Saturday, January 26, 2013

Inventing Constellations: Al Maginnes

I first heard the expression "to subvert the reader's expectations" as a goal of writing poetry from Suzanne Buffam in a craft class on collage and collaboration at Columbia College Chicago. It seemed then, and still does, a delightful way of expressing the element of surprise accomplished by many better poets, usually in a turn of an image or thought within the poem (or the manuscript), a path that one might not have been able to predict but, once followed, could not be imagined any other way and remain poetry. ("Do I contract myself?" says Whitman, "very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.")

Al Maginnes's latest collection, Inventing Constellations, is a book that entered my awareness from a very favorable review by Paul Scott August, so my expectations were high even before I had read the opening poem, "The Definitions." But I was totally unprepared for both the beauty and utility of the discreet blocks of text introducing seminal concepts and images, soon to be scattered like legos throughout the rooms of a family's home that could be your own--legos shaped not too dissimilar to the ones you can still purchase at any store, but different enough that the structures built with them could not be duplicated with the standard set.

Here are the first eight (out of seventeen) "verses" of "The Definitions:"

"This thing is for life," says the movie crime boss to the one just
inducted into "the family" in a spooky ritual involving blood and
candles. The only light burning in this room is the TV, the sound
turned low to let my family sleep. "For life," echoes the just made


The root of "family" is the Latin familia, which meant servants to a


My daughter brings home drawings of our family, the three of us
with arms protruding from our heads, eyes too large to blink.

Sometimes she colors her face darker because "I'm brown and
you're pink."


A blog I stumble across calls adoptive parents thieves. I type nine
paragraphs in reply, delete them all.


A family is music: Kingston Trio songs sung off-key, a father's
favorite radio station, the soundtrack to South Pacific. It's "turn that

down" and "you call that music?" It is a mother and father in the kitchen
dancing to a song they forgot they loved.


In 1788 "family man" was slang for a thief.


A family is a flock of butterflies whispering over an afternoon
lawn, a herd of water buffalo knee-deep in river mud, a pride of
lions chewing soft meat.


Her first day with us, she wept so endlessly I would have called
back all the lawyers, the foster mother, erased the small mountain
of forms, wiped our faces from our passports to let her sleep quiet
in the place she knew. Now she asks the story of that day, prompts
us to insert details left out from the last telling until the story is
exactly as she wants to hear it.


With a title like Inventing Constellations, readers are forewarned that these poems will insert details left out from [some] telling, but I was not prepared for how powerful the poems would be with just a slight tweak to the details normally conveyed about our shared reality, a process that I compare to Maginnes's description of multiple universes in "The Consolation of Endless Universes:"

In one theory, there are universes
lined on either side of this one,
each such a slight variation
of its neighbor you have to squint
to see the difference, like a street
where my brother lived, its line
of white houses so alike I found
his house only be seeing his car.

But if you wander too many
universes beyond what you know,
you arrive somewhere you don't recognize
such as the universe where
your mother and father do not meet,
worlds of black skies and gods
more terribly present or absent than any
who claim dominion here.

Another theory says each decision
gives birth to a reality in which
a different decision was made,
a rainbow of universes erupting
from each gesture. Some of these
are too easy to imagine
like the one in which my best friend
from junior high is reading

about my arrests and the time
I will have to serve. I woke
a few mornings ago, his name
a smoke-wisp hanging in
the empty corridor of some dream.
A few minutes of clicking
through the internet showed me
the picture taken the last time

he went to prison. A list
of arrests and sentences told me
enough to fill in the years since
he and I shoplifted cigarettes.
The consolation of endless universes
is that somewhere he is living
a life that makes him as happy
as my life makes me, even while

I wonder again how I escaped,
how I am the one allowed to walk free
inside this, the one universe
where I can change anything.

By contrast, "Inventing Constellations" contains those poems that shine with light so horrific that we are barely able to bear them, bringing to mind Rilke's definition of beauty as being "the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear," or Maginnes's own lines (from "Blindfold"): ". . . In this world,/beauty and terror coax the same tears,/the voice of fear has no words,/[where] the victim's face is a trophy."

Maybe the blindfold is not meant
as kindness for the condemned
like the choice of a final meal
or the last cigarette, a pleasure
meant to block awareness
of what's coming. Instead it keeps
the living from seeing how
the eyes throttle with light
or glaze at the moment of impact
before the body empties into death.
In this age of performance, even an autopsy,
final audition of the body's efficiency,
is theater. A TV doctor explains
how the flanges of the famous chest
are opened like curtains, the routines
of the reliable duo, systole and diastole,
the shuttle cocking of artery and vein,
the blood's drifting clouds of toxins
all are measured and named,
no chance for curtain call
or final bow. In the film
I found on the internet and watched
because I started and could not stop
the killers, not the condemned, wore masks.
He knelt before them as they read
their proclamations in a language
he was captive long enough to know
in fragments. His face a blank
of pure misery, glossed with sweat,
his hair twisted and on end,
some composure kept him still.
Perhaps he'd seen enough movies,
was American enough to believe
in last-second rescues, the hero
who kicks in the door, guns blazing.
Maybe he believed this
routine humiliation between
tea and afternoon prayers,
a ritual meant to be so frightening
that when water was thrown on him
or he was kicked, their laughter
let him breathe once more.
But the reading ended and one
of the masked men produced a long knife.
What followed was neither swift
nor spectacular. Bodies wrestled
across the floor. Deep inside the scrum
started noise too high-pitched to be a scream,
noise I'd never heard a human make.
When the head was displayed,
it was no longer human, but something
molded from plastic and left too long
in the back seat of a car on a hot day.
If you watch this once, you will not
watch it again. In this world,
beauty and terror coax the same tears,
the voice of fear has no words,
the victim's face is a trophy.
But morning still happens.
I get up, make coffee, walk the dog, things
I can do with my eyes closed.
Not until I read the paper or listen
to the news does the world take shape.
Some refuse the blindfold,
but most are grateful for darkness
granted by a cloth so ordinary
it might have dried last night's dishes,
then wiped the empty table free
of crumbs and ashes.

Buried in the deep-sky images of Maginnes's poems are the same points of light found in other poets' work: family, parenthood, work, survival, the cosmos, music, faith, jazz, birds, bridges, beauty, fear . . .

Like some ancient seer, however, Maginnes connects the dots as if for the first time, creating a mythos for the 21st century that embraces all histories, knowing that none of them will endure:

. . . if I've learned anything in this life, it's how easily
memory misfires, how what we thought safe forever

crumbles in slow flame, curls into husk of ash.
There is too much to remember. And each day enacts

its own erasures, a name wiped clean, an address gone
without our knowledge from the unlocked vault.

But if Maginnes can't find in his vision a place for permanence, he makes up for it with a lyrical intensity that is nothing less than astonishing:

I don't want to lose the face of my daughter confronting
her first mango at one, perched on a merry-go-round

at two. In the clouds might be as good a place as any
for things we love and can no longer touch,

but I want my hands here, on the things I love
a little while longer. Tonight, the moon, bright

as a token, a coin ripe for the amnesia
of the slot machine, hovers in a sky wiped

clear of clouds. And from somewhere, the long drone
of a place descending, a load of bodies delivered

to earth, visible a while loner, exhaling a sky
that has already forgotten they were there.

The first problem with "Inventing Constellations" is that when you begin underlining lines worth re-reading, or starring poems to share with fellow-poets, you end up with a book completely underlined and marked, unable to adequately share its value without duplicating it in its entirely. Like the constellations themselves, even a cursory knowledge of the book requires that every poem, every visible star, be viewed in relation to every other one. The second problem, if you're a poet, is that after reading this book, there are another 32 poems looking over your shoulder every time you sit down to write. Fortunately, instead of shrinking the possibilities, like the dark energy that mysteriously propels all matter outward at an every-increasing speed, Maginnes's magic leaves us with an expanded universe of creative possibilities, showing us multiple paths to subverting expectations as we invent our own constellations of of images and thoughts.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Shape of the Ineffable: Michael Waters

I embrace all modes of poetry, but I am predisposed toward a poetry with the purpose of forwarding language itself. Whether intentional or emerging, closed or open, traditional or nonce, end-rhymed/metered or free-verse--none of those categories are primary--what is important to me is that there is some kind of structure that provides parameters, within which I can trust the poem enough to be liberated inside myself to experience, if only partly--and it's all partly--the ineffable. If that doesn't happen somewhere in the poem, then the writer should have chosen another linguistic medium--fiction or drama. But to try to achieve a transcendental experience by attempting to remove structure from language (even if that were possible), just leaves me cold.

Therefore, it is not surprising that I have some of my most emotional moments reading Michael Waters. His four poems in the the September/October (2012) issue of American Poetry Review are spot-on in creating a liturgy that both celebrates and mourns the arc from childhood to fatherhood, from wild youth to accomplished maturity, from what is codified in history's personal memory, marching through storms of entropy toward a horizon, albeit shrinking with each tic of the second hand, that always lies beyond.

In three of the four poems in this quartet, Waters uses his typical syllabic prosody (pentameter) to tic off units of collapsing time in the life of a father ("Dominoes"), a son ("Tic Tac Toe"), and a child of the sixties reflecting upon love's rejections and self-acceptance ("Sixties Sonnet"). The third in the series, "Old School," perfectly matches adolescent angst and unpredictability with lines that consistently perform "rolling stops" through their ten syllable stop signs like the driver in the poem "wrestl[ing] the Camaro with one fist & popp[ing] / Handfuls of pills . . ."

In "Dominoes," Waters writes in staggered lines that enact the swerve and sway of falling dominoes: "We set them up to flip them down, made them / Fall with a flapping sound--whirr of an ace / Slapped by circling spokes as the boy biked by, / Or the wound-up skirr of the hummingird / Jazzing like fire above honeysuckle." Waters's metaphorical sense is virtuosic, both in these opening lines, as well as with its final "I knelt with my father to watch death flow."

In "Tic Tac Tow"--my personal favorite (as well as Waters's, according to a recent email from the author)--the son of "Dominoes" is now watching his own death play out in a game with his own four-year-old son in the lines "I let him win once more, my wobbly O's / Each a contracting galaxy, ready // To be rid of me. Futureless father . . . / While a fathergone future gyres his way." And then come the final two lines that touch the horrific "otherness" of our old friend, Death, in the midst of its familiarity: first a line of symbols (two of which I do not even have on my keyboard)--3 swastikas that the son's X's have resembled, and 3 crosses, followed by "XXX O."--ten in all, of course. Then the killer ultimate line: "No symbol he pencils can make me stay." Total number of lines? Thirteen.

"Sixties Sonnet" is a perfect blend of familiar form (fourteen lines of end-rhymed--or end-near-rhymed--pentameter), with Waters's signature, witty dialogue and muscular diction, as in the following lines:

"You're cute," smiled Denise, breaking up with me,
"But cute is all you'll ever be."

Denise who was so wrongwrongwrong, I miss
Our Woodstock nights, half-a-million thumb-flicked

Bics coaxed to climax by God's thwapping bass,
Hissing soppy Oms against the cloudmass.

The tweak that Waters makes on this sonnet may seem at first sight something of a gimmick--a single first line repeated as the last, "I have become handsome in my old age." Much is being communicated, however, with this gesture--not only the obvious cyclical nature of these poems, and the characters who inhabit them, but a subtle romantic note sounded at the end of both the poem and the short collection, rife with inevitable death, without hope for a life beyond. Waters is a master of craft, and he would not allow chance to dictate the placement of this line, standing alone after six couplets, the final two of which are

I forgive Sly and the Family Stone.
I slept through Santana, Dreaming future

Exes who might love me despite my rage.
I have grown lonesome in my afflictions.

In fact, speaking of final lines, the final lines of each poem taken together form an arc that does exactly what I aspire to in my writing and in my life--they provide a framework in which the ineffable can be experienced:

"I knelt with my father to watch death flow."

"No symbol he pencils can make me stay."

"Pierced, & fucked up, [he] bowed his shaven skull & wept."

"I have become handsome in my old age."

Michael, not only is your writing handsome, it's suppleness and increasing vitality within an aging frame guarantees that neither it, nor you, will ever grow old.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Addition to the Reading List: Kathleen Graber

I had not read Kathleen Graber, but I needed nothing more than the opening poem in the September/October issue of American Poetry Review to place her book, The Eternal City, on my 2013 reading list.

America (Peaches)

America, if you think I could do better by you,
I have no doubt. Though I stoop conscientiously
to pick up my dog's waste from the grass
with black biodegradable bags. And lest you suspect
some pretension, know my dog was one at the shelter
no one else would take. He is fat & lazy,
& I coud do better by him as well, though
I do not know if a long walk in the park
in 97 degree heat is a good idea. Please cue
a Presidential sound-bite to reassure me
all hearts are more resilient than I think. I confess
it would have been a moral error to have embraced him
if I did not have the means to keep him fed. But
I am writing tonight because there is something wrong
with your peaches. The ones from the supermarket
were so soft & cheap--half the cost of the ones
sold by the local farm--but the flesh near the pit
was so bitter & green. It is a fruit like the mind
we are making together: both overripe & immature.
Trust me, I still have the simple tastes you gave me:
I am delighted by the common robins & cardinals,
the way they set the trees at dusk aflame. Thank you
for Tuesday's reliable trash collection. If you are
constellated somehow a little bit inside
each of your people, I am sorry that there is more
& more of you lately I do not understand.
Sometimes I want simply to sit alone a long time
in silence. American, you must want this too.

(from American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct, 2012)

But then I read three more of her poems in the same issue of APR, along with her interview, and I was hooked.

Essential Poets & Artists

If you look at her entry in the Poetry Foundation website, you will find that Graber, "after years of teaching high school English, was inspired while leading a class field trip to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival to begin writing poems." What the article does not tell you (but you might guess if you read her work), is who makes up her blood lines--her essential poets and artists (in addition to her own students) who were catalysts to her epiphanies that fuel her poems. The interview that follows her poems in the same issue of APR does just that. Here is a sampling from her answer to the question "Can you talk about how you came to write the particular kind of poems you write?"

I learned to write a certain sort of poem by teaching composition and the personal essay. . . there were three instances over a span of about five years in which my mind became clear to itself. . .the earliest one was my first vision of a Cornell box. . . I was looking at a visual analog for the poems I wanted to write. . . The second moment came when I opened Larry Levis's collection Winter Stars randomly for the first time in a bookstore that was sadly going out of business. Standing there in an aisle, I read the line "Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy." The third was reading Walter Benjamin. He described an idea he called "nonsensuous similitude." This is a likeness between things that is not dependent upon any sensory similarity but on another kind of kinship. This gave me a term for what Cornell and Levis were able to perceive and manipulate.

As part of a follow up to the same topic, Graber continues . . .

I think the two most important poets for me are Larry Levis and Charles Wright. . . I came to poetry through the front door, the doorway of contemporary poetry, and Levis showed me a way to put the associative mind to work and Wright gave me permission to think on the page. I think my poems are actually quite derivative of theirs in many ways. I do get some tonal and thematic distance, though, as a result of the gender difference.

Image and Thought

In her answer above, Graber provides the concepts to explain why I am taken with her work (it modulates between image and thought), and in the final sentence to her interview, provides the language to refine those concepts--"precise" and "accurate" thought, and "beautiful execution" of lasting images--in part, because of their "emotion[al]" charge.

In the following lines, image and thought dance with one another without either one leading or being led. Who does not resonate with the thought "I am writing tonight because there is something wrong," and who can forget the image of those peaches: "The ones from the supermarket/. . . so soft & cheap--half the cost of the ones/sold by the local farm . . . the flesh near the pit/so bitter & green?" But try to pull apart the idea from the image in "a fruit like the mind/we are making together: both overripe & immature" and all you get is mushy juice. That's the precision, the art, the poem.

I'm not sure how these ideas will play out in her book, but I'm very excited about reading it with them in mind. And with an open mind to be surprised by anything. That's one of the reasons' I'm adding her to my list.

The Widening Spell

The other reason is less rational--I "feel" that Graber is a part of "the family," part of "the widening spell"--not only from her poems and her interview, but because of who she likes, as well--not only Larry Levis, whose finding holiness in the ankle of a horse is emblematic of his genius of binding images to unlikely language, creating unpredictable lines and poems, but Charles Wright, whose first seven lines to "In Praise of Thomas Hardy" catch him thinking aloud on the page:

Each second the earth is struck hard
by four and a half pounds of sunlight.
Each second.
Try to imagine that.
No wonder deep shade is what the soul longs for,
And not, as we always thought, the light.
No wonder the inner life is dark.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"Ground Zero:" Notes on Formulating my 2013 Reading List While Reading Sharon Doubiago

In another blogpost I wrote that reading and writing were like breathing in and breathing out--it's difficult to do one for very long without the other. One of my new year's resolutions is to read more. I devoted almost all of the additional time I gained in 2012 to writing, and not much to additional reading. So in 2013 I'm taking my own advice.

It's not that my time spent writing was not productive (I produced more work, had more of it published and given recognition in 2012 than in any year of the last ten--culminating in hearing last week that a chapbook of mine, Altar Call, will be published in February), nor that I spent no time at all reading (I probably averaged a book a week or more), but I want to make sure that I'm getting enough caloric intake for my output, and that I"m getting the highest possible quality of poetry in my diet, with enough variety that I don't miss out on any ingredients essential for maximum creativity.

The first step was to make a reading list for the year. I'm still in the process, but what I've done for the past five days is to read one poet a day (in chronological order) from Contemporary American Poetry, one chapter a day from Waldman's Vow to Poetry, and several pages a day from books on my shelf I've neglected for a while--the first of which has been Sharon Doubiago's Love on the Streets--her selected poems from each of five of her books.

My plan is to look up all of the poets I don't know or haven't read from Vow to Poetry and each of the sixty-six poets (all of whom I do know) from CAP and, based upon the sampling I make, list books that I want to read, allowing myself to add other books by free association or by bumping into other poets and writers along the journey. By the time I get through Doubiago's book, I should have quite a list compiled for the year. So far on the list:

The Poems of Stanley Kunitz 1928-1978
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke
I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
The Hunger Moon by Marge Piercy

These books are not necessarily the books I recommend that you read, but they do seem to be calling to me where I am in my reading/writing pilgrimage. Berssenbrugge, for example, is known as a "language poet," whose work resists narrative--a style I do not easily write about, or usually bring to my own work. But in listening to her read some of her poems, and in hearing her speak of dividing her time between New York and New Mexico--about which she says in answer to a question from Charles Bernstein about what she finds to do there (in NM), that she "shuts her gate, reads, sets up her work, and writes her poems"--I find a connection which I want to explore.

Marge Piercy, another poet whose work I did not know prior to this week, on the other hand, is one whose work is inexorably intertwined with story. Objects and experiences are the units of her poems, and the measure of their value is their "usefulness." She reminds us that the beauty of a vase in a museum is always tied to how much water it can hold.

This practical side to her is at once obvious when one deals with her personally. After reading her poems in CAM, I happily discovered that she is a facebook friend of mine. I sent her a brief message about her poem, "A Work of Artifice," about how a "bonsai tree/in the attractive pot/could have grown eighty feet tall/on the side of a mountain/till split by lightning./But a gardener/carefully pruned it./It is nine inches high." Near the end of the poem, she gives readers a tasty epithet. I wanted to acknowledge the obvious craft that went into the poem, which brought about the following exchange:

ME: Such a great poem for so many reasons--the form enacting the content, the tight, clipped lines, the spot-on tone, the truths that hold up: "With living creatures/one must begin very early/to dwarf their growth . . ." I'm working through Contemporary American Poetry. Today is your day, and your section is an oasis. Thanks. TL

MP: Thanks. But why not use something more recent? like from The Crooked inheritance or The hunger moon.

I know that this poem is "beautiful," she seemed to be saying, but there are many more poems of mine that are more "useful." I like that sensibility. And the fact that after over five decades of writing she is still creating excellent work makes me want to discover how she does it. But, Piercy would shrug it off and tell me that what she does is not that uncommon, that she's just doing what she's supposed to do--as in the title of one of her poems--"To Be Of Use," which opens with the following lines:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

Me, too, Marge. Me, too.

And so, while I'm amassing my reading list for 2013 (other books are on it--actual books sent to me from fellow and fella poets--you know who you are--that I look forward to--thank you very much--and about which I will comment in due time), I'm not waiting for it to be finalized in order to begin reading--I'm just jumping right in with Sharon Dubiago's Love on the Streets. I've read most of the book, but never straight through. And never with my current mindset, so it seems like a first read. A bonus is that I get to hear Doubiago read next Tuesday night, right here in Mill Valley at Sweetwater (8:00 PM for any of you who might live in northern California). Here is section one of "Ground Zero" from Psyche Drives the Coast (1990):


We met on an evening in July
in one of the old taverns of this town,
two poets, unable to write, newly arrived,
hunted and haunted. For me,
the escape. For you,
the return.

You said you would show me
the Olympic Peninsula.

The road was overgrown.
In the headlights of your car I cleared the trees.
The cabin was vandalized, gutted,
the twenty-six oddshaped windows
opening onto the Strait, the Sound, Canada, and all the northern sky
shot out. The sink, the pump, the stoves,
even the doors, stolen.
You wandered around, then out to the deck,
seeming to forget me in the debris.

Victoria, the only human light,
shimmered on the foreign shore.
I heard the groan of a fishing boat below the bluff,
a strange cry from the woods, like a woman,
your ex-wife, the children.

We lay on a narrow mattress in the loft,
amidst bullet shells, beer cans, mold and glass,
the cold, hard bed of delinquent teenagers.

The moon was a broken boat through the bullet-shattered skylight.
We told each other.
First words. I said
one night stand. You said ground zero.
I said I lost my children, my lover.
You said submarine, fucking vandals.
I said kids with no place to go, kids forbidden
to love. You said holocaust. Apocalypse.
I pulled you over on me. The volcano erupted.
The world turned to ash. I cried
love cannot be gutted.
The moon, the stars, the giant trees watched
through a bullet hole.