Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?

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Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?—this is the first line of the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in Stephen Mitchell’s translation.

I had read the Duino Elegies many times over the years, but I don’t think I really encountered these poems for the first time until five or six years ago. I was on vacation with my family on the Oregon coast, one of my favorite places in the world. I brought Mitchell’s Selected Rilke down to the beach with me day after day and read, and read, and read. And puzzled (please note my decidedly not-incisive marginalia: “seems important”). And studied. And read some more. To this day, there is sand in the spine of my copy of Rilke’s Selected.

Sand from the Oregon coast—it clings. That first line of the Elegies—it also clings.

And it has been especially on my mind for the last week or so, and so has the poem “I Find Myself Shelved Between Rich and Rilke” by Jennifer Richter. Can you imagine, Reader—finding yourself shelved between Rich and Rilke? I can’t. And for years, and after many—so many—manuscript rejections, I had a hard time imagining myself shelved between Anyone and Anyone. True story.

Luckily, I had friends and fellow writers who pledged themselves to imagining it for me when I couldn’t. We all need people who will imagine our dreams for us when we’ve lost energy / momentum / confidence / hope / imagination / presence of mind / what-have-you.

Nonetheless, over winter break I gave myself a stern talking-to. I said, You can’t keep throwing money down this rat hole. I said, You need to lower your sights, find a little press who will publish your work, and stop aiming so high. I said, You’re obviously more ambitious than your manuscripts are (Wow, that really sounds like Spiteful Gillian). And I meant it. My plan for 2019 was to stop submitting my manuscripts to contests and look for other, less ambitious options. Like maybe a ditto machine.

And now I’ve learned that, in fact, I will be shelved between Someone and Someone. I am stunned and grateful to have placed both of my manuscripts in separate contests this year. If the house, the second manuscript I wrote, was selected by Carl Phillips for the 2019 Brittingham Prize from University of Wisconsin Press and will be out in September of this year. Relic and the Plum, the first manuscript I wrote, was one of two winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition selected by Allison Joseph, and is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in September of 2020.

I think we all wonder sometimes who, if we cry out, will hear us. For years I sent my manuscripts out as if into the void. I know it’s easy for me to say now, but in poetry, and in life, I’m in favor of continuing to cry out until we’re heard.

 

 

 

The spider—why the spider?, or, a defense of recurring images

Ten spiders, showing much variation in shape and colour. Gou Wellcome V0043845

(art from Wikimedia)

A few days ago on Twitter, a poet tweeted about searching through her poems to make sure she hadn’t already used the image she wanted to use in a new poem. Another poet responded that she often does the same.

My response: I will fight you.

I mean: I haven’t slept since.

Well, okay, I have, but only restlessly.

Let it be said that these are poets whose work I admire deeply. And yet… And yet… My response: horror.

Horror, because what if Bonnard had only painted Marthe in the bath once?

What if Diebenkorn had worried about repeating himself, and only painted a handful of Ocean Parks, rather than painting 150 (correction: according to this source it was 145) Ocean Parks over the course of eighteen years?

What if Ruth Asawa had thought more than just a few of her sinuous and shapely wire sculptures would be repetitive?

What if Louise Bourgeois abandoned her obsession with spiders, which began appearing in her work in the 1940s, and which she was still using in her art early in the next century (i.e., this century)?

Reader, I would not want to live in that world.

Nor in a world without Charles Wright’s spiders. Nor without Ted Hughes’s crows, nor Larry Levis’s horses and wrens, nor Whitman’s body-as-land / land-as-body imagery, nor Emily Dickinson’s birds.

What if Mahmoud Darwish had stopped writing about his homeland, and Terrence Hayes had only written one American sonnet for his past and future assassin?

I mean—and now I’m getting really serious—what if Jack Gilbert had stopped writing about Gianna and Linda and Michiko and Pittsburgh for fear of being repetitive?

No thank you, my friends, no thank you.

There are images (and, I would add, subjects, and even colors, and probably other things, too) that belong to certain poets. They use, and reuse, and use again these images across and throughout the body of their work. Why? Because obsessions fuel art. Because images do more than simply describe or represent something in a novel way—they also haul up to the surface a particular emotional resonance. An image is a portal into a poet’s mind and interior world, and hopefully, into our own as well. And troubling a particular image over time, over time, over time, and more time—this is one of the things I love about reading and writing poetry.

Look: now Wright’s spider is “recit[ing] his one sin.” Now he’s “still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.”

Now Marthe is in the tub, practically Ophelia. Now she’s in the tub again. Now she’s—you guessed it—in the tub again. (I could go on).

So, no, we don’t want to close ourselves off to using new images. And we don’t want to read or write an image in the exact same wording and in the exact same situation every time across a body of work (although now that I think of it, I may not be entirely opposed to that either—I mean: think of the guts that would take). We don’t want to be lazy or unthinking. But yes, please, for all time to the obsessive return of a writer or artist to his/her/their foundational  images.

Especially because the best images, returned to, reveal more of themselves to us each time we read or write.

Especially because we change and (we hope) grow and (we hope) become more capacious and complex beings—so that a spider to us in 1987 will be very different to us than a spider in 2021.

Even the same spider.

Here are some of the images I return and return to in my own writing: the roof, the fence, the rib, the stone. The birches. The hillside and its forever-willow. The ditch, the meadow, the snow. The wood thrush; the indigo bunting, it’s song about fire. The dune. The doorway and the window. Abandoning them would be like giving up my own, well, rib.

Here is Bourgeois: “The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”

Why the rib? Because mine aches in times of grief or sorrow. Why the ditch, the hillside (which is also where the meadow was, ftr) and her willow? They were my best friends—places to see from without being seen. Good for watching storms blow in. Dappled, quiet, buggy, blown. Useful as a ditch / hillside / willow.

end-of-semester report

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This is my favorite—as a Jane Austen character would say—prospect in my new house.

It’s part way down the stairs. This is and is not a metaphor.

The photos on the wall to the left are of my kiddos, at the First House, standing at the screen door, looking out. This is and is not a metaphor. These photos have adorned every entryway of every house since then (and if you’re just joining us, there have been many, too many).

The green light was my housewarming gift to myself. I call her Minerva and we have a quick conversation every morning when I go downstairs at 5AM to make my tea: Good morning. Good morning. Another day, another 70 cents on a man’s dollar. Yep. Let’s smash the Patriarchy. Yep.

Beyond that, the warmth of the living room, and my beloved books and bookshelves.

I am grateful for this view, for this house which I purchased ambivalently but with the intention of giving my kids a home for their last few years at home, for the relative peace it holds for me after some very difficult years. I am grateful for my kids and my books, for this lovely green light that makes magic when illuminated:

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I’m grateful to be a poet and a writer, (though, lately, I have felt a long way off from poetry); for whatever kind attention my work has received in the world; mostly, for the quiet mornings at my desk, in lamplight, with the words of others:

______…something

is running across the field,
______can you see it coming
through the yellow grass, can you see it coming
______from the windowpane,
are you closing the shutters, do you think it’s rain? (—Dana Levin)

I’m grateful for the work I do at The Rumpus, for our reviewers and my fellow editors there (which reminds me: here you can read about staff favorites from 2018). I’m grateful for my kitty; wouldn’t you be?:

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This year, I’m especially grateful for a teaching job I love, and for my colleagues, and my students, who, at this point in the semester, are stressed out and exhausted and coming to office hours with their final papers. Like them, I am going in early, skipping lunch, staying late (Unlike them, because I am older and wiser and, let’s face it, a mom, I am reminding everyone to eat and sleep; I am giving out chocolate and throat drops and Excedrin. I am saying, There’s a time to be perfect, and a time to be done.).

I never get through finals week without these words thrumming through me: In the evening we shall be examined on love. They are the words of St. John of the Cross, and the title of a poem by Thomas Centolella:

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Life is hard, even easy lives. This semester, I have lived every day in the “blue of no more daily evasions.” It is not a gentle blue. I often feel like the student who doesn’t even recall signing up for the course who now must take her orals (See: single mother of three teenagers). And like the teacher wracking her brain to find “what unknown quantity / will balance the equation.”

I don’t know, and may never, but I hope it’s the small, heartfelt acts that balance things out after all: Waking early to read and (try to) write even just one word in my notebook. Making the kids a hot breakfast, packing their lunches, because I can, and here they are, hungry. Going in early, skipping lunch, staying late. Cherishing my family and friends. Calling my elected officials again. Writing about books I loved and learned from. Living my small, wingéd, provisional truths; saying them out loud regardless of whether anyone’s listening; abandoning them when they show themselves to have been faulty after all.

I guess this is not your typical end-of-semester report. I meant to come here and say: here’s where you can find a few of my recent poems; here’s a review I wrote; I still haven’t published a book.

Instead it’s this: I’m grateful, my grades are in, my kids are well-fed, I have a gorgeous new red lipstick, I’ve kept my house reasonably clean. This semester, I tried; let’s all keep trying; in the evening we shall be examined on love.

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.

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.

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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 roundup: Whatever in passing

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Spring is trying to arrive; some days yes and some days no.

(I think) I’m nearly finished with my creative thesis and my critical paper.

There are nine weeks of school left for the kids.

We just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb known to humankind.

There is an app that will wake you up to the sound of birdsong.

I’m not sure what to make of any of it, but here are some things:

no Creative people say no. Women, especially, are conditioned not to say no. And never the twain shall meet.

Someone once tweeted (I can’t remember who, but the words have stayed with me): You will have to say no in order to do your work. It will be worth it. I have said no to lunch invitations, movies, shopping days, volunteer “opportunities,” children, laundry, dinners (as in making them), hairstyles (as in having one), arguments (both having them and settling them), sleep, and more, in order to do my work. I just said no to a second game of PIG on the driveway basketball hoop with my darling girl. “I wish I could, but I have to work today,” is what I said. The more I do it, the easier it gets.

Here are two articles about saying no, and one even gives you some good ways of saying it: One. Two. Spoiler: Even Dickens said no.

reinforcements A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and it’s now hanging above my desk. In case your will to say no requires reinforcements:

A woman must be careful not to allow over-responsibility (or over-respectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only. —Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Men may also need to be careful about this, but since those who identify as women still do most of the child-rearing, household-running, and the Administrative Caca that comes with those tasks—none of which are ever “finished”—, it’s especially important for the Sisterhood.

Whatever in passing  This morning I read two poems at Poetry Northwest‘s website written and translated by two women—Ye Lijun and Fiona Sze-Lorrain—who said yes to their art. We will never know what they said no to in order to do it, but I am so glad they did, because these poems are exquisite and they kindle in me the desire to keep trying to make exquisite things with words.

You can read them here.

one more thing I recently—and finally—created an author website. If you click on it, it will become more findable. Would you? Thanks. www.mollyspencer.com.

Happy weekend!

nevertheless

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A STUBBORN ODE by Jack Gilbert

All of it. The sane woman under the bed with the rat
that is licking off the peanut butter she puts on her
front teeth for him. The beggars of Calcutta blinding
their children while somewhere people are rich
and eating with famous friends have having running water
in their fine houses. Michiko is buried in Kamakura.
The tired farmers thresh barley all day under the feet
of donkeys amid the merciless power of the sun.
The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.
All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.
When Gordon was released from the madhouse, he could
not find Hayden to say goodbye. As he left past
Hall Eight, he saw a face in a basement window,
tears running down the cheeks. And I say, nevertheless.

 

friday roundup: long time no see edition

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This terrible photo of the book fair is apparently the only photo I took at AWP.

Well. I have my reasons.

I am thesis-ing.

I have been to D.C. and San Francisco and D.C. and back again in the last three-and-a-half weeks.

Care and feeding of the young.

Doing my own work first.

Etc.

But I’m here to tell you a little bit about AWP and to share a poem I read this morning.

AWP was a meat-grinder of the best sort. You run from session to snack bar to book fair to the place you told your friends you’d meet them for dinner. On loop. You finally see in person the editor who was so good as to publish your poems, poets whose work you admire, and your writing friends from distant outposts (or perhaps you are the one in the distant outpost now, but you get what I mean). It is tiring. It is overload for 12,000 introverts. But it is also a little bit of heaven. Here’s why:

You only have to be yourself: poet, critic, editor (in my case). Everyone sees you as a professional, a colleague. They ask about your manuscript and encourage you to keep sending it out. They mention seeing your poems here and there and how much they enjoyed them. They ask about your thesis and encourage you to send it to this conference they know about so you can present it there. To them, you are no one’s mother, wife, daughter, sister, auntie, neighbor, or potential PTA volunteer. There is no laundry to fold, no ground beef to thaw for tomorrow’s dinner. People want to talk to you about poetics, about the work of Poet X in Journal Y. They wonder if they can send a review copy of their book to the journal where you work. They ask what kind of work you’re looking for. They heard the panel you moderated was great. They ask what your next project is and tell you about theirs.

And that’s what I loved best about it.

Now I’m back in my study-with-the-door-that-closes working on my thesis. Writing a few little poems or notes for poems. Starting my day by reading poetry because that’s how I make sure the day will be okay. Here’s one I read this morning from Donika Kelly‘s debut collection Bestiary. Which you should buy here.

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