Monday, December 24, 2012

Last Minute Shopping for the Poet in your Life (or how to spend all those gift cards you got as presents!)

Those of you who follow this blog must know that I made some difficult decisions about my last series of 10 top books of poetry for your holiday wish list. I tried to select books you may not already have--those quirky, surprising treasures that have meant so much to me over the years. But here are some addition books (of or about poetry) that I would grab from my bookshelf on the way out of our burning house if I could only carry them . . .


I know some of you don't like them, but these are three that are unique in some respect.

1. Contemporary American Poetry (8th Edition), edited by A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. A little pricey (you did get all of those gift cards, right?), but this is the definitive collection of poets living and writing in the 20th and 21st centuries--sixty-six of the most powerful poets of our time, with a generous portion of their work, a thirty page overview of trends since 1945, and bios with poets' complete bodies of work.

2. Poetry Speaks (Expanded)--the national bestseller of forty-seven of the greatest poets in the English language, with 3-CD recordings of their work. This is a great "coffee-table book," that is also useful. Written for the general public, it is a great introduction to the popular poets of our age, from Tennyson to Plath.

3. Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, edited by Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, and David Trinidad. In the words of the editors: "Saints of Hysteria gathers some of the harder-to-find collaborative poems of the last fifty or so years. We have scoured libraries, the web, and all the literary magazines we could locate." This is one of the most fun anthologies I have found.

Collected or Selected Works

Three indispensables from my bookshelf--again, some that you may not have :

1. Selected Poems, A. Poulin, Jr. Poulin is a mountain! My personal favorites reside in Part III: Angelic orders: A Bestiary of Angels:

The Angels of the American Dream

"Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me"
--Walt Whitman

We are infested with light.
It gathers on the floor of the sea
that tides in the cave of our pelvis;
it sprouts on the limbs of our lungs,
branches over cliffs in our brain,
a bush burning law in a nation.

An organism from an alien world
rocketed down to test and possess
this planet, it feeds on the darkness
that breeds in the core of our cells,
on the pure filtered air in our blood.
Overnight millions of filaments

root and are thriving. By morning
our skin is transparent, our bones
are black, and we're radioactive,
barbarously bright. Ablaze
with amazement, we stay in our
bed all day, eclipsing the sun

in its orbit. Afraid we'll diffuse,
we don't move, not a muscle
or bone or an eye-beam. Still
by noon we can feel citizens
disintegrating on streets,
murdered by light. Seasons

accelerate. In the wink of an eye,
blossoms are apples that ripen
flames, and clusters of grapes
are coals. Buffalos burn to a crisp
on the spit of their bones. The sea pulls

to a dead stop. Whales rise like zeppelins.
By midnight the earth is pure mineral
ore, melting to white at its center.
Ravenous, we embark

2. The Collected Poems, John Logan.

At his best, Logan was a genius at stalking the page with music camouflaged in the words so that by the time the poem struck with its final lines, his readers never knew what hit them.

The Wooden Mirror

"For if anyone is a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; for he beholds himself and goes away, and presently he forgets what kind of man he was."
--Epistle, Fifth Sunday After Easter

I wait beside the fount.
My God whispers in the box
where a fellow sinner still confesses.
Again my mind caresses
with my hand the iron fence
that protects or that ornaments,
out of art, caution or some
paradigmal wisdom,
the dish kept for our baptism.
I had forgot this fount
has eight sides of highly rubbed wood,
each with a Gothic arch in relief
leading nowhere
but to my own natural face
shadowed in its mirror.
Yet I could not forget between these trips, as grace
wings more niggardly
(or simply goes) this
pressed, iron rose
black as the hope of the melancholy
brother to our sins, who spent
all his beautiful coins of light--
and heavy as a body
whirled through the dark
outer petals of our world . . . .
The voice of the father
a little louder
as he absolves inside his cell
is like the gentle dropping of a waterfall.
God this grill is tall as I!
This oaken pedestal and base
as many-faced.
See the brass opening in the wood
where the priest may turn his ancient key?
The line of penitents shifts
to me. Christ I know this shut,
double-locked fount
is like the hidden basin of my heart
inside its guard of ribs and skin.
Bless me Father for I have sinned
against love,
and now near middle age,
hang guilty on the rods of my own cage.

3. Parthenopi: New and Selected Poems, Michael Waters

There is no better poetry being written today than the poetry of Michael Waters. His understanding of the line as the proper syntactical unit, his syllabic prosody, his musicality--all energize a muscular diction that lifts significant narratives to heights unattainable by most, accumulating a virtuosic body of work over the past four decades. Here is one of my favorites, originally the opening poem to his out of print, 1985 collection, Anniversary of the Air:

The Mystery of the Caves

I don't remember the name of the story,
but the hero, a boy, was lost,
wandering a labyrinth of caverns
filling stratum by stratum with water.

I was wondering what might happen:
would he float upward toward light?
Or would he somersault forever
in an underground black river?

I couldn't stop reading the book
because I had to know the answer,
because my mother was leaving again--
the lid of the trunk thrown open,

blouses torn from their hangers,
the crazy shouting among rooms.
The boy found it impossible to see
which passage led to safety.

One yellow finger of flame
wavered on his last match.
There was a blur of perfume--
Mother breaking miniature bottles,

then my father gripping her,
but too tightly, by both arms.
The boy wasn't able to breathe.
I think he wanted me to help,

but I was small, and it was late.
And my mother was sobbing now,
no longer cursing her life,
repeating my father's name

among bright islands of skirts
circling the rim of the bed.
I can't recall the whole story,
what happened at the end. . . .

Sometimes I worry that the boy
is still searching below the earth
for a thin pencil of light,
that I can almost hear him

through great volumes of water,
through centuries of stone,
crying my name among blind fish,
wanting so much to come home.

Waters has current work in the September/October issue of American Poetry Review.

Just a few ideas for you last-minute shoppers for the poets in your life.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Just The Titles: Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List

By request, here are the just the titles to my last series: "My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List:"

1. From The Fishouse, edited by Camille Dungy, Matt O'Donnell, & Jeffrey Thomson

2. Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems, edited by Kurt Brown

3. Perfect In Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali, edited by Robert Hedin & Michael Waters

4. Vow to Poetry by Anne Waldman

5. A Condition of the Spirit, The Life & Work of Larry Levis, edited by Christopher Buckley & Alexander Long

6. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation by William Gass

7. Between Angels by Stephen Dunn

8. The Bread of Time by Philip Levine

9. A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York

10. This Time and What I Can't Bear Losing, both by Gerald Stern


Final in the Series: Top Ten Poetry Books on your Holiday Wish List: This Time by Gerald Stern (And What I Can't Bear Losing)

On the back cover of Gerald Stern's National Book Award winning Selected Poems, This Time, Kate Daniels, of the Southern Review, has written We might like to think of Gerald Stern as our quintessentially Whitmanian American poet, but he is far too literate, too worldly, to seem typically American. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of him as a post-nuclear, multicultural Whitman for the millennium--the U.S.'s one and only truly global poet.

It is difficult to come up with too many superlatives for Stern's work. "The Red Coal" will help explain:

Sometimes I sit in my blue chair trying to remember
what it was like in the spring of 1950
before the burning coal entered my life.

I study my red hand under the faucet, the left one
below the grease line consisting of four feminine angels
and one crooked broken masculine one

and the right one lying on top of the white porcelain
with skin wrinkled up like a chicken's
beside the razor and the silver tap.

I didn't live in Paris for nothing and walk
with Jack Gilbert down the wide sidewalks
thinking of Hart Crane and Apollinaire

and I didn't save the picture of the two of us
moving through a crowd of stiff Frenchmen
and put it beside the one of Pound and Williams

unless I wanted to see what coals had done
to their lives too. I say it with vast affection,
wanting desperately to know what the two of them

talked about when they lived in Pennsylvania
and what they talked about at St. Elizabeth's
fifty years later, looking into the sun,

40,000 wrinkles between them,
the suffering finally taking over their lives.
I think of Gilbert all the time now, what

we said on our long walks in Pittsburgh, how
lucky we were to live in New York, how strange
his great fame was and my obscurity,

how we now carry the future with us, knowing
every small vein and every elaboration.
The coal has taken over, the red coal

is burning between us and we are at its mercy--
as if a power is finally dominating
the two of us; as if we're huddled up

watching the black smoke and the ashes;
as if knowledge is what we needed and now
we have that knowledge. Now we have that knowledge.

The tears are different--though I hate to speak
for him--the tears are what we bring back to the
darkness, what we are left with after out

own escape, what, all along the red coal had
in store for us as we moved softly,
either whistling or singing, either listening or reasoning,

on the gray sidewalks and the green ocean;
in the cars and the kitchens and the bookstores;
in the crowded restaurants, in the empty woods and libraries.

If I could only keep one of Stern's books of poetry, it would be This Time, with its selections from Rejoicings, Lucky Life, The Red Coal, Paradise Poems, Lovesick, Bread Without Sugar, and Odd Mercy, in addition to fourteen poems that were "new" in 1997. If I could squeeze in one other book by Stern, it would not be a book of poems, it would be What I Can't Bear Losing: notes from a life, a series of prose pieces that compliment his work the way nothing other than his own words can. And, in typical style, Stern writes in his introduction about how his prose is about his poetry, and yet different . . .

I'm not sure if it's a compliment or not when friends tell me that my prose sounds like my poetry . . . my prose has an agreed-upon subject and opts for as much clarity as possible . . . whereas my poetry is more language driven, indirect, and puzzling, even if it assumes the form of a simple narrative, for it is only assuming the form.

If Stern's poetry assumes the form of narrative then, most certainly, his prose conscripts the language of poetry, a language just as "memorable, original, delightful to encounter" as any poem he has written. And that language is placed at the service of subject matter deserving of its container, "events that happened in [his] second and third decade in Pittsburgh, in New York, in Paris."

There are terrible arguments on Sunday mornings between my father and mother an the grey deadness of the rest of the Calvinist Sabbath; there is the first encounter with bohemianism; the naive complicity in an event of sexual manipulation; the founding and writing of an offbeat newspaper in Paris; the six-month stint in an army guardhouse; driving Warhol to the train station in Pittsburgh--on his way to New York--and getting a painting from him; travelling from Paris to Prades, in the Pyrennes, to hear Casals play after he broke his vow of silence he had taken as a protest against Franco; love affairs; ethnic wars.

Gerald Stern is the quintessential "character" that we all encounter at one time in our lives, who we are the better for meeting and, if lucky, having in our lives. He just happens to be the best poet who has come along since Whitman and Crane and is, therefore, the one "character" that America met in the latter half of the 20th century, who, at age 87, is still writing the best poetry of his life. This Time will get you up to speed with his poems. What I Can't Bear Losing will catch you up on his life.

This post concludes My Top Ten Poetry Books (plus a few more) that you should have on your Holiday Wish List!

It's December the 21st--hurry while you still have time!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York

For those of you who have not heard, poet Jake Adam York, 40, died Sunday.

If you have heard, you may have read (or written) Facebook comments or blog entries such as "Oh, no!" or "Too, too young!" Although true, I will not focus here on his untimely death. I will, however, eulogize Jake York in two ways that I can: 1) witness to his spirit of generosity to this very minor poet at our one and only meeting; and 2) recommend his work for those who do not know it--for if you do, it needs no other recommendation. First, his work.

I met Jake York at the Chicago AWP in 2009, shortly after A Murmuration of Starlings had won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award. He was on a panel with other poets the likes of Sean Nevin and Camille Dungy, as well as some fiction writers I, frankly, cannot remember. During his 10 minutes, I was taken with not only the poems he read, but the back story of the manuscript--"part of an ongoing project to elegize and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial that stands today outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama." In other words, York had set out to write a poem to tell the story of every single person listed on the memorial--all who had died fighting for civil rights.

A Murmuration of Starlings speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. Like Lamar Smith, 13 August 1955, Brookhaven, Mississippi:

No one sees him cross the courthouse lawn,
the lone black man in the election crowd,

and no one steps from the line and pulls a gun
then slips past the sheriff and the whole white town

and no one disappears into history
covered in blood and gunpowder sulphur

while the old man collapses in wreathes of smoke
and ballots wing in the billow of his fall.

Like Louis Allen, 31 January 1964, Liberty, Mississippi.

The ministers rise from empty plates
like the steam of chicken and greens

and puff into coats, into prayers, and then
the unlit streets, ready for tomorrow's march

or gathering or prayers, and then the dark
is beating "Hey niggers" though only their coats are black

and the night and everything so they cannot see
what's coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes

at their ribs, who's saying "Now you know,
now you know what it's like to be a real nigger"

and no one can see what lands, what cracks
the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,

what's nesting, what's beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes

Or like Jimmie Lee Jackson, for whom York dedicates his ten-page title poem, "A Murmuration of Starlings." I share the opening stanzas here, but not before I share the epigraph to the first poem of the book, "Shall Be Taught to Speak:"

"I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion."
--Henry IV, Part One

A Murmuration of Starlings

for Jimmie Lee Jackson
18-26 February 1965, Marion and Selma, Alabama

A cloud of starlings drifts from the river,

at first, a smudge on the sky
or the hospital window,

then more definite,

contracting then scattering
like pain.

Nuns ghost, white-robed

as night riders in the farm-edge pines
haunting the forest along the river,

like lilies on Cahaba's shoals.


Whenever he wakes someone else is there
just out of view

prayer drowned in the rasp of breath

a song like breaking glass.

Wings clench in the fluorescent tubes,
flutter of shadows

the state patrol colonel
darkening the bed

handcuffs on the rail,
a warrant for a tongue.

Then wings,
blow smoke

gathering somewhere
just out of view.


At the church just after dark

hymns, then the night march
across the square

to sing through the jailhouse window
and February to their brother

who can hear them in their pews,
hear them descend

to the waiting mayor and police chief,
state troopers who bullhorn them back.

When the reverend kneels to pray,
one patrolman swings his club,

all the lights go down.


Photograph strobes
carve their bodies from the dark,

break and pucker of serge and wool
on arms boxed

to catch the blows,

nightsticks straight
from the flex of uniform sleeves

coats taut between the blades,
white helmets' gleam

and above, a heaven of breath
and steam and smoke from which

dark feathers
then spreads

coughing dense night air
at the cusp of the lens

carving through the barrel

to spread the shutters blind


No one sees the congregation scatter

or the troopers chase

to the river or church
or blockhouse cafe

No one sees the bottles flying
as they climb the stairs

or the bricks in the troopers' affidavits

No one sees the clubs

or the thousand starlings
smoking at the lights

No one sees the old woman
swinging Cokes on the troopers' heads

or falling from their sticks

or the old man lunging in their affidavits
or falling

or the young one, the grandson
step in to catch the blow

or take the gun


They see the flash and kickback

Jimmie Lee folding in the glass

of the cigarette machine

tube light halo, electric hum

Smoke feathers

singing glass

the grandfather's face arriving, arriving

in the intermittent light.


I sat in the front row transfixed. Afterwards, as panel members were packing up their notes, gathering up their books, moving on to whatever followed, I made my way to the table where York sat. He didn't move right away, and as I walked toward him, he looked at me--the only panel member to do so. He spoke first, and thanked me for being such a good listener, for giving him a focal point--my words, not his--I don't remember exactly what he said. What I do remember is that he gave an inordinate amount of time and energy to someone who didn't register on the poetic richter scale. But it didn't matter to him. He made me feel as if he were willing to give himself to the moment as much as any moment in history, and to me as much as to any unknown voice. That's why he was there.

And now the table is turned. I add my one voice to the multitudes who call attention to his. In A Murmuration of Starlings he is still speaking for those who cannot.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: The Bread of Time by Philip Levine

Once again I'm writing about a poet I've already posted about. I can't help it--like the circinate narratives of Larry Levis' poetry, I keep returning to the center, not as a destination, but for further departures, informed by previous ones, in an attempt to create in response to his work, what Levis so virtuosically achieved in his work*.

That center for Levis began with his mentor, Philip Levine. And, we too, are invited to feed on the yeast of Levine's writing life in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography.

From his humble beginnings in Detroit, discovering poetry in the dense woods beside his house every night after dinner at age thirteen, alone, speaking aloud to the stars, to slaving in an auto plant as a young man to eke out a meager living, to attending classes taught by Lowell and Berryman at the University of Iowa, without ever having the money to enroll in them, through his pilgrimages in Fresno, Barcelona, New York--becoming one of the best poets (and best teachers of poetry) of his generation--replete with stories of the teachers, the poets, his own blue-collar brand of the writing life--always the struggle for worker's rights, for human rights, for food, for time, for art--including the great love of his life--to his public success which did not taint his life-force, nor diminish his lion's roar--The Bread of Time nourishes readers and writers alike--anyone who has ever committed themselves to "the word."

In re-reading passages from each chapter as I write this blog, I want to share the entire loaf, pass it all around the table and let you pull willing handfuls onto your plates. But, that is for you to do for yourself. I will waft the aroma of the warm, risen dough beneath your nose with one poem, after the following final paragraph from the lengthy story of Levine "entering poetry," from the chapter with the same name, picking it up after the young Levine tried his hand at being a gardener.

The days were lengthening, and it was still light out when I sneaked out of the house after helping with the dishes. I made my way to the deepest center of the woods and climbed a young maple tree and gazed up into the deepening sky above. I must have dozed off for a few minutes, because quite suddenly the stars emerged in a blacker sky. Although I did not know their names--in fact, I did not even know they had names--I began to address them quietly, for I never spoke with "full-throated ease" until hidden by the cover of total darkness. A soft wind shook the leaves around me. From my own hands I caught the smell of earth and iron, which now I carried with me at all times. I reached down my shirt and extracted the mock-orange branch and breathed in the deep feminine odors while between thumb and forefinger I fretted the blossoms until they fell apart. I began then to address my own hands, which seemed somehow to have been magically transformed into earth. For the first time, a part of me became my night words, for now the darkness was complete. "These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang," I said, and, tasting the words, I immediately liked them and repeated them, and then more words came that also seemed familiar and right. Then I looked on the work my hands had wrought, then I said in my heart, As it happened to the gardener, so it happened to me, for we all go into one place; we are all earth and return to earth. The dark was everywhere, and as my voice went out I was sure it reached the edges of creation. I was sure too my words must have smelled of sandy loam and orange blossoms. That was the first night of my life I entered poetry.


My father stands in the warm evening
on the porch of my first house.
I am four years old and growing tired.
I see his head among the stars,
the glow of his cigarette, redder
than the summer moon riding
low over the old neighborhood. We
are alone and he asks me if I am happy.
"Are you happy?" I cannot answer.
I do not really understand the word,
and the voice, my father's voice, is not
his voice, but somehow thick and choked,
a voice I have not heard before, but
heard often since. He bends and passes
a thumb beneath each of my eyes.
The cigarette is gone, but I can smell
the tiredness that hangs on his breath.
He has found nothing, and he smiles
and holds his head with both my hands.
Then he lifts me to his shoulder,
and now I too am there among the stars,
as tall as he. Are you happy? I say.
He nods in answer, Yes! oh yes! oh yes!
And in that new voice he says nothing,
holding my head tight against his head,
his eyes closed up against the starlight,
as though those tiny blinking eyes
of light might find a tall, gaunt child
holding his child against the promises
of autumn, until the boy slept
never to waken in that world again.

If you're tired of awakening in this world, read The Bread of Time--you may not like the one you wake up in any more than this one, but you're life will never be the same. And neither will Levine's poetry, for it will always carry the loam from those woods where he first discovered the power of words, and the lights--those "blinking eyes"--that never forgot the patterns he discovered there.
* The following is an excerpt from my post on 9/8/10: "Lost in Discovery: The Looping Narrative Arc"

There is a center to “The Widening Spell of the Leaves” that is a kind of spiritual ground, from which, like the ever present leaves, a force emanates and to which it returns. This force is harnessed and directed towards the production of unique narratives of plenitude and loss—circular furrows in the ground—that sing to one another as they bring forth a yield that can be nothing but what it is. And that nothing is everything: “As if it could never be otherwise, as if it were all a pure proclamation of leaves & a final quiet” (173). Arising as mysteriously as crop circles, and created with as much precise craftsmanship, these rings produce a harmonic between their concentric narrative arcs that is akin to the poet’s history, and by extension, ours: a history that has been, at once, sacred and profane, glorious and horrific, meaningful and empty. Perhaps it is this prosody of expanding rings itself that Levis is describing in the text’s penultimate lines:

It goes on & I go with it; it spreads into the sun & air & throws out a fast

That will never sleep, and I go with it; it breaks Lincoln & Poe into small
drops of oil spreading

Into endless swirls on the water, & I recognize the pattern:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: Between Angels, by Stephen Dunn

Because there are so many poets I am compelled to write about, I hesitate adding Stephen Dunn to my list of top ten poetry books to add to your holiday wish list because I've already posted about him (see "What Goes On," 07/16/10). But since his work always seems to appear for me in my darkest, as well as my brightest hours, and since I have not written about my first encounter with his work, he has earned a place in my current Top Ten Series.

Of all his books, the one I could not leave behind on my desert island trip would be Between Angels. Without further introduction, here is Dunn's title poem:

Between angels, on this earth
absurdly between angels, I
try to navigate

in the bluesy middle ground
of desire and withdrawal,
in the industrial air,
among the bittersweet

efforts of people to connect,
make sense, endure.
The angels out there,
what are they?

Old helpers, half-believed,
or dazzling better selves,

that I turn away from
as if I preferred
all the ordinary, dispiriting
tasks at hand?

I shop in the cold
neon aisles
thinking of pleasure,
I kiss my paycheck

a mournful kiss goodbye
thinking of pleasure,
in the evening replenish

my drink, make a choice
to read or love or watch,
and increasingly I watch.
I do not mind living

like this. I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything's true
at different times

in the capacious day,
just as I don't forget
and always forget

half the people in the world
are dispossessed.
Here chestnut oaks
and tenements

make their unequal claims.
Someone thinks of betrayal.
A child spills her milk;
I'm on my knees cleaning it up--

sponge, squeeze. I change nothing,
just move it around.
The inconsequential floor
is beginning to shine.

Dunn's angels, sometimes in glorious plain sight, sometimes more present in their absence, most often camouflaged in slant light, form a divine/human conceit, willing to act as guide long after the final poem is read--"What are they?" Dunn both asks and answers: "Old helpers, half-believed,/or dazzling better selves,/imagined." This hypothesis is tested through the remainder of the collection and is found both confirmed (as in "The Guardian Angel": "When the poor are evicted, he stands/between them/and the bank, but the bank sees nothing"), and wanting (as in "Dancing With God": "the confirmation of/an old guess:/God was a wild god,/into the most mindless rock,/but graceful, looking--this excited me--like no one I could love,/cruel mouth, eyes evocative of promises unkept.").

Lest readers call me to task on confusing "God" with "angel," let me refer to the old testament story of Jacob wrestling with what the writer of Genesis calls "a man," Jacob himself in the same passage refers to as "God," and the writer of the book of Hosea refers to as "the angel."

That's the beauty of poetry, "everything's true/at different times//in the capacious day,"--a foreshadowing of another line from a much later Dunn poem (from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Different Hours), "The Reverse Side": "It's why when we speak a truth/some of us instantly feel foolish/as if a deck inside us has been shuffled/and there it is--the opposite/of what we said."

Hear, then, each of these two poems--the one portraying the divinity of human-kind, and the other the humanity of the divine. Notice, too, how beautifully Dunn weds form (tercets--a prosody of divinity--the first and third lines of which are mediated by the second, the prevalence of dactyls) with content. Then the openness of the ultimate single line...

The Guardian Angel

Afloat between lives and stale truths,
he realizes
he's never truly protected one soul,

they all die anyway, and what good
is solace,
solace is cheap. The signs are clear:

the drooping wings, the shameless thinking
about utility
and self. It's time to stop.

The guardian angel lives for a month
with other angels,
sings the angelic songs, is reminded

that he doesn't have a human choice.
The angel of love
lies down with him, and loving

restores to him his pure heart.
Yet how hard it is
to descend into sadness once more.

When the poor are evicted, he stands
between them
and the bank, but the bank sees nothing

in its way. When the meek are overpowered
he's there, the thin air
through which they fall. Without effect

he keeps getting in the way of insults.
He keeps wrapping
his wings around those in the cold.

Even his lamentations are unheard,
though now,
in for the long haul, trying to live

beyond despair, he believes, he needs
to believe
everything he does takes root, hums

beneath the surfaces of the world.

In "Dancing With God," Dunn sets the standard, for me, of marrying the cognitive with the perceptive. I can't say that no one else can do it as well, but I can say that no one does it any better.

Dancing With God

At first the surprise
of being singled out,
the dance floor crowded
and me not looking my best,
a too-often-worn dress
and the man with me
a budding casualty
of one repetition too much
God just touched his shoulder
and he left.
Then the confirmation of
and old guess:
God was a wild god,
into the most mindless rock,
but graceful,
looking--this excited me--
like no one I could love,
cruel mouth, eyes evocative
of promises unkept.
I never danced better, freer,
as if dancing were my way
of saying how easily
I could be with him, or apart.
When the music turned slow
God help me close
and I felt for a moment
I'd mistaken him,
that he was Death
and this the famous embrace
before the lights go out.
But God kept holding me
and I him
until the band stopped
and I stood looking at a figure
I wanted to slap
or forgive for something,
I couldn't decide which.
He left then, no thanks,
no sign
that he'd felt anything
more than an earthly moment
with someone who could've been
anyone on earth.
To this day I don't know why
I thought he was God,
though it was clear
there was no going back
to the man who brought me,
nie man
with whom I'd slept
and grown tired,
who danced wrong,
who never again
could do anything right.

"The Retarded Angel" seems the poem most emblematic of the effect of Dunn's entire collection (yea, Dunn's entire body of work) on me and on my writing, particularly in its final five and one-half stanzas:

Other angels have urged us
to change our lives,

but you seem to know
we drift, stumbling
toward even the smallest

improvement. To see you
is to imagine how long
and with what difficulty

it took you to reach us,
years perhaps
of landing elsewhere

Whoever sent you
must have been desperate
and accidentally brilliant, you

with whom we'd never argue,
the damaged, unnerving,
barely hopeful, last resort.

That's precisely why Between Angels is on my list...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Reading Rilke, by William Gass

A biography is an unlikely place to discover a diction that one has been seeking for a series of poems. Unlikely, perhaps, unless the biography is of Rilke, and the biographer is William Gass. Such was the case on my first trip through Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. The powerful buoyancy of language and thought in this essential work has held up for me during subsequent readings, enabling me to flesh out the beginnings of my only long poem to date, reinforced by my most recent dipping into the headwaters of its early chapters resulting in the beginnings of two more poems.

Read aloud this passage, in which Gass writes about Rilke's diary from his five-week stay in Worpswede as a battered lover, his wife Lou having taken leave of him, and I believe that you will agree with me that the prose itself rivals the most lyrical of poetry:

Blooms, as Rilke knew, are all business; they exist for butterflies and bees, but only incidentally for us, for whom flowers are fortuitous. Autumn's hues are even more serendipital; the function of the leaves has been fulfilled, so they are discarded, they are finished, and their colors are the result of useless residues. The beauty of the world happens only in our eye; even the allure of women is as utilitarian as a wagon's wheel. The Worpswede light, the way the countryside's colors glow even on a dim wet evening, the festive stars and the warm widows of distant farms, the comforting purl of a stream, those are the purest accidents. So when one of us turns aside from living in order to admire life; when a rose petal is allowed to cool an eyelid; when a line of charcoal depicts the inviting length of a thigh; we are no longer going in nature's direction but contrary to it. What was never meant for us becomes ours entirely; what never had a use is suddenly all we need.

But it is not simply gorgeous language that makes Reading Rilke essential, Gass' intimate knowledge of Rilke's life and deep understanding of its themes informs his analysis of the poet's work.

It would be tempting to organize Rilke's biography around such themes, because the themes are there: the significance of the rose, the mirror, the unicorn, the puppet, the fountain, or the pathos (as for Poe) of the death of a young woman; his increasing "belief" in animism (that all things, as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.

The above passage from Gass seasons any poem of Rilke's, particularly one like "The Bowl of Roses:"

And aren't they all that way? Just self-containing,
if self-containing means: to transform the world
with its wind and rain and springtime's patience
and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate
and the darkness of evening earth and even
the changing clouds, coming and going,
even the vague intercession of distant stars,
into a handful of inner life.

It now lies free of care in these open roses.

Gass reminds us that Rilke's parents had lost a daughter the year before Rene (Rilke's given name--his first wife, Lou, insisted he change it to Rainer, a name with more substance) was born. His mother hoped for another daughter, letting Rene's hair grow out, combing his curls, encouraging him to call himself "Sophie, and literally putting him away in a drawer like a doll. Gass writes, "Later, with a mournful understanding that resembled Gertrude Stein's, Rilke realized that someone else had had to die in order to provide him with a space in life." Gass, a master of providing the perfect blend of fact and interpretation as commentary to introduce a poem, continues:

There is a photograph of four-year-old "Sophie" standing by a table upon which, unaccountably, a black-and-white dog is crouching. Atop "her" long hair a hat in the shape we call pillbox has been rakishly placed, and her high-topped shoes rise from a strongly patterned rug as if they were part of its design. She is wearing a pleated white skirt, a white tunic with a big bow at the neck, and white socks which peek out of those shiny shoes.

Her mother had aspired, when she married, to something grander than she got, though she poured cheap wine into bottles with better labels, and in other ways tried to keep up appearances. During his first year, Rilke's nurses came and went like hours of the day. His time as a toy continued. Affection, lit like a lamp, would be blown out by any sudden whim. As his parents drew away from one another like the trains his father oversaw, Rilke was more and more frequently farmed out by his mother, for whom a small boy was a social drag, to this or that relations or other carrier of concern. The child began to believe that love, like money, time, and food, was in limited supply, and that any love which went into one life would not be available to go into another.

Gass then gives us a drink from Rilke's vast pool for the thirst that he helped to create:

My mother spread her presents at the feet
of those poor saints hewn of heartwood.
Mute, unmoving, and amazed, they stood
behind the pews, so straight and complete.

They neglected to thank her, too,
for her fervently offered gift.
The little dark her candles lift
was all of her faith they knew.

Still my mother gave, in a paper roll,
these flowers with their fragile blooms,
which she took from a bowl in our modest rooms,
in the sight and longing of my soul.

Reading Rilke is absolutely essential for any lover of Rilke or suitor of poetry. It will not only deepen your appreciation for "the poet," but will inspire the work of translating your own material world into poetry, yea, in the word of Rilke, into "spirit."

Editor's Note: For good translations of Rilke, I recommend The Essential Rilke, Selected and Translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, and In Praise of Mortality, Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, Translated and Edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books To Put On Your Holiday Wish List: A Condition of the Spirit--with qualifications

If you read this blog, you must know that its title is taken from Larry Levis' The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Levis is my all-time, #1 requirement for my "desert island" backpack. Which book(s)? I'd want all of them, but the next best thing is The Selected Levis, poems selected by David St. John from all six of his virtuosic collections of poetry. But this is not the book I'd like to write about today (I've already posted at least twice about it), although I believe it is indispensable for anyone interested in reading/writing poetry.

If Levis' six books comprise the Torah, then the Talmud is A Condition of the Spirit, The Life and Work of Larry Levis--a 663-page collection of essays, interviews and responses to him and to his work. Christopher Buckley and Alexander Long have done a masterful job of putting together "Some of The Life" from those who experienced it, "Larry Levis on Poetry," a collection of Levis' own words about his work, and "Response to the Work," articles of scholarly criticism, along with an "Epilogue," including Levis prose piece, "Piazza Navona."

The usefulness of A Condition of the Spirit for students, poets, critics, scholars, or anyone interested in "the best poet of his generation," according to Phillip Levine, cannot be overstated. Space does not allow a proper introduction to this volume. The bulk of this post, therefore, will comprise but a sampling of its illuminative powers--an amplification of some of Levis' earlier work, notably the poems, "Rhododendrons" and "Waking," found in his second volume, The Afterlife.

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I stopped into "The Black Cat Coffee Shop & Bookstore" in Truth or Consequences. The experience could (and should) fill an entire blogpost. The result pertinent to this one, however, is that among the "finds," I walked away with a 1976 issue (#22) of the poetry journal, Open Places, with Larry Levis and his (then) wife, Marcia Southwick on the cover and featured inside with 3 poems each. (I paid .50 for the journal, which originally sold for $1.50, and is now selling for an average price of $30.00.) With no malice toward Southwick, I was struck by how her poems paled in the presence of Levis'--particularly his poem, "Rhododendrons," which I had read, but not for some time. In order for readers to appreciate both the poem and the commentary by Southwick herself in a chapter I happily found later by her in A Condition of the Spirit, "What's Wrong with this Picture," I reprint it below:

Larry Levis


Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
in ice.

But I am still afraid to move,
afraid to speak,
as if I lived in a house
wallpapered with the cries of birds
I cannot identify.

Beneath the trees
a young couple sits talking
about the afterlife,
where no one, I think, is
whittling toys for the stillborn.
I laugh,

but I don't know.
Maybe the whole world is absent minded
or floating. Maybe the new lovers undress
without wondering how
the snow grows over the Andes,
or how a horse cannot remember those
frozen in the sleigh behind it,
but keeps running until the lines tangle,
while the dead sit cooly beneath their pet stars.

As I write this,
some blown rhododendrons are nodding
in the first breezes. I want
to resemble them, and remember nothing,
the way a photograph of an excavation
cannot remember the sun.

The wind rises or stops
and it means nothing.

I want to be circular;
a pond or a column of smoke
revolving, slowly, its ashes.

I want to turn back and go up
to myself at age 20,
and press five dollars into his hand
so he can sleep.
While he stands trembling on a street in Fresno,
suddenly one among many in the crowd
that strolls down Fulton Street,
among the stores that are closing,
and is never heard of again.

I had read Rhododendrons before, but reading it from this flimsy journal was almost a mystical experience, knowing that Levis had only published one book four years prior, knowing that this was probably the poem's first printed iteration, and knowing all that would come afterwards for Levis--all of the yet unwritten masterpieces, the awards, his untimely death.

When I returned home, I immediately opened A Condition of the Spirit, looking for anything that might shed more light on this era of Levis' life. And did I ever find something. Marcia Southwick's essay, "What's Wrong With This Picture," tells of living on the ninth floor of the Tiger Motor Lodge in downtown Columbia, Missouri, when Larry was writing this poem, and others that appeared in the journal and "The Afterlife." Southwick writes that there wasn't much to do for entertainment, except for shooting pool at "The Spot," stealing traffic signs, or staying in their room, "downing twinkies and chocolate doughnuts along with [their] martinis." There was one other pastime--playing a game called "What's Wrong With This Picture?" Southwick explains:

Larry might draw a one-eyed man and ask me to determine what was wrong with the drawing. I'd say, "A man has two eyes, not one?" He'd reply, "No. He's a Cyclops. A Cyclops isn't bald." Then I might draw a cat noosed by its neck to a tree, and he'd say, "Cats don't commit suicide?" I'd reply, "No. See the tiny watch on its wrist? Cats, don't wear watches."

Southwick continues . . .

When I think back on it now, that game captured the spirit of what we loved about poetry--the mind's search for the obvious but hidden. We were both looking for new and strange answers to the old questions. We found that the imagination had a peculiar logic of its own--a logic as solid as, but different from common sense. We were both great fans of Neruda, Eluard, Desnos, Herbert, Marquez, Lorca, Ritsos, and the many other writers who venture into the territory of surreal dream-imagery.

And, finally, relative to "Rhododendrons" and The Afterlife:

At the time, Larry was writing The Afterlife, still one of the best books of poetry I've ever read. He would sit in the lobby of the Tiger, with his fountain pen, scotch, and legal pad--his head cocked as if listening to otherworldly music--and he'd write. The raw beginnings of poems came easily to him, and he'd fill page after yellow page with images that didn't seem to belong together. Then his genius would sew a thread between them that would bind them tightly in a totally unpredictable way.

Hearing Southwick tell of the carry-over from their game of "What's Wrong With This Picture" to the unexpected turns in Larry's poetry gave to me an added dimension to lines where "Winter" "writ[es] its journals/in ice." and "no toys for the stillborn" for example. In addition, Southwick goes into depth about Larry's "almost photographic memory," and the resulting difficult and complex relationship between memory and imagination in Larry's life and work. In "Rhododendrons," for example, Southwick writes, "he loses a version of himself as a young man," (see the final stanza, above).

Below is but a portion of one paragraph of Southwick's discussion of memory in the poem, "Waking," part one of which follows. (Be sure and also notice the surprising turns in it, as well--personally, I'm totally taken with " . . . closing the little jails".)

In "Waking," its almost as if the speaker would prefer to let the fire of the imagination take over, freeing him of memory, which is too rigidly exacting, too lifeless, like ". . . the blackboards/Where the equations died of perfection."

Larry Levis


YOU could hear someone arguing
About money, a man and his wife.
You could hear them closing the little jails

No one would enter or sweep.
The inmates were thinking of water.
They would sleep standing up,

If they had to. All that summer,
Outside, you could hear
The freight cars move slowly.

When they passed, you would listen
To anything: to the counsel
Of a moth dying on the sill,

To the wind that had nothing
To say, that went on.
You loved the wind,

You loved the blackboards,
Where the equations died of perfection,
And the parables were burned herons,

Extinct. Each night you could feel
The migrations of shadows.
And you knew you had killed

No one: not your father or mother
Who sat watching TV; not your wife
Who wept and would not eat;

Not your brother who kept smiling.
You were their stranger.
You were the widow of sleep.

If you love the work of Larry Levis, like I do, you will cherish "A Condition of the Spirit," like a twin brother or sister you didn't know you had. If you don't, encountering it will be almost like encountering him--but not quite. You'll have to read his poetry for that--and that's the one qualification about this book being on my top ten list of poetry books you should have on your holiday wish list: it's really not a book of poetry. It's just a book about, arguably, the best poet of my generation. It's kind of like a book about sex--it's not the real thing, but it might make you want to put down the book and experience it for yourself!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Vow To Poetry by Anne Waldman

The hottest jazz station where I live is KCSM, 91.1 FM. Alisa Clancy's "Morning Cup-o-Jazz" has a regular feature called "Desert Island." Guest musicians bring with them the jazz renditions they would require if stranded on a desert island. Listening to these quintessential cuts is the best education in jazz one can get. I'm as addicted to my "morning cup" as if it were a drug--which it is.

If I had to name the books I would cram into my backpack, knowing I would be stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, one of them would beVow To Poetry, a cobbled-together collection of essays, interviews, and manifestos by Anne Waldman and some of her desert island poets, about poetry and its demands as a living "vow." It, therefore, easily finds its place on my top ten list of poetry books that should be on your holiday wish list.

Perhaps if you read the Author's Note at the beginning of the book, you will understand something of why. I will not reproduce it in entirety, only summarizing her first paragraph in which she traces the etymology of "vow." The "vow," Waldman explains, "meaning, as in the Frank O'Hara line, you go on your nerve, is felt as a metabolic necessity." Beginning with "vowe" (middle English, from "vou," Old French, from Latin, "vote"), Waldman traces the word, by her own admittedly "skewed association with mathematics" to "voice."

She continues:

"Poetry" is, of course, from "poiein:" to make. This English fifteenth-century word, which means "courtly makes," is the exact equivalent of the word "poets." The whole world is the court now (judicial, economic, worldly, spiritual, virtual), in which the making of alternative versions (poems) and realities for poetry activity seems more pressing than ever.

To the point of this book:

With the exception of the interviews sprinkled throughout, Vow to Poetry is organized nonchronologically, which is more conducive to sensing the relative momentum of each piece to the pieces around it. As such, the arrangement attempts to juxtapose a range of "takes" from soapbox to schoolmarm. Many of the pieces evolved from notes for, or transcriptions of, classes and panels at Naropa University on a range of subjects, many autobiographical, often instigated by travel, while others are musings or responses to issues at hand. An inordinate amount of outside interest provoked mutterings around various Buddhist notions and how they might relate to a practice of poetry.

This is a "big" book--not merely in excess of 350 pages, but in its scope, breadth and depth. I would like to list the chapter headings, but each chapter is so brief, that to do so would require a list longer than I care to type. Here is a representative sample from the table of contents, with a brief explanation of each:

Prelude: "My Long and Only Afterlife": stream-of-consciousness diary entry by Waldman about her Hanoi experience, May, 2000.

Feminafesto: as the title indicates, a "feminist manifesto" for the poet in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Vow to Poetry: interview/conversation between Ann Waldman and Randy Roark, Boulder, Colorado, 1991, which contains a terrific discussion of "generosity."

Creative Writing Life: a list of over 100 exercises, prompts, and experiments to better reading, writing, performing, and living the writing life. My favorite:

Be in the Mind/perspective of a writer twenty-four hours a day . . . Repeat the mantra: "I exist to write."

Epic & Performance: Waldman discusses quotes from famous poets--my favorite is from "Coleridge:

I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an epic poem. Ten years to collect materials and warm my mind with universal science. I would be a tolerable mathematician. I would thoroughly understand Mechanics; Hydrostatics, Optics and Astronomy; Botany; Metallurgy; Fossilism; Chemistry; Geology: Anatomy: Medicine: then the minds of men, in all Travels, Voyages, and Histories. So I would spend ten years, the next five in the composition of the poem, and the next five in the correction of it. So would I write, haply not unhearing of that divine and nightly whispering voice, which speaks to mighty minds, or predestined garlands, starry and unwithering.

And there are 30 more chapters just as powerful, waiting to be devoured, metabolized, and turned into poetry and its attendant commitments. That's why--you know--Vow to Poetry is on my top ten list of poetry books to put on your wish list.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Perfect In Their Art (Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali)

It's a straightforward, although somewhat quirky book--an anthology of poems about boxing. We normally don't think of pugilistics as the sport of poets. This collection, however, proves otherwise, putting on a show between the oldest sport and the oldest art, most often leaving poetry standing in the center of the ring when the final bell has rung. These are not poems in name only, offerings by amateurs who can't write their way out of a paper bag--they are written by heavy-weights who go can go the distance, but most often knock us out in the first stanza! From Addonizio to Zimmer, Robert Hedin and Michael Waters have put together an anthology where both the poets and the boxers they write about deserve their title, champion!

What poet more emblematic of a brawling boxer than Bukowski? Here is his offering from Perfect in their Art:

the loser

and the next I remembered I'm on a table,
everybody's gone; the head of bravery
under light, scowling, flailing me down . . .
and then some toad stood there, smoking a cigar:
"Kid you're no fighter," he told me,
and I got up and knocked him over a chair;
it was like a scene in a movie, and
he stayed there on his big rump and said
over and over: "Jesus, Jesus, whatsamatta wit
you?" and I got up and dressed,
the tape still on my hands, and when I got home
I tore the tape off my hands and
wrote my first poem,
and I've been fighting
ever since.

"While some may maintain that boxing is not a metaphor for life," writes Budd Schulberg in his Foreward, "the range of poetry selected in this provocative and entertaining anthology seems to off a rather eloquent rebuttal." He continues:

One poet watching the desperate action in the ring sees the desperate battle with his overmatched wife in the grimy ring of their marriage. Another sees an old black fighter as doing battle for his race against centuries of oppression. A third sees boxing as the ultimate test of pride and character and human dignity. Poetry breathes metaphors as lungs do air. These are poems we want to go back and reread because the more they tell us about boxing, the more they tell us about the human condition.

Here is a poem that perfectly enacts Schulberg's analogy between boxing and life (in this case between boxing and love), from one of my most favorite poets: Kim Addonizio. It's one of the more than one hundred reasons (one for each poem) that Perfect in their Art is on my top ten list of poetry books for holiday gifts!

Late Round

When the fighters slow down, moving towards each other
as though underwater, gloves laboring to rise
before their faces, each punch followed by a clutch
when they hold on like exhausted lovers,
I think of us in the last months, and of the night
you stood in my kitchen, drunk, throwing wild combinations
at the air, at something between us that would not
go down. I watch the two of them
planted in that ring, unable to trust their legs,
the bell's reprieve suspended in some impossible distance,
and I remember my voice, cursing our life together
until there was nothing either one of us would fight for.
These men, you'd say, have heart--they keep on,
though neither remembers his strategy
or hears the shouts from his corner. And it's true
you had more heart than I did, until that night
you gave us up, finally, and dropped crying to your knees
on my kitchen floor. The fighters stagger and fall together,
flailing against the ropes. They embrace
and are separated, but they don't let go.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: Conversation Pieces (poems that talk to other poems)

I like pocket books. For years I worked in retail. Lunch hours (or 30-minute breaks, when working for non-family-businesses), were anticipated for being able to get outside, eat a savory home-made sandwich, drink a cup-o-joe, and pull out a pocket book of poems to wake up my mind, numbed by repetitive busy-work, and to bring life back my soul, deadened from overexposure to the greed of owners and the materialism of consumers. Conversation Pieces (poems that talk to other poems), edited by Kurt Brown, is a pocket book that I wish had been around for all of those years.

Billy Collins' Foreward begins with the following epigraph:

Poems should echo and re-echo against each other . . . They should create resonanes. They cannot live alone any more than we can.--Jack Spicer in a letter to Robin Blazer.

Collins then articulates the collection's raison d'etre:

At one time or another in the study of poetry, we are likely to run into then notion that poems are not really about love and death, separation and rapture and every other human experience--they are about other poems. At first, this may come as disappointing news. Poets, it would seem, are not speaking to us; instead they are speaking to their fellow poets, most of whom are beyond earshot, that is, in their graves. That poets prefer the audience of the dead to us living readers is not a flattering realization. But the broader truth of the matter is that the past always plays a vital role in the poetry of the present. As T.S. Eliot points out in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the only way poetry can be successfully written is in response to its own history. The real reason why poets--or any writers--write is that they have read and been moved to emulation. Poetry carries in its arms the words of its predecessors. The writer's page is illuminated by the candles of his past.

And so Brown has selected some 130 poems that intentionally "talk back" to other poems. Side by side he places poets from Marlowe and Raleigh, to Catullus and Krysl, to William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Koch. Here is Koch's "Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams" set against "This Is Just To Say:"

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Variations On A Theme By WCS

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

The book is organized into the following categories; I've listed only a sampling of poets from each:


Christopher Marlowe/Sir Walter Raleigh
John Donne/C. Day Lewis/W.D. Snodgrass


Meng Hao-Jan/Marilyn Chin
Philip Larkin/Susan Wheeler
Ezra Pound/John Berryman
William Wordsworth/Marvin Bell/Denise Levertov


John Keats/Meg Kearney
Rudyard Kipling/Felicia Blake
William Butler Yeats/Maxine Kumin/Richard Frost
Edna St. Vincent Millay/Bruce Smith
Stephen Dunn/Andrea Hollander Budy


Rumi/Barry Mazur
A.E. Housman/Hugh MacDiarmid
Galway Kinnell/Margaret Gilvert
Wendy Cope/Allison Joseph


John Donne/Kimiko Hahn
Emily Dickinson/Muriel Nelson
Randall Jarrell/Patricia Corbus
James Wright/Mark Doty
A.R. Ammons/Miles A. Coon


Lord Byron/Ogden Nash
Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Star Black
Mathew Arnold/Anthony Hecht/Spencer Short
Ezra Pound/David Lehman
WCW/Kenneth Koch

Brown has done us a service by pairing poems that satirically attack, toy, piggy-back, reproof, amplify and undo. In closing, here is a favorite pairing of mine--one of the best reasons in the collection to put it on my "Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Holiday Wish List."

William Wordsworth

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Denise Levertov


The world is
not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List: From the Fishouse

I never cease to be amazed at all of the great poets and poetry books out there that I've never heard of. And guess what? The poets in your life (or you, if you have no other poet in your life), don't know 10% of the great work that's available either. So, between now and the holidays (whichever one or ones you celebrate), I'm giving you (and your poet friends and lovers) a gift: My "Top Ten Poetry Books That Should Be On Your Holiday Wish List."

I like anthologies. But more than that, I like anthologies that in addition to being a collection of terrific poems, exceed my expectations about the value of putting together a group of poems in the first place. From The Fishouse is such an anthology.

Of course its packed with great poems--the best of the best of emerging poets from the website with the same name (href=""), dedicated to "the oral and aural aspects of contemporary American poetry"--by poets like Tracy Smith, Evie Shockley, Ilya Kaminsky, Major Jackson, Ross Gay, John Poch, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Matthea Harvey, Camille Dungy, Dan Albergotti, Matthew Dickman, and dozens more like them. But it also comes with a 36-poem CD, tucked inside the back cover for your listening pleasure (complete with playlist of poems following the table of contents in the book, as well). But, wait! There's more...

Here are 10 more reasons to add this book to your Holiday Wish List:

1. In the table of contents, poems are organized into sections according to their general type. Here are some of my favorite chapter headings--each title courtesy of one of the poems contained therein:

"To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire: Poems that Make Various Sorts of Address"

"Cleopatra's Bra: Poems about the Body, the Bawdy, the Sensual, and the Sexy"

"Death and Taxus: Poems Serious about Puns and Word Play"

"Self-Portrait with Sadness, Wild Turkey, and Denis Johnson: Aubades, Elegies, Odes, and Other Traditional Modes"

There are a total of ten chapters, and the best part is that some poets have poems in more than one chapter, for those of us who would like a second drink from our favorite poet's well, thank you very much.

2. There is a forward by Gerald Stern.

3. There is an introduction by the editors, Camille Dungy, Matt O'Donnell, and Jeffrey Thomason.

4. There is "An Index of Poetic Traits" for the serious poetry maven who has memorized every prosodic device listed in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. The index is alphabetical (the "A"s include "Address," "Allusion," "Anaphora/Epistrophe," and "Assonance"), and has the following explanation:

This index lists categories of poetic traits that contribute to the sonic quality and/or overall effect of the poems in this book, Each poem is listed in at least three categories. While this is by no means a definitive list, we hope it is a useful starting point for those interested in the mechanics of these poems.

5. Following the above mentioned index is a "Cross-Referenced Index of Poems by Title," which lists each poem in the book alphabetically with at least three relevant poetic strategies that lead to the success of the poem out loud and on the page.

6. There are Contributors Notes (of course!).

7. There's an Acknowledgements Page (again--of course!).

8. There's an About the Editors page.

9. There's an About "From the Fishouse"--a little history, a little love.

10. And finally, all of those great poems. Ok, you twisted my arm. Here's just one:


Here Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta's opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

From The Fishouse, An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great. The only reason it shouldn't be on your holiday wish list is that it's already on your shelf!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Camille Dungy: What Poetry Is About!

"What is your poetry about?" is the second question I often get at a party after a stranger has pried out of me some answer that includes the word "poetry" (usually after multiple ways of asking it) to the first question:"What do you do?"

If I'm in a good mood, I might say something like "I try not to limit my work to particular themes, but I suppose critics could find the same recurring ones that other poets have written about: sex, death, love, war..." If I'm not in a particularly good mood, I might say "They're not about anything. They're art: they're about themselves." Neither answer is completely true, nor completely false. I suspect other poets might equivocate (in their own ways), if asked the same question.

I enjoy reading the blurbs on books of poetry. (In fact, whenever I come to any book for the first time, I read every character on front and back covers, title page, contents, acknowledgements, notes, dedication, preface--all of it--before proceeding to the first poem or paragraph.) I like to know what landmarks other readers have seen in the work, so I can identify them on my tour, and look for new ones that they may have not mentioned--or even better, overlooked.

On the back cover of Camille Dungy's Smith Blue, the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, Alan Shapiro speaks of "exquisite moments of intimacy," Ed Roberson raises a signpost of "love"--not simply between parents and children, lovers and spouses, but love "for butterflies, things and their places." Taking a more holistic approach to the collection, Waters comments upon the landscape of "loss" that he found in the poems--"palpable, less spiritual than common though no less devastating, spoken by one not afraid 'to hear what quiet really sounds like.'"

Intimacy. Love. Loss. They are all present in some repeating algorithm, embodied in each poem in some proportion that balances each of the three elements out over the entire collection. Over an entire life. "After Opening the New York Times I Wonder How to Write a Poem about Love" is typical in this regard.

To love like God can love, sometimes.
Before the kettle boils to a whistle, quiet. Quiet
that is lost on me, waiting as I am
for an alarm. The sort of things I notice:
the bay over redbud blossoms, mountains
over magnolia blooms. There is always something
starting somewhere, and I have lost ambition
to look into the details. Shame fits comfortably
as my best skirt, and what can I do
but walk around in that habit? Turn the page.
Turn another page. This was meant to be
about love. Now there is nothing left but this.

And if you are not satisfied with the mix in the above poem, simply turn the page to another, for the next one will likely have two parts intimacy to each part love and loss. And on and on.

But it is the one phrase in Waters' comments that foreshadows what rises from Dungy's poems to meet me in my stillness: "by one not afraid." With lovers, with the natural world, with words, it is her vulnerability that allows the loss. Or intimacy. Or love.

See how, in these lines from "Daisy Cutter," Dungy lays her throat bare to the vicissitudes of love, with its required intimacy, its inherent loss:

I think of my life. The way you hold me,

sometimes, you could choke me.
There is no way to protect myself,

except by some brilliant defense. I want
the black iris with their sabered blooms.

I want the flamethrowers: the peonies,
the sunflowers. I will cut down the beautiful ones

and let their nectared sweetness bleed
into the careless air. This is not the world

I'd hoped it could be. It is horrible,
the way we carry on. Last night, you catalogued

our arsenal. You taught me devastation
is a goal we announce in a celebration

of shrapnel.

The poem carries its own weight, even without knowing that "Daisy Cutter," as Dungy explains in her "Note" section, "refers to a controversial cluster bomb called by that name."

What is poetry, if not a "Daisy Cutter," exploding its words into various shock waves of "devastation" and "celebration," depending upon each reader's/hearer's viewpoint, distance from ground zero, protective clothing, or a million other variables? What can be a fireworks display for some turns out to be permanent disfigurement or death for others.

Applying the question asked of me to Camille Dungy, "What is Smith Blue about?" Intimacy, love, loss? Of course. The human element, if authentically present, will always carry these, and more--vulnerability included. Blue Smith, like all poetry that is the real deal, is ultimately about the human condition, about people finding themselves in it (both the condition and the poetry), in order to connect with something within themselves, and beyond themselves, so they can truly be themselves.

This is what poetry is about--not expression, but discovery--put in compelling language by Dungy in these lines from "Five for Truth:" "Certainly, we all have heard something we haven't seen,/and the hearing,/which should have been an answer,/has become a question/instead."

In the future when I'm asked what my poetry is about, I hope I'm quick enough to loosely quote from the final lines to part 4 of the same poem:

It's about "knowing at which stage of my ruin, exactly, I plan to let myself fly."