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

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

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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.)

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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.

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.

 

Miscellany

I reside in one of the Pennsylvania counties under “shelter in place” advisory, but I can work from home; also, we live on almost 7 acres, so outdoors activities continue. The buds bloom. The insects waken, goldfinches molt to their bright yellow, the magnolia tree bursts into blossom. The meadow is muddy, and vernal pools appear in the hedgerows.

Today, a miscellany of links and virtual or reading-related forays.

My new chapbook, Barefoot Girls, can be purchased at https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

(Here I am as a barefooted teenager)

bfg

1975, New Jersey, USA

Poets House is offering live workshops (video) and has a great archive of past readings. Check them out. https://poetshouse.org/

Dave Bonta continues to compile fascinating writing-related blog posts. From his site, you can link to many other poets and writers who are pondering pandemics and etc: https://www.vianegativa.us/2020/03/poetry-blog-digest-2020-week-12/

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Meanwhile, I am still making my way through the 910 pages of The William H. Gass Reader, a selection of some of the prolific writer-critic-novelist-philosopher’s essays and excerpts. I love his piece on the book as a container for consciousness, and I suspect I’ll be saying more about that in future.

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Two friends have come down with the coronavirus; it’s no joke, people, take the slow-down seriously and “level the curve.” Please.

Finally, here is a photo of the wonderful hospice staff at the in-patient unit where I volunteer (though, for now–no volunteers are permitted in the hospital to assist, so these folks are doing it all themselves, bless them!).

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❤   ❤   ❤

 

Memoir-ish

While we are self-isolating, how about reading books? As it happens, I have a short chapbook of poems that’s being released just in time for National Poetry Month. Here are some thoughts.

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I enjoy reading memoirs–a well-written memoir reads like fiction or poetry, with interesting perspective and description revolving around not an entire life but one event or series of events that has a dramatic arc the way fiction does–and, often, some of the same ambiguities. Now that my chapbook on adolescent New Jersey girls in the 1970s is coming out (March 26, Prolific Press), however, I realize that readers are likely to interpret these poems as memoir. After all, I was indeed a teenager in south Jersey in the 1970s. That being the case, I might go only so far as to call these lyrical narrative poems memoir-ish.

barefoot girls cover

What people who read poems often forget is that the poem does not necessarily reflect the poet’s experience, only her interpretation, only the potential or the possible–the imagined. Poets choose personas as narrators when we endeavor to imagine other people’s insights, points of view, or experiences. Or even other beings’ or objects’ “points of view.” But of course, we can only imagine–we cannot really know anyone else’s lived experience. That gives poets and fiction writers and dramatists room to speculate, pretend, imagine: “What must it be like?”

This booklet tries to evoke various voices from a collective past but, I hope, will feel familiar to anyone who has ever been an adolescent. These poems emerged from Bruce Springsteen songs, from memories, from rumors, from attending a class reunion,  from experiences my 21st-c students had, and from my imagination. I filled in some gaps and created perspectives that would certainly not have been my own when I was a teen. And yet, any writer’s disingenuous if she claims her characters or narrators have nothing to do with her own perspective, that everything she writes is completely made up; if that were true, readers would feel left out. There would be nothing in the poem to relate to, nothing from which to derive personal meaning or insights. No “Aha!”

Any poem that can be called lyrical takes up the close point of view. Any narrative poem tells a story of some kind. An example is Patricia Smith’s book Blood Dazzler. Readers find it easy to believe that Smith resided in New Orleans, was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, because the poems are so authentic and personal–fierce, believable voices describing the devastation and its particular toll  on elderly and non-white citizens. But Smith did not live in New Orleans, and it doesn’t matter. It is an excellent and shattering work all the same.

Here’s one of Ren Powell’s posts on the unreliable narrator of our own lives. What we writers work with, often, is evoking the emotional memory, which isn’t the same as other ways humans recall events.

Yet it often fells more “true.”

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Death & beauty

I may be misquoting Edvard Munch; but I think I once read a translation of his letters in which he said, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”azurea

There’s a famous line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Sunday Morning” that reads, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Simone Weil wrote, “The destruction of Troy. The fall of the petals from fruit trees in blossom. To know that what is most precious is not rooted in existence – that is beautiful.”

Many human cultures have, from all appearances, created beautiful rituals, art, cultural objects, music, literature in commemoration of the dead, or have believed that death is a necessary part of a cycle that would lead, again, to living beauty. What is it about human beings that inclines to such an impulse? Is it just fear? Or a desire to be remembered, or to remember the beloved?

Poe claimed that there was no subject more suitable for poetry than the death of a beautiful woman; but he was full of crap about that or, at any rate, too swayed by the culture in which he resided in his awkward and outsider way. Nonetheless, he puts forth the assertion that from death can come something that is itself beautiful: a work of art, a lyric, a poem. I do not disagree with him on that point.

virginia poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s sketch of his young wife Virginia

Certainly many poets end up writing about, with, or against death; raging or praising; querying, challenging, wondering, fearing, fighting, sometimes embracing or accepting. Do I hear Emily Dickinson in that chorus? Dylan Thomas? Walt Whitman? Marie Howe? Mark Doty? Ilyse Kusnetz?

In a previous post, I alluded to the death of a beautiful woman (a friend), and asked about the value(s) we humans place on beauty–and the way(s) we define, describe, and name it.

Because death’s one of The Big Mysteries–and writers tend to gnaw around the edges of things that are not easily put into words, and mortal is what we are–poets poke at death, encounter it, question it, and question the religious, biological, and social accretions that surround it. Can we find beauty in death, from it, surrounding it? Recently, I attended a philosophy lecture concerning death and the soul from a Catholic (Thomist) perspective,* and the talk briefly moved into inquiry concerning the intersection of death and beauty. I did not ask, what sort of beauty–aesthetics, or awe?

But I am asking now.

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*Dr. Marco Stango, DeSales University

Garden painting

The image on the right is from a book in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Asian Art, available through its new digital collection of Japanese illustrated books. It is written in Chinese, however: Jieziyuan huazhuan; Kaishien gaden 芥子園畫傳 and is catalogued as The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual (3rd Chinese edition): [volume 3]. I do not read Chinese, but I think the drawing must be of quince in flower. My photo of pink quince blooms focuses on a particularly floriferous branch; in fact, the quince in my back yard is thorny, broken off in places, and often a bit scarce as to blooms–more like the drawing.

The book itself is interesting. It demonstrates and describes how to paint these shrubs. The sketches show the stems as the initial composition, with gaps where the blossoms are later to be painted. Then the blossoms get painted in, and then ragged lines of twigs and thorns to complete the painting. Since I cannot read the text, I interpret the stages from the drawings.

It occurs to me that this approach–one of guessing the stages–feels familiar. It resembles literary criticism; and it resembles the process of reading and re-reading a poem to try to determine its making, which is usually hidden since it takes place in the mind of the poet as she revises.

canvas3

note the gaps…

An analogy here: when I first write down the phrases, images, “inspiration” (if you will) for a poem, there are gaps. These lacunae appear in several forms, sometimes as spaces or blank spots in a sentence, sometimes as an unsatisfactory placeholder word, sometimes as a dash or ellipsis. These marks, or lack thereof, act as reminders to revise, rethink, resolve missing links or relationships in the poem’s developing ovum.

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Winter makes for gaps. Skeletalizes the trees. Snowfall temporarily erases the known. Clouds cover sun and moon. Even the songs of birds, mostly absent.

As David Dunn, my long-dead friend (another emptiness), would sigh during moments that conversation became too intense or too difficult: “Anyway…”

In a temperate climate, we do need winter. The birds will return.

color birds-blooms1

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when sap runs red
forcing budding trees into blossom
mating time

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