Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Scissortail Poets: Brady Peterson

I was compelled to purchase Brady Peterson's book on the basis of one poem he read at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK this month: "Chant." I'm a sucker for vocabularies used by workers in jobs and careers other than my own. Peterson had me at "Soffit is a builder's word, a carpenter's word-- / like fascia and header and stud."--the first two lines of the poem. The balance of the poem did not disappoint:

                                                ...Top plate
and joist. Soffit though has a mantra quality.
Whisper it over and over as you slip into deep
meditation.  soffit, soffit, soffit...

As if to quietly call the angels to your side,
whispering low so they have to move in close
to hear.  What is it you want, they ask--nothing.
What is it you want--nothing.

After this lyrical opening, there are two more stanzas of reminding us the practical purpose of a soffit ("seals the attic, keeping out squirrels / and raccoons"), and then Peterson's easy style of storytelling gives us a mini-narrative with rising action ("You set out a trap / ... // It's raining.  You check for leaks, / ...listen to the rain), punctuated with lyrical lines that, once again, end in the penultimate stanza with "What is it you want--nothing," meaning, I'm pretty sure, that it is not that we are being told that there is not anything that we want, but that we want something--precisely nothing, as in nothingness--a state of the ineffable, achieved with the incantatory nature of this poem.

And then the killer final two lines, bringing us back to the concrete world:

You are dry and warm inside your house.
Puddles form on the driveway.

Those puddles offer us all the promise we need of more showers, more cleansing, more poems by Peterson.

I thought it interesting that Peterson comments somewhere that the poems he likes are rarely liked by editors, and that he is always surprised by the ones editors do like. I found the same thing to be true of his poems, almost without exception. (The one and only being "A Summer Night," previously published by Ilya's Honey, and one that I marked with a big "+".)

A Summer Night

We lie to children, unable to bear
the emptiness of what we know--
My daughter realizes heaven is full
of dead people--just a bunch of dead
people, she says. She is four.

Death is a door, we say when fireflies
glow in the evening. A summer night
in Arkansas--the air thick with the smell
of bark and honeysuckles. The knob
turns, a door opens, then shuts.

Someone you loved--still love.

Fried catfish with French fried potatoes,
sweetened ice tea--the ice clinking
in the tumblers. They drove past our house
on the way to the restaurant, my cousin
says. I waved at them.

We sing old songs, the ones we sang
as children when the only radio was AM
and fuzzy. We walk the street of a town
where we lived, waiting for my father
to come home from the war.

But what about "Chant," "The Delicacy of Wood," "Passage," "Sleeps Through the Morning Marm," "Turning," Measuring Gaps," Fireflies and Baseball," "Saturday," "Tucked Away in a Drawer," "The Birds Chirp," "In Session," "Free Breakfast," "One Small Step," "Sawdust," "Keeping the Files," "3 AM," "Floss," and "And Now"--all 5 star (at least 4 star) poems in my estimation? None of them published prior to From an Upstairs Window! The second stanza of "And Now" could serve as Peterson's Ars Poetica: 

I call it as I see it, he says.  Back seat
love on a gravel road--before the dam,
before the lake, the Kingsmen singing
the only song we ever really needed.
What were the fucking words--

Peterson's poems are quest poems--searching for the words, the forms, the memories, and the best way to combine them, as if he were working in his garden, bringing together the dirt, the water, the sunshine, or ripping a 2 X 4 to make something better than what he could buy at the store to solve a nagging problem in his life--the nagging problem about his life: that it will end.


I spend the day shoveling turkey shit and dirt--
plant tomatoes, onions--scatter a few basil

Work shirtless, though almost seventy--
too old and wrinkled to work half naked
in the open air--to old to give a shit.
Drink Shiner in the afternoon--
soil and sweat making the beer taste better.

Walter was working his garden when he died--
so we figure--lying in the back yard.  The phone ringing
when we arrive--something whispers in my ear,
and I pass quickly through the house to find him
lying on the grass a few yards from the squash--

under a pecan tree.

Something about growing your own food.
It's better than hating immigrants
or worrying over who gets into heaven.

My accountant tells me he probably has less
than five years left--he is seventy-two
with a bad heart. I spend my days listening
to people grumble about paying too much
in taxes, he says.  No way to live.

I don't complain, I tell him.  He grins.
You believe in taxes, he tells me.

Grady Peterson believes in the power of language and story to redeem us in this life, if not in another. And I believe in Grady Peterson. He's probably writing today from an upstairs window.  You can get a copy of his book with the same name and learn a thing or two about writing and living. And you can email him at and he'll put you on his list to receive what he puts down on paper almost every day. I did, and I'm already a better writer for far as a better person, that may take a while...

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sissortail Creative Writing Festival Poets: Paul Bowers

If there ever were a poet of witness, it would be Paul Bowers. Paul resides some 120 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, and 200 miles from East Central University in Ada, where the recent Scissortail Creative Writing Festival was held. I spoke with Paul after his reading last week to compliment him on the obvious craft I heard in his poems, particularly the musicality and extended metaphors employed. He replied that he simply wrote about what he saw out his window. A humble statement, for Bowers's vision is better than most. And his ability to record it in poetry is nothing less than virtuosic.

After reading the entire collection, The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life, I can say that I not only enjoyed its bucolic subject matter, populated with Black Angus, White-faced Herefords, red foxes, squirrels, and egrets--animals I assume live on or near Bowers's ten-acre farm--but also his "cubist birds," a "stone St. Francis," wildebeests, crocodiles, orangutans, and wolves with names like "Akela, Keara, Sakara, and Sabin," caged in a sanctuary in Divide, Colorado. Bowers sees, and let's his readers see, "trumpeter[s] in Hawaiian shirt[s] and khakis," "Southern Baptists and Lutherans and Mennonites," in settings like Rome and Tuscany. People like Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, Billy Collins, and the poet's mother with only "six thousand or so" breaths left, roam Bowers's poems, augmenting a vision that extends far beyond the horizon outside the poet's window.

Bowers is such a good writer that his readers can see much of what he sees, as well. In his opening poem, "Black Angus," after telling us "There are more Black Angus / this year than last, / or the year before that. / More than White-faced Herefords / or pale, humped Brahmas, or Longhorns;" this poet says more in the following eight lines than many poets say in 70 pages:

I watch
from my porch in the evenings
and wonder what grass tastes like
when eaten all day and night;

and wonder, even more if the cattle,
who bunch and turn and feed like
the darkest fish in green ocean tides,
know what they are, or what they are not.

This passage, and others like it, caused me quickly to trust Bowers's voice, to believe that he knows exactly what he is and what he is not, confirmed with every poem that follows. The way they are organized--something not immediately apparent--with no divisions in the 80 pages of poems, seems to lay them out like the "round hay bales" he writes of in the poem with the same name.

I have seen hundreds
stretched to the yellow horizon

in summer, like so many adobe ovens
tended by beaded Navajo women.

At first, I wanted Bowers to organize these poems into the 3 standardized sections found in most full-length poetry collections. But after re-reading the book, I realized that these poems are organized (I shouldn't have been surprised) organically. Bowers inserts short poems with more commentary than description or story, between longer poems with more concrete imagery and narrative arc. All are tied together by what his eye sees, his ear hears, and his brain connects to, both outside of and within itself--the life he has lived and the life he has read. And the choices he makes about the order are usually masterful.

For example, after 2 full page-length poems--"Vortex," in which he tells the story of his father's disappearance with the conceit of a storm, "As if, by throwing open the front door / Of our little yellow house, / Leaping from the tongue-and groove-porch, / He dove, body and limb, / Feet first or head first, / I don't know which, Into a passing tornado;"  and "Envy," the observations of a "twelfth-week pup" discovering a world with "vacuum cleaner[s]," "beige, columned lamp[s]," "a statue of St. Francis standing solemnly on a corner table," "a stick," "a discarded grocery store receipt," and a "walnut husk,"--Bowers gives us this short poem:

Who We Are

you and I,
are what is pressed up
through the gauze of bodies:
shapes that come and go, and we
call that a "lifetime" together.
When we hold hands
we find a common source 
in our palms and fingertips.
It is a kind of death
but we are only 
our separate selves
because we call each other
by familiar names that fall in syllables
from parted lips.

Like this one, many of his poems could be considered ars poeticas. Bowers has a knack for keeping one eye on the world of carnality, and the other, if not on the world of spirituality, at least on one of interiority. And who, according to the narrator in "Prints," can tell the difference?

I fill up the trash can
with flowers cut too late
and exercise to be healthy
at my death. Whose breath
is it that fills my lungs?
Whose thoughts are these 
that pile against the shore
with such small fish in tow?

If I have any quibble with The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life, it is that some of its final poems seem to be a bit lightweight for concluding a collection of such depth. Choosing "The Judgment," for example, as the penultimate poem, seems an editorial miscalculation:

The Judgment

The orangutan
raised by two women
who taught him the signs
for ice cream
and hugs
finally saw his own kind
in a zoo, and called them,
with a subtle human disdain,
"Orange dogs."

If we view a collection of poems as one poem, I prefer the book climaxing in the final poem(s), the way Dorianne Laux describes one way a poem distinguishes itself from a story. "In a poem," she says, "there is no denoue-fucking-ment." Although I understand what Bowers is doing by placing "Notations" as the final poem, with the poet "disappear[ing] into the woods" the way Patches, his mother's dog did after she died, and his father's leaving "her bed / in the shed, a quilt of stars and / moons, just as she left it," I wish he had given us a capstone poem like "Who is to Say?" with its "waitress looking over / her shoulder at a clock / ...wondering / whether she can absorb / the final hour of her shift," and in section 3:

I am not a Whitman
leaning over the rail
of a ferry boat
to witness his divine halo,
passing through time
that lightly floats like a boat
in the midst of eternity,

but a Keats
counting the heavy notes
of a bird he cannot even see,
and falling desperately in love
with his own mortality. 

Or perhaps Bowers could have ended with "The Blurb on the Back of Billy Collins' Latest Book" with its final stanza:

Mostly, I live the mundane stanza
of waking at a definite hour,
engage in a rhythmic lurch
that is the exposition of my days,
and hope the last, departing line
is not yet composed.

Even "On a Visit to a Wolf Sanctuary in Divide, Colorado," would more appropriately close out this paean to all sentient life with an admixture of lupine and human ritual, its visitors

...form[ing] a ragged half circle
and send[ing] up a human howl,

to which first one, then two,
then four,
then more wolves

join our voices and suddenly
we are ten thousand years gone,
separated only by a low-burning fire:

we humans on our haunches,
those wolves, their yellow eyes aglow,

just outside
of light
and reach.

But having too many terrific poems from which to choose a final one is a good problem to have. And not ending on a poem or poems that this reviewer thinks the right one(s) is a minor issue in a major work of poetry.

The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life gives readers poem after poem that not only tells but shows with spot-on imagery and a unique metaphorical sense "what the world is like." For writers of poetry, it sets a high bar for what a poem should be like--higher than most of us will ever be able to reach.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Larry Levis: Repetition of Imagery and Diction in Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze

The following post is primarily an amplification of my review published in the August issue of PoetryFlash, concerning the repetition of imagery and diction in Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze, the two posthumously published books of the poems found on his computer and in his notes after the untimely death of Larry Levis at age 49. A portion of the text can be found in my review published by PoetryFlash, but much of the material is new.

          David St. John chose to begin the second posthumously published collection of poems taken from Larry Levis’s computer and final papers discovered after his death in 1996 with a poem that extends the poem St. John selected as the final poem of The Selected Levis (University of Pittsburg Press, 2000), as if the first posthumously published collection (Elegy) did not exist. Except for one poem, the poems selected by Philip Levine for Elegy and those left to be assembled by St. John for The Darkening Trapeze, all came from the same uppermost stratum of the frozen landscape of Levis’s work that he left behind. The difference between these poems in The Darkening Trapeze from those selected by Levine is the same as the difference between the snow fallen and swept from the front door of Levis’ apartment and the snow drifted up against the back door—both bring to the mind of this reviewer Stafford’s “freezing snow / hesitating toward us from its gray heaven / falling not quite silently / and under [which] you and I still are walking” (Stafford, "Near"). 

            Be reminded, then, of the following final lines from “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans” addressing “Nothing,” not as an absence but as a presence as real as anything:

           We’d better be getting on our way soon, sweet Nothing.

            I’ll buy you something pretty from the store.
            I’ll let you wear the flower in your hair even though you can only vanish
               entirely underneath its brown, implacable petals.
            Stop your sniveling. I can almost see the all night diner looming
            Up ahead, with its lights & its flashing sign a testimony to failure.
            I can almost see our little apartment under the freeway overpass, the cups on
               the mantle rattling continually—
            The Mojave one way; the Pacific the other.
            At least we’ll have each other’s company.
            And it’s not as if you held your one wing, tattered as it was, in contempt
            For being only one. It’s not as if you were frivolous.
            It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.
            Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible waist. Sweet Nothing.
            Sweet, sweet Nothing.

These lines could very well precede the opening lines from The Darkening Trapeze, either as a separate poem, or in lines that begin "Gossip In the Village:"

            I told know one, but the snows came, anyway.

            They weren’t even serious about it, at first.
            Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
            Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.

The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening,
            And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
            A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
            Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,

            And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
            In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
            Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks

            From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,
            Will be to have no fate.

And with these opening lines, St. John pulls us back onto the dark road of Levis’s world where “Nothing,” is “riding beside [him]…seat belt around invisible waist,” with enough corporality to wear “something pretty from the store,” and where a sleeping village is as “alive and eager” as “someone else’s soul” beneath its “thin dress” of snow; a world where Nothing provides enough company on the journey to elicit affection, but where at the end of the journey, the reader arrives at a place where the poet’s fate is “to have no fate.”
This gesture of defining a thing with the absence of its core or the opposite of its chief characteristic is a signature move of Levis, brought into sharp focus with the poems left to St. John to assemble into The Darkening Trapeze. The “flesh that has stepped out of its flesh” in “La Strada;” “the light…the nothing all light is” in “A Singing in the Rocks;” “Even wailing / … / Was really a quiet” and “Everything became different / By staying just the same” in “Idle Companion;” “the home [one] enters [that] is not his home” in “The Necessary Angel;” “the café tables” in "Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming,"  “[that] Were empty because it was raining, / [and] The rain [that] was empty as well”—all sprinkled throughout the characteristic images of trees and snow and even a horse or two in an artful way to remind us, lest we grow too confident in the world of sensate experience, that if one digs deep enough, there is really nothing there at all.
            At the same time, many times in the same poems, Levis subverts our expectations by beginning a line in a way that will seem to be headed toward its polar opposite, only to move laterally in a direction we could not have predicted, seemingly mocking previous lines and even the reader for losing faith in everything, giving us just enough to believe in to seek some kind of progression in the next lines or the next poem. Levis uses double images, often in the closing lines to a poem, in this way. After fearing, for example, that our fate, like Levis’s, is to have no fate, we, like him, “feel suddenly hungry,” only to find that “The morning will be bright, & wrong.” In “Col Tempo” Levis ends the poem with “It seems so limitless, the litter in the streets, / The large families of the poor, the stars over it all.” In “The Necessary Angel” he closes the poem with a double-double—two images and two adjectives to describe them.

            As she goes home to her small apartment, living alone,
            The lights of the city glittering in the snowy air;
            Said so that it can never be unsaid, by the creaking
            Of his wife’s chair, by the ironic scraping of limbs
            Against a wall, until the two sounds are all there is—
            Filling the house with their brief & thoughtless triumph.

Levis readers will immediately think of the closing lines to “My Story in a Late Style of Fire:” “It is so American, fire. So like us. / Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.”
            I agree for the most part with Peter Everwine, that Levis intentionally repeated images and phrases as “motifs or riffs to unify the collection”—the collection meaning the unpublished body of work he left on his computer and in his notebooks upon his death. I believe that the two endings above are an example of that. However, I also believe that sometimes Levis “cannibalize[ed] certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems,” or that he even used those passages as place holders for edits that he never had time to complete.
            Consider two lines from “La Strada,” a poem that Levine left out of Elegy, containing two lines seemingly lifted out of “Boy in Video Arcade” that made the grade for Levine because, presumably, these lines were more organically related to the latter poem. In Elegy “the scuffed linoleum floor” appears in the opening description of the boy:

            I see a sullen boy in a video arcade.
            He’s the only one there at this hour, shoulders slightly bent above a machine.
            I see the pimples on his chin, the scuffed linoleum on the floor [italics mine].
In “La Strada” this image appears as a memory when

            One day you get an earache. One day you can’t breathe.
            You notice the old nurse wears a girdle as she bends over you,

            You remember the smell of Spanish rice from childhood,
            An orphanage with scuffed linoleum on its floors.

The narrative arc of the poem is driven throughout by the repeated question “What happens next?” Each answer builds in intensity from “The clown is dead,” to the above passage, to “It’s a carnival,” actually “a pretty poor excuse for a carnival, torn tents, everything // Worn out.” The poem culminates with these final two lines:

           Worn out. But I guess it has to go on anyhow. And I guess
           Death will blow his little fucking trumpet.

          Perhaps Levis was using the line as a place-holder-ending to a poem that he never finished editing. And perhaps Levine was correct in his original assumption, and selected the more finished poem for Elegy, leaving this one behind. We will never know. What we do know is that David St. John has assembled this second set of Levis's final poems from poems not selected by Philip Levine for the first posthumously published collection, Elegy--and that there are numerous shared images and lines between the two collections.

In the end, the legacy of Levis's poems reminds me of what the theologian, William Hendricks, said about the blessings of God: "[They] are not so much to be understood, as they are to be enjoyed." In places, Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze defy description. But, for me, they never disappoint.