Intermission w/reflection

First, many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for her Virtual Salon series–in this one, she reviews/interviews Elizabeth Savage and Yours Truly: Virtual Salon No. 6

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Herewith, a different sort of response for National Poetry Month; and I’m not sure I would call it a poem so much as a reflection–indeed, a prayer. It’s too sentimental to work into a finished piece, perhaps. Let’s call it an intermission, as I have at least one more poetry collection to respond to before April closes.

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Easter Prayer for My Dad

A wedge of mackerel clouds points to the southeast horizon where just beyond
a low hill church bells ring for Easter morning and a woodpecker states
chuck chuck chuck as it makes its straight flight across field from one dead
ash tree to another, blackbirds calling wooker-chee after the bells cease chiming.
I think of Dad, standing at the pulpit, hands raised in grace or supplication, his
voice sonorous in the high-ceilinged church, a man wearing a robe and collar
and white silk embroidered in gold having laid away the purple of sorrow and
preparation. All the church’s raiment white, and we the congregants wearing our
best clothes not to impress our neighbors but to let God know we are grateful and
this is the best we can do. We know it’s not enough, Dad tells us, the huge Bible
open before him, but God will understand our good intentions.

Years later I develop questions such as if no human can understand the mind
of God—thank you, Job—or know His ways, how can a human assure us of such magnanimity on God’s part? To which Dad answers, faith, which has no reason,
ergo the question’s moot. But years-ago Easters I sat on the smooth oak
pew, staring at my best shoes, which always pinched, and pretending that
left foot and right foot were conversing or perhaps arguing until the organ’s
major chords and the words “All rise” brought me back to the community
of believers and Dad’s bass voice led us along the five-barred staffs, stacked verses,
and triumphant alleluias of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” And I knew
I was not good enough but believed that I could be forgiven, and if Dad has
offered me anything I can rely on it has been forgiveness—so today, as the
woods begins to soften into green and the chickadee pronounces its name
incessantly from the beech—Dad, I’ve so much to be grateful for.

                          Amen.

CH Chucrch

Church of my childhood, First Presbyterian Church of Hamptonburgh, New York

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.

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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.

 

Etc. & refrains

Some years, I have devoted my National Poetry Month energies to attending readings, getting out in the world to listen to writers; some years, I’ve tried hard to submit at least 30 poems to magazines and journals; some years, I have read two poetry books a week for the month of April. This year, I wrote a poem draft a day. OK, now what?

When you love poetry, you do all of these things anyway. Having a month to celebrate the art merely acts as a public awareness campaign, though it has reminded me, year after year, to aim for a bit more discipline in my creative life.

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I have also been reading, of course, bookish person that I am; this past month, a real standout–and a difficult book in a few ways–was An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. The novel offers a way in to the cosmology of the Igbo people (Nigerian, mostly) while wrenchingly capturing the anxieties of modern life and the timeless agonies of lovers separated by class, race, status, religion (whatever gets in the way of lovers). Obioma successfully interchanges voices, languages, creoles, narrating from the point of view of a guiding spirit. Spoiler alert, the book ends with tragedy, and there are tragedies large and small throughout. The tension of human anxiety works really well, and all of our fears.

The guiding spirit, who has accompanied centuries of human hosts through their lives, has a refrain: “I have seen it many times.” I thought of Vonnegut’s “So it goes.”

Trying to imagine my own refrain…it might be something on the lines of: Life’s difficult, so we have art and poetry and love and one another to get us through.

alice-heart1 copy

art by my daughter at age 8

 

The takeaway

ampersand

so, I did what I set out to do: I exercised the necessary discipline to draft a poem a day during National Poetry Month, and I pushed against my “comfort zone” by publicly posting those drafts as they came to me. Usually I do not share my initial drafts with anyone other than fellow writers in my writer’s group or a few poets with whom I correspond. This was an interesting experiment on the personal level, therefore, a sort of forced extroversion as well as effort in productivity. I now have 30 new drafts to reflect upon, revise, or ignore.

It has been years since I came up with that much work in four weeks’ time. For the last decade or so, my average has been closer to six or seven poems a month. And I would not have posted any of them as they “hatched.” I would have waited until I spent some time with them and figured out how best to say what they seemed to want to say.

That’s not an unwise approach in general; I see nothing wrong with letting poems stew awhile. And quite a few would have ended up in the “dead poems” folder. Nevertheless, trying something innovative tends to prove valuable. The takeaway is that I am glad I finally managed the NaPoWriMo challenge. A few of the poem drafts you may have read here stand a chance of evolving into better poems. Maybe some will end up in a collection (years down the road). That result feels good.

The takeaway is also the realization that I no longer worry about how others judge my poems, the way I did when I was starting out and discouraged about having my stuff rejected by magazines. Not because there’s less at stake–indeed, I feel as invested in my writing as I ever was. The difference comes with the kind of investment, the ambition to write something meaningful or beautiful, and not viewing the poems as results waiting to be determined as valuable by someone more authoritative.

I’m 60 years old and well-educated in poetic craft, style, purpose, analysis. I’ve been writing poetry for over four decades. At this point in my life, that’s authority enough.

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Self in the World

Goose stands sentry in the dew-strewn meadow.
Blackbird browses dry grasses woven along embankment,
emerges, slim stems clenched in its beak.

Under the footbridge, polliwogs gather,
backing into its shade–hawk overhead,
bluejay screaming territory! the crows respond–

Sun halos the water-strider’s shadow,
making a cluster of coronas on submerged stone
where wood frogs squeak and leap into stream current

surrounded by bedstraw, henbit, dandelion,
Amur honeysuckle, garlic mustard, stiltgrass,
invaders all. Except the frogs, who found the stream–

itself new to the landscape, gouged here in the 70s.
What do I notice, then? That some of the living adapt?
What do I make of myself in this world?

~

canadian goose on grass field

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

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Finally, to close the month of April, here is a lovely tribute to Mary Oliver by her friend and fellow poet, Lisa Starr.

Thank you for reading, and for the support of readers and poets this month.

Hyacinths & biscuits redux

hyacinth burpeeI wrote about synthesis in this post of 2017 while reading a series of complex books. Now I am thinking of how poems involve synthesis. Today’s rather quirky draft seems to have emerged from life experiences. Academics–you know who you are–will understand the irony. I’ll leave it at that.

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This is the 29th day of my composing a poem a day for National Poetry Month! Tomorrow–perhaps a recap of the experience. Or maybe just a long exhalation.

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Peer Review

In The Journal of Complete Sentences,
there are, as per Table 1.
And under review, a wide range of
studies that. Research may show,
for example. Admittedly,
gaps. Or the tapering off.
Speaking apparatus offers one method
demonstrating correlation of,
and relationship with.
These abstract concepts in no way
refute previous empirical
results that strongly imply.
Indeed, studies employing fMRI
techniques to track neurotransmissions
offer qualitative.
The many degrees of distance.
Past case studies. Analysis.
As Appendix D suggests.
No closer to an understanding.

~

 

Normal

I was speaking with a friend about this poem over coffee this morning. I drafted it at 7 am, alone on my porch, under a cloudless sky but with a chilly wind blowing. This friend’s a person who happens to be all too well aware that the expectations instilled in us (by parents? by society? by the media? who can say?) concerning what a normal life entails are…let us say, less than accurate–and possibly harmfully untrue.

Also? She endures. We endure.
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Argument against Living a Normal Life

First, we don’t know what it means, or if we do,
the meaning’s subjective; whereas the phrase implies
an average or agreed-upon measure beside which
every other life is measured–and second, each of us
comes up short by those standards, so it’s statistically
impossible to determine a mean. Then there remains
the case that this ideal is no ideal, as every life
contains elements of grief and injury. So how to average
out whose portions are the greater and whose the lesser,
since pain cannot be measured except through comparison
with previous subjective experiences and the spectrum
from 1 to 10 or happy face to weepy face varies from
person to person? That is not a rhetorical question,
my friend. Do the research, read about the Buddha, ask
a thousand doctors. Normal life: it’s one of those tricks
we play on ourselves. Take the adjective away and live
what you have in this particular moment. Work your way
into your suffering and your anger because they are
unavoidable. Walk your dog. Take up oil painting. Travel
to France. Watch a flock of starlings cluster and abate
over the Cimetière de Verdun in autumn. What ever were
you thinking when you said you wanted only to live
a normal life?
~

images

Cimetière de Verdun. No starlings.

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index

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