Roadkill

As the spring equinox approaches and creatures rouse from dormancy, the number of roadkill incidents spikes. Yesterday as I made a left turn into my driveway, I noticed a groundhog carcass lying in the middle of the street. I was stopped to retrieve my mail anyway, so I figured I should move the body off.

And then it moved–bloodied mouth opening and shutting, one heavily-clawed forepaw shuddering slightly. It wasn’t quite dead.

Poems about road kills sprang to mind. I thought immediately of Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” and that moment of swerving, replete with caesuras, in the last couplet; Billy Collins’ “Ave Atque Valealso skittered into my thoughts, that bloated woodchuck waving “hail, Caesar” to the passing vehicles.  As I pulled a plastic bag from my car, one of my own poems resonated–“Burials,” which is in my collection Water-Rites (available through this link and posted below).

I made a glove of the bag and grasped the poor beast by its tail, a precaution: it might have been lively enough to snap at me. Not the case this time. A car running over the body would have put the groundhog more quickly out of its misery, but by daylight drivers tend to avoid road kill; it gets smashed during the night hours. So I left it on the embankment to gasp out its last breath with the birds larking about above it and some damp wintry weeds under its dark body.

This sort of experience feels oddly metaphorical…obviously, not only for me but for people like Stafford and Collins. I am sure one could put together an anthology of very lovely roadkill poems.

~groundhog-day-groundhog

BURIALS

1.
Last week the neighbors’ dogs eviscerated a woodchuck,
left it, stinking, at the perimeter of our woods

which is how we found it, by the smell—
body bloated, partly hairless:

a scientific demonstration on the rapidity
and absoluteness of decay, the brief time it takes;

but today my daughter cannot bear the stray cat’s
road-killed stillness, the soft, domestic body,

the pet, which isn’t hers—she begs to bury it.
The schoolbus arrives with my promise

to give the cat some cover. Under mulberry I scrape
a shallow grave, in thin and gravelly roadside soil,

cover it with fallen leaves, an autumn prayer—
nothing more, because I know burial does not forestall

death’s swell, its stink, desiccation,
absoluteness; I do what I promised,

disguising the body’s inevitable progression
from the eyes of my grieving child.

2.
Shall I cover my gray hairs
with dry leaves, shall I layer
my wrinkled hands beneath clay,
hide my own departure—

or shall I teach my children
to understand the truth of maggots,
which consume equally
the treasured and the stray—

which arrive unasked,
fulfill their contract with the earth,
never seeking recognition
or time, more time?

~

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

 

The poet & the Good

I have recently finished reading Robert Archambeau‘s collection of essays The Poet Resigns and am mulling over the idea of resigning with him.

It’s not that I necessarily want to give up writing poetry but that, in my reflections about where I can do the most good among the community of sentient beings, my work as tutor and teacher almost certainly has an effect both deeper and broader than my work as poet. This “good” hearkens to the ancient Good of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk but also to the sense of mindful “middle way” of the Tao: a practical path between two values that may be incompatible in many ways.

~

water-rites_coverThe readership for contemporary poetry is small, and my readers number only in the hundreds; among those readers, resonance of any kind–aesthetic, emotional, lyrical–is likely to be limited to a small number of poems. A poem of mine that effects some measure of The Good upon readers represents a minuscule good moving into the world. The net effect, I imagine, hardly registers…not that net effect matters so much. I suppose if a poem of mine moves just one person enough to evince even a small transformation, something has been achieved beyond my individual abilities in the composition of that particular piece.

As a teacher and tutor for the past ten years, my role expands not merely to number of people encountered (few of whom will remember me as an individual) but to the concepts I present to them, most of which will be significant in their lives one way or another–although not immediately, and probably unconsciously. Lately I have been devoting more of my limited energies to this aspect of my life work. Such focus does impede my ability to do creative work of other sorts.

~

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Example: I am reading a little book on philosophy for beginners by Thomas Nagel. The Nagel book is on my table because I have been trying to find simpler ways to talk with students about their philosophy essays. While my main enterprise as writing tutor is to help students to clarify and correct their mechanical weaknesses (sentence and paper structures), it is not always possible to ignore content weaknesses; a student can write correctly about nothing of value–and receive a D or, in the case of Philosophy classes especially, an F.

But understanding philosophy is important.

Now, it is often extremely difficult for beginning writers to express their understanding of philosophical concepts in writing. They are just learning rhetoric and fall into fallacy errors through grammar as often as through thinking. Since I am not supposed to be a content tutor, I have to find ways to tease out what the student understands (or does not understand) and make that idea come through clearly on the page.

Kind of like mind-reading.

[Aside: I have to admit this can take a lot out of me by the end of the day.]

The Nagel book is one of several philosophy primers I have been reviewing to try to find a text to which I can refer my more confused students, the ones who cannot infer the basics from their professors’ lectures or assigned readings. There are academics who might suggest such students do not belong in college in the first place; but I believe in the ideal of an educated populace, and whether or not these students stay in the university through graduation, they can benefit from the discipline of thinking about thinking.

It feels rewarding when, after half an hour of discussion and writing coaching, a young person leaves my office slightly more enlightened. So they tell me, anyway. I know from experience that writing about something helps a person to understand not only the subject but, more importantly, what the writer thinks about the subject.

~

So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau–you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Now, I suppose I could write a poem about the subject…

~

Poetry reading in Bloomsburg

This is just to say

(a little William Carlos Williams title phrase to acknowledge the natal day of a truly “American” 20th-century poet)

…that tomorrow, September 18th, I will be reading from Water-Rites, and presenting a few newer poems, at Bloomsburg Pennsylvania’s Moose Exchange. The venue is a non-profit cultural arts center in the college town of Bloomsburg PA. More on the event here.

Wednesday evening, there’ll be a full moon over the Susquehanna River, which flooded two years ago this month and stranded many college students (though they were without electricity and water, they were on the hill). The floodwaters inundated the lower part of town, including the main streets and many businesses; the damage to town and the homes of many citizens was devastating. Bloomsburg creative writing professor Jerry Wemple had invited me to read at a poetry festival that very week. The festival was, of course, canceled. Jerry was kind enough to invite me to give a CVPA reading at Moose Exchange this year. Fortunately, the weather for this week is forecast to be quite sunny.

For another WCWilliams moment, click here.

https://i0.wp.com/www.keylimepietree.com/Red_Plums_on_tree.jpg

plums (“so sweet”)

“Next Big Thing”

A friend & colleague-in-poetry, April Lindner, has invited me to participate in the round-robin writing blog event (termed a “blog hop”) called “The Next Big Thing.” Thanks to Molly Spencer for coordinating this web-event, which has been going awhile, so she is no longer curating it as actively. At the end of this post, I’m linking my readers to a handful of other participants. From their sites, you can locate others…and so on! We hope to foster discovery of writers our own blog followers–or random visitors–are not yet familiar with, and to spur readership in general. I love to read, and I have a mission to introduce more people to reading, to poetry, and to contemporary artists–especially word-artists. Therefore, I’m thrilled to be asked to add my 2¢ to The Next Big Thing…even though some of the formulated “interview questions” lend themselves more to fiction writers than to poets. Some of the answers may end up sounding a bit far-fetched, or simply silly.

But poets do possess senses of humor, folks. We are not all depressive garret-dwelling introverted cynics. [Ha!]

~

Now to commence with the interview questions:

What is the working title of your next book (or story, or project)?

I have two. One manuscript is finished, and I am seeking a publisher–that one is titled The Red Queen Hypothesis. The work-in-progress is tentatively called Barefoot Girls.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

imagesThe Red Queen Hypothesis seems to be culled from a bunch of my poems musing on science. I love science because it is so weird, much odder than so-called real life. Also, the nomenclature…I swoon over those latinates, Greek roots, and things-named-after-other-things. Here’s the biological definition of the Red Queen Hypothesis from Wikipedia: “an evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain reproductive advantage, but also simply to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment.” As Alice and the Red Queen are hurriedly running through the chessboard of Wonderland in Through the Looking-Glass, the Queen remarks, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Don’t we often feel that way?

PBS has a good little article on it here, for those who want to learn a little science with their poetry.

Barefoot Girls evolves as I revise. As of now, the poems are memoir-based about being a teenaged girl in New Jersey, and many of them allude to Bruce Springsteen songs. The collection is, I suppose, lyrical narrative in style. Mostly free verse but with some ballad-type pieces and even a sonnet or two. I may have some trouble getting that manuscript into print because I have to get Springsteen’s permission to use a couple of epigraphs. God knows how long that will take–or if it is even possible!

What genre does your book fall under? Poetry. No other genre need apply.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  

I would love to have Gary Cooper or Barbara Stanwyck play characters in my poems, which makes about as much sense–since they are dead–as making a movie of a poetry collection.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?   

Life, love, family, environment, death, memory, animals, youth, curiosity, god.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

1) No.

And 2) –you have got to be kidding! Literary agents in the USA generally avoid poets as though we harbor west Nile virus.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Four years, generally, though some individual poems evolve more slowly. My first full-length collection, Water-Rites, took much longer…closer to ten years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Ah, the “inspiration” question. I have a deep indifference to the question of inspiration. I suggest you read other writers on this topic.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The Red Queen Hypothesis includes numerous poems that employ formal strategies, as well as plenty of nonce forms; I think of them as experiments, the way scientists frame their work though experiment.There are also philosophical undertones. It is a book of questions that are scientific, speculative, spiritual and philosophical. Barefoot Girls, the project in process, also poses questions–but of a different kind. More social and gender-related questions, more coming-of-age curiosity. The fact that these poetry pursuits came one after the other intrigues me since they seem in many ways fairly unrelated. Perhaps I will discover the relationship as I continue to revise Barefoot Girls.

Meanwhile, if anyone can suggest a publisher for RQH, I’m all ears!

Who are you tagging for The Next Big Thing?

~As The Next Big Thing is on hiatus, I suggest my readers browse for it or follow the links below that will lead to other links & literary discoveries!!

Here are some other Next Big Thing posts:

http://boysinger.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/the-next-big-thing/

Discourse: talking about poetry

This post is a response to Fox Chase Review‘s post which can be found here: Poetry in Decline?

“G” asked for responses to the need for a revolution in (USA) poetry, stemming from Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s comments. Her ideas were excerpted, so I may be missing some of her assertions or evidence. In one way, she echoes Dana Gioia’s famous “Can Poetry Matter?” essay and book (1992): that is, in terms of questioning the isolated, academic support of poetry, poetry study, MFAs, and university publishers as elitist and as dampening a wider audience for poetry. While Gioia tends to support the literary canon in general, he stresses in his early essay that poetry has its own specialized, “frenzied” little circle of literary lights but that the art itself no longer exerts much influence on life, culture, and thinking in the USA.

From Gioia’s introduction:

The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

Sahms-Guarnieri further suggests that isolated, academic styles of poetry are partially to blame for poetry’s “decline” among US readers and calls for a return to realism.

I’m not sure “realism” is the answer, because many infusions of style, energy, or revolution that have done poetry good as a whole have not exactly fallen into that category (was Lorca a realist? just as one example). I embrace the idea of the narrative-lyric mode, which may be considered a kind of realism; but I also love many, many other styles of poetry, some of which are “difficult” and not easily accessible to the general reader. The main means through which I learned the diverse structures and approaches to poetry is through reading on my own, autodidact that I am. Yet formal study and literary criticism increased and deepened my passion for this art. I teeter on the fringe of academia though I am a poet who writes outside of the classic academic framework.

I feel compelled to defend the teaching of poetry, though I admit the process is often done badly. Still, one of the things academia does best is to examine the work, and I feel readers who examine what they love more closely will benefit from doing so (rather than taking the “I know what I like” stance). Academics have, since the 1970s, begun seriously to read beyond “the canon,” and that is all to the good. Academia doesn’t produce the best art, however. Knowing how things work in theory does not equal expertise. I know how a bicycle works, but I am pretty sure I couldn’t build one from scratch.

~

The poems that remain timeless are seldom elitist. The problem with the elite is that it eventually falls from grace. When that occurs, the allusions and puns and, often, the entire foundation of the piece get lost. This issue can be equally true of poems that are “realistic.” If the poem offers no recognizable aesthetic, purpose, or sensation, it ceases to be valuable to future readers. Many of today’s poems will suffer this fate–mine among them–and that’s not a bad thing. We don’t get to judge which art is revolutionary, prescient, timeless; later generations make those judgments.

And that is one reason many writers resent academia and university presses: it seems as though these institutions are “at the top of the mountain” and trying to keep their situations exclusive; in other words, they are acting as cultural, literary judges. So they are…in their time. They cannot enshrine themselves for the future. Art doesn’t work that way.

~

Contemporary Poetry Review claims it is there to resuscitate contemporary poetry, which implies poetry’s suffering a near-death experience. I do not think poetry is dying. I think it is changing, which it has always done, because art is responsive to and entangled with culture and therefore defies stasis.

Poetry, like most art, tends to exist on the cultural fringe, where it hangs out with curious, inventive people who bother to seek for it. Some of them look on the mountain top, and some of them look online, or in pubs that host open mics, or at independent bookstores, long may they thrive. With luck, and maybe some encouragement, those people might buy a book or two–including POD-published or self-published books (why not? –and while you’re at it, Water-Rites is still available!). This last point coincides somewhat with Larry Robins’ perspective in the Fox Chase Review piece.

If you really do know what you like, regardless of how you make that judgment, buy a copy of the book. And don’t get it second-hand from Amazon if you can help it–buy from the small press or the author or an indie book shop if you can find one in your area. Read it again and again, and figure out why you like it. Tell someone else. Discuss what you love.

That’s what keeps poetry alive.

water-rites_cover

I celebrate myself…

April is National Poetry Month in the USA, and I begin the month with Walt Whitman’s famous phrase and will attempt to duplicate the joyous urgency of his call to celebration. That means I am going to try to post just a little more frequently in April.

Poetry month began this year with a wonderful act of creative largesse on the part of a friend who sent me a poem…dedicated to me. Receiving a gift like this one is humbling; and it has been quite a long time since anyone’s written a piece for me. David Dunn, to whom my collection Water-Rites is dedicated, wrote a few poems for me or inspired (indirectly or directly) by our friendship or my family and surroundings. But he died over a decade ago, and since then I suppose I have had to learn to celebrate myself.

Not that this is a bad thing–celebrating the self–but for some of us it presents certain cultural or psychological obstacles. In this, Whitman has been an important teacher for me. As a great observer, loafer, lover of the world and all its beings, he was able to include himself among the beloved. My background, Protestant, agrarian, modest, surrounded by the biblical entreaty to remain always humble before God, combined with a natural shyness, means that I have had trouble admitting of self-celebration in any form and under any circumstances. I don’t take praise comfortably. The left hand shouldn’t know what the right hand is doing.

However, Whitman seems contented in his skin and in his world and follows a different parable as model: he does not hide his light under a bushel.

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Furthermore, his passion admits of compassion and of aesthetic appreciation for all of the “Kosmos.” Each breath, scent, texture, color, hue, person, idea, object, sentient or non-, living or inert or dead long-past or recently, religious or scientific or imagined comes to life in language through line, syntax, lists, descriptions, words. I think there is a hint of zen-like acceptance in Whitman’s most lasting poetry, the vulnerable willingness to accept all that we experience and to do so non-judgmentally.

Thank you, Beejay, for the poem. I feel inspired anew. And as I celebrate all poets and the valuable, irreplaceable, gorgeous, ancient art of poetry this month, I shall endeavor to embark upon the celebration of myself (davening to ol’ Walt with humble pleasure). Therefore, a reminder:

My book Water-Rites is still in print, and Brick Road Poetry Press sells it (as does Amazon.com, where poetry-lovers can purchase the book in e-book form for Kindle). Dawn Leas reviews it at Poets Quarterly this month. Click for the link here!

May April be full of revelations in the form of poems for you.  water-rites by Ann E Michael

Endemophilia

This poem is sort of my version of endemophilia, describing (as Albrecht defines it) “the particular love of the locally and regionally distinctive in the people of that place. It is similar to what Relph … called “existential insideness” or the deep, satisfying feeling of being truly at home with one’s place and culture.” You might want to check out Glenn Albrecht’s site for more detailed definitions and philosophical/psychological reasons for inventing names for such concepts.

My long-poem in Water-Rites, “The Valley, the Whitetail: A History,” probably fits the term endemophilia more closely than the poem I’ve posted below–which may one day appear in print if I can find a publisher for my next manuscript. But the long-poem is a little too long for a blog post.

[I have an idea: buy a copy of Water-Rites from Brick Road Poetry Press, and read it there!]

~

Suburban Georgic

A mild day in February. Good chance
there’ll be more snow or ice. Walk slowly,

note the footprint of a hosta, dormant, or
the arrow-shaped deer hoof in hardened soil.

Look more closely for the ravages and burrows
of rodentia—woodchucks, voles and mice.

You may discover where squirrels have
hidden seeds or laid waste to crocus corms—

try to restrain your wrath. Decide
how best to counter such yearly looting;

strategy keeps the mind sharp. Grubs,
for instance, in your lawn—a different tack,

and this year you may succeed, and keep
the skunks from rooting through the grass.

Weigh, in your mind and pocketbook,
the relative costs of pesticide and herbicide.

It might be the year to go organic,
though there’s even odds the dandelions will thrive.

Ease your troubled breast from lawn woes.
Raise your eyes to forsythia, to witch-hazel,

observe critically the shrubs’ bare bones,
decide what needs the kindest cut,

find your saw and pruners, time to oil
and sharpen—your fingers itch—

but it’s a little soon. To assuage your
yearning, cut back the redtwig osier

so its new growth will flush crimson.
Consider forcing blooms indoors—

aren’t there soft, small swellings on
the slim wands of pussywillow?

When the next storm hits, dream of columbine
and narcissus. Get out your Horace, and wait.

ann e michael

quince blossoms

~

© 2008 Ann E. Michael

~

Waiting, in the place I call home, for spring.