Friday, August 31, 2018

Lindsay Bell: The Naughts

More than a year ago, I promised former colleague of mine at Columbia College Chicago, Lindsay Bell, that I would review her book, The Naughts (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I had the best of intentions to write the review in 2017. I could cite reasons for my delay that might seem justifiable--more pressing deadlines, the priorities of family and work, health issues. And those would not be inaccurate. However, alongside those reasons is the reality that I chose to do other things rather than get down to reading and writing about this book as promised. Two things have resulted from my experience: 1) I now forgive all five of my writer friends who have promised to review my books, but never have--I understand much better how one can allow that to happen; and 2) following the suggestion of Dr. Joe Dispenza to not get up from one's meditation without asking "What is the greatest ideal of myself that I can be today?" one of the things that came up for me this morning was "to reread and write a review of Bell's book." So, Lindsay, my apologies, and here we go...

Consulting The Compact (it's not really) Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, produces the following for "naughts": 1) nothing; 2) wicked, evil, morally wrong; 3) lost, ruined, injurious, hurtful; and 4) in arithmetic, ciphers (which is to say, zeros). Most online dictionaries list "lost or ruined, worthless or useless" as archaic. And finally, the online slang dictionary has only one entry: "The decade from 2000-2009." I found evidence that the decade 1900-1909 was also called "the naughts."

One of the strength's of Bell's collection is that her poems touch on all of the above meanings and more. The more is the light her poems shine on this world, complete with its worts and naughts, by juxtaposing seemingly disparate images and ideas with a sparse language that is oftentimes quite gorgeous. I am reminded of Jorie Graham's " Self-Portrait As The Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]" from The Dream of the Unified Field with a poem like "Ode to the Apple:"

For the wanderer who forgot
            how to turn a phrase
            who wants our love;
For the wretch whose apathy
            ate her careless,
            puckered;
For we can aspirate
            the earth
            but we need a conduit
            to get the worms
            out of our will;
For the snake,
            in careful netting
            on the banks of the Clear Creek
            rattling
For the dogs cocking their heads,
            backed away,
            while their humans
            inclined to their doom;
For in the ever closer, wherein
            something lies coiling-
            indomitable;
For the utter giving in of predator
            and prey, entwined
            and equal,
            without blame or conceit.

As in her final stanza above, the diction and meaning of her poems in this collection are all "...entwined / and equal, / without blame or conceit." Bell brings to the page a knowledge of, and love for, geology. Utilizing earth science as a tool to excavate the unique language of her poems results in slanted meaning and exposed history, as in "Margin Architecture:"

Later faults dismember our early geometries,
            a failed arm wastes, leaving the mark
            of its absence
commonly bounded by angular unconformities.
            Blue abides in everything, slashed with black,
            dots of light pock our walls.
We are the consequence of erosion, or a poor seismic pick.
            Our earliest memories of water,
            captive to heave and throw, strike and slip.
A sequence of calcareous mudstones and marls
            sum our lifetime moments,
            some marine transgression, resultant desertification.
Submarine channeling
            bespeaks burrowing creatures, deposited
            by meandering, fixed by their outlines.
A topographic map : cipher of our hinterlands
            interbedded basement interactions
            created a seam, fingers lace with blue.
Volcanoclastic sadness, the minor plays of Shakespeare.
            Dust motes deposit in geologic time as we hover,
            watch the names they've given us
Attempt to interpret themselves.

This poem attempts to mine the depths of abstractions such as failure, transgression, memory, and sadness by providing a concrete language for them. Other poems that drill deep into universalities, searching for poetic ore, include "Streber" and  "Love Did This." "Streber" begins with:

Today I smelled the summer's
sad last batch of freedom fries

heard the ice cream truck hemiola
whose pitch unwinds with each iteration.

As I pull into the driveway
rain begins to plunk in the gutters

in seamless concord with ending.

These lines showcase Bell's strength for taking a conglomeration of concrete language and putting it under pressure until it is metamorphosed into an abstraction that carries qualities of each particular. This shifting of language back and forth from specificities to generalities is characteristic of the collection. Thus, dipping into a poem here or there will not always provide a true sample of Bell's capacities. Her work requires taking it all in before assessing its value. When one does, all of the nuances she occasionally demonstrates in a single poem come through, and her work excels. Witness how she does this in "Love Did This," shifting from "love" and "fear" to "the toaster / in the bathtub," and "the faint hearing test intoning right / then left..."

Love Did This

I'd been kidding myself with play fear
but real fear just woke me up,
put a robe on my nakedness, yoked me again.

It said, Lo, I am the toaster
in the bathtub
of your performance anxiety,
the real projector,
the spit and glare and cross yourself.

I am your mother's weary voice,
the faint hearing test intoning right
then left, I am the singsong of baby's breath
carpeting a grave.

I am the burden of you
who are my slave.

There is playfulness in the above lines that occasionally bubbles up into full-blown whimsy in a poem like "Proximity." But even here, "The Naughts" are never far away, stepping onstage from the wings of the poem for the final scene, as they are ready to do throughout all of this surprisingly fresh collection.

Proximity

I was born with a historical gap.

All my clothes were fitted for it,
pink and asymmetrical.

I was a pink lobster, lop-sided meringue,
chewed air with my hands, ruined my toes.

The floor wept under me.
I was timing.

Allergic to gift horses,
all glossy, candied things.

I was crocheted into a name, sing-song.
The picture of innocence : a tutu in danger.

Looking forward to the decades built on the naughts of the new century, we who claim to be writers are called to join Bell by "Imagin[ing] rape as a theft / of letters : [to] write through holes / in the alphabet." Brava, Lindsay! May we, as you have, all find our way in.











Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writers Write About Writing: Richard Hugo and Verlyn Klinkenborg


There is no end to advice from writers about writing. I agree with those who say that the best way to learn how to write is to write. And I agree that much advice from writers may apply to their writing, but not to everyone's. However, occasionally I read a few sentences that seem to ring true universally. Whenever I find more than one writer that I respect saying the same thing, I take notice. And when those writers are in agreement with something I've written about writing, something that I attempt to do in my own writing, no matter how well, or how poorly I'm currently doing it, I think it's important enough to share. Richard Hugo and Verlyn Klinkenborg have done just that.

Here’s a passage in an essay by Richard Hugo entitled “Writing off the Subject” from his collection, The Triggering Town:

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, 
which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or 
generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is 
generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite 
right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. 
The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have 
some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject.
The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good
lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find
anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things,
he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he
has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels
obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, 
is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. [Bold font is mine.] You don’t
know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say 
about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, its a
good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to 
say about Autumn Rain.

Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more 
interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are 
like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get.
Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the
sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music
of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless
sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of
imagination, all things belong. [Bold is mine again.] If you take that on 
faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

And here’s a passage from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing:

You have no idea what you’re going to say
Until you discover what you want to say
As you make the sentences that say it.
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.
Writing is the work of discovery.

Imagine this:
The piece you’re writing is about what you find in the
piece you’re writing.
Nothing else.
No matter how factual, how nonfictional, how pur-
poseful a piece is.
Sooner or later, you’ll become more interested in what
you’re able to say on the page and less interested in
your intentions.
You’ll rely less on the priority of your intentions and
more on the immediacy of writing.
It may sound as if I’m describing a formless sort or 
writing.
Not at all.
Form is discovery too.
It’s perfectly possible to write this way even when con-
stricter by
A narrow subject, a small space, and a tight deadline.

Finally, here is the link to my article, “Why I Write: Discovery Vs. Self-Expression"


Here's to all of us writers, as we seek to discover the writing within the writing.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Widening Spell Widens: Memoir

It has been several months since I posted on my blog. During that time, much has happened in my writing life that I couldn't write about as I was experiencing it. With a bit of distance, I now turn a corner in the content of "The Widening Spell" to bring my readers up to date on some of those experiences. Hopefully they will be as helpful as my past posts about some of the poets who have influenced me the most. This blog will always be about poetry--or at least about my reading and writing experiences that began for me as a junior in college--attending my first poetry reading by William Stafford, and then decades later having my head spun around for a second time, reading Larry Levis. All of my life I have been caught in poetry's "Widening Spell."

However, motivated by Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir, in 2016 I wrote 650 pages of memoir. When I began Karr's book, I had no idea that I would be examining the story of my life--both its exterior trappings and its interior conflicts and struggles--to discover for myself first, and then for any future readers, what it all meant. I certainly had no intention of writing a memoir. But I became addicted to my morning two hour sessions from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. at my local coffee shop, cutting myself open and bleeding onto the page. The resulting draft was terrible by even the lowest literary standard. But the process reactivated my memory of events and feelings I'd all but forgotten. It also gave me an outline for 5 separate memoirs to be written--something I felt totally inadequate to do. The only genre I was just beginning to feel comfortable writing was poetry. Non-fiction seemed totally out of my reach.

During the six months it took me to get that draft down on paper, what kept me going were the words of Melba Beals, one of "The Little Rock Nine," whose prize-winning memoir, Soldiers Don't Cry, I had read after Melba became one of my customers at a men's clothing store. She had just retired as Professor Emerita from Dominican University of California. When she found out I was a poet, she invited me to lunch to talk shop. Mostly, she talked and I listened in awe to her rendering of events not included in her memoir that depicted her going to high school every day with an armed national guardsman, as one of the first nine black students to integrate high school in the state of Arkansas. As we were parting, I mentioned that I was dabbling in memoir, with about a dozen pages written. "What about your life is so interesting that other people would want to read it?" Melba asked. I must have flushed, knowing the significance of her public life compared with mine. "I grew up in a pathological family," I said. "Give me an example," she replied. "Okay. Here's the first sentence to what I've written so far: When I was nine years old, my father taught me how to kill a man with my bare hands, and how to please a woman, both in the same conversation." Melba paused and, drilling into my soul with her ink-colored eyes, replied: "Keep writing!"

So I kept writing--two hours every morning for six months. And when I looked up there were 650 pages in my word file. What to do with these disconnected, randomly remembered stories of my life? How to revise them, connect them, order them? How to structure a coherent story from them? I sensed, from reading other poets turned memoirists--Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird; Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories; Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City--that my memoir wasn't going to be a chronological telling of story in the classical sense of 1) beginning; 2) introduction of problem or conflict; 3) rising action; 4) climax; and 5) denouement. My story wasn't tidy--it wasn't even a story--it was a chaotic mess, just as much of my life had been. I needed help.

That help came in the form of a workshop offered by a new conference center, 1440 Multiversity, in Scotts Valley, California--a 2-hour drive from where I live. Last September, I attended Nick Flynn's workshop entitled "Memoir as Bewilderment." Since I was certainly bewildered, I thought there might be hope for my memoir. It turned out there was. Applying what I learned in Nick's workshop, I have edited my 650 pages down to 275; I've organized my draft according to a "closed energy system" of places and scenes that orbit one central place which is a metaphor for the entire memoir; and to my surprise, I've started writing poetry again, triggered by my own memoir--portions that just don't work as prose, but do as poetry. Here's an example:

Returning To My Childhood Home Thirty Years After Foreclosure

From across the street in my rental car,
first thing I notice is the teardrop-shaped
juniper my father and I planted
when I was eight, grown taller now
than the roof, covering what was then
my bedroom window.
At the front door,
I ring the bell and mourn the loss of our brick
planter attached to the porch, the four o’clocks
I grew from brightly colored packets of magic
seed, mail-ordered from Better Homes and Gardens.
I caress the doorframe, wonder if it was the replacement
we had to buy, if I were the only boy that ever saw
his father walk through this door, splinter it
away from its hinges.
I remember the night—
playing on the living room rug, my mother yelling
in the kitchen at my father, her breaking into pieces
a burner cover on top of the stove, repeatedly
hammering exclamation points with an iron skillet,
screaming my father was never home, so she might as well
destroy every damned thing in the house.
       My father
always needing to prove himself better at destruction,
answered by riffing on his PTSD in syncopated rhythms—
opening and slamming cabinet doors, shattering the God-
damned plates and mugs, flinging our best china
against the wall.
   When my mother threatened to call
the cops, my father went for his sawed-off shotgun,
dared her to dial the phone, loaded a single red shell
into the breach and clicked it shut. 
         I covered my ears,
tracked my father’s boot steps into the front hallway,
mother’s muffled words trailing behind—little deaths
nipping at his scarred ears; marching into the front yard,
he filled the dark air with buckshot.
I can still hear the clack
as my mother locked the door behind him, the crack as he split it
in two walking back through it, the concussive sound of it
smacking the floor—“Don’t ever try to lock me out again!”
Gathering his bags, he walked back through the emptiness
he had opened up in our house, loaded his truck
and gave himself back to the road.
I ring the doorbell again.
Different notes sound from tones heard back then. Slight man
in shorts with coarse gray hair on his chest opens the door—
“Yes?” he says in broken English. “I grew up in this house,” I say,
“and was wondering if I could come in for a minute or two…”

         I hear a woman’s voice call from deep inside,
the rattle of a swamp cooler fan, the motor’s whine; I feel a chill
of air as he shakes his head and shuts the door, leaving me outside,
standing with one foot on a stranger’s porch, the other on what once was
a flowerbed—now dry unforgiving sand, runneled with long shadows.

(Previously published in Open: Journal of Arts & Letters.)

Stay tuned for progress reports on both the memoir, Flight: The story of one man's escape from religious fundamentalism, and my pilgrimage as a poet.



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Monday, July 10, 2017

Scissortail Poets: Jim Benton

For three weeks in April of this year, I did a book tour of the deep south, reading from Dharma Rain, my most recent collection (Saint Julian Press, October 2016). When Jim Benton, my good friend and fellow-poet living in Ft. Worth, told me about the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK, I didn't set out to travel 3,000 miles through 7 states. Jim had attended the festival in 2016, and spoke highly of it. With his encouragement, I submitted poems for the 2017 festival; and with my encouragement, he did as well. We were both accepted as readers.

Shortly afterwards, Jeannie Thompson, Executive Director of Alabama Writers' Forum, emailed me and expressed interest in my work, asking if I had ever toured the deep south. No, I said, but I was willing to consider it--what did she have in mind? She told me about the Alabama Book Festival held every year at the end of April. After a few months of email exchanges, I received an official invitation to be a featured reader. 

As a resident of northern California, I then had a lovely problem--reading in Ada, OK the first weekend of April; and reading in Montgomery, AL the last. I decided to connect the dots and plan a tour, stopping along the way (a circuitous route, no doubt), through Ft. Worth (where I used to live and close to where my 3 children still do), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Little Rock, Montgomery, and back to Ft. Worth for the flight home. I asked Jim if we split gas and motel stays, if he'd be interested in driving his car for the 3,000-mile adventure. He said yes, booked a final "homecoming" reading in Ft. Worth, and the tour was born.

Between the summer of 2016 and April of 2017, Jim put together a chapbook of some of his own poems. He read from it, not only at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, but at several of the readings where I was booked--either as a co-featured reader, or as an open-mic guest. I will never forget our trip, or be able to repay Jim for his kindness in driving the entire way, his patience in putting up with my quirks, and our long, in-depth conversations/arguments about poetry, life, and all things human and divine. 

I offer the following preface I wrote for his chapbook, as a way of honoring him and his work--both of which inform the other, and which are as much in concert with one another as in any person or poet I have ever known. Jim has spent a lifetime tirelessly teaching young people, in and out of the classroom, to be better writers and better people. He has also spent much time since his retirement writing poetry that is better than most written today by poets who have amassed prestigious publication credits. He "killed it," as I told him at Scissortail (as he did wherever he read). But that is not why Jim writes, as you will discover, if you read his work below with "the way of seeing" that a poet sees--the way that he has taught countless students to do over the years.

Enjoy!

NOTE: After the preface, I have also taken the liberty to publish a few of my favorite poems in their entirety from his body of work.

Preface to Finding Poetry in Santa Fe 

In 'Finding Poetry in Santa Fe,' Jim Benton offers up a true sample of his work, which is, in my assessment, stronger than poems of the majority of poets who do not yet have a full-length collection—and many who do. I say this as an editor of a national poetry press who reads hundreds of manuscripts a year, not only with regard to the craft and voice present in each poem, but in consideration of the rigor Benton brings to the editing process for each poem and for the manuscript as a whole, being fully aware of Frost’s statement about the final poem being the book itself. Benton’s choices about sequence have created a manuscript with a traceable narrative arc, appropriately interrupted with gorgeous lyrical passages—all demonstrating a mature artistic sensibility.

This achievement comes not only from his almost twenty years of teaching poetry to high school students as “the way of seeing,” but also from a life lived as “the way of being” in the world. Jim is fully present in each poem with all his powers of cognition, his sensitivity of emotion, as well as his delightful irreverence, and scathing satire for anything false. He is the same with other poets’ work and with each person he encounters.

In “Holiness is Overrated,” Jim Benton challenges not only those who are in the clergy, but all who are given to sermonizing and able to be perceived as “above” others in any way, to commit acts of rebellion: “Swing from the sanctuary chandeliers, / say shit in the pulpit, sing hymns without rhyme, / recite  inspired non-sequiturs, pray gibberish,” and to “Preach free verse sermons with such alliterative excess / that only their sounds are true.”

Benton takes his own advice in 'Finding Poetry in Santa Fe.' Every poem not only rings true in the sonic realm, but in the typographical, ideational, and all the other sensory levels, as well.  

Benton has a knack for shining the light of his poems on the most sacrosanct of ideas and the most sacred of gods, showing them for what they are—delightfully ordinary, aberrant, and carnal—and, like Whitman, the grandfather of American poetry, for exalting the profane to the divine. In “Jesus Vacations in Santa Fe,”

            Jesus, restless in heaven,
            slipped away alone,
            for a quiet vacation. Unknown
            and unrecognized in sweatshirt
            and jeans from Goodwill,
            he treated himself
            to a pedicure, soaked in a spa at sunset
            with a bottle of local red
            and the thought of blood never occurred to him.

The poem ends paying homage to two equally great things in God’s creation: “Peace on Earth / and great tacos.” Benton gets it right in diction and tone in this poem, and even a cursory read of the New Testament reveals that Benton gets it right theologically, as well.

In “Santa Fe Dreams,” the action of an unknown lawbreaker chiseling away the word “savage” from an inscription honoring the “savage Indians” on an obelisk erected at the center of the Plaza, is raised to the heavens where “the stars tremble,” and becomes an example for the poet to follow:

            Chisel-bold in the heroic dreams
            Santa Fe conjures in my imagination,
            I am he, raven-eyed justice,
            replacing the savage obscenity
            carved in stone on the monolithic face of memory
            with a graven scar that bears my name
            for eyes that walk uncovered, unbalanced,
            in moonlight.

Many poems in Finding Poetry in Santa Fe have a strong narrative. But, Benton can be quite lyrical, as well. In “Poet at Dusk,” he invites the reader to join him, to “Dress the naked desert / in wordstreams / to evaporate / in sere sunlight. // Clothe the shapely clouds / in see-through verbs / to float weightless / above the page.” That’s because, for Benton, poetry is not some esoteric art, created only by the inspired or talented few, but “a way of seeing” that can be acquired by all who are willing to open themselves to truly experience what they are already experiencing.
Jim Benton found poetry in Santa Fe, a city he has had a love affair with for decades now. In the process, he became a poet. In these poems, he invites you, the reader, to find poetry where you reside. And, who knows, it might just change the way you see and write and live, as well.

*    *    *

Jesus Vacations in Santa Fe

Jesus, restless in heaven,
slipped away alone,
for a quiet vacation. Unknown
and unrecognized in sweatshirt
and jeans from Goodwill,
he treated himself
to a pedicure, soaked in a spa at sunset
with a bottle of local red,
and the thought of blood never occurred to him.

Next day he went shopping,
dressed himself up in gaudy drag,
donned a flashing electric tiara,
AAA batteries entwined in bejeweled weave.
He dyed his hair a lovely, soft
auburn, danced alone an inch
above sandal-worn adobe floors,
dined on Northern New Mexican
Cuisine, sat for hours amid juniper
and sage in the crisp evening air.

A Canyon Road crafter tried
to sell him a pair of white hand-sewn
kid gloves with sterling silver
stigmata medallions, inlaid turquoise, red leather tassels,
and one-of-a-kind ceramic drop-weight
beads, at a Semana Santa Sale price.
Jesus wept.

Silently, he slipped away,
scrubbed his hands in adobe dust,
sat down for a sopapilla
and a soda. At Chimayo,
Jesus tasted his first brisket taco
with a pinch of fresh cilantro, grilled onions,
and lime on a hand-formed corn tortilla.
And fell in love. A gentle abuela
shared the secret of her green chile stew--
fresh corn grilled on an open piñon fire.

The pixilated cascade of golden aspen
took his breath, and no apple ever tasted so sweet
as the one he picked right off the tree
without so much as a moment's thought
of Eden. It was just the quiet vacation
Jesus needed. Peace on Earth
and great tacos.

(First published in Poetry Super Highway, June, 2014.)


If I Were a Poet

If I were a poet I would stop
for every hitchhiking line
and give it a ride
to wherever it could take me.
I would let it smoke in the car
and not turn up my nose
at the smell of urine and asphalt.

I would welcome the baggage
it casually tossed onto my backseat,
and the greasy, matted, misplaced modifiers dangling
from the edges of its wooly watch cap
would not tempt me to avoid
awkward eye contact. Though it ranted
and rambled and raged
and wept and wailed and whined,
the shallow, contrived, unnatural, pointless quality
of over-alliteration would not provoke
my disdain. If it were raining and it had
a rumpled, ugly, smelly, wet
dog with slobbery jowls, mud-caked
paws, and puppies in the pouch,
I would not throw a prophylactic blanket
over my decorous rear seat upholstery.
I would welcome each mud splatter and dirty
double-entendre.

If I were a poet
and a toothless hitchhiking poem
in a black leather jacket and yellowed cotton shirt
stumbled dazed and disoriented onto the shoulder
of my awareness, waving bloody hands with dirty nails,
screeching alternately incoherent gibberish and precisely
articulated obscenities from the corner of its mouth,
I would stop, roll down all four windows,
hop into the back seat,
and toss it the keys.

(First published in Sin Fronteras, Issue #19, Spring 2015.)


Three Ladders

Kiva
A ladder leads me down
into a dusty numinous womb
of fertile Earth.
Here the travails of mother time
linger in adobe and dance
the beat of soft steps.
Step by step I descend
into the darkness of the ancients
to inhale their smoky wisdom.

Tree
A ladder lifts me up
onto a branch extending beyond
my reach or grasp below.
Here the flight of scissortail,
raven, and swallow beckon me
build a nest from which to fly.
Step by step I ascend
into the limitless open sky
to soar among sunlight and stars.

Wall
A ladder leads me to the edge
between two worlds
I sit astride.
Here the decisive paths are split,
spread before me from dawn to dusk--
forward or back again?
Step by step I ascend
to reach an untenable divide
from which I must descend.

(From Finding Poetry in Santa Fe, 2016.)


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.

Saturday

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

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 bpete1764@aol.com 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 it...as 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,
now,
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.