More Good Poetry, Good People

So many friends have books coming out this year! It's a great year for poetry and this next generation of poets.

Here's a poem by Stephanie Lenox from her forthcoming book Congress of Strange People which will be published by Airlie Press in October, 2012. Stephanie is a wonderful person and poet. Many years ago when we were both undergraduates at Whitworth University, she was very encouraging to me and my early poems and she also provided me a clear example of the work ethic it takes to write poetry.

Stephanie lives in Salem, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. Her chapbook, The Heart That Lies Outside the Body, won the 2007 Slapering Hol Chapbook Contest. She has received fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission. She teaches at Willamette University.


Sunday afternoons Grandfather and I studied
The Guinness Book, dog-earing our favorites:

Mike, the headless chicken that lived 18 months
before dying in an Arizona hotel room;

the man whose arm was severed and reconnected
three separate times—Lazarus, Jesus, and the lame girl combined.

Your grandmother is in there, he nudged me. Keep looking.
I scanned the Medical Marvels, Extreme Bodies

for the woman he said could balance a piano on the tip
of her tongue. I stared at each smudged photo

until every woman began to look like family,
same eyes squinting against amazing burden.

Other times we huddled over the family tree,
its names branching out on butcher paper, me captivated

by the word genealogy as if it contained the power
to grant my three greatest wishes, while he plotted everything,

traced us back to Sing-Go-Wah, chief of a tribe
of pranksters. He pinched my skin until the blood rose.

See, you are red. He showed me how to cup my hand
over my mouth to make a war cry.

Once before leaving, he said he had a present for me
and dropped something weightless, invisible in my hand.

The world’s smallest guitar, he explained,
like the one we read about, size of a human blood cell,

completely functional. Now, play me a song.
My pulse picked up as I tried to think of what I could do.

Leaning over, with the tip of his fingernail he strummed once
the center of my palm, told me to press my ear against it.

Stephanie Lenox
from Congress of Strange People

Support a poet and poetry. Click here for more information about Airlie Press and Stephanie Lenox's Congress of Strange People. It's now available for pre-order!

Good Poetry, Good People

Marcel Brouwers, The Old Cities
forthcoming from Sundress Publications
Here's a recent poem by my friend and colleague at UTenn, Marcel Brouwers. Marcel's first full-length collection of poetry, The Old Cities, is due out from Sundress Publications on October 31 and I urge you to check it out. Click here for more info on The Old Cities.

The Stone Bench

It’s not enough the neighbor cat climbs it,
or pauses. If I thought to lay out milk,
we’d be friends. But for the poured concrete

my yard is of the lush rest of growth,
wisteria and the choking grape, the late

surprise-lily erupting like night lava from space,

kudzu, a word reminding me of war words,
fubar, which it is. & the like. & is how
we know seasons. Which explains

the possum ignoring mute hummingbirds
slurping the Rose of Sharon dry, wingbeats
a blur, this world not helping but be close,

the soft silent whisper of teeth & nails.

Marcel Brouwers
from Jet Fuel Review

Hidden DC

The other day I was talking to a blogger about The Blog as a hub or curatorial instinct: although there is a general focus on poetry, the only thing these posts all truly have in common is, well, me. It's the reason I don't accept guest posts. It's the justification for including some pretty random tangents, such as this one....

I am a DC girl, and in the last year or so I've realized I may be one forever. When I was a kid, I would come in to visit my dad's law offices that overlooked the C&O Canal in Georgetown, trying over and over to climb the unfinished brick walls. I rooted from the third deck as the Nats clinched a playoff spot last night; I take pride in our sushi chefs and beer selections; I watched the homecoming parade for Desert Storm veterans along Constitution Avenue, complete with yellow-ribbon fireworks;  I defend our slightly staid fashion sense; I remember when Art-O-Matic was in that very strange decrepit EPA building space; I once crashed a kite into the side of the Washington Monument. 

I am, in particular, very passionate about monuments and memorials (beyond flying kites into them). I probably get it from my dad; when not lawyer-ing he was Army-ing, and in fact he was one of those who broke ground at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. We still have the shovel. When my first conversation with the boyfriend made mention of the FDR Memorial--which he proceeded to have strong opinions about--I knew there was something there. I've written about the Jefferson Memorial for the Post Magazine. 

Oddly enough, the Lincoln Memorial is never one I've bonded with. Odd because it has an incredible role in our collective history; more than any other monument it doubles as a stage for the nation. But there is one aspect to it that fascinates me...

...the hidden face. 

It's a story I first heard from a college boyfriend; then I overheard a tour guide--someone definitely not employed by the National Park Service--saying it to a busload of Japanese tourists; then I was reminded of it when I stumbled across this website. The principle is that if you stand in the right place, looking at the profile of Lincoln's statue, you can see a second face sculpted into the curves of hair on the back of his head. See it?

Now, apparently theories about as to who the face belongs to. Did Daniel Chester French, the sculptor, create a self portrait?  That seems to me...kinda silly. A man who devotes his craft and his life to creating such legacies is probably not so petty & egotistical. Is it of Robert E. Lee? I doubt that version too, simply 1) French was a Yankee, and 2) because General Lee had a very distinguished visage that looks nothing like the one above:

I mean, seriously. The Father of the Confederacy had one hell of a beard; any artist worth his salt would have honored that. Even if it meant giving Lincoln a mullet. 

No, the theory I return to is the version I heard from a boyfriend I met through UVA's Jefferson Literary & Debating Society (which sponsored a stone in the Washington Monument, during its construction, that you can see marked with our name to this day) (yes I am a nerd). He said the face belonged to Ulysses S. Grant, famously temperamental and insecure soldier-cum-leader, who worried he would never be as revered as the martyr Abraham Lincoln. Grant directed French to work his profile into the statue so, by hook or by crook, he would always have his mark on the Mall. Check out the side by side (with Grant's profile flipped to emphasize the symmetry):

Awesome, right? Awesome. Of course, I am just perpetuating the myth; the bureaucracy that stands between conception and construction of a monument makes it highly unlikely that it was an act of intent rather than fate. 

But I like the myth. I love DC. And that's your random tangent for the day. 

Pruning Burning Bushes

From a brief review of Sarah M. Wells' Pruning Burning Bushes published in an email from Image.
In her poetry collection Pruning Burning Bushes Sarah M. Wells delves into the rich ground of detail to turn up the "casual miracle" of what lives beneath. "Settle your shifting gaze," she writes, then prunes through images of childhood, marriage, family, birth, and death, "cutting back two-thirds of growth / to trigger recovery from the trunk up." From the rural to the urban, the aging to the newly born, the honky-tonk to the quilting club, the imagery she's been given is not only tended with "sighing, sweating, fists on hips, pruners / lost in the grass" but also with a compassion and spirit "reckless with praise and the need to be filled." In her recent essay in Poets Quarterly, Wells speaks as a writer whose work is faith-based—she says her joy in poetry "is discovering something I'd never known or felt before, my body nodding, yes, yes, that is it, there it is, the divine indwelt. And then this greater joy: to share that experience with another human being through the written word, poet and reader, a small community of believers who are now gathered in worship around this little altar." Whether as altar builder or gardener, Wells's work is inspired. As poet Sydney Lea writes, "Wells has been granted—and she knows it—the grace to eat life right down to the seed, where the joy of the mystery lies, and the peace that passes understanding."


"He cuts off every branch in me
that bears no fruit."
--John 15:2

The angry gardener sees
overgrown, untended beds
and seethes. He pulls
the waist-high weeds,
heavy in seed, and heaves
them to the compost heap.

And then the shrubs--
how they shudder
in his shadow, hand saw
pushed and pulled until
limbs quiver, surrender.

Pruners snip, his grip
is sweaty, tight, a frenzy
to the suckers, rose hips,
broken stems, spotted leaves.
The clipping never ends;
he is severe--takes away
more than one-third.

And then mulch,
fertilizer, buckets of water.
The landscape sighs,
breathes with the gardener
who stands back,
fists on hips.

Sarah M. Wells
from Pruning Burning Bushes (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011)

Support a poet and poetry. Click here for more information and to purchase Sarah M. Wells' Pruning Burning Bushes.

That Burning Field

Spent Monday's Modern Poetry class meeting discussing Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" and the dramatic monologue and image. We then used that discussion as a lens through which we could look at two of Charles Wright's poems that are also in response to the Chinese poet Li Po: "Portrait of the Artist with Li Po" and "Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember A Line by Li Po." Here's a Google Books rendition of the latter:

Love these: "Jack snipe poised on the scarred fence post," "Sunlight reloads and ricochets off the window glass," "the blue aorta of the sky," "The River of Heaven flows / With its barge of stars." Amazing diction, musicality, imagery. Quintessential Father Wright.

During discussion, one student wondered where he could find more work by Li Po and I couldn't remember the title at the time, but here it is: Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (Counterpoint, 2002), selected and translated by David Hinton. Excellent collection. One worth owning.

Also worth owning: Wu Wei by Tom Crawford. Here are two poems from the collection. "Wu Wei," roughly translated, means "action without action," or "non-doing"--something I know I could certainly be more mindful of in both my writing and my daily life.


This morning
aren't we just a little bit famous
in the world, all of us,
putting our feet down
on the cold floor one more time,
trying it out—
Oh, and the wold,
if it is turning to the right
then we, aren't we all leaning to the left,
our tee shirts, hats flying,
on this long train to Chengdu.

Riding soft-sleeper with a window seat,
I'm the resident poet—
my English curving into your Chinese
is simply love of the sounds
I'm trying so hard to make,
the rough roadbed
throwing us every which way,
the tea spilling over.

Einstein had a similar experience
and used the train, the whistle
blowing through the night,
to advance his own theory of poetry—
dark smoke
trailing for miles, the voice
swelling out of a tunnel,
morning again, its heavy engine
pulling the curve
and first light we shape our words with.

"Chengdu," the conductor says,
tipping his blue hat,
"Chengdu, ten minutes."


Rain in Chongqing is pretty much
like rain in Portland—
it comes down wet from Heaven
and when it’s sudden,
without warning,
in both cities people shriek
and scatter. Newspapers double
for umbrellas,
dirty sidewalks glisten,
a mother runs out
to pull in her little boy.
Flags go up everywhere
in excitement—“We surrender,
we surrender.”

Tom Crawford
from Wu Wei
Milkweed Editions, 2006

Support a poet and poetry. Click here for more information about Tom Crawford's collection Wu Wei and Milkweed Editions.

Four Great Titles From New York Quarterly Books

My second book, Lapse Americana, is due out from New York Quarterly Books on February 2. In the meantime, here are four of my favorite titles already out from NYQ Books:

These poems are simultaneously tough-minded and tender-hearted. For example, check out the opening lines of “A Typical Day 31 Years Ago”:
                        was watching my mother die.
                        Part of the tumor that would
                        eventually strangle her
                        came out of her mouth
                        like a cheap party trick,
                        just in time for the feast
                        of the epiphany.
Weil’s Catholicism (see his brilliant two-part essay on that topic on The The Poetry Blog) leads him to a poetics that emphasizes the sacramental and the incarnated. The poems abound with physical detail, real images of real life that point to the paradoxical dignity we find in bearing the indignity of humanity. The poems are direct and smart. This may just be the best book of poetry I have read this year.

This book makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s observation that the sonnet sequences of the 16th century were not narrative but rather “symphonic.” I think what Lewis meant is that the background story (whether Shakespeare’s love triangle with the “Dark Lady” and “Young Man” or Sidney as Astrophel in love with Stella) is felt rather than followed. That symphonic effect is certainly evident in After the Ark, which has as its background story the marital dissolution of the poet’s parents and the death of his mother. Johnson doesn’t give us a blow by blow account of the end of that marriage or of the end of his mother’s life; rather he invites us into the emotional landscape of a family’s collapse. The result of this technique is that we are moved along with the poet. He doesn’t dictate to us what he felt; he invites us along for the emotional ride. Much of this emotion is conveyed through powerful images, doing much to revive Eliot’s concept of the “objective correlative.” Consider the last two lines of “Pageant, Christmas Eve”: “Houselights snuffed, the dark became an empty / ribcage, the tree our flickering heart.” Wow! Another very effective image is that at the end of “Flood” in which, sitting beneath a tin roof listening to the rain, the mourners for Johnson’s mother “put her shoes outside and watched them fill.” That is a powerful image of absence and loss.

Maybe I should declare up front that Amanda Bradley is a friend of mine from graduate school. But then again, so what? I have lots of friends whose books I don’t like, and I simply avoid reviewing them. Amanda has saved me a lot of awkwardness by writing a very good book. The best description of this book is probably its title, which captures well the unique blend of the harrowing and the whimsical that one finds throughout Oz at Night. A great example is “To Thomas Pynchon Regarding The Crying of Lot 49,” which would seem to inaugurate a new kind of poem: the academic confessional. Recalling the agony of digging through Pynchon’s book, she says, “Was that on purpose? I want to punch / your reclusive face. Where are you, Pynchon?” The poem is funny, especially to anyone who has struggled with the intellectual demands of academic work, but it is also very personal. Finding herself lost in a maze of critical theory and interpretation, she ends with the confession that “by page 111, I couldn’t believe myself.”  This is a witty poem on the academic life, but it is also a very brave poem about self-doubt. In some ways it reminded me of Ginsberg’s “America,” and I wanted to add “It occurs to me that I am Thomas Pynchon./ I am talking to myself again.” Other poems in the collection wrestle with the same issues of identity and self-doubt. In “I am not what I would like to be nor what I will become,” she says “I am not Matt Damon, nor someone who carries an alligator purse.” This is a very striking way of addressing identity and the painful process of deriving it by means of negation. The poems in Oz at Night are not confessional in the Plath, Sexton, Lowell mode, but they do leave one with the impression that Oz is an internal landscape, as simultaneously alien and familiar as the depths of our own minds revealed in dreams.

Margrave offers something rarely seen in contemporary poetry: wit. It’s not just that the book is often funny, though it is. I mean “wit” in the seventeenth-century sense, the play of intellect. “Perishable” is a good example of this quality.  Margrave begins the poem with a description of cleaning out his recently deceased father’s refrigerator and ends with the observation that “a man is more perishable than his food.” The poem has certain Donne-like qualities, the witty conceit and the memento mori. Indeed, memento mori – the medieval and Renaissance trope of calling to mind one’s impending death – is the unifying theme of this book. Margrave treats this theme with humor and genuine pathos.

I will most likely recommend more from NYQ Books in the months ahead. In the meantime, if you want to get a better sense of the philosophy behind the operation, see me review of editor Raymond Hammond’sbook, Poetic Amusement. Or, better yet, buy a copy of Poetic Amusementand read it yourself.

On Wedding Poems

I am once again in a wedding party. But this time as a poet. Which means...(cue Jaws theme music)...I must either write or select a poem for the occasion. When my friend Dan Albergotti got married, he picked the perfect person for the job: his friend Natasha, a.k.a. Natasha Trethewey, a.k.a. the new Poet Laureate who is reading at the Library of Congress tonight. Smart man, that Dan. Sadly, my friend Dave has to settle for me. Dave is my oldest friend, in many ways my best friend, and I don't want to let him down. 

When he asked me the title for the program, I told him to call my presentation "Epithalamium." A bit of a cheat, because "Epithalamium" is a catch-all word from the Greek that describes the form of poems or songs that celebrate a marriage and, more specifically, is usually addressed to the  bride en route to her wedding chamber. (The same way "Aubade" describes a morning poem that records the parting of lovers.) In other words, whatever poem I read is an epithalamium. In other words: TBD. I don't want to retreat to the classic Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. My role here is to be a lighter, contemporary voice amidst the solemnity of vows. But I can't be too edgy--it's a poem for a church, meant to honor, not a toast with a glass of whiskey in hand meant to entertain. Can you tell I am overworrying? Did I mention he is my oldest, bestest friend?

There are a few favorites out there I could turn to, and I share them here for anyone who stumbles to this page looking for a wedding poem. One is Jeffrey McDaniel's "The Archipelago of Kisses," which the epigraph dedicates "for Sarah Koskoff and Todd Louiso." It appears in his great third collection, The Splinter Factory~


We live in a modern society. Husbands and wives don't grow
        on trees, like in the old days. So where
does one find love? When you're sixteen it's easy--like being
        unleashed with a credit card
in a department store of kisses. There's the first kiss.
        The sloppy kiss. The peck.
The sympathy kiss. The backseat smooch. The we shouldn't
        be doing this kiss. The but your lips
taste so good kiss. The bury me in an avalanche of tingles kiss.
        The I wish you'd quit smoking kiss.
The I accept your apology, but you make me really mad
        sometimes kiss. The I know
your tongue like the back of my hand kiss. As you get older,
        kisses become scarce. You'll be driving
home and see a damaged kiss on the side of the road, 
        with its purple thumb out. If you
were younger, you'd pull over, slide open the mouth's ruby door
        just to see how it fits. Oh where
does one find love? If you rub two glances together, you get
        a smile; rub two smiles, you get
a spark; rub two sparks together and you have a kiss. Now 
        what? Don't invite the kiss
to your house and answer the door in your underwear. It'll get
        suspicious and stare at your toes. 
Don't water the kiss with whiskey. It'll turn bright pink and explode 
        into a thousand luscious splinters, 
but in the morning it'll be ashamed and sneak out of your body
        without saying good-bye, 
and you'll remember that kiss forever by all the little cuts it left
        on the inside of your mouth. You must
nurture the kiss. Dim the lights, notice how it illuminates
        the room. Clutch it to your chest,
wonder if the sand inside every hourglass comes from a special
        beach. Place it on the tongue's pillow, 
then look up the first recorded French kiss in history: beneath
        a Babylonian olive tree in 1300 B.C.
But one kiss levitates above all the others. The intersection
        of function and desire. The I do kiss.
The I'll love you through a brick wall kiss. Even when
        I'm dead, I'll swim through the earth, 
like a mermaid of the soil, just to be next to your bones. 

~Jeffrey McDaniel

***Note that I hand-checked the above against the book; I've seen some other versions around the internet that get line breaks and even whole phrases wrong, argh. 

There is also this fun(ny) one from Taylor Mali, "How Falling in Love is like Owning a Dog," for couples with a clearly equal & happy power relationship. 


First of all, it’s a big responsibility,
especially in a city like New York.
So think long and hard before deciding on love.
On the other hand, love gives you a sense of security:
when you’re walking down the street late at night
and you have a leash on love
ain’t no one going to mess with you.
Because crooks and muggers think love is unpredictable.
Who knows what love could do in its own defense?

On cold winter nights, love is warm.
It lies between you and lives and breathes
and makes funny noises.
Love wakes you up all hours of the night with its needs.
It needs to be fed so it will grow and stay healthy.

Love doesn’t like being left alone for long.
But come home and love is always happy to see you.
It may break a few things accidentally in its passion for life,
but you can never be mad at love for long.

Is love good all the time? No! No!
Love can be bad. Bad, love, bad! Very bad love.

Love makes messes.
Love leaves you little surprises here and there.
Love needs lots of cleaning up after.
Somethimes you just want to get love fixed.
Sometimes you want to roll up a piece of newspaper
and swat love on the nose,
not so much to cause pain,
just to let love know Don’t you ever do that again!

Sometimes love just wants to go out for a nice long walk.
Because love loves exercise. It will run you around the block
and leave you panting, breathless. Pull you in different directions
at once, or wind itself around and around you
until you’re all wound up and you cannot move.

But love makes you meet people wherever you go.
People who have nothing in common but love
stop and talk to each other on the street.

Throw things away and love will bring them back,
again, and again, and again.
But most of all, love needs love, lots of it.
And in return, love loves you and never stops.

~Taylor Mali

You can watch him deliver it here...

I wrote my first epithalamium a few years back: you can find "On the Occasion of Your Wedding" up on the Cerise Press website, but I'll share the text here too:


People will tell you it is natural
to pair off. People say this despite

the Pope, in his backseat built for one.
People say this despite the cuttlefish,

with three hearts of his own and no room
for more. People say this despite

the majestic imbalance of bee hives;
despite the komodo dragon,

fertilizing each egg herself. People
are bluffing. There is nothing natural

about your pan caked in his grease,
or the way you tuck used Kleenex

in the crevice of his recliner. No one
ever lovingly stitched His or Hers

on a clog of drain hair. In the natural
world we each have our own cave,

a nice cave, tin cans strung between us,
a lake big enough for fishing, swimming,

the radial distance of being perfect and

perfectly alone. But here’s to saying
Screw it and I do. They make duct tape

for situations like this. They make
peanut butter. They make knowing

when to sing along to music you do
not like. They make knowing when to

leave the room. They make tiny,
superstrong magnets that will pin you

to a refrigerator door just long enough
for a kiss. I wish you all of these things,

these things you will need — and earlier,
as I tied the immaculate bow on what

I gave you instead, I thought You fools.
You lucky, lucky fools.

~Sandra Beasley

I'd like to think it's right for a wedding, but it's not right for this wedding. So I draft and fuss, fuss and draft. And I try to remember: the important thing is that two people I adore, the right people for each other, are joining hands and hearts before the eyes of God, family, and friends. I'm just a juggler people pass by on their way to the big tent. 



When a dead tree falls in a forest
it often falls into the arms
of a living tree. The dead,
thus embraced, rasp in wind,
slowly carving a niche
in the living branch, shearing away
the rough outer flesh, revealing
the pinkish, yellowish, feverish
inner bark. For years
the dead tree rubs its fallen body
against the living, building
its dead music, making its raw mark,
wearing the tough bough down
as it moans and bends, the deep
rosined bow sound of the living
shouldering the dead.

September 10, 2002

Dorianne Laux
from Facts About the Moon


Philo on Providence

It's in the way the winds differ from what's written that I become
a cryptomnesiac, so that before long God's got me thinking I'm the one
who invented ether...but not the kind that makes you stupid or a Civil War
amputee, if you were lucky...because I think I read somewhere
that that's what used to pass for luck...but the kind that gives light
something to breathe, that I might then perceive every possible course...
as if before the second plane could have ever referred to anything
but the second plane...which when you think about it is forever
drawing in the the breath of the world's biggest fan...but not your biggest fan,
who blows you away in front of your home...if that's the home
Providence has given which my father says, God forbid...
To which God says whatever it is God says.

Benjamin Paloff
from The Politics


Photograph from September 11

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Wisława Szymborska
from Monologue of a Dog

Labor Day

Good Workers

Let us praise good workers (you know who you are)
Who come gladly to the job and do what you can
For as long as it takes to repair the car
Or clean the house – the woman or man
Who dives in and works steadily straight through,
Not lagging and letting others carry the freight,
Who joke around but do what you need to do,
Like the home caregiver who comes daily at eight
A.m. to wash and dress the man in the wheelchair
And bring him meals and put him to bed at night
For minimum wage and stroke his pale brown hair.
He needs you. "Are you all right?" "I'm, all right,"
He says. He needs you to give him these good days,
You good worker. God's own angels sing your praise.

Gary Johnson
from The Writers Almanac, January 9, 2011