No better place

In a time of grief and gravity and gratitude for some wonderfully-lived lives, I happen to find myself reading Mark Doty’s book What Is the Grass? Walt Whitman in My Life.

And I find this paragraph; and for now, I need add nothing more.

The dead are not lost, but in circulation; they are involved in the present, in active participation. Bits of them are streaming through your hand and mine, just as language is circulating through us. Lexicon and materiality forever move onward and outward in the continuous wheeling expansion this world is. This is no mere philosophical proposition on Whitman’s part, not an intellectual understanding but a felt actuality. We are alive forever in the endless circulation of matter. Nothing luckier, stranger, or more beautiful could ever happen. There is no better place.

Foretelling

I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.

~

I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

Top ten, discourse, power

Last week’s New York Times Book Review listed, as always, the ten best-selling books. It’s rather heartening to note that this past week, in the non-fiction category, nine of the ten top selling books deal with systemic racism, historic racism, personal experiences as a person of color, and anti-racism in the United States. Granted, the NYT Bestsellers list projects the interests of only a small percentage of citizens and reflects the interests of a well-educated readership. These readers, however, tend to be people who have money and influence, who make hiring decisions and corporate policy protocols, and who are responsible for educating Americans. They may not think of themselves as people with power, for many of the Times readers are under 40 and middle-class.* But they seem to be showing an interest in learning more about privilege, power, and racism.

I have never considered myself a person who had any power; and yet I now recognize that just as I have privilege I never earned, I have power I never earned–and that I have indeed been using that power (as I have unwittingly benefited from privilege) and can do more with it. For educators possess power.

So do poets.

The past three months, as spring has bloomed into summer, poems of protest and poems that inform society have likewise bloomed. Poets of color, marginalized poets, poets who are disabled or queer or immigrant or for other reasons yearning to be heard are all over social media–which is not unusual in itself (the voices, the poems, have been online for decades)–but the difference lately comes through retweets and viral videos and shared posts at a higher rate than previously. These poems, and the prose and interviews that often accompany them, create discourse. Badly needed discussions. Confrontations that cannot be shoved away as easily as they were. I’ve been reading and observing, hoping a change is gonna come.

True, maybe change will not come. At any rate, it’s unlikely to come readily or rapidly; we have been at this pass many times before in the USA. One person at a time may make incremental changes, though, as my father did in the 1960s: a tiny addition to the marches, one person speaking to a small and largely indifferent congregation. One person at a time can be me, as I instruct my students in how to discuss and how to write about controversial subjects using genuine evidence while being respectful of other perspectives. Demonstrate to them how to notice that there are other perspectives. Teach them that they can read and listen in order to teach themselves.

That is power, and it is power to change. Incrementally, a drop in the ocean, a butterfly effect…why not? We have a dream.

monarch.ann e michael

~~

* I’ve gleaned demographic information from NYT’s published statistics and those from several media-advertisement websites.

Flurries

Every 20 years or so, my region gets a truly late freeze.

This is one of those years. It seems strange when snow flurries alight upon dogwood blossoms, but this period has been strange in many respects. What’s one more weirdness? We can adapt. It just requires employing strategies we haven’t used before.

Which brings me, today, to Marilyn McCabe’s chapbook Being Many Seeds, just released by Grayson Books…like my own chapbook, a publication somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Make note, though, that you and I can still purchase books online. It just may take a little longer to receive the text. And isn’t anticipation fun?

Her chapbook has a lovely cover. [Readers may know I’m a fan of milkweed.] And the poems fascinate as they unravel–almost literally–on the page, in a form of erasure poetry followed by brief prose that is not so much interpretation as deepening. McCabe tries strategies with her poems as words and also as meanings. If that makes any sense. Want to know more? McCabe posted about the evolution of this collection on her own blog (which I suggest you follow) here.

beingmanyseeds-graysonsite_orig

~

I walked out into the meadow and scouted the broken stems and perennials emerging, on the lookout for seed-silk. I found several varieties, mostly dandelion, milkweed, coltsfoot, and eupatorium. Translucent puffs that evolved to disperse lightweight seeds through the use of breeze. Or breath.

Effective, and also quite beautiful. When the seed is stripped from the silk, the puff drifts away. The seed, however, now has the opportunity to sprout and grow. Even when the air is full of flurries.

 

~

Delights

May begins with its usual pleasures of redbud, dogwood, cherry blossoms, camassia, mayflower, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit…spinach in the garden, peas starting to send out tendrils, swallows and orioles returning, bees and other insects waking to the work of pollination and feeding the birds.

And yes, a time of anxious confusion and maybe a little more rain in April than necessary and adapting to working conditions that aren’t entirely satisfactory due to a situation beyond our control–though human beings like to pretend we have control. It’s a belief that keeps us from despair, probably.

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights. 41ZEJWNt9CL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.

 

Just grand

For my last National Poetry Month blog post, I respond to Grand Canyon, a mini-chapbook by Pennsylvania & Baltimore, MD poet Barbara DeCesare who, I confess, was a fellow student of mine when we were in grad school; and therefore I am tremendously biased about her work. But while bias enters into response to some degree, this post responds to the book, not to the poet. Well, okay–bit of both.

What’s different about this chapbook is 1) it is a long poem in 13 sections and 2) it is not available; I have a ‘self-published’ version personally photocopied and inscribed by the author. Therefore, I am reading what most of my readers do not have a chance to read. It’s kind of like finding a personal letter in a long-unopened drawer, and similar to the small chapbooks and photocopied zines of the late 1970s and 1980s. It is not easy to find those anymore, either.

barbara decesare poetry

DeCesare’s chapbook fits right in with my 1980s zines.

~

Grand Canyon is a long poem structured as a series of shorter poems and came to me with the following back story:

“A friend visited the Grand Canyon recently with his wife and two preteen daughters.

He told me about how terrified he was that someone was going to fall from the narrow path that descends in. Not just one of his kids, but anyone. It was more than he could bear.

So he left the trail and went back up alone. He didn’t want his fear to hold his family back.

It made me think about parenthood, empathy, fear, and love in my own life. About the balance between care and detachment, and the weird places where they overlap, like my friend’s experience.”

~

“He didn’t want his fear to hold his family back.” –This introduction felt oddly profound. I sat and thought about it for a long time before I turned to the first page of the poem itself.

Of which the first line goes: “An echo reminds you of your place in the world.”

Canyons, heights, fears. Echoes. Yes–as a person, especially as a person who has raised other people–I have felt those resonating. Often. The poem-pieces here are brief, poignant. They find me wrestling with my own worries, in my own life, which is not the poet’s life, nor her friend’s.

…I wonder/how long a mother can hold her child/before she needs that other hand on the railing.

The long poem, comprised of moments: short poems that feel so true I have to stop between each one, catch my breath, steady myself.

~

Thank you, my friend, for writing this poem for your friend–for your children–for yourself. For me.

(Someone ought to publish this poem/book.)

~

 

 

 

Reading, eagerly

Another of the books I got from Alice James is the 2018 collection pray me stay eager by Ellen Doré Watson. 9781938584688_FCMy initial responses to the poems herein vacillated between the intellectual and the…ear? Sound? I guess what I am trying to say is that a significant part of Doré Watson’s poetic craft employs sonic crushes of alliteration and internal near-rhyme, storms of assonant wordplay and sudden stops in syntax; just when the lyrical narrative seems almost to narrate a story, other pressures intervene. The feeling reminds me of times I cannot concentrate, when I’m full of either ideas and intentions, or fears and concerns.

So I felt, “These are hard to read.” Because it can be uncomfortable to stay, purposely, in such ambiguous moments. I found the poems puzzling for awhile until I stuck with the reading and settled into the poet’s sound and methods. And then, response, reward: ideas and experiences that struck chords, places evoked, sentences that capture the way human beings think and process their circumstances. Revelations, even.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for reading when I started this book…there are times when I want an “easy read,” a comforting novel with a happy ending for example. Such texts, though, seldom teach me or show me anything new, whereas pray me stay eager has made me think about the mechanics of a line of poetry as well as sound, and touched me deeply as the poet writes of her aged father and the deaths of friends and her keen appreciation of the world and the word.

 

New to me

Just prior to various stay-at-home mandates, I learned that the long-running, wonderful poetry press collective Alice James Books was having a 40% off, free shipping sale. How could I resist? Thus, I am happy to report, I received four poetry collections in my mailbox two days before we were given the full lock-down in my county.

In this edition of my blog (where, to celebrate National Poetry Month, I am responding to poetry collections), I post about Adrian Matejka‘s debut collection from 2003, The Devil’s Garden. I had read Matejka’s poems here and there, in Poetry magazine and online; and I know he has published three books since this one. I had never really sat down and read through one of his collections before, however.

GardenThe language here is clear and fine, frequently musical–a trait I like very much. Matejka’s newer work engages with the ideas society and individuals have about tribes, groups, races, mixing, and this early collection establishes those themes. The voice here strikes me as youthful, newly-minted. But sure in its control of the rhythm and sound of a poem.

Oh, the cruelty of people who see others as dangerous outsiders. That’s my feeling, disheartened; yet the speaker in the poems here strikes me as compassionate to participants and observers. No blame. Despite the hardships, no victim. The poems suggest a person who has become fascinated by complexity: complexity in language, in social background and race, in families, in physics, in music (jazz, particularly), in visual art and the movies and what’s going on next door.

While reading Matejka, I remembered my friend David Dunn, who died in 1999 but who would have liked this book, I think. So the book has done me some good, rousing my interest, giving lyricism room to gallop, reminding me to listen to Coltrane and Al Green a little more often, offering me recollection of a person dear to me, and thematically linking with so many other terrific books and ideas (Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard and Thrall, my brother John S. Michael’s research on scholarly Enlightenment anti-racists–yes, there were a few–and even the BBC historic soap-opera I’ve been watching, season 5 of Poldark).

But also, these are lively, readable, inventive poems. A good reason to spend time with a poetry book.

More reading, more poems

Here’s my second post on what new or new-ish or new-to-me books of poetry I am reading during 2020 National Poetry Month. This time, newly-released from Tinderbox Editions, Lesley Wheeler‘s collection The State She’s In.

wheeler-state

First, a little background about Wheeler, a poet, novelist, and educator who has been extremely supportive of contemporary poets and poetry in her classes at Washington & Lee University, in her administrative positions and presentations at AWP, and on her blog and other social media platforms. The state she’s in is metaphorical, but it is also Virginia, with its fraught history, and it’s also the body: female, white, mid-life.

What I want to write are responses to, not reviews of, the books I have been enjoying. And there is much here to enjoy! Each of the book’s sections carries the same title: “Ambitions;” and after I read these poems (almost in one go, the way I’d read a novel), I returned to the table of contents and considered how each set of poems made a list of ambitions, and also, what it means to have ambitions. Particularly for a woman in a 21st-c Western capitalist society, sometimes ambitions read like anger. Are met with anger. Require rage to confront, even though rage alone will not solve the problem. (Appropriate to insert here how I love her poem “Spring Rage”? Yes, appropriate.)

Wheeler’s use of haibun forms to explore state’s-rights racism or workplace harassment is something I found startling. I keep returning to these and other poems to appreciate, on each subsequent reading, the surprises in the craft as well as the barely-contained frenzy expressed, and also the keen observations of the world that act to calm the speaker down. A tough balance, that.

On the whole, The State She’s In feels like a fierce call to pay attention, not just to the reader but to the speaker in these poems–she’s finding her route toward sagacity but kicking away at what we take for granted, not wanting to find personal equanimity if it means hiding what she knows to be true. These poems oppose ignorance in all its forms, including the privilege of choosing not to learn (or not to act, or not to act fairly and justly) that gets practiced at the highest levels of the academy, the government, and in any form of society. Wow!

If enough of us could get together and recite Lesley Wheeler’s “All-Purpose Spell for Banishment” (p. 57), maybe we could make “The Nasties” vanish.

Reading poems

In the midst of a pandemic, we have poetry. Pragmatists ought to be listened to, and scientists as well; and poets? Let us not ignore them. It is April, National Poetry Month, and poets offer readers much in the way of reflection, consolation, compassion, entertainment, satire, humor, joy, grief, and the shared experience of being human. All things that are of use at any time, but especially when times are uncertain.

 

Last April, I challenged myself to write a poem a day and posted the drafts on this blog. That turned out to be a useful experience, but I feel no need to repeat it. This year, I want to post about some new(ish) books of poetry. Not critiques or book reviews, just what the poems evoke for this particular reader.

~

First up– Lynn Levin‘s The Minor Virtues, 2020, Ragged Sky Press. The cover’s appropriate to the month: a lovely image of dogwood blossoms. And I have to admit that what drew me into the book is the charming mundanity of the first few poem titles, in which the speaker is tying shoelaces or buying marked-down produce. Most of the poems in the first section begin with a gerund phrase and place the reader in a present-progressive act of doing something. The poems here feel so grounded in reality (quite a few are sonnets), often humorous–grabbing the wrong wineglass at a banquet, trying to think about nothing–that I immediately settled in to the pages.levin_tmv_cover

The topics, or the reflective closures, move toward seriousness at times; her poem “Dilaudid” shook me awake and left me in admiration for a number of reasons (some of them personal resonance–but). Levin’s humor tends to be intellectual–wordplay, allusions, wry asides–and I revel in that sort of thing. Her approach to craft also works for me, because she’s usually subtle going about form or rhyme schemes, so I enjoy the poem for what it says and means and then enjoy it again for how it’s structured and inventive.

I mean, that’s one way I read poems. There are other ways. Some books carry me pell mell through word-urgency or the writer’s rage or passion and some build lyrical intertwining networks of imagery and some make their own rules and some stagger me with their innovation. And I may have to be in the right mood to read a collection.

I was in the right mood to read Levin’s book. It was a good way to begin National Poetry Month in the midst of stay-at-home mandates, taking me gently through a “normal life” and reminding me of all that is surprising there, the riddles and the unexpected, the minor virtues and the actions we take as we practice them. Whether or not we think of them as virtues.