Saturday, March 10, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Arielle Greenberg

I will always think of Arielle Greenberg as a Chicago poet--partly because I first heard her read in Chicago in February of 2004 right after she moved there to teach in the newly formed poetry MFA program at Columbia College. Even though she was born in Columbus, Ohio. Even though before she moved there she lived all over New York state (Niskayuna, Schenectady, Weschester, NYC), and in Haifa, Israel. Even though she was educated at SUNY/Purchase College and Syracuse University, living afterwards outside of Boston until moving to Chicago at age 31. Even now, after having left her tenured teaching position and her assistant directorship of the MFA program (Columbia College) to live a less hectic and more rural life in Maine with her husband and two children, becoming a model for work/life balance issues and non-traditional approaches to teaching poetry. Now after being widely anthologized (including the 2004 and 2005 editions of Best American Poetry), many more books (My Kafka Century, Shake Her, Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials, and Home/Birth: A Poemic), a MacDowell fellowship and numerous other awards, Arielle Greenberg remains, in my mind, a Chicago poet. Not just because that's where I met her, but because she belongs to no school of poetry except the school of virtuosity. Her poetry, in the words of Jean Valentine, is "swift, tender, original--from the first word this poetry can be no other. New consciousnesses shine here in delicate, angry, ecstatic, funny, heartbroken play: the forked lightning of true poetry." I share the first poem I heard Arielle read that gelid Chicago night in 2004.

Tornado at the Dairy Queen

We were there as a reunion. It's no joke,
but an ice cream place in the middle of a nation
in the middle of an era near its ending like a fable
right in the middle of a tornado. All the frosty-freezes and swirl cones.
All the soft serve flurry metaphors intended, right.
Inside the exclamation mark, a fuzz of alumni
wrung the ankles of our new neighbors, kissed, wept,
and the thing that came at us came at us with its white and terrible roar.
It doesn't sound like thunder or a train going past.
They say it but no. Imagine sugar with all those chunks of chemicals
and whipped through a froth-maker. Imagine it. You can't imagine.
The alumni and counter workers and prom-night parents praying
and clutched, just a grip in the dark, in the walk-in,
six adults in a cooler in the middle of a nation
with almost no ears left, and certainly no roof. Barely
walls when we got out. A foot of wall
hardly. Just a mess--paper cups and brick,
that one sobbing girl, scoops, void of wind
where wind was. Thank you. We thought we would
die. We were still wearing the right kind of white hats.
In the midst of it, we saw nothing. The sweetness twisting furious past.

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