart? And, I guess, aren’t we all?
  4. “Downstream” [link]
    Possibly just because it sounded cold and it’s hot here. Very very hot. Otherwise, it’s simple and not particularly memorable.
  5. “Rebirth on the Side of the Road” [link]
    I should have, right? There’s a nice mix of oddity [rebirth] and normalcy [road side], as well as concept juxtaposition [same as previous asides], but well, no, I just couldn’t get excited about someone else’s rebirth. [I wonder whether “Road-Side Rebirth” would have tingled my Spidey sense more?”]
  6. “Feedback” [link]
    Yes! Which type of feedback is it? There’s a chance it’s not a poem about a poetry workshop, it could be electrical feedback!
  7. “Another Love Story” [link]
    Nope. I didn’t want to read another love story.
  8. “Numinous” [link]
    Always more numinousity! But, to be honest, I clicked this because of the author.
  9. “Reflection” [link]
    Nope. While feedback had lots of synonym options, and reflection does too, it wasn’t sufficiently unusual enough for me to want to see what type of reflection was going on here.
  10. “Well-Attended” [link]
    I really didn’t know what this meant, whether it meant a group of people or an event, or perhaps both, and that was intriguing.

Perhaps you’d have followed all these links based on the titles? Or you’d have picked only the ones I didn’t? Please tell me so, and why. I’d love to hear more angles on what works for titles. Just not at 8am.

again with “Still I Rise”

It’s not every morning that my tennis Twitter timeline greets me with multiple tweeps urging the world to listen to Serena Williams narrate a BBC montage with Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (a poem I posted about here back in December, that time because Twitter had let me know about Williams reciting it on receiving an award).

The BBC has been roundly criticized for its feeble and at times astounding gormless coverage of women’s tennis this past fortnight (h/t @MBDigital001). Here’s hoping that it does better going forward. While this clip neither mitigates nor addresses the deep-seated attitudes and assumptions undergirding the coverage issues, it was nonetheless lovely to glimpse hundreds of people thrilled and moved by this new rendition of an almost-forty-year-old poem — one barely older than the woman who today tied Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Slam singles titles, and then won doubles with her sister, both of them significantly older than the majority of other elite WTA players.

crowd craning to see Serena
Crowd craning to see Serena Williams in Cincinnati, 2014