poems for this fraught history

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My sister-in-law and I took the kids to see fireworks the night of July 3. We had a picnic while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra played. Waited for the long summer light to leave the sky. Then watched the darkness spangle and pop, ooohhed and ahhhed with the rest of the crowd.

I love fireworks. They amaze me. My favorites are the ones that pop, then trail off slowly, a thousand tiny lights spiraling down before ultimately succumbing to the dark. But I’ve also always felt (at least as an adult) a bit conflicted about them. They seem a glorification of war. They frighten dogs, not to mention many of the men and women who’ve served in our endless wars. They are, for me, beautiful, magical, and fraught.

This summer, as our country moves further and further away from what we say are our ideals—liberty, equality, justice—, the fireworks were even more fraught than usual. I kept looking and my kids and their cousins sprawled on the quilts we’d laid out for them, the fireworks lighting up their awestruck faces, and thinking of the kids separated from their parents at the border. Thinking of black boys killed by police (Tamir Rice would’ve turned 16 last week, had he not been shot dead at age 12). Thinking of pleas for civility in the face of abominable treatment over centuries. Thinking of kids who, though they may be fairly safe day-to-day, face subtle and not so subtle racism, homophobia, and other forms of bias that make the beautiful, magical, and fraught process of growing up even more fraught.

What to do? Read poems. Here are three that are not comforting, but feel true and so very important. In that way, they make me feel less alone in this deeply flawed nation, this fraught history that we’re all a part of.

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“Tamir Rice” by Sean Thomas Dougherty, whose latest book is The Second O of Sorrow (BOA, 2018):

TamirRice-SeanPatrickDougherty

(originally published in The New York Times Magazine)

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“American Sonnet For My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrence Hayes, whose latest book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is just out from Penguin.

MaxineSonnet-TerrenceHayes

(image from Google Books)

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“How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” by Hanif Abdurraqib, whose poems and essays are new to me over the last year, and consistently blow me away (check out this poem in the May 2018 issue of POETRY):

HowCanBlackPeopleWriteAboutFlowers-HanifAbdurraquib

(originally published by the Academy of American Poets)

 

so is blurred / in me

So many good intentions, so few blog posts. But here’s one.

At the final residency of my MFA program, one of the faculty spoke of wanting to live more like a poem asks her to live. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. These days when I read a poem, to the many other questions I ask it—How did you do that? Why break the line after “field”? Couldn’t you live without your last stanza? What made you say “spider” just there?—I’ve added this question: How, poem, do you want me to live?

Here’s a poem I’m living with lately: “I Would Like to Describe” by Zbigneiw Herbert, one of my dearest poets (forgive the somewhat clumsy images):

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I think the poem asks me to live like this:

Use the right words. By “right,” mean accurate, precise, true, interesting, yours.

You will be uncertain.

The poem starts in your body.

Whatever it takes—run around like mad picking up handfuls of birds if you must.

Let it blur in you.

Regarding the white-haired gentlemen: unsubscribe.

Be amazed. Be infinitesimal.

You are of the earth.

Keep going.

Despite pain.

I might be wrong about all of this.

To put it another way: so is blurred / in me.

What poem are you living with these days? How does it ask you to live?

 

friday roundup (sort of) with a body and a rough net

Hello, reader, it’s been a while.

Summer has come and gone, the kids are in school, and—now that I’ve finished my MFA—some days I have time to do nothing for a while.

A short while.

The other day, I put up corn and tomatoes with my aunt. We blanched them, then cooled them in a cold water bath, cleaned (corn) and diced (tomatoes), then put them in containers for freezing. It reminded me of the importance of sometimes doing things that allow me to be just in my body, to take a break from what’s caught in the rough net of my mind.

I love the phrase “cold water bath.”

Most days I’m busy reading, writing, editing book reviews for The Rumpus, sending out poems and manuscripts of poems, looking for work, taking people to the orthodontist, making dinner, dropping off and picking up from ballet, etc.

I’ve been writing only small things. A list of words, a phrase, a grammatical construction: “The (n.) is what the (n.) (v.).” “Where (n.) (v.) you can find a way to (v.).” “I say (x) so as not to say (y).”

I’ve been casting about for something to read that will (get ready to laugh with me) Finally Make Sense of Everything Once and For All, that will (as I think of it) save me: a book of poems, just one poem, a couplet, a line, one word, rafter, loiter, femur, blanch.

Did you know the technical term for a joint (the kind in our bodies) is articulation? We say that one bone “articulates” with another where they join. Did you know that, amongst other things, articulate means “to divide into distinct parts”? Isn’t it odd that we use a word that means “to divide” to indicate a joining? From the Latin articulare, “to separate into joints,” from articulus, “a part, a member, a joint,” also, “a knuckle, the article in grammar.” A knuckle(!). Did you know that, amongst the many architectural (as opposed to corporeal) joints, there is one called birdsmouth. BIRDSMOUTH(!!!).

[This, by the way, is how one word can Finally Make Sense of Everything Once and For All, can save someone, at least for a while. A short while.].

I’ve been listening to the Commonplace Podcast while folding laundry, chopping onions, sewing ribbons on pointe shoes, ripping out ribbons from pointe shoes because they need to be repositioned, sewing ribbons on pointe shoes again (true story). If you’ve never listened, I recommend it enthusiastically. Rachel Zucker has interviewed poets (and some other people) and recorded their conversations. There are many gems for poetry, the writing life, and for all of life, really, in these interviews, and I’m grateful for the way they catch in my mind’s net and pass the time while I am in my body, folding, chopping, sewing on, ripping out, and sewing on again.

I’ve been reading women poets along with other poets and readers of poetry on Twitter. If you’re looking for books by women poets, search the hashtag #SeptWomenPoets and you will find treasure. This project is the brainchild of Shara Lessley. It’s been fun to read and tweet along.

Here’s a poem from one of the books I’ve read this month, which also happens to be by someone from my old writing group (during my California days): Even Years by Christine Gosnay (Kent State University Press, 2017). There is a particular joy in reading the poems of a friend and colleague, poems that you read when they were just born and solitary things, poems that you’ve watched grow up and begin to join together in constellations of theme and thought, poems that are now bound in a book.

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AKADEMOS by Christine Gosnay

I give my daughter the name Hypatia, tell her
the monks pulled Hypatia through the streets
and sewed her back together. I give my daughter

an astrolabe and tell her ships baste slit-
seams in the ocean to snag falling bodies.

Earlier, white stones fell from my hands
and landed on the road
until I could not see one stone.

I give my daughter a body and a rough net,
tell her to straighten her back and be ready
to weave the welkin sphere that bleeds

skeleton-blue and gray. I give my daughter
eyes and a sky.
I give my daughter a long, bright day.

My daughter carries a harpoon. She drifts
the sea with her barb the size of a needle.

Sea full of bodies, she sings, stalling. Then bends
her back, out she climbs. Oyster shells
bunched in her net.

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Happy weekend, thanks for reading.

bridges, headwaters

altartafeln_von_hans_leu_d-a-_haus_zum_rech_-_linkes_limmatufer_-_munsterbrucke_2013-04-08_15-19-43

[Hmmmm… the preview is not showing attribution for the art I’ve used here. Here it is: wikimedia]

I’ve been reading (re-reading) Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey. This is because I want to be able to write essays that are as smart, well-crafted, labyrinthine, and aesthetically pleasing as her lectures are.

In “Someone Reading a Book” she writes:

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

In the margin, I have scrawled: Maybe we write poems as bridges to the world. What I meant was: Maybe poets write poems in an attempt to bridge the distance between themselves and the world everybody else lives in. Maybe a poem is an attempt to enter that world.

I know that I often write out of a sense of bewilderment. The world bewilders me. My life bewilders me. Even my own mind bewilders me. Writing poems helps me to understand things, at least a little bit.

Maybe this desire to enter the world is the original wound. Who said it first—that all writing comes from a wound? Maybe Dorianne Laux?

Other times, I’m not so sure I want to enter the world everyone else lives in after all. Ellen Bryant Voigt:

HEADWATERS

I made a large mistake I left my house I went into the world it was not
the most perilous hostile part but I couldn’t tell among the people there

who needed what no tracks in the snow no boot pointed toward me or away
no snow as in my dooryard only the many currents of self-doubt I clung

to my own life raft I had room on it for only me you’re not surprised
it grew smaller and smaller or maybe I grew larger and heavier

but don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better

friday roundup: you do not need to leave your room edition

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Here is what the walls of my study look like these days. Thank you, critical thesis.

Dear Reader, I keep starting blog posts like this: I had not intended to be away quite so long. It is still true. I’m just trying to keep all the balls up in the air: my thesis work, my editorial work, motherhood, keeping people (reasonably) well-fed and the bathrooms (reasonably) clean. Laundry (insert deer-in-the-headlights look here). And lest we forget: the poems.

[Confession: I am really good about not forgetting the poems. They are always my first priority, and I work on them every day before doing anything else. This may be a character flaw, but it’s the character flaw that has saved my life.]

At any rate, I’m here to share a few things this cold, snowy Friday.

“to let the words write the words”  One thing I want to share is this amazing essay, “Bewilderment,” by Fanny Howe. I’d printed it off a few weeks ago and finally sat down to read it. First a little background: up until several months ago, my process for writing  a poem was to free-write whatever came into my head, often something off a line by another poet, and often, amidst writing, returning to that line, and then to shave the free-write down or  mix it up or do whatever I needed to do to it to make it a poem. Lately, though, my process has undergone a big (and often, for me, bewildering) shift: Words and lines arrive from I know not where. I write them down. More words and lines arrive. I write them down. And so on until (sometimes) a poem is made. I’ve been thinking of it as the LISTEN & DICTATE process of writing poetry, a phrase which I came across in this interview.

But in this essay, Howe writes a description of her writing process which better describes my own. I never would have been able to articulate it—which is why we need the rock star poets of the world: so they can tell us what we’re doing—but it is exactly how my poems have been arriving and making themselves. Howe writes:

First I receive the impression of a time period as an experience of pure language, glimpses of actions, emotions and weathers. I jot down whatever comes through—in a rush of words. Then I begin to see what is being said and to see it as it unfolds, as if from afar and sometimes I actually stand at a distance from the words that are there. Spotting word-associations and what their sounds suggest and prove about the “point” of this emergent poem forces me to remove my body from the action; to let the words write the words. Letting the lines cohere on their own volition is crucial. Literally it is like watching someone else take form in the dark and I am weirdly disassociated from the action, an observer, a voyeur, though all the objects in the room, and the body, are familiar, are even “mine.”

An experience of pure language. To let the words write the words. Yes, please.

the poem wanders away from the demonstration  Since the election, there have been many calls to many different kinds of action. On social media, in articles, and elsewhere, I’ve read several outright imperatives and a few gentle suggestions that our poems must now be political. That poetry that does not engage in the public sphere and advocate for change is a useless endeavor.

I disagree. I think the act of making art is, itself, political. Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” Lyn Hejinian: the poet must “undertake the preservation of otherness.”

I also think that poems are the very opposite of tools. Which is not to say that a poem can’t be political and can’t become a rallying cry for a movement—we know poems can do this—but it is the poems themselves that decide what they will be. It is the poem’s will, not our own.

This essay at Lithub by Matthew Zapruder expresses and explores these ideas better than I have here. In it Zapruder argues that poems are an unreliable vehicle for advocacy; that:

The poem is by its nature and design easily distracted. It wanders away from the demonstration, the committee meeting, the courtroom, toward the lake or that intriguing, mysterious light over there. What is that light? It looks like something, I’m not sure what, I’m sorry to leave this very important conversation but I have to know.

He also argues:

The role of poetry in our time of crisis is the same as always: to preserve our minds and language, so we may be strong for whatever is to come. And also, to preserve the possibility of mutual understanding, not by arguing for it, but by demonstrating it.

I guess what I’m saying here, to myself as much as to any of you, is: keep writing your poems. If they are political, so be it. If they are about a pair of socks a friend knit for you, so be it. If they are about the moss growing on the garden bench despite the snow, so be it.

and in a departure from our usual Friday programming  I am not going to share a poem today. Not because there aren’t one thousand poems I could share, but because these words from Franz Kafka seem to belong with the other words I’ve written here today. And because, in a way, they are a little poem in and of themselves:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I’m planning to try a little something new here moving forward. Which is: smaller, more frequent posts. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you warmth, comfort, and poems, yours and others’.

have poems, will travel

Now reading: Copperhead by Rachel Richardson (two thumbs up!)

Now reading: Copperhead by Rachel Richardson (two thumbs up!)

Those four words pretty much sum up the summer.

Well, also: have kids, at pool. And: put on your sunscreen! And: kid projects gone wrong. And: “Are we there yet?” And: laundry never ever ends.

We have been to Portland (pilgrimage to Powell’s Books) and the Oregon coast (“Mom, look: Michigan sand!”). We have been back home to Michigan to see family (ate orchard-fresh cherries; found many Petoskey stones; pilgrimage to spirit dunemade s’mores with cousins; drank wine with Mom; “Let’s go tubing, Grandpa!”).

The photo above is from yesterday (have kids, at park). We rode our bikes to the park, and I gave thanks for forty-five minutes of reading time on a park bench in the shade beneath the redwoods, which, by the way, are looking mighty stressed in this drought.

I’ve always been grateful for the portability of poetry (slim volumes, easily concealed). It’s an art form we can take with us, whether reading or writing.

As for writing, there has been precious little (slept in again, damn!). But there are seasons.

One more trip for me this summer, then back to the P-town for the first day of school (another f*&%$#@ half day).

Then, maybe, some long awaited time at my desk. And orthodontist appointments, and trips to the ballet studio, and grocery runs, and cross-country meets. And all that. And through it all, poetry is with me.

Until soon…

notes on retreating

corner of desk with pens, flameless candle, and totems

Retreat still life: corner of desk with pens, flameless candle, and totems

retreat v. (of an army) withdraw from confrontation with enemy forces -> move back or withdraw -> withdraw to a quiet or secluded place; n.1.  an act of retreating -> a signal for a military force to withdraw; 2. a quiet or secluded place -> a period or place of seclusion for prayer and meditation; 3. a military musical ceremony carried out at sunset.

from the Latin re- “back” and trahere “to draw”

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In this post, I wrote about having planned for silence. And although that very quiet, poetry-intensive week now seems a world away, and although I fight against the impulse to consider schedules and responsibilities as “enemy forces,” I thought I’d write a bit about what I learned by retreating.

1. I had no idea how tired I was (and my guess is that most of us have no idea how tired we are). Although early morning is typically my best time for creative work, I set no alarms. I slept 10 hours most nights, and learned that I am just as capable of writing poems at 9:00 a.m. as at 5:00 a.m.

2. I had no idea how productive I’d been this academic year. All year I’ve been telling myself, “I’m in a fallow period,” that my focus has been polishing the manuscript and beginning to send it out, not writing new poems. But actually I have written a lot new poems this year. I guess it took having the time and space to really spread out (literally and figuratively) for me to have a sense of what I’ve written this year.

3. It really does make a difference to have uninterrupted time. Given time and space, my imagination and intellect could really unfurl. I was not impeded by thoughts like: “Oh, shoot — I’ve got to get that prescription filled today” or “I’ve got to get the chicken out to thaw” or “30 more minutes till pick-up” (is it just me, or is it always 30 more minutes till pick-up?).

4. I could live on tea, wine, cheese, bread, fruit, and yogurt.

5. And poetry.

6. Okay, and the occasional cookie.

(7. Um, and also nibbles of dark chocolate here and there. One must sustain oneself).

While I was away, a friend sent me a quote from Kafka: “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.”

Let the people say, Amen.

So, note to self: Every time I go away by myself for writing purposes (a grand total of two times in my life), I am reminded of how important it is to go away by myself for writing purposes. My goal is to make a practice of planning for silence and solitude, to fold it into my life so that — for me and for my family — it becomes regular and unremarkable.

If you need solitude to do your life’s work, I encourage you to plan for it, too. Hermit, or dead man — whatever works for you.

one by one

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

In my little circle of beloveds — family, friends — there has been a lot of loss and suffering lately.

This morning I woke up headache-y, but needing a particular poem. I couldn’t remember its title, but knew it was by Thomas Lynch. I remembered reading it for the first time when a friend made a copy of a handout she’d received in a poetry class long enough ago that there was no hope of my having filed it electronically.

I remembered: there is a blue bowl in the poem. There is a tree.

I knew once the headache fog lifted, I would have to go out into the garage and paw through old files. I knew this could take me all day (or all week), but I needed that poem.

By some miracle I found it after about five minutes of searching. Thank you, Universe.

This poem reminds me of something a friend of blessed memory used to say: Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet promised to us. Today is all we have.

And although it is hard — probably impossible — to live that way every day (I, for example, am thinking about how I must thaw the meat for tomorrow’s dinner), this poem is a good reminder of Today is all we have.

Here is:

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A NOTE ON THE RAPTURE TO HIS TRUE LOVE by Thomas Lynch

A blue bowl on the table in the dining room
fills with sunlight. From a sunlit room
I watch my neighbor’s sugar maple turn
to shades of gold. It’s late September. Soon…
Soon as I’m able I intend to turn
to gold myself. Somewhere I’ve read that soon
they’ll have a formula for prime numbers
and once they do, the world’s supposed to end
the way my neighbor always said it would —
in fire. I bet we’ll all be given numbers
divisible by One and by themselves
and told to stand in line the way you would
for prime cuts at the butcher’s. In the end,
maybe it’s every man for himself.
Maybe it’s someone hollering All Hands On
Deck! Abandon Ship! Women and Children First!
Anyway, I’d like to get my hands on
you. I’d like to kiss your eyelids and make love
as if it were our last time, or the first,
or else the one and only form of love
divisible by which I yet remain myself.
Mary, folks are disappearing one by one.
They turn to gold and vanish like the leaves
of sugar maples. But we can save ourselves.
We’ll pick our own salvations, one by one,
from a blue bowl full of sunlight until none is left.

from Still Life in Milford by Thomas Lynch
Originally published in Poetry East: Origins (#43)

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Hug your beloveds. Say a little prayer for peace and other miracles. Choose your salvations one by one.

why we do our own work first

(Or why I do my own work first).

the scene of the crime

the scene of the crime

In August I started a low-residency MFA program. I seem to have glossed over this fact based on questions from a few readers, so sorry about that. Yes, it’s true, although I don’t plan on giving up my Emily Dickinson MFA — never, ever.

When I started the program, I made a promise to myself. The promise was: I will do my own work first.

By this I meant (and mean) that my first commitment is to my own creative work and to reading and studying anything and everything I need to to fuel my own creative work. This means — regardless of assigned readings and papers due — I first read and write in my usual generative process. The program work is a second priority.

Last week and weekend, when I finally had some time to spend on non-mothering-related tasks, there was a little voice in my ear saying how I should be doing my assigned reading, I should be taking notes so I can write my papers, which are due this week, etc., etc., etc.

I almost gave in to that voice. It was so sure of itself.

But then I reminded myself of my promise: I will do my own work first.

What happened instead of finishing my assigned reading and starting my papers is that I have three new poem drafts, and I finally broke out of a creative swamp I’d been dwelling in for several weeks.

I think it was Philip Pullman who said something along the lines of: I don’t know where the stories come from, but they come to my desk. And if I’m not there, they go away again.

That, my friends, is what would’ve happened to my poems if I had not been ready to catch them as they filtered down from the Magic Kingdom Where Poems Are Born. They would’ve gone away again, and I would’ve missed them.

I am so much happier to have my drafts and papers unfinished, than my papers finished and no drafts.

So, again I encourage you to do your own work first. The rest of the work isn’t going anywhere, but the poems just might be. Amen.

Now I’m off to do some reading and note-taking for those papers…. 😉