Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Top Ten New Mexico Poets: Malena Morling

The biography of Malena Morling prior to 2007 would give no indication that she might be considered a New Mexico poet: born in Stockholm, raised in southern Sweden, moved to the US to attend Hampshire College in Massachusetts, MA at NYU, MFA at Iowa, two critically acclaimed books--one by New Issues Press and one by Pittsburgh Press, Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at The University of North Carolina, Wilmington and Core Faculty in The Low Residency MFA program at New England College. BUT, after numerous other awards, including The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award in 1999, and the Lotos Club Foundation Prize in 2004, in 2007, Morling won a Guggenheim that sent her to The School For Advanced Research in Santa Fe. After her year as a Research Associate, she had fallen under the spell of The Land of Enchantment, and she still resides there with her family, commuting weekly to North Carolina and semiannually to New Hampshire to teach. In my book, that qualifies her as a New Mexico poet--and her poems make her one of my top ten favorite!

Morling sees the world with the eyes of a visitor, and that open stance is what made her a New Mexican poet, even before she had ever seen its eternal skies and infinite sands. Share her awe in the presence of "the other" in her opening poem to Ocean Avenue:


In the shape of a human body
I am visiting the earth;
the trees visit
in the shapes of trees.
Standing between the onions
and the dandelions
near the ailanthus and the bus stop,
I don't live more thoroughly
inside the mucilage of my own skull
than outside of it
and not more behind my eyes
than in what I can see with them.
I inhale whatever air
that grates breathe in the street.
My arms and legs still work,
I can sun if I have to
or sit motionless purposefully
until I am here and I am not here
the way death is present
in things that are alive
like salsa music
and the shrill laughter of the bride
as she leaves the wedding
or the bald child playing jacks
outside the wig shop.

Morling has a lot of poems about traveling on planes, on trains, in cars--she's told me that a lot of them were written while she was traveling, which she does often. For me, these poems are always negotiating with death, even if it is not mentioned outright, as it is in "Gone." (My apologies to Malena and my readers that I cannot format the poem as it is published in Astoria, with alternating lines indented.)


The world
is gone
like the exact
slope of a cloud
or the exact shape
of a hand waving
in the sunlight
from across
a crowded
train station
parking lot
to another hand
that waves back.

Come to think of it,
everything up to now
is gone.
And I have also
already left
even though
I still ride
the train
through the outskirts
of the city.

And I still sit
by the window,
the filthy
train window
while what is left
of the demolished
goes past
and the empty
and the transitory

It's amazing
we're not
more amazed.
The world
is here
but then it's gone
like a wave
traveling toward
other waves.

Or like
the delicate white
of the Dogwood
that float
as if there were
no gravity,
as if there were
no moments
isolated from
any other

If I had to attempt a one-liner for Morling's work, I might roughly quote those last few lines--her poetry supposes that there are "no moments isolated from any other moments anywhere."

Revealing the inherent connections residing in all things is a driving force of Morling's poems. And making the invisible visible, the ethereal solid, the palpable ineffable, is a current that sweeps all images along in her Zen-like Big Mind poetry. "If There Is Another World" is a perfect example:

If There Is Another World

If there is another world,
I think you can take a cab there--
or ride your old bicycle
down Junction Blvd.
past the Paris Suites Hotel
with the Eiffel Tower on the roof
and past the blooming Magnolia and on--
to the corner of 168th Street.
And if you're inclined to,
you can turn left there
and yield to the blind
as the sign urges us--
especially since it is a state law.
Especially since there is a kind of moth
here on the earth
that feeds only on the tears of horses.
Sooner or later we will all cry
from inside our hearts.
Sooner or later even the concrete
will crumble and cry in silence
along with all the lost road signs.
Two days ago 300 televisions
washed up on a beach in Shiomachi, Japan,
after having fallen off a ship in a storm.
They looked like so many
oversized horseshoe crabs
with their screens turned down to the sand.
And if you're inclined to, you can continue
in the weightless seesaw of the light
through a few more intersections
where people inside their cars
pass you by in space
and where you pass by them,
each car another thought--only heavier.

I don't know about you, but I'm "inclined to continue/in the weightless seesaw of the light" through a few more of Morling's poems, in hopes of seeing a few more connections, in hopes of seeing you passing by...maybe even on the way to or from New Mexico...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Top Ten New Mexico Poets: Jay Wright

"I carried my life, like a stone,/in a ragged pocket, but I/had a true weaving song, a sly/way with rhythm, a healing tone."

This gorgeous quatrain, ending Jay Wright's poem, "The Healing Improvisation of Hair," featured on the 2008 National Poetry Month Poster, is emblematic of Wright's writing life, and might well be an apt goal for all poets.

A Bollingen Prize winner, McArthur fellow and author of over a dozen volumes of poems, plays and essays, including the highly acclaimed, The Double Invention of Komo, a succession of poems following the Komo initiation rites of the African Bambara people, Wright blends disparate elements into a body of work that is sometimes difficult to penetrate. But, by applying effort, the reader is rewarded with a unique vision borne on a language that is virtuosic on all levels: typographic, sonic, sensory and ideational.

The spirituality and universality of Wright's work were, no doubt, born from an early exposure to Mexican, Spanish, and Navajo cultures, growing up African-American in his home state of New Mexico. He held this open stance toward the world as he moved through diverse careers in professional baseball, the U.S. Army, and academics, first majoring in chemistry, then winning a theological fellowship, before finally completing a masters degree in comparative literature from Rutgers in 1967.

Listen to the Latin dance rhythms and cobbled musical textures in "Areito," which is, among other things, a celebration of celebration, bringing together Aztec (mitote), Carribean (Areito), and Spanish ceremony and mythos. ("Corre," "corrido," and "navideno" in line 8 refer to "running," "family history" and "festival," respectively.)


This is my mitote,
my bareitote.
This is my bareitote,
areito, batoco,
my a-ba-mitote.

Corre, corrido, navideño.

Friday the thirteenth
and snow in the birch.
Love’s days all begin
with that kind of coldness.
We had come down
to the fog and the bite of the sea,
another of love’s soft nibbles
on the skin.
The axe had chipped in the trees.
High up, the squabble of birds
through the evergreens
became the painful sound of palms.

And the woman sang:
I’ve got love all around me
My own treasure’s found me
My savior
is a boy in bloom.

So you guess that I wrestled
the shadows of my cabin at night.
My wife, in her corner,
tumbled over the milk in her sleep.
We had arrived
with more than a small purchase,
a small reparation,
to make.
Was it only the axe wronged in the trees?
My skin is the repository
of the sun’s needles.
Why had I chosen the cold?

And the woman sang:
Flesh of my flesh, I nurse your dreams
I nurse your screams
I am
your mother.

Mystic rose of the heart,
how could three of us
be imprisoned there?
And how could we come
from the dark wood into the light
yet still hear the moonlit canticles
prey in the water
still pray in another tongue
for sunlight on our nets?
Three of us to nurse the night,
and three of us for saving.
Santos and serpents,
tangled in the streams of our bodies,
dance in the blue of our altar lights.

Dolor, dolori, passa
A strength in a weary land
A shelter in the time of a storm.

I had lived alone with the woman,
sunlight, a son, fish, the fallen apples,
the holy deer that would kneel to our knife,
all the provisions or prayer,
to find myself unmarried,
my woman drunk with God,
nurse of a savior’s screams.
Then out of the woods,
I turned to the woods,
to the toothless nurse of my own dreams.
by the light of the thirteenth moon,
I began to search for my own light.

Wood of the woods
Bird of the woods
Woman you were created by God.

Necromancer of the hummingbird,
I bring you this bird’s body
and the thirteen rings of my love’s chains.
I bring you the secret whispers of my wife’s sleep,
the tangled passions of the forest,
the thorn I would return
to another heart.

Bird of the woods, fly into her heart.

Teach me how to stalk her sleep
and the bible of her loves.
Teach me the darkness of thirteen moons,
how to contend with a God.
Bathe me in love’s coldness.
Woman of the woods.

Dolor, dolori, passa.

I lie down in the sand
to hear my batoco,
my mitote,
my areito,

Jay Wright--not only a poet, but a poet's poet AND one of my top ten New Mexico poets!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Top Ten New Mexico Poets: D.H. Lawrence

What is a New Mexico poet? Is one required to have been born in "The Land of Enchantment?" Is it enough to have an MFA from one of its universities, or merely to have resided long enough within its fronteras to become addicted to Hatch green chili enchiladas? Does one have to be living there now? Living anywhere?

Answers will depend upon to whom you ask which question. For me, a New Mexican poet is one who has produced significant work under the spell of its light, its zia, and the question I ask it whether its deserts, its skies, its mountains--all of its sacred peoples and places--have worked their way not only into the lines of the poems, but also into the white spaces between them--regardless of whether they were written in Las Cruces or in L.A.

This series, therefore, will deal with poets who are natives, as well as those whose work has been influenced by New Mexico's magic, no matter how much time has been spent in residence. All will have been indelibly marked by New Mexico, and all will have affected me and my work deeply--for I consider myself a New Mexico poet.

Although considered mainly a novelist, and having been born in England, D.H. Lawrence wrote poetry highly influenced by New Mexico. He wrote that, in New Mexico, a "new part" of his soul "woke up suddenly" and "the old world gave way to a new". In Native American religion he discovered there were no gods, because "all is god".

New Mexico liberated D.H. Lawrence's poetry, moving it away from a "closed" to an "open," more American form. Here is a rather familiar poem of that illustrates this quite directly:

Eagle In New Mexico

Towards the sun, towards the south-west
A scorched breast.
A scorched breast, breasting the sun like an answer,
Like a retort.
An eagle at the top of a low cedar-bush
On the sage-ash desert
Reflecting the scorch of the sun from his breast ;
Eagle, with the sickle dripping darkly above.

Erect, scorched-pallid out of the hair of the cedar,
Erect, with the god-thrust entering him from below,
Eagle gloved in feathers
In scorched white feathers
In burnt dark feathers
In feathers still fire-rusted ;
Sickle-overswept, sickle dripping over and above.

Staring two ways at once, to right and left ;
With iron between your two eyes ;
You feather-gloved
To the feet ;
Foot-fierce ;
Erect one ;
The god-thrust entering you steadily from below.

You never look at the sun with your two eyes.
Only the inner eye of your scorched broad breast
Looks straight at the sun.

You are dark
Except scorch-pale-breasted ;
And dark cleaves down and weapon-hard downward curving
At your scorched breast,
Like a sword of Damocles,
Beaked eagle.

You’ve dipped it in blood so many times
That dark face-weapon, to temper it well,
Blood-thirsty bird.
Why do you front the sun so obstinately,
American eagle ?
As if you owed him an old, old grudge, great sun : or an old, old allegiance.

When you pick the red smoky heart from a rabbit or a light-blooded bird
Do you lift it to the sun, as the Aztec priests used to lift red hearts of men ?

Does the sun need steam of blood do you think
In America, still,
Old eagle ?

Does the sun in New Mexico sail like a fiery bird of prey in the sky
Hovering ?

Does he shriek for blood ?
Does he fan great wings above the prairie, like a hovering, blood-thirsty bird ?

And are you his priest, big eagle
Whom the Indians aspire to ?
Is there a bond of bloodshed between you ?

Is your continent cold from the ice-age still, that the sun is so angry ?
Is the blood of your continent somewhat reptilian still,
That the sun should be greedy for it ?

I don’t yield to you, big, jowl-faced eag
Nor you nor your blood-thirsty sun
That sucks up blood
Leaving a nervous people.

Fly off, big bird with a big black back.
Fly slowly away, with a rust of fire in your tail,
Dark as you are on your dark side, eagle of heaven.

Even the sun in heaven can be curbed and chastened at last
By the life in the hearts of men.
And you, great bird, sun-starer, heavy black beak
Can be put out of office as sacrifice bringer.

D.H. Lawrence: one of my top ten favorite New Mexico poets!

Friday, August 17, 2012

My Top Ten New Mexico Poets: Keith Wilson

I will always consider New Mexico home. Not the home of my birth (we moved there when I was nine), but of my real life--my soul. Home of my first kiss and my first fist-fight, my first bb gun and my first sled-ride. First car, first love, first drink, first heartbreak. And in the spring of 1970, as part of a class at New Mexico State University, my first poetry reading.

Even though William Stafford was the current poet laureate--more precisely, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress--I had never heard of him. (Nor had I heard of Allan Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, or Frank O'Hara--all the poets I knew had died in another century.) But that night in Las Cruces, as William Stafford's voice "talk[ed} along in [his] not quite prose way," I found what I had been looking for all of my life, and I didn't even know I had been looking for it.

It was Keith Wilson, the professor of my poetry class that I was enrolled in because it was the only elective I could fit into my full-time work schedule, who introduced me to Stafford after the reading. It was Keith Wilson who invited me over to his house to hang out with him and "the poets." It was Keith Wilson who brought Creeley and Olson and a dozen other world-class poets to the campus of this unknown desert college in southern New Mexico in the late sixties and early seventies. It was Keith Wilson who rocked my world. And it was only after I graduated and moved on to another state for graduate school (in a completely different field), that I understood the significance of his own poetry and his own life.

After graduate school, floundering in a job totally unsuited to me, I began a thirty-year correspondence with Keith, in which he directed my reading, exchanged poems, and mentored me in the writing life. What I did not know, was that Keith did the same for scores of students over his lifetime. (I have met some of them, in the most amazing ways--but that is another post....) The point of this post is that Keith Wilson has to be number one in my top ten New Mexico poets.

But it is not just because of my personal connection that I begin this series with him--Wilson stepped into critical acclaim in 1969 with the publication of his Graves Registry & Other Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award and the Lamont Prize. It is to his work, beginning in that collection, and growing into his Shaman of the Desert, Collected Poems, that I direct attention in this post.

Hayden Carruth calls Wilson's poems "quiet, held like the moment of the whirlpool's brink of cosmic lust and extinction, held but ready to let go, to dance and die, to shatter. They are magical." G.E. Murray said "There is a sense of the mystical in Wilson's work, a quiet assuming eye for the marvelous, the incredible, the simple magic of wind and rain, of a quick-draw." And, finally, Jerome Rothenberg quotes Wilson himself ("I am a voice, nothing more"), in order to declare that "Wilson writes too modestly; for what that voice delivers is an authentic vision that transcends its place by being of it."

"A vision that transcends its place" is an apt description for Wilson's body of work. Often dismissed as merely "a New Mexican poet," in the same way that Stafford has been criticized for being "only a poet of place," Wilson's work rises above this short-sighted assessment by those who fail to see the entire universe in a drop of water or, in the case of Wilson, in a single grain of New Mexican sand. Hear the universal voice of the poet in the particularity of "The Grain of Sand":

The Grain of Sand

There he goes, old hawk, he touches
the thermal, rises, lifts himself to dot
sky bending in a semicircle of blue heat.

The grey shimmer of mirage standing unbroken
until the strike

down he drops knocking
a buck rabbit off his feet, flurry of dust,

rises again, talons blooded,
crippled rabbit hiding in the sage and brush
for coyotes to find:

desert, crawling under heat,
slick glass sand tumbles in little avalanches and
the tarantula flashes back, her catch firmly
in her hairy mandibles. The quick awkward gait
of the Giant Desert Scorpion. His more deadly
kin, the straw colored Durango, all cocked, waiting

as this desert son goes down, as blue, grey
and pink spread themselves to silence and I hear
tiny feet and scales flee the hunting night.

Or hear the music, the prophecy, the powerful conceit in "The Way Things Are Going":

The Way Things Are Going

--Horsehead Crossing, South of Fort Sumner

New Mexico will soon have passed away,
gasping like a minnow on a clay bottom of the Pecos
I know, I feel the same. The air drifting up
from El Paso, down from Albuquerque, East from Tucson
West from Odessa is heavy, hangs like plastic rock
above us I know

nothing but that beauty is the most
transitory while ugliness lasts and lasts. One comes
to hail the shining moment for what it is: one scale
of one tiny minnow flashing in the dying light, one face
--so loved--aging in this still brilliant, holy Sun.

While the above poems are examples of Wilson's "desert poems," collected mainly in Bosque Redondo: The Encircled Grove, New and Selected Poems, it is his life-long polemic against war,Graves Registry, a five-part unfinished sequence of visions blending scenes from Korea, the New Mexican desert, the ocean, and the inner journeys of their unwitting participants, rising from his own experiences as warrior, shaman and sailor, that brought the most critical acclaim. Here is the opening poem from Part IV, SeaChanteys, first with Wilson's own introductory comments to the complete work.

Graves Registry:

A Joint Service Operation that comes
in after battles, & wars, to count
the dead, identify bones, draw up
a total of what has been lost . . .

Part IV

Ballad of a Sailor

...wave, interminably flowing--Wallace Stevens

It is because my fingers
move over these keys
that the result
quiets me

Dark images of war,
storms, hands raised like waves
in my dreams the wind
never stops

betrayed shores
sick girls in foreign bars
children begging outside
a night that is always closed

Comrades, their drowning faces
pale tourmaline, rayed with light,
open eyes and seawashed mouths

It is because my fingers
move over these keys
that the chanty
moves me

Here, far from the sea,
this house is steady. It does
not rock and that noise is
thunder, not gunfire. It is
peaceful here. Say it again.
Peaceful. One has only to stay
awake, not dream, the faces of dreams
cannot touch, dreamed blood stains
only the bedsheet sails of haunted ships.

Sailing, sail on, its crew of phantoms
wave, passing beyond the light, wave
& giggle among the shrouds, knowing
it is not the last goodbye nor the first
we are sharing.

Keith Wilson, Shahman of the Desert, know that your goodbye to the battles, to the desert, to your vision, is not goodbye. And know that countless "fingers still move over these keys restlessly..." but move more surely because of you...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poetry Editors: Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick

My hope for this final post in the Pittsburgh Poets series is for it to function as the final line of the first sonnet in a crown of sonnets, a stepping stone from one nexus of writers to another, that also will supply its own path to the unique canon that each of us is building, with each poem, each poet we read. Thus, I point you to The Pittsburgh Book Of Contemporary American Poetry, Ed Ochester, Peter Oresick, editors.

I have listed the poets that comprise this muscular anthology at the end of this post, in order to give the reader the option of tasting small portions of perhaps unfamiliar offerings before paying for the entire meal, and to tempt the more seasoned reader with favorite dishes laid out on this plenteous smorgasbord.

From the 45 poets and 370 pages of poetry, some of whom I have previous written about in this blog (e.g. Larry Levis and Alicia Ostriker), I will underscore one example of a poet indispensable to my own writing life, and one example of a poet new to me, but one who I will continue to read in order to broaden my own poetic diet.

Sharon Olds is no stranger to poets and readers of poetry. Her first book, Satan Says, began what Alicia Ostriker calls "the erotics of family love and pain." Ostriker continues: "In later collections, [Olds] writes of an abusive childhood, in which miserably married parents bully and punish and silence her. She writes, too, of her mother's apology 'after 37 years', a moment when 'The sky seemed to be splintering, like a window/someone is bursting into or out of'"

Here, then, is the title poem from that first collection:

Satan Says

I am locked in a little cedar box
with a picture of shepherd pasted onto
the central panel between carvings.
The box stands on curved legs.
It has a gold, heart-shaped lock
and no key. I am trying to write my
way out of the closed box
redolent of cedar. Satan
comes to me in the locked box
and says, "I'll get you out. Say
My father is a shit." I say
my father is a shit and Satan
laughs and says, "It's opening.
Say your other is a pimp."
My mother is a pimp. Something
opens and breaks when I say that.
My spine uncurls in the cedar box
like the pink back of the ballerina pin
with a ruby eye, resting beside me on
satin in the cedar box.
"Say shit, say death, say fuck the father,"
Satan says, down my ear.
The pain of the locked past buzzes
in the child's box on her bureau, under
the terrible round pond eye
etched around with roses, where
self-loathing gazed at sorrow.
Shit. Death. Fuck the father.
Something opens. Satan says
"Don't you feel a lot better?"
Light seems to break on the delicate
edelweiss pin, carved in two
colors of wood. I love him too,
you know, I say to Satan dark
in the locked box. I love them but
I'm trying to say what happened to us
in the lost past. "Of course," he says
and smiles, "of course. Now say: torture."
I see, through blackness soaked in cedar,
the edge of a large hinge open.
"Say: the father's cock, the mother's
cunt," says Satan, "I'll get you out."
The angle of the hinge widens
until I see the outlines of
the time before I was, when they were
locked in the bed. When I say
the magic words, Cock, Cunt,
Satan softly says, "Come out."
But the air around the opening
is heavy and thick as hot smoke.
"Come in," he says, and I feel his voice
breathing from the opening.
The exit is through Satan's mouth.
"Come in my mouth," he says, "you're there
already," and the huge hinge
begins to close. Oh no, I loved
them, too, I brace
my body tight
in the cedar house.
Satan sucks himself out the keyhold.
I'm left locked in the box, he seals
the heart-shaped lock with the wax of his tongue.
"It's your coffin now," Satan says.
I hardly hear;
I am warming my cold
hands at the dancer's
ruby eye--
the fire, the suddenly discovered knowledge of love.

Perhaps you have, but I had never, heard of Greg Pape before acquiring Ochester & Oresick's anthology. However, I will continue to read his poems that take the back off the case that encloses the machinery of connection ticking inside all that is. The Minotaur Next Door is emblematic of his seven poems included in The Pittsburgh Book Of Contemporary American Poetry. It, like the others, uncovers connections that invite promising investigations into a landscape, although bereft of salvation, seemingly rife with grace. With uncanny echoes of "Satan Says," here is Pape's "The Minotaur Next Door":

They are very small, my neighbors.
Sometimes I imagine them as a single creature
arguing and worrying and tearing itself apart.
That first night I heard her moaning
I imagined the sort of scene this city
is famous for. I didn't know she had a husband.
I hadn't seen him yet. I thought she might be
alone, or worse, a rapist or burglar, some
screwed-up half-man having broken in, having
robbed and beaten and violated her, having just
fled, or was about to flee . . . It was up to me.
I had to do something. I ran out into the night
and stopped. There she was in her bright kitchen,
in the faded flowers of her bathrobe walking
back and forth behind the window making that sound
with each deliberate breath. It was clear
she needed more than what I was willing to be.
Tonight again she moans, a sound I will not try
to put on the page, a constriction of blood
and breath, a complaint and a pain as monotonous
and worn as the words she shouts at her husband
in the afternoon: "My life is a living hell."
I can imagine for her no loveliness, only
the diversion of a meal or the still moments
before the television when, perhaps, without speaking
he brings her a glass of water. I do nothing
but believe her. Just as once there was a man
with the body of a bull, or a bull with the body
of a man, and that creature made of halves turned
on itself or on another, these houses and these
streets and this woman, although they are exhausted,
will not tire, will not sleep.

Pape's "cool glass of water," Olds' "ruby eye," are but two of the delightful divergencies from our own hells, waiting for all who will enter the the world of The Pittsburgh Book Of Contemporary American Poetry and The Pitt Poetry Series beyond it.

Here, then, concludes "My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets" series: the final line in the second stanza of a crown of posts, that will continue with "My Top Ten New Mexican Poets," in honor of New Mexico's Centennial Celebration (1912-2012). Coming soon!

Poets Included in The Pittsburgh Book Of Contemporary American Poetry:

Claribel Alegria
Debra Allbery
Maggie Anderson
Robin Becker
Siv Cedering
Lorna Dee Cervantes
Nancy Vieira Couto
Kate Daniels
Toi Derricotte
Sharon Doubiago
Stuart Dybek
Jane Flanders
Gary Gildner
Elton Glaser
David Huddle
Lawrence Joseph
Julia Kasdorf
Etheridge Knight
Bill Knott
Ted Kooser
Larry Levis
Irene McKinney
Peter Meinke
Carol Muske
Leonard Nathan
Sharon Olds
Alicia Suskin Ostriker
Greg Pape
Kathleen Peirce
David Rivard
Liz Rosenberg
Maxine Scates
Richard Shelton
Betsy Sholl
Peggy Shumaker
Jeffrey Skinner
Gary Soto
Leslie Ullman
Constance Urdang
Ronald Wallace
Belle Waring
Michael S. Weaver
Robley Wilson
David Wojahn
Paul Zimmer

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Top Ten (Almost) Pittsburgh Poets: Gerald Locklin

Again, I'm pushing the envelope. Gerald Locklin is not from Pittsburgh. But he did spend time as poet in residence at The University of Pittsburgh, and he does have a chapbook entitled The Pittsburgh Poems to prove it, so I do not feel too guilty about including him in this series. He is a favorite of mine, so he (almost) qualifies. (Bear with me--I got myself into this series, and I'm trying to get myself out of it.)

I met Gerald Locklin in Albuquerque in 2002. He was Mark Weber's guest at a small monthly venue in a ramshackled building that looked like a gutted bar with cold metal folding chairs in the middle of winter. I was the first to arrive, after Mark Weber, and as the audience trickled in (it never really was a gusher) wearing down-filled coats and wool scarves, an anorexic man in a short-sleeved T-shirt and wrinkled chinos, hair disheveled, sat down near me and proceeded to read his mystery novel, while waiting for the reading to begin.

Fifteen minutes past the hour, Weber got up on the 6-inch raised, squeaky stage and addressed the mostly-empty chairs, and the few bundled bodies huddling together in the center of the room. During the introduction, the skinny man continued reading his book and, only when Weber had stepped down from the stage, and all was silent, did the man snap shut his mystery and walk to the front of the room.

What an entrance! And what a reading! Locklin wowed us with his stories, his jokes, his singing and his dancing, which at 5500 feet elevation gave him such a wheezing, coughing attack (I later learned that previously he had nearly died from blood clots in his lungs), that I thought it would send him to the emergency room. In between, he did read some poems, which sounded like Bukowski with a Ph. D., by which I mean a poetry of garrulous gab--full of humor and wit and obscenities but, instead of idolizing the underbelly of society, Locklin's poems deprecate the American dream and his tentative place in it.

Here is a stanza from Bukowski's "a poet in New York," from The Last Night Of The Earth Poems: "eating out tonight/I find a table alone/and while waiting for my order/take out my wife's copy of/A Poet In New York./I often carry things to read/so that I will not have to look at/the people." Bukowski separates himself from "the crowd," and disparages "the people" with that dry voice, that aftertaste of rage.

For Locklin, it's not what he thinks of "the people," it's what they think of him. Compare the above to "you begin to wonder if you've ever heard of yourself," a poem from The Cabo Conference: "if not exactly humbling,/it is at least a little discouraging/to be in a room with/the fifty leading professors of poetry in america/and someone jokes,/'you notice that none of/the poets showed up'."

There is no way that I can do justice to Locklin's body of work (over 3,000 poems in print, more than 125 books) in this short post. I can hopefully, however, turn you on to Locklin if you don't know him. And if you do, perhaps I can motivate you to re-read him with a different view, a different ear, in order to season your own work with a little more levity, and give yourself permission to write more about the extraordinary ordinary in your own life.

Here is a short series of four poems that end section II ("Intoxication") of The Life Force Poems.

An Occasional Coyote

in the high ranch desert valley,
people are painting their houses
cape cod blue,
planting irrigated lawns,
fencing their yards,
and paving their driveways.

the wild burrows that used
to rut in the night
and dump their odorless vegetarian shit
to be cleansed by the endless wind,
have been rounded up,
thus effectively leaving the area
without remaining signs of wildlife.

the above have been accomplished
to make it more convenient
for city-dwellers to get
back to nature.

A Penny For Your Thoughts

we all seem to want
to sum up our lives
in loosely bound works:
the meditations of marcus aurelius,
les pensees of pascal,
the notebooks and essays
of emerson and thoreau,
the gettysburg address,
the tower and crazy jane
(not a vision;
not a fable):

even bukowski let himself
be talked into
the captain is out to lunch
and the sailors have taken over the ship,

and it didn't turn out
all that bad.

others tackle the task straight on,
like a linebacker who knows
he can't be steamrolled.
here i have in mind
beethoven's final string quartets,
the four quartets of t.s. eliot,
the book of ecclesiastes,
the lives of christ.

Jackson Pollock: One: Number 31, 1950

suddenly we realize that this is everything:
the universe, the self, the molecules,
their nuclei, motion, rest, the stars,
desire, shakespeare, color, absence, heat
and light, anxiety, the umbilical telephone,
the beast and beauty, chaos, order,
stimulus, perception the creative,
virginia woolf, the waves, emotion,
monasteries, christ and shiva,
music, wagner, bach, mile, coltrane,
philip glass and seymour, kna,
the life of the senses,
the life of themind,
life, literature, lifelessness,
death, time, eternity,
the teapot in the tempest,
control and spontaneity,
space, boundlessness, boundaries,
you name it.

it's all here.
all language.
all there is to see.
all there is to hear.
all there is to think.

sleep never stops.

The Motive

as a writer you get to seek
popularity or immortality,
riches or fame,
rewards for your labor
in this life or the next.

it's highly unlikely
you'll achieve both.
the nature of originality
tends to render the two
mutually exclusive.

of course the strongest odds
are that you'll end up
with neither.

i've got to go, though,
with the idea that
the life force is always
the driving force within
the greatest artists
because the life force is,
after all,
what the greatest art
is always all about.

After the reading, getting Locklin's signature, I found out what he meant by this last stanza. Instead of scurrying off with Weber or playing the room (what room?), he talked with me and the few others standing around for about twenty minutes. He thanked me for listening to him carefully while he was reading (he had directed much of his eye contact towards me), he asked me about my writing, he invited me (all of us) out with him for drinks. He was old school; his poems were as well--confessional, highly narrative, slices of life in only slightly elevated language.

His life story was his literary persona. It still is. And that's perhaps what I admire most about him--he's still writing (at age 71), and the life force is still the driving force within.

And he hasn't combed his hair in forty years.

Gerald Locklin--one of my top ten favorite Pittsburgh Poets.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Debra Allbery

Debra Allbery is, technically, not a Pittsburgh poet. As far as I know she's never lived in Pittsburgh. She does appear, however, in The Pittsburgh Book of Contemporary American Poetry, a terrific anthology edited by Ed Ochester and Peter Oresick. And even though she was born in Lancaster, Ohio, she did teach for a time at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so calling her a Pittsburgh poet is not totally out of place.

Allbery's poems creep up on you with their deceptively simple strategies of straightforward narrative and camouflaged diction that blends into the poem's context until, in their final stanzas or lines, they pounce, flashing powerful muscles, present all along, knocking you off your feet. "Carnies" is one such poem:


That's what we went for, Holly and I,
not for the rides or the games we couldn't win.
What were we then, fourteen, fifteen,
wearing cutoffs and our brothers' workshirts.
Holly tossing her hair as we walked down the midway,
her talking big and me saying nothing, a half step
behind her. But don't you know how deep summer
crawls inside you in a town like that.
You can't keep still, you need fast
fresh air from another place. And if boys
your own age try showing off for you there,
you nod and shrug but keep glancing away.
You look over at the quick swipes of grease
on the jeans of some muscled roustabout unlocking
the safety bars on the Octopus, you watch
the flutter of his T-shirt, the travel of his eyes.
And when he looks at your you're caught
not knowing what to do, and afraid to smile.
You just move on through that broken-down music.
Holly and I, we took our time getting on
and off those rides, we craved that coolness
just an extra second airborne, scrambling
summer and Main Street and a stranger's level gaze.
And you bet we'd take them home with us,
their soft goddamns that followed us out,
and wouldn't we toss all night with them, too.

Debra Allbery has won two NEA fellowships, a Sherwood Anderson Fellowship, the "Discovery" Nation Prize and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Her books are Walking Distance (1991) and Fimbul-Winter (2010). Ms. Allbery is the Director of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she has been on the poetry faculty since 1983. She lives in Fairview, North Carolina.