A Poem about the Greeks That Worked Out Just Fine

I will go back & write about my South Carolina travels, but first I want to tell you about how I ended National Poetry Month. On Thursday, April 28, I visited an undergraduate English class at Adelphi University, a class that for many is their first significant exposure to studying poetry. Though we'd never met, Professor Kimberly (Kimmy) Grey invited me out of the blue some months back with kind words and the promise of students who had each purchased a copy of I Was the Jukebox. I said yes, without fully processing the logistics of driving to Long Island and back within 24 hours.

To be honest, folks, the month has been as exhausting as it has been exhilarating. As you may notice, things are changing: not only the blog design but the launch of a Twitter feed, an Author page on Facebook, and a general uptick in online activity. This has come after a month of nonstop touring, and feeling the cost in every possible way--body, soul, love life. I've had some hard deliberations about how I choose to spend my time. Why go from reading to reading, when I could probably make as much money hunkering down and freelancing in the comforts of my Washington apartment? How does one tread the fine line between reaching people and, um, pandering out of an addiction to an audience? We respect authors for the former; we judge them for the latter. I fully expect to stumble en route to finding a balance between the two. 

But if I fail, I'll fail in the trying. 

When you're feeling low, there is nothing more restorative than to walk into a classroom like Professor Grey's. They'd read the book, and thought about its themes and motifs. They listened. They laughed. They cared. They made requests. They had questions, one of which picked up on my Shakespeare references, one of which pinpointed a contemporary influence out of nowhere (yes, you can hear Billy Collins's poem "Litany," in "Love Poem for Oxidation"). Thanks to Professor Grey's leadership--what an amazing teacher she is, clearly delighted by the act of teaching--they'd looked up definitions of any words they didn't know, and they knew about the sestina form. And at the end, -everyone- lined up to get their books signed, even though it meant some of them were late for their next class. That never happens!

Many of the students had presented on my book via memorizing and reciting poems. This in itself is a labor of love, especially when taking on a 39-line poem such as "The Platypus Speaks." But one student chose to work through a poem visually, not verbally. She chose one of my favorite poems to share with undergraduates, one which I often introduce using "the doorstep premise." By "the doorstep premise," I mean that a leap into surrealism can be introduced by many everyday actions--such as opening the door. What if it's not the expected guest on your doorstep, but someone (or something) completely out of place? Such as...a Greek warrior? What happens then?

Without further ado, here is the ILLUSTRATED version of "Another Failed Poem about the Greeks," courtesy of Adelphi University student Emily Frisbie. You can look at this linked version (via W. W. Norton) or in I Was the Jukebox for the original line and stanza breaks. I've taken them out here, to focus on the pace of the images.

"His sword dripped blood. His helmet gleamed. He dragged a Gorgon’s head behind him. As first dates go, this was problematic. He itched and fidgeted." 
"He said Could I save something for you? But I was all out of maidens bound to rocks."
"So I took him on a roller coaster, wedging in next to his breastplated body in the little car. He put his arm around me, as the Greeks do. On the first dip he laughed."
"On the first drop he clutched my shoulder and screamed like a catamite. 
When we racheted to a full stop he said Again."
"We went on the Scrambler, the Apple Turnover, the Log Flume."
"We went on the Pirate Ship three times, swooshing forward, back, upside down, and he cried Aera! waving his sword...."

"...until the operator asked him to please keep all swords inside the car."
"He was a good sport, letting the drachmas fall out of his pockets; sparing the girl
who spilled punch on his shield...."
"...waving as I rode the carousel’s hippogriff though it was a slow ride, and I made him hold my purse."
"On the way home he said We should do this again sometime, though we both knew it would never happen since he was Greek, of course, and dead, and somewhere a maiden rattled in her chains."

There you have it. A successful poem about the Greeks. Someone liked one of my poems enough to live in it for a while, scene by scene, and that offers glimmers of hope that I'm doing the right thing, even if the right thing doesn't make for the most comfortable or   consistent of lifestyles right now. Thank you, Emily! Thank you.

No Poetry Will Serve

At the end of my senior year of college, my Early British Literature professor asked me to identify my two "literary parents." He said all writers have them, but few can identify them, or are unwilling to do so honestly, and that one cannot truly be a writer until one identifies one's parents. I thought for a moment and responded with Robert Lowell and Adrienne Rich.

That was over a decade ago, and even though, today, I reject the embedded heteronormativity of the question and think that it's kind of a ridiculous statement to say one can't be a writer without having an answer to such a question, and while I'm not sure I'd say Lowell has held the position (though as I type this I'm not so sure I wasn't right the first time), Adrienne Rich has certainly maintained her Bloomian influence on my writing and poetics.

Here's one poem of hers that I've long admired.


The Eye

A balcony, violet shade on stucco fruit in a plastic bowl on the iron
     raggedy legged table, grapes and sliced melon, saucers, a knife, wine
in a couple of thick short tumblers cream cheese once came in: our snack
     in the eye of the war     There are places where fruit is implausible, even
rest is implausible, places where wine if any should be poured into wounds
     but we're not yet there or it's not here yet it's the war
not us, that moves, pauses and hurtles forward into the neck
     and groin of the city, the soft indefensible places but not here yet

Behind the balcony an apartment, papers, pillows, green vines still watered
     there are waterless places but not here yet, there's a bureau topped with marble
and combs and brushes on it, little tubes for lips and eyebrows, a dish of coins and keys
     there's a bed a desk a cane rocker a bookcase civilization
cage with a skittery bird, there are birdless places but not
     here yet, this bird must creak and flutter in the name of all
uprooted orchards, limbless groves
     this bird standing for wings and song that here can't fly

Our bed quilted     wine poured     future uncertain     you'd think
     people like us would have it scanned and planned     tickets to somewhere
would be in the drawer     with all of our education you'd think we'd have taken measures
     soon as ash started turning up on the eges of everything ash
in the leaves of books ash on the leaves of trees and in the veins of the passive
     innocent life we were leading calling it hope
you'd think that and we thought this     it's the war not us that's moving
     like shade on the balcony

Adrienne Rich
from The School Among the Ruins


Rich's most recent book is Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010. Here's an excerpt from a recent must-read interview she gave Paris Review:

In “Waiting for Rain, for Music” there are the lines “Straphanger swaying in a runaway car/ palming a notebook scribbled//in contraband calligraphy against the war/ poetry wages against itself.” What is this war? 
I was imagining someone in a subway car, trying perhaps to write a poem “against war” as so many of us have done during and since the Vietnam era (and, historically, way back). But to be “against war” has come to seem too easy a stance. War exists in a texture of possession and deprivation, economic and religious dogmas, racism, colonialist exploitation, nationalism, unequal power. Who decides to make war? Who is destroyed in it? Who creates the rhetoric of “terror” and “democracy”? And so this poet in the subway has to write “in contraband calligraphy” against a poetry that makes “peace” seem all too easy or comfortable, war too morally simple. Poetry without a critical social vision, if you will. 

What are the obligations of poetry? Have they changed in your lifetime? 
I don’t know that poetry itself has any universal or unique obligations. It’s a great ongoing human activity of making, over different times, under different circumstances. For a poet, in this time we call “ours,” in this whirlpool of disinformation and manufactured distraction? Not to fake it, not to practice a false innocence, not pull the shades down on what’s happening next door or across town. Not to settle for shallow formulas or lazy nihilism or stifling self-reference. 
Nothing “obliges” us to behave as honorable human beings except each others’ possible examples of honesty and generosity and courage and lucidity, suggesting a greater social compact.

My First Time Reading with Music and Visual Accompaniment

I’ll be reading a love poem for my wife tonight as one small part of the OBU Bisonette Glee Club’s concert, which celebrates national poetry month with a cornucopia of poetry-related music. There will also be a visual-arts element to the concert. If you are in or near Shawnee, you won’t want to miss this concert, which is at 7:30 tonight in the Yarborough Auditorium of the chapel on the OBU campus.

More news from friends

This morning I finally had a chance to start in on my backlog of literary journals, and look what I found in Indiana Review: a poem by my good friend Jeff Schultz.

Jeff and I attended the MFA at the University of Oregon together, and he's since published all over the place, won a "Discovery"/Boston Review Prize, and received a prestigious Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Pepperdine University.


Old News and the Borrowed Blues

          I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.
                              --Miles Davis

All winter the dog’s run his track around the yard’s edge
          deeper into the mud; he’s pissed on the same fence-posts,

Snorted at the squirrel between the weathered boards,
          and he circles always, as if there were a better place to shit.

I don’t think he has it in him to mind, but thing is, I can’t stop
          feeling sorry for myself and the piss-poor state of my days:

Rain and a walk to the market. Rain and the same old news,
          the anchor trying to manage a segue from seventeen burnt bodies

To ten tips to kick your shopping addiction with something like grace.
          And there are forms to fll out and co-pays to make.

There’s the institutional AC’s unwavering rumble and hiss.
          But isn’t that the thing about the blues? At bottom,

It’s always the same: One, Four, Five, One, repeat. You always know
          what’s coming, and only The Greats can make you forget

To expect it: We sleep-in on weekends, eat breakfast late,
          sit at the kitchen table and listen to the radio.

But it’s the waking I like best, whole hours of it, tangling
          and untangling our bodies, fixing on the grace of the neck

Or wrist before circling back into a dream of a day beginning.
          It used to nag at me always, I was such a child, asking,

Is this all there is? But these days together, a little sunlight
          out the window rinsing the leaf-tips of the familiar,

I tell you, Honey, we’re the richest dogs on Earth.

Jeffrey Schultz
from Indiana Review, Winter 2010

Publisher's Weekly Just Made My Day

From the April 25 issue of Publisher's Weekly...
Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

Sandra Beasley. Crown, $23 (240p) ISBN 978-0-307-58811-1

In this intelligent and witty memoir, poet Beasley (I Was the Jukebox) recounts her lifelong struggle to live a normal life while waging a battle against deadly food allergies. The author is one of "more than 12 million Americans who have been diagnosed with food allergies, a figure that includes almost 4% of all children." The title of this enthralling book is not hyperbole. As little as a kiss or hug from a family member or a friend who had eaten cake or ice cream at a birthday party could cause Beasley to break out in hives or, worse, suffer anaphylactic shock. She calls sherbet "sweet, icy death in a bowl." Beasley details her vigilant parents' never-ending routine for keeping her safe during her childhood until she left for college, how she and her friends coped with "the thousand minor hassles of living with" her food allergies during college, and the perils of eating while traveling. Throughout this thoughtful and well-written book, Beasley closes the knowledge gap surrounding food allergies. She writes entertainingly about the history of allergies, and current research findings; religious issues surrounding food allergies; and processed foods and their hidden ingredients. (June)


So much of this book was written under deadline, and with very little feedback from the outside world. It's not like poetry, where by the time a full collection comes out you've had the thousand back-and-forth rounds of response from workshop classmates, journal editors, and readers. So to get an early & positive review is a huge gift. Someone finally read it! And liked it! Let the happy dance commence~

The Monday Tape

It seems like the success bug is going around, and it's bitten a much larger number of friends than I can possibly post in a Top 5. So, with the caveat that I can't include everyone, here's a sampling with links to some recent works.

Top 5 Bits of Good News/Publications from Friends

5. Austin Kodra, a former poetry student of mine at the University of Tennessee, just had a chapbook published and he recently accepted a full ride for three years to one of the country's best MFA programs. Austin's chapbook, There Is This, is just out from Medulla Publishing and is available for purchase at Amazon. Watch for a lot more soon from Austin, and watch this blog for more about his chapbook.

4. Brian Simoneau, a former MFA-colleague from the days back at the University of Oregon, has one helluva poem up in the most recent issue of Waccamaw. The poem is a single sentence which begins:
"We must tease it out from every surface in winter,
must shovel-scrape asphalt, push the blizzard-drift
aside, slide, scuff, lift and flip, must free up space for feet, breath
rising in huffs and puffs the flakes keep falling through, piling
faster than thoughts of the infinite flee our feeble grasp..."
It goes on from there. Read it. Click here. Also, check out Brian's blog: Heartland Perhaps.

3. Adam Prince and Charlotte Pence, University of Tennessee comrades in the Creative Writing Program, both had collections picked up for publication by Black Lawrence Press. Adam's short story collection, The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men, is forthcoming, and Charlotte's chapbook, Branches, will be published in the near future. Congratulations to both. Here's a link to Charlotte's review blog.

2. Matthew Nienow has a fine new chapbook out from Codhill Press. It's called The End of the Folded Map and includes a number of fine poems which you may have seen in some of this country's best literary journals, including New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, and Indiana Review, among others. I had the privilege of recently reading Matt's full first book manuscript, and I doubt it will be very long before a major press sees in his work what so many other editors have. Here's a link to Matt's blog: It Goes Without Saying.

1. Luke Johnson is really making a name for himself. His first collection, After the Ark, was published by NYQ Books only a few months ago, he's got poems coming out in top-notch journals all over the place, and he just had a piece featured in The Wall Street Journal. Here's a link to Luke's blog: Proof of Blog.

I've previously posted a handful of Luke's poems in my 2010 book round up, and you should check them out and you should buy his book if you can, but mostly I want to call attention to his Wall Street Journal article. Here's the title and a brief excerpt. Poets have said as much for years, but it took Luke to get it inside the page of The Wall Street Journal. It's a must read.

from "I'm a Poet. Yes, That's a Real Job."
But, alas, glow doesn’t pay the rent. So, poets teach, or they go back to school so they can later teach, or they collect obscure job titles to one day use in a cheeky contributor note (I currently work as a Pet Service Specialist). Some of them, often the best of them, will go undercover—wear suits and carry briefcases, returning to their writing desk only after the sun has gone down and the city has gone to sleep. Most mornings I wake up and set to tinkering before sunrise. Commas become periods. Needless adjectives disappear. Lines transmogrify into new lines. It’s a chiseling, a removal of anything and everything getting in the way of the good stuff, that initial glow of the poem’s composition. A friend once called the writing of poetry a “thankless act,” and he may be right. After hours at my desk, the most I’ll ever have to show is another poem, and that is enough (it has to be).

Beauty Will Save the World

It's Easter and, as per usual during this season, I'm wrestling with my Angels of Faith and Doubt.

Every year the process begins with me giving something up for Lent, and then telling myself that this act isn’t really an act done out of faith (I have too much doubt for such a thing), but that in general it's just a good idea to once a year hit the reset button on some part of one's life that needs retooling, and the time one would spend on whatever activity that’s just been reset can now be allocated elsewhere.

This year, I gave up the political blogosphere (ditto for last year) but I also added the talking heads and political debate shows on TV. Huge for me. No Chris Matthews or Hannity. No Glenn Beck. No Rachel Maddow. No debating, no gossip. No more obsessing over being “in the know.” And no more yelling at the TV and feeling smug and superior to the idiocy and speciousness of the arguments coming from those with whom I disagree. None of that.

I suppose those more devout than I give up TV altogether. (I remember kids at church when I was growing up who did that—they seemed “off” somehow.) Or maybe they give up other all-consuming distractions like email or their iPods or obsessing over weight loss, and then use their refocused time and energy for prayer, I suppose, or supplication of some kind. Or maybe they…well, who knows what they do. This season, I’ve focused on what I know: the poems, and I’ve really got some good work done toward a new manuscript. For me, during Lent, poetry, of course, always winds up getting the bulk of the newly found ration of my revitalized temporal focus, and the writing is, I suppose, also a kind of prayer and act of devotion. But back to my confused emotional/spiritual state…

Piss Christ, photograph, 1987
I’ve felt this way since Monday when I read the news that Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" had been attacked at a gallery showing in Avignon on Palm Sunday: Catholic fundamentalists wielding hammers and knives.

"Piss Christ" is, clearly, blasphemy to many. I suppose if you take any religious icon and immerse it in urine or any bodily product you're bound to enrage the pious. My reaction to the news was also anger and frustration, though not with Serrano's work. Actually, I've always found the piece to be quite beautiful and moving, and in its destruction, I think there’s something even more provocative and beautiful than in the original. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

I frequently bring “Piss Christ” into my intro rhetoric/composition classes when discussing how rhetorical situations function and the role context plays in an audience’s reception of a text. I’ll put the image of Serrano’s crucifix up on the screen, without any background on the artist or the title or really any info at all, and ask for my students’ impressions and reactions. Consistently the students comment on how Christ looks bathed in the light of heaven, or how they find the image on the whole to be spiritually moving. Those who aren’t Christian or religious usually say the iconography doesn’t speak to them in the same way as the majority of students, but that they can appreciate the color and the light, that it’s “good” art, etc.

After talking about the image, I give a brief bio of Serrano, describe his process and some of his other pieces, and tell them this image is titled “Piss Christ” and about the composition processes behind the production of the image. Next, I ask them to write a metacognitive response about how their relationship to the image has changed now that they’ve been provided with this additional context. Their responses are almost always the same. They’re surprised and disgusted. Some of them laugh nervously. Invariably they wind up writing about the role of art, about how this piece is immoral, and, of course, about federal funding of the arts. They wind up writing about the surrounding rhetorical situation and context at the expense of a discussion of the text, the thing itself, Serrano’s photograph. They abandon the beauty of the thing that initially they found to be so moving.

I think the way my students write about “Piss Christ” is kind of like my relationship to Easter, to the crucifixion and resurrection. My frenetic concern is with my own surrounding contexts, all my swirling questions of faith and doubt, and all the implications of religious faith and my theological and philosophical hang-ups, at the expense of what is really quite moving in this season: Sacrifice leads to beauty. Death leads to beauty. ("Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams / And our desires.") And it seems to me that, somehow—maybe it’s the commercialized hullabaloo of Easter nowadays, though I think it’s more systemic than just that—Christians forget and even outright shun what is most beautiful in this season: our humanity and the humanity of Christ.

Piss Christ, damaged April 17, 2011 via The Guardian

Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is, to me, paradoxically, a non-cognitive reminder of what I absorbed in Sunday School as a boy: God Made Flesh. To become one of us, to become human, Christ may as well have plunged himself into a jar of urine. It doesn’t get much more real than that. And now that the image has been destroyed, it is no longer just an image of incarnation, it’s an image of the Incarnation’s interaction with and impact on humanity and humanity’s reaction to it. Shock and rage are, I think, a legitimate response to the beauty of “Piss Christ,” and the human actions of the devout protestors, too, make me think Dostoyevsky might actually have been right: “Beauty will save the world.” And that's something I can believe in, or at least try to.

One of the projects I’ve restarted during Lent is a collection of essays on contemporary Christian poets, and one of those poets is Andrew Hudgins who's written the only poem (at least the only one I’m aware of) about Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” So, for Easter, here are two poems by Andrew Hudgins.


Piss Christ

          Andres Serrano, 1987

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light,
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
the fallen world is made of what we make.
He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.

Andrew Hudgins
from Ecstatic in the Poison

Christ as Gardener

The boxwoods planted in the park spell LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again – come spring, come Easter – no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves. I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
of unscythed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here – what lives, what dies,
and how. But it goes deeper even than that.
His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
to lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it –
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail, and goldenrod.

Andrew Hudgins
from The Never-Ending

"Poet's Pick" by Arthur Smith

Every weekday during National Poetry Month, Poetry Daily emails a "Poet's Pick" to its newsletter subscribers. Tuesday's "Poet's Pick" was by Art Smith who teaches in the Creative Writing Program here at the University of Tennessee, and as a way of supporting Poetry Daily and my friend and colleague, I've decided to post his pick here. "Poet's Pick" is one of Poetry Daily's primary fundraisers, so please consider sending them a donation by clicking this link: Support Poetry Daily.

Arthur Smith's Poetry Month Pick, April 19, 2011 
"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Arthur Smith Comments: 
One of the great pleasures in re-reading Millay’s sonnet “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why” is encountering its complexity again.  Millay chose one of the oldest and most venerated of literary forms—think of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—in which to declare her independence from gender roles and general decorum that she found so stifling.  In so doing, she extended the range of the sonnet while challenging some of its basic assumptions. 
It is important to remember Millay in her own era.  This sonnet was published in 1922 and later included in The Harp Weaver, for which she received thePulitzer Prize in 1923.  James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923), and Pound’s Cantos (begun in 1924) were already winning the day for Modernism, and poems such as Hart Crane’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” (1926) posed the unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, question of how one deals with memory, with sentimentality, with aspects that make us human. 
Born in Maine in 1892, Edna St. Vincent Millay graduated from Vassar in 1917, after which she lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  By the time her second book, A Few Figs from Thistles, was published in 1920, Millay was already known for her cynicism and her hedonistic wit.  (Remember, this was a woman who wrote “My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/It gives a lovely light!”)  Openly bisexual, Millay chafed at all perceived constraints and found rather quickly a viable option for herself and for her radical views.  In 1923 she married Eugen Boissevain, and from 1925 until his death in 1949 she lived with him in Austerlitz, New York, where he protected her from outside distraction, allowing her to write and pursue her bohemian lifestyle.  She died one year after him, in 1950. 
Millay’s reputation suffered at the hands of the early Modernist critics because her poems were seen as sentimental and backward looking and, at times, arch with inversions of grammar and word order, with apostrophes and posturings, and because her later work could be heavily polemicized—her outrage at the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, for example, and her anti-Fascist propaganda poetry in the 1940s.  But in her best work there is a lyrical stoicism—similar to that of Thomas Hardy’s in “During Wind and Rain” (1917)—that undercuts these perceived weaknesses.  There is an intensity in Millay’s work that is made even more dramatic by her technical skills, by the directness of her lyricism, by her exquisite handling of tone.  Perhaps this was her way of bridging the gap she found between the Victorian era and her own.  And she did add a new voice into the hopper of opportunity, for which we might bear a secret gratitude. 
Millay appropriated the Petrarchan sonnet, not the Shakespearean, to embody the intense emotion, with its interlocking rhymes and internal couplets.  The opening spondee highlights the intrigue by stating not “whose” lips the speaker had kissed, but “what” lips.   Suddenly we have a bit of mystery and the voice of an independent female, but one encountering distress.  The telling outer rhymes of the octet—“why,” “sigh,” “[no] reply,” and “cry”—pretty much disclose the struggle within the first eight lines.  The monosyllabic first line, heightened with punctuation, takes a long time to sound out, but from there on, the enjambed thoughts of lines two to four keep offsetting the balance of the early rhymes with these staggered, emotional deliveries.  The “sigh” then leads directly into the complication.  At the end of the first quatrain there is no punctuation to slow down the acceleration and descent into the second quatrain where the real issues lurk: ageing and loneliness.  What is new here is the voice of a woman who has seemingly picked her way through life and love, and has now found herself alone, and is aware of the profound loss of that singing around her and within her.  The first eight lines are made up of one sentence.  Once begun, there is no stopping.  This information tumbles out without a pause and ends abruptly with “a cry.”  Sound familiar? This, too, is “a little death.”  Lines six through eight have no punctuation other than the end-stop and quickly give way to the sestet, in which the speaker is just now seeing herself as the lonely tree.  And with the metaphor comes the insight.  The sestet begins with the formality of its periodic construction, which helps dramatize and situate the metaphor of the tree.  The speaker’s losses become plain even to herself, doled out by the measured end-stopped lines, and then finally the lovely enjambed two lines that serve also as a couplet.  Part of the horror in this poem occurs in its use of the word “unremembered” to describe the lads in the speaker’s life.  If love is seen as one of the signposts of life, then the names of the lovers go first, leaving them in memory only as actors, lovers in a natural or biological act, as functionaries.  There is coyness here, there is the beautiful handling of tone, and there is the incorrigible spirit of loss dragging art out of us once again.

2011 Pulitzer Prize - Poetry

You've probably read the recent press release that Kay Ryan and her collection The Best of It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The two other finalists were Maurice Manning for The Common Man, and Jean Valentine for Break the Glass. The judges were Grace Schulman, Susan Stewart, and Ted Kooser. Here's the judges' citation from the official press release:

"Awarded to The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan (Grove Press), a body of work spanning 45 years, witty, rebellious and yet tender, a treasure trove of an iconoclastic and joyful mind."

Last year the Creative Writing Program at the University of Tennessee was fortunate to have Kay Ryan as a Visiting Writer, and I wrote about this here on the blog shortly thereafter. Here's a link to my discussion of my first encounter with her work as an undergraduate and my review of her reading, and an excerpt from the review along with a few poems and links to more.

"Kay Ryan Visit":
Tuesday and Wednesday this week I had the great fortune to interact with Kay Ryan, our current U.S. Poet Laureate. She came to the University of Tennessee to give a poetry reading and interact with students and various campus groups. 
Her reading on Tuesday was exceptional in many respects. First, it filled the University Center auditorium to capacity, and I haven't seen a comparable crowd at at non-sports-related UTK event since I've been here. Second, her reading was hypnotic. I was completely sucked in and won over by her poems, and I hadn't felt this way before. Not that I was closed to or turned off by her work--it just didn't speak to in the way that other poets I adore do. I think this earlier perspective on her work is due to my initial encounter with her poems. 
I first read her as an undergraduate when my poetry professor suggested I take a look at Ryan's collection Say Uncle. So, I promptly went out and put the book on my credit card (poetry and that credit card is a whole other entry I'll have to do one day), took it home and prepared to dig in to a book that would revolutionize my understanding of poetry or somehow blow my mind. What happened was anything but what I'd anticipated. 
Here were these tiny narrow poems, little vertical rectangles made of words, just sitting on the page. Where was the movement I loved and found so engaging in the other poets I was reading at the time? Why were these poems even written? How come they don't say anything? Or do anything? I even remember declaring to a friend, "This is what's wrong with American poetry!" A pronouncement, among others, which I was prone to making then because, you know, I knew it all. (Yeah, right!)...
Well, I was lucky enough to talk to Ryan about my so-called "undergraduate reaction," and ask her if this is a reaction she often encounters. She was quite generous and understanding in her response. Two points she made were that she's not trying to write poems like everyone else, that she's just trying to write poems that are about or move toward the "ineffable" (her word). 
This "outsider" quality is one she played up quite a bit during the reading. She's really quite funny. She stressed a few times, while talking to the undergraduate English and creative writing majors, that education tends to teach the lyricism out of us. She said that she prefers "smart" over "educated," the idea being, I think, that the education we receive diminishes our natural ability to recognize lyric, and so we approach poems in terms of canon or poetic school or the poetry wars, etc. This is an idea I quite like, and agree with to a large extent, and I can see that this was the case for me in the way I reacted to her poems early on as an undergraduate being "educated" in poetry. "There is nothing I hate more than literary snobbery," she said, "It isn't shameful to be clear."

Click here for the whole posting.

Some of Kay Ryan's poems posted previously @ Against Oblivion:

"Say Uncle"
"A Hundred Bolts of Satin"

This Friday at the Writer's Center - Story/Stereo!

I am in Oxford, Mississippi, catching my breath after a couple of readings in South Carolina. More on those in a day or two, but in the meantime I wanted to give you a heads-up on an AMAZING show coming up this Friday at the Writer's Center. 


Featuring Emerging Writer Fellows Andrew Altschul (author of Deus Ex Machina) and Eli Hastings (author of Falling Room). They will be joined by cellist Amy Domingues, who will play “A Night of Baroque Music” for the Viola Da Gamba, an early sister instrument of the cello. 

Hear Domingues here; get a glimpse of Andrew Altschul's novel via NPR

8 PM - Free - 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda
(Accessible from the Red Line metro)

This is a little different from other nights in the series--we're staging it in the reading room, for a more intimate vibe, and the acoustics will be be particularly easy on the ear. Give it a try! You won't regret it. 

The Tax Man Cometh

I almost forgot to post this poem, as I always do on this day: Tax Day. Enjoy.

Tax Man

Thunder Bob used to drive for Consolidated Freight
before the small bones began to press
against the nerves in his lower back
and his right foot went numb.
Now he slouches in blue suspenders,
forearms propped on a steel desk, doing my taxes.

In the den his wife watches the Simpson trial
and he wants to get me done, squinting down
at last year’s forms, muttering, a Chesterfield
burning away between his fingers. You need
more write-offs, he says, peering sideways
through the smoke. Since you can’t afford a house,
why not have another kid, eh?
Rain blowing in off the bay rattles the windows
and the branches of the pin oaks moan. He knows
my wife moved out last year. The kids I’ve got
are waiting, eating cold Chinese by the TV.

You watch, he tells me. Soon they’ll start messing
with Social Security. I can hear the lawyer’s voices
carping down the airwaves and I think sometimes
the rain will never end, a bleak mudcaked creature
prowling the landscape, entering our homes
while we sleep, its ragged breath like quicklime
misting our faces.

Driving home through the storm I think of him
leaning against his porch, telling me
to be careful. Try to kick down more cash
into Retirement, he’d said, bracing himself
on his good foot. Nobody knows for sure
what the hell’s going to happen.

Joseph Millar
from Overtime

More poems by Joseph Millar posted @ Against Oblivion:

"Sentimental" from Willow Springs
"At Bay Meadows with Robert Herrick" from Overtime
"Love Pirates" from Overtime
"Dark Harvest" from Overtime
"Feeding Tristam's Snake" from Fortune
"Fall Night" and "Caroling" from Fortune
"Lyrical" from Fortune

To have faith: "relentless / continual / swim"


          "Art is what remains when the pot is broken."
                    —Chinese proverb

I know we are bound to the earth,
and the cracked heart, old terra cotta,
surrenders to vine.

                             Listen—I've seen
wind stir the hair of the dead at Belsen,
growing like art from the lacing grass;

what is terrible, even, rises.
The ruined pot dreams of ignition,
each molecule coddles its flame.

Enough alphabet for a torah
sits on the tongue. And all shards
from the winds' end gather again.

I know we are bound to the earth
by desire's green thread
or the milk snake's slippery pass.

Hepatica splits now from its leaf-wing.
Out of the vessel's wreck,
inwardness forms on the air

and that ghost tenderly enters
the soul of some mortal thing.

When I Imagine My Soul

When I imagine my soul
I think of a bear,
shambling across tundra.
I think she's escaped from a circus,
the scars of a ring in her nose:
fat, loping, patient, untiring bear.

Her paws slap and click
bound for the edge of Alaska.
She will plunge at last
into constellations of ice,
swimming without ideas.

Even there
I imagine her torn muzzle
bent north,
feel in my nerves
her relentless

Mary Rose O'Reilley
from Half Wild

Palm Sunday

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
     And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
     Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
      And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
      On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
      Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
      I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
      One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
      And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton
from Poems of G.K. Chesterton

Terror and Transcendence: A Brief Review of Larry D. Thomas’ A Murder of Crows.

Larry D. Thomas, A Murder of Crows. Virtual Artists Collective, 2011.

        A Murder of Crows is a terrible book. To be clear, it is very good poetry: finely crafted, brilliantly imagined, stunningly vivid. It is terrible only, but powerfully, in the true and classical sense of the word: it evokes a sense of terror in the reader, a kind of dark sublime. It is also a book that, like the birds that fill its pages, rises above the mundane. A Murder of Crows is a powerful exploration of violence and art, of terror and transcendence.
      Thomas turns the bird-watcher’s hobby into opportunity for precisely observed instances of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” He signals the frankness of his observation in the book’s opening lines: “By cold, hunger, or the brutal / amusement of a cat, it probably / will die before I do” (“The Sparrow”). The startling combination, made even more forceful by the delaying line-break, of “brutal” and “amusement” is characteristic of Thomas’ tone in this book, which often gives us a vision of bird-life beyond good and evil. A typical example is the gull which descends from a pure sky to “the vile devourment of offal” only “because she wanted to, all / without the slightest twinge of guilt” (“All Because She Wanted To”). A Murder of Crows is a poetic Wild Kingdom narrated by Friedrich Nietzsche, and, like all the best wildlife documentarians, Thomas doesn’t flinch from vividly depicting this amorally violent avian world. Consider this image from “Starlings”:
                                the chunky males
                                will grab
                                baby sparrows

                                by their necks,
                                drag them
                                from a birdhouse,

                                and drop them
                                to burst
                                like ripe figs.
These short lines in groups of three evoke the work of William Carlos Williams and appropriate his emphasis on precision of image, but this certainly isn’t chickens beside a wheelbarrow. Thomas here, as in all the poems of this book, is careful to keep concrete image in the forefront, letting the abstract implications make themselves felt by means of the picture before the mind’s eye. He need not tell us how to feel when he presents us, for instance, with the image of carrion crows pulling their beaks from dead flesh and “stringing it / into bracelets/ of soft, / gleaming rubies”  (“Carrion Crows”). Thomas’ precision of image and concision of language ensures that the terror of each poem is intensely experienced by his reader.

     Yet, there is more to this book than terror; there is also transcendence. Most of the poems are shaped into stanzas of a regular number of lines, thus enacting on the page the struggle of art to master terror. Like great war poets from Homer to Sassoon, Thomas seems driven by the imperative to make poetry from the darkness. The regular stanzas certainly don’t diminish the violence, but they do contain it within boundaries set by the poet. Such an effort to turn terror into art is perhaps the point behind the poem “Red-tailed Hawk,” which describes one of the book’s very few stuffed birds. The taxidermist’s work is described as a “masterpiece,” its “waxen beak” curved “[w]ith the trajectory / of violence.” As in Yann Martel’s recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, the taxidermist is the poet’s doppelganger, making art from the terror. Thomas makes the point even more explicitly in “Of Five Crows Flying,” in which he makes from the sound of the birds overhead “the dissonant, / interminable sonata / of darkness.” Art never conquers terror in A Murder of Crows, but it also never submits to it. Amidst the blood and guts of “nature red in tooth and claw” art seems triumphant merely by virtue of its ability to exist in the darkness. It transcends by remaining.

     A Murder of Crows is a disturbing and captivating book. In its singularity of subject matter it demonstrates an ambition often lacking in small-press poetry, and the ambition proves appropriate, as Thomas achieves both a unified effect and a philosophical cohesion. This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but true poetry never is. As Thomas admits in the book’s stunning final poem, his true purpose is, after all, to reveal “the ravenous, reeking / psyche of our kind.”