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):

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(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.

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(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):

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(originally published by the Academy of American Poets)

 

all this happened, more or less

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Exhortation from the restroom of the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Who’s in?

(That title is from Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five; it may be off-tone to use a title from Slaughterhouse Five for a blog post. But.)

Hi.

I haven’t been here in so long I wasn’t sure of my password. Now the semester’s over and all this happened, more or less:

Over the last few years, I sent every poem in both of my (as yet unplaced) manuscripts‚—that’s seventy-four poems— to FIELD, a journal I’ve long loved. FIELD rejected all of them except three from the very last batch I sent, which are in the current issue. I’m really happy to see some poems from the new ms. finding homes in the world, and happy to be in good company at FIELD.

Over the last month, I’ve been to New York City and back to attend the Poetry Society of America awards ceremony. One-hundred years ago, I lived in Morningside Heights while I earned my first Master’s degree. During my visit, I stayed way, way uptown so I could bum around in the old neighborhood. I visited what I think of as my first coffee shop (where I grew up and where I went to college, there was no such thing)—i.e., the first place I ever went with my writing notebook to write: the Hungarian Pastry Shop. They still have the smallest tables and the best apple strudel ever.

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at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Amsterdam between 110th and 111th

I visited the MoMA, where I saw my favorite Jackson Pollock, Full Fathom Five. I saw my favorite Franz Kline: Painting Number 2.

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Franz Kline, Painting Number 2, 1954

I saw the water lilies… my favorite part of which is the right-most territory of the painting, where the beauty trails off into murk.

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Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-1926

And I saw my all-time favorite Matisse, “View of Notre Dame,” which I love for its abstraction and its unfinishedness. Especially for its unfinishedness.

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Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, 1914.

I saw my dear, dear friend, one of four crucial Lauras in my life. Late in the last century, we found each other being highly introverted on the edges of a room at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. These many years later we shared loves and losses and BLT’s at a diner at 103rd and Broadway. A gift.  Alas, we were too busy enjoying each other to take a photo.

Then, later, I took a cab way, way downtown and met, in person, poets whose poetry I’d admired from a distance for years. I dressed up and wore the bling-y-est earrings I’ve worn since the last century. I shared some Real Talk with other poet-moms about motherhood, and poethood, and mother-poethood. I talked with another Laura Jensen fan about Laura Jensen (another of the four crucial Lauras in my life). I listened to these poets read their poems. You should read them, too:

Victoria Chang, winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, read one of her obit poems, which have been appearing here and there in journals recently. Here is the one she read at the awards ceremony.

Kevin Prufer read his poem, “The Newspapers,” winner of the PSA Lyric Poetry Award. Every time I read it, I lose my breath at the end and need a minute.

Jennifer Chang won the William Carlos Williams Award for her book, Some Say the Lark (Alice James). I adore this book, and have been waiting for it since I read Chang’s poem, “Dorothy Wordsworth,” years ago. Happily she read this poem at the ceremony, along with another of my favorites from the book, “We Found the Body of a Young Deer Once.” This one’s a poem about friendship, a subject I believe doesn’t get enough attention in contemporary poetry.

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Elizabeth Knapp, winner of the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award, read her very timely poem, “Fourth of July.”

I listened to Billy Collins award the PSA Frost Medal to Ron Padgett, whose acceptance speech was mainly a list poem comprised of the names of all those who have been a part of his poetry life. It was a reminder that we are all standing on each other’s shoulders.

 

And I read my own poem, “Interior with a Woman Peeling Oranges, Snapping Beans.”

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Me, reading.

That seems like at least a year ago now. It seems like it all happened to someone living in another body, not the one I inhabit. But the photos and the memories are proof.

I missed my kids (and they might’ve missed me?). I missed my cat and she definitely missed me. And I am glad I went, even though it’s always easier (at least for me) to stay home with one’s nose to the grindstone. Shout-out to my mom who made it all possible by coming down to stay with the kids and keep the wheels turning en la casa del poeta.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing all the mom stuff, applying for jobs, helping my students with their final essay of the semester, snuggling with my cat, looking side-eye at the news, reading Jorie Graham, looking side-eye at the laundry, reading Jenny Molberg, getting shook by an earthquake (wha–?), writing a panel proposal for AWP19, looking side-eye at The Winter That Will Not Loose Its Grip on the Midwest, reading Ghassan Zaqtan, Driving People Places (this always deserves its own category), soaking in the tub, looking side-eye at the (generally empty) refrigerator, reading more Jorie Graham (“I think I am in love with silence, that other world.”), editing book reviews, grading, grading, grading, grading, and grading. Submitting final grades. Collapsing.

Also, it was 84 the other day, so, BYE, winter.

All this happened, more or less, and I am tired, and a little dazed, and a lot grateful.

And so does my life tremble, or, the poem I can’t stop reading

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Paul Klee, “Signs in the Sky,” wikimedia

I had not known the poems of Denis Johnson before he died last week. This is the fate of the mostly-self-taught: holes in the tapestry. The Internet came to my rescue when someone posted this poem, and I fell hard. Bought his books. Am amazed.

Here is the poem I can’t stop reading this week:

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NOW by Denis Johnson

Whatever the foghorns are
the voices of feels terrible
tonight, just terrible, and here
by the window that looks out
on the waters but is blind, I
have been sleeping,
but I am awake now.
In the night I watch
how the little lights
of boats come out
to us and are lost again
in the fog wallowing on the sea:
it is as if in that absence not many
but a single light gestures
and diminishes like meaning
through speech, negligently
adance to the calling
of the foghorns like the one
note they lend from voice
to voice. And so does my life tremble,
and when I turn from the window
and from the sea’s grief, the room
fills with a dark
lushness and foliage nobody
will ever be plucked from,
and the feelings I have
must never be given speech.
Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,
and I am almost ready to
confess it is not some awful
misunderstanding that has carried
me here, my arms full of the ghosts
of flowers, to kneel at your feet;
almost ready to see
how at each turning I chose
this way, this place and this verging
of the ocean on earth with the horns claiming
I can keep on if only I step
where I cannot breathe. My coat
is leprosy and my dagger
is a lie; must I
shed them? Do I have
to end my life in order
to begin? Music, you are light.
Agony, you are only what tips
me from moment to moment, light
to light and word to word,
and I am here at the waters
because in this space between spaces
where nothing speaks,
I am what it says.

*

I rest my case.

(From his collection The Incognito Lounge).

friday with another screen door and balance juggle

The screen doors pursue me.

I went 44 years without reading a screen door poem, and here in the last two weeks I’ve come across two that will fold into the Important Poems file of my mind.

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But first a word on balance. Earlier this week, I shared a Gwendolyn Brooks quote about “poeting” (her word) being just one element of a lived, human life.

I went on to say: Yes, but. Yes, but creative people must sometimes say no in order to make their art. I said: It’s all in the balance, I suppose.

A reader wrote asking if I think the balance is really possible. My answer is no. I used the wrong word. I’ve never balanced my life, I’ve only juggled the various elements of it. So, if the balance (whatever that is) seems to you impossible to achieve, you’re not alone. Also, the non-art-making world may wish for us to balance rather than juggle. The non-art-making world may not understand why simply parceling out a certain number of hours per week for our creative work, for example, does not work for the art-makers. [*Returning now to say: Yes, but. Yes, but setting aside regular time is also important]. That the art-makers must respond to the art when it’s ripe for making. Or sometimes, let’s be honest, when the deadline approaches.

Making art is Other. Let us juggle avidly.

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Bachelard:

Shall we repeat with the logicians that a door must be open or closed?

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Here’s a little ars poetica from Franz Wright that makes use of the screen door’s liminal equivocality:

BEFORE THE STORM

The poem seeks not
to depict a place
but to become one—

synonymous
_____________summer
and loneliness…

Mute child-ghost
of yourself
at the screen door.

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The poet Kaveh Akbar recently organized a tribute to Franz Wright to coincide with the first anniversary of Wright’s death. It’s here and in the latest issue of Pleiades if you’re interested.

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Also Bachelard:

But is he who opens a door and he who closes it the same being?

“human being being human”

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This POETRY tribute issue (June) devoted to Gwendolyn Brooks is fantastic—poems of homage, notes and photos from her archives, essays on her work and her life and their bearing on our poetry and our times.

One of my favorite bits is the following quote “written on a slip of paper in her archives”:

Who “does life” as a “poet”? One lives as a human being. In that activity, life “as a poet” is included, I guess, along with life as a black-eye pea boiler, life as a baby-maker, life as a lecturer, life as a Listener, life as a typist-for-five-lawyers. I never gave up love, lunch, book-reading, movies, restaurant-romping, strolling, friend-visiting, for “life-as-a-poet”-ing. Poeting has been, always, part of this life, my life as a warm-hearted resilient, open eyed human being being human. —Gwendolyn Brooks

This  may hold a little something back—creative people must sometimes say no to things in order to have time, space, and solitude to make their art. But the idea of art as one element of a very human life seems just right to me. The trick is in the balance, I suppose.

Also not to missed in this issue: Patricia Smith’s poem, “A Street in Lawndale.” Its third section begins,

Murders will not let you forget.
You remember the children you had—suddenly quarry, target—
the daughters with gunfire smoldering circles in their napped hair,
the absent sons whose screams still ride the air.

—Patricia Smith, from “A Street in Lawndale”

Here’s the POETRY Magazine website if you want to get your hands on this issue.

friday with screen door and Bill Knott

Doors are such a rich symbol. I could spend my life thinking and writing about them. As Gaston Bachelard writes in his The Poetics of Space, “[T]he door is an entire cosmos of Half-open.” Yes.

In my personal mythology the screen door is amongst the pantheon. Mine is an old screen door, wood-framed and warped, scuffed and cat-scratched, patched and pressed into. It never quite latches, just thwacks against its doorsill and remains open by a crack.

Recently, thanks to the good people at Open Books who know every book by every poet ever, I discovered the work of the poet Bill Knott. I was stunned to learn that he was from a little town in Michigan called Carson City, about ten miles from the little town in Michigan where I grew up.

It would be hard to overstate how little these towns are. Between them are backroads and farmland, soybeans and potatoes.

Barns and farmhouses.

Screen doors.

I confess to a fondness for poems that engage with liminalities ( this bit from C.D. Wright’s One With Others is another of my favorites: “The river rises from a mountain of granite.”).

Here’s a Bill Knott poem I spent some time with this morning:

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Just this:

What if we never entered then—        

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Here’s more about Bill Knott from The New York TimesHis selected is called I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems 1960-2014, and is edited and introduced by Thomas Lux. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.

I attack the ruse.

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(art from wikimedia)

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Nobody is attached
by Tomaž Šalamun

Nobody is attached. You too are not. You too
are undressed and warm, breathing like a

hare. We breathe slowly. I’m the thorn.
The thorn. I go into the goblet. I toss

the string. There’s a bucket on the string. It
splashes in the fountain. At the bottom of the fountain

there are does with big eyes. I limp, I eat kohlrabi,
point with a finger, and ask too much. Calm

yourself. It will come and vanish. You’ll be mute
and black and you will fall asleep on the shelf.

Combines will halve you. The shy ones
the rag opened the eyes to the timid ones.

No one loaded the duffle. The lamps along the path
were made of white plastic. I attack the ruse. I love.

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I love this poem for its strange unconnectedness. Richard Hugo: “Connections are not stated, yet we know the statements are connected. They are connected because the same poet wrote all (of them). That is, they are products of one vision that, along with style, becomes the adhesive force. This adhesive force will be your way of writing. Assume the next thing belongs because you put it there.” From Hugo’s “Nuts and Bolts.”

I am almost mad when it ends up the lamps along the path are made of plastic. But then I see how it fits perfectly, waking us from the dream of the poem.

I’m not sure who translated this poem, but Šalamun translated his own work at least some of the time. I found this poem via the poet Gretchen Marquette, whose book May Day is fantastic. You should read it.

Happy New Year!

bridges, headwaters

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[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, half-heartedly

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Dear Reader, it’s Friday. The world we live in and life in general have me feeling quiet and half-hearted, but here I am.

[Editing to say that this image ===========> which I can’t get WordPress to let me label today is called “The Spider” by Nikolas Gysis, via wikimedia.]

I’ve been reading My Poets by Maureen McLane, a really lovely, super smart volume of what I’d call meditative criticism. In a variety of styles and from a variety of vantage points, McLane writes about the poets “who, in possessing her, made her” (quote is from jacket text). She does this, many times, through close reading of poems, but—unlike a lot of literary criticism—her close readings take into account the way these poems and poets have moved through her life as scholar, poet, and human being. It has become a VIB for me (Very Important Book). I recommend it wholeheartedly.

I’ve also been reading Fanny Howe:

Come, tinkers, among droves of acorn trees
Be only one third needful, O
Name things whereby we hope
Before the story scatters. A cardinal
Is red for fever where you passed

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(from Introduction to the World ; sorry for linking to the Death Star, but could not find it anywhere else)

I’ve been remembering Buson’s poem (short enough to memorize, therefore no need to read), one of my all-time favorites, on this second day of autumn:

I go,
you stay;
two autumns.
(Robert Hass, trans.)

I’ve been writing, early mornings, earlier than ever, actually, since high school starts at 7:10 (!) and I now have a high-schooler (!). The world’s on fire, and there are some amazing world’s-on-fire poems circulating out there, and I would like to write some amazing world’s-on-fire poems. But I’ve been writing poems of the interior: mindscapes, emotional landscapes, questions of how to live. Sometimes I wish there existed a switch I could flip—turn off poems of the interior, turn on poems of public life. Alas, no switch. Still, yesterday I was comforted reading this interview with MacArthur Fellow, Maggie Nelson. In it she says,

“At the end of the day, maybe I’m old-fashioned in thinking that you just don’t get to choose what you’ve got in you to give. You’ve just got to do what each book demands.”

Or what each poem demands.

She also says:

“(T)he work eventually tells you what needs to be in it for it to work, and it has to have what it has to have.”

We know this already, right? But it’s nice to have a reminder. And from a MacArthur Genius at that.

Here’s a poem, a masterful conceit, a world’s-on-fire poem, a necessary poem, a heart-breaking poem, by Nikki Giovanni:

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Happy weekend & thanks for reading.