friday (mini-)roundup: “I too am not a bit tamed” edition


“Hawk Poised for a Fight” by ZhOng Schan Tchow (wikimedia)

Dear Reader,

I had not intended to go quite so quiet for quite so long, but there it is.

I’m enjoying living in a house again.

I’m not enjoying the results of the election, and the aftermath.

In the bleak times, I usually turn to poems. But this time even most of my standby poems-for-troubled-times aren’t helping.

Still, a mercifully, a poem has presented itself to me, an unlikely candidate perhaps, from one Walt Whitman the self-appointed bard of this nation. (Right now, it feels like he was overly optimistic about the Republic. But that’s another post for another day.)

I’ve been reading and re-reading section 52, the last section, of “Song of Myself.” And although the text may not support it (#sorrynotsorry), I’ve been thinking of our nation as the speaker, and of the citizen as the speaker. I regret that, as a citizen, I’ve been mostly gabbing and loitering over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about the work we have before us, and how the ideals of our nation are elusive and endangered. That we must put on our boots, sound our yawps, and keep encouraged. But not be conciliatory: I too am not a bit tamed. 

I give you Uncle Walt:



The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of the day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to vapor and dust.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.


friday roundup, half-heartedly


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


(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:


Happy weekend & thanks for reading.

just this:

We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.
—Franz Kafka

With thanks to the poet Francesca Bell.

I was going to write about…

photo credit here

photo credit here

I was going to write about feeling quiet, about uncertainty over when to speak and when to stay silent.

I was going to write about Eric Garner’s eyes.

I was going to write about Adrienne Rich’s poem “Frame” and those lines at the end: “What I am telling you / is told by a white woman who they will say / was never there. I say I am there.”

I was going to write about Mary Ruefle saying “you might say fear is the poet’s procedure.” Because we know we probably won’t get it right, we so seldom do. Because we know words are never quite enough.

I was going to write about how Beethoven is known as “one of music’s great strugglers” (this according to the announcer on my local classical station). How his patron gave him the thumbs down for the first try at his Leonore Overture. A “great struggler.” Beethoven.

I was going to write about how poets become, somehow, known to us through their work. “You see a few lines in a magazine;” writes David Orr, “you get an impression of a sensibility; you feel an obscure connection, or an equally obscure disconnection.” About how our bookshelves bear the weight of lives and graves.

I was going to write about starting to cry when I read this in the Sunday Times:

“THE police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.

You get it: This is the United States… .”

–Mark Bittman

I was going to write about feeling powerless. Even betrayed.

I was going to write about how Larry Levis is the poet laureate of oblivion.

I was going to write about how poetry connects us. About how I went and taught poetry in Kindergarten, and a boy named B. wrote a poem about his dog. About how later his mother approached me, asked about my poetry, told me of a book that had saved her in a time of bottomless grief.

I was going to write about how we all have wounds.

I was going to write about privilege — about how lucky (yes, privileged) I have been in this life. How sometimes that makes me think I have no right to speak about some things. Or write about them. About how saying “I am there” doesn’t feel like enough, and sometimes even feels inaccurate: the speaker in Adrienne Rich’s poem was not actually in the same “there” as the girl who was arrested.

I was going to write about all this, but I didn’t.

Sometimes scraps are all we have.

Because I have already tried abandoning poetry, only to have it follow me like a benevolent dog, or sometimes like a hungry wolf, I know I will keep collecting the scraps.

May it be so.

friday roundup: walking the plank, how to end a poem, and when in doubt, art

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

by Howard Pyle, wikimedia

Dear Reader,

Are you still there? I am still here. I am still juggling, dancing, dashing and dodging, but alas, never balancing. I am still reporting to my desk in its four-foot stretch of wall space with regularity — “as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos… .” And they do. Intermittently. As one of my first teachers of poetry (and a mother of four) used to say: “Life is very lifelike.”

Anyway, onto poetic thoughts and musings….

walking the plank  I am still reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Wow — just noticed the price on that baby. Hunt around. I found it for much cheaper). I am still finding gems page by page, sometimes a whole essay of treasure. After figurative language, line is probably my very favorite element of poetry — both in reading and writing. I like it best when reading or writing a line of poetry is like walking the plank. Here is Catherine Barnett (who I quoted a few weeks back as saying poetry is “a ruin of prose”) on this march-toward-death quality of the line:

“Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo — and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it?

Let us give thanks for smart poets who write essays and books on craft so that we can read them. Amen.

how to end a poem  (insert maniacal laughter here). And lo, it is said, “Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.” Yes they are. But I gave a little craft talk on endings at my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and the outcome was a list of strategies for ending a poem. I could kick myself for not making this list ten years ago. Here is the list:

  • Bold claim
  • Shift to the imperative voice
  • Direct address (“Greetings, Earthlings.”)
  • Apostrophe
  • Dialogue / something spoken
  • Make a list
  • Ask (a) question(s) (Personal favorite: Lucille Clifton, “quilting,” “how does this poem end? …”
  • (needless to say) Strong image
  • Explicit entry (or re-entry) of the speaker
  • Big swerve (e.g., description, description, description, statement that seems to have nothing to do with the description but obviously does because it’s in the same poem)
  • Change in perspective (a widening or narrowing of the lens, so to speak)
  • Return to or break from pattern used previously in the poem (formal, syntactical, metrical, etc.)

These strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are not offered as The List, just a list. One that I plan to keep adding to as I study poems and their endings. It will not make endings easy, but now you have a list of things to try when you don’t know how to end a poem (or maybe you already had this list and I am late to the party).

when in doubt, art  Sometimes the world feels heavy and incomprehensible (most times?). Then it feels like whatever tiny lines we can write on a blank page don’t matter. Because tsunami. Because QSIS. Because the plane. Because the girls. Because school shootings. Because starving children. Because midterm elections. Because “surgical strikes.” And the list goes on. When the world feels too heavy to write about, I often turn to art and write an ekphrastic poem. Art, I feel, is reliable. It always has more to give — more beauty, more comfort, more hope, more humanity. And of course, art is of this world, too — so then I feel better about the world in a roundabout way.

Anyway, I read a stellar ekphrastic poem in Blackbird this week, and I’ll leave you with it. It is “An Early Nude by Rothko” by Lindsay Bernal.

Happy weekend!

friday roundup: snap out of it edition

Snap out of it!

Snap out of it.

Hello, Reader. Meet the snap out of it doll=>

My mother gave me this doll one fateful summer — the summer when all three kids were old enough to whine and fuss in earnest, and with a goal in mind. Like:

Me: It’s time to put your clean laundry away.

Them: Waaaaah. But I’m toooooo tiiiiiirrrrrreeeedddddd.

Me: [Thinks to self: Connect and redirect. Gives a quick hug]. Being tired’s no fun. It’s time to put your laundry away.

Them: Waaaaaah. Buuut Moooooooommmmmm. I’m toooooo tiiiiiirrrrrreeeeddddd.

Me: [Thinks, Where is that F-ing doll? Finds doll. Hands doll to child] Snap out of it. [walks away]

If you look closely, you will see that the snap of it doll has gotten enough use so as to be in need of mending near her ear. I feel I can relate to her deeply on that point.

But lately, I, too, have felt the need to…

snap out of it  Not because I’ve been whining about putting my laundry away, but because I’m back from the first residency of my low-res MFA program, and I’ve had a hard time snapping out of: Oh look here I am with a bunch of people who care about what I care about and who are reading what I’m reading and who are also interested in rhetorical strategies for lyricization of a narrative and here we all are all day and all night doing our writerly thing.

I mean, I get this sense from the washing machine that it expects me to have this deep connection to it, but I’m just not feeling it. And then, these people who are always STARVING.

Them: Mooooommmmmmmm, I’m STARRRRRRRRRRRVING.

Me: Starving? Really!? Do you want to know about starving!!?? Come here, look at this. Do you see this? [shows photo from New York Times] These people are trapped on a mountain by a terrorist group. There is no food or water on the mountain. If they leave the mountain to try to find food and water, the terrorist group will kill them. THEY are starving. YOU are SO NOT STARVING [walks away, mutters under breath].

Them: [insert deer in the headlights look].

So, yeah, as usual, a little pain on re-entry for all of us. I’m sure I’ll stop feeling disoriented any second now [waiting, waiting…. waiting]. Or maybe not. Maybe disorientation is what we need to write poetry. Le Sigh. Anyway, …

here’s what I’ve been reading (says the prairie dog at my desk):

  • Descending Figure Louise Glück
  • Charming Gardeners David Beispiel
  • Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry (all by men, I must add)
  • Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson
  • How to Live on Bread and Water by Jennifer K. Sweeney
  • Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers (also all men, I must add)
  • Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  • Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
  • The Everything Parenting a Teenager BookT by Linda Sonna. Le Sigh.
  • Occasionally, the New York Times.

At some point, I will have to focus on 2 or 3 of these texts and let the others fall away for now. I’ll do that. As soon as I snap out of it.

speaking of which  Right now, I want to hand the snap out of it doll to the whole wide world. I want us all to stop killing each other. I want us all to stop thinking that some people are worth less than other people. I want us to start caring more about our planet. I want the police to go back to wearing those nifty blue shirts and caps with a visor on the front. I want there to be fewer guns in the world, on our streets. I want people to stop making and playing video games that turn killing other people into entertainment. I want us to say hello to each other in the morning when we cross paths walking through our neighborhoods (when I do this in the P-town, people look at me like I’ve just sprouted a third eye). I want no one to be trapped and starving on a mountain top, literal or figurative.

[steps off soapbox]

In that spirit, I offer you a poem by the beloved Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim who died this week. I give you:

Travel Tickets by Samih al-Qasim

The day I’m killed,
my killer, rifling through my pockets,
will find travel tickets:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
and one
to the conscience of mankind.

Dear killer of mine, I beg you:
Do not stay and waste them.
Take them, use them.
I beg you to travel.

(A.Z. Foresman, trans.)


Happy weekend reader. Here’s to snapping out of it [raises glass — full of water].