Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Writing Sentences: The Long and the Short of It

Earlier this month I led a generative writing workshop for a new writing group. I knew there would be both prose writers and poets in attendance. I decided to utilize Nina Schuyler's terrific new book, How to Write Stunning Sentences (Fiction Advocate, 2018), in a way I had not previously utilized any book in a workshop setting. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in what I did, since it seemed successful. And, of course, I think all of my readers should be interested in Schuyler's book, which sets a high bar for a collection of essays about numerous ways to write memorable sentences, including examples and comments from authors about their favorite sentences. Finally, in order to provide generative material for the poets other than prompts about writing sentences, I utilized a poem by Gerald Stern that is written in one sentence.

Here is the lesson plan for how I ran the workshop, followed by the handout, and a poem of mine that illustrates the final prompt. 


1) From among the twenty-five chapters, I selected two: "Sunil Yapa: The Long Sentence" (Chapter Two), and "Melinda Moustakis: Ellipses (Chapter Fourteen).

2) I typed two or three example sentences from each chapter and came up with a title for each example sentence. For example, for the chapter on long sentences, the first example appeared in this way:

Chapter 2
Sunil Yapa: The Long Sentence

Example 1: Using modifiers to add precision to an experience...

There were people hollering from every corner, marching people of all shapes and sizes, all body types and hairdos, an assortment of clothing choices and fashion accessories to express their personalities...

3) At the bottom of the examples from each chapter, I copied Nina Schuyler's writing prompts for that chapter.

4) I re-typed "Winter Thirst" by Gerald Stern from American Sonnets (W.W Norton, 2002).

5) Below the poem, I typed a writing prompt about writing a one-page poem as one sentence.

6) I printed out enough copies so that each writer had his own handout.


1) Prior to writers arriving I distributed handouts.

2) I opened with an introduction to what we were going to do that day: learn about and write stunning sentences that are long and short, both for the prose writer and the poet.

3) I read the few short paragraphs from Schuyler's book that introduced the chapter.

4) When we got to the first example sentence, I had a volunteer read the sentence aloud.

5) I resumed reading the brief explanatory material from Schuyler's book until we reached the next example sentence.

6) I asked for another volunteer to read the next example sentence.

7) I repeated this process until we arrived at the end of the chapter.

8) I instructed the writers to read the prompts that followed on their handout, to select one, and to do the prompt.

9) After 5-10 minutes, I had volunteers read what they had written and share how it went for them.

10) I repeated this process with the material that I had prepared from Schuyler's book.

11) We took a break (after about an hour).

12) When we returned, I read the Gerald Stern poem and we all did the writing prompt.

13) I asked for volunteers to read their poems.

14) We talked about strategies for varying lengths of sentences in both prose and verse.

15) The entire writing workshop took just under two hours.

Here is the entire handout that I prepared, along with a poem that I wrote several years ago using Gerald Stern's poem as a prompt.


Examples from How to Write Stunning Sentences by Nina Schuyler ed.

Chapter 2
Sunil Yapa: The Long Sentence

Example 1: Using modifiers to add precision to an experience… 

There were people hollering from every corner, marching people of all shapes and sizes, all body types and hairdos, an assortment of clothing choices and fashion accessories to express their personalities…

Example 2: Using modifiers to define a character…

This woman with ambiguously light brown skin, with green eyes as bright as any sea, who at one time ran a sort of illegal animal shelter behind her off-the-grid house on an unnamed island beyond the city, who journeyed here with four friends in an Econoline van, the four of them eating sandwiches of sprouts and beans, this pretty girl in laced black boots who wore black jeans and a loose white shirt, the sleeves rolled to the shoulder like some kind of back-alley tough—she had the kindest of smiles, a smile which creased her mouth and lit those green eyes and which you could see were she not currently wearing a full-face black gas mask.

Example 3: Using parentheticals and repetition to carry more information…

He had scheduled nine hundred on-duty officers. Now they were looking at upward of fifty thousand protesters in the street and four hundred delegates—four hundred delegates from one hundred and thirty five countries who may or may not speak English—to safely shepherd from the Sheraton Hotel to their meeting at the convention center.


1. Start with an expletive construction—“There is,” “There are,” “It is,” ‘It was.” Note: you don’t want to use too many of these types of sentences because they are relatively passive. Whatever follows after your opening expletive is your subject. Now start modifying the subject, adding precision, details, images, as Yapa does with this sentence “There were people hollering from every corner, marching people of all shapes and sizes, all body types and hairdos, an assortment of clothing choices…”

2. Pick one of your characters. Begin your sentence with this character, as Yapa does with “This woman.” Now begin to modify it, describing your character physically. In this same sentence, add the word “who” and include some of your character’s past history, as Yapa did with the clause “who at one time ran a sort of illegal animal shelter behind her off-the-grid house on an unnamed island beyond the city.”

3. Is there something you want to emphasize in your sentence? Use repetition, as Yapa does in the sentence with the parenthetical that repeats “four hundred delegates.” By doing this, you focus the reader’s attention on this detail, and if you’ve picked the right detail, you’ve probably raised the stakes.

4. Do you need to slow your sentence down, so the reader has time to absorb it? To vary your syntax? Try a parenthetical, as Yapa does with the sentence, “Now they were looking at upward of fifty thousand protesters in the street and four hundred delegates—four hundred delegates from one hundred and thirty five countries who may or may not speak English…”

Chapter 14
Melinda Moustakis: Ellipses

Example 1: Images without the verb…

The silver of cleaned knives and metal tables, the silver of slabs of fish, of fish heads, eyes still with shock, mouths cocked open.

Example 2: The powerful partial…

Nerves and muscles twitch. Stand, they twitch, when she rests. Rest, they twitch, when she stands. Sleeping is more work than working. To sleep is to unlearn. Uncut every cut. Unknife every knife. Unline every line. Unmouth every mouth. But not everything can be undone.


1.Write a sentence with 3, 4, 5 nouns—but no verb, as Moustaskis does in this sentence, “The silver of cleaned knives and metal tables, the silver of slabs of fish, of fish heads, eyes still with shock, mouths cocked open.”

2. Take a look at the list you wrote in prompt #1. Can you repeat words for emphasis, as Moustaskis does with “silver” and “fish?” Can you add alliteration, emphasizing a particularly sound? Do you want to create a harsh feeling? If so, add plosives, b/d/k/g/t/p. A soft, comforting feeling? Try the sibilants, such as “s” or “sh.”

3. Try writing a series of short sentences that begin with the same word or prefix, as Moustakis does with the series, “Uncut every cut. Unknife every knife, unline every line. Unmouth every mouth.” You’ve created a great build to your final sentence, which should break the rhythm as Moustakis does with her final sentence, “But not everything can be undone, with her final word, “undone,” echoing the other words in the pattern.


Example by Gerald Stern:

Winter Thirst 

I grew up with bituminous in my mouth
and sulfur smelling like rotten eggs and I
first started to cough because my lungs were like cardboard,
and what we called snow was gray with black flecks
that were like glue when it came to snowballs and made
them hard and crusty, though we still ate the snow
anyhow, and as for filth, well, start with
smoke, I carried it with me I know everywhere
and someone sitting beside me in New York or Paris
would know where I came from, we would go in for dinner—
red meat loaf or brown choucroute—and he would
guess my hill, and we would talk about soot
and what a dirty neck was like and how
the white collar made a fine line;
and I told him how we pulled heavy wagons
and loaded boxcars every day from five
to one A.M. and how good it was walking
empty-handed to the no. 69 streetcar
and how I dreamed of my bath and how the water
was black and soapy then and what the void
was like and how a candle instructed me.

From American Sonnets (W.W. Norton, 2002)


Write a one-page poem as one sentence, using parentheticals, adding modifiers and repetition, beginning the first line with “I grew up with…” or “There were people…” or “This woman…” or “This man…” 

Example of poem written by Terry Lucas, beginning with the line:
"I grew up with __________in my mouth..."


I grew up with diesel in my mouth,
aroma of hobo coffee boiling on the stove,
poured into my father's Stanley thermos--
I was addicted by age six, stealing 
slurpy sips, testing the temp
before passing the chrome cup
across the doghouse, riding shotgun
in a Freightliner cab-over--my father's eyes
always tending to the road, left
hand on the wheel, the right flicking
twin stick shifts, as he ran
the 250 Cummins through the gears,
before taking a swallow of the steaming brew,
then passing it back and resting his palm on the knob
ticking to the rhythm of the toothed transmission--all one song
that lifted like a carnival ride, then decelerated
with mechanical whine, entering town
after facade town, fiction after fiction.

By Terry Lucas

From In This Room (CW Books, 2016). 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Prartho Sereno: Indian Rope Trick

             In the opening poem of Indian Rope Trick, “We Can Stop Asking,” Sereno lays out what’s at stake in this collection. These poems grapple with the pull of time on everything in the flow of existence, inevitably carrying us all toward death and beyond, like the Ganges sweeping along “…miniature boats / from her banks, heaped with marigolds / making the river sob purple and orange.” But, the poet reminds us, our journey is not as straightforward as getting sick and old and dying at river’s end: “…time passes like smoke—a pungent furl / of nearly nothing, more delicate than silk.” Even so, we desire to turn the mystery into something more palpable, more useful:

            We would like to sew a dress from it
            and wear it to the wedding. We would like
            to make a tent of it to carry on our backs.

            Then in the final stanza, Sereno transposes her metaphors into similes, and shifts her nouns to verbs, underscoring our inability to capture time’s essence, and emphasizing its action on us, rather than contemplating its characteristics:

            But time is not a river or smoke.
            It’s more like the billow and sway
            the smoke and river do. More like
            the surge and swell of morning light—
            a sneaker wave aimed for the shore,
            a hunger in the water that wants us,
            every last one of us, back at sea.

            This is an appropriate ending to an apt opening poem. The “hunger in the water” provides a backdrop of longing for the specificity Sereno’s images provide in poems that follow. In “The First Rule” we encounter “the hairs on your head,” “the snow flakes filling the pines,” “a river, riotous with alligators, / a migratory cloud of monarchs,” and a “lone whale lost at sea.” In “My Daughter Falls in Love,” we find “the rustle of wingbeats in the air,” and “ a raindrop on the head of a pin, / …almost too much for us to bear.” This haunting and gorgeous language works toward the climax of section I, the title poem:
            Indian Rope Trick

                  Steps have to be followed, but sometimes
                  they can wonder away from you.
                                                --from a student essay

            It’s the mystery’s favorite trick: weaving
the intricate rope of someone’s life, then
lifting it for them to climb and somewhere
near the top…disappear.

Two weeks ago my brother told me
he’d shot nine holes. Pain was lousy, he said,
but went on to try out punchlines he’d been
practicing for his meeting with the Maker.

I’m not afraid to die, he said
with that curious wonder he had
since the diagnosis. But this time
he added he had no regrets.
None worth counting, anyway.

I’d taken my phone on my walk and was talking
to him from the mountain, at the level of ravens
and hawks. He’d had a wonderful life, he said,
which caused the rope of it to rise and grow taut
so we could see it in all its color: There in his yellow

cowboy pajamas with his champion Alaskan yoyo.
There in the glow of his cherry-bomb days.
There at the helm of the stolen tractor on a joyride
over the gold club greens. And look: now he’s doing

figure eights on his forklift in the basement of Kodak.
Now he’s blasting off, bottle-rocket-style, to
international VP. See him there in Paris and Philly?
See him adrift on South Carolina’s inlet seas?

Here come the whole buzzing swarm
of friends drawn in by the honey of his ease.
Ah…we seem to have followed that rope
right up through the clouds.

I couldn’t have asked for more, he said.
And his exhale filled the valley
So the hawks lifted up on the rising air.
And we said goodbye.

            I hate to point out my only quibble with Sereno’s mostly masterful book with an example from the title poem, but I must. As in the actual Indian rope trick, where a stand of rope is suspended in the air without visible support, while a person pulls herself up and out of sight, the trick in making a good poem is in using just enough language for clarity, without sacrificing mystery. For this reader, the final line is not only unnecessary, but actually detracts from that mystery by stating something better left unsaid. If the poem were to end on “so the hawks lifted up on the rising air,” I would have been both satisfied, and left aching for more. Better too little than too much, in my opinion.
            The few places where Sereno’s poems stray, it’s not for lack of gorgeous language, fresh imagery, or interesting narrative, it’s for including just one image, one line or, in the case of “Piano,” one stanza too much. “Piano” is one of my favorite poems in the collection. It has a dark narrative arc about a boy who played the piano next door until he died. The story flows perfectly across its tight stanzas that eventually rip apart in stanza three to enact what must be a sibling practicing scales, showing the same “hesitation” and “plunge” of notes from a beginner by spacing the words seemingly at random on the page. All the while the poet is

…eating [her] lunch in the garden—
soup and lettuce, last night’s fish.
The book whose plot can’t hold me
lies open in my lap, when, after a gap
that seems to signal the recital’s end,

the instrument             somehow
catches its breath and through
its hundred vocal chords sets loose
a winged thing—a music deep and holy,
as if every c-minor, b-flat, g-sharp—
every chord—has been summoned
to sound again.

            A beautiful poem that ends on the high point of emotional intensity, allowing the space below it to echo the disappearing act of the Indian rope trick, and all emptiness and loss. But, no. The poem continues:

            As if the grief-knot has come
            undone and love has been freed
            to pour down again
            over us and our parched gardens
            like summer rain.

            There is nothing wrong with these lines in themselves. It is just, in the opinion of this reviewer, that the stanza is a kind of denouement. It is explaining to us—poetsplaining?—what it is we have just read and experienced in the previous stanza. And I prefer my poetry straight, undiluted, without a net to break my fall. 
I am aware, however, that many readers do like their poems to end in a neatly tied bow, rather than to have loose strings, or in the case of Sereno, loose strands of rope, hanging about. And so I applaud the poet for not ending each poem in Indian Rope Trick in the same manner, managing to subvert readers’ expectations as to what will transpire in its final lines. And there are plenty of poems whose endings sound a note of mystery. “Notes from the Field” is emblematic of such a poem, albeit one whose ending is foreshadowed in the epigraph--necessary I think, in order to make sure that final "wonder" is not mistaken for a typo. In this poem, and in many others in Indian Rope Trick, Sereno achieves the balance that most poets and writers strive to achieve: mystery without opacity, and accessibility without blatant derivation or cliche. Thus, it can be read as an ars poetica, and an apt ending to this review.

Notes from the Field
And so we begin. Well, not exactly we, more like me
all by myself, taking my first step onto the field.
Blindfolded. If you listen to Science Friday, you know

where this is leading. It’s the same for everybody,
the researcher proclaimed this morning, giddy
with a certainty yet unknown to science: Blindfold

any person and aim her into an expanse of grass.
Soon enough she’ll be walking in circles. Yes!
the researcher says with relish: Everyone.

In decades of trials on the vast and motley they’ve yet
to find an exception. He’s dizzy with it: our profound
inability to walk a line. And I’m so there with him

in that dizzy. Well, not exactly there, of course,
but here where we started. And not exactly we
(I remind myself) but me in my little quorum of one.

But I’m procrastinating. Steps have to be followed.
Blindfolded. Without you. One foot at a time, though
I’m pretty sure they’ve already started to wonder away.

Indian Rope Trick by Prartho Sereno, Blue Light Press, 2018, $15.95 paper

Prartho Sereno is author of four poetry collections, including Elephant Raga, Call from Paris, and Causing a Stir: The Secret Lives & Loves of Kitchen Utensils (illustrated by the author). She is Poet Laureate Emeritus of Marin County, California and lives a little north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Indian Rope Trick is the winner of the 2018 Blue Light Book Award.



Sunday, January 6, 2019

Michael Waters: The Dean of Discipline

The Dean of Discipline is an appropriate name for Waters’s twelfth poetry collection. Not only does the title character make its appearance in “Detention” as an administrator at “Christ the King HS,” where the narrator “…coaxed   the Dean of Discipline / To make bad boys read books” instead of “stand[ing] face-to-wall   hands clasped   behind back[s],” it is also an appropriate description of the poet. This Dean of PoeticDiscipline, like the former, holds to principle while allowing for evolving tactics of control. Emblematic of this collection’s negotiation between loose and tight properties, each of the fourteen decasyllabic, precisely-crafted lines is allowed to breathe, with extra spaces between words serving the function of commas, but providing a more relaxed meter and visual rendering of pauses. And instead of depending upon end rhyme to top off a lock-step melody, Waters mostly deploys his camouflaged, slant rhymes inside the lines’ interior, where they do their work of creating music undercover.
In a 1998 interview with John Hoppenthaler, Michael Waters traced his evolution as a poet from the early belief “that it was the power of the poet that made the poems, and it was the poet’s idea that informed the poem,” coming to believe “more in the power of language rather than in the power of the poet... that the poem might suggest where it wanted to go, and it would do so through language, through word choice, rather than through idea.” In multiple books since his early poems of the ’70s, Waters has written poems that embody that belief with a muscular, musical diction that is at the forefront of his lyrical narrative poems. There are none better being written today. 
The Dean of Discipline, while in places departing from the syllabic and “written by ear” prosodies hovering around ten syllables per line that readers have grown to expect from this poet at the height of his powers, never swerves from looking to language to explore universal longings through the particularities of human existence. In “Cannibal,” for example, a poem that begins “Among the survivors of the Donner / Party—idiom’s black sense of humor—,” with images of “…flesh / Flaked between the fluted bones of a wrist,” and “charcoaled tongue or poached heart,” quickly moves to … “Jeffrey Dahmer ladl[ing] a young man’s head into a pot, / The water simmering, lightly salted, / New potatoes, leeks, and scrawny carrot / Floating past eyes uplifted toward Heaven.” Two-thirds into the poem, Waters shifts hunger’s attention away from body as food, to body as lover:                      
        How my mouth covets your body,
Teeth grazing buttocks, shoulders, each nipple.
How I want to cradle you inside me
As you clasp me within, to celebrate
Our secular, primeval communion.

The first twenty-two lines are uniformly decasyllabic. In the twenty-third, final line, the poem reaches for something beyond with an eleventh syllable. It is noteworthy that the only word containing more than one syllable—the word that makes the line more than ten—is “poems.” And yet when reading it aloud, “poems” can be voiced quickly enough to sound as one syllable. Thus it is a pivotal word, living in two worlds at once, pushing the syllable count over ten, but not upsetting the baseline rhythm of the poem. This one word becomes the hinge that allows the poem to extend beyond itself, while remaining true to itself. 
This enactment of the idea by the form is not coincidental. It is primary to the way Waters writes, and one secret to how his poems throb so palpably with desire, both particular and universal. The dedication “for Mihaela” “…inscribe[s] this desire / Bite mark by bite mark” into particularity. The poem itself, the very ink scripted on the page, and the language read into the air, joins itself to a different “you”—all who would bring the same hunger to its reading. Understood in this way, the poem can be seen as an ars poetica: “What can I do but write these poems for you?” It is as if we are listening in on a private conversation, only to discover that the conversation is about us too.
            Waters crafts his placement of poems as carefully as he does each line. Across the page from “Cannibal” is a poem titled “lesire —>.” With a decasyllabic first baseline, around which the remaining lines pulse above and below—and often return to—ten syllables, the poem begins with a reflection on the previous poem, echoing the poet’s other poems that begin with longing and plunge inevitably into darker places: “I keep thinking the meaning of the word / Must be desire, so want to follow its arrow / To wherever it’s pointing….” Then halfway through the poem we encounter “But the meaning of the word is Exit, / Meaning, therefore, death, that space I’d rather / Avoid….” The remainder of the poem is a sample of Waters’s sparsely used, but always-effective combination—a visual cue bordering on concrete poetry, followed with an onomatopoetic diction that makes for a knockout punch.
                        an absence, abyss, an abscess
Raw as a screech chalking a blackboard
Or, louder and rippling outward,
Zero’s ceaseless, starless, staticky buzz,
Unlike the seizure-inducing strobe
I keep pretending desire is.  

            Reading this stanza aloud, one experiences the poem with multiple senses. The eye sees the void—that absence of words in the blank line—slightly before the throat feels the gap in the flow of air with each of the sibilant sounds in “ab-sence,” “aby-ss,” and “ab-scess,” carrying into the next line with the necessary break in the voice between “screech” and “chalking.” The ear is introduced to the beginning sound work that is sustained throughout the stanza—so much so that if it were not read aloud, one might miss some of the Zs in “Zero’s…buzz,” and  “the seizure-inducing strobe” that “desire is.” Waters leaves no detail unattended. I cannot conceive it an accident that the only line with ten syllables in this stanza is the antepenultimate line, “Zero’s ceaseless, starless, staticky buzz.” After eight lines of at least ten syllables, in the final lines, the poet varies syllabic count, much as a concert pianist employs different dynamic levels for contrast and emphasis—in this instance with a decrescendo to mezzo forte, a crescendo back to forte, and finally another decrescendo in the ultimate line.
            In addition to the pleasure I always get from reading Waters’s lyrical narrative poems that sing, revealing under closer examination a precision of craft and depth of feeling that is not achieved by many, the joy for this reviewer is that Waters is not content to write book after book utilizing only his signature moves. In The Dean of Discipline, the poet broadens his repertoire with poems that expand prosodic devices previously dabbled in, introducing nonce forms that remain true to his poetic sensibilities. 
Although he has used the drop-down line effectively in many poems, I have not seen Waters begin a collection with a zipper poem—two columns of offset lines that work three ways. Each line can not only be read across the page, but each column can be read down the page as well. Even here, Waters gives language free reign, not compromising word choice in favor of formal rigor, each column moving down the page with a stumbling kind of sense, as if the vodka tonics were taking hold. Even within, or perhaps because of this form, word choice and language seem to be primary. Rather than an experimental exercise in form, the poem’s structure seems to emanate from its diction and narrative thrust. The opening lines are sufficient to make this point:
            Kim, Kathleen, & I
                                                                        stumbled toward the hammock,
            Careful not to spill
                                                                        our communal vodka tonic.
            We flopped onto our backs
                                                                        & let the netting sway,
            Three fiery tongues
                                                                        below two venerable oaks.
            Two foxes yawped
                                                                        two fields away.
                                                                        we traded sorrows, mild jokes,
            Lists of lovers—         
                                                                        three bodies swapping intimacies
            In a hammock  
                                                                        wide enough for two.

            The obvious step down before the threesome “stumbled toward the hammock;” the “Three fiery tongues” as cognates for the three separate poems within the poem; the swaying back and forth between the lines of the poem as enactment of the hammock; the coupling and uncoupling of the lines in the same way the three bodies do “In a hammock // wide enough for two,”—all are perfect examples of the delightful enactment of content with form. 
            If this first poem of the book, titled “Novae” (can the dedication, “for K,” refer to Kim, Kathlene, or both?), is a new kind of ars poetica for Waters, the final one is more typical. “Poetry” is a reiteration of the poet’s commitment to the line, to the genre, and to writing it as a full-time, perhaps I should say as an all-the-time, endeavor—not merely “ris[ing] in the night to pencil words,” but keeping watch, “hunched on narrow ledges / Sighing bird sounds…this is where poetry originates.” And we readers are so lucky that Waters remains vigilant and hungry on that ledge, always ready to scavenge some “flash below” and translate it into poetry. 


                        —filches dreams from birds,
            Pigeons with twisted grins or crooked feet,
            Their thumb-thick heads tucked under wings
            On cornices overlooking traffic
            That throbs and sparks along the avenue
            And shivers vibrations up building walls.
            These birds drowse despite fumes and noise—
            Never vexed by money, or sex,
            Or how thoughts wane in lazy minds.
            They don’t rise in the night to pencil words,
            But remain hunched on narrow ledges
            Sighing bird sounds—coos and trills—
            Which are translated without knowledge
            Of avian language by insomniacs
            Whose brains hiss with fire as they scrawl
            Gnomic verse in the blunt circle of light
            Thrown down on the desk near the window.
            A flash below…a flax seed beckoning…
            This is where poetry originates
            Some nights, swiping the reveries of birds
            Who quit their perch as morning commences
            To scavenge the bus stop for croissant flakes
            Fallen from plump lips of dazed commuters.
            One finds a button. Another plucks up
            A keychain bead—nothing to be eaten,
            But how chic it speaks in the busted beak.

The Dean of Discipline by Michael Waters, The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, $15.95 paper

Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Resolution: To Read The Books I Own

You enter a writing contest. There is a reading fee. Whether or not you win, place, or lose, you receive a subscription to the journal. Most of the time you lose. But the journal always comes. You glance at the winning poem or story. No time now, but you'll leave it on your desk and read it soon. A week later it's still there, untouched, in your way. You put it with all the other unread journals crammed into a drawer or a closet.

Or you attend a reading. Perhaps you are one of the featured readers. Or not. Either way, you come home with multiple signed volumes you have the best intentions of reading. The books join your unread journals.

I have so many journals and books that I have not read, that I decided one of my New Year's resolutions is not to buy any more books until I have either read what I have, or read enough of the volume to know I don't want to finish it. Then I will donate what I don't want to keep, opening up space and budget for more books.

I began early working on my New Year's resolution. In the past week, I have read all the poems in the latest issues of Salamander and Rattle. I always read with a pencil in hand. The benefit of this New Year's resolution is that it feeds into another one--to post more regularly on this blog. And so, I begin with a summary of some of the poems I like in Salamander #47, and why...

I define liking a poem by answering yes to the question, "Would I take the time to read this poem again?" Of the sixty-six poems in the most recent issue of Salamander, I would (and did) re-read ten poems by seven poets. While I don't feel it ethical to reproduce all ten poems in their entirety, since the issue is just out, I will list them below, and illustrate why I think three of my favorite deserve multiple readings. The one exception to not posting the entire poem is Rebecca Foust's "Guernica." I know Becky personally, and have received permission to reproduce her poem here it in its entirety. I will also reproduce all seven of the poets' bios so readers may locate additional work by them.

1. "The Waking Life" by Heather Christle

I am immediately attracted to this poem because it is in tercets. Tercets, if they broadcast correctly, signal for me that the poem will not be tidy and will not end with a bow tied around it. The odd number of lines, hopefully, will cause the poem to lean into the blank space between each stanza, and propel all aspects of the poem forward with results that subvert readers' expectations in some way. In that regard, and others, this poem does not disappoint.

Witness the first three and two-thirds stanzas:

It is rare for a person to enter
a castle, but common for him
to die there. Often enough

I feed the wrong meter.
One bird will raise another's
and think nothing. I raise

my head and am astonished
by the window's absolute
and complicated green,

the opposite of the wrong
suitcase's impassive empty

I love the enjambed line of the first stanza, how "Often enough" looks backwards to it being "rare for a person to enter / a castle, but uncommon for him / to die there," as well as setting up a tension we experience in the space that follows, and that is resolved with the first line of the next stanza: "I feed the wrong meter." This line not only satisfies, but also provides more mystery, as "feed[ing] the wrong meter" can be understood in multiple ways. One can see it as paying for someone else's (or a broken, etc.) parking space, or as playing into the wrong meter of a poem or dance or song. 

I'm sure there are other understandings that can be gleaned from this deceptively simple line. In a similar way, each stanza or some part of each stanza provides a resolution to a previous dissonance, or satisfies a previous question, while creating a new dissonance or asking a new question. 

I am also a sucker for sound work, and this poem has plenty of musical language that chimes--"rare/ there," "enter/meter/another's," "green/wrong," are just a few examples. Later in the poem, we encounter "hands/them," "clutch/perch," and "talons/one."

Every time I read "The Waking Life," I am awakened to new ways that Christle has heightened the language in her gorgeous poem.

2."Self-portrait" by Joshua Martin

This poem's structure is simple--a 34-line, single stanza that lists the images needed to be applied to a canvas to accurately portray the poet. But the images themselves are striking, beginning "with coffee grounds and leaves," adding "the reedmace-colored whiskey / [his] grandfather hid in his overcoat, the pistol-black taffy that melted / in [his] grandmother's Buick / that summer my father married Catholic." Martin continues brushing on the language, ending the poem with the strongest lines of all: 

my birth mother from the hard maroon
dirt in that West Virginia cemetery
of the broken pale cherub
and let her scream into the canvas
until paint curves into eyes
and a boy's cheekbones break
into the night like a dirt road
cutting through pine, and have nobody
come down that road for as long
as she works, not even my father
with his blue shirt shadowed 
by sweat, the wind pulling his collar
as if to say, you cannot get there,
here where the bloodroot opens
and crow-song purples the trees.

The father's "blue shirt shadowed / by sweat, the wind pulling his collar," and the "here where the bloodroot opens / and crow-song purples the trees," are images that will remain with me long after I forget the title of this poem or the name of the poet. I love when a poem ends with its strongest lines. As Dorianne Laux says, "In poetry, there is no such thing as denoue-fucking-ment!"

3. "Guernica" by Rebecca Foust

Foust has two poems in issue #47, and both deserve recognition (see below), but the one that serves my purpose in illustrating seamless marriage of content and form is her smart villanelle, "Guernica," based on Picasso's large oil painting with the same name, depicting the suffering and death of animals and people due to the Nazi bombing of Guernica.

Do you still look and see that it is good?
You spoke, then saw what you'd wrought.
We are the monster in the mirror, God,

your world made of words. Let there be untied
sky from earth and sea, night from light,
and you looked and saw that it was good.

With spit and a fistful of dust, you made
the first man. Then to make Eve, took him apart.
You made everything, even the mirror, God

and it's all carnage. A cell cleaves to breed.
Before one war ends, the next one will start,
then the next--still looking? Still good?--

and the eyes that weep for spilled blood
are set in a head that plots the next slaughter.
A monster. Picasso's vexed mirror. O God,

how will you judge the quick and the dead
when the dead include this child for a martyr?
Can you really still look and say it is good?
The monster's in your mirror; it's you, God.

The poem's irreverent tone is perfect in light of the horrors of war--not only in this war, but in all the wars--"Before one war ends, the next one will start." And this repetitive truth of history is enacted with the repeated lines that the villanelle keeps cycling, each time with modifications to match the increasing numbers of victims, and more inhumane ways humans devise to kill. Line one ("Do you still look and see that it is good?) morphs into "and you looked and saw that it was good," and then "then the next--still looking? Still good?'--," and finally into "Can you really still look and say it is good?" Likewise, line three ("We are the monster in the mirror, God,"), becomes "You made everything, even the mirror, God," and "A monster. Picasso's vexed mirror. O God," and finally the complete shift of responsibility: "The monster's in your mirror; it's you, God."

This is not the first time that Foust has written virtuosic poetry, where form is elevated to the status of voice, not only echoing the content, but conveying meaning in a deeper way than can be achieved with words alone, the diction becoming almost a translation of form's unspoken language, thus achieving what Matthew Zapruder speaks of in his book, Why Poetry, as "saying the unsayable." In Foust's most recent full-length collection, Paradise Drive, she successfully utilizes the sonnet form throughout to present short scenes of a longer, connected narrative, charting her main character's quest for meaning. (To read my review of Paradise Drive in South 85 Journal click HERE.)

Each time I read "Guernica," I can say that it is not only "good," but better and better, as I bring more to it with each reading.

Based on the samples of their work found in this issue of Salamander, I will search out additional work by these poets. And I encourage you, if you haven't already, to read the entire issue #47. I would be interested to see how many of the poems you find there you would choose for your "best" list, and whether or not our lists overlap. In the mean time, enjoy your new year, and stay tuned for more posts soon!

My favorite poems in Salamander #47, listed in order of appearance:

1. "The Waking Life" by Heather Christle (page 21)

Heather Christle is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Heliopause (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). Her first work of nonfiction, The Crying Book, will be out from Catapult in 2019.

2. "Nailing the Steps for a Tree Fort" by Jacob Lindberg (page 25)

Jacob Lindberg is an MFA student at the University of Arkansas. He serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Up North Lit. His poetry can be found in Rattle, cream city review, River Styx, and others.

3. "Elegy to my Family" by Steven Cramer (page 28)

Steven Cramer is the author of five poetry books, most recently Clangings (Sarabande, 2012). Recipient of an NEA fellowship and two Massachusetts Cultural Council grants, he founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.

4. "Compline" and "Guernica" by Rebecca Foust (pages 44-45)

Rebecca Foust's books include Paradise Drive, reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. Recent recognitions include the Cavafy Prize, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Lascaux Flash Fiction Prize and the ALR Fiction Prize.

5. "At Land's End" and "Snapshots" by Gail Mazur (pages 60-62)

Gail Mazur is author of seven poetry collections, including They Can't Take That Away from Me, finalist for the National Book Award, Zeppo's First Wife, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, Figures in a Landscape, and Forbidden City. Her eighth book, Land's End: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming.

6. "Self-portrait" by Joshua Martin (page 64)

Joshua Martin is a doctoral student at Georgia State University. He has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, Nashville Review, Raleigh Review, The Cortland Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook Passing Through Meat Camp was a finalist in the 2015 Jacob Press Chapbook Contest.

7. "From a Tree above the Liffey" and "On a Collage by Peter Sacks" by Fred Marchant (pages 100-102)

Fred Marchant is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent of which is Said Not Said (Graywolf Press, 2017). Earlier books include The Looking House, Full Moon Boat, House on Water, House in Air, and Tipping Point, the latter reissued by The Word Works in a twentieth anniversary second edition. Marchant is also the editor of Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, and the founding director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center in Boston.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Catharine Clark-Sales: Brats

Catharine Clark-Sayles organized her recently published chapbook from Finishing Line Press quite logically. She opens with "First Fish," proceeds to "Act 2, Scene 2," and then delves into the tender flesh of growing up a military brat, moving a dozen times in as many years, trying to fit in at school and into her skin, as her mental gifts and discipline came into bloom in adolescence and adulthood. The result is a skillful rendition of a caring and competent physician and poet. She closes with the perfect poem, "Night Call." Here are its closing lines:

     I will not resent more than a little

     my dream forever gone, not curse you

     for the warmth cooling beneath my quilt.

     I will not hold you accountable

     for the missing hour of sleep.

     I will love the crescent moon, the sudden deer

     and the hustling skunk on my street as I return.

     I will love this midnight world.

     I will love my skill.

     I will love your need.

Not only does this agile poet, who almost always finds her balance on a secure high wire stretched somewhere between the sheer cliffs of Vulcan logic and Captain Kirk's over-the-top sentimentality, give us an insider's view of what it's like to stand guard above the chasm of death that will engulf us all, she actually creates the need for her own poems with narratives that have no resolution except to dissolve into lyrical lines, and then finally into the blank spaces between them.

In "Alas, Babylon Was the Code"--a literal statement of fact from her childhood, when her military officer father told her mother if he ever called and used the words "Alas, Babylon" to load the kids into the car and drive as far and as fast as she could to avoid impending nuclear bombs-- Clark-Sayles enacts this process in graphic, yet tender language. The poem opens with the following lines:

     After the towers fell     planes did not fly
     their trails of white stitching     the sky
     was bluer     like when I was a child     Colorado
     sky     high enameled blue     deep and wide
     clouds moved across     puffy white masses
     plume of a plane passing     a seldom thing

She then concludes with the subjects of her narrative (clouds--both natural and human-made), finding a life of their own:

     I would gallop     with them     across the gravel
     playground     running fast     before the wind
     they ran raster     I fell     rolled to watch
     the others move     up the mountain     evaporate

Once staking out her topical territory--growing up a military brat, whose background and mental gifts helped her become a physician with an expected grit, yet unexpected dose of sensitivity--whatever poem the reader comes upon is bent toward that landscape like a thirsty plant's roots toward water, its hungry leaves toward the sun. Simple poems such as "Tumbleweeds," "Chorus" (about "...those of us from nowhere, / or from too many places to name them all"), "Deluxe Puzzle," and "Divide," for example, are imbued with ontological connotations, in addition to their denoted meanings.

I have the advantage of living in the same county as Catharine Clark-Sayles. Recently, I heard her read two of the poems from the heart of Brats that speak directly to the bewilderment and inevitable  accommodation that comes when confronted with the experiences of adolescence ("On The Algebra of Collaboration"), and death ("First Call Night"). This poet-physician particularizes these universals by getting inside the condition of growing up without permanent roots, and in providing people with solutions to life or death issues with competence, humor, empathy and vulnerability--in other words, with her humanity.

Clark-Sayles gets it right with poem order most of the time. Her last three poems are spot-on. However, I would prefer opening this short book with the power of the two poems mentioned above. I do recognize the personal importance to the poet of "First Fish," a narrative about catching fish with her father who, after she hooks her first, responds with "That's my number-one girl."

For me, this thin chapbook is a "number-one collection." Short, powerful, relevant poems, with a voice I trust. It doesn't get much better. I close with what may be my favorite poem, at least until I read Brats again. Then, I'm sure, I'll find another.

     First Call Night

     Don't feel guilty, it's really not your fault.
     The nurse says "We need you to pronounce"
     and all I know by heart is "Jabberwock" and that
     would scare the widow but now you've really done it
     with snicker snack and formal blade stuck in your brain.
     Your career is over if you giggle
     in front of this nurse or this man's kids.

     You have got to get his name--Something-vich.
     You've only been this guy's doctor for three hours
     and forty-seven minutes and the nurse
     was definite about "No Code." You
     are just the night call intern, haven't figured out yet
     how to sign M.D. so it looks like it belongs,
     but you've got to get his name right,
     "Something-vich and how many family are in the room?

     Look serious but kind. Keep your hands
     in your pocket if they shake. The nurse says
     "Room 918. Get the family to go home
     so we can get him downstairs to the morgue,
     admits are stacking up in ER."
     The chart reports "Pancreatic CA, prognosis grim."
     Even on the cancer ward you don't say "death."

     Don't stammer over doctor when you say
     "I'm the on-call doctor" and remember:
     it really is not your fault that the small dark woman
     with reddened eyes sobs in a chair next to the bed
     and the people clustered under the get-well balloon
     look at you as if dark wings sprout from your new white coat.

     The waxy ivory stare of the man in the bed, Mr.--what is his name?
     isn't holding any blame as you flick the pen light firmly, beam shining
     down into still black wells of pupil as if you have done this often.
     As you press fingertips stuttering with your own wild pulse
     against his cooling skin don't think of the night you were ten
     and stayed up past midnight reading Poe's "Accidental Burial."

     Wait for a silent count to sixty just in case you might
     feel one last bump of his heart, then stethoscope
     to chest, listen to the trickling pop of fluid (surely)
     settling and not even in imagination any wisp of breath.
     Say "I'm sorry. He is gone" and "I'm sorry
     for your loss." Offer tissues and a priest.

     At the nurses' desk fill in each box neatly with numbers in black ink.
     For time of death pick, as your one small protest, an exact number,
     something like 9:47 PM,
     and don't wonder where Mr. Janovich was
     while he waited for you to come.




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,
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
For the dogs cocking their heads,
            backed away,
            while their humans
            inclined to their doom;
For in the ever closer, wherein
            something lies coiling-
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.


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.